Mon, 27 May 2024

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By Baroness Smith of Llanfaes
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Haven, have not: Jersey's inequalities awakened

10 min read

The scene is depicted in a large oil painting that hangs in Tate Britain, the body of a fatally wounded soldier cradled by his comrades under a billowing Union Jack. 

The Death of Major Peirson, 6 January 1781 records the martyrdom of 24-year-old Francis Peirson in St Helier, killed at the very moment he had seen off a French invasion of Jersey.  

Every nation – and Jersey considers itself a nation – cleaves to such stories of heroism, and now almost 250 years later a new spirit of resistance is abroad on the Channel island. 

Following elections last year the largest political party on this rural, staunchly conservative island is Reform Jersey – a party that has called in the past for “ecological socialism”, supported Extinction Rebellion and called for reform to the island’s tax haven status. Ten of the 49 elected members of the Jersey parliament are Reform Jersey. 

Not only is it rare for small, wealthy tax havens to swing even slightly leftwards, but Jersey has, pretty much throughout its entire modern history, not even had political parties let alone left-leaning ones. 

How did Jersey, known for its apparent wealth and conservatism, become ripe for such a political revolution – and what lessons might politicians on the mainland learn? 

For most of its history the people of Jersey lived on the land, the sea and the cash spent by tourists. But like many rural and seaside towns in the United Kingdom, industrialisation, globalisation and the rise of international travel saw those industries decline. 

Then in 1971 Colin Powell, an economist advising the government, published a report pushing for the island to move into financial services. Its lowered tax rates – currently zero per cent for companies and a maximum of 20 per cent for all incomes – were designed to encourage investment in the island, and like many tax havens its tiny size meant the ensuing investment and even limited tax income allowed it to flourish. 

But since then the dream has started to decay. Economic growth has slumped to an average of 1.6 per cent over the last decade, income inequality has risen to a record high – and one of the highest rates in all of the developed world – and the island has the highest cost of living in the British Isles, and even by some reports the whole world (though the Jersey government disputes this). 

Jersey has the highest concentration of Waitrose supermarkets per square mile in the British Isles, but St Helier has a higher number of foodbanks than towns like King’s Lynn or Weymouth. 

And while the island’s median income is above the UK average and its joblessness rates are very low, it is still facing a poverty crisis. 

“Every day we’re seeing parents going without so their children can have food,” says Alice Nunn, the head of the island’s Salvation Army mission. “Within two weeks of starting the food bank during Covid, we were feeding back 600 people a week,” adds Richard, Alice’s husband and the other co-leader of the Jersey mission. 

The Salvation Army has seen the number of visits to its foodbanks already more than double between 2021 and 2023, even with three months left of this year (at the time of writing). 

The relative poverty rate on the island is roughly the same as the UK average, which itself is facing a 20-year high for poverty rates, and around half of single parents live in poverty. The Jersey government also doesn’t have a statutory legal definition of homelessness, and only introduced its formal definition of homelessness in October 2022. 

Food prices in Jersey are actually 33 per cent higher than in the cheaper supermarkets on the mainland, in part thanks to the lack of budget supermarkets on the island (according to those we spoke to, Waitrose essentials ranges are the cheapest things on the island). 

We’ve never had to face these issues as the island has been swimming in this wealth that has managed to take care of people  

Then there’s housing. As of June 2023, the average house price in Jersey was £666,000 – 26 per cent higher than London, and over twice the average for England as a whole. The average rent for those who are new to the island is roughly £1,700 for a one-bedroom property. 

In its response to The House, the Government of Jersey highlighted that it has spent £250m in the last decade to build more and improve its current social housing stock and stressed that “most rented accommodation in Jersey is subject to minimum health and safety standards legislation”. 

Much of these higher costs can be explained by limits to state support and home ownership that are much stricter than in the UK. People have to be on the island for six months to access healthcare subsidies and sickness benefits, up to five years before they can start to receive means-tested state support and a decade before becoming eligible for a licence to own housing. Those on the island for less than a decade must rent ‘unlicensed’ housing – a much smaller pool of homes that have a reputation for dire conditions and astronomical rents. 

Around half of the secondary schools on the island are fee-paying. Then there’s the medical costs. Jersey doesn’t have the NHS and much of its own health service is pay-to-access – as much as £60 for an initial GP appointment – and more if you need any follow up “non-emergency” treatments or tests. 

While the government has announced plans to subsidise GP appointments by £20 (making most GP appointments nearer to £40), and has several other health access schemes, none eliminate the cost, and many of islanders still struggle. 

“Not a week goes by where I don’t have to pay for someone’s CT scans, X-rays or ultrasounds,” says Patrick Lynch, the local head of a Catholic relief charity. 

Pensioners, who make up a fifth of the island and whose income is being outstripped by rising costs, have held protests over budget cuts and poverty outside parliament. 

Another section of the population that suffers is itinerant service and public-sector workers in the industries that feed, clothe and care for the island’s wealthier inhabitants. Some 14 per cent of the island’s private workforce earns less than the living wage versus the 12.2 per cent recorded in the UK for private and public sector workers. The island’s current minimum wage is £10.50 an hour (almost identical to the UK rate), but is set to increase in January. 

It is little wonder that 27% of all posts in Jersey’s mental health services are vacant – far higher than similar NHS averages. Staff shortages led an industry body last year to warn that the island’s community care sector is “in a crisis”, while, as of last year, the island needed to fill 25-30 GP roles (roughly a third of the island’s total). 

In many cases, those migrant workers have less of a political voice, but unlike in the UK, foreign citizens can vote in elections in Jersey as long as they’re over 16 and have been on the island for two years (three years less than they need to be there to access state benefits). 

“We’ve never had to face these issues as the island has been swimming in this wealth that has managed to take care of people,” says Vic Tanner Davy, the chief executive of Liberate, another of the island’s inequality charities. “But this time, for once, it’s beginning to hit home that we need to deal with these social issues.” 

More than anything, Davy says that the cost of living crisis has highlighted the divide between two different groups on the island. One stuck with crumbling services and stagnating wages, and others who “use their private jets and fly right over us, even during Covid” and can negotiate with the government to be exempt from property licensing and tax rules. 

Not a week goes by where I don’t have to pay for someone’s CT scans, X-rays or ultrasounds

The echoes with the UK are unmistakable, but there are some real differences. Jersey might just be the only nation on earth that has refused to adopt the political parties that define just about every modern democracy. Historically, its parliament has been made up of independents, elected on personality, ruling by consensus. 

At last year’s election something changed. Not only did the serving government get wiped out, but party politics has begun to seep in. Chief among them was Reform Jersey, which took home a record ten seats in the island’s parliament. And while a coalition of every independent elected still managed to overturn Reform’s bid to form a government, the party has become the de-facto opposition on the island. 

It’s a significant advance on its debut in 2014 when it barely won three seats. Back then founder Sam Mézec was a 23-year-old parliamentarian with “long hair down to my shoulders and piercings”. Now he sports a trim suit, slicked-back hair and the kind of message discipline that wouldn’t be out of place in the current shadow cabinet. 

But he is still happy to discuss “political hero” Bernie Sanders, or how the “Corbyn-era taught me the value of hope and being unapologetic about good policies” (though Mézec somewhat bristles at the party being dismissed as left-wing). 

And concrete policies are one thing the party has plenty of. In its manifesto, there was everything from rent controls and policies to fill empty homes to free school meals, raising the minimum wage and reducing healthcare costs for island residents.  

Just minutes after we finish chatting, he’s set to be interviewed by BBC Jersey, calling for the island’s private gas monopoly to be nationalised after a major failure left the island without gas for a week. 

Mézec is a little more measured speaking about the finance industry, but perhaps Reform’s most eyebrow-raising policy would be to increase Jersey’s corporation tax to 15 per cent in line with a proposed global minimum – potentially ending the country’s tax-haven status, if it turns out that other nations refuse to meet that minimum. 

A two-year stint as housing minister in the last government, before resigning in protest in 2020, has helped give the party credibility – Mézec says – as voters have seen that he’s not gaffe-prone and has “been in government before and could be again”. 

“Jersey is facing the same cost of living pressures that are affecting the UK and much of Europe. Since taking office last year, we have taken extensive action to help Islanders tackle the cost of living,” the Government of Jersey said in a statement. 

It added that it had brought in “above-inflation” increases to income tax allowances and temporarily reduced social security contributions; that Jersey has generous benefits and housing support schemes for islanders; that support schemes for those on low incomes have been doubled; and that cold weather payments have been increased to £70 a month from October to March regardless of the temperature. 

As much as anything else, Reform Jersey is trying to bring party politics, ideology and bigger picture policymaking to an island run by the “world’s largest parish council”. Somewhere that has had the luxury of hyper-focusing, Mézec says, on small-scale ideas – despite its government having more powers than the parliaments of Wales or Scotland – and is now being forced to face up to a new socio-economic reality. 

“Jersey is getting worse,” as Mézec explains it. “So people can say, don’t fall for the people who are offering you change, because things might get worse. But things are already getting worse without change.”

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