Protesters march down Waterfront Drive during the Decision March in May. (Photo: CONOR KING DEVITT)

Lord Tariq Ahmad, the United Kingdom minister for the Commonwealth and United Nations, wrote to the “Decision March” organisers last week to express his sympathy for their concerns about public company registers but also to state the necessity of following Parliament’s decision.

He was responding to the Virgin Islands’ 1,000-plus-person protest in May, which resulted in a petition being submitted to Governor Gus Jaspert the following month.

The document — which called on the UK to “stay the decision” requiring public registers until the UK government could reach a fairer agreement in line with the Constitution — garnered nearly 3,000 signatures, according to Harneys lawyer Ayanna Hull, who chaired the Decision March Committee.

“The UK government would have preferred to work consensually on making registers of beneficial ownership publicly available, but we have to respect the will of Parliament,” Mr. Ahmad wrote in a letter addressed to Ms. Hull. “I am, however, committed to working closely with BVI to ensure the best possible outcome on how these changes may be best implemented as well as on the recovery from last year’s devastating storms.”

The public registers requirement came in the form of an amendment to the UK’s Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill, which received the royal assent in May.

Financial services

The move could have a crippling impact on the VI’s financial services sector and the approximately 60 percent of government revenue that it generates.

An assessment from the UK consultancy firm Capital Economics suggested that a public register would lead to a 45 percent decline in the territory’s public-sector revenue, according to government.

Constitutional Concerns

In his letter, Mr. Ahmad explained that UK Prime Minister Theresa May was aware of the situation and the concern it presented the VI and other overseas territories, “including with respect to their constitutions.”

Numerous VI residents have called for another constitutional review in the wake of the UK’s decision, which has been criticised by some as constitutional overreach.

To explore challenging the potential constitutional violation such a law represents, Premier Dr. Orlando Smith (R-at large) announced last month that government had appointed the law firm Withersworldwide and retained both Dan Sarooshi, a UK barrister and Oxford international law professor, and Gerard Farara, a VI Queen’s counsel with expertise in the territory’s Constitution.

Mr. Ahmad seemed to acknowledge the recent push for reform.

“We believe the current balance of powers in the current Constitution is broadly the right one as the UK needs to retain sufficient powers in order to discharge its sovereign responsibilities towards the overseas territories,” he wrote. “However, we are open to discussing how this should work and, if the BVI premier wishes to put forward any detailed proposals for constitutional reform, we will consider these carefully.”

Organisers respond

New Life Baptist Church Pastor John Cline, one of the Decision March organisers, said this week that he wasn’t discouraged by Mr. Ahmad’s words.

“I think the response is in line with what we expected,” he told the Beacon. “It clearly shows that the march has gotten the attention of the UK, not just from a political level but also on a national level.”

Mr. Cline said he is hopeful that future UK discussions will be more inclusive of VI officials.