What if Irma had hit Gibraltar? Rupert Jones
A double standard is at play when such derisory aid is offered to islands for which the UK is responsible
Hurricane Irma has shattered Caribbean islands for which the UK is ultimately responsible. The government now appears to be taking that responsibility more seriously: the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, said he will spend the coming days visiting the British Virgin Islands (BVI) and Anguilla, two of the worst-hit British territories. This is beginning to look like an appropriate response.
The UK government’s task is extremely demanding. Yet its commitment so far to spend £32m in total across the three affected British overseas territories – Anguilla, BVI and Turks and Caicos Islands – is a drop in the Caribbean. Johnson said on Monday that £28m of that was already spent. Are we to believe Britain will release only a further £4m? This would be derisory – it would not pay to rebuild even one school. The foreign secretary has also pledged to match taxpayers’ donations to the Red Cross. Have we now arrived at government by crowdfunding?
If this had happened to other UK territories – the Falkland Islands or Gibraltar, say – would the response have been the same? The government recently spent £285m on St Helena, its territory in the South Atlantic, for an airport that is effectively unusable. The UK’s foreign aid budget is around £12bn.
Of course, the government will claim it is doing all it can. To those making unfavourable comparisons with France’s response to the crisis, it may also say that the UK does not have direct rule over the islands, in contrast to the French government’s sole responsibility for St Martin and St Barts. But they do accept that the territories are populated by UK citizens, and that we remain solely responsible for their security and governance.
The government’s reluctance to commit immediately to deploying significant sums in aid raises several issues, each of which should spark serious debate about the UK’s relationship with its Caribbean overseas territories.
Does the UK see its partner Caribbean islands as tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions? Some are better known for offshore financial services than tourism. There have been longstanding reports that the islands are havens for corruption, tax avoidance and money laundering. The Panama Papers exposed the level of BVI ownership of London property. I would hope this would not cause the UK government such embarrassment that it would seek to distance itself from the islands – not least since it was the UK that supported the establishment of these financial outposts in the first place, to benefit and service the City of London.
Legislative attempts to end these secretive arrangements so far have been a figleaf. The UK could legislate to require reform tomorrow, if there was the political will. There is not, perhaps because of the fear that it would highlight the UK’s ultimate responsibility.
We must ask whether it is a priority for the UK government to invest significantly in the territories. The Foreign Office may support a more detached relationship. Each territory has its own locally elected government, but is it realistic or fair for these governments to take primary responsibility for such an enormous reconstruction effort? The majority of their citizens still want to maintain a link with the UK, not least for when major assistance is required. If this disaster is not such an occasion, I don’t know what is.
When the foreign secretary is in the Caribbean, I hope he will maximise the UK’s response to the devastation wreaked by Irma, as well as using it as an opportunity to discuss our relationship with the overseas territories. It is a conversation long overdue.
The £4m yet to be released by the UK would not pay to rebuild even one school
Rupert Jones is a former attorney general of Anguilla