STATEMENT BY THE MINISTERS OF GOVERNMENT IN THE
VIRGIN ISLANDS ON THE EXTENSION TO THE COMMISSION OF INQUIRY
Ministers continue to welcome a transparent Commission of Inquiry (COI) that will yield a just outcome.
It is important the COI should be a positive tool to strengthen further our efforts in good governance and in the delivery of quality public services to the people of the Virgin Islands.
However, Ministers have been increasingly concerned by the large and growing diversion of the resources of the Government to the Commission of Inquiry, and more so after the six-month extension announced by His Excellency the Governor. In response, Ministers are calling for a clear structure and timetable for the hearings, with notice of the subject matter for those hearings set out well in advance, so that the Government can plan its resources and the time of public servants accordingly.
Since February 2021, the Government has provided over 100,000 documents to the COI. Only recently it has requested ministers and public servants to make over 30 lengthy affidavits, each with many pages of documentary exhibits, explaining in detail matters such as procurement systems and legislation in the Virgin Islands, the working of statutory bodies, the system of granting Crown lands and the financing of the public service, going back many years. Although the requests have been directed in the main to ministers, it is inevitable and well understood that the affidavits and records can only be produced by public officers with day-to-day knowledge of those matters.
Therefore, every request for affidavits and documents fully occupies the time of already busy public officers, and it has only been possible to deal with those demands by public servants working through weekends and at extraordinary hours, taking them away from their ordinary duties.
Although the Inquiry, thus far, has indicated six general areas of inquiry, it has generally given only a week’s notice of the witnesses – many of them public officers - it would call. The accumulated strains on the public service of dealing with the COI’s requests for evidence and further demands for documents, often at very short notice, is untenable at a time when the Government is grappling with the most dangerous COVID-19 outbreak since the beginning of the pandemic. It is for these reasons, Ministers believe, that the COI has been extended.
Ministers believe it to be essential to recognise that the limited human resources of the public services are supposed to serve the people of the Virgin Islands and have many other vital priorities with which they have to deal daily. For the Inquiry to continue with legitimacy and to manage both the limited capacity and time of public officers, it is hoped the COI will provide both a schedule for the hearings and detail on the subjects and areas for investigation.
Public officers are now working under the strain of the impact of COVID-19, coupled with the added stress and anxiety of coping with the bereavement of members of our community including family, friends and co-workers. It would be unreasonable and insensitive to expect public officers to continue to be as available to the COI’s demands and ministers are glad the Commissioner has recognised this.
In the next month, while the COI has adjourned hearings for the summer holiday, we would have hoped that this also meant that requests for affidavits and additional information from Ministries were halted during this time. The halt would have indeed put already overwhelmed public officers and all officials in a better position to put their full attention in dealing with containing the spread and spike of COVID-19 in the Virgin Islands.
The wellbeing of all public officers and officials, and the entire Virgin Islands, is of paramount importance at this vulnerable time.