British Virgin Islands
The British Virgin Islands are an overseas territory of the United Kingdom, one of five remaining U.K. colonies in the West Indies. Power is shared between a locally elected government and the British governor, who is appointed by the queen. The local government is responsible for most areas of administration, including finance. The British governor administers the courts, the police, and the public service and is responsible for external affairs. In 2007 a new constitution was enacted that enhanced the authority of the local government and introduced a bill of rights for the first time.
Since 1978, the territory has paid for itself. British aid is minimal and is used for areas of special interest to the British government. In the early 1990s the U.K. government paid for a new prison; in 2001 it contributed to the building of a new residence for the governor. Smaller sums of money from the U.K. go to support environmental and good-government projects.
The BVI has a ministerial government, modeled after the Westminster system. Ministers, who are the chief policy-makers in the government, are chosen from among members of the majority in legislature. Together, the ministers form the cabinet, which meets weekly to make policy decisions. The premier is the most senior minister; together with the governor, he or she guides cabinet and leads the government.
The public service is nonpartisan. Ministers are supported by permanent secretaries and other officials who do not change when a new party comes to power. They are obligated to serve the government of the day, whether they voted for it or not.
Laws are proposed and passed in the 13-member House of Assembly. House meetings, which take place about every four to six weeks, are broadcast live on television and radio and can be interesting to listen to. Debate is decorous, but in between the references to “honorable members” you will pick up some very carefully worded barbs. Most meetings include a question-and-answer segment not unlike the British question time aired on C-SPAN.
While the BVI government is not especially modern, and while it sometimes reacts very slowly, it is generally effective, transparent, and accountable.
Elections must be held at least every four years, or sooner if the ruling party requests, or if the ruling party, or coalition, seems to have lost its ability to control the government.
The last elections were held in 2007, when the stalwart Virgin Islands Party (VIP) won a stunning 11 of 13 seats, ousting the first-term National Democratic Party. Led by Premier Ralph T. O’Neal, the VIP promised to halt plans for several new hotel developments around the territory. It also promised to focus on the needs of “little men”—low- and middle-income residents.
There are about 10,000 registered voters in the BVI—about half of the population. Immigrants who have settled in the territory must obtain citizenship—called belonger status—before they can register to vote.
Judicial and Penal Systems
The BVI is part of the Eastern Caribbean Supreme Court, which administers courts in eight different eastern Caribbean jurisdictions. Judges are rotated among the jurisdictions. Rarely will a judge or magistrate from the Virgin Islands preside over court there. The law is based on English common law, and courtroom practices follow those used in England. Appeals are heard by the three-judge Eastern Caribbean Court of Appeals. The final court of appeal is the privy council in the United Kingdom.
In 2009 the BVI opened a new courthouse dedicated to commercial matters, an offshoot of the territory’s financial services industry.
Lawyers and judges wear black robes with high white collars in court, but no wigs. In magistrate’s court, the attire is business suits.
Prisoners serve their sentences in a hilltop prison on the remote northeastern corner of Tortola. Few people remember when the last person was executed here, but that did not stop a loud public outcry in 1999 when the U.K. required all its territories to remove capital punishment from the law books.
Not long ago, violent crime was virtually unheard of in the British Virgin Islands. In the past decade, however, serious crime has become a fact of life in the BVI. Homicide figures are still relatively low—there were six homicides in 2007—but the upward trend is unmistakable and troubling to this peace-loving community. Visitors do not need to worry about crime, but you should take some basic safety precautions. Lock your door and leave your valuables at home. Most incidents of crime involving tourists are burglaries.
The British Virgin Islands has a complex and in many ways contradictory economy. On one hand it is one of the most prosperous territories in the Caribbean, fueled by high-end tourism and financial services. In 2007, the BVI’s gross domestic product was $1.1 billion.
There is virtually no unemployment; in fact, the territory’s economy is so hot that the BVI must import more than half of its workforce. Despite this prosperity, some people in the BVI are poor. The minimum wage is a staggeringly low $4 per hour, and the cost of living is among the highest in the Caribbean. A recent study found that almost 25 percent of people in the BVI live below the poverty line. Many of the poorest workers are employed in the construction and tourism industries.
On the other end of the economic spectrum is financial services, the other pillar of the BVI economy. More than 450,000 active companies are on the BVI’s offshore registry, attracted by low incorporation fees, no taxes, and the BVI’s political and economic stability. Since 1990, the territory has sought to diversify its offshore sector, with the addition of legislation for mutual fund administration, captive insurance, insolvency, and special trusts. Financial services account for more than half of the government’s annual revenues.
So far, the BVI has escaped inclusion on so-called offshore blacklists. Neither has it ever been named in any high-profile money laundering case. Thousands of European and American professionals work in the BVI’s financial services industry, and the government has pledged to do more to open up opportunities for British Virgin Islanders in the industry.
© Susanna Henighan Potter from Moon Virgin Islands, 4th edition