With a thriving financial services sector and a safe and reliable place to do business, the British Virgin Islands is important not only as one of the UK’s Overseas Territories but as a partner to the City of London.
Under the BVI constitution, responsibilities are shared between the elected Government, led by me as premier, and the governor appointed by the UK. This unusual structure has, at times, created tensions between the two parts of government, but until earlier this year any issues have been managed between the parties.
In January 2021, the outgoing governor of the Virgin Islands, Augustus Jaspert called a Commission of Inquiry (CoI) to look into whether corruption, abuse of office or other serious dishonesty may have taken place amongst public, elected and statutory officials in recent years. This was done under a 19th century piece of legislation and without communication or consultation with the elected government.
Despite our concern about how the CoI was established, the government and its officials have co-operated and engaged with it, sharing over 100,000 documents and dedicated over 100 hours to public hearings, often called with little notice. Having reached the CoI’s six-month deadline, the Commission is yet to find any evidence of corruption, abuse of office or other serious dishonesty.
The response has not been to wind it up, but to double down, granting a six-month extension, without any consultation or clarity on the schedule for investigation. This has been done at a time when the Government and its public officials are grappling with our most dangerous Covid-19 outbreak since the beginning of the pandemic coinciding with the start of the Caribbean Hurricane season. It is perhaps unsurprising that there is concern within these islands at what is seen as an unnecessary and unwise diversion of scarce time and resources.
There is no doubt that, like in the UK, there are improvements that can be made to government and governance in the BVI. Prior to the calling of the CoI the elected Government had introduced a reform package of new legislation to make the jurisdiction and its government even more accountable and transparent. Legislation is currently being read to strengthen anti-money laundering and whistle-blower legislation, facilitate the seizing of proceeds of crime and further strengthening the legislative framework for the Financial Services industry. In turn we call upon the UK to use its experience to support our young country with training, development and capacity building, rather than waste the hard-earned money of UK taxpayers (a sum still undisclosed) on another six months of a CoI.
In order to create a more sustainable governance structure for the BVI, there also needs to be an acknowledgment that the current structure where responsibilities are shared between the governor’s office and elected Government are antiquated and not fit for the 21st century.
Instead, there should a framework that provides a legal definition and associated powers for the Ministries of Government and clear demarcation of roles, responsibilities, and accountability for public servants that serve them or the Governors office.
There should be a modern partnership between the UK and the BVI based on mutual respect and an agreement between equals. Given our shared history and interests, both of us would benefit from a BVI that is supported by the UK as we navigate this next stage of the Covid crisis and emerge stronger, securing a post-pandemic economic recovery, and a financial self-sufficient and well governed Islands.