OPENING REMARKS BY HIS EXCELLENCY THE GOVERNOR
AT GOVERNOR’S CATCH-UP WITH THE MEDIA
DECEMBER 3, 2020
Good morning. Thank you to members of the media for attending my regular press catch-up this morning – it is good to see you all. Good morning also to the Deputy Governor who joins us here this morning.
I would like to start out by paying tribute to our Public Officers. As you know, it has just been Public Service Week – the theme of which was ‘Twenty Years of Resilience, Hope and Celebration.’ I was thrilled to take part in some of the week’s celebrations and visit a number of offices throughout to personally thank our public officers. I have also taken part in a number of award ceremonies these past weeks and am looking forward to shortly launching a Governor’s award titled the Medal of Meritorious Service, which will be for law enforcement and national security officers. COVID-19 has brought unprecedented challenges to our public service, the way we work and the jobs we do. I feel incredibly proud of our dedicated public officers rising to that challenge and exhibiting the highest standards of integrity, fairness and BVI Love – qualities I see every single day across business people, faith and community figures and BVI as a whole.
This week also marks the end of the 2020 Atlantic Hurricane Season. We have been fortunate this year not to experience any major landfalls, but unfortunately, the same cannot be said for our neighbours in the region – particularly Central America. We know the pain that those people affected are facing right now and our thoughts and prayers stay with them. I would like to take a moment to acknowledge the extensive preparations that took place across the Territory to help us ‘Be Ready.’ Amidst all the other requirements brought on by COVID-19, it took even more effort this season and I am very grateful to DDM, essential workers, volunteers and community organisations for their work in this area.
On the subject of COVID-19, I trust that many individuals across the Territory will have been closely following work to develop a vaccine. It is great to see the UK pioneering this work and to have assurances from the UK Government that BVI will receive any COVID-19 vaccine procured by the United Kingdom – it will be the same vaccine as that used in the UK and will be distributed on a completely voluntary basis, overseen by the BVI Government. I believe this gives us cause for hope that things may be different in 2021. Another cause for hope is the reopening of the Territory’s borders to tourists. I was delighted to attend the heavily anticipated opening ceremony at the airport on Monday. I know that the Territory stands with open arms (albeit socially distanced) ready to welcome our visitors with BVI Love.
With all of the successes and great things we are achieving as a Territory, it is important that we also address any areas that could hold us back. I would like to spend some time talking about the governance of the Territory. During my time here, I have sought to make BVI as successful as it possibly can be, with equal opportunities and a high standard of governance for all. At many of our press briefings before, we have discussed the things we need to put in place to achieve this – from more transparent practices, to laws which protect against corruption.
I have heard time and time again that people want these reforms and more. The people of BVI are our greatest asset. During my time here, I have had the honour to get to know some of the most talented individuals I have ever worked with. The vast, vast majority of them and the community more broadly want BVI to be governed with integrity, openness and fairness. Likewise, the public service is overwhelmingly filled by officers committed to achieving good governance. These individuals represent the true values and character of BVI.
Therefore, when I talk about improving governance – despite what some may say – I do not do so as a criticism of BVI, but based on what I believe the people of BVI want. I, like the majority of people here, want BVI to be as successful and self-determining as it can be.
Recently, I have had a number of concerns and allegations put to me by the community. I will not go into the specific details of these as they are purely allegations, but I will broadly speak to the areas they touch on. I do so – after much deliberation - because I want to be transparent and open about these things and to find out more about what we may be facing.
First, many people are concerned about transparency when it comes to public projects and funds. The Auditor General has written numerous reports detailing the common problems in this area - tender waivers, interference, contract-splitting and inflated prices being a few examples. As you know, investigations are underway on some matters which I cannot comment on. The recommendations from those audit reports have not always been actioned and this raises concerns that our systems remain vulnerable. I know that many people are troubled by this, particularly in relation to Government contracts and the recent stimulus funds. These concerns are exacerbated by the fact that details of Government spending are not always readily available to the public and our institutions of good governance. Many have asked whether the Territory’s governance is operating with the level of integrity and fairness that it should and this question warrants some consideration.
In response, the Deputy Governor and I continue to speak with our local institutions about how we can address these challenges. The Auditor General, the Commissioner of the Police, the Complaints Commissioner, the Financial Investigations Agency and the Registrar of Interests have already been doing important work into specific areas of concern and we are discussing what more can be done. One thing we can be sure of is that robust, holistic and impartial investigation is required to reassure the people of BVI. Regrettably, our local institutions have told us that they may be hindered in carrying this out, without the legislation and frameworks in place to give them the mandate to do so. We will continue to assess what needs to be done as we find out more.
Second, many are concerned about the number of drugs and cash seizures and gun violence recently taking place in this Territory. These make it very clear that the Territory is vulnerable to drug trafficking, serious organised crime and all that comes with it. Criminal investigations are underway, so I will not comment on specific investigations, but we cannot ignore the fact that there is a problem here. Drugs and smugglers are able to enter the Territory’s closed borders and our people are getting killed. The risks for the Territory are significant and we must not let this crime continue to infiltrate our society, our businesses and our way of life and we must not let the profits of crime risk corrupting our institutions.
In response to these concerns, we are taking immediate steps to bolster our security and law enforcement agencies. With the support of NSC, I have invited UK Police officers to provide extra support to the Joint Task Force. Whilst here, they will deliver a programme of training and mentoring – to help upskill our people and support BVI to do more for itself to secure the Territory. Linked to this and in the spirit of building BVI’s capability for the long-term, the UK Government is injecting new funding into BVI’s security and institutions. For example, we have provided just under half a million dollars to help BVI rebuild its Marine Base in partnership with the BVI Government, we have provided funds to repair RVIPF ships and infrastructure so they have the latest tools and equipment to do their job effectively. These measures will help the Territory do more to tackle the threat of serious organised crime. We are also putting forward legislation to help our agencies investigate unexplained wealth, which I hope that the Cabinet and in due course, the House, will support.
Third, I have heard the community raise concerns relating to intimidation and victimisation in the Territory. These have been put to me by a number of individuals in senior positions across the public service, even the media, industry and our community. I will not go into specific details as they were shared in confidence, but some have described a growing culture of fear – strong allegations which we cannot brush aside.
I want to be clear that no one in this Territory should be afraid to raise a concern. It is a Constitutional right to have freedom of speech and everyone should be able to do their job without fear or favour. My Office and the Deputy Governor’s Office are always open to any individual seeking to raise a concern or ask for help. We will put in place a process for these to be shared in confidence. We will also bring forward measures to strengthen our institutions in response to these concerns. The Deputy Governor and I will shortly be bringing forward the Integrity in Public Life Act which will bolster the ability of our institutions to ensure accountability.
Finally, as you all know, as I previously stated, I was due to leave here at the end of this year. However, I will now be staying on into January until the new Governor, Mr. John Rankin, is sworn in. This will allow me to continue to support the Public Service and the Deputy Governor who are doing tremendous work to support the Territory at this time. It will allow a smooth handover to my successor, in case of any disruptions caused by travel and quarantine. And it will allow me to consider the concerns put to me, in consultation with BVI institutions.
We hope that during this period, we can have open and honest conversations about what we need to do to build better governance in BVI. The vast, vast majority of people in BVI are honest and want the best for this Territory. I hope that all voices will be heard and respected.
We have a huge amount to be proud of in BVI, but it is not a bad thing to say, ‘there are things we need to improve on here in BVI.’ An individual who does so is not against BVI – quite the opposite, it shows that you care about making BVI a better, a more democratic and a more transparent place.
This is exactly what our Constitution demands. The Constitution states that this Territory is built on “honesty, integrity, mutual respect, self-reliance” and that the “Virgin Islands should be governed on adherence to well-established democratic principles and institutions.” It also states that “the people of the Virgin Islands have generally expressed a desire to become a self-governing people.” All those in public office, including me, as your Governor and your Deputy Governor, are duty bound to uphold the Constitution and the rights of people in this Territory. So if the people of BVI have concerns, they are right to raise them and I, as your Governor, and the Deputy Governor are here to support you.
I have been inspired by the number of individuals who have come to me with a genuine desire to improve this Territory. This speaks to how much the people of BVI truly want to see change and to advance. 70 years on from the restoration of the legislature in BVI, the commitment to BVI’s democratic values stays strong. Any democracy needs the people to be empowered with accountability and transparency.
BVI has the potential to be a model for the region. Now let us work together to help BVI to achieve its full potential and be held in the highest regard for its honest governance and values. This takes hard work. It also takes courage, the courage to look at ourselves in the mirror and say, ‘we can aim higher.’
We know that the key to BVI’s success lies in the hands of the people. This is one of the safest places in the Caribbean, underpinned by an effective public service, strong rule of law and internationally successful industries. The people of BVI have proven their strength time and time again, in building this Territory and sustaining it through floods, hurricanes and now COVID-19. It has been an inspiration to see and an honour to be a part of. Now as we head into the new year, we will stay true to our values and we will champion the BVI that we know and love.