Following one of the most protracted and complex debates in recent memory the Virgin Islands Recovery and Development Agency Act, 2018 was passed in the House of Assembly with amendments. The Bill which saw some members of government speaking against it attracted a division of 10 ayes, two no’s and an absent.
The legislation deals with the proposed £300M UK loan guarantee to the Territory to assist in the rebuilding efforts. While many members spoke strongly against the Bill, none stated blatantly during the debate that they were not going to support the legislation. Instead many called for amendments relating to the scope and mandate of the Agency which will have oversight over the recovery works and funds.
The heated debate commenced with Deputy Premier and Minister for Natural Resources and Labour, Dr. the Hon. Kedrick Pickering making the case that it would be bad judgment to decline the loan guarantee being offered by the Territory’s mother country.
The Deputy Premier told his colleagues: “The UK Government says they are offering us £300M in our recovery effort and they have said this is what we want to see put in place to ensure that there is accountability, transparency whatever pretty word you want to use between the money wherever the money is coming from and ultimately the beneficiaries of the money. I don’t see anything wrong with that.”
“On top of that…they said that you must pass your own legislation to be able to establish that Agency. You must pass the legislation…this Bill was drafted by our own people. The policy directive was given by our own people,” he added. It is us and we had about four or five meetings at various levels. Sit down to discuss this Bill. It is our Bill and ultimately we must pass it,” he added.
However, Third District Representative, Hon. Julian Fraser suggested that the Territory should get the loan from the Social Security Board instead of external sources which he said can lead the Territory down a grim economic path.
“Redevelopment of the Virgin Islands is a sure thing and nowhere is better for us to get that funding than from our local institutions or from the Social Security Board…Then we can turn to the CDB’s of the world, but I would shudder to think and hate to see the day when we get to be treated like the other countries of the world. Right now they got Barbados by the you know what, they got Jamaica likewise — but they have a currency that can be devalued, we don’t; what they gonna do, they gonna impose a currency on us so we can devalue it in order for us for us to meet the terms and get down on our knees,” the Opposition Member noted.
The Third District Representative also accused the Premier of rushing the Bill. “Sometimes you have to crawl, you got to go slow…You take it easy you are going to get it. This rush that we are headlong into; they came here they gave this Bill the first reading Thursday came back in a week. The only reason the Premier didn’t give this three readings in one sitting is because of the push back,” Hon. Fraser said.
Junior Minister for Tourism Hon. Archibald Christian also spoke against the Bill and said that he would like to see amendments made before he could commit to support the legislation. On the other hand, Second District Representative Hon. Mitch Turnbull who stated his objections about various aspects of the new Legislation during the debate maintained his position and voted no with Hon. Fraser when the time came to pass the Act.
Deputy Speaker of the House of Assembly and Fifth District Representative, Hon. Delores Christopher complained that certain information indicated that the decision on the Agency and operational matters relating the legislation had already been decided on before the document was subject to public consultation via a series of meetings.
“Madam Speaker, when we think we are having a meeting to go through issues as to how we would be going forward, only to find out that our meeting will not be the real meeting at all, and that some persons were already here, taking action, managing the Government, Madam Speaker,” she said.
Furthermore, Hon. Christopher said that she was not privy to the Bill early, in fact the Legislator said that members were told to defend the Bill with little or no information. “I really don’t know if it was shared in the Cabinet before, but I know as a member of the caucus we saw it only after it was being shown to stakeholders and we were being asked or being told that we were expected to defend it in our districts. Yes, we had a presentation, but it was one without sight of the plan.”
Then Ms. Christopher posed a very pointed question: “I had a concern from day one, that is why I am so concerned about the agency, because it is not about us being the Government but bringing it to us to pass it because they need you to say yes. But the decision is already made, Madam Speaker….We have no say. So why am I being asked to say yes to this agency and board?”
Minister for Health and Social Development Hon. Ronnie Skelton spoke frankly against the Bill and stated his apprehension to support it in its previous form. The Minister told the House that the Agency as it mandated had powers that overrode those of elected officials especially ministers of Government: “The elected officials of this country, Minister of Finance who is responsible for all financial matters in this country under part (a) of the Constitution – they are taking that power away from the Minister of Finance. And the Financial Secretary… doesn’t even have a say,” Hon. Skelton said.
Minister for Education and Culture, Hon. Myron Walwyn indicated that the matter was a serious one as the Territory urgently needs the financial injections the Bill offers. “We are at a point where funds are running low, things tight, let us look at the possibilities of not being able to borrow money. Let us look at that. This 2018 budget is going nowhere unless we can borrow money you know why — there is a $50M shortfall in this budget that we need to borrow money for the first time in maybe decades in our history to make this work.”
“Fifty million dollars that is the difference between recurrent expenditure and the money you bringing in. We have to borrow money or this will not work and Premier I submit to you, my good Premier, that if you cannot borrow money you might as well dissolve the House and call election…Might as well call it George, ring the bell and let the chips fall where they may; because you cannot do anything,” Hon. Walwyn declared.
Minister for Communications and Works Hon. Mark Vanterpool broke into tears as he announced that he did not support the position the backbenchers were taking about not accepting the UK loan guarantee. Hon. Vanterpool said that the people need help and that it was unconscionable that legislators were debating whether to accept the help or not.
“They need to hang us if we here talking stupidness about not taking the money…I am just telling you that if you do not fix it you are going to get hang…because we here talking, talking and the people suffering, suffering and we don’t want to help…The first premise that I must stand on is that we need help. I am anxious to have that help and I will support this agency if that is the way we are going to get help, so that we can help our people to be able to get back on their feet,” the Minister said.
Premier and Minister for Finance, Dr. the Hon. D. Orlando Smith in his final appeal to his colleagues announced that there are no other options. The BVI Leader announced. “We cannot do this recovery on our own. We have been offered help, the UK wants to help through this guarantee; we must decide whether to take it or leave it. I believe that we have no other option, if we leave it we will sink, and I don’t think any of us would consider doing that to the people of this Territory,”
“We have to take it but then we have to look at the conditions. We have been looking at them and we will continue to look at them but I am sure that we all want what is best for the BVI so that the BVI can get into a position where we can have the monies available to be able to take forward the recovery and development of this country…When and if we do borrow money from the UK guarantee we will not be borrowing that full amount at that one time. We will not be borrowing $400M one time but borrowing incrementally, borrowing when we need,” Premier Smith noted.