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.