St Helena Online

Tag: constitution

Fight looms over secrecy oath that blocks human right (updated)

Update: Councillors have all now sworn the oath of confidentiality that prevents them revealing any information about St Helena Government. A new story will be published later today, following the inaugural session of the new legislative council.

St Helena’s new councillors are being placed under pressure to swear a vow of secrecy that goes against one of their main promises to voters.

If they are forced to swear the oath of confidentiality today (Wednesday 24 July 2013), they face denying people one of the basic human rights protected in the island’s Constitution – the right to receive information.

It also goes against at least one of the seven principles of public life that St Helena Government has previously claimed to uphold, to be as open as possible.

The two councillors who topped the voting in the 2013 general election have issued a joint objection to the pledge.

Their statement says: “Lawson Henry and Ian Rummery wish to place on record that while they must take this oath, they object to it as it has no place in St Helena’s Constitution.

“In addition to introducing freedom of information legislation they will work to remove this archaic oath from the Constitution.”

It is not clear what would happen if all 12 new councillors refused to make the secrecy pledge. The Constitution says that no person shall be compelled to take any oath which is contrary to his or her belief.

But councillors are thought unlikely to want to do anything that would delay starting on work that has built up since the last legislative council was dissolved, 13 weeks before the election.

A private report seen by St Helena Online says that when a past councillor refused to promise confidentiality, he was “effectively barred from office” until he gave in.

Councillors will be asked to swear “that I will be a true and faithful Councillor and that I will not, directly or indirectly, except with the authority of the Governor, reveal the business or proceedings of the Government of St Helena or the nature or contents of any document communicated to me, or any matter coming to my knowledge, in my capacity as a Councillor.”

Ian Rummery said: “I cannot find any parliaments that require an elected member to take an oath of confidentiality. There is no place for such an oath in a modern democracy.”

Parliamentarians in London are only required to swear allegiance to the Queen – as do councillors on St Helena.

The oath clearly goes against the spirit of transparency that the new councillors have pledged to introduce to island government.

It also flies in the face of the right to freedom of expression. The island Constitution says:

“A person’s freedom of expression includes… his or her freedom to receive information and ideas without interference.”

The confidentiality pledge also breaches councillors’ own freedom under the Constitution to “disseminate information and ideas without interference”.

Excessive secrecy in The Castle directly conflicts with the UK government’s call for good governance in Britain’s overseas territories – including transparency.

It is also seen as a significant reason for distrust of St Helena Government.

Advisers from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, led by Lord Shutt of Greenock, will be asked for guidance on the issue when they arrive on the island.

The full statement from Ian Rummery and Lawson Henry reads:

At the Inaugural Meeting of the St Helena Legislative Council on 24 July 2013, newly elected councillors are required to swear or affirm three oaths.  One of these is the Oath of Confidentiality.

This oath states that a Councillor will not ‘directly or indirectly, except with the authority of the Governor, reveal the business or proceedings of the Government of St Helena or the nature or contents of any document communicated to me, or any matter coming to my knowledge, in my capacity as Councillor.’

Lawson Henry and Ian Rummery wish to place on record that while they must take this oath they object to it as it has no place in St Helena’s Constitution.  Such an oath contravenes the right to freedom of expression and is in opposition to the Nolan Principle of Openness which requires an elected member to be ‘as open as possible about all the decisions and actions that they take.’

Lawson and Ian are committed to making this government open and transparent.  In addition to introducing freedom of information legislation they will work to remove this archaic oath from the Constitution.

‘Now for transparency’ says Ian as reformers win election
Transparency campaign launch – July 2012

St Helena Constitution 2009
UK Parliamentary Oath

Public gets a vote as chief councillor plan is put on hold

The idea of electing a chief councillor for St Helena has been put on hold after a vigorous debate by the island’s Legislative Council.

It will now be put to a public ballot, to be held before LegCo’s next meeting towards the end of March.

The proposal would have seen one member elected to lead the Executive Council (ExCo) and choose its other four members.

Concerns about the idea – one of three suggested changes to the island’s 2009 Constitution – were expressed at public meetings across the island.

It was felt that people had too little time to understand the implications.

Local authorities in the UK all have a chief councillor – usually known as the Leader, and elected from the political group in control of the council. However, the leaders of opposition groups are entitled to attend and speak at meetings of the council’s ruling cabinet – the equivalent of ExCo.

With no political parties on St Helena, that safeguard would not exist. Concern has also been expressed to St Helena Online that the system could see non-executive councillors forming an unofficial opposition.

That could lead to them using their vote in LegCo to block initiatives by the executive, creating the kind of difficulties seen in the United States, where the President’s wishes can be blocked by policital opponents in Congress.

Rodney Buckley, who put forward the idea of a chief councillor, amended his proposal to allow a secret ballot among the public, with new efforts to explain the proposal.

He told St Helena Online: “The motion received a really good debate – likely the best ever seen in the Chamber.

“It was clear there was considerable difference of opinion, with no evidence-based mandate from the people, so I moved for an adjournment until the next meeting, to take it back to the people with a view to seeking their mandate through a consultative poll.”

Two other proposals were voted through: to reduce the number of government committees, and change the constitution to prevent executive councillors serving on the island’s main scrutiny body, the Public Accounts Committee.

ExCo secrecy ‘undermines claims’ behind political reform

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.

‘Tangled’ political system hinders democracy, says Mr Capes
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Transparency campaign prompts fear of island tensions
St Helena Online joins a campaign for transparency
White Paper sets out need for openness in government

‘Tangled’ political system hinders democracy, says Mr Capes

St Helena’s “over-complicated” system of government has been blamed by Governor Mark Capes for a lack of public confidence in decision-makers.

Now the people of St Helena are being asked their views on re-writing part of the island’s constitution, to put right flaws.

Proposals include appointing a chief councillor, who would effectively choose the other executive councillors – just as Britain’s leader appoints government ministers. They could be removed through a no-confidence vote.

A consultation document has been published under the title, Improving Democracy and Accountability.

It says the constitution “creates a political system which is not conducive to collective leadership and responsibility, clear lines of authority, or transparent accountability.”

Changes are proposed is to make it clear who is responsible for decisions, and improve scrutiny of government.

Governor Capes says explaining and justifying decisions is “an essential element of good government.”

But the proposals make no mention of the government’s refusal to allow access to meetings of the executive council, or its agendas, reports and minutes.

Mr Capes also says councillors must be prepared to stand by their decisions. But there is no reference to recent complaints by councillors that they were not consulted on the details of a contentious re-structuring of government departments.

In an introduction to the consultation document, Mr Capes refers to “what appeared to be blurred lines of responsibility and accountability within government.”

He said: “I have no doubt that the current arrangements contributed in part to the low turnouts we have seen at recent by-elections.

“For my part, after one year of trying to make the over complicated and clunky system work, I too have concluded that the system could be improved, especially now that St Helena has entered an era of unprecedented change linked to air access.

“The electorate must be able to see, clearly, where responsibility rests for the decisions taken on their behalf by their elected members.

“It is an essential element of good government that those elected to represent the interests of the people should operate within a structure in which they are readily accountable to the people: to explain, to justify, and to stand by decisions taken by them on behalf of the people.”

Changes to the island constitution can only be made by the Queen. The UK government would only approve amendments that had wide public support.

People have until 25 January 2013 to express their views. Comments can be emailed to or submitted in writing to Cilla Isaac at The Castle in Jamestown.

SEE ALSO: Constitution flaw left leaders challenging themselves

LINK: Improving Democracy and Accountability – consultation paper