|22nd October 2021
FULLY INDEPENDENT SCRUTINY TO COME TO CHIEF PLEAS AT LAST?
Last week’s meeting of Chief Pleas was one of the longest in recent memory, taking around three and a half hours from start to finish. It was refreshing to see commentary and debate for the majority of agenda items, with many important, long-awaited aspects of life on Sark gaining traction and development such as the definition of a Sark resident and taxation review. It is now time to see Sark’s government develop and mature in its democratic credentials through engagement and inclusion of all Island residents. Chief Pleas should embrace this direction and progress its commitment to accountability, openness and transparency.
During 2018, Chief Pleas was divided as to how it should move forward with its future structure and following the amalgamation of the former Policy & Performance and Finance & Resources Committees - a super committee - worries were voiced that there might be too much power concentrated in the hands of too few.
In October 2018 the then Conseiller Jane Norwich introduced a report to Chief Pleas that updated the assembly on the work of the Reform Law (Good Governance) Policy Development Team. Norwich added:
‘Scrutiny is another matter that does need some considerable work and I hope that will be taken forward under the umbrella of the Policy Committee. But we will see what happens in January.’
In the ensuing debate, former Conseiller Pauline Mallinson raised concerns:
‘I have a question to do with scrutiny. The paper talks generally about scrutiny: I am really concerned with the merging of the two Policy Committees in January what we are planning to put in place in terms of scrutiny for that new merged Committee, and whether it is our intention formally to request that either Guernsey or the MOJ [Ministry of Justice] helps us with the scrutiny of that Committee. The clock is ticking. That merger is supposed to happen in January and I am not aware of any firm plans in place for that scrutiny.’
Mallinson’s concerns were inadequately addressed, with just a comment that scrutiny should be implemented in the future.
At the Christmas 2019 meeting of Chief Pleas, Mallinson, as a member of the then Policy & Finance Committee introduced the proposition to establish a Scrutiny Management Committee. Issues were noted with its population and membership as members of Policy & Finance could hardly scrutinise themselves; meaning there would be ‘… an unreasonably low number of Members who would then be able to be part of the Scrutiny Committee…’ Only one comment came from the floor, from former Conseiller Sébastien Moerman:
‘Scrutiny is a deep study of process and standards. It is a process of checks and balances that the Government of Sark is working well and meeting the standards required of an independent jurisdiction. In other jurisdictions the scrutiny panels or committees have investigatory powers, powers to request politicians and government employees to comply with requests for information. Government employees or members of parliament to possibly attend for interviews and where necessary to request remediation in a written report which would be publically available. This Committee does not have the necessary teeth.’
The proposition was subsequently voted through before returning to the House with an amendment in July 2019. This amendment removed the restriction of any deputy chair from being a member of the Scrutiny Management Committee. After the reduction in the number of Conseillers populating Chief Pleas from 28 to 18, the then chair of Policy & Finance Committee, Sam La Trobe-Bateman, confirmed that:
‘This Report explains everything we wish to do. With the reduction of Conseillers in Chief Pleas it is hard to fill the Scrutiny Committee. With the amalgamation of the two Committees it is very important that there is one in place for all of us. By removing the restrictions of deputy chair, it makes populating this Committee possible. By approving these Propositions, we can fill the Committee at our next Policy and Development Group, and then they can get scrutinising.’
This proposition was carried; nothing more was heard of a Scrutiny Management Committee until September of last year when Conseiller McHugh asked of La Trobe-Bateman for an update. His response was:
‘It was decided [at a Policy Development Group meeting] that in order to have a robust and future-proof Scrutiny Committee, Conseillers should not be the ones scrutinising each other. Policy and Finance believe that by placing it within the mandate of the new tribunal panel makes sense. The tribunal panel will consist of, hopefully, six members of the public that will have proper training to fulfil their mandated roles. Their mandate will encompass the Road Traffic Tribunal, the Development Control Tribunal, Code of Conduct and the Scrutiny Committee. By creating this trained group, it will not only ensure neutral, professional judgement, but also free up individuals currently tied up on the two tribunals.’
The suggestion of scrutiny of Chief Pleas raised its head again at last week’s 2021 Michaelmas meeting, as a result of a query from the floor following the approval of the implementation of a Civil Service Code of Conduct, and as a Scrutiny Management Committee is yet to be established. The current chair of the Policy & Finance, Conseiller John Guille responded:
“… in terms of scrutiny, I won’t go into much detail on the hoof right now, but we have been in discussions with our colleagues in Guernsey about potentially sharing some sort of pan-Islands’ form of scrutiny which I think is very much along the lines of what you [Conseiller Delaney] are intimating just then… work is definitely in progress on that front.”
Recent items brought before Sark’s government that may not have withstood scrutiny would likely 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 a Civil Service Code of Conduct. The IoSS matter in August 2020 saw the reports and accompanying documentation only being released a few hours before Conseillers were expected to vote on the propositions. The compulsory purchase of SEL again saw an Extraordinary meeting of Chief Pleas being announced three days before it was due to take place, with ‘copies of the Report will be distributed immediately before the meeting.’ 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.’
Public consultations that have taken place over the last few years regarding the future shape of Chief Pleas have seen respondents comment that political culture, the current committee system and a lack of civil service resources are amongst reasons as to why Sark’s electorate have been discouraged from standing for election. Whilst the following were listed as improvements to how Chief Pleas communicates with the public:
- Make some/more committee meetings open to the public
- Regular news bulletins/government press releases
- Reintroduce Conseiller surgeries
- Publish brief minutes of meetings in which major decisions are made.
The establishment of a Scrutiny Management Committee would go a long way to encourage confidence in the Island’s government from voters and may even encourage further participation from residents.