In order to fend off direct rule from the United Kingdom, the National Unity Government, led by Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley, must work with Governor John Rankin to follow through with a two-year proposal to reform nearly every aspect of government while instituting 48 of 49 recommendations from the Commission of Inquiry. (File photo: ZARRIN TASNIM AHMED)

Forty-eight of 49.

That’s how many Commission of Inquiry recommendations the new National Unity Government has pledged to complete over the next two years under the proposal recently agreed with the United Kingdom. If it succeeds, UK leaders have promised to abandon the remaining COI recommendation to impose direct rule as they have done to force reforms in other overseas territories.

The agreement is the first of its kind, but meeting its lengthy list of deadlines won’t be easy, said Dr. Peter Clegg, an expert on the UK overseas territories at the University of the West of England in Bristol.

The proposal, he explained, could present challenges from several directions as the Virgin Islands government strives to cooperate with Governor John Rankin to reform institutions and tackle complex issues.

“It sets a precedent,” Dr. Clegg told the Beacon. “We’re in uncharted territory. And it’s a real challenge to see if there’s enough capacity, commitment, and resources by the local political class and the institutions in the BVI to really make a difference and to really address the issues with the support of the UK. But a lot of the emphasis and the need for action will have to come locally. And that will be really interesting to see whether they can actually sort their own house out.”

The VI government’s proposal — which was negotiated with the UK and revised behind closed doors before being accepted and published on June 8 — calls for the governor to be more involved in daily governance and for elected leaders to face new scrutiny. Legislators will, for instance, be required to submit regular reports of their progress in executing the COI reforms, hold frequent dialogue meetings across all sectors of governance, and institute more transparent processes for selling land and approving major contracts, among other major reforms.

While the proposal broadly outlines the new responsibilities of government bodies and explains the accountability, monitoring, cooperation and financial adjustments required to execute the reforms, most of its 22 pages are dedicated to listing specific deadlines for completing COI Commissioner Sir Gary Hickinbottom’s recommendations.

“The ultimate objectives of the reform process are to deliver justice where wrongdoing is found, engender a new culture in government in the handling of the public’s business, and ensure the effective functioning of the government institutions and systems that support good governance,” the proposal states, adding, “Delivering these objectives for the people of the Virgin Islands is at the heart of this proposal and will have other meaningful benefits.”

Widespread changes

If implemented as promised, the proposal will result in widespread changes in almost all areas of government. It includes recommendations for a constitutional review, audits and other investigations, as well as reforms associated with elected officials’ interests, assistance grants, the awarding of contracts, residency and belongership, the public service, and law and justice, among others.

But that agenda, Dr. Clegg noted, includes several previously controversial issues.

“There’ll be some divisions and disagreements over policy,” he predicted.

When the UK implemented direct rule in the Turks and Caicos Islands in 2009 following a similar COI, he said, reforming the belongership process and cutting the public service proved to be among the issues that caused the most disagreement.

“There’ll be some disagreements over funding,” he added. “Who funds it and how much funding should go into a certain issue? And, you know, who wins that battle? Would the governor, would the British government, be prepared to show this strength and flex their muscles? To really say, ‘Actually, you have no choice but to do this’?”

Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley has touted the proposal as an innovative solution that will bring urgently needed reforms without a temporary suspension of the elected legislature, which he has said would be a step backward toward colonialism.

Colin O’Neal, CEO of Joma Properties, said the deal represents a chance for the territory to “put things right,” adding that “anything practical that can be done to maintain the continuation of representative government ought to be attempted at the very least.”

However, he said he expects a “tough challenge” ahead, particularly in meeting a series of deadlines he called “ambitious.”

“The resources that are available to them, obviously, are very limited, and other priorities play at the same time,” he said. “Day-to-day activities of government and country have to continue; infrastructure has to continue to get built.”

Backbench scepticism

Even before the proposal was released, it faced questions from at least one elected member of Dr. Wheatley’s government.

Backbencher Carvin Malone (R-at large), who stepped down from his former position as health and social development minister shortly before the formation of the National Unity Government, seemed to undercut some of the proposal’s commitments in a statement released the day before the document was published. Mr. Malone, for instance, appeared to contradict one of the proposal’s pledges by suggesting that elections — constitutionally due by early next year — should be held before the proposal proceeds.

“It is my measured and considered view that serious and immediate consideration MUST be given to the voice of the people who are calling for general elections to determine who, in their best judgement, are best suited to lead in the implementation of reform and in the transition into a NEW BVI,” he wrote.

However, the proposal itself includes a pledge that the government will not call early elections, and Dr. Clegg said that holding elections now would likely undermine the progress made toward political unity and hamper the reform process.

“Will the unity slip? Will one party or both parties start to criticise the UK government for what they’re doing?” he asked. “So I think that’s a stumbling block, certainly in the next 12 months: that of course, when you build up to elections, the unity, the civility of the language declines.”

Mr. Malone — who did not respond to requests for comment — also appeared to imply that the UK has ulterior motives beyond the COI-recommended reforms.

“It is my measured and considered view that recommendations submitted by the commissioner are NOT solely in relation to the subjects stated and that the UK government MUST be made to state the SUBSTANTIVE MEASURES that they seek to impose,” he wrote. “It is my measured and considered view that the people of the Virgin Islands MUST NOT be unduly pressured to correct in 55 or 72 days what took 55 or 72 years to reportedly fester.”

He also demanded that the public be included in the finalisation of the policies, “so we can finally realise the illusive but inevitable destination of self-determination.”

Two-year timetable

Moving forward, VI leaders have a two-year timetable to complete the reforms, with accountability baked into the proposal.

Under the agreement, the governor will play a leading role in overseeing progress, as he is charged with conducting and publishing quarterly reviews taking into consideration the “implementation of the COI recommendations; the written quarterly reports from all individuals leading reviews, investigations and audits arising from the COI recommendations; other reforms enacted; and the political culture exhibited in the day-to-day running of government,” the proposal states.

Similarly, each ministry, department and statutory body will be required to submit monthly or quarterly delivery reports to the governor and premier.

To ensure cooperation between the Premier’s Office and Governor’s Office, the proposal requires the creation of an implementation unit to support the delivery of the COI recommendations, as well as “monthly tripartite policy dialogue meetings between each minister of government, joined by the premier, and their permanent secretaries, with the governor.”

Failure to meet the implementation deadlines by “any actor” without legitimate excuse will trigger consultations between the governor, premier and other involved parties to address the delay. Any further delay will be considered an obstruction and trigger consultations between the governor and the UK, the proposal states.

In case the reforms stall, the UK government has reserved the right to implement direct rule quickly. To that end, it has put in place the necessary framework through an Order in Council, which is required in order to change the VI Constitution.

The governor explained last week that the order would “swiftly” provide him with “the powers necessary to take corrective action if progress against the milestones is unsatisfactory.”

However, it won’t be used if the VI government delivers on its promises, according to Mr. Rankin.

Dr. Clegg said only time will tell whether the UK will ultimately implement direct rule.

“If the government doesn’t meet its milestones, doesn’t enact the necessary changes, then there could be partial suspension of the Constitution, which is fair enough,” he said. “But I think the further one gets away from the Commission of Inquiry report and its conclusions, the more difficult it will become for the UK government to say, ‘Actually, we are now going to intervene.’”

Funding questions

The proposal also notes the need for “specialised funding for good governance and security,” and it calls on the HOA to approve funding requests by the Office of the Auditor General; the Internal Audit Department; the director of public prosecutions; the police force; and the Attorney General’s Chambers.

Additionally, it requires government to “undertake a budget reprioritisation exercise to realign the budget to support implementation of reforms for the remainder of fiscal year 2022.”

Budget estimates for 2023 will also account for funds necessary to continue driving reforms, the proposal states.

“While primary responsibility for funding lies with the government of the Virgin Islands, requests may also be made to the UK government for technical assistance and other resources of a specialised nature where appropriate,” the document adds.

Given the plan’s wording, however, Dr. Clegg said questions surrounding funding and assistance are likely to crop up.

Therefore, he added, some issues may not be addressed “as seriously or as systematically” as they would be addressed under direct rule.

“When direct rule was imposed or implemented in the Turks and Caicos Islands, you had a large number of experts being brought in from outside of the TCI to try and reformulate things,” he said. “Now that may happen [in the VI], but perhaps not to the same extent.”

He added that the proposal stops short of identifying the funding level appropriate to enact the reforms, and that it doesn’t specify the source of money for particular tasks.

“If the local government sees that it is their responsibility to fund the police, who’s going to make a judgment about whether the level of funding is appropriate?” he asked. “Will the governor feel that he could almost tell the local government, ‘You’re not providing sufficient resources for the police force?’”

Dr. Clegg observed that the plan frequently speaks of the governor “reviewing the situation,” but doesn’t say as much about who will make decisions once the reviews have been completed.

“What about the follow-through?” he asked. “In terms of the conclusions that are made, who’s going to implement it? Is it down to the local government and local funding primarily? What level of engagement will the governor have in that process?”

Roles and responsibilities

Responsibility for monitoring the overall progress of the COI reforms and the government work programme will fall to Mr. Rankin, who will also lead the reforms in his “areas of constitutional responsibility,” the proposal states

Dr. Wheatley, meanwhile, is responsible for implementing the recommendations in his areas of constitutional responsibility by communicating with other government ministers and Mr. Rankin, while also supporting the governor in executing the reforms for which he is constitutionally responsible, according to the proposal. The premier is also charged with driving the “legislative agenda regarding reform,” the proposal states.

Cabinet, meanwhile, will be responsible for passing the policies necessary to drive the reforms, which will require prioritising and allocating resources as well as legislative changes, the proposal states.

In line with a “new culture in the government,” the plan states that Cabinet will immediately ensure the following:

  • full cooperation with all audits, investigations and reviews in the COI report recommendations;
  • that immediate appropriate action is taken in response to any findings of wrongdoing or misgovernance which might emerge from the audits and investigations conducted as a result of the COI report recommendations;
  • that Cabinet and its members will express full public support for implementation of individual COI report recommendations and the overall reform programme;
  • that tender waivers will only be agreed in exceptional, unavoidable cases, which must be explained publicly;
  • that members of the Cabinet will not use ministerial discretion to override or circumvent agreed policies or laws;
  • support for the broadest possible participation from across VI society in the constitutional review process; and
  • that members of Cabinet are committed to using the full term of the current HOA to work on the implementation of the COI report recommendations without proposing early elections.

Government ministries, meanwhile, are responsible for implementing the reform policies agreed upon by Cabinet, while House of Assembly members are responsible “for passing all relevant legislation necessary for delivering reforms” and amending the HOA Standing Orders as necessary to achieve this objective, according to the proposal.

Residents are invited to attend public meetings about the reforms at 5:30 p.m. Monday at Elmore Stoutt High School; at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Fahie Hill Watch House; and at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Althea Scatliffe Primary School.