Ascension : Island Council Meeting, (formal session), Council Chambers, Georgetown 09:30 am, Tuesday 3rd March 2009 Submitted by The Islander (Ascension Island Government) 19.03.2009 (Article Archived on 02.04.2009)
The Island Council met last Tuesday with all members present. The meeting was chaired by the Governor who was on Ascension following his recent visit to the UK. This was the first Council meeting for our new Crown Counsel, Gabrielle McAvock, who arrived on Ascension late last month.
The minutes of the previous formal meeting, held on 26 November, were agreed.
Under matters arising from last month’s meeting, the question of a reference to St Helenian status in the draft Constitution for Ascension was raised. The suggestion will be put to the Constitutional Review Team.
The first substantive item on the agenda was the draft budget for 2009/10. The Director of Finance presented a detailed overview of the draft budget and Capital Programme resulting from previous consultations with Heads of Department, the Finance Committee and Councillors. To say that the setting for this year’s budget is exceptionally unfavourable would not be an exaggeration. Not only are we faced with an ongoing and growing bad debt as a result of one of the major employers not paying its tax bill in full (on which discussions continue), but warning has been given by the BBC of a very steep increase in utilities costs, of around 42%. At the same time and as a result of other developments at the BBC site, government income from fuel tax duty is set to fall by around £160k. These three factors alone add up to £830k that we don’t have. For understandable enough reasons nobody wants taxes or fees to increase, but you then have to wonder how anyone can be expected to make ends meet if costs go up in this fashion, while our income remains static, or even falls. I would like to stress here that AIG is not in this position because of any alleged inefficiency or mismanagement. Indeed all Heads of Department are fully conscious of the need to find savings and have submitted revised and quite conservative departmental estimates in light of this. Any organization facing bad debts from its creditors will quickly find itself in the same situation, and the drastic increases faced in recent times on things like freight, passages on the RMS, and utilities, all of which are outside our control, only make a bad situation worse. It is clear that a review of the tax system, and indeed the whole arrangement by which entities pay for the benefit they derive from their presence on the island needs to be looked at, and urgently.
Council’s recommendations to the Governor on the budget were not finalized at this sitting and questions raised on property tax and the Capital programme were adjourned until a further informal session on Friday evening. (Following that meeting a set of recommendations is being sent to the Governor).
On the Constitution there will be a further visit by the FCO’s Constitutional Review team on 19/20 March. There will be a public as well as workplace meetings. The team will also meet with the Court Users Group. This is likely to be the last visit as the consultation stage of the process draws towards an end.
Seat belt laws were then discussed. Everyone felt there is a need to make seat belt use, by all occupants of vehicles, mandatory. This can save lives and prevent injuries. Crown Counsel will draft legislation for Council to consider. In the meantime it was noted that the Police have started a public awareness campaign on seat belt use through their bulletins in the Islander. Council hopes that all drivers and other vehicle occupants will start wearing seat belts as a matter of routine rather than wait for it to become a legal requirement.
There was then a discussion about employment legislation. Some felt there is a lack of clarity among the various employers on the island about which laws apply to workers on Ascension. There was even one view that there is currently no legislation protecting workers’ rights on Ascension and that as a result people had no protection. As Crown Counsel explained this is NOT the case – the existing law is the Workmen’s Protection Ordinance which among other things sets out that there must be a contract, and sets out the provisions that must be in these. Though rather old, this law contains some important protections for workers, including some that I understand are not available on St Helena. There is also the grievance procedure operated by employers. There was also a suggestion that existing arrangements are somehow discriminatory with one rule for some and one for others. I am not aware of any evidence to back this up. It is true that there are different salaries on the island, but these relate to different skill levels and qualifications for jobs, which is normal practice anywhere, and this is not based on where someone comes from. Funding has been sought for a project to look into whether any aspects of our existing laws do need to be updated and once this funding has been secured we can consider how best to approach this.
We then discussed a suggestion that a limited number of temporary employment permits be issued which would allow visitors to work for short periods without the usual contract and its requirements for housing etc to be provided. Legal advice is being sought on this. If it can be made to happen it is important that there are suitable safeguards in place e.g., some form of written contract, however limited, will be necessary to protect the worker. And there would have to be suitable arrangements for accommodation, medical insurance and so on. The suggestion is aimed at people here on visitor status and it will be necessary somehow to clarify this, as it is not permitted for people to apply for a permit to come here on holiday but with the intention of seeking work.
There was then a short discussion on whether Ascension should, like other territories, issue its own commemorative coins which could be a useful new source of revenue for the island. This has been considered in the past but under existing arrangements the revenue would go to St Helena instead of Ascension. It was agreed therefore that Crown Counsel would draft a suitable Ordinance to enable commemorative coins to be struck and marketed with the income coming to us, and approaches will be made to companies that could be contracted to design, market and sell the coins on our behalf.
Next was a proposal for a separate Ascension Island flag. All other territories, including Tristan da Cunha (which like Ascension is also part of the St Helena grouping) have one, and there seems to be no good reason why Ascension should not have one. It was agreed that plans should be developed, with advice sought from the FCO on the procedure to be followed. It was also suggested that a public competition be held at some stage to invite designs, once we know the rules surrounding flag and heraldry issues.
A discussion on how to meet possible counseling and social services needs of the people living and working on Ascension then took place.While there was general consensus that it needs to be possible for people to be able to talk to someone who will listen and – very importantly – respect their confidentiality fully, there was no money to hire someone specifically to do this such as a counselor and nor was there agreement that this is anyway the right approach.It should be possible to address this need within existing resources by reminding appropriate people of the need for strict confidentiality and enforcing the confidentiality clauses in the contracts of those who people should be able to turn to in times of difficulty. This was particularly important with medical and nursing staff, but possibly also some others. On social services, an approach is being made to develop support from St Helena, who do have a social services department, with remote support and visits. This is in line with recommendations from earlier DfID supported studies and it was agreed that this would be a pragmatic and realistic approach for a small island with very limited resources.
Following my last broadcast many of you will be anxious for an update on the unleaded petrol situation and I know that a number of people are worried about this. In my last broadcast I said that a safety test of the storage tank was due in February and that much depended on the outcome of this. In the event that test failed, though I understand it was only by a small margin. The good news is that the MOD have told us that petrol will still be brought ashore from the tanker that is due to visit next month, and that is expected to give us approximately one year’s capacity, thereby meeting their commitment to make petrol available to us up to 2010. The tank is due for a five-yearly inspection at that stage and the feeling is that it is likely to fail that too, as a result of which it would need significant and very costly repairs, apparently costing around £400k or even higher. But the MOD is looking urgently into alternative ways that might make it possible for petrol to be stored safely on island beyond 2010 and we stay in touch with them on this.
Under Any Other Business I briefed Council on my recent visit to London where much of my time was taken up by discussions into the potential for selling fisheries licenses for foreign commercial fishing vessels to fish in Ascension’s waters. Some of you may recall that licences used to be sold for fishing around our waters but in those days the income went to St Helena, who operated the fishery. Although more research has yet to be carried out into the extent of fish stocks in our waters that might attract fishing companies, it seems that we should be able to realise at least some modest income from this while at the same time meeting our international conservation obligations. I was however advised to forget any ideas of reaping the kind of rich rewards that the Falkland Islands enjoy, and which has so transformed their economy. There they have the benefit of bountiful stocks of ilex squid that are unavailable elsewhere. Here the fishing vessels would be targeting species of tuna, all of which are also present throughout the Atlantic Ocean. The next step is to obtain data on likely fish stocks and expert advice on how much we could charge for fishing licenses, in a way that keeps the fishermen coming back in the long term. I am in discussion with DfID about a desk study they will be carrying out in support of St Helena’s fisheries and the scope for extending this to help us. A fish licensing business could develop into something bigger over time, but you then quickly run into very expensive obligations like running a patrol vessel, satellite monitoring, onboard observers and so on. This would clearly only be worthwhile if and when the business reaches a very healthy and sustainable level.
In a brief discussion on rabies vaccines for dogs and cats a letter was circulated from one of the doctors about whether dogs and cats coming to Ascension from St Helena should have rabies vaccinations or not (both islands are officially rabies free but the concern is that an infected animal could in theory find its way to St Helena and subsequently come here). This will need to be considered further in a later meeting.
The question of children of persons on unaccompanied contracts and whether they should be allowed access to free education here was discussed briefly. This is a difficult area and one that could not be resolved at this meeting. It raises issues about who would pay for the schooling, whether the employer or the taxpayer, and the status of people on unaccompanied contracts, which as the name implies, should normally indicate that they are not accompanied by anyone. This will need to be discussed at a subsequent meeting.
In the closed session Council shared their thinking on the Cooper Report with the Governor. This report has of course been kept confidential while Council were considering it, not least to allow for proper discussion and to limit the scope for uninformed rumour and speculation. I can now let you know about the way forward on this. First of all I would like to say that when the Cooper Report was commissioned it was not with any preconceived idea that there was something inherently wrong with AIG in its current form. AIG was set up in 2002 partly because the “users” who formerly had to provide services themselves no longer wanted to do so. So AIG is actually quite new, and it is normal and understandable that a new organization should be looked at six years on from its creation to see how it is doing, and whether it offers the best value for money. The subsequent report suggested two main options to ensure this. The first was to contract many of the services out to private sector contractors. This is what many governments have been doing over the past 20 or 30 years but in a way would be a turning back of the clock for us. For a number of reasons and after a great deal of work and deliberation, Council was not convinced that this was the best approach in the circumstances of Ascension. The second proposal is to alter the management structure of AIG and to devolve much of the day to day management of operations and services to the level immediately below Administrator. This is the approach that Council recommended to the Governor. In the early stages the most visible change will be that the two existing Director positions will take on responsibility for a number of functions and departments, and their titles and job specifications will reflect this. Further internal change aimed at ensuring value for money will flow from this. There will be a drive to ensure that everything is being done in the most effective and cost efficient way, and to realize cost savings wherever possible. This will include the effective – and defensible - use of government assets, tightening up of procurement rules to ensure best value is always achieved for the taxpayer when AIG buys something, regular audits, more modern management systems and so on.This is likely to be a continuing process rather than a one-off exercise. “Change” is, I know, not always welcome, but it is a normal part of life. Indeed everyone who has been on Ascension for any length of time will have been through quite a lot of it.
While on this subject I would just like to say something about AIG and the people who work for it. I made it a priority on my arrival to get round all departments of AIG and to meet as many people as possible. I was struck by the professionalism, dedication and flexibility that was evident in all those I met then and since. I say flexibility because it is not always appreciated that our staff often fulfill more than one role, for example the person who mends the roads today could be helping to offload our supplies from a ship another day. It is sadly common for taxpayers to knock governments and those who work in them, and to wonder whether they are working hard enough for the money that taxpayers provide. While there is room in any organization to find more efficient ways of working and to find cost savings, and it is right that we should do this too, I would assure you that AIG staff work very hard to deliver services to all of us – and nor must we forget that AIG staff pay taxes too.
The meeting ended at . The date for the next formal meeting was not set and will be notified subsequently.