STATEMENT BY PREMIER AND MINISTER OF FINANCE DR. THE HONOURABLE D. ORLANDO SMITH, OBE ON THE LEADER OF THE OPPOSITION’S MOTION OF NO CONFIDENCE
AUGUST 1ST, 2017
Citizens and residents of the Virgin Islands:
Earlier this afternoon, the Leader of the Opposition brought a Motion of No Confidence against the Minister of Finance, which failed to garner support from any other member of the House of Assembly.
Notwithstanding its important, that I speak not simply against the Honourable Member’s claim; not just to defend my service in this capacity; and not just to defend my personal integrity.
I speak for more than just protecting the honour and good name of the Members of my Government, all of whom have been unfairly impugned in the Motion.
Rather, I speak first and foremost, to reaffirm that thing which matters most to me – that thing which sent me and my colleagues into public service many years ago – that thing which inspires us each day and informs our every decision and every action.
I want to reaffirm our VISION for the people and Territory of the Virgin Islands.
For, as I read the words of the motion presented before the House of Assembly, I do not see just a list of tired complaints that have been before this House many times.
I see not just a list of falsehoods – although there are surely plenty of those.
And I see not just a plain act of political grandstanding – although there is surely an element of that here, too. In fact it would seem that the Leader of the Opposition believes that the more he repeats the same diatribe the more likely it will be believed.
Rather, I see the Honourable Member calling into question my integrity and my competence as Minister of Finance and more indirectly this Government’s commitment to carrying out the mandate of the people of this Territory.
I am a patient man. I have been in public life long enough to know that when one steps into the arena, one must expect that from time to time one will have to suffer attacks, and insults and indignities.
That comes with the job. Indeed I have been asked why I had not responded. The truth is that I was waiting to do so in the House where the motion has been moved. I saw no need to trade barbs and insults with my colleague.
It’s never been my style and I am not about to start now. What I know is that the people of this country are a discerning people and recognise opportunism when they see it.
And I do not fault the Honourable Member for launching this broadside against Government - albeit indirectly. It is his job to hold us accountable and I do not mind the challenge.
But, I do mind being asked whether this Government truly believes in and is following through with our vision.
To me, nothing is more important. Nothing is more fundamental.
Our vision has been presented before the people of this Territory in general election campaigns dating back over twenty years.
It has been restated in this House on innumerable occasions.
It has been repeated in the media, in community meetings, in Government offices, in our districts and communities countless times.
Yet despite the many times we have made our vision clear, our Honourable colleagues in Opposition seem unable to hear it – just as they seem unable to articulate a vision of their own.
And so, today, it is my duty to again to restate that vision and to show that the accusations levied against me and my Government are not only false as points of fact –more importantly, they demonstrate the willful refusal of Opposition to understand that this Government will never, ever abandon its vision. Notwithstanding the baseless attacks by the Leader of the Opposition and his newly found Leader we will stand firm.
You see, our vision is rooted in the belief that it is the duty of Government to secure a prosperous future for the BVI by investing for the long-term, creating a sound, accountable system of governance and allowing the strong values of our community to be the bedrock that binds us together.
To prove this, allow me to rebut the false accusations of the Honourable Member point by point.
The Honourable Member begins his attack on the Ministry and this Government by calling into question our commitment to good governance, transparency and accountability.
The charge is simply preposterous!
The party I lead came into being first and foremost to demand accountability in Government spending.
We were bound together in our shared outrage at the waste of previous administrations.
We were outraged by the emptying out of our reserve fund, with nothing to show for it.
We came into office pledging to do things differently and we have tried to live up to that pledge.
Any who doubt my words should know this – the very Protocols of Effective Financial Management that the Honourable Member accuses us of failing to meet were negotiated by this Government!
We were the ones who worked with the UK Government to create these protocols.
And we were the ones who met these protocols!
We made the rules and we play by them.
And let me be very specific about what that means.
The protocols are based on a set of four key policy principles, which together offer a powerful description of our vision for the effective management of public finances.
The first principle is effective medium-term planning.
Every resident of this Territory over the age of twenty can well remember the days when some administrations didn’t seem to be able to see three months into the future, let alone three years.
Money was spent as if it would go bad if it wasn’t used immediately.
Few plans were made, few priorities were adhered to.
That is why at that time we had no modern hospital, no world-class cruise ship pier, no reliable national infrastructure, few computers in our schools, no new investments, no strategy for our future.
My Government has always, always insisted that we constantly focus on the future. The money we spend this morning isn’t meant to simply enrich someone this afternoon. It is meant to put our Territory in the position to grow for years to come.
That is what mid-term and long-term planning are all about and that is why this principle is enshrined in the protocols.
And we have adhered to that principle.
My Government put in place the first Medium Term Fiscal Plan where we assess the impact of proposals and decisions on expenditures and revenues in the context of the impact they will have three years into the future.
It guides our fiscal and economic management.
It demonstrates how we plan to move along a sustainable fiscal path looking at key areas such as our reserve, capital investment programme and borrowing.
That medium term plan has been accepted and approved by the UK Government. Every year we bring it to this very House, attached to the budget, where all the members in the House of Assembly collectively debate and approve it.
We are fully compliant with our commitment to the principle of effective medium term planning.
The second principle is Value for Money
I fear that on this point, I have become the proverbial broken record, so many times have I repeated these words. But it is essential to our vision. Every dollar spent, should return two dollars in value to our Territory.
In that regard, when executing capital projects the government is very mindful that projects should be appraised, that there is a transparent procurement process, managed with the right level of expertise and evaluated.
Particularly in respect of projects with large costs, my Government is very careful to ensure that projects are properly appraised and evaluated, tendered, and managed.
Just recently at the 6TH SITTING-2ND SESSION-18TH APRIL 2017, I explained in an answer to the Honourable member who is the mover of the motion how the Government satisfied these tenets in the case of the airport Project and the construction of new classrooms for secondary schools.
Admittedly, in some exceptional circumstances, usually to facilitate expediency, or when a very specialist skill is identified and needed, or perhaps with very sensitive matters, the tendering process has been waived. This is done however with the collective blessings of the Cabinet and with supporting reasons.
The third principle of the protocols is managing risk.
A large part of this involves how we manage our debt.
We live in an era of runaway debt all across the world. In the U.S., in the UK, across the EU and Asia, Governments have taken on staggering debt loads equal to 80 percent, 90 percent, even 100 percent or more of GDP.
Here in the BVI our debt to GDP ratio at the end of 2016 was 19 per cent.
Yet on the streets, on the radios, we hear talk about the BVI being broke!
Let me say it again – our debt represents a mere 19 percent of GDP. That is a very low, very manageable level of debt.
Indeed, let me say more – it would be foolish and irresponsible if we were NOT maintaining debt at about this level.
After all, today the cost of borrowing is low relative to historical norms. We would be poorly serving the people if we did not take advantage of this situation to borrow responsibly and invest that capital in projects that will return value for years to come.
That is what we are doing and let me say clearly: we are well within the borrowing limits for net debt and debt servicing under the Protocols for Effective Financial Management.
At the end of 2016, our net debt position was near 40 per cent of recurrent revenue, which is only half of the allowed 80 per cent borrowing limit
Similarly, our debt servicing position was approximately seven per cent of recurrent revenue at the end of 2016, well below the ten per cent borrowing limit.
The Government has committed to achieving compliance with the liquid assets ratio of at least 25 per cent of recurrent expenditure by the end of this year, and at 20 per cent and about $60 million in the Reserve Fund at the end of 2016, we are well on our way to achieving this.
In the context of Governments regionally and internationally faced with burgeoning debt levels and debt crises, the debt position of the Virgin Islands is outstanding.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that this situation – with $60 million in the reserve fund – stands in sharp contrast to the performance of previous Governments of the Virgin Islands who drained the reserve fund with reckless abandon.
Our favourable debt position and adjudged credit worthiness is evidenced by the CariAA- rating assigned to the VI by the independent regional rating agency CariCRIS earlier this year.
That isn’t a politician speaking. That is the market speaking!
This Government’s vision has always been rooted in sound fiscal management. We believe, we preach it, we live it.
It is wrong as a point of fact – and it is wrong as a point of public ethics – for the Honourable Member to accuse us of failing in this regard, when the very opposite is the case.
Let me now turn my attention to the Honourable Member’s charge that this Government has failed to deliver economic growth and that this has led to an alleged overdraft of twenty-five million dollars.
This Government’s vision has always been a pro-growth vision.
We believe in growth for this Territory because we know that only through economic growth will we have the resources we need to give our people the quality of life and the opportunities they deserve.
And that is why we fight for growth every single day.
It is why we are the Government that dispatched representatives of this Territory to the four-corners of the Earth – to Hong Kong, to Beijing, to Singapore, to Brussels, to London, to New York – all in search of businesses and tourists interested in the BVI.
That is why we are the Government that worked tirelessly to promote our tourism product and have sought to responsibly develop new resorts and amenities. Just this weekend we were pleased to host and investment group with representatives from Italy, Dubai, Pakistan, Cayman and other countries - all interested in the development of Prospect Reef.
That is why we are the Government that built the Cruise Ship Pier, which is bringing hundreds of thousands more visitors to our shore each year and about which I will have more to say in a moment.
We are the Government of growth.
Our Honourable colleagues in Opposition can make no such claim. At every turn they have opposed our pro-growth agenda.
They, opposed the developments we sought to push forward, they opposed the Pier Project, they have opposed and opposed and opposed.
What positive, pro-growth ideas have they ever embraced? When have they ever stood shoulder-to-shoulder with us to say we must grow this economy for the good of the people?
And now they criticize us for failing to deliver growth.
Yet this charge itself is patently false.
Let me be clear: my Government wants an economy growing in a strong and sustainable way .
We want an economy firing on all cylinders.
We believe we could make great progress toward that goal if every big development idea we put forward wasn’t subjected to endless nit-picking and small minded attack by our Honourable colleagues.
We also recognize that our economy is subject to forces bigger than ourselves.
The past several years we have had to contend with a sluggish global economy, with the greatest and most vicious attack on our financial services sector in history, and with numerous other challenges beyond our control.
Despite this, the facts speak plainly for themselves.
The Virgin Islands’ economy enjoyed a positive trajectory of growth from 2012 to 2015, with an average annual nominal GDP growth rate of 4.2 per cent.
That is faster growth that has been experienced in the U.S., faster than almost any economy in the EU, faster than the growth of the UK.
In 2015, we delivered 7.7 per cent growth, bringing the Virgin Islands for the first time to an economy valued at over $1 billion.
At the end of 2016, our GDP is projected to have reached more than $1 billion 8 million dollars ($1,008,000,000).
So what then of this overdraft facility that the Honourable Member portrays in a negative way?
It is quite simple and I suspect the Honourable Member knows it.
Our revenue demonstrates seasonal patterns, with monthly ebbs and flows.
When tourism is in high season, money pours into our coffers; when tourism is a low ebb, less money comes in. The same is frequently true for revenues flowing from financial services.
Yet our schools, hospitals, infrastructure projects – all must operate smoothly all year long.
The overdraft facility simply allows us to meet our ongoing obligations in those times when revenue ebbs.
Far from being evidence of irresponsible management, it is rather another example of this Government fulfilling its vision – we are managing our finances smartly, efficiently and squeezing every penny of value we can out of our public treasury.
It pains me to even address this next topic – as frivolous as it is – but let me grudgingly address the charge that this Government issued cheques that were not covered by the funds in our Treasury.
Let me state clearly and emphatically: there has never been an instance during my time as Minister of Finance that cheques were written that were not sufficiently covered by accounts held by the Government of the Virgin Islands.
My Government does not bounce cheques.
While it is tedious to explain what the Honourable Members knows full well, I will explain the process.
Administratively, ministries raise a purchase order to make a payment for a particular good or service.
If there are no funds in the subhead the purchase order goes on hold. A payment cannot be made without funds. Treasury does not prepare the voucher for payment or create a cheque without available funds.
I am aware of one instance where cheques written by the Government of the Virgin Islands were returned, and it was quickly resolved.
However, this had nothing to do with sufficiency of funds, but instead was due to an administrative error – a fact that the Bank involved has publicly acknowledged.
Since this incident the Bank has put in place appropriate measures to ensure that this unfortunate situation would not occur again.
There have been instances where particular accounts were overdrawn, but these overdrawn accounts were always covered by other accounts held by the Government of the Virgin Islands, or by financial instruments created for such a purpose, such as debt financing, or recently by a credit facility - all of which would have been brought to the Honourable House of Assembly for approval.
This Government did not fight for its vision of sound fiscal management for so long and with such conviction simply to come into office and start writing bad cheques.
It is absurd to suggest otherwise and the Honourable Member knows it.
At this point in my remarks, it is a pleasure to be able to find an issue upon which I may share a bit of common ground with my Honourable colleague.
He asks about the audit of our Territory’s financials. (The Audits)
This is an issue near to my heart.
When I sat in the Opposition benches, I pushed hard for accountability in our Territory’s spending, and when I have sat in Government I have never changed my tune.
Let me say in no uncertain terms – I am anxious for the completion of these audits and, frankly, frustrated by the pace of this process.
But the Honorouable Member knows full well it is not my Government or my Ministry that dictates the pace of these audits.
It is unfortunate that during that last 6 years, there have been 3 Accountants General. This frequent turnover of Accountants General created an unfortunate situation which significantly slowed down the creation of these reports.
That notwithstanding, as I recently reported in the House of Assembly, the Ag. Accountant General has completed the accounts for 2013, 2014 and 2015 with the assistance of a dedicated team I personally requested be put together given the importance of the exercise, and these reports have all been submitted to the Auditor General.
Prior to that the Auditor General had already received the accounts for 2010, 2011 and 2012. The audits on the accounts for 2010 and 2011 have been completed, and she is now in process of completing the 2012 accounts.
As the Honourable Member is aware, the Office of the Auditor General is a constitutionally independent body and it is, therefore, outside of my Government’s control as to when these audits may be completed. I can assure the people of this Territory that as soon as these statements have been audited they will be laid before the House of Assembly.
But again, I commend the Honourable Member for being so supportive of timely audits. He and I are in full agreement on this point.
And now, I am sorry to say that the common ground I shared momentarily with the Honourable Member is at its end.
For now, we turn our attention to the next charge, which falsely suggests that in absence of completed audits this Government continues to commit the Territory to financial obligations and that this is, somehow, a terrible crime against the principles of good governance.
I am not sure what Honourable Member is even suggesting in this charge.
Would he have it that the entire apparatus of Government freeze in place when an audit is late to be completed?
Would he have the lights turn off in the Government buildings? Would he have the teachers stay at home? Would he have the hospital shutter its doors to the sick?
Of course not. All of these actions require Government to commit the Territories resources – but none can be put on hold when an audit comes in late.
An audit is a crucially important process, as I have previously stated.
But it is not the end all and be all of financial management.
The real question is whether the Territory’s fiscal house is in order – that is not something that an audit alone tells you.
To assess that bigger picture of our fiscal situation, one needs to look for other evidence. And that evidence is ample.
As I said before, the Government of the UK reviewed and approved our Medium Term Fiscal Plan. That only happens when your house is in order.
Our debt has stayed low for years on end. That only happens when your house is in order.
Independent ratings agencies give the BVI a sound credit rating. That only happens when your house is in order.
Our reserve fund is full to the tune of $60 million. That only happens when your house is in order.
And year, after year, after year we are delivering measureable economic growth. And that only happens when your house is in order.
This Government only spends money on the basis of budgets that the House of Assembly sees and approves;
This Government only borrows money on the basis of plans that the House of Assembly sees and approves;
This Government only embarks upon major development projects on the basis of funding sources that the House of Assembly sees and approves.
This Government’s vision is rooted in sound management of the public’s money and we have delivered on that vision. Period!
It is false and misleading for the Honourable Member to suggest otherwise, and, frankly, irresponsible to suggest that this Government should hit the pause button on crucial spending until the auditors do their work.
The world does not stand still for audits. Neither does this Government.
And now, let us turn our attention – yet again – to the Cruise Pier Project.
The House of Assembly has borne witness to more discussions about this Project than I care to count.
We all understand what is happening. The Honourable Members of the Opposition want to create the impression in the public that this Project was poorly run and badly managed.
Why do they want to create this false impression?
Two reasons. First, they want to call into question this Government’s commitment to effective management of the public finance.
Second, and more importantly, they want to wash away people’s memory of the fact that they stood as roadblocks to this crucial project every step of the way.
When the people of the BVI look at that Cruise Pier and see thousands of happy visitors walk down the ramps from the ships that have come here from around the world – when our people see the tens of millions of dollars their visits bring into our Territory – when our people see the small, local businesses that have benefited from this investment – then the people know how to judge our Government and those who opposed us.
Nothing could be more dangerous to the Honourable Members of the Opposition. So they seek to create distractions.
But distractions cannot stand in the face of facts.
And here are the facts:
The fact is that the initial estimates for this project were based on some general assumptions that proved to be too optimistic.
When Government began soliciting bids to do the work and developing the specific designs we wanted, it became clear that costs would exceed that initial estimate.
Far from hiding this fact, the Honourable Minister for Communications and Works returned to the House of Assembly repeatedly and clearly and forthrightly conveyed these updates.
Nothing was kept secret. Nothing was hidden.
Based upon the actual, revised cost projections submitted to the House of Assembly, we see that the cost variations for the entire project were less than 5 million dollars.
For a project of such magnitude to end with variations within that region is very common and evidence of sound management.
And it should also be known, it must also be known that even these modest cost variations were largely the result of requests made by the BVI Ports Authority for additional changes and updates to the project plan after work had commenced.
The Minister for Communications and Works has presented to the House of Assembly all contracts, all purchase orders, the list of all vendors, both local and foreign, that received any request or were given any contracts for work at the Pier Park.
If this is not accountability then I would like the Honourable Member to tell me what accountability is.
Every document, every dollar, every dime that has been spent on the Cruise Pier Project has been accounted for and has been presented to the Honourable House.
As we speak, an audit is being undertaken on the Cruise Pier Project and we will lay the findings in the House of Assembly.
However, at this time there has been nothing that has been seen today, neither through the House of Assembly or by any agency in Government that has warranted cause for concern as it relates to the Cruise Pier Project and the way that it has been executed.
So given this clear track record of accountability and sound management, why are we still here today debating this point?
Could it be because the Honourable Members of the Opposition want the people of this Territory to forget how vehemently they opposed this project from its inception?
Could it be because they are now embarrassed by its success?
Let me say with pride: the Cruise Pier Project is a gem within the Caribbean.
And it is a boon to our economy.
In 2011 about three hundred thousand cruise ship visitors came to our shores.
This year, over seven hundred thousand cruise ship visitors will do so.
Let me say that again – seven hundred thousand (700,000) cruise visitors will come to the BVI this year.
And increase of four hundred thousand from where we were before we built the Cruise Pier.
Based on the FCCA records it is expected that each cruise ship tourist that visits the Territory leaves approximately $103.00 per visit.
That means, quite simply, that the extra four hundred thousand visitors we have attracted to our shores by building the Cruise Pier translates to about $41,200,000 in additional income for our Territory every year.
I defy the Honourable Members of the Opposition to point to one project they have ever, ever proposed, supported and completed that has brought in even one-tenth the economic growth of the Cruise Pier.
Over forty-one million dollars per year in growth. That means that in just two short years, this project will have essentially paid for itself. And for years and decades to come it will be a source of profit to us all.
I am sorry that I have to stand here today and defend a project that should be celebrated.
But I am happy to reaffirm that this project is a reflection of this Government’s vision.
It is our vision that told us to think big about growth. Our vision told us to manage the process responsibly. Our vision told us to carry on even in the face of attacks.
We were true to our vision – and the Territory is the better for it.
And then the Honourable Member accuses the Minister of Finance of unlawfully diverting funds approved by the House of Assembly for specific purposes such as the East End/Long Look sewage project to the Cruise Pier Project, without the necessary approval by the House of Assembly and without any regard for accountability.
Firstly, the transfers of the monies were urgent and necessary.
Secondly, the Public Finance Management Act allows for such use (so long as the lender agrees)
Thirdly, loan agreement allowed for the use of the money in this way as the purpose for which the loan could be used covered some broad infrastructure development areas.
As previously reported, the BVI Ports Authority has agreed to repay the monies it received in quarterly installments of $500,000.
Based on this agreement, as at April 10, 2017, BVI Ports Authority has repaid $2 million dollars to Central Government of the funds received from the loan facility at First Caribbean International Bank.
The important thing here is that the money is fully accounted for and is being repaid.
Let me now turn my attention to the charge that this Government is engaging in the same practices as the previous Government of splitting contracts, even down to purchase orders.
Let me dispense with this charge quickly.
My government is not engaged in contract splitting. We are NOT trying to avoid any processes, scrutiny or controls.
Rather, in some instances we have engaged as many contractors as we could on some projects in order to provide employment opportunities for them.
In some instances certain projects that do not involve significant risks but which could be accomplished by our very skilled artisans and contractors, and at relatively low sums, better serves the interest of the Territory, our residents and their families if they were done in this manner.
Our goal is altruistic, we are NOT engaged in any untoward practices. The paper work is there to support this.
We are simply trying to put bread on the table and food in the mouths of our people.
But in all cases we are doing so on the basis of sound fiscal management principles.
I will now address the charge that this Government has been late in paying certain vendors.
As the Honourable Leader of the Opposition knows, the budget for Government is made with anticipation of monies being collected during the year to meet established targets.
He is also aware that because of the cyclical nature of receipts coming into Government there are times when inflows are low.
These periods are followed by peak inflow periods when excess monies are received and bills can be honoured in a more timely fashion.
In an effort to minimise the impact of this cycle, a decision was taken to ensure that all bills received by the Treasury that are properly vouchered are paid within thirty days of receipt.
This process can only work, however, if vendors submit bills in a timely manner to the respective ministries or departments engaging them.
We are working closely with our vendors and small businesses to make sure that happens.
We have also mandated all Ministries and Departments to be equally efficient in their processing and submissions to the Treasury, and I have mandated as much.
If ever a local small business feels that his or her bills are not being paid in a timely fashion, they ought not sit silent.
They should raise their concern with the relevant Ministry and if that does not get them satisfaction they should know that my door is always open.
I can assure any listening that such delays are not a reflection of any Government policy – quite the opposite. Our policy calls for prompt payment and it is my commitment to make sure that happens.
In this same vein, I must now turn to the very serious charge from the Honourable Leader of the Opposition that this Government deleting purchase orders that we have entered into with local businesses in order to facilitate unapproved payments not included in the budget.
This is a deeply troubling accusation – made more troubling by the total absence of evidence to support it.
If anyone listening today believes they have been the victim of a deleted purchase order then please, bring that matter immediately to the head of the relevant Ministry or Department so that the matter could be properly investigated.
The Public Finance Management Act is clear that before any good or service can be procured a purchase order must be issued by an authorised officer and monies must be available within the budget to allow for the purchase order to be issued.
What the Honourable Member is described in his motion is dishonest and probably illegal. Plain and simple.
If someone in this Government is guilty of such as act – let the evidence be presented.
Until then, I would ask that the Honourable Member treat the Public Service of this Territory with more respect.
They do their jobs with diligence and integrity every day. They deserve better than to face baseless accusations.
The next charge I must address relates to public safety and the funding of our police.
However, I would like to reserve this point until the end of my remarks, as it is a topic that deserves a more fulsome discussion.
Turning back then to matters of finance, let me address the allegation that this Government’s tax policies are causing hardship for local business.
This Government has been a champion for the business community since we embarked on our journey over two decades ago.
We champion business because we know that thriving businesses are the source of jobs for our people, revenues for our public treasury and vibrancy for our community.
I am proud of our support for local business. And I cannot help but note the irony of the Honourable Leader of the Opposition purporting to be a friend of business.
After all, he will recall that under the previous Government, the National Business Bureau, which we created in our first term in office, was allowed to go dormant under the old administration.
We revived that important agency. And that is not all we did.
Every day we look to enhance our local industries through the Bureau, the Department of Trade, Investment Promotion and Consumer Affairs and the European Union funded Caribbean Overseas Small and Medium Enterprises (COSME) programme in the areas of financial literacy, educational activities, practical training initiatives, technical assistance, and networking and marketing.
My Government understands all too well that small businesses drive the economy.
And we also understand that the nature of the BVI economy is that the vast majority of spending that happens here comes from people who do not reside here. The visitors who come to our shores for tourism, the businesses that locate here for our financial industry – they are the fuel of our public treasury.
Our Government understands that we must be careful about how we tax those who come from abroad. We do not wish to kill the golden goose.
But let me say clearly– we will apply taxes that make sure that visitors, who enjoy so much from our Territory, also do their fair share to contribute to our Territory.
And so, yes, we updated our tax policy to reflect that common sense principle. When we took office, the Accommodation Tax was just seven percent. That made us among the lowest in the region.
Why, pray tell, should the people in other neighbouring countries or territories benefit from tax rates higher than ours?
A ten percent Accommodation Tax does not take a penny out of the pockets of our people. Just the opposite – it brings millions into our Treasury.
Another example, was our decision to raise the minimum wage to $6.00/hour.
I appreciate the concerns of businesses trying to manage their labour costs.
But I am equally concerned about the worker who must feed his family, put a roof over his head and pay the bills.
A $6.00/hour minimum wage is appropriate given the cost of living in the BVI and it is entirely manageable for our local businesses given the state of the economy.
I am not aware of any business that has had to close up shop because we raised the minimum wage.
But I can point to about 800 of our fellow residents who today benefit from an increased wage that is allowing them to live with a bit more dignity and ease.
These actions were long overdue. They reflect this Government’s vision at its very best – modernising our policies, ensuring our competitiveness by improving our facilities and making sure the blessings of our Territory create real value for our people.
I make no apologies for any of these actions.
If the Honourable Leader of the Opposition wishes to rise to bemoan the misfortune of tourists paying a reasonable ten percent Accommodation Tax, I welcome him to do so.
Another fee that will be raised is work permit fees which were last raised twenty years ago.
And there is a lot of talk describing NHI and Social Security contributions as fees, Let me point out that these are benefits t which we all contribute and which are drawn down sooner than later so let's call them what they are: benefits
Let me again turn my attention to the question of BVI Airways.
Let me start by restating here what I have said previously: our Territory must have improved air access. Period. Full stop!
It is downright dangerous for our long-term strength to continue in the current situation where visitors to our shores have limited choices for how to get here.
This situation makes the BVI more expensive and less convenient to reach by air than our competitors in the region. That is a real problem and we must fix it.
If the Honourable Leader of the Opposition has a magic formula for doing so, let him present it.
In absence of such wonders, this Government has been hard at work to find practical solutions.
Two remedies in particular have been explored.
One is lengthening the airport runway, which would allow larger jets to land at Beef Island, which could lead American Airways or perhaps other international carriers to start flying here.
The second is the idea of BVI Airways.
As I have stated before, getting a new airline in operation is a difficult proposition. But it is one that we have a duty to explore, given how essential improved air access is to our Territory.
I would like to be able to say that this process has been smooth, but that is not the truth.
As is well known, we have to work through a set of difficult issues with the management of BVI Airways. Our hope is to have positive news to report on that front in the coming weeks.
But let me be clear on two points.
First, this Government will fight with every ounce of strength to make sure that BVI Airways makes good on its commitments to this Territory – and if it cannot or will not do so, that the people of this Territory are compensated for that loss.
Second, this Government will not stop working for a solution to the air access problem until more planes start landing and taking off from Beef Island.
We will not give up just because it is hard. We will not give up because it is too important to our future.
I now turn to the question of compensation for our public servants.
Let me state upfront that this Government is fully committed to our public officers who in the face of challenges continue to make significant contributions to the Territory.
We seek to compensate public servants fairly and in a manner that reflects their contributions. They deserve nothing less.
To the specific question of Performance Increments, it must be understood that these are not paid as a matter for course but are awarded based on achieving agreed performance objectives. Such performance increments are payable 1st January annually.
I have reviewed records from the Human Resources Department, and from the period 2011 to 2016, we have approved and paid increments to virtually all of our public officers where performance appraisals and increment certificates were received.
We have even paid persons who retired, without the benefit of receiving his/her performance increment were contacted and his/her retirement benefits were recalculated and processed.
So to summarize the point – this Government is holding true to our commitment to public servants. We are providing them with the fair compensation they deserve – and we are doing so responsibly and in accordance with sound fiscal management.
I am now drawing to a conclusion.
I will do so by speaking to an issue that also illustrates a broader point.
The issue relates to the funding of our police.
The Honourable Leader of the Opposition charges that this Government has underfunded the police.
That is wrong as a point of fact.
It is true that the Governor exercised his powers to allocate funds to security matters which fall under his purview.
But, this was not at all necessary.
My Government has always provided additional support when needed for law enforcement to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past.
Between 2016 and 2017, the overall budget allocation to the police has increased by almost eight hundred thousand dollars ($800,000).
While the police budget has fluctuated, since 2011, as do many budgets, the budget had a marked increase of 8% in 2012 after my Government took office. This year it has an estimated increase over 2016 of 5%.
So, there is an honest disagreement between this Government and His Excellency regarding the need for the action he took.
In all cases, there is no question that the money for our police will be there so they can do their crucial job.
On that point, we are all in agreement.
But let me say where perhaps we have a serious difference in opinion with our Honourable colleagues in the Opposition.
It is the view of this Government that solving the problem of crime is not a matter of dollars and cents.
It is a matter of morals and values.
The fight for public safety won’t be won in a budget line item or in the House of Assembly.
It will be won on our streets, in our community centres, in our classrooms and in our churches.
I have said this many times before and I will say it again: the scourge of crime in our Territory reflects a battle for the very souls of our young people.
The lives taken from us through violence – those tragedies didn’t happen because a few thousand dollars were not spent on the right police programme.
Those lives were lost because a young man living in our midst lost his way. He came to believe that the money in his pocket was more important than the goodness in his heart. He came to believe that the power of his gun was greater than the power of God.
Anyone who thinks that we will secure our future by spending more money is badly mistaken.
Money cannot fix broken souls.
Only a community can do that.
And that returns me to where I began today – this Government’s vision.
For it has always been the bedrock of our vision that we must in all cases lean upon the strength of our community to make progress together.
Government can manage the public’s finances. It can invest in projects that grow the economy. It can tend to the physical welfare of our citizens.
Government can build and run hospitals and schools, pave roads and build buildings, it can help create jobs and opportunities.
But none of that has any meaning, if the bonds that tie us together as human beings fray. And that, Government cannot fix. It takes families, community leaders, ministers, common people to do that hard work.
And it pains me when politicians seek to take these issues and make them into political debates.
On this issue – if on nothing else – we must be united regardless of party or any other division.
We must stand as one behind a community that is powered by love, not hate; by generosity, not selfishness; by compassion, not hard hearts; by caring, not indifference.
That is the BVI we have always known and cherished. That is the BVI my Government has sought to preserve and champion.
So let me conclude with these words to the Honourable Leader of the Opposition, to my colleagues in Government and to the people of this Territory.
Having debates in the House is healthy and fine.
It is good that we in Government are held accountable.
While I regret that the motion was predicated on false assertions, I have no regret about standing and making my case.
That is what a democracy is all about.
But I wish to also humbly ask that the discord of this motion not be allowed to consume us.
The future poses great challenges for us all, but also great opportunities.
I am confident that so long as we adhere to a clear vision, then we can and will prosper.
That is the goal that we should all work for, everyday.
I thank you for listening.