St Helena’s welfare reform programme has been used as a tool to chide the UK government on its own drive to reduce social benefits, in a column in the UK’s Guardian newspaper.
Hugh Muir notes that executive councillors have “taken the best advice” and “agreed to introduce a new system based on minimum income standards, linking benefit rates to the cost of a basket of goods judged necessary for an adequate standard of living.”
The Westminster government, on the other hand, has been accused of throwing some households into poverty with changes to housing benefits.
And it is taking a tough line on employment benefits too, saying there are “insufficient incentives to encourage people on benefits to start paid work or increase their hours”.
The Guardian makes no mention of the long-standing discontent over unequal treatment of people on different kinds of benefits on St Helena.
The island’s government appears gratified by the Guardian’s implied approval for its reforms. It has drawn attention to it in a press release, with the comment: “Diary columns traditionally take a quirky look at the news.”
A by-election is to be held on St Helena on 12 March 2014 to fill the Legislative Council seat left vacant by the resignation of Tony Green. Mr Green resigned with effect from 17 December 2013 in order to travel to the UK to support his family. He worked for many years in government, rising to the post of deputy secretary, before seeking election and serving for a period as an executive councillor.
The engineer’s missing arm may have had no connection at all with the machine that was ordered from India to fix St Helena’s roads. All the same, it was not a good sign.
Somewhat belatedly, the island’s government has apologised to the public for buying an asphalt plant that turned up with missing parts and a warning that it might go bang, badly.
Which is what happened to £105,000 of public money.
The official statement says there were “serious safety issues” with the machine.
The unofficial story puts it rather more graphically: the engineer who travelled out from India had reportedly explained how similar machines had a tendency to “chop people’s arms off and then explode”.
We are not told how he lost his own arm – it may have been through an entirely different cause – or even whether the anecdote is accurate.
Either way, though, this was clearly not quite the “user friendly equipments” advertised on the website of Pari-Max Engineers of Ahmedabad.
The company’s founder, it says, “is only fascinated in designing… engineering equipment par excellence”.
On 21 July 2011, a government press release gave the first warning that the process of setting up the machine had been about as smooth as a St Helenian road surface.
Under the not-entirely-accurate headline, St Helena commissions asphalt mixing plant, it said:
“The Indian staff from the Pari-Max team have now left the island following their visit to commission the new asphalt mixing plant at Donkey Plain.
“Unfortunately they discovered that some vital parts have not been delivered, including a gear box, pump and some connecting pipework.”
This had been “brought to the attention” of the suppliers.
“The next step,” it said optimistically, “is to make sure that all of the missing parts are delivered and the company return to make sure the machine is fully commissioned and operating safely.”
It never happened. To its undeniable credit, the government realised it would be bad form to use a machine that might suffer a build-up of gas and cover its operators in hot asphalt; and it would have been irresponsible, despite pressure, to sell the problem to someone less cautious.
The £116,119 cost – minus about £11,000 the government got back from the supplier – was written off.
In fact, the statement of 20 September 2013 was not the first public admission that the affair had gone badly wrong.
The island’s spending watchdog, the Public Accounts Committee, received a report on it at an informal session in early 2012, by which time the write-off decision had already been made.
However, its report said: “SHG was considering sale as a repairable concern or dismantling and selling off as parts.”
Meanwhile, road re-surfacing would continue using traditional methods that were no longer up to the task of coping with the island’s increasingly heavy traffic. New techniques would be tried.
Come September 2012, the asphalt plant was still a live issue in the Legislative Council chamber, where it was raised by the Honourable Derek Thomas.
Would-be buyers believed it could be repaired and put to work, he said; but the government was adamant that it was “not a good risk to take”.
In response, roads manager Dave Malpas said that, from what he could gather, the great beast had been built to Indian standards, not British ones, and they just weren’t anywhere near the same level of safety.
Someone ought to have spotted that, The Castle admitted in its statement of apology.
It said significant loss of public funds had resulted from “inefficient procurement procedures and poor judgement on the part of officers (no longer with SHG) who failed to undertake the necessary checks.”
In July 2013, new purchasing rules were put in place. They included looking at risk rather than value, and more up-front scrutiny. And:
A qualified professional will check goods and equipment are fit for purpose, and what’s being delivered is what was actually ordered – before being put on the ship; and
No up-front payment, without the Financial Secretary’s say-so.
“Losing money through mistakes is painful,” says the government’s statement of regret, “but in the round, lessons have been learnt.”
It ends, in bold type: “SHG apologises to the public for this failed procurement and significant loss of public funds…”
It was not clear why the statement had been made at all, so long after matters had gone so wrong.
Ian Rummery, one of the new breed of councillors who are now introducing open government to St Helena, provided an answer:
“It was an issue that was brought up time and again during the election campaign,” he said. “We felt it was important that this information was put in the public domain so that a line could be drawn under it.
“I do believe it is a sign of the new openness and once requested the administration prepared the information and arranged for it to be published. There was not any resistance to this information being made available.
“I was personally very pleased by the press release and the apology and
I am confident that lessons have been learned and that new procedures
are in place to prevent this from happening again.”
One other question remains: what happens now? As the statement put it, the affair ended “with SHG retaining ownership of the plant”.
A picture in the St Helena Independent on 21 June 2013 showed it sitting in the road department’s compound, along with a line painter that “has never been used”, according to one letter-writer, and a hot box and paver that “has not move since its arrival here over two years ago”.
As the writer put it in the following week’s issue, “the asphalt plant has been sitting there for near three years with no protection from the ever-changing weather, turning into a large rusted bucket”.
And meanwhile, said another correspondent, “our roads are of no better shape than they were 10 years ago”.
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.
St Helena’s new political leaders have called for an early end to the “embarrassment” of excessive secrecy within the island’s government.
They also voiced strong objections to having to sign an oath of confidentiality, blocking them from sharing any information with the public without the governor’s consent.
The acting chief secretary, Gillian Francis, acknowledged calls for change but said it would need approval from the UK government.
Several councillors referred to the issue in speeches at the inaugural session of the island’s newly-elected Legislative Council.
Councillor Nigel Dollery said: “I feel strongly about what if consider the secretive and sometimes obstructive way [St Helena Government], in all its forms, has hidden information from the public.
“Like a lot of you I have had experience of it. One hears about things like, ‘Give no answer for three weeks and the members of the public will give up’.
“Her Majesty’s Government, the Commonwealth and the United Nations believe openness and transparency are a part of good government, so I am evidently in good company.
“This needs sorting promptly, not at some vague time in the future when the system thinks it can get round to it.
“Secret government is an embarrassment in the modern world.”
Lawson Henry said: “It is clear to me that there is a great hunger from all members to work as a team and show leadership and transparency.
“I look forward to bringing about changes needed to make our government more open and bring it closer to the people.
“I strongly oppose the oath of confidentiality that I was required to sign as an elected member today. No member in our mother country’s parliament is required to sign such an oath.
“I will work to remove this archaic oath from our constitution.
“Such an oath contravenes the right to freedom of expression. It is inconsistent with the partnership values enshrined in our Constitution, and it is in opposition to the Nolan principle of openness, which requires an elected member to be as open as possible about all the decisions that he takes.
“There is simply no place in a modern democracy for such an oath.”
He also said he and fellow councillor Ian Rummery would be working on freedom of information legislation over the next few months, “and I very much look forward to the support from all officials in doing this.”
Bernice Olsson pledged her support for removing the oath of confidentiality.
She said: “The oath is a strong contradiction to our constitutional aims. We must have an open and transparent government to get public support for our work.
“One of the main tasks of this new council is to bring St Helena into being a well-functioning democracy, fit for the 21st Century. Doing this will involve a lot of kicking and screaming from certain quarters, but we will overcome.”
She said the visit of Commonwealth advisers in late July 2013 would help to tackle “outdated rules”.
Councillor Ian Rummery, who topped the voting in the general election, said: “We have a constitution that upholds our fundamental human rights.
“This is important because it is within living memory that one of these rights, the right to nationality, was denied to many Saints.
“We owe a great deal to those who fought so hard to restore citizenship, and we must remain vigilant to ensure that other rights are not denied.
“This is why freedom of information is so important. It serves to protect the people from exploitation and holds the government and administration accountable.
“It fundamentally alters the relationship between government and the public, so that power is not handed over with an individual’s vote. The person elected to office is subject to scrutiny as are all of those in the administration.
“In colonial times, the rulers did not have to listen to those they ruled. Today there should not be any rulers. There are leaders who make decisions on behalf of the community but they must make these decisions for the common good of the community.
“The oath of confidentiality does nothing for the common good. It promotes a culture of secrecy, it reinforces the divide the between the elected and those who elected them.
“It has no place in a constitution that otherwise protects the fundamental rights of Saints.”
In response, the Acting Chief Secretary, Gillian Francis, said: “There was much mention of freedom of information and over-confidentiality, all of which has been noted, and we look forward to further discussion – noting that any changes of constitution will have to have approval of Her Majesty’s Government.”
Fisheries adviser Mark Brumbill was convicted of drink-driving only three days before leaving St Helena without serving out his contract, it has been confirmed.
St Helena Government reported that “serious threats” had been made against his family when it announced his departure – but made no mention of the court case.
There has since been some anger among island fishermen about the manner of the announcement, which was issued a day after the family sailed for Cape Town on Sunday, 7 July 2013.
No indication has been given of the nature of the alleged threats, or whether they related to current disagreements over fishing, the drinking case, or some other matter.
Trevor Thomas, of the St Helena Fishermen’s Association, expressed his shock at the unexpected departure.
He said: “I personally am very sorry to see Mark’s appointment end in the manner it did.
“I know that he was not ill treated by the fishermen, so where does the allegation of threats emerge from?
“I am intending to write a strong letter to the Governor, and there will be further press statements once I confirm a number of other facts.”
An email from another fisherman said the handling of the announcement could damage St Helena’s reputation.
The following notice has been issued to island media:
St Helena Magistrates’ Court
4 July 2013
MARK BRUMBILL (43) of the Briars, pleaded guilty to driving whilst 50% over the prescribed alcohol limit. Mr Brumbill was fined £470.00 with £15.00 costs and disqualified from driving for the period of 12 months.
The House of Lords in London has been told that works being funded by the UK on St Helena were not progressing as expected.
Baroness Northover told peers that progress on energy improvements was good but most infrastructure projects were not providing value for money.
However, her comments appeared to be based on a strongly critical report issued well over a year ago, following the visit by UK aid negotiators in early 2012. Advisors have since helped the government to set out a more realistic agenda for work on island projects.
The annual visit by the UK’s Development Aid Planning Mission in February 2013 resulted in a much more upbeat report, though problems were still identified.
Separately, a value-for-money audit on the new customs shed found serious delays, failures in standards and waste of money. No further such audits have been carried out in the past year because the chief auditor moved to a new job and was not quickly replaced.
Questions are now being asked on the island about whether the severe water shortage in some areas was the result of inefficiencies and delayed works.
Concerns have since been raised about resurfacing work on the wharf at Jamestown.
The infrastructure issue was raised by Lord Jones of Cheltenham after representations from St Helena Independent writer Vince Thompson, who met the peer in the House of Lords.
The Liberal Democrat peer – who has visited St Helena – asked the government “what assessment has been made of the St Helena Infrastructure Improvement Programme in terms of (1) value for money, (2) adherence to programme, and (3) quality of end product.”
For the government, Baroness Northover responded:
“A review to assess the progress of St Helena’s infrastructure programme was conducted in February 2012. The review found that while work on the energy sector was progressing well and meeting quality standards, the majority of the programme was not progressing as expected and overall was not providing value for money.
“Following the review DfID has been working with the St Helena Government to ensure that their capacity and capability to deliver infrastructure projects are increased.
“We are continuing to invest in the Government of St Helena’s infrastructure plans, bearing in mind links to the airport construction, and are also investing in better management systems and procedures.”
The island government was strongly rebuked in the 2012 aide memoire for delays in spending four million pounds of UK funding, intended for vital infrastructure work.
The island would not be allowed to build up a surplus of funds in future, said the UK negotiators.
An infrastructure adviser and a programme manager spent a week on the island in February 2012 to draw up a “more realistic” plan for work on areas such as roads, water and power, along with “other needed activity” on visitor attractions, housing, IT and construction.
In July 2012, executive councillors agreed to invite island contractors to help tackle a backlog in projects resulting from the years of inadequate spending.
The aide memoire published at the end of the February 2013 visit by advisers was not so critical in tone.
But the mission warned that some savings plans put forward by government departments looked unrealistic.
It also said there had been no progress on adopting agreed guidelines on more efficient buying-in of goods and skills. An adviser arrived in January 2013.
It found the government’s budget planning had improved, to fit better with the priorities of improving health, education and economic growth.
The aid mission also welcomed plans to publish meaningful information on the government’s performance.
Displaced councillors on St Helena have been left confused about whether they can exercise their political freedoms under pre-election “purdah” rules.
St Helena Government has issued a statement saying they are not constrained by the rules – which it says are not rules at all.
But it also says that they are limited in what they can say as members of council committees.
All councillors continue to serve on the eight government committees, though no new policy decisions can be made until an election – which may not take place until 13 weeks after the island’s Legislative Council was unexpectedly dissolved on 19 April 2013.
Former councillor Cyril Gunnell told Saint FM listeners: “It’s still not very clear.”
Officials are prevented from speaking in public about policy matters or contentious government business, to avoid appearing to give an advantage to any particular election candidate.
But the government statement said that former councillors were not classed as public officials, even though they served on government committees.
Former LegCo members are known to have shared their anger and concerns with each other, and discussed a public response. There has also been talk about what they were allowed to say since purdah had been imposed – prematurely, in the view of some.
Mr Gunnell said: “Anyone wishing to stand for re-election don’t know what it is they can and cannot do.
“I have been emailing the legal people to get some legal advice on this and I am still confused.”
The government statement said: “There are no ‘Purdah Rules’ – there are Purdah Conventions.
“All former councillors have been advised that they exist to create a level playing-field, not to tilt it. Former councillors who intend to stand for re-election must have no advantage over new candidates, but nor must they be disadvantaged in any way.”
But this is where it apparently gets confusing for council veterans:
“The purdah conventions limit what can be done as chairmen or members of council committees, or members of ExCo, but they do not affect at all what can be done in a person’s private capacity.”
The statement continues: “In particular, they do not constrain former councillors from announcing their candidature (and campaigning) in exactly the same way as new candidates. All former councillors have been so advised.”
In fact, guidance issued by The Castle on the day of the dissolution merely discourages councillors from making political statements during committee meetings – it does not ban them from doing so.
It said: “Such meetings must not be used as electioneering platforms, giving sitting members electoral advantage over other candidates. Officials attending such meetings must withdraw if members indulge in such activity.”
That appears to contrast with the latest statement that politicians are “limited” while in committee sessions.
Mr Gunnell said it was unclear to him whether political campaigning could start before the formal writ of election was introduced – expected in the second or third week of May.
He said: “My understanding is the election period, when people would start to campaign, would start from the writ of election. To me, that is the purdah period. It hasn’t been issued yet.
“I have taken legal advice. I have been told now that my question is one on which opinions differ. How can they differ to such an extent?
“I feel our hands are tied behind our backs.”
A statement issued by The Castle on 2 May 2013 said: “On a small island, the campaign effectively starts with Dissolution.”
It said this followed best practice – even though it was a clear departure from UK practice.
But the SHG line has since been endorsed by chief magistrate John MacRitchie in guidance issued to island broadcasters, aimed at ensuring fair coverage of candidates.
It said the guidance only applied during “the actual election period”, and added: “This period begins with the announcement of the Dissolution of the Legislative Council.”