Wednesday 26 August 2020

A very fine mess.

In the heady days of 1980s video game development, we had a phrase: "a millisecond is an eternity, but three months is never enough". This might seem a strange place to start in a summary of last night's decidedly peculiar Chief Pleas Extraordinary Meeting, but there is a point and that point is the perception and use of time. When I talk of perception of time I don't mean anything like the perception I wrote of some years ago, but rather what is perceived to be acceptable by some and yet simply insane by others.

The issue at hand was concerns of the Chief Pleas Policy & Finance (P&F) and Harbours, Shipping & Pilotage committees. The method of redress sought was the removal of the current Sark Shipping board of directors and replace them with three new named directors, with immediate effect. Now you might think that an issue of this complexity and magnitude, not to mention significance for the island, would mean Conseillers would be given all of the relevant information and evidence long in advance of the meeting, but no, this was not to be.

Indeed the proposed agenda, as of yesterday morning, had a note to say the report and supporting documentation would not be available until the afternoon. It did eventually appear and was limited and, on reading, fairly damning.

Unfortunately, it was also somewhat disingenuous, poorly laid out and lacking in any supporting evidence. Now I can appreciate that some of the more sensitive material might not be expected to appear in a public agenda, however there was no indication that transcripts and evidence were given to Conseillers for them to digest.

That aside, the issue here is time.

I first saw sight of the report around noon, though I believe it was issued to Conseillers at about 10am, without the supporting documentation. This gives nine hours for Conseillers to read, digest, understand and draw conclusions. Unfortunately there were issues.

The first issue was it was one side's view, as clearly shown later that day when Sark Shipping issued another open letter to Conseillers expressing their disappointment that it had not been shared with them officially, rather it was up to a single concerned Conseiller to forward the report directly to them.

Can you imagine going to court and only the prosecution being allowed to speak and give evidence? No? Well this is what was happening and certainly left little time for Sark Shipping to defend themselves against the accusations.

Sark is a working island and as Conseillers are unpaid for their services to the island through Chief Pleas, the majority work for a living. Which is an issue if you have to read, digest, understand and draw conclusions from information that was not made available to them until nine hours before the meeting. Why? Because many were working.

For example, one Conseiller in particular, when approached on this matter, stated they had left home at 07:00 and had seen nothing of the report, but was then going home to look at this. Assuming for a moment that most work nominally normal hours, it's likely they had perhaps at best two or three hours to digest what they had received. Two or three hours is insufficient time to digest around eleven pages of report and supporting documentation as well as, because they wish to be diligent, reading the open letter from Sark Shipping.

This is unacceptable. And not in a disingenuous, play-to-the-camera Liz Truss kind of way.

If you follow me on Twitter, you'll already know that the result of the meeting was a two day deferment, so before I cover the detail of what was discussed, let's look at this.

Two days. 48 hours. Surely that's enough? Well, no. It's not 48 hours for a start. The Speaker announced the meeting would reconvene at 19:00 on the 27th of August, as he said this it was around 21:00. 46 hours. Presumably people will want to sleep and if they manage a glorious 8 hours a night, this brings us to 30 hours. Unfortunately as many of the Conseillers will have work to deal with, we lose perhaps another 8 hours a day, a nice fat 14 hours left. Of course, there will be other things to deal with, family to see, food to eat, beer to be drunk. Let's be generous and say they now have 10 hours.

In those ten hours, presumably in the evening, they are going to attempt to make sense of the report without being able to easily plan, call, email or whatever those involved to gather further evidence and confirmation of what is being stated. Unfortunately, of those 10 hours, some of them were post meeting. So we lose perhaps another two or three. Let's call it 7. Those seven hours are, realistically speaking, going to be this evening, so if someone finishes work at 5pm, heads home, ignores the family, eats as they read... They are still looking at working until midnight.

They will be tired. They will have barely begun to unpick what is being said by both sides. They will have had no chance to challenge the strength of the statements made.

In short, act in haste, repent at leisure.

Could this be the reason why Conseiller La Trobe-Bateman insisted that they wouldn't budge on the 2 day timeframe? Surely not.

Two days may have seemed perfectly reasonable on the face of things. It patently isn't. The perception of time can be a cruel mistress.

So about that meeting.

Conseiller La Trobe-Bateman began his introduction by stating that this report had been written in conjunction with the law officers and that whilst it coming at short notice, it was above board. Of course this rather assumes that the law officers were given all of the facts in a completely transparent matter.

And there we have the crux of the problem with this whole affair, in fewer than two dozen words he has said it's short notice. At this point you would expect he'd apologise and ask, in the spirit of not just doing the right thing but being seen to do the right thing, for a respectable deferment to allow members of Chief Pleas to fully digest what was written. Of course this didn't happen.

He began to give his brief overview of the report.

"Over the last 18 months both committees have been working with the board of Sark Shipping to ensure our lifeline service is robust and fit for service". Well, quite, that's what we would expect at the very least.

He then explained that at the beginning of last year there were concerns that all vessels, other than the Sark Viking, were nearing the end of their operational life and would need would need significant overhauls. He helpfully reminded us that the Bon Marin de Serk, which was misnamed in the report, came out of service with no apparent replacement.

This is disingenuous, as he well knows. The implication is nothing had been done and yet the P&F support documents clearly states that the vessel identified in January 2019 (M.V. Star Riviera) had fallen through in October 2019. More than a month after the Bon Marin de Serk was taken out of service. Clearly this showed up as the Sark Shipping board of directors worked through their due diligence and, however inconvenient it might have been, had to withdraw from the purchase.

How could someone have forgotten such an important detail from a report that they were involved in creating, just hours after it was released. Strange.

He then moved on to the big one, "In May this year, Sark Shipping threatened to put the company in to administration". Well, it's difficult to tie up the loose ends on this one without a full and detailed review. However in the report there is reference to the purchase of the replacement vessel (M.V. Corsaire des Isles) and how it had been pushed ahead without telling P&F. This, unfortunately, is a reality of business and I suspect, contractual obligations. The purchase began on March the 19th based on Chief Pleas having agreed support on February the 19th. Great. Well, except that the guarantee documentation wasn't signed until the 6th of April. Without having sight of the contract I suspect that the reason Sark Shipping "pushed ahead" with the sale was because they had too.

Conseiller La Trobe-Bateman called this purchase reckless. With a suitable sense of drama he described how it was completed after France had entered lockdown. Quelle horreur! Non, ce sont des contrats.

If only Chief Pleas had appointed a liaison officer as was required by their memorandum of understanding with Sark Shipping, this break in communication could have been easily bridged.

Combined with the sudden and rather drastic drop in revenues owing to the pandemic and full lockdown, the very revenues the business case would have needed to complete payment for the vessel, this would, I imagine have stretched Sark Shipping massively and their "threat" to go in to administration was less a threat and more a statement of one of the possible outcomes.

But threat makes a better headline. A bit like reckless.

The reality is, on this part of the affair, the company was kept together. There is a danger of just focussing on this one company without using a wider context. Across the Bailiwick, Europe, the World, many companies were struggling equally, many had had gone in to administration, it's what happens when things go horribly wrong. The very fact that Sark Shipping isn't in administration and has weathered the storm, with a little help from Chief Pleas, is a testament to the directors.

He then went on to discuss the Sark Venture being taken out of service and how this time grew. More importantly he touch on how the P&F committee hadn't been made aware that the engines were of French manufacture. If only they'd had a liaison officer to reveal each and every detail. You know, the one they were supposed to have. This decision, he stated, lead to complications owing to the pandemic. Well, yes, I suspect that at the beginning of January, nobody had any clue what was going to happen in the next two months and the decision to use an engine from this particular manufacturer was the right one at the time.

Next up he stated that allegedly, the Marine & Coastguard Agency (MCA) would not be prepared to travel to certify the vessel on completion. Allegedly. Okay, we'll be coming back to this, for the moment though, this is what allegedly looks like...

This, dear hearts, is what one might call actual evidence. Not hearsay, not picking up the phone and allegedly chatting to someone. An electronic trail that can be checked with the MCA. I imagine there will be more evidence where this comes from.

Whatever there is, this directly contradicts Conseiller La Trobe-Bateman saying the MCA wouldn't travel is a lie. It is true, the MCA said it was true just 7 days before. So either Conseiller La Trobe-Bateman is confused, misinformed or, for the purposes of this railroading exercise, telling a lie. Who knows, I wouldn't like to judge.

A further option was presented where by the vessel could be taken to the UK for certification. Unfortunately, for the purposes of manufacturer guarantee, a representative had to be there for the commissioning of the engine. Again this was impacted by the pandemic.

He went on to state that they had contacted the manufacturer who had said the commissioning inspection could be handled by an English company and after contacting the company they assured P&F they would be prepared to travel. At this point you'd expect any reasonable person to pass this information on to Sark Shipping so that they could take advantage of this offer. This has all happened since the 10th of August during their last meeting with Sark Shipping. I trust there is firm evidence of this communication and not just hearsay.

Shortly after this there was a moment where, given what I said above about time, I had to suppress a laugh... "most of the non-executive directors are extremely busy in their fields of work and this might be part of the reason for the lack of due diligence on their part". Oh the irony drippeth.

How can the hardworking members of Chief Pleas give their full attention and due diligence whilst being extremely busy and having so little time in which to complete this task before Thursday at 19:00?... As I write that's less than 31 hours away.

At this point he moved on to naming the proposed directors. Julie Mann, John Guille and Richard Wickins. At this point, I should note that John Guille had not declared his interest and not recused himself from the proceedings. Oh dear.

As Conseiller La Trobe-Bateman wound things up, making further damning statements, I couldn't help but wonder whether the evidence to back these up was to be presented to the other members. 

Next up it was Conseiller Raymond, he started with the words "the debate today". Debate, really? Is that even the Chief Pleas way of doing things? It felt more like a hatchet job. He began to drone on, I'm sure he's a lovely guy, but he's not the most engaging of speakers. However, I pricked up my ears and began scribbling again when he said...

"...the Shipping Company is overdrawn" having paid out the the new engine. Perhaps his information is out of date because this is what Sark Shipping wrote earlier in the day as an open letter:

Right... Once again, this is a point where things should stop as clearly there is a material difference with the two sides. Of course if this was a court, and I don't mean a kangaroo court as rather deliciously described by the Guernsey Press, evidence could be presented to show how this important piece of information is, well, wrong. It may very well be true, needless to say, and, if so, said evidence would cast Sark Shipping in a poor light given their earlier open letter. Sadly, for both the reputation of Chief Pleas and the island, it is P&F that is hogging this dim light.

He droned on with further detailed information, it's a shame we can't record this, it would help me sleep. I imagine this was all documented, I can't imagine Conseiller Raymond making anything up. Though I do dispute his statement that the directors approaching Chief Pleas to state that if no financial support was forthcoming they would have to put the company in to administration (still not a threat) was in breach of their fiduciary duty, far from it, this is precisely what directors should be doing if there is a significant risk of the company becoming insolvent. He stated that they could have resigned at that point, well, yes, but they didn't as, in my view, they were trying to find solutions to keep the company running. To resign would be running away. Besides, once in administration I suspect the administrators would remove them from office.

Next up was Conseiller Guille, needless to say he didn't state his interest in this affair, as one might expect, regardless of how obvious it was. He stumbled on with some description of the options regarding new vessels, expressing surprise as to why things were moving so slowly. Much was re-iterated from earlier, though not in quite as coherent a manner.

Eventually though we got to the point where he stated he'd contacted the MCA and claims they said that it would be possible to send inspectors or receive the Sark Venture in the UK. I trust this wasn't just a phone and that there is an email trail as it goes completely against an email, the Conseiller Guille himself seemed to refer to, from just 7 days previously. Using this as a smoking gun to support what the directors were saying is troubling at best.

Wandering on he touched on how it was "a supply of misinformation from IOSS" that lead to this evening. Hmmm. As a final hurrah, he poked a stick at the potential option of using a Trident vessel in the event of Sark Belle developing a fault. Let's for the moment assume that the Sark Shipping directors were of the belief that this was both possible and discussion had taken place to say this was the case, if so, why has this now suddenly changed in the eyes of Conseiller Guille. Thankfully he stopped speaking.

Throughout all of this, I couldn't help but wonder where the breakdown of communication actually was, there were a great many accusations being thrown from the safety of, I presume, parliamentary privilege. And yet these flew in the face of statements by the directors of Sark Shipping, a limited company, registered in Guernsey, that has to conform to company law.

Something is very wrong in the Isle of Sark.


Seven Conseillers put there hands up, crikey...

Conseiller Makepeace went first. He had a strong start, asking for this item (5) to be deferred. No mucking about there Frank. His view? To allow time for both Conseillers and Sark Shipping directors alike to have time to fully study the report and make informed decisions and responses. He pointed out that he shared the views of the majority of Sark tax payers that said item 5 should be deferred.

He went on to say: it's now been 12 years since the reform laws and yet we have a committee of Chief Pleas showing a lack of respect and disregard for other Conseillers. He went on to say it beggars belief that a committee of Chief Pleas could deliberately withhold information from both fellow Conseillers and the Sark public until the last minute and further to deny people the right to study documents in a timely fashion. And there you have it. 

This is the issue.

We don't know if Sark Shipping directors have been negligent in the manner they have carried out business, but we certainly can't trust what has been presented as it's been done in such a secretive manner and with no opportunity to review in a timely fashion.

In response Conseiller La Trobe-Bateman said they had been waiting on an employment lawyer as well as the law officers. Wait, what? A lawyer, don't they, well, cost money?! And not to put too fine a point on it, but that doesn't excuse trying to railroad this proposal through on a nod.

Quite frankly, Conseiller La Trobe-Bateman, your reasons are not good enough and do not justify trampling over the business of clear, effective governance.

Conseiller Ventress opened by stating he supporting Conseiller Makepeace in asking for a deferment. He went on to explain that he, like many Conseillers and members of the public he is concerned that the lack of time to read, digest, evaluate and question the documents and above all the information put to P&F. He said he has decided there is no reason to rush and deal with this tonight. If the motion to defer the item failed, he would have no option but to vote against all the propositions. He pointed out that should the propositions be accepted it would leave Sark Shipping with no board and no formal handover or knowledge of the current situation. This is a bad thing™. He went on, this was despite everything they had been told tonight. He further detailed that despite every issue created by the pandemic, he felt the current board of directors had performed well even with much criticism from certain quarters.

I wonder who he means by that...

Consiller Drillot felt that he couldn't see a way forward with the current board of directors, I think he was rather missing the point of why trusting such a hasty process was a bad idea. He moved on to damning the board and their approach, claiming there were no signs of paperwork to show plans were in place to build a new boat even though the boats they had were old. At this point I wondered whether he's read the report or, for that matter, listened to what had been said earlier regarding the trail of new vessel acquisition as outlined by all three of the original speakers.

He went on to state that he was in the privileged position to be able to go forward and chat with the crew whilst travelling on the various vessels, he claimed that a lot of the board directors did not even use the boat. Hmm, well some do, and some, in this Guernsey registered company that has Guernsey resident directors, don't have a need to travel on a regular basis using said boats. He then speculated that they, the directors, "probably didn't talk to the crew half of the time". And then he dropped a bombshell, "my concern talking to the crew for the last three years at least, was that they have no respect for the management, for the board".


So, here's the thing, yesterday, at 16:35, an email was sent on behalf of all staff and crew of IOSS to all Conseillers. Unfortunately this didn't make it to the relevant people as, apparently, there are problems with the "all" email address. Oh dear.

Perhaps Conseillers Drillot has mistaken in his understanding of what the crew said, let's face it, at any company, or business, in any village, town, city, country or even small island, will, from time to time, moan about t'management. But to present an interpretation of here-say as being fact? That's just plain wrong, or, here comes that word again, disingenuous.

He then went on to say they had lost some good staff and crew owing to mis-management.

Where. Is. The. Evidence?

On he went, he claimed with two boats we could have had more visitors. Perhaps so, but as with any limited resource you will eventually reach capacity, whether it be 1 boat or 6. The reality is that for a business you have to balance to costs. That said, Sark Shipping themselves admitted that there are days when a passenger may not get their preferred time of travel, this also happens with trains, aeroplanes and the likes, it is a reality of life. They also showed the actual capacity in their "virtual public meeting", an example is below for July. Play spot the 100% capacity, fun for all the family.

He droned on a bit more about the issues of weather against travel. Of course he blindly ignored the reality of what had been said earlier regarding issues with commissioning the Sark Venture. But we've already covered those.

Then he dropped another bombshell. He said on one point he agreed with the board, that they could have had a Conseillers meeting with them. Wait a minute, hadn't it been said time and time again by the original speakers that meetings were being held. And yet, this Conseiller, apparently a member of the relevant committees, felt differently. How odd.

He professed that the other Conseillers should trust them, that they have chased down every avenue. Trouble is, I don't believe they have and, so far, they've done nothing to convince me otherwise as they are glaring gaps and inconsistencies you could sail the Sark Viking through. He also felt that nobody from these two committees could have come up with this decision overnight. Perhaps, but they've still not shown it's the right one.

Conseiller Williams after a preamble stated she would quite like to have a copy of the information presented before she made any decisions, further, if she had to vote on the propositions she would have no option but to vote against them without the relevant time and information. Crikey.

Conseiller Plummer started by stating she has spoken to many people who have expressed their concerns with the timing of the evening's planned decision. To give balance she pointed out that there have been those that said enough is enough. It was her view that the decision should be deferred.

Conseiller McHugh said she joined Conseiller Makepeace in calling for a deferral, she did say that she believed what had been said in the reports, however she couldn't support the speed with which the propositions had been tabled and hence there should be a deferral. She asked a very salient question... If the directors were to be removed en masse, who would negotiate the terms for the new directors...

At which point the naughty public clapped and we had our wrists slapped by the Speaker!

Anyway, Conseiller La Trobe-Bateman stated that as Conseiller Guille was not going to be paid then it was not going to be an issue. Sorry darling, but that's not how it works. A contract needs to exist for the protection of both the company and the individual, regardless of whether or not they are being paid. You might get away with this for someone coming in to wash a few dishes, however, in the case of Conseiller Guille he was proposing getting involved with all sorts of things, all with nasty liability and, needless to say, as an executive director.

Do try again.

He went, in the case of Julie Mann this might possibly be an issue and possibly be done my Conseiller Guille and Richard Wickins. Possibly. You see, to me, that is not a clear plan. The very inclusion of two "possibly" screams making-this-up-as-we-go-along. Not a great start.

Conseiller La Trobe-Bateman finished by again stating that Consiller Guille's contract would be irrelevant because he wasn't being paid...

Of course this lead to laughter from the public gallery because, well, FFS, what the actual was he talking about? Which lead to another wrist slap from the Speaker and a threat to clear the Public Gallery.

It's almost a shame he didn't.

At this point I should mention the Public Gallery. It was packed, all seats filled, people both sitting and standing in the aisle, this had drawn out many people. Earlier, there were people outside lobbying the Conseillers as they arrived. This wasn't a small item on a windy night in Sark, this was big news and it was clear that few, if any, supported the propositions. They should have expected a response from the public.

Conseiller Craik was grateful for the information received and the further explanations given, however, she was of the opinion that the propositions should be deferred so that they could absorb the information as well as to give the board of IOSS a chance to respond. Very fair and reasonable. She did also say that she felt mistakes had been made by Sark Shipping, but that the speed that this item had been brought was unacceptable.

At this point Conseiller La Trobe-Bateman stood and said that if this was to be deferred that he proposed that a thorough and independent investigation into IOSS should commence immediately. He further proposed that given the level of misinformation that had been provided by Sark Shipping executive directors (his words, not mine) should be suspended with immediate effect pending the outcome of the investigation.


Conseiller Blythe burst into life and said "I think we're all in agreement with the propositions", mmm, no. he did go on to say the only issue was the speed with which they were presented. That's not how this works, the very fact that others are asking for a deferment indicates that they went to check they are reaching the correct conclusion, whatever their initial thoughts were. Perhaps he'd lost focus. And, he went on "sometimes it just has to be done and we should just vote for it now".

Again. Act in haste, repent at leisure.

Conseiller Makepeace pointed out that it was known a week before there would be a delay getting out the papers and a suitable date should have been chosen to allow time for the papers to be reviewed. As he said, there is no excuse. He went on to remind the Conseiller that their loyalty should be to the Sark tax payer and it is them to whom they serve and deserve better than this. He reiterated his request for a deferal.

Conseiller La Trobe-Bateman popped up again to say that if it's the will of Chief Pleas that they defer...

After a brief further statement supporting deferral by Conseiller Williams, Conseiller La Trobe-Bateman suggested they step outside.

Ooh, fight!

No, wait, turns out it was to discuss this as a committee. The Speaker said as there had been a proposer, seconder, third and fourth, he would call a short recess for them to come to a decision on the deferral time. He explained that the deferral could not be indefinite and must have a finite time and take in to account the time needed to organise external agencies...

They recessed for 20 minutes. The room became very loud. There wasn't enough time to nip to the pub.

And we're back in the room.

The Speaker called for Conseiller La Trobe-Bateman to give their response. They wanted a deferral of two days.

That's not going to give a lot of time for the thorough and independent investigation he proposed about 25 minutes earlier. What? Cue more murmerings from the public. He said that would give plenty of time to get the views of the public and it'll be all sorted by the weekend.

Right... *looks to camera*

The Speaker asked if that's your proposal to defer for two days, without any fresh reports. Conseiller La Trobe-Bateman laughed and said "that's a good question".

Seriously, what were they doing outside?

To be fair to the Speaker, it felt like he was trying to get him to consider what had just been said. His response? "we'll probably dig out some more information, I think there'll be more verbal reports". Not evidence then.

Probably, that's almost as bad as possibly.

The Speaker asked Conseiller Makepeace to speak. His reponse "I think that's ridiculous, two days isn't enough, we're expected to get statements and contact Sark Shipping and the public, two days is not enough. Two weeks is a more realistic time". Quite.

Conseiller Ventress and Craik also felt they needed more than two days. Conseiller Craik asked for further information to be forwarded on to all Conseillers.

A vote was called.

The proposal for two days was supported by nine votes to five.

This is as much a joke as a travesty. In just a couple of hours Chief Pleas, excluding the notable exceptions in their ranks, have managed to make Sark look, quite frankly, ridiculous. In the time I've lived here, the clear view received has been that Chief Pleas does little more than rubber stamp the reports and proposals given by Conseillers. There is a glimmer of hope that perhaps there are now a few people that are prepared to stand up and say what they think without feeling they need to join the club. But they've a long way to go and, sadly, a battle ahead to show that democracy hasn't shrivelled up and died on this rock high above the sea.

Sadly though, we'd still stuck with a lack of clear, evidence driven, government, where decisions are based on here-say presented as fact. Even when it's not. Then there is the issue of how the island must look to the Crown Dependencies section of the Ministry of Justice, or even to the Lieutenant Governor in Guernsey, the man tasked by the Queen to watch over us.

It is, deeply disappointing. More importantly it completely goes against the simple principle that: you must not just do the right thing, but be seen to do the right thing.

Shame neither part of that happened.


  1. Thank you, just thank you; WTF?; and who is going to fix Sark? It takes guts to do the right thing and it is a relief that some are standing firm, but I fear for the outcome when there is so much vested interest in everything that happens on the island. Strong leadership is needed - the Seigneur? - to take the helm and steer the island to a strong future.

  2. Thank you, just thank you; WTF?; and who is going to fix Sark? It takes guts to do the right thing and it is a relief that some are standing firm, but I fear for the outcome when there is so much vested interest in everything that happens on the island. Strong leadership is needed - the Seigneur? - to take the helm and steer the island to a strong future.

  3. In a situation like this... The best recourse, in my opinion, is to see who benefits. Surely they can't all be incompetent? A skeptic mind would look for the direction where benefits flow. It may not be monitory or even directly related..but to assume it is incompetent is also a bit too......nice.