Remarks by the Attorney General on the proposed amendment to the Register of Interests Act
Sixth Sitting of the Third Session of the Fourth House of Assembly
4 March 2021
Mr. Speaker - As this Honourable House is aware, on 19th January, 2021 the former Governor, His Excellency Augustus Jaspert, appointed a Commissioner, Sir Gary Hickinbottom, to hold a Commission of Inquiry, to inquire into whether corruption, abuse of office or other serious dishonesty in relation to officials whether statutory, elected or public, “… may have taken place in recent years.”
At this time Mr. Speaker, and by way of background, I wish to inform this Honourable House of the creation of an Inquiry Response Unit (IRU) as well as to discuss the proposed amendment to the Register of Interests Act because they are related Mr. Speaker.
The Government of the Virgin Islands is cooperating with the Inquiry in accordance with its policy of transparency and wishes to ensure that all public officers and statutory bodies do likewise. Therefore, on February 5 2021, on my recommendation, Cabinet approved the creation of the Inquiry Response Unit, known as the 'IRU', to ensure the Government’s full cooperation with the Inquiry and to facilitate the Inquiry process, The IRU is led by Counsel, The Rt Hon. Sir Geoffrey Cox QC, and administered by Withers BVI, reporting directly to me as Attorney General. It also includes members of the Attorney General's Chambers.
The IRU is an independent unit which supports the Attorney General in ensuring that the Government provides the fullest possible cooperation with the Commission of Inquiry, while ensuring the laws of the Virgin Islands, and the legal duties and legitimate interests of the Virgin Islands Government, are upheld. It seeks to ensure that relevant official information and documents are provided to the Inquiry in a systematic, efficient and well-organised way, which is both auditable and accountable.
I now turn Mr. Speaker to the Register of Interests (Amendment) Bill which I am introducing now.
You will be aware Mr. Speaker that on 19th February 2021, Mr Steven Chandler, the Secretary to the Commission, issued requests to Members of this Honourable House of Assembly seeking consent to allow the Registrar of Interests to provide the Commissioner with a copy of pages from the Register of Interests. The requests also ask Members to provide information about their declarations.
The Register of Interests and proceedings in relation to it are regulated by a statutory framework contained in the Register of Interests Act. Under section 9 of the Act, the Register of Interests can only be inspected in certain limited circumstances. These are as follows: for the purposes of a criminal investigation; on an order of a court in any legal proceedings, and on the written request of a Member.
Further, under section 13, the Registrar must not disclose information relating to any declaration or matter in the Register other than in one of those circumstances.
Mr. Speaker, there is at least considerable doubt that the Commissioner's request falls within any of these categories. There is no criminal investigation, there has been no Court Order, and while a Member may request inspection, by section 9(4) of the Act, he or she is expressly prohibited from taking copies or extracts of the Register. There is also no provision Mr. Speaker that permits a Member to give consent for the Registrar to provide copies of such pages to a third party.
Furthermore, the Register of Interests Act entrusts to a committee of this Honourable House exclusive judgment as to the veracity and accuracy of Members’ declarations. Disclosure and publication is only permitted, other than to Members, where it may be relevant for the purposes of a court proceeding or a criminal investigation.
Therefore, Members and the Registrar cannot confidently comply fully with some or all of the Commissioner’s requests without risk of breaching the Act.
Mr. Speaker, Honourable Members will no doubt be aware that the Commissions of Inquiry Act 1880 provides for the Commissioner to have the powers of a High Court Judge in relation to certain matters, such as the summoning of witnesses and the calling for production of documents. However, at present, the Commissioner of Inquiry has not issued any such summons and the requests seek disclosure on a voluntary basis. It is the Government's view that it is in the best interests of the Virgin Islands for requests to be complied with voluntarily, and to avoid the Commissioner issuing a summons.
In any event, there is at least significant doubt as to whether, even if the Commissioner were to issue such a summons, that summons or any subsequent ruling by the Commissioner concerning compliance with it, would be an order of a court so as to permit the Registrar to provide information to the Inquiry.
Therefore Mr. Speaker, the Government proposes to amend the Register of Interests Act to provide an express statutory provision that would allow the Register to be open to inspection on the written request of a Commissioner of Inquiry. The amendment would also expressly enable the Registrar to provide relevant copies or extracts of the Register. This is subject to the safeguard that the Registrar is only to provide those parts of the Register that in her opinion are strictly necessary to fulfill requests and upon such considerations and conditions as to preservation of confidentiality after their purpose has been exhausted as she shall deem appropriate.
Mr. Speaker permit me now to speak to the proposed amendments. The Bill before us in Clause 2 seeks to amend section 2 of the principal Act by inserting a definition of Commissioner of Inquiry.
In Clause 3 it seeks to amend section 9 of the principal Act by inserting an additional circumstance in which the Registrar of Interests may be opened for inspection, that is, at the written request of a Commissioner of Inquiry. It would further permit the Registrar to provide copies or extracts of the Register but only of those parts of the Register that in her opinion as strictly relevant to fulfill the request and, as I said before, on such conditions as to the preservation of their confidentiality after their purpose has been exhausted as she shall deem appropriate. This amendment would enable the Registrar to cooperate fully with criminal investigations, orders of a court and Commissions of Inquiry while preserving the confidentiality of the Register once its relevance for those purposes has been exhausted.
Finally, clause 4 of the Bill seeks to make general amendments to change the word “Legislative Council” to “House of Assembly” in the Act wherever it appears.
Mr. Speaker the Register of Interests Act plainly establishes a system of registration that is intended to be controlled and sanctioned by this Honourable House and the common law has long maintained that the Legislature has exclusive jurisdiction over its internal proceedings. It is therefore desirable and proper that this Honourable House decides whether and how to grant access of the Register of Interests to third parties.
This Bill, Mr. Speaker, has the benefits of removing doubt concerning Honourable Members’ compliance with the law in answering the Inquiry’s requests and facilitating cooperation with the Inquiry while at the same time maintaining the constitutional right of the House of Assembly to regulate its own proceedings.
Mr. Speaker, the Government of the Virgin Islands continues to cooperate and engage the Commission consistent with its stated policy of transparency and support of the Commission.
I look forward to the full support of my colleagues on this Bill, and I thank you Mr. Speaker.