Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley and other government officials traveled to the Joint Ministerial Council meeting in the United Kingdom in May 2023. File photo: PROVIDED

Over the past five years, the government spent nearly $3.5 million on foreign travel expenses including accommodation, transportation, subsistence and warm clothing allowances, according to Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley.

About 43 percent — just over $1.5 million — was spent last year, with some $760,000 spent in 2022, about $885,000 spent from February through December in 2019, and the remainder of around $328,000 divided over the pandemic years of 2020 and 2021.

The premier provided information on the spending last week in the House of Assembly after opposition member Myron Walwyn (R-D6) asked him for totals from 2019 to date.

Transportation costs accounted for more than half of the total expenses, at $1.8 million, while accommodation costs made up approximately 30 percent of the total, at just over $1 million, according to a breakdown provided by the Premier’s Office after the HOA sitting.

The agency with the highest spending over the period in question was the Ministry of Finance, at about $1 million — nearly 30 percent of the total.

The Premier’s Office spent the second most (about $790,000), followed by the constitutionally established departments (about $620,000); the Ministry of Education, Youth Affairs and Sports (about $395,000); and the Ministry of Communications and Works (about $100,000).

In 2020 — the year the Covid-19 pandemic was declared in March — there was a sharp drop in spending, from about $885,000 in 2019 to a little under $185,000. The following year saw the lowest total, of about $144,000.

By 2022, spending was back on the rise: It was over five times greater than the previous year, just exceeding $760,000. This total cost nearly doubled again in 2023, to about $1.5 million.

Follow-up questions

Mr. Walwyn also followed up with supplemental questions.

For instance, he asked how the premier reconciled a jump to $2.8 million budgeted for 2024 travel. His question, however, appeared to include funds earmarked for domestic travel as well as foreign travel: The 2024 budget estimate total for expenses categorised as “foreign” is just under $2.3 million.

In defending the 2024 figures, Dr. Wheatley noted that “important trips” are planned, such as one to Hong Kong.

“Persons will know the majority of our companies are incorporated from that Asian region,” he said. “And of course, it becomes necessary every now and again to be able to go there and … dialogue with those persons who use … our corporate structures.”

He added that he would be happy to provide further information.

“We don’t have anything to hide,” he said, adding, “The only reason we’re traveling is to do the work of the people.”

Nearly doubled

Mr. Walwyn also asked why expenditures nearly doubled from 2022 to 2023.

Dr. Wheatley, however, responded by comparing the 2019 and 2023 figures. The lower spending in 2019, according to the premier, was partially attributable to the fact that it was an election year and the new government was settling in.

“By [2023], of course, you have persons who have been seasoned into the ministries and are more aware and more involved in international fora and events,” he said. “And perhaps if we break it down, we’ll probably see some specific events that contributed to the cost.”

Prior years

Dr. Wheatley also attempted to provide the House with figures from 2013 to 2018, when the National Democratic Party led the government and Mr. Walwyn served as a minister.

But Mr. Walwyn insisted that the premier — who currently heads the Virgin Islands Party, which has led the government since 2019 — only answer his supplemental questions.

Dr. Wheatley retorted, “Madam Speaker, I notice that the member really doesn’t want to hear the numbers for travel between 2013 to 2018. And he’ll discover that there’s nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, travel during the 2019-to-2023 period is far less than the period before. There’s really nothing out of the ordinary when you look at between 2013 and 2018.”

Though Dr. Wheatley ultimately didn’t provide the earlier numbers to the HOA, he provided them to the Beacon afterwards on request.

The information he provided shows that government spent a total of $8.6 million on foreign travel during the six years from 2013 to 2018.

This spending averages about $1.4 million per year compared to the nearly $700,000 average from 2019-2023.

However, with the omission of 2020 and 2021 — when the territory implemented various travel restrictions due to the Covid-19 pandemic — the 2019-2023 average rises to just over $1 million.

Overall, the year with the highest cost was 2013, with a total spending of some $2.2 million, while the year with the lowest cost was 2021, with a total spending of about $145,000.