Guernsey Press

‘A good week for democracy’

Richard Graham looks back at last week’s States debate

Deputy Peter Roffey, right, voted in support of the committee on no fewer than 10 occasions, which was eight more times than Deputy Andy Cameron, left, managed as an ESC member. (32249784)

I LOOK back on last week’s States meeting as the time when the current Assembly cast off their nappies, climbed out of their play pen and finally grew up. At last, after nearly three years, members were presented with an issue that encouraged them in meaningful numbers to act like adults, free themselves from what had hitherto served as seemingly unbreakable shackles of tribal loyalty and speak up for what they knew to be right.

And the subject? The proposed new Education Law. Not the entire law, most of which reflected the common-sense and admirable work contributed by officers in successive versions of the Committee for Education, Sport & Culture. No, what had stirred several members to stray beyond the boundaries of previous alliances were certain aspects of the proposed law which, though few in number, were nonetheless too egregious to let through unchallenged. And my goodness, how they were challenged!

Altogether, 23 votes were taken on amendments opposed by ESC and all 23 were lost by the committee, some by whopping margins. You knew something was up when Deputies Inder and Roffey – the former a stalwart supporter of the committee, the latter one of its terrier-like critics – found themselves as members of an unlikely mutual admiration society, both of them remarking on the ‘command and control’ tendencies revealed by some of the new law’s proposed clauses.

Deputy Inder, who intriguingly waved the Sword of Sauron (safely sheathed, thank goodness) at the debate, was far from the only member to demonstrate that personal loyalty to ESC had its limits. Deputy Meerveld, too, was among several other ESC loyalists who kicked over the traces in favour of producing a new law that better reflected the zeitgeist of the next few decades, rather than perpetuated, or even strengthened, Guernsey’s traditional dirigiste approach to education in the States sector.

As if to provide further evidence of unprejudiced voting, Deputy Roffey voted in support of the committee on no fewer than 10 occasions, which was eight more times than Deputy Cameron managed as an ESC member. Deputy Cameron’s ESC colleagues understandably observed collective responsibility in pledging solid support for their committee president, although Deputies Aldwell and Haskins each lapsed once, and Alderney representative Roberts twice. Only five non-ESC members – I could have predicted who they would be – performed like Pavlovian poodles, dutifully supporting the committee for vote after vote.

All in all, it was a good week for democracy, but it had proved a bruising experience for ESC members. Which I regret. For the most part, the proposed new law is a good piece of work, much delayed by previous events, and now in urgent need of being carried forward.

The question remains – how capable is the committee of licking its wounds and delivering a revised policy letter that will secure the current Assembly’s approval? Deputy Trott put them under threat of a motion of no confidence if they didn’t. At the time I thought that was a tad harsh. Surely the committee had got the message from the pattern of votes? Now I’m not so sure. Subsequent remarks by the ESC president and the committee’s media release revealed defiance rather than contrition, the political version of the biblical ‘Forgive them Father, they know not what they do’. The committee’s message was clear – there was nothing wrong with the policy letter, it was States members who had got it wrong. I predict that when the revised policy letter returns, it will be loaded with alleged evidence to prove that the approved amendments were either impractical or ruinous, or both. Given the current composition of P&R and the voting pattern of the majority of P&R members last week, ESC’s dire warnings of catastrophe will be backed up with stern lectures about fiscal prudence from the purse-holders.

Resistance to the Assembly’s expressed wishes will be at its fiercest over the issue of devolved governance of schools. If you have any doubts, you should have heard former ESC vice-president Deputy Murray’s repeated and increasingly hysterical cries of ‘It won’t work! It will never work!’ It took me back to my early school days and my first reading of Treasure Island, with pirate Long John Silver’s pesky parrot, Captain Flint, going on and on with his frantic, irritating squawk of: ‘Pieces of eight! Pieces of eight!’

I won’t bore readers with my own opinion of devolved educational governance other than to comment that the more I hear ESC members and P&R’s Deputy Murray denounce it as unworkable in Guernsey, the clearer it becomes that they really do not understand the successful model adopted throughout much of the rest of the developed world. The excessively bureaucratic form of devolved governance that ESC members insist will not work in Guernsey seems to be no more than a straw man device that bears little resemblance to the model long since adopted by, among others, the most successful self-governing state schools in England, including those in the most socially deprived inner cities. I recommend that ESC members, rather than isolating themselves from the best examples elsewhere, should instead visit them. If they did, they would see for themselves that sensible devolved governance works well and costs less money, not more.

Richard Graham. (32249793)

If ESC members need any guidance on how to successfully bring a defeated policy letter back to the Assembly, they need look no further than earlier in the meeting when members of Employment & Social Security did just that. Back in April, the committee had seen its proposals for an interim, inflation-linked uplifting of pensions and various benefits just fail to get across the line. Having listened to the concerns of their States colleagues, ESS last week brought back a substantially revised and more narrowly focused proposal that sailed through, opposed by a mere three members. It was not totally smooth sailing, because Deputy Roffey, for the umpteenth time and with a level of patience that was little short of heroic, had to explain to Deputies De Lisle and Le Tissier – I know, there’s always one or two in every class, eh – that Income Support payments are not handouts to layabouts but help to the poorest paid of those already in work.

The meeting had begun on Wednesday morning with a statement from the ESC president about the imminent Island Games which are ready to go, thanks principally to the Games Organising Committee, the Sports Commission and more than 1,000 volunteers. Curiously, the ESC president paid tribute to just about everybody involved bar the Sports Commission. An observer less charitable and more cynical than me might imply that this omission had something to do with ESC’s announced intention to scrap most of its grant to the commission in the years following the Games – but I wouldn’t dream of doing so.

As it happened, the statement did generate a bit of controversy. The ESC president, having spoken enthusiastically about the importance of the sporting legacy that would need to follow Guernsey’s hosting of the games, was repeatedly asked by members, including her favourite ESC colleague Deputy Cameron, to square her words with her committee’s intention to slash its funding of the Sports Commission, the very agency on which any sporting legacy will heavily depend. The ESC president was mightily peeved to be challenged, and later in the day, the chief minister was even more mightily peeved on her behalf; apparently the occasion of a joyful statement was not the right time to point out that saying one thing and doing the opposite was a bit iffy. Despite the ESC president having herself introduced the prospect of a sporting legacy, the Bailiff – surprisingly in my view – ruled that members’ questions were not relevant to the subject of the statement. Undeterred, that wily old owl Deputy Parkinson bided his time and found the right words to circumvent the ruling, not that the ESC president’s subsequent response shed much light as far as I could hear.

I leave you with a quaint episode from the debate of Amendment 8 to the ESC policy letter. Laid by Deputies Trott and Fairclough, this comprehensive amendment had 17 propositions, all of which had to be voted on. When the Assembly reached Proposition 17, it became clear that nobody understood either what it meant or even what it was doing there. Being clueless about the consequences didn’t stop 19 deputies from voting for it and 12 against. Only five deputies – Burford, Inder, Kazantseva-Miller, Meerveld and Roffey – said, hang on, I’m blowed if I’m voting on something I don’t understand. They abstained. A wonderful thing, democracy, especially in the hands of adults.