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

The Guardian - - JOURNAL | OPINION -

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

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