Following the success of our in-depth interviews with the 12 new MHKs elected in September, the Isle of Man Examiner is extending the series to the remaining dozen Members of the House of Keys. Today, PAUL SPELLER talks to former minister Chris Robertshaw, the only MHK not to accept a department membership, about his role and how he still believes passionately in updating the government’s policy on holding data
He’s the outsider who plans to hold the government up to scrutiny and Chris Robertshaw wishes others would follow his example.
The Douglas East MHK surprised some when he declined to accept a departmental role. But he insists he is not a one-man opposition. He will support the government when it gets things right.
He simply believes that many government departments are over-populated with political members and some MHKs could perform a more worthwhile role offering truly independent scrutiny.
Some regarded his self-imposed isolation as a fit of pique when, despite the very evident lack of experience available, Chief Minister Howard Quayle did not go out of his way to offer him a role in the Council of Ministers. But Mr Robertshaw has previously argued – including in his manifesto – that it was unnecessary for every MHK to have a government role and he would not take one if not a cabinet member.
‘I was invited to discuss matters with the chief minister and declined to do so,’ he says. ‘I doubt very much he would have offered a ministerial position.’
To be fair, a seat at the Council of Ministers table was not always a comfortable place for Mr Robertshaw, who was first of all Minister for Health and Social Care (2011-14), briefly at the soon-to-be-disbanded Department of Culture and Leisure, before being handed the remit of Policy and Reform by the previous chief minister Allan Bell. He famously walked away from the role in 2015 –frustrated at the lack of pace on his reform proposals.
In his 2016 election manifesto, he branded the government system as ‘not fit for purpose’ and he repeats to me his belief that the silo mentality – that same mentality former chief minister Allan Bell wanted to destroy – remains too prevalent.
Mr Robertshaw wants there to be a single legal entity of government. He says the Bell administration suffered at the hands of departmental ‘fiefdoms’. There was a resistance to the streamlining he wanted to bring during his time as policy and reform minister. It resulted in the upper echelons of departments not streamlining in the way they expected the workers at the coalface to.
‘In other words, at its essence, government was protecting itself,’ he says. ‘Is government for the people or are the people for the government?’
He is a strong proponent of using digital technology to improve the efficiency of government, although that sometimes takes him into controversial waters.
His recommendation, in part of a select committee report on the jury system, for a central citizen database from which jurors could be selected very quickly became a hot potato.
Mr Robertshaw also advocates the introduction of a single identification code for data access, but insists this is very different from a centralised database of all the information held about an individual.
What he suggests is that an individual is given their own code that would enable them to access information held about them on any government database. But the point is, he says, no one else would have that level of access.
It would speed up processes, he says, when the individual uses that code to provide access to information to someone, for example a doctor, who would otherwise have to cut through a jungle of red tape to access information on a different database.
‘It does not mean a centralised information source. What it means is that there are sources of information, but they are each, in their own right, protected.
‘The basic information is assembled on a single card, but all the private stuff remains private. It is not a central database. The integrity of your tax records and the integrity of your health records will remain absolute.’
It would also mean the individual would be able to see all the information that is held about them.
Mr Robertshaw has a sometimes fractious relationship with the media and was critical of this newspaper when it placed an image of former Onchan MHK Zac Hall’s head onto a parrot to illustrate an article about plagiarism in speeches.
But the Douglas East MHK was quick to respond to the request for an interview and is affable – and relaxed – throughout our meeting.
You get the impression he is sometimes misunderstood, but, at least in his public persona, he does not let it worry him.
He is enjoying his freedom on the backbenches.
‘When you are a minister in our current system, you are very much in harness. It is reminiscent of a fighter pilot being strapped in.
‘Being outside the system gives you an opportunity to think across the piece. I think that is incredibly important, because there is not enough of that going on.’
He admits that, following a long career in business, he sometimes found the cabinet’s proclivity for procrastination, instead of action, to be frustrating.
I put it to him to that a number of sources close to and within the previous Council of Ministers had opined that he did not enjoy criticism or alternative views, but he says that is harsh.
His main problem, he says, was with the emphasising on saying something and not as much effort on actually doing it. Too many times, policies are made with an eye to the next election.
Mr Robertshaw, who will be 73 at the 2021 general election, will not have that problem. He says he has no plans to stand again. By then, it will have been 11 years since he was first elected.
A grandfather of five, he says he is content, but feels an obligation to do all he can to push what he sees as important policies in the remainder of his term.
‘Somebody like me has a duty to contribute as best we can,’ he says.
‘A form of hell must be to reach the end of your life and have many regrets.’
As we part, he apologises if he has talked for too long about issues that matter to him, jokes that he awaits the character assassination with interest and says he has been aware of past comparisons with Darth Vader.
Afterwards, I wonder how much he was joking about being stitched up. I remain fairly certain he was, but sometimes a joke is made to gauge a reaction. If he does seriously anticipate a character assassination – which is not the intention of this article – then it is to his credit that he is happy enough to be interviewed anyway.
To stretch and distort the House of Keys/Star Wars analogy, it will be interesting to see whether the Force is with parliament’s Rogue One.