Ascension : ISLAND COUNCIL MEETING: 27 April 2009 Submitted by The Islander (Ascension Island Government) 14.05.2009 (Article Archived on 28.05.2009)
The Island Council met in formal session on Tuesday 27 April at 1630 in the Council Chamber.
HE the Governor and the Acting Attorney General were present via the video conferencing link. Councillor Howard Peters also joined in by video link. Apologies were received from Councillor Ann Miller who was in the UK.
The Governor briefed the Council on the Air Access consultation process. The three options in the consultation are i) to go ahead with the airport now, ii) commission a replacement for the RMS St Helena and iii) continue with existing arrangements for up to 5 years and look again at the case for an airport when the economic situation changes. A Rosemary Stevenson, a consultation facilitator, will visit both the Falklands and Ascension, together with Sharon Wainwright in July. The consultation document is available on the DfID website and hard copies will be circulated when received from DfID. The Governor also raised the question of Saint FM re-broadcasting to Ascension. He would like to keep Ascension informed of progress during the consultation period, but it is expensive. Council was keen for re-broadcasting to Ascension to continue with the Administratorís broadcasts ideally in the afternoon and evening so that all who wanted to could hear them. The Governor will discuss possible financial support for this with the FCO.
Progress on the question of possible temporary employment permits awaits legal advice from the AG who is due to return to St Helena shortly. Initial work on designs for the Ascension Island flag has been commissioned. There was also a suggestion that a design at the school might be considered. The aim is to put suggested designs to public consultation through the Islander, seeking views on a design to put forward for official approval. Council agreed in principle the introduction of seat belt legislation to Ascension given the benefits from reducing deaths and injuries. There was discussion about whether the age for responsibility for wearing a belt should be 14 (as in the UK) or older e.g., 16. No firm decision was reached. The legislation now goes to public consultation. There will be a two week period for comments to be put forward after which Council will debate further. A draft Commemorative Coinage Ordinance was then discussed. The aim is to allow Ascension to benefit from the royalties on coins struck in commemoration of special events (ordinary coins for day to day use would continue to be those already in circulation by the St Helena bank). This would generate a source of much needed income similar to the sale of stamps by the Post Office. Marketing of these coins also has the potential to raise the profile of Ascension Island across the world. Council unanimously agreed that the draft Commemorative Coinage Ordinance should be forwarded to the AGís Chambers for enactment.
Crown Counsel introduced a paper on Class J driving licences as it had been brought to our attention that the category is too wide and could in theory allow someone to operate a specialist vehicle for which they hadnít been trained. There was also ambiguity over the B(1) and B(2) licence fees which needed clarifying. Crown Counsel will produce a paper for the Islander to inform the public of the proposed changes to the Road Traffic Ordinance.
Council then turned to the Benefit in Kind tax on free accommodation. This works by adding the assessed value of the house or flat provided to the employee, to their income, which is then taxed together with the salary. There are currently three bands, the highest being £2,800. At the higher rate of 27% this equates to a payment by the individual of £756 per year or £63 per month. When income tax was introduced in 2002, the bands for determining this aspect of income tax reflected the original assessed values from the initial valuation exercise, but there is no link to the separate Property tax which is paid by employing organisations and businesses. Examples of the methodology for calculating the current values were given and it was highlighted that larger floor areas attract higher rates. The Director of Financial Services felt that the formula is consistent. Nevertheless Councillors still felt that there were inconsistencies and that overall the level was extremely high. The Governor commented that the system in place seemed overly complex and that a forthcoming taxation review could look at a fundamental simplification of the whole system.
Concerns were raised about Swine Flu given the direct air link with the US and UK. The Senior Medical Officer is in touch with the RAF medical centre and the international health authorities, and there is a contingency plan in place with adequate stocks of Tamiflu. The SMO will be asked to advise the public through an article in the Islander. The question of schooling for the children of people on visitor status and whether they would have to pay for this was raised. It was noted that the numbers involved are currently insignificant and do not place any noticeable burden on resources. Nobody is currently being charged and there is no plan to introduce charging as long as the numbers involve remain small. This might have to be reviewed if it ever began to impact on school education resources.
In an update on progress with the Draft Constitution it was noted that following the visit by Andrew Allen and Ian Hendry in March, Councillors had received a copy of the latest draft. In response to a question on whether Council could be consulted on any new activities by the US Base, the FCO view was that in the normal course of events the Island Council would be consulted, or at least informed, of any US proposal that might affect life on Ascension. But it would be difficult to include anything in the Constitution as requests by the US to the UK would be defence and external relations issues which are special responsibilities of the Governor under the Island Government Ordinance.
There was inevitable disappointment that AIG could not find money to pay for all 5 candidates who wished to go on further educationscholarships to ChichesterCollegethis year. Councillors had fully debated this in an informal meeting and felt they had come up with the best decision possible taking into consideration the current financial situation. Councillors had found this very difficult and had tried very hard to come up with alternative solutions to providing further education opportunities for the two students in question. The Acting Attorney General said that during the recent CPA visit, the MPs had undertaken to look into funding of further education for students on St Helena and, if successful, felt sure that it could be extended to students on Ascension Island.
Updates were then provided on a number of issues under AOB. On property tax arrears Council was very disappointed to learn that a compromise offered to the MoD had been rejected, and urged that further action be taken to obtain the tax arrears that were legally due and very much needed. On a separate issue, an MoD review team was currently looking hard at making savings in its operations on Ascension, in much the same way that others on the island were having to do (including AIG). Various options were being looked at, some of which could have a significant impact on the island. It was important to stay in touch with the MoD on this and to be open to suggestions on e.g., sharing services. The MoD had also now provided detailed figures on the cost of supplying ULGAS (unleaded petrol) to Ascension after next April, but had restated that they would not provide storage after next April. With repair work to ensure the safe operation of the petrol tank estimated at over £400k it is improbable that AIG could take this on unless the tax debts due to AIG were made good.
Funds have been secured from OTEP (the Overseas Territories Environment Programme) for the refurbishment of the Red Lion building on GreenMountain as a visitor and display centre for the islandís conservation work. This was still subject to agreement of a formal MoU, but was a very welcome development. There was no good news on the Mountain tunnel however as the visiting consultant engineer had effectively condemned it on safety grounds following the last rockfalls and it would cost a significant amount of money to re-open.
The Overseas Territories Consultative Council (OTCC) will be held in November and Council was invited to nominate a Councillor to represent Ascension.
Stedson Stroud MBE has been appointed, on promotion, to Conservation Officer as of 1 April 2009. All agreed this was a well deserved promotion and an excellent choice of candidate.
Work continues in London on the DfID backed desk studies into combating illegal and unregulated fisheries around Ascension, St Helena and Tristan da Cunha, and into a management strategy for the islands that has the potential for generating revenue from fisheries. Council will be kept informed of progress.
Council was also updated on the OTPF bid for funding of the Crown Counsel post in view of the common interest in good governance on the island. The bid was successful and will provide 50% of the cost of the post for two years and a possible option for a third year following a review.
Finally there was a question under AOB about AIGís policy on single status/accompanied contracts as there had been criticisms of anomalies in the past. Contract status depends on a number of factors including business need, availability of housing but above all in these difficult times, finance. In particular the latter makes it unlikely that anyone on single status would be able to change to accompanied status without there being a very strong case. It was also explained that housing decisions are now dealt with by a committee against clearly set out criteria. The aim is to remove the scope for anomalies and to ensure fair play and consistency.
The meeting ended at .
(Note that this was not read out over the radio on this occasion pending ongoing discussions between the Governor, Saint FM and the FCO on re-broadcasting to Ascension)