Thursday, 14 November 2013

Jersey Small Society: A Tiny Footnote in Local Politics

The "Jersey Small Society" must have been one of the most transient political groups in Jersey's history. Indeed, I wonder if anyone can remember anything about it. It began in 2010, and in March 2011, it was still making headlines. The BBC had this report:

"An advert by the Jersey Small Society has been ruled "misleading" by the Advertising Standards Agency. The society called for government spending cuts in an advert in the Jersey Evening Post last summer. "Save First, Tax Last" was the way for Jersey to "emerge successfully from the recession", the advert claimed. Dr Cameron McPhail, a Jersey economist, challenged the facts presented by the society and complained to the Advertising Standards Agency (ASA). The advertising watchdog said nine out of the 10 "facts" presented by the Small Society were matters of opinion and calling them facts indicated they had been proven. It said statements such as "the proposals to make 10% savings by 2013 do not go far enough" and "most households have had to cut expenditure by a higher percentage than the States", were matters of opinion or conjecture." (1)

And then it all vanished. No one stood for election under the "Jersey Small Society" banner, and it seems to have been more of a pressure group than anything else.

So who were the Jersey Small Society? Geoffrey Grime seems to have been the key spokesman when the group was formed in 2010. A Channel Television report notes that:

"A new pressure group in Jersey called the Small Society says the States need to do much more to cut public spending before even considering tax increases. Small Society Chairman Geoffrey Grime said: "If you look back over the last ten years, in year 2000 they spent about £300 million running the States. Last year they spent almost £600 million and in the 12 years up to last year they took on another 950 people in the public sector. Now in the recession that we've had over the last couple of years, there can't be any business in the island that hasn't been cutting back, but the States isn't. What we are not saying is that we should have less nurses, less teachers and policemen on the beat but what we are saying is that the layers of bureaucracy and administration have got to be cut out of the States expenditure." (2)

Geoffrey Grime was in fact a former States member, a Deputy for the Parish of St Mary, which was a fairly safe seat in that quasi-rotten borough. In November 2002, he was elected as a Deputy, and kept his seat unopposed until he retired from the States in December 2005. He also was appointed to the board of the Jersey Electricity Company in 2003 (as a Non-Executive Director), became Chairman in 2008 and holds many professional appointments as both director and trustee. [Ex-Deputies from St Mary seem to end up there - Derek Maltwood was also a non-executive director of the company.]

The Small Society also had a very small list of members. When they produced brochures which were placed in stores owned by Kingfisher (Checkers, Marks and Spencers) and took full page ads in the JEP headed "SAVE FIRST, TAX LAST. THIS IS THE SOLUTION", there was no indication of who they were.

"Small Society is a group of concerned members of the community who have joined together to discuss, debate and publish alternative solutions to a range of challenges facing Jersey."

"We are retailers, farmers, financiers, hospitality providers, construction suppliers, owners, directors, employees, employers and students. We are parents and children, spouses and partners and we are individuals. Most of all we are concerned about the small society we call Jersey." (3)

There was an article in Business Life in 2011, and Geoffrey Grime answered questions on behalf of its members, but there was again no indication of whom those members were.

But the more detailed brochure online did give a list of members which is still in the public domain:

Geoffrey Grime (Chairman), John Bisson, Robert Christensen, Ian Crosby - JATCO, Wendy Dorman, James Filleul - Chamber, John Henwood, Martin Holmes, Christopher Horn, Lawrence Huggler, Robert Jones - JHA, Kevin Keen - Chamber, Joanna Kinross, Robert Kirkby - Chamber, Jason Laity - IoD, Steve Le Feuvre - RJA & HS, Joe Moynihan - JBA, David Pirouet - Chamber, Ray Shead - Chamber

[In fairness, I should mention that this is a list of members supporting the group in 2010-2011, and members may well have changed their views on issues since that time]

As well as the list of "Organisations Represented at Small Society"

Chamber of Commerce (Chamber)
Institute of Directors (IoD)
Jersey Association of Trust Companies (JATCO)
Jersey Bankers Association (JBA)
Jersey Hospitality Association (JHA)
Royal Jersey Agricultural and Horticultural Society (RJA & HS)

That, of course, is terribly misleading. All it means is that some of the membership of those organisations overlapped with membership of "The Small Society", not that the organisations themselves supported the group! Peter Body was even more scathing of this publicity gimmick, when he wrote a piece dripping with irony:

"I'm sure that it wasn't just a case of a few committee members getting together over a pint in the pub - or more likely in this case, a whisky in the club - to decide to support this taxpayers' initiative. I'm sure all of the society's members were consulted before their name was attached to the JEP ad and the press releases."

It is notable that apart from Geoffrey Grime, none of them has actually been in the States, and have any experience of political
oversight of States departments; it is one thing to pontificate from the side-lines, quite another to actually face the realities and challenges of office.

In 2010, against Senator Ozouf's original proposal for £50 million of savings and £50 million of additional taxation, the Small Society group set out a method for saving the whole of the £100 million deficit.

In August 2010, Business Brief Editor Peter Body had some trenchant remarks to make about their proposals. He commented that:

"I thought - at last - here's a group of intelligent people who are really going to make a significant contribution to solving some of the island's intractable problems, and get away from this constant battle between spending and saving. My euphoria lasted about eight minutes. It didn't take long to conclude that the Small Society is actually just a front for taxpayers whose only solution to our problems is to cut spending. I should have realised from the list of members, which includes many of the usual suspects, that this isn't so much a Small Society as a Small Minded Society."  (5)

And as he noted, among other very solid arguments, that:

"It's the contention that the Island's government should be proportional to the size of its population that is truly laughable. It's indeed blindingly, blooming obvious that Jersey is not your average community of 90,000 souls. What small town of 90,000 in the UK has an international airport or even a small harbour, for that matter? What community of 90,000 has to pay for its own defence (or at least make a very small contribution)? What community of 90,000 needs three telecoms providers? What small community of 90,000 spends millions in overseas aid? What jurisdiction with a population of 90,000 has to make its living by winning business around the globe in the highly competitive and complex financial services industry?" (5)

He also took up cudgels again in November 2010, again highlighting the fact that we - as an Island economy - have to provide some services which cannot be cut back in the way that they can in the UK,  because economies of scale do not work:

"Let's take the most expensive department of the lot and the one where there's no argument about whether they are providing front line services. One of the biggest costs in Health and Social  Services is to provide specialist medical treatment in the Island so that patients don't have the trauma, distress and cost of getting on a plane (assuming they could) to have their treatment elsewhere. Procedures are therefore carried out in the Hospital, which you wouldn't normally expect in a community of 90,000 people. Some patients do still have to go away, because their condition is so uncommon that even a much larger hospital can't be expected to treat it. So the problem is not that the Hospital is too big. The problem is that it's too small. There are no savings to be had by amalgamating with another hospital. There's isn't one.

The Small Society said that Jersey should "Reduce the size of government to be proportional to the size of the population", but as Peter Body points out,  this sidesteps the real issue of how government works:

"The basic point is that any government - whatever its size - has to carry out certain functions for its citizens. You can cut the staff to the minimum, but you can't do away with the function, and that's why those who claim Jersey's problem is that the government has got too big are talking nonsense."(6)

The same is true of those who wonder how the Isle of Wight manages with one MP, and Jersey has an Assembly that appears disproportionably larger. The MP for the Isle of Wight does not have to head a Home Affairs, Planning, Education, Health and Social Services, Social Security, Transport and technical services - the functions of those kinds of Ministries can be provided from a subset of the whole number of MPs. The Isle of Wight doesn't need a Foreign Office, a Home Office, and a Treasury Department because they are taken by other MPs for the whole of the UK.

Ignoring, Mr Body's remarks, the Small Society decided to conduct an online survey in September 2010:

"An on-line survey conducted by the Small Society community group has revealed that 98% of respondents believe more savings need to be made by the States of Jersey. Of 295 individuals who completed the public survey, 289 agreed that more savings should be made in government spending before any tax increases are considered. Asked whether they could afford to pay more in taxes, 239, or 81%, said  'No'. (4)

At least presenting the results Geoffrey Grime did have the grace to say that "respondents to this survey were self-selecting and thus not necessarily a demographically accurate sample" although he still took it that "he outcome tends to underline a deep rooted public resistance to increased taxation and strong support for a reduction in States spending" Quite how a self-selective survey, with questions that screamed bias managed to prove anything is another matter. These were the questions:

1) Do you believe that more savings should be made in government spending before any tax increases are considered?
2) Can you currently afford to pay more taxes?

Results from those kinds of leading questions can almost be guessed in advance - how many tax payers are likely to say "No" to the first question? I am really surprised that having had a brochure packed with all kinds of statistics, they should resort to the kind of questions that would earn a fail in a statistics exam for good survey design. It is notable that no question was asked about one of the Society's proposals:

"Although the focus of the Small Society's mission is to reduce spending, where appropriate we will support more user pays initiatives. To illustrate, we believe the introduction of free prescriptions for all, regardless of ability to pay, was ill advised. Of  course, user pays charges and any increases need to be carefully thought through"

A leading question framed like the other questions would be: "Would you welcome the re-introduction of prescription charges to save the States expenditure?" And of course, the outcome would be obvious.

Events have overtaken their brochure which tells us charmingly that:

"Jersey has very little unemployment and it is important that those temporarily out of work are incentivised to find employment as quickly as possible."

Of course, events have also overtaken their predictions from 2010:

"Increases in payments should be carefully controlled by, for example, reducing the period in which job seekers can claim and tackling fraud. We believe savings of £10 million per year by 2013, a reduction of about 6%, can be achieved."

In December 2011, it was revealed that over a 9 month period since a "crackdown" began, almost £470,000 was recovered from benefit cheats, which presumably is a gross figure (before the cost of investigations is deducted). Even with recent initiatives to deter claimants who are not seriously seeking work, it is unlikely that any savings of £10 million per year will be achieved. What seems fine in theory, is in fact, just a conjecture, and one which has been falsified by events.

Fast-forward to the final gasp of the Small Society in March 2011, and banker and economist Dr. Cameron McPhail took a shot at their advertising for presenting opinion or conjecture as facts:

"Some time ago, I challenged the views and approach taken by Jersey's Small Society. As part of that process I submitted a complaint to the Advertising Standards Authority. After considering the views of both parties, the ASA has ruled in my favour. I paraphrase from their verdict:

"[9 out of 10 of the facts presented by the Small Society] were "matters of opinion or conjecture. We considered that to describe them as facts suggested they were capable of verification or had been proven. Because that was not the case we concluded that the ad was misleading. The ad breached CAP Code (Edition 12) rules 3.1, 3.3 and 3.6 (Misleading advertising) and 3.7 (Substantiation)."

"For my part I hope that the Small Society takes stock and opts for a less sectarian and a more professional and informed debate to take place on public spending. At the very least the nascent organisation may consider trying to get less than 90% of its facts wrong."

What was significant about that was that it was a critique made from within the business community, not from politicians, or from someone with a left-wing political axe to grind; instead it was from a man with some 30 years in the financial services industry based primarily in the UK, USA and Jersey, someone whom the Financial Times had described as "a big wheel" in Jersey. As a result, it probably had some significant impact on the direction any future campaigns would take.

At any event, by the October 2011 elections, the Small Society had shrunk to nothing, and fielded no candidates from its membership list, not even its Chairman Geoffrey Grime, or the equally vocal John Henwood, and no more brochures, pronouncements or advertisements appeared. None have appeared since, and the Small Society has surely been relegated to a quirky footnote in the history books.

I collect quirky footnotes, hence, when going through old brochures and political scraps of paper, I came across the one distributed at Supermarkets, and decided to review this strange pressure group whose disappearance was as sudden as its appearance, and which now is almost completely forgotten.


1 comment:

Sam Mézec said...

Thanks for posting this.

I do vaguely remember the Small Society being around at about the time David Cameron was being mocked for his "Big Society" idea in the UK. It seems his idea disappeared almost as quickly as the Small Society did.

I remember picking up one of their leaflets at the Checkers in Grand Vaux and just being astounded that the sort of ultra-conservative neoliberal economic outlook provided by this group was being put to people in a part of St Saviour that (certainly more than the residents of St Mary) would not benefit one jot from the savage cuts to public spending they were advocating.

Heads certainly in the clouds and evidently haven't read an economics book written after the 1920s.