As Premier Andrew Fahie and other overseas territory leaders met online with their United Kingdom counterparts last week during the annual Joint Ministerial Council meeting, the UK minister in charge of the OTs tendered her resignation over a UK decision to cut foreign aid by a projected $4 billion in response to economic hardship caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Though UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson attended the virtual JMC meeting and reassured the territories of the country’s support, Mr. Fahie later described contention over the final communique’s description of the future relationship between the UK and OTs.
Baroness Liz Sugg, minister for OTs and sustainable development at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, wrote in her Nov. 25 resignation letter to Mr. Johnson that it was “fundamentally wrong” to withhold foreign financial assistance despite the pandemic.
Ms. Sugg added that significant spending cuts already occurred during the worst of the economic downturn, and she “did not believe we should reduce our support further at a time of unprecedented global crisis.”
Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, who was appointed in February, announced on Nov. 25 that the country’s foreign aid spending would be reduced from 0.7 percent to 0.5 percent of the national income despite what was promised in the Conservative election manifesto, equating to a $4 billion difference.
Mr. Sunak defended the decision during an interview with the news show Good Morning Britain last Thursday. He said 750,000 people in the UK have lost their jobs since the start of the pandemic, and predictions show more losses in the coming months.
“We’re dealing with such economic uncertainty,” Mr. Sunak said later on Sky News. “Of course it’s a difficult decision. No one wants to be having to make these difficult decisions, but this is about an economic emergency.”
Mr. Sunak also said the country is facing record levels of peacetime borrowing and debt.
But Ms. Sugg argued that the circumstances shouldn’t negate the UK’s commitments.
“Many in our country face severe challenges as a result of the pandemic, and I know the government must make very difficult choices in response,” she wrote. “But I believe it is fundamentally wrong to abandon our commitment to spend 0.7 percent of gross national income on development. This promise should be kept in the tough times as well as the good.”
The UK’s gross domestic product took a sharp dip in April, but then grew by 15.5 percent in the third quarter of the year while rebounding from the summer shutdown, according to the country’s Office for National Statistics. However, that growth started to plateau in September and remains 8.2 percent below the pre-pandemic levels in February.
“[Providing foreign aid] has also been firmly in our national interest as we tackle global issues, such as the pandemic, climate change and conflict,” Ms. Sugg added. “Cutting UK aid risks undermining your efforts to promote a global Britain and will diminish our power to influence other nations to do what is right. I cannot support or defend this decision. It is therefore right that I tender my resignation.”
Despite the aid cuts and Ms. Sugg’s announcement on the next-to-last day of the Nov. 23- 26 JMC meeting, the UK prime minister addressed the council and pledged to continue working in partnership with the territories, according to a press release from the FCDO.
“As we go forward and recover from this pandemic, we want to make sure that we build back greener and that we look after island economies that are so vulnerable to climate change,” Mr. Johnson said. “In spite of everything, of the difficulties we are going through, we remember that we are united by deep ties of kinship and friendship and history and values. We in the UK government are going to make sure we continue to intensify that partnership.”
According to the JMC communique, the UK committed to supporting the OTs in their efforts to rebuild their economies “through technical support and encouraging best practice in financial management.”
“The UK remains committed to meeting the reasonable assistance needs of territories where financial self-sufficiency is not possible, as a first call on the aid budget,” the communique states. “The UK will also consult the overseas territories on support programmes for next financial year.”
But the document also stated that the first step will involve looking to the territories to “make full use of their financial resources to address their needs,” and it noted that the UK “will consider further requests for financial support on a case-by-case basis.”
In Mr. Fahie’s final comments in the JMC meeting, he expressed frustration with disagreements over the communique, particularly concerning the UK-OT constitutional relationship, according to a government press release issued last Thursday.
The JMC communique did, however, note the OTs’ right to self-determination, an issue that is likely to be discussed in the VI’s coming constitutional review.
“We reaffirmed the importance of promoting the right of self-determination for the peoples of the territories, something which is a collective responsibility of all parts of the UK government,” the communique states. “For those territories with permanent populations who wish it, the UK will continue to support requests for the removal of the territory from the United Nations list of non-self-governing territories.”
However, the premier’s closing remarks described an omitted section of the communique concerning the UK-OT “constitutional relationship,” noting, “We agree that the language needs enhancement to reflect our agreement of policy or intention.”
“BVI would like to openly declare a reserved position regarding the constitutional relationship language,” Mr. Fahie said. “My government is of the view that the constitutional relationship between the OTs and the UK must be allowed to evolve as the territories mature.”
He added that all the OTs did not agree with removing the entire section, but the UK was not supportive of a reservation being entered on any aspect of the communique. The premier did not disclose the omitted language that he opposed.
Also during the JMC meeting, attendees heard from Prince Charles and addressed topics including pandemic support, Brexit, mental health concerns, prison reform, border security, maritime law, and environmental issues, with the UK promising to provide support as needed, according to the communique.
Mr. Fahie could not be reached for comment about Ms. Sugg’s resignation.
Governor Gus Jaspert declined to comment, but referred to the prime minister’s reaffirmation of the UK’s commitment to helping the OTs recover from the pandemic.
Ms. Sugg’s replacement had not been announced as of Beacon press time yesterday afternoon.