Bell needs to ring the changes in the next year

Ramsey MHK Allan Bell, Tynwald, House of KeysIt’s been 52 weeks since the Isle of Man held its general election – the first year with Allan Bell at the helm as chief minister.

So how has the Ramsey MHK, who for so long seemed destined to be the loyal lieutenant, fared at the helm of the Manx Government?

The truth is, he hasn’t done too badly on a personal level

In spite of a disparate and not very co-ordinated first Budget, which saw state-run pre-school facilities axed, while at the same time provision was made to put a diesel locomotive onto a steam railway, so far the blame for these concerns has not been laid squarely at his door.

The economy continues to struggle, but that’s a global problem, while the difficulties it has caused and the cutbacks that have come in are so far seeing the relevant departments facing the bulk of criticism.

He has made many of the right noises about making government more efficient and the need to save money, for his departments to sort themselves out.

But after a year in charge, people are going to start wanting see more action to back up the words.

It has to be said that, when I interviewed him recently, the chief minister himself was fully aware that a lot more action is required to combat the economic problems the Isle of Man has and also that it won’t be the easiest of passages. In fact, he said the toughest times were ahead of us.

He accepted that the first Budget was not the best co-ordinated but, rightly, pointed out that is a problem with the first Budget of any administration.

There will be less patience with the second Budget however.

He and his ministers are going to have to deliver.

That is when we’ll see how effective his style of leadership is.

Mr Bell seems to be the kind of leader who doesn’t like to give too much away, even to those who work closely with him.

Within the corridors of power, there was little clue, until the actual moment of announcement, of who was going to be promoted into the Council of Ministers to replace Peter Karran, the inept education minister who was actually sacked for voting against government policy on investment in Pinewood Studios – rather than dismissed for his woeful decision-making at the Department of Education and Children.

There was informed gossip about who the new cabinet member would be, but no one seemed certain until Graham Cregeen was announced. Mr Bell likes to keep his cards close to his chest.

There’s some suggestion that even extends to within the Council of Ministers. Cabinet members may be informed of what the required result is, but rumour has it that they are left very much to their own devices as to how they reach that result.

The downside of that was illustrated amply with the education fiasco where we had a government department whose members were never told by their minister (Mr Karran) what their precise roles were, and where alternative options to axing the pre-schools were ignored.

If ever a department had cried out for intervention from the chief minister, it was at that point.

It didn’t happen. So far the blame has been laid at Peter Karran’s door for what happened there but, if a similar pattern repeats itself, people will be asking where the overall leadership was.

The line above demonstrates the upside of Mr Bell’s approach – for Mr Bell. The ministers are given plenty of rope, they can either hang themselves with it or use it to swing their way to a higher plane.

Mr Bell still insists Mr Karran’s appointment was not a mistake. He would probably find himself in a minority, but the point is moot now; as long as it does not demonstrate a stubborn-ness that could lead to policy errors in future.

It will be interesting to see how he handles the big issues of the future.

Chris Robertshaw could gain a lot, or could lose a lot, with his proposals for welfare reform. A key component, after the completion of the consultation, will be how much support there will be from within the Council of Ministers.

Mr Bell could dictate that himself. If he sits back and lets Chris’s soothing voice do all the arguing, as well as risking sending other ministers to sleep, it may make them all rather nervous when they start to consider what the specific impact will be of changes to universal benefits.

Mr Robertshaw hasn’t, so far, shown himself to be a minister who accepts the right of people to have a different opinion to himself. He needs to learn to accept it – even if he doesn’t agree with what they say – or he risks backing himself into a corner, should he not get his way with welfare reform.

I don’t think any minister should rely on Mr Bell to dig them out of a hole.

When Juan Watterson had his bus blip, the chief minister did little more than hand him a trowel and give him the option of heading up or down.

Scope of Government will be an opportunity to see whether Mr Bell will put his money where his mouth is.

He makes the right noises about government not being efficient enough. The corporatisation of some services may be a start, but could it be a platform for more fundamental changes.

Fewer government departments, for instance?

When the chief executive of one of the government departments is granted a leave of absence to assist Sark in setting up a civil service, as was announced this week, it appears to support the argument that, perhaps, the Isle of Man has more highly paid senior civil servants than is necessary.

If you hark back to Mr Bell’s thinly veiled dissatisfaction when he was first made minister at the new Department of Economic Development, when Tony Brown was chief, perhaps we should be asking if it was just because his department had to spend two weeks in makeshift accommodation or whether his concerns about the DED were more fundamental.

If the latter, the leave of absence granted now to its chief executive could make the cynics among us wonder whether there’s going to be another shake up.

Certainly, if corporatisation of the likes of the bus service, the National Sports Centre and or the Villa Marina complex – mooted in the Scope report – do go ahead, the Department of Community, Culture and Leisure will have less to do.

Given the DED is home to tourism these days, could a merger be on the cards in future?

When you add in the Department of Environment, Food and Agriculture, and the Department of Infrastructure, there could be an argument that we have four departments that could be scaled down to three.

Another element that has to be remembered with Allan Bell’s hands-off approach to the work of his ministers is that it’s fine if you are confident that your ministers are all up to the job.

Is Mr Bell really that confident?

When you look at the cabinet and then you look at who else is available in Tynwald, it is hard not to come to the conclusion that Mr Bell is faced with a paucity of talent combined with experience.

Some have striven harder than others to keep to the government of national unity line that was put out when Mr Bell formed his cabinet. However, some have been either less able or less willing to do so, to the point where the GNU appears to have merely been a justification for the appointment of Peter Karran.

Add to that the fact that, at the time the cabinet was first announced, there were whispers, even from within the Council of Ministers, that it would never last. Of course, given Karran’s sacking, that has proven to be true, but there has been more than one occasion since when either by direct comments in private or indirect allusions in public, ministers have revealed the cabinet is not as unified as would be preferred.

In the run up to the February Budget, there will be in-fighting among ministers when it comes to spending cuts. We need the holistic approach, but it will be no surprise to hear not everything in the Comin garden is rosy. Expect to find one minister looking up from his cabbage patch and stamping his feet when he sees another has been given turnips as well.

Don’t be surprised to see the personnel in the Council of Ministers to be different by September 2013.

You get the impression the chief minister is quite happy for none of his cabinet members to feel entirely comfortable in their position – which may be no bad thing if it prevents complacency.

For all that, Mr Bell seems comfortable in his job.

In a long career, he’s had his blips – for instance his forced resignation as tourism minister in 1994 over the alleged unauthorized spending of £170,000 on a race track in Jurby, plus the allegation following the Mount Murray inquiry that he misled the House of Keys with answers to questions over that development.

As someone who spoke to him immediately after his resignation as minister 18 years ago and someone who also spoke to him just a couple of weeks ago for a Money Media interview, he seems better equipped these days for any brickbats.

There are bound to be plenty to come.

A year ago, a public poll found Mr Bell to be the best man for the chief minister’s job. Tynwald, who actually got to elect the chief minister, agreed.

However, the 2013 Budget has to be more co-ordinated than the last one, or we will start to wonder if we were wrong.

Follow on Twitter: @Norbertsdad

Click here to see Paul Speller talk politics with TVIM.


The Government of National Unity league table

F for the Erstwhile Education Minister

Will the government please try to be more unified?

How to get elected in the Isle of Man

To read Paul Speller’s interview with Allan Bell for Money Media magazine, click here and turn to page 12 on the emag.


About Paul Speller

Writer, journalist, husband, dad.
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6 Responses to Bell needs to ring the changes in the next year

  1. Mary Brew says:

    I agree with almost everything you say, almost. When it comes to the pre-school issue I have to disagree. No one speaks for the larger but silent majority of parents whose children never had pre school education facilities from DEC. Whilst I agree it is imprtant that every child has access to pre school facilities, this should be the rspnsibility of the parents. Creating private sector pre school facilities is surely the way to go. We are all shouting for gov to adopt scope of gov report except when it affects them! We want people to take more personal responsibility for their lives and stop relying on gov to help them out as an automatic right but start shouting when they actually do! The DEC has not cut it’s education budget it has just ceased doing something that was nice to have but sadly for only a lucky few of the population. Pre-school education was never part of the DEC’s statutory responsibilities – it is the parent’s. There are many harder cuts to come from Government – they have to make their Depts fitter and leaner. Personally as an es legal secretary who hardly had time to breathe most days, I am more angered by the secretaries and other staff at Nobles lounging about in front of the public just chatting for up to half an hour and not on breaks!

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