Governor ‘cocked it up’ by dissolving LegCo, says professor

Governor Mark Capes has been criticised by a leading academic for dissolving St Helena’s Legislative Council prematurely.

Professor George Jones gave his view after Mr Capes dismissed councillors and brought in tight pre-election rules for officials – WITHOUT calling an election.

In the UK, those things only happen once an election has been formally declared.

The professor’s reaction was: “He’s cocked it up.”

Mr Capes has said a general election will not take place until July, potentially three months after he dissolved the council.

The UK Parliament is dissolved only about three WEEKS before a general election. 

But with the writ of election not expected until mid-May, it is unclear why the councillors lost their political platform so early. It leaves the island without effective democratic government for up to three months. 

It was unclear why Mr Capes dismissed LegCo up to 13 weeks before any polling day. He announced his decision on Friday 19 April and left the island on annual leave the following Monday.

Mr Capes said he was following UK practice in dismissing councillors and imposing “purdah”, which restricts what officials and executive councillors can say and do.

But the UK Parliament website says: “Purdah is the term used to describe the period between the time the election is announced and the date the election is held.”

In other words, it says the political shutdown should not start at all until the election is formally declared.

Professor Jones, an expert on government at the London School of Economics, was approached when it emerged that the governor appeared to have dismissed councillors too early. 

The professor said: “It seems to me perfectly proper for purdah to apply as soon as the election is called. Where I’m puzzled is why there’s a gap.”

It was suggested to him that a three month political clampdown – compared with three weeks for the British parliament and six weeks for UK local authorities – was a restraint on democracy.

He said: “Yes, I agree. It’s that gap where I think it’s doubtful. Why couldn’t the governor have the writs issued at the same time as the dissolution? He’s cocked it up.”

It is understood that Mr Capes was concerned that once councillors knew an election was imminent, some might use their platform to push populist schemes, in the hope of winning votes. 

It had been widely believed the election would take place in November, but Mr Capes said that would be too close to major business, such as the arrival of UK aid negotiators.

When a radio interviewer asked him why he had unexpectedly dissolved LegCo, he said the long lead-in time to the election would give people time to register to vote, and to think about standing as candidates.

But both of those things could happen without the island losing its main democratic body.

The news of the dissolution was said to have come as a shock to councillors. They continue serving on government committees, including the Executive Council, but would not be able to introduce new policies or push contentious business.

St Helena Government justified the situation by saying Mr Capes’s decision had effectively triggered the election. It did not explain why he imposed such a long lead-in time.

It said: “Purdah takes effect during an ‘election campaign’. On a small island, the campaign effectively starts with dissolution – you will note that some candidates have already declared.

“This is simply a matter of following best practice and, in observing purdah from the point of dissolution, helping to secure a fair campaign and election.”

It did not explain why campaigning should be any different on a small island.

And the Castle gave no evidence for its claim that Mr Capes had followed “best practice” – when he had clearly not followed convention.

The Castle also said the governor had authority to dissolve LegCo under the island’s Constitution, without consulting anyone on the island or at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. “There is no provision for the FCO to interfere,” said the Castle.

“The FCO fully supports his decision.” 

The dissolution means new legislation has been put on hold, including the introduction of parking charges in Jamestown. A Castle spokesman said it would delay “a number of pieces of business, with more to come.”

Public meetings on the island’s social policy plan have also been postponed from May until August.

The plan is intended to strengthen community life and make sure Saints do not miss out on the economic benefits an airport will bring. The Castle says the plan will work “within a framework of effective government”.

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