St Helena Online

Exco

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.

Rules laid down for new radio stations – for now

A battle for the airwaves has led St Helena Government to lay down temporary rules on how radio licences should be granted.

It says it would be unfair to make applicants wait for a fully-researched policy to be in place.

Two applications have been received, including one from Saint FM owner Mike Olsson, who wants to set up new stations in competition with the three planned by the St Helena Broadcasting Corporation (SHBC).

Neither will have to pay, because no charges were in place when they applied. That will change in future because radio frequencies are valuable assets, in the same way land and buildings are, says SHG.

No further applications will be considered until a permanent policy is in place.

Councillors had already agreed to fund the SHBC stations – for which no launch date has been given.

But then Mike Olsson made an unexpected move to launch new stations under the banner of St Helena Media Productions, the company that owns Saint FM and the St Helena Independent.

His request for a licence was put on hold at the 12 June 2012 executive council meeting.

If all stations go on air, the island could have six or seven radio stations serving a population that currently stands at just 4,000 people.

This year Saint FM began sharing material with its long-standing rival, Radio St Helena, which is due to be closed when the new SHBC services go on air. In late July 2012, though, Radio St Helena began carrying news bulletins compiled by SHBC.

The interim rules, issued by Gina Benjamin, the clerk of councils, say operators will not be able to keep hold of “spare” frequencies.

Councillors had noted that Saint FM was not using all the frequences it had been given, but Mike said they were in his own name and not suitable for island-wide broadcasting.

The government has not disclosed when it is likely to decide whether all the proposed new stations can go on air.

SEE ALSO:
Bulletins go live – before radio switch-on
Media saga takes new twist as Mike plans more radio stations
Media

LINKS:
Saint FM
St Helena Broadcasting Corporation
Radio St Helena – history

Prison plans in hand as Castle sets out vital projects

Basic designs are being drawn up for moving St Helena’s “unfit” prison out of Jamestown. Planning advice is being sought, according to a spokesman for St Helena Government (SHG).

First, a new unit for young people with challenging behaviour must be built at Half Tree Hollow to make way for the prison to move into the unit’s current home at Sundale.

The prison building is to be taken over – aptly – by SHG’s legal department. The move is not expected before 2015.

The information was provided in response to a question by John Turner of the St Helena Campaign for Freedom of Information, after the government published an outline of various projects that are vital to island life.

The Infrastructure, Utilities and Construction Programme was drawn up with the help of UK advisers after SHG was rebuked for falling behind with maintenance and large-scale projects – partly because of problems finding contractors.

Executive councillors were given a confidential report on progress in early July, but said they wanted the public to be given more information on important works.

Three projects involve energy supplies.

Replacements for ageing equipment at the power station is now being tested, and a trial of photo voltaic cells – to harness the energy of the sun, and reduce the use of diesel – is being evaluated. Approval has been given for six extra wind turbines, and work has begun to appoint a contractor to manage renewable energy projects.

Several projects tackle housing issues:

  • encouraging owners to rent-out empty homes
  • finding sites to build homes for low earners
  • raising living standards in SHG housing
  • improving welfare facilities, and moving Barn View social care residents to the Community Care Complex
  • refurbishing sheltered housing at Longwood and building six new units at Plantation Cape Villa

The first year of the rental project involves identifying the reasons people are reluctant to rent out empty homes, and find ways to overcome them.

Work on government-owned housing involves clearing a backlog of maintenance, as well as converting properties and building new homes.

Infrastructure projects include work on electricity supply, including for the airport, and on developing a sustainable water supply – which includes providing treated water to all island communities.

Upgrades and renovations of the government’s property estate includes work to:

  • clear a backlog of maintenance of government buildings
  • build a new fire station
  • move government departments to free up buildings for the private sector.

No buildings have been let as a result of the government reorganisation in Jamestown, but a spokesman pointed out that the programme was at an early stage.

Another project involves setting up a sustainable system for waste, including recycling, prompted in part by a need to move the existing landfill site near Longwood to avoid causing a hazard to aircraft.

An adviser is currently on the island and a consultation is due soon.

The government is also redeveloping hospital facilities to cope with more residents and visitors, expected once the airport is built.

This includes providing better laboratory facilities for diagnosing medical conditions, and for carrying out tests needed to export processed food.

SEE ALSO:
‘Unfit’ prison to close by 2015 amid human rights failings
£48,000 a year for someone to solve island housing shortage
Government property for sale ‘effectively, now’
Jobs for island contractors after years of under-spending

LINK:
Update on the Infrastructure, Utilities and Construction Programme

Development Assistance Planning Mission
– UK report on SHG infrastructure delays

Council to meet in public for airport buildings debate

Members of the public are invited to observe a special meeting of St Helena’s executive council to discuss the island’s proposed airport buildings.

Councillors will discuss the exterior finishes of the terminal and the building that will house the control tower, fire and rescue, fuel management and other facilities.

The meeting takes place at 9.30am on Tuesday 31 July 2012 in the council chamber in Jamestown.

The proposed designs can be viewed at the air access office in The Castle. Further details have been requested for the benefit of people who are not on the island. For more information email director.airport@sainthelena.gov.sh

Graphic showing rubber stamps saying "restricted" etc, crossed out

UK group backs campaign to end secrecy in The Castle

St Helena Freedom of Information: screen grab of Facebook page
Support the St Helena Freedom of Information campaign by clicking ‘Like’ on its Facebook page (see Links, below)

A call for more open government on St Helena has been backed by a leading group in the UK.

In a message of support, Katherine Gundersen of the London-based Campaign for Freedom of Information says open, honest debate leads to better decision-making.

It could also help to reduce public distrust of government.

Graphic showing rubber stamps saying "restricted" etc, crossed out
The logo of the Campaign for Freedom of Information

An increasing number of documents are now published on the St Helena Government website, though one executive councillor has told St Helena Online that some departments are less open than others.

But the St Helena Freedom of Information campaign argues that there is a vital gap in the information made available to islanders – and British taxpayers, who provide the bulk of St Helena Government funding.

It says papers going before the island’s executive council should be made public in advance of meetings. In England, that’s required by law. It also wants minutes of meetings made public – not just reports by Governor Mark Capes.

If agendas and reports are published in good time, individuals can scrutinise the information being presented by officials, and make sure that councillors are aware of public opinion before meetings take place.

It also means Saints overseas can keep track of what is happening at home. And it would remove a barrier to reporting by journalists and internet bloggers, which is acknowledged in the recent White Paper on overseas territories as a vital part of maintaining democracy.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information says: “We support efforts to improve public rights to information in St Helena.

“Freedom of information has many important benefits. It strengthens individuals in their dealings with the state. It increases the opportunity to participate in decision-making and enables more informed public discussion.

“The knowledge that the public may be able to see the documents on which decisions are taken helps to deter malpractice and to encourage politicians and officials to be more rigorous in their analysis, improving the quality of decision making.

“It helps to promote more honesty in government, by making it more difficult for public bodies to say they are doing one thing while doing something else.

“Moving towards a more open regime gives government the opportunity to show that it is genuinely acting on behalf of the public; is willing and able to justify what it does; that it tells the truth and deserves the public’s trust.”

Katherine Gunderson has also lent advice to the island campaign, which was initiated by John Turner and backed by the St Helena Independent and St Helena Online.

She advises highlighting examples of unnecessary secrecy and the damage done by it, and also explaining how the rights of the public – not just the media – would be improved by greater access to information.

She points out that very few “serious democratic governments” still reject the freedom of information ideal.

St Helena Online and the St Helena Independent have evidence that some officials resist the case for open government, but there are strong indications that some councillors are very supportive.

SEE ALSO:
St Helena Online joins a campaign for transparency
£46,000 a year to make island finances more transparent
‘We honour the spirit of freedom act’ says The Castle
‘Transparency and scrutiny lead to public trust’ – White Paper

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

Jobs for island contractors after years of under-spending

Island businesses are being asked to help with a backlog of “challenging” work to improve infrastructure on St Helena – such as roads and buildings.

It follows a rebuke in early 2012 by aid advisers over delays in spending several million pounds that was meant to be used for vital work.

Executive councillors have accepted that “capacity constraints” were partly to blame, according to Governor Mark Capes.

In the past, it has been reported that projects could not move forward because St Helena Government could not find contractors able to take on work on the island, including from overseas.

In his report of the executive council meeting of Tuesday, 10 June, Mr Capes said: “Councillors welcomed advice that discussions were under way with private sector interests to address this.”

Island contractors are expected to help clear a backlog of maintenance of buildings and other major infrastructure that has built up after years of inadequate spending.

A spokesman told St Helena Online: “The private sector will be engaged in the building and construction work of course, but over and above that we have need for a range of specialist technical work, such as construction design for some of the energy projects.”

An off-shore company is expected to be brought in “soon” to help manage projects from planning to completion.

Mr Capes said aid advisers from the Department for International Development had “registered some concern that progress was behind schedule on some projects and cautioned that we must aim to do better.”

In fact, the aide memoire signed at the end of the aid team’s visit in February 2012 voiced “deep concerns” over performance.

There had since been “limited and insufficient” progress, resulting in £4 million of aid money being stored up – which could have been spent in other needy countries.

That sum was due to shrink to around £1 million after payment for work to upgrade the power station.

The aide memoire – agreed with St Helena Government – said: “A surplus of funds is not allowed to build up again. DFID funds will not be paid in advance of need and will only be released if and when needed.”

An infrastructure adviser and a programme manager spent a week on the island in February to draw up a “more realistic” plan for work on areas such as roads, water and power, along with “other needed activity” on visitor attractions, housing, IT and construction.

The aid report also found annual spending on maintenance had not been adequate. “Work to address the maintenance backlog for much of the island’s heavy infrastructure and SHG’s stock of buildings has been prioritised under the plan,” it said.

Executive councillors are to be given monitoring reports every three months. St Helena Online has been told that Tuesday’s report by the director of infrastructure and utilities, David Thompson, is confidential and will not be made public.

However, Mr Capes’ report of the meeting said: “Councillors directed that more information should be made available, especially on the projects of most concern to the public, such as the roads programme.”

SEE ALSO:
£3 million enterprise body is vital for better future, says Paul
£46,000 a year to make island finances more transparent
St Helena Online joins a campaign for transparency

LINKS:
Executive Council report – 10 July 2012
Development Assistance Planning Mission (DAPM) – aide memoire, February 2012

Minimum wage moves to start ‘without delay’

A law to introduce a minimum wage on St Helena is to be brought into force as soon as possible.

Protection against being unfairly sacked is also set to be brought in under the 2010 Employment Rights Ordinance.

It comes less than a month after the man in charge of economic development said wages on St Helena were too low.

Julian Morris told Saint FM: “Wages on the island need to increase because, in my view, the standard of living is not high enough.”

First, a committee must be set up to advise on what the lowest legal wage should be on the island.

It will include representatives of private sector employers – who may face a rise in their wage bill – as well as someone to speak for employees.

Governor Mark Capes announced the move in his report of the latest executive council meeting, on 10 July 2012.

He said: “It was recognised that this would be a complex and challenging piece of work.”

The challenge includes working out the impact a minimum wage would have on private sector employers, as well as on St Helena Government and agencies such as Enterprise St Helena.

It also needs to be balanced against benefits and the basic island pension, said Mr Capes.

The first step is to enact four sections of the 2010 law, which set out the terms for forming the employment rights committee.

The ordinance says the committee should have five members, to be appointed by the governor.

They must include a legislative councillor, an employer, and a government official who is responsible for economic or social development.

The law also says the committee must include “a member of an organisation representative of employees” – although there are no trade unions on the island.

The fifth committee member will be “one other person who the Governor deems suitable to serve on the Committee.”

Once a minimum wage is set, it will be the committee’s legal duty to review it every 12 months.

It also has the power to decide whether any jobs should be excluded from the wage protection.

The ordinance says it must consult with employers and workers every year, and take account of the effect of a minimum wage on the island’s economy and its competitiveness.

Mr Capes said: “The intention would be to introduce other elements of the Employment Rights Ordinance, such as the right to have a written statement of terms of employment and the right not to be unfairly dismissed, to coincide with the introduction of a minimum wage.

“Council agreed that steps should be taken to establish the committee without delay.”

SEE ALSO:
Put up prices and pay staff more, says economy chief

LINKS:
Employment Rights Ordinance
Enterprise St Helena

£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

‘We honour the spirit of freedom act’ says The Castle

St Helena Government says it is committed to open government, even though it has not adopted the UK’s Freedom of Information laws.

It said: “We do honour the spirit and intent of the Act, but without adopting its cumbersome formality. This is simply a practical reality particular to the island.

“Within our limited resources we issue a huge amount of material: for example, close to two hundred news items in the last four months,  plus a host of other publications, such as the Sustainable Development Plan (St Helena’s 10-year vision), the Sustainable Economic Development Plan, and a Draft National Environmental Management Plan Framework.

“Publications such as the Land Development Control Plan (including the Housing Strategy and Land Disposal Policy) were the subject of exhaustive public consultation, as are many other initiatives.

“You will also have seen numerous newsletters from ourselves: for instance, the fortnightly Airport Update, the Enterprise St Helena newsletter and a variety of public notices in newsprint and on air.

“Other examples include publication of the Memorandum of Agreement with Shelco, the fact that our financial performance will now regularly be updated on the SHG website,  plus high level meetings being open to the public: for instance, the recent ExCo session and first Enterprise St Helena board meeting.”

A spokesman defended the fact that many ExCo discussions take place in private – unlike top-level local authority meetings in the UK. “As ExCo is the highest executive body in SHG, it is effectively our Cabinet (in UK terms). One would not expect UK Cabinet meetings to be open or public. And ExCos in other territories are also mostly held in private.”

St Helena Online has received detailed information on a number of stories – including on treatment for sex offenders and the future of St Helena’s prison.

It has also made use of material in reports on the SHG website, including candid concerns about the standard of education on the island, in the draft sustainable development plan.

It was also able to report frank statements by the director of education at a public meeting on maths teaching.

There have been other times when information has been requested, but not made available.

A message from SHG has pointed out that it “may have to disappoint” if too many time-consuming queries are made. However, the St Helena Freedom of Information campaign has begun by asking only for agendas, minutes and accompanying reports to be made public – and this is information that has already been compiled for councillors.

SEE ALSO:
‘Transparency and scrutiny lead to public trust’ – White Paper

LINKS:
St Helena Government – key information
St Helena Government – news
St Helena Freedom of Information – campaign website

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