Honourable Natalio D. Wheatley, Premier and Minister of Finance
at the Sixth Sitting of the Fourth Session of the Fourth House of Assembly
21st July, 2022
Update on the Implementation of the Recommendations
Of the Commission of Inquiry
Thank you Madam Speaker.
As persons may recall, on 8th June, 2022, in a public statement, the Governor advised that the United Kingdom Government accepted the Government of National Unity’s final proposal, the Framework for Implementation of the Recommendations of the Commission of Inquiry (COI) Report and other Reforms.
This Framework document outlines how the implementation of the COI recommendations could be achieved without suspending parts of the Virgin Islands Constitution Order 2007. It entails deliverables and timelines for the actions which include reforms to legislation, policies and administrative systems, with the House of Assembly, Cabinet, Ministers, Ministries of Government and the Governor performing in their existing roles.
The Government of National Unity expressed its commitment to providing the support required so that these and other recommendations – such as certain audits and investigations that fall under independent offices and the remit of the Governor – can be achieved in the set timeframes.
Madam Speaker, we were also proactive in proposing some measures that go beyond what was recommended by Commissioner Sir Gary Hickinbottom, to further strengthen the good governance machinery in the interests of the Virgin Islands’ people.
Let me reassure the people of The Virgin Islands, Madam Speaker, that the Government of National Unity is firmly committed to our obligations as set out in the Framework.
In this regard, Madam Speaker, I am pleased to provide the following update to this Honourable House and to the people of the Virgin Islands on the implementation programme for the COI recommendations and other reforms.
Preparatory Steps to Support the Implementation of the COI Recommendations
Madam Speaker, the implementation of this Framework requires coordination at the highest levels. That is why we have set up a Steering Group which is led by the Permanent Secretary in the Premier’s Office, and which includes the other Permanent Secretaries, Attorney General, Financial Secretary and Director of Strategy at the Governor’s Office, to coordinate the work programme.
The House of Assembly (HOA) has established a Reform Committee, which will be responsible for the legislative timetable for implementation of COI Report Recommendations. The timetable will involve consultation between the HOA, the Cabinet, the Premier and the Governor.
In order to support the implementation of the recommendations, an Implementation Unit has been established in the Premier’s Office. At present, existing staff have been identified for the Unit and I am very pleased for the support that is being provided by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Staff will work remotely initially while plans for the outfitting of the identified physical space are finalised.
Curtailment of Open-Ended Discretion
Recommendation A3 pertains to the commissioning by the Governor of an independent review of the discretionary powers of Cabinet and Ministers of Government to ensure that these are not excessive or abused, and that they are exercised in a transparent and accountable manner going forward. The COI recommendation was for this to be done by a senior BVI lawyer or a retired Virgin Islands/Eastern Caribbean judge. The deadline for commencement of the process was 1st July, 2022. I am pleased to advise that a local lawyer has been identified to conduct this review. The Premier’s Office has already gathered relevant information to assist the reviewer with commencing this process.
Audits and Investigations
Recommendation A4 calls for a review of all areas of Government by the Auditor General, together with other independent persons or bodies instructed by her to assist. Work is ongoing based on the Auditor General’s timetable, which was submitted on 26 May, 2022.
Also pursuant to Recommendation A4 are, amendments of the Audit Act 2003, and to the Public Service Code and the Service Commission Regulations as required, by the House of Assembly and the Governor, consistent with Recommendations B16 and B17 respectively, to make it a criminal offence for a person to fail to cooperate with the Office of the Auditor General or Internal Audit Department.
Cabinet, on 6th July, 2022, considered and approved the relevant amendments so that they can be taken forward as appropriate. We are optimistic that the 31st July deadline will be met.
In May 2022, the Governor initiated a number of investigations – including criminal investigations – based on recommendations from the COI Report. His Excellency has already issued statements on these matters.
Law Enforcement and Justice
Madam Speaker, in June, Cabinet approved a Memorandum of Understanding between authorities of inter-governmental agencies – Her Majesty’s Customs, Immigration, the BVI Airports Authority and BVI Ports Authority - on security of seaports and airports. This is pursuant to Recommendation B40 for addressing security concerns in the interim while more comprehensive arrangements are considered.
Recommendation B43 of the COI Report proposes that consideration be given to revision of the Jury Act to increase the size of the pool of jurors to ensure the jury system is effective. Internal stakeholder consultation has already taken place and the Attorney General’s Chambers is currently finalising the draft.
Madam Speaker, pursuant to Recommendation 45, draft Cabinet Papers have been prepared to facilitate the Complaints Commissioner reporting annually to the House of Assembly Standing Finance Committee to set out the extent to which there has been a response to her criticisms and recommendations, and to establish a reporting structure for the Commissioner to report to the Governor and Deputy Governor, as well as recommended response times to complaints. These two measures are due by 31st July, 2022.
Elected Public Officials’ Interests
Recommendations B2, B3, B4 and B5 pertain to reforms regarding Elected Public Officials’ Interests. Recommendation B5 entails a review by a senior jurist of the practice of HOA Members contracting with the Government, including statutory boards. The deadline for starting this review is 31st July, 2022, and the Governor has identified a reviewer and has consulted with me. A letter of appointment is expected to be issued shortly.
Madam Speaker, the Government of National Unity, of course, remains committed to further strengthening of the legislation for the Register of Interests. We introduced a Bill entitled, Register of Interests Act, 2022, which had its First Reading in the House of Assembly on 30th June, 2022. We had a robust debate last week and the Bill was withdrawn due to the high level of feedback we received. I am pleased, Madam Speaker, that today we have a revised Bill to introduce that addresses the areas to which we committed in the Framework.
I must point out that although we had set a deadline of 30th June, 2022, for getting this legislation passed, the Governor has publicly indicated that he is satisfied with our efforts – and appreciates the need for public consultations, so missing this deadline is not a matter for serious concern.
The COI Report has recommended that we engage the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association (CPA) for assistance in designing a new system of registration of interests based on international best practices that will be accompanied by an implementation plan inclusive of costing for the introduction and maintenance of the new system. The Clerk of the House has contacted the CPA, which has indicated that it has no mechanism in place tailored specifically to the request. Subsequently, contact was made with the House of Commons (UK). Contact has been made with the Commissioner for Standards and Registrar in control of the Register of Interests in Westminster and they have indicated their willingness to assist. Further communication will be forthcoming.
Madam Speaker, Recommendation B19 is for an independent investigator to review of Statutory Board appointments since 2019 to recommend whether any of these should be revoked. The Governor has appointed Mrs. Sheila Braithwaite to conduct this assignment. As at the end of June, the Premier’s Office had gathered the relevant information for the reviewer to proceed.
Ministries have been reviewing Board memberships, pursuant to Recommendation B29, and seeking to reconstitute where memberships have expired. Some advertisements have been issued and new application forms have been developed.
Under Recommendation B28, the Government is committed to publish a protocol for the appointment and removal of statutory board members. The deadline was 1st July, 2022. A draft protocol has been developed and circulated to Senior Managers. Recommended changes are being incorporated, following which it will be circulated to statutory boards for feedback.
For Recommendations B24 and B28, the Government of National Unity has committed to commencing a review of the policies and practices as these relate to good governance, accountability, transparency and value for money, by 31st July, 2022. A reviewer has been identified to lead this process and he will be supported by officials from the Ministry of Finance, Premier’s Office and the Deputy Governor’s Office.
Pursuant to Recommendation A2, a new Constitutional Review Committee was to be established with appropriate terms of reference, which are to be agreed by the Governor and the Premier by 31st July, 2022, so that the Committee could get down to the substance of their work.
The new Constitutional Review Commission was appointed. Cabinet has approved, in agreement with the Governor, the membership of the Commission be increased from 11 to 16 members. Letters of Appointment were issued on 12th July, 2022 and the Commission held its first meeting on 18th July, 2022.
Madam Speaker, I am pleased with the Commission’s swift response in submitting the draft Terms of Reference to the Governor and myself for approval. Just yesterday, Cabinet approved the Terms of Reference which have been incorporated in a Resolution which will be debated in the House of Assembly today.
Recommendation B19 includes legislative amendments to prevent contract-splitting, advance notification of the Director of the Internal Audit Department of proposed tender waivers being considered by Cabinet and for the Director of the Internal Audit Department to instigate any audits that she considers fit. Our target is 31st July, 2022. Madam Speaker, when Sir Gary Hickinbottom conducted the COI, he did not have the benefit of knowing about the new Procurement Act and the drafted Regulations. These issues have already been addressed in the referenced legislation.
Disposal of Crown Land
Madam Speaker, Recommendations B30 and B31 require the Governor, in consultation with the Premier, to appoint a suitable reviewer, such as a senior public officer, to conduct a wholesale review of processes for the disposal of Crown Land, to ensure that such disposals are the subject of an open transparent process, and to consider the issues set out in Recommendation B30. The Governor has already identified a suitable reviewer and has consulted with me. A letter of appointment will be issued shortly, consistent with our target of commencing this review by 31st July, 2022.
Residence and Belonger Status
Recommendations B33 advocates a review of the existing policy and processes for granting residency and belongership status, including the discretion by Cabinet to grant such statuses, and the length of residence required for belongership, among other things. We have set the target of having a suitable reviewer – to be agreed by the Governor and the Premier – in place by 1st September, 2022. Cabinet committed that from 1st June, 2022, the existing legislation on residency threshold - minimum of 10 years – would be followed pending completion of the above-mentioned review.
Madam Speaker, I can report that the Immigration Department has been adhering to this recommendation and has discontinued the use of the previous response given to applicants who did not meet the 20-year requirement.
A project commenced on 29th May, 2022, to strengthen administrative systems within the Status Unit to be better positioned to process applications. Additionally, the Board has been reviewing the processing guidelines. In the coming months, Madam Speaker, we expect to engage in discussions on the difficult, but necessary subject of immigration reform.
Madam Speaker, Recommendations B7 and B10 propose a thorough review of the welfare and grants systems towards a more transparent, accountable and effectively structured system. This also includes the systems for the local district projects. The review would be conducted by a reviewer who is selected by the Governor in consultation with the Minister of Health and Social Development.
On 22nd June, 2022, Cabinet approved the Social Assistance Grants Transition Arrangements.
The Ministry of Health is re-establishing a multi-agency coordination mechanism to ensure a smooth implementation of the transitional arrangements and wider social protection policy reforms.
The Ministry of Health has also developed the Terms of Reference for the review and I am pleased to note the pledge of financial and technical support from UNICEF towards this project. The review will have a dual focus of refining benefits that provide income support to needy individuals and households, as well as improving the arrangements for issuing grants to individuals and organisations that carry out community programmes and projects, or otherwise support the delivery of the Government’s policy objectives.
Scholarship/ Educational Grants
Further, under Recommendation B11, Cabinet, on 29th June, 2022, approved the establishment of a panel to review the scholarship/educational grants programme. Members of the panel are Dr. Richard Georges, Dr. Sauda Underwood-Smith, Ms. Kamika Forbes, Mr. Maurice Turnbull and Mrs. Kishelle Blaize-Cameron. The panel has been requested to submit their review to the Minister no later than 30 September, 2022. One of the key objectives of this exercise, Madam Speaker, is to recommend clearly expressed and published criteria by which applicants are selected to ensure an open and transparent process and the proper recording, assessment and monitoring of the programme.
Other Reforms – Electoral Reform
Madam Speaker, the Government of National Unity identified areas for further strengthening our good governance systems that were not among the recommendations by Sir Gary Hickinbottom. On our own initiative and in the interest of the Virgin Islands people, we decided to include these in our programme for reforms.
One area is electoral reform, where we have recommended that amendments to existing legislation should be considered by this Honourable House as it relates to the recommendations of the Supervisor of Elections’ General Elections Report 2019 and the recommendations made by the Observer Mission, including those on campaign finance reform.
Cabinet, via Memo No. 53/2022, decided to amend the Elections Act, Revised Edition 2013, to include various provisions such as the Registration of Political Parties and Symbols and all matters connected therewith; and establishment of:
- rules on contribution and expenditure limits;
- reporting and disclosure obligations of electoral candidates and parties to provide information about the origins of received contributions;
- the nature of incurred expenditures; and
- the reporting/monitoring and enforcement/sanctions as it relates to campaign finance rules by an oversight body to be called the Elections Advisory Committee.
We aim to complete this process by 30th September, 2022, so that these measures will be applicable to next year’s General Elections.
Madam Speaker, Honourable Members, it is clear from the foregoing that the Government of National Unity, the public officers in the respective Ministries and all parties including the Governor and the Governor’s Group are working hard and are seriously committed to delivering the implementation plan for addressing the COI recommendations and the other reforms.
It is also clear that we are keeping up with the timelines that were agreed with the UK.
This is a voluminous amount of work and based on what has been happening since we started work on this reform programme, what we are seeing is evidence that our public officers do have a lot of previously un-tapped abilities and capabilities. They deserve our commendation – as does the whole team. And I say this because we are accustomed to hearing disparaging comments questioning the competence of our public officers and our people.
What we are achieving at present and what we will achieve as we work our way through this implementation programme will stand as testimony to the capabilities of our public officers and our Virgin Islands’ people. I hope this will not only silence the naysayers, but that it will inspire our people to have confidence in themselves and to continue to push forward to greater achievement.
May God continue to bless our Virgin Islands and all our Virgin Islands’ people.
I thank you.