My first attendance of a Legislative Council meeting was pleasantly surprising and a bit of an eye opener. Normally the mere word LegCo, I am embarrassed to say, conjured yawns and indifference with me. The meeting held last month in the refurbished court room was opened to the public as usual. Not many people took the opportunity save for a handful of Government officials attending in their capacity as support to documentation or questions that might arise during the session.
The court room is actually quite impressive when you first walk in with its high ceiling, laminated floor and horseshoe of wooden desks locally crafted from iroko fitted together into a single structure that dominates the space. It accommodates all twelve councillors plus the Financial Secretary, Attorney General and Chief Secretary, each desk officialised with its own microphone on a bendy stand that transmits from the speakers fitted into the ceiling above.
The Speaker Cathy Hopkins presided over the proceedings which followed a lot of pomp and ceremony but was quite fascinating to watch, like the knocking on the door with an ornamental wooden mace to announce the entrance of the Speaker. The language was very formal and humble with phases like “Madam Speaker I beg to present” each time a member made an address to submit a report. The formalities were so strict that even though the air condition units were not fully functioning on that hot February day, in a room full of Councillors wearing suits, ties and cufflinks, jackets were only removed after the Speaker graciously gave permission.
There were fourteen reports presented, thirteen questions, two motions and the adjournment session as the business of the day for the meeting. You can learn a lot of interesting information of the goings on within Government.
For instance, the Public Health were trialling Tygerberg hospital in Cape Town to use for medical referrals in a bid to cut costs, a week later it came out as an official press release. Over 80 people had been referred overseas for medicals during this financial year so far from April 2010 to February at a cost of £770,000. That's on average just under £10,000 per person - quite expensive.
I found out that the minimum wage legislation that has been on the table for a few years will be finally introduced 1st October this year.
There was a visiting consultant here to draft a National Agriculture Policy for Agricultural & National Resources Directorate (ANRD). This will incorporate assessment and analysis of consumption and availability of locally produce food to ensure we can support the growing population and tourism development in the lead up to the airport project and beyond.
Honourable Isaac relayed that there is a reluctance in the private sector to place Prince Andrew School students into skills training because the companies were not receiving remuneration from the schools or Government for their part in the training. This scheme was previously thought to be working well within the Education Department who were not aware of this feedback.
The rise in Grant in Aid negotiated and agreed with the recently departed DFID DAPM team was prevalent in speeches given at the Adjournment Session. Councillors recognised the economic turmoil that UK Government is experiencing and were grateful for the £24.4m granted for 2012/13 on top of the millions being spent on the Airport Project over the next 4-5 years. We as St Helenians will have to be more pro active and hold our own government to account making sure that this money is well spent on much needed upgrades for infrastructure and development therefore, making the island attractive for our youth, returning Saints and visitors alike.
Two out of the twelve councillors are women and one of them Councillor Tara Thomas is also the youngest at 27. I did a quick calculation knowing that the majority of the councillors were retired and over 60 and worked out that the average age even with Tara’s tender years is 60+. Good, because wisdom comes with age but maybe not so good as vibrancy/vitality fades with age.
I couldn't help but think that some of the questions and points raised were not appropriate for a formal meeting of Honourable Councillors and high ranking Government officials and could have been easily sorted with an informal telephone call. That's just my opinion. After attending this session (that lasted just a day) I have to admit maybe politics is not as boring as I first perceived. You just have to find the right angle that appeals to you and as mentioned earlier some good information can be gleaned for future newsworthy stories. I will be there at the next meeting and will hopefully learn some other titbits of useful knowledge.