Thursday 23 April 2009
[John Bercow in the Chair]
[Relevant documents: Seventh Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 2007-08 HC 147, on Overseas Territories, and the Government’s response, Cm 7473.]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Gillian Merron.)
I am pleased to introduce the report. It had been more than 10 years since the last report on overseas territories by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs. That is probably far too long. When the Committee decided in 2008 to set up an inquiry into the overseas territories, we initially thought that it would last only a few months, but in fact it was far more detailed and intensive than we originally envisaged.
The overseas territories are diverse and are found in all parts of the world. There are 14 remaining British overseas territories, which vary greatly in size. For example, Bermuda has 66,000 people, whereas Pitcairn has only 47, or perhaps 48—I have seen different figures—but our report said 47 at the time. The administration of such diverse overseas territories has presented the British Government and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office with some difficulties.
The journalists of the Evening Standard and the Daily Mail, who I assume are not here reporting our debate, sometimes choose to put pictures in their publications denouncing hon. Members for travelling to the Turks and Caicos Islands. They should understand that the work of three members of the Foreign Affairs Committee, two of whom are here with me—there is another behind me as well; that makes three—led to a change in the Government’s attitude and approach. As a result, the Government have intervened to deal with serious corruption and other difficulties that had been occurring for some time in the Turks and Caicos Islands but had not been dealt with until then. The journalists who write about Committees’ work and travel do not understand the role of Members of Parliament, which is to hold the Executive to account and scrutinise the work of different Departments. No doubt, my remarks will not be reported, but if they are, they will be reported adversely. However, I am prepared for that.
I just wanted to say a few words, knowing that my hon. Friend will be too modest to say it himself, in support of the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley), whose tenacity in leading the delegation to the Turks and Caicos Islands led to some of those changes. That needs to be placed on the record.
I hope that my fellow Committee members will have a chance to make their speeches after my own and to go into more detail than I have time to do.
When we set up our inquiry, we were shocked by the large number of submissions from the Turks and Caicos Islands. In its submission to us, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office did not refer to issues in the TCI as being of particular concern and expressed no concern about corruption or standards of governance. We received more than 200 submissions for our report, of which the largest group—more than 50—related to that territory. That was a great surprise to us.
Many people wrote to us in confidence, afraid that their names might be revealed, to allege corruption, especially in regard to the sale of Crown land, the distribution of contracts and development agreements, the granting of belongerships and the misuse of public funds by Mr. Michael Misick and his cronies and relatives. There was also a deep concern, borne out by my colleagues when they visited the TCI, about free speech and people’s ability even to be seen to talk to hon. Members. People wished to speak to us only in confidence, away from the eyes of friends or officials of the Administration. That was extremely worrying, and we reported back on it.
As a result of our visit and the publication of our report on 6 July, the Government announced on 10 July through the outgoing Governor that they would establish a commission of inquiry into the Turks and Caicos Islands. On 16 March 2009, after the publication of the interim report by Sir Robin Auld, the Government announced that they would make provision to suspend parts of the TCI constitution through a draft Order in Council unless the final report significantly changed their view of the situation. Premier Misick had resigned and been replaced by Galmo Williams as leader of his party. However, when the Government made their announcement, they did not pay tribute to the work of our Committee. We are disappointed by that. We issued a press notice on 31 March welcoming the Government’s action and pointing out the fact that we had been instrumental in making the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at last take seriously the problems in the Turks and Caicos Islands.
I understand what my hon. Friend is saying and the good work done by his Committee. Is he not concerned, however, that Orders in Council have been used to achieve that outcome? It is an extremely undemocratic process that bypasses any democratic accountability either in the Turks and Caicos Islands or here.
I do not believe that the Government had much alternative in the short term but to act quickly with regard to the interim report. However, I have some questions for the Minister about the fact that the Governor of the TCI, Mr. Wetherell, has just announced that although the original deadline for the report was November 2008, which was extended until April 2009, the final report will now not be published until 31 May. Therefore, the interim period before the Order in Council comes into effect has been extended for several more weeks, raising some questions about what will happen in the meantime. There are provisions and powers for the British Government to stop further land sales or other measures. Nevertheless, it is not entirely satisfactory that the period before the Order in Council comes into force has been extended.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn). Political and parliamentary accountability are important. That is one reason why I am pleased that we have secured this debate, so that the Minister can respond to the concerns that I have expressed and that my colleagues will no doubt express later. I have a large area to cover in discussing the report, so I will leave the TCI for now.
Our inquiry received allegations about corruption in other overseas territories, including in Bermuda and Anguilla. The Committee recommended that the Government should encourage the Anguillan Government to introduce anti-corruption measures and to hold an independent inquiry into the allegations that Ministers accepted bribes from developers. The Government have declined to do so and have told us that
“no substantive evidence has come to the Governor’s attention that Anguillian Ministers have accepted bribes from developers. The Chief Minister of Anguilla has publicly rejected the allegations. Nevertheless, the Governor will ask the Government of Anguilla to explain how they plan to deal with the allegations made to the Committee.”
In a letter to the Committee, the Anguillan Government commented that they were
“not disposed to sanction a system of governmental accountability based on gossips, rumour and unproven innuendo”.
They requested that the Committee provide more evidence for the allegations. Given that we were told originally by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office that there were lots of allegations in the Turks and Caicos Islands, but that there was no evidence, I am not reassured by the position that has been taken so far. Will the Minister reassure us in her remarks that the Government are looking closely at these matters?
Similarly, we received allegations about corruption and electoral fraud in Bermuda. No detail was provided on the investigations into the issuing of contracts, as the Committee recommended. The Government pledged to encourage overseas territories to promote transparency and, where necessary, to improve their public accounting and auditing capabilities. I understand that the National School of Government project on strengthening public services is under way. It was due to visit the majority of overseas territories by this month. I would be grateful for an update on that.
We recommended that the Government introduce legislation to extend the Witnesses (Public Inquiries) Protection Act 1892, which does not apply to overseas territories. Failing that, our alternative was for the Government to urgently require overseas territories to introduce equivalent legislation to encourage good governance. The Government responded by stating that the Governments of overseas territories should propose any necessary legislation themselves. We note that the Cayman Islands has passed legislation to implement the witness protection programme and that the Government supported that. I would be grateful to know whether there has been progress elsewhere.
We recommended that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office consider transferring the responsibility for the terms and conditions of employment of chief justices to the UK Ministry of Justice. That was not accepted by the Government. In addition, we recommended that the FCO consider whether judges in overseas territories would be less vulnerable to interference if they were on longer, non-renewable contracts, with appropriate safeguards in case of incapacity. If they are on shorter, renewable contracts, they might be more sensitive to local political pressures. The FCO agreed to look further at that issue and to update us. Can the Minister say anything on that today?
Concerns have been expressed over matters of governance in the British Virgin Islands. There is a difficult relationship between Premier Ralph O’Neal and the Governor and deputy governor. I understand that the Minister has been in close contact with the British Virgin Islands through correspondence and through a visit just a few days ago. Did she have a fruitful, productive and friendly discussion with Mr. O’Neal? Have the outstanding issues been resolved to her satisfaction? Is she confident that relations between the Premier, the political establishment, the Governor and the deputy governor will get back to an even keel?
This is a time of major global financial turbulence. Many overseas territories have roles in the international financial system. Financial service industries are important to a number of the territories. Some of them are tax havens. Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat and the Turks and Caicos Islands have been named by the OECD as failing to deliver on promises to be more transparent. At the beginning of April, it was agreed at the G20 summit to take action against tax havens. That has caused concern and alarm in some overseas territories.
Following the Guardian report that the Prime Minister has written to all British Crown dependencies and overseas territories setting a September deadline to sign up to agreements to share tax information with the authorities, will the Minister say what response, if any, there has been from the relevant overseas territories? How will that matter be taken forward?
We recommended that the Government should encourage Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands and Gibraltar to continue to improve their financial regulation and the investigation of money laundering. The Government accepted that recommendation. However, they did not accept the National Audit Office conclusion, which was supported by the Committee, that they had been complacent in managing the risk of money laundering in Anguilla, Montserrat and the Turks and Caicos Islands, where the UK is directly responsible for regulation. It is therefore most exposed to the financial liabilities that might follow in those places.
In the opinion of the Committee, the Governors of those territories should use their reserve powers to bring in more external investigators or prosecutors to strengthen their investigative capacity. The Government accepted that recommendation, but stressed that using reserve powers to bring in those people would be a last resort. That may be true, but there is a question over when they should use their last resort.
The Committee recommended that the FCO continue to work with the Department for International Development to introduce a financial services regulatory regime in St. Helena that is appropriate for the local economy and for development. We are pleased that that recommendation was accepted.
Committee members split into three groups for the travel involved in this inquiry. Two members went to the Falkland Islands via Ascension Island. That communication link is vital for the Falkland Islanders. There was discussion of the air bridge at the time of our report. A commercial aircraft contracted by the Ministry of Defence now operates on that route. The new contract came into effect in October 2008. It now operates four times a fortnight, whereas it used to be three times. The Governments of the Falkland Islands and Ascension Island are given the number of seats that they request for each flight, plus 10 premium economy seats.
I understand that the FCO and the MOD are negotiating on a joint policy statement on civilian use of the air bridge. There has been controversy over the pricing structure. There is currently a single tariff with no concessions for children. Concerns were expressed to us by Falkland Islanders who have sons or daughters who wish to come to the UK for education. The lack of concessions would mean additional costs when such children want to get in touch with their families or to return home. The MOD has stated that the islands’ Government are able to take their own decisions on fares and discounts on the route and, presumably, therefore expects them to make the necessary payments for that.
Did the members of the Committee who visited Ascension and the Falkland Islands report back that, if it were not for the residents of St. Helena working in the Falklands and Ascension, neither of those two locations, which are so important to the UK, could be sustained?
Members of our Committee are aware of that, and we referred to the importance of St. Helena in our report. I shall talk a little more about St. Helena when I have finished with the Falklands.
Another issue for Falkland Islanders is the strategic environment in which they find themselves. On 28 March, during his tour of Latin America before the G20 summit, the Prime Minister stated, prior to a meeting with the Argentine President, Cristina Kirchner, that there was “nothing to discuss” regarding the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. It is reported that he also said there were
“ongoing discussions about flights to and from”
the islands. At the moment, anyone who leaves the Falkland Islands by air has to fly around Argentina to Chile, or has to go via the air bridge. Clearly, that is not ideal for people on the islands.
The Committee had previously recommended that the Prime Minister should press the Argentine President to agree to the establishment of a regional fisheries management organisation for the south-west Atlantic and to reiterate the islands’ right to develop a hydrocarbon industry. I am interested to know whether those issues came up in the discussions with President Kirchner and whether there has been any improvement in the attitude of the Argentine Government to those important matters, which are of concern not only to Falkland Islanders, but to the UK, because the islands are UK territory.
The hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) mentioned St. Helena. The Committee concluded that the building of an airport and related infrastructure on St. Helena could be a significant step towards self-sufficiency for the territory. However, there was concern about the cost, and we asked the Government to provide figures to demonstrate that they had selected the most cost-effective option for bringing St. Helena off dependency on aid. The Government responded:
“While the airport is a higher cost option than sea access, in terms of the projected benefits to St Helena the airport is the most cost effective option for the Government over the long term.”
That was the Government’s position, as expressed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in September 2008, but on 8 December 2008, the Secretary of State for International Development decided, in light of the global economic situation, to pause negotiations on the airport. Subsequently, on 9 April 2009, a letter was sent by the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster), that seemed to kick the whole thing into the long grass. I understand that a firm of contractors was there and that the process was about to begin, but that everything is now in disarray. Much concern has been expressed by people in St. Helena about the implications for the viability of St. Helena and about having the most cost-effective solution, as that was accepted by our Government only three months before they decided to put it on hold. Clearly, this matter raises some big issues, and I would be grateful to hear more from the Foreign Office about it. The Minister has experience of DFID, so perhaps she can understand where it is coming from. Can she speak on behalf of both Departments to give some hope to the people of St. Helena that this issue will not drag on for years, that the uncertainty will be brought to an end and that the most cost-effective way forward will be found?
I also want to discuss Diego Garcia, but I am conscious that other hon. Members might want to talk about it, so I shall not spend too long on it. We had meetings with and heard evidence from the Illois—the Chagossian people who were disgracefully excluded from their homeland and sent away in the 1960s—and we were very concerned about that issue. In May 2007, the Court of Appeal decided that those people had the right to return to the outer islands of the British Indian Ocean Territory. Subsequent to our report, however, the Government won their appeal in the House of Lords, on 22 October 2008, and the Orders in Council that were made in 2004 to prevent the Chagossians, or Illois, from returning now stand.
The Committee has taken the view that, although the legal case has been determined, the moral case for allowing the return of those people has not been determined, and we have recommended that third-generation descendents of exiled Chagossians should be extended British overseas territories citizenship. We made that recommendation on the ground that their birth in Mauritius was a consequence of exile, not of choice, but the Government declined to accept that recommendation on the basis that it would set a precedent for citizenship to be extended to a third generation of people who were born outside the UK or its overseas territories. Clearly, however, those people had no choice about being forcibly removed from their homes by a British Government, so this case is an exception and should be treated in an exceptional manner.
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend’s Committee for taking up this issue and for its two recommendations on the matter, which I fully endorse. Will he also try to persuade the Foreign Office that it is time actively to consider ways and means of returning the islanders to the islands? Does he agree that it is time to update the feasibility study on doing that, rather than continue pursuing an incredibly expensive and ultimately futile legal battle to deny islanders the rights that they, like everyone else in this world, deserve?
I hope that the moral argument will be considered. I am not sure whether the legal process can be taken much further following the House of Lords’ decision, sadly, but I am not a lawyer. Perhaps other people will consider other options.
Diego Garcia is the largest island in the British Indian Ocean Territory, and has been leased to the United States to become a major military base. Our Committee has been expressing concern for years about extraordinary renditions. We concluded that
“it is deplorable that previous US assurances about rendition flights have turned out to be false. The failure of the United States Administration to tell the truth resulted in the UK Government inadvertently misleading our Select Committee and the House of Commons.”
That was the result of information that came to light early last year, and led to the Foreign Secretary making a statement to the House at that time. We also said in our report that we intend to examine further
“the extent of UK supervision of US activities on the base, including all flights and ships serviced from Diego Garcia.”
Following the conclusion of the inquiry, the Committee decided to look at that issue as part of our ongoing human rights work. We will be taking evidence from the Foreign Secretary in June regarding the Department’s human rights annual report, when we will doubtless have the opportunity to raise that and other matters.
I am delighted to hear that the Committee will hold that further inquiry, which is certainly required. I am sure that the Committee respects the desire of many Chagossians to return not just to the outer islands, but ultimately to Diego Garcia. Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the US’s treatment of those islands, particularly for the purposes of rendition, might well change if the Chagossians were allowed to return? Will his inquiry also look at the nature of the lease that the US has with the UK with regard to the future conditions under which the US can occupy that island?
We have already received a number of written submissions from various organisations and individuals, including some hon. Members, on exactly those matters. When we conclude our report, we will no doubt have lots of submissions and evidence to take into account, but I cannot prejudge what the report will say. It would be remiss of me to speculate on that, because I am dependent upon the decisions of my colleagues. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] My colleagues agree vigorously.
The Committee also concluded that any resolution of the UK sovereignty dispute with Mauritius over the British Indian Ocean Territory must take the Chagossians’ wishes into account. However, the Government response states simply that discussions about the cession of the territory would be
“between the sovereign states concerned”
“the views of other interested parties are welcomed”.
That does not quite go as far as we would like, and I hope that, if and when that matter is on the agenda, the Government will give it further consideration.
A further issue has recently arisen as a result of reports coming out of the United States. An article in The Daily Telegraph on 30 March 2009 quotes documentation that has been revealed in the United States. It shows that the US had planned to use Diego Garcia, rather than Guantanamo Bay, as the place to hold al-Qaeda people and others whom they picked up in Afghanistan and elsewhere. That article quotes Karen Greenberg of the New York university school of law, who interviewed a number of the senior military officers involved in setting up the camp for a new book called, “The Least Worst Place”. The article states:
“She said Gen Tommy Franks, in charge of the US invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001, was desperate to move prisoners who had revolted at Mazar e-Sharif out of the ‘theatre of war’. She says that Diego Garcia was considered but ‘Europe posed a particular problem’. She wrote: ‘Not only would the relocation of prisoners there require negotiations and the consent of the host country to conditions and practices, but the European Court of Human Rights would inevitably become involved’.”
That means that, as far as we are aware, thankfully, there was no torture by waterboarding in Diego Garcia and no complicity on the part of the British Government in that action. That shows the importance of the European Court of Human Rights, the European convention on human rights and the international legal standards that we have in this country and this continent. Even though the US military have total control of Diego Garcia, in practice they did not think it possible to use it as the Indian ocean equivalent of Guantanamo Bay.
I shall mention a number of other issues before I conclude. In correspondence with us, the Government have confirmed that the question of overseas territory representatives being able to lay a wreath at the cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday is still under consideration. Given that we have six months in which to make the arrangements, I hope that a decision will be made and we will soon be informed of the outcome.
On human rights in general, we recommended that the Government should take steps to ensure that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender status is made illegal in all overseas territories. The Government have subsequently informed us that they raised the matter at the Overseas Territories Consultative Council, but that
“the Caribbean territories stated that there were political difficulties with changing the law and some said in terms that they would not be willing to do so.”
In places that are British territory, someone can be discriminated against without any redress if they happen to have a different sexual orientation. That is not just in the Caribbean; concerns have also been expressed by people from Gibraltar who have contacted me about the issue.
The Minister has heard that point and I hope she will respond to it.
We also raised the issue of the so-called rights of non-belongers and wanted that to be an item on the OTCC’s agenda. I understand that it was discussed at last October’s meeting. However, we were told that there was resistance to change by the representatives of the overseas territories. The Minister told us:
“I encouraged Territories’ leaders to review the matter of rights for long-term residents and consider whether there was any scope for change, and for granting belongership within a reasonable timeframe.”
I would be grateful for an update on that and if the Minister could tell us whether there has been any progress. Clearly, in some cases people who are very long-term residents do not have full rights within the societies in which they are resident.
The Committee also expressed concerns about environmental issues. Some overseas territories are almost unique environments and have important wildlife, fauna and flora. However, difficulties have been caused by rapacious development—such as that on the Turks and Caicos Islands—insufficient consideration and, sometimes, insufficient funding.
We took the view that the environmental funding that the UK currently provides to the overseas territories is grossly inadequate and should be increased. We described the Government’s position as “highly negligent”. They acknowledged that more could be done to help the territories tackle environmental issues, which are not so much a matter for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as for the Government as a whole. The Government said that
“the next inter-Departmental Ministerial Group on Biodiversity involving DEFRA, DFID, the FCO and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee will address the roles of individual government departments with regards to the Overseas Territories and look into the feasibility of carrying out a full strategic assessment of the needs of the Territories”.
That group met on 15 January. If possible, I would like to know the outcome of that meeting and whether any progress has been made. Are other Departments with responsibility for these issues coming forward? Is the FCO taking the matter any further?
Finally, I turn to the question of a claim made to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf for the sea bed around Ascension Island and the other places I have mentioned. It is a matter not just for the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, the South Sandwich Islands and the British Antarctic Territory; it has wider implications. A claim has been made with regard to the Falklands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, but a similar claim should be made with regard to Ascension Island. However, the Government informed us that in May 2008, they formally notified the commission that they would not make a full submission to define the continental shelf beyond 200 miles in the British Antarctic Territory, although they reserve the right to do so. On the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, the Government said that they were still considering an approach to the commission.
The deadline for submissions is May 2009, so I would be grateful if I heard whether the Government’s considerations have concluded and whether there will be a submission on the limits of the continental shelf in the areas I mentioned. In an answer given in December, the Minister said there had been no developments at that time, but I would be grateful if I heard whether there have been any since, given that it is nearly May.
There are other issues on which I could have touched. I have not discussed all the 14 overseas territories in detail, and I apologise to residents of those territories—I hope that my colleagues will pick on other matters.
Let me say in passing that the Committee’s report was long overdue. I hope that our successor Committee—whoever its members are—will look at these issues again relatively early in the next Parliament. Our work has shown the importance of keeping the FCO on its toes. It is also important that there are people of sufficient status and weight in the Department itself who can really make a difference.
It is also important that the choice of governors is given careful consideration, so that we have the right people in place. Governors have to deal with sometimes difficult political environments and personality issues, as well as fractious politics, in what are often very small communities where everybody knows everybody else. It is sometimes more difficult to deal with issues in such societies than it is in larger communities, which one might think would have bigger problems. In small communities, everybody knows everybody else’s business, and when misdemeanours occur, people sometimes do not want to take the risk of talking to strangers about them.
What we discovered in the Turks and Caicos Islands was a vindication of the work of our Committee, the House and hard-working Members of Parliament. Even though the Evening Standard might denounce us, we do our job and we are proud of the job that we do. Frankly, if we did not do it, there would be even more serious problems—not just in the overseas territories but elsewhere in the world.
I am glad to follow the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), who used his excellent and extremely well-judged speech to bring out all the salient issues with which the Committee dealt in its important inquiry.
As has been said, this is the first time for well in excess of 15 years that the Foreign Affairs Committee has carried out an inquiry into the overseas territories en bloc, although we have dealt with them in a considerable number of other reports. We have done reports on individual territories, such as Gibraltar, and we have had occasion to refer to the overseas territories in our annual response to the Foreign Office’s human rights report. The present report was, however, a major undertaking, and I am glad that hon. Members have an opportunity to debate it and the Government’s response.
For reasons that will become apparent, I shall focus much of what I want to say on the Turks and Caicos Islands. Before I do, however, I want to cover two other issues. I start with an important comment that the Chancellor of the Exchequer made in his statement following the G20 summit, when he said:
“We will also take action to protect the world’s financial system—and, therefore, our public finances—by cracking down on tax havens, and we note that the OECD has today published a list of countries assessed by the global forum against the international standard for exchange of tax information.”
In his subsequent contribution, the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench Treasury spokesman, the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), asked a very precise and pertinent question of the Chancellor:
“Can the Chancellor say how many of the countries listed today by the OECD as non-compliant are British dependent territories?”—[Official Report, 2 April 2009; Vol. 490, c. 1137-43.]
Although the Chancellor made some generalised comments about tax havens in response to the hon. Gentleman, he signally failed to answer that precise question. He must have had the answer; he had referred to the OECD report, so he must have had it in his brief. Surely his officials would have told him how many of the countries on the OECD’s “name and shame” list were British overseas territories. However, the Chancellor declined to give an answer. I do not know why he did, but perhaps it was because he judged that it might have been something of an embarrassment to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Twickenham as to how many overseas territories are on the OECD’s “name and shame” tax haven list is seven. I come to a slightly different score from the Chairman of the Committee in terms of the total number of overseas territories—I make it 15, but he and I will have a discussion as to which bit of Antarctica we have or have not missed out. However, it does not really matter whether it is 14 or 15. Three of them have no permanent resident populations. The fact is—this is a matter of considerable concern—that more than half of our British overseas territories are on the OECD’s “name and shame” list for tax havens. I will be glad to help the House by naming the territories concerned. They are Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands—
The reason why I erupted is that financial regulation on the Cayman Islands is wholly the responsibility of the United Kingdom Government. In their jurisdiction, over which they have responsibility, the British Government here in London—not the overseas territory’s Government—are acquiescing in something that offends the OECD guidelines, and that is happening with their full knowledge and full consent. On the Cayman issue, therefore, they do not even have the fig leaf of suggesting that these things are happening because the overseas territory Government and legislature are dragging their feet.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but even if there is a slightly lesser degree of delegation in the case of the Cayman Islands, the ultimate responsibility for ensuring that all seven of the British overseas territories that I mentioned are removed from the OECD’s “name and shame” list still lies with the British Government.
Does the Minister agree that it is somewhere towards shocking that half the British overseas territories are on the OECD’s “name and shame” list for tax havens? If she does agree that that is pretty shocking, will she tell us what steps the Government will take to ensure that not one single British overseas territory will be on the OECD list when it is next published?
I want to talk now about Gibraltar. I have not so far been wholly complimentary about the Foreign Office’s performance with respect to the overseas territories, but as—I hope—a reasonably fair-minded sort of guy, I want to say that I think its performance on Gibraltar has, under the present Government, been much better than under the previous Conservative Government. In particular, the Government have brought home the 2006 Cordoba agreement, which was a signal achievement. It involved the solution of a series of issues that had previously been regarded as intractable: the airport issue, the border control issue, the wretched Spanish pensions issue, which had gone on for ever, and the issue of the number of telephone lines from outside that would be allowed into Gibraltar.
In addition, on a matter that, as Members of the House may know, is close to my heart, the Cordoba agreement paved the way to enabling the whole EU to ratify the 1996 Hague convention on the international protection of children. That was an important and significant achievement, but—and I am afraid there is a “but”—there is still one big issue outstanding. I do not mean sovereignty, because that is unresolved and probably will be for the foreseeable future. The remaining big issue is the continuing refusal of the Spanish Government to allow NATO aircraft and naval vessels into Spanish airspace or waters when they are going to and from Gibraltar.
That is an issue that the Foreign Affairs Committee has returned to again and again. In our 2003 report on Gibraltar we urged the ending of those restrictions by the Spanish Government, and we did so again in the report on the overseas territories that we have before us. Our recommendation in that report is clear:
“We recommend that the Government continues making strong representations to Spain and within NATO at the highest level about the unacceptability of Spain’s continuing restrictions on direct naval, army and airforce movements or military communications between Spain and Gibraltar.”
I am very disappointed by the lack of robustness of the Foreign Office’s response to our recommendation, which was:
“We believe the imposition of Spanish restrictions in relation to military movements between Spain and Gibraltar is inappropriate. We therefore support the Committee’s recommendation and have made representations to Spain to address the issue. We also work closely with Spain as a NATO ally and will, in this context, continue to engage with Spain to find a constructive solution.”
That is truly supine. I dug out some earlier parliamentary questions that I tabled, and the tenor of that response to the Committee’s latest report is almost the same as an answer that I got to a question I tabled for the Secretary of State for Defence seven years ago. The answer that I received on 31 October 2002 on the same issue was:
“Discussions between the British and Spanish Government in the context of the Brussels Process aim to resolve all outstanding issues between the United Kingdom and Spain over Gibraltar.”—[Official Report, 31 October 2002; Vol. 391, c. 892W.]
Here we are, currently celebrating the 60th anniversary of NATO. The Prime Minister went to the celebrations and made a statement to the House when he came back; yet our Spanish ally is engaged in indefensible restrictions on the movement of NATO aircraft and vessels over its airspace and in its maritime waters. I accept that the issue is not a British one but, at root, a NATO one. I ask the Minister and, through her, going right to the top, the Prime Minister, whether, in the 60th anniversary year of NATO, this is the moment to bring down the full force of NATO’s persuasiveness—and particularly that of the United States under its new President—and say, “Let us forget about these ridiculous restrictions, get them removed, and normalise relations between Spain and the rest of NATO with respect to Spanish airspace and maritime waters.” Is not now the moment when the strongest possible pressure should be applied by NATO as a whole to the Spanish on this issue?
I want to discuss the Turks and Caicos Islands. I was grateful to the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) for his generous personal comment at the outset of the debate. I was very glad that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) were in our trio of Committee members; they both made the most incisive and persistent contributions to unravelling what was going on in the Turks and Caicos, during our visit and subsequently.
All members of the Committee would agree that when we started our inquiry into the overseas territories we did not have any very clear idea—because we were waiting to see what evidence we would receive—which of them we would be able to visit. We were not going to be able to visit them all. They are spread, as the House knows, from the Pacific ocean through the Indian ocean to the Mediterranean, across the Atlantic and into the Caribbean: we would clearly have to pick carefully, given the time available to us, the territories that we would go to, even when we were splitting into three separate groups. It was apparent to us within a matter of weeks of issuing our press notice and calling for memorandums of evidence that a visit to the Turks and Caicos Islands would be among the highest priorities for the Committee in the course of the inquiry.
The memorandums that we received were unprecedented, in my experience on the Committee, with respect to their volume and, sinisterly, in the degree of fear that lay behind them, for those submitting them. Considerable numbers were sent anonymously because people were not prepared to divulge their names. A significant number came from people who were prepared to give their name, but who submitted the memorandum on the basis that it should be entirely private and confidential and would not be published, and that they would not be identified. Only a very few were put to the Committee on the basis that both the terms of the memorandum and the name of the sender could be published. Those appear in our report.
One of the things that I found most shocking on Turks and Caicos was that citizens of a British overseas territory were afraid to be seen in public with Members of this House, afraid to give evidence and afraid even to be seen at a reception talking to us. The only other places I have been to on overseas visits where people were in fear of talking to me as a Member of Parliament are places such as the People’s Republic of China. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that was a shocking thing?
With his usual acuity the hon. Gentleman has anticipated the next sentences that I was going to say, almost word for word. That was indeed our experience when we went to the Turks and Caicos Islands. The written evidence clearly demonstrated that there was a climate of fear. When we arrived there, that was wholly confirmed. We had to arrange meetings with individuals who were prepared to see us only on condition that the place, date and time of the meeting remained absolutely a secret. Some were not prepared to see us at all, under any circumstances, because they feared that it would result in reprisals against them.
My experience was exactly the same as that described by the hon. Member for Hyndburn. The only other occasion on which I as a member of the Committee have had to meet people in such circumstances was on visits that the Committee made to the People’s Republic of China, when we had to take steps to meet political or religious dissidents in certain circumstances. That is the only other time when meetings had to be conducted in such a way, and it was truly shocking to us that such a situation was prevalent in a British overseas territory.
The Committee recommended that a commission of inquiry should be set up. The Foreign Office, to its credit, accepted the recommendation and announced the setting up of a commission of inquiry within days of our recommending it. The interim report of Sir Robin Auld has wholly vindicated our recommendation and the decision of the FCO to accept it. I shall give the House just a few sentences from Sir Robin Auld’s interim report. He stated that the Government of the territory
“is at a near stand-still. The Cabinet is divided and unstable…The Territory’s finances are in dire straits and poorly controlled. There is a settled pattern of recourse to disposals of Crown land to fund recurrent public expenditure, for want of governmental revenue from other more fiscally conventional sources. I should have added that the financial position is so bad that the Government cannot pay many of its bills as they fall due. Governmental and other audit recommendations lie ignored and unattended. In short, there are wide-spread fears on the part of the people of the Territory that they are leaderless and that their heritage is at risk of continuing to drain away…I am also satisfied on the information before me under Part (a) of the Commission’s Terms of Reference of a high probability of systemic corruption and/or other serious dishonesty involving past and present elected Members of the House of Assembly and others in recent years.”
Does not what the right hon. Gentleman has read out from the report of the independent inquiry appointed by the FCO say something about the stewardship of the Foreign Office over many years? Its man was there—I am not referring to any particular individual but to Governor after Governor. There is something wrong in London as well as in the territory on the stewardship issue.
The hon. Gentleman shows the same acuity as the hon. Member for Hyndburn. He, too, has anticipated precisely the point that I was about to make.
I am not totally surprised that such a situation could arise in an overseas territory, as they have some considerable vulnerabilities. In this overseas territory there is a very small electorate of some 12,000 people, which is about the size of a single county council ward in my constituency. That is the totality of the electorate. Combine that with the fact that we found, extraordinarily, that while people were Ministers they were able to make pots of money for themselves, for members of their family and for their political cronies, and frankly, a corruption and bad governance disaster is waiting to happen, and that is precisely the situation in the Turks and Caicos.
What surprised me more than that actually occurring on the Turks and Caicos Islands was that the Foreign Office seemed to be so oblivious for so long as to what was happening. I can only take the Foreign Office’s position at face value on the basis of the memorandum that it submitted to our Committee at the start of our inquiry. I give the House the opening sentence, which states what the memorandum was meant to be about:
“This memorandum is provided in response to an invitation from the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs to provide information on the exercise by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of its responsibilities in relation to the Overseas Territories and the FCO’s achievements against Strategic Priority No 10, the security and good governance of the Overseas Territories.”
That is what the memorandum was all about. I reread it, and there is not one whiff of a reference to corruption, or to anxiety or even worry about what was happening on the Turks and Caicos Islands.
The Committee was in an extraordinary position: we received a lavender-scented memorandum from the Foreign Office at the same time as we were being bombarded with distinctly malodorous memorandums from the Turks and Caicos Islands across the Atlantic.
Only one of two conclusions can be drawn from such a situation. If one were cynical—I am not—one could say that the Foreign Office was out to pull the wool over the Committee’s eyes, to mislead the Committee. I do not believe that that is how present Ministers or their officials would wish to conduct themselves before the Foreign Affairs Committee. If one takes the view that the Foreign Office was not trying to pull the wool, I am afraid that only one other conclusion can be drawn: the Foreign Office was asleep on the job, or most certainly half asleep, and it simply had not woken up to what was happening on the Turks and Caicos Islands.
To be fair, this is not the first time that that has happened in respect of a British overseas territory—it is the second time. The first time was over a very long period under Conservative as well as Labour Governments. The FCO completely lost sight of what was happening over decades in the appalling child abuse scandal on the Pitcairn Islands. That went on until it was finally exposed in 1999. Twice now we have had the Foreign Office apparently not in any way keeping up to speed with what was happening in an overseas territory, and with very serious consequences as a result.
I conclude by putting some questions to the Minister. What lessons has the Foreign Office actually learned from the Turks and Caicos Islands experience? The situation is a self-evident disgrace. Surely there are profound lessons to be learned within the Foreign Office as to how it should conduct itself towards the overseas territories. What is the FCO now doing to make certain that, following the Pitcairn Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands, there are no further such repetitions?
Finally, I put this, if I may, to the Foreign Secretary: is the Foreign Office looking hard at whether it is giving the right attention to deployment of Foreign Office personnel, and the degree of calibre that attaches to those who work either in the overseas territories section of the Foreign Office in London, or in the overseas territories? The Minister may tell me that I am wrong, but I fear that the overseas territories section of the Foreign Office, whether at home or abroad, is seen as a backwater or cul de sac. Would someone who wants their career path to lead to permanent under-secretary of state volunteer to go into the overseas territories section of the Foreign Office? I fear not.
In the light of the Turks and Caicos situation, I hope that the Foreign Office is considering fundamentally how it is resourcing those who go into the overseas territories section. The one inescapable fact is that that part of the Foreign Office, and that alone, has ultimate responsibility for the good governance of people overseas.
I will not detain the House long, because my two colleagues have covered a lot of territory, in more ways than one, and very effectively, but I want to pick up one or two points. What disturbed me—I think you will share my view, Mr. Bercow—is the uncertainty of our assumption that the House is ultimately the Parliament for all the overseas territories. They may have delegated legislatures, but if the House decides to go to war, those territories go to war. They do not have an opt-out. This is their Parliament, and the UK Government can rescind and vary their constitutions as and when they wish.
We cannot escape our responsibility, but when we embarked on the inquiry, we discovered that there was uncertainty about whether Westminster parliamentary privilege extended to the overseas territories. I have no doubt that it does, and I was deeply disappointed that there was doubt about that. That raises important constitutional issues, and when the House considers privilege in relation to other matters, there should be no doubt that, if the writ of this place has any meaning whatever, parliamentary privilege must extend to every overseas territory. I hope that that can be addressed with dispatch, not by the Government—it may suit them if parliamentary privilege is not recognised as extending to overseas territories—but by the House.
Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that that state of affairs will continue with no change while we continue with the mediaeval system of Orders in Council, whereby the Government may obtain the signature of the Head of State and bypass Parliament in its entirety, and we have no means of challenging that?
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct, and if he will bear with me, I will come to Orders in Council and constitutions. I do not want to labour the point, but I want to emphasise it. The matter is a grave one for Parliament, and I was deeply disappointed by the ambiguous and uncertain advice that we received. I hesitate to say this, because I may be doing the gentleman wrong—I believe that it was Speaker’s Counsel—but it is unacceptable if parliamentary privilege does extend to overseas territories. That relates to witnesses’ anxiety, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) referred. We could not be confident that we would extend the right of parliamentary privilege to present stuff to our Select Committee. I hope that the matter will be addressed by the Government and, more importantly, the House authorities.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) referred to Orders in Council and the capacity to vary constitutions at short notice. I think the Select Committee has asked too little of the Government—28 days for notice of a variation Order in Council. An Order in Council varying the constitution of a territory, whether extending powers or rescinding them, is a grave matter and should be subject to full consultation, with plenty of time, by the Select Committee. Parliament should have an institutional mechanism so that there is good time for variations in constitutions, whether by Order in Council or any other method. We should have adequate time to examine such orders in detail and to assure ourselves that there is acquiescence not only by the territory Government, but by the Opposition parties when they exist in those overseas territories.
The issue underlines the wholly inadequate arrangements for oversight by the House of our legal and moral responsibilities for people in the overseas territories peppered around the world. It is a disgrace that, when we call ourselves a democracy, some people are denied access to this place. I regret that I could not persuade my colleagues to incorporate a robust recommendation in the report, but I invite them and the House to reflect on the matter. It is unacceptable that the overseas territories have no representation in or access to this place. As I said—I am not being flip—if we go to war, they go to war, yet they are denied that access. That is almost unique for overseas territories.
The US Congress has delegates from US Samoa, Guam and the US Virgin Islands. The National Assembly in Paris has people representing the overseas territories peppered around the world that are under the jurisdiction of the French Republic. They have access to the Assembly. The situation is similar in the Netherlands and Spain. Such representation is not only logical, but moral and democratic. We should be thoroughly ashamed that such representation is not available here. It would overcome some of the problems that my colleagues have highlighted.
The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) indicated that for years the House had assumed that the Governor of the British Virgin Islands—I am not referring to a specific individual—was competent, but that is now a serious issue. It has become clear that Governors have been incompetent, because there was no reporting back or flagging up of anxieties and there was poor governance. There was acquiescence through silence to a thoroughly unacceptable situation. We have no way of knowing whether those people are good, bad or indifferent.
At the very least—I hope that this will be done in the next Parliament—we should have a Select Committee on overseas territories and/or a Sub-Committee of the Foreign Affairs Committee to deal with overseas territories. They should have the mechanisms and duty to have dialogue, using modern technology, with the people, legislatures and governance of overseas territories, so that the Government have a hand in the matter.
A recent innovation is that representatives of the overseas territories come here once a year, and we are invited to receptions at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. They are important, and I am not dismissing them. However, there should be a week of formal hearings by the Foreign Affairs Committee or a special Committee that meets them not collectively but individually to probe and inquire into their stewardship of the overseas territories and to see whether there is a deficiency in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or other Departments. They may believe that they are not receiving sufficient support in overseas aid and development or in the drafting of legislation by the Ministry of Justice, or they may need advice, guidance and counsel from the Treasury.
I intervened rather testily on the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling, who was outlining things very well, but I just find it amazing that British Ministers have the audacity to get up at the Dispatch Box in the House of Commons and refer to the OECD list of jurisdictions that are deficient in terms of compliance on taxation, disclosure and so on when among them is at least one territory where the person in charge of all those things is appointed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—by the Foreign Secretary. Frankly, if there is a deficiency, the people to blame are the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Probably their officials in Whitehall have not told them the naked truth. I am telling them this afternoon: they are both the same and they are both to blame. I hope that some of the financial papers pick up on this and the Finance Ministers in the other countries will note that they cannot pretend that it is a remote problem that they are trying to get their hands on. This very afternoon, I am telling them that they are to blame. That should be addressed with some dispatch.
The Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South, also touched on the need to end discrimination in the overseas territories. That is particularly relevant given the Minister who will respond to the debate. I do not know precisely what she will say, but I find it bewildering that she would even attempt to excuse or defend acquiescence in continued discrimination on the ground of gender in overseas territories for which this place has the ultimate responsibility. That is happening and it must stop. It is a test of her veracity. I know that she is opposed to discrimination on the ground of gender and other categories of discrimination, but if she does nothing about it, she is acquiescing in it.
I was particularly exercised by the fact that there is conscription in Bermuda. I can find no reason why we should allow conscription there. The Bermuda Regiment has been delegated its funding by the local legislature and Government, but that does not excuse our allowing conscription to endure in the regiment of Bermuda. Even if I cannot persuade the House and the Minister on that, it is a fact that conscription is discriminatory. The only people who are conscripted are men. It has to stop. I find it pathetic when I hear Ministers protesting and saying, “Oh well, we’re working on it. We’re trying to do something.” The Minister needs to address the matter with some dispatch.
My final point relates to the laying of the wreaths. It defies belief that there cannot be an immediate decision on that matter. There is all this bogus nonsense about how there would be too many people and about the time factor. I have watched the Remembrance service every year since I was a lad, and what happens is that the people come up in tranches. In one big movement—it is done in a very dignified way—the high commissioners of all the Commonwealth countries move up to lay their wreaths. It takes about five seconds, and they do it with great dignity. Either we could extend that line or we could allow five or six seconds more for the wreaths of the overseas territories to be laid.
Before the unilateral declaration of independence of Rhodesia, the representative in London of the Government of Rhodesia was given the status of high commissioner and he used to lay a wreath. There is a parallel here. The reason why I draw attention to that is that the constitutional status and relationship of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland before the break-up of the federation and the UDI was exactly the same as the constitutional relationship that exists with many of the overseas territories today—in particular, but not exclusively, Gibraltar. While I am on the subject of Gibraltar, it is amazing how Gibraltar is so critical to us, but all the overseas territories are critical to our international interests, our global reach. They have contributed to the defence of the United Kingdom. It is an enduring insult to them that this wrong has not been remedied before now. I hope that the Minister will cut through the red tape and announce a change this afternoon.
I am delighted that the Foreign Affairs Committee has chosen to delve into issues relating to British overseas territories. British overseas territories get a mention in Parliament very infrequently, so it is excellent that the Select Committee has done such splendid work in looking into so many issues relating to the overseas territories, for which we are ultimately responsible. I commend all members of the Committee for the work that they have done.
We do not have a huge amount of time, so I will not go through all the different issues that have already been raised. There are a number of things that I agree 100 per cent. with. I shall speak about one or two of them later, but first I would like to talk in general about the overseas territories and why we are in such a muddle when it comes to dealing with territories for which we are ultimately responsible. Why has the United Kingdom never sorted out a sensible way of arranging territories and giving them representation and proper recognition? Why is it that so long after all the countries that wanted independence were granted independence, those that remain—the British overseas territories—are left in limbo? They are not really totally British—they are not treated as though they are British and as though their people are equal to our constituents. We have so many examples of that; I shall give a couple now.
The volcanic eruption on Montserrat in 1997 devastated communities there. Many of those poor people had to come and live in Britain, rather than we in this country providing the money that they needed to rebuild their communities much more quickly. The airport that is needed on St. Helena, which no doubt the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) will speak about at length, has been put on hold. I am referring to the appalling so-called “pause” in negotiations. That is disgraceful. It is against what has been pledged by Her Majesty’s Government.
I know the Minister well; I speak to her regularly on all these issues. I know how committed she is to trying to improve the situation of the overseas territories, but to be honest, she is hamstrung because of an institutional feeling within the Foreign Office. I mean no disrespect to members of staff from the Foreign Office who are present, but there is an institutional feeling that the overseas territories do not matter, they are secondary, they are not that important and they can just be left. That is why we get these appalling situations such as those on Pitcairn and in the Turks and Caicos Islands. That all fits together if we think about our failure in this Parliament to work out a proper way of giving representation to British overseas territories.
There are many ideas on the subject. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), for whom I have enormous regard on this issue, spoke an enormous amount of sense and I agree with so much of what he said. He suggested, and I have suggested before, that we should have a Select Committee for overseas territories. This issue should not be under foreign affairs. They are not foreign; they are British. Why is it under foreign affairs? Why are British overseas territories—territories of Her Majesty the Queen—under the Foreign Office? They are neither foreign nor Commonwealth. They are not members of the Commonwealth in their own right. There are British overseas territories in the Commonwealth only via Britain, so they should not really be under the Foreign Office at all. They should be placed in the same Department, whichever Department that is, as the British Crown dependencies. Jersey, Guernsey, the Isle of Man and the British overseas territories should all be placed together under one Department, but not the Foreign Office.
This issue will never be solved while we treat the overseas territories as foreign. They are British, and long may they remain so. None of the British overseas territories or Crown dependencies wants independence. Bermuda possibly did, but even that seems very unlikely, if not unlikely to happen at all. So let us forget the fact that they were part of the British empire. Let us move on; let us take things forward. Let us take the British overseas territories and Crown dependencies and give them proper status—the status that they deserve.
It is shameful that loyal subjects of Her Majesty the Queen and British subjects are treated as they are, that they are not allowed to lay a wreath on Remembrance Sunday and that the flags of their territories are not flown for the trooping of the colour. We have the flag of Mozambique flown because it has joined the Commonwealth, but it has never been part of the British empire; it has never been under the British monarchy. When it comes to the Queen’s birthday parade, however, where is the flag of the Falkland Islands? Where is the flag of Gibraltar? Where are the flags of the Cayman Islands or Montserrat? Where are the flags of Crown dependencies such as Jersey, Guernsey, Isle of Man and Alderney? They are nowhere to be seen—but the flag of Mozambique is.
We insult these people. We insult them when they have disasters—as, for instance, when Hurricane Ivan hit the Cayman Islands. I went to the Cayman Islands on a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association visit in 2006, and I know how hurt those people felt. Disaster struck, and they needed our support. Where was the Navy? Was the Government offering support? The islanders received little support, if any. That is something for which we are all responsible, and we should not let such things continue.
Perhaps we should allow the British overseas territories to have elected representation in the House of Commons. Perhaps we should find a way to give them their own Members of Parliament; we would have to consider carefully how it could be done. Would they have their own representation, or would each territory be linked to an existing constituency? Either way, the hon. Member for Thurrock and I believe that it is wrong in the modern world that British people, for whom we have ultimate responsibility, should have no vote and no say. We can declare war on their behalf, and we can make foreign policy on their behalf. We could join the euro if we wished to—I hope that we never do—but if we did, what would happen to the Falklands pound? We make the decisions on all those matters.
We now have devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with the clear example of Scottish MPs voting on English matters. We can therefore resolve the problem for the overseas territories; we know that they can be accommodated here because of what has happened as a result of devolution. Of course, they should not vote on issues that have no effect on them, but if it is a matter that affects the overseas territories—many things do—they should have the right to vote in this Parliament. I accept that that probably will not happen, and even if it does it is a long way off.
Why should we not have a Select Committee? Let us consider what Australia does for its small number of territories. Norfolk Island, Christmas Island and Cokos Island do not have representation as elected representatives in Canberra; instead, there is an external territories committee. Those islands can air grievances and talk about issues that matter to them; they have a voice in the Canberra Parliament. As a result, they are not disregarded. Above all, they are not treated as foreign. They are treated as being part of Australia, even though technically they are slightly separate—rather like our overseas territories and Crown dependencies. Australia and New Zealand treat their overseas territories far better than we treat ours.
A range of issues needs to be addressed. The crux of the matter is that Parliament has not been doing the right thing. Under Governments of both parties, we have sidelined the issue. No Government have a particularly proud record in that respect. The present Government brought in the British Overseas Territories Act 2002, and I applaud them for that. It was a great step forward to give British citizenship to all citizens of the overseas territories. However, it was only the first step. We need to do a great deal more to resolve matters.
The other matter that must be mentioned today is that of the Chagos islands. By any standard of democracy, of human rights and of treating people in a decent manner—however we look at it—that was wrong. It was a terrible thing to have removed those people from their homeland, to have chucked them out, taken them from where they lived and put them in a foreign place and then denied them the right ever to return.
The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and I do not agree about much, but we certainly agree on that question. We are working together through the all-party group on the Chagos islands, because at the end of the day it is about treating people in a decent and humane way. How could anyone justify what happened to those islanders? I do not understand how any Minister could ever have justified that. We must put matters right. The Minister knows my opinion on the matter, and I have a deep suspicion that she has some sympathy with it, but the reality is that the institutional line taken by the Foreign Office can never be broken. We need to be truthful with ourselves; we should value the overseas territories, treat them as British and ensure that such mistakes are not repeated.
The hon. Gentleman’s kind remarks are well taken—[Laughter]—with great surprise all round. He is slightly mistaken about the institutional nature of some aspects of the Foreign Office. As Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook specifically did not appeal against the 2000 judgment that gave the islanders the right to return. In a sense, the Orders in Council made in 2004 vetoed everything that had been achieved previously by legal action.
I bow to the hon. Gentleman’s superior knowledge.
I know that the debate has been going on for many years, and I am sad that we are no further forward—that because of the House of Lords ruling, we are still stuck in this situation. I am deeply unhappy that there seems to be some sort of unofficial agreement with Mauritius—that once America decides to leave, Mauritius will take what is properly called the British Indian Ocean Territory. That is not right.
The remaining territories of the United Kingdom—the Crown dependencies and the overseas territories come to a total of 21, although we might argue about the number—must not be forgotten. They are all British and they will all stay British; we need only to sort out the right kind of representation and how we should govern them. The one thing that must be done, the one thing that must be addressed, is to sort out where they fit within government. They should no longer come under the Foreign Office. They should be treated as British, perhaps through the Home Office or the Ministry of Justice, or even a new Department that included Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Who can tell what the Government may decide to do? However, the overseas territories should all be included under one Department, and treated as British, not as foreign. Until we get that message across, until we change our attitude and properly sort out their representation here in this Parliament, through Government or the Department that represents them—only then can we hope to solve all the other problems that have permeated down and which were mentioned in the report.
I commend the Foreign Affairs Committee for what it has achieved. I hope that this will not be our last debate on the British overseas territories. We need a regular debate on the subject. We should not have to wait for another Committee report. Let us at least have an annual debate on the subject, just as we have annual debates on Scotland and Wales. We should do the same for the British overseas territories. From now on, we should all fight to ensure that they are treated as British and not as foreign territories.
I start by saying how much I welcome this debate. As the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) said, such a debate should be held on the Floor of the House rather than in this Chamber.
I thank the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs for undertaking its investigation into the overseas territories, and particularly for examining the question of the British Indian Ocean Territory—the Chagos islands and Diego Garcia. I am chair of the all-party group on the Chagos islands, and I was pleased not only that the Foreign Affairs Committee undertook its investigation but that it invited Olivier Bancoult and Richard Gifford to give oral evidence to the Committee. There was a sense of democratic justice when we finally saw Olivier Bancoult giving evidence on behalf of those who were grievously wronged so long ago. I thank the Committee for that and for those two of its recommendations.
I shall speak only about the Chagos islands. They were depopulated in a rather disreputable deal done in the 1960s between the Government and the United States Administration. It was probably a trade-off for British non-participation in Vietnam and Polaris. The US wished for a base on the Chagos islands, and they were given Diego Garcia.
For reasons that have never been fully or rationally explained, US security needs apparently extend beyond the base on Diego Garcia to the entire island—and the rest of the archipelago, which is several hundred miles away. The islanders were forcibly removed. Some were enticed out on the basis of educational or medical requirements and sent to Mauritius; and some were more or less forced on to boats and taken to Mauritius, where they were simply dumped on the quayside.
A little later, compensation was rather grudgingly given, but it was insufficient and many islanders were conned out of it and have lived in terrible poverty ever since on the island of Mauritius. The former Member for Linlithgow, Tam Dalyell, took up the case on many occasions, as did the former Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook. Tam first met the islanders when he visited Mauritius and its then governor.
The issue of what we do now is very important. The Chagos islanders, having been dumped on the island of Mauritius with minimal compensation—some went to the Seychelles—stayed together as a community, which is deeply significant. It would have been very easy to give up and disappear, but they felt they had been wronged and that they had had a reasonable living on the Chagos islands—it was largely a combination of copra-growing, subsistence farming and fishing. This was an ideal. They are descendants of imported slaves and Portuguese and others who landed there, and have become an identifiable group and a community in themselves.
In staying together, they fought a legal campaign for a very long time for the right to return. On going through some papers from when I was first elected to this House, in 1983, I found that one of the earliest letters that I received was from Oliver Bancoult of the Chagos islands. With a sense of enormous justice, in 2000 they were finally granted the right of return by the High Court. It was a very significant legal victory. The right of return was enshrined in that decision, not to Diego Garcia, but to the rest of the archipelago. The then Foreign Secretary, the late Robin Cook, announced that he would not appeal against the decision and would therefore cause resettlement to become a possibility. Robin Cook had campaigned on the issue of Diego Garcia as a Labour Back-Bencher in the 1970s.
Preparations were being made for the islanders’ return. A year later the British Overseas Territories Act came before Parliament and an amendment was put forward by Tam Dalyell, the former Member for Linlithgow, and me, to extend British citizenship to British Indian Ocean Territory citizens, even though they were no longer resident there, because they had been forcibly removed. We withdrew our amendment in the face of a complementary amendment from the Foreign Secretary, and they were duly given British citizenship. As the Select Committee correctly pointed out, however, there was an anomaly, because third-generation islanders were denied citizenship. That was pointed out at the time, but unfortunately the Foreign Office could not accommodate those concerns. I am pleased to say that the Select Committee has made that recommendation, and I hope it can be taken up.
Granting British citizenship, however, is not the same as saying that those people must be resident in Britain. They cannot return to where they came from: the British Indian Ocean Territory. In effect, they have a choice of either continuing to live in Mauritius, or coming to live in this country. The one place they cannot go is the place from which they derive their right to British citizenship—the British Indian Ocean Territory. It is an utterly absurd decision.
The preliminary feasibility study was prepared—I have a copy of this very extensive document—and discussions were under way concerning the right of return. Quite honestly, had a group of islanders simply returned between 2000 and 2004 and taken up residence—as itinerant and very wealthy yachts-people occasionally do—the British Government would either have had to not pursue the Orders in Council or, which is more likely, would not have been prepared to face the international opprobrium of once more evicting people who had every right to be there. Unfortunately, no islanders returned during that period, because they trusted the Foreign Office statements saying that they would be entitled to and allowed to return to the islands.
The Orders in Council were challenged by the excellent solicitor acting on behalf of the Chagos islanders, Richard Gifford, and the case went through the courts, all of which found that the Orders in Council were wrong in law and practice and unfair on the islanders. In the latter part of last year, however, the case went to the House of Lords, where a judgment was made, on a majority verdict, allowing the Foreign Secretary’s appeal against the High Court decision and upholding the Orders in Council. A joint statement made by Richard Gifford and Oliver Bancoult after that decision read:
“The government has therefore achieved a victory in banning the islanders permanently from their homeland, and they are in shock at this reversal of previous decisions, and the loss of their cherished right to return home...However, the two dissenting judges, Lord Bingham and Lord Mance, decided that the orders were void because it was beyond the power of government to abrogate such a fundamental right as the right to return to one’s homeland. Moreover, they also conducted a searching critique of the reasons advanced by ministers. In summary, the minority judges dismissed the reasons given in a stern critique of the evaluation conducted by ministers in secret.”
What do the islanders do next? They have a right to, and will, take their case to the European Court of Human Rights, and they might well win. I am pleased that the Minister is taking this issue seriously, that she met with the all-party group on the Chagos islands and that she received a delegation consisting of myself and the all-party group secretary, the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). I am also grateful to her for meeting Oliver Bancoult and a delegation of islanders, in order to understand their position, when they visited this country recently.
The Minister has a choice to make, however. She could argue that the Orders in Council were the right way forward. As a democrat, I object to all Orders in Council, but I object in particular to these ones because they are so blatantly unfair. However, going through the European judicial process would incur yet more legal costs for the Government. It would no doubt cost a great deal of money—even more than the huge legal costs incurred over the past 10 or 15 years of this sad story. Alternatively, she and the Foreign Secretary could recognise that we are simply wrong and that the islanders should not have been removed in the first place—it was immoral and deceitful. They should never have been forced to live in the desperate poverty that they have known in Mauritius. I have been to visit them there and seen the way in which they are forced to survive.
The Minister could then consider the possibility of returning the islanders. Not every islander will want to return. A number have made their homes in this country, as they are entitled and welcome to do. Most live around Crawley. I also think that we should suspend the habitual residence test, so that they can gain benefits as soon as they arrive in this country. It is a very unpleasant anomaly and has caused great misery and hardship. However, a number of them would like to make use of their right of return. The feasibility study needs to be updated, revisited and developed. I suspect that the cost of returning the islanders would be rather less than the total legal cost of pursuing the case—legal costs get awfully expensive, given the legal aid costs and the cost of the court and counsel provided by the Foreign Office.
One could also consider the ecology and sustainability of the islands. In opening this debate, the Committee Chairman correctly pointed out the pristine environmental conditions on the Chagos islands. That is very important—do not underestimate it! The Chagos Conservation Trust has done a great deal of work. One of its proposals is that there should be no settlement on the islands, and that instead, they should be preserved in a pristine national environment and used for research purposes and everything that goes with that.
I understand the argument. At one level it is very seductive, but if we consider it further we come to the old Greek problem of who guards the guards. Someone has to protect the pristine environment from illegal settlers, so people end up living in that environment to protect it from undesirables who wish to live there. Who better to protect the pristine environment than the very people who kept it in that state in the first place: the islanders themselves? It is perfectly possible to have a return to residence on the island, with a sustainable way of life and a very limited degree of visiting rights for eco-tourism and other such things. Fishing licences should be properly controlled and managed to ensure that there is no over-fishing, and that such income goes to the islands themselves rather than anywhere else. Then, we would have to some degree restored our moral standing in the world by accepting that what we did in the 1960s and 1970s was simply wrong.
We have formed an all-party group on the Chagos islands. We have a considerable, all-party membership—as we are obviously required to do—and it is very enthusiastic. Something that brings together both me and the hon. Member for Romford must have some kudos. The group is determined to pursue the issue all the way through.
The UN Human Rights Council has considered the issue, focusing on discrimination, the treatment of indigenous people and the question of international law. On all those reckonings, Britain is on the wrong side in its treatment of the Chagos islanders. Let us let justice be done, allow the islanders to return and recognise that what we did was an historical wrong. If we make the apology, as we frequently do, let us then carry it through by righting the wrong and allowing the return to take place. I thank the Select Committee for having the time and courage to undertake such a study and to welcome the witnesses who gave evidence. I look forward to its continuing to be active and supportive on this issue.
It is not only the Chagos islanders who feel betrayed by the Government. I endorse all the points made by the previous speakers, and I congratulate the Foreign Affairs Committee on its excellent report.
I want to concentrate purely on the island of St. Helena, which was under the flag of England before the Union of Scotland and England. The islanders are proud British subjects and I endorse the points made by the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) in that regard. There is a sense of betrayal and disbelief that their Government, after all the promises, should, at a relatively late stage, pull the plug on the airport. As the Chairman of the Select Committee pointed out, the project was agreed in September. Work was due to start when news came through of the pause, which is now more than a pause; it is an exceptionally long delay. It may be more than a delay.
Paragraph 342 of the Overseas Territories report states:
“We conclude that the building of an airport and related infrastructure on St. Helena could be a significant step towards self-sufficiency for the Territory.”
I am chairman of the all-party parliamentary Island of St. Helena group. The patron saint of Colchester is St. Helena—same spelling, different pronunciation. My wife, myself and our three children were all taught at St. Helena school in Colchester. That is the connection. Moreover, I have visited the island, which is more than any Minister has done at any stage in the 450 years that it has been under the Crown of England or Britain. The island was discovered by the Portuguese, but the English, being the English, found it subsequently and thought it would be better off under English and then British jurisdiction.
The islanders are a very proud people. There is a sense of disbelief and outrage at the way in which events have unfolded. The island is one of only three territories that are dependent on British aid. All the evidence points to the fact that the airport would quickly transform the island from being a net recipient of aid to being self-sufficient within a decade. Doing nothing is the Government’s option C, and it is a very expensive option. Incidentally, I hope that the Committee will make a robust response to the consultation, stressing the valid points that have been made.
Although no Minister has ever visited the island, royalty has, as have various Members of Parliament. I find it remarkable that no Minister has thought it necessary to visit St. Helena. After all, Napoleon went there. One of the reasons why an airport would be very popular is that it would attract tourists from France as well as from this country and around the world. It is interesting, therefore, that no British Minister has been there.
It is worth contrasting St. Helena with the Falkland Islands in the south Atlantic. What a great pity that the Argentines did not invade St. Helena at the same time. Since the invasion, hundreds of millions of pounds have been invested in the Falkland Islands, but not in St. Helena. I am bound to observe that the resident population of the Falkland Islands, which is half the number of St. Helena, is predominantly, if not exclusively, white. The population of St. Helena is predominantly non-white. We have economic apartheid by this Government in two islands in the south Atlantic.
Following on from the points made by the hon. Members for Romford and for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) about the laying of wreaths, there are many young people from the island of St. Helena who serve in Her Majesty’s armed forces. During the Falklands war, the islanders of St. Helena readily gave up the Royal Mail ship St. Helena, which was the only means of access to their island, so that it could sail to its fellow south Atlantic islands to assist in their liberation.
To the lasting shame of successive Governments, those who served on the RMS St. Helena have been denied the south Atlantic medal on the spurious grounds that the vessel was not in the exclusion zone for long enough. That is not their fault. They volunteered, they went down and were kept out of the exclusion zone. They should have had that medal; they should have had it 25 years ago. It is an absolute disgrace. It is small things such as that which cause outrage. We are talking here of three dozen medals. Surely, for goodness’ sake, the British Government can give recognition, even after all these years, to people who went to help the British flag, the British Army, the British people, the British Navy, the British Air Force to liberate British people in the Falklands?
Option C in the consultation document—the do-nothing option—talks about providing alternative means either to keep the Royal Mail ship St. Helena going or chartering separate passenger and freight vessels, which will cost £20 million to £30 million. I am not sure whether that is per year or in total; it is a bit ambiguous. There are contradictions in the document: it states that the airport will cost £300 million or more, yet option A, on the front page, states that the approximate cost will be between £230 million and £260 million in the next five years. Even within this one document, the Government cannot keep to the same financial story.
The cost of subsidy in the next five years will be in the region of £100 million to £125 million. An airport would transform the island not only from being dependent on the British taxpayer so that it would be self-sufficient, but so that it would generate income of anything up to £33 million. The simple sums are that in five years, the island’s self-sufficiency would pay for the cost of the airport. We could take the pessimistic view that it could take eight to 10 years, but we would at least have begun to move in the direction of self-sufficiency. None the less, within a maximum of 10 years, the construction of an airport on the island of St. Helena would make it self-sufficient so that it no longer required economic support from the mother country.
Incidentally, there was some confusion in the debate about the number of overseas territories. According to the Committee’s report there are 14, but we could include the two dependencies of St. Helena, namely Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha. I hope that 16 would be the definitive measure.
Over the years, I have developed quite a file of parliamentary questions and reports of debates on the matter. In answer to a question I tabled as recently as 27 March, I was told that in the past 10 years, the total subsidy from the British taxpayer to St. Helena has been nearly £120 million. For the next four or five years, as I indicated, the subsidy will be between £100 and £125 million. One assumes that, over 10 years, that sum will double. What an extraordinary coincidence that the subsidy over 10 years is in the same ballpark as the cost of constructing the airport.
The population of St. Helena—this is borne out in the evidence taken by the Committee—is lopsided. The economic generators—the mums and dads—are departing from the island, leaving their children behind with aunts, uncles or grandparents, while they go and sustain Britain’s interests on Ascension Island, in the Falklands or, sometimes, in the UK, because the incomes that can be paid on St. Helena are considerably less. When I went to St. Helena—admittedly, it was 10 years ago—one of the two police sergeants was just about to leave the island to work in the Falklands. He could earn more money as a toilet cleaner there than as a police sergeant on St. Helena. It cannot be right that because people in the Falklands earn far more, the population of St. Helena is made up of the elderly and young.
I will not go into the details of the report because time is pressing, but they are illuminating. I am more than happy to share my file with the Minister—I suspect that it is greater than her briefing because the material in it goes back many years.
The do-nothing option—option C—would create a serious concern about the serviceability of the current RMS St. Helena. The case for the airport is set out clearly in early-day motion 1113. There can be no moral justification for not accepting its argument. Without St. Helena, the British empire in India could not have gone ahead as it did. With the opening of the Suez canal, St. Helena’s importance for the Indian subcontinent was no longer paramount, but the island was still crucial for the British empire in Africa. The island has been of more importance and for many more years than the Falkland Islands, which have been important only relatively recently.
If the Government spent on St. Helena just a tiny proportion of the money that they spend on the Falklands, it would transform the island, the population of which are the most deprived loyal British subjects in the world, into self-sufficiency. That could happen within a decade of the airport’s being built. Equally importantly, it would mean that the island’s population could be all-embracing in that it would no longer be made up predominantly of the young and elderly.
The Government have betrayed the people of St. Helena. What makes the situation even worse is that, until September, there was a hope and a belief that the Government were genuine, but they broke their word because, they said, of the changing world economic situation. There is no denying that there is a changing economic situation, but the construction of the airport would mean that St. Helena would not be dependent on British overseas aid. The economic argument is powerful and the moral argument is overpowering. I therefore urge the Government to take seriously what the Committee said and to do the right thing. They should build the airport without further delay.
I congratulate the Committee on producing such a well researched and well thought through report. It is clearly the product of a significant number of hours in evidence sessions both in Westminster and in far-flung locations in the middle of oceans around the world. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) on introducing the debate.
Obviously, almost by definition, the debate has been wide-ranging. This is perhaps the first time that I have seen direct Government action as a result of a Select Committee report. Often Select Committees are influential on the Government and, over time, Governments might eventually adopt some of their recommendations. However, in this case the Government launched an inquiry into the Turks and Caicos Islands within days of the publication of the report, which speaks volumes about the standard of the work and the level of the evidence that was submitted. Even if it has not been acknowledged by the FCO, which could change today, others in House see its value.
The overseas territories are varied and face different challenges. In meetings that I have had with representatives of some of them, I have been struck by how different life is in a small island community, with perhaps only a few thousand other people. Although family life can go on as normal, there are some challenges when it comes to the governance of such small areas—the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) said that some territories are as small as a council ward. Indeed, the remoteness of many of the territories offers challenges to some of the things that we might take for granted, such as secondary, further or higher education. Rather than going to university a couple of hundred miles from home as people in this country might, people could end up flying halfway round the world. British citizens living in the territories face specific challenges, and it is right that the House should address them.
We have heard a range of excellent speeches from hon. Members of all parties. It is a particular pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), who made a compelling case for the airport to proceed without delay in St. Helena. By an interesting coincidence, St. Helena is the patron saint of Colchester.
As the report is large, I will focus my remarks on a few key issues: Diego Garcia, tax havens, the environment and witness protection. However, a couple of other points have been made. Recommendation 23, which deals with equality of gender and sexual orientation, has been mentioned by various Members. When one reads it, one suddenly thinks, “Hang on a second. These are British territories.” One would assume that such basic provisions for equality of gender and sexual orientation exist, so it is staggering to read not only that they do not exist but that there has been some hesitation and reluctance to adopt them, to the extent that in the Caribbean, the Government themselves have had to introduce legislation on equality of sexual orientation. It needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. As was mentioned in an earlier intervention, it is surely an issue of basic human rights, and the Government have a responsibility to act in their own territory.
Another small but important and symbolic issue, raised in recommendation 15, is the laying of wreaths at the Cenotaph. It seems absolutely nonsensical if a territory wants to lay a wreath that it should not be allowed to do so. We do not want to force them, and if they would rather it is generally done on their behalf, that should be okay, but I fail to see what the problem is and why it cannot be dealt with swiftly by the Government saying, “Yes, absolutely. We will change the procedures, and that will happen from this coming November.”
Recommendation 21 relates to freedom of information legislation and encouraging overseas territories to adopt it. I welcome the Committee’s recommendation. I am a firm believer in freedom of information legislation. It is good that the Government introduced it. I believe that the legislation introduced in Scotland is superior and enables more accountability, but it is a start. We have already seen it used to create more transparency within Government, which can only be a good thing. I welcome the Government’s response, which says that they will encourage overseas territories to adopt such legislation. I welcome the Minister’s comments on how and how often that encouragement will take place.
There are two related issues on Diego Garcia. First, on extraordinary rendition, it is right that the report should deplore the use of that UK territory as a refuelling stop for extraordinary renditions and, as reports would have us believe, as a CIA black site for interrogation of suspects. There is significant evidence to suggest that that has occurred. A Council of Europe report concluded in June 2007 that
“we have received concurring confirmations that United States agencies have used the island territory of Diego Garcia, which is the international legal responsibility of the United Kingdom, in the ‘processing’ of high-value detainees…the UK Government has readily accepted ‘assurances’ from US authorities to the contrary, without ever independently or transparently inquiring into the allegations itself, or accounting to the public in a sufficiently thorough manner.”
That is quite a damning conclusion. The word “processing” is one of the most appalling euphemisms that I have come across, considering the torture that lies behind it. Clearly, just receiving assurances from the United States is not good enough. It is not good enough for the House or for the constituents whom we represent, particularly when it is viewed in the context of previous assurances from the United States that no extraordinary rendition flights passed through or refuelled in UK territory, when the US said subsequently that two had done so.
Although it is welcome that the Foreign Affairs Committee will be conducting an inquiry into torture complicity allegations—my party has long called for an independent inquiry into the matter—a Select Committee inquiry should not be the only thing happening. It should not just be left to a Select Committee. The UK Government themselves ought to be investigating the allegations in detail, not just relying on the US. As we have seen, the US has been seen not to tell us the entire truth about the matter on at least one occasion.
It is good news that the Foreign Secretary has said that he will co-operate fully with the new Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry, as it is regrettable that he refused to appear before the Joint Committee on Human Rights to discuss the issues during its inquiry earlier last year. It will be helpful for him to appear. I am sure that Select Committee members will be robust in their questioning.
In January, the new US President, for whom we all have such hopes, announced plans to close down the black sites that we suspect might be operating on Diego Garcia. It will be interesting to see how that progresses. I hope that the Minister will do all that she can to encourage that process around the world, particularly in UK territories.
The Chagos islanders are the other big, controversial issue on Diego Garcia. This debate has included various eloquent contributions on the matter from my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) and from members of the all-party group, the hon. Members for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for Romford (Andrew Rosindell). The report says that there is a strong moral case for the return of the islanders. I fail to see how anybody could argue seriously against that moral imperative. The Government have behaved pretty shamefully in the matter.
The great and, sadly, late Robin Cook, when he was Foreign Secretary, promised that he would not appeal the Court of Appeal’s decision, but we now find in the report that at least £2 million in taxpayers’ money has been spent on appeals. Clearly, the Foreign Office needs to put its hands up, say “We got this wrong” and act accordingly. The reasons why the Chagossians cannot return seem patchy. Security is one of the main reasons given, but the place where they want to settle is about 135 miles from the US naval base. Any boat can pass freely within three miles of Diego Garcia. If someone can moor their yacht there without being seen as a security threat, why are people a threat who just want to return to their homeland and live an ordinary life? I hope that the Minister will have happy news on that issue, but I will not hold my breath for it in this debate.
Financial issues are of huge importance in the territories. The report focuses strongly on money laundering, although a lot of recent political attention has focused on tax avoidance. Our Prime Minister is enjoying grandstanding on financial issues on the international stage, but we need to get our own house in order when it comes to tax avoidance.
The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling put it incredibly well when he pointed out that at the G20, seven British territories were named and shamed in the OECD’s list of countries that have not agreed to or implemented its international tax standards. That is an appalling situation, and it should not be tolerated, particularly in some of those territories where the UK is directly responsible for financial regulation. In some territories there is absolutely no barrier to reform, as the Government are in a position to implement it, and in other areas, pressure must be applied to ensure that we live up to international standards. The allegations in the report that the FCO was being complacent are supported by evidence. If several of our territories are still on the grey list, the action that is required has certainly not been taken.
It is important for the FCO, in collaboration with the Governors of the territories, to consider how to develop their economies in other ways. We must recognise that the revenue and income from financial services has formed a large part of the economy in many territories. Moving away from tax avoidance would have an impact on their economies. Support will therefore be needed to develop economic avenues that are less shady and internationally embarrassing.
In its report, the Foreign Affairs Committee considered reports from the Environmental Audit Committee, on which I serve. I am pleased that it agreed with the recommendations of our two reports on biodiversity and the environmental legacy and resources of flora and fauna in the territories. Many of the territories are remote places with unique and fragile ecosystems. Since the report was published, the Environmental Audit Committee has published a further report on biodiversity. Unfortunately, our record and our progress are not much better in ensuring that the biodiversity in those areas is not lost at an alarming rate. There are many endangered species to be considered. This is therefore an issue of great concern.
The Government response helpfully stated that there is an interdepartmental ministerial group on biodiversity. When the Environmental Audit Committee considered the issue, it appeared that that group did not have a great track record for meeting or acting. The response said that the next meeting of that group would
“look into the feasibility of carrying out a full strategic assessment of the needs of the Territories.”
Will the Minister update us on that, given that the Government response was published in September 2008? Presumably that meeting has taken place. The feasibility study or the strategic assessment might be well under way.
Finally, I turn to witness protection and the Turks and Caicos Islands. It was stunning to hear the tales of Select Committee members receiving evidence from people who were too scared to put their name to what they were saying about corruption. The Leader of the Opposition in the TCI spoke of a
“general atmosphere of fear and intimidation”.
That is clearly unacceptable. The Committee is to be commended for securing the evidence and for treating people in a sensitive and confidential manner. That is not an environment that we want to see continue. The Government have acted on the issues in the TCI, but the wider issue of witness protection has been raised. I understand that some territories in the Caribbean are working together on a justice protection Bill to give effect to an inter-territory witness protection scheme. What progress has been made on that?
The report exemplifies the fact that the work of Select Committees is a vital part of what happens in the House. It is important to the scrutiny of Government and to the quality of debate. It ensures that hon. Members are well informed. Witnesses, in particular British citizens, must therefore be free to talk openly and honestly to Members of Parliament. Without such frank evidence, Select Committees cannot continue to function in the way that they do. That is an appropriate point to end on and I hope that the Government will point to some progress on ensuring that this situation will not arise again.
It is a great privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow.
I too congratulate the Chairman of the Select Committee and its members on their work. In particular, I congratulate them on their work on the Turks and Caicos Islands. It is rare that a Select Committee report shows an immediate cause and effect. A number of us fear that all too often, Select Committee reports come under the “so what?” category. From my experience of working in Whitehall 20 years ago, the dear old Minister of Defence was only ever frightened of one parliamentary Committee. That was the Public Accounts Committee because it had the National Audit Office at its disposal to break in and enter. Of course, the Treasury finally got the PAC reports and found out that the Minister of Defence had perhaps not been telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The Foreign Affairs Committee is to be congratulated.
I endorse the view of the Chairman of the Select Committee that it is easy for journalists and others to criticise overseas trips. The Foreign Affairs Committee certainly has a greater right to them than others. There are colleagues who could be described as members of the all-party surf and sand group because they sometimes go overseas for reasons that are not well defended. However, in this case there is a definite example of how a Select Committee, by going out into the field, obtained the necessary evidence. It not only brought to light widespread corruption and intimidation, but enabled the Foreign Office to carry out its duties.
It is regrettable that we are only now debating a report and departmental reply from last September. The advantage is that we have come up to date in the cases of the Turks and Caicos Islands and the Chagossians. I will touch briefly on three or four substantial issues that have emerged not only from the report, but from the contributions of hon. Members in this debate.
In 1999 the Government introduced the White Paper, “Partnership for Progress and Prosperity” on overseas territories. I had concluded before the debate and am now convinced that there should be another White Paper on this issue, whether under this Government or the next in a year’s time. From the report and from issues that have been raised today, it is clear that we need a reassessment of the relationship between the British Government and the overseas territories. There must be a strategic vision.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) put his finger on an important point when he spoke of the section of the Foreign Office that deals with overseas territories. One has to be sensitive because one is referring to officials who put as much time and work as they can into dealing with the issue. There is no doubt in my mind or in the minds of others that the section of the Foreign Office that deals with overseas territories does not immediately attract the young, ambitious thrusters. I may be wrong, but I suspect that Sir Nigel Sheinwald was never involved in overseas territories. He will have shimmered through other so-called more important issues.
However, any of us who study history—particularly the history of the Foreign Office—know that areas that are regarded as backwaters sometimes become very important. I suspect that the poor devil in the Foreign Office in the early 1920s who was dealing with Czechoslovakia and who was told that it was not an area that would be important was much in demand circa 1937-38. My serious question for the Minister is, how many officials in the Foreign Office are dealing with overseas territories? I suspect that it is an enabling section, which has to call on the advice, support and expertise of other Departments. This is an important issue and I am interested to know the answer.
That issue leads to another that the Committee raised in its report, which has been raised by at least one hon. Member today—the crucial relationship between the Governors of overseas territories and the people being governed. We all know that, historically, Governors of colonies on overseas territories tended to be selected by a set of criteria that would now be regarded as quaint. It was a way of getting rid of people, telling them to go off and govern New South Wales. Until the 1960s, if the Whips wanted a safe seat, they could hold out as a prospect to Sir Humphrey Bumble the idea that he could go off and govern somewhere very pleasant in the world. This issue was touched on in the report, and we like to think that things have changed since those days, but will the Minister outline in some detail the way in which Governors’ posts are advertised, and what criteria, in terms of characteristics and knowledge, the Foreign Office and individual territories look for?
Will the Minister also tell us about the remit that is now given to Governors? I suspect that it is easy to parody those individuals, but they have to perform a difficult balancing act. They must balance the responsibilities of Whitehall against the responsibilities to the territories of which they are Governors. There is no doubt about what the Select Committee has drawn out, particularly in relation to the Turks and Caicos Islands. Governors may, at the end of the day, have been unable to act at all, because of the double constraint of the pressure brought upon them by living within that territory and the kind of benign neglect that came from Whitehall saying, “We hear what you say, but we don’t want to hear what you say.”
There is another irony to this matter, which has been touched on by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) and my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell). We are debating this constitutional representation, which is a very important aspect of the Select Committee report, as British MPs in the House of Commons, but just beyond the green rope in the Chamber are at least some members of the overseas territories who are privileged to come and listen to our debate and to the great people here, in the sort of king-emperor’s Parliament, who decide their fate. One serious point that was raised by a number of hon. Members was the question whether there should be some representation from the overseas territories directly in the House of Commons. There are all kinds of anomalies to that. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford has a powerful interest in Gibraltar, where the citizens can now participate in the European elections, so they have a direct link there. That was a classically, wonderfully British compromise. We need to consider that question. I am open-minded on the matter because my conversations with representatives of the overseas territories have not convinced me that they would all be enthusiastic about having a Member of Parliament here, because the House of Commons could then take a direct interest in their territories, and, indeed, might interfere in them. Some of them, at least, might not be terribly enthusiastic about that.
Let me make two points. First, giving the people of Gibraltar a vote at the European elections was not a typical British compromise; it was resisted and opposed by the man who is now the Secretary of State for Justice, who said it would not be done, but he was taken to court by a voter in Gibraltar who won, and beat the British Government.
Secondly, I have never suggested that there should be a Member of Parliament for the overseas territories. This is about access. I used as a parallel the Congress of the United States; the representatives who go to Congress from Guam, the American Virgin Islands and American Samoa have the title “delegate”. They are basically non-voting Members, but they can stand up and shout “Foul!” when appropriate, and they can have the normal dialogue and intercourse with other honourable Members. That is what is necessary—not the ability to vote on Essex or Ludlow or Scotland.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. When I said that it was a typically British compromise, I was perhaps trying to hide the blushes of the Secretary of State for Justice, but of course the hon. Gentleman would never hide his blushes.
The hon. Gentleman’s second point, about the different perms that we could have, is something that we need to consider. Indeed, we need to hear the views of the overseas territories, as they will not have a unified view on that.
My next point is about what was widespread corruption in the Turks and Caicos Islands, and about the issues that hon. Members have identified about the G20 demand that pressure should be brought to bear on tax havens, and about the letter written by the Prime Minister. I urge the Minister to throw some light on that, if at all possible, because it seems strange, to say the least, that we have a list identifying seven overseas territories that are on the OECD blacklist, the finances of one of which are directly administered by the Treasury. I will restrain myself from making any party political points about the Treasury’s inability to come up with any accurate figures to do with the Budget—oh, I have not restrained myself, but I know that hon. Members will know what I mean. This is a very serious issue indeed and it has to be gripped, not only because the Government and Parliament are responsible, but because, whether they like it or not, the overseas territories have to realise that it is not in their interests to appear on such a blacklist. If the overseas territories department at the Foreign Office is not responsible for this issue, then it will have to be the Treasury’s responsibility. As a consequence of this debate, the Select Committee on the Treasury might want to consider this issue.
On corruption within the Turks and Caicos Islands, and the suggestions that there could be corruption elsewhere, we know that from the 1950s onwards in Hong Kong there was widespread, systematic corruption on a vast scale, particularly within the police. It was only after the establishment of a permanent corruption commission, which was given enormous powers, that the corruption was rooted out. I am not suggesting necessarily that we should establish corruption commissions within individual territories such as the Turks and Caicos Islands, but perhaps the Foreign Office should think about having an establishment in Whitehall that is able to root out that kind of corruption. I merely float that as an idea, but it should be borne in mind.
I want to give the Minister time to respond, so I shall move to the final issue that I want to raise. On the Chagos islands, as several hon. Members have said, we find absolutely incredible today what happened there only 40-odd years ago, in which successive Governments colluded—particularly the treatment of those people who were literally dumped in Mauritius. Other peoples have been evacuated in the past, as I found out when I went to Gibraltar. As a military historian, I am ashamed to say that I did not know that large numbers of Gibraltarians were forcibly evacuated during the second world war. Indeed, Miss Gibraltar 1999, who was showing me around, said that her parents had experienced the blitz. They had been put in one-star hotels in South Kensington, and had endured the blitz, whereas many others had gone to the Canary Islands. However, at least those people were brought back at the end of the war and received some form of compensation.
There is no doubt that there is a moral imperative, but there is also a political problem that we cannot shy away from. Perhaps the Minister will be able to resolve this issue. I suspect that the British Government’s change of mind relates directly to 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan. They might be legally locked into the situation, but that should not mean that they do not take into account what I suspect is the all-party view that the rights of the Chagossian people should be recognised, and that there should at the very least be a timetable for the return of those people at least to the outer islands, if not the inner islands. The Foreign Office should recognise that the House of Commons feels very strongly on that.
I praise the Committee’s report. This Government or the next Government, which I hope will be Conservative, should look again at the strategic policy of our relationship with the overseas territories. That should be done in 2010—perhaps after the next general election—when we should establish a new relationship and strategic vision.
I thank the Chairman of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), and its members for giving life to the debate. There is no doubt that the Committee’s report is a substantial piece of work. As we have heard, it certainly contains many important and wide-ranging recommendations, for which we are grateful. Of course, in large part, we agree with many of the recommendations.
I am glad to have the opportunity to take part in a debate that has been interesting and has covered many subjects. I put it on the record that I am more than glad—indeed, I am proud—to be the Minister responsible for overseas territories. As right hon. and hon. Members have acknowledged, I know that the overseas territories are important and deserve our full attention. That is why I am glad not only to carry out my ministerial role, in which I am supported well by officials in the Department, but to have this debate today.
Before I tackle the points made, I shall mention some general and important matters. First, our overall relationship with the territories is, of course, enshrined in each territory’s constitution. That relationship was set out in the 1999 White Paper, “Partnership for Progress and Prosperity”. The Government are committed to the future development of the territories and their continued security for as long as they choose to retain the link between the United Kingdom and themselves.
It is right that territory Governments should take the majority of decisions in the territories because that is the nature of the modern relationship. However, it is also true that we expect and demand the highest standards of governance in return. Many territories have made great strides in their development, and much has been achieved since the 1999 White Paper. As we have discussed today, it is also true that other territories fail to meet their obligations and responsibilities. Where that is the case, the Government will intervene, as we have demonstrated in the Turks and Caicos Islands.
My experience is that our relationship with the territories is what I would call open and frank. Both sides can, and do, express their views freely. That was demonstrated clearly to me on my recent visit to the British Virgin Islands, when I chaired the Overseas Territories Consultative Council in October last year, and met territory leaders for the first time. I and all those present felt that the meeting had been successful, and we agreed to work together on a number of issues, many of which have been raised today.
One important outcome was the agreement that, at this year’s Overseas Territories Consultative Council, we should include a forum to discuss the 1999 White Paper now that we are 10 years on. The aim of that forum will be to examine progress and to discuss what remains to be done and how to take forward the White Paper agenda. I shall be glad to keep the Committee informed of those developments. I recognise that the UK’s OT relationship needs improvement. You will have noticed, Mr. Bercow—as have I—that many of the contributions have been about those matters in one form or another. I have listened closely to the debate, and I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will welcome the further discussions with the overseas territories that I intend to take forward.
Since the Government’s response to the report was published in September, I am pleased to report to hon. Members that there has been progress in a number of areas. I shall put on the record a few examples. A new constitution came into force in the Falkland Islands on 1 January. That reiterated the UK’s commitment to the islanders’ right to self-determination and to enhancing local democracy, transparency and accountability. A new constitution for the Cayman Islands will be put to a public referendum on 20 May.
In a document that came into force on 1 April this year, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence agreed new terms, conditions and fares for the use of the south Atlantic air bridge by civilians flying to and from the Falklands and Ascension Islands. It is an improved service that includes two flights a week, more seats and a premium economy service. The cost of that has been mentioned and right hon. and hon. Members will be aware that both the National Audit Office and the Select Committee on Public Accounts recommended that the Falkland Islands Government should take a greater share of the risk and cost.
Elections for an islands council on Ascension Island were successfully held in October and a new council was sworn in by the Governor on 27 October. Since then, councillors have been working actively with the Governor and administrator on a number of priority issues. Recently, I attended the first ever joint session of the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting and the Arctic Council in Washington. At that meeting, we adopted two declarations relating to the international polar year and the 50th anniversary of the Antarctic treaty. We also reaffirmed the consultative parties’ continued commitment to the objectives and purposes of the Antarctic treaty system.
Will the Minister confirm that no proposal was made by any party to undertake mineral exploration in the Antarctic and that the principles of retaining the Antarctic as a zone of peaceful scientific research remain? Will she also confirm that we are adhering fully to the environmental protocol?
My hon. Friend is right—indeed, that is contained within the Antarctic treaty. Much of the discussion was about the very strengths that he has just mentioned. The treaty was based on putting sovereignty claims aside; it was about peace and science, and it retains that position. We re-committed ourselves to that, so there is no change in relation to the matters about which he inquires.
The last example of development that I want to mention is that the Government of Bermuda opened a London office for the first time in February. That is fitting because Bermuda celebrates its 400th anniversary this year.
I shall now turn to the specific points made, which have been many and various. On the Turks and Caicos Islands, from the outset, I would like to say that there have indeed been concerns for many years about poor governance. The Blom-Cooper inquiry in 1986 into allegations of arson and corruption led to the suspension of ministerial government in Turks and Caicos for some two years. It is also true that rumours of corruption continued. Successive Governors have said that anyone with concerns about corruption will need to provide evidence. In 2006, a previous police investigation failed due to lack of evidence.
I have listened closely—not only today, but on other occasions—to the concerns that Committee members have raised. Let me also clearly put on the record that without any doubt the Committee itself played a key role in uncovering and bringing to the Government’s further attention deeply worrying information relating to the TCI. I commend the Committee’s energy, dedication and commitment in that regard. I pay particular tribute to the right hon. and hon. Members who visited the TCI in pursuit of that matter. I continue to be grateful for the efforts, insights and attention given to what is undoubtedly a difficult problem.
As mentioned, we all know that on 10 July last year, after careful and detailed deliberation, the then Governor appointed a commission of inquiry. We await its final report, which is expected in May. Questions have been asked about the delay and extension of the date for the final report. Sir Robin Auld has asked for the extension because of the work generated by what is called a Salmon letter exercise. The purpose of such letters is to give recipients an opportunity to make representations to the commission before it makes it final findings and recommendations. The reality is that there are recipients who have failed to meet the extended deadlines set by the commission of inquiry.
I can confirm to hon. Members that, unless the commission’s final report significantly changes our current assessment of the situation in the TCI, we will act to deal with the problems and restore the principles of good governance to the islands. That intervention is, of course, for an interim period only. In the current climate of financial uncertainty and vulnerability, it is vital that the Turks and Caicos Islands establish, adhere to and promote principles of good governance to restore their international reputation.
Let us also be clear that the Turks and Caicos Islands Government, not the UK Government, are responsible for the present crisis, but, ultimately—I am sure that we all share this view—the Turks and Caicos islanders will want to see the right solutions found to the challenges that they face. In all our actions, it is the interests of those islanders that is uppermost in our minds, and that will continue to be the case.
I am pleased that the FCO has given such a public thank you to our Committee for the work that we did in bringing these matters to a head. Given that the final report was delayed in November until April, and now until the end of May, does the Minister accept that it is important that delays do not continue indefinitely? Clearly, there could be great difficulties on the Turks and Caicos Islands if there is a long interregnum before the final decision on the Order in Council coming into effect?
My hon. Friend is right. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will understand that the extensions were given purely to ensure that the work is done and not for any other reason; but of course, we need to draw the matter to whatever is the appropriate close.
The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) raised several general points which I want to address about the reaction of the FCO to problems on Turks and Caicos Islands, the Pitcairn Islands and so on. I can give reassurance on several points. We have instructed Governors to review the Turks and Caicos Islands commission interim report and to ensure a thorough assessment of any systematic controls that need improvement in their territory. From my discussions with representatives of the territories, I am in no doubt about how exercised they themselves are about the report on Turks and Caicos Islands, because they wish to keep their reputation. I hope that we can use the report to great benefit across the overseas territories.
We have also revised the requirements on those being appointed to governorship to ensure that they have the right capabilities for the job and that they are clear about their responsibilities for good governance. We have also made it clear—I hope that this will be welcome—that Governors who raise concerns about good governance will have support from the FCO. I speak from my experience of giving that assurance to the British Virgin Islands.
The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) asked about the appointment of Governors. They are appointed by the No. 1 personnel board of the FCO, which is chaired by the permanent under-secretary. I can advise him that no ex-politicians are Governors. Indeed, there is diversity, and they are now recruited from beyond the FCO. As was reported to the Select Committee, all Governor positions are advertised to all members of the diplomatic service and home civil service through the civil service recruitment gateway, and they are also open to employees of non-departmental Government bodies.
On St. Helena, I would say to the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) that the announcement of a pause in negotiations over the airport was a blow to many, and I understand that. Unfortunately, as has been acknowledged, no territory is immune from the effects of the current economic crisis. There must be consideration about whether building an airport in times such as these is the most appropriate choice, particularly as we find ourselves not just in these times but in somewhat rapidly changing circumstances.
Could the Minister say who pulled the plug? Was it the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development or the Treasury? Will she confirm that the Government’s own sums state clearly that within a decade the capital cost of the airport would turn the island’s economy around, so that it no longer required any economic support from the United Kingdom?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, DFID is responsible for the matter; but of course, it crosses several Departments. Like me, he will have seen the DFID consultation document, to which contributions are invited until 31 July. I strongly urge him—I am sure that he has done or is doing this—and anyone else who has an interest in the matter, to participate and make their views known. I openly discussed that with the representatives of the overseas territories when they met me in London.
I reaffirm the Government’s commitment to ensuring access to and from St. Helena, and we will not contemplate a lesser service than that provided by RMS St. Helena.
I wish to turn to the British Indian Ocean Territory and put on the record once again—I am glad to do this—that we deeply regret the forced resettlement of Chagossians and the hardship that resulted from it. The Foreign Secretary said:
“We do not seek to justify those actions and do not seek to excuse the conduct of an earlier generation.”
However, the truth is that we have to look forward. I have said many times in meetings with interested parties that we cannot turn the clock back. As hon. Members have said, an application to the European Court of Human Rights has been communicated to the Government, and we will respond to it.
I continue to keep in touch with the many communities. In addition to the meetings referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), I have also visited the community in Crawley at the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) and the Diego Garcian Society, and the FCO will continue to organise and fund visits to the territory by Chagossians. We have received several further requests in that regard. However, the reality is that following the judgment of the Law Lords, our policy will remain that no one has the right of abode in the territory or the right to enter it unless authorised. Our reasons are well rehearsed. I accept that they are not well received by several hon. Members in the debate, but they include reference to defence and security and to the reality and feasibility of resettlement.
I am afraid that I cannot answer that, but I am happy to keep my hon. Friend informed, as I am able.
On finances, the G20 leaders agreed on the need to tackle tax havens and to stand ready to deploy counter-measures against jurisdictions that do not meet the international standard on the exchange of information. All the territories committed several years ago to meeting the standard, and we welcome the progress made by Bermuda, Gibraltar, the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands in signing, or agreeing to sign in the near future, new tax information exchange agreements with EU and OECD member states that will count towards meeting the international standard.
The list that has been referred to in the debate shows in a factual way the extent to which jurisdictions meet the standard on exchange. Indeed, the Prime Minister wrote to territories following the London summit, welcomed the fact of their commitment and encouraged them to meet the standard. To advise hon. Members who made the inquiry, no replies have yet been received to the Prime Minister’s letters, but I am conscious of the importance of meeting the standard to avoid sanctions being taken by the G20. The Government are looking at how we can support the overseas territories—for example, we are funding three-year public sector reform projects across the territories through the National School of Government. Work is in progress.
I am afraid that I will not, as I am just drawing my comments to a close.
The Government are committed to working closely with the overseas territories to ensure security and good governance. I thank right hon. and hon. Members who are here today, and in particular you, Mr. Bercow. I thank members of the Foreign Affairs Committee for their continued interest in and support of the territories, and I look forward to continuing our work in this regard.
Question put and agreed to.