Don't let the Haut de la Garenne horrors demonise an entire island
Jersey's governing system may baffle outsiders, but it's one of the most civilised and open, says Malcolm Johnson
In her thoughtful article on the public reporting of past child abuse in Jersey, Helen Pidd expresses dismay at the lack of progress after five months of investigations (House of horrors, August 2). She writes: "I have knocked on the doors of many of the accused, been harangued by locals horrified at Jersey being lazily painted as a sinister 'island of secrets' ... spoken to tourism officials ... and still I am not sure what the truth is."
She focuses on the imminent departure of the deputy police chief, Lenny Harper, "an outspoken critic of what he sees as the island's tendency to brush awkward problems under the carpet". But she then goes on to make some gratuitous observations: "It is tempting to use the island's tax-haven status as a metaphor for the locals' ability to keep even the shadowiest of secrets"; and "the locals are particularly prickly about the Nazi occupation". In the process, she denigrates an entire island community.
Police investigations at the former children's home Haut de la Garenne have turned up human fragments and a large number of discarded milk teeth. It is likely, even probable, that children in public care were ill-treated by staff and others. But such behaviour in the postwar period (and before) has been well documented across the world, not least in the UK, and these findings - still untested by the legal process - provide no reason for distorting the image of a whole society.
Senator Stuart Syvret, who publicly raised concerns about child abuse, is a popular politician of integrity and strong social values. He was right to draw attention to past failures, and the possibility that some of them continue.
As adviser on ageing to the States of Jersey (the Jersey parliament) for more than seven years, I worked across the whole of government, and in particular health and social services. What constantly struck me about the island's civil servants, professionals and many of its politicians was their openness to constructive criticism.
Along with other small societies, Jersey has its own complex ways of reaching decisions, which may baffle others. There are no political parties. Whether they seek election to the States or one of the 12 parishes, politicians are all independents, whose effectiveness depends on personal standing, local esteem and the ability to get things done. Such a system produces a changing kaleidoscope of alliances, but it generally results in vigorous and engaged, if occasionally ponderous, politics.
Pidd writes: "Jersey is a small, isolated island, which encourages a wariness of outsiders ... I was surprised to see how many powerful figures share the same name." She then provides a single example of shared names and uses metropolitan standards to mock the desire to protect economy and reputation.
Yet, strange as these patterns of governance may appear, in combination with high levels of professionalism in the institutions of government they have produced one of the most civilised societies I have worked in.
Malcolm Johnson is emeritus professor of health and social policy at the University of Bristol.