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Hall and Houghton release full statement

Mon, 23 Apr 2012


MHKs Zac Hall and John Houghton have released a full statement after they were sacked from the Department of Education and Children.

The pair had failed to back the DEC's decision to close government-run pre-schools and failed to turn up to a debate in Tynwald.

Their statement can be found below:

“Further to our interim media release last week, we would like to place on record our disappointment in not being able to support the policy proposal of the Department of Education & Children regarding pre-school provision on the Isle of Man. We understand that our role was to represent the department but ultimately we are elected to represent the public interest. We did not want to be dishonest to Tynwald by supporting a policy we couldn’t endorse in the form being proposed but with consideration for the Minister, we decided at the time it was appropriate to remove ourselves from the debate and abstain from the vote. However, with the benefit of hindsight, we regret that we were not present in the Court in order to be able to vote in support of Mr Speaker’s motion. We have been taught a lesson which we have learned. We recognise that it would not have made a difference to the outcome or our own positions in Government.

At the department meeting on 16th December 2011, we placed on record together with Dudley Butt MLC that we were not in favour of the proposed cuts in the Department’s budget 2012/13. We also note that the Department had met with Treasury in August 2011 to discuss the 2012/13 budget. Despite recording our objection to the proposals, we were horrified that the Minister was adamant to take a course of action without the support of any of the departmental members. The Minister appeared to show a lack of understanding of the subject matter and the real value of teacher led nursery opportunities for children and that its withdrawal would result in lower standards. We believed it was a short-sighted, regressive step that will be very hard to reverse in the future and will have a detrimental effect on the progress and attainment of pupils in the long term. We continued our efforts tirelessly until our departure from the Department on 19th April 2012. Furthermore, our role as departmental members was frustrating. It sometimes felt that we had responsibility without information or facts, never mind influence or power. We did not receive any formal delegation paperwork from the Minister clearly setting out our respective roles. Significantly, we discovered our delegations via a press release email without any prior discussions with the Minister. We were also dismayed when we arrived for one department meeting, only to be told that it had been cancelled yet nobody had even bothered to inform us.

Dudley Butt MLC put forward proposals for modest student tuition fees in order to protect other targeted provisions such as pre-school provision. Treasury fully supported this measure and agreed that if this would be executed and given the time delay before they came into effect, they would ensure additional funds be made available as an interim measure to the department. This was rejected by the Minister even though there is no mention of protecting tuition fees in his manifesto, merely the grant system. We put forward proposals in respect of a variety of charging mechanisms. Again, the Minister dismissed our ideas without giving the necessary time to even consider them properly.

Given that previous administrations have been eating away at the system, we had grave concerns about the budget being proposed which lead us to demand a meeting with Treasury in order to discuss the matter in detail which occurred on 18th January 2012 and then further on 24th January 2012. Furthermore, in addition to several conversations, we both wrote to the Chief Minister on 27th January 2012 to express our disappointment with the meetings. We warned the Chief Minister that to inflict more cuts, would be pushing the system beyond the limits, especially when there is so much wastage across Government. We felt it was not right to consider abandoning such important and critical components within Education. We urged him to freeze the cuts and give a genuine and meaningful priority to Education. The Minister of Education & Children, meanwhile, did little to show support for us in our quest.

We made a conscious decision not to resign in order to fight for the people from within the department to the very end and are disappointed that despite our hard work, we have been unable to divert the department from introducing its current policy proposal.

Our departure from the Department of Education & Children has been advised as pursuant to the Government Code of Collective responsibility which department Members have to follow. It is interesting, however, to note that the Minister himself has not followed the code of collective responsibility of the Council of Ministers by absenting himself from voting in Tynwald without leave of absence on policies or matters which he did not agree with on a number of occasions without any consequences or actions taken against him. We question the concept of collective responsibility in the interests of fairness and equality.

Also, we have not received any warning, to date, under standing orders of Tynwald which we understand is a requirement prior to the removal from a Government post.

It is vital to be able to distinguish between Government getting a tough time because you’re taking an unpopular decision that you genuinely have worked out thoroughly and believe to be right, and Government having a tough time because a proposed policy hasn’t been thought through properly. We believe that in the case of pre-school provision, the latter applies. Therefore, the important thing is to recognise that sometimes mistakes and irrational decisions are made and poor policies do slip through but it’s imperative to correct these when that becomes clear. The Department needs to acknowledge that it is time to be taught a lesson, not deny an opportunity to our children.

As we were largely removed from the decision making process, did the Civil Service Leadership support the Minister of Education & Children sufficiently as they tried to develop options? We do not believe the Minister received good advice or support from them. The bureaucratic response to budget reduction was simply to cut non-statutory provision. In fact, informed analytical consideration, not rushed decision, was needed. We were concerned that this decision was being made without first consulting and fully discussing the proposals with teachers and head teachers who would be affected by the changes. They were left largely on their own to shoulder the burden of parent’s anger and concerns about a policy decision that was not of their own making and about which they knew nothing until it was too late to prepare an adequate response which they were confronted with at very short notice.

On the morning of the sitting of April Tynwald, 17th April 2012, we offered, as Departmental members, to take a lead in the process of engaging with professionals, parents, employers, young people and all other stakeholders to revisit the provision of pre-school in this Island, getting better value from our assets of all types whilst maintaining standards. This offer was considered but rejected by both the Chief Minister and the Minister for Education & Children shortly before the debate began which left us no alternative but to consider our position.

It is important for all to learn from this situation, to avoid any repetition of the distress and anger of recent months. We need truth, to get reconciliation between politicians and the people, for good government for the people.

We wish the new department members who have replaced us, Tony Wild MLC and Juan Turner MLC, the very best in their new positions and hope they can provide direction and common sense and continue our efforts to install some discipline to a vulnerable department.

One other matter for them to take up is that we were forced to become involved in a staff HR issue of significant substance which we do not believe was handled well by DEC Management and the Minister during our time in office. We have been proved right on the issue and asked for further investigation and action. This matter is sensitive and quite rightly we are constrained under date protection and other law and regulations.

 

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