Your Excellency, Honourable Premier, Honourable Ministers, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen.
After over a year in my job as Minister for the Overseas Territories, I am delighted to be able to visit the Cayman Islands, about which I have heard so much! I was last here in 2004, and was witness to the devastation of Hurricane Ivan. I am very grateful for the traditional and famously warm Caymanian welcome. I wish I had time to stay longer and visit the Sister Islands. I have heard they are even more beautiful than Grand Cayman, though I find that hard to believe! But it means I will have to return.
2012 was a remarkable year for the United Kingdom and an important one in the history of Britain’s relationship with the Overseas Territories.
Sandwiched between the magnificent celebrations of the Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty The Queen and the best Olympic and Paralympic games ever staged, there was another important event. On 28 June the UK Government published its White Paper on the Overseas Territories, called “Security, Success and Sustainability”. It set out an ambitious agenda for the UK and the Territories. It is also my ambition; an ambition for successful, economically sustainable, well-run, safe and secure Territories with opportunities for all irrespective of background. Territory leaders and UK ministers met together last December at our first Joint Ministerial Council. We agreed that this was a joint vision and that we would work together to achieve it.
On my travels in the last year I have been keen to take stock of progress. On the evidence I have seen so far, I am very encouraged; though we know there is still much work to do. And my discussions today tell me that the Cayman Islands are at the forefront of that progress. I have detected today a real sense of optimism and ambition.
In three weeks’ time I look forward to welcoming the Honourable Premier and leaders of other Overseas Territories to London for our second Joint Ministerial Council. This year we will focus on responding to the most pressing challenge we all face: how to build sustainable economies, create jobs and drive prosperity.
As the recent G8 summit demonstrated, issues of trade, transparency and tax are top of the international agenda. Last week, the UK Prime Minister met one of the commitments made at Loch Erne when he announced that details of who really owns and controls UK companies will be made accessible to the public. The UK Government want others, including the G8, to follow our lead and ensure a level playing field.
I warmly welcome the swift and constructive engagement on the three T’s from the Government here. The Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance on Tax Matters has been extended; Cayman has agreed to take part in a pilot initiative on automatic tax information exchange with the UK and some other European countries; an Action Plan on Beneficial Ownership has been published. Cayman is taking a strong, decisive and important lead.
I am pleased Cayman has agreed to consult on the question of public access to information. But this is ultimately a matter for Cayman to decide.
And, on this, I am delighted that earlier today the Premier and I signed the UK – Cayman Islands Automatic Tax Information Exchange Agreement – the first agreement of its kind with an Overseas Territory.
Cayman is not alone in that the impact of the global financial crisis has had a serious detrimental impact on public finances. Getting back to fiscal sustainability requires hard work, tough choices and sacrifices today. But I am pleased that the Cayman Islands Government has demonstrated its commitment to this course - it will reap invaluable long term rewards for the enterprising and hard working people of Cayman. Without such early and decisive action, future generations would be burdened with crippling debts and heavy taxes.
Instead, signs of a bright future can now be seen, and the volume of new investment in the Islands is increasing rapidly. There is perhaps no better example of this than the ambitious plans for Shetty Hospital, about which I had very productive conversations this morning.
I have also seen the site of the planned new cruise ship port and terminal. I am pleased that Cayman is committed to following international standards of practice on procurement for the project, the Cayman Islands Government will help to achieve an optimal design and ensure that it delivers value for money – as well as reassuring international investors because good businesses are looking for countries that are well-run, efficient, transparent and observe international laws and standards. Otherwise, they will go elsewhere.
I have been impressed by Cayman’s plans to diversify its economy: taking advantage of the high calibre of its workforce, excellent logistics, and already first class, but developing infrastructure.
Your efforts in this area should be significantly helped by the EU Overseas Association Decision which offers the Cayman Islands significant opportunities which I piloted through the UK parliament: for better access to European markets for goods and services; to 500 million potential consumers. The UK Government has worked hard and played a leading role to get a good deal for Cayman and the Overseas Territories and enhance the relationship between the Overseas Territories and the European Union.
The UK offers a supportive partnership - the opportunity to share expertise in the public sector. At the JMC this year we are organising a business event to showcase opportunities in Cayman and the other Overseas Territories. This will help to drive Cayman’s economic diversity, economic development, economic growth and job creation as well as help with the UK economic recovery as well.
Today I have heard about the current law and order issues. I know from my discussions with the Governor, Premier, Cabinet, Commissioner of Police and members of the Opposition today that this is an issue of concern in the wake of a recent spate of violent crimes. Overall, crime rates are low but we are working in partnership with you to tackle concerns.
In a previous role, I was a shadow education minister. I heard some truly inspirational stories and met some amazing young people – like those I had lunch with today. But I also saw, and still see in my own constituency today, the difference that family, community, society can make to young lives. The change that having stability, a job and a purpose in life can bring. Governments, however committed - and I know that the Government here are determined to tackle this problem – cannot solve these problems alone.
It’s why I am such a staunch champion of social responsibility - strengthening communities and bringing a sense of belonging: home, neighbourhood and nation.
Everyone has a part to play, however small or insignificant it may seem, to help keep their communities safe and deter young people from peering into the precipice of crime.
At the other end of the criminal justice system, I am pleased to note that there is a high level of political support for improving not only the conditions under which prisoners are held, but the way in which they are rehabilitated, prepared for release and reintegrated into society.
Failing to tackle crime and reoffending will have a profound impact on an economy that is so dependent on tourism. Safety and security are cornerstones of economic success. We cannot focus on jobs and growth and ignore them. If Cayman isn’t seen as being safe, tourists and cruise ships, businesses and investors will go elsewhere. It’s a problem the UK understands only too well and continues to stand ready to help in any way we can.
Of course, its crime hot spots and prisons are not something that the vast majority of Cayman’s visitors see. Tourists come here to see the islands’ natural beauty. And it’s not hard to see why. Protecting these assets is essential to Cayman’s future economic success.
Thousands of scuba divers visit Cayman each year. They come to see vibrant and living coral reefs and an abundance of marine life.
Today I have seen and heard about the great work that is being done to control and eradicate lionfish, a problem that is particularly acute in Cayman but which has spread throughout the Caribbean. Cayman has obligations to protect the environment. I commend the government’s plans to bring legislation like the National Conservation Law into force. This will delight Cayman’s many friends back in the UK.
So while there is work still to do, I am enormously encouraged by the achievements of the Cayman Islands. I look forward to working with you as you build on your security, your success and your sustainability – both economic and ecological.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am delighted to have had this opportunity to visit the Cayman Islands and to speak to such a prestigious and auspicious audience.