Lord Zac Goldsmith, the United Kingdom minister for the overseas territories, told Governor John Rankin last week that the process of implementing reforms arising out of last year’s Commission of Inquiry “has been too slow.”
The complaint came in a letter sent last Thursday in response to Mr. Rankin’s Feb. 13 second quarterly review on the reforms, Mr. Rankin said in a press conference last Thursday.
Mr. Goldsmith noted in his April 4 letter — which the governor released to the public — that he is “particularly concerned that there have been signs of insufficient commitment in some specific areas” of the implementation.
“Too many areas lag substantially behind, and I am concerned that much of what has been delivered so far does not yet represent genuine legislative reform and safeguards to prevent future abuse,” he wrote.
Mr. Goldsmith set a May 2024 deadline for the reforms to be in place. This, he said, would allow for the lifting of the order in council that allows the governor to partially suspend the Virgin Islands Constitution and implement temporary direct rule by the United Kingdom. Despite the minister’s criticisms, he also noted progress in some areas.
“I was pleased that you were able to report in January and in this review a continuing trend towards best practice in procurement,” he wrote. “This was a good example of delivering meaningful change in a short space of time. The audits published since your review are a strong reminder of the importance of assuring the BVI public that its money is spent wisely.”
The minister added that Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley had requested 11 deadline extensions to delivery deadlines for recommendations for which he is responsible, while the governor sought two.
“Some of the reasons given are more understandable than others,” Mr. Goldsmith wrote. “It is a concern that the [National Unity Government] has still not put in place the necessary resources to deliver on the recommendations in line with the commitment made in June 2022. However, I also accept that some of the original deadlines have turned out to be unrealistic.”
Noting that he was “therefore content to agree changes,” the minister asked Mr. Rankin to work with the next government to formulate a “refreshed timetable” the delivery of the remaining reforms set out in the framework document agreed last June by the cross-party NUG.
“This should include ambitious yet achievable deadlines to ensure the necessary reforms have taken root no later than May 2024, which should allow the order in council to be lifted then (or sooner if implementation is done more quickly),” Mr. Goldsmith wrote.
At the Thursday press conference, Mr. Rankin pledged to follow this directive after the April 24 election, working with “whichever government is in place to work out a refreshed plan for implementing the commitments in the framework document.” He added that he and his staff “will do all we can to support the implementation work.”
Mr. Rankin also urged the VI government to publish recent reviews that came out of the COI. He said Jamal Smith’s review on statutory boards was received on Dec. 31, and David Abednego’s review on Crown land was received on Jan. 13.
“But neither of these reviews have yet been made public, allowing people to read for themselves the direction that it is proposed the reforms will take,” Mr. Rankin said.
Additionally, received on Jan. 18 was a review on social assistance on grants and benefits, which was conducted last year by the Social Policy Research Institute in support of UNICEF, he added. But it too has not been published.
“Given the sensitivity of the issues arising from the assistance grants audit, I expect that members of the public will be interested to see what solutions the experts recommend,” Mr. Rankin said. If the government doesn’t publish the reviews soon, the governor said he will publish them himself before the April 24 election.
“Moreover, the reviews are only the start of a process on which further action is required,” he said. “It is imperative that the government considers the recommendations in the reviews, consults on them as necessary, and then gets on with delivering the necessary changes.”
Mr. Rankin also addressed other areas of delay, including “reforms required to curb the unfettered discretion of ministers.”
He added that he welcomed a recent agreement on adopting a new protocol on appointments to statutory boards. But the measure should have come sooner, he said, adding that the agreement should have been published as well.
The governor also repeated a complaint from his second quarterly review about the Immigration Department’s backlog in processing applications for residency and belongership.
Since last June, he said, there have been more than 1,000 new applications for residency and belongership status, but “little if any progress has been made in dealing with them.” He added that he is working along with the Premier’s Office and the Deputy Governor’s Office to find a solution.
“This will require a significant commitment of time and resources, but this should have happened already,” Mr. Rankin said. He added, however, that progress was made in a related area.
“I should note that I am pleased to have now received the audit on the 2019 Residency and Belongership Fast Track Programme and I am working through it in consultation with others as appropriate,” he said. “I look forward to its publication in due course.”