Thursday, 5 November 2015

The Council of Sheep

Former Senator Ben Shenton’s interview with the Jersey Care Inquiry is instructive for the sidelong glances at how the upper levels of the Civil service work, and the dysfunctional nature of the Council of Ministers.

It is worth reproducing here because it many ways it complements and reinforces Tracey Vallois’ critique of the Council of Ministers. It is both a comment on the past, and how very little has changed in the present.

What Ben paints a picture of is a Council of Ministers with an “inner circle” who make most of the main decisions, especially with regard to finances, and the pliable Ministers who accede to that. It is notable that, for instance, Francis Le Gresley fought his corner, and also came up with an alternative to scrapping or restricting Christmas Bonuses for pensioners. Susie Pinel just went along with what the inner circle have wanted all along.

Assistant Ministers are effectively gagged. However, it has been good to see that not all of them have voted against all the amendments brought to the Medium Term Plan, which is why a few managed to get passed. As Tracey Vallois has noted, the public is not stupid, and Assistant Ministers who have towed the party line throughout against what they promised in their manifesto are fast losing popularity.

The Medium Term Financial plan also comes in for criticism as being full of sound bites but having “no meat on the bone”, again a justified criticism of a Council of Ministers who are bringing in a health tax, but can’t give any details, and a sewage tax, but can’t give any details. That lack of substance has also been noted by Tracey Vallois.

The sheep, however, vote the way the shepherd tells them too, and would no doubt cheerfully follow him over the precipice, so the Medium Term Financial Plan, although better named a Medium Term Financial Sketchbook, was largely passed intact, with all the lack of detail therein.

The text is that from the inquiry, the headings are my own.

The Council of Sheep

Q: Paragraph 10, please, Mr Shenton, of your statement. You say that at the time of your appointment you were seen as independent by Stuart Syvret and not, to quote, "in the pocket" of any other politicians. And then again at paragraph 11 you say that once elected, ministers, to paraphrase, tend to turn into sheep.

Given that there are no parties, no party manifestos or whipping system in Jersey, as the Inquiry understands it, what should the Inquiry understand as being in the pocket of other politicians; what do you mean by that phrase?

A I think Jersey has quite a unique system of government, where on the face of it you are elected as an independent, but sometimes your progress through the political ranks and where you get to in politics very much depends on who you rub shoulders with, and if you want to move on within establishment circles, I mentioned I hate the name, perhaps getting on with the right people I think it is the same in some areas of business, may do your cause no harm at all.

Q. And who is it who leads the sheep?

A. In my experience it tends to be the group of politicians that have established themselves some power.

Q. This is 2007/2008. We know for want of a better word that that was a period of instability, certainly insofar as of Health & Social Services were concerned and the changing ministry there. Do you think that that view of political management is different in 2015?

A. No, I think all we have done is we have formalised it through collective responsibility in 2015.

Poor Budget Planning

A: No one has ever sat down and said how much do we need to provide university care, you know, university funding for our children, what is the budget. And no one did that with Social Services either. The budget was based on previous budgets and 2% here, 3% here. No one actually sat down and said if you wanted to run -- you know, what sort of social services department do you want to run, how much would you need to run that. That has never been done.

Fobbing off criticism by reports

A: You could probably fill this room with reports that have been commissioned by States and not acted upon. It is a political process normally to keep something at bay or to just keep complainants happy.

The Culture of Sound bites

Q: In the absence of a party manifesto, as we have spoken about, how is policy formulated and developed?

A. It isn't. What happens is there may be a few sound bites, on education, health, something like that, but there is never any real meat to the bone. For instance, the States have just launched their medium-term financial plan. The elephant room is they are talking about building a new hospital, but they haven't put it in the medium-term financial plan. So the policy tends to just carry on. It sort of just carries on from what it was.

Ministerial Government: No Checks and Balances

Q: You go on to say that ministerial government was set up without any proper checks and balances and that you therefore decided your own remit and made your own decisions. What sort of checks and balances do you think would have worked and may work in the future?

A. I think what they need to do, or the government needs to do is to have a strategic plan that is not a woolly mama and apple pie document, but is actually a detailed document as to what they will achieve and put timeframes in, as to when they will achieve it. So that people can see whether the government is actually performing to their expectations.

Lack of Strategic Planning

Q: Paragraph 29, something you have touched on, the absence of any strategic planning to funding. Even if things were properly costed, would it have made any difference given what you describe the Jersey way to obtaining funding?

A. It is all very well to cost something, but then if you have a situation where that goes forward to how you prioritise the budget, then the manner in which you do the prioritisation becomes very, very important. At the moment there is no scientific approach to prioritisation. It tends to be the opinion of the department, led by the Chief Officer of that department, as opposed to any real in-depth analysis, and that tends to be based on where they are at the moment, i.e. what the department looks like at that time, and how that department can carry on being run using the resources they currently have

Behind the Scenes with Sir Humphrey

Q: At paragraph 73 you suggest that your own department had lost confidence in you, I think is how I summarise what you say there. Why do you think that had happened?

A. I'm not sure whether they had lost confidence in me. I don't think they particularly enjoyed working with me. I think that is probably a thing -- all of a sudden they started getting the meetings with them minuted, they started getting set deadlines to implement things, they were starting to be chased as to why things weren't done. It was quite a cultural change for them.

Q: You said that you felt that perhaps you hadn't had as much support in coming in to be a minister from the Civil Service because they perhaps shared the Council of Ministers' view about who they wanted as --

A. Yes.

Q: Do you mean that the civil servants had a view about who their preferred minister was?

A. Yes, this they do, yes.

Q: Why do you think their preference would have been for someone else other than you?

A. I think they like their minister to be very pliable

The Inner Circle

Q: Back in 2007/2008, who were the right people?

A. Well, I mean, the Council of Ministers was very much Frank Walker, Phillip Ozouf, Alan Maclean, 17 Terry Le Sueur; they were the sort of core of the Council of Ministers.

Q: And what about now? I mean, who are the right people now?

A. It is Ian Gorst, Philip Ozouf, Alan Maclean. So it all just evolves. The names change and it just evolves along.

Q: And have you any thoughts on how you break that cycle of all the power being held by a very small group of people?

A. You would need to get someone strongly independent to sort of break the mould and then that way you could do it. I'm not quite sure how you would get there, because to get to the position they would need the support of the majority of the Chamber. So it would be quite difficult. It is possible, but it would be quite difficult to achieve, I think.

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