Over the next three years, Cayman Islands residents are going to be hearing a lot more about what’s going on in the United Kingdom.
Eric Bush, 40, officially takes over as director of the Cayman Islands London Office on July 1, but in recent months he has already been traveling back and forth between the Mother Country and home, formulating a strategy to improve the visibility and usefulness of the four-person office.
The move, which has been described in local media reports as a “demotion” for the chief officer of Premier Alden McLaughlin’s ministry, is one Bush says he made voluntarily, partly for family reasons and partly for the opportunity of Cayman’s senior diplomatic posting.
“Some say I’m having a mid-life crisis,” he jokes.
“I need to remind people of how crucial [the London office] is,” Bush says on a more serious note. “There hasn’t been that engagement with the office in the last couple of years. My intention is to drastically improve that.”
The office spent several years awash in controversy following a U.K. media scandal involving former director Lord Blencathra.
Lord Blencathra, formerly David Maclean of Scotland, faced censure in the House of Lords over drawing a salary from the Cayman office while serving as a peer. He also was targeted for some criticism in Cayman due to the fact that he is not Caymanian.
Following Lord Blencathra’s departure from the position in March 2014, an office staffer who openly feuded with the Scottish lord temporarily took over operations, leading to further uncertainty in the position. Two attempts to advertise the job locally came up empty until Bush threw his hat in the ring.
Bush, who has never lived in Europe, acknowledges he will not have the same direct contacts and access during his three-year contract that Lord Blencathra spent a career in Whitehall developing. However, he believes the London post is not simply a lobbying job and should not be viewed solely as a resource for government in various interactions with the U.K. and the European Union either, although he says that is an important role.
“We can create better opportunities for businesses in the Cayman Islands to partner between the U.K … and EU markets,” he says. “We have a very nice office in the London area that has meeting facilities, a boardroom. Why shouldn’t that be offered to Cayman businesses to assist with local business interests? Small to medium-sized businesses who don’t have a location in the U.K. can use [those facilities].”
Bush says the relationship that once existed between the Cayman Islands Chamber of Commerce and the London office seems to have fizzled in recent years. He believes his European-born wife, Laetitia, will be a “secret weapon” for Cayman in helping to develop that relationship.
“We’re a package deal,” he says. “She’s an attorney. She works for Walkers and she’s also being transferred to the Walkers London office. As it relates to local contacts within the financial services industry in the U.K., she offers that access on the corporate side.”
In addition to business relationships, Bush says the Cayman Islands London Office plays a key role in helping to develop those who are looking to go into business: Cayman’s students.
He estimates there are somewhere around 50 to 100 Caymanian students currently in the U.K. He plans on meeting them during an upcoming reception. He believes the London office can assist those students, to some extent, during their university years, but even more so after they graduate by helping with job placement and training programs.
“What if the London office can facilitate and offer experience whilst they’re in school, during summer breaks or after they graduate?” he says. “They can come back to the Cayman Islands as a total package, with the education and the experience.”
One of the key political issues out of the U.K. facing Cayman at the moment is the adoption of some form of beneficial ownership registry or other mechanism that accomplishes the same goal of providing information on the real owners of businesses to the individuals or agencies that require it.
A U.K. delegation met with Cayman’s Premier McLaughlin, Financial Services Minister Wayne Panton and other government officials in February to discuss the “enhancement” of Cayman’s already-existing beneficial ownership regime.
All of Britain’s remaining overseas territories agreed in December that they would implement centralized beneficial ownership registers or “similarly effective systems,” but that access to these systems would not necessarily have to be public. Minister Panton has said government is exploring a centralized information outlet that allows government officials to access beneficial ownership databases of all financial service providers in Cayman.
The system would be accessible from within the ministry’s Department of International Tax Cooperation, Panton said. Contrary to a general registry, he said it would operate by reaching out to financial services companies and their systems rather than by having the firms submit information to a central location.
The differences in the beneficial ownership debate, according to Bush, “come down to who has access, why and how quickly.” He says it appears the U.K. has accepted Cayman’s plan in principle, given agreement on the specific “who and why” issues.
The local government will not be a global trendsetter in this regard, Bush says.
“Cayman has a track record of keeping up and maintaining global best practice,” he says. “When there are global standards that are accepted by the G-20 [group of nations], Cayman is either ahead of the game or falls in line with it. On beneficial ownership, the U.K. has specifically taken a step forward, beyond international standards.”
Getting that message across will require some lobbying, but precisely how Cayman goes about performing the task has not been decided, Bush says.
One group the new London office chief hopes to resurrect is the U.K.’s All-Party Parliamentary Group, British legislators who are chosen as volunteers to help represent Cayman’s message in the House of Commons, House of Lords and to the prime minister. Former group chairman, Tory MP Graham Brady, is helping Cayman re-establish the lobbying effort. Lord Blencathra has also signed on, Bush says.
“I met with him last month and he’s continued to extend his support,” he says. Ideally, the “all-party” group would be made up of all political parties represented in the U.K., Bush says, but he is not sure Cayman will get there immediately.
Another issue which could impact Cayman’s lobbying efforts and general operations out of the London office is the June 23 referendum on Britain’s continued membership in the European Union.
Although Cayman does not have a full-time office in Brussels, Belgium, representatives from the London office travel there for EU events and meetings from time to time, and Bush fully expects he will be called upon to do so.
Whether the U.K. voters decide to stay or leave the union, Bush expects the so-called “Brexit,” if approved, would take many years – some have estimated as many as 10 – to accomplish. Cayman will need to maintain a presence there at least for the next several years, he says.
“I don’t think [the situation] will change drastically, even if there is a ‘yes’ to leave the union,” Bush says.
Recently U.K.-based polls reveal that Brits seem to be divided more or less evenly on the topic, with a slight majority favoring remaining in the EU.
Bush, as chief officer of the Home Affairs Ministry in Cayman, became directly involved in the Lord Blencathra “situation” after taking up that post in mid-2013. According to a complaint Lord Blencathra filed, he was left idle for nearly two months in 2013 after statements indicating he was “no longer in charge,” were made by office underlings. The claim was one of several made by Lord Blencathra in the complaint.
“The London office is totally dysfunctional and it will have to be sorted out one way or another before we have a real catastrophe on our hands,” Lord Blencathra wrote in a June 2013 email to Cayman Islands government Chief Officer Dax Basdeo and Cabinet Secretary Samuel Rose. “If the Hon. Premier wants to cancel my contract, then so be it. But if not, then two people in the office must start behaving professionally.”
Angry and sometimes expletive-laced emails that went back and forth between Lord Blencathra, members of the London office staff and the local government in Cayman, revealed a culture of bickering, backbiting and bureaucratic delay in the office that interfered with the territory’s ability to present its message effectively. The former London office director also flagged instances where the situation caused other overseas territories leaders to tell Cayman to “get its act together” and which led the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office to temporarily cut off communications with the U.K. Lord.
Bush took over management of the London office from Basdeo following his move to chief officer of Home Affairs in June 2013. Shortly after, he stepped in to warn one particular staff member, Charles Parchment, about the tone of his emails to Lord Blencathra.
Ironically, it was Bush who ended up informing Lord Blencathra that his contract would not be renewed during a meeting with Premier McLaughlin in March 2014.
As for the office disputes, Bush says it is in the past as far as he is concerned. The staff has remained unchanged since Lord Blencathra’s departure, and Bush says, in a small office, everyone has to perform at top level to succeed.
“I’ve found both Charles [Parchment] and Dennison [Miller] very capable,” Bush says, referring to two of the London office staffers. “Both of them have a wealth of knowledge as it relates to historic issues and the U.K. context.
“For the office to truly fire on all cylinders, everyone has to have the same intention and goal. If I do find issues of non-acceptance, we’ll talk those out.”