Whatever the reasons for the premier’s attempts to fast-track residency and belongership applications, the genie is out of the bottle: The eruption of heated arguments for and against the proposal exposed extreme, divisive undercurrents in our society which conflict with the post-Imaria aims of Unite BVI.
I am proposing a roadmap aimed at reconciling them on the path to constitutional change.
Before considering further constitutional change, we should establish the Human Rights Commission provided for under the 2007 Constitution and enact the electoral reforms recommended by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association’s Election Observer Mission, whose final report on this year’s general election is due out very soon.
Human rights must be considered non-negotiable, but every country and territory should have clearly defined immigration, labour and land ownership laws, so the Virgin Islands should replace the use of “indigenous” and “belonger” with internationally recognised terms. This measure could incidentally be achieved by the phased reintroduction of income tax (zero-rated, but not abolished).
The reformed tax system could be underpinned by the different obligations, rights and privileges attached to domiciliary or residency status in England, while employing a more equitable and efficient means of raising government revenue and funding the National Health Insurance and giving the VI a chance to rid itself of being called a “dirty tax haven.”
Under English tax law, domicile is acquired at birth, a status extremely hard to change. However, residency status may depend on such criteria as having sufficient family, home and employment ties to the country or territory over a given period, together with the length of time actually spent there relatively to any other single country.
Benito Wheatley, the VI’s special envoy, has urged the United Kingdom Parliament to back a modern partnership with the VI and other OTs based on self-governance and respect for their constitutional arrangements. He welcomed the UK government’s rejection of using orders in council to force the OTs to adopt the Foreign Affairs Committee’s recent proposals, like ending belongership status and imposing public company registers by 2020.
However, we should not turn our backs on the FAC, for three reasons: the possibility that the current UK government may be replaced shortly by one less sympathetic towards the OTs’ constitutional status; the unprecedented amount of our public’s views on our future fed back to its enquiry; and the desirability of keeping open the dialogue between us.
We might discuss, for example, the possibility raised during the enquiry of OT representation in the UK Parliament.
Caribbean OTs with larger populations, like Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands, might be acceptable in the Commons as single constituencies, but Anguilla, the VI and Montserrat would probably need to combine in one, or be attached to UK constituencies as Gibraltar was with southwest England for the European Union elections. However, we might find OT representation in the House of Lords a simpler option with less onerous obligations.
West Indians inherit customs and traditions from all over the world, influenced by a variety of Western European cultures and languages. A Guyanese politician’s wife used to teach London schoolchildren about all “the people who came (to the Caribbean),” including European settlers and indentured servants, African slaves and the Asian indentured servants imported after emancipation.
Petitioners to the United Nations Special Committee from the Turks and Caicos Islands expressed similar concerns to those raised in the VI when they complained about native-born people’s human rights being violated by unbridled immigration; exclusion from middle and upper management by foreign firms; and loss of land to outsiders.
Regional integration should facilitate free movement within the OECS’s borders by citizens of member states, with clearly defined common rights and privileges (e.g. access to health care); and promoting free trade, especially fresh food produce. The VI could offer Montserrat and Anguilla spaces in its London House and plan joint tourist publicity, with input from local residents from those islands.
Recognition by the UN
Despite a former Legislative Council member’s opposition to a UN Special Committee mission visiting the VI, we should study the relationships between French and Dutch Caribbean countries and their former administrative powers, which led to their removal from the UN list of non-self-governing territories.
A report by the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean emphasised the need for NSGTs to integrate into the UN regional and wider systems in readiness for self-government. However, a former UN Special Committee Chair has questioned the success of its approach to meeting the General Assembly’s injunction to facilitate the NSGTs’ participation in its seminars.
I was greatly heartened by being invited by a variety of UN agencies to attend regional seminars and workshops as chief librarian in the mid-1980s. It provided me with an invaluable introduction to my new colleagues and other jurisdictions in the region. We should consider being represented at its meeting in New York in February 2020 and, through the UK, offer to host Caribbean regional seminar here in 2021.