Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Ministerial Reform - A Comment

Senator Ian le Marquand: Now, again, the Council of Ministers has had to look at this and try to make tough decisions. When we started the process we thought we were looking at £110 million, so it has improved and now I think we are looking at £90 to £100 million, so that is good. But the tough issue is this: how much of that £90 million to £100 million is going to be tax increases and how much of that is going to be reductions in service levels and savings et cetera? Now, I believe that the Council of Ministers needs to throw that back onto the Assembly. Why should we always be taking the flack for things? Let our colleagues share the pain.

Deputy T.A. Vallois: But you have had the information of the department to be able to do that, whereas backbenchers do not have all the information of the department to do so.

This exchange from the recent scrutiny committee hearing highlights one of the major problems of the particular States Assembly. The Council of Ministers in many ways wants it both ways. They want to present the House with a business plan that is a "take it or leave it" fait accompli. For in constructing this plan, there appears to be little or no consultation with other members of the States who are not Ministers or Assistant Ministers. Yet when the plan is criticised from those who have not been consulted in any shape or form, the Council of Ministers is aggrieved that they're not acting responsibly and taking their part in the decision-making process. Yet the Council of Ministers is surely not acting responsibly by acting alone and not trying to carry the assembly with it on the construction of the business plan and the reductions in spending or increases in taxation.

The way that the system works is that the plans are constructed and presented to the State Assembly to be voted on and equally to Scrutiny Panels to be scrutinised. All this is delay and also engenders an oppositional style of government. Ben Quérée (writing in the JEP) pointed out that the roots of this lay in the formation of the present Council of Ministers when Senator Terry Le Sueur - having first stated that he wanted a broad coalition of different members and viewpoints in the government - proceeded to act in completely the opposite manner and in Ben Quérée's words just "packed the Council of Ministers with his cronies."

"Let our colleagues share the pain". A fine ideal - providing that you also let them into the decision-making processes. There is surely no pain without that responsibility. Members of the Council of Ministers must be prepared to include other States Members in these discussions at the outset, prior to the release of a business plan, otherwise why should they feel the pain? They have been excluded. And that is something that should be thrown back at the Council of Ministers when they feel aggrieved.

Of course part of the problem with the current system of Ministerial government is that most of the departments have a Minister and perhaps one or two assistant ministers. This means that not only are other States members excluded from the process of government in a manner which did not happen with the old committee system, but also very few of them have an opportunity to train in the processes of government. In the old days of the committee system, members would serve an apprenticeship on the committee learning the ropes, before aspiring to the position of President. Ministerial government, on the contrary, has seen Ministers appointed who have never been Assistant Ministers, and in one or two instances have only been recently elected to the States itself. If mistakes are made by Ministers, it is hardly surprising when they have no prior learning or experience of the job and some of them have only just been elected, so need to learn two sets of ropes!

I'm not saying the reversion to the old-style committees is the way to go. It was undoubtedly unwieldy and inefficient. But the concentration of power in ministers who may themselves be mere novices is a major weakness of the current system. Along with this is the lack of apprenticeship which the committee system gave. This could perhaps be improved by ensuring that Ministers always confer with Assistant Ministers before making decisions. It has been evident from some of the bad decisions (some needing retraction) that this is not always the case.

Increasing the number of Assistant Ministers would also ensure that the workload would be spread and an increased one one in each department (there by to two or three) would help ease matters while at the same time not reverting to the cumbersome apparatus of the committee system. This would also provide the much missed apprenticeship and it should also be a rule (although by custom rather than prescription) that no one usually serves as Minister without having some experience of being an Assistant Minister.

The other major problem is unilateral decisions by Ministers and this could perhaps be eased by permitting the two or three assistant ministers to exercise a simple veto if they thought the decision was a bad one, or as an alternative, get the decision to be ratified by the full Council of Ministers.

So to sum up, some of the main problems of Ministerial Government, to which I have made some suggestions above, are:

a) Ministers appointed who are novices (sometimes even to the States)
b) No proper "apprenticeship" of Assistant Ministers
c) No proper consultations before presenting plans to the assembly
d) Too much power concentrated in a single Minister.

Others will make their own suggestions to solve these problems, but I think it is important that there are highlighted, and addressed in some way or another.

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