Monday, 21 February 2011

Five Arguments Against an Enquiry

A politics of moral engagement is not only a more inspiring ideal than a politics of avoidance. If it's true, as I've tried to argue, that our debates about justice are often inescapably arguments about the good life, then a politics of moral engagement is also a more promising basis for a just society.(Michael Sandel)

Having looked at the case for an inquiry, I now propose to look at five of the main arguments against it:

1. Waste of Government Money

Existing enquiries have already cost in excess of twelve million pounds and any extra expenditure will simply end up in the pockets of lawyers without achieving anything.

This is a very basic pragmatic argument, that if an enquiry will not achieve anything, it is not worth going ahead with it. In its favour, it has to be said that existing enquiries - Williamson, Wiltshire, Napier - have been variously restricted in scope, and have not succeeded wholly in producing a full picture that satisfies the critics. Or alternatively, it could also be said that existing enquiries have produced as complete a picture as we are likely to get, and nothing will satisfy the critics!

Of course, this does require a certain degree of clairvoyance - if one knows in advance the outcome, then there would be little point in an enquiry. It could be argued that previous investigations have failed because their remit was too narrow, too biased, and not inclusive enough.

It also completely sidesteps the question of whether the States should keep their promises or not. Is pragmatism going to triumph here? I would argue particularly those who were present where the promise was made, have a duty to keep their pledge, and keep faith with the electorate, otherwise promises are seen as nothing more than short term expediency to defuse a crisis, which can be forgotten or casually laid aside as they so choose. If they give up on this promise, how can they be trusted in future? Are election pledges to be so casually laid aside?

2. Insider Knowledge

This argument is that the politicians in question have available to them more evidence than is in the public domain. If politicians are to keep faith with the public, then it is up to them to make more information available. Otherwise, we are dependent on putting our faith in people who might tell us they have conclusive evidence of weapons of mass destruction capable of being deployed within 45 minutes, and history shows that faith can be misplaced. The Wikileaks scandal has shown how two-faced and duplicitous politicians can be. Climategate has demonstrated how even science can be subverted by a desire for secrecy, in which information was withheld from the public domain.

Moreover, the record of disclosure is very poor with regard to Jersey. Guernsey manages appointments and other matters with a minimal amount of "in camera" debates. Despite promises, due to lack of time, the Wiltshire report has not appeared in a less redacted form.

Trust in politicians is at an all time low, both in Jersey and elsewhere in the world. A claim of "insider knowledge", far from assuaging public concern, is an example of the old fashioned paternalistic style of politics that now only engenders cynicism and electoral apathy. Trust must be earned, and claims - which may or may not be spurious - about "insider knowledge" cannot be relied upon. They may be valid, but they have to be set aside in the context of this debate, as there is no way of judging their validity.

3. Closure

There is an argument that Haut de La Garenne (and the attendant publicity in the media, some of it quite fantastical) is a phase in the island's history which the majority of people are sick and tired of and wish to see closed off. This is pure pragmatism again.

It is like saying the German Occupation is a phase in the Islands history which the majority of people are sick and tired of. And there have been periods in Jersey history, especially in the immediate aftermath of war, when this was the case. There have been people who either didn't want to talk about it, or who harboured, as a result, prejudices against the Germans - one Constable, for example, refused to have anything to do with remembering the German War dead at St Brelade's, where for many years a smaller wreath of poppies has also been laid on Remembrance Sunday. But how much richer is the Island for the engagement with the Germans who were stationed here, or the township of Bad Wurzach! Closure comes facing the past, not burying it, from truth and reconciliation, not washing political hands like Pontius Pilate, and pretending it is all a nasty affair that will eventually be over and forgotten.

I think that majority of people are quite probably sick of the Haut de La Garenne history rolling on, and wonder if it will ever stop. But part of the problem is surely the States own inability to address the matter properly.

The case of the Iraq war in the United Kingdom shows what happens when enquiries are set up with very narrow remits, such as the Hutton enquiry, or the Butler enquiry. They fail to achieve closure because their remit is not truth, but political expediency. How often must Tony Blair have thought to himself - surely this will silence the critics? But each time, part of the purpose of the enquiry was evidently not the truth, but simply to silence the critics.

4. Concentrate on the Future

This argument says that an enquiry would look at past mistakes, but what the States should be concentrating on is ensuring that current child care is correctly monitored, with a proper chain of command and responsibility, and checks and balances. What happened has happened, and we cannot alter that.

While we cannot alter the past, it does not follow that we should not come to terms with it, and it provides a baseline of failure against which the present can be measured. I think that there is a greater chance of overlooking any weaknesses that might still be addressed, if we do not find out what was happening in the past and ensure that we can test that against the changes which have been made. There may still be gaps in our knowledge, despite the sterling work of Williamson.

Moreover, when Frank Walker made the pledge as Chief Minister, he was also aware of the work done by the Williamson report in addressing current issues in child care. Why didn't he adopt the same argument against a later enquiry?

5. Wrong Expectations

This is probably the strongest argument - that any enquiry would not achieve what was required of it because of the nature of such enquiries. It is argued most forcefully by Senator Ian Le Marquand in a private email, which he has given permission to quote:

"In relation to the merits or demerits of a public enquiry, I would say that the purpose of a public enquiry in an area like this is not to exonerate or to condemn individuals. There appear to be a number of people out there who have expectations of the outcome of such an enquiry which are unlikely to be fulfilled. That is a danger of such public enquiries. People may be looking for precise answers in individual cases and they end up with general statements as to areas of failure of systems and procedures."

I would accept that this is an extremely forceful argument. But the case of Scotland shows that this is need not be only purpose of enquiries. Without being able to exonerate or condemn individuals, Scotland nevertheless saw that there was a gap in how the past should be addressed, and following the same kind of decisions made in South Africa after apartheid, followed up the recommendations of Tom Shaw to set up a pilot forum which will enable the voices of those unheard to be heard. A pilot forum initiated by the Scottish Government will hear from 100 former residents of homes run by the charity Quarriers.

The independent forum, called Time to be Heard, was announced last year as part of the response to a report by Tom Shaw, former chief inspector of education and training in Northern Ireland, on historic abuse. It was initially described as an independent "acknowledgement and accountability" body which would allow victims of abuse to achieve closure through a "truth-and-reconciliation" approach. Only allegations made against individuals still working with children or vulnerable adults will be passed to the police for investigation.(1)

Any enquiry or forum should also address these kind of matters, or it will indeed, as Senator Le Marquand says, simply produce general statements. While not necessarily providing legal outcomes, it nonetheless can provide personal outcomes, and a real chance of closure.


In March 2008, Frank Walker, the Chief Minister, said that the criminal investigation would be the immediate priority but that "the only way to ensure that there is total transparency in relation to this issue" was for a full public inquiry to be held "in due course" into unresolved issues involving all care homes in Jersey from 1945 to 2000.

Apart from the argument by Senator Ian Le Marquand, which addresses the nature of an enquiry, the other arguments are derived largely from political expediency and do not address the ethical issue of whether politicians should be bound by promises made by their predecessors (or in some cases, themselves). The issue of that is diverted by a series of pragmatic arguments, which avoid the substantive issue. But promising places a special obligation and should not be discarded lightly; certainly it should not be avoided. By instead producing arguments which divert attention from whether to keep promises, politicians erode the trust which they seek from the public, a fact which they would do well to remember as they compile promises for an election manifesto:

"Promising is an instrumentally valuable institution, and each of us should do her part to support that institution: one thing that each of us can do is to keep her own promises. Promises also create expectations in their recipients, and the harm of unrealized expectations or hopes needs to be taken into account when we consider whether the breaking of a promise has better consequences than the keeping of a promise"(2)

But even if a more expedient approach is adopted, consider this: Should politicians, particularly those who were present where a promise was made, have a duty to keep their pledge, and keep faith with the electorate? [Even if they were not amongst the Council of Ministers, no one in the States spoke against the pledge.] If they do not keep faith, how do they ensure the electorate can trust them in the future?

If a politician were to face a contested election this year, for example, and made promises in their manifesto, on what basis would they feel justified in breaking those in the future, and justifying this to those who voted for them without losing their trust? Ian le Marquand, for example, made pledges about exceptions on GST, which he has resolutely kept, despite being on the Council of Ministers. Some other politicians seem to have changed their minds within a month of attaining a seat in the States. Consequently manifestos lose value, especially where politicians do not seem capable of keeping promises.


Posted By TonyTheProf to Tony's Musings on 2/21/2011 04:00:00 PM

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Are election pledges to be so casually laid aside?

If your name is Senator Ozouf, and it's GST you are talking about - then yes, election pledges made to the States and the electorate count for exactly nothing.