Guernsey Press

Richard Digard: Deputies, never forget Rule One...

Senior politicians not knowing what’s happening in their departments and the credulity-straining explanations for that could be a plot line straight from Only Fools and Horses. So, says Richard Digard, if you’d rather not do a Rodney...

Deputy Al Brouard. (33100066)

For any politician chasing success there are just two rules to follow: 1, never look a total plonker; 2, don’t forget rule one.

Alas for ‘Hapless Al’, also known as Deputy Brouard, the current president of the Health and Social Services Committee, this vital piece of wisdom has passed him by.

Indeed, you could argue that in the more benign days of parish politics it wasn’t especially relevant to him. Brouard, Alvord Henry, was well liked out west and could generally depend on parishioners to return him. This they obligingly did for the 16 years to the 2020 island-wide election, on manifestos which included, ‘I do not want to see substantial changes but I am equally aware that some change is necessary.’

In his own words, ‘…over the years I have been successful in securing local birth right, bringing in legislation for high hedges and preventing paid parking’. He was also instrumental in helping to keep L’Ancresse sea wall and cover the sand in front of it with granite boulders.

In short, solid if not especially memorable service to the community from a decent man who is a stalwart of the parish system, Dean of St Pierre du Bois Douzaine, Douzaine Chef de Canton des Adams (a new one on me) and owner of a quite decent property portfolio plus a member of the Guernsey Landlords Association.

This rather harmonious approach to public life paid off in the 2020 general election when Deputy Brouard secured more than 9,000 votes and a very credible 13th placing, ahead of possibly higher profile candidates such as Charles Parkinson, Rob Prow and Jonathan Le Tocq. Perversely, it may also have rather drawn it to an end.

For in the absence of any other candidate, Deputy Brouard rather sportingly – if grudgingly – stood for the presidency of Health, got it, and now stands accused, figuratively speaking, of wasting £30m., misleading the States over future spending requirements, not knowing what was going on in Health and – worst crime of all – generally looking a total plonker.

By now, most of you are thinking this is a classic case of someone being hopelessly out of their depth, promoted well beyond their capability and caught out as a result.

And you’d be right to do so.

But then, how many of us are equipped to act as executive chairman of a health and social service provider to 63,000 potential customers with a £233m. budget, 1,400 nurses and medical consultants to run, associated civil servants, engineers, technicians and handypersons, plus oversight of primary, secondary and tertiary health care, community care and public health services?

Come to that, the £30m. is notional unless or until it becomes necessary to spend it and, just like the equally notional overspend on the new Alderney airport/runway project, attention is now focused on taking cost out of these programmes to try to keep them within budget and off life-support.

Perhaps Deputy Brouard’s superpower is redesigning public health systems to strip costs out and he’ll come into his own now the chips are down. But then again, since he didn’t see the earlier need to question potential cost overruns in an ultra-high inflation period or ensure political oversight on the project board itself, perhaps not.

But the underlying point here – exemplified by the possibly less plonkerish but definitely Del Boy figure of Deputy Neil Inder, not noticing his fisheries protection vessel wasn’t out saving lobster and mackerel but largely loitering around the harbour (can ships drink coffee?) – is the point of deputies. What are they for and what should they be doing?

In these two examples, clearly not enough. To paraphrase that famous Watergate quote – what should they have known and when should they have known it? And what have we done as voters to equip them to ask those questions – or ensure we get the answers?

We’re talking governance here. Dull, perhaps, but vital. It has to exist for any public body to deliver sustainable, value-for-money and quality services in a transparent manner. It involves ensuring that the right things are done, in the right way, for the right people, in an open, honest, inclusive and timely manner.

That, clearly, is not happening – particularly under the watch of Inder and Brouard – and hasn’t been for years. The last time this was looked at seriously, only 19% of States members and 14% of senior civil servants who responded to a survey stated that they always or usually considered the States knew what skills deputies needed to do their job effectively.

Equally, authoritative and decisive leadership is an essential element of good governance within public services and that, too, is missing under Guernsey’s system, where committee rather than corporate interests take priority.

As has been stated in earlier studies, ‘the States of Guernsey is neither directed nor controlled as a single corporate entity. Rather, it is a collection of almost autonomous business units that are able to choose if or when they subscribe to “corporate” policy or initiatives’.

Put simply, we’re electing people into positions of extreme responsibility and expenditure without knowing whether they’re up to it and effectively letting them fly solo. And then acting surprised when something goes wrong.

That’s compounded by not empowering bigger boys and girls in the Assembly to step in and help and the now clearly visible fracture in trust between the civil service and at least some politicians.

I mentioned leadership a moment ago and that’s simply because it’s essential to provide vision and direction and ensure that things get done. Without it, the risk is islanders believe the States is drifting without direction or purpose and failing to deliver value in its use of taxpayers’ money.

Now, thanks to Hapless Al and Del Boy Inder, that nagging fear about top level incompetence in the States has been confirmed, reinforcing the view that any future tax rises have to be resisted because our money will only be wasted.

This is not a good place to be and there are two conclusions we can draw from it. The first is Guernsey’s government system really only worked when it had money to burn and could spray cash at any problem to resolve it.

The second is that the cure – executive government, majority party politics, some form of candidate selection process, or a blend of them – is unacceptable to most islanders.

That is also not a good place to be.

Without serious reforms, deputies will become even less accountable, cock-ups more frequent and even more of your money wasted.

So if on balance you’d rather not be run by plonkers, you really are going to have to contemplate doing things differently.