St Helena Online

Tag: open government

Anti-secrecy law ‘only months away’, predicts John

Work has begun in earnest on ending the entrenched culture of secrecy within St Helena Government – but one councillor has questioned whether it should be a priority.

Open government became a key issue in the island’s July 2013 general election, a year after the launch of a campaign on St Helena Online and the St Helena Independent.

Campaign member John Turner, who set up the St Helena Freedom of Information page on Facebook, says a planning meeting was “entirely positive.”

“I’m sure that Freedom of Information legislation for St Helena is only a few months away,” he writes.

Next steps are for the government’s social and community development committee to agree what should remain secret, how information should be presented, and how to settle disputes over whether information should be released.

“In the meantime, council continues to operate on the basis of openness: that data should be published unless there is a good reason not to. A welcome change!”

Seventeen councillors and FOI supporters attended the planning meeting on Monday 9 September 2013.

Afterwards, Councillor Ian Rummery told SAMS Radio: “This has to be fit for purpose for St Helena. We don’t want to put in a whole new bureaucracy which is not maintained or just becomes so overly bureaucratic that it just doesn’t work.”

Councillor Tony Green told the station he was concerned about spending time and money on drafting a new law.

He said: “The principle of freedom of information, I don’t have a problem with and actually, I think it’s very important.

But he went on: “I don’t actually believe that we should at this particular time be devoting resources to putting up freedom of information draft legislation and setting up a regime when there are more perhaps important things.

“I’m thinking about social policy, I’m thinking about benefits.

“I need to know how much it’s going to cost – also how it will affect other priorities.

COMMENT:

Many people will agree with Councillor Green when he says that issues such as benefits should be given higher importance that something that may seem idealistic.

He believes in open government, but he’s got legitimate, pragmatic concerns.

But without transparency, and open decision-making, how do we know councillors are really acting in the interests of the vulnerable, and everyone else?

Open government is better government, and some high-ranking people have said so. Secretive government is bad for democracy.

Is it any surprise that many Saints were disenchanted with past administrations, and that councillors were voted the least trusted people on the island in a recent survey?

The governor has complained about a lack of public engagement in democracy, and yet his government actively dis-engaged the people by hiding information from them, in clear breach of their human rights.

Why should anyone have trusted a government that operated in the shadows, and refused to trust its own people by letting them know what it was doing in their name? How could people be engaged in decision-making when it happened behind closed doors?

Members of the previous council nearly all declared themselves to be in favour of open government.

But when asked if open government should actually be practised – by holding Executive Council meetings in public – they nearly all said “No”.

The logic of that one is difficult to grasp. Maybe Governor Capes had good reasons for dissolving the last council early.

The present councillors have imposed a new policy of openness, with every sign that they mean it.

But there are strong grounds for fearing that a future legislature might revert to the bad old ways of the bad old days, unless there is legislation in place to prevent it.

Councillor Green is right: this is not the best time to be drafting laws that won’t put food on the plates of the poor.

The best time was a long time ago.

But the alternative is that we simply trust future governments, with the risk that they will go back to spending many millions of pounds of British taxpayers’ money with virtually no public scrutiny, and little to prevent them making bad decisions.

On the basis of past form… No.

Governor and politicians top ‘not trusted’ list

Looking the other way: a government report leaves out criticisms of officials
Looking the other way: a government report leaves out criticisms of officials. Picture by Vince Thompson

Politicians have been named as the least trusted people on St Helena, along with journalists.

But the governor has come second in a list of the most distrusted people on the island – and that fact was left out of a summary of the findings that was issued to media by the government.

Governor Mark Capes is not named in the report on the first-ever survey of ethics at work, and it is possible the distrust relates to governors in general.

Only 74 people said they trusted the governor, despite the fact that 70 people who responded described themselves as senior managers or leaders, and 320 (73%) worked for the government.

Councillors were “not trusted” by a massive 60% of respondents. The governor was distrusted by 39%, closely followed by journalists (38%), police (35%), doctors (33%) and business leaders (32%).

Another 32% said they did trust doctors – and 36% offered no opinion.

But the summary issued to the media only mentioned a different set of findings –showing the people who came bottom of a list of “trusted” people.

It said only 9% of people trusted councillors, followed by journalists (14%) and business leaders (18%).

It failed to mention that the governor – the unelected representative of Her Majesty the Queen, appointed by Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office – came fourth from the bottom, trusted by only 19% of respondents.

The survey was conducted by the Institute of Business Ethics, a UK charity. It pointed out that journalists and politicians also rank low in British surveys of trusted figures.

St Helena Government has been asked to explain why the findings for the governor were not included in the summary issued to the media – especially as it says that “honesty is defined as… speaking the truth”.

In response, it said only: “Both reports are openly available in the public domain. We have nothing to add.”

The initial press release did say that the full report had been published on the government website. The list of trusted figures is on page 33 of the document.

It shows the most trusted people are teachers (54%), followed by technical professionals and skilled labourers (42% each) and religious leaders (41%).

The summary says: “Councillors, business leaders and journalists were shown to be the least trusted professions.

“This could partly be due to the fact that these professions are linked to key decisions made for the island at this time of change and are relatively high profile figures.

“Of course, it could be that a particular councillor, business leader or journalist is not trusted.”

The distrust of the governor may also be historic, relating to various governors who have served in recent years.

However, the St Helena Freedom of Information Campaign has argued that the excessive secrecy practised within The Castle has caused deep distrust of the island’s government.

And the dealings of the main decision-making body, the executive council, have become more secretive under Governor Mark Capes.

His reports of ExCo meetings are also far less revealing than those of his predecessor, Andrew Gurr, who made sure parts of ExCo meetings were routinely open to the public.

Governor Capes has challenged the island’s new legislative council “to improve the reputation and worth of councillors in the eyes of the people of this island”.

Newly-elected executive councillors are working on ways to improve openness – and increase trust. But it is expected to take time to change a deep-rooted culture of secretiveness in The Castle.

A team from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, led by Lord Shutt of Greenock, arrived on St Helena on Tuesday 31 July 2013 to help councillors be more effective.

An unofficial briefing seen by St Helena Online says that councillors have been over-reliant on advice from senior officials in the past, because of a lack of support systems enjoyed by politicians in larger democracies.

Public servants were trusted by only 25% of people in the ethics survey, and distrusted by 24%. However, 73% of those surveyed were… public servants.

LINKS:
Full report on St Helena Ethics at Work survey, by the Institute of Business Ethics
St Helena Government summary of the Ethics At Work survey

SEE ALSO:
New leaders vow to end ‘embarrassment’ of secrecy

UK’s top lawyer could help end St Helena secrecy

Britain’s Attorney General could be asked to help St Helena and other UK overseas territories draw up laws on freedom of information.

Dr Peter Hayes, the diplomat in charge of overseas territories, raised the possibility during a committee hearing in Westminster.

But he also referred to a set of rights, drawn up by the United Nations, that already give people on St Helena the right to receive information. That has not stopped the island’s executive council meeting almost entirely in secret and denying access to minutes.

He spoke after his boss, Foreign Minister Mark Simmonds MP, had warned that hard-pressed island governments might not have spare “capacity” to bring in transparency laws. 

Dr Hayes said: “Through our own Attorney General, Dominic Grieve, we have a meeting of law officers which tries to help the territories deal with their capacity constraints on implementing all of these various bits of legislation.

“We would be very happy to suggest to Dominic Grieve that he might mention at the next meeting that freedom of information has been raised at this committee, but I just wanted to flag that there is a lot of work to do across a lot of very important areas.”

St Helena’s Attorney General, Ken Baddon, attended the previous meeting for lawyers from the territories, in December 2012.

Dr Hayes, who visited St Helena in March 2013, said: “There is a broad sweep of areas where we would like to see legislative development in territories: many of the core human rights legislation, the UN covenant on civil and political rights… safeguarding children, restorative justice… there is a broad work programme ahead of us.”

He said that he was “not suggesting that [freedom of information] is not important”, but “I just wanted to flag that there is a lot of work to do across  a lot of areas.”

Mark Capon MP, who had raised the issue at the environment committee hearing, said: “Freedom of information has come across in our inquiries that if it was improved could help move things forward.”

The United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights was extended to St Helena in May 1976 – meaning people on the island were entitled to receive information as part of their right to freedom of expression.

By meeting in secret and keeping refusing to release minutes of its meetings, St Helena’s executive council appears to be acting in clear breach of that right.

Article 19 of the covenant says:

Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.

Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds…

It adds that these rights should only be restricted “for respect for the rights or reputations of others” or “for the protection of national security or of public order, or of public health or morals”.

ExCo’s policy of making decisions in secret also conflicts with the spirit of St Helena’s own Constitution, which says:

Except with his or her own free consent, no person shall be hindered in the enjoyment of his or her freedom of expression.

[This includes] his or her freedom to receive information and ideas without interference.

The constitution does set out circumstances in which information can be withheld from the public, but they do not appear to justify the practice of keeping all meetings and minutes confidential.

UK sends message on need for open government

The British government says it will be looking for transparency in the way St Helena spends millions of pounds it receives in aid funding.

Its latest update on British overseas territories says: “More than ever, in the current financial climate, we have a duty to show that we are achieving value for money in everything we do.

“Results, transparency and accountability will be our watchwords and we are determined to get value for money for every hard-earned taxpayer pound spent on development.”

The UK’s 2012 White Paper said that if overseas territories like St Helena wanted to remain linked to Britain, they must meet British standards of government and openness.

That was not reinforced by Andrew Mitchell MP – the International Development Secretary at the time – when he was asked later whether Britain would act to end government secrecy on St Helena – especially behind-closed-door meetings of the executive council.

He said transparency made for better government – but it was for the island’s councillors to introduce it.

In its June 2013 update on the overseas territories, the British government says it will ensure its own actions are transparent.

It says: “DfID regards transparency as fundamental to improving its accountability to both the UK and OTs citizens.

“We will publish clear, concise information about our programmes, providing the opportunity for those affected by our projects to provide feedback.”

It does not say what it will do to encourage similar transparency in St Helena and other territories – or how it can be open with British taxpayers and OT citizens if the territories are not transparent.

SEE ALSO: St Helena transparency archive

Human rights group pushes transparency cause

A leaflet supporting the fight against secrecy in St Helena Government is being published by the island’s human rights body.

It calls for a Freedom of Information (FoI) law to be introduced, just as the topic looks set to become an election issue.

So far only two candidates have confirmed they will stand, but one of them, Ian Rummery, has made it clear that reform is “a must”.

The leaflet says:

Freedom of Information is an extension of freedom of expression, a fundamental human right recognized in international law.

In the UK and several of the overseas territories this right is protected by a freedom of information act or ordinance. The UK act has been dis-applied here on St Helena, and we have no FoI legislation of our own so our right is not protected.

The United Nations and the UK Government both support Freedom of Information as they believe it

  • encourages greater openness and accountability
  • helps increase levels of public trust
  • increases the numbers voting in elections

The leaflet, published by the Human Rights Capacity Building Committee, says open government would build trust, prevent corruption, and encourage more people to vote.

Secrecy leaves islands at risk of corruption, warns RSPB

Entrance to the Castle - home of St Helena Government. Picture: John Grimshaw
Entrance to the Castle – home of St Helena Government. Picture: John Grimshaw

A paragraph in this story has been toned down in response to a comment made privately to St Helena Online. The paragraph, about information being made available to legislative councillors, was capable of mis-interpretation. 

Secretive decision-making by governments in St Helena and other British overseas territories leaves them vulnerable to corruption, MPs in London have been warned.

The same lack of transparency had already brought down the government in the Turks and Caicos Islands, said Clare Stringer of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

Her warning echoed strong concerns raised about the conduct of St Helena’s executive council, which meets almost entirely in secret and refuses public access to agendas, reports and minutes.

Clare Stringer delivered her warning in evidence to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee on Wednesday, 17 April 2013. She referred to a recent RSPB review that found widespread lack of openness.

Speaking as head of the RSPB’s overseas territories unit, she said islands were vulnerable to unhealthy outside influence if they did not have “robust legislation and transparency systems.”

She went on: “Our recent review of environmental governance showed that in a lot of the territories those aren’t in place.

“Very few if any have transparency legislation, freedom of information doesn’t exist, decisions are made by a Foreign Office appointed governor or by elected council members – but often behind closed doors – and it’s very difficult to know why decisions are made in the way that they are. 

“And it does leave administrations open to corruption, and we have seen that in the Turks and Caicos Islands in recent years.

“The fact that these decisions aren’t made openly, it leaves an atmosphere where corruption can occur.”

An inquiry into the Turks and Caicos Islands corruption affair found that it resulted from circumstances very similar to those that are now emerging on St Helena, with the building of an airport attracting outside investors.

In fact, the RSPB’s review has singled St Helena out for praise for the strength of its developing environmental protections, which greatly restrict opportunities for developers to apply undue pressure to obtain Crown land. 

But Clare Stringer’s criticisms of secretive government exactly describe the clandestine decision-making that takes place in the shady confines of the Castle in Jamestown.

Even a member of St Helena’s legislative council, Christina Scipio O’Dean, has reported being repeatedly refused information about government funding for the South Atlantic Media Service. Other legislative councillors have complained at public meetings that they were not told about structural reforms in the government, despite their scrutiny role.

The refusal to meet openly and make vital documents available for scrutiny means that it is impossible to know how much influence is being applied by unelected officials.

In the past, a St Helena Government official has justified the lack of openness on the basis that it was the same in most other territories.

The RSPB’s concerns were echoed by Dr Mike Pienkowski, who was giving evidence to the MPs as chief executive of the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum. 

He said: “We are dealing with small communities whose legislative bodies are more on the scale of parish councils, in some cases.

“So it’s really very difficult for them to negotiate or avoid legal but excessive influence by international companies.

“And there are problems with openness and accountability in their systems.”

Dr Colin Copus, Professor of Local Politics at Leicester Business School, said in January that the limited information released about St Helena’s ExCo meetings “may fulfill some element of accountability, but it doesn’t go far.”

He 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.”

SEE ALSO: 
MP ‘shocked’ by tales of environmental failings
Evidence to UK’s Environmental Audit Select Committee, 17 April 2013
Evidence to UK’s Environmental Audit Select Committee, 17 April 2013

LINKS:
Turks and Caicos Commission of Inquiry report released
An Assessment of Environmental Protection Frameworks in the UK Overseas Territories – RSPB report

MP ‘shocked’ by tales of environmental failings

A Member of Parliament has reacted with dismay to allegations about the British government’s performance on protecting the environment of UK overseas territories.

Caroline Lucas, the country’s only Green Party MP, said the government’s systems were “constitutionally not working.”

She said: “The more I hear, the more shocking the situation seems to be.”

She expressed her concern during a hearing of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, which is investigating the sustainability of the territories.

There was praise for environmental protection on St Helena and Tristan da Cunha – including for island students who have gained qualifications in the UK – but much of the 90-minute hearing was taken up with criticisms and concerns.

The small group of MPs also heard that lack of government transparency in most territories meant it was difficult to know why decisions were made.

It also exposed islands to risks of corruption – as seen on the Turks and Caicos Islands – said Clare Stringer, giving evidence for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB).

Strong criticisms also came from the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum (UKOTCF)

St Helena Online published a live feed of reports via the micro-blogging service, Twitter. Tweets included:

UK overseas territories biodiversity group ‘barely functions’, lacks authority, doesn’t report to ministers, UKOTCF told Parly envir cttee

Tristan da Cunha praised for exemplary fisheries management in RSPB evidence to MPs’ environment committee.

Decisions in most overseas territories are made behind closed doors and hard to understand, RSPB told MPs. Creates risk of corruption.

Overseas territories citizens in UK buy lottery tickets so their home islands should benefit from funding, UKOTCF tells Select Committee

UK overseas territories lack access to big EU funds while French outlying islands can apply, thanks to constitutional differences RSPB tells MPs.

DfID ‘has supported’ eco protection alongside St Helena airport ‘and that’s good to see’, RSPB told Parly’s environment audit cttee

An edited version of the full stream of reports can be seen here

WATCH:
House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee Hearing 17 April 2013
(note: sound and picture fail at the start; keep playing and it will come on)

LINKS:
Committee takes evidence on sustainability in the UK overseas territories
UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum
Royal Society for the Protection of Birds: hidden treasures in the UK overseas territories

Dear Councillor: do you want open government on St Helena?

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.

It reads:

“Dear Councillor,

“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:  

  1. 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?
  2. 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?
  3. 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.

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

  • St Helena Online and The St Helena Independent are both supporters of the island’s campaign for open government.

Transparency at The Castle becomes a human rights issue

The battle against secrecy within St Helena Government has been taken up by the island’s human rights co-ordinator.

And emails have been sent to all of the island’s councillors asking whether they support transparency in the way they carry out their duties on behalf of the public.   

The St Helena Freedom of Information Campaign has cast doubt on SHG’s insistence that it acts “in the spirit” of UK laws on open government.

Catherine Turner has intervened after concerns that the government’s refusal to disclose information was not in keeping with the Universal Declaration on Human Rights.

She has been asked by the island’s human rights capacity building committee to see if the constitution of St Helena offers ways to bring freedom of information – known as FoI – to the island. 

One concern is understood to be that the island’s Attorney General, Ken Baddon, is already overburdened with demands for new legislation.

Catherine said: “First of all we are going to examine the existing constitution to look for means of obtaining FoI more speedily.

“Our main thrust will be to demonstrate it is possible to have the legislation, and to allow for the fact that the Attorney General has a massive legislative programme in front of him already, and FoI may not be seen as urgent as legislation on the environment or economic development or discrimination.”

She said her involvement was not about confrontation with St Helena Government. “Human rights is about bringing people together and increasing understanding,” she said.

Faryma Bahrami, the island’s new assistant public solicitor – who has researched international law – will help look for ways to make freedom of information legislation achievable.

Senior officials have repeatedly stated that St Helena Government acts “in the spirit” of the UK legislation.

But a series of requests by the St Helena Freedom of Information Campaign has cast doubt on this claim.

The campaigners have been pushing for details of council meetings to be published, as a first step towards fully open government. This would not require a new law and it is felt that there is no credible reason for withholding information that is freely published elsewhere. 

But requests to see agendas for meetings – a basic requirement of Freedom of Information laws in the UK – have been sidestepped. 

In the coming week, the campaigners expect to produce firm evidence of SHG acting against the “spirit” of the UK laws on transparency in government. 

SHG’s conduct is in direct conflict with the urgings of the UK government in its recent White Paper on overseas territories. It said:

“Those territories which choose to remain British should abide by the same basic standards of good government as the UK.”

The UK FoI laws require councils to publish papers like those that have been unsuccessfully requested from SHG, as a matter of routine. And Parliamentary business in London is published in word-for-word detail – in sharp contrast with what happens in Jamestown.

An overseas expert – who prefers not to be named because they are in a position of authority – has advised that the SHG claim should be treated with caution:

“As part of the Right to Free Expression under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Freedom of Information is a fundamental right. It is not good enough to say ‘we live up to its spirit’, since that means you can retract it whenever you please, which equals having no right at all.” 

  • St Helena Freedom of Information Campaign is supported by The St Helena Independent and St Helena Online.

SEE ALSO:
Campaigning MP investigates open government on St Helena
St Helena Online joins a campaign for transparency
‘We honour the spirit of freedom act’ says The Castle
What UK local authorities must publish

LINKS:
St Helena Freedom of Information – blog
St Helena Freedom of Information – Facebook page

Campaigning MP investigates open government on St Helena

Tom Watson, right, is “very interested” in media and government issues on St Helena. Picture: fotopedia/”London Summit”

The British politician who led scrutiny of alleged corrupt journalism in London has turned his attention to St Helena.

Tom Watson was contacted by the St Helena Freedom of Information Campaign because of complaints about the openness of government on the island.

Meetings of the executive council are frequently held behind closed doors, and agendas, reports and documents are not released to the public – as would be required by law in England.

Freedom of Information campaign banner: blue block with a padlock symbol containing a letter iMr Watson was told this shackled public scrutiny of the way millions of pounds of UK taxpayers’ money was being spent on the island.

The Labour MP was also told of concerns about the wording of the new Media Standards Ordinance, which appears to allow St Helena Government to ban publication of a newspaper.

This has been denied by Henry Bellingham, the British minister for overseas territories.

St Helena Online has asked St Helena Government for clarification of the yet-to-be-enacted law, which says that sanctions for misconduct include recommending a broadcasting licence be revoked, or:

“…in the case of any ongoing publication, an order that such publication be discontinued.”

(Update, 22 August 2012: SHG says “ongoing publication” refers to, say, web publication of a defamatory newspaper story. However, critics say the wording is ambiguous and should be changed).

Mr Watson said: “I’m very interested in this issue. I’ll pick it up when Parliament is back in the beginning of September.”

He asked his researcher to investigate “every link and source material”. A dossier has now been sent to Mr Watson’s Westminster office.

It included a transcript of an interview in 2006 with Colin Forbes, who was the island’s public solicitor.

He said St Helena Government had not adopted the English Freedom of Information Act because it was too far-reaching to be workable on a small island – a justification since repeated by SHG.

But he added that Freedom of Information laws made governments accountable: “They are forced to reveal the information they have used to come to their decisions.”

He said: “If the UK’s act is too complicated, then let’s get on and produce a version of our own.”

No such law has been introduced.

The public and media are not given detail about what is to be discussed by councillors, meaning people are denied the democratic freedom to participate in public debate and influence political opinion.

Mr Watson has risen to prominence because of his investigations into the phone-hacking scandal in Britain, in which newspapers used information illegally intercepted from private phone messages of politicians, sportsmen, celebrities and even members of the Royal Family.

As a member of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, he has interrogated media mogul Rupert Murdoch, whose flagship News of The World newspaper was closed because of the scandal.

Several senior members of Mr Murdoch’s London staff have since been charged with criminal offences.

In a speech to the Hansard Society in London, Mr Watson said Freedom of Information rights in England had been vital to his investigations.

SEE ALSO:
UK group backs campaign to end secrecy in The Castle
St Helena Online joins a campaign for transparency
‘We honour the spirit of freedom act’ says The Castle
What UK local authorities must publish

LINKS:
St Helena Freedom of Information – blog
St Helena Freedom of Information – Facebook page

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