In his first Speech from the Throne since the release of the Commission of Inquiry report, Governor John Rankin laid out the House of Assembly’s legislative agenda, which focuses in part on governance, education and health care reforms. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

Reforms to governance, education, environmental protection, health care and other areas are among the government’s legislative priorities for a new House of Assembly session that started Tuesday, Governor John Rankin said that day while delivering the 2023 Speech from the Throne at the Save the Seed Energy Centre.

The current HOA, however, has less than two months left to tackle its agenda: It is constitutionally required to be dissolved by March 12 in advance of a general election that must be held 21 days to two months later.

Nevertheless, Mr. Rankin listed dozens of laws that legislators hope to push through.

“This fifth session of the [fourth HOA] is focused on bringing forward legislation in the context of ‘Resilience, Revenue, Reform, and Recovery: The Virgin Islands in Transition,’” Mr. Rankin said during the annual speech, which outlines the government’s agenda. “This theme is aligned with the 2023 Budget Address and its strategic objectives and outcomes of government agencies.”

Before listing planned laws, he provided an overview of recent progress in the HOA. Since the Virgin Islands Party took power in the 2019 general election, members passed a total of 101 legislative items: six in the first session, 30 in the second, 47 in the third, and 18 in the fourth, according to the governor.

“With the Fourth House of Assembly having considered and successfully passed 101 pieces of legislation in a single term and in extenuating circumstances such as the Covid-19 global pandemic, which began in 2020, it is fair to say that this has been one of the most productive terms of any legislature in the Virgin Islands — if not the most productive term,” Mr. Rankin said.

Governor John Rankin talks with Speaker of the House Corine George-Massicote before delivering his annual Speech from the Throne outlining the government’s legislative agenda on Tuesday at the Save the Seed Energy Centre in Duffs Bottom. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)
Priority shift

The governor’s previous Throne speech last January focused on economic reforms, and while some legislation was passed in this area in recent months, he noted on Tuesday that attention shifted to good governance, transparency and accountability after the newly formed National Unity Government started implementing recommendations from the Commission of Inquiry report released last April.

The House, however, did pass numerous bills promised in last year’s address, including the Food Security and Sustainability Act, 2022; gambling regulations; the Water and Sewerage Authority Act, 2022; and governance legislation like modifications to the Register of Interests.

Other key items didn’t get passed but are on the agenda for the coming fifth session of the fourth House, according to the governor. Those include an amendment to the BVI Health Services Authority Act, 2004, which aims to streamline management of the organisation’s operations. Last November, BVIHSA leaders including Chairman Moleto Smith called for reforms designed to generate enough revenue for the long-term sustainability of the territory’s health care system.

Legislators also plan to address social security with amendments to the Social Security Act regarding Social Security Fund Investment Committee membership; the Social Security (Contributions) Regulations; the Social Security (Benefits) Regulations; and the Social Security (National Health Insurance) Regulations.

Mr. Rankin said these changes should improve the effectiveness and sustainability of the social security system.

Other updates

Also returning to the agenda are updates to the Public Service Code; a flexible-working-arrangements bill; legislation to establish a human rights commission; election reform; the long-promised Architects and Engineers Registration Bill; amendments to modernise the Road Traffic Act; amendments to the Wickhams Cay Development Authority Act; education reforms focused on student development; an updated National Sports Policy; legislation for managing the environment, coastal zone and marine estate; and witness anonymity legislation, among others.

Regarding elections, Mr. Rankin said changes need to be made to improve the voter registration process and make the voter database more accurate and accessible.

“The amendments will promote the public’s level of trust in the electoral system, and the level of functioning in relation to international standards,” he said.

On education, he repeated claims from previous years that systemic changes are needed to facilitate students’ overall development. To that end, he said the government will seek to amend the Education Amendment Act (2014) and accompanying regulations “to ensure that teaching and learning align with the needs of students to become proficient in their overall development with further adjustments to consider the drive of STEAM — Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math education.”

Along with changes made by the House, the Ministry of Education plans to enact new policies concerning early childhood education, special education, placement, graduation requirements, curriculums, discipline and the student code of conduct, the governor said. Last year’s agenda also included the Police Act, which legislators originally included on Tuesday’s order paper but bumped to the upcoming sitting. The governor also listed new legislative items not mentioned in last year’s address, including an amendment to the Tobacco Products Control Act, 2006, which places new restrictions on electronic smoking devices. Mr. Rankin also said the House is planning for the introduction of a Crown Lands Act for the effective management of natural resources. He said the law will “reform the land disposal process [and] review and modernise integral components of the land management framework to include land registration matters.”

Other amendments are planned to modify the Customs Management and Duties Act to expand the list of duty-free health-related items to include hospital beds, disposable diapers, and monitors for glucose and blood pressure levels.

Some items on the 2022 agenda that never passed were excluded from Mr. Rankin’s speech this year. The proposals may still come before the House, but they weren’t highlighted as priorities.

“Other pieces of legislation not mentioned will be considered from time to time, especially as reviews relating to the COI are completed and considered, such as the review on discretionary powers of ministers and Crown land,” Mr. Rankin said.

Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley spoke last year about the need for a freedom of information act, which Mr. Rankin said in his 2022 address would be introduced in the then-upcoming session. However, the governor didn’t list it as one of the legislative priorities in his Tuesday speech. Another 2022 promise not listed in the 2023 speech was the Landlord and Tenancy Bill, which would set standards for rental upkeep and what obligations tenants and landlords owe to one another.

Mr. Rankin also did not mention the Sexual Offences Bill, which he said last year would “provide a gender-sensitive legal framework relating to a broad range of sexual crimes and provide adequate measures for minimising secondary traumatisation and monitoring and tracking of sex offenders following their release into the community.”

Other previous promises omitted from this year’s speech included the Plastics Litter Reduction and Container Deposit Bill; a Fats, Oils and Grease Policy; and an Emergency Call Handling Bill.