Facing and defeating attempts to amend their budgets has long been a source of pride for Policy & Resources Committees.
After next week’s States’ debate on the 2022 Budget, the P&RC President, Deputy Peter Ferbrache, and his Treasury Lead, Deputy Mark Helyar, will be unable to boast of such an achievement. Or perhaps they have already recorded an even greater achievement with the deadline for budget amendments passing without even a single one being submitted.
This is highly unusual. In the modern era, it is unprecedented.
The number of Budget amendments submitted for debate reached a record 42 in 2018. The following year there were more than 20. Even last year, just weeks after the States were elected, the Budget faced around a dozen amendments.
There is a view, common among the States’ current leadership team, that the previous two Assemblies interfered more than they should have with proposals emanating from their major committees, mostly trying to make policies more liberal.
The years 2014, 2015, 2018 and 2019 did feature a flood of budget amendments, albeit many of which were defeated. But the other years in this period were in line with earlier States’ terms when Treasury Leads would expect their budgets to face perhaps around half a dozen – and some very substantial – amendments. And these were years in which detailed tax and spending proposals were not always restricted to budget debates in the way they have been thus far in this Assembly.
It is genuinely extraordinary that none of the 34 States’ members who do not sit on P&RC wanted to propose any alternatives to P&RC’s plans for how to generate and spend nearly £550million in 2022.
Deputy Helyar is wise enough to avoid claiming that the absence of amendments is an indication of other members’ unqualified confidence in P&RC. Paraphrasing, he puts it down to budget proposals so predictable and unremarkable that it would be hard to justify amending them.
Undoubtedly, members of all political stripes are holding their fire on taxation and spending until next summer when P&RC, having recently been forced to retreat after making a dog’s breakfast of trying to prepare the island for GST, hope to return to the Assembly with less clumsy and more acceptable long-term fiscal proposals.
Harsher critics wonder whether a certain type of member – challenging, energetic, smart, unwithered – is especially under-represented in this Assembly. Deputy Helyar’s predecessors may look back and curse their misfortune at having to present budgets to a less obliging audience.
Some of those predecessors and others speak of the “coalition factor”: a group of Deputies including the Guernsey Party, those who successfully campaigned at the 2020 general election out of a hired white van and a majority of P&RC who, between them and colleagues politically aligned to them, almost always provide P&RC and some other committees, for now at least, with a reliable majority of votes to get contentious propositions through the Assembly.
It seems probable that this is gradually discouraging other members from putting forward alternative ideas and submitting amendments which they know would require a lot of work only to face certain defeat.
Some will see this as a good thing and a sign of a more focused and united States. Others as unhealthily partisan and unlikely to lead to the most rounded or successful policy outcomes.
One thing is clear: for the first time in many years, the budget proposed by P&RC next week will face no substantial challenge, further confirming that this is an Assembly unlike any other.
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