Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley withdrew the recently introduced Virgin Islands Register of Interests Act, 2022 July 14 after pushback from the Virgin Islands Civil Service Association. (Screenshot: HOUSE OF ASSEMBLY)

Government recently withdrew a bill that would have opened the Register of Interests to the public and required senior civil servants to join House of Assembly members in declaring their interests regularly.

The move further delays one of the promises in the reform framework the National Unity Government agreed with the United Kingdom after the Commission of Inquiry, but leaders said it was necessary after pushback from the civil service.

“In no uncertain terms, public servants made it clear that they had challenges with the bill and needed more time,” Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley said when moving to withdraw the Virgin Islands Register of Interests Act, 2022.

Dr. Wheatley explained that his government decided to ditch the version of the bill he introduced on June 30 because it “was not what the Government of National Unity committed to” in the reform framework.

The framework requires the HOA to make the register public by June 30 “under the existing arrangements, while a new system is designed and developed to cover both elected and public officials.”

Also by June 30, the framework requires the HOA to enact penalties for members who fail to register their interests on time.

Dr. Wheatley, however, argued that the new bill went further than the framework’s commitments, in part because it requires public officers to publicly declare their interests as well.

Deputy Premier Kye Rymer seconded the motion, and after debate it passed with no audible objections.

Senior officers

Dr. Wheatley first introduced the bill on June 30. If it had passed through committee that day and been approved as planned, legislators would have met the June 30 deadline set by the reform framework to make the register public and enact penalties for non-compliance.

Instead, they decided to seek public consultations to discuss how the legislation could affect public officers, the premier explained on July 14.

Public officers who would have to declare under the act include the deputy governor, attorney general, auditor general, director of public prosecutions, magistrates, police commissioner, permanent secretaries, department heads and more.

Anyone who failed to declare on time under the bill would face penalties including fines for public officers and potential suspension without pay for HOA members. “Fraudulent or materially misleading” declarations could also result in prison time up to two years on summary conviction and up to a $10,000 fine.

Dr. Wheatley said on July 14 that the government had also reached out to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association for more information about how UK officials make their declarations — one of the other agreements in the COI framework — and was referred to the UK House of Commons. He did not say if the Commons had responded by July 14.

Governor John Rankin said in a press conference with the premier on July 1 that he had no problem with members missing the June 30 deadline to pass the bill because he didn’t consider the delay a deliberate attempt to frustrate the COI reform efforts.


After the June 30 HOA meeting, the premier said, he met with Deputy Governor David Archer and public officers so they could raise any concerns with the bill.

But the VI Civil Service Association took issue with the bill in a statement released July 13, citing a lack of consultation, especially considering that senior public officers would have to make the same public financial declarations as elected HOA members.

“While we accept that the constitutional right to privacy is not absolute, it is our view that the act is unnecessary encroachment on the constitutional right to privacy of public officers and is not reasonably necessary in a democratic society,” the statement argues.

The VICSA claimed that during its meeting with the premier the government shared its intention for the act to eventually apply to all public officers in keeping with a COI recommendation to implement a “registration of interests system designed to cover all persons in public life.”

“Many of the questions of public officers and their concerns went unaddressed, and we do not consider that meeting to be meaningful consultation,” the organisation wrote.

It continued, “We believe that public officers, as citizens and residents of the territory, have a legitimate right to expect good governance from the Unity Government, and we do not believe that their actions in relation to this act, as far as it purports to extend to the wider public service, represents good governance.”

The VISCA called for the legislation to be shelved until the wider public service is consulted and the bill redrafted.

New bill

On July 14, Dr. Wheatley said that respecting the integrity of the territory’s democratic and legislative processes during the reform process is imperative, especially when it comes to giving members of the public enough time to understand and advise on new bills.

“It is the correct position to withdraw this bill and provide for the time for it to be properly consulted on, to consider other systems of registering interests, and to determine what is best practice in the UK, Caribbean countries, and other places in the world,” he said.

He promised the government would return to the House with a new bill that balances transparency with protecting individuals’ privacy.

“In order to strike the right balance, we must consult with our people,” he said.

‘Tip of the iceberg’

HOA members from both sides of the aisle lent their support for the withdrawal.

Opposition Leader Julian Fraser agreed that more public consultation is needed, claiming that the bill was drafted in “haste and zealousness.”

“This is what happens when you’re dancing to the music of another drummer and not your own,” he said. “This is what happens when you are not in control of your own destiny.”

Though he said he doesn’t oppose maintaining a register of interests, he said broadening it will require careful consideration.

Mr. Fraser warned, for instance, that people could be penalised if they have difficulty obtaining the information they are required to declare about the interests of their immediate family.

He also suggested that the VI government was being used as a “vessel” to pass legislation put forward by the UK.

“This is only the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “It’s going to get worse, where people are coming and dictating to you how you should live and what’s best for you.”


Other HOA members also voiced support for withdrawing the bill, including opposition member Carvin Malone (R-at large); Natural Resources and Labour Minister Mitch Turnbull (R-D2); government backbencher Mark Vanterpool (R-D4); Junior Minister for Trade and Economic Development Shereen Flax-Charles (R-at large); Deputy Speaker Neville Smith (R-at large); and government backbencher Vincent Wheatley (R-D9).

Ms. Flax-Charles noted that recent community meetings on the implementation of the COI reforms have generated useful dialogue, and said she believes it is important to continue that discussion as the various measures are implemented.

Mr. Vanterpool, who on June 30 voiced apprehension about passing the bill without adequate community consultation, reiterated on July 14 that giving the public time for debate between the first and second readings of a bill is an important legislative step — especially with a bill of this gravity.

“I don’t know if the resignations have started coming in, but many persons who sit on boards have called me and said, ‘How can I resign?’” he said.

He decried a lack of transparency and accountability during the process of passing the bill even as the COI reforms aim to tackle such issues in government.

“We need to slow this thing down,” he said. Members started a new sitting on July 19 to debate the COI reform as a whole.