Important progress has been made on governance reforms recommended last year by the Commission of Inquiry, but much more work is needed to ensure that they will “take root” by May 2024 as required by the United Kingdom, Governor John Rankin stated last week in his fourth quarterly review on the process.
“This quarterly review in effect represents the midway point of the delivery of the COI reforms,” the governor wrote. “Since the previous quarterly review, no additional recommendations have been reported by the COI Implementation Unit as completed. The total remains 24 of the 48. That said, there have been some advances in the previous few months.”
Along with listing several successes, the governor’s report also outlines delays in a few areas and warns of a risk of “bottlenecks” if the Virgin Islands government doesn’t move forward decisively and efficiently.
Additionally, he committed to addressing delays in multiple reform measures that are under his own remit.
“My assessment is that there is no immediate need for me to seek additional powers at this point in the reform process, but should we not see significant progress in the next quarter, then additional action may be necessary,” he wrote. “I would expect to see several more of the 48 recommendations completed over the next few months, and all of them by the end of May 2024.”
Because of the ongoing uncertainty, he added, the UK has left in place the order in council that allows him to temporarily suspend the territory’s constitution and implement direct rule in order to push through the reforms.
Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley, who has been overseas, did not respond to the governor’s review by Beacon press time yesterday afternoon.
In recent months, however, he has defended his government’s progress on the COI reforms and condemned the order in council as colonial overreach. He has also argued that some of the initial reform deadlines were overly ambitious and didn’t consider the fact that the House of Assembly would be dissolved before the general elections or that time would be needed to get public input on certain pieces of legislation.
During a Friday press conference held shortly after his quarterly review was released, the governor highlighted several reforms that are completed or are in progress.
“Policy development, pursuant to the COI recommendations, is under way across social assistance, scholarships, crown land distribution, and statutory boards,” he said. “Action plans have started to come to Cabinet, and public consultation is taking place.”
He added that the premier has addressed some of his previous concerns, including agreeing to provide additional funding to police and working to speed up the processing of residency and belongership applications.
“In the last quarter, more audits and reviews flowing from the [COI] report have also been completed and published,” Mr. Rankin added. “But while that is welcome, the vital next step remains to turn the findings and recommendations in the audits and reviews into practical action to achieve reforms. This is necessary to prevent the abuses that the [COI] exposed from occurring again.”
Also over the past quarter, the governor added, three new reviews have come before the House of Assembly and are now in the public domain: the Review of the Commission of Inquiry Act; the Review of the Practice of House of Assembly Members Contracting with Government; and the Review of Residency and Belonger Status Policy.
“The relevant ministries must now take forward the recommendations from these reviews to achieve the sustainable changes that are envisioned,” he wrote.
Such work, he added, will require hard work and sustained commitment in the coming months to deliver on action plans.
“But we have, on occasion, seen elected officials questioning the necessity of reforms and the findings of audits. What happens next is therefore crucial,” Mr. Rankin said. “If the findings of audits are undermined or reviews aren’t given proper consideration, there is a risk that the abuses which previously took place will happen again in the future.”
The governor’s report also explained other challenges that he said must be overcome in order to accomplish some of the promised measures.
“The scale of legislative reform is profound, with the need for legislation to be drafted, considered by Cabinet and passed in the House of Assembly, and implemented in time to meet the May 2024 deadline,” Mr. Rankin wrote. “This will require urgent prioritisation of work by ministries, offices and the Attorney General’s Chambers, as well as additional resources.”
In that regard, his report also highlighted three laws that he said should be in force by the end of the year.
“Over the new few months, I expect a strengthened Integrity in Public Life Act, the Whistleblower Act, and an amended Register of Interests Act to be brought into force,” Mr. Rankin said. “These legislative protections must be sufficiently robust to prevent the sort of abuses which the COI highlighted.”
The governor also acknowledged missed deadlines for reforms under his own remit. Initially due by March 31 of this year, for instance, was COI recommendation B38: a review of law enforcement and justice systems to be carried out by a panel appointed by the governor “in consultation with the premier.”
And originally due by the end of 2022 was recommendation B41: a separate review by a governor-appointed panel charged with examining whether police and other law enforcers possess the facilities and powers to effectively perform their duties.
In Mr. Rankin’s quarterly report, these two reviews appear to have been combined into one, with a new deadline of March 2024.
“As part of ensuring that agencies are suitably equipped, appropriately structured and adequately resourced to carry out their functions, a review of law enforcement agencies is well under way (B38 and B41),” he wrote. “His Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services (HMICFRS) were in the BVI for a scoping visit between [May 16 to 26], and they have subsequently been liaising with HM Customs, Immigration Department, [the Royal Virgin Islands Police Force], Financial Investigation Agency, Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions, Attorney General’s Chambers, the Prison Service and the courts to obtain key documentation.”
As part of the review, an “expert team” assembled by the HMICFRS is scheduled to arrive in the territory later this year to carry out fieldwork such as meeting with law enforcers and other stakeholders.
“I expect to receive a report by the end of March 2024, and the key findings will be communicated as appropriate,” the governor wrote. “My expectations are that the recommendations of the expert team will shape law enforcement in the BVI for years to come.”
He added that the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office will provide up to $1 million to fund the project.
Also delayed is COI Recommendation B39, which required the governor to appoint an “independent agency” by July 31, 2022 to “conduct full vetting” of all customs and immigration officers — as well as police and fire officers if “necessary.”
Apparently in lieu of an independent agency, Mr. Rankin wrote in his report that he has appointed a specialist to work full-time on the effort until March 2024.
Acknowledging earlier challenges in this area, he added, “My team has worked hard over the last quarter to bring things back on track. I am pleased to note that the UK Home Office’s International Policing Assistance Service (IPAS) has taken a firmer grip on the project to ensure that vetting is expedited.”
Now, the governor stated, he expects all law enforcement officers to have been vetted by the time the specialist’s appointment ends next March.
“Work to develop a robust legal framework for vetting has begun and advice from the Attorney General’s Chambers has been received,” the report added.
Despite the delays to measures under his own remit, the governor defended his overall record on the reforms.
“I recognise my responsibilities in this area, but of the 24 recommendations that remain to be completed, I don’t think it would be accurate to say that the majority lie on the side of the governor’s responsibility,” he told reporters on Friday in response to questions about recommendations B38 and B41. “But the call-out of those two is fair enough.”
Mr. Rankin was also asked about the premier’s recent request for certain deadline extensions. He replied that the decision on the request is not up to him.
“The deadlines were part of the intergovernmental agreement between the government of the BVI and the United Kingdom, but my belief is that the deadlines which the premier has requested, in which he consulted me on, are reasonable,” the governor said. “I recognise some of this is difficult, but I do not expect to have a breakdown in relations on that issue. Rather, I think we’ll see a renewed commitment by all of us to achieve implementation by the end of those revised deadlines.”
Pressed on whether some deadlines have in fact been extended, Mr. Rankin reiterated his lack of authority in the decision.
“Yes, extensions have been proposed by the premier, and I believe that they will be accepted by the British government,” he said.
Mr. Rankin also said he will publish his final quarterly review in December before handing over responsibilities to his successor, Daniel Pruce.