Billet Blog: 28 February 2018

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Billet Blog: 28 February 2018

I’m sorry I haven’t been writing many of these recently. A series of winter colds have eaten into my time, so I’ve had to focus mainly on Committee and sub-Committee work. Despite the snow today, I’m hoping this is a turning point! Here’s a short blog on this week’s States Meeting, in any case. Over the next couple of days, it’ll be followed by a couple of longer pieces on secondary education and assisted dying – two significant and controversial, if very different, policy areas, where I want to time to explain the decisions I’ve made and the positions I’ll be taking. I hope they will contribute to some interesting and worthwhile conversations …

Billets d’Etat VIII and IX – 28 February 2018 (read them online here)

Statements and Questions

A recent update to the States’ website means you’ll be able to find out which politicians are giving statements at each meeting, and what questions are being asked about different policy areas. This time around, there will be statements from the President of Policy & Resources, including an update on the year-end financial position; an update from the States of Alderney; and an update from me, on Guernsey’s Fair Trade status.

There will be questions about how new medicines are approved, about the age limit for funding and degrees, and about Condor, TV licences, and the crematorium.

Elections and Appointments

We will be electing a new President of the States’ Assembly and Constitution Committee, usually known as SACC. SACC is responsible for the rules that govern how the States and Committees operate. It also has a more general responsibility to support effective government, and is leading on the Island-Wide Voting referendum, which will take place later this year, on 10 October 2018. Deputy Matt Fallaize, who was President, is stepping down to concentrate on his leadership of the Committee for Education, Sport & Culture.

A group of seven Deputies have submitted a Requete (that’s a proposal to the States which is not led by a Committee) suggesting that the SACC President’s pay should be cut to the level of an ordinary member of the States. That will probably be debated in April, soon after the new President has been appointed. I should say now that I won’t be voting for it, because I agree with those who say that it’s better for each States to set the pay structure for its successors, not for itself – it avoids any accusations of self-interest, and any personality politics.

We will also be electing a new member of the Scrutiny Management Committee, to replace Deputy Peter Roffey, who resigned when he joined the Committee for Education, Sport and Culture. The role of the Scrutiny Management Committee is to hold other government Committees to account for their performance, in respect of policy-making and management of public resources.

Finally, we will be re-electing two professional members to the Planning Panel – Mrs Linda Wride and Mr Jonathan King. Both will be appointed for six years. The Planning Panel exists to hear appeals against decisions of the Development and Planning Authority, and more information about its constitution and how to make an appeal can be found at gov.gg/planningpanel. As professional members, Mrs Wride and Mr King bring planning-related expertise to the Panel, which also has a number of lay members who do not have a background in planning decisions. Their summary CVs are attached to the policy letter.

Legislation

There is one statutory instrument laid before the States – The Road Traffic (Compulsory Third Party Insurance) (Recovery of Expenses) (Guernsey) Regulations, 2017. These regulations enable the States to recover certain hospital-related costs from a person’s insurance following a road traffic accident.

The States will be asked to approve The Armed Forces (Offences and Jurisdiction) (Bailiwick of Guernsey) Law, 2018. The law makes sure that the provisions of the UK’s Armed Forces Act (2006) and Reserve Forces Acts (1980 and 1996) can be applied in Guernsey on the same basis as in the UK, to people who are in, or have previously been in, the UK armed forces. As a committed pacifist, I won’t be voting for this law, but it’ll be a protest vote – in reality, Guernsey has no say in defence policy, which the UK is responsible for on our behalf, and we have little choice but to implement their laws in this area.

The States will also be asked to approve the Administrative Decisions (Review) (Guernsey) (Amendment) Law, 2018. Administrative review is a process which allows people who are unhappy with decisions made by public sector bodies, and who have used up all other avenues of complaint, to raise their concerns and have them investigated. This law makes sure that the process is more at arms-length from the States than it has been in the past. For example, it creates a new Complaints Panel which will assess complaints and decide whether they fit the criteria for administrative review – in the past, this decision would have been made by the Chief Executive of the States (the most senior civil servant). It ensures that States Members and other public officials do not hold decision-making roles on the Complaints Panel or the Administrative Review Board itself.

Administrative review and judicial review sit uncomfortably side by side – judicial review is based on a similar principle, but the review is carried out by the courts, rather than by a States-appointed board. The amendments to the Administrative Decisions Review law are welcome, and make the process demonstrably fairer and more independent. Administrative review may be a cheaper and less daunting access to justice for some than its judicial counterpart, and we should bear that in mind, but I think we do still need to ask ourselves if it has a long-term future at all.

Propositions and Policy Letters

There are only two items of business here:

1 – The Implementation of Income Support and Transitional Provisions (link) Responsible Committee: Employment and Social Security

In March 2016, the last States agreed proposals to reform the welfare benefits system, which were intended to make it fairer. These proposals (known as SWBIC, for the Social Welfare Benefits Investigation Committee – the special Committee of the States which researched and proposed them) were the third attempt to reform the welfare system, a process which had begun in 2011.

One of the main aims was to create a single welfare system, rather than having different rules for people who live in the private sector and people who live in social housing, in terms of the level of financial assistance each person is able to receive. SWBIC tried to calculate the minimum amount that a household needs to survive from week to week, without falling below an acceptable standard of living – as a result, the long-term rates of benefit (paid to people who’ve consistently needed some financial support for at least six months) will be higher than they have been in the past, although they’re still pretty limited, when you think about how much it costs to live in Guernsey or Alderney. The short-term rates – paid for the first six months a person or family needs financial assistance – are lower, to counter-balance this, on the assumption that people can make things stretch for a while, if they need to.

The amount a household needs to live on varies considerably depending on the size of the household – every child adds an extra cost. Guernsey’s benefit system has always had an upper limit, meaning that no family receiving benefit (even if their benefit is only, say, a £50 top-up each week to make up for a low wage) can have income – from all sources, including their own earnings – above £650 or so a week. If you calculate a family’s need from the bottom up – adding up the cost of rent, then the cost of food, clothes and so on for each person in the household – you find that this upper limit starts to pinch for families with as few as two or three children.

I mention the upper limit (or ‘benefit limitation’) because it’s one of the ugliest features of our benefits system, and I have always opposed it. But the States has consistently voted to keep it, and it will be a feature of Income Support just as it has been a feature of Supplementary Benefit. There is no doubt in my mind that Income Support is a better, fairer and more financially adequate system than anything that’s come before it, and the States needs to put it in place now – but I can’t pretend that it’s perfect, either. But, for those who want to improve social welfare provisions, it’s a better base to work from – and for those who do not, it’s a fairer and more justifiable system than any we have had in the past.

This policy letter sets out the rates of benefit that will be used when the new scheme starts in July 2018 – these are the same as the States agreed in 2016, just increased to reflect inflation. It also sets out the transition plan for the next three years. This aims to ensure that anyone who is due to lose out financially as a result of these changes will feel the impact only gradually – to try and ensure the change is manageable for everyone.

The debate on this policy letter will almost inevitably unearth the usual range of stereotypes and strong feelings about people who need welfare support, so, in closing, it’s worth revisiting a few facts about who these people really are. A lot of them are pensioners, whose pensions alone can’t keep them above the breadline. A lot more are people who are already in work, but can’t quite earn enough to keep their family afloat – the recent “In-Work Poverty” Review by the Scrutiny Management Committee drew attention to this particularly troubling problem. There are also many who can’t work (or can’t work enough to earn a decent income) because of sustained ill-health or disability. A lot of people in receipt of benefit are getting some financial assistance on top of their wages or pension, rather than benefits being their sole source of income. Many are making ends meet by building up troubling amounts of debt – an issue we’ve only scratched the surface of, but which needs much more attention. Fundamentally, importantly for this debate, the caricature of the “scrounger” bears very little relation to the reality of people who need financial support from the States.

The change to Income Support is a significant and complicated change that affects a lot of services and a large number of people, some of whom are potentially quite vulnerable, so we are acutely conscious of the need to make sure that this transition is a success. If the States approves the proposals in this policy letter, and provided that all the necessary practical steps have been taken by then, the Committee for Employment and Social Security intends to launch the new scheme on 6 July 2018. In the meanwhile, we will be doing our best to make sure that everyone directly affected by the change understands what it means for them and is able to get the support they need.

2 – Liquor Licensing: Permitted Hours – Category G Licences (link) Responsible Committee: Home Affairs

The States recently agreed to amend liquor licensing laws to extend the hours when alcohol can be served on Christmas Day and Good Friday. One category of licenses (G – passenger vessels) was left out. No one was directly affected by the omission, as apparently there are no category G licenses in place at the moment. However, this short policy letter corrects the oversight, extending category G licenses to cover the period from 11am to 00.45 on Christmas Day and 12 noon to 00.45 on Good Friday.

Appendix Reports

The record of States Members’ attendance at Committee and States Meetings over the past six months is published as an appendix report for information, as it is every six months.

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