Sunday, 28 September 2008

Suddenly I See!

This time last year, I must confess, I viewed the enthusiasm for constitutional reform in Jersey, that most of my more political friends had, with detachment, and maybe even a little disdain.
It seemed to me that all the fine and fancy posturing about separation of powers, and checks and balances, that the world's major democracies boasted, was not really relevant to our cosy little island. Here we had a neat and efficient method, whereby we could rely on the “great and good” to sort things out between them, and, while it might have been preferable, if more of the negotiations held on the links or at the lodge had been conducted across the floor of the States Chamber, it did not really make any practical difference to how most things turned out. In a small place, all the most important people can be expected to know each other, and so long as their dealing are fair and not corrupt, it is of no consequence if they know who to ask to do what, without advertising. The occasional bit of dodgy dealing used to come to light, and get handled rather poorly, but on the whole, it used to appear that the worst rumours always were only that; rumours.
Early this year, however, a catering sized can of worms was opened. The tales of the institutionalised abuse at the Haut de la Garenne orphanage were abhorrent, but, sadly, fairly commonplace. All over the world, and all through history, orphanages have provided opportunities for the cruel to vent their darkest urges on the defenceless, and Haut de la Garenne was far from unique in its failings. What was unique, though, was the way that all of Jersey's institutions seemed to be implicated in the cover-ups of Haut de la Garenne and other child abuse cases revealed in its wake. Some of the supposed cover-ups may yet be revealed to be paranoid conspiracy theories, but the bones have been dug up to prove that the very worst did happen, and at least some mouths that should have opened must have stayed shut.
Suddenly, a new light was cast upon the cherished Jersey Way of doing things. The old joke “It's not what you know, it's who you know.” became an unfunny explanation for how victims and witnesses had been brushed aside, when they tried to complain about abusers with friends in high places. At last, it became clear that the nod-and-wink dealings behind closed doors were including a lot of deeply corrupt string-pulling to look after those in the network, alongside the honest fixing of matters by those who could be trusted. There is no need for me to rehash all that has come out in recent months; if you are one of the few that have not heard, then go to Stuart Syvret's blog. He has been finding out, and in a break with the Jersey Way, telling. A picture has emerged of civil servants, honorary officials and policemen closing ranks against the public interest. Shockingly, it appears that membership of the network takes precedence over all morality. Were anybody in my own circles discovered to be committing heinous crimes, they would be regarded as an embarrassment, and probably disowned altogether by many. Most ordinary people look for integrity in their friends. Not so in Jersey's secretive web of power and influence. Being one of them seems enough, and they will happily back each other, whatever they may have done.
So, what can we do about it? The answer, as my friends have been telling me for years, is constitutional reform. I no longer think “Oh, no, here we go again.” when the subject comes up, and nor should you. Starting at the top, the Bailiff's position is a dire relic of the downside of feudalism, and must be looked at. I never used to see why there was a problem with a senior judge, trained and experienced in conducting fair and correct procedures, taking charge of the States sittings, too. Now, Sir Philip Bailhache has kindly given an object lesson in how it can go wrong. One man, who publicly declares his opinion that the real scandal of Haut de la Garenne is how loudly the whistle has been blown, not the children who were harmed, has much of the control of all three civic functions, the executive, the legislative and the judicial, destroying their natural abilities to put brakes on each others' failings. A senior politician raises the subject in the States, and is silenced. The police arrest people with enough evidence against them that they want to charge them, but the other Bailhache brother orders them to be let go, instead. A minister loses faith in his senior civil servants, whom he has reason to suspect have been have been pulling the wool over his eyes, and his head rolls, not theirs. The Jersey Way in action. Thus, we need to replace the Jersey Way with the rest of the world's way: We need to adopt the checks and balances, and separation of powers that serve other, larger jurisdictions so well, and no longer cling to a failed way, just because it is ours. Until we do that, we cannot stop and draw a line under the ever-growing list of abuses of position.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Too Hot a Topic

Both local and national headlines have turned to the subject of drugs this week. Undoubtedly, it is one of the key concerns of today's society. Yet, of the twenty-five candidates currently running for the States of Jersey as Senator or Constable, not one has taken it up as an election issue. However, I am not about to castigate them all for putative moral cowardice; were I the twenty-sixth candidate, I would not go there either, for pragmatic tactical reasons, despite holding firm, if complex, views on the subject.
There can be no doubt that prohibition of most recreational intoxicants is hurting without working. Do you want your children to grow up in a drug-free society? It has not delivered. Do you want to see former problem drug users pick up the threads of their lives from where they left off? It has not delivered. Do you want to see big-time gangsters growing rich, while cynically sacrificing their employees and customers? It is delivering that one. Do you want to see the most vulnerable people sucked into an expanding spiral of criminality? It is delivering that one, too.
And yet, if any foolhardy soul should raise the question of whether a move should be made toward a harm reduction based policy, the howls of indignation rise deafeningly. To show anything but the hardest face towards those who would get stoned on alternatives to traditional alcohol, will be seized upon as a sign of weak character and lax morals. Public opinion, as shaped by the pervasive influence of the popular press, demands strictness, despite so many individuals in that public liking to indulge in something or other to adjust their mood or perceptions, at least occasionally. One of the various paradoxes that make the problem so intractable.
When one looks closer, the “drug problem” starts to look like a suite of related problems rather than one thing. Firstly, some people have grim lives that feel better when they are stoned. And, moreover, many other people with good lives just have fun by getting stoned. Unfortunately, this sometimes leads them to find out, the hard way, that, sooner or later, nearly all effective intoxicants break the user's mental and/or physical health. (If one can keep to occasional use, then the worst should not happen, but that is easier said than done. The late American rock singer, Kurt Cobain once wrote a vivid account of how occasional use turns to addiction, by gradually reducing the intervals between occasions, until the sudden discovery that it has become a way of life that cannot be broken free from.) One may say “Tough, serves them right.” about those who are damaged by their drugs, but every number in the statistics is a tragic story of somebody's child, sibling, lover or friend. These are facts of life, about why people take drugs and what the drugs do to them, that are what they are, whatever moral stance is taken on them.
Then, on top of the private medical problems, there are the public social problems. One is, that, as I mentioned above, criminalisation of people who just wanted to get stoned is profoundly corrupting to the most vulnerable members of our society: Once the users have crossed the line of the law to have their drugs in the first place, it is all too easy for them to do other illegal things to obtain them. Another social problem, and challenge to the rule of law, is that the supply of contraband is a business opportunity for dishonest and unscrupulous entrepreneurs only. Yet another new question that has sprung up, is what to do about those law abiding businessmen who bring such products as sage and “Spice” to the market? Do we callously leave their customers to find out the malefits of the products for themselves, or do we extend the law and turn still more thrill-seekers and escapists into alienated criminals? Neither option is comfortable.
Although prohibition is serving us so badly, decriminalisation is not going to be a realistic option any time soon, though. A primary obstacle is that our freedom to react to the problems is constrained by international law. Various treaties oblige their signatories, including Britain, whose Crown we are a Dependency of, to restrict or prohibit internal and external traffic in common recreational drugs. We simply do not have the freedom to overtake the rest of the world on that road, even if the argument for it were won amongst ourselves. Besides, if we could and did, we would find ourselves attracting visitors, whom we would be better off without. On top of that, we are also constrained by the need of democratic governments to avoid offering easy targets to their opponents. Which brings me full circle; politicians dare not move forward, because they know it would be spun against them. And so, I believe that our candidates are right to step around this issue; any that attempt to address it will throw away their credibility for no result.
One of the difficulties in striking the balance is that a bit of almost harmless fun for the overwhelming majority can go so very terribly wrong for the few, when it does. 99.5% of hemp smokers getting away with minimal harm sounds like a case for letting them get on with it. Then you do the maths and realise that the other 0.5% of 20,000 users is a couple of wards full of human wrecks, and if even if many of them were the type to end up there anyway, no-one wants their child to grow up to join the ranks.
I am not suggesting for a moment that there is nothing that could or should be done. What I am pointing out is that the power to lead the way towards change lies with the media in the first instance. Political action is not viable until there is a clearer consensus in the community over what changes should be made. We do need to move away from viewing drug use as a law and order issue to viewing it as a public health issue, and to do so,we need people with far wider readerships than myself to work on moving public opinion where it needs to go.

Saturday, 20 September 2008

So who are the ordinary people?

Jersey is undoubtedly an island of deep social divisions and stratifications. Large minorities of the population have English, Scottish or Irish ethnicity. Many more feel themselves to be of French or specifically Breton descent. There is a substantial Portuguese community, a small but close-knit Italian community and a growing number of Poles and other Eastern Europeans. And those are not all that you will see amongst the cosmopolitan crowd thronging through St Helier. However, Jersey is not a melting pot. The mix remains lumpy, with the various groups reluctant to mingle more than they have to.
In such a fragmented society, the other stratifications of wealth and status cut deeper than they might otherwise. There are quite a lot of very rich people indeed here, many of whom hold a great deal of power, whether by public office or private influence. And there are an army of struggling workers, clerks and tradesmen and, below them, a growing underclass. That army is now beginning to mobilise, to fight for their rights, as the realisation grows that they have been sold short by those above them, since time immemorial.
To fight an enemy, however, one must identify him. In the broken shards of our fractured island, it is all too easy to misidentify other pieces of the divided and ruled middle and working classes as the ones who are spoiling it all for everyone. Talk to some people, and the bogeymen are the vast ranks of civil servants and public sector manual workers, taking huge sums of the poor taxpayers' money to lean on their desk or shovel drinking coffee all day long. Not that they have convinced me that that is true. Most of the high earners in the public sector are the professionals that would soon be missed, such as doctors, nurses and teachers. The clerks and manual workers are no richer than anyone else. So, by and large, except for the mandarin caste of a few dozen over-paid, over-powerful upper managers, the public sector are “us”, not “them”.
For many more people, the enemy are the fat-cat finance workers. Admittedly, a proportion of them do bring resentment upon themselves with crass “considerably richer than you” ostentation. Look at the statistics, however. Fully one quarter of Jersey's workforce are directly employed in the finance industry, far more than any other sector. That makes them the most typical workers of all, thus the ranters who would distinguish between “finance” and “the ordinary people” are deluded; they are most certainly “us”, not “them”. Moreover, for the three-quarters outside finance, they are the customer base that keep the other jobs viable. Even if some of us have difficulty in actually being proud of snooty people helping dodgy foreign businessmen pull off scams and shams to cheat their taxmen, the money in our pockets was mostly originally captured by them, and if we turn on them, we turn on ourselves, too.
Should we blame it all on the Portuguese and Poles taking all the jobs, then? No. They always go to the back of the queue for the good jobs, and are mainly employed in the menial jobs that locals no longer need to bother with. After a few years, they tend to have children and become part of the community, just like everyone else, except treated worse. They are certainly not “them”, and we should perhaps be more willing to accept them as part of “us”.
In fact, when one looks closely, we are nearly all the ordinary people of Jersey, and we need to think about the paradox that, in election after election, we keep returning politicians who represent a parasitic elite prizing self-enrichment above their citizens' quality of life. Look at the twenty-one standing for the six Senatorial seats in the October 08 elections: there are the usual selection of well-heeled right-wingers waiting to lord it over us, but there are plenty of others firmly rooted in the real world, some of whom are clever enough and serious enough to make a good job of running the island. If you are a voter, choose carefully, this time.

Monday, 15 September 2008

The Rubbish Minister's Rubbish Plant

A local columnist recently suggested that there should be a memorial to Jersey's first ministerial government. However, I think that they have already planned an apt memorial for themselves, in the shape of the La Collette incinerator: Excessively high-profile, exorbitantly expensive, spoiling the island and full of rubbish.
Worst of all, mass destructors are a very 19th Century solution to waste disposal. Through the 20th Century, numerous technologies have been developed for other industrial purposes, that, by the end of it, were being applied to waste disposal as a cleaner and ,moreover, cheaper solution than simple incineration. The other great change in that time is that the world has moved on from having hardly started on extracting most of its natural resources, to having seriously depleted many of them. This has meant that recycling materials has gone from being a waste of time, for all but the easiest and most precious, to being a major source in itself. If we are to continue to enjoy an industrialised consumer society through the 21st Century, then large scale recycling is essential.
For a fraction of the cost of the proposed incinerator, we could have a modular plant that sorted all the worthwhile recyclables out for selling on and cleanly disposed of most of the residue by pyrolysis or steam reforming to make syngas that would burn to power the plant and still generate a little saleable electricity besides. Or at least, if they are really afraid of modern technology, refuse derived fuel pellets that would flash burn in a fluidised bed incinerator.
However, they have set their heart on a cathedralesque incinerator as a monument to their might, and placed the goalposts to suit. Apparently, all the sensible alternatives to an incinerator are too newfangled to have proved themselves to the Transport & Technical Services Dept. One wonders how they manage with their other kit, with that mindset. Are they still running Trojan 2-stroke vans? No. Is their IT restricted to mainframes on Unix because Windows PCs are a bit of a novelty? I doubt it. So why have they run scared of a modular waste plant? Whatever the nominal excuse, the most plausible reasons are that it wouldn't look grand enough, and that the budget would be too small, and so diminish the Department's status. After all, the adoption of a world-leading sewage plant by their predecessors has been a long-term success, so it is not as if there is no precedent for buying state-of-the-art.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

“If Jersey is a tax haven, how come I have to pay tax?”

The above question has appeared on a couple of local forum sites lately. Surprisingly, even finance industry workers, who might be expected to understand such things, don't always manage to do so. The short answer is that you have to pay, so that the finance industry's clients do not, to keep their staff in jobs. This answer does not go down very well, though, so I am revisiting the subject in a little more depth.
Half a century ago, public expectations of government services were somewhat lower than they now are, and less taxation, in real terms, was needed to meet those expectations. In fact, by allowing a modest number of very rich people to settle in Jersey, and taxing them fairly, but more lightly than where they came from, enough could be raised for taxes to be very low indeed for the masses. Back then, we did indeed have a tax haven in which the hoi polloi did not need to pay.
From there, it was a short and simple step to move the holding companies for the very rich people's corporations here, too, so that they too could share in the benefits of the low tax. And, once it was clear how much business there was in doing this, one more little step not to tax them at all, directly, and just tax the large amount of lucrative work they generated. That step has made many thousands of ordinary islanders pretty rich, and probably done more than they realise for the many thousands more who are not actually on the gravy train. On the other hand, it also moved us on to being a tax haven to our customers,but not for ourselves. Mr. Powell also gave our very rich immigrants parity with their companies, by requiring only nominal personal taxes from them, too. The company tax on the finance companies, and the personal tax on their workers amply made up the shortfall. It would not be fair to tax the finance workers differently to anyone else, though, so we all have to join in paying the tax to make up for what the finance industry's clients are not paying.
And there you have it; a tax haven in which the locals have to pay more and more tax to keep it as a tax haven. And if they did not, they would soon have to pay a lot more still, if they were still in work, as the tax haven is now the foundation of the economy.

Ugh, it's who?

The intention is to make this blog wholly content-driven. I do quite enough self-promotion elsewhere around the web, and shall keep my name off this.
That said, if you know me, you will soon recognize me. Hence the title. If you don't it doesn't matter - it is not going to be about me.
It is election season in my home island of Jersey, and there is much to be dissatisfied about the current government, so, at least at first, most of the posts will be about that. After that, I have no plan; I may expand my subject material, or give up altogether, as the whim takes me.