St Helier, 8th July 2021
Welcome to the launch of the Jersey Liberal Conservatives, a political movement which aspires to become a political party to contest the 2022 elections.
As anyone who has trodden this path before will know, it is very difficult to find an appropriate name for a political movement or party. Many people have told Susana and me that they do not like the name. They don’t like Liberal or they don’t like Conservative. Well, I am sorry! I ask you to concentrate on the first word which is Jersey. And surely no one can take exception to that! What the name does do as a label is to describe accurately what is inside the tin. We are in some senses liberal-minded and in other senses conservative. What we are not, is anything to do with either the Liberals or Lib Dems or the Conservatives in the UK or indeed in any other country. We are Jersey Liberal Conservatives. And I would like to take just a little time to tell you what that means.
We believe in freedom – freedom of speech, freedom to criticize, free trade, freedom to conduct your life as you see fit. We are respectful of individual rights, provided of course that you are acting within the law. We acknowledge that the rule of law is the ultimate protection for all the rights which are enjoyed in a democratic society. We will assert and defend the independence of the judiciary. We support an international rules-based order and will not adopt populist policies designed to undermine the rule of law or democracy.
We think that governments should be generous in spirit, open-minded and lacking in prejudice. Our principles are also founded upon liberal notions of social responsibility – caring for the vulnerable and those who need support. Sometimes things need to change. Life is dynamic. Change is inherent in social progress. That is all part of the liberal focus of JLC.
In other senses we are conservative. We are conservationists. We believe that the planet is in urgent need of protection and that we should play our part in global efforts to prevent climate change which threatens the very existence of some communities, and threatens our way of life too. We do not subscribe to the view that because we are small it does not matter what we do. We also believe that our environment in Jersey is one of the most precious things we have. The beaches, the coastline, and the countryside are mostly so beautiful that it would be criminal to allow them to be damaged or destroyed.
We are also conservative in a fiscal and economic sense. That means that we do not approve of waste, nor of squandering our financial resources. Investment and stimulating the economy in appropriate ways are fine. But writing a blank cheque for a new hospital is not fine. Substantially increasing the hospital bureaucracy at great cost to create an NHS-type system of health care is not fine. We think that governments should be careful with taxpayers’ money, as most people are with their own money. We think that 20% is a fair rate of income tax; if you earn more, you pay more. If you earn £100,000 p.a. you pay £20,000 in tax. If you earn £50,000 you pay £10,000 in tax. There is an incentive to work harder and earn more. We are not in favour of taking away increasing amounts of people’s income. We think that GST provides an important source of revenue for the States and that the 5% rate is reasonable. Those on low incomes should be supported, as now, by a compensating payment. Global forces outside the Island are likely to determine our rate of corporation tax, and we will have to live with that. It may not be a bad thing.
If you want a soundbite, it would be that we are socially liberal and fiscally conservative. We think that these are essentially Jersey qualities which have enabled the Island to survive and prosper over the centuries and made Jersey the special place that it is. It is why we have such a vibrant and caring charitable or third sector and why we have (at present) such substantial financial reserves. We combine those qualities with an enthusiasm for creativity, enterprise, education and innovation.
Why are we forming the JLC? We do not think the current system is working well. We all share a deep sense of frustration with the political scene and the way in which decisions are made or not made, and the quality of some decisions. Some people look back with regret to the loss of the committee system, but ministerial government is here to stay. We must just make it work, and support a better future. Until very recently all States members were elected as independents. At election time the electorate is faced with a mass of manifestos from the candidates, often promising the earth. But no individual is actually able to promise anything because it all depends on whether he or she can get enough support for what is being promised. There is a disconnect between what electors are told at election time and what happens in government. Electors know that, and it causes a lot of apathy. What is the point of voting? Those who do vote can only do their best to choose candidates who seem intelligent and who have the right ideas. We think that the time of political parties has come. If a party can field enough candidates who, when elected on a manifesto which has commanded public support, can form a government, there will no longer be this disconnect between voters and Ministers. If the government fails, then at the next election you vote them out.
Why then is the JLC a political movement and not a party from the start? Many parties have started and fizzled out over the last 10 years or so. Although we are convinced that the remedy for many of Jersey’s ills is a party system, people may not agree. If there is insufficient public support for the JLC, and not enough competent people accepting of our values are willing to stand for election under the JLC banner, the movement will fade away. So we need your support. We need people to help in a practical sense, to understand the message and to gain supporters. We need brain power to develop our thinking and ultimately our manifesto, provided always that it is in accord with the JLC’s values and aims. They underpin the movement. We need financial support.
What then are the values? They are truth and transparency, accountability and responsibility, and fairness and tolerance, and of course they interrelate and overlap.
One would think that truth and transparency were obvious values, but I am afraid that at the moment they need to be restated. Ministers and officials should always be truthful but regrettably that is not always the case. The most egregious and blatant example is the reaction to questions about the former Chief Executive’s second job as a Non-executive Director at a salary of £50,000, whatever one may think about whether the second job was appropriate. A press release was issued for which the former Chief Executive accepted responsibility. It stated that both the Chief Minister and the Deputy Chief Minister had approved the appointment. That was not true. The Deputy Chief Minister had not only declined to approve the appointment but had expressed reservations about it. Why then was the statement made? It was made to fob off the growing media interest and to try to avoid a controversy. If ministers had approved, end of story. Perhaps the Deputy Chief Minister was expected to go along with it.
Lies are corrosive. They draw in others to the deceit. The problem is that if people can lie without shame, how can they be trusted? No one has ever apologised, nor indeed has anyone been held accountable for that blatant untruth. The JLC thinks that that is deplorable, and that we should not have to accept that lies, half-truths, and dissembling are an inevitable part of politics. Truth and transparency are key values.
In relation to the latter, Government must be more open. People cannot judge the effectiveness of their government unless they are told what the government is doing and planning. By way of example, I fear that the government has not been transparent about the hospital, the Westmount Road plans, the Jersey Care Model, and most importantly, the costs of these projects.
Transparency means not only that the public can understand what is going on, but that ministers can be held responsible for their errors and learn from them. Do we really know why a payment of £500,000 was made to the resigning Chief Executive? We are told that the Government was advised that he had a legal entitlement to it. That may be a convenient explanation but it is not the full answer. We know that he had accepted an NED without obtaining the written consent of the States Employment Board as required by his employment contract. If he had been told simply to resign that directorship, then he would have had to choose – either resign the directorship or resign from his post in Jersey. If he chose the latter, no question of compensation should have arisen. It would have been the Chief Executive’s voluntary choice. But instead, the SEB took the extraordinary decision to approve his taking up the directorship while at the same time telling him to resign it. Why on earth did they do that, and were they unanimous? We do not know, because the Government has refused to publish the minutes of the crucial SEB decision. The lack of transparency means that no one can be held accountable for what seems to have been a rather expensive mistake.
Another consequence of a lack of transparency is that conspiracy theories abound, and that is not healthy either. Last week’s refusal of the Health Department to put its performance report into the public domain for reasons which were not very compelling only feeds suspicions that something is being hidden.
The second set of values is Accountability and Responsibility. This may sound rather dry and technical, but these values lie at the root of what has gone wrong in Jersey in the last few years. I have seen a government organisation chart which records the changes that have been made and the current structure. At the centre of the chart is the Office of the Chief Executive – like the spider at the centre of the web. Radiating outwards are the different departments each headed by a Director General. Some have ministers attached to them – some do not. Some officials are accountable only to the Chief Executive. The general message from the chart is clear – authority lies with the Chief Executive; but he is not elected and is not accountable to the public. It may be an appropriate chart for an English local authority, but it is not for a small nation or country like Jersey. Every civil servant should be accountable, through the hierarchy of officials in the department, to a head of department who is in turn accountable politically to a Minister. And Ministers are of course accountable through the States Assembly to the public.
Accountability is the bedrock of democracy. If there is not proper accountability, Ministers and officials tend to become indifferent to public opinion, and are not as transparent as they should be. They do not share information because they know they can get away with it. We get fobbed off with expensive full-page adverts in the JEP about the new hospital which tell us nothing and are a mask for the failure of transparency. The public becomes increasingly frustrated. Ministers can hide behind decisions for which they are not, and do not feel responsible. I hope that this will not be interpreted as an attack on the civil service, because it is not. In general, we have an efficient and excellent civil service, but this is not how democracy should work.
The third set of values is Fairness and Tolerance. These values again seem to us to be self-evident. There is no place in Jersey for discrimination on any grounds. In politics there will always be disagreement, but the way in which it is expressed is important. There is no need to be rude, nor to make personal attacks upon individuals; disagreement should be about policy. Freedom of expression is very important and differing views should be listened to with tolerance.
What then are the Aims of the JLC? We have summarised them under 4 headings – Purpose, Inclusivity, Conservation, and Rule of law and Autonomy. Everyone needs a sense of purpose. Work in exchange for a fair wage is a fundamental value. Work brings self-respect, and prosperity. It is one of the reasons why we favour setting the minimum wage at the level of the Living Wage so that those working hard but on the lowest pay can enjoy the benefits of what most people take for granted. There may be problems in achieving that aim, but we would want to work with business to overcome those problems.
The value of work is not just economic – if you are in the right job, it should bring satisfaction and happiness. Government has a role to play in creating an economic environment in which work is generally enjoyable and rewarding in every sense. It also has a role to play in following prudent economic policies. I am generally optimistic about Jersey’s future. Young people and older experienced individuals can together create an economic environment in which innovation and enterprise can flourish and create new interesting jobs. Younger generations should not, however, be loaded with an unfair burden of debt.
I think that the JLC is not alone in being seriously concerned about the way in which this government is spending money as if there were no tomorrow. £90 million for new offices, £800 million to £1 billion for the hospital (and even that may be a conservative estimate), including £40 million for a new road to Overdale, £68 million for IT systems, millions on Fort Regent, and of course the unavoidable cost of the pandemic of £250 million or more. And these are just the commitments which have reached the public domain. Jersey appears to be building up a huge amount of debt which will in due course have to be repaid.
Although I have expressed confidence about the future, it would be disingenuous to pretend that Jersey does not face very substantial challenges. Brexit has not yet played out, as shown by the disastrous collapse of our relationship with our neighbours in France, nor has the pandemic, and our principal economic motor, the finance industry, may have to undergo major change because of international tax initiatives. Most importantly, although interest rates are at their lowest point in recorded history, and borrowing is cheap, it would be very foolish to assume that that will last for ever. Seldom have the virtues of prudence and caution been so plainly needed. They are not much in evidence at present.
Inclusivity is another aim of the movement. An inclusive community, at ease with itself, is one where the rights of all are respected without discrimination on grounds of nationality, race, gender, sexual orientation, or other protected characteristics. All that is of course enshrined in law, but discriminatory attitudes are insidious and need to be called out when they are found. Whatever their background or place of birth, all those who have made their home in Jersey and are committed to the Island’s well-being, are entitled to be identified as Jersey people. They are part of us. The JLC will try to engage with Jersey’s minority communities – Portuguese, Polish, Romanian and others – and make them feel that they are part of the whole.
A further aim is conservation and protection of the environment and I have already spoken a little about that. I would just add that we would want to take a slightly different approach. We think that the Minister for the Environment should have the environment and its protection as his sole responsibility. We would have the Planning Committee as the responsible body for dealing with planning applications in accordance with the law and the Island Plan.
The last aim in our Charter of Values and Aims is the Rule of Law, about which I have spoken, and Autonomy, which has existed in law for more than 800 years. Jersey is not part of the UK nor of France nor of any other country. It has its own distinct identity which sadly has been not much respected in recent years. The work done by a committee under the chairmanship of the Deputy of Grouville to analyse our national identity and to develop it is greatly to be encouraged. To acknowledge and to celebrate the differences, and to build upon the commonalities is the path to a cohesive and inclusive community.
We like to think that the JLC is a microcosm of that community. Just over half the founder members were born in Jersey; two were born in the UK, and one in Portugal. Some have lived here all their lives, some have lived here for many years, and one for only 3 years. We range in age from the young to the mature. We are however united in a commitment to our values and aims. We all have a passionate belief that Jersey is a wonderful place to live, and that we ought to be able to do better.
Our mission is to make life better for everyone and I thought I would finish by telling you a story of an old Jersey farmer who died many, many years ago leaving his estate of 17 Jersey cows to be divided amongst his three children. The eldest, a son, was to receive half, the second, a daughter, was to receive a third, and the youngest, a boy, was to get one ninth. The 3 children were immediately very worried as to how to give effect to their father’s wishes because you cannot, obviously, divide a Jersey cow in half. Eventually they went to see a wise man in the neighbouring parish and told him the problem. He thought for a long while, and eventually he smiled and said “I have the solution. I will give you one of my Jersey cows. There are now 18 cows for division. The eldest son will have 9 (one half), the daughter will have 6 (one third) and the youngest will have 2 (one ninth) which makes 17. There is one cow left over and you can give that back to me.” And that is what they did, and everyone was very happy and felt better about life. If you share our aspirations, please support us and support a better future.