24th May 2019
DO CHIEF PLEAS POSSESS THE WILL OR THE ABILITY TO FIX SARK’S ECONOMY?
Following last December’s contested general election, the first to be held in Sark since 2012, Islanders have been waiting to see how the new influx of democratically elected politicians shape up. Coming in the main from the younger generation, would they bring forward radical legislation to kick start the Island’s economy or would they be overwhelmed by the ‘old guard’ and merely fall into line with the policies of state-sponsored economic ethnic cleansing that have been the hallmark of a decade economic decline?
For the moment, the jury is out. Sources within Chief Pleas report that the 16 members spend more time infighting than getting on with the job of governing Sark. This will be a cause for concern amongst Islanders. The people of Sark need a government that can move quickly and efficiently to implement, or indeed, repeal laws and regulations, so as to deliver economic growth, improvements in living standards and to protect its people from outside interference in the Island’s affairs.
THE WILL TO FIX THE ECONOMY
It is over five months since December 2018’s general election. Chief Pleas has met several times, but not once has the subject of the Island’s economy been mentioned, let alone debated or acted upon.
Why is this the case when hopes were high that fixing the economy would be a priority for the influx of new mainly younger democratically elected members who were sworn into Chief Pleas in January? A cursory look at the all-powerful state committee structure reveals that every committee of significance remains under the control of ‘old guard’ unelected would-be politicians. None have faced the electorate, none have received a single vote, and none have a mandate from the people of Sark to govern on their behalf, yet they continue to dominate Chief Pleas through their control of the Island’s powerful committees.
Peter Samuel La Trobe-Bateman is chairman of the Policy & Finance Committee and as such he is the de facto ‘chief minister’ of Sark. Sandra Williams is chairman of the Harbours & Shipping Committee and also controls Sark’s Tourism Committee. Pauline Mallinson chairs the Education Committee. Alan Blythe is chairman of the all-powerful Douzaine as well as being chairman of the Development Control Committee. Paul Williams is chairman of the Public works committee. Thus, the all-powerful committee structure is controlled by the very people who have been active participants in the destruction of Sark’s economy. If there is a will within Chief Pleas to fix the economy, it is not, on past record, likely to be coming from any of these unelected would-be politicians.
THE ABILITY TO FIX THE ECONOMY
December’s general election was, in no small part, successfully contested as a result of this publication’s involvement. The Sark Newspaper had called for Islanders to put their names forward for election so as to stop in its tracks the unlawful threat of intervention in Sark’s affairs issued by Lord Keen, the UK Ministry of Justice Minister with responsibilities for the Crown Dependencies, in a letter to Chief Pleas in October 2018:
‘To be satisfied of good government on Sark, I need to be assured on three particular counts. First, that the island’s Government has sufficient capacity and access to the necessary skills, knowledge and experience to govern effectively; second, that Government decisions are made in a transparent way, based on objective advice and; third, that proper democratic accountability of the Government to the people of the island can be restored, primarily through the mechanism of periodic contested elections.
On the first two points, as you know, it is my considered view that Sark needs a small, professional civil service, which will provide objective advice and enable decisions based on proper evaluation of the evidence, costs and risks. It would also be able to make recommendations on standards of propriety in Government and, importantly, ensure that Sark’s Government maintains sufficient overall capacity and expertise to govern, irrespective of the ultimate size of a ‘sustainable’ Chief Pleas.
On my third point, no democratic government can hope to maintain itself indefinitely without periodically answering to its electorate through elections that offer a genuine choice of representation. It has been six years since a properly contested election in Sark. In light of the many significant challenges facing the island, it is now a matter of urgency that your forthcoming elections deliver a strong mandate to government going forward.’
Lord Keen’s unlawful threat to intervene in Sark’s affairs clearly didn't stop with his call for contested elections. He put as much, if not more, emphasis on the need for a small, professional civil service. He was right to identify the lack of a proper civil service being an obstacle to democratic accountability within Chief Pleas. Sark is unique in that the very people who make the laws then go out and enforce the very laws that they create. There is none of the separation of powers essential for good governance, leading to a lack of objectivity, transparency and accountability.
Chief Pleas have ignored calls for the kind of independent professional civil service that Lord Keen identifies as being essential to delivering good governance. They have instead continued with a patchwork of part-time state employees, taken in the main from supporters of the ‘old guard’ who inflicted a decade of economic decline on Sark and its people. Antony Dunks, a member of Chief Pleas throughout the decade of state-sponsored economic destruction is one of many taxpayer-funded committee support officers putting paid to any prospect of decisions being made on objective advice.
Lord Keen’s sabre-rattling letter may have been framed within the illegal premise that he, or anyone else for that matter, has the right to interfere in Sark’s internal affairs but it does not mean that his ‘advice’ is without merit. He was right to identify the need for a fully contested general election last December. He was equally correct in acknowledging that without access to the skills, knowledge and experience that a small professional, qualified and independent civil service can deliver, proper democratic accountability will not be forthcoming from Chief Pleas, elected or otherwise.
THE WAY TO FIX THE ECONOMY
Chief Pleas may not currently have the benefit of the necessary skills, knowledge and experience to govern effectively, but this is no excuse for not getting on and fixing the economy. The recent intake of mainly younger democratically elected Conseillers need to grab the mandate that they have received from the people, stand up to those in Chief Pleas who have no mandate to govern, and get on with the job in hand. They must prioritise:
A CUSTOMS POST to allow our tourism businesses direct access to the vast markets of mainland Europe via the coastal ports of the west coast of France represents a quick and easy fix for Sark’s beleaguered tourism industry, the Island’s principal economic driver. We currently attract barely enough customers to keep a single medium-sized hospitality operation in business anywhere else in the world. Last year, as in previous years, circa 55,000 tourists visited Sark. From this six first-class hotels, 30,000 sq. feet of commercial and retail space, 10 guest houses, 30 self-catering businesses, two campsites, three pubs and 18 cafés and restaurants are expected to open for trade between April and October. It is little wonder that many of them have opted to remain closed for yet another season.
LAND REFORM must be pushed through as an absolute priority. The legislation was passed at the Easter meeting of Chief Pleas on 1st May 2019. There are rumblings afoot that a very small but vocal group of Islanders are trying to find ways of blocking it. Talk is of them petitioning the Privy Council with a view to denying Islanders the long-awaited right to own their homes outright, release equity, or, in the case of first-time buyers, raise a mortgage to buy their own home.
LOWERING TAXES is only one of many ways to get more money circulating within our economy. It was Sébastien Moerman who famously told Chief Pleas that “We need more taxpayers, not higher taxes.” Sark is a consumer-led economy. The less money people pay in taxes the more they have in their pocket to spend on goods and services. Following a decade of depopulation which has seen the Island’s year-round resident population drop by 40%, we most definitely need more taxpayers, hundreds of them, but we need to attract them by lowering taxes.
REPEAL UNNECESSARY LAWS and Sark can free up businesses to grow and create the jobs this Island desperately needs. Chief Pleas cannot bind its successors and the current members must act to repeal many of the laws and regulations which have been passed over the last decade that are holding back Sark’s economic recovery.