St Helena Online

Tag: secrecy

Governor and politicians top ‘not trusted’ list

Looking the other way: a government report leaves out criticisms of officials
Looking the other way: a government report leaves out criticisms of officials. Picture by Vince Thompson

Politicians have been named as the least trusted people on St Helena, along with journalists.

But the governor has come second in a list of the most distrusted people on the island – and that fact was left out of a summary of the findings that was issued to media by the government.

Governor Mark Capes is not named in the report on the first-ever survey of ethics at work, and it is possible the distrust relates to governors in general.

Only 74 people said they trusted the governor, despite the fact that 70 people who responded described themselves as senior managers or leaders, and 320 (73%) worked for the government.

Councillors were “not trusted” by a massive 60% of respondents. The governor was distrusted by 39%, closely followed by journalists (38%), police (35%), doctors (33%) and business leaders (32%).

Another 32% said they did trust doctors – and 36% offered no opinion.

But the summary issued to the media only mentioned a different set of findings –showing the people who came bottom of a list of “trusted” people.

It said only 9% of people trusted councillors, followed by journalists (14%) and business leaders (18%).

It failed to mention that the governor – the unelected representative of Her Majesty the Queen, appointed by Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office – came fourth from the bottom, trusted by only 19% of respondents.

The survey was conducted by the Institute of Business Ethics, a UK charity. It pointed out that journalists and politicians also rank low in British surveys of trusted figures.

St Helena Government has been asked to explain why the findings for the governor were not included in the summary issued to the media – especially as it says that “honesty is defined as… speaking the truth”.

In response, it said only: “Both reports are openly available in the public domain. We have nothing to add.”

The initial press release did say that the full report had been published on the government website. The list of trusted figures is on page 33 of the document.

It shows the most trusted people are teachers (54%), followed by technical professionals and skilled labourers (42% each) and religious leaders (41%).

The summary says: “Councillors, business leaders and journalists were shown to be the least trusted professions.

“This could partly be due to the fact that these professions are linked to key decisions made for the island at this time of change and are relatively high profile figures.

“Of course, it could be that a particular councillor, business leader or journalist is not trusted.”

The distrust of the governor may also be historic, relating to various governors who have served in recent years.

However, the St Helena Freedom of Information Campaign has argued that the excessive secrecy practised within The Castle has caused deep distrust of the island’s government.

And the dealings of the main decision-making body, the executive council, have become more secretive under Governor Mark Capes.

His reports of ExCo meetings are also far less revealing than those of his predecessor, Andrew Gurr, who made sure parts of ExCo meetings were routinely open to the public.

Governor Capes has challenged the island’s new legislative council “to improve the reputation and worth of councillors in the eyes of the people of this island”.

Newly-elected executive councillors are working on ways to improve openness – and increase trust. But it is expected to take time to change a deep-rooted culture of secretiveness in The Castle.

A team from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, led by Lord Shutt of Greenock, arrived on St Helena on Tuesday 31 July 2013 to help councillors be more effective.

An unofficial briefing seen by St Helena Online says that councillors have been over-reliant on advice from senior officials in the past, because of a lack of support systems enjoyed by politicians in larger democracies.

Public servants were trusted by only 25% of people in the ethics survey, and distrusted by 24%. However, 73% of those surveyed were… public servants.

LINKS:
Full report on St Helena Ethics at Work survey, by the Institute of Business Ethics
St Helena Government summary of the Ethics At Work survey

SEE ALSO:
New leaders vow to end ‘embarrassment’ of secrecy

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.”

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

UK’s top lawyer could help end St Helena secrecy

Britain’s Attorney General could be asked to help St Helena and other UK overseas territories draw up laws on freedom of information.

Dr Peter Hayes, the diplomat in charge of overseas territories, raised the possibility during a committee hearing in Westminster.

But he also referred to a set of rights, drawn up by the United Nations, that already give people on St Helena the right to receive information. That has not stopped the island’s executive council meeting almost entirely in secret and denying access to minutes.

He spoke after his boss, Foreign Minister Mark Simmonds MP, had warned that hard-pressed island governments might not have spare “capacity” to bring in transparency laws. 

Dr Hayes said: “Through our own Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, we have a meeting of law officers which tries to help the territories deal with their capacity constraints on implementing all of these various bits of legislation.

“We would be very happy to suggest to Dominic Grieve that he might mention at the next meeting that freedom of information has been raised at this committee, but I just wanted to flag that there is a lot of work to do across a lot of very important areas.”

St Helena’s Attorney General, Ken Baddon, attended the previous meeting for lawyers from the territories, in December 2012.

Dr Hayes, who visited St Helena in March 2013, said: “There is a broad sweep of areas where we would like to see legislative development in territories: many of the core human rights legislation, the UN covenant on civil and political rights… safeguarding children, restorative justice… there is a broad work programme ahead of us.”

He said that he was “not suggesting that [freedom of information] is not important”, but “I just wanted to flag that there is a lot of work to do across  a lot of areas.”

Mark Capon MP, who had raised the issue at the environment committee hearing, said: “Freedom of information has come across in our inquiries that if it was improved could help move things forward.”

The United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was extended to St Helena in May 1976 – meaning people on the island were entitled to receive information as part of their right to freedom of expression.

By meeting in secret and keeping refusing to release minutes of its meetings, St Helena’s executive council appears to be acting in clear breach of that right.

Article 19 of the covenant says:

Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds…

It adds that these rights should only be restricted “for respect for the rights or reputations of others” or “for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals”.

ExCo’s policy of making decisions in secret also conflicts with the spirit of St Helena’s own Constitution, which says:

Except with his or her own free consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his or her freedom of expression.

[This includes] his or her freedom to receive information and ideas without interference.

The constitution does set out circumstances in which information can be withheld from the public, but they do not appear to justify the practice of keeping all meetings and minutes confidential.

Secrecy leaves islands at risk of corruption, warns RSPB

Entrance to the Castle - home of St Helena Government. Picture: John Grimshaw
Entrance to the Castle – home of St Helena Government. Picture: John Grimshaw

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.”

SEE ALSO: 
MP ‘shocked’ by tales of environmental failings
Evidence to UK’s Environmental Audit Select Committee, 17 April 2013
Evidence to UK’s Environmental Audit Select Committee, 17 April 2013

LINKS:
Turks and Caicos Commission of Inquiry report released
An Assessment of Environmental Protection Frameworks in the UK Overseas Territories – RSPB report

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