By Caribbean News Now contributor
ROAD TOWN, BVI — Britain’s Foreign Office Minister for the Overseas Territories, Lord Tariq Ahmad of Wimbledon, visited the British Virgin Islands this week to discuss hurricane preparedness and see progress on recovery from last year’s devastation.
On his two-day visit, the minister visited a number of public sites affected by last year’s hurricanes with Premier Dr Orlando Smith. He saw how UK support is helping recovery efforts, and officially handed over the new purpose-built temporary Court House to the government, which will allow the Supreme Court and Magistrates’ Court to function fully again whilst a permanent building is constructed.
Ahmad also visited RFA Mounts Bay, which will remain in the region throughout the hurricane season to provide rapid assistance to islands if needed. He met with the board of the Recovery and Development Agency to hear about their progress and efforts to deliver the six-month accelerated plan ahead of endorsement of the longer term recovery and development plan by the BVI House of Assembly.
Speaking ahead of the visit, Ahmad said: “The UK has played a critical role in assisting the region to recover from last year’s unprecedented and devastating hurricanes, providing aid and support to help British Overseas Territories.
“However, I know there is still more to be done before the islands are fully recovered and the UK stands ready to help. We are already working with partners across the Caribbean to make sure plans are being put in place to prepare for future hurricanes so we do not see a repeat of last year’s destruction.”
Lord Ahmad and Governor Gus Jaspert arriving at RFA Mounts Bay, docked in Road Town, BVI
The formal handover of the new temporary court house to the BVI government
The Minister visited a number of sites with the BVI Premier Dr Orlando Smith, including this hurricane shelter
Also at the hurricane shelter
The Minister also visited the power station
Ahmad also sought to address concerns about the UK’s Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act, holding talks with the premier and the Cabinet to discuss the issue as well as meeting members of the financial services industry to hear their views.
The minister also met with business and tourism representatives.
Ahmad addressed some of these issues in a brief interview with Caribbean News Now.
While the stated primary purpose of his visit to the BVI was to discuss hurricane preparedness and see progress on recovery, following the extensive damage caused last year by hurricanes, the British government came in for some criticism for a perceived “too little, too late” response in relation to the OTs of Anguilla and the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI), especially when compared to a more effective immediate response by France and the Netherlands in their respective current and former territories.
When asked what steps have been taken to avoid a repeat of this situation, Ahmad said, “I would challenge the premise of your question.”
He said that when Hurricane Irma hit the BVI, the governor was in ongoing contact with London, providing first-hand insight into the security and other challenges.
“UK support for the BVI arrived within 48 hours with assistance to meet the immediate requirements,” Ahmad said.
However, he acknowledged that there is always room for improvement, in particular to put in place a coordinated response to such events.
Overall, he said, we only had to ask the premiers of the respective territories to know that they were happy with the level of ministerial engagement in London.
While this may or may not be the case with regard to British response to natural disasters in the region, such satisfaction does not apparently extend to the overall relationship with the UK, especially in the case of the TCI where the current premier, Sharlene Cartwright-Robinson, reportedly wishes to have nothing to do with the British governor, John Freeman, and in fact her party recently called on him to resign.
As to how he planned to address the Overseas Territories’ expressed concerns about the UK’s Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act, especially the apparent discrimination in favour of the Crown Dependencies, Ahmad said the British government did not desire to be placed in this position.
He pointed out that he had himself spoken out strongly in favour of the OTs during the debate in the House of Lords but, ultimately, the British government was obliged to defer to the will of parliament, both as regards the matter of public records generally and also in relation to the perceived discrimination in favour of Crown Dependencies.
However, it is the British government’s position that appropriate accessibility of public records should be an international standard and it recognises the steps already taken by the OTs in this regard.
Ahmad welcomed the opportunity to work with the BVI’s financial sector in this area and to do so constructively.
Nevertheless, as a result of the imposed will of the UK parliament, where the OTs have no representation, there has been much talk of required constitutional change in the OTs, something that has been resisted by the British government, notably in 2015 in the case of the TCI.
Asked if the British government’s posture has changed in this respect or if it remains the same, Ahmad said that London’s position was informed by the 2012 White Paper, which stated that the current arrangements are the right ones.
Nonetheless, he said that the OTs can put forward suggestions for constitutional reform and Britain is open to discussing them at all levels across government.
“We are always open to discussion,” he emphasised.
According to reports from at least one territory, it would seem that the OTs cannot enter into public-private partnerships for major infrastructure projects, or even commence negotiations, without British government approval, which is said to take an extremely long time to be forthcoming, if at all, thus creating significant difficulties for elected governments, given that the process could extend from start to finish beyond their term in office.
Asked is there is any willingness on the part of the British government to streamline this process, Ahmad said it had never been raised as an issue to the best of his knowledge.
“Technical support is always available and we are very open to any proposal. We are anxious that the Overseas Territories should prosper and progress,” he said.
Caribbean News Now has received unconfirmed reports that Britain is planning to engage (or re-engage) the Caribbean region, including the independent states, more aggressively in the future and we asked Ahmad if there was any truth in this.
He noted that Britain always encouraged a greater level of engagement with the region, especially so far as the private sector is concerned and also greater involvement on the part of the Caribbean Diaspora, which has significant potential to be influential in the progress of the region.
Doug Parnell, an elected member of the TCI’s House of Assembly and chairman of the ruling Peoples Democratic Movement, welcomed the minister’s statement that he is open to a discussion on the topic of constitutional reform and expressed the hope that this would lead to fresh negotiations.
“Perhaps 2015 might have been too soon in the eyes of the UK but most people in the TCI feel it’s time for constitutional change now,” he said.
“The 2011 constitution evolved because of the political environment created by the former administration under Michael Misick between 2003 and 2009. Those days are more than a decade past and Turks and Caicos Islanders need change,” he continued.
“That said, Britain should bear in mind that fair-minded Turks and Caicos Islanders are not anti-British, we are simply pro-TCI in wanting what’s best for our homeland,” Parnell concluded.
In the Cayman Islands, where calls have also been made for constitutional reform, a public petition is currently circulating to appoint senior civil servant Franz Manderson as the territory’s full-time governor, following the recent “temporary withdrawal” of Governor Anwar Choudhury by London pending the outcome of an unspecified investigation.
In the BVI, where Ahmad was visiting this week, on May 24, 2018, approximately 5,000 residents gathered in Road Town to march from the House of Assembly onto the grounds of Government House in protest against the actions of the British Parliament that threatened their economic survival.
So strong was the sentiment against these actions that deputy premier of the BVI, Dr Kedrick Pickering, was quoted as saying: “We need to ensure that we understand the real issue and where we stand here today, that we have declared open war on the UK with respect to this Sanction and Anti-Money Laundering Amendment Bill; we have declared war because we do not agree. So, we have to be prepared to fight.”
In Bermuda, member of parliament, Christopher Famous, echoed these sentiments, saying, “Simply put, it reminds us that this country, our country is really run by those in the UK.”