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