9th April 2021

Chief Pleas Heal Thyself!

Sark’s government is about to embark on a public consultation to determine the future shape of Chief Pleas. Do not be fooled into believing, (as will no doubt be claimed), that this is democracy in its purest form, an empowerment of the people in shaping how the Island should be governed.

Nothing could be further from the truth. This is nothing more than a futile attempt to appease the UK Ministry of Justice (MOJ). A means by which Chief Pleas can claim that they are a government of the people for the people by the people. The irony is that it will do nothing of the sort. It will not fool the MOJ. It will not fool the governments of the Crown Dependencies of Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man; all of whom have to live with the consequences of the reputational damage that Sark continues to inflict upon them. It will most certainly not fool the people of Sark.

This will be seen both on and off Sark as a dereliction by Chief Pleas of their duty to deliver open, transparent and accountable government. More process over judgment and action. It will be seen as Chief Pleas, once again, kicking the can down the road rather than getting on with the things that really matter; developing a short, medium and long-term economic plan, tackling the need to repopulate the Island, ensuring that we remain a low tax, light government touch jurisdiction and shaping all current and future policies around the need to retain our autonomy, our independence and our right to self-determination.

Chief Pleas claims to want to understand why fewer and fewer Islanders are willing to stand for election. For the answer they should look towards how they conduct themselves. The current government remains under the control of the ‘old guard’ who dominate the all-powerful committee structure. ‘Old guard’ members see committee chairmanships and deputy chairmanships as trophy assets. The more the merrier.

No regard is given to just what qualities and experience they bring to each individual committee. What matters above anything else is that they retain control. Many talented, qualified and experienced Islanders have entered Chief Pleas since the Reform Laws of 2008, but few have remained. They have found the absolute control of the ‘old guard’ to be unsurmountable and have chosen to channel their time, energy and resources elsewhere rather than continue to bang their heads against the proverbial brick wall. The net result is that fewer and fewer Islanders are prepared to come forward and serve in Chief Pleas and Sark is all the poorer for it. However, never dismiss the potential for the law of unforeseen consequences to deliver the odd surprise, and benefit.

The current Chief Pleas is dominated by members who have never faced the electorate. They have never received a single vote via the ballot box and do not hold a mandate from the people of Sark to govern, but, if we are to continue as a self-regulating jurisdiction, govern they must.

This is a far from perfect assembly, but it is undoubtedly the most pluralistic Chief Pleas that has existed during the Island’s post-feudal era. This simple statement of fact, more than anything, bodes well for the prospect of open, transparent and accountable government in Sark. Many believe that there is enough traction amongst reformers to finally deliver the separation of powers between the legislature, executive and judiciary that can create the very bedrock upon which to make Sark a fit for purpose 21st century self-regulating jurisdiction. Is our legislature fit-for-purpose? No, and certainly whilst it continues to involve itself in administrative work that should be in the sole preserve of a professional civil service, it is, at best, a work in progress. Is our civil service fit-for-purpose? Once again, it is a work in progress. It currently lacks the professional capacity and standards that are essential to support a 21st century legislature. It is seen as a job club for the ‘boys and girls’ rather than a professional body that upholds the high standard of the profession. Currently, one is more likely to hear about government policy from loose talk from our civil servants eager to be seen to be the first in the know rather than through the correct government channels.

And what of our judiciary? Progress has certainly been made in recent years due in no small part to the current Seneschal, Jeremy La Trobe-Bateman. His self-effacing approach to discharging his duties lies at the very heart of how Sark must shape itself to meet the challenges ahead. He is quick to acknowledge that if he is unsure of a point of law, he will go off and check with those who do. Therein lies the answer to how we should be governed for the foreseeable future. With a population in the low hundreds, we will inevitably have limited capacity across our legislature, executive and judiciary, but we must accept this and move on. We do not need a public consultation to tell us what we already know.