Monday, March 31, 2008 at 4:13 AM
Britain’s FAC ‘shocked and appalled’ at situation in the Turks and Caicos Islands
Published on Monday, March 31, 2008
by Anthony L. Hall
A Special Report for Caribbean Net News
LONDON, England: British Member of Parliament Sir John Stanley, a member of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) said last week that he was “shocked and appalled” at the responses given by a Foreign and Commonwealth Office official to questions concerning the situation in the Turks and Caicos Islands.
The reaction from Sir John came during last Wednesday’s final evidence session of the FAC’s inquiry into the exercise by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) of its responsibilities for security and good governance in the British Overseas Territories, which include the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI) and several other Caribbean territories.
The principal witness at this session was Meg Munn MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the FCO with responsibilities for Overseas Territories.
Members of the FAC questioned Minister Munn (and Leigh Turner, the director of her department) about the FCO’s oversight in all Territories with respect to a wide range of issues, including devolution of power, human rights, civil partnerships, appointment and role of governors, and immigration.
But none of these exchanges was particularly newsworthy. The notable exception was when Sir John Stanley queried how the TCI could possibly cope with an immigration problem that is “equivalent to illegal immigration to the UK of between 4 to 5 million people.”
“Certainly illegal immigration from Haiti is an important issue…. And things are improving. I haven’t got the details in front of me, but perhaps if I can write to the committee with the work that’s been done on that. But I entirely take your point on that…” Munn responded.
However, it was the Committee’s focus on the FCO’s apparent failure of oversight with respect to alleged corruption in the TCI that made news and dominated the session.
Committee members seemed especially concerned at the volume of complaints Turks and Caicos Islanders submitted to the FAC.
“The largest number of memoranda that this committee has received from a single overseas territory has come from the Turks & Caicos Islands, both public memo and memoranda sent to us privately,” said Sir John.
But the Committee’s most forceful questioning of Munn stemmed from its own findings on the torching of the office of the UK-appointed attorney general and on the sudden departure of the UK-appointed chief auditor.
Again, Sir John expressed the FAC’s concern:
“[I]s it not a matter of the utmost concern when the attorney general’s house, sorry office, was arsoned a few months ago and when he sought additional security and protection from the foreign commonwealth office he was told that this is not a matter of the Foreign Office even though the Foreign Office has specific responsibility under the constitution for internal security in the TCI?
“And is it also not a matter of equal concern that the chief auditor – whose term of office expires about today and is about to leave the islands, if he hasn’t done so already – he is not being replaced because the Foreign Office have not found a replacement for him and that the appointment is now the subject of a local job share by existing members of his staff?”
In response, Munn and Turner seemed to have no clue about the facts and circumstances involved. Moreover, they appeared to deflect blame to Britain’s governor in the TCI, His Excellency Richard Tauwhare. Because they indicated that the governor – who “has a weekly police briefing from the head of the police force and [knows] what is happening and what can be done ” – sounded no alarm and did not keep them properly informed.
This response provoked an apparently outraged Sir John Stanley to say: “I have listened to your official’s response and I have to say I am shocked and appalled on those two issues by the response which he has given.
“It is I think disgraceful that apparently nobody in the Foreign Office is aware that the attorney general requested additional security following the arsoning of his office and was fobbed off by saying that this is not a matter for the Foreign Office. And I think it is quite appalling that your department in London is unaware that we face a key vacancy right this minute in the post of chief auditor.”
Committee member, Greg Pope MP, followed Sir John’s reprimand with an equally damning observation about the spectre of corruption in the TCI and, by implication, about the FCO’s failure to ensure good governance in this Overseas Territory:
“[W]hen we hold inquiries the committee receives lots of written evidence….. Typically, a handful of the evidence that we receive, the senders request confidentiality. With the TCI, a very large number of people did. This is a real concern.
“When we were there, let me put this in context, the only other place I’ve been to where people insisted on confidentiality of this kind was in [China]. I’m just shocked that in some place with the Union Jack on the flag people are doing that.”
Much of the Committee’s questions raised the prospect of a commission of inquiry on corruption in the TCI. And when members finally pressed Munn on the necessity of establishing one to investigate their findings, she responded:
“I am very exercised about what I’m hearing from your visit…. I have a completely open mind on this and in terms of establishing a commission of inquiry…. So far there has not been sufficient evidence that’s been stood up in order to proceed with a commission of inquiry. And if we had evidence we would want to see that happen.”
This apparently casual approach seemed unlikely to satisfy the FAC, however. In fact, Committee member Paul Keetch MP, summed up the FAC’s view of the “evidence that’s been stood up” by saying: “The three of us were quite astonished at what we discovered.”
In addition, FAC members left little doubt that they expected their view of the evidence to prevail in the House of Commons and that the appointment of a commission of inquiry is warranted.
“[I]f the Governor wants to appoint a commission of inquiry, which he has the power to do, without consulting the Cabinet, he expects it to pay for it, but we will not pay for it. That sounds ridiculous. If I were a Governor of one of these places, and wanted to appoint a commission of inquiry, I would expect Her Majesty’s Government to pay…,” Keetch added.
“Can you give us an assurance that, if the Governor of the Turks and Caicos Islands wanted to commission an inquiry, and the local Cabinet refused to fund it, we would?” he then inquired.
Turner responded that this was “not the normal way of doing business” but that “in theory, yes”, it was possible.
Keetch persisted: “But he could?”
Munn and Turner responded in unison: “Yes, yes….”
Keetch persisted further:
“I accept that, but there was some confusion about this: if he wanted to, could the Governor appoint a commission of inquiry?”
To which Munn responded: “Yes.”
The Committee is scheduled to make a report to the House of Commons by the end of July. The UK g
overnment will then have two months to reply to the findings in its report.
[Efforts by Caribbean Net News to obtain comments on the FAC’s proceedings from the government and opposition party in the TCI proved to be unsuccessful by press time.]
Since so many of you have e-mailed asking for my personal opinion on this report, here it is:
I find it instructive that members of the FAC were “astonished … shocked and appalled” by what they discovered on their fact-finding mission to the TCI. Because their outrage manifests recognition of the British government’s untenable neglect of its duties and responsibilities to ensure good governance in our country.
Alas, outrage is not sufficient to hold TCI government officials accountable for their corrupt practices. If it were, the disaffected, disillusioned and disgusted people of the TCI would have done so long ago. Instead, we need the British to honor their constitutional obligations to us by convening a commission of inquiry – not only to investigate the vast scope of these allegations, but also to recover public funds that have been misappropriated.
Only such a commission would have the authority to conduct the forensic examination of bank accounts, sales of Crown Lands, and business transactions that have given probable cause to suspect that Premier Michael Misick and his cabinet ministers are ruling over us like African Kleptomaniacs.
Whatever the extent of their ill-gotten gains, however, it redounds to the shame of the British government that TCI officials have been allowed to perpetrate such brazen fraud and abuse. Indeed, just imagine the irony of Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe having just cause to tell Prime Minister Gordon Brown to clean up corruption in his own territory before lecturing him about good governance.
Frankly, a commission of inquiry is long overdue; notwithstanding Minister Munn’s dithering on this point. After all, if she is clueless about dire matters relating to her own appointees in the TCI (namely, the attorney general and the chief auditor), then it’s hardly surprising that she is even more clueless about the mountain of evidence that makes this commission so absolutely necessary.