The lead in the meeting was taken by Chief Officer Mike King and his deputy Andrew Sugden, both of whom were well informed on policy and finance at the department. The seating arrangement was such that the Chief Officer sat in the centre with Deputy Baker to his side. Those more familiar with the style of Senator McClean, know how he tends to dominate matters and defers to civil servants only on issues of detail. Today, it was the Assistant Minister deferring to the civil servants, allowing them to take the lead and answer questions in a way that left him quietly on the sidelines.
Perhaps so that his presence was not entirely otiose, a few questions were directed specifically to the Assistant Minister by Deputy Luce. However, when on one occasion he sought to interject on a matter, the Chief Officer did not defer to his authority and continued a dialogue with Deputy Luce. Towards the end of the meeting, panel member Constable Pallet, slightly exasperated by the absence of any contribution by Deputy Baker, asked another direct question that allowed him the opportunity to deliver an acceptably fluent reply, making reference to his having been in the “hot seat” at EDD for ten months.
Most of the meeting was taken up with the minutiae of budgets and spending, however there were a couple of moments of contention when broader political issues arose. They were matters which it was acknowledged were essentially political, but were answered by the Chief Officer nevertheless. Deputy Baker did not object.
The new style Scrutiny is anything but contentious and tends to be deferential. Indeed Deputy Luce had been on BBC Radio Jersey this very morning extolling the virtues of being co-operative and “critical friends” to government. As a consequence the meeting was punctuated with remarks such as “I don’t imply any criticism…”, as the conversation sought to probe issues of concern. Exactly why certain retiring civil servants were being kept on as consultants was gently alluded to without causing offence to department or individuals concerned. How short exactly these short-term consultancy contracts might be was left somewhat open. Likewise, there was no criticism intended when discussion fell upon the existence of overseas offices representing Jersey finance in Abu Dhabi or the more than modest budget of Jersey Finance Limited.
The “ticklish question” of finance and its domination of the Jersey economy was referred to in positive fashion, its contribution to tax take and employment, both direct and indirect, warranted a disproportionate spend on marketing its interest, whilst tourism and agriculture came a struggling second. When it came to the issue of human rights in certain Middle East countries with whom the island did business, the chairman Deputy Luce, was quick to move rather than explore the finer moral issue. Engagement was surely the best way to effect change with regimes whose policies we might not seek to emulated domestically. Exactly where Deputy Baker’s war service had taken him was not explored as the Chief Officer had direct knowledge of the Middle East, having worked in the oil industry, and was more that capable of explaining the ethics of business in the region.
As I left the States Building and glanced through the widows, the BBC were filming an interview outside in the Royal Square about the Scrutiny meeting with – guess who – not the Assistant Minister, rather with the Chief Officer. Civil servants it seems are often better informed than their nominal political masters (no criticism implied).