Opinion by Gavin St Pier
TWO words have already produced multiple hours of media coverage and column inches written in Jersey in recent months: Charlie Parker.
As an elected Guernsey politician – albeit one very far from any decision making these days – when the editor invited me to step in and write this column for a few months, I responded that I felt it would be (diplomatically) best for me to avoid commenting on Jersey political issues of the day.
So I don’t intend to add to those column inches on that topic directly, suffice only to say that when the story first broke that Mr Parker had taken an external role as a non-executive director, it seemed blindingly obvious that the story would not end well.
Not particularly because of what the chief executive and Chief Minister did or did not say to each other or may or may not have done, but simply because public expectations of their senior public servants grate uncomfortably with the rights of those same individuals as employees – not just in Jersey but everywhere.
In short, the public have double standards. If they or family members are employees, they want to benefit from the rights set out in their employment contracts and such employee protection legislation as may exist. They don’t, for example, expect to get up on Monday morning and get fired without notice or bullied out of their jobs by Friday – and if they are, they have a reasonable expectation that their contract and the law will help protect and compensate them from such tom foolery by their employers.
Obviously, they want those protections also to apply to the nurses who look after them in hospital, the teachers who teach their children in school and the police officers who help keep the community safe. But when it comes to higher profile individuals, particularly senior pen-pusher civil servants, they look askance when those same protections result in six figure settlements. The common sense of everyone having equality before the law suddenly doesn’t feel like common sense anymore.
Similarly, double standards apply to the use of so-called NDAs or ‘non-disclosure agreements’. These are routinely used in the private sector to confidentially wrap-up matters between an individual and their soon-to-be-former employer – ideally and often (but not always) well serving and protecting the interests of both parties. Yet their use in the public sector is routinely criticised and frowned upon as an ‘afront to transparency’, often by the same people who would be horrified if they or their business could not benefit from the same level of confidentiality from NDAs in their own affairs.
The only way that governments can avoid expensive settlements and non-disclosure agreements when they part with staff is exactly the same way other employers can avoid them – by recruiting the right people in the first place, by following the terms of employment and by rigidly following procedure and good practice when things start getting wobbly with individual employees.
As in the private sector, this is easier said than done at the best of times but in the public sector, you have the added dimension of political and public pressure playing out, the latter often in real time through the media.
Patterns can develop. A new politician or government is elected. They don’t get on with senior adviser X; or X becomes a convenient scapegoat whose replacement becomes a substitute for more meaningful action or policy decisions. The call goes out: ‘we need someone new; we need a hatchet man’. (And, yes, the presumption, conscious or unconscious, from those making such calls often still is that this – whatever ‘this’ is – it’s not woman’s work.) ‘We need someone external, who has no baggage,’ will be the clarion call if X arose from within. ‘We need someone internal, who understands the culture and organisation,’ will be the demand if X was appointed from outside.
So Y will be appointed with a flurry of enthusiasm for change and optimism that this time it will different. But Y will have witnessed what happened to X and they (and their legal advisers) will ensure that their contract does give them adequate protection and compensation for when the wheel turns again and they find it is their turn to be replaced by a shiny new Z.
You can rest easy that there is still one group for whom normal employee standards and protections do not apply: politicians.
They are routinely dumped by their voters in elections, shuffled out by their leader or dumped by their colleagues (as Arlene Foster, the outgoing First Minister of Northern Ireland has recently found to her cost).
Colleagues in the UK government and Westminster can benefit from some fixed and formulaic exit compensation packages when such events befall them, but this is not a feature of Channel Islands’ political systems.
While this will inevitably from time-to-time cause financial stress for some individuals, I am certainly not arguing that there should be any such provision. We go into politics knowing the rules and the risks that accompany elected office. I raise the point for two reasons: to inform those who might imagine it is otherwise; and because I think it helps explain why the public do have different expectations when it comes to senior public servants.
For many may literally see elected and unelected officials together and view them as all being the same – after all, it’s all just ‘government’ isn’t it? But they are comparing apples with oranges.
They don’t see senior public servants as being like themselves with jobs, careers, families and employment rights but compare them to elected politicians, whom they expect to be sacked at will when things go wrong.
And that’s why when the next Charlie Parker happens, there will once again be hours of media coverage and column inches written.
nGavin St Pier is a Guernsey politician. He previously served as the President of the island’s Policy and Resources Committee.