Wednesday, 5 September 2012

Leading from the rear – Deputy James Baker and EDD in the land of Scrutiny

Insiders to the States know well how disillusioned District No1’s Deputy James Baker has become with life as a politician. There was no real humiliation therefore when he spoke for only 2 minutes out of 75 at a Scrutiny meeting he was supposed to be heading up in the absence of Economic Development Minister Alan MacClean. He did his best to contribute more it must be said, but neither civil servants nor Scrutiny Panel chairman Deputy Steve Luce, really had much expectation that the answers to questions would be coming from his mouth. Deputy Baker appeared in his role as Assistant Minister and for the first time was leading a team of four civil servants at a scheduled Scrutiny panel on the Medium Term Financial Plan ("MTFP" as insiders know the three year financial plan).

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).


  1. I enjoyed reading that. You write well. Thank you.

  2. If you enjoyed that writing - well now see the film on
    and wonder whatever happened to Steve Pallet - and the scrutiny process in general.
    Engaging with the public? You must be joking - see you in the Royal Square on Friday 28 September and bring your banner for democratic change...the real dialogue is OUTSIDE of the States building.

  3. Civil servants it seems are often better informed than their nominal political masters.

    From experience elsewhere, civil servants are always better informed than their nominal political masters. In a working democracy that doesn't matter, because it is the right of the elected politician to set policy, and the responsibility of the civil servants to use their superior knowledge to make it work.

    But if people will elect a bunch of no-hopers to the states, you can't expect any better.

  4. One would hope that capable States Members would be able to master their subject and set the broad principles of policy, every wary that civil servants are invariably better informed and make policy in default of control.

    The judgment of the electorate has to be questioned when they cry out for capable individuals to stand yet elect others based on the most absurd criteria including the ability to grow prize gladioli.

    As you remark, no-hopers regularly get elected and become part of the government.

  5. Or being the son of a person who grew prize gladioli...