Regenvanu Responds To Vanuatu Land Lease

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Pacific Islands Development Program, East-West Center With Support From Center for Pacific Islands Studies, University of Hawai‘i

Allegations
Argues removal of documents by minister does not breach law

PORT VILA, Vanuatu (Vanuatu Daily Post, June 6, 2013) – In the weekend issue of Daily Post, allegations were raised against Minister of Land, Ralph Regenvanu that he could be in breach of the Land Leases Act following the removal of registered files within the Land Records Office.

While the First Political Adviser John Salong initially responded to the allegations raised, the minister who is currently overseas has sent his response to the story.

Regenvanu stated: "When the Daily Post journalist called the Ministry of Lands to get my response to these allegations I was on an overseas trip. When I was informed that there was an allegation, I requested through my office that the journalist wait for my reply before publishing the story. This was not possible.

"I am still overseas now, but wish to provide this statement in response to the allegations contained in the article.

"I did indeed request that all the legal instruments related to the preferential grants of state land by former Minister Kalsakau be removed from the Lands Department and placed in my office.

"The concern raised about my action in doing this relates to the provision of section 109 (2b) of the Land Leases Act that ‘any person’ who ‘removes from the Land Records Office any register or any part of any register or any instrument or plan filed in the Land Records Office’ has ‘committed an offence.’ "The allegation is that I have breached this section of the law by my actions.

"As Department of Lands staff are well aware, the Minister of Lands regularly holds files in his office as part of the usual process of approving and dealing in land (leases, consents to transfer, consents to mortgage, etc).

"The Minister is required by the Land Leases Act to approve all land dealings – in fact the Minister’s signature is required to make these dealings fully lawful and the documents legal instruments.

"Therefore it is my understanding that the Minister of Lands is not a ‘person’ within the meaning of section 109 (2)(b) of the Land Leases Act.

"This section was written to prevent a ‘person’ - i.e. not the Minister - from removing files from the Land Records Office. If section 109 (2b) was supposed to apply to the Minister, it would not have been possible for any land dealings to be approved by the Minister in past years, as all files are physically removed from the Land Records Office and provided to the Minister in his office to sign.

"This is standard practice for the last 33 years. Nevertheless, although I am confident that the section does not apply to the Minister, I have now asked the State Law Office to provide written advice on this matter for clarification.

"The files that have been removed from the Lands Records Office are legal instruments (registered and unregistered) that were created through a process of ‘preferential grants’ of State Land to staff of the Department of Lands as well as to political and business associates of the former Minister Steven Kalsakau.

"These files are the subject of two current investigations, one by the Office of the Ombudsman and one by the Public Service Commission. I made a pragmatic decision to hold all of these legal instruments in my office to prevent any further dealings occurring in the instruments given that the legality of the process to issue them is currently under investigation.

"The powers of the Public Service Commission are detailed in the Constitution of the Republic of Vanuatu (Article 60). The investigation team established by the Public Service Commission needs access to these legal instruments in order to complete their report.

"Although the Public Service Commission established their investigation team last year and although staff of the Land Records Office as public servants are required to provide the information requested by the team (in accordance with Part 34 of the Public Services Act), up until the last few weeks these staff have been obstructing the access of the investigation team to these files.

"As Minister of Lands I obtained these files to help facilitate the access of the Public Service Commission team to these important source documents and as a result the team is currently reviewing these instruments.

"I am also currently seeking advice from the State Law Office on a number of legal matters in relation to these lease instruments.

"Considering the ongoing investigations and the fact that I am seeking legal advice, I think it is prudent that the lease instruments are kept in my office for the time being, especially considering that staff of the Land Records Office are potentially implicated in the improper dealings being investigated.

"I hope this clarifies my position in relation to this matter. I sincerely hope that in the future the Daily Post will allow me to respond to these allegations before printing.

"To say that I have been in breach of the Land Leases Act is a serious matter and I am concerned that these allegations were printed without allowing time for my response," Regenvanu said.

Daily Post would like to clarify here that we did called the minister’s mobile, it rang and no one answered and then a message was left on the mobile and the story was withheld that day.

The next day the journalist went to the ministry and was told that the minister had left the country on that day.

The journalist working on the story then approached the Director and Director General but could not get a comment before Mr. John Salong, who represented the minister, responded to the allegations raised.

At no time was Daily Post told of the minister’s instructions to the ministry for the journalist to wait for his reply.

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