SARK'S Chief Pleas has voted to defy the UK Government and retain land-owning tenants in its legislature. In a historic vote yesterday, the assembly voted by 25 votes to 15 to keep half the seats in a new assembly for tenants.
The decision flies in the face of advice from the Law Officers in Guernsey and the Lord Chancellor's office and will almost inevitably lead to a clash when the draft legislation reaches the Privy Council.
But proponents of the retention of automatic seats for tenants warned that - if the Privy Council did not approve the draft law - they had the resources to take the matter as far as the European Court of Human Rights and would do so if necessary.
The decision came after three hours of debate and will be widely viewed as a victory for tenant Phyllis Rang and her supporters.
Proposing her successful amendment to the Constitution Committee proposals for an assembly comprised wholly of deputies, Mrs Rang argued that Sark 'was tired of being bullied, threatened and now manipulated'.
'In the interests of Sark and our descendants, we must preserve and defend our autonomy to the last,' she told Chief Pleas.
'We have no wish to become a part of Guernsey. We are a legislature which, in my view, gives us the right to make our own decisions and therefore govern ourselves, without interference from outside.'
But she and her supporters were warned by a number of members that her proposal to have an equal number of tenants and deputies - albeit all elected by universal suffrage - would not get the necessary Privy Council approval.
Constitution Committee president Adrian Guille said that following the council decision last year not to ratify a draft law allowing for tenants to be elected from among their number and deputies by the remainder of the population, it became obvious that a way forward had to be found which would meet the island's obligations under Human Rights legislation.
He said that any option other than an assembly of all deputies ran a risk of challenge and added that the Department of Constitutional Affairs had made it clear that it would not defend Sark from such a challenge.
Tenant Sir Peter Miller described the committee's proposal as a stitch-up and said that he was being asked under its proposals to sign his own death warrant.
He said that 'our lords and masters' in England were telling Sark what to do and added that it would be interesting to speculate on what political and commercial pressures had been placed upon them.
But Deputy Richard Dewe said that opponents of the committee's proposals were clutching at straws and added that only an assembly of all deputies would secure a recommendation from the
Lord Chancellor's office.
He was supported by deputies Geoff Gurden and Peter Cole, with the last contending that the committee's proposals would give Sark the most democratic form of government in the world.
Deputy Cole warned also that a decision by the DCA to legislate for the island could lead to 'terrible constitutional consequences'.
There was also a warning from Deputy Seigneur Caroline Bell that the island could become another Alderney. Adding that this was not an idle threat, Miss Bell said that if Sark did not govern itself properly, then either Guernsey or the United Kingdom 'will do it for us'.
During the debate there was criticism of the tenants of Brecqhou, Sir David and Sir Frederick Barclay, and reference was made to a number of letters sent on their behalf to Chief Pleas committees.
Tenant William Raymond referred to one of them, stating that it had said that ultimately Sark was free to govern itself but only if Sark alone was affected by that - a view which most members took as suggesting that Sark should not seek to include Brecqhou in its enactments.
In the event, members voted to take the risk of the legislation being challenged.
The breakdown of the 25-to-15 vote showed that 21 tenants and four deputies were in favour of retaining tenants in the assembly, while eight tenants and seven deputies favoured all deputies in the legislature.
One tenant abstained.
The situation at present is that the legislature gives all 40 landowning tenants an automatic seat, with a further 12 seats for elected deputies.