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St Helena shows UK the way with fizzy drinks tax

St Helena appears to be showing Britain the way to tackle obesity, by introducing a sugar tax.

A levy on high-sugar drinks was announced in the island’s budget in the very month that England’s chief medical officer warned that the British government might have to consider such a measure.

But Dame Sally Davies said she hoped it would not be needed in the UK.

St Helena Government (SHG) is introducing the 75p-per-litre excise duty from May.

It is a move that some on the island have long campaigned for, including shop owner Nick Thorpe, who sees the vast scale of imports of sugary foods and drinks.

The island is reported to import nearly a million cans of fizzy drinks per year, for a population of just over 4,000 people.

The island’s incidence of type 2 diabetes, which is linked to obesity, is among the highest in the world. The government has warned that the cost of treating the condition has put a massive strain on the island’s health service, as well as damaging the lives of diabetics.

The new budget includes an additional £692,000 for the health service, and more than £1.5 million has been set aside to fund infrastructure improvements to the hospital, including the furnishing of a diagnostic suite.

Colin Owen, the island’s Financial Secretary, said: “The introduction of a new tax on high-sugar drinks and higher-than-inflation increases on tobacco form part of a raft of measures which demonstrate that SHG takes the health of St Helena seriously.”

He also announced the introduction of liquor duty at £3.50 per litre, and a new duty of £1 per litre for drinks with an alcoholic content of 3% or below.

Councillor Ian Rummery pointed out the timeliness of the move in an email to St Helena Online. He wrote:

“I see that a sugar/fat tax is being debated in the UK media with statements from Dame Sally Davies, the Medical Officer, and the BBC World Service Business Matters programme has a week-long special on obesity and discussions on a fat tax.

“While the world talks about it, here on St Helena we have just introduced a tax on sugary carbonated drinks.”

Dame Sally first raised the prospect of a sugar tax in comments to the UK Parliament’s Health Select Committee. She also suggested that sugar might be addictive – though some scientists disagreed.

In his budget speech, Mr Owen said: “On St Helena, over 300,000 litres of carbonated sugar sweetened beverages are imported per year.

“This equates to around 67 litres per year for each person currently on island, each of us drinking around 200 cans a year. Within this, some people will consume very little, while others may consume many more.

“Just to be clear on the figures, we import just under ONE MILLION cans of fizzy soft drinks each year. And each can on average contains over 35 grams of sugar.

“We currently have a very high rate of obesity, and type 2 diabetes. This has a very high cost to the St Helena health service and there is significant evidence to show direct links.

“Every additional regular can-sized, sugar-sweetened drink per day, increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes by 18%.

“A number of studies document a link between fizzy soft drink consumption and higher blood pressure.

“And dental health is negatively influenced by consumption. Studies have shown that consumption nearly doubles the risk of dental cavities in children.”

He added that healthier diet drinks were currently more expensive than high-sugar drinks, especially those from South Africa.

“Research has shown that increasing the price of fizzy soft drinks will lead to a fall in consumption, as consumers switch to alternatives.”

The island budget also included a range of tax increases for alcohol, and a 5% increase in tax on all tobacco goods, taking the cost of a packet of 20 cigarettes to just under £5.

Mr Owen said: “The rate of throat cancer on island is one and half times more than the UK, the highest risk factors for throat cancer being smoking and drinking alcohol to excess. This above-inflation increase supports the health service.”

In his speech to Legislative Council on Friday, 21 March 2014, Mr Owen said:

“Madam Speaker this budget is different. It seeks to support not just economic development, but to support SHG’s top priority, health – and not just the health of individuals but that of the nation.

“I do not believe it’s right anymore to sit on the sidelines. We need to grab every opportunity available to support our health and green objectives, and that includes using the tax system to provide appropriate financial incentives. We need to change our tax policies to address the growing number of concerns around diabetes and cancers.”

He said the budget had been compiled by councillors, not just officials, which had brought fresh ideas.

SEE ALSO: 
Killer diabetes puts island under strain, says the Castle
Diabetes cases soar as island struggles with cost of healthcare
My sadness and anger at diabetes crisis, by writer Doreen

Plastic bag tax aims to cut landfill waste

The budget included new taxes of 5p on plastic bags and 1p on styrofoam containers for takeaway foods – both excise taxes, imposed within the island, as opposed to customs duties.

Mr Owen said: “Both products are made from petroleum and are not degradable. St Helena does not have the facilities to dispose of them and they end up in the landfill.

“Roughly 500,000 bags and containers are used per year and this is only likely to increase as tourism grows. Similar policies to reduce use of plastic bags have been very successful in places such as Wales.”

Budget facts

In his budget speech, Mr Owen said:

Prices in island shops rose by only 1.5%, against a forecast of just over 5%. But it was expected to rise during 2014.

The resident population averaged 4,297 people through 2013, and is forecast to reach to nearly 4,500 people in 2014.

More than 360 Saints were working on the airport project and unemployment was at an all-time low, with vacancies in government and the private sector. In total, 550 people were working on the project.

Income tax was set to have raised £3.4 million, some £325k ahead of targets.

Saints are letting out more properties than ever before.

Earnings from customs duties on alcohol and tobacco exceeded targets by £115,000 and £10,000.

The offshore fishing vessel MFV Extractor had been purchased, partly with funds from Enterprise St Helena (ESH) and would soon be leaving Cape Town to fish St Helena’s seamounts.

ESH had assisted in 30 youth training schemes and five public-private partnerships. More than 40 people enrolled as apprentices.

A 30-year planned maintenance programme for government housing began with the rewiring of flats in Jamestown.

Planning permission was granted for 65 homes in Half Tree Hollow, featuring wheelchair access and rainwater harvesting.

Two new “chuck and chew” waste lorries had been procured, along with 1,500 new wheelie bins.

Four conservation and environmental projects, due to start in April 2014, attracted grants worth more than £260,000.

Significant advances were made in standards of education. Almost half of the young people who took GCSEs in 2013 achieved a C grade or better in English and maths.

Mr Owen also said that December 2013 saw the introduction of a Minimum Income Standard. “St Helena should be proud that it is leading the world in ensuring that our benefits system properly reflects the actual costs of living here,” he said.

“This will be reviewed at least annually, with benefits adjusted accordingly – a tangible demonstration of our commitment to protect the most vulnerable from the rising cost of living. But this is only a starting point and we all know that there is much more to do.”

Other recommendations in the Sainsbury Report, commissioned from York University, would be considered over a five-year period – including a child benefit allowance, which the government planned to introduce from April 2015.

But he added: “Bringing benefits up to the level that we all see as desirable will be expensive, and to introduce every proposed reform now would simply be unaffordable.”

A settlement of £13.55 million in UK aid was confirmed on 13 March 2014 – an increase of £150,000 – with a further £4.5 million to cover the running costs refurbishment of the RMS St Helena.

The amount set aside for overseas medical referrals rose to £947,000, more than double the previous year’s figure.

Mr Owen said the budget also reconfirmed the government’s funding for the National Trust, New Horizons, Heritage Society and South Atlantic Media Services, and saw increased funding to SHAPE and the Public Solicitors Office, along with new funding for the Human Rights Office.

European funding of around 21.5 million Euros was likely to be made available for infrastructure development on St Helena, Tristan da Cunha and Ascension Island over the period 2016-20. Specific projects had yet to be formally agreed.

UK ‘doesn’t even know’ about island eco threats, say MPs

The UK has been accused by a Westminster committee of failing to protect endangered plants and creatures in its overseas territories.

The Environmental Audit Committee said the UK was not taking proper responsibility for the 517 globally threatened species in its care.

Its chairman, Joan Walley MP, said: “The UK government doesn’t even know precisely what it is responsible for, because it has failed accurately to assess and catalogue those species and habitats.

“During our inquiry, the UK government expressed vague aspirations to ‘cherish’ the environment in the overseas territories, but it was unwilling to acknowledge or to address its responsibilities under United Nations treaties.”

The EAC report reveals that the government’s environment department, Defra, has refused to allow any of its staff to visit the territories.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, which has long had staff working on St Helena, estimated the UK needed to spend £80 million over  a five-year period to protect the wildlife in some of the most ecologically rich places on the planet.

During the committee hearings, St Helena was singled out for introducing controls on development, thanks to efforts to minimise the ecological impact of its new airport.

The air access project has sparked intensive efforts to study and protect the island’s wildlife, including 45 plants and 400 invertebrates that are unique to the island.

The UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum welcomed the findings of the Environmental Audit Committee.

It said: “The EAC finds that successive governments have failed to give sufficient priority to safeguarding 90% of the UK’s biodiversity.

“The present government is criticised for being unwilling to address its responsibilities despite fine words in the 2012 White Paper, The Overseas Territories: Security, Success and Sustainability.”

UKOTCF Executive Director Dr Mike Pienkowski said: “Time is not on our side and, given the level of concern expressed in the report, immediate action is required.”

In an article for the St Helena Independent, Vince Thompson writes: “It remains to be seen if the Men from the UK Ministries, who appear to be so easily confused when questioned in detail about their Overseas Territories, find the report so overpowering they will actually take action on the report’s recommendations.”

The sensitivity of island ecology was illustrated by conservationist Dave Higgins, the man writing action plans for St Helena’s conservation areas, in an interview with the Yorkshire Post.

He told the paper the “museum rarity” of the island’s ecology was both frightening and exciting.

“The 823m-high summit of Diana’s Peak, which is 50 hectares of mountain range, holds more endemic species than any European country,” he said.

“Almost half of the invertebrates living in the islands’ national parks cannot be found anywhere else in the world.

“To date conservationists know of 200 species of endemic invertebrate just in the Peaks. Some of these are reliant on a single tree species.

“Local conservationists tell me that if we lose one of our endemic plant species there could be a suite of invertebrate extinctions.

“All around these biological jewels lies the threat of non-native species and habitat loss. The island’s wonder is under constant siege.”

St Helena and Ascension appear to fare better than many of their sister territories in the Caribbean, which are under greater pressure from both tourist developments and climate change.

St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha make up one of 14 UK overseas territories. The others are the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, the British Antarctic Territory, the British Indian Ocean Territory, Gibraltar, Anguilla, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat, Turks and Caicos, the British Virgin Islands, the Pitcairn Islands, and the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia in Cyprus.

READ MORE:
Government must to more to protect biodiversity – UK Parliament website
Yorkshire ecologist now our man in St Helena – Yorkshire Post

SEE ALSO:
St Helena gets top rating for environmental protection
Secrecy leaves islands at risk of corruption, warns RSPB
MP ‘shocked’ by tales of environmental failings

Ninety days in a wilderness: election delayed until last moment

The restoration of democratically-elected government on St Helena is to be delayed until the last possible week.

A general election is to take place on St Helena on 17 July 2013 – two days short of the 13-week deadline allowed under the island’s constitution. 

Governor Mark Capes dissolved the island’s Legislative Council without warning on Friday, 19 April 2013. He said at the time that the election would take place in July. 

He also said he wanted it to be held well in advance of the latest possible date in November 2013, in order to allow a new council to settle in before dealing with major business, such as the annual visit of UK aid negotiators.

No explanation has been given for the subsequent decision to delay for as long as possible.

Allowing time for votes to be counted, that means a gap of 90 days between dissolution and the naming of 12 new councillors.

There would then be several days’ further delay for training and formation of committees before they would be ready to start work – taking the hiatus close to 100 days.

Displaced councillors have publicly protested over the governor’s decision to exercise his right to dissolve the council without consulting anyone on the island.

Former councillor Derek Thomas told radio listeners he acknowledged the governor’s right to dissolve the council, but added: “One would think there should be good reasons for doing so.”

Professor George Jones, of the London School of Economics, said the governor had “cocked it up” by dissolving the council before he was ready to call an election. The announcement of the polling date came 24 days after the council was dissolved.

It said:  

“The Acting Governor Owen’ O’Sullivan has now agreed a date for the general election 2013, which will take place on Wednesday 17 July 2013.

“In order to vote, or stand as a candidate, your name must be on the register of electors.

“The provisional register of electors was published on Wednesday 8 May 2013, and during a two-week period it will be available for inspection and amendment by contacting the assistant registration officer, Gina Benjamin, at 1 Main Street.

“Copies will also be available at the customer service centre, library and the rural sub post offices.  The provisional register will be available for inspection and amendment until Friday, 24 May 2013.” 

SEE ALSO: Sacked councillors round on His Absency the Governor

St Helena votes NO in chief councillor poll

On Saturday 23 March 2013, a Poll was held on St Helena, on the question of a Chief Councillor, raised in the recent discussion paper ‘Improving Democracy and Accountability’ To the Question: Should St Helena have a Chief Councillor who can select the Executive Council?

The results were as follows:

  • YES – 42 votes
  • NO – 168 votes

The idea was put out to a public vote after members of Legislative Council said they had to be guided by concerns raised at meetings across the island.

Read more on the St Helena Government website.

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

Welcome to St Helena – a tax dodger’s paradise?

What’s the difference between St Helena and a billionaire’s financial playground? Nothing, to judge by a jibe from the British Labour MP Denis MacShane.

In a Parliamentary Question on the recent overseas territories White Paper, he asked:

“Can the Minister confirm that there are two banks, mutual funds or tax-dodging offshore companies for every citizen of the Cayman Islands? Will the new White Paper deal with the fact that around the world the overseas territories and dependencies are seen as the tax evader’s paradise network?”

Alan Duncan, Minister of State for International Development, did not exactly rush to the defence of blameless territories such as St Helena and, come to that, Pitcairn Island, neither of which is known for large-scale financial grubbiness.

Instead, he gave a rather straight-laced response, saying he could “assure the right hon. Gentleman that DFID is not providing any financial aid to tax havens.”

(Source: They Work For You)

£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

UK offers to help reduce offenders’ risk to island society

St Helena’s prison: coping with criminals is expensive for small islands, says UK government (Picture: John Grimshaw)

St Helena and other Overseas Territories are being offered help to deal with criminals who need specialist treatment to manage their behaviour – including sex offenders.

The UK government’s White Paper says smaller territories often lack facilities to treat people who need such help, though it does not say whether this is the case for St Helena.

St Helena Online has been told there is disturbing anecdotal evidence of domestic violence on the island – one of the issues being raised by a new group on the island called Women In St Helena (WISH).

No current figures are available, but former governor David Smallman wrote about the problems in his 2002 book, Quincentenary:

“There is no overt racism, there are no muggings, or murders, no hard drugs or organised crime…. Nonetheless, drink-related crimes, battered wives and domestic violence, even incest, are not uncommon. The local jail customarily has a majority of its inmates (an average of between 4 – 6 convicted prisoners) serving sentences for sex offences.”

Weekly police reports often give details of low-level offences involving drink or violence, and the rate for drink-driving arrests appears far higher than in the UK.

The White Paper speaks of the benefits to finding alternatives to sending criminals to prison – for some crimes.

“For small islands with relatively small prison populations, custody is an expensive, and sometimes impractical way to deal with offenders,” it says.

“Non-custodial sentences can offer an alternative and can have dramatic effects on reducing reoffending rates, when compared to prison for certain types of offenders.

“Building effective probation services to support offenders in the community is a key aspect to this work. Several Territories now have probation services in place and some  good results are being achieved.”

St Helena Government has been asked what work it is doing in this area for a possible article in the near future.

SEE ALSO:

Prime Minister David Cameron: we’re ambitious for you
White Paper sets out need for openness in government
‘Transparency and scrutiny lead to public trust’ – White Paper

LINK:
Overseas Territories White Paper

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