STATEMENT BY GOVERNOR JOHN S DUNCAN 19th AUGUST 2016- PRESS CONFERENCE TO MARK 2 YEARS IN OFFICE
Ladies and Gentlemen
Good Morning and welcome to Government House
This week marks the two-year point in my tenure as your Governor and I thought it might be useful to take stock of the past 24 months and to look ahead at the coming year.
You will have heard me say in many of my public speeches how impressed I have been with the extraordinary journey that the British Virgin Islands have taken over the past 40 years. From a quiet and peaceful part of the Caribbean region, with little significant economic activity, a population of around 10,000 and a political architecture based on the Executive Council model, the Virgin Islands within two generations has grown into a country which is a player in the global economy, full-blown ministerial government, and a population which has increased nearly fourfold.
To have navigated these enormous, social, cultural, economic, and political changes within such a short space of time is a remarkable achievement. As I have also said before, the Virgin Islands are the only Overseas Territory in the Caribbean never to have required the United Kingdom Government to recover the powers it has delegated to the locally elected government. Such a pace of change inevitably creates tensions and challenges and it is a testament to the people of the Virgin Islands, their character and values that this process remains essentially on track.
That is not to say that there is nothing left to do. On the contrary, my visits to other Overseas Territories such as Cayman last year and to Bermuda earlier this year illustrated the need to continue the work to develop our basic infrastructure and public services, such as power, water and sewage, electricity, medical services, communications; in sum all the basics of life that the public expect in a modern developed society. And that is what we are.
I am regularly amused to hear complaints, particularly from expatriate visitors about for example, the immigration service, and the time it takes to get a trade licence or a work permit, or planning permission. To which I generally reply, depending on the complaint, “When was the last time you went through JFK, tried to set up a business in France, or did you know that the Times of London this week reported that on average it takes four years from the application of planning permission to the time the builders can turnover the first sod of soil?”
That is not meant as an excuse for doing nothing. On the contrary together with other developed nations, we need to continually strive to improve our service to the public. And I am pleased to observe the commitment of Ministers to do so. A discussion of new measures that will allow us to streamline our bureaucracy and make it more business friendly is a regular topic at our weekly Cabinet meetings.
In my inaugural speech in August 2014 I set out my vision of the Governor's role in modern developed society that has chosen to remain an Overseas Territory. If you recall I said that “The role and task of the Governor is to strike the balance between the views of Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom, those of the Government of the Virgin Islands, your elected representatives and the aspirations of the people of the Virgin Islands.
In carrying out this responsibility I will seek to bring even-handedness, professional integrity, a willingness to listen to the views of others, coupled with the readiness to make the right decision, even if that is not always easy, or a popular one."
It should be clear that I do not see the role as Governor to be the “eternal policeman” ready to intervene at every turn when people are dissatisfied with the answer they have received from the Public Service, or their elected representatives. I believe firmly that the institutions of the Territory and those elected to make decisions, should shoulder their responsibilities. I have to say that that commitment has often been tested over the past two years.
Perhaps no more so than when the elected representatives of the Opposition were unable to decide on their leader. I am pleased to note that the party has now decided to fulfil the commitments of their own constitution and hold an election of their leadership as they are committed to do following a general election.
In March last year, I announced my decision not to hold a Commission of Inquiry into the extension of the Cruise Pier. My public statement sets out the reasons why I reached that decision, I will not go into detail again today; suffice to say that this was a problem I inherited and regrettably the reports by both the Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee were deficient, requiring further investigation by the Caribbean Development Bank and an independent investigation funded by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. Despite four separate investigations no evidence of wrongdoing was discovered.
In the summer of last year further allegations emerged about the Cruise Pier Village project. After lengthy discussions with the Premier and Cabinet Ministers, the Premier, as Minister of Finance, has engaged an independent and respected company to carry out an audit. The report should be available in the coming weeks. In my view this is an example of the Government taking its responsibilities properly.
Under the Virgin Islands Constitution, the Governor is directly responsible for the security of the Territory and the RVIPF. This has been one of the major challenges of the past two years. On my arrival a serious case of corruption was discovered. Such cases occur in police forces across the world. Neither the UK, nor indeed our neighbouring islands have been immune from this type of activity. The details of the case are still sub judice. However, I am satisfied that the investigation has been thorough and that the incoming Director of Public Prosecutions will pursue this matter vigourously.
It is very much to the credit of the men and women of the RVIPF that they have continued to carry out their duties in a responsible and effective manner during this difficult period. Nonetheless there are major challenges ahead.
As Governor, I was not satisfied that the leadership of the force was of a level and quality we required. I am therefore particularly pleased that we have secured the services of Commissioner Matthews, a senior police officer with many years of experience both in the United Kingdom and the Overseas Territories. In the four short months since his arrival on island I believe he has already made a significant difference and will continue to do so.
However, as is the case with the Governor, one person’s efforts will be insufficient to deal with the complex modern day challenges we face. I am particularly concerned that successive governments have reduced the funding for the RVIPF. There are many reasons for this, not least the absence of a clear realistic strategic direction from those in charge of the Force. But successive governments and elected representatives have also failed to recognise that the first duty of a democratic government is the protection of their citizens.
By contrast during my two years, I have consistently been impressed by the support and serious engagement by my fellow members of the National Security Council, the Honourable Premier, Deputy Premier and the Attorney General. Together with our new Commissioner, we have begun to turn around the situation and I am confident that after two years effort, we are now on the right track.
Beyond the security agenda, the issue of the future regulation of Financial Services has consumed much of my time and energy. As you will be aware the United Kingdom has been pressing the Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies to adopt new models of financial service regulation. This is a debate in which I first became involved while attached to the Overseas Territories Directorate in London before my arrival.
As I explained in my inaugural address, "The role of the Governor is to strike the balance between the views of Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom and those of the Government of the Virgin Islands". This has been no easy task, given the profound divergent view on the importance the two governments attached to, on the one hand, the right to privacy (a human right enshrined in law) and on the other hand the demands for greater transparency (a government policy).
Some issues are better dealt with outside the glare of publicity and while the revelation about the "Panama papers" a few months ago attracted much media attention, the often difficult negotiations between the two governments have in practice been going on for a period of nearly 3 years.
As someone who has spent much of my previous career as a negotiator, I would like to pay tribute to the way the Premier, Dr Smith and his team, supported by the various responsible local institutions, notably the Financial Services Commission under the leadership of Dr Mathavious, responded to this challenge. Their measured yet steadfast stance and willingness to engage constructively have led us to a place where by the end of this year, the Virgin Islands will be one of the best regulated jurisdictions in the world. A place where companies involved in developing the global economy can continue to manage the risks of foreign direct investment, where the individual's right to privacy is protected, but also a place where money-laundering and criminal activity can be dealt with effectively.
As you will know, the Governor has a special responsibility for the Public Service. You will also be aware that the process of public sector reform has been underway for several years. In March last year, when I addressed the senior leadership of the Public Service, I stressed that while mission statements and vision are important, the key to making any organisation effective, is to ensure that the key leadership positions are filled by experienced and capable people. It is their energy that will empower people to give their best.
It is therefore no surprise, that over the past two years there have been major changes in the top posts of the public service. This has been a deliberate policy. I have mentioned the Commissioner of Police, but altogether a total of nine senior positions across the public service have already, or will shortly change. Sometimes this has been because after many years of dedicated service it was the natural time for people to move on; in other instances senior officers decided to take time out to pursue further professional development and to return in due course even better able to serve our community, and I very much applaud that; but in other cases I was not satisfied that the best interests of the Territory were being served by those officers remaining in post.
In this context it is perhaps important to underline that the rules governing senior appointments are clearly set out in the Constitution. The Governor acts on the advice of the Public Service Commissions, the PSC, JLSC and POSC. Whose members are in almost all cases BV Islanders. While only one post, that of Deputy Governor, is specifically assigned to a BV Islander, it follows from the vision that I have set out about the local community taking responsibility for its future, that I favour the appointment of local people to exercise that responsibility at the most senior levels.
However, this needs to be balanced with a consideration of the needs of the Territory as a modern developed economy and society. Bringing in expatriates to senior positions is not at all unusual. The United Kingdom has a Canadian as the current Governor of the Bank of England. But where local talent exists it should be developed and encouraged to serve the community. In the words of JFK "Seek not to ask what my country can do for me, but what I can do for my country"
But in my experience, to achieve the situation we would like to be in, requires a very focused and structured approach. When I first worked on the South Atlantic Territories some 20 years ago all senior positions were held by expatriates. When I returned as Governor of the Falkland Islands two years ago, the majority of posts were held by Islanders. This was the result of a focused effort, to identify the future needs of the economy, to ensure that local young people were encouraged to gain the appropriate qualifications, and long-term mentoring and succession planning. My experience of the past two years in the BVI, shows me that our approach has been insufficiently rigourous and structured. I have encouraged the Minister for Education and Culture and the new Deputy Governor to give this an even higher priority. I know that they themselves are keen to do so.
However, I would equally urge members of the community to remember the words of JFK. Far too often we find that no BV Islander has applied for these senior posts, when we know that local people with talent and the right qualifications exist.
In recent weeks, we have seen a number of senior politicians propose the need for constitutional reform and perhaps independence. The response from the public to the latter question rather speaks for itself. The attachment of the people of this community to the United Kingdom was no better demonstrated than in the turnout for the celebrations of Her Majesty the Queen's 90th birthday. The message you sent in all the celebrations ranging from the parade, the beacon lighting, the Salt Island re-enactment, the stamps and license plates will have been noticed beyond these shores.
But within that wider context, constitutional reform to match our economic and social development is an essential part of “building the house” that is the British Virgin Islands. My period as Governor has largely been one of consolidation, reinforcing the foundations and the lower levels of the building as we build ever higher.
As I have commented publicly before, a modern democratic society needs to have in place the instruments and structures that provide democratic accountability; the checks and balances that allow citizens to call their elected representatives to account in between elections.
It is perhaps understandable given the huge economic and social changes and the speed of that development over the past 40 years that this aspect has not been at the front of the political agenda. The result is that we lack many of these key instruments and structures. Without them, there is a real risk that the society relies too much on the integrity, wisdom and determination of the two individuals in overall charge, namely the Premier and the Governor. Such a structure might have been suitable 40 years ago. The size of the population, the stage of economic and cultural development of the BVI today means this is no longer the case.
Over recent months, I have been talking to the Premier and the United Kingdom Government about the need to accelerate the implementation of these instruments and structures, so that further political development can take place to reflect the economic and social development of the Territory.
Several of these measures I mentioned at the inauguration of the new NDP Government in May last year, notably the need for greater Open Government, a Freedom of Information Act and Data Protection Act. But there are others that will be crucial to establishing the checks and balances that the Territory needs. Notably, a Whistle-blower Act, a Human Rights Commission, and an Information Commissioner.
Without these key pieces of legislation and institutions I doubt that the United Kingdom, nor indeed the wider population of the islands would consider that the BVI is ready to take the next steps along the constitutional path. But they are all achievable; indeed some are already before the House of Assembly. The choice of the speed with which you move down that path is in the hands of your elected representatives.
In terms of Transparency and Open Government, my own Office have taken the initiative this year to produce a detailed annual report on all the activities carried out by my team. This will be presented to the Assembly at its next session along with all the other annual reports from the public sector. This is the first time that a report on the Governor's Office has ever been produced.
The year ahead, will be a continuation of the process of consolidation and strengthening of the public service that has been a key part of my tenure. But every year brings its own challenges and I should perhaps single out two pressing priorities.
As you are all aware there are difficult choices ahead for the Government in deciding the priorities for the development of the infrastructure of the islands at a time when the global economy upon which we depend is still struggling. It follows that we must renew our efforts to ensure government finances are maintained on a sustainable long-term basis.
Equally important to our economy is the future development of the legal sector, where I look to Madam Chief Justice Dame Janice Pereira, as a BV Islander herself, to support the Government in putting in place quickly the measures proposed for the strengthening of the Commercial Court.
In the time available it is only possible to give the headlines of the past 2 years and the year ahead, but I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.
John S Duncan OBE