Open government is not islands’ top priority, says minister

Freedom of information is not a top priority for overstretched governments in the British overseas territories, MPs in London have been told.

Foreign Minister Mark Simmonds also admitted that no territories had been given UK support to end the kind of secretive practices seen on St Helena. 

That could change if new councillors act on a pledge to press for freedom of information laws after the island’s general election on 17 July 2013.

Legal support could be given by Britain’s Attorney General, the House of Commons Environment Audit Committee heard.

All but one of the 20 candidates in the 2013 general election have now supported calls for a transparency law, following a media campaign and growing public discontent. The only candidate not do so could not be contacted by email. 

Mr Simmonds, the minister directly responsible for the overseas territories, sounded his caution about priorities during a grilling by the select committee on Tuesday (9 July 2013).

The same committee had been warned at its last meeting that a lack of transparency in the territories created the risk of corruption.

The minister was reminded by Martin Caton MP that the UK’s 2012 white paper on overseas territories called for island governments to adopt British standards – including on transparency.

Mr Caton asked what the Westminster government had done to encourage transparency – besides persuading territories with financial centres to agree new standards last month.

Mr Simmons said the government would encourage it, but not impose it. “Of course we are keen to see enhanced transparency,” he said.

“Obviously we believe it is in the essence of good government in this country, and certainly we feel that anything that is applicable to us in this country we should be encouraging the overseas territories to implement as well.”

He said transparency should also cover procurement – which includes the way contracts are handed out. That has been a source of grievance on St Helena.

Mr Caton then asked if he could give any examples of practical support overseas territories had been given to bring in freedom of information.

He said: “The straightforward answer to that is ‘No’, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an issue that is important.

“We shouldn’t under-estimate the lack of capacity that exists in some of these overseas territories’ government structures, and the essence of support we are trying to provide is aligned with their priorities, helping them build capacity where it’s relevant.

“The point I’m making is that whilst an overseas territory may be desirous of implementing a type of freedom of information structure, they may feel there are other priorities, with their limited government capacity, that should take precedence.”

That argument could well be used on St Helena, where government staff are working at full stretch to gear up to the opening of the island’s first airport in 2016.

But some of the practices designed to keep information from the public – and from British taxpayers who fund the island – could be ended without any change in the law.

In particular, new councillors could rule that executive council meetings should no longer be held almost entirely in private, with agendas, reports and minutes kept secret – denying the public the chance to influence decision-making.

The St Helena Constitution includes the right to receive information, as part of the right to freedom of expression.

SEE ALSO: Transparency at The Castle becomes a human rights issue

VIDEO: Webcast of Environmental Audit Committee hearing (Mark Simmonds comments are 1 hour 42 minutes into the recording)

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