Fight looms over secrecy oath that blocks human right (updated)

Update: Councillors have all now sworn the oath of confidentiality that prevents them revealing any information about St Helena Government. A new story will be published later today, following the inaugural session of the new legislative council.

St Helena’s new councillors are being placed under pressure to swear a vow of secrecy that goes against one of their main promises to voters.

If they are forced to swear the oath of confidentiality today (Wednesday 24 July 2013), they face denying people one of the basic human rights protected in the island’s Constitution – the right to receive information.

It also goes against at least one of the seven principles of public life that St Helena Government has previously claimed to uphold, to be as open as possible.

The two councillors who topped the voting in the 2013 general election have issued a joint objection to the pledge.

Their statement says: “Lawson Henry and Ian Rummery wish to place on record that while they must take this oath, they object to it as it has no place in St Helena’s Constitution.

“In addition to introducing freedom of information legislation they will work to remove this archaic oath from the Constitution.”

It is not clear what would happen if all 12 new councillors refused to make the secrecy pledge. The Constitution says that no person shall be compelled to take any oath which is contrary to his or her belief.

But councillors are thought unlikely to want to do anything that would delay starting on work that has built up since the last legislative council was dissolved, 13 weeks before the election.

A private report seen by St Helena Online says that when a past councillor refused to promise confidentiality, he was “effectively barred from office” until he gave in.

Councillors will be asked to swear “that I will be a true and faithful Councillor and that I will not, directly or indirectly, except with the authority of the Governor, reveal the business or proceedings of the Government of St Helena or the nature or contents of any document communicated to me, or any matter coming to my knowledge, in my capacity as a Councillor.”

Ian Rummery said: “I cannot find any parliaments that require an elected member to take an oath of confidentiality. There is no place for such an oath in a modern democracy.”

Parliamentarians in London are only required to swear allegiance to the Queen – as do councillors on St Helena.

The oath clearly goes against the spirit of transparency that the new councillors have pledged to introduce to island government.

It also flies in the face of the right to freedom of expression. The island Constitution says:

“A person’s freedom of expression includes… his or her freedom to receive information and ideas without interference.”

The confidentiality pledge also breaches councillors’ own freedom under the Constitution to “disseminate information and ideas without interference”.

Excessive secrecy in The Castle directly conflicts with the UK government’s call for good governance in Britain’s overseas territories – including transparency.

It is also seen as a significant reason for distrust of St Helena Government.

Advisers from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, led by Lord Shutt of Greenock, will be asked for guidance on the issue when they arrive on the island.

The full statement from Ian Rummery and Lawson Henry reads:

At the Inaugural Meeting of the St Helena Legislative Council on 24 July 2013, newly elected councillors are required to swear or affirm three oaths.  One of these is the Oath of Confidentiality.

This oath states that a Councillor will not ‘directly or indirectly, except with the authority of the Governor, reveal the business or proceedings of the Government of St Helena or the nature or contents of any document communicated to me, or any matter coming to my knowledge, in my capacity as Councillor.’

Lawson Henry and Ian Rummery wish to place on record that while they must take this oath they object to it as it has no place in St Helena’s Constitution.  Such an oath contravenes the right to freedom of expression and is in opposition to the Nolan Principle of Openness which requires an elected member to be ‘as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take.’

Lawson and Ian are committed to making this government open and transparent.  In addition to introducing freedom of information legislation they will work to remove this archaic oath from the Constitution.

SEE ALSO:
‘Now for transparency’ says Ian as reformers win election
Transparency campaign launch – July 2012

LINK:
St Helena Constitution 2009
UK Parliamentary Oath

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