Premier and Minister for Finance Hon. Andrew Fahie said his administration, through the Inquiry Response Unit (IRU), has submitted thousands of documents as per the request of the United Kingdom backed Commission of Inquiry (CoI), since its commencement in January.
The inquiry was set up to review the governance of the British Virgin Islands and to make recommendations for improvement, following allegations of corruption, abuse of office and serious dishonesty.
Providing an update to the House of Assembly on Tuesday, April 20, Premier Fahie said, “By April 12, the government had been notified of 56 separate requests for official information made to or involving ministries or departments and relevant statutory bodies, all except for one required a return of within just five working days. By that date, the IRU working with public officers and statutory agencies had identified the relevant documents, review them and dealt fully with 51 of those requests with a further five remaining, partly or wholly outstanding.”
The Premier explained that some delays occurred because the Commission’s secretary had required the documents to be sent to the UK by email with a limit of 8 megabytes of digital information.
"Because of the volume of data, that method had required the IRU to split up the digital files and send hundreds of individual emails, some of which had bounced back and failed to be delivered. This means disclosure was obviously time consuming and unsatisfactory; the CoI has now adopted the IRU’s suggestion that it should set up a secure site to permit a more efficient transfer of electronic data,” the Premier stated.
Premier Fahie said the commissioner has also requested the IRU to submit to this new site data the commission had already received.
Thus, “In total, the government through the IRU has already disclosed 3,977 official documents to the inquiry consisting of 72,902 pages with only one exception, to which I shall refer in a moment, nothing has been held back.”
He informed that even where information has raised possible issues of confidentiality, legal professional privilege or public interest immunity, the government’s default position has been to waive those considerations and only to seek for the commissioner clear assurances as to the future secure and confidential treatment of those documents, these it has received.
He pointed to information on hardship applications that were requested from the government by the CoI, that was made by locals under the government’s hardship payments scheme, set up in the wake of the 2017 weather events and then by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This request appears to have been made under the misapprehension that honourable members were themselves paid the money for distribution to their constituents since it sought details on when and how the funds were transferred to a member. In fact, the monies were disbursed by the Ministry of Finance on the basis of a standard form written application with supporting documents and information attesting to the particular hardships suffered by individuals. But the Commissioner’s request also sought details of these persons and of the documents they provided to support their applications.”
He said because the funds were public, proper and rigorous justifications should be made otherwise, these sensitive personal information would be unnecessarily revealed.
Therefore he said the IRU and the Attorney General’s chambers suggested that a more limited disclosure of the names and contact details of applicants, might together with the sums awarded, at least initially suffice for the Commissioner’s purpose.
“I regret to report that the reply was at first discouraging,” he said, nonetheless, the “IRU, therefore, informed the Commissioner’s team that it would only provide the sensitive information of individual Virgin Islanders if a legal justification were given. At that point, I’m glad to say the Commissioner’s team agreed — for now — to accept the IRU’s proposal and withdraw its request for the indiscriminate disclosure of the hundreds of personal and human tragedies that we know Irma and coronavirus have caused the people of the Virgin Islands.”
He said that was the first and only time when the IRU had said it would not divulge official information and only then because it so intimately affects the rights and private lives of Virgin Islanders, and no adequate basis has so far been given.