Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Open letter on Business Plan:- What is Going on?

As the debate around the 2010 Business Plan (ABP) plumbs new depths of incompetence from the Council of Ministers, one has to ask whether the Jersey electorate can retain any measure of faith or confidence in its government. One thing is apparent – with two ministers already changing their minds on what to support – it is not the Council of Ministers’ Plan. Nor does it appear to be the Chief Minister’s Plan; it bears all the marks of being the work of the Treasury Minister, Senator Ozouf.

First we had an air of mystery and secrecy. In presenting the ABP to States members on Monday 20th July, the Chief Minister and Treasury Minister managed to bring the usual stock of well-spun platitudes, but failed to produce a copy of the Business Plan itself. Of course the media had seen their copies on the previous Friday, but mysterious last-minute changes meant that States members could not see it either in hard copy or electronic form.

Within an hour of the close of this meeting, the first group of States workers at Grands Vaux Family Centre were being told that their centre was to close, and their jobs were under threat. The following day, it was the turn of Patient Transport workers to get the same chilling news that their service was to be cut. States members did not finally see the Annex to the ABP, containing the details of how some cuts were to be delivered until Friday 24th, well after the final States meeting, thus preventing any detailed questions to ministers.

Even now, no-one knows exactly what cuts are to be delivered. The Health minister has abandoned many of the proposals she had previously sanctioned. The Education minister opposes many of the changes forced on him. States members and scrutiny officers are studying the figures and seeking clarity from ministers. The answers are few and far between. Who has the definitive list of where the axe will fall?

The Treasury Minister says that the 0.8% across the board savings he imposed must be achieved and if some cuts are aborted others must be found. On Sunday, he stated that some ministers have yet to finalise their priorities. When will the workers, the public and States members know? The Chief Minister has offered a meeting for the 3rd September to finally explain it all – just too late to finalise amendments to the plan. This is sheer incompetence.
Of course the spin machine rolls on. If we are to believe Senator Ozouf’s thatcherite dogma, cuts are “efficiency savings” and every business can bring in 0.8% savings each and every year. This of course has no basis in reality. He describes the funding of front line services (such as Williamson proposes) as “new money”. This is a lie; the money comes from cuts made elsewhere, and he knows it. The driving force is “value for money”, he says. Here speaks a man who knows the price of everything, but the value of nothing.

The nostrum he peddles is one beloved of right-wing politicians and economists everywhere: small government with low public service spending accompanied by low flat-rate taxes. He is aware that Jersey is bottom of any league table comparing spending on social protection. The quality of our public services is remarkable in the light of the low spend, but it is not out of the ordinary. Yet he continues to portray it as either grossly inefficient, or as a luxury “Rolls-Royce” oversupply. Neither is remotely true. Having set himself against my proposals for progressive tax measures, proper reform of Social Security supplementation, and evaluation of Land Value Tax, his only option is to substantially reduce public services and the cut standard of living of ordinary workers with a wage freeze.

The real driving force behind these policies is Senator Ozouf’s political ambition. He knows full well that increased spending by government is an appropriate and correct response to a recession. After all he has a Fiscal Stimulus war chest of over £100m to do so, with £44m already allocated to spend this year (again only he knows the details). Yet that pragmatic approach cannot be applied to public sector services and wages to the tune of £17m. “Why not?” one may legitimately ask. Could the answer be that the Fiscal Stimulus money is almost entirely within the control of the Treasury Minister himself, whereas the other funding is not?
Perhaps a little light is shed on his motives by his recent initiatives. A drive towards a centralisation of power and control is evident. At a time when the financial advisers employed by the States to invest a variety of funds have managed to produce a loss of around £250 m from stock market holdings, the Minister proposes to increase the level of risk by increasing investment of the Strategic Reserve and other funds in shares to 50%. Control of these funds would rest with the minister (subject to advice).

The minister’s ludicrous attempt to use standing orders to prevent scrutiny from examining the Banking Depositor Compensation Scheme (DCS) is also revealing. It showed his already well-known contempt for the scrutiny process. While standing for election in November Senator Ozouf informed voters that a DCS was not needed. Six months later not only was DCS vital, but Scrutiny was not to delay his plans. His subsequent involvement in organising a vote of no confidence in the Scrutiny Chairman concerned was shamefully anti-democratic.

A further glimpse into the ambitions of Senator Ozouf is revealed by his move to centralise control of departmental budgets. By making departmental finance officers report to him, the minister will at one fell swoop reduce the number of decision–makers from ten down to one. Incidentally, while all other departments suffer budget cuts, Treasury funds will increase by £600,000 to enable this control. If this proposal succeeds, we will have witnessed a bloodless coup and one–person government will have arrived.

What is going on? A fundamental and anti-democratic shift in the balance of power is under way, led by Senator Ozouf. It must be opposed.

Geoff Southern 07797 772 632
La Rochelle
St Helier

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