Interview with the Chief Minister: ‘Economically, politically and internationally we’ve done well. If we take the foot off pedal of change, problems will be worse’

The original "Government of National Unity"

The original "Government of National Unity"

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With the economy still growing, unemployment low, our international reputation heightened and public finances on track to be rebalanced, the island is in a better position than Allan Bell envisaged when he first became Chief Minister.

Looking back on his last four years in charge - and ahead to the final months of his administration before the general election, he told the Manx Independent: ‘We’ve made good progress and achieved a lot in the last four years. But maybe that has not always been recognised.’

Students Protest against proposed tuition fees outside Tynwald

Students Protest against proposed tuition fees outside Tynwald

He admitted it was demoralising to hear comments about this being the ‘worst ever government’ - a criticism that appears to have been levelled at every previous administration.

Mr Bell had started out with big ambitions to create a government of national unity.

But that rainbow coalition didn’t last long with Lib Van Peter Karran sacked as Education Minister within eight months. There’s been little unity in Tynwald and even in CoMin ever since.

Chris Robertshaw resigned as Minister for Policy and Reform, Economic Development Minister John Shimmin was forced to step down over the Sefton loans saga but later returned to the cabinet as Mr Robertshaw’s replacement and two others in the original line-up, David Cretney and under-fire Health Minister David Anderson, lost their jobs in the 2014 government reshuffle.

Toilet Tax picture

Toilet Tax picture

Mr Bell accepts he may have been a little naive in his hopes for a rainbow coalition. ‘I had hoped we would be able to create a government of national unity bearing in mind that the problems the island faced. For a period it worked but unfortunately it seems it was a step too far,’ he admitted.

Among the wider public, he accepted that new and increased charges, the public sector wage freeze and pension reform was never going to be popular. The introduction of tuition fees and the toilet tax were certainly low points for the government’s popularity.

But Mr Bell said that people all too easily forget what prompted all this - the loss of one third of the government’s income through the arbitrary revision of the VAT deal, combined with the slow recovery from the global recession and the on-going impact of the banking crisis.

‘The starting point was probably the most challenging that any administration has had to had to face since the establishment of the ministerial system,’ he said.

Chief Mnister Allan Bell meets Sun Feng, vice president of the China Classification Society (CCS) during a visit to the Isle of Man by leading figures from China's shipping industry

Chief Mnister Allan Bell meets Sun Feng, vice president of the China Classification Society (CCS) during a visit to the Isle of Man by leading figures from China's shipping industry

He explained the government had three priorities at the outset - to grow the economy, protect the vulnerable and rebalance public finances. Those three priorities have remained in place right through his term in office.

But he insisted that he had always said it would take two terms to tackle the big challenges his administration faced.

The Chief Minister said the best way to balance the budget is to grow the economy and government had been very successful in stimulating investment, diversifying away from financial services and creating new jobs. The push to attract investment has included forging new links with the economic powerhouse of China, with Mr Bell heading two major Manx missions. This year will see the roll-out of ambitious proposals for a £50m Economic Development Fund, centrepiece of a package of measures designed to boost jobs and growth.

‘We entered our 31st year of unbroken economic growth, we’ve clocked up growth of 4-5 per cent, making us among the fastest growing economies in Europe, unemployment has stayed well below 2 per cent. We are now the biggest Crown Dependency economy for the first time ever,’ he said.

Treasury Exchequer Secretary David Gauke MP and Chief Minister Allan'Bell sign the UK FA TCA agreement in October 2013

Treasury Exchequer Secretary David Gauke MP and Chief Minister Allan'Bell sign the UK FA TCA agreement in October 2013

‘Internationally our reputation is stronger than ever before,’ he argued - citing as a major break through the announcement in September 2013 by UK Premier David Cameron two years ago that we should not longer be considered a ‘tax haven’. The island led the way in committing to a new FATCA model of global automatic disclosure of tax information, driven by the US.

‘Economically, politically, internationally we’ve done really well,’ he said. ‘We’re in a better position than I thought we would have been.’

The real challenge, and an area where there is still much work to be done, is to rebalance public finances.

Early on a ‘slash and burn’ approach was ruled out. Mr Bell said wholesale redundancies would have destabilised the economy and disrupted public services. Jersey, he points out, has just sacked 150 public workers and is talking about making another 1,000 redundant.

‘We’ve had hard decisions to make to continue our strategy to downsize government. We’ve reduced headcount by over 600 staff and we’ve contained the government wage bill. I would have liked to see the numbers come down a bit quicker.

‘But the key question is not about numbers but what services do my colleagues in Tynwald want to see reduced or got rid of?’

Mr Bell said the biggest issue that his and the next government will have to get to grips with is the public sector pensions deficit which is growing year on year.

He said the pension reserve would run out in four to five years if nothing is done - and ultimately this could impact on front line services.

He said the unions recognised that change had to happen.

But it’s not just the public sector pension scheme that needs reform but the state pension too. With an ageing population, the welfare bill as a whole needs to be addressed and the Manx NHS put on a sustainable footing.

‘Sustainability is going to be the watchword for the next few years now,’ the Chief Minister said.

Asked about his biggest disappointments in the last four years, Mr Bell admitted he had been frustrated at times by the slow pace of change.

He said he was also frustrated by the continuing ‘silo’ way of thinking by certain government departments. ‘Things have improved but we have a long way to go to change that culture in government,’ he said.

Continuing that theme of cultural change, he described as ‘major steps forward’ the implementation of the long-awaited Disability Discrimination Act, and the launch of the island’s first mental health strategy. Same Sex Marriage is likely to be law by next summer and the Equality Bill won’t be too far behind, he said.

So what of his own political future? Will he stand again? ‘I don’t usually make a decision on elections until six months before. I’ll see how I feel then and how the political situation is at that point,’ he replied.

Other MHKs, however, appear to have one eye already on the September general election, the first to be contested with new constituency boundaries and new rules on donations and expenses. ‘It’s my hope the government and Tynwald will stay focused on the major problems right up to election day. If we take the foot off the pedal of change the problems faced by the next few administrations will be considerably worse,’ he said.

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