What is happening now in the British Virgin Islands is a stark reminder of how abuses of power, corruption and lack of transparency can be corrosive to democracy.
A report following an Inquiry into financial & contractual abuses, transparency and corruption was published last week in the British Virgin Islands (BVI). It has recommended the temporary suspension of parts of its constitution, the dissolution of Parliament, suspension of Ministerial Government and the assumption of control of the Government by the Governor with open talk of direct rule from London.
In the wide-ranging 900-page Report there are recommendations that highlight how Ministers were involved in direct and unaccountable decisions without the prospect of any come-back or criticism, that contracts were adjudicated without transparent processes, that corrupt financial benefits from contracts were obtained and how the system in the BVI has been exposed.
The report highlights how some members of the public were afraid to share information because they feared reprisals. It concluded that there were clear deficiencies and “the principles of good governance, openness, transparency and even the rule of law are ignored. In many important areas of government – including the procurement of contracts, grants of assistance, appointments to statutory boards, the disposal of Crown land and the grant of residence and belonger status – discretionary decisions are made by elected officials (usually Ministers) on the basis of no criteria or patently inadequate or unpublished criteria or criteria which are, as often as not, simply ignored. They can and do make decisions – which expend huge sums of public money and affect the lives if all those who live in the BVI – as they wish, without applying any objective criteria, without giving any reasons and without fearing any comeback.”
Leader of the Opposition, Keith Azopardi said: “What is happening in the BVI is an example of the effects that financial or contractual abuses, lack of transparency, the wielding of unchecked Executive power by Ministers and failures in accountability can have on a small territory. It emphasises the importance of having sufficient democratic checks and balances in a small territory, clear processes that are followed and independent watchdogs over the use of financial and administrative power so that the possibility of abuses are minimised and value for money enhanced.
It starkly brings home the serious threats to a democracy if such checks are absent or if power is misused. This not only impoverishes the quality of individual decisions but it threatens to take away the enjoyment of self-government and democratic institutions from the citizens themselves as is now happening in the BVI who face the risk of being placed under direct rule.
This is not what we want for Gibraltar. We cherish our self-government and our democracy. This reinforces the need for clear changes to deliver transparency, standards, anti-abuse protections and democratic checks and balances in Gibraltar. Independent and precise controls, financial oversight, transparency in decision-making, the objective justification of decisions taken are all key elements in any set of changes.
We have been talking about reforms like these for years to curb the abuses and deficiencies in our current system. In our view these cannot be tackled by the present GSLP Government who have presided over some of the worst excesses in lack of transparency or standards and have paid lip service to reform over the last 11 years.
We had a strong programme for democratic and financial reforms to governance in our 2019 manifesto and will have a robust set of reforms in our next manifesto. Only a few weeks ago we set out our Back on Track policy to ensure greater value for money, transparency and standards and to curb waste, abuse and corruption. These policies need to be combined with other measures to entrench controls and reforms in our constitutional architecture.
A future GSD Government will deliver a strong and comprehensive programme of reforms to ensure that our laws, processes and systems are changed so that our democracy is protected. That will require big changes to ensure Anti- Abuse and anti-corruption measures, securing transparency and independence in decision-making and making sure that persons close to the Government of the day have to declare their interests and do not benefit from their political associations. Our people deserve that our systems and laws are changed so that there are no opportunities for waste, abuse and corruption. We need to ensure value for money and democratic integrity and transparency at all levels. Gibraltar deserves better and the GSD will deliver that and these reforms.”
Shadow Finance Minister Roy Clinton said:
“The report released last week by the commission of inquiry makes for sober reading. Its 45 recommendations talk to the very heart of financial and good governance in which the BVI Government appears to have failed. In this respect the GSD has for years been clamouring for greater transparency and accountability by Government. All the GSD’s ‘Back on Track’ policies launch last month are designed to reinforce and deliver on financial transparency, accountability and value for money. Whereas the factors and situation in the BVI are not those of Gibraltar we cannot afford the mere suggestion that we do not take these matters seriously and thus it is in our collective interest to ensure we meet the highest standards in this respect.”