On 7 September 2012, an email was sent to St Helena’s (then) 11 councillors by the St Helena Freedom of Information Campaign, asking three questions. Click on the links or use the drop-down menu (In Depth > Democracy campaign > Letter to councillors) to see councillors’ responses.
Not all councillors directly answered the questions, or their answers were complex; it has not been possible to present definitive results of the survey.
The three questions were:
1: Do you agree agendas and reports of government committees, including ExCo and LegCo, should be published on the SHG website, in advance of meetings? And that minutes should also be published?
2. Do you agree ExCo meetings should be open to the public and media, except where this would, for instance, compromise commercial sensitivity or the confidentiality of individuals?
3: Other UK overseas territories have adopted Freedom of Information legislation, to improve governance and serve voters better. Do you think St Helena should now discuss the possibility of introducing a Freedom of Information Ordinance?
The case for change was also set out in the letter:
The recent White Paper on Overseas Territories says (in précis): “Those Territories which choose to remain British should abide by the same basic standards of good government as in the UK… this means making the performance of public bodies and services more transparent.”
The White Paper also acknowledges the role of the media in telling the public about decisions made on their behalf. St Helena’s media cannot perform its role as a democratic watchdog because so much information is hidden from view: crucially, agendas and reports are not made public, as they are in Britain. This clearly falls short of the standards expected by the UK.
Giving the public the chance to influence decision making is a fundamental part of democracy, but this is constrained if people do not know what decisions are being made, or lack access to the facts. This leads to voter apathy and damages trust in government.
On the other hand, transparency protects councillors from misplaced allegations of malpractice.
Andrew Mitchell, when Secretary of State for DFID, made it clear that transparency produced better government, but it was for councillors to bring it about.