New leaders vow to end ’embarrassment’ of secrecy

St Helena’s new political leaders have called for an early end to the “embarrassment” of excessive secrecy within the island’s government.

They also voiced strong objections to having to sign an oath of confidentiality, blocking them from sharing any information with the public without the governor’s consent.

The acting chief secretary, Gillian Francis, acknowledged calls for change but said it would need approval from the UK government.

Several councillors referred to the issue in speeches at the inaugural session of the island’s newly-elected Legislative Council.

Councillor Nigel Dollery said: “I feel strongly about what if consider the secretive and sometimes obstructive way [St Helena Government], in all its forms, has hidden information from the public.

“Like a lot of you I have had experience of it. One hears about things like, ‘Give no answer for three weeks and the members of the public will give up’.

“Her Majesty’s Government, the Commonwealth and the United Nations believe openness and transparency are a part of good government, so I am evidently in good company.

“This needs sorting promptly, not at some vague time in the future when the system thinks it can get round to it.

“Secret government is an embarrassment in the modern world.”

Lawson Henry said: “It is clear to me that there is a great hunger from all members to work as a team and show leadership and transparency.

“I look forward to bringing about changes needed to make our government more open and bring it closer to the people.

“I strongly oppose the oath of confidentiality that I was required to sign as an elected member today. No member in our mother country’s parliament is required to sign such an oath.

“I will work to remove this archaic oath from our constitution.

“Such an oath contravenes the right to freedom of expression. It is inconsistent with the partnership values enshrined in our Constitution, and it is in opposition to the Nolan principle of openness, which requires an elected member to be as open as possible about all the decisions that he takes.

“There is simply no place in a modern democracy for such an oath.”

He also said he and fellow councillor Ian Rummery would be working on freedom of information legislation over the next few months, “and I very much look forward to the support from all officials in doing this.”

Bernice Olsson pledged her support for removing the oath of confidentiality.

She said: “The oath is a strong contradiction to our constitutional aims. We must have an open and transparent government to get public support for our work.

“One of the main tasks of this new council is to bring St Helena into being a well-functioning democracy, fit for the 21st Century. Doing this will involve a lot of kicking and screaming from certain quarters, but we will overcome.”

She said the visit of Commonwealth advisers in late July 2013 would help to tackle “outdated rules”.

Councillor Ian Rummery, who topped the voting in the general election, said: “We have a constitution that upholds our fundamental human rights.

“This is important because it is within living memory that one of these rights, the right to nationality, was denied to many Saints.

“We owe a great deal to those who fought so hard to restore citizenship, and we must remain vigilant to ensure that other rights are not denied.

“This is why freedom of information is so important. It serves to protect the people from exploitation and holds the government and administration accountable.

“It fundamentally alters the relationship between government and the public, so that power is not handed over with an individual’s vote. The person elected to office is subject to scrutiny  as are all of those in the administration.

“In colonial times, the rulers did not have to listen to those they ruled. Today there should not be any rulers. There are leaders who make decisions on behalf of the community but they must make these decisions for the common good of the community.

“The oath of confidentiality does nothing for the common good. It promotes a culture of secrecy, it reinforces the divide the between the elected and those who elected them.

“It has no place in a constitution that otherwise protects the fundamental rights of Saints.”

In response, the Acting Chief Secretary, Gillian Francis, said: “There was much mention of freedom of information and over-confidentiality, all of which has been noted, and we look forward to further discussion – noting that any changes of constitution will have to have approval of Her Majesty’s Government.”

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