Friday just gone marked one year since I took office as Minister for Housing in the Government of Jersey. A few months later I became Minister for Children too. I guess it’s not exactly been a boring year, right?
I remain proud of the role that Reform Jersey played in the 2014-18 States Assembly. Despite being just 3 members out of 49, we managed to play an important part in setting the political agenda during that time and played the role of a parliamentary Opposition by holding the Council of Ministers to account for its actions. I believe that it is because of our efforts that attempts to make our tax system even more regressive were lost and we managed to mitigate some of the policies that were driving up poverty.
But the whole point of being in politics is not to be in opposition. We get into politics because we want to make the lives of the people we represent better, and you are always best placed to do that by being in government, rather than shouting from the side-lines.
That is why we took the decision before the May 2018 election that our aim this time round was to be in government, getting our policies implemented and making even more of a difference.
A year in, and it’s been a bumpy ride, with plenty of ups and downs. So, I wanted to give a frank account of how I think it has gone.
The most obvious observation I can make is that being in power can be so incredibly frustrating because of how little power you actually have.
Even as a Minister, you remain one of many, and lots of the things that government does needs the approval of the whole Council of Ministers, not just the Minister whose department it concerns. Many of the things that I want to do, which were in our election manifesto, can’t simply be done by me alone, but will require other Ministers on board to make it happen.
That’s why the Chief Minister and I formed the Housing Policy Development Board, which brings together Ministers and officers from across the government to work on some of the areas that require joined up thinking.
To name a few of the issues we are looking at –
• External buy-to-let – making sure that local people are not at a disadvantage when purchasing homes to live in
• Scraping the 90% market-rate rule in social housing – finding a more sustainable funding arrangement for homes for lower income households that doesn’t put people in rental stress
• Measures to improve rental security and mid-tenancy rent rises – so tenants can actually live knowing that if they haven’t done anything wrong, they don’t have to worry about losing their home
• Introducing transparency in letting agent fees – as has been done in the UK, so prospective tenants are not hit with unfair charges which can’t be justified
• Keyworker accommodation – making sure we are welcoming to people coming in to work in our essential public services where we have struggled with recruitment in the past because of housing problems
We’ve been criticised both for taking too long to set up the Housing PDB, and for being too hasty in getting to work. I guess sometimes you just can’t win!
Outside of the PDB I am looking at introducing a housing advice service, something which really ought to have been done a long time ago. And of course, I am also looking at introducing a rent tribunal, as we said in our manifesto we would do.
But, in my Housing portfolio, my number one priority this year will be to put together a Homelessness Strategy.
Since becoming Minister, the worst experiences I have had (on an emotional level) have been encountering members of the public who have faced homelessness, and faced the stark reality that right now there is very little the government can actually do to step in and help them, apart from refer them to charities. This simply isn’t good enough.
At the end of last year, I held a summit with government departments and charities, to identify the way forward, and we are now at work with these groups to put that strategy together.
My Children’s portfolio is hugely challenging, as we knew it would be given the path we are now set on after the Independent Jersey Care Inquiry produced its report which shined a light on decades of failure in our children’s services.
We have got an Improvement Plan in place and the service is receiving attention like it never has before. Things are getting better, but they are not good enough yet and without further attention there is no guarantee that things wouldn’t slip back to where they were.
Our efforts to improve recruitment in the service are starting to pay off, with job applications being accepted, including from some who were already working here as agency staff but want to become permanent.
I have been particularly struck by the professionalism of many of the staff members I have met as I have been around different departments meeting those who work with children. They often work in very difficult situations, but those I have met are clearly passionate about what they do.
We now have a robust law underpinning the Children’s Commission’s role which stands up with those in other jurisdictions and introduces an important safeguard for children in perpetuity.
I have been helped so far in this job by the fact that literally every other Minister agrees that this is our top priority. I haven’t faced any resistance when I’ve needed agreement from others to move things forwards.
If my officers ever spoke off the record about what it’s like to work with me, I’m sure they would confirm that I am always pushing for things to be done faster. It is deeply frustrating that even when we have the right intentions, our system often works against us to make progress much slower than we want. Especially when it comes to identifying the funding for what we want to do.
For the last year we have been operating within the spending limits set by the last Medium Term Financial Plan from 2015 (which I voted against at the time), which limits how much money we can actually spend in 2019. This situation is totally undemocratic and has constrained our ability as a government to get on and do many of the things we should have been doing.
Deputy Geoff Southern brought forward two proposals to scrap those constraints and free us to make our own spending decisions. I thought the proposals were an absolute no-brainer, but a majority of members disagreed. This was a huge mistake and has caused the government a lot of problems that would have been avoided if they had listened to Deputy Southern.
In fact, it was the failure to deal with this issue that has led to the biggest political divide between myself and most of my ministerial colleagues. That is the issue of public sector pay.
I will not accept any argument that those who suggest that their pay should keep up with the cost of living are asking for something unreasonable. It should be a basic expectation that if you are working hard, your standard of living should not deteriorate. Businesses and government should budget for that as a given.
The teachers strikes have been a huge cause of tension, where many islanders are suffering because of that action, but we will all suffer as an island if we lose the goodwill of our teachers and degrade it as a profession by under-investing in our education system.
I am hopeful that progress will be made in the coming weeks. But my support for their cause remains resolute no matter what. You can’t put Jersey’s children first if we put our teachers last.
The one thing which has inspired me more than anything so far in this new term has been the privilege of having our two new Deputies Rob Ward and Carina Alves in there with us. Both have been an absolute breath of fresh air and contributed so much in their short time in politics so far.
Rob has worked tirelessly to get the States to treat the issue of climate change seriously, whilst Carina had a great victory in getting the States to agree to bring in a compensation scheme for people who contract mesothelioma from contact with asbestos.
It just goes to show that having more Reform Jersey members in the States is a sure way of making sure you get meaningful action and value for your vote.
I understand why there is frustration that things seem to not be moving quickly enough in government. There is a lot of chat amongst the commentariat for this, but none of them have recognised that the way you get more efficient and decisive government is through party politics. Whilst they continue to miss the elephant in the room, I will keep ploughing on and making the difference that the public voted for me to do. Sometimes it will be slow and frustrating, but things would be far worse if we gave up the fight altogether.