Despite a few hitches, the National Unity Government is off to a good start with the governance reforms agreed with the United Kingdom.
Already, the territory is seeing badly needed progress. Perhaps the biggest success to date came when the government scrapped two grant programmes that elected officials have abused for decades.
The Commission of Inquiry found that at least $5 million worth of assistance grants have long been awarded annually at the “unfettered discretion” of House of Assembly members despite blistering criticism from government auditors dating back at least to 2009.
Not surprisingly, this politicised system resulted in taxpayer money being spent with precious little transparency on items like lingerie, plane tickets and other non-essentials while needy residents struggled to get help.
The reforms announced in late June will help change that. In keeping with the COI’s recommendations — and similar advice from government auditors for more than a decade — the Social Development Department will now disburse the aid funds under its existing Public Assistance Programme.
This speedy reform is a major victory for needy residents and all other taxpayers. Nevertheless, it is not enough. The SDD’s Public Assistance Programme — which rightly uses a standardised system for selecting beneficiaries — is a vast improvement over the assistance-grant free-for-all, but it is far from perfect.
Moving forward, it too will need reform to improve efficiency, fairness and transparency. For this reason, we are glad that a broader review of the territory’s welfare benefits system is also under way in keeping with the COI recommendations. We trust that it will be completed by the Nov. 30 deadline, and that needed changes will follow soon after.
Another important step toward reform came June 30 when the premier introduced legislation to update the Register of Interests by opening it to the public and by including senior public officers. We were disappointed that the HOA missed its deadline for passing the bill the same day, but legislators did make a reasonable case for holding public consultations first.
These consultations, though, should come without delay, and the act should be passed within no more than two months’ time. In the meantime, legislators should go ahead and make their own interests public immediately even if they decide to give senior public officers a grace period to follow suit.
Also in late June, the Cabinet approved a 16-member Constitutional Review Committee. Though two of the governor’s choices stoked controversy, we believe the committee is composed of community-minded individuals who are well equipped for the job and have the territory’s best interest at heart. We trust they will work efficiently to meet their deadline of submitting terms of reference by month-end and a report by June 30, 2023.
Other measures that have emerged from the reform process in recent weeks include the launch of badly needed criminal investigations and audits into several questionable government expenditures.
The government, the governor and other leaders should keep up the good work as they expedite comprehensive reforms that have been needed for decades.
The rest of the community, meanwhile, has a dual role: holding leaders accountable to their commitments while offering full support with an eye toward ensuring that the reform process is carried out in a way that will make the Virgin Islands a better place for generations to come.