By Benito Wheatley
When former chief minister and minister of finance the late Ralph T. O’Neal, OBE, and his administration successfully acquired BVI House in July 2002 to set up the BVI London Office, it was with a clear understanding that the British Virgin Islands (BVI) national interests had grown to a point where the Territory needed a permanent diplomatic presence in the United Kingdom (UK) and Europe, that would also serve as a diplomatic gateway to the rest of the world.
Over the past two decades, the BVI London Office has served the government and people of the BVI very well. Its primary functions have been to maintain the BVI’s relations with the key institutions within the UK political system, including the UK government, UK parliament and local council governments; diplomatically engage the European Union (EU), Commonwealth and countries represented in London’s Diplomatic Corps; advance the BVI’s economic interests in regard to financial services, tourism, trade and investment; and support BVI students and BVI citizens in the UK and Europe.
The Office’s finest hour came in 2017 when it coordinated and led the local government’s initial international crisis response to hurricane Irma after the Category 5 storm devastated the Territory and knocked out communications that left the islands cut off from the outside world. The BVI London Office worked in conjunction with BVI House Asia, the external offices of the BVI Financial Services Commission and BVI Tourist Board, and BVI government officials operating outside of the Territory, to respond to the disaster and engage with the UK foreign secretary.
Boris Johnson MP, other UK ministers and UK senior officials on the mobilisation of humanitarian assistance to the islands. During that emergency period, the BVI London Office was the BVI’s voice internationally. Thereafter, the office continued to mobilise support for the Territory through cooperation with the UK, EU, Commonwealth, United Nations (UN), World Bank and Caribbean Community (CARICOM).
In the financial services arena, the BVI London Office has been instrumental in the government’s efforts to protect the financial services industry, especially after the release of the Panama Papers in 2016. The office played a pivotal role in the negotiations led by former premier and minister of finance Dr Orlando Dr Smith, OBE, that secured an initial settlement between the Overseas Territories (OTs) and UK government on public registers of beneficial ownership. In 2018, the BVI London Office took the jurisdiction’s fight all the way to the prime minister’s office, 10 Downing Street after the UK government subsequently reversed its policy.
In the EU, the office successfully co-chaired with the European Commission the EU-OCT Financial Services Partnership Working Party between 2014-2018 and facilitated policy dialogue on international tax, among other things. This culminated in the BVI London Office also co-chairing a high-level dialogue on tax blacklisting between the EU, OECD and Overseas Countries and Territories (OCTs) in 2018.
In terms of international leadership, between 2014-2015, the BVI London Office served as chair of the Overseas Countries and Territories Association (OCTA) in Brussels, during which time it secured the participation of the EU’s European Commissioner for International Development, Neven Mimica, at the 15th OCT-EU Forum held in the BVI in 2015 hosted by premier Smith.
The outcome has resulted in the BVI’s receipt of more than $3 million in development assistance from the EU. The BVI London Office also served as chair of the United Kingdom Overseas Territories Association (UKOTA) in London in 2016 and successfully led the OTs’ negotiations with the UK government to establish a UK-OTs Joint Ministerial Council on Brexit in 2017.
Beyond the UK and Europe, the BVI London Office has directly supported the strengthening of engagement between the BVI and UN. From 2016-2018, the office represented the BVI as a vice chair of UN ECLAC’s Caribbean Development and Cooperation Committee (CDCC). On numerous other occasions, the BVI London Office has also provided representation on the BVI Government’s delegations to UN meetings, including the UN Oceans Conference (2017), COP 21 Paris Climate Change Meeting (2015), UN Third International Conference on Small Island Developing States (2014), UNFCCC COP 19 (2013) and the Conventional on Biological Diversity (CBD) COP 11 (2012).
Notably, following the devastation of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the office represented the BVI at a special meeting at UN Headquarters in New York between the foreign ministers of the UK, France, Netherlands, UN Assistant Secretary-General for Disaster Risk Reduction and other parties affected by the storms.
In its capacity as a consular office and cultural centre, the BVI London has been a gathering place and refuge for students and residents over the years. The office has also advocated for greater benefits within the UK for BVI students. In 2021, the BVI London Office worked in collaboration with other OTs to successfully lobby the UK government to allow OT students to apply for UK loans for undergraduate studies. In earlier years, the Office also helped UKOTA lobby for home fees (i.e., in-state tuition) for OT students at UK universities, which came into effect in 2007. In terms of consular support, it is highly notable that in 2020, the BVI London Office played a critical role in the evacuation of students back to the BVI during the UK’s COVID-19 lockdown.
Finally, BVI House is also the location of the BVI Tourist Board, UK office with whom the BVI London Office has had a complementary working relationship in advancing the economic interests of the Territory and responding to emergencies such as the 2017 hurricanes.
I pay tribute to the late premier and minister of finance Ralph T. O’Neal for his vision in acquiring BVI House and establishing the BVI London Office over two decades ago.
In his own words at the official opening ceremony in September 2002, O’Neal said the BVI London Office was a “milestone in the continued development of the Territory, of which all British Virgin Islanders should be proud. It will promote all the interests of the Territory, including tourism, investment promotions, financial services and training, as well as serve as a centre for BVI students studying in the United Kingdom. We believe that not only is the purchase of this property a sound investment financially but a vitally important investment in the way in which we are able to represent our economy and our interests in the world at large in the future. The office will provide in London a day-to-day focus of a kind we have not had before.”
I also acknowledge all of the persons who have had the privilege of serving in the capacity of director of the BVI London Office/BVI Representative in the UK and EU, including Bowen Wells (Director Pro Tem, 2002-03), Lorna Smith, OBE (Director, 2004-05), Hadassah Ward (Interim Director, 2005-06), Dawn Smith (Director, 2006-09), Kedrick Malone (Director, 2009-14), Benito Wheatley (Director, 2014-18), Elise Donovan (Interim Director, August-December 2018), Dr Sandra Besson (Acting Director, June-July 2018 and January-June 2019), and Tracy Bradshaw (Acting Director, July 2019-Present).
May the BVI London Office continue to serve the government and people of the British Virgin Islands with excellence in advancing the national interests of the Territory.
- Benito Wheatley is a former Director of the BVI London Office/BVI Representative to the UK and EU (2014-2018).