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INTERVIEW: “It’s been the toughest time I’ve seen in my political life”

INTERVIEW: “It’s been the toughest time I’ve seen in my political life”

Friday 13 November 2020

INTERVIEW: “It’s been the toughest time I’ve seen in my political life”


It’s been likened by some to Jersey’s version of the Dominic Cummings affair, and by others to a non-event motivated only by political revenge. Whichever way you see the bitter row over Government CEO Charlie Parker’s second job with New River, it was the spark which lit the biggest bonfire under the island’s current political leadership in this term of office.

Ultimately, it cost Mr Parker his Jersey job – although exactly how and when that departure will happen, and under what terms, is still shrouded in “no comment”, and wrapped in a blanket of employment law.

Who agreed the inaccurate media release wrongly citing approval from senior politicians, which they apparently didn’t even see before publication? Why did the States Employment Board give their belated written approval, making the contrary view of Ministers redundant?

At the end of the most tumultuous week in his leadership, Express put those, and other questions, to the Chief Minister, Senator John Le Fondré… 

What were the circumstances of your initial approval of Mr Parker’s second job? 

I think we’ve moved on from that. Until all I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed, I’m not crossing into anything that might impinge into a HR role, because that’s what being finalised at the moment. 

And by that do you mean the departure arrangements for Mr Parker?

In essence, yes.

Who authorised the media statement which said Senator Lyndon Farnham had also given approval, when he hadn’t? 

I think we’ve made it very clear that neither myself or Lyndon approved it. Obviously, my focus in the last few days has been the VONC (Vote of No Confidence) and within the confines of the HR employment law side of things, obviously unfortunately the loss of the CEO. 

So, no, we’ve not got absolutely to the bottom.

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Pictured: Economic Development Minister Senator Lyndon Farnham (left) was originally said to have approved Charlie Parker's second role at New River, when he hadn't.

I have also asked for, as of today, a different investigation just to find out exactly, blow-by-blow what happened and when, and I expect to see that probably sometime next week, and that is literally meant to be ‘X happened at 13:05 at lunchtime; Y happened at 15:00’ and I want that put together so we have a very clear understanding of what went wrong, when. In terms of the press release, it’s very clear it wasn’t approved by either myself or Lyndon and obviously we are just going over that to understand exactly where the breakdown occurred.

Will you make that full timeline public? 

I would imagine in some shape or form that we’ll put something together, but at the end of the day something obviously went wrong internally, with how our press release was issued - obviously the consequences of that were quite serious and so firstly let’s get to the exact understanding of what went wrong, and then after that, depending on those circumstances, I would imagine we’ll put something out, but I just want to understand what those circumstances were first. 

Are there any key projects that you want to see completed, or milestones reached, before the CEO departs? 

Our next focus is the debate next week on the hospital sites - that for me is pretty important. I think Brexit is pretty important. Economic support for what we expect to be somewhat trickier times next year is going to be very important, and the covid pandemic, and that, as we know, the numbers are increasing and we want to try and come through it as well as we did in the early parts of this year, and so I think that’s quite enough to focus on for the moment. However, we’ve also got what we call the Government Plan - the budget and all the future projects - which is set for debate in December. 

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Pictured: Senator Le Fondré said the CEO's departure will be a "great loss."

On top of that, things like office strategy, which, although some people may wonder, ‘Why on earth are they thinking about that at this time?’, it saves us quite a considerable sum of money each year, probably in the order of £7million, and frees up some brownfield sites for housing which means that then achieves one of the other objectives, which is obviously freeing up housing sites, generates some capital receipts and also starts getting a number of staff into better working accommodation, so there a re lot of plusses in it. It’s been a long time coming, and hopefully we’re closer to being able to implement it. 

Do you need the CEO’s expertise to bring those projects to fruition before he goes? 

Well, it depends on your view of the CEO. My view is that the CEO’s departure will be a great loss to the island, and there’s fairly obviously a group of the population that don’t seem to agree with that, which I think is unfortunate, and that got criticised over the last 10 days.

When the Chief Executive came in, he oversaw a significant recruitment process to install new leaders within the civil service and plug expertise gaps - how concerned are you that there could be some kind of mass exodus in the wake of his eventual departure?

The sheer vitriol that’s been around over the last 10 days - for me personally it’s been the toughest time I’ve seen in my political life and even pre-politics actually. 

I would say that, although as a Jerseyman I love Jersey, and I very often see Jersey at its best, I think I’ve seen an element of Jersey at its worst over the past few days; and that is something that we need to consider how we deal with, because I think one of the consequences that those who orchestrated the campaign need to think about is if one generates this amount of public heat on officials who can’t respond, what is the likelihood of people of calibre wanting to come into the island to take on this type of role?  

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Pictured: "...if one generates this amount of public heat on officials who can’t respond, what is the likelihood of people of calibre wanting to come into the island?"

Mr Parker was obviously brought in to bring in significant change, which I think many of us, probably including you, I don’t know, wanted to see and but obviously there’s been an element of the island who objected to that and I suspect those are the voices that we’ve heard in the last 10 days. That comes down in all sorts of ways, and that’s one of the things I want to understand from the report I’ve asked for - exactly what was being said where and how constructive it was to informing people to the reality of the debate.

Do you see any issue with the extent of the powers granted to the CEO and how he is held accountable? And, if so, what do you see as the potential solution to that? 

I’m perfectly happy if someone like the Corporate Services Scrutiny Panel, who were some of the people that were raising it, actually want to do a review on the matter because that would be a very appropriate job for Scrutiny to look at, I would have thought. 

But P1 [the Machinery of Government Law, ed.] - there were issues at the beginning of it, I don’t think there was universal support from many of the Council of Ministers at the time, but equally I seem to recall its recommendations from the likes of the Comptroller General going back a long time which was what they called a ‘double-fracture in reporting’ i.e. the individual Chief Officers reported to the Minister, not to the CEO (memory, please note!) therefore there was no cohesive group on controlling the organisation. 

I think individually you didn’t have collective responsibility on the Ministers, so that is why you had the silos that certainly for me, I was one of people campaigning against that sort of culture. Now, has it gone too far the other way?  

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Pictured: The 'Machinery of Government Law' (P1), which was approved by the States Assembly in 2018, underpins the powers of the CEO.

I honestly can’t comment because certainly all the way through covid it’s not been at the forefront of my thinking, but if it’s something people want to go though, especially in light of the experience of how the organisation has changed over the past 18 months, I’d be very interested in hearing their views, provided of course they’re objective and evidence-based.

How will you work to rid Government of the perception that ‘the tail wags the dog’? 

Pretty certain we said it on the day, but if you look at the individuals that were around the table at the Council of Ministers, I don’t think any of them could ever be persuaded to do something that was against their personal ethics code.  

I would just say that as a cohesive team, to date we work pretty well and actually we’re achieving quite a lot, and that goes for both the Council of Ministers and the SEB.  

From my perspective, I would have said that a lot of the change and a lot of the re-organisation that had taken place was for the good of the island, and actually we had had a reasonably good chance of achieving the change that many people were calling out for.

I’ll remind you of what I said on Tuesday - and you can look at what I said on Hansard - I particularly said that I’d been avoiding trying to make it into personal comments because it’s not really my style but I’d been particularly angry, for example, with Senator Moore earlier in the year when she talked about lack of commitment from people working from home in the UK.  

With covid-19, there’s been a lot of people that have worked a huge number of hours. I think my wife reckoned that I was doing a 90-hour week. I’ve got no idea what it is, but it has been non-stop quite literally seven days a week, very little family time in months, and many of the senior people are in the same territory. 

What did you make of Senator Gorst’s suggestion of a cabinet reshuffle during the VONC debate?  

We’ve got two or three gaps that we’ve got to fill and ultimately that’s my call, so I’m just in the process of taking soundings from Ministers.

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Pictured: External Relation Minister Senator Ian Gorst suggested a cabinet reshuffle.

So obviously the Council of Ministers met yesterday but I’m speaking to Ministers on an individual basis, so hopefully I’ll get that concluded within the next couple of days. 

On a personal level, what impact have some of the comments made about you during the VONC debate had?

I don’t like personal politics in the way it went. Although I’ve grown up with political experience on the basis that my father was in the States for a chunk of my life, and it was completely different, far more collegiate approach - I can remember actually, it might have been Len Norman, I remember listening to the radio in those days, and it was very much around the issue, it wasn’t about the individual and I think that’s something that I’ve tried to stick to as a style because I think that’s a more constructive approach as opposed to the destructive approach of personal or personality politics. 

I fear, with particular things like social media, you can end up in the destructive territory far easier these days.

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Pictured: "...with particular things like social media, you can end up in the destructive territory far easier these days."

In terms of the impact of the debate on me, particularly on my family as well, it’s been tough and I think we’re still recovering on that front. Partially, it’s physical, because I think on Sunday night and Monday night I probably got about three hours' sleep each night so that’s taking it’s toll at the moment, but we’ll catch up on that over the next few days. 

It’s not necessarily unusual: the workloads a number of us politicians do, means that it’s not unusual for me to finish sort of around midnight many nights and you start again - it depends. Sometimes the phone calls start at 08:00 and that’s pretty well day-in, day-out. So, there’s a physical toll.

On the day, I would say that I wasn’t looking forward to the day. In terms of tone, generally it was better than I was concerned about. 

Sometimes I found the positive comments harder to take than the negative comments because you’re prepared for the negative comments and you just discount them; the positive ones are very good to hear, and it’s always appreciated. I think the ones I particularly didn’t like were the ones that attempted to besmirch integrity, honesty or commitment, and commitment particularly to islanders. 

Do you think it’s ever going to be possible to return to a “collegiate” approach towards politics?

They are some, not many, who think that all States Members do is pitch up on a Tuesday, potentially a Wednesday, spend X-amount of hours in the States, go an have a very long lunch and that’s it for another two weeks. There’s a lack of understanding of what a States Member does, whether it’s on the scrutiny side, or whether it’s one the executive side - that’s number one.

Number two was actually around, and possibly brought to the fore a bit from lockdown and all the way through this year, is the impact on social media, particularly on youngsters, but in the wider context as well. 

I have had and - even three, four, five weeks ago - was having conversations with one or two Members about whether there is something we should try and look at in that area, because that does tie into the mental health area and wellbeing, you name it.  

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Pictured: Senator Le Fondré wants to see politics return to a more "collegiate" approach.

Not only have we just had this storm, shall we say, which was definitely a orchestrated campaign as well, but did go all over social media with prompting, but I can think back to - and I won’t go into any examples because there are people who have specifically spoken to me - but I can think of events that were political with a small p, for example that didn’t involve politicians but they became political in certain arenas within parish contexts, or different contexts, where actually quite a lot of abuse had been applied to ordinarily well-respected individuals within the community. I think there is something around that that we need to at least understand because I think withincovid particularly, there are people who are potentially exhibiting behavioural characteristics which ordinarily wouldn’t be there.  

I think there has been an impact from the point of view on seeing how people’s behaviours have changed. 

What is your key ‘takeaway’ from the last 10 days or so?  

Well, two or three aspects that we’ve already touched on: one is actually getting a better understanding of what States Members do I think would be quite important getting that out there. 

I think we’ve got to just understand the lessons that need to be learnt from this, and there are definitely one or two for me, which I’m not going to go into right at this stage, but it might be fairly obvious. 

I think that, going forward, we’ve got to make sure that something like this doesn’t happen again - part of that is dealing with that comms failure with that press release and stuff - that’s pretty procedural, that’s easy. 

I think having said all that, I think at the moment my focus is that we’ve got to catch up - we’ve lost 10 days roughly. Covid doesn’t really care about that, it carries on, and so we’ve got to get back into the right place, or make sure we’re in the right place. Brexit hasn’t stopped. Hospital debate next week. You’ve got the list. There’s an awful lot we’ve got to focus on.

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Pictured: "Covid doesn't really care... it carries on."

Sounds a bit of a cliché, but it’s about serving the interest of the island, so that’s what we’ve got to do.

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Comments

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Posted by Steven Simon on
JLF might of survived the vote in the house, but the public will decide next time round if he chooses to stand again.
Posted by Paul Troalic on
The problem our a Chief Minister fails to understand is that there is a complete lack of conversation with the public. Until he understands this nothing will change.
Jersey is steeped in tradition and it was quite common for people to be able to talk with their representative. I don't think this happens now. I've had personal experience of this in both a good and a bad way. Human nature for me is to communicate.
This whole interview seems to blame everyone else but himself and his Council of Ministers.
There are problems on both sides..
Some of the public do not understand the role of a politician at all, some have a very clear idea. To treat us all as idiots is unacceptable as the politicians were ejected by the public.
I do accept that within the motion of no confidence was an element of bitterness and possible envy on the part of the proposer but I believe the VONC served purpose.
For one it caused the resignation (or sacking) of Charlie Parker and this was a good thing. The man was out of control and had far too much power. But we have another sitting Minister thank for that.
Secondly we must learn from the mistake and not appoint another non-resident to the job at any cost. There are plenty of intelligent and qualified people in the Island already that could do the job. And they would face far less criticism.
The one thing a a Jerseyman doesn't like is being told what to do and he certainly doesn't want to be told this by an outsider!
Finally I think JLF needs to realise that his Council of Ministers is not a separate government and we the public will never accept this. The public elected politicians to serve in the interests of the Island and are not a gentleman's (sorry and women) club fit three political elite.
The States Assembly should all inclusive.
Posted by IanSmith97 on
“Mr Parker was obviously brought in to achieve significant change”. What change has he achieved? A Customer Service Centre where customers are barred (genius), a Treasury moved from its office it owned to an office where we pay £1m p.a. and which has no safe whilst the old building still has one which the Treasury use (brilliant), nepotism in public appointments which would shame a dictatorship, 60 employees resigning from the Tax Department in the middle of tax reforms unprecedented in 50 years, no definitive financial savings declared that can be thoroughly examined. I could go on. I said on this forum over the past two years (under a nom de plume) the savings would not materialise and it would all end in years. One question that has not been addressed by anyone in the media, why would someone give up a £250k p.a. job for the sake of a £50k p.a. part time job?
Posted by Jon Jon on
No States Member is forced into this job,they all complain the hours put in ,some make this a career ,some in because their previous jobs failed ,no denying we have the worst bunch possible, unless things change radically many just won't vote .
Posted by Keith Marsh on
It is no good Senator Le Fondré just saying that the public have no idea of what is involved in being a Minister / Chief Minister ~ John, it is up to you to TEACH THEM.
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