Lack of communication from Chief Pleas leaves Islanders frustrated
Last year saw the release of the most recent public consultation on the future shape of Chief Pleas; sadly, this exercise saw only 27 responses out of a possible 371 that were sent to Sark households.
However, the low number of responses does not mean that Sark’s government should disregard its responses, particularly when it comes to comments regarding Chief Pleas. ’ lack of effective communication with the Island’s electorate. A point that has again been highlighted this week by the fact that it was the local media that had to inform Sark residents of proposals for an off-Island person to oversee Guernsey politicians’ conduct and perhaps that of Jersey, Sark and Alderney’s government members.
Notwithstanding the lack of effective communication, Chief Pleas, and particularly the Policy & Finance Committee as the Island legislature’s principal policy-making body, should be scrutinised. The benchmark of scrutiny for Sark’s government and civil service should be that no one gets to mark their own homework.
At present, there is very little oversight, and this has been highlighted over the past few years. Recent items brought before Sark’s government that might not have withstood scrutiny may have included Chief Pleas’ attempt to remove the board of directors of the Isle of Sark Shipping Company Ltd (IoSS), the compulsory purchase of Sark Electricity Ltd (SEL), and the introduction of the aforementioned Civil Service Code of Conduct. The IoSS matter in August 2020 saw the Chief Pleas reports and relevant information only being released a few hours before Conseillers were expected to vote on the propositions.
The compulsory purchase of SEL resulted again in an Extraordinary meeting of Chief Pleas being announced, only three days before it was due to take place, with the following statement, ‘copies of the Report will be distributed immediately before the meeting.’ Almost a year later, there remains very little information in the public domain surrounding any possible purchase of SEL, either by negotiation or compulsorily. The Civil Service Code of Conduct appeared, ultra vires, on the Chief Pleas website in August 2021; Policy & Finance retrospectively sought the approval of the House two months after its publication. The Sark Newspaper commented at that time:
‘The question of ratification is fundamental, because if, as it appears, the civil service has made a unilateral decision to create and then publish a Code of Conduct without even consulting the legislature, or indeed anybody at all, then they are acting as a unilateral legislating-body, both making and then implementing policy decisions.’
Sark is a small Island community therefore any scrutiny cannot be undertaken by anyone who lives here; any oversight of Sark’s legislature and executive should be objective rather than subjective. So, therefore the plans from Guernsey’s Deputy Meerveld and its Assembly & Constitution Committee are most definitely welcomed. However, do they go far enough for Sark? Likely not.
Guernsey’s States of Deliberation is populated by experienced full-time politicians whilst it has a professional, qualified civil service. Sark’s legislature is admirably populated by volunteers with a small fledgling civil service headed by a Chief Secretary whose employment already raised concerns by members of the House at the time of her appointment. At the 2019 Easter Chief Pleas former Conseiller Pauline Mallinson raised her objections:
“I am seriously concerned that she is not a professional civil servant and, along with the lack of a qualified Treasurer, Sark does not have what has been referred to as a small, professional Civil Service which gives me serious concerns over our overall capacity and expertise to govern.”
Oversight could even perhaps extend to an annual performance review of Sark’s legislature and executive
Deputy Meerveld elaborated that the sort of person appointed to the role would be ‘someone with a judicial background who was not a Channel Islander, in order to ensure impartiality.’ Would this be adequate for Chief Pleas and the Island? Would a sole ‘commissioner’ be suitable? Why not a panel of three? Sark has previously had its fingers burned by single off-Island personalities driving its policies and strategies in the current Electricity Price Control Commissioner and the former Director of Education with the fallout still ongoing.
Almost three years from its first mention, perhaps there is hope that an independent Scrutiny Management Committee for Sark is on the horizon. Meanwhile the all-powerful Policy & Finance Committee, aided and abetted by the Chief Secretary, has fallen into a pattern of working in the abstract with little or no accountability to Conseillers who are outside of its population, nor to the Island’s electorate.
This article first appeared in the Sark Newspaper : May 13th 2022