A formal protest has been sent to Foreign Secretary William Hague over the “unpleasant” way that Governor Mark Capes dismissed elected councillors without warning.
But a response from overseas territories chief Peter Hayes has claimed that Mr Capes gave “justified reasons” for removing councillors from office.
In fact, those reasons only explained the decision to hold a general election earlier than expected, on 17 July 2013; no clear reason has ever been given for dissolving the elected council three months before a new election.
Nor has a satisfactory explanation been given for imposing tight pre-election “purdah” restrictions on government, bringing major business to a halt, so far ahead of polling day.
As councillors pointed out in their protest to Mr Hague, purdah lasts only three weeks before UK general elections – six weeks for English local authorities.
Dr Hayes also repeated the governor’s inference that he had followed normal democratic practice by dissolving the council and imposing the pre-election rules when in fact, he had not legally called an election.
The councillors had already said they could find no other example overseas of dissolution and purdah being enacted without an election being called.
Professor George Jones of the London School of Economics said Mr Capes had “cocked it up” by disbanding the council prematurely.
The protest letter, signed by 11 of the 12 deposed councillors, made it clear that the governor’s objectives could have been achieved without dissolving the council.
It also protested that the governor dismissed the speaker and deputy speaker with less than an hour’s notice.
And it said that by leaving the island so quickly after making the announcement – three days later – Mr Capes had denied councillors the chance to recover from their shock and challenge him on his decision.
The ex-councillors wrote: “The people of St Helena have commented on how this was handled and it does nothing to inspire public confidence.”
It went on: “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.”
Rodney Buckley, who is not seeking re-election, was the only member of the former legislative council not to sign the letter to Mr Hague.
It was dated 29 May 2013 but its existence was only made public three weeks later, when it was referred to at an election meeting. Dr Hayes’s response, addressed to ex-councillor Tony Green, was dated 14 June 2013.
Further representation has now been made to Westminster, challenging the accuracy of statements in the letter from Dr Hayes – who is director of overseas territories at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
He made his first visit to St Helena only the month before the council was dissolved.
His letter also stated that the island’s executive council was “still functioning normally”, when it fact most major decisions had been put on hold – including on the contentious plan to move the island’s “unfit” prison to Half Tree Hollow.
He also quoted Mr Capes’s concern that new councillors needed time to prepare for the visit of UK aid negotiators at the end of the year.
“In dissolving the council when he did,” Dr Hayes wrote, “the governor has ensured that the new government will have full control of the important budgetary process.”
In fact, Mr Capes had cited the negotiations as a reason for holding the election in July -not as a reason for dissolving the council, which made no difference to the time new councillors would have to prepare.
The only “reasons” that appeared to have been given for the early dissolution were that it would prompt people to join the electoral register, and give them time to think about standing for election.
But as the ex-councillors have pointed out in their letter to Mr Hague, the governor could have achieved those aims simply by announcing the likely election date.
The council was dissolved on Friday 19 April 2013. Governor Capes left the island on 22 April and returned on 13 June. The election will take place on 17 July 2013 – only just within the maximum three-month period allowed after dissolution.
Click to read: Dr Peter Hayes’ letter to ex councillors
Click on the thumbnails to read the letter from ex-councillors: