St Helena and other far-flung British islands may “have proud traditions of democracy,” but the UK government says it will keep a close watch on standards of governance.
“Public concerns about capacity, transparency and corruption need to be addressed,” says the 2012 White Paper on Overseas Territories.
This comment refers mainly to problems in the Caribbean – especially in the Turks and Caicos Islands, where the democratic government was removed from power – but there are also concerns on St Helena.
A campaign has been started in Jamestown to introduce freedom of information legislation on St Helena. Its supporters include former bishop John Salt.
At the moment, for example, agendas and reports for executive council meetings are not made public in advance. In the UK, local council decisions would have no legal force if that happened.
Councillor Cyril Gunnell attended a conference in London in 2011 on government, accountability and the role of elected representatives. His report is available via the St Helena Government website, here.
The strategy paper gives no detail about how the UK government will ensure the Territories maintain UK standards of governance. It does not say whether it would be willing to intervene.
Andrew Mitchell, the Secretary of State for Overseas Development, said in interview in Swindon in May that it would be desirable for island government to have the same level of openness as UK departments of state, but he said it was for elected councillors to bring that about.
The White Paper also says: “The populated Territories have vibrant democratic traditions.” However, commentators blamed a very low turn-out in St Helena’s last by-election on a lack of public engagement.
“The UK Government has a responsibility for the overall good government of the Territories,” says the White Paper, “and takes a close interest in how territory governments discharge the functions devolved to them.
“Those Territories which choose to remain British should abide by the same basic standards of good government as in the UK.
“The Territories have proud traditions of democracy and respect for human rights. Territory Governments have used their devolved responsibilities to make significant improvements to the quality of life of their people, outperforming comparable independent states.
“But small Territories face particular challenges. It is difficult to maintain all the skills needed to regulate modern economies and meet public expectations for specialist services. It is sometimes difficult to procure good value services.
“The UK Government has a vision of making government work better.
“We want to increase efficiency and effectiveness, ensure public funds are spent wisely, and foster a fairer, more open and mobile society.
“We believe in giving power to people and communities across the UK and the Territories to drive reform. This means strengthening accountability including by making the performance of public bodies and services more transparent.
“We will work with the people, communities and governments of the Territories to realise this vision.”