Waiting for the sparks to fly
Tuesday 5th February 2013, 5:00PM GMT.
SOMETIMES reporting on the States is a turgid business.
One person in the public gallery as we left on Thursday after the FTP debate breathed its last asked, ‘do you have to sit through this all the time?’
I said it was not always like this – and indeed thankfully it isn’t.
The States can be full of drama and intrigue.
But when it fails, it fails badly.
During the FTP debate, some spoke about the need for better communication. Well, if this is what members are selling the public maybe they should think again.
The problem was the report itself.
Members were dead keen to have a debate on the FTP.
They wanted this Assembly to endorse the programme, but did it really need more than a day to go nowhere?
The programme remains intact with a few amendments which did not need a States decision to happen.
States watchers were left nodding off as the day dragged on and on.
There was no real decision to be made because it is, after all, the FTP or, well, there is no plan B.
The real fire will come when the States is faced with decisions to close primary schools or charge for certain health services, that kind of thing.
But because the report was silent on what is in store, the public is left to join the dots together themselves.
Members wasted precious oxygen repeating very similar points.
Yes, we know difficult decisions are needed – seriously, we knew that in 2009.
I spoke to a former colleague the other day and we reminisced about how the best debates are all about theatre and drama. The temperature rising and falling; different undercurrents rippling to the surface; personalities, in a good way, shining through; each speaker adding a new layer.
Aside from a virtuoso speech by Alderney representative Paul Arditti, and the early promise of a more-animated-than-normal chief minister Peter Harwood in opening proceedings, there was precious little on offer.
At one point Deputy Matt Fallaize – normally in the premier league of speech makers – sounded like a stuck record repeating the phrase ‘clear lines of accountability’ every other sentence. This was perhaps in the forlorn hope that if you say it often enough it must be true, like Dorothy repeating ‘there’s no place like home’.
He won the day with that amendment – no doubt clicking his ruby heels together as he spoke.
At least now the Policy Council and the States can move forward.
There has been too much foot dragging surrounding the FTP already, something hinted at a few times by the new Education Department, which was left playing catch-up by the old board.
The challenge is startling – another £20m. to be stripped from States spending in less than two years.
Having pushed to one side opportunities identified by the independent consultants, departments have worked up their own programmes, which at this stage are predicted to overshoot the savings target.
But – and there is always a but – these opportunities need to be turned into reality.
Remember what happened last time with muddled decision-making over primary school closures?
And remember, too, that in order to hit their savings targets for last year, there were indications that some departments have used one-off savings such as not recruiting.
It is akin to going back to the days of unspent balances to tide them over.
And there is interesting political manoeuvring between Treasury and Education, which no doubt impacts on Health and Social Services too.
Education, which has already lined itself up for a rough ride by submitting a list of initiatives it does not back, argues that it will not see the savings from decisions it makes until years down the line – such as grants or college funding.
It will therefore not help to hit the yearly savings target demanded by the FTP – and the department does not want to make rash decisions over short-term cuts.
It is an argument that somewhat undermines the States resolution that the end of the FTP is not the end of savings, but it is one that there appears to be some sympathy for.
The resolution to the dilemma may well be in the Budget, where Treasury significantly increased the Budget Reserve for 2013 to £11.3m. – up from £6.6m. the year before.
This money has been set aside not only for the pay awards and emergency expenditure but also in recognition that ‘there may be some pressures on departmental cash limits simply as a result of the timing of delivery of benefits through the Financial Transformation Programme’.
HSSD will be eyeing this up, too, not just for any timing issues over FTP savings but also to cover any increases in service demand.
Politically, this year is like no other in recent memory – not just for the challenges the FTP poses, but running alongside that is a growing revolt over pension reforms.
The fireworks will be back.
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