A long-awaited report on the United Kingdom’s governance of its overseas territories has stated that belongership systems like the one in the Virgin Islands are wrong and their “discriminatory elements” should be phased out.
It also recommended the legalisation of same-sex marriage across all OTs and the acceleration of the publication of beneficial ownership registers.
The Foreign Affairs Committee’s report followed a seven-month inquiry into the UK’s 14 overseas territories — the first of its kind in 11 years.
Beginning last July, the probe sought written and oral opinions from the OTs’ 250,000 residents, although no public campaign was launched to solicit input in the VI.
Contributors were asked to comment on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s relationship with the OTs, as well as benefits and financing.
The VI government and opposition gathered opinions from the public, which they submitted online, and Elise Donovan, director of the BVI London Office, attended a session of the FAC.
The resulting report, “Global Britain and the British overseas territories: Resetting the relationship,” was published last Thursday.
In the 48-page document, the FAC said that while the UK government should urgently address concerns held by the OTs, the OTs must reduce areas of “divergence and friction.”
Among those areas is the belongership system, which the report described as “wrong.”
According to the committee, belongership can be discriminatory because only those holding the label, and not UK or other British OT citizens, get the right to vote and to hold elected office in an OT with such a system in place.
“This elevates one group of British people over another and risks undermining the ties that bind the UK and the OTs together in one global British family,” the report stated.
The FAC recommended that the UK government begin a consultation with the elected governments of the OTs and agree a plan to create a pathway for all resident UK and British overseas territory citizens to be able to vote and hold elected office.
The FCO should lay out a timetable for this consultation process and set a deadline for “phasing out” discriminatory elements of belongership systems, it continued.
Another point of friction noted in the report was the legalisation of same-sex marriage across all of the territories.
The FAC said the UK government must do more than “simply support it in principle.”
“It must be prepared to step in, as it did in 2001 when an Order in Council decriminalised homosexuality in OTs that had refused to do so,” the report stated.
The committee also recommended that the UK government set a date by which it expects all OTs to legalise same-sex marriage, and if that deadline is not met, intervene through legislation or an Order in Council.
Last May, OTs including the VI were outraged by new legislation forcing them to adopt public registers of company ownership by the end of 2020 in a bid to curb money laundering.
The move, part of the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act, prompted accusations of colonialism and UK overreach both in the VI and abroad.
Then-Premier Dr. Orlando Smith strongly criticised the UK law, and said the territory would agree to establish a public register only when such systems become a global standard. More than 1,000 VI residents subsequently marched through Road Town to protest the UK legislation, and a petition was submitted to Governor Gus Jaspert the following month.
In January, the UK OTs got an extension of sorts when Lord Tariq Ahmad, minister of state for the Commonwealth and the United Nations, said the UK will issue an Order in Council to any territories that do not have public registers by 2020, with the “requirement for an operational public register by 2023.”
However, the FAC pushed back against the new timeline and insisted that a clear and detailed timetable for the publication of registers in each OT should be created as a matter of national security.
“Those who seek to undermine our security and that of our allies must not be able to use the OTs to launder their funds,” the report read. “We cannot wait until public registers are a global norm and we cannot let considerations of competitiveness prevent us from taking action now. The lowest common denominator is not enough.”
In a statement on the UK government’s website, senior Conservative MP Tom Tugendhat, who has served as FAC chair since July 2017, said the UK and its OTs have a responsibility to each other.
“The UK and the OTs are family, but that relationship must be underpinned by shared duties to each other and values,” he said.
He said now is the time to tackle tensions and reset the relationship.
“We are calling for government to step back and take a considered view of how we engage with each other,” he added. “Providing certainty for the OTs will strengthen our ties.”
The report called for an independent review that would consider whether the FCO should retain lead responsibility for the OTs within government. It would consider the costs, benefits and risks of moving primary responsibility for the OTs away from the FCO.
Other topics discussed in the report include increased access to services offered by the UK National Health Service for OT residents; improved scrutiny of the FCO’s governance; better clarity on funding; and citizenship by descent.
Last year Dr. Smith and then-Opposition Leader Andrew Fahie (R-D1), who is now the premier, gathered feedback from the public, which they submitted to the FAC.
At the time Dr. Smith spoke of his concerns over the UK’s insistence that beneficial ownership registers must be published and said the directive had “created a sense of unease.”
He added that it caused “many in the Virgin Islands to question the attitude of the UK parliament towards the BVI and indeed all the overseas territories.”
Attempts to reach Dr. Smith, who stepped down from the premier role prior to Monday’s election, were not successful.
However, a press release issued last Thursday by the Progressive VI Movement described the report’s contents as “significant developments.”
The party, which won one seat in Monday’s election, stressed that the VI leadership must be able to discuss and negotiate an advanced constitutional relationship to deal with matters of belonger status and citizenship, among others.
“Issues of legalising same-sex marriage in a population as small as ours in the OTs are serious matters to discuss and their consequences cannot be forced upon a people without regard to their beliefs, input and way of life,” the party added.
The PVIM statement also spoke of public beneficial ownership registers, which it said should only be implemented here when they become the global standard.
Meanwhile, independent at-large candidate Dancia Penn, who did not win a seat in the Monday election, said she was very concerned about recommendations in the report.
“It is of great concern that such an influential committee in the UK Parliament is making light of our right to self-determination, the principals of good governance and of our rich culture,” said Ms. Penn, an attorney who formerly served as deputy premier.
She added that the OTs should collaborate and show the UK that they can work as strong partners during the country’s coming exit from the European Union.
The FAC’s remit is to examine the FCO’s operations. It chooses its own inquiries and typically publishes a report outlining conclusions and recommendations.
The British government has two months to give a detailed response.
Britain’s remaining Caribbean territories include Anguilla, the Cayman Islands, the Turks and Caicos Islands and Montserrat.
Elsewhere, the UK retains Bermuda, British Antarctic Territory, British Indian Ocean Territory, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, the Pitcairn Islands, Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and Akrotiri and Dhekelia (Cyprus).
Further details on the inquiry and the full report can be found at www.parliament.uk.