A State of confusion

FROM a governance perspective it’s been an interesting time in the States.

 (Picture by Andrej Kralovic/Shutterstock)
(Picture by Andrej Kralovic/Shutterstock)

First, we had the report from Professor Catherine Staite into the running of the Home Affairs committee with the finding of systematic bullying and harassment of States employees by the committee’s deputies and particularly its president, Deputy Mary Lowe, resulting in the resignation of two of the committee’s deputies and a very public request by the Policy & Resources Committee for Deputy Lowe to resign as president or face a motion of no confidence.

Next, in the same week, we had a motion tabled by Deputy Michelle Le Clerc seeking for deputies to have a say in the ‘hiring and firing’, performance management and employment conditions of senior civil servants.

Either issue on its own is cause for concern but taken together they point to a cultural problem that I suspect runs deep and across the organisation. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think so.

The allegations made against the members of the Home Affairs committee and president Mary Lowe are serious and warrant investigation and, if proven, action should be taken to ensure employees have a safe place of work, free from bullying and harassment.

On the other hand, to be fair to the accused deputies and drawing on my long legal and business experience, allegations of bullying and harassment are easy to make but hard to prove. Unless the alleged target of the offending behaviour is named, and details of their allegation shared with the accused deputy, how are they to defend themselves? The deputies have been left to be judged by the court of public opinion and may well now be considered guilty without the benefit of a ‘fair trial’, so to speak.

The issue of equal concern involves Deputy Le Clerc’s motion to give deputies the power to ‘hire and fire’ senior civil servants, despite the motion being against the advice of HM Procureur Megan Pullum QC and Advocate Emily Bamber.

As these esteemed legal representatives opined, the motion ‘risks civil servants being perceived to be, or being, either appointed, retained, promoted or dismissed, on the basis of personal or political patronage … the amendment therefore risks politicising (or being seen to politicise) Guernsey’s fundamental independent and impartial civil service function’.

In this regard, I would have to agree. Deputies should be restricted to hiring and firing the chief executive officer and that’s it. If they have an issue with a particular officer, they should raise their concern or grievance with the CEO, who is responsible for investigating all reasonable concerns and reporting back to the States.

To give deputies a say in the hiring and firing of senior officers blurs the line between the body politic and the bureaucracy. I can well understand the frustration that some deputies may have with certain officers – which no doubt was the driver for this motion – however the damage that this motion will cause to the delicate relationship between deputies and officers should not be underestimated.

The role of the civil service is to provide service and advice to the government of the day without fear or favour. This is at grave risk if the relationship between senior officers and deputies becomes that of master and servant with the upper hand held by politicians. Let’s face it, officers are only human, so knowing that certain deputies hold a particular view or seek a particular advice, the subservient officer will be motivated to provide the advice that promotes their master’s interest.

Despite the overwhelming vote in favour of the motion, I question if deputies gave it their considered view. As pointed out by chief minister Gavin St Pier, the amendment risks candidates for civil service jobs being perceived as appointed, retained or dismissed based on political patronage.

Whilst it’s no doubt frustrating at times dealing with officers who may appear short-sighted or obstructionist, in my view deputies are better served by an independent civil service than one made up of Yes Men resembling Yes Minister.

Belatedly and reluctantly, deputies were embarrassingly forced to backtrack on their heist for power upon receiving yet further legal advice to the effect that their proposed motion was not only unwise but also unlawful. Despite this fall from grace, deputies insisted on a compromise amendment to circumvent the inconvenient ‘legal technicality’ but to still achieve the same effect, with a passing shot that they will ‘hold P&R’s feet to the fire’ on this issue. Them’s fightin’ words.

If proof was needed that a wholesale review of the machinery of government is urgently needed, here it is. The issue for me arises in large part due to the structure of the States. The committee structure appointed by the States is not accountable to the chief minister of the island. I use the term ‘chief minister’ despite it not technically existing. Herein lies another problem. On the international stage, ‘president of the Policy & Resources Committee’ sounds lame and lacks gravitas.

Guernsey needs an executive style of government made up of fewer deputies with power to appoint a chief minister. The chief minister in turn should have the power to appoint ministers and junior ministers to oversee designated ministries in the tradition of a Westminster parliamentary system. In this way, the chief minister would have the benefit of being assisted by ministers who have his or her confidence in the form of cabinet collective responsibility. This would avoid the embarrassing scenario we currently have where the P&R Committee has called for the resignation of the Home Affairs president, who in turn is refusing to be told and in fact has advised P&R that they have no power over her as she was appointed by the States. A mad riddle.

My concern is that unless the States show determined commitment to review the machinery of government, they risk being judged in the words of a wise social media contributor: ‘In the past three days the States have been nothing short of a complete mess and shows up our system of government as not fit for purpose for everyone to see.’

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