Division & double standards

WATCHING political events in England, I haven’t known whether to laugh or cry.

Some lunatics have been given the combination to the national safe and are now frantically emptying it of its contents with all the devil-may-care joy of kids let loose in a sweet factory. It makes our own deputies look like a quite reasonable bunch. Well, up to a point.

The latest States meeting began with an update of public service reform from the president of P&R. His initial message was a confession of failure – there hadn’t been any reform after eight years of trying and there was no prospect of any soon; the lack of promised savings meant that committees had better get ready to find them. I thought, so far so humble and statesmanlike. I should’ve held my breath. The humility and statesman-like pose didn’t last long and Mr Mulligrubs* soon gave way to Mr Angry. It was all someone else’s fault. The plan to achieve it was to blame. It was the worst plan he had ever come across and never had any prospect of success. It was so transparently bad that it had taken him the best part of two years to decide to abandon it. He had a new plan that he would reveal some time soon.

Let’s hope it’s better than dear old Baldrick’s.

The meeting continued benignly with routine updates from the committee presidents of Education, Sport & Culture, and Environment & Infrastructure. Listening to the subsequent exchanges, I noted with pleasure the temporary absence of the usual partisanship. Deputy Dyke provided a humorous moment – all the funnier for being unintended – by suggesting that the disappointing Ofsted report on St Sampson’s High School might have been because Ofsted is known to mark schools down if their students are well disciplined and wear smart uniforms, such features being a sure sign of an oppressive school regime. I don’t know where the deputy gets his wacky ideas, but they are a godsend to sketch writers.

Richard Graham. (31335649)

The rest of the meeting was dominated by debate of the Prevention of Discrimination Ordinance. The debate told us as much about the Assembly as it did about the legislation itself. The ordinance was largely a product of the previous States term and the current Committee for Employment & Social Security. Members of the Blob licked their lips in anticipation. Here, wrapped up in one piece of legislation, were three objects of their intense dislike, namely the previous States, who are the Blob’s scapegoat for all that is wrong in Guernsey, and deputies Roffey – the Blob’s chief bogeyman –and de Sausmarez, who are the living embodiment of the previous Assembly as president and vice-president of ESS respectively. Here was the opportunity to bash all three of their pet hates in one debate.

But there was a snag. To oppose anti-discrimination legislation outright ran the risk of losing many votes at the next general election, so to minimise that risk, the Blob had hatched a cunning plan, using the following tactics.

. Weaken the legislation and attack ESS with a flood of amendments under the wholly unconvincing pretence that their motivation was protection of the economy.

. Portray themselves as victims of bullying and discrimination while seeking to discredit those voluntary organisations who had campaigned against the most damaging of the amendments.

As far as the amendments were concerned, seven of them (3, 4b, 6, 7, 8, 11 and 13) were aimed either to emasculate the legislation or give ESS a hard time, or both. Predictably, members of the White Van Non-party combined with the Guernsey Party and former party member Deputy Le Tissier to provide the nucleus of a block vote. This alliance of pre-programmed voters was joined by deputies Blin, De Lisle, Haskins, Mahoney, Meerveld and Queripel. Leaving aside for one moment the most contentious Amendment 8, these 16 deputies all voted in favour of all the vexatious amendments. Coincidence eh! Exceptionally, Deputy Ferbrache broke ranks to vote against Amendment 11, and Deputy Le Tissier declined to vote on it at all.

When it came to Amendment 8’s bizarre proposal that discrimination by some employers was intolerable but was entirely acceptable by others, I willingly give credit to the nine deputies who stuck to their guns and voted for it despite the risk of losing votes at the next general election. I can’t say the same of deputies Dudley-Owen and Le Tissier who, rather than declare their hand, slunk off along that ignoble escape tunnel signposted ‘This way to avoid voting’.

As for the conduct of the debate, there were some commendable features. Deputy Roffey gave another masterclass in how to bring complex legislation to the Assembly.

In the best speech of the debate, Deputy Parkinson – the ‘Deputy Brains’ of this Assembly – cautioned against a race to the bottom, but as usual the Blob members ignored him.

Deputy Leadbeater ran him close with a thoughtful and persuasive speech in which he drew effectively on his experience as both a carer and a businessman without in any way making himself the centre of the story. This contrasted sharply with look-at-me members such as Deputies Meerveld and Queripel, who competed at self-indulgent and tiresome length for the title of champion victim of discrimination.

Some members of the Blob were in full hyperbolic mode. Deputies Dyke, Murray, De Lisle and Le Tissier were convinced that our entire finance industry would migrate to Jersey if the legislation was passed unamended. Deputy Dyke was ‘scared to death’ (by-election alert!) while poor old Deputy De Lisle was so alarmingly in shock that I was prompted to wonder if there was a defibrillator close at hand. Ironically, these deputies seemed blissfully unaware of the danger in announcing to the rest of the world that our finance industry is so fragile that it would collapse if discrimination was outlawed.

There was pettiness, too. Take Amendment 7 for example, proposed and seconded by deputies Ferbrache and Mahoney. The ordinance comprises around 20,000 words. Among them are 25 words related to applying the legislation proportionately and for the public good. I thought these words were pretty innocuous, at worse otiose.

But no. Deputy Ferbrache worked himself up into quite a state. He threw every pejorative term known to man at them and speculated that they were the product of a legal draughtsman idly doodling away the late-night hours in St James’s Chambers.

Deputy Prow agreed with him. Why on earth did ESS insert these words, for goodness’ sake? At this, HM Comptroller coughed politely and informed members that the offending words had been inserted at the suggestion of Deputy Prow’s own Committee for Home Affairs. Oops.

Deputy Trott asked what the heck they were doing wasting time debating inoffensive clauses that made no difference at all to the legislation, included or not? It was absurd. Precisely.

The debate was spattered with examples of double standards. A popular cry was ‘maximum, down-in-the-weeds scrutiny of ESS, but none at all of committees for whom the sun shines out of their you-know-where’. On Thursday, Deputy Dyke criticised Deputy St Pier for his repeated requests for evidence. Who needed evidence? If he, Deputy Dyke, thought something, that was good enough for him. By Friday, when it suited his argument, he had U-turned. ‘Where’s the evidence?’ I heard him indignantly cry.

We also witnessed plain nastiness as certain huff-snuffs** set about discrediting anyone who had been party to the legislation.

A sanctimonious Deputy Mahoney attacked lobby groups from the voluntary sector who were ‘nothing better than bully boys, hurling insults…’. He of course knows a thing or two about this, in his case from within the protected privilege offered by States debate.

Others joined him in a concerted, cynical claim to be victims of the baying mob.

Unbelievably, none other than Deputy Le Tissier had the brass neck to complain about offensive use of social media. I swear blind, he genuinely didn’t see the irony.

In one of her trademark ‘I don’t like criticising other deputies but…’ contributions, Deputy Dudley-Owen claimed that members were ‘victims’ of Deputy Roffey and his committee because they had not presented them with an expert analysis of the legislation’s impact on businesses.

I thought, blimey, that’s a bit rich coming from the president of our most secretive committee that resists analysis or scrutiny of the impact on our students of the new secondary and post-16 education model.

By the end, the scene in the Assembly was one of blubbing victims consoling each other in their shared victim-hood. What a bunch of wimps.

As the debate ended, Deputy Ferbrache offered one of his ‘Isn’t Guernsey a wonderful place’ speeches. Everybody could now celebrate a victory for decency. Everybody? From beginning to end, Blob members – by their words and votes – had begrudged and resented every step forward. If there was to be a celebration, they would be absentees from the feast.

I close on a positive note. My ‘Star of the Meeting Award’ goes to the Deputy Bailiff. She presided throughout with a touch that was firm but light, business-like but good humoured. She moved things along and mitigated some of the nonsense that was going on around her.

*Mulligrubs. A 16th-century term for despondency or sense of doom.

** Huff-snuff. Another splendid 16th century term for ‘a strutting braggart who likes to bully others but is quick to take offence’.

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