A judge has spoken of “disturbing” claims made about sex abuse on St Helena and the way the island is governed – after ruling he could not hear a case brought by social workers.
Claire Gannon and Martin Warsama claimed they suffered unfair treatment because they were whistle-blowers who exposed failures to investigate abuse properly.
They have now been told they cannot bring a case for unfair dismissal in London, rather than on St Helena.
But their allegations of a cover-up and failures to investigate abuse cases had already prompted the UK Government to set up an independent inquiry under Sasha Wass QC.
Judge Anthony Snelson ruled that the London Employment Tribunal did not have jurisdiction in the case because the pair were employed by the government of St Helena.
But at the end of an 18-page ruling, he said: “… nothing in these reasons should be taken as diminishing the concerns which the claimants have voiced about the welfare of children on St Helena and governance generally on the island.
“I hope that is some comfort to them to know that, given the announcement of an inquiry to be conducted by Sasha Wass QC, a notable member of the criminal Bar, there is now a real prospect of light being shed on the disturbing tale which they have told.”
The pair had argued that although they signed contracts with St Helena Government, their real employers were either the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) or the Department for International Development (DFID), or both.
They said that DFID funded their jobs and FCO officials directed their work.
In written evidence, they also referred to the extent of the power exercised by Governor Mark Capes.
Mr Warsama’s deposition said: “The St Helena Government is simply a front for the FCO and DFID… It does exactly what the governor instructs it to do. Effectively the governor is the local government and he himself is merely an employee and agent of the FCO.”
As an example, they referred to Mr Capes’s decision to dissolve the island’s legislative council in 2013 at an hour’s notice, several weeks before calling an election – an action for which he has never given any explanation.
Claire Gannon’s written evidence said: “When I arrived at St Helena and the chief secretary told me that nothing happens on the island without the governor’s knowledge or permission, what seemed to be an extreme statement proved to be true.”
The two social workers claimed that Mark Capes dealt with them under instruction from officials in London, but the judge accepted evidence that he simply consulted and took soundings – not orders. There was “no evidence” they were employed by FCO or DFID.
Crucially, the claimants said that when they warned the FCO about police and officials on St Helena, their concerns were passed to the governor – in breach of their right to confidentiality.
Sasha Wass has been commissioned to investigate the handling of sex abuse cases on St Helena and allegations of a cover-up, made by Martin Warsama and Claire Gannon as part of their case.
When he announced the inquiry, Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond said the claims related to “child abuse in the territory, police corruption and incompetence, and a conspiracy by the St Helena Government, the FCO and DFID to cover these up.”
The FCO had already acted on anonymous allegations made in 2012 about cases not being properly investigated.
Ms Wass has been given scope to look at a range of issues, including:
- SHG response to independent reports on abuse, and on the police
- the role of FCO and DFID
- response to specific incidents involving children
- the relationship between social services the police – in the past and now
- treatment of people who raise concerns, including whistle-blowers
- how SHG handles abuse cases in general
It can also review other matters that arise during the investigation – and consider whether criminal investigation is needed.
It is not known how far the inquiry panel will investigate the issues raised by the social workers about the way the governor’s powers are exercised.
The allegations of a cover-up of abuse – also raised by Claire Gannon and Martin Warsama – are likely to be of far greater concern.
St Helena Government has made child safeguarding a top priority and now has a number of measures in place to protect children.
An outline of the Wass inquiry panel’s work is due in March 2015, with a final report by the UK summer of 2015.