Deputies who have played key roles leading the island through covid-19 sharply disagreed yesterday as the States debated how to review their response to the pandemic.
Deputy Peter Ferbrache, the President of the Policy & Resources Committee and Chairman of the Civil Contingencies Authority since October 2020, said that an external independent review at an estimated cost of £250,000 would be "a complete waste of money and time".
His predecessor, Deputy Gavin St Pier, who held those roles for the first six months of the pandemic, favoured an external independent review "to have somebody else objectively assess what we can learn".
Deputy St Pier’s view was supported by his former Vice President at Policy & Resources, Deputy Lyndon Trott, who said that "complex issues like these require an independent set of eyes".
Deputy Heidi Soulsby, who was President of the Committee for Health & Social Care until October 2020 and has been Vice President of the Policy & Resources Committee since then, said that Deputy Trott had "got the wrong end of the stick" and that an internal review carried out by the States themselves at a cost of not more than £40,000 was "surely a more effective use of public money than saying we’ll have someone big and independent dealing with this and that will make it alright".
At the end of a debate lasting more than two hours, the States approved "a programme of debriefing and audit reviews" by 24 votes to 11 and the alternative proposal for an external independent review fell away without a vote.
Pictured: The States backed a series of internal reviews as opposed to an alternative proposal for an external independent review.
Deputy Ferbrache responded to criticism that the Policy & Resources Committee was "penny-pinching" by arguing against a more expensive external independent review.
"That is a vast sum of public money. To achieve what?" asked Deputy Ferbrache.
"The terms of reference are vast. A vast, vast review. That would soak up many resources. It’s not just the £250,000. It’s all the time of all the people that would have to give input in relation to that.
"This review would soak up massive amounts of civil servants’ time. Massive amounts of senior civil servants’ time. It would soak up the time of our Director of Public Health and her staff.
"To go through a painful and analytical review at a cost to the public purse of £250,000…that’s a vast, vast sum of money.
"The average person in Guernsey pays approximately £8,000 or £9,000 or perhaps £10,000 a year [in taxes and contributions]. Let’s say it’s £10,000. S0, 25 taxpayers’ complete contributions – when we’re already stretched to the limits – will be spent on having a review. A review that we don’t really need. A review that isn’t going to tell us anything because there is nothing to hide."
Pictured: Deputy Peter Ferbrache.
Deputy Ferbrache said his opposition to an external independent review had nothing to do with any lack of openness on his part.
"I have already said...I want to be as open as I'm allowed by law and I'd like to be released from any confidentiality obligations I've got under law if that assists any review," said Deputy Ferbrache.
"I don’t want anybody to think – as people will, you can hear the keyboard warriors now going tap, tap, tap: Ferbrache is saying this because he’s got something to hide – they can crawl back under their stone because clearly that is not the truth.
"Here we want some no doubt very learned erudite person…might be a good academic person…somebody like that to sit down, waste a lot of time, no doubt tell us we could do certain things better, no doubt tell us we’ve done certain things well. What is the point of that? What a complete waste of money and time.
"The overwhelming public comments I’ve had are don’t waste your time with that. We’re satisfied with what everybody did. Everybody did their best. I’m sure that mistakes were made but they were made in good faith. We would learn nothing from this review. We’ll just waste a lot of public money and officers' time and politicians' time and we’ll waste a lot of money paid for by the taxpayer."
Pictured: Deputy Gavin St Pier.
Deputy St Pier said that Deputy Ferbrache’s speech had persuaded him which way to vote, but in the opposite way than Deputy Ferbrache intended.
Deputy St Pier said: "Deputy Ferbrache said – and I absolutely recognise the scenarios in which he was operating because obviously I had the same experience – that we were making decisions on the hoof. That is absolutely right. We were making decisions on the hoof.
"And the point for me about this work is actually do we have the capacity to learn and do we have the willingness to learn about what we could do differently?
"We are not out of the woods yet and we don’t know whether covid is over and that also pushes me towards the [external independent review] because actually there may be lessons that we could learn that we would need to apply to a third or fourth phase of this pandemic if it arises.
"I think it is absolutely right that we should objectively examine what we could do differently. Recognising that so many of those decisions were on the hoof…alone is a good enough reason to have somebody else objectively assess what we can learn.
"My fear is that this States really does not have the willingness or the capacity to learn and that will drive the decision, but we shall see."
Pictured: Deputy Lyndon Trott.
Deputy Trott said that several years in various senior roles in the States allowed him to understand why the Policy & Resources Committee was proposing internal reviews rather than an external independent review. But he felt their recommendation was in error.
"It is complex issues like these which require an independent set of eyes,” said Deputy Trott.
"It isn’t just about the money. People lost their lives. I'm not suggesting for a moment that anything happened at policy-making level that contributed to that. In fact, I think we were an absolute exemplar.
"But for the community to believe the outcomes of this review, I believe very strongly and very passionately that it should be carried out by independent persons."
Pictured: Deputy Heidi Soulsby.
Deputy Soulsby felt that Deputy Trott was mischaracterising the Policy & Resources Committee’s recommendation. She said that what the Committee had in mind was a range of internal reviews into political and operational responses to covid-19 which would be then be available to the Scrutiny Management Committee to decide whether further work was needed.
"It is about doing something now…to coalesce a lot of independent reviews…together with a desktop review of the strategic response: how did the politicians act in this effectively is what we’re trying to say?" said Deputy Soulsby.
"That report – as is made very clear in the policy letter – will be provided to the Principal Committees and to the Scrutiny Management Committee and it is then for the Scrutiny Management Committee to decide whether it believes either it can do further review into various aspects which it thinks warrant more review or think…we should have an independent review."
Deputy Soulsby said that any such further review set up by the Scrutiny Management Committee could be more focused than a single external independent review into all aspects of the response to the pandemic.
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