One-on-one with Premier and Minister of Finance, Dr. the Honourable D. Orlando Smith, OBE
Thursday, 18th January, 2018
Good day ladies and gentlemen of the media.
I wanted to have this opportunity to provide an update on the Territory’s recovery efforts so far and to address areas of concern expressed by both residents and the business community.
It has been four months since the passage of Hurricanes Irma and Maria and I do believe we can all see a substantial amount of progress throughout the Territory, on all of our islands on our journey to rebuilding the Territory.
I am pleased with the progress made so far to maintain our economy.
I have to recognise the hard work of our Immigration, Labour and Trade Departments in supporting our business community during this time. Out of this experience, all of these departments have improvised and devised new and more efficient ways of conducting business to serve the community.
The Trade Department has been instrumental in supporting our local business owners. They have assisted in navigating paper work and providing a supportive voice to those local businesses that were widely damaged. Through a donation of 49 generators from the Bank of Asia, the generator loan programme has benefited 53 businesses and it continues to assist businesses in areas still without power.
As we continue to assist businesses where we can, later today I will have the pleasure of formally handing over funding support to three local businesses to further assist in their recovery. Entrepreneurship and the opportunity for Virgin Islanders to be part of our economic development, I believe, are so critical to a successful recovery.
Though our tourism sector has been severely impacted by the storms, I am reassured by seeing the use of our villas and smaller properties, as well as our yachting industry to ensure that we can welcome guests and that our hospitality professionals are back out to work. From initial assessments completed by BVI Tourist Board, they have reported that we do have in use, approximately 300 rooms across the Territory, and approximately 800 berths on sea, and the assessments are ongoing. In fact, we have a stakeholder forum planned with the large properties and the yachting sector on January 26. In this forum, we will learn more details of reopening plans and timelines.
It is very important that our destination remains a viable option for guests and that we maintain our presence in the industry. With this in mind, the BVI Tourist Board will maintain involvement in key industry events such as sponsorship of the Miami Open in March. We will also be welcoming guests from around the world for the Second Annual Anegada Kite and Paddle Festival, also in March.
Our financial services industry has shown its ingenuity and durability by continuing business despite the disruption caused by the hurricanes to offices in the industry. While companies initially moved offshore to continue business, the industry has reported that approximately 70% of its practitioners and staff have returned and are working from the Territory.
Our Commercial Court has moved back on island and is temporarily sitting at the BVI Arbitration Centre at Ritter House. Work has aggressively started on the refurbishment of the Court’s building which is anticipated to be completed by the end of April. I once again offer thanks to members of our financial services industry for their financial contributions towards the refurbishment of the court. All of this demonstrates the understanding of our stakeholders of the importance of this industry to our economy.
Yesterday, there was a key debate in the House of Lords, United Kingdom, on the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill.
It was argued by some peers that the BVI and other Overseas Territories should be forced to introduce public registers of beneficial ownership of companies. The UK Government reasserted its view that such a move would be a backward step both from a constitutional point of view and because of the progress that has been made in co-operation with the Overseas Territories in recent years. From the BVI’s perspective this includes the introduction of its new digital platform, the Beneficial Ownership Secure Search system (BOSSs).
I must say that in a passionate speech, UK Foreign Office Minister Lord Ahmad commended the Overseas Territories – including the BVI – for our leadership in the management and regulation of our financial services sectors, and for our constructive engagement and collaboration in the areas of transparency and combatting financial crime.
The Minister’s supportive words are very welcomed. His robust defence of the standards set by the BVI reinforces the sound financial footing on which our business and financial services rest. As we continue to recover from the devastation caused by the hurricanes it is gratifying to see that our industry continues to be held in high regard by the UK Government.
As always, we will remain engaged with the UK Government and global standards-setters to ensure that the BVI continues to maintain its position as a leading international business and finance centre.
I will now turn to the topic of Social Services, in particular housing. Since the start of the year, I have approved $15M that has already been put to use to support residents who require assistance to secure their homes. I know that many residents continue to be displaced, living with family members, and some still living at the Multi-Purpose Sports Complex. With this assistance, we hope to get persons back in their homes and also support them in rebuilding their lives.
I know that many residents have had challenges disputing claims with insurance companies. I continue to speak directly to the companies and banks to support the recovery efforts by quickly releasing funds to clients. However, we have also made provisions for an Insurance Tribunal led by Mr. Eric Ball to work with residents to address issues and disputes with their insurance company.
In the areas of Electricity and Telecommunications: The majority of communities throughout the Virgin Islands now have electricity. I once again thank the BVI Electricity Cooperation for their diligent and committed work. I also again offer my thanks and appreciation to other utility companies around the region and Canada that continuously provided skilled linesmen and workers to power up the Territory. Our telecommunications companies are also now providing improved services throughout all of our islands, making it much easier for those in our business communities, government and students to continue on with their work.
In terms of ports, the Port Purcell Cargo Dock is an important element in our recovery efforts. It is our main facility for the importation of goods to the Territory. I hear clearly the public’s concerns and cries about the present situation at the port. I’ve spoken with the Minister for Communication and Works and I have personally visited the facility to ascertain the situation.
The Minister has been working with the BVI Ports Authority to look at reorganising the loading dock to improve the use of the space, as well as utilising nearby facilities for the storage of empty containers so that cargo can be more easily accessed and released to the public.
Now moving on to public consultations; over the past week and a half the Disaster Recovery Coordinating Committee’s Task Force, led by Mr. Brodrick Penn has been speaking with stakeholders across the Territory to get their input on how we should rebuild the Territory. A public document has been circulated which provides a baseline for conversation, suggestions of ideas and comments. Beginning next week Wednesday, my administration will start community meetings to further discuss with the public ideas and suggestions for our recovery.
Already, we have realised opportunities to revise the plan, based on feedback by various stakeholders, and by you, members of the public. Upon the completion of the public consultation and the incorporation of ideas and suggestions, I intend for us to have a plan to rebuild the Virgin Islands, stronger, smarter, greener and better.
Lastly, I want to take a moment to say a few words about former legislator Mr. Omar Wallace Hodge. As we laid him to rest this morning, I thought about the contributions he has made to the overall development of the Virgin Islands. He was a skilled politician, but most of all he was indeed the people’s man.
Before I even got into politics, Mr. Hodge was a politician who always came to the House, prepared to defend the people of his district and of this Territory. He was a man that fiercely loved the Virgin Islands and in many ways worked to advance this Territory. I hope that more of our young people and residents had a chance to learn about his life and his contributions since his passing and are inspired to work for the Virgin Islands, just as Mr. Hodge so valiantly did. I again offer my condolences to his family and also thank them for sharing Mr. Hodge with our community.