Tuesday, 25 May 2010

The Ministerial Lobotomy

Deputy Sean Power was on BBC Radio Jersey this morning making a couple of points about Harbours and Airports. These were put with admirable brevity, and were as follows:

a) the Harbours department has around 70 staff, and it needs to be reviewed to see if it is overstaffed (which he suspects).

b) as trading committees, the airport and harbour both run at a loss, and if they can't manage to make a profit as public trading companies, perhaps they should be taken over by the private sector.

Senator Paul Routier was the Assistant Minister who was answering these questions. He did pick up on one error, the harbour actually made a small profit last year. But most of his lengthy replies said very little - "doing business with companies of good standing", "looking at different ways on doing things", "commercial opportunities", "consulting with commercial groups"  etc etc, or was only marginally relevant - Condor have been doing well - forgetting that Condor is a private company.

On hearing this waffle, in which poor Chris Stone tried very hard to get answers to basic questions - such as giving a simple example of "different ways" - my son asked why they didn't get a politician who knew the subject. I told him that Paul Routier was the Minister who was in charge of looking after Harbours and Airports, which prompted the comment: "politicians obviously forget to read the small print which says they must have a lobotomy on becoming ministers".  Politically aware and intelligent children can sometimes indulge in very plain speaking!

And yet there are very good points to be made for not taking the harbours and airport wholly into the private sector. We are on a small Island, and both for tourism and the locals, there are only two ways on and off the rock. A private company could push up prices to make a profit and make travel uneconomical for tourism, or, as happens with the private ferries and planes, provide cheaper fares to the Island and expensive ones for locals (who have little in the way of choice). Do we want this scenario extended to harbours and airports, and possibly also a more commercial squeeze on freight, raising the cost of living even higher? Deputy Power didn't consider these matters, and Senator Routier didn't take them up at all.

Unlike the U.K., where there are alternative airports and Harbours, and even the Channel Tunnel, we have only one airport and one harbour, and there is, I believe, a case for social need, a public service element, even if it may mean that the airport and harbour run at a loss. Otherwise, the poorest members of society will be penalised, and become virtual prisoners upon the Island.

However, as far as overstaffing is concerned, we don't have an organizational chart, so there is little that can be seen as to how well staffed the department is, which is something which missed by Deputy Sean Power. Perhaps he can press for States departments to be run according to rudimentary principles of good business organisation, and draw up one. Only then can we see if there are savings to be made.

Also not mentioned is the ludicrous paper trail in which Harbours, as a trading entity, lease out for rent the Maritime Museum site to Jersey Heritage; they argue that this is (1) a reduced rent and (2) that they could rent it out more profitably at market value. But Jersey Heritage is a quango which is financed by the States, leading to the absurd situation whereby balancing the books leads to money chasing round from the States to the States.

Why this happens is because far from "joined up government", each department is seen as its own little fiefdom, protecting its own rights and privileges and budgets jealously against others. It is this segregated Empire building mentality which needs to be changed, and Ministerial government simply combined separate departments under one Minister, with little or no attempt to integrate them; it is the political version of papering over cracks.

Sir Humphrey: We want all responsibilities, Minister, if they mean extra staff and bigger budgets. It's the breadth of our responsibilities that makes us important, makes YOU important, Minister. When you see vast buildings, huge staff and massive budgets, what do you conclude?

Jim Hacker: Bureaucracy?

No, Minister, you conclude that at the summit there are men of great stature and dignity who hold the world in their hands and tread the earth like princes.

Jim Hacker: Yes, I see.

Sir Humphrey: So each new responsibility must be seized eagerly and each old one guarded jealously.

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