Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Eye on the States

The chief danger to our philosophy, apart from laziness and woolliness, is scholasticism, .. which is treating what is vague as if it were precise. -F. P. Ramsey

I've been looking at the Hansard record for 12 June 2012. Some interesting bits and pieces, with a growing use of vague phrases by the Chief Minister.

Deputy Montfort Tadier asked Ian Gorst, Chief Minister about when the 'Vulture Fund' legislation would be introduced:

Will the Chief Minister explain if there has been a delay in introducing "Vulture Fund" legislation and inform Members when the promised changes are likely to be implemented?

Senator I.J. Gorst (The Chief Minister): There has been no delay in consulting on or commencing drafting of
legislation to limit practices that could undermine international debt relief. To date, the U.K. (United Kingdom) is the only country in the world to have enacted a law of this kind. Alongside Guernsey and the Isle of Man,
we are proposing to join the U.K. as leaders in this field and to do so expeditiously on a timescale in line with that of the other 2 Islands.

Which is a good way of saying absolutely nothing in terms of time scale! It's a really dreadful answer, worthy of Yes Minister's Jim Hacker. Here is a translation of the weasel words:

proposing to join - like an engagement is an intention to marry, this is an intention, not a plan
expeditiously - we'll do nothing until we have spoken to the other Islands

The tone of the reply - the UK "is the only country to have enacted a law of this kind", suggests that the Chief Minister is not wholly in favour of anything like that in Jersey. Jersey is not going alone, unless Guernsey and the Isle of Man join in. This is the morality of the market place. If it's right, we should do it. The UK had the guts to take a moral stand, without waiting for other countries to follow suit. It's about time we did so.

Fortunately Trevor Pitman, like a Pit-bull Terrier (doesn't the image go well!) wouldn't let this stand:

2.2.1 Deputy T.M. Pitman of St. Helier: I believe the Council of Ministers discussed this back on, I think, the 15th of December, so could the Chief Minister just assist us perhaps and encourage us by giving us a little bit of indication when this might finally come forward? As I think most Members would agree, it is something that is a bit of a stain on everywhere who fails to act on it.

Senator I.J. Gorst: As I said, the U.K. is currently the only jurisdiction/country in the world that has such legislation. We are proposing to be at the forefront as well of such legislation. Earlier this year in late January,I instructed the drafting of such legislation and I hope that I will be in a position to lodge during September.

But should it take a supplementary question to get a more exact time table? Why couldn't he have replied with that information in the first place? There seems to be a culture of vagueness. People complain about the time taken up with questions, but if they were answered succinctly and accurately, this would not be necessary.

Now we come to the strange case of Verita, where having paid a professional and independent body to do some work, that is apparently scrapped and another party brought in to deal with the matter. Verita was brought in to provide terms of reference for the forthcoming inquiry into historic child abuse at Haut de La Garenne and elsewhere. But they were sidelined, and their proposed terms of reference put on one side, and Andrew Williamson was brought in to do the job they had already done.

2.4 Deputy T.M. Pitman of the Chief Minister regarding the terms of reference for the historic abuse enquiry as proposed by Verita: Will the Chief Minister clarify precisely what the perceived problems are with the terms of reference for the Historic Abuse Inquiry as proposed by Verita? Would he  state whether Mr. Andrew Williamson has been engaged to review the terms of reference and, if  so, what the cost of his engagement is?

Senator I.J. Gorst (The Chief Minister): There is no question in my mind that a Committee of Inquiry is needed to provide help with closure of this difficult and long-running period. The Verita terms of reference were open-ended as a strategy. I have therefore asked Mr. Andrew Williamson, an experienced Social Services Director from the United Kingdom, who also has much experience of working in Jersey, to review the original terms of reference to see whether they could be set in such a way  as to ensure that unanswered questions are investigated and answers are provided without the requirement to reopen individual cases. The cost of Mr. Williamson's work has amounted to £2,000  to date and I expect that the total cost of his work in relation to reviewing the terms of  reference will not exceed £10,000.

Does he mean that Verita were asked to provide open-ended terms of reference, or that they were considered open ended? It's not at all clear, and what precisely does he mean by "open-ended", another vague term that is virtually meaningless. Is the sentence - "The Verita terms of reference were open-ended as a strategy" - in any shape or form meaningful English? It reminds me of what Orwell wrote:

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink."

So once again, a supplementary question is needed:

2.4.1 Deputy T.M. Pitman: Perhaps the Chief Minister could enlarge for me and perhaps a few others what he means by "open ended". More specifically, can he ensure that having decided we did not need independence to do the Electoral Commission, for instance, can he give assurances that we will come up with a format that will ensure closure for those people who were victims and, just as  importantly, that those who are ultimately found to be responsible will be held to account?

Senator I.J. Gorst: As I said in answer to questions on this subject before, I will be in a position where I can lodge the terms of reference for the Committee of Inquiry to this Assembly for Members rightly to decide. At the same time, I will be appending any other work which has been undertaken to get to those terms of reference. Equally I, of course, would like to think that closure could be brought but these are very difficult long-running issues and I think that what we can hope for is that people are able to move on with their lives. I am not certain that for lots of people closure will be found by a Committee of Inquiry but I hope that it will help with the healing process and it will allow some answers to be given. With regard to the open-ended nature, that of course is very difficult because we have a responsibility to ensure that a Committee of Inquiry reaches its findings in an appropriate timescale and within a suitable budget. What I have been concerned about is that every person appearing before the inquiry might feel that if it is too adversarial, they  need to instruct legal counsel and that, of course, will change the budget and the cost  requirements entirely.

Notice how the term open ended has now moved - previously it was attached to Verita's terms of reference, and now it's to do with the nature of the inquiry, not the terms of reference. But they were tasked with finding something that was clearly not open-ended.

The Council of Ministers asked us to seek the views of interested parties about the purpose, manner and conduct of a Commission; to propose terms of reference; to forecast likely costs; to set out the practical implications of a decision to Commission such an inquiry; and to make a written report with recommendations

And in fact Verita dealt with costs of the inquiry. The managing partner of Verita and an associate carried out the work for their report, while Verita's finance team calculated the likely costs of any inquiry. So the only conclusion one can draw is that wasn't acceptable, or considered too high. It certainly wasn't "open-ended"!

Montfort Tadier now comes in with some questions about why the terms of reference written up by Verita in their report were not good enough.

2.4.4 Deputy M. Tadier: Would the Chief Minister agree that the terms of reference set by Verita were not faulty? Rather, they were politically unacceptable to certain Members of the Council of Ministers? If they were faulty, would the Chief Minister explain how it came about that it was the Council of Ministers who commissioned Verita and why did they not set their own terms of reference and their own criteria to make sure that what Verita reported back was acceptable and in line with the terms of reference that the States Assembly agreed only recently before that?

Senator I.J. Gorst: That is quite a multi-faceted question. I would not wish to use the word "faulty" for the terms of reference but more as I did with regard to open-ended and wanting to limit the need for those appearing before the Committee of Inquiry to have to instruct legal support at that point. I can reassure Members that they will be able to judge for themselves when the terms of reference are before them. That is absolutely right and proper, and not that it is just simply the domain of either me as the Chief Minister or the Council of Ministers.

In other words, the terms of reference provided by Verita were not acceptable to the Council of Ministers, probably because they involved the possibility of extra cost because of legal representation. That's reading between the lines, but when the lines are so wavy and blurred, one has to do that!

What won't come out is the comparison between the old and new terms of reference - those revised ones provided by Williamson and those provided by Verita. But what is fundamentally clear is that Verita's own report gave very clear terms of reference, and in no way did they consider what they were doing was either "open ended" or just the preliminary basis - as Ian Gorst suggests.

They stated in their report that:

The Council of Ministers should commission a Committee of Inquiry into historical child abuse: We suggest that the attached terms of reference form the basis of the committee's work. We advise that these are proposed to the States Assembly.

Are those terms of reference to be superseded and buried? It looks increasingly likely. The Council of Ministers seems to have a bad habit of disregarding professional independent reports if it suits them, or publishing them if they like what they hear. The strategy seems to be to use a report where it is suitable to legitimise a course of action, or to bury the report if it tells them something they don't want to hear.

It's the opposite of scientific method, where the results prove or refute the theory. If science was done on these lines, it would be more like the suspect methods employed by "Doakes Toothpaste" in Darrell Huff's How to Lie with Statistics, where you throw away the results you don't want:

But let's get back to how easy it is for Doakes to get a headline without a falsehood in it and everything certified at that. Let any small group of persons keep count of cavities for six months, then switch to Doakes'. One of three things is bound to happen: distinctly more cavities, distinctly fewer, or about the same number. If the first or last of these possibilities occurs, Doakes & Company files the figures (well out of sight somewhere) and tries again. Sooner or later, by the operation of chance, a test group is going to show a big improvement worthy of a headline and perhaps a whole advertising campaign.

When Andrew Williams has completed what is, in fact, a second set of terms of reference, expect the Doakes Toothpaste strategy to come into play, and the first set by Verita to be filed well out of sight!


Anonymous said...

Chillingly accurate!

James said...

Reproduced from The Channel Island Joke Book:

"My boy," said the Jersey businessman, "there are two things you must learn to make a success of business here. They are honesty and sagacity".
The boy thought. "Dad," he asked, "what is honesty?"
"Always, no matter what happens, keep your word once you have given it".
"And what is sagacity?"
"Never give it."