St Helena : St Helena EXCO REPORT 37 – 13th October 2009
Submitted by Saint Helena Herald (Juanita Brock) 16.10.2009 (Article Archived on 30.10.2009)
This Executive Council had some fairly weighty issues to deal with in spite of the proximity of the forthcoming election. Of the ten items, nine were closed to the public and I can almost hear the response that such a division hardly looks as though we enjoy “Open Government”.
EXCO REPORT 37 – 13th October 2009
This Executive Council had some fairly weighty issues to deal with in spite of the proximity of the forthcoming election. Of the ten items, nine were closed to the public and I can almost hear the response that such a division hardly looks as though we enjoy “Open Government”. In fact I have made a particular point of trying to exercise Open Government ever since I arrived. I see no point at all in not telling the electorate everything that we can and the reasoning behind any decision. However, there are issues, and sometimes quite a few of them, that have a particular personal content, are commercially sensitive, or might cause undue and unnecessary distress, if made open to the public. I fully accept that such classification of issues may seem to be arbitrary and that the public really need to understand how open government really is.
With that in mind, I indicated to Councillors, in Any Other Business, that we intend to bring a paper on the principles underlying Open Government to one of the first EXCOs of the next Council. Once agreed, such a paper could then be adopted as our guide so that any complaints or mutterings about a lack of openness can be tested against an acknowledged policy.
The first substantive issue was related to a request for a parcel of land to be excised from the National Forest. This plot is in the Levelwood area and is .79 of an acre. The proposal is that it should be used as a Play Area by the young people of the area, and the excision was agreed to.
In moving to the Items Closed to the Public we reviewed the minutes of our last meeting held on 29th September. There were a number of Matters Arising: one related to work on the subjects and briefings for the new Councillor who will attend the Overseas Territories Consultative Council in December, another related to progress in the appointment of a new Chief of Police and yet another highlighting the visit of Michael Binyon who arrives next Saturday for an eight day visit. Michael is coming as part of our ongoing programme to try and encourage those who are proven opinion formers in the UK to come and see for themselves how attractive this island really is, and be able to write and comment about us from first hand knowledge. He has had a long career as a successful journalist, notably with The Times, and will want to meet with as many of you as possible. If you particularly would like to meet him, please let us know at the Castle and we will try and fit you in to his schedule.
Also under Matters Arising I outlined to Members the seminar which will be held this coming Friday and will deal with the subject of Accrual Accounting. Andrew Weeks has been with us now for several weeks and has reached some very interesting conclusions about how this government should account for its finances. This will be a public meeting but all those standing in the election and Heads of departments are especially welcome. It is next Friday at 9 am in the Jamestown Community Centre.
Two weeks ago I indicated that EXCO would be reviewing the financial performance of government on a regular basis and the Financial Secretary presented to us the results for August. These show an apparently healthy surplus against the budget of some £638,000 in the five months of the year to date. That does not necessarily mean that we have £638,000 to spare, there are some parts of the budget that are over spent, but quite a few that are under spent and much of the difference between our plan and what has happened can be explained in that way. However on looking at the individual lines it is clear that we have recovered more tax that we anticipated and yet suffered from under-collection on electricity and water charges. Employee costs are almost spot on budget but there are savings in the Office of the Chief Secretary, and over spending in the Health Department. The overall picture though is one of stability and fairly tight control. The summary presented by this cash accounting method cannot be as useful for management purposes as one that would be the result of Accrual Accounting – so come along on Friday morning to see what the difference really is.
The Financial Secretary then presented a Paper that outlined a policy on where we might grant exemption of Import Duty, Wharfage and Freight Charges. There are of course certain exemptions already written in to what Approved Investors are entitled to and these are enshrined in the policy. However in general terms the policy merely underlined and supported existing practice and was approved by Council.
We then examined some Special Warrants. This was the very first time that such warrants had come before Governor in Council. Under the old Constitution the Governor could simply sign them by himself, but now, under the new Constitution, the decision is one of Governor in Council – actually meaning the Governor as advised by EXCO Councillors. It is a good example of some of the “wing clipping” of the Governor’s powers. The warrants cover all expenditure that is not actually budgeted for and therefore previously approved by Legislative Council. After discussion the warrants were approved.
The next paper was one that stimulated a great deal of discussion, and rightly so. Our new Constitution no longer ties the 5 EXCO Members to being Chairs of Committees. Indeed it allows us to create more than 5 Committees. In looking at the structure of our government, and in discussion with PSMP, the officers have come up with 8 portfolios of responsibility that could form the basis of 8 Council Committees, instead of the 5 currently. One good reason for making this move is that currently there are many activities of government that actually have no direct political oversight – the economy being one. So we talked through whether the grouping of 8 portfolios might be a sensible and efficient way of increasing political responsibility whilst operating clearly within the existing Policy Framework and relating to our three major goals of: a sustainable and vibrant economy, a healthy community in a safe environment, and having strong institutions of governance.
This subject provided a broad canvas to chew on (it was a bit like chewing canvas at times!), not least of which is the move towards “Portfolio” responsibility rather than Departmental. The concept does not do away with existing Departments, but it does seek to cluster them in to sensible groupings. For instance the proposal suggested an Access and Transport portfolio, a Tourism and Lifestyle portfolio and a Home and International Affairs portfolio; none of these issues having been the subject of direct political oversight and scrutiny before.
We agreed that the final decisions on the issue will be with the new Council, but that we will need to provide clear recommendations as Committee Chairs (in effect Portfolio Holders) and Executive Council, will need to be elected by the first Legislative Council of the new government.
There was less Any Other Business than usual, but in view of the lengthy discussion the meeting did not finish until 1.30 pm.
13th October 2009