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

The United Kingdom government is developing a new overseas territories strategy, UK Foreign Secretary James Cleverly told Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley and other OT leaders during the Joint Ministerial Council meetings this month in London.

The OTs welcomed the announcement in a joint communiqué issued after the JMC, which was held May 11 and 12.

“We look forward to collaborating in [the strategy’s] development, setting the direction for a relationship firmly based on the principles of collaboration and mutual interest,” the communiqué states. “The overseas territories further welcome that each [UK] government department will have an assigned minister responsible for their department’s relationship with the territories.”

The JMC meeting, to which Dr. Wheatley led a Virgin Islands delegation, was hosted by Lord Zac Goldsmith, the UK minister responsible for the OTs.

“The discussions were very constructive and aimed at strengthening UK government support for the territories in areas such as security, climate change response, environmental protection, maritime management, economic resilience and health,” Dr. Wheatley said in a May 16 press conference after he returned to the territory.

Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley and Deputy Premier Lorna Smith detail their recent travels to the United Kingdom during a press conference on May 16. (Photo: DANA KAMPA)

The JMC meeting was originally scheduled for last October, but it was postponed amid a massive UK leadership shakeup following the resignations of Prime Minister Boris Johnson in July and his successor Liz Truss in October.

This year, JMC attendees also tackled ongoing global issues like the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as well as examining the way forward for the territories’ development.

Additionally, they welcomed the VI’s newly elected leadership, including new Deputy Premier Lorna Smith.

Leaving the UN list

Also during the meeting, the UK reaffirmed its support for any territory wishing to be removed from the United Nations’ list of non-self-governing territories, according to the communiqué.

Additionally, UK leaders made several other commitments to OT leaders, including a pledge of £10 million to support OT law enforcement and border security through next year and a promise of an annual £10 million to be made available for Darwin Plus grants in the interest of supporting OT biodiversity and conservation projects.

Leaders also focused on shoring up territories’ ability to manage the maritime sector.

“The UK and overseas territories reaffirm our joint commitment to strengthening maritime capabilities in the territories and recognise the need for future investment by promoting defined career pathways and supporting those wishing to work in this essential industry,” the communiqué states.

Other suggested areas for improvement include addressing ongoing issues with OT students securing UK visas and accessing maintenance loans, which the UK acknowledged, according to the communiqué.

Economic investment

Financing was another topic on the JMC agenda, as leaders focused on the funding needed to further infrastructure development in the OTs.

Dr. Wheatley said UK leaders at the JMC meeting showed support for VI infrastructure development via “targeted borrowing.”

“The UK side understands our economic needs and climate vulnerability, which has to be addressed through public sector investment in resilience,” Dr. Wheatley said. “In due course, the Ministry of Finance will have technical discussions on loans with UK counterparts once the ministry has prepared a borrowing package to fund our planned Public Infrastructure Improvement Programme.”

Across the VI, repairs to numerous public facilities damaged by the 2017 hurricanes have been delayed after successive governments refused to access a UK offer of a £300 recovery loan guarantee, which is now off the table.

Dr. Wheatley said the territory is also continuing to seek funding in areas like environmental protection, and he anticipates that mapping by the UK’s National Oceanography Centre may pave the way for companies seeking to offset their carbon emissions to support environmental projects in the VI.

Public company registers

Also of particular interest to the VI were JMC discussions about publicly accessible registers of company beneficial ownership.

“The overseas territories and the UK are pleased to announce that we will be establishing a technical working group on beneficial ownership transparency to share expertise on, and consider issues around, the implementation of publicly accessible registers of company beneficial ownership that contain the necessary safeguards to protect the right to privacy,” the communiqué states.

Though the VI has already established a Beneficial Ownership Secure Search System that is accessible to law enforcers abroad on request, it also ceded to UK pressure in 2020 and committed to establishing a public ownership register by the end of this year.

Asked on May 16 whether the VI would continue working to establish that register as planned, Ms. Smith said that the agreement was based on the understanding that such registers would be the “gold standard” of global finance regulation.

However, she said this may no longer be the case following a November ruling by the European Court of Justice that provides greater protection for individuals’ data. Since the ruling, countries including Austria, Luxembourg and the Netherlands quickly began restricting public access to their registers.

The JMC attendees also more broadly discussed combating illicit finance.

“The overseas territories and the UK are pleased to announce that we have launched a new ministerial-level annual dialogue focused on tackling illicit finance, demonstrating our enhanced commitment to working together as partners to defend our financial systems against illicit actors,” the communiqué states. “The British Virgin Islands offered to host the inaugural meeting of this dialogue, or part of it, later this year.”

Order in council

Mr. Goldsmith, the JMC meeting host, is also responsible for overseeing the VI’s implementation of the Commission of Inquiry-based framework for governance reforms.

Dr. Wheatley said on May 16 that he and Ms. Smith also had a bilateral meeting with Mr. Goldsmith about that process.

“We agreed that now is the time to re-energise the reform process and to swiftly move forward with the implementation of the remaining elements of the COI recommendations and other reforms,” the premier said. “Governor [ John] Rankin and I will be discussing any additional areas where an extension or timeline revision may be required.”

Asked if he pressed UK leaders to remove the UK order in council that could suspend the VI Constitution, Dr. Wheatley responded, “We didn’t speak specifically about the removal of the order in council because the OT minister has made it clear from before that they want to see some more progress on implementation of COI reforms. We have committed to continued progress on reforms, and we are hopeful that the order in council will be lifted soon.”

UK relations

Summarising his trip, Dr. Wheatley said it proved fruitful in establishing stronger international relations.

“My visit to the UK was an overall success and critical to my administration’s policy of stability and engagement with the UK,” he said.

He added that he discussed his new administration’s priorities with BVI All Party Parliamentary Group Chairman James Sunderland before the UK backbench debate on OTs (see page one).

“As you can see, engagement with UK parliamentarians is critical to ensure they properly understand our challenges and are clear on our perspective as partners in this relationship,” he said.

Fellow UK delegation members included Financial Secretary Jeremiah Frett, Permanent Secretary Carolyn Stoutt-Igwe, Special Envoy to the Premier Benito Wheatley, BVI London Office Director Tracy Bradshaw, Deputy Director of International Affairs Dwynel Davis, BVI Financial Services Commission Managing Director Kenneth Baker, and FSC Director of Policy and Research Cherno Jallow.