Democracy on St Helena: councillors opposed prison move – so ‘Enforcer’ Capes sacked them

The man brought in to rule St Helena was known as “The Enforcer”, he told the Wass Inquiry. And when councillors opposed plans to move the island’s prison, Mark Capes lived up to his nickname: he removed the whole council.

Governor Capes took the “nuclear option” to shut down the legislative council for the maximum possible time so he could “work on” a new crop of councillors, the inquiry report reveals.

But Sasha Wass QC strongly criticises the moving of the prison to a residential area, because sex offenders would exercise outside the compound.

The public was never given a reason for Mr Capes dissolving LegCo at an hour’s notice, three months before setting an election date.

The governor also obstructed public debate by imposing three months’ “purdah”, meaning officials and former councillors could not discuss contentious issues. The government claimed this followed best practice, but the system only operates for about three weeks before UK national elections.

Deposed councillors sent a furious protest to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office – which backed the governor.

The Wass report does not disclose any other reasons the governor may have had for using his power to remove councillors. It says:

“The inquiry panel raised the point with Governor Mark Capes that there had been fierce opposition to the location of the new prison. He said this: ‘With the prison, I took steps to make sure that we were going to get it done…

“‘I could see we were going to get resistance from our councillors, our elected members who had an attitude that prison is meant to be uncomfortable and unpleasant and there are other things to spend money on.

“‘So one of the reasons I dissolved the Legislative Council in April 2013 was because I felt that the councillors that we had at the time didn’t have the stomach for this.’

“Governor Capes explained that if democratically elected members did not agree with his approach, he had the power to dispense with them. He continued: ‘It was a sort of nuclear option and I dissolved LegCo and I delayed the election for as long as possible under the constitution.

“‘That gave us time to work on plans and strategy and part of that strategy was to make sure that whatever happened with our new councillors, and I was optimistic we were going to get a fresh crop of more…

“‘I wanted to make sure I could work on the new councillors to persuade them that this was the right thing to do to move the prison.””

In their letter to the FCO, 11 of the 12 deposed councillors said the handling of the affair had done nothing to inspire public confidence.

“The process could have been conducted in a more courteous way…. it infers a lack of respect for politicians, the people’s representatives. During this extended purdah, democracy suffers.”

A succession of reports had condemned the Victorian prison in Jamestown, which failed to meet inmates’ basic human rights.

Two months after deposing the council, the governor also imposed a law banning children from bars on Ascension Island, against the advice of the island council – a safeguarding move that won the approval of Sasha Wass.

She says the governor should not simply override objections to projects, because this causes “disquiet and division”.

  • The Wass report says Governor Capes told the inquiry panel: “They asked me to come here to coincide with the airport project because they needed someone who knew about Overseas Territories and how to get things done. My nickname was The Enforcer.”

SEE ALSO: 
Governor ‘cocked up’ by dissolving LegCo, says professor
Sacked councillors round on His Absency the Governor
London dismisses election protest against Governor Capes

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