St Helena Online

Tag: democracy

Democracy on St Helena: councillors opposed prison move – so the whole council was sacked

When councillors opposed plans to move St Helena’s prison close to homes above Half Tree Hollow, governor Mark Capes simply removed the problem: he disbanded the whole council.

Governor Capes took the “nuclear option” to shut down the legislative council for the maximum possible time so he could “work on” a new crop of councillors, the inquiry report reveals.

But Sasha Wass QC strongly criticises the moving of the prison to a residential area, because sex offenders would exercise outside the compound.

The public was never given a reason for Mr Capes dissolving LegCo at an hour’s notice, three months before setting an election date.

The governor also obstructed public debate by imposing three months’ “purdah”, meaning officials and former councillors could not discuss contentious issues. The government claimed this followed best practice, but the system only operates for about three weeks before UK national elections.

Deposed councillors sent a furious protest to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office – which backed the governor.

The Wass report does not disclose any other reasons the governor may have had for using his power to remove councillors. It says:

“The inquiry panel raised the point with Governor Mark Capes that there had been fierce opposition to the location of the new prison. He said this: ‘With the prison, I took steps to make sure that we were going to get it done…

“‘I could see we were going to get resistance from our councillors, our elected members who had an attitude that prison is meant to be uncomfortable and unpleasant and there are other things to spend money on.

“‘So one of the reasons I dissolved the Legislative Council in April 2013 was because I felt that the councillors that we had at the time didn’t have the stomach for this.’

“Governor Capes explained that if democratically elected members did not agree with his approach, he had the power to dispense with them. He continued: ‘It was a sort of nuclear option and I dissolved LegCo and I delayed the election for as long as possible under the constitution.

“‘That gave us time to work on plans and strategy and part of that strategy was to make sure that whatever happened with our new councillors, and I was optimistic we were going to get a fresh crop of more…

“‘I wanted to make sure I could work on the new councillors to persuade them that this was the right thing to do to move the prison.””

In their letter to the FCO, 11 of the 12 deposed councillors said the handling of the affair had done nothing to inspire public confidence.

“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.”

A succession of reports had condemned the Victorian prison in Jamestown, which failed to meet inmates’ basic human rights.

Two months after deposing the council, the governor also imposed a law banning children from bars on Ascension Island, against the advice of the island council – a safeguarding move that won the approval of Sasha Wass.

She says the governor should not simply override objections to projects, because this causes “disquiet and division”.

  • The Wass report says Governor Capes told the inquiry panel: “They asked me to come here to coincide with the airport project because they needed someone who knew about Overseas Territories and how to get things done. My nickname was The Enforcer.”

SEE ALSO: 
Governor ‘cocked up’ by dissolving LegCo, says professor
Sacked councillors round on His Absency the Governor
London dismisses election protest against Governor Capes

Trick or treat? Ascension gets a Hallowe’en election

When folk speak of The Count come Hallowe’en night on Ascension, it may not be Count Dracula they have in mind.

An election for a new island council is to take place on the spookiest date in the calendar.

The decision has been announced by the aptly-named Governor Capes (no jokes about The Dark Mark, please), in an edict from his haunted castle on St Helena.

The good people of Georgetown and Two Boats can thus look forward to a double dose of ghoulish figures on 31 October 2013: vampires at night, and vote-seeking politicians in the day.

In fact, Mr Capes has praised the councillors who are to lose their seats after just two and a half years in office.

The current council will be dissolved 29 days before polling day, compared with nearly 13 weeks between dissolution and voting in the 2013 St Helena election.

In his announcement of the poll, Mr Capes thanked the five councillors for their hard work.

He said: “They have dealt with some difficult issues, including the financial crisis that beset Ascension prior to 2011.

“The island’s relative financial stability since then is largely a result of the difficult choices and decisions they made.

“Councillors provided effective scrutiny of the administrator and [government] policies and programmes.

“Councillors Kitty George, Cathy Cranfield, Toni Bendall, Neil Lawrence and Cyril Leo deserve our thanks.”

He added: “I am dissolving council at this point primarily because I judge it important that the process of developing the next annual budget for AIG should be taken forward and owned by a new council.”

A difficult trick; no treats guaranteed.

Anti-secrecy law ‘only months away’, predicts John

Work has begun in earnest on ending the entrenched culture of secrecy within St Helena Government – but one councillor has questioned whether it should be a priority.

Open government became a key issue in the island’s July 2013 general election, a year after the launch of a campaign on St Helena Online and the St Helena Independent.

Campaign member John Turner, who set up the St Helena Freedom of Information page on Facebook, says a planning meeting was “entirely positive.”

“I’m sure that Freedom of Information legislation for St Helena is only a few months away,” he writes.

Next steps are for the government’s social and community development committee to agree what should remain secret, how information should be presented, and how to settle disputes over whether information should be released.

“In the meantime, council continues to operate on the basis of openness: that data should be published unless there is a good reason not to. A welcome change!”

Seventeen councillors and FOI supporters attended the planning meeting on Monday 9 September 2013.

Afterwards, Councillor Ian Rummery told SAMS Radio: “This has to be fit for purpose for St Helena. We don’t want to put in a whole new bureaucracy which is not maintained or just becomes so overly bureaucratic that it just doesn’t work.”

Councillor Tony Green told the station he was concerned about spending time and money on drafting a new law.

He said: “The principle of freedom of information, I don’t have a problem with and actually, I think it’s very important.

But he went on: “I don’t actually believe that we should at this particular time be devoting resources to putting up freedom of information draft legislation and setting up a regime when there are more perhaps important things.

“I’m thinking about social policy, I’m thinking about benefits.

“I need to know how much it’s going to cost – also how it will affect other priorities.

COMMENT:

Many people will agree with Councillor Green when he says that issues such as benefits should be given higher importance that something that may seem idealistic.

He believes in open government, but he’s got legitimate, pragmatic concerns.

But without transparency, and open decision-making, how do we know councillors are really acting in the interests of the vulnerable, and everyone else?

Open government is better government, and some high-ranking people have said so. Secretive government is bad for democracy.

Is it any surprise that many Saints were disenchanted with past administrations, and that councillors were voted the least trusted people on the island in a recent survey?

The governor has complained about a lack of public engagement in democracy, and yet his government actively dis-engaged the people by hiding information from them, in clear breach of their human rights.

Why should anyone have trusted a government that operated in the shadows, and refused to trust its own people by letting them know what it was doing in their name? How could people be engaged in decision-making when it happened behind closed doors?

Members of the previous council nearly all declared themselves to be in favour of open government.

But when asked if open government should actually be practised – by holding Executive Council meetings in public – they nearly all said “No”.

The logic of that one is difficult to grasp. Maybe Governor Capes had good reasons for dissolving the last council early.

The present councillors have imposed a new policy of openness, with every sign that they mean it.

But there are strong grounds for fearing that a future legislature might revert to the bad old ways of the bad old days, unless there is legislation in place to prevent it.

Councillor Green is right: this is not the best time to be drafting laws that won’t put food on the plates of the poor.

The best time was a long time ago.

But the alternative is that we simply trust future governments, with the risk that they will go back to spending many millions of pounds of British taxpayers’ money with virtually no public scrutiny, and little to prevent them making bad decisions.

On the basis of past form… No.

Girls at risk as Ascension declines, says Guardian writer

Ascension is losing families because of employment policies, says Guardian writer Fred Pearce
Ascension is losing families because of employment policies, says Guardian writer Fred Pearce

Long-held resentments over treatment of Saints on Ascension have been aired in a lengthy article on the UK’s Guardian website.

It accuses the UK of depopulating the island – with teenagers facing sexual pressures as a result.

Writer Fred Pearce says people who have lived on the island all their lives are being forced out because they have no right to stay without work – and the number of jobs is being systematically reduced.

“Jobs are being shed and workers moved on to short-term contracts,” he writes. “Families now only accompany workers if that is essential to fill positions, say officials.

“The loss of families means that three-quarters of the population is now male. Sexual exploitation of the remaining teenage girls is becoming a serious problem.”

The school is losing pupils and in danger of becoming unviable, says the article – quoting prominent resident Caz Yon, who was recently awarded the MBE for services to the island.

The discontent dates back to 2006, when UK foreign secretary Jack Straw went back on promises to give resident workers the right to live on the island without a job, and rights to own property.

“Businesses set up during the ‘Ascension spring’ have lost their value because they cannot be sold and have no secure land tenure.”

Administrator Colin Wells defends the UK’s “necessary U-turn” in the article.

He also denies that the island is seeing “a slow motion repeat” of the ongoing scandal of Diego Garcia, another British territory whose people were expelled to make way for a US air base – and are still fighting to return.

Pearce quotes Lawson Henry, now an executive councillor on St Helena, where retired Ascension workers are denied local pensions because they have not worked on their native island for the required 20 years.

Little has changed since Jack Straw’s U-turn, but now the island is seeing the effects of Britain’s decision to avoid having to pay pensions or unemployment benefit.

But maybe noises are about to be made again, says the article, which is headlined, US and UK accused of ‘squeezing life out of’ Ascension Island.

“The issue is expected to come to a head in elections later this year for the island council – a purely advisory body that is the island’s only semblance of democracy after 198 years of British rule.”

Democracy: another promise that didn’t quite come off.

Read the full article here

 

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.”

Governor urges new councillors to show leadership

Governor Mark Capes has called on St Helena’s new councillors to provide strong leadership and break down past distrust of the island’s government.

In what could be seen as a criticism of former councillors, he told the island’s new leaders they must take responsibility in public for the decisions they made.

The speech hinted at frustration with ineffectiveness of the previous legislative council and provided a possible clue to Governor’s Capes’s motive for dissolving it unexpectely in April 2013.

Fight looms over secrecy oath that blocks human right (updated)

Update: Councillors have all now sworn the oath of confidentiality that prevents them revealing any information about St Helena Government. A new story will be published later today, following the inaugural session of the new legislative council.

St Helena’s new councillors are being placed under pressure to swear a vow of secrecy that goes against one of their main promises to voters.

If they are forced to swear the oath of confidentiality today (Wednesday 24 July 2013), they face denying people one of the basic human rights protected in the island’s Constitution – the right to receive information.

It also goes against at least one of the seven principles of public life that St Helena Government has previously claimed to uphold, to be as open as possible.

The two councillors who topped the voting in the 2013 general election have issued a joint objection to the pledge.

Their statement says: “Lawson Henry and Ian Rummery wish to place on record that while they must take this oath, they object to it as it has no place in St Helena’s Constitution.

“In addition to introducing freedom of information legislation they will work to remove this archaic oath from the Constitution.”

It is not clear what would happen if all 12 new councillors refused to make the secrecy pledge. The Constitution says that no person shall be compelled to take any oath which is contrary to his or her belief.

But councillors are thought unlikely to want to do anything that would delay starting on work that has built up since the last legislative council was dissolved, 13 weeks before the election.

A private report seen by St Helena Online says that when a past councillor refused to promise confidentiality, he was “effectively barred from office” until he gave in.

Councillors will be asked to swear “that I will be a true and faithful Councillor and that I will not, directly or indirectly, except with the authority of the Governor, reveal the business or proceedings of the Government of St Helena or the nature or contents of any document communicated to me, or any matter coming to my knowledge, in my capacity as a Councillor.”

Ian Rummery said: “I cannot find any parliaments that require an elected member to take an oath of confidentiality. There is no place for such an oath in a modern democracy.”

Parliamentarians in London are only required to swear allegiance to the Queen – as do councillors on St Helena.

The oath clearly goes against the spirit of transparency that the new councillors have pledged to introduce to island government.

It also flies in the face of the right to freedom of expression. The island Constitution says:

“A person’s freedom of expression includes… his or her freedom to receive information and ideas without interference.”

The confidentiality pledge also breaches councillors’ own freedom under the Constitution to “disseminate information and ideas without interference”.

Excessive secrecy in The Castle directly conflicts with the UK government’s call for good governance in Britain’s overseas territories – including transparency.

It is also seen as a significant reason for distrust of St Helena Government.

Advisers from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, led by Lord Shutt of Greenock, will be asked for guidance on the issue when they arrive on the island.

The full statement from Ian Rummery and Lawson Henry reads:

At the Inaugural Meeting of the St Helena Legislative Council on 24 July 2013, newly elected councillors are required to swear or affirm three oaths.  One of these is the Oath of Confidentiality.

This oath states that a Councillor will not ‘directly or indirectly, except with the authority of the Governor, reveal the business or proceedings of the Government of St Helena or the nature or contents of any document communicated to me, or any matter coming to my knowledge, in my capacity as Councillor.’

Lawson Henry and Ian Rummery wish to place on record that while they must take this oath they object to it as it has no place in St Helena’s Constitution.  Such an oath contravenes the right to freedom of expression and is in opposition to the Nolan Principle of Openness which requires an elected member to be ‘as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take.’

Lawson and Ian are committed to making this government open and transparent.  In addition to introducing freedom of information legislation they will work to remove this archaic oath from the Constitution.

SEE ALSO:
‘Now for transparency’ says Ian as reformers win election
Transparency campaign launch – July 2012

LINK:
St Helena Constitution 2009
UK Parliamentary Oath

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)

UK politicians revive St Helena group on eve of polls

The all-party Parliamentary group for St Helena has been revived in London, close to what could be the most important general election in the island’s history.

It comes after Vince Thompson of the St Helena Independent talked with Lord Jones of Cheltenham and Sir Bob Russell at separate meetings in Westminster.

The group had not met since the Coalition Government came to power.

At the meeting with Lord Jones – also attended by Simon Pipe of St Helena Online – a number of concerns were raised about issues on the island, including infrastructure and lack of open government.

Lord Jones was strongly supportive of the campaign to introduce freedom of information legislation and end excessive secrecy on the part of the island’s executive council.

He continues to receive informal briefings by email  – including an update on the election and the abrupt departure of fisheries expert Mark Brumbill amid allegations of unspecified threats against his family.

The all-party group held an annual general meeting on 4 July 2013. 

Sir Bob, who led the fight in Westminster for Saints to be given back their British citizenship after it was removed by Margaret Thatcher, was re-elected as chairman.

Meg Munn MP is a vice chair.

Ten government and ten opposition names are the minimum needed for the group to be legitimate.

Two Labour peers, Lord Snape and Lord Brookman – both former union leaders – were brought in to make up the numbers.

London dismisses election protest against Governor Capes

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. 

Letter to Mr Hague - extract 1a stunned 550Nor 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.

Peter Hayes extract 550The 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.

Letter to Mr Hague - extract 3 speaker 550 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.

Letter to Mr Hague - extract 2 reasons 550 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:

SEE ALSO:
Ninety days in a wilderness: election delayed until last moment
Sacked councillors round on His Absency the Governor
Governor ‘cocked it up’ by dissolving LegCo, says professor

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