St Helena Online

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Open government is not islands’ top priority, says minister

Freedom of information is not a top priority for overstretched governments in the British overseas territories, MPs in London have been told.

Foreign Minister Mark Simmonds also admitted that no territories had been given UK support to end the kind of secretive practices seen on St Helena. 

That could change if new councillors act on a pledge to press for freedom of information laws after the island’s general election on 17 July 2013.

Legal support could be given by Britain’s Attorney General, the House of Commons Environment Audit Committee heard.

All but one of the 20 candidates in the 2013 general election have now supported calls for a transparency law, following a media campaign and growing public discontent. The only candidate not do so could not be contacted by email. 

Mr Simmonds, the minister directly responsible for the overseas territories, sounded his caution about priorities during a grilling by the select committee on Tuesday (9 July 2013).

The same committee had been warned at its last meeting that a lack of transparency in the territories created the risk of corruption.

The minister was reminded by Martin Caton MP that the UK’s 2012 white paper on overseas territories called for island governments to adopt British standards – including on transparency.

Mr Caton asked what the Westminster government had done to encourage transparency – besides persuading territories with financial centres to agree new standards last month.

Mr Simmons said the government would encourage it, but not impose it. “Of course we are keen to see enhanced transparency,” he said.

“Obviously we believe it is in the essence of good government in this country, and certainly we feel that anything that is applicable to us in this country we should be encouraging the overseas territories to implement as well.”

He said transparency should also cover procurement – which includes the way contracts are handed out. That has been a source of grievance on St Helena.

Mr Caton then asked if he could give any examples of practical support overseas territories had been given to bring in freedom of information.

He said: “The straightforward answer to that is ‘No’, but that doesn’t mean it’s not an issue that is important.

“We shouldn’t under-estimate the lack of capacity that exists in some of these overseas territories’ government structures, and the essence of support we are trying to provide is aligned with their priorities, helping them build capacity where it’s relevant.

“The point I’m making is that whilst an overseas territory may be desirous of implementing a type of freedom of information structure, they may feel there are other priorities, with their limited government capacity, that should take precedence.”

That argument could well be used on St Helena, where government staff are working at full stretch to gear up to the opening of the island’s first airport in 2016.

But some of the practices designed to keep information from the public – and from British taxpayers who fund the island – could be ended without any change in the law.

In particular, new councillors could rule that executive council meetings should no longer be held almost entirely in private, with agendas, reports and minutes kept secret – denying the public the chance to influence decision-making.

The St Helena Constitution includes the right to receive information, as part of the right to freedom of expression.

SEE ALSO: Transparency at The Castle becomes a human rights issue

VIDEO: Webcast of Environmental Audit Committee hearing (Mark Simmonds comments are 1 hour 42 minutes into the recording)

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

One in ten jobs affected as Castle sheds services, says report

The number of government workers on St Helena is set to be cut by nearly a tenth over the next year, according to the report on the island’s annual aid negotiations.

It says the headcount is to be reduced from 820 to 749 as the island public service is slimmed down.

But it appears many of those jobs will move over to the private sector as The Castle continues “divesting” services such as electricity and water.

The report says the aid mission noted progress in creating a leaner public service. “Most notably, this has included reducing the number of directorates from 9 to 5, as well as reducing headcount from 924 in 2011 to 820 in 2013, towards the target of 749 next year.”

In November 2012, 58 finance staff were told their jobs were “under review” and some might be made redundant.

A new limited company, St Helena Connect, is due to take over electricity and water supplies on 1 April 2013.

The health directorate is set to hand its cleaning services to a private company at the same time.

The aid report says: “We look forward to hearing about divestment plans for other areas such as crown estates maintenance, ICT support, vehicle maintenance and pest control.”

In the health directorate, it says: “We note the successful divestment of laundry (since 2010) and look forward to discussing further efficiency gains, in particular catering, cleaning and home help, pest control and garbage disposal.”

It says advisers want clarity on the full implication for staffing, costs and standards. “Such information should be provided to the public through clear and transparent progress documentation,” it says.

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.

SEE ALSO:
‘Tangled’ political system hinders democracy, says Mr Capes
In Levelwood, ten people vote in by-election; 105 don’t bother.’
Transparency campaign prompts fear of island tensions
St Helena Online joins a campaign for transparency
White Paper sets out need for openness in government

Constitution flaw left leaders challenging themselves

A flaw in St Helena’s constitution means senior councillors can legally be responsible for challenging their own decisions.

Last year, two “respected” executive councillors stepped down from the island’s public accounts committee, set up to monitor decision-making, when the flaw was highlighted.

Now changes have been proposed to prevent executive council members from serving on the body.

The ban is put forward in the Improving Democracy and Accountability paper, which seeks public views.

It says: “It is possible for members of the executive council, and committee chairmen, to serve on the public accounts committee – scrutinising themselves.

“Collective responsibility (and, thus, democratic accountability) seems to have been lost.”

However, the accounts committee only monitors financial aspects of decision-making. Unlike the government and councils in the UK, St Helena has no general scrutiny body, and there is no proposal to introduce one.

LINK: Improving Democracy and Accountability – consultation paper

The Castle confronts homelessness and over-crowding

A new policy to help homeless people is being drawn up by St Helena Government.

It will also confront the issue of over-crowding – “where this exists.”

SHG disclosed work on the policy after confirming that eight families on the island were known to be at risk of losing their homes in the next months.

It will follow the definitions of homelessness set out by the UK housing charity Shelter – which includes people who are are under threat of having nowhere to live.

“It will essentially support those who are, or are about to become, unintentionally homeless,” says SHG in response to questions from St Helena Online.

Part of the government’s strategy is to make more low-cost accommodation available, possibly by taking advantage of equipment used to manufacture temporary housing for airport construction workers on Prosperous Bay Plain.

“We are reviewing both the re-use of already-prefabricated units, as well as the prefabrication of further homes using this technology.

“This has been a learning opportunity for all those involved. This is only one of the avenues that we are currently examining for the provision of additional housing. No firm decisions have yet been taken.

“More generally, we are currently taking forward work on empty homes, of which there remain a lot on St Helena, and affordability. We hope to be able to report more soon.”

The proposed homessness policy is due to be presented to the health and social welfare committee in December.

SEE ALSO:
Paul’s plea for a home reveals eight families at risk

E-coli bug found in island water supply

(11 September update: the water is now free of contamination)

by St Helena Government writer

Recent water samples from the Rupert’s Valley area have indicated low levels of e-coli contamination.

Water in homes and businesses should be boiled or sterilised before being consumed or used domestically. The same precautionary measures should be taken if intending to use the water supply at the shower and toilet facilities near the beach area.

It is intended that the network will be flushed and further sampling carried out on Monday next week.  An update will be issued once the results are available.

  • Information about the e-coli bacteria and its effects was published on St Helena Online when a more-widespread case of contamination was discovered on the island in March 2012. Read it here.
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