Lord Zac Goldsmith, then the United Kingdom minister for overseas territories, visits the Virgin Islands in January 2023. (File Photo: GIS)

LONDON — Britain has “fallen short” in the way it deals with the Virgin Islands and other overseas territories, former United Kingdom OT Minister Lord Zac Goldsmith has warned.

In an interview with The BVI Beacon, the Conservative politician also appeared to urge caution by the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office amid the tense political stand-off triggered when former governor John Rankin asked London to give his successor extra powers which he claimed are needed to speed up anti-corruption measures recommended by the Commission of Inquiry.

Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley strongly opposes Mr. Rankin’s request, and he was backed in that stance by the Organisation of Eastern Caribbean States, which called the move an “undemocratic” throwback to “the colonial era.”

Balance ‘nearly right’

While Lord Goldsmith declined to comment directly on the implementation of the COI reforms, the ex-minister praised Dr. Wheatley’s past efforts and stressed that as much power as possible should be exercised by elected VI representatives.

“On the question of our future relationship, I think the balance is nearly right,” he told the Beacon in a written response to a series of questions. “The relationship is based on mutual consent, and so when we speak of the ‘family,’ I think that captures it well.”

“But I do believe we need to rethink the power structures that currently exist such that genuinely ‘island’ issues, or local issues, are determined by locally elected governments and not by Westminster.”

Other issues, however, are “inherently much bigger” and require a “whole-of-UK-and-OT approach,” he added.

“I hope this is something that will become clear as the FCDO concludes its [ongoing] review into the UK-OT relationships,” he stated.

Time as minister

Though Mr. Rankin gave a stinging assessment of the VI government’s efforts in implementing COI measures in his last quarterly report this month, Lord Goldsmith said that during his time as OT minister Dr. Wheatley had appeared “determined” to put the situation right.

The Tory member of the House of Lords, who took over the OT brief in September 2022, quit the post last June in protest at what he saw as a series of U-turns by British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on policies aimed at combating the climate crisis.

While still OT minister, Lord Goldsmith had told Mr. Rankin last April that the VI government’s implementation of the COI reforms had been “too slow.”

Lord Goldsmith noted in a letter — which the then-governor released to the public — that he was “particularly concerned that there have been signs of insufficient commitment in some specific areas” of the implementation.

“Too many areas lag substantially behind, and I am concerned that much of what has been delivered so far does not yet represent genuine legislative reform and safeguards to prevent future abuse,” he wrote.

At the time, Lord Goldsmith set a May 2024 deadline for the reforms to be in place. This, he said, would allow for the lifting of the order in council that allows the governor to partially suspend the Virgin Islands Constitution and implement temporary direct rule by the UK.

Now, that May deadline has been extended to November, and the order in council remains in place.

‘Serious difficulties’

But Lord Goldsmith told the Beacon this month that he believes Dr. Wheatley is committed to carrying out the COI reforms.

“BVI has faced very serious difficulties with corruption and poor governance, but in all my meetings with Premier Wheatley I have seen a real determination to get things back on track,” he stated. “It is obviously imperative that this happens, as the reputation — and, consequently, the success and prosperity — of the BVI and its wonderful people are at stake.”

Lord Goldsmith also expressed criticism over how various UK government departments deal with the VI and other OTs.

He said he fought hard for the British prime minister to heed his calls for major reforms in how the relationship is handled.

UK ‘falling short’

Urging greater coordination on a range of subjects, including green issues, Lord Goldsmith stated, “I personally have worked with many of our OTs for many years but always in the context of climate and the environment. It wasn’t until I became minister for the OTs that I could see that the UK was falling short in numerous ways.”

To help address these shortcomings, he said, he made various recommendations.

“The FCDO team works extremely hard and is made up of highly committed people, but many of the levers of delivery for the OTs are in other government departments, and OTs are not always sufficiently high on the agenda,” he stated.

“I lobbied the PM hard to establish a council of ministers from across government to meet regularly to ensure a better and more coordinated and effective partnership. I encourage my successors to really make use of that new body.”

Green policies

The ex-minister expressed concern that Mr. Sunak’s reversal of pro-green policies would have a detrimental impact on the VI.

“The UK has gone from a position of hard-earned global leadership on climate and the environment to being seen as an unreliable partner,” Lord Goldsmith stated. “In terms of tackling the grave issues we face, that is deeply irresponsible. But it also harms the UK and its wider family as it has weakened our influence on a range of other issues.”

Climate-vulnerable nations, he noted, have registered Britain’s backpedalling as “a betrayal” and may shy away from supporting the UK on other geopolitical issues.

“For OTs like the BVI, the UK should be taking much bigger steps to facilitate investment in climate mitigation and adaptation,” he added.

“It doesn’t always have to be about direct grants and could involve making better use of instruments like … export finance, but one way or another, the UK should be attempting to match the very visible and real ambition of many of our OTs with better access to finance.” Lord Goldsmith, a vocal supporter of marriage equality in the UK, would not be drawn on whether he was disappointed that OT governments like those in the VI and Bermuda had rejected reform.

“On equal marriage, this is something I voted for in the UK Parliament, and of course I continue to support it,” he wrote. “But, much as the issue is important to me, I maintain that the OTs should be able to make decisions of this sort on their own terms, through their own democratically accountable governments — as long as the decisions they take are also aligned with international law.”

Parliament review

A sub-committee of the UK Parliament was set up last November to examine how the FCDO manages its relationships with the 14 OTs, which have a combined population of 270,000.

At the time, sub-committee chairwoman Alicia Kearns decried a “lack of parliamentary engagement” with the OTs in the past.

“Many other countries have done a far better job than the UK at ensuring that parliaments pro- vide a forum for residents of overseas territories to discuss areas of concern,” Ms. Kearns said. “It has been a decade since the government released a paper on its approach to overseas territories.

“Government departments, and, principally, the Foreign Office, must be held accountable for their relationships with the overseas territories.”

Meanwhile, an inquiry by the UK Parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on Britain’s future relationship with the OTs is expected to report shortly.

When the inquiry was announced, committee chairman William Wragg said, “We recognise that there is no ‘one size fits all’ framework for relations between the UK and the overseas territories, but, by better understanding how existing arrangements operate in practice we can better assess whether they are satisfactory and appropriate in the 21st Century.”

The FCDO did not respond to a request for comment.