STATEMENT BY PREMIER AND MINISTER OF FINANCE
HONOURABLE ANDREW A. FAHIE
DURING THE 13TH SITTING OF THE SECOND SESSION OF THE FOURTH HOUSE OF ASSEMBLY
BVI Financial Services Sector Moving Forward Together
21 July, 2020
Mr. Speaker, I will now update this Honourable House on the BVI Financial Services Sector, moving forward together.
The last time I updated the Territory on the financial services sector was at the end of March 2020, when we were in the midst of preparing to tackle the inevitable COVID-19. I remember the occasion clearly as I took the time then to assure the world that BVI was open for business.
The overarching goal of all of us in the financial Services space continues to be us collectively delivering our respective services in an efficient and flexible manner whilst preserving the well-being of our people and integrity of our systems.
We are all expected to juggle this, amidst the COVID-19 era, without a playbook to guide us, and not knowing exactly how the pandemic will manoeuver from one week to the next.
Mr Speaker, I must say that after a bumpy first day or two, as a jurisdiction, we were generally able to settle into a comfortable work ethic and that there were no substantial interruptions to delivery of financial services.
I am pleased to now give a sector-by sector-update on some of those services.
The Financial Services Commission reported that, under operation of its business continuity programme, it was able to provide scheduled services during the shelter in place periods.
Their services included the introduction of contactless delivery of certificates at both their BVI and Hong Kong locations and receipt and processing of funds to ensure continuity of transactions.
The Commission’s offices in the BVI and HK continue to use contactless services.
However, both offices are fully operational and conducting business during the usual business hours.
Through the Commission’s primary business applications, VIRRGIN and VIRRGIN Lite, transactional efficiency continues and usual service standards apply.
The Commission continues to post the most current information on its operations and industry developments on its website.
For example, in light of the challenges we all continue to face with the pandemic, recently the Commission issued guidelines for industry practitioners on adjusting customer due diligence efforts and anti-money laundering training to accommodate the reality of conducting business during the pandemic.
Current Covid-19 arrangements at the Commission are expected to continue through the summer months and, with that in mind, its financial literacy programme, Money Matters, in collaboration with the insurance sector, hosted an online public forum on insurance ahead of the start of the Atlantic hurricane season.
Mr Speaker, in terms of our Courts. I am happy to report that to date, our five Courts (two Commercial Courts, one Criminal Court, one Civil Court and one Master’s Court), continue to conduct virtual court without fail, with parties appearing remotely from across the globe and at different time zones. The Court of Appeal continues to sit remotely, covering its full list of cases. This will bring the total Courts Sitting to six.
I was very impressed to learn that one commercial court recently concluded a 12 - day trial with 8:00 a.m – 8:00 p.m Sittings each day (albeit with a daily four-hour break in between).
The challenge to mount five courts, and provide you with search and other legal services remotely during lockdown was unprecedented, but the Courts in the BVI were able to deliver on an ambitious business continuity plan to provide most services immediately at lockdown and continuing to date, without placing any demands for additional financial and physical resources on the system to function.
They are also extending their E-litigation portal.
I hasten to add that the Court Registry was well placed to adapt and respond, working together and listening to the industry.
Mr Speaker, I also wanted to say a quick word on apostille services. Although, the Deputy Governor’s Office had to also put social distancing and contactless delivery measures in place, apostille services continue to date without any deterioration in service standards.
From the training and educational sector, the Financial Services Institute also reported success with its online delivery. Therefore, all its classes for Summer-Fall 2020 will be delivered by online medium. This will also allow the Institute to potentially attract students in other regional jurisdictions as well.
The Institute has also invested in an online testing / proctoring system that enables them to create and implement fully proctored remote examinations using web-camera technology.
Also, the Institute has just appointed as Principal Tutor and AML Programme Manager a top Compliance and Anti-corruption professional with over 20 years’ experience in legal, regulatory and compliance environments.
This will enable us to better support training and development needs right here in the Virgin Islands.
Most of the positive things that you have seen coming out of all the initiatives described above include the wider use of digital solutions to maintain acceptable service levels.
For example the Trade Division has launched a Facebook page which is growing in popularity and its default mode of communication is now digital rather than manual driven. As a result, it is ‘guestimated’ that foot traffic to the department has been reduced by almost 90 percent.
At this time, I must also give heart-felt thanks to all the hard-working public officers for their call beyond duty at this special time. To them, I express sincere thanks.
Mr. Speaker, whilst all that is good news, I am aware that many have reported telecommunication related challenges whilst working remotely.
Indeed, in order to successfully roll out many of the online solutions that I described above, we too relied heavily on our telecommunications sector.
Whilst some decline in the quality of service would have been expected during this time, and whilst I can assure that our telecommunication service providers prepared for this, I have taken onboard the well-intended criticisms and assertions that there is still room for improvement in this area.
To this end, Mr. Speaker, this Government has already discussed with the Telecommunications Regulatory Commission, amongst other things, the need to ramp up measuring and enforcing service level standards amongst our telecommunications service providers.
As I reminded the Territory earlier this week, we continue to meet regularly as a Cabinet to discuss matters that are important to the success of this economy.
This includes, several areas related to the pandemic that the industry partners are understandably anxious to receive an update on - such as returning non-nationals, the entry of new work-permit holders, and general information on timing and processing for these.
Indeed, several of these issues transcend the industry and affect our Territory as a whole.
However, I do understand that the industry has particular concerns that they would like to have aired and, to this end, I have already arranged with BVI Finance to separately have a discussion on those issues.
The decisions are not made in isolation but, rather, require us to work in tandem with what other countries are doing. We have asked the industry, as with other sectors of the economy to be patient with us for a little longer.
All in all, however, and as with all things, we will get there by continuing to work together. We are a resilient people.
Mr. Speaker, I want to thank Abba, our Father, for His mercies and for giving us the strength as a Territory to move forward in this New Regular of Living and Working with COVID-19.
Despite what COVID-19 has thrown our way, our commitment as a Territory to God, and our patience and a little bit of good West Indian humour have brought us this far, together. I stress, “together”. Whether you are working from BVI or an industry partner overseas, we are in this together.
I am inspired by the words of Mrs. Verna Penn-Moll, one of our very own radiant daughters, who, during lockdown, wrote two hymns. One, “Scattered Yet Together” echoes a powerful message of oneness that subsequently streamed live into homes and churches all across the globe on Whit Sunday.
As we continue throughout the year and beyond, we must continue to be steadfast and focused in the industry for while the presence of the pandemic has slowed the pace of some things, many things remain afoot.
Most notably, our international regulatory obligations have not been removed nor reduced.
We must therefore not take the opportunity to become complacent.
We are embarking upon a very significant period in the financial services landscape.
This month marks a significant step for economic substance filings.
As with anything new, this may take some getting used to for all of us. Whilst many saw the European Union’s (EU) Economic Substance initiative as a major threat, we have successfully negotiated the initial elements of that and are now implementing the data collection requirements it brings.
Utilising the Beneficial Ownership Secure Search system (BOSSs) platform has enabled us to also rise to meet EU standards on data collection with an efficiency and effectiveness.
The Government signed an exchange of notes agreement with the United Kingdom Government in April 2016.
The BOSSs system is built to ensure that the Territory can efficiently exchange that information in relation to the exchange of notes.
The beneficial ownership information in the system will also be available to other authorities in the Virgin Islands to ensure that they are able to meet their international obligations. Importantly, the system will not be accessible by the public.
Mr. Speaker, the Government recently, in a letter to the Government of the United Kingdom, reiterated its continued commitment to the exchange of beneficial ownership information with the UK under the Exchange of Notes on Beneficial Ownership signed in 2016.
As a jurisdiction we continue to be very pleased that UK law enforcement, including the National Crime Agency continues to find this arrangement effective.
We also took the opportunity in the letter to highlight that the BVI continues to meet and adhere to the highest international standards as a responsible, cooperative and quality financial centre.
The Virgin Islands, in this regard, communicated that this jurisdiction has been deemed largely compliant by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF).
Moreover, our best-in-class, the BOSSs system, places the Virgin Islands on the cutting edge of beneficial ownership information exchange with the capability of responding to requests in real time.
In regard to international tax, the Virgin Islands remains on the white-lists of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and the EU.
These accolades underscore the BVI's commitment to upholding the integrity of the global financial system and our track record as a cooperative jurisdiction, which other International Finance Centres are seeking to emulate.
Mr. Speaker, this Government recognises that the continued success of our financial services industry requires that we continue to align ourselves with those and other standards as they emerge and we will take the informed and nuanced decisions required as circumstances develop.
Not to be overlooked, we are getting closer to significant milestones in the area of publicly accessible registers of beneficial ownership.
As a Government we continue to take note of developments in this sphere.
Against the backdrop of these developments, we are determined that any direction forward must be one that gives BVI the opportunity to do what is best for BVI and in a way that is best for BVI.
There are other initiatives unfolding on the horizon that we must not lose sight of.
These include the OECD’s and EU’s digital tax initiative and the recent EU anti-money laundering initiative. We must continue to be vigilant.
Mr. Speaker, before I close my message, it behooves me to acknowledge that other pandemic that equally emerged a phenomenon finally gripping the attention of nations across the globe following the senseless death of our brother, George Floyd.
I am grateful that our industry in the BVI is truly a representation of the spirit and cultures of all people “scattered yet together” across the globe, living and working ‘together’. We are in this ‘together’.
I urge all of us, therefore, to continue to live in unity and harmony, ‘together’.
Whatever the pandemic we must continue to avoid, in the words of the second hymn from our sister, together let us “reclaim, rebuild” and “restore” these beautiful Virgin Islands.
I thank you.