The Honourable Leslie Baldwin has been elected to serve on St Helena’s Executive Council.
The seat became vacant when Nigel Dollery stepped down from the island’s main decision-making group only weeks after the July 2013 general election, citing personal reasons.
Mr Baldwin will also take over the chairmanship of the social and community development committee.
The election took place on Monday 14 October 2013 at the first full meeting of the island’s new Legislative Council.
Mr Baldwin had to win the support of at least seven councillors to secure the required majority. No other candidates were put forward and there were no votes of dissent.
The Speaker, Mr Eric Benjamin, opened the formal session by thanking former councillors for helping to make St Helena a special place to live. He also gave recognition to the “excellent support” given by staff.
He added: “The future of our island is in my opinion dependant on every man and woman boy and girl playing a useful part in our island’s affairs.”
The LegCo meeting is being broadcast by SAMS Radio 1 at www.sams.sh – follow the link in the top right-hand corner of the web page.
Cathy Hopkins has been elected as Deputy Speaker of St Helena’s new Legislative Council.
She immediately took over the conduct of the inaugural meeting of the new council in the absence of the Speaker, Eric Benjamin, who had been receiving medical treatment in Cape Town.
She told councillors: “Being a member of legislative council brings huge responsiblities. The next few years are going to be tough for you.” She said the way the island moved forward with the building of its first airport was in their hands.
She said they should constantly ask themselves: “Am I listening? Am I hearing? Am I responding to what I hear? Am I offering the island the leadership it needs to bring change for the good?”
She also said there aim should not be to add to the abundance of those who had plenty, but ensure everyone on the island had all they needed in order to live.
Cathy had served as Speaker of the previous legislative council, losing her post when the council was abruptly dissolved without explanation by Governor Capes in April 2013.
She told new councillors she was resigning as chairman of the island’s Human Rights Capacity Building Committee, which came under the responsibilities of the new Speaker.
She said the committee was in the second year of working towards the introduction of human rights legislation for the island.
A number of human rights failings have been identified, including substandard conditions for prisoners, and inadequate right to freedom of expression – which includes the right to receive information that is currently kept secret by The Castle.
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.
Efforts to end “human rights violations” in St Helena’s overcrowded prison have been frustrated by executive councillors’ refusal to consider plans for a new gaol at Half Tree Hollow.
It is thought the acting governor, Owen O’Sullivan, might exercise his right to approve the plans himself, because conditions in HMP Jamestown are so bad.
Any delay is unlikely to affect the ten current inmates in the prison, which has just three cells. Their sentences will end before work on converting Sundale House was due to be completed.
It is not clear whether the councillor’s inaction will hold up conversion work. It was hoped it could be completed in 2014, a year earlier than expected.
The five-strong council argued that it had been told it could not make major policy decisions during an election period, under “purdah” rules imposed by Governor Mark Capes before he left the island on leave.
There has been vigorous local opposition to the Sundale House plan, and approving the scheme might have damaged the councillors’ chances of being voted back in – though they may not intend to seek re-election anyway.
Because the council meets in secret, the thrust of the councillors’ views on the plan is not known. Had they taken it to a vote, it might have been against the scheme.
But the principle of the move had already been agreed by the executive council, meaning it could only be turned down on the grounds of its design – and that had already been approved by the island’s independent planning board.
The acting governor’s report of the meeting said: “It was a constructive discussion with a number of points made. I was advised by members that they believed that they should not make a decision on this during the purdah period and wished to delay consideration of this until the new council.”
The purdah rules do allow the executive council to make decisions on urgent matters.
A statement from The Castle said: “The acting governor and senior officials are currently considering the implications of council’s advice and we are unable to make any further comment at this time.”
Catherine Turner, the island’s human rights co-ordinator, said: “The general feeling is that ExCo had already agreed this and should have made a decision but ducked the responsibility.
“ExCo’s acceptance of the proposal in principle is probably minuted somewhere but that will not be put into the public domain.
“However, this is recorded in the the Land Development Control Plan and the Human Rights Action Plan. Both clearly state that the prison should be moved to Sundale and both have been agreed and accepted as policy by the current ExCo.
“No one is clear what the next step will be.”
Catherine said leaving the decision to the new council might mean a delay until September, given that the election will not take place until 17 July 2013.
She said: “I expect that given the nature and sensitivity of the decision, any new members will want time to read the papers.”
The island’s governor does have the power to take the decision out of councillors’ hands. But Catherine said: “He is off island – the acting governor could do it, but it is thought that that is unlikely.
“The project team are hoping that it will not cause a significant delay as they believe that there is plenty they can be getting on with in preparation in the meantime.
“As far as the prisoners are concerned, most will have finished their sentences before the planned date of the move so it does not effect them directly.
“But it is the rights of those convicted in the next 12 months that will be unnecessarily effected, and we do not know who they are.
“My view is that the poor conditions and human rights violations are well documented and have been known for years, and it has gone on too long.”
Failings raised in the island’s human rights action plan include inadequate ventilation in cells, lack of privacy – even in the toilets – and limited access to the small exercise area.
“The prison is currently housing ten men, three to a cell, and one prisoner has chosen to sleep in an outside police holding cell,” said Catherine, who also serves as a prison visitor.
“It is hot and cramped in the cells. Remand prisoners and sentenced prisoners who are in the high security category are not allowed to leave the prison, so may not work on the farm or on community projects. Therefore they cannot get any outdoor exercise to let off steam.
“It is a disaster waiting to happen.”
Conditions at Sundale House, which currently houses people with severe mental disorders, have also been criticised. The prison plans involve creating a new secure facility for them elsewhere.
Catherine Turner said: “Fortunately our new social work manager, Claire Gannon, is excellent and she has plans in place to get the people out of Sundale and into more acceptable temporary accommodation as quickly as possible. “She is not prepared to wait for the new build to move as she recognises that the conditions at Sundale are unacceptable.”
The people elected to serve the people of St Helena have been asked to say whether they want to bring democracy on the island out into the open.
Governor Mark Capes has reported that councillors want to see more government information made public. But so far, that has not brought about the kind of transparency observed in countries such as the UK.
Now a letter has been emailed to every councillor by the St Helena Freedom of Information Campaign, asking three simple questions about the way islanders are governed.
“The recent White Paper on Overseas Territories says: ‘Those Territories which choose to remain British should abide by the same basic standards of good government as in the UK… this means making the performance of public bodies and services more transparent.’
“The White Paper also acknowledges the role of the media in telling the public about decisions made on their behalf.
“St Helena’s media cannot perform its role as a democratic watchdog because so much information is hidden from view: crucially, agendas and reports are not made public, as they are in Britain. This clearly falls short of the standards expected by the UK.
“Giving the public the chance to influence decision making is a fundamental part of democracy, but this is constrained if people do not know what decisions are being made, or lack access to the facts. This leads to voter apathy and damages trust in government.
“On the other hand, transparency protects councillors from misplaced allegations of malpractice.
“Andrew Mitchell, when Secretary of State for [International Development], made it clear that transparency produced better government, but it was for councillors to bring it about.”
The email then asks councillors to answer YES or NO three questions:
Do you agree agendas and reports of government committees, including ExCo and Legco, should be published on the SHG website, in advance of meetings? And that minutes should also be published?
Do you agree ExCo meetings should be open to the public and media, except where this would, for instance, compromise commercial sensitivity or the confidentiality of individuals?
Other UK overseas territories have adopted Freedom of Information legislation, to improve governance and serve voters better. Do you think St Helena should now discuss the possibility of introducing a Freedom of Information Ordinance?
The letter concludes by inviting councillors’ comments.
Can you can trust a government that does not share essential information? Or are you happy to leave it to councillors and officials to act in your best interest? Whether you are an islander or not, share your views here.
Inmates of Jamestown prison have been exempted from St Helena’s new ban on smoking in public buildings, which came into force on 1 September 2012.
Under the law, anyone caught smoking in a public building is liable to a fine of £300 – which prisoners would struggle to pay.
The prison service would also have been liable to a fine of £500 for allowing inmates to smoke.
But executive councillors were told on Tuesday 4 September 2012 that special circumstances applied to the prison, and that jails in the UK are also exempt from similar legislation.
‘Allowing them to smoke is going backward’ – see comment, below
Governor Mark Capes said: “It had become apparent that the special circumstances of HM prison, the physical structure of the building and the essential safety and security measures, make it impossible to apply the conditions required by the Tobacco Control Ordinance.
“After some interesting discussion of the special factors prevailing at HM prison, councillors agreed to grant the exemption.”
The island’s new Natural Resources Management Plan was also approved by councillors, after they were assured it would not cut across investment policy or cause extra expenditure.
Reduced petrol and diesel prices, resulting from changes in the value of the US dollar, were reported to the meeting. The cost of diesel had dropped by six pence per litre, and petrol by four pence.
Chokey: British slang for a prison, from Hindi caukī – a shed or lock-up
How ridiculous! Allowing them to smoke is going backward and not forward! Let’s look at the big picture for them. How about a “How To Stop Smoking ” class. And what better place to educate them on the benefits of cessation than while in prison. What happened to “how can we help them, how can we educate them?” They are people who have made mistakes, like we all do. – Doreen Gatien, California
Advice on setting new benefit levels on St Helena has been sought from a UK university. Executive councillors have been told that the new figure has to be linked to establishment of a new minimum wage, tax reforms and utility prices. Governor Mark Capes said: “Expert advice was being sourced from overseas, including from the University of York.”
TARA THOMAS is stepping down at 31 August as St Helena’s youngest councillor, to take up a prestigious Chevening Scholarship – awarded to future leaders. Here, she reflects on nearly three years as a dynamic force for change in The Castle – and on a memorable UK holiday with partner Tom.
It’s always good to get away, even if for just a short break. It gives you the opportunity to reflect on what’s happening and to look at things in a different way.
Attending the Jubilee Celebrations and the Opening Ceremony of the Olympics were fantastic highlights. Those events are not just highlights for my time away but highlights for a lifetime.
Those events were preceded by receptions, where the UK government was keen to shed light on their enthusiasm and support for the overseas territories.
I was able to meet the Prime Minister, David Cameron, who mentioned that he has one of Napoleon’s writing tables in his weekend home, Chequers.
Foreign Secretary William Hague hosted a lunch for all of the Commonwealth country representatives, DfID Secretary of State Andrew Mitchell and FCO minister Henry Bellingham.
Times are tough in the UK, so this presented a great opportunity for someone from St Helena to offer face-to-face thanks for supporting the airport project, and reassurance that solid progress is being made.
They were all particularly pleased to hear that Saints had started returning home for job opportunities around the airport project.
Visiting the schools in Shropshire that St Helena is linked with was also an eye-opener. There’s a lot of good work happening with our education support programme.
There were four of our teachers on exposure visits whilst I was in Shropshire and I was able to meet Barbara Osborne, who was so enthusiastic and received special mention for her dedication from the schools she was working in.
Reflecting on the past two years: it’s been a challenging time. I returned to St Helena in January 2009 to get involved with opportunities arising from the airport project. I joined Council in November of that year during the “pause” phase, as I knew there were going to be limited opportunities for me and other young people if access to the island remained solely by sea.
I urge more young people to involve themselves and influence the decisions and the changes that are so vital to the future of our island.
I want to see St Helena set on to a more prosperous path. It hasn’t been an easy journey, as there were a lot of unpopular decisions to be made. I had to constantly remind myself that I didn’t join Council for popularity – I joined to make a difference.
I’ve been able to witness the airport contract being signed and remarkable progress being made. I’ll leave Council life behind, knowing that every decision I’ve made has been in the best interests of St Helena and the long-term prosperity of our people.
I want to thank my colleagues for their support over the years, both councillors and officials.
I’d like to make special mention of our Financial Secretary, Paul Blessington, who offered me an enormous amount of support on the Economy and Finance Committee. Once recovered, I know Paul will be lining up for a ticket on one of the first flights.
Finally, I’d like to thank the people of St Helena for keeping me motivated during my time on Council. I’ll be studying hard next year to bring back new skills and ideas. I might not seek to come straight back to Council, but I will always be involved in keeping St Helena on that path to prosperity.
Tara Thomas was chair of St Helena Government’s Economy & Finance Committee. She is to study for an MBA degree at the London School of Business & Finance from January 2013.
The penalty for allowing goats to stray on to government land on St Helena could rise to £250 – from a mere 25 pence.
That’s a thousand-fold increase.
The “more meaningful” maximum fine is being considered because of the damage goats do to the island’s fragile environment.
A committee has also advised that the penalty should be extended to cover sheep, which also roam free on St Helena.
At present, the fine can be imposed for each animal, for each day it is found roaming on Crown land.
The island’s executive council is also asked to change its law on dogs and cats so they can be included in the three-year census of animals, next due in November 2012.
The fine for failing to provide details for the census could rise from £1 per animal to £100 per animal, if the recommendations are adopted. The penalty for not declaring cats and dogs would be the same.
Including cats in the census is seen as a way to judge the success of a neutering drive. Pets and feral cats are now known to be the worst killers of the island’s unique but endangered wirebird.
Unwanted animals have become a significant problem.
On Ascension, a campaign to eradicate feral cats has seen seabird numbers rise dramatically.
Goats have been blamed for ravaging much of St Helena’s landscape ever since they were introduced by the Portuguese in the 16th Century.
The depradation over following centuries was so bad that the historian Philip Gosse described them as “these horned and four-legged locusts”.
The internet writer John Grimshaw tells the story of The Great Wood Wall, built in the 18th Century to try to keep goats and swine from grubbing up the East India Company’s trees. It failed.
He quotes Alfred Russel Wallace, who wrote in 1880 that goats were “the greatest of all foes to trees, because they eat off the young seedlings, and thus prevent the natural restoration of the forest.”
The loss of trees has been blamed for reduced rainfall and soil erosion, which have badly affected crop-growing.
The changes to the Dogs and Cats Ordinance 2012 and the Agriculture & Livestock Improvement Ordinance 2012 have been recommended by the island’s Natural Resources, Development and Environment Committee
A government statement said: “The proposed change amends the current penalties into meaningful penalties. The upgrading of penalty fees is likely to deter offences.”
A new design for St Helena’s proposed airport terminal has been unanimously approved by executive councillors at a special meeting (31 July 2012).
Governor Mark Capes said: “The new design sits well with the surrounding area, using an attractive mix of glass and natural stone. It compares very favourably with airport terminals that I have used on many other small islands, and gives us a structure that we can be proud of.”
The special meeting was called because the plan had to approved by the end of the week under the terms of the airport contract.
Mr Capes read out a letter from the planning control board, which considers major planning applications before they are considered by the governor “in council”.
The board said the new look was “a vast improvement in design and finish” compared with the plan originally presented in 2006.
The letter said: “We would like to congratulate the architects.”
After the vote, Mr Capes said: “That was fairly easy, I think.”