Commonwealth: Row over report into secretariat’s financeson June 21, 2022 at 11:43 pm

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The row over delays in releasing the report comes as Baroness Scotland seeks a second term as the body’s head.

Commonwealth boss Lady ScotlandImage source, Getty Images

Baroness Scotland, Secretary General of the Commonwealth, is involved in a bitter dispute with the organisation’s 54 member states – only days before she asks them for a second term of office, the BBC has learned.

The Commonwealth Secretariat – the administration led by Lady Scotland – is suppressing an independent review of its finances that is understood to contain criticisms of the way it has been run.

Kevin Isaac, chairman of the Commonwealth Board of Governors – which represents all member states – said the decision by the secretariat to withhold the report was “an affront” to the board’s authority.

A spokesman for the secretariat said it had factual concerns about the report.

In a letter, seen by the BBC, Mr Isaac, who is High Commissioner of St Kitts and Nevis in London, writes: “The secretariat’s decision to bar the chair access to the report is an affront to the mandate given to the chair by the board.”

He adds: “The chair regrets and challenges the position taken by the secretariat which demonstrates an indifference to the board’s oversight authority”.

‘Sustainable financial footing’

The dispute comes as Commonwealth heads of government prepare to gather this week in Rwanda for a summit where they will decide if they want Lady Scotland to have a second term of office.

Jamaica’s foreign minister, Kamina Johnson Smith, is standing against the Labour peer and has the public backing of seven member states, including India and the UK.

UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told MPs on Tuesday the UK was backing Ms Johnson Smith “to ensure that the Commonwealth delivers for all its members in areas such as trade, investment and defending democracy”.

Earlier this year the Commonwealth Board – which takes decisions on behalf of heads of government in between summits – asked Lady Scotland’s secretariat to commission an independent review into the way the organisation was financed.

According to Mr Isaac’s letter, addressed to all 53 other Commonwealth governors, the review was designed to advise on “how to put the secretariat on a more sustainable financial footing”.

Some Commonwealth member states have reduced the amount of money they give to the secretariat, with total funding for the body falling over the past decade from about £50m to about £30m.

Global accountancy firm Ernst & Young was commissioned to carry out the review and its report was finally delivered to the secretariat on 1 June. But since then the secretariat has refused to share the report with the board.

When Mr Isaac asked why, a secretariat official told him: “The secretariat’s position remains that we are unable to share the report, but will do so as a matter of urgency after obtaining external advice to protect the position of the secretariat as contract manager.”

Commonwealth sources say although the review was designed to look at ways of improving the secretariat’s funding, they suspect it contains criticisms voiced by some high commissioners about the way the organisation has been run.

In his letter, Mr Isaac says he understands the assessments of senior managers at the secretariat “differ from certain perspectives or reflections contained” within the report.

He argues that because the board commissioned the report, the secretariat has no right to withhold it. He says that if the secretariat disagrees with aspects of the report, then it can say so in a separate addendum: “It does not have the option not to release the report to the governors.”

One Commonwealth insider said the report was being suppressed to ensure its contents were not made public while Lady Scotland was seeking re-election at the summit in Kigali.

But allies of Lady Scotland dispute this assessment and have questioned the quality of the report. It is understood the Commonwealth Secretariat is taking legal advice about how to respond.

A spokesperson for the secretariat said: “The secretariat received this report late and, when we did receive the final version, we raised factual and other concerns with the consultant about the draft we received.

“We still have concerns and therefore we are obtaining external advice to protect the position of the secretariat as contract manager. We hope to resolve matters, hopefully amicably, as soon as possible.”

Both Mr Isaac and Ernst & Young declined to comment.

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