Montserrat speaker Charliena White seeks support from Sir Lindsay Hoyle
As Speaker of the Parliament of Montserrat, Charliena White knows she has plenty to learn from her UK counterpart – and just as much to teach him.
Along with five other speakers from British Overseas Territories (BOTs), White joined Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle at a conference in Westminster earlier this month to discuss their nations’ constitutional relationship with the United Kingdom.
White told The House: “We want to ensure we have proper legislation to become a stronger democracy, and I want to learn a lot here about how we can properly separate the executive from our parliament.”
Although the BOTs have their own parliaments, UK policy decisions still have a direct impact on their laws.
White described how several neighbouring Caribbean countries had decriminalised marijuana, while Montserratians caught with the drug receive a criminal record, damaging the job prospects of many young people.
I've had to use my phone to read documents because we don't have lights
As long as cannabis remains illegal in the UK, it is difficult for Montserrat to pass a bill to legalise it there.
White said: “If we decriminalised it, we could go into production for medical use and generate jobs and financing for the country. At the moment, those hopes are dashed.”
White also wants support to build or find a suitable parliament building, as the Montserrat authorities have been forced to operate out of a run-down cultural centre since a volcano eruption destroyed their original home in the 1990s.
White said: “I've had to use my phone to read documents because we don't have lights. We don't have security and once an iguana even came running into the middle of parliament” – a problem for a speaker with a mortal fear of iguanas.
The absence of a proper building has brought a diminuation in Monserattians’s respect for their democracy, White suggests. “Since we lost the building, we lost a sense of urgency and people haven’t paid attention to what's happening in parliament.
“With Speaker Hoyle’s help we have been able to get a parliament building on the agenda.”
The BOTs are incredibly biodiverse but are also some of the regions worst affected by climate change, suffering national disasters ranging from flash floods and hurricanes to severe droughts.
Half of Montserrat’s island was recently damaged by flooding, requiring a large-scale cleanup by the authorities and prompting White to think further about working with the UK to tackle climate change.
She said: “We call Montserrat the unspoiled gem of the Caribbean because we don't have high-rises and polluting industries. We are very green and most of our tourism is around that, such as trails and underwater sports.
“We think our biodiversity is special and we want to protect it the best we can.”
Sir Lindsay believes the UK should do more to support the BOTs with relief efforts, as it currently takes between seven and 10 days for the UK to provide emergency aid.
He said: “When we respond to natural disasters we need to be ahead of the game, not behind. That’s part of the discussion during this conference.”
As part of her trip, White also spoke to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association UK, and secured its agreement to organise a review of Montserrat’s practices in July.
The Speakers Conference was somewhat marred when the British Virgin Islands (BVI) speaker dropped out of the conference after resigning, amid questions over whether the UK might impose direct rule. The move came after the BVI’s premier was arrested for drug and money laundering offences.
Many BVI residents are protesting what they see as a step back towards colonial rule, but Sir Lindsay insists the UK wants to give power back to the BOTs’ people: “Democracy starts in Westminster, and we want to make sure that flows out, not just to the Commonwealth, but to the Overseas Territories.”
Sir Lindsay also floated the suggestion that the BOTs could be given office space in the UK Parliament.
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