CHIEF Minister Frank Walker won the support of almost all of his political colleagues in a debate described as one of the ‘flimsiest’ ever seen in the States.
After a two-hour debate yesterday afternoon, only two politicians out of 49 voted in favour of censuring Senator Walker for misleading the States during the controversial Waterfront debate last month.
The biggest surprise of the day came when even Senator Walker’s fiercest critic, Senator Stuart Syvret, stood up to support him – despite having just lost a vote of no confidence against him.
The move to officially reprimand Senator Walker was put forward by Deputy Geoff Southern. The only other Member to back the proposition was Deputy Shona Pitman.
At one point other Members, including Senator Walker, turned on Deputy Southern and accused him of misleading the States.
Deputy Geoff Southern opened the debate by alleging that Senator Walker failed to give ‘full and accurate information to the Assembly in relation to the financial and economic considerations during the debate on the Esplanade Quarter masterplan’, and that he had misled the States.
Hours after the States approved the financial deal for the £330m Waterfront development, Members had been handed confidential documents, produced by accountants PricewaterhouseCoopers, which raised concerns about the funding of the project.
Deputy Southern believes that if this information had been distributed to Members prior to the debate it would have influenced the way they voted.
Speaking in the States yesterday, Senator Walker denied intentionally misleading the States and apologised once again by saying he deeply regretted relying on information which turned out to be inaccurate.
During the Waterfront debate Senator Walker had said that Harcourt ‘came up A1 every time’. But in the States yesterday he was forced to admit this comment was ‘something of an overstatement’.
It was because of this, along with other reasons, why Deputy Southern urged Members to censure the Chief Minister.
‘That was blatantly not true,’ said Deputy Southern. ‘He had glossed over assurances and hadn’t poked or done his homework on an issue of this magnitude, so he has seriously misled the House.’
Deputy Southern claimed that in the Waterfront debate on 5 June, Senator Walker misled Members after initially claiming that preferred developers Harcourt was not being sued in the US. He later admitted that Harcourt was the subject of a US lawsuit, but only after the States had passed the first two parts of the Esplanade development project.
But yesterday Deputy Southern said that he was not concerned about who misled who over the lawsuit, saying it was not ‘significant’ to this debate.
He went on to talk about the PWC financial report into Harcourt, which was leaked to the JEP after the debate. Deputy Southern said that it urged caution and asked why this information had not been mentioned during the debate.
‘We heard glowing reports saying they were A1. We were misled,’ he said.
He added: ‘The Chief Minister has led one of the most significant developments in the Island for the past 100 years and does not see it fit to familiarise himself so he can accurately inform himself of the nature of the contents. He appears to have relied on a shallow understanding, which I believe has led him to mislead us.’
Deputy Southern also claimed that he had been refused the opportunity to hear about the financial reports behind closed doors. But Senator Walker said that he did give Members a chance to go in camera during the debate.
In his defence, Senator Walker began by reminding Members that part two of the masterplan did not ask the States to sign up to the deal with Harcourt. It was on this basis that he claimed the financial and economic reports were not relevant.
He said: ‘No deal could be struck with Harcourt until and unless bank guarantees were secured and security checks were guaranteed. The PWC report is not relevant to and is not a relevant basis to bring the vote of censure.’
Senator Walker went on to say that the report was private and confidential and for WEB’s eyes only, and even he did not see a copy of the report.
‘It is prepared in confidence for the board of WEB and it was released in good faith by Senator (Jim) Perchard.’
He added: ‘Both reports went to Scrutiny and there is no question of withholding information or covering up.
‘Everything was undertaken in the proper way. No, I did not see the PWC report until after the debate. It was for the board of WEB. It is not my role to ask WEB to produce all the reports they receive in confidence.’
Denying the claim that he misled the House, Senator Walker turned the tables and accused Deputy Southern of misleading the House by saying he should bring a vote of censure against him.
‘I would argue that the Deputy is seeking to mislead the States as his comments are so selective and he has failed to mention the positives of the PWC report.’
He went on to mention details in the report which said that Harcourt had a ‘lower risk of failure’ than the industry average as well as ‘the banks’ confidence in ability of Harcourt to pay debt’.
‘I do not believe there is any substance for the vote of censure. I did not intentionally mislead the House,’ he said, adding that he felt it was a ‘politically motivated attack on him’ by members and supporters of the Jersey Democratic Alliance.
Throughout the debate Senator Walker had overwhelming support from most of the Members who found there was no evidence to support the proposition. Many said that those who allowed the Chief Minister to ‘mislead’ the House should be the ones who should be reprimanded.
Senator Walker said that the chief executive of WEB, Stephen Izatt, had apologised to him.
‘Normally the advice I receive is excellent and accurate and that includes the chief executive of WEB. He did get it wrong on how he advised me this time but he has put his hands up and apologised.’
Deputy Paul Le Claire began by calling the proposition flimsy. ‘Here today we see the Chief Minister facing another vote of censure on something that is the flimsiest of grounds that I have ever heard a proposition being made.’
He went on to say that he was expecting a ‘whole lot more’ from Deputy Southern.
‘If this is all that we are considering then he sets himself up for the fall in his own proposition. We have clearly heard that the Chief Minister was acting in good faith.
‘How can we stand up for the afternoon and bicker about this, regardless of whether we support the Waterfront? If this is all there is then we are getting pretty much to the bottom of the barrel.’
Senator Freddie Cohen strongly urged Members to vote against it, saying that it was ‘distasteful politics’. He praised Senator Walker as ‘hard-working, deeply committed and a great team builder’.
The Environment Minister added: ‘Let us not forget he is responsible for the economic comforts Islanders enjoy today. The Chief Minister does not deserve this. It is politics of the very worst kind. He has apologised and did not mislead the House. He took action immediately. He is not a mind reader and does not have a crystal ball.’
Deputy Sarah Ferguson said she did not think the proposition was a sensible one but said more questions needed to be asked about the preferred developers Harcourt.
She said: ‘I feel there should be more investigation of Harcourt. We understand there will be further due diligence.’
She argued that the fact that Senator Walker received incorrect information showed ‘incompetence’ but recognised that ministers were entitled to rely on information from civil servants.
Senator Terry Le Main said that it was a sad day for the States. ‘In 30 years of Assembly it is a very sad time where we have politicians saying and misleading all kinds of issues,’ said the Housing Minister. He accused Deputy Southern of giving the public misleading information. ‘The public are getting fed up with the lies of Southern’s damaging tactics.’
He claimed that Deputy Southern was ‘using and abusing’ the rules of the Assembly and accused him of having a personal vendetta against the Chief Minister. He said that Senator Walker was the most honest person. ‘He is a great chap to work with.’
Deputy Jacqui Huet called the proposition ‘utterly ridiculous’ and said that they were ‘behaving like schoolchildren’.
‘No wonder the public think we are slightly mental,’ she said. ‘The quicker we put this to bed and go home the better.’
St Ouen Constable Ken Vibert said that ministerial government needed ‘a saint to lead it’ and added that he thought Senator Walker had done an extremely good job of leading the council.
Deputy Collin Egré and Deputy Ben Fox praised Senator Walker for dealing with what he had been told by Deputy Gerard Baudains about the lawsuit in Las Vegas so quickly, and for apologising when he found out he had unintentionally misled the States.
But Deputy Judy Martin disagreed and said that the Chief Minister did not do his homework and he had taken his eye off the ball. ‘He probably has not done a bad job. But when he is presenting a proposition he should have had all the facts.’
Deputy Sean Power said the Chief Minister had got to find out who misled him. ‘I believe the Chief Minister was misled. I believe he was not given accurate information.’
He accepted that Senator Walker could not process every report that went though his office, and had to rely on officers, senior officers, WEB and ministers. But he said he thought the system had let Senator Walker down.
Deputy Gerard Baudains felt that the proposition had been ‘brought in haste’ before they had had time to digest all the issues. He said that Senator Walker’s officers had let him down but that it was ultimately his responsibility.
Deputy Alan Breckon wanted somebody to be held responsible for the House being misled, adding: ‘If I was in his position then somebody’s head would have rolled already.’
Deputy Bob Hill gave credit to Senator Walker for apologising when he realised he had inadvertently misled the House, but asked him to listen more to ‘backbenchers’ in the future when they tried to provide him with information and suggested that he also ensured he checked his facts.
Senator Jim Perchard claimed that it should be him who faced the vote of censure and gave himself a slap on the wrist for providing too much information about Harcourt during the debate.
‘We responded too sensitively. We should have reminded Members the debate was not about the preferred developers.
‘There was an attempt to undermine the whole masterplan. We should have resisted talking about Harcourt. The mistake we all made was trying to be helpful to Members and it was I who made available to Members the report which was marked private and confidential. At least one Member of this House released it into the public domain.’
The most surprising speech came from Senator Stuart Syvret who praised Senator Walker for admitting he had made a mistake.
‘It is possible to make mistakes but as long as one admits that they got things wrong then that is the appropriate way forward,’ he said.
He also stressed that someone should be held to account. ‘I do wonder who are the relevant responsible professionals paid for who failed to advise Senator Walker. Are they going to be held to account? The Island’s parliament has been misled due to the relevant professionals and I have had enough of that lack of accountability. The professionals, who are paid vast amounts of money, should be held accountable for their errors.’
Senator Paul Routier said this was one of the ‘saddest’ and most ‘disappointing debates’ and also called it flimsy. The Social Security Minister accused Deputy Southern of having a ‘shallow understanding’ of the PWC report and said it was worth progressing with the preferred developers Harcourt.
‘All these reports are all very cautious. You will never get a glowing report. We will be relying on the bank guarantees and this proposition should be thrown out,’ he said.
Deputy Roy Le Hérissier criticised Scrutiny and said that they had ‘missed a trick’. He thought that Members had ‘stumbled’ through the Waterfront debate because they had found themselves in a role where they had to become ‘experts’ on the subject.
Senator Walker responded by saying that he felt very humbled and was very grateful to the Members who spoke so highly of him. But he added that the biggest surprise of the day had been Senator Syvret being so supportive, for which he was ‘most grateful’.
Deputy Southern – who left the Assembly at one point during Senator Walker’s speech – concluded by saying: ‘Somebody is responsible for the Chief Minister being inadequately informed. Somebody surely must say the buck must stop somewhere.
‘Is it the WEB directors later on? I believe we were effectively misled.’
The vote of censure was lost by 47 against and just two in favour – Deputy Southern and Deputy Pitman.
Deputy Patrick Ryan declared an interest at the start of the debate and withdrew from the Chamber.