St Helena Online

Tag: transparency

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

Secrecy critics form new Executive Council

The five politicians who polled most votes in the 2013 St Helena general election have been named as the island’s new executive councillors.

Each will chair one of the five main committees of the government.

They are: Lawson Henry (Economic Development Committee), Christine Scipio o’Dean (Education), Cyril George (Environment and Natural Resources), Ian Rummery (Health and Social Services) and Nigel Dollery (Social and Community Development).

Their election means St Helena Government is now in the hands of councillors who have been strong critics of the culture of secrecy within The Castle.

Brian Isaac, Anthony Green and Leslie Baldwin were elected to the Public Accounts Committee, which has the task of scrutinizing government spending decisions.

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’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.

UK sends message on need for open government

The British government says it will be looking for transparency in the way St Helena spends millions of pounds it receives in aid funding.

Its latest update on British overseas territories says: “More than ever, in the current financial climate, we have a duty to show that we are achieving value for money in everything we do.

“Results, transparency and accountability will be our watchwords and we are determined to get value for money for every hard-earned taxpayer pound spent on development.”

The UK’s 2012 White Paper said that if overseas territories like St Helena wanted to remain linked to Britain, they must meet British standards of government and openness.

That was not reinforced by Andrew Mitchell MP – the International Development Secretary at the time – when he was asked later whether Britain would act to end government secrecy on St Helena – especially behind-closed-door meetings of the executive council.

He said transparency made for better government – but it was for the island’s councillors to introduce it.

In its June 2013 update on the overseas territories, the British government says it will ensure its own actions are transparent.

It says: “DfID regards transparency as fundamental to improving its accountability to both the UK and OTs citizens.

“We will publish clear, concise information about our programmes, providing the opportunity for those affected by our projects to provide feedback.”

It does not say what it will do to encourage similar transparency in St Helena and other territories – or how it can be open with British taxpayers and OT citizens if the territories are not transparent.

SEE ALSO: St Helena transparency archive

Human rights group pushes transparency cause

A leaflet supporting the fight against secrecy in St Helena Government is being published by the island’s human rights body.

It calls for a Freedom of Information (FoI) law to be introduced, just as the topic looks set to become an election issue.

So far only two candidates have confirmed they will stand, but one of them, Ian Rummery, has made it clear that reform is “a must”.

The leaflet says:

Freedom of Information is an extension of freedom of expression, a fundamental human right recognized in international law.

In the UK and several of the overseas territories this right is protected by a freedom of information act or ordinance. The UK act has been dis-applied here on St Helena, and we have no FoI legislation of our own so our right is not protected.

The United Nations and the UK Government both support Freedom of Information as they believe it

  • encourages greater openness and accountability
  • helps increase levels of public trust
  • increases the numbers voting in elections

The leaflet, published by the Human Rights Capacity Building Committee, says open government would build trust, prevent corruption, and encourage more people to vote.

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

MP ‘shocked’ by tales of environmental failings

A Member of Parliament has reacted with dismay to allegations about the British government’s performance on protecting the environment of UK overseas territories.

Caroline Lucas, the country’s only Green Party MP, said the government’s systems were “constitutionally not working.”

She said: “The more I hear, the more shocking the situation seems to be.”

She expressed her concern during a hearing of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, which is investigating the sustainability of the territories.

There was praise for environmental protection on St Helena and Tristan da Cunha – including for island students who have gained qualifications in the UK – but much of the 90-minute hearing was taken up with criticisms and concerns.

The small group of MPs also heard that lack of government transparency in most territories meant it was difficult to know why decisions were made.

It also exposed islands to risks of corruption – as seen on the Turks and Caicos Islands – said Clare Stringer, giving evidence for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

Strong criticisms also came from the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum (UKOTCF)

St Helena Online published a live feed of reports via the micro-blogging service, Twitter. Tweets included:

UK overseas territories biodiversity group ‘barely functions’, lacks authority, doesn’t report to ministers, UKOTCF told Parly envir cttee

Tristan da Cunha praised for exemplary fisheries management in RSPB evidence to MPs’ environment committee.

Decisions in most overseas territories are made behind closed doors and hard to understand, RSPB told MPs. Creates risk of corruption.

Overseas territories citizens in UK buy lottery tickets so their home islands should benefit from funding, UKOTCF tells Select Committee

UK overseas territories lack access to big EU funds while French outlying islands can apply, thanks to constitutional differences RSPB tells MPs.

DfID ‘has supported’ eco protection alongside St Helena airport ‘and that’s good to see’, RSPB told Parly’s environment audit cttee

An edited version of the full stream of reports can be seen here

WATCH:
House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee Hearing 17 April 2013
(note: sound and picture fail at the start; keep playing and it will come on)

LINKS:
Committee takes evidence on sustainability in the UK overseas territories
UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds: hidden treasures in the UK overseas territories

Psst… councillors debate transparency

Government transparency and accountability are understood to be on the agenda for a meeting of St Helena’s Legislative Council – the island’s parliament.

The meeting – Monday 25 February 2013 – was not publicised in either of the island newspapers, and St Helena Government has issued no press release to say it would be happening.

St Helena Online has been unable to find any mention of it on the government website.

The only public report in advance of the meeting appears was a radio interview by SAMS Radio 1 (the South Atlantic Media Service) – which cannot be received on all parts of the island.

The new Saint FM did not receive its licence in time to report the meeting and Radio St Helena, which broadcast LegCo meetings live, was closed by the government on Christmas Day.

St Helena is a democracy.

COMMENT:
Quite a strange way to announce the meeting.  SAMS Radio coverage is by no means
island-wide and provides no availability whatsoever for overseas Saints, who
could legitimately have been interested in knowing LegCo was happening.  So only
5/10 for effort!John Turner, St Helena

SEE ALSO:
ExCo secrecy ‘undermines claims’ behind political reform
Transparency campaign prompts fear of island tensions
St Helena Online joins a campaign for transparency

Constitution flaw left leaders challenging themselves

A flaw in St Helena’s constitution means senior councillors can legally be responsible for challenging their own decisions.

Last year, two “respected” executive councillors stepped down from the island’s public accounts committee, set up to monitor decision-making, when the flaw was highlighted.

Now changes have been proposed to prevent executive council members from serving on the body.

The ban is put forward in the Improving Democracy and Accountability paper, which seeks public views.

It says: “It is possible for members of the executive council, and committee chairmen, to serve on the public accounts committee – scrutinising themselves.

“Collective responsibility (and, thus, democratic accountability) seems to have been lost.”

However, the accounts committee only monitors financial aspects of decision-making. Unlike the government and councils in the UK, St Helena has no general scrutiny body, and there is no proposal to introduce one.

LINK: Improving Democracy and Accountability – consultation paper

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