Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Don't Compare the Meerkat

The last time austerity took hold in the UK was in the years following the end of the Second World War. During much of this period, Sir Stafford Cripps was the Labour Chancellor. A man of disciplined personal appetites (he became known as Sir Stifford Crapps), he found himself with little choice but to impose a system of rationing the essentials of everyday life onto an entire population.

This was in an era, of course, when “We’re all in it together” actually meant something. And a time when making “tough decisions and hard choices” impacted the whole population and not just unfortunate sections of it.

Perhaps unkindly, Sir Winston Churchill once remarked of Cripps that “his chest is cage in which two squirrels are at war – his conscience and his career”. In Guernsey, as elsewhere, the cage of contemporary political debate also contains two battling creatures engaged in mortal combat; namely, the “leave it to the Market” Meerkat and the “Government can solve everything” Gopher.

The latest skirmish over territory is taking place at Beau Sejour i.e. whether its operation should be carried out by the private or the public sector. This perfectly legitimate discussion forms part of a wider debate about whether, as a general principle, Guernsey’s Government should reduce in size.

For some time the “Leave it to the Market” Meerkat has attracted the best PR -  to the extent that almost everybody’s default setting is that the Gophers of Government should be culled.  So, for the sake of balance, below is a list of reasons why, in this matter, one should be wary of a reduced role for the State.

  • Outsourcing of public goods/services to the private sector has a mixed record to say the least. Public services by their nature are often loss-making and so Government has to sell/lease public assets at a large discounted market rate and then hope that the private sector will be more effective. This is a gamble. For example, are we sure that the sale of the old Guernsey Telecoms has, over time, represented value for money in terms of original sale price and current service levels?

  • The relationship between the citizens and the State needs to be carefully nurtured.  If the role of Government is reduced to tax-collector and Law/Regulation enforcer and isn’t seen to provide any of the nice things such as leisure facilities and an adequate welfare net for those that need it, then people will perhaps wonder why they should be paying tax at all.

  • There is also a worrying and divisive trend in Guernsey (as if there weren’t enough of those already) which is often verbalised as “I haven’t  got a public sector pension, so why should anybody else?”. I don’t possess a Civil Service pension but I’m not unhappy that others do.  After all, Guernsey’s Civil Service isn’t some sort of Ancien Régime administrative elite. Everyone who is appropriately qualified has an equal chance to join the Civil Service and agree or not to its terms and conditions. This doesn’t seem to me a particularly valid reason for outsourcing.

  • Indeed the economic benefits of outsourcing are questionable. In this case, any new operator would seek to increase efficiency by, inter alia, driving down these pension costs which will mean yet more islanders unable to provide an income for themselves in their old age. Further, the profits, if any, from providing this service will probably be untaxed and possibly fall into the hands of relatively few shareholders. As a community, is this outcome either desirable or necessary?

On the other hand, there is no excuse for poor management of public facilities.  It is part of the rôle of elected and paid politicians together with senior civil service management to eradicate such inefficiencies and bad practice.  They should not be seeking to offload their responsibilities to the private sector to the detriment of the community as a whole.

My advice is “Don’t compare the Meerkat to what the Gopher can and should provide”.

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