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ExCo secrecy ‘undermines claims’ behind political reform

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An expert on government has cast doubt on proposals to make St Helena’s leaders “more accountable” to the people they serve.

St Helena Online approached Professor Colin Copus about the government’s blanket refusal to allow access to executive council meetings and papers.

He said: “It undermines any claims of accountability to the people you represent.”

Changes to St Helena’s 2009 constitution have been proposed in a document called Improving Democracy and Accountability.

They include appointing a chief councillor to be answerable to the public, but make no mention of the ExCo secrecy.

Governor Mark Capes says being accountable is “an essential element of good government”.

But Colin Copus, Professor of Local Politics at Leicester Business School, said the limited information released about ExCo meetings “may fulfil some element of accountability, but it doesn’t go far.”

St Helena Online briefed the professor on the government’s refusal to allow the public or media to observe executive council meetings, or see agendas, reports or minutes.

Without them, people cannot challenge the arguments behind decisions, and cannot see how officials may have influenced elected representatives. The ability to influence councillors is a fundamental part of most democracies.

Professor Copus 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.”

In the consultation paper, Governor Capes admits that poor accountability may have caused low turnout in recent by-elections – an example of a lack of public engagement.

The professor also pointed out that members of the public were often given a brief opportunity to speak at council meetings in the UK.

He said: “I have sat in many public meetings and seen intelligent councillors floored by a simple question from a member of the public that they had not thought of.

“It improves decision-making. It doesn’t damage it.

“Accountability rests on two things: giving account and being held to account. So justifying to the people what you are doing, being open to question, criticism, challenge, demands for explanation, and being exposed to other sources of information.

“Politicians don’t have the monopoly on wisdom. They are people who are elected, but that doesn’t make them any more honest, virtuous or intelligent than anyone else.”

He could think of no significant democracy that prevented access to information in the same way.

Although meetings are reported by the governor – an idea that would be unthinkable in the UK – there were several examples of Mr Capes’s reports giving an incomplete account.

Professor Copus was told how councillors were praised for responding honestly to a survey by the St Helena Freedom of Information Campaign.

Most said they supported the idea of open government but did not see a need for access to ExCo proceedings or papers.

One respondent said ExCo meetings needed to be private, because officers would often float tentative ideas that had not been fully explored, and it might cause public concern if they were reported too early.

But the professor said such discussions could simply take place outside the formal meeting – as happens in the UK.

“The reality is political decisions are made in private, and taken in public. But that very process of being able to see who is putting their hand up, and afterwards being able to challenge them, is very important.”

In the 2012 survey, two councillors also said they feared that if the public knew what councillors were planning, it might reopen feuds and community tensions in a small, close-knit population.

Professor Copus said: “I have heard councillors in England say that actually, we need private space because we have to think the unthinkable. My response would be, if it’s unthinkable, you shouldn’t be thinking it.”

The policy of hiding information from voters has been defended on the basis that ExCo is the equivalent of the UK government’s cabinet, which also meets in private.

But it is possible to obtain information about cabinet discussions, through requests under Britain’s Freedom of Information acts.

“Cabinet meetings are not open to the public but you can know who made the decisions and you know what the decisions were, even if you can’t be present at the meeting,” said Professor Copus.

He said scrutiny of decision-making would “exceptionally difficult” without transparency.

“Unless you know by whom a decision was made and on what basis, you can’t effectively challenge it. It’s a very minimalist approach to accountability to say, ‘There you are, at least we have told you what we are doing.’

“It may fulfil some element of accountability, but it doesn’t go far.”

Councillors do hold community surgeries, and many committee meetings are now held in public. Officially, the agendas for those meetings are available from committee clerks: but when St Helena Online and the St Helena Freedom of Information Campaign asked for contact details for clerks, there was no response.

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