STATEMENT BY PREMIER AND MINISTER OF FINANCE
DURING THE NINTH SITTING OF THE SECOND SESSION OF THE FOURTH HOUSE OF ASSEMBLY
Thursday, June 11, 2020
Moving Forward with Virgin Islands Constitutional Review:
The People, The Constitution and The Economy
Mr. Speaker, I will now speak on Constitutional Review in the Virgin Islands.
The Virgin Islands is presently an Overseas Territory of the United Kingdom (UK). The Virgin Islands’ first modern written constitution was enacted in 1950.
Over the past 70 years since, the Virgin Islands has had four written constitutions on the basis of Constitutional Review exercises. The current written Constitution, the Virgin Islands Constitution Order, 2007, was enacted on 13 June, 2007; approximately 13 years ago.
The Virgin Islands Constitution Order, 2007, was given effect based on the following context and principles, which forms the preamble:
Whereas the people of the Territory of the Virgin Islands have over centuries evolved with a distinct cultural identity which is the essence of a Virgin Islander;
- Acknowledging that the society of the Virgin Islands is based upon certain moral, spiritual and democratic values including a belief in God, the dignity of the human person, the freedom of the individual and respect for fundamental rights and freedoms and the rule of law;
- Mindful that the people of the Virgin Islands have expressed a desire for their Constitution to reflect who they are as a people and a country and their quest for social justice, economic empowerment and political advancement;
- Recognising that the people of the Virgin Islands have a free and independent spirit, and have developed themselves and their country based on qualities of honesty, integrity, mutual respect, self-reliance and the ownership of the land engendering a strong sense of belonging to and kinship with those Islands;
- Recalling that because of historical, economic and other reasons many of the people of the Virgin Islands reside elsewhere but have and continue to have an ancestral connection and bond with those Islands;
- Accepting that the Virgin Islands should be governed based on adherence to well established democratic principles and institutions;
- Affirming that the people of the Virgin Islands have generally expressed their desire to become a self-governing people and to exercise the highest degree of control over the affairs of their country at this stage of its development; and,
- Noting that the United Kingdom, the administering power for the time being, has articulated a desire to enter into a modern partnership with the Virgin Islands based on the principles of mutual respect and self-determination.
Mr. Speaker, Constitution review has been on the national agenda for several years now. In a statement on 12 October, 2016, titled: ‘ENHANCING BVI INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS’, former Premier and Minister of Finance Dr. the Honourable D. Orlando Smith, OBE, stated:
“In the margins of the JMC, I will also have a bilateral meeting with the UK Government in which I will discuss my Government’s plans for a constitutional review in 2017. As our Constitution turns 10 years old it is only appropriate that we consider modifications to our current constitutional arrangements to better enable us to meet new and emerging challenges in the 21st century. I will also raise this in the UK Parliament at the House of Commons where Overseas Territory Leaders will meet members of the Foreign Affairs Committee. The committee’s support will be critical in building momentum for constitutional changes.”
Mr. Speaker, moving forward with this intended action was delayed by the Virgin Islands experiencing three catastrophic events in 2017; the August 2017 Floods, and Category 5 hurricanes Irma and Maria.
In a press release dated 30 November, 2018, the then Premier, Dr. Smith, further stated that he intended to raise at the Joint Ministerial Council (JMC) meeting on 4 and 5 December, 2018, “discussions on the principles behind constitutional powers and Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s update on requests to constitutional reform.”
Mr. Speaker, on 19 November, 2019, during the 2020 Budget Address titled: ‘Transformation for Resilience and Sustainability: SMART strategies, Empowered People, and Green Development’, I said:
And I quote from that speech, “Today as we gather here to present the Budget Address for these Virgin Islands, I acknowledge the desire of our forefathers that we would be able, today, to govern our internal affairs. Hence provisions are made in this 2020 Budget to request the commissioning of a Constitutional Review.”
Since the current Virgin Islands Constitution was enacted in 2007, the Territory has seen transformational and transitional changes shaped by domestic social and economic conditions. Domestically, the Territory has been affected severely by floods of October 2010 and August 2017.
Additionally, the Territory has been severely hit by two catastrophic Category 5 hurricanes; Irma and Maria in 2017. Revenues from the Financial Services Industry have declined by approximately $30 million in Fiscal 2019 due to changes in the international industry policy. Tourism activities have largely been disrupted due to travel restrictions and the suspension of air travel worldwide in response to the Coronavirus/COVID-19 Pandemic. This is projected to have far reaching implications for the future of air travel and the Tourism industry as a whole.
Also, the international business environment has also dramatically changed in the last 13 years and continues to evolve. Global phenomena such as Climate Change, and, most recently, the global response to the coronavirus COVID-19 have extensively altered the global business environment, in particular disrupting supply chains and halting global tourism. The UK is also in the process of severing its 47-year membership with the European Union (EU), commonly referred to as BREXIT. These developments will have an influence on the economic affairs of the UK and the Virgin Islands. Altogether, these events have changed the global landscape, and require the Territory to reposition itself to continue to thrive and to fulfil the aspirations of Virgin Islanders and Belongers.
The factors identified above have already had a significant impact on the Virgin Islands economy and are likely to continue doing so into the foreseeable future.
This has implications for Virgin Islanders and Belongers in the pursuit of their aspirations for economic empowerment and becoming a self-governing people who are able to exercise the highest degree of control over the affairs of their country at this stage of its development.
As such, Mr. Speaker, it is necessary to conduct a full review of the Virgin Islands Constitution to determine whether it is in strategic fit to facilitate the achievement of the aspirations of Virgin Islanders and Belongers, as already expressed and as may have shifted in the last 13 years.
Such a review exercise should allow for debates and discussions among the Virgin Islands population across the Territory, so that they can express concerns and make recommendations for Constitutional change.
This process will identify recommendations that can be presented to the Government of the UK for realignment of the Constitutional framework governing the Virgin Islands with the desires and aspirations of Virgin Islanders and Belongers.
On Wednesday June 10, we met as a Cabinet and took the collective responsibility, which is at the core of the Cabinet system of Government to move constitutional review forward. This decision included the establishment of a Constitutional Review Commission for the purpose of conducting a full review of the Virgin Islands Constitution Order, 2007, pending the approval of the House of Assembly
The full review of the Constitution shall be conducted by a Constitutional Review Commission established for that purpose via an affirmative resolution of the House of Assembly.
The Commission shall comprise of nine (9) members consisting of a Chairperson and Deputy Chairperson to be appointed by the Premier, and five (5) other members appointed by the Premier. The other two (2) members shall be appointed by Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition. The overall composition of the Commission shall span the main islands of the Virgin Islands and collectively include persons drawn from the legal fraternity, academia, business, communications/public relations, and other areas of civil society.
The Terms of Reference of the Commission shall be as follows:
- To re-evaluate the vision of the people of the Virgin Islands, as expressed in the preamble to the Virgin Islands Constitution Order, 2007, and to amend accordingly, if necessary;
- To evaluate the current Virgin Islands Constitution Order, 2007, and determine whether it is in strategic fit to facilitate the people of the Virgin Islands in achieving the revised vision;
- To identify any gaps in relation to the Virgin Islands Constitution Order, 2007.
- To make recommendations for Constitutional Reform, if necessary, based on outcomes of the re-evaluations.
The Commission shall be provided with a secretariat comprised of a secretary and appropriate staff, and appropriate resources to conduct the review and to produce its report and any other necessary documents. Budget for this shall be provided through the Premier’s Office.
The Commission would be required to organise and conduct public forums, in person or virtual online, as well as using other channels for receiving feedback from the citizenry for consideration by the Commission.
The Commission shall submit its report to Cabinet within six (6) months of commencing work. The Chairman may request a one (1) month extension by letter to the Premier.
Mr. Speaker, the world we live in is continuously changing.
We do not need to throw our minds back too far to realise how true this is.
Six months ago, COVID-19 did not exist. Today, everything thing we do and say is dictated by COVID-19.
Technology has also been rapidly changing. Those of us who are not too old would recall it used to take weeks to get a letter by post. That was not long ago. Today, instant messaging and mobile communications are a way of life.
When you left your home back in the day, you could not get a phone call. Now even in your bathroom you can get a call or respond to email, and no one knows where you are.
Technology has altered the environment in which businesses and economies operate, and how countries relate with one another. Globalisation has made the environment more competitive. It has also opened up new opportunities and new possibilities that never existed before.
Every now and then, as a society, it is therefore necessary for us to pause, assess the environment around us and the tools at our disposal; to review where we are in our journey as a country and as a people; and also to assess our position in the global picture.
We have to ask ourselves as Virgin Islanders, are we where we want to be at this time?
Are we on the path that we need to be on?
Are we equipped and configured to compete and to face the challenges of the present and the future?
Part of this exercise, Mr. Speaker, involves reviewing our Constitution to ensure that it is relevant to the present day, and that it can be of support in taking us forward to where we want to go as a country.
With Constitutional Review and reform, we are preparing our next generation. Just as we recognise how technology has advanced, our young Virgin Islanders and the generations to come will be entering a world that is remarkably different from 1950 and 2007. So, our Constitution has to be advanced. It has to be relevant for the time and for the future.
Mr. Speaker, over the years, as leaders we have indicated, both to the local population and to the UK Government, that it was time for a review. But, having given our word to the population that as your new Government, we would commence the Constitutional Review process, I am here again today to say that your Government is moving to keep this promise and to begin the process for Constitutional Review, which will be a participatory process. We want the people to get involved heavily with this, for this is their Territory.
As a Government, we have already advised the United Kingdom Government of the intentions of the Virgin Islands to review the Constitution.
I thank the Ministers and Members of Cabinet for supporting Cabinet’s conclusions in public discussions or debate, as bounded by the Cabinet Handbook, which in itself, will also be reviewed as it has not been updated since it was completed in November 2009.
Mr Speaker, as you are aware, a Constitution is not just a set of rules to enforce upon people, as we often think it is. It is a vehicle for enabling citizens to achieve their dreams and aspirations. Your vehicle has to be designed and equipped for your journey, otherwise it will not fulfil its purpose and you will not get to your destination.
This is not a one-man job. It is not a one-party exercise. It is about all of us as Virgin Islanders, because it affects all of us as Virgin Islanders, regardless of social status and political affiliation. There will be full transparency.
This is why the issue will be debated in the House of Assembly and why Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition will have input into the composition of the Constitutional Review Commission.
Steps have already been taken to convene a special informal meeting of the House of Assembly, next week, to discuss the dynamics of this Constitutional Review exercise. I have also spoken with the Honourable Leader of the Opposition on the matter as well. I look forward to this being a very fruitful exercise for the benefit of the Territory.
May I say that since we are one people on a common journey, we have to ensure that the targets that are set reflect the will of the BVI people, and not anyone else’s agenda.
Key to achieving this is for the mechanisms to be put in place that will allow the people to lift up their voices when the opportunities are presented.
They must be able to speak up as proud, ambitious Virgin Islands people and tell the Commission – to tell their Government and tell their Opposition – what they want the Constitution to say, and where they want us as a people and a country to go.
We do not want persons sitting down and holding their tongue, only to disagree down the road with whatever choices are made. Tell us where you want to go and where you do not want to go as a people.
In order for citizens to participate meaningfully in this exercise, they must prepare themselves and they must be informed of the discussions.
This means that every Virgin Islander must read and evaluate the current Virgin Islands Constitution. I have asked the Government Information Service (GIS) to ensure that the Constitution is easily accessible on the Government’s website so every Virgin Islander can download it.
Through you, Mr Speaker, your Government would like there to be a copy of the Constitution in every home. Thus, I would ask the House of Assembly to assist in having the copies prepared, and for all 13 Members – whether they are a District Representative or an At-Large Representative, to help us to ensure that every home has a copy; thereby ensuring that there is a copy of our Constitution on every doorstep of every home of our Virgin Islands people.
As always, I will be leading by example. I will be ensuring that in the 1st District, each household gets their hard copy of the Constitution.
It is not too late for us adults to get to know our Constitution and it is not too early for the young ones, especially those in high school, to familiarise themselves with it.
I would urge that when the Constitution is read, take your time and digest it section by section.
Look at the Preamble, which has sought to encapsulate the aspirations of the Virgin Islands people. It speaks about our unique cultural identity and our heritage; our free and independent spirit; our moral and spiritual values; our quest for social justice, economic empowerment and political advancement; and our desire to become a self-governing people and to exercise the highest degree of control over the affairs of our country at this stage of its development.
Look at the relevant paragraphs and sections, and deliberate on them. Ask yourself whether what is written at present, achieves those objectives or if there are gaps. Is the current Constitution designed to empower Virgin Islanders economically? Is it supporting the BVI’s political advancement? Is it giving Virgin Islanders social justice? Does it truly give Virgin Islanders the highest degree of control over the country’s affairs?
You may say yes, or you may say no. And depending on what you conclude, then the next question will be, how do we make it better and stronger?
In searching for the answers to these questions, we also have to review our history. The journey that us Virgin Islands people are on started before our forefathers landed on these shores. Emancipation, the struggles of the Theodolph Faulkners and Noel Lloyds, and all the other milestones are all part of the history that defines who we are and what our aspirations are. This is a continuing journey. It will continue with us, and then our children will take over from us and continue marching forward. What they will inherit depends on the work we do today and what we will hand over to them. So, I want us to do a thorough job.
As our people read and reflect, Mr Speaker, it is important that they discuss these issues with friends, family and co-workers. I encourage Virgin Islanders to talk about the Constitution in their homes as BVI families, in their workplaces, on the airwaves, on social media, on the streets and everywhere, adhering, of course, to social distancing and the New Regular.
If there is an issue that is adversely affecting Virgin Islanders that can be solved through the Constitution, then it needs to be put on the table now. We cannot stay silent or be distracted, and then cry over regrets later on.
There are things within the Constitution for which advancement of our people have not moved and these are the areas that we have to address in this Constitutional Review exercise, among others.
If we liken the four-year term of office for a Government to a 4 x 100 race, Mr Speaker; is it right to tie the hands and feet of the Government and to put it to run this race, and then after four years – with their feet and hands tied – you come to judge the Government and ask why they have not even completed one lap?
A lot of the power that people think the BVI Government has, we do not have. Because a glass ceiling has been placed over our heads. It is not easily visible, but it exists.
And it affects the Government’s ability to raise funding. It imposes priorities on which your BVI Government is forced to direct funds under threat that our ability to manage our affairs can be taken away from us.
It is time we address these so-called elephants in the room. It is time we discuss these issues in a mature setting and deal with the things that have been holding back our progress.
This is why this Constitution Review, among other reasons, will be driven by the people. They will direct it and we will do our part to listen. Because each of us in this Honourable House will admit that the people are the ones who put us here and they are the ones who will determine how long we will be here; and that is why the Constitution is theirs. They are the ones who will be the driving force behind the Constitution Review.
After 70 years of having re-devolved powers and four written Constitutions, we should have reached further. We should be able to have a greater control over the systems and processes that affect our pursuit and our ability to realise our aspirations as a people.
Mr Speaker, this Constitution Review will be led by the people. Once they tell us loudly and clearly where they want to go - how far they want to go, we will fight for their cause with utmost passion.
I look forward to all Virgin Islanders, Belongers and residents participating in this process, and collaborating to build a stronger, better BVI, and to equip the Territory and our people for success.
Mr Speaker, thank you for allowing me this opportunity to address this Honourable House on this matter of national importance, and to advise, in the spirit of transparency and cooperation, of the intentions of your Government.
The world we live in is continuously changing, and so must the Virgin Islands.
I thank you.