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FOCUS: Express asks whether deputies should declare covid-19 funds paid to their businesses

FOCUS: Express asks whether deputies should declare covid-19 funds paid to their businesses

Monday 22 November 2021

FOCUS: Express asks whether deputies should declare covid-19 funds paid to their businesses

The States have spent tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers' money keeping businesses afloat or helping them to cover their costs during the covid-19 pandemic.

Some of these public funds will inevitably have been paid to businesses owned by deputies or in which deputies have a controlling or material interest.

Express asked three deputies - the leader of The Guernsey Party in the States, Mark Helyar; Sasha Kazantseva-Miller, who was elected under the banner of The Guernsey Partnership of Independents; and Carl Meerveld, the founder of the island's first political party in decades who ultimately was elected as an independent candidate in 2020 - whether they thought States' members should be required publicly to declare funds received by their businesses under covid-19 support packages.

The Rules of Procedure of the States of Deliberation and their Committees, which are binding on every member of the Assembly, state that prior to discussion in the Assembly or in committee deputies should declare any financial interests relevant to the matters being discussed.

Generally speaking, in committee meetings such declarations should be followed by the member taking no further part in discussion, not least because almost all committees meet in private all of the time. But in the States' Assembly a member declaring a financial interest is not required to leave the meeting, though some do.  

Furthermore, each deputy is required annually to submit a form on which they declare their financial and other interests. It includes declarations on directorships and offices held, property, company shareholdings, gifts, benefits and hospitality received.

These measures, which were introduced in Guernsey only relatively recently compared with many other jurisdictions, are meant to promote transparency and accountability and help avoid conflicts of interest which could diminish public confidence in the probity of the island's elected officials. 

However, the existing Rules of Procedure are not clear-cut where deputies' businesses have received financial assistance from the States under covid-19 support schemes.

Express can find no record of any deputy making such a declaration. And the Policy & Resources Committee, which has overseen the many tens of millions of pounds paid out in covid-19 schemes, has said it will not be publishing - and quite probably has not gathered - information about whether any member declared financial interests before making decisions about the creation or maintenance of such schemes.

So it is unclear whether the deputies who devised covid support packages declared any business interests which stood to benefit from that support before discussions or votes took place.

Since the start of the pandemic, more than £65 million of taxpayers' money has been paid as business support to help firms struggling to pay staff and losing turnover. The payroll co-funding scheme existed for most of 2020 and did not come to an end until September 2021.

Deputy Mark Helyar

Pictured: Deputy Mark Helyar did not believe that financial support related to covid-19 needed to be dealt with separately from existing rules about deputies' financial interests. 

Deputy Mark Helyar, Treasury lead for the Policy & Resources Committee, said the current arrangements are adequate and that there should be no requirement on deputies to declare covid-19 public funds received by business in which they have an interest. 

“I’m happy that decisions are made independently by each States' member under the current, relevant criteria,” said Deputy Helyar.

"I do not believe that a specific requirement regarding the declaration of covid-19 support is necessary, given that there is no requirement on businesses that received support to publicly declare it.

"States' procedures in relation to conflicts should always apply so that those who have a personal interest are not making decisions about themselves."

Express asked the Policy & Resources Committee whether any of the Committee's members declared conflicts of interest during discussions on covid-19 support schemes and left the room as required by the Rules of Procedure.

The Committee said: “Detailing whether any members recused themselves or why could potentially lead to businesses in receipt of support being identified, which runs contrary to the decision not to publish such details, which was strongly supported by the business community."

The Committee is referring to a decision not to publish details of which businesses claimed or received financial support from the States. The Committee initially wished to publish such details but changed its mind after concerns were raised by many business owners and others.

The Committee also stated: “It should be noted that while the policies around covid support were political matters, the process of administering the support, including receiving applications and considering their eligibility, was managed by Treasury officers.”

Deputy Carl Meerveld

Pictured: Deputy Carl Meerveld argued that the current Rules of Procedure and Declarations of Interest form do not need to be strengthened to require deputies to make public declarations of their businesses which received public funds under covid-19 support schemes.

Express asked the President of the States' Assembly & Constitution Committee, Deputy Carl Meerveld, whether there was room for public funds received during the pandemic to be declared by deputies on their annual declarations of interest form.

Deputy Meerveld, speaking personally and not on behalf of his Committee, said that he did not think this was necessary. 

"The support packages were offered to the whole community and, just as deputies should be entitled to be recipients of what the States have to offer in support, their businesses are entitled to covid support too," said Deputy Meerveld.

He argued that making it necessary for deputies to declare such financial support could publicly identify a business which had required public funds just because a deputy had what may be a minor interest in the business. 

"I don't think it would be appropriate," said Deputy Meerveld. 

Deputy Sasha Kazantseva-Miller

Pictured: Deputy Sasha Kazantseva-Miller is concerned that current arrangements - especially in relation to the annual declarations of interest form - may not provide for the highest standards of financial transparency. 

In her first year in the States, Deputy Sasha Kazantseva-Miller has spoken about the need for greater transparency in members' financial affairs. 

"The bigger question to me is that of the overall transparency about deputies' commercial interests," said Deputy Kazantseva-Miller.

"This is especially important when conflicts of interest may be engaged during policy debate or public investments. Rules around deputies' declarations of interest are supposed to enable such transparency. However, they can be avoided depending on how commercial interests are held or even how thoroughly information is filled out in the declarations of interest form.

"In a small community like ours, there is a higher chance for politicians to have a variety of commercial interests that are influenced by public policy. It is paramount that the States of Guernsey stand by an open and transparent process so that our community can have full trust in a healthy delineation between personal commercial gain and politics."

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