Governor rejects bid for inquiry
A bid to set up a commission to look at allegations of historic land grabs has been rejected by Governor George Fergusson.
But last night PLP MP Walton Brown — who piloted the motion to set up a probe through the House of Assembly — said he would not give up the fight for an inquiry.
He said: “The Governor has disrespected the will of the people in disregarding the call from Parliament for a Commission of Inquiry.
And he added: “The Governor has now thrown down the gauntlet and we will respond.”
The Governor’s decision followed a vote in the House last week to ask that a Commission of Inquiry should be established to look at “historic losses in Bermuda of citizens’ property through theft of property, dispossession of property, and adverse possession claims” and for compensation if the claims were proved.
But Mr Fergusson said in a letter delivered yesterday to Speaker of the House Randy Horton that the debate had “raised serious concerns of public interest. Some may well be worth further examination. But they are not clear enough or urgent enough to require a Commission of the type proposed”.
But he appeared to not rule out an inquiry in the future if more information on alleged abuses was to be revealed.
Mr Brown put the motion forward last Friday and it passed with support from Government MP Suzann Roberts-Holshouser after several members linked to the Mid Ocean Club disqualified themselves from voting.
He wanted the inquiry to look at land purchases in Tucker’s Town in the 1920s, when people were removed from the area to create homes in a bid to boost the tourism industry and the compulsory purchase of land in the 1940s to create an airfield for the US Army and Bermuda’s airport.
Mr Brown also wanted an examination of the circumstances surrounding a series of transactions in the 1950s-70s “where concerns were expressed in the House about possible injustices arising from systematic collusive behaviour between lawyers, bankers and estate agents.”
The Governor has powers to order a Commission of Inquiry under a 1935 law, with the costs paid for out of the Consolidated Fund.
But Mr Fergusson wrote: “I have concluded that these concerns are neither so clear nor so urgent as to justify my taking the still unusual step of commissioning an inquiry under the 1935 Act.
“I am also conscious that such an inquiry would incur expenditure under the 1935 Act, which does not appear to have been the settled wish of the House, from either side of the debate.”
The Governor added that both the Tucker’s Town and US base compulsory purchases “appear to have been completed broadly in accordance with the normal principles of compulsory purchase for public objectives, with measures in place to help ensure fair prices.”
He said: “In neither of these cases do I consider that there is a specific enough case that injustices were done that would merit the establishment of a Commission now.”
And he said he could not approve an inquiry into accusations of abuses by professionals, whether individually or collectively, in the 1950s-70s.
Mr Fergusson said: “I have not seen suggestions that such abuses involved civil servants or the conduct or management of a department of the public service in a way which would justify inquiry by a commission under those criteria.
“I would need to be satisfied that abuses by non-official agents were pervasive, systematic and on a scale to cause significant injustice to make them the subject of a Commission of Inquiry so long after the alleged events.
“I would also need to be clear, under the 1935 Act, that such an inquiry would ‘serve the public welfare’.”
Mr Fergusson said that alternative funding arrangements for an inquiry might be possible, but that would go beyond the terms of the motion and his own powers — and he ruled out the UK paying for a probe.
He added: “Whatever alternative mechanism for an inquiry might otherwise be looked at, it may be useful to set out for the record that I see no case for asking Her Majesty’s Government in the United Kingdom to consider funding an investigation into allegations of commercial transactions not involving the Crown, if such funding is not forthcoming from Bermuda.
“Bermuda is proud of its high degree of autonomy as a British Overseas Territory. It is a long time since Bermuda’s commercial and private land law has been supervised from the United Kingdom and this does not seem to me to be a compelling issue on which to reverse that.”
Mr Fergusson added: “I would be open to consider this again, however, if the House gave me clearer references to the kinds of alleged abuses concerned and a clearer mandate for me to incur expenses from the Consolidated Fund.”