British Virgin Islands

Wednesday, Jan 26, 2022

Gov't provided largest ever data collection exercise for CoI

Gov't provided largest ever data collection exercise for CoI

The Government of the Virgin Islands has provided the United Kingdom’s Commission of Inquiry (COI) with the largest official collection of data ever assembled in the history of the Virgin Islands, new statistics reveal.

Since it was announced in January this year, the COI has received from the Government, the Inquiry Response Unit (IRU) or the Government’s legal advisers:

* Over 10,000 documents, totalling approximately 150,000 pages;

* Responses to 159 COI letters of request for information, documents or affidavits. Of this total, the Government has provided the COI with 67 notarised affidavits;

* Responses to 19 Orders of the Commissioner:

* Written responses to 24 warning letters;

* Responses to 21 witness summons;

* Not less than 29 submissions on legal points and related matters;

* 4 position statements on behalf of ministers and the elected Government;

* Responses to not less than 52 other letters and Emails from the COI which have required a substantive response.

The timeframes given by the COI for information it demanded (often just a week) have often been extremely challenging, and invariably prioritised its own deadlines above the many competing requirements for the time and attention of the Government.

For example:

* Many COI requests for disclosure required the Government to search for hundreds of documents at a time, in some cases going back more than a decade.

* Often such requests required separate searches to be undertaken by multiple Ministries and departments.

* The Inquiry Response Unit had to provide the COI with many documents no less than three times, due to the frequent changes by the COI of its own document handling procedures.

* Warning letters – matters of significant reputational importance – were frequently issued with a demand for a full reply within a week, even in instances where several individuals received multiple separate warning letters about different matters with overlapping deadlines.

* Notarised affidavits were repeatedly demanded at one week’s notice, requiring detailed research to provide answers to the COI’s questions – in total 850 pages of such affidavits had to be produced, answering 1,200 questions and providing more than 200 requested documents.

* The COI has sent the Government an average of 4 pieces of correspondence every day, 7 days a week, for more than 300 days this year.

* The constant flow of requests for documents did not seem to take into account the tremendous impact upon records, and the difficulties of accessing them, caused by extensive damage to the Government’s Central Administration Complex by Hurricane Irma, nor the fact that for the same reason several off-site storage facilities were also damaged or destroyed.

* The IRU was often given just 48 hours to propose redactions (withholding of sensitive parts of a text) for bundles of documents which ranged from hundreds to thousands of pages. In many cases, such decisions required Cabinet consent – and the Cabinet had to meet repeatedly at weekends or very late at night in order to consider each one.

Commenting on the latest statistics, the Attorney General said, “It has rightly been the aim of the Government of the Virgin Islands, from the start, to co-operate with the Commission of Inquiry thoroughly.”

“Doing so has taken enormous amounts of time and effort on behalf of Ministers and both senior and junior Public Officers, who had many other duties at a time of global crisis,” Honourable Smith said.

She added, “It has not always seemed that the COI understood the extraordinary pressures which its demands have placed upon the limited numbers of officers in a Public Service which is far smaller than that of the UK, which has not been modernised for decades, and whose records have not been maintained to a consistent standard over the years or were very substantially affected by Hurricane Irma.”

Honourable Smith also said, “The COI has heard evidence, and made observations, about the undoubted problems which face the administrative machinery of the Virgin Islands, but perhaps has not appreciated that its own working methods have directly and significantly increased those problems throughout a year when there have been other (and indeed multiple) unusual or emergency circumstances as well.”

She stated, “Indeed, the impact of the Commission of Inquiry itself upon efficient, timely and effective administration in these islands has been significant in the context of coping with COVID-19 and in the continuing aftermath and consequences of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Its cascading and constant demands placed a strain upon our already severely overstretched Public Service.”

She further added, “It is important to stress that our Public Service has not broken under this strain, and our Public Officers have done a great job in very difficult circumstances. As the COI evidence gathering phase nears its end, I wish to record my thanks to Public Officers for their extraordinary and genuinely immense efforts.”

The Inquiry Response Unit was established on 5 February 2021 to assist the Government of the Virgin Islands with responding to Commission of Inquiry requests.

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