Limping not walking
From an unsurprising ESC update to attacks from the ’Let’s give Roffey a hard time Alliance’, Richard Graham looks back at last week’s States meeting
POLITICS didn’t take a holiday during the four weeks between the March and April States meetings. Far from relaxing, the chief minister chose instead to give public notice that Policy & Resources had decided its priorities for capital spending. The eye-catching, even breath-taking, headline was as follows.
P&R, having noted that Health & Social Care was failing to recruit and retain anywhere near the number of professional health staff desperately needed to avert a health and social care crisis, now proposed to make recruiting and retention even more difficult by kicking overdue modernisation of the hospital into the long grass, thereby making it even more unattractive for nurses and carers to come and work here. The long grass P&R has in mind is in the field where they intend to build accommodation for health staff who won’t be coming here now because they won’t want to work in an outdated hospital.
If that sounds rather perverse logic, never fear. The money saved will be put to good use. It will enable Education, Sport & Culture to accelerate its proposed transition to an expensive model for secondary education that is so unpopular among teachers that few of them in the UK will consider coming to teach here, while those who are already here are haemorrhaging away, either to teach elsewhere, including in our 11-18 private colleges, or to give up teaching altogether. P&R’s logic seems to lie in the principle that if committees are condemned to live with poor recruiting and retention of crucial professional staff, the misery should be equally shared.
No doubt that principle will be closely examined when the capital programme is debated in July. In the meantime, it was back to normal when the States met last week.
First on the agenda was a six-monthly update from the president of Education, Sport & Culture, so the Assembly was on fluffy education-speak alert. Deputy Dudley-Owen didn’t disappoint. Her statement was not so much an update as an example of pre-emptive retaliation. Having expressed the sincerest of hopes that the future debate over capital spending priorities wouldn’t lead to a competition between education and health, she promptly proceeded to initiate that competition by making the case that education should be the winner of it. Fair enough, I thought, presidents need to fight their corner. I leave it to others to judge whether she made a good fist of it.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on why, but at this point I began to think of my first car satnav. It had a voice which droned on and on, bossily telling me time after time to turn left when all the time I knew that turning left would lead me into a cul-de-sac. I used to turn it off.
In the Assembly, it was the Bailiff, as presiding officer, who did the switching off, with a clear note of irritation in his voice. Later, he had to do the same to the president of Environment & Infrastructure, who similarly ran out of the time allotted for these statements. It used to be 10 minutes but was recently extended to 15 to avoid the Bailiff having to intervene. Predictably, it’s made no difference. The Bailiff seemed to share my surprise that such a basic parliamentary skill seems to elude some committee presidents.
It’s a pity that the ESC president ran out of time before she could thank Deputy Mahoney for his helpful contribution to solving her committee’s disturbing inability to recruit and retain secondary school teachers. His novel approach to consoling our teachers over their failed pay claim had been to advise those of them who are unable to make ends meet that they should leave and do something else. Of course, they were already doing that in their droves, but all the same it was good of him to encourage them on their way.
I have come to the view that these routine update statements by committee presidents offer little value beyond that of being a trigger for questions from the floor of the Assembly. The statements are inherently self-congratulatory and rarely tell members something they didn’t already know. On the rare occasions that they do impart news, it’s invariably something the presidents want members to know and never something that presidents would prefer they didn’t know. Any bad news that simply has to come out is never the fault of the committee concerned; it’s always something beyond its members’ control.
In contrast, the question sessions are the lifeblood of backbench members in their role as scrutineers and they enable presidents to be judged when speaking off-script. To the outside listener, these sessions tell us a lot about those we have elected to govern us. Last week’s meeting demonstrated that some members have yet to master the skill of putting a question within the permitted one minute, and that some presidents still cannot complete their responses within their allotted 90 seconds. Normally, at least one of those irritating ‘Does the president agree with me?’ questions sneaks its obsequious way into the time allotted. Sometimes they are an ill-disguised Trojan Horse for getting a ‘Heh, look at how clever I am’ statement into the public domain. At other times they are posed by a sympathetic colleague in Good Samaritan mode, anxious to help a committee president out of the hole they are digging for themselves. Still others serve as dispensers of toady-like flattery. I’ve no idea into which category a question from Deputy Haskins fell, but it did seem a bit odd that the ESC vice-president chose question time in the Assembly as the best occasion to quiz his president about what their committee has been up to during the last six months. Don’t they speak to each other?
If I have dwelt rather long over routine statements and questions, it is because the rest of the States meeting followed its usual boring pattern. Where are the great speakers? Where is the wit? Where are the lateral thinkers? I ask you, how is a parliamentary sketch writer supposed to cope with a product of such predictable banality? Deputy Inder did his best to enliven proceedings with his admirable demonstration of a hissy fit when his Wi-Fi thingummy wouldn’t work. It would seem that he hasn’t taken up my suggestion of an anger management course. I reckon he must be a strong runner for the new Dominic Raab Award for Best Ministerial Tantrum of the Year.
Only three significant items were on the meeting’s agenda, all three sponsored by Employment & Social Security, so the ’Let’s give Roffey a hard time Alliance’ had mustered its predictable membership to frustrate their progress. Some alliance members were content to let their Luddite votes do the talking for them, while those of their fellow-travellers who bothered to speak tied themselves up in all sorts of casuistic knots in trying to explain their confected concerns. What amazes me is that it’s all so obvious and yet they don’t seem in the slightest embarrassed to do it. Deputy Dyke, who competes with Deputy De Lisle for recognition as the Assembly’s most consistent catastrophist, sprayed the Assembly with yet another dose of his favourite eau de panique, resorting to his familiar but no less tedious claim that Guernsey’s finance sector would disappear if Deputy Roffey and his committee were not kept on a short chain. Not to be outdone, Deputy Le Tissier inspired a life-changing moment for me. I have always submitted rather tamely to the conventional wisdom that dinosaurs became extinct millions of years ago. After all, who am I to question that national treasure, Sir David Attenborough? But after Deputy Le Tissier’s mercifully brief but excruciating speech, I am not so sure. Perhaps some of those pesky blighters may have survived the ice age after all. Island-wide voting has a lot to answer for.
Two of the key votes were lost on a tie. In their way, each of these outcomes served as a metaphor for this States of Inaction. With two years still to go, barring a sea change, we seem condemned to be governed by a States that is paralysed by its fractionalism. Our government has come to resemble a dead man not so much walking as limping aimlessly along the path to an unproductive end.