It was Denis “eyebrows” Healey who once dismissed Geoffrey Howe’s parliamentary interrogation as “being savaged by a dead sheep.”
That is certainly the standard that Scrutiny Panels in
Jersey aspire to.
If anybody was ever in doubt about the ineffectiveness of the
Island’s scrutiny process they should have witnessed the dismal performance of the Corporate Services Panel confronted by Chief Minister Le Sueur, on Wednesday 23 March.
Of course, toothless Le Sueur would make Geoffrey Howe appear savage. Yet, the depleted Corporate Services Panellists, Senator Ferguson and Deputy Le Fondre were cringing before our leader and his almost mute bodyguard, Bill Ogley.
After one hour and ten minutes of utterly pointless ruminating and chit-chat, it was a relieved Le Fondre who summed up the proceedings with a fawning farewell to our flock leader - “You had a very easy ride this morning.”
Talk about understatement!
Unfortunately there were no other members of the general public present to observe the pathetic proceedings and the sole accredited press presence would no doubt have considered it all as an example of heated investigative political research.
Strangely, Corporate Services have just published a remarkably good “Review of the Fiscal Strategy Review” and it is a puzzle how this was achieved on the evidence of this showing. Presumably the published Review was written by the Scrutiny Officers.
In fact, Corporate Services has been at the centre of political musical chairs recently. Former member Deputy Vallois has just been made an assistant-minister and Deputy Le Fondre has recently joined having been sacked as an assistant-minister.
Previously, in an earlier episode of this absurd soap-like saga – Deputy Egre also left to become an assistant-minister and Constable Murphy departed to do whatever Constables do in Grouville.
Perhaps one of the out-going Panel members took the collective sheep’s brain?
With all this constant to and fro-ing it is little wonder that our “representatives” do not know which side of government they are batting for and there have been other notable shufflings too on other Panels. Evidently, the whole scrutiny system is falling apart through lack of active participation and coordinated planning. Not to mention competence.
Deputy De Sousa joined this Scrutiny Panel in February but it is unlikely that her absence on Wednesday made any difference or that her presence might have curtailed the deference.
On Thursday and Friday it was the turn of the Education & Home Affairs Scrutiny Panel, suddenly jolted awake by the actions of John Mills in publishing schools examination performance data.
Of course, this is a matter that the Panel should have investigated years ago but had always been easily fobbed-off by Minister (Deputy) Reed and his talkative C.O. Lundy.
Just a few weeks ago this Panel, “led” (if that is the correct word where sheep are concerned), by fence-focussed Deputy Le Herissier, was moaning that it was starved of subjects to scrutinise.
Then they protested at so many ongoing internal inquiries at the Education and Home Affairs departments. Besides which, the Panellists were visibly looking towards the October democratic sheep-trials and wanted to clear their desks of anything that was not potentially vote-catching.
That John Mills “an ex-career civil servant” – a mere pleb (more or less) here - should have achieved what Scrutiny had so miserably failed to do was such a shock that this instant “Review” was immediately set-up and even the regular venue was changed to the Pomme D’Or Hotel, to engage the public over two days of more comfortable, intensive, publicity attracting “Scrutiny.”
How ironic therefore, that the Scrutiny Panel (Deputies Le Herissier, Macon and Tadier) should find itself cast in the role of defender of the establishment for Thursday’s two hours confrontation with the usurper Mills on Thursday.
Of course John Mills – a previous occupier of CEO Mr. Ogley’s musical chair – was the real scrutinizer here. The Panel was reduced to a shadow role – the understudy – being shown how the process of “calling government to account” really should work.
Mr. Mills’ call for a total reform of
Jersey’s schooling system and the adoption of a “Comprehensive” structure that ensured equality for all without publicly funded fee-payers privileges came as a shock. Even Deputy Tadier blurted out - “But that is Socialism!” It was presumably one of his feeble jokes. However, it was obvious that Mills as the progressive was not what the Deputy had anticipated. It was also obvious that Mills the very senior and important person was not tolerating ill-prepared jibes from any inexperienced black tousle-haired lambs either. Much prejudice, and some testosterone, was apparent.
No wonder then, that Deputy Le Herissier had to constantly defend his panel as “only playing devil’s advocate” when attempting to pose the most inane questions or that he was finally reduced to asking why Mr Mills had not done something about it when he occupied the chief Jersey civil-servant’s chair?
Outside of his powers he explained.
Although a superficially relevant question, somebody should have reminded the Deputy that Mr Mills is no longer in government employ but that it is the Minister who is answerable now.
On Friday it was the turn of Minister Reed and his team of an Englishman, an Irishman and a Scotsman, to respond to the Scrutiny team. It was a promising cast for a few jokes but Deputy Tadier had been replaced by Deputy T. Pitman, who unfortunately did not have the benefit of having heard Mr Mills previously.
Now the panel was cast in the role of speaking Mr. Mills’ words because he was not allowed to speak for himself, being required to sit silently in the public gallery.
Such is the nature of the ineffective scrutiny process, where engaging with the public is always a sham imitation. It mattered not at all that John Mills was much better qualified or capable than this elected trio to pose his own questions directly to the Minister. The system demands public silence. Yet the muted John Mills still dominated the proceedings because the questions raised had been initiated by his actions, research and Report. Once again, the Scrutiny Panel was reduced to a mere surrogate shadow.
This comment is about the scrutiny process – not the matter under discussion.
However, this correspondent submitted the usual request on both days to be allowed to video-record the proceedings and this was refused by witnesses John Mills and the Minister.
This is especially ironic since both stressed the need for total transparency and publication of information as major parts of their arguments.
For the record, this correspondent did not ask Senator Ferguson to be allowed to video-record the Corporate Services hearing. She has adopted her own personal policy to refuse permission to all non-accredited media, even where the witnesses have agreed.
Such is the value of education - prejudice, discrimination, suppressions of facts and the stifling of discussion or free expression.
Shall John Mills be challenging the Deputy at St. Ouen this autumn?