Statement by Premier and Minister of Finance
Honourable Andrew A. Fahie
One-On-One Press Conference
Update to the People on Current Matters
8 April, 2022
Good day and God's Blessings to all the people of the Virgin Islands.
Welcome to another One on One bi-weekly press conference, where your Government continues to provide regular updates on the work that we are doing to further strengthen the resilience of our islands and to improve the quality of life for all our citizens, as well as to facilitate questions from the media.
I wish to begin today with an update on the ongoing work towards the further strengthening of our Good Governance systems in the Virgin Islands.
At my last briefing two weeks ago, you would recall that I said we are in the process of constituting and establishing the Integrity Commission under the Integrity in Public Life Act.
Under the Act, the Commission is to be comprised of a Chairperson who shall be a retired judge or an attorney-at-law of at least 15 years standing whose nomination is to be agreed upon by the Governor and the Premier; one member each nominated by the Governor, the Premier, the Leader of the Opposition and the Christian Council.
We have received some of the nominations and we hope to receive the rest within the next week, so that by the middle of this month the Commission can be appointed and be functional.
The advertisement for the post of Contractor General has been published. Applications will close on 11 April, 2022 and then we will move to the selection stage of the process, which will be done in an independent manner with full adherence to Good Governance and the provisions of the legislation.
Applicants are required to have at least five years’ experience as well as a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in one of several areas including accounting, auditing, financial analysis, law, management, public administration, or project management.
Discussions are continuing between the Premier, the Attorney General and the Governor to move forward the legislation for the Human Rights Commission, the Amendments to the Registrar of Interests Act and the Freedom of Information Act.
These legislations and others that your Government has brought forward and gotten passed in the House of Assembly (HOA) such as the Whistle Blower Act, and the new Public Procurement Act, and the Ministerial Code of Conduct, were long overdue.
You would recall that in our General Election Manifesto in 2019, the Speeches from the Throne – which are written by the Government outlining the Government’s legislative agenda and read in the HOA by the Governor, and also in our Budget Addresses, we pledged to bring these legislations forward and get them on the law books once and for all.
Your Government is honouring this pledge that we made to the people. We have done these things on our own initiative – and we continue to work on the other legislations – while managing our recovery from the 2017 hurricanes and flood, the worst pandemic to hit the world in over 100 years, and an imposed Commission of Inquiry, all of which have put significant demand on our public officers, our time, energy and resources. And now we are also managing the economic fallout from the conflict taking place in Ukraine.
As Premier and Minister of Finance, I continue to encourage all our people to familiarize yourself with these legislations. Know your rights under these legislations. Know how these legislations work; so that you can use it to ensure that your present and future Governments operate at the high standards that are enshrined in these laws.
These legislations are on par with international standards. They have gone through a rigorous process that involved scrutiny and input from the Attorney General’s Chambers, Government and Opposition Members of the HOA, the Deputy Governor’s Office and the Governor, the various Ministries and Departments including the Financial Secretary’s Office, public consultation, and Cabinet where the sitting Governor at the respective time also had the opportunity to have his input, and finally the process by which the Governor grants assent after the Act has been passed by the HOA.
This process with all this various input and scrutiny should assure you that everything is above board for you to have confidence in these legislations.
But, having these legislations is one thing. You have to use them – and use them properly.
Your Government has always expressed that we have the confidence in our people to further police ourselves and themselves. These legislations provide an additional layer for transparency and accountability.
The new Public Procurement Act, which was passed by the HOA on 3 November, 2021 and assented to by the Governor on 6 December, 2021, ensures fairness, transparency and accountability in all public procurement. It sets the standard which all public bodies must conform with.
Its lays out the procedures that must be followed for all types of tendering and procurement, particularly for large tenders. It establishes the Central Tenders Board – the composition of which does not have any elected official sitting on the board, only senior public officers. The Central Tenders Board is to be supported by a Public Procurement Unit.
In the first instance, this will further enhance the fairness of the system, giving local and foreign suppliers of goods and services a fair chance for consideration.
It will ensure that Virgin Islanders are getting value for their money and public funds are going where it should, and nowhere else.
But what is also crucial to note and it also does is it gives an assurance to investors and businesses, and financial institutions, that the Virgin Islands is a good and attractive place to do business, because we are operating at the international standards and best practice, which is important for promoting economic activity.
The Contractor General Act, which was passed by the HOA on 17 June, 2021 and received assent from the Governor on 5 August, 2021, provides a further layer of oversight for procurement and projects. The Contractor General will monitor the award and the implementation of Government contracts, to ensure awards and terminations are fair and impartial, free from impropriety or irregularity, such as fraud, mismanagement, waste or abuse.
The Act allows for the Contractor General to investigate and take action where it is suspected that undesirable activities are taking place or where persons feel aggrieved.
The Whistle Blower Act, was also passed by the HOA on 17 June, 2021 and received assent from the Governor on 5 August, 2021. It is a very empowering piece of legislation for the public.
Under the Whistle Blower Act, an individual who has information that a crime, breach of the law, or a miscarriage of justice, has been or is likely to be committed; or that in a public institution there has been or is about to be waste, misappropriation or mismanagement of public resources; that the environment is being or is about to be degraded; or that the health or safety of an individual or a community is endangered or is likely to be endangered; can make a protected disclosure in good faith.
The disclosure can be made to an employer of the whistleblower; the Governor; the Premier; the Attorney General; the Director of Public Prosecutions; the Auditor General; a member of the House of Assembly; the Complaints Commissioner; a Cabinet Minister or Junior Minister; or the head of a recognised religious body.
The Act prescribes how the complaint is to be handled and investigated.
But most importantly, under the Whistle Blower Act that your Government has brought forward and which is now in the law, a whistle blower is protected from victimization by their employer or any other person because they have been brave and blown the whistle on alleged wrongdoing.
The whistle blower, for having lodged the disclosure, cannot be dismissed, suspended, declared redundant, denied promotion, or transferred in their job against their will. They shall not be harassed, intimidated, threatened, subject to discrimination or adverse measures.
The Act also makes provisions for the establishment of a Whistleblower Reward Fund for rewarding whistle blowers who make a disclosure that leads to the arrest and conviction of an accused person.
If the whistle blower is victimised, they can sue the person who victimizes them in the High Court for damages.
They can lodge their complaint and they have the protection of the Whistle Blower Act, from victimization, discrimination and adverse measures. We have put in the law that if, in the course of an inquiry or hearing before the Complaints Commissioner, the whistle blower needs legal assistance, this is to be provided. If the whistle blower’s life, their family’s life, their property or their family’s property is endangered because of blowing the whistle, they shall be provided with police protection upon request.
Persons who witness or genuinely have information on crimes, breaches of the law, or miscarriages of justice, that have been or are to be committed; or that in a public institution there has been or is about to be waste, misappropriate or mismanage of public resources; or that persons are threatening the environment or putting persons health and safety at risk, have absolutely nothing to fear.
The Integrity in Public Life Act, which was also passed by the HOA on 22 December, 2021 and assented by the Governor on 11 February, 2022, is another one of our Manifesto pledges and one which I have called for over many years.
Under the Integrity in Public Life Act, there is a Code of Conduct for all persons in public life to whom this law will apply.
Persons in Public Life would be required to complete and file, on the prescribed form, a declaration with the Integrity Commission of his or her income, assets, liabilities, private interests, and gifts in cash or kind that are received by himself or herself, his or her spouse or his or her dependent children. And they will have to continue doing this for every year that they remain in public life.
The Act creates offences for such things as abuse of office, misconduct and neglect of duty.
It provides for the Integrity Commission to receive complaints, and initiate investigations, both with regards to complaints of misconduct as well as the declaration of interests filed by persons in public life.
In conducting investigations, the Integrity Commission has the powers, rights and privileges of the High Court at a trial as these relate to summoning witnesses to be examined under oath, affirmation or otherwise; and compelling the production of documents.
The Act provides for hefty monetary fines and even imprisonment for persons who commit offences under the Act.
This is a very solid and powerful piece of legislation that your Government has brought forward, and I urge everyone to become familiar with it and how it works.
The Ministerial Code which was approved by Cabinet and laid in the HOA on 15 April, 2021, provides a written reminder to Ministers of the high standard of conduct that is expected of them, a guide for them to understand how to balance their different interests and responsibilities, and a check and balance for the public to hold them accountable.
The Ministerial Code spells out what Ministers can do and how to do it properly, and what they cannot do.
For example, the Ministerial Code makes it clear that Ministers must steer clear of conflicts of interest between their public duties and private interests. Ministers must not accept gifts that may compromise – or appear to compromise – their judgement or place them under any improper obligation, or serve as any kind of inducement for benefits such as contracts.
Ministers must not use Government resources for party political purposes. Ministers must uphold the political impartiality of the Public Service and they cannot force or intimidate any public officer into breaching any laws, codes, policies or terms of employment.
The Ministerial Code outlines how alleged breaches by Ministers are to be investigated and resolved.
The Ministerial Code is a very strong policy for assuring accountability from Ministers.
May I say that with the multiple layers of protection in the various legislations, especially the Whistle Blower Act – and when you take the Whistle Blower Act together with the Integrity in Public Life Act and the Ministerial Code that prevents Ministers from abusing their office and from intimidating public officers and so forth – it is difficult to see how any upstanding person who witnesses any kind of wrongdoing can have any fear about reporting such activities for them to be investigated and appropriate action taken.
And I encourage persons to blow the whistle if they see wrongdoing. So, familiarize yourself with the legislations.
So, you see, these legislations and these initiatives by your Government are not happening in isolation and they come together to create a broad spectrum of Good Governance coverage.
And to this, we can also factor in our e-Government initiative which we are continuing to push. E-Government will greatly enhance the services available online: e-billing, online payment and online bookings.
It will bring convenience to everyone.
Persons will not have to hop on a ferry and spend unnecessary time and money to travel to Tortola to access Government services. You will be able to sit in your home and conduct business with the Government – whether you are on Anegada, Virgin Gorda, Jost van Dyke, Tortola, Salt Island or any of our beautiful islands, and anywhere in the world.
Through e-Government, we will dramatically increase efficiency of the service delivery because everything will be managed digitally. So, for instance, we will increase the efficiency of the services in Customs, Immigration, Labour, police and all Government Departments and Statutory Bodies.
And as we talk about these services, e-Government will also provide a system for holding those Departments – and all our other service departments and units – accountable. Because we will be able to track the transactions by following the digital trail.
The digital trail will log when the application is submitted, when it was dealt with, who dealt with it, what was the outcome, and more. And it does not matter which Government is in office, the system will be able to provide an accurate and permanent record of what happened.
While some aspects of the public services are under the purview of the Governor constitutionally, we recognize that as the elected Government, we have a responsibility to our people to make sure the needs of the people are met. And this Administration is making the necessary investment to move these things from talk, where it has been for too many years, and into action and implementation.
This was the commitment that we made to people of the Virgin Islands to ease their frustrations, and we are holding true to this commitment.
Over the years, we have heard the familiar complaint from persons that they submitted applications for different types of services in Government – for example applications for police record, trade licenses, passports and work permits, to name a few - and it takes so long and too long to get these transactions processed and even to get and update.
Sometimes, as just stated, you cannot get an explanation or update because the paper file has to be located or only the specific officer dealing with the matter has the information.
But, with e-Government, every step of the process can be tracked, and information can be accessed at the push of a button.
We will also be able to detect suspicious activity. The system will be able to calculate your duties, for instance, based on the information filed in your bills, and match back whether the payment is correct, whether the documentation is correct, and so forth.
Immigration, Labour, police and all the other Government Departments providing services to the public will be similarly enhanced through e-Government, so we can identify when things are going right and when they are not; and of course, we have the Whistle Blower Act and all the other legislations to ensure that everything is kept above board.
This is how all the work your Government has been doing in Good Governance, e-Government and Transformation of the Public Service comes together in the big picture view.
Your Government continues to strengthen the relationship between the Virgin Islands with the United Nations through the partnership of the establishment of the United Nations Development Programme National Project Office.
You would remember that in November 2020, your Government and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to strengthen our relationship by reinforcing their collective commitment to achieving development objectives and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
Establishment of a local project office was one of the clauses of the MOU and the Government is happy to report that the Office is now functioning following the recruitment of Ms. Patlian Johnson, as the National Coordinator of the UNDP Project Office. Ms. Johnson commenced employment on 1 February 2022, and will work closely with the Government, national institutions, Civil Society Organisations, NGOs, private sector and other partners to:
- lead strategic programme planning and ensure programme coordination and implementation in the Virgin Islands;
- maintain collaborative working relationships among key project partners and project donors, through effective communication, consultation, and reporting; and
- promote communication flow within the office.
I must say that the Virgin Islands’ partnership with UNDP has been tremendously helpful to progressing the sustainable development of the society. The relationship will go from strength to strength in the year ahead as we get closer to completing the National Sustainable Development Plan. Your Government will indeed benefit from UNDP assistance with implementation of the plan.
Your Government looks forward to working closely with Ms. Johnson and the UNDP as they provide critical support for the implementation of the National Sustainable Development Plan (NSDP) and as we move towards the achievement of the SDGs by 2030.
I want to touch on the progress we are making towards having direct flights from the US Mainland to the Virgin Islands.
We continue to see the increase in the need for travelers to be able to travel between the US Mainland and the Virgin Islands with as least hassle and in-transit stops as possible.
Although we continue to work on the upgrade and expansion of our infrastructure at the Terrance B. Lettsome International Airport (TBLIA) at Beef Island and the Taddy Bay International Airport on Virgin Gorda, to accommodate larger airplanes – especially at the TBLIA to accommodate larger planes coming from the US Mainland and other parts of the world using the existing runway length – we recognize that we must, like Moses, use what is in our hands for now to be able to cross over the Red Sea.
In this vein, we continue to maximize our efforts in discussing with airline carriers to see where those that have the capacity to accommodate these flights to and from the mainland, can introduce this service to the Virgin Islands, using our current runway length at the TBLIA.
Of course, we have told you this many times, but based on our current discussions and negotiations, which are ongoing, we are even more confident that within the 4th Quarter of 2022 at the latest, this service can be a reality.
We pray God’s guidance as we continue negotiations with the interested airlines, so that we can have this major accomplishment for the Virgin Islands and serve and benefit the people of the Virgin Islands, and our tourism product and all our industries, long into the future – and lift the Virgin Islands to a new level until the TBLIA expansion is completed.
I will continue to update you, the people of the Virgin Islands, as we continue with these negotiations.
Over the life span of the Virgin Islands, we continue to weather storms of many kinds through our Prayers and belief in GOD.
I want to thank all our people who continue to Pray without ceasing, for GOD'S WILL alone be done for the present and future generations of the Virgin Islands.
We thank our foreparents for their Prayers, hard work and dedication which brought these Virgin Islands to be one of the most beautiful places in the world in spite of the worldwide challenges.
Our Prayers continue to buttress those of our foreparents.
Now with the hurricane season upon us, the ongoing challenges that have been and continue to be experienced in many facets, the potential challenges of the COI, among many other challenges, as a people we must now Pray to GOD without ceasing for HIS WILL alone to be done for these Virgin Islands.
During the heightened phase of the pandemic your Government join our Prayer Warriors in calling for National Prayer and Fast at different times.
Now we do the same one more time as from Sunday, 10 April, 2022, to Tuesday, 12 April, 2022.
Together let us petition GOD for our country through a National three-day Prayer and Fast.
In unity there is strength and with GOD everything is possible.
Remember we are in this together and together we will rise stronger and better than ever before.
I thank you.