Virgin Islands leaders will have to speed up governance reforms to meet an important May 2024 deadline, Governor John Rankin said on June 9 while giving an update on his third quarterly review of the implementation of the Commission of Inquiry recommendations.
“It is vital that the focus of work moves forward from process to actual substantive delivery of practical reforms,” he said during a press conference.
Mr. Rankin said the COI Implementation Unit most recently reported that 24 of 48 reform recommendations had been completed.
“Whilst this represents some progress over the previous few months, overall progress has been far from satisfactory,” he wrote in the report published on June 9.
His report highlighted two areas he claimed need particularly urgent action: addressing the backlog of belongership applications and funding police investigations into the findings of recent audit reports.
“The Royal Virgin Islands Police Force must have sufficient capacity to conduct COI-related investigations in a robust and timely way,” he wrote. “I am pleased to report that the premier has committed to providing the necessary resources by July.”
If the resources to address those two areas aren’t forthcoming, Mr. Rankin said, he has the constitutional power to tap the Consolidated Fund.
For example, he noted the finalisation of the Public Service Management Code and the recent agreement upon protocols for appointing statutory board members.
However, he said the government needs to urgently press forward with other reform deadlines to meet the overall expectation of significant change by next May.
“I remain concerned that progress is still too slow,” Mr. Rankin said on June 9.
One continued sticking point is the use of single-source contracts, the governor stated in his report.
“I am encouraged by the increased use of open procurement, but would reiterate that single-source procurement must be the exception rather than the norm,” he wrote. “Indeed, the Public Procurement Act 2021 expressly states that single-source procurement can only be used in specific exceptional circumstances. It is also important that ministries carry out timely procurement to ensure that good value and good governance is achieved, and that the making of retrospective payments is avoided.”
He suggested referring such contracts to a committee in the House of Assembly as an example of introducing more checks and balances into governance.
Turning to belongership applications, Mr. Rankin said he and Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheately have agreed to an “action plan” to address the backlog by increasing staff and switching to digital systems. He added in the press conference that outstanding applications numbered 2,226 as of June 1.
“I recognise that this is a sensitive area, but we need to resolve the applications of those who have been lawfully living and contributing in the BVI for many years and who are entitled under the law to receive status,” he said.
The governor commended the current plans to address the backlog but reiterated that the government must progress from strategizing and passing legislation to effectively implementing changes.
He also pointed to the need for fully functional whistleblower protections, a revised Register of Interests Act, and an operational Integrity Commission.
Leaders have gone back and forth on trying to set reasonable deadlines for implementing the 48 COI-based reforms.
In October, Mr. Rankin said he was “pleased with the overall constructive engagement and partnership” with the premier and Cabinet, but noted areas “where there has been less progress than expected, and where I have been disappointed with the level of commitment to reform.”
He pointed then to a lack of progress on minimising tender waivers, a failure to establish a fully public Register of Interests, and pushback on Constitutional Review Commission nominations. At the time, the premier pushed back against some of the governor’s criticisms, claiming “94 percent” of the COI recommendations were “completed or were in progress to be completed.”
“We were very ambitious in our commitments and, unfortunately, deadlines have been missed,” Dr. Wheatley said in October. “It is important to note that deadlines have been missed on the governor’s side as well as on the side of Cabinet. In all instances, these deadlines have been missed for good reason.”
The governor released his second report in February, leveraging similar concerns that the “overall pace of the progress is slower than expected” despite some milestones met by the then-National Unity Government.
Lord Zac Goldsmith, the United Kingdom minister for the overseas territories, echoed these concerns in a letter to the governor.
“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,” Mr. Goldsmith wrote.
However, the premier again defended his government’s progress.
He subsequently issued a statement claiming again that some of the deadlines were overly ambitious and pointing to work done so far. He also asked the UK for 11 deadline extensions to delivery, and the governor sought two.
On June 9, Mr. Rankin again acknowledged the challenges of meeting a plethora of deadlines.
“I recognise that some of the initial deadlines in the framework agreement proved unrealistic and have had to be revised, but the deadlines need to remain ambitious and we cannot leave delivery to the last minute,” he said.
Also on June 9, Mr. Rankin shared his appreciation for Dr. Wheatley’s continued commitment to reform following the April 24 general election.
“The urgent need now is to take action on the findings and recommendations in the reviews, consulting where necessary, to address the governance failings identified in the COI report,” he said.
He also noted that Mr. Goldsmith said reforms have to “take root” by May 2024.
“I have some concerns that the proposed deadlines which have been compiled by the government are not sufficiently ambitious and indeed could result in bottlenecks towards the end of 2023 and early in 2024,” he said.
He also pointed to the need for action on audit reports that have recently been made public.
In his report, Mr. Rankin said he had forwarded the assistance grant audits to the Attorney General’s Chambers for the AG to assess if the government should try to recover certain funds and asked the director of public prosecutions and police to examine if offences were committed.
The premier hadn’t publicly responded to the latest report as of Beacon press time Wednesday afternoon.