Statement by Premier and Minister of Finance
Honourable Andrew A. Fahie
Press Conference - 22 April, 2022
Update on Current Matters - Finance and the Economy
Good day and God's Blessings to all the people of the Virgin Islands.
Your Government continues to do a considerable amount of work to increase the efficiency of Government services, to bring benefits to you the citizens and residents of the Virgin Islands.
As Premier, I have promised to keep you informed on current matters and the work of your Government, and therefore I am pleased to provide you with yet another update, which I have been consistently doing bi-monthly.
First, let me express condolences on behalf of my Government and I to all the families in the Virgin Islands who lost loved ones since the last press conference. I must highlight the passing of one of our dedicated fire officers, No 58 Shaquoi Smith. May their souls rest in peace.
Ministry of Finance Transformation Plan
The Ministry of Finance has been working on a wide range of initiatives aimed at enhancing efficiency and service delivery, under the theme, “Leading Globally in Service Delivery”.
In the area of customer service delivery, major transformation projects have been undertaken with the Post Office, the Inland Revenue Department and Treasury Department.
Where the Post Office is concerned, there is now a project proposal by the Caribbean Postal Union (CPU) for the development of an automated and integrated counter system for designated postal operators within the OECS.
The name of the platform being proposed is Post Global, which is a multi-module system that is fully Universal Postal Union (UPU) compliant.
This platform appears to be a cost effective option as the CPU members are being offered a discounted purchase price.
The ultimate goal is to have all CPU members on a shared platform, which would allow for ease of technical support throughout the region.
Key modules will include:
- Postal counter operations, which allows for retail counter automation such as electronic money orders.
- Customer access, which includes a virtual post office and a philately portal.
- E-Shop, which allows for the post office to sell products and third party products online. This will be integrated with the proposed payment gateway.
- Postal Management, which allows for the development of business reports and trends, graphs, charts and options for monitoring and control.
- Mail Room Operations, including complete mail processing, mail delivery using a mobile app, and post box management.
- User Manageable Software, which allows for adding products and services, and modification upgrades.
As you can see, the implementation of the Post Global platform will bring a host of benefits to our people – including a number of new and convenient services and efficient mail delivery. Further, the platform will provide opportunities to increase the revenues for the Post Office and savings to you, the people of the Virgin Islands.
Efforts are also underway with respect to the re-structuring of Inland Revenue Department and Treasury Department.
The Ministry of Finance is in the process of filling key vacant positions to enhance customer service delivery within these critical departments.
Under the auspices of the Ministry of Finance and DOIT, the Inland Revenue Department has embarked upon a two-year project in upgrading their Standard Integrated Government Tax Administration System (SIGTAS) to the latest version, 3.0. This upgrade contains an integrated suite of modules that will automate the administration of taxes using a single comprehensive information system.
To facilitate greater transparency and modernization of the taxation process, SIGTAS 3.0 will allow for e-registration, e-filing, e-payments, and flexible reporting. By upgrading this software, Central Government will be able to optimize decision-making and increase the efficiency in tax collection, enforcement, and recovery.
Further, amendments were made to the Stamp Duties Act Cap 212 to facilitate the continuation of the stamp duty waiver for a period of one year for Belongers who are first time land and property owners. This is an effort to increase participation in land ownership and development by our people of the Virgin Islands.
Improvements to existing systems and processes will be addressed with the ongoing SIGTAS 3.0 upgrade. Government is also presently amending the Land and House Tax Act Cap 207 to address interest and penalties on unpaid property taxes.
The Treasury Department is presently installing a report writing software by the name of WorkDay, which will assist greatly in its budgeting and auditing functions. This will streamline the present revenue reporting process, which will produce a timelier and accurate revenue position of Central Government in real-time. This initiative is anticipated to go live by 30 June, 2022.
Treasury Department is also working on the introduction of direct deposit payments for vendors and customers, which is targeted for 1 May, 2022. This will reduce the overall cost in cheque printing and processing fees.
On average, Central Government processes approximately 2,000 to 3,000 cheques per month at a rate of $15 to $20 per cheque. The introduction of the direct deposit initiative should save Central Government approximately $100,000 monthly.
We recognize that there are persons who may not have a bank account for whatever reason, and for them direct deposit may not be possible. For those persons, you would still be able to collect your cheques at the Treasury and locations will be designated for collection on each of the Sister Islands. But for those who do have bank accounts, especially on the Sister Islands, this will be a major convenience. Very soon, the Treasury Department will be requesting persons and businesses to provide their banking details to the Department.
Further to this, Central Government previously paid international cost for local wire transfers. This has now been rectified and local wire fees are now being applied to these transactions, which will realise more savings for Central Government.
Work is also progressing for the use of e-payments.
In order for Government to reduce the risk and the responsibility of processing credit cards directly, it was determined that an online payment platform should be established.
With this approach, the Government would gain the benefit of collecting revenue online, while limiting its involvement in banking activities.
In conjunction with the Treasury Department, we are now at the advanced stages of discussions with Banco Popular, with a target setup date of the end of the 2nd Quarter.
Other benefits would include: secure payment environment with a high level of fraud protection; 24-hour 7-days per week ability for persons to make payments; the ability to accept all forms of payment that are available locally; and a system that is simple and user friendly.
The Ministry of Finance is also working on a Comprehensive Pension Plan to reform the pension system.
On 14 February, 2022 an initial meeting was held to discuss a way forward with this initiative. The goal is to make it a contributory pension scheme, thereby removing the contingent liability from the Government and allowing for a system that will have greater flexibility for public officers on their retirement options. So, we will all be contributing to the scheme. You will be hearing more about this initiative soon.
De-risking and Correspondent Banking Relationships
On Wednesday, 20 April, 2022, the Deputy Premier and Minister for Education, Culture, Youth Affairs, Fisheries and Agriculture, Dr the Honourable Natalio D. Wheatley, and Acting Financial Secretary Mr Jeremiah Frett, represented the Virgin Islands at the Caribbean Financial Access Roundtable in Barbados.
The Roundtable was a regional financial summit co-hosted by the Barbados Government and Congresswoman Maxine Waters, chairwoman of the United States House of Representatives Financial Services Committee. It was attended by Heads of Government, Ministers of Finance and other representatives from throughout the Caribbean region as well as senior executives of major International Financial Institutions such as Caribbean Development Bank and International Monetary Fund, other American and Canadian financial institutions, financial remittance services such as MoneyGram, a US Congressional delegation, CARICOM, the OECS, and other key industry and issue experts.
The focus of the Roundtable summit was de-risking and correspondent banking relationships affecting the Caribbean region.
These are complex topics, but in a nutshell, locally operating banks hold bank accounts in foreign banks, such as in the United States, to facilitate money transfers and other foreign transactions for their customers such as our residents and local businesses. De-risking, also in a nutshell, is a practice where financial institutions decide not to provide services to customers in certain risk categories.
De-risking was originally intended to combat international organized crime such as money laundering and terrorism financing. But what has been happening is that the measures that are aimed at organized crime and international criminals have been making it increasingly difficult – and even impossible - for ordinary, honest persons – the small ordinary men and women and the small business - to get access to basic banking services such as opening a bank account or getting a credit card.
I am sure many of our people and businesses have had the experience where, when they go to the bank for simple and basic services, they are being asked to produce a lot of documents – some of which they may not have, to go through all kinds of lengthy red tape, to wait for long periods to get a response from their bank on a request for service – and often times they are denied the service.
These have been a side effect of the measures being required by the international regulators to combat financial and transnational crime. The banks have also been experiencing problems where when they comply with what is asked of them, the regulators move the goal post and come asking for more requirements and more measures. And this is also affecting their business and the service to customers such as yourselves.
Further to this, many foreign banks feel it is not profitable enough for them to put the measures in place to manage the risk in small economies such as ours – especially with continuously shifting goal posts. And so, what has been happening is that those banks, which are correspondent banks, drop our local banks from their service.
The effect of this is that it makes it more difficult and costly for the local banks to provide the local public with certain services.
Another problem is that it makes it difficult for foreign investors to access banking services – such as simply opening an account – to do legitimate business. And this deters foreign investment. As an international finance centre that provides valuable services to international business, it is critical that the banks operating in the jurisdiction have correspondent banking relationships, which are essential in facilitating cross-border trade and investment.
Now, this has been happening for more than a decade and it affects not only the Virgin Islands, but a large number – if not all – the countries in the Caribbean, and even elsewhere.
The Roundtable summit was convened so that we can make representation to the US Congress as a group – as a region – to explain the problems these international policies are causing for our people and our economies, so that solutions can be found to these problems.
The US Congressional Delegation was able to hear and see first-hand what their policies have been doing to the countries of the region. One of the outcomes of the Roundtable was that efforts will be made to have representatives of the Governments of the region and regional banks appear before a US Congressional Hearing in the near future, so that the problem and solutions can be discussed – and hopefully put an end to these unnecessary difficulties that residents and locally operating banks are facing.
The Deputy Premier and the Acting Financial Secretary participated in the Roundtable discussions. The Deputy Premier pledged the support of the Virgin Islands to working with regional Governments, the banks in the region and all the other stakeholders towards this effort to making banking and access to banking services easier, more convenient and more affordable to the people of the region, and especially the people and businesses in the Virgin Islands.
COVID-19 Economic Stimulus Monitoring and Evaluation
When your Government implemented the COVID-19 Economic Stimulus Grant Programme in 2020, persons would recall, we promised that there would be accountability for the funds disbursed and that there would be monitoring and evaluation of the various initiatives under the programme.
The stimulus Programme was initiated as a way to stimulate the economy and to simultaneously address a number of social and economic issues caused by COVID-19 - the worst pandemic to hit the world in over 100 years.
Firstly, the Programme was aimed at providing economic support to save our small businesses from going under – because our small businesses are the backbone of the Virgin Islands economy. By helping small businesses to keep their heads above water, they could help to alleviate some of the financial stress of the business owners and their employees – providing a means of income so that they could look after their social needs and those of their families.
Catastrophic damage would have crippled our economy and made recovery perhaps impossible. But, by keeping our small businesses alive and injecting funds into the economy, we were able to keep the economy active and to protect the economy from sustaining catastrophic damage.
Access to food was a real concern at times during the pandemic, especially when countries around the world were closing their borders, access to supplies became an issue, and as air and sea shipping experienced interruptions.
Your Government, therefore prioritised in the Economic Stimulus Programme food production in agriculture and fishing. This was another way to help develop and provide income streams to persons who could then contribute to the economy by making purchases in other businesses and by bringing produce, livestock and fish to the market.
We provided support to preschools and day cares because they are businesses too, but also because they are part of our education infrastructure for educating our children – the next generation of Virgin Islanders.
We also provided support to our churches, church groups and religious organisations, because they perform an important function in our society – such as helping the needy and providing counselling services.
Due to the urgency of need, especially among our people who were unable to work due to the COVID-19 restrictions, and the slow-down of the economy as a result of the interruption in global air travel and global tourism, and also due to the urgency to protect the economy from catastrophic injury, we had to follow the path taken by the United Kingdom and may other countries.
That path was to implement the roll out of the stimulus programme and deal with some of the administrative matters on the back end.
You would recall that due to the risks associated with COVID-19 it was difficult to conduct site visits at that time. It was risky to have persons coming into Government offices and having physical interactions. Most public officers were working remotely. And offices that were open went through periods of lockdown as COVID-19 cases were detected.
In July 2021, Cabinet approved the policy and action plan for monitoring and evaluation of the initiatives under the Economic Stimulus Programme. As part of this phased process, recipients of grants were reminded of the undertaking they made when they collected their grants, that they would provide a report to the Government on how they utilized the funds, with supporting documents.
They were also asked to provide feedback and data so that we could track the impact that the programme is having on the economy – because these grants were investments in the economy to help the economy to not only survive but to grow.
Out of the $40 million special grant provided by the BVI Social Security Board (BVISSB) to address specified initiatives including the following COVID-19 related economic stimulus measures, a total of $15,241,839 was expended in the COVID-19 Economic Stimuli for Micro Small and Medium Enterprise (MSME) Businesses, Farmers and Fishermen, Day Cares, Pre-schools, Private Schools, Churches and Religious Organisations.
To date, 1,223 SMEs received stimulus grants totalling $7,406,521.
Some 220 farmers received stimulus grants totalling $3,121,500, and 213 fishermen and fisherwomen received stimulus grants totalling $2,222,000.
Grants totalling $530,359 were provided to 19 Day Cares/Pre-schools. Some 109 churches and religious organizations received stimulus grants totalling $1,599,000; and 12 private schools received grants totalling $362,459.
The Action Plan for the monitoring and evaluation of the various economic stimulus programmes, is a three-phase plan.
Under the first phase, reporting and data collection is taking place. The Permanent Secretary, Premier’s Office has written to all grant recipients reminding them of their obligations to provide an account for the use of funds and to participate in surveys and other exercises for monitoring and evaluation.
A feedback forms for each initiative have been sent to each grant recipient, and they are reminded to complete the forms and submit them. Submission can be done in electronic format and via the internet.
Respondents are asked to provide details, with supporting documents, receipts and photographs where applicable, proof of payments such as statutory obligations, utilities, equipment, rent, mortgage, creditors, suppliers and staff.
They are also required to provide a statement of how the stimulus grant assisted their business or organisation in coping with the COVID-19 economic challenges. Farmers and fisher folk are required to submit details of their operations such as acreage farmed and crops, or catch respectively.
Four bulletins were circulated by the Government Information Services (GIS) between August 2021 and March 2022 reminding recipients of their obligation to report back to the Government via the Premier’s Office on how they spent the grant funding.
Additionally, the Premier’s Office has requested assistance from the Agriculture and Fisheries Department with conducting site visits to the farms and fisher folk for inspection of their premises to verify the use of the stimulus grant funding they received.
The Premier’s Office has received a number of responses from stimulus grant recipients. As at 28 March, 2022, a total of 195 grant recipients have now responded:
- SME Grant Recipients – 120 have responded.
- Farmer Grant Recipients – 19 have responded.
- Fishermen Grant Recipients – 9 have responded.
- Churches Grant Recipients – 33 have responded.
- Day cares/Pre-schools Grant Recipients – 14 have responded.
More persons are submitting their forms and, again, the others are reminded of their obligation to do so.
A team from Premier’s Office along with staff from the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries will be conducting site visits to the farmers and fishermen within the next few weeks to begin onsite verifications.
Additionally, the Premier's Office has allocated staff resources to call recipients who have not yet provided any data to remind and prompt them to get their information in.
BVIAA Employees’ reimbursement
On the topic of COVID-19, I wish to advise employees of the BVI Airports Authority that payments of the monies relative to the 25 percent pay cut that they took during the earlier months of the pandemic will commence from 30 April, 2022. BVIAA employees should begin receiving the monies in their upcoming paychecks. By 30 May, 2022 all the payments should be reimbursed.
During the heightened period of COVID-19, the BVIAA had asked employees to take a 25 percent pay cut so the Authority could continue to function, seeing there was no significant economic activity being generated at the time due to significantly reduced traffic at the airport arising from the border closures both here in the Virgin Islands as well as in other jurisdictions, and the general shutdown of the global tourism industry due to the pandemic.
This was clearly a great sacrifice by the BVIAA employees, and we are thankful to them for making this sacrifice. I am also pleased to report that two of the long outstanding increments due to the staff of the BVIAA will also be paid during the aforementioned period.
As the country’s economy continues to grow, the people who made the sacrifice to get us where we are now must be recognized in a timely manner, because we are in this together.
Tourism and SeaTrade 2022
Over the last several months there has been a tremendous increase in activity through our air and sea ports, both commercial and private entities, as well as domestic and international travellers. All our harbours and marinas are experiencing a significant upsurge in business. This is a testament to the measures put in place by your Government in our phased and managed reopening and re-energising of our economy during the pandemic, and our overall efforts to continue to grow our tourism product and our economy.
This is also proof that our tourism product is very strong, is in high demand and enjoys confidence. At the same time, however, we must not become complacent, as there is always room for improvement, and we must keep finding ways to further enhance visitor experience.
Just last weekend we saw the return of the Virgin Gorda Easter Festival after two years of absence due to the effects of COVID-19. It was encouraging to note that all the hotels, guest homes, car rentals – even private homes and vehicles - were booked out.
I wish to congratulate the Virgin Gorda Festival sub-committee and the Virgin Islands Festival and Fairs Committee, and the Minister of Culture and his team and all the other stakeholders, for their outstanding work in reviving the Easter Festival in Virgin Gorda, and keeping our culture alive.
Of course, the only reward for good work is more work.
I ask for the same support as we begin the planning for the Emancipation Festival in August in Tortola. The Minister and his team will be giving more information in the next few days in this regard.
The Annual SeaTrade summit will be held in Florida during the entire period of next week, to which I will be leading a delegation so that we can shore up our cruise tourism even further. As a result I will be absent from the Territory from Monday, 25 April, 2022, for a few days. I will report on the SeaTrade on my return.
Annual Day of Prayer and Interdenominational Day of Prayer
As we all know, the BVI has experienced many challenges over the last few years. Some of them remain vivid in our minds; such as the 2017 floods, the two Category 5 hurricanes in 2017 – Irma and Maria, the imposed Commission of Inquiry, COVID-19 and the effects of the conflicts in Ukraine.
I firmly believe that it is the prayers that we continue to offer up to God for the Virgin Islands that is why we are able to continuously safely navigate through these uncharted and turbulent waters. As some of our young people told me, it seems as though the BVI just cannot catch a break. But we know, in God we trust. Needless to say we must continue to remain in prayer.
In this light, I take it upon myself to encourage everyone to be a part of the Interdenominational Day of Prayer on Thursday, May 5, being hosted by the Interdenominational Day of Prayer Coordinating Committee. This date will also coincide with the National Day of Prayer.
The Interdenominational Day of Prayer was started in the Virgin Islands by Mr. Linton Wheatley, now of blessed memory. He firmly believed in the importance of us all coming together to collectively pray for each other and for our country seeking God’s guidance and protection.
I am pleased that his legacy continues with its continuation. Pastor Winston Salmon is now chairing the committee.
The annual observance, which is held on the first Thursday of May, is in its 26th year. There will be two sessions. One at 5 am at the Christian Faith Assembly and the other at 5 pm under the tent at the Festival Village site in Road Town.
We are already hearing the promotions on the radio by the clergy from committee and different congregations.
Your Government is joining its voice to encourage the people of the Virgin Islands, those home and far, to be a part of the Day of Prayer.
ESHS Campus Redevelopment Move with a Purpose Project
The Elmore Stoutt High School (ESHS) Campus Redevelopment Move With A Purpose Project is progressing well and remains on target for a September 2022 completion and hand over.
The Minister of Education will be hosting a live media walkthrough of the project in a few days’ time, so that both the media and the general public can get a first-hand update of the progress of the project.
Commission of Inquiry
As I said in previous statements, the Governor assured me that I would receive a copy of the report of the COI for review before we discuss its contents. Once I review the report, my Administration will provide a written response to it. As the elected leader of the Territory, I will be preparing for engagement with Minister Milling and others in London on the findings and recommendations of the report, and what is in the best interest of the people of the Virgin Islands.
I will continue to update you again and again in due course.
As your Government, we recognize the concerns many have raised about the COI and its report, which has not been released to the public as yet. Although I have not received a copy of the report as yet, I want to reassure the people of the Virgin Islands that discussions with the Governor have been ongoing on this matter.
As Premier, I wish to reiterate that I am willing to put all perceived political differences aside to ensure that we work as one Virgin Islands people, so that we can further strengthen our systems, legislations, Constitution, and any other areas, solely in the best interests of the people of the Virgin Islands, without compromise – and without experiencing any retrograde step to the historical aspirations of the people of the Virgin Islands as outlined in the Constitution, and without experiencing any retrograde step with regard to our political, financial, and constitutional advancement.
And, as I stated before, I will continue to update the people of the Virgin Islands in due course on this matter.
Police Passing Out Ceremony
Before I close, I wish to congratulate the 20 recruits who completed their training and participated in a passing out ceremony yesterday. This adds to the resources available to the Royal Virgin Islands Police Force (RVIPF). Your Government has continued to support the RVIPF during the worst pandemic in over 100 years, and we will continue to do so.
Your Government will continue to provide you with updates on these and other matters as we continue to carry out our mandate to prudently manage the resources of the Virgin Islands, and to develop the country, for the benefit of all our Belongers and residents, and for our future generations of Virgin Islands.
I thank you and may God continue to bless and protect our beautiful Virgin Islands and our people.