Sunday, 17 April 2016

How to grind the Gravy Train to a halt - Civil Servants business class flights

The latest scandal to hit the headlines in the past week has been the not-so-shocking revelations that over the past 5 years almost £400,000 was spent on business class flights for top level civil servants.

This information came to light because of a written question I lodged in the States Assembly, the breakdown of which can be viewed HERE.

This of course follows the specific scandal of Mike King (CEO of the Economic Development Department) and Wayne Gallichan (Director at Locate Jersey quango) spending £13,000 on a single trip to South Africa, on the basis that they needed to be comfortable as they flew over as they would be working from the moment they arrived, only later to admit that they played golf on arrival.

There has been a lot of commentary about this and what can be done in future to secure better value for money for taxpayers.

My view is that virtually all of this commentary has missed the point so I want to make my contribution to the debate here.

But let's be clear about this from the outset - 

It is morally repugnant to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on a civil service gravy train when cuts are being forced on the poorest and most vulnerable people on the Island.

We all pay tax, we are all part of Jersey society and we are all entitled to enjoy the security that the state is meant to provide for it's citizens. This means that the government has a responsibility to ensure that our money is spent properly and that the needs of society as a whole come before the 'nice-to-haves' for a small minority of people who are already paid incredibly well as it is.

Yes, sometimes politicians and civil servants will have to travel outside of the Island from time to time to make the case for Jersey and to drum up business. Yes, the States should be a good employer and ensure that it's workers are treated fairly and are comfortable whilst they are working. And yes, sometimes that means forking out money to make sure these people are able to do what we need them to do.

But we have been told time and time again by the right-wing Council of Ministers that their entire political ethos is based around the idea of "small government" and making the States more efficient, yet we find out that right under Ian Gorst's nose for these past years that the civil servants he works closest with have been robbing the public blind at the same time as urging him to follow a political line which sees cuts to support for the disabled and pensioners as well as raising new taxes on middle earners which will see them potentially thousands of pounds a year worse off.

There is an entirely legitimate argument which could be put to me, as a politician from the social democratic side of the political spectrum, that this is a relatively small amount of money in comparison to some of the major cuts and projects on the horizon and it would be a better use of my time to focus on the bigger picture.

I partially agree with that, which is why I believe the debate on this should focus on the context and the political causes of these scandals, rather than looking at it as a single issue.

The chair of the Public Accounts Committee Deputy Andrew Lewis has been in the media stating that they are going to look at the procedures and rules which are in place that have allowed these costs to spiral out of control and make recommendations for reform. The media has put the question to me several times about whether I think that this will work or not.

My answer is that it will help, but it ignores the central issue. Here is that central issue -

The reason that this civil service gravy train exists is because the top civil servants and senior politicians are far too cosy with each other, and their own careers depend upon them looking out for one another and bailing them out when they are in trouble.

In most civilised jurisdictions around the world the public have the ability at an election to throw out a government and replace it with an entirely new one.

That new government will normally turn up to the office on day one with a comprehensive manifesto which they have just received a mandate from the public for, which they will present to their civil servants who are instructed to turn that manifesto into action.

The fact that this democratic mechanism exists means that the civil service of these jurisdictions have official procedures in place to cope with a wholesale change in government administration, so that if a government is replaced with a new one, they are able to deal with the upheaval and get to work on whatever it is they are instructed to do, without prejudice to that new government nor favour to the outgoing one. Basically, they must always be on their toes because they know that their way of doing things and the projects they involve themselves in could be overhauled by the democratic will of the people who they ultimately serve.

In Jersey however the situation is completely different.

Voters are offered a false choice at elections where candidates come forward, denying any connections either personally or in philosophy with the other candidates, and ask you to vote for them based on their smile, who their dad was and who can come up with the most interesting (but ultimately vacuous) statements on their leaflets.

The same government remains, with a minor alteration of the faces which represent it.

For the civil service, it is always business as usual. They probably don't even notice that elections even happen.

Those new faces in government are elected with no policies.

Most of those who end up as ministers take up a portfolio which they have virtually no plan for and usually little more than a few sentences in their leaflets or at their hustings about what they would actually do with that power.

Some of them even end up in a particular office that they didn't even want. Take Anne Pryke for example. She actually stood for election saying she wanted to continue on as Health Minister, only to be told by Ian Gorst that it was Andrew Green's turn so she had to go to Housing instead.

Because of this fact, the ministers are utterly dependent on their civil servants (who to their credit know their departments inside out) to actually explain to them how things run and what changes could feasibly be made.

A huge amount of time and money is spent on civil servants actually creating the minister's policies for them. In some departments there is even a routine and systematic privatisation of policy making to quangos instead.

But all this means is that the success of a minister is predicated on the quality of advice they receive from their civil servants. Basically, their re-election and careers depends on those who they are actually meant to be holding to account.

Likewise, those top civil servants (who are paid incredibly well and have an inordinate amount of security in their jobs) depend upon having lightweight politicians take those ministerial roles and keeping them as ignorant as possible about what is really going on so that their position is never seen as anything other than absolutely essential to them.

There is an unbreakable cycle and this is where the poison sets in.

When they spend all this time together, they become too cosy with one another and become incapable of holding each other to account.

How can any of us therefore find it surprising that some of these people end up taking the Mickey with their own public spending on themselves?

They believe they can get away with it, so they push the boundaries and the perks become seen as an entitlement, regardless of the standards they uphold.

This inevitably means we waste huge amounts of money and the ministers are none the wiser because the perpetrators are those whose advice they seek to ask how to make their departments more efficient.

Instead, they say sack frontline workers. They say means-test this or that service. They say outsource or privatise this function. They never say ask them and their mates to do more for less like they know they are capable of doing.

By a bizarre twist of fate, the person who has been my greatest ally in demonstrating this fact to be true is actually Senator Philip Ozouf.

Philip (whom I actually get on with really well, even though we disagree on a huge number of things politically) wrote a blog a few days ago to comment on this very subject and jump to the defence of some of those named by the media. His blog can be read HERE.

In this post he defends Colin Powell and Joe Moynihan as being wonderful ambassadors for the Island who have contributed hugely to our success in recent years.

That may well be totally true. In the case of Colin Powell, my own private conversations with him lead me to believe that he believes in the principles of what a good civil servant should be and I believe that he would probably agree with the points I made above about the civil service always being prepared for alternative governments with alternative agendas.

But Senator Ozouf spectacularly misses the point.

This isn't about who these people are and how good they may or may not have been for the Island.

The personalities are irrelevant.

This is about a system that allows so much waste in the public sector, led by people who are unaccountable and have made themselves so indispensable that they end up leaving people like Senator Ozouf feeling like he has no choice but to stick his head above the parapet and defend the indefensible.

It is the job of a politician is to lead, to construct a positive and credible vision for the future and to have the ability to manage his or her staff to deliver on that vision. It isn't the job of those behind the scenes to lead.

Many of those who work in our civil service may well be incredible people who work hard and are committed to their Island. But that should never ever be an excuse for not holding them to account when they make mistakes. If the politicians see it as their job to protect these people no matter what, then we are truly in a mess.

I believe that there is only one way the grind this gravy train to a halt and that is to demonstrate to the civil service that there is no such thing as "business as usual" for them any more and to elect an entire new government who can show up on day one and say that Jersey has become a true democracy with a true government system which is fit for purpose to deliver for it's people what they desire as a community.

If that cannot be recognised, then we better get used to millions of pounds of taxpayers money continuing to be wasted forever.

Friday, 1 April 2016

A Squalid Compromise to Please No-one - The Dual Role of the Bailiff

Today the media has reported Chief Minister Ian Gorst's latest bright idea.

Jersey is one of only two places in the world (Guernsey being the other) where an unelected judge also acts as presiding officer of the elected parliament, with the power to deny democratically elected members permission to lodge propositions and the power to instruct them on what they are not allowed to say. We have had two independent reports recommending we abolish the dual role, all of the government's legal advice has said that we may one day open ourselves up to human rights legal challenges if we do not change it and our sister island Sark was forced to change their formerly identical system after the Barclay brothers won a legal challenge against the UK government.

Ian Gorst may have most aspects of his political agenda completely wrong, but he knows that the writing is on the wall for the dual role of the Bailiff and that the Island's reputation is at risk if we persist with an out of date and undemocratic system. Not to mention that when we're £145m in the red, a potential human rights legal challenge is something we can scarcely afford when the solution is right in front of us.

The last time that the prospect of splitting the dual role came up in the States, Ian Gorst lodged comments which were absolute dynamite. If you're into that sort of thing, I recommend giving them a read. They are impossible to argue against -

However he has a big problem - he can't convince all of his ministers.

For some bizarre reason, there are a quite a few States Members whose misinformed understanding of Jersey's traditions leads them to oppose any sort of modernisation to improve Jersey's government system.

Personally, I cannot fathom why politicians who claim to support Jersey's finance industry (an industry which is incredibly modern, forward thinking and which requires constant attention to make sure our regulatory framework matches international expectations) are not prepared to support a government system which matches those expectations.

Senators Gorst and Ozouf get it, but the others are stuck in the 18th Century unfortunately.

So in an attempt to move forward, he has suggested that many of the worries concerning the dual role of the Bailiff could be resolved by simply not allowing the Bailiff to preside over the States when we are debating legislation.

The "logic" behind this is that the fundamental problem with the dual role is that it is wrong for somebody who is involved in the law making process to then be involved in the business of applying the law.

Let's be clear - this proposal suggests moving from a situation where a significant group of States Members are unhappy, some are happy and we defy the internationally accepted fundamental democratic principle of the separation of powers to a situation were all States Members are unhappy and we still defy the principle of separation of powers!

A sensible compromise? Hardly!

For those who believe in the principle of the separation of powers (which in a democratic society should be all of us) this will never be enough. We want Jersey to abide by this principle and this compromise barely moves us an inch in the right direction.

It also doesn't really do what it is meant to do.

The States Assembly actually spends very little time debating pure legislation. Most of our time is spent either in question time where we hold the executive to account, or it is spent debating propositions which are usually in-principle debates which will lead to legislation which tends to go through very quickly (which may actually be a bad thing, but that's a debate for another day).

In practice this would mean the Bailiff presiding over the States for the vast majority of the time and sometimes leaving the chamber for it to be presided over for as little as 10 minutes of business at the end of the session as members merely nod through something uncontroversial.

Which begs the question, what is the point? It would be a lot of effort for virtually no difference.

I also think it is wrong to suggest that the legislation is the key part which causes the problem.

The legislation may be the fine print which actually comes into force, but it usually reflects the principles which are debated in propositions beforehand and sometimes even thrashed out during question time as members question ministers' intentions to draft legislation.

The whole of States Assembly proceedings is part of the legislative process, right from the very beginning. The substantial bit is rarely the actual moment where the final piece is voted through.

But ultimately, the compromise which is being suggested is a waste of time for the simple reason that if a proposition is brought to the States to achieve it, all it will take is one States Member to lodge an amendment to go the whole way and have an elected Speaker (and is no shortage of members who will be prepared to do that) and it will instead become a debate on that, not Ian Gorst's compromise.

So it has no mileage whatsoever and Ian Gorst should just forget about it right now.

I believe that Ian Gorst is showing an appalling lack of leadership over this issue and I know that his refusal to get to grips with it is causing discontent amongst some members who are prepared to simply bypass him and make their own attempt to push forward. This attempt would be doomed to fail, but that failure would be the responsibility of the Chief Minister for not taking action himself.

The Chief Minister's department has already done the work to construct the necessary report to accompany a proposition to split the dual role of the Bailiff and it is even one of the very few political topics that Ian Gorst had a clear policy on when he stood for election.

Ian Gorst should lodge his own proposition to establish an elected Speaker and he should tell his Council of Ministers to back him like he would expect them to over any other issue he had been so forthright about during his election.

Who would choose to resign from his cabinet over such an issue? Most ministers, when push comes to shove, would stay put.

There is of course one exception - Senator Philip Bailhache.

Senator Bailhache wrecked the last attempt to have a debate on the dual role of the Bailiff by lodging an amendment to turn it into a debate on having a referendum on splitting the dual role, rather than splitting the dual role outright.

He is the brother of the current Bailiff and his resignation would be interpreted by the vast majority of observers not as some sort of grand defence of Jersey tradition, but as a defence of his brother and his job. It will simply be too much of a coincidence for many people to come to any other conclusion, whether it is true or not.

On that basis, he is expendable.

Over the past few months, the incumbents have been acting in a way which is so counterproductive to their intention to hold on to this undeserved privilege as long as possible that for people like me it has sometimes almost felt like winning the lottery.

There is scarcely a single Islander who believes that William Bailhache made the right decision in expelling Deputy Tadier from the States for referring to Jesus in a rhetorical way during a debate on stopping cuts to support for disabled people.

When I have explained what happened to both visiting political campaigners/ journalists and even to school children, they have all burst out laughing at how absurd it was.

A few weeks ago I stated during question time that I believe that the way the Infrastructure Minister is handling his outsourcing programme (which is seeing working people facing a prolonged period of uncertainty over their future) is immoral. The Bailiff asked me twice to withdraw that allegation. I refused and said it was an opinion I was perfectly entitled to hold, it was not unparliamentary and I was not prepared to withdraw it. He caved in, but everybody who was listening thought it was wrong for him to have even considered it appropriate to wade in on what was blatantly a political point.

The Deputy Bailiff rarely even attempts to conceal his bias when he presides over the States. He allows ministers (who until recently he acted as their legal adviser) pretty much free reign over what they can say and how long they take to say it, yet will immediately shut down any member who attempts to challenge a minister by prefixing their question with some context. If you are prefixing a question without challenging the minister, he will allow you to say what you want and wait until the end before suggesting that the member could be a little bit more concise in their questions, maybe, if they felt like it.

This has meant session after session where elected members have been denied their right to challenge ministers with supplementary questions on important topics.

As every single States sitting goes by, the breaking point gets closer and closer, and I'm eagerly looking forward to the next occasion these people dig their own graves a little bit deeper.

Disillusionment in Jersey politics has never been higher. It was 70% when I was first elected and it's now 84% (no connection, I swear!) But that disillusionment is not just directed at the government, but also at the States Assembly too (according to the poll).

I believe that part of this stems from the fact we have an apolitical culture in the Island (partially as a result of not having a long history of entrenched party politics like most countries) and our parliament does not have a rich history as an institution of democratic virtue and principle.

The role of the Speaker is not to just be impartial in the chair, but it is to be overtly partisan outside of the chair in support of the institution of the parliament, it's purpose and it's rights and privileges.

We need somebody who represents the traditions and purpose of our Island parliament and goes out into the community to make the case for the institution and to advocate and educate what it is we do and how the public have the power to force us to do it better.

The Bailiff can never perform this role.

When we are a proper democracy, we will begin to rebuild trust with the public in our ability to function as a parliament for the people.

This change is inevitable. So let's get on with it.