Despite substantive progress in completing the ongoing reforms recommended by the Commission of Inquiry, the “overall pace of the process is slower than expected,” Governor John Rankin said this week when he released his second quarterly review on the effort.
During a Tuesday press conference about the report, Mr. Rankin praised successes, criticised delays and stressed, “It is important that the public do not lose confidence.”
“I believe these reforms will lead to a fairer society, whereby public funds are safeguarded and used more effectively to support public services such as education, health and infrastructure,” the governor said. But he also noted that it is essential for the government to step up its efforts “to achieve these important and urgent reforms, committing resources accordingly.”
The governor’s quarterly reviews are a key yardstick measuring progress with the 48 COI recommendations that the National Unity Government committed to carry out in the reform framework agreed with the United Kingdom last June.
If the VI government completes the reforms as promised, the UK has stated that it will forgo a COI recommendation to suspend the legislature and implement direct rule for at least two years. But if progress stalls, the UK may move ahead with direct rule instead.
Late last month, Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley told the House of Assembly that 15 reform measures had been completed as of the end of December, with 33 more in progress and two yet to begin.
This week, the governor said that further progress came last month, including the receipt of reviews and audits.
“In my review, I have summarised some of the positive progress made over the last four months, including progress on procurement practices,” he added. “I am encouraged by the positive trend towards open and transparent public procurement.”
Other aspects of the review, however, were less positive.
“In my report I also raise concerns that the implementation of reform has on occasion missed the essence of what we are all trying to achieve: open, transparent and accountable governance,” Mr. Rankin said. One of his concerns related to the processing of applications for residency and belongership.
In the reform framework, Cabinet committed to launching a review of the existing system and in the meantime following existing legislation requiring applications to be considered following a residency threshold of 10 years.
“Very little progress has been made in the last few months in progressing and deciding applications for residency and belongership,” Mr. Rankin said.
Statistics provided by the Immigration Department indicate that 1,102 applications for residency and belongership were submitted since June 1, 2022, after the NUG was established, according to the governor’s report.
“From the information available to me, it would however appear that there has been little if any progress in dealing with these applications,” Mr. Rankin stated.
At the time of writing the report, he added, 53 previous applications for belongership and 43 for residency were awaiting Cabinet decision. He added that he had written to Dr. Wheatley seeking assurance that capacity constraints within the Immigration Department in dealing with the applications would be addressed swiftly in line with the government’s commitment to prioritise and allocate the necessary resources for the promised reforms. The governor said he will continue to monitor that process closely.
“It is imperative that the BVI government prioritises resources to deliver on their commitments,” Mr. Rankin said in a summary of his report.
The review of the residency and belongership process is expected to be complete by October following the recent selection of Kedrick Malone as a reviewer, the governor stated in his report.
Register of Interests
Mr. Rankin’s report also revisits his previously stated concerns about the House of Assembly’s pledge to open the Register of Interests to public scrutiny.
While he assented to the Register of Interests (Amendment) Act 2022 in December, he remains concerned that the law includes barriers that limit access to the register, he stated. For instance, anyone who wishes to view the register must make a written application and pay a fee for each HOA member whose record is inspected.
Additionally, the register can only be inspected in the presence of the registrar of interests and cannot make notes or take a copy.
“These restrictions in my view undermine the commitment to transparency made in the framework document,” Mr. Rankin said, adding, “I remain convinced that access to the register must be improved, and my expectation is that the House of Assembly will reconsider this approach within one year to ensure that the BVI meets international best practice.”
Reviews and audits Mr. Rankin also listed the reviews and audits that he and Dr. Wheatley have received in recent weeks. They include a review of the Commission of Inquiry Act, a review of welfare benefits and grants, two reviews of statutory boards, and a review of Crown land disposal. Audits have been completed in relation to assistance grants, government contracts for the consultancy with Claude Skelton-Cline, and contracts with EZ Shipping for radar barges.
Over the next few weeks, Mr. Rankin said, these reviews and audits will be made available to the public once they are tabled in Cabinet and the HOA as appropriate. The governor added that the numerous findings and recommendations within each of the reviews and audits must now be considered and implemented in a way that is timely and in the interest of the people of the VI.
Order in Council
In his report, Mr. Rankin also said he is aware of calls for the UK to remove the order in council that allows him to partially suspend the Constitution and implement direct UK rule should the reform process fail.
He added that in a recent visit to the VI, Lord Zac Goldsmith, UK minister for the overseas territories, made it clear that the UK also wants to see a situation where the order in council can be lifted.
However, with so few of the 48 reform recommendations completed, further progress is required both before and after the general election, according to the governor.
“I continue to welcome the approach of the premier and Cabinet and their express commitment to the reform process,” Mr. Rankin said.