A government proposal to combine the Cayman Islands Complaints Commissioner’s office and the Information Commissioner’s office, as well as adding a proposed police complaints function – all under one “super ombudsman” – will weaken all those agencies and might even be unconstitutional, the outgoing complaints commissioner said Thursday.
In a four-page statement released Thursday, Complaints Commissioner Nicola Williams called such a proposal a “retrograde step.”
The Cayman Compass reported last month that civil service officials were awaiting a Cabinet decision on whether such a new ombudsman office should be formed. The complaints commissioner and information commissioner’s offices have already been moved into the same floor of a George Town office building.
Although it is mandated in local law, a police complaints commission or authority has never been formed. A representative of the deputy governor’s office told the Compass last month that it could be scrapped in favor of the proposal to merge the functions of the three offices into one.
“It will serve to weaken and diminish [the complaints commissioner’s office],” Ms. Williams said Thursday. “I am sure that is not the intention of the government or [the governor]. Splicing together disparate bodies with completely different functions whose only common thread is oversight is not, in my opinion, good governance.
“In addition, because the [complaints commissioner] is protected under the Cayman Islands Constitution, any such proposed merger will be unconstitutional without amendment.”
Ms. Williams, who previously served with the U.K. Independent Police Complaints Commission, said she favors the establishment of an independent body to deal with police complaints and believes the complaints commissioner’s office could still handle that function, if it has the proper resources.
“[I] hope that, whether it is a stand-alone body or the powers of the [complaints commissioner] are eventually widened to include this, that it will be properly resourced on an ongoing basis,” she said. “Without [this], it will not be effective and will not gain the trust and confidence of the general public.”
Ms. Williams’s last day in office is Friday, Jan. 9. She announced last year that she would be leaving the office ahead of the end of her contract in August to take up a post as ombudsman for the U.K. armed forces.
Concerns about the office
Her memo also expressed concern about the current state of the complaints commissioner’s office, which has no deputy commissioner – the only chief officer post in government that does not have a deputy – a situation that creates a leadership vacuum. For now, Bridgette von Gerhardt, the complaints commissioner’s administrative and investigative officer, will assume the duties of acting complaints commissioner.
“This presents an inherent problem for succession planning in the civil service if…such a key gap at senior level remains,” Ms. Williams said.
During Ms. Williams’s five-year tenure, the complaints commissioner handled thousands of private complaints and conducted three publicly released investigations known as “own-motion investigations” that focused on broader issues of public concern.
Those areas included the Cayman Islands private sector pension scheme, health and safety in the local construction industry, and issues surrounding whistleblowing – the reporting of wrongdoing – in the public and private sectors.
“I am extremely disappointed in the glacial pace that government is moving to comply with all of our recommendations,” Ms. Williams said, particularly in the areas of pensions and health and safety issues that were largely dependent on legislative changes to address the concerns. Health and safety legislation for the construction industry is now 30 months late, she said, and the government has indicated it will not get to reforms in the National Pensions Law until 2016.
The whistleblowing report, which was released last year, has led to the drafting of stand-alone legislation aimed at protecting disclosures of wrongdoing.
“If passed and enacted in the draft I have seen, [it] would…allay the concerns of one person interviewed who stated that ‘if you were to blow the whistle, you would have to accept hell and damnation coming down on you,’” Ms. Williams said, quoting from her earlier report. “[The new bill] would have been very useful to civil servants, given recent topical events.”