Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Looking After the Pennies

"Thousands of pounds of tax payers’ money is to be spent wining and dining States Members at a black tie dinner next week. Following years of cutbacks, tax rises and job losses across the Island, dozens of politicians and their partners - even those who are retiring or failed to get re-elected - will be treated to a night of fine food at Jersey’s luxury La Mare Wine Estate - all at the public’s expense." (Jersey Evening Post)

I have signed this petition, but this blog posting is a “disclaimer” as while I am in some sympathy with the petitioners, I nevertheless find a simple, black and white, good or bad, binary judgement to be too simplistic.

I would also note in passing that this event also took place in 2011, when there was also an economic downturn, and when GST was set to rise to 5%. The Jersey Evening Post took no stance then against this, no headline editorial, no thundering denunciation of any kind. Why has the mood changed? Is this a change in editor? Or is it that the JEP is moving its headlines more towards tabloid sensationalism?

Moreover, I do not object in principle to the idea of having some kind of celebratory meal to thank long term States members who are leaving the House. I do not think such an event should not happen.

I've signed it, but after much thought. I have no issue with giving long term States members a leaving "do", as after all that often happens at many companies, although usually it is a "go dutch" occasion except for the leaving member who have their meal paid for by the rest.

But quite a lot of companies usually pay for a Christmas "do" for their staff. The staff have to pay nothing (except extra drinks) for those; usually bottles of wine on the table are included.

Now such events do not usually include the spouse or partner of the members of staff, as that would bump up the cost significantly. Back in the 1980s, spouses and partners were normally invited, but increased costs in the private sector have largely curtailed these expenses. They have made economies, while still celebrating.

As Philip Ozouf has pointed out in his statement, some of those present are long serving, and receive no pension, and have served the States selflessly for many years. This is their “gold watch” meal. I think they deserve some kind of tribute to be paid to that.

But since we are into Tennerfest territory, a good sized Tennerfest meal for sitting States members, even at £20 (towards the top of the range) would only amount to £980, perhaps £1,500 inclusive of bottles of wine.

I could do them a disservice, and perhaps La Mare are doing a Tennerfest deal, but I doubt it, or we would have heard!

So it is not having a dinner, it is the level of expense - and including partners, and not going for a budget option, that concerns me more than anything. It is not a case that - as I would like to have seen - we will do this, but we must balance it with prudence because these are hard times.

Now as Sam Mezec has pointed out, in the grand scheme of things, £5,000 is not a huge sum of money. But he fails to see the significance of small things in the larger scheme, just as Marie Antoinette, in the apocryphal tale, failed to see that it wasn’t the cake that was important, it was the attitude that went with it.

It is, I believe, a shame that while still holding the event, no gesture had been made towards economy, That would have been a sensible “via media”, sending a signal that the States were both giving due respect to long serving States members, while at the same time showing the public that they too could make economies. It would send out the message “We share your world, and we have also cut our cloth to suit the times”.

It would be a symbolic gesture, but a gesture that would be worth making, none the less. As the maxim has it, “look after the pennies and the pounds will look after themselves.” I would have welcomed that kind of gesture.

And in that respect, Philip Ozouf has certainly taken the initiative in stating that he will be reimbursing the cost for himself and his partner to attend the function. He states that he does not expect any other people attending should feel the requirement to pay their way, which I think is quite right, but he has made that symbolic gesture, and it will be interesting to see if more members follow suit, or at least reimburse part of the cost.

Symbolic actions may not seem important to some, but I think that like Caesar crossing the Rubicon, their importance should not be underestimated. In times of economic stringency, the States should avoid anything which perhaps appears profligate, and might engender a politics of envy.


Deputy John Young who unsuccessfully stood for "promotion" to the Senatorial benches said that the meal should go ahead, but that politicians and former politicians should put their hands in their pockets, not dump the bill on the taxpayer.

"I do not think that the event should be cancelled, but I do think that Members should pay for themselves," he said.

"I'd like to go to say goodbye to the people that I've worked with, but I shall be paying for myself and my wife. If they won't take it, I'll make an equivalent donation to charity. It's up to Members what they want to do, but I will certainly be communicating with them and saying that."

1 comment:

James said...

The Jersey Evening Post took no stance then against this, no headline editorial, no thundering denunciation of any kind. Why has the mood changed?

Several things:
- online activism and petitioning has taken off in a big way in that time (cf 38 Degrees in the UK), meaning that ordinary people can (to a degree) bypass opinion management by the professional media.
- there is a new JEP Editor, and I think he recognises that because of the above, he has on occasions to run with the wolves.
- trust in the States has been shaken by the outcome of the Bailhache referendum.
- Jersey's economy has continued to decline; nothing that the States have done has arrested that.
- things can change profoundly and fast, even in Jersey: look at the situation with gay marriages.

That's plenty to be going on with...