A paragraph in this story has been toned down in response to a comment made privately to St Helena Online. The paragraph, about information being made available to legislative councillors, was capable of mis-interpretation.
Secretive decision-making by governments in St Helena and other British overseas territories leaves them vulnerable to corruption, MPs in London have been warned.
The same lack of transparency had already brought down the government in the Turks and Caicos Islands, said Clare Stringer of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.
Her warning echoed strong concerns raised about the conduct of St Helena’s executive council, which meets almost entirely in secret and refuses public access to agendas, reports and minutes.
Clare Stringer delivered her warning in evidence to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee on Wednesday, 17 April 2013. She referred to a recent RSPB review that found widespread lack of openness.
Speaking as head of the RSPB’s overseas territories unit, she said islands were vulnerable to unhealthy outside influence if they did not have “robust legislation and transparency systems.”
She went on: “Our recent review of environmental governance showed that in a lot of the territories those aren’t in place.
“Very few if any have transparency legislation, freedom of information doesn’t exist, decisions are made by a Foreign Office appointed governor or by elected council members – but often behind closed doors – and it’s very difficult to know why decisions are made in the way that they are.
“And it does leave administrations open to corruption, and we have seen that in the Turks and Caicos Islands in recent years.
“The fact that these decisions aren’t made openly, it leaves an atmosphere where corruption can occur.”
An inquiry into the Turks and Caicos Islands corruption affair found that it resulted from circumstances very similar to those that are now emerging on St Helena, with the building of an airport attracting outside investors.
In fact, the RSPB’s review has singled St Helena out for praise for the strength of its developing environmental protections, which greatly restrict opportunities for developers to apply undue pressure to obtain Crown land.
But Clare Stringer’s criticisms of secretive government exactly describe the clandestine decision-making that takes place in the shady confines of the Castle in Jamestown.
Even a member of St Helena’s legislative council, Christina Scipio O’Dean, has reported being repeatedly refused information about government funding for the South Atlantic Media Service. Other legislative councillors have complained at public meetings that they were not told about structural reforms in the government, despite their scrutiny role.
The refusal to meet openly and make vital documents available for scrutiny means that it is impossible to know how much influence is being applied by unelected officials.
In the past, a St Helena Government official has justified the lack of openness on the basis that it was the same in most other territories.
The RSPB’s concerns were echoed by Dr Mike Pienkowski, who was giving evidence to the MPs as chief executive of the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum.
He said: “We are dealing with small communities whose legislative bodies are more on the scale of parish councils, in some cases.
“So it’s really very difficult for them to negotiate or avoid legal but excessive influence by international companies.
“And there are problems with openness and accountability in their systems.”
Dr Colin Copus, Professor of Local Politics at Leicester Business School, said in January that the limited information released about St Helena’s ExCo meetings “may fulfill some element of accountability, but it doesn’t go far.”
He said: “You can only be representative if people know what you are doing. It is just simple and healthy for people to know. It leads to a more informed and engaged citizenry and that is a good thing.”