St Helena Online

Tag: St Helena Freedom of Information

Campaigning MP investigates open government on St Helena

Tom Watson, right, is “very interested” in media and government issues on St Helena. Picture: fotopedia/”London Summit”

The British politician who led scrutiny of alleged corrupt journalism in London has turned his attention to St Helena.

Tom Watson was contacted by the St Helena Freedom of Information Campaign because of complaints about the openness of government on the island.

Meetings of the executive council are frequently held behind closed doors, and agendas, reports and documents are not released to the public – as would be required by law in England.

Freedom of Information campaign banner: blue block with a padlock symbol containing a letter iMr Watson was told this shackled public scrutiny of the way millions of pounds of UK taxpayers’ money was being spent on the island.

The Labour MP was also told of concerns about the wording of the new Media Standards Ordinance, which appears to allow St Helena Government to ban publication of a newspaper.

This has been denied by Henry Bellingham, the British minister for overseas territories.

St Helena Online has asked St Helena Government for clarification of the yet-to-be-enacted law, which says that sanctions for misconduct include recommending a broadcasting licence be revoked, or:

“…in the case of any ongoing publication, an order that such publication be discontinued.”

(Update, 22 August 2012: SHG says “ongoing publication” refers to, say, web publication of a defamatory newspaper story. However, critics say the wording is ambiguous and should be changed).

Mr Watson said: “I’m very interested in this issue. I’ll pick it up when Parliament is back in the beginning of September.”

He asked his researcher to investigate “every link and source material”. A dossier has now been sent to Mr Watson’s Westminster office.

It included a transcript of an interview in 2006 with Colin Forbes, who was the island’s public solicitor.

He said St Helena Government had not adopted the English Freedom of Information Act because it was too far-reaching to be workable on a small island – a justification since repeated by SHG.

But he added that Freedom of Information laws made governments accountable: “They are forced to reveal the information they have used to come to their decisions.”

He said: “If the UK’s act is too complicated, then let’s get on and produce a version of our own.”

No such law has been introduced.

The public and media are not given detail about what is to be discussed by councillors, meaning people are denied the democratic freedom to participate in public debate and influence political opinion.

Mr Watson has risen to prominence because of his investigations into the phone-hacking scandal in Britain, in which newspapers used information illegally intercepted from private phone messages of politicians, sportsmen, celebrities and even members of the Royal Family.

As a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, he has interrogated media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose flagship News of The World newspaper was closed because of the scandal.

Several senior members of Mr Murdoch’s London staff have since been charged with criminal offences.

In a speech to the Hansard Society in London, Mr Watson said Freedom of Information rights in England had been vital to his investigations.

SEE ALSO:
UK group backs campaign to end secrecy in The Castle
St Helena Online joins a campaign for transparency
‘We honour the spirit of freedom act’ says The Castle
What UK local authorities must publish

LINKS:
St Helena Freedom of Information – blog
St Helena Freedom of Information – Facebook page

£46,000 a year to make island finances more transparent

An adviser is being recruited to help deal with weaknesses in St Helena’s public services. The job will include making the island’s budget system more transparent.

The £46,000-a-year role is to guide the modernising of public service on the island – in an affordable way. It includes developing a new approach to budgeting, looking to the medium term future.

The advertisement says the job includes “improving transparency” and “addressing existing gaps and weaknesses”. It will also involve testing the soundness of financial systems, and educating senior staff.

It says St Helena Government seeks someone experienced in public service reform, ideally in a small island setting, with “a confident and pleasant demeanour”.

SEE ALSO:

‘Transparency and scrutiny lead to public trust’ – White Paper
St Helena Online joins a campaign for transparency

LINK:
Modernisation adviser – job advert

St Helena Online joins a campaign for transparency

Ignorance may be bliss, but it’s not good for democracy.

St Helena’s elected councillors are making decisions that will set the course of the island’s future, but we are rarely told what they will talk about in advance.

That means people cannot voice their own concerns, and possibly raise problems that the officials in The Castle didn’t know about.

In England, councils must tell the public what they will discuss at meetings, without anyone having to ask. It’s the law.

That also means publishing all the background reports, which provide the media with the facts they need to tell the public what’s going on.

It doesn’t happen on St Helena.

It is also a requirement under the Freedom of Information Act that English local authorities publish the minutes of their most important meetings.

At the moment, all we get is a report by Governor Capes. It might tell you something was discussed, but not necessarily what was said or decided. It hardly counts as public scrutiny.

St Helena does not have a law on open government. The government in Jamestown says it observes the spirit of UK freedom of information laws.

But when it comes to ExCo and LegCo meetings, it really, really doesn’t.

Making such information public is called transparency, and the senior UK politician who is bankrolling St Helena’s airport says it is vital to a healthy democracy.

Andrew Mitchell, Secretary of State for International Development, told St Helena Online in May: “It matters because it allows people to be accountable for what they are doing. Sunlight is a brilliant disinfectant.

“Openness and transparency, explaining things to people, makes a better government, and that’s why we support it so strongly.”

But Mr Mitchell also said he would not want the UK to impose a freedom of information law on St Helena. It was for the island’s elected councillors, he said, to decide how to make SHG more transparent.

After he made his comments, island blogger John Turner launched a Facebook page called Transparency St Helena. Its supporters included former bishop John Salt. It was a start.

Today, the St Helena Independent and St Helena Online join forces with John under a new campaign banner: St Helena Freedom of Information.

We know we have a good case, because only last week, further indirect support came in the UK government’s White Paper on its overseas territories, which spoke of the importance of having proper scrutiny of public affairs in Britain’s far-flung islands.

It said: “This important work helps strengthen the people’s trust in government, and encourages greater public participation in decision making.”

It also quoted the Seven Principles of Public Life that some other territories have adopted, including one on openness:

“Holders of public office should be as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take. They should give reasons for their decisions and restrict information only when the wider public interest clearly demands.”

St Helena Government says the UK’s Freedom of Information Act would be too cumbersome for a small island administration. Maybe. So let’s have a debate about what would be reasonable.

Councillors, you heard Mr Mitchell. It is time to lead St Helena into the sunlight.

SEE ALSO:
‘Transparency and scrutiny lead to public trust’ – White Paper
AUDIO: International Development secretary on transparency
LINK:
St Helena Independent
St Helena Freedom of Information – blog

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