Governor John Rankin gave conditional approval for the Register of Interests (Amendment) Act, 2022 that the House of Assembly passed in July. (File photo: DANA KAMPA)

After “much consideration,” Governor John Rankin announced his plan to assent to the Register of Interests (Amendment) Act, 2022 despite his misgivings about amendments legislators made behind closed doors.

However, he also charged the House of Assembly with revisiting the act and designing a new system of registering interests before the end of next year.

The governor has previously described the law as an attempt to sidestep the HOA’s commitment to fully open the register to the public, a measure recommended by the Commission of Inquiry and agreed by the National Unity Government in June under the Framework for Implementation of the Recommendations of the COI Report and other Reforms.

A version of the act introduced in the HOA in July would have published the register as promised. However, before passing the bill later that month, HOA members went into a closed-door committee session and made changes that the governor has said “severely restrict public access” to the register by requiring written applications and fees.

“The amendments mean the register has been made public only in a highly restricted way,” the governor said in October. “People wishing to view the register have to make a written application and pay a fee. They would then only be allowed to view the register in the presence of the registrar and would not be permitted to take any kind of copy or even notes of the contents, and [would be] fined for reproducing the contents.”

Asked at the time if he would assent to the law in its current form — which still has not been made public — the governor reiterated his hopes that HOA members would consider changing it.

Monday statement

The HOA, however, did not change the act, and on Dec. 12 Mr. Rankin issued a statement explaining his reasoning for granting his assent anyway.

“I do so in the hope that members of the public will make such proper use of the information contained in the register as they can, and with a clear expectation that the House of Assembly will return to this subject within one year to design a new system for registration of interests,” he said.

He also reiterated his previous claims, arguing that making the information public is imperative.

“The purpose of a public register is clear: to produce greater transparency around the interests of ministers and others who are making decisions on behalf of the people of the Virgin Islands, including for example about the use of public money in awarding of government contracts where ministers are involved, or the declarations of interests which might be directly or indirectly related to the business of government,” he said.

He added, “That in turn can help to promote good governance and reduce the risk that a person has failed to register their interests properly, as clearly happened in the past.”

Public restrictions

The governor also elaborated on the restrictions included in the act.

“Anyone wishing to view the register must make a written application and pay a fee for each member whose record is inspected,” he explained. “The registrar must verify the identity of the person inspecting the register and keep a record of every person inspecting it. In addition, a person who is inspecting the register must do so in the presence of the registrar and, most restrictively, cannot make any kind of copy or, it would seem, even notes of the content of the register.”

Because of these limitations, the governor said he gave his assent only on the condition that the House return to the subject within a year.

“That is because of the commitment in [the] framework document on the design and development of a new system for registration of interests to cover both elected and public officials,” he said. “This system should be based on international best practices, accompanied by an implementation plan inclusive of costing for the introduction and maintenance of the new system.”

Mr. Rankin said he would report on any progress in his next quarterly report due in January.

The premier had not issued a statement on the conditional assent before the Beacon’s deadline on Dec. 14.

What the bill does

Elected officials are already required to declare their interests annually under the existing Register of Interests Act, 2006, though the register itself is not open to the public and the COI found that the register had never functioned as required by law.

As one of the measures meant to bring greater transparency to government affairs, the COI recommended making the register public and considering including senior public officers.

The framework later agreed by the NUG required 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.”

While rushing to meet this deadline, Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley introduced an initial version of the law that would have included senior public officers.

But after protests from public officers, he later withdrew that version of the act, explaining that it “was not what the Government of National Unity committed to” in the reform framework.

The following month, he introduced instead the initial version of the current act, which includes only HOA members.