There is a saying that you wait for ages for a No. 12 bus and then two come along at once. Well the BVI, having not had a visit by a UK Minister since 2009, has just had its second such visit inside six months. Henry Bellingham MP, Minister for the Overseas Territories visited in April 2012. Last week his successor, Mark Simmonds MP, spent two days here. And of course we also had a visit by His Royal Highness The Duke of Gloucester in March 2012.
Why all the attention you might ask? And why did Mr. Simmonds make the BVI his first visit to an Overseas Territory since taking up his new job in September?
The reason for this rapid succession of visits is that the Coalition Government in the UK is genuinely interested in the Overseas Territories. In June they launched a White Paper “The Overseas Territories: Security, Success and Sustainability”. And, as Prime Minister Cameron said in his Foreword to the White Paper: “The Government is as ambitious for our territories as we are for the United Kingdom. We want to see our communities flourish in partnership, with strong and sustainable local economies.”
Mr Simmonds spoke in all of his meetings of the White Paper and of the UK Government’s commitment to strengthen ties with the BVI, to offer support for capacity building, where requested, and to stand up for the Territories in international fora.
During his visit, he saw a number of areas in which past attachments and training had made a real difference and learned how we are looking actively at more of this for the future in areas where BVI identifies a need.
Mr Simmonds was also interested to hear of the growing links between the BVI and the county of Hertfordshire and of ways in which this had already brought benefit to the BVI, not only through the provision of advance training facilities for the Territory’s Olympic athletes, but also through advice provided to the Ministry of Education in the fields of special needs and school leadership.
And why did Mr Simmonds select BVI as the first OT to visit since taking up his new job?
Firstly because he had been here before, in 2007, and had loved what he had seen. But primarily because, as he said at his Press Conference, he was impressed by the progress made by the Territory in the field of public finance and wanted to see fist hand what was being done.
He publicly welcomed the signing by the BVI Government of the Protocols for Effective Financial Management (PEFM) and the recent passing of amendments to the Public Finance Management Act, which translated the Protocols into local law.
These were signs, he said, of a responsible and prudent Government, adding that said effective financial management was a pre-requisite for inward investment coming into the BVI from the UK and elsewhere: “I think that the steps that the Premier has taken are very significant steps in that direction and it will make it far easier for myself and others to persuade UK businesses to look seriously about investing in the BVI.”
The Minister made clear that his role was not to get involved in the day to day running of the finances of the BVI, but he would work in a partnership to ensure that the Premier and his Cabinet continue to follow the good governance measures that they had put in place, to ensure that they continued to make strides to re-balance the finances of the BVI and ensure that the capacity in the Government was built up even further than it had been already to maximize and deliver effective and efficient public services for people on BVI.
Mr Simmonds made the usual calls on the Premier, members of the Cabinet and Leader of the Opposition. But he also wanted to get a closer understanding of the two economic pillars of the BVI – financial services and tourism. In addition to meeting with the Managing Director of the Financial Services Commission and a cross-section of the business and wider community, he also had a whistle-stop tour of Tortola, lunch on Scrub Island and a few hours on Virgin Gorda, where he saw some of the high-end tourism developments, which have been driving the construction sector over the last year or so.
The Minister left the BVI with even more positive impressions of the Territory than on his first visit a few years ago. As he told the press, he is a “friend of the BVI”.
One thing he did not accomplish was to meet his local namesake, Mark Simmonds. Hopefully he can manage that next time around!