Transparency Saint Helena

Arguing for improved access to the way government takes decisions. In short, the creation of a Freedom of Information Ordinance for St. Helena.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Vince writes about Freedom of Information

What Are They Doing?
By Vince Thompson, published in today's St. Helena Independent

In the course of countless conversations among Saints the subject under discussion is about something the government is doing or thought to be doing or may be they have given up thinking about doing it or could it be they have forgotten all about it. On similar countless occasions there are instances mentioned of this or that government department not replying to a letter or to an email from someone who is making an enquiry about something. Sometimes there is not even an acknowledgement that a letter has been received. One way to put a stop to this is to have a Freedom of Information Act which puts into law exactly what anybody who wants some information on what the government is doing is entitled to know. As I think we all know, the St Helena Government does not want to bring in any legislation of this kind. There would be far too many enquiries to deal with, too much work involved and it would cost too much.

These seem to be the reasons for their reluctance. It is not at all clear how they arrived at this conclusion. There is evidence to suggest that the government view is an over reaction.

How can we get some indication about work and cost involved? Checking out how similar legislation works in other countries is the most obvious way to start. We could look at how it works in the UK but I don’t think that gives a reliable indication. The UK is too big, Brits are far more politically active and its people can be far more obstinate and determined than many Saints. Some [maybe more than some] say the Brits are a funny bunch. A more suitable place to look is the Cayman Islands. It is a British Overseas Territory, it has an island population spread over three islands which, taken together are three times larger than St Helena. The population of the three islands is about 54,500. That’s at least 13 times more than our own population. The Cayman Islands has an Information Commissioner’s Office. The Information Commissioner is independent of the Cayman government. If a member of the public asks the government for information the law entitles anybody to have and the information is not provided, that person can ask the Information Commissioner to help get the information.

So, how many cases does the Information Commissioner’s Office in the Caymans deal with? In brief, it’s in single figures. Every three months the Cayman Commissioner publishes figures to show what has being dealt with by his Office. The most recent set of statistics tells us that the 54,500 population had given the Commissioners Office the princely total of five cases to deal with during the three months covered by the report. Some work was still going ahead on cases received in the previous months but in no instance were there any more than seven cases being worked on.

Seven cases, from a population of 54,500 is not a staggeringly high number; far from it. I think it is very reasonable to assume that a St Helena Commissioner for Information would have less work to do from a population which is 13 times less than the Caymans. So why does the St Helena Government think that an Information Commissioner here would be swamped with cases to deal with and have to employ loads of people to help deal with the work?

In this week’s Exco Report we are told, ‘Councillors directed that more information should be made available, especially on the projects of most concern to the public, such as the roads programme.’ Can we rely on councillors to get an answer to why our government is so unenthusiastic about introducing freedom of information legislation?

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