STATEMENT BY PREMIER AND MINISTER OF FINANCE
DR. the HONOURABLE NATALIO D. WHEATLEY
ON THE QUARTERLY PROGRESS REPORT ON THE FRAMEWORK FOR IMPLEMENTATION OF THE COI REPORT RECOMMENDATIONS AND OTHER REFORMS
5TH OCTOBER 2022
Fellow Virgin Islanders,
More than five months ago the Government of National Unity made a commitment to reform in order to strengthen the Territory’s institutions and systems of government and to transform the way the Government’s business is handled, beginning with us.
Toward this end, we agreed a framework for the implementation of the Commission of Inquiry Report Recommendations and other reforms in June. The primary actors responsible for implementation, included me as Premier, other Cabinet Ministers, the House of Assembly, Ministries of Government and the Governor. We have all been working tirelessly over the past three months to deliver for the people of the Virgin Islands.
We have made substantial progress, but there is much more work to do to get the job done. By the end of August, 94% of the recommendations were completed or were in progress to be completed. We have worked hard, and I would like to thank all the hard-working public servants, reviewers, Ministers, and legislators for all their hard work thus far. I can say with confidence that everyone involved is truly committed to reform.
We were very ambitious in our commitments and, unfortunately, deadlines have been missed. 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. For instance, we have insisted that the Jury Act and the Register of Interests Act, both which fall under the Governor’s groups’ responsibilities, receive proper consultation as opposed to being rushed through the legislative process. We understand this not to be a box ticking exercise but a real effort for real and sustained change, and this is not something that should be rushed. It is important to acknowledge, however, we are heading in the right direction.
As you know, the framework of reforms that we are implementing includes a quarterly progress report by His Excellency the Governor Mr. John J. Rankin, CMG. Governor Rankin published his report earlier this week on the progress of reform. The report acknowledged the progress that has been made but highlighted some areas of concern. I thank the Governor for his recognition of the reforms that have been implemented.
It is important to acknowledge that we have a partnership with the United Kingdom. It has been described as a modern partnership. We value the relationship we have with the United Kingdom, and we believe that having a good relationship is in the best interest of the people of the Virgin Islands. For this partnership to be successful, it must be based on mutual respect, understanding, and a shared commitment to democratic principles. In any partnership or friendship, there will be disagreements and misunderstandings. It is important that we deal with them maturely and in such a way that strengthens the partnership rather than eroding it.
In terms of the concerns he highlighted, my Ministerial colleagues and I have had an opportunity to engage the Governor to properly understand the source of his concerns. After a thorough discussion, I believe there is a genuine misunderstanding on the particular issues, which we, unfortunately, did not have an opportunity to discuss and clarify before publication.
In terms of tender waivers, it is important to understand that this term does not appear in our local laws. The Public Finance Management Act mandates that all contracts 100,000 and above be tendered unless cabinet directs otherwise. Therefore, cabinet had unlimited discretion in choosing not to tender, which we recognized had to change. Way before the COI, we were in the process of developing a stand alone procurement act to modernize our legislative framework on procurement.
We now have in place the Public Procurement Act which gives clear guidelines on how procurement is to be done, and this has removed the open discretion which previously existed. Procurement can be done through open tendering, restricted tendering or single source procurement for the most part. The circumstances in which each can be done is clearly defined in the law and is supposed to improve competitive bidding, value for money and transparency. Single source procurement is not the equivalent of a tender waiver; it clearly defines the instances where it is not necessary to go through an open tender. For example, contracts for emergencies or a national security matters do not have to go through open tendering.
Currently, we are in a transitional phase where the Ministries are transitioning away from previously signed rolling contracts for various services and ensuring that we are fully engaged in open tendering for these goods and services. These contractual arrangements were made before the new legislation was passed. The Ministry of Finance is providing the required training to Accounting Officers and Financial Planning Officers across government to expedite this process. In the meantime, however, we cannot simply stop procuring the goods and services needed, such as transporting our students or security services for detainees. A transition period is necessary to integrate previously signed rolling contracts into the new system now in place under the Procurement Act.
Where it concerns immigration reform, the work to bolster the processes and systems in the Immigration Department has continued in order to expand the department’s capacity to meet the increased demands upon its services. This will enable internal processes to move much more swiftly.
In regard to the establishment of the Constitutional Review Commission, I am unsure why this matter has caused concern. My Ministerial colleagues and I had a duty to express the concerns of our constituents about the makeup of the membership. The concerns were serious enough that they should have been brought to the attention of the Governor. This is the constitution that will govern the lives of Virgin Islanders, and they must have a voice in the process. Despite the voicing of the people’s concerns, which has been described, unfortunately, as resistance, the Commission was approved in Cabinet and the House of Assembly. They have begun their work, and I am looking forward to their report once completed.
Finally, the fully transparency of elected officials’ interests is a cornerstone of the reforms my colleagues and I have undertaken through an amendment to Register of Interests Act. The Governor’s progress report highlights a concern about the restriction of public access to this information. Presently, any person can view a representative’s interests. However, they cannot make a copy of it, which is where I understand the concern lies. This provision is reflected in the Register of Interests Act in Cayman Islands. As the central political institutional in our democracy, the House of Assembly has powers to determine such things, but the public must tell us whether or not we have gone far enough. We are open to hearing what the public has to say and can organise a special public consultation to get a gauge on public opinion.
The greatest concern on the Register of Interests is not the fact that the House of Assembly made a minor amendment but the undemocratic way in which the legislation, which falls under the Governor’s group, was being imposed on Public Officers without proper consultation. I will continue to stand up for the rights of the people in these Virgin Islands to participate and have a voice in reform.
I was also surprised to read in the Governor’s report a criticism on late cabinet papers. All Cabinet Papers that come to Cabinet are jointly agreed by the Governor and me. As stipulated in the Cabinet handbook, these papers are due 48 hours in advance. This deadline has been consistently met. If we consider a paper with less notice than this, it is only with the agreement of the Governor and Premier. As Premier, I will continue to engage the Governor at Cabinet Steering Group to keep the Cabinet agenda and reform process moving forward.
The Governor and I both respect the Cabinet process and I know that he appreciates that it has improved and that Cabinet Members have been working within the rules of the institution, as well as meeting our commitments under the framework for reform.
The key in this reform process is engagement. Naturally there will be differences in perspective, but these will not block reform. We all are committed to doing what is in the best interest of the people of the Virgin Islands. We just have to work out what is the best mechanism or process for achieving the desired objectives as we implement the reforms in the framework. That is why democratic governance is important. It is not always timely, but it is the best way to make meaningful change that respects the dignity of the people of this Territory.
Reform has its challenges, but the Government of National Unity will stay the course and deliver for the people of these Virgin Islands. We ask for your continued support as we do this together. We must remember you cannot impose democracy on a people. The very concept is a paradox. People must be a central part of any democratic process, and I will not waiver in my commitment to defend democracy.
I will update you again in due course.
God bless you all and God bless these beautiful Virgin Islands.