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Government

For the people, by the people?

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Democracy: The substitution of election by the incompetent many for appointment by the corrupt few.
George Bernard Shaw

St Helena is now almost completely a democracy…

This page is in indexes: Island History, Island People, Island Detail

Council, 2017 Saint Helena Island Info Government
Council, 2017{a}

Below: Government TodayHistoryIndependence?Youth ParliamentDo and Don’t DoRead More

This page refers to the situation on St Helena only. The situations on our sister islands Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha are very different.

Government Today

St Helena Coat of Arms Saint Helena Island Info Government
Our Coat of Arms is used as the Government of St Helena logo.

Below: The GovernorLegislative CouncilExecutive Council‘Civil Service’But who really decides?‘SHG’

The Governor

Executive power on St Helena rests with the Governor, appointed by, reporting to and answerable only to the Crown{1}.

However, under the current Constitution (from 1st September 2009), the Governor is, with some exceptions, bound to seek and act in accordance with the advice of the Executive Council. Formally, decisions are taken by ‘The Governor In Council’.

The Governor is selected by, and salaried from, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. You can read more about our Governors, past and present.

Legislative Council

Legislative Council comprises twelve members elected by the people of St Helena by secret ballot, together with the same three Ex Officio Members as Executive Council, The Chief Secretary, Financial Secretary, and Attorney General, none of whom has a vote.

It debates and agrees the island’s laws (‘Ordinances’), which are then signed into law, on behalf of the Crown, by the Governor. Only three or four formal meetings are held each year, depending on the volume of legislation to be processed. Informal meetings (‘InfoLegCo’) are also held where no Ordinances are discussed, for sharing of information. Legislative Council meetings are open to the public and Formal meetings are also broadcast live on S.A.M.S. Radio 1.

Legislative Council also elects from with its elected members (i.e. excluding the Ex Officio members) Chairs for the island’s Executive Committees (Economic Development Committee; Education Committee; Environment and Natural Resources Committee; Public Health Committee; Social and Community Development Committee{15}), who thereby become members of Executive Council.

The elected members of Legislative Council are usually referred to as ‘Councillors’ and the term ‘Council’ usually (but not always) refers to Legislative Council.

Election Posters Saint Helena Island Info Government

A General Election, where all Councillors must stand down and - if they choose - seek re-election, is held every four years. By-Elections are held if an elected member resigns{3}. Voter turnout has recenly been in the order of 50% for General Elections{4} and sometimes below 25% for By-Elections. Currently anyone aged 17 and over with St Helena Status can register to vote (you cannot vote if you do not register).

Executive Council

The members of the Legislative Council appoint Chairs of the various Executive Committes of Government (Economic Development Committee; Education Committee; Environment and Natural Resources Committee; Public Health Committee; Social and Community Development Committee{15}), and these Chairs form the Executive Council, together with three Ex Officio Members (The Chief Secretary, Financial Secretary, and Attorney General) none of whom has a vote.

All the day-to-day decisions necessary to the running of St Helena are taken by the Executive Council. It is also the ultimate authority for planning applications. Its decisions must be taken in accordance with the Constitution and within the Ordinances created by the Legislative Council. It reviews potential legislation and passes it to Legislative Council for formal approval.

Executive Council meets frequently - usually at least once every month - and an overview statement of the decisions taken is issued afterwards to the island’s media (see the example below). Parts of the meeting are open to the public; the rest is held in secret and minutes also remain secret.

Incidentally, the large glass-framed Royal Standard at the head of the Council Chamber (photo, below) was presented on the occasion of the Royal visit in 1947.

Executive Council meeting, 15th August 2017 Saint Helena Island Info Government
Executive Council meeting, 15th August 2017

‘Civil Service’

As in all other Governments, the elected and non-elected members are supported by a ‘Civil Service’ which enacts the day-to-day operation of Government business, headed by the Chief Secretary. This body is divided into Directorates, corresponding to the five Executive Committees (Economic Development Committee; Education Committee; Environment and Natural Resources Committee; Public Health Committee; Social and Community Development Committee{15}) but with some additions (e.g. Police), each headed by a Director. All of these positions are salaried posts that do not change with the appointment of new Councillors.

But who really decides?

Currently St Helena is not financially self-sufficient. In 2017 £28.7m was needed in grant aid from DfID to balance the island’s books (this does not include the estimated £285m to finance construction of our Airport). So in practice, what the Legislative Council/Executive Council can spend is limited by what DfID will provide, and the latter is governed by UK politics, over which St Helena has no control{5}. So it can fairly be argued that the ‘Governor In Council’ only has final authority to decide for St Helena as long as the UK Government is willing to fund that decision.

‘SHG’

It is entirely unclear whether references to ‘SHG’ (i.e. the Government of St Helena) should be taken as referring to the Governor, Executive Council, Legislative Council, the Civil Service or some variable combination of them all, possibly even including the UK Government. So when something is blamed on ‘SHG’ it could be that the proponent is targetting any or all of the above. A bit like when ‘they’ do, or don’t do this or that… If this is not clear to you, try reading the SHG Website and see if it helps.

History

Council meeting, 1888 Saint Helena Island Info Government
Council meeting, 1888{6}
Governor Stewart Spencer Davis, Council and others, 1930s Saint Helena Island Info Government
Governor Stewart Spencer Davis, Council and others, 1930s

From the founding of the ‘Colony’ in 1659 St Helena has always had a Governor, appointed by the East India Company from 1659 to 1834 and thereafter by the Crown (the King or Queen of Great Britain). The Governor has always carried ultimate executive authority over the island, reporting to and answerable only to the East India Company/Crown{7}.

From 1659 the Governor was supported by an Advisory Council (usually referred to in the Records{8} as simply ‘The Council’). In the early days this was a body of men (though later including women) appointed by the Governor to be his{9} advisors. Council members did carry out duties and wielded some power but ultimate authority remained with the Governor. Right up to the mid 20th Century appointment to the Advisory Council was reserved for wealthy landowners who were the heads of respected society families.

From the 1940s small steps towards democracy were taken. The Constitution introduced on 15th February 1940 moved from a unitary Advisory Council to a two-tier system:

  • An ‘Executive Gouncil’, comprising the Governor; the officer commanding the Garrison; the Government Secretary; the Government Treasurer and “such other persons as the Crown shall appoint”.

  • An ‘Advisory Council’, comprising “six persons not holding any office under the Crown”. These were ‘ordinary citizens’ - though in practice they were still the wealthy and well-connected, including business owners, land owners and members of leading families.

The Executive Council still took all the decisions (with the Governor still having the power to overrule), and the Advisory Council was supposed to represent to Executive Council the views of ordinary citizens (though given its composition this seems unlikely). A big celebration marked the opening of the 1st Advisory Council on 12th June 1940.

Opening of 1 st Advisory Council, 1940 Saint Helena Island Info Government
Opening of 1st Advisory Council, 1940
Protest March for Democracy, 1950s/60s Saint Helena Island Info Government
Protest March for Democracy, 1950s/60s
Council Meeting, late 1970s with Governor Guy Saint Helena Island Info Government
Council Meeting, late 1970s with Governor Guy

Only minor modifications were made over the next twenty years. From 1st June 1956 Executive Council was increased to seven members and Advisory Council to ten, then in the late 1950s discussions began about having an elected Advisory Council (see the article below).

In 1963 there was significant change: for the first time, elections were held for some of the seats on the Advisory Council. This was made possible by the St Helena Advisory Council (Elections) Ordinance 1963. Now the population of St Helena could elect people to represent their interests, and several of the 1963 editions of the St Helena Wirebird{14} devoted much space to explaing how to register to vote, how to nominate candidates, who was eligible to be nominated and how the forthcoming election would take place. Turnout was high: 100% in Sandy Bay, and even the lowest turnout (in Longwood) was 76%; in total 686 people voted. The right to vote was made permanent in the 1966 Constitution.

The 1966 Constitution formalised that from 1st January 1967 the Advisory Council was re-named the Legislative Council and comprised twelve persons elected by secret ballot of the people, plus two appointed members - the Government Secretary and the Government Treasurer - 14 voting members in all. The minimum age for voting was set at 21 and both men and women could vote. The first ever meeting of the new Legislative Council started on 17th January 1967 at 10am in the Court House, Jamestown.

However this was still not true democracy, in any real sense, because the Executive Council (appointed by the Governor) still took all the decisions, with ultimate authority still vested in the Governor himself.

A political party was formed in 1973 - the St Helena Progressive Party. Its founders included eleven out of twelve members of Legislative Council. From 13th October 1974 it was joined by the St Helena Labour Party which, despite its name, proposed right-wing libertarian policies. The Labour Party argued for better conditions for ordinary citizens and increased democracy with a bigger role for private enterprise but less public spending on health care and education. A leading light in the party was a South African by the name of George Thornton, who had previously been (with other South African investors) owner of Solomon’s. In 1975 Governor Oates issed an exclusion order against Mr Thornton, largely because of his dealings with Solomon’s, forcing him to leave the island. It is not known how many people joined either party.

The Saint Helena Progressive Party won eleven out of twelve Legislative Council seats in the September 1976 election but appears to have folded soon afterwards. The Labour Party won no seats and also folded towards the end of 1976. Since then all elections have been fought with candidates standing alone, not aligned with or supported by any party machinery.

Lack of public interest in politics is perhaps evidenced by the nominations for the October 1980 General Election. For three of the twelve seats there were no nominations and all the other nominees were elected unopposed. Faith in the political process was not improved when in November 1985 Governor Baker, under instruction from the UK Government, used his executive power to force through an Immigration Ordinance, against the clear wishes of Legislative Council.

Democracy was improved from 28th November 1988 when the new Constitution (which came into force on 1st January 1989) provided that the Legislative Council would nominate the members of the Executive Council, rather than them being appointed by the Governor. Legislative Council elected from its members the Chair of the various administrative committees and these persons now formed (with the Governor and the two ex-officio members) the Executive Council, which as a result now had more elected voting members than appointed ones (5 elected; 2 appointed; plus the Governor). The Legislative Council was also now permitted to elect its own Speaker (who would not be one of the elected members). At the same time the voting age was lowered to 18. While a big step towards democracy, ultimate authority still remained with the Governor who could still overrule any decision taken by the Councils, answerable only to the Crown.

The final improvement came with the 2009 (current) Constitution, where the powers of the Governor were somewhat limited, in that s/he is now required to, save in a few reserved cases{11}, listen to and act in accordance with the decisions of the Executive Council. Thus decisions are now formally taken by the ‘Governor In Council’ (but see Who really decides?, above).

The voting age was lowered to 17 with effect from 15th May 2017, in time for 17 year olds to vote in the 26th July 2017 General Election. Apparently fewer than 10 actually did so. 1,108 people voted; 49% of the electorate compared with 55% in 2013, 58% in 2009 and 47% in 2005.

Traffic

A notice in the St Helena News Review on 22nd February 1980, announcing a forthcoming Legislative Council meeting, concluded:

The meeting will be opened to the public and as usual traffic will be diverted while Council is sitting.

This is no longer done these days, though as the council chamber now has air conditioning presumably they just close the doors and windows!

Independence?

On 17th November 1984 the United Nations General Assembly voted to “urge the UK to bolster St Helena’s economy and raise the native awareness of the right to become independent”. As far as we can ascertain this is the first time that Independence for St Helena has ever been mentioned, and possibly also the last (to date). The idea did not obtain any local support because St Helena does not see itself as potentially an independent nation. It is entirely happy - at least for the time being - to remain an Overseas Territory of Great Britain. Whether this will change in the future, and whether St Helena could ever have an economy such that it is no longer dependent on financial assistance from the UK - an essential prerequisite for independence - remains to be seen.

Youth Parliament

SHYP Logo Saint Helena Island Info Government

In early 2011 a voluntary worker here picked up an idea that had been floated since 2010, to set up a Youth Parliament - a body of under-18s that would meet to debate issues related to the future of St Helena and might also engage in joint debates with Legislative Council. This body did actually start, and held a joint debate with Legislative Council to mark the Centenary of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in September 2011. The St Helena Youth Parliament created a website, developed by one of its members, which can still be seen at shyp.burghhouse.com.

One proposal debated with Legislative Council was reducing the voting age from (then) 18 to 16. Although the Youth Parliament team won the debate, Legislative Council decided against making the change, though it did lower the voting age to 17 six years later in 2017.

Sadly afterwards the voluntary worker lost interest and the Youth Parliament folded, though discussion frequently occurs about reviving it.

Do and Don’t Do

For amusement, here are some extracts from the ‘Standing Orders of the Legislative Council’ (19th March 2010):

If you get bored:

Rule 5.4: Members shall not read books, newspapers, letters or other papers in their place, except such books and papers as may be connected with the business under debate.

…it only says papers so playing Candy Crush on your iPhone would appear to be OK.

Questions may be put by Elected Members but (Order 8, Part 2):

(a) a question shall not contain arguments, inferences, opinions, imputations, epithets, or controversial, ironical or offensive expressions;

(h) A question may not … be based on a newspaper report.

In case it isn’t clear:

Order 11.3: If an amendment is passed, debate on the amended motion proceeds as if the motion (as amended) had been originally moved by the mover of the amendment.
Order 15.1. It shall be out of order to make a motion or move an amendment dealing with the subject matter of a motion or bill already appointed for consideration, or if it deals with the subject matter of a motion of which a notice has been given.

Who can you insult?

Order 14.(g) No Member shall impute improper motives or dishonesty on the part of any Member, except so far as may be necessary in the context of a motion of no confidence in the person concerned.
Order 14.(m) it shall be out of order to use offensive or insulting language about Members of the Council;
Order 14.(n) it shall be out of order to use expressions which are blasphemous or insulting to the religious beliefs of other Members;

…so no insults or religious aspersions aimed at other Elected Members, but everybody else is, presumably, fair game.

Now this is odd:

Order 22.1: No person shall use any camera, including any television or video camera, or any device for recording sound, during the proceedings of the Council or of the Committee of the Whole Council, without the prior consent of the President.

…it’s odd because Legislative Council is broadcast live over S.A.M.S. Radio 1, so it seems you can record it at home or in your office, but not in the Chamber itself.

And finally, behave yourself:

Rule 5.3: During a sitting Members shall enter or leave the Council Chamber with decorum.
Rule 5.5: Members shall not make unseemly interruptions while any Member is speaking.
Rule 6.4: The President may order a Member whose conduct is grossly disorderly, to withdraw immediately from the Council Chamber for the remainder of the sitting.

Read More

Below: WikipediaArticle: “Executive Council Report, 7th March 2017”Article: “The reconstitution of the Advisory Council”

More stories on our page Read articles about St Helena.

Wikipedia

You can read more about the politics of St Helena on the Wikipedia.

Article: “Executive Council Report, 7th March 2017”

Government of St Helena 8th March 2017 - provided as a randomly-selected recent example.{12}

In today’s Executive Council meeting, two issues were considered on the Open Agenda.

The Income Tax (Amendment) Bill 2017 makes provision to amend the application of Investment Tax Credit (ITC). It was recognised that there had been significant local investment amounting to over £3.5 million, but the current policy meant significant under recovery in revenue which will have consequences for the sustainability of SHG revenue streams in the current and future financial years. The proposal would replace the current ITC with an Investment Tax Deduction scheme. Council approved the draft Bill to be published and presented as Government Business at the formal Legislative Council meeting on 24th March 2017.

Council then considered the Elections (Amendment) Bill 2017. Following a significant period of consultation, Council agreed that the following provisions should go forward to Legislative Council on 24th March 2017:

  • The minimum age to vote will be reduced from 18 years to 17 years; and

  • Only persons with St Helenian Status will be allowed to register to vote.

However, persons who are already on the Register of Electors who do not have St Helenian status will be allowed to remain on the Register until 2020, by which time it was expected that the individuals will acquire St Helenian status.

Councillors were generally in favour of compulsory registration to vote, but not if it meant that the register of voters would be used to select people for jury service.

They were in favour of compulsory jury service however but wished to de-link voting and jury service by using an alternative list. It was agreed that further work will need to be undertaken on this matter.

The Governor informed Members that she is planning to leave the Island on 21st March for a period of overseas leave and business. The Governor will return to the Island on 16th May 2017, via Ascension Island.

The meeting ended at 12.30pm.

Article: “The reconstitution of the Advisory Council”

Wirebird cover July 1959 Saint Helena Island Info Government

Editorial published in the St Helena Wirebird{14} July 1959{12}

The reconstitution of the Advisory Council was discussed at an important meeting held in the Council Chamber on July 1st over which the Governor presided. Invitations, together with a note of suggested changes in the constitution, had been sent to members of the Executive and Advisory Councils, the District Associations, the Friendly Societies, and the General Workers’ Union, and all these bodies sent representatives, a total of 32 being present.

The discussions lasted for three hours, and the main points covered were the qualifications for voters and candidates, the allocation of candidates to Districts, and the composition of the Council.

As in other countries, it was understood that anyone wishing to vote must be registered on an Electoral Roll. The meeting agreed that to be eligible for registration, a person must:

(1) Be at least 21 years of age.

(2) Be of British nationality.

(3) Have been born in St Helena or Ascension, or have resided continuously in St Helena or Ascension for one year immediately before the day of registration.

In order to become a candidate, a person must:

(a) Be qualified to be registered as an elector.

(b) Have lived continuously for one year in the District for which they wish to stand as a candidate.

(c) Have reached the age of 2S years.

The meeting also agreed that there should be one member for each Country District, and two for Jamestown, all being elected by secret ballot. The meeting felt that both Longwood and St Paul’s Districts should be split to make two more districts, Levelwood and Half Tree Hollow. This, of course, would only be done if the people of those Districts agreed after they had had every chance to give their opinions. If they were to agree, there would be eight elected members. The original suggestion had provided for six elected members, four official members, and three nominated unofficial members. Mr. Walsh, supported by Mr. Ward, put- the view that the Council should consist entirely of elected members, except two senior government officers, and after a lengthy discussion, the representatives agreed with this.

It was also agreed that all meetings should be held in public, and that they should be open to any reporter.

The Governor concluded by thanking those present for their attendance at the meeting, and by saying that the points raised would now be submitted to the Secretary of State for the Colonies for his consideration.

Closing Humour Image Saint Helena Island Info Government

Laugh at funny government humour - LOL Saint Helena Island Info


Credits:

{a} Governor Lisa Phillips

{b} ‘Blue Book’{13}, 1887{12}

{c} ‘Blue Book’{13}, 1888{12}



Footnotes:

{1} Strictly speaking, Executive Authority is vested formally in the King or Queen, and exercised on his or her behalf by the Governor.

{2} .

{3} It is not clear if it is possible to remove an elected member. In a recent case, where an elected member was convicted of a serious offence and imprisoned, he chose to resign rather than argue to retain his seat.

{4} 2001: 44%; 2005: 47%; 2009: 58%; 2013: 55%; 2017: 49%.

{5} Saints are British Citizens but are not automatically entitled to vote in UK Elections. They can only do so if they have lived in the UK within the last fifteen years and registered to vote while there.

{6} This photograph is captioned with “1888” and “Governor Grey-Wilson”, but William Grey-Wilson was not actually appointed Governor until 18th July 1890. He was “administering the Government{b} in 1888 and 1889{c} but whether the photograph is incorrectly dated or Mr Grey-Wilson is inaccurately titled we do not know.

{7} How some past Governors used/abused this power is noted on our The Governor of St Helena and Characters of St Helena pages.

{8} The St Helena Records is a collection of documents dating back to the earliest days of St Helena, held in the Government of St Helena Archives. The Archives can be accessed in person or via email - see our Family And Friends page for more. From the records and other sources we have compiled an events database, which drives our events-based pages e.g. On This Day page. You can search our events database in various ways on our Chronology page.

{9} Exclusively male until Governor Lisa Phillips was appointed in 2016.

{10} There are three ‘Wirebird’ publications that should not be confused: The Government Newspaper (1955-1966), the Tourist Office Blog (current) and the Magazine of Friends of St Helena (current).

{11} Read the Constitution for details.

{12} Reproduced for educational non-commercial use only; all copyrights are acknowledged.

{13} Formally the ‘Colonial Annual Report’ - a document setting out the island’s income, expenditure and other administrative matters for the year. Signed by the Governor or acting Governor usually in April-June of the year following.

{14} The Government newspaper{10}.

{15} As at the time of writing{2} but the committee names periodically change.



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