Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mark Simmonds.)
It is very good to be here under your chairmanship, Dr McCrea, as I recall that you were the first representative of Northern Ireland in my time as Chairman of Ways and Means to join the Panel of Chairs. You have clearly relished that appointment, and I know how much time you devote to it.
The debate is timely, in that it is taking place shortly after the UK and overseas territories joint ministerial council. The debate provides an opportunity for parliamentarians to offer their perspective on the relationship between the United Kingdom and the overseas territories and, indeed, the relationship of the overseas territories to the Commonwealth as a whole. I do not think that it needs stressing that there is great good will in this Parliament and, I guess, in the country as a whole towards our overseas territories. I dare say that if people in general were asked, “Which are the overseas territories?” not everyone would be able to name them for sure, but there is a feeling that by their very nature they have a close relationship with this country, so they must be a good thing. I hope that the debate will further underline that friendship and the support that exists at Westminster for the territories. I recognise that that may not be without criticism from time to time, but friendship is devalued if there cannot occasionally be plain speaking.
My hon. Friend the Minister and probably other colleagues will be pleased to know that I will not attempt a tour d’horizon. To do so would represent the most enormous cheek on my part, because, of the 14 overseas territories, I have only as yet visited one, and that was 40 years ago. Admittedly, it was one of the most inaccessible—St Helena. I was there with a Labour colleague, Ray Carter, the then Member for Birmingham, Northfield, and our recommendation on returning was that the island needed an airport. That has not happened quickly, but it is very satisfying that there is now a commitment to seeing an airport constructed. I hope that I shall be blessed with a long enough parliamentary life to be able to make a return visit to that splendid island.
However, I am hoping, in the course of 2013, to up my score with direct knowledge of the overseas territories, in that I am expecting to attend the British Islands and Mediterranean region conference of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which will be held in the Falkland Islands; the executive committee of the CPA is due to meet in 2013 in the Cayman Islands; and I also hope to schedule at some point in that year a visit to Gibraltar.
I currently wear two hats that provide me with some credentials to initiate the debate, being the chairman of the UK branch of the CPA and the chairperson of the international executive committee of the CPA. My starting point—my theme—is the wording in the June 2012 Foreign and Commonwealth Office report on the overseas territories, which declares:
“We would welcome greater engagement between the UK Parliament and the elected bodies of the Territories.”
From the CPA’s point of view, that seems exactly right. We can be an instrument to ensure that that engagement takes place. I would widen it to suggest that there could be greater engagement between the Commonwealth as a whole and the territories. The report to which I have referred suggested that our Government should seek a form of observer status for overseas territories within the Commonwealth. At the moment, they are only members through the UK’s membership. There may be some difficulties about that, but the fact is that they are very much part of the Commonwealth family and I believe that they should be given some form of status that underlines the value that we see in their membership.
It is a widely shared belief and one that is certainly at the core of CPA activities that good governance is the key to advancing the well-being of any jurisdiction, large or small. We believe in the CPA that we can play a key role. The CPA exists not just to promote better relationships, but specifically to enhance knowledge and understanding of democratic governance. Eight out of the 14 overseas territories are branches of the CPA in their own right. The UK branch undertakes, on behalf of this Parliament, parliamentary diplomacy and parliamentary strengthening activities. It involves Members of Parliament and our officials, because our expert Clerks are able to give guidance to those in the overseas territories who are seeking to set up their own arrangements. There is a constant need for that engagement, because a consequence of democratic elections is that there is sometimes quite a large turnover of elected members, so someone will come into a Parliament or legislative assembly and suddenly say, “That’s great, but now what do I do? How can I be an effective member of this body?” Sometimes there is a need to be able to reach out and talk to someone else. Those people need not be exclusively from the UK by any means, but the ability to have that guidance can be very useful.
As I said, eight of the 14 overseas territories are branches of the CPA. Anguilla, the Cayman Islands, Bermuda, the Turks and Caicos Islands, Montserrat and the British Virgin Islands come under the Caribbean, Americas and Atlantic region. The Falklands, Gibraltar and St Helena come under the British Islands and Mediterranean region. I think that we ought to promote as standard the idea that there should be available to the territories, first, the possibility of election observation missions and, secondly, post-election seminars. The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty), who has been closely involved in that type of work, will probably wish to expand on that if he seeks to catch your eye, Dr McCrea. Both those types of activity ought to be seen as core activities. We should not be entirely satisfied if that is not a service that is universally available to the overseas territories. It was therefore rather disappointing—I do not know whether the Minister will be able to comment on this—that the Bermudian Government in the end decided that they did not wish to take up that possibility. It ought to be seen as a non-threatening exercise that is of positive value in the territories involved.
My right hon. Friend refers to the situation in Bermuda. Is the issue the fact that it did not take election observers from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association or the United Kingdom, or that there was no independent election monitoring during the elections or will not be in the elections coming up?
We are certainly not trying to impose; it is a matter of finding the right composition for any mission of that kind, whether during or after an election. The composition should be constructed according to what seems most appropriate. In fact, some Crown dependencies—the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey—have shown a willingness to offer, from the perspective of themselves as small jurisdictions, the kind of assistance that might be valuable to our overseas territories. I want to emphasise that it is not about the United Kingdom knowing best; there is wider experience that can be drawn upon, as demonstrated by the mission to the Turks and Caicos Islands.
The CPA could also play a bigger part internationally. At present, the nature of the CPA, and one of its complications, is that it is not an association simply of states; provinces and states within a federal Government arrangement can all be individual branch members, as can overseas territories, small countries and so on. We have nearly 180 branches in membership.
The small branches conference, which takes place every year, organised by the CPA, is a great experience for our overseas territories. Not only do they meet with an agenda expressly about the needs of smaller jurisdictions—they have some issues in common, but also issues peculiar to them—but there are topics relevant to branches with populations smaller than 500,000. Providing an arena in which they can realise that they are not alone and that others around the Commonwealth and across the oceans have similar issues is one of the valuable services that the CPA provides. We should intensify the efforts to help many such small jurisdictions.
Apart from what might be described as steady, perhaps unspectacular, continuing work, how else might we turn the warm words, which we frequently use when we speak of the overseas territories, into solid action? There are calls for closer integration between the overseas territories and this country. Some other countries are very closely integrated with their overseas territories, which have direct representation in their legislatures and so on. That may be a more difficult question for the UK, but to illustrate to the overseas territories how seriously we take them, something more than an all-party group—presided over with great vigour by my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell)—might be appropriate.
Returning to the island of St Helena, let me say that there are parts of the world with which we have an historical association that deserve solid support. I mentioned that I came back from the island absolutely convinced of the need for better communication to give that small territory a fair chance for its population, because the opportunities for work and wealth creation are limited by the enormous difficulties in getting in and out of the island. It has taken a long time, but I am delighted that there is a real prospect of air communication with the island.
Another thing I came away with—and from the anecdotes I hear from colleagues, I suspect that it is true—is the belief that there are tremendously warm feelings and a tremendous sense of loyalty towards this country in our overseas territories, which we have not perhaps rewarded as generously as we should. My visit to St Helena was a long time ago, but I doubt whether much has changed in that particular. It was very difficult to find a household on the island, however lowly or grand, in which there was not a portrait of Her Majesty the Queen or her father on the wall. I do not think that one could say that of our country. We take our loyalty to the Crown for granted, but they were very proud to display it. We ought to remember that enormous good will in our dealings with our overseas territories, to see whether we can give them an enhanced sense that we are thinking about them and are ready to do the right things to support them.
There is one specific that it would be wrong of me to overlook: air passenger duty. It impacts particularly hard on some of the island territories. I was one of a group of colleagues who sought to persuade the Government to review the present banding arrangement, which was perverse in its effect, particularly on territories in the Caribbean. In the end, the review disappointingly led to no change. There are special links between the territories and ourselves. APD should be looked at again.
I cannot for the life of me believe there is no way to help specifically. If we identify certain territories as considerably dependent upon us, cannot they be ring-fenced as a group, so that there could be some concession on the amount of APD that applies? I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister might start to exercise a little discourse between his office and the Treasury to see whether, in pursuit of demonstrating stronger support for the overseas territories, a concession on APD might be found.
If we are honest, the relationship between this country and the overseas territories, despite the warm words I have used on this occasion, is not without its hiccups, but we need to be aware that underlying loyalty and support generally emanates from them towards this country. As I have tried to emphasise, we owe them more and we should look for every way to intensify the closer engagement that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office professes to want to encourage. We should do everything we can to intensify that to our mutual advantage.
I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak in the debate. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Dr McCrea. I was trying to recall the last time that I had the pleasure, and I think it was when you were artfully chairing the Committee on the Budget Responsibility and National Audit Bill. You did so with some aplomb and I am sure you will bring the same chairing ability to today’s debate.
I suspect that one or two observers will be slightly confused, as they may have been expecting a debate on unmanned aerial vehicles. For the benefit of any observers who are confused, that will be this afternoon at 2.30 pm. The Minister has a diary commitment this afternoon to give evidence to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs on, I think, overseas territories. I am grateful that he has been able to move things around to attend the debate today.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst). I have the pleasure and privilege of serving under his chairmanship on the Administration Committee and as a member of the executive committee of the UK branch of the CPA. He eloquently set out the role of the CPA and the high regard in which overseas territories are held by the Foreign Office and Parliament.
I also pay tribute to the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham). His work was appreciated on both sides of the House and, indeed, in the overseas territories. He served with distinction for two and a half years as the Minister with responsibility for the overseas territories. One of the great debates about Ministers is whether they are the Minister for the overseas territories or the Minister to them. I am sure that in his new role the Minister will navigate skilfully through those rocky waters, making both us and the overseas territories believe that he is “our” Minister. I look forward to hearing his priorities when he responds.
Parliamentarian that you are, Dr McCrea, you will be aware that the CPA is a unique institution. It is more than 100 years old, having been founded in 1911 as the Empire Parliamentary Association, with six founder members. They were the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada and—curiously—Newfoundland. I was not aware that until after the second world war, Newfoundland was a separate dominion from the rest of Canada; I will not digress on the long history of how that came to be.
As the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden mentioned, the CPA is now a much larger organisation, comprising the Parliaments and Assemblies of not only members of the Commonwealth, but devolved institutions at state and regional level around the world from Canada to the Seychelles, from Pakistan to Scotland and, indeed, Dr McCrea, the Northern Ireland Assembly, which is a full and active member of the CPA. You will also be familiar with the story that at last year’s CPA conference, I confused Mr Basil McCrea with your son; they are both Members of the Legislative Assembly.
As the right hon. Gentleman said, one of the CPA’s strengths is that it provides a unique platform for the overseas territories. It is the only Commonwealth institution that recognises them in a formal capacity. From having spoken to several of those from the overseas territories last week, when they were here for the joint ministerial council, one thing they are keen for—perhaps the Minister will reflect on this—is a more formal status within the Commonwealth, perhaps as associate or observer members. At the moment, their only voice is Members of the House and of the other place, plus the CPA. I know that the premiers and chief ministers would like a more formal opportunity, an issue which may be appropriate for this debate.
The CPA, and of course the Commonwealth as a whole, is linked by a common and shared identity. It is not simply the fact that we have a common Head of State—we all have Her Majesty the Queen as head of the Commonwealth—but a shared history. When the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) and I were in Turks and Caicos on an election mission, we jointly had the great honour and privilege of laying a wreath on behalf of the CPA on Remembrance Sunday. It is worth reflecting on the fact that when the United Kingdom sent out the call to arms in two world wars, the overseas territories played a full role in answering that call, just as your constituents, Dr McCrea, and mine did, as well as other dominions and territories in the Commonwealth. It is perhaps unfortunate that the overseas territories do not always get the recognition that they deserve for the full role they enjoy playing in the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth.
I have had the privilege of undertaking two observer missions—one to the British Virgin Islands in November last year, and one to the Turks and Caicos, with the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East, last month. Observer missions are vital to any vibrant democracy for the purposes of transparency, for providing comfort to all those participating, and, indeed, those watching around the world, and sharing best practice. As hon. Members will know, the itinerary of an observer mission includes, in the build-up to an election, meeting all the political parties privately to give them the opportunity to talk about their experiences of the election. We obviously seek reassurances that they are comfortable that the election is free and fair. As someone who has stood for elected office, I think it useful to have such meetings before the election. From my experience, if there is a favourable result, we have a slightly more favourable view of the whole process than if there is an unfavourable one. It is therefore vital that those discussions take place before election day, rather than afterwards.
We also take the opportunity to meet the governors—I will return to their role later—and election officials to understand election ordinances and rules, and to see their processes. Like the proverbial swan, although elections always appear to move serenely over the surface of the water, underneath a vast amount of paddling, often to some purpose, is going on in the build-up. We undertake press and media monitoring. On our most recent mission, the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East and I observed a political party rally in the Turks and Caicos Islands. That was an experience in itself; as he will recall, it was difficult to get the PNP—the Progressive National party—tune out of one’s head, because it was played over and over again.
I pay tribute to the Westminster Foundation for Democracy for its work in various countries, for example in the build-up to the restoration of local democracy in Turks and Caicos. It visited several times to help build election ordinances and confidence in the process, and to put an electoral system in place. One very simple thing was done there—or at least I would say that it was simple. Previously, political parties could treat voters by supplying them with free alcohol and food both at rallies during the build-up and on polling day. Westminster Foundation for Democracy helpfully made the proposal, which was certainly taken up with enthusiasm by party treasurers, to prohibit giving alcohol to potential voters on polling day. In the United Kingdom, we look with some bemusement at the idea that we could, in effect, treat voters, but it was standard practice for 30 or 40 years in the Turks and Caicos Islands. That is a simple example of how engagement by other Commonwealth parliamentarians can help improve the democratic electoral process.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his work in relation to the Turks and Caicos Islands and more broadly. Does he agree that we have as much to learn from some of the territories about governance as they have to learn from us? I remember coming back from an election at which people queued up for hours, because they were so passionate about voting, and the turnout was 95%, to a United Kingdom election at which people told me on the doorstep that they could not be bothered to vote and turnout was 15% to 20%.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, who was a pleasure to work with on the mission. He is right that turnout was 80% or above. People queued for an hour before polls opened, and for three or four hours after they had officially closed, to take part in the democratic process, which is a tribute to them and their commitment to democracy. As the hon. Gentleman will recall, I recounted to an election official that in my constituency if somebody was asked to wait for two minutes, they would probably turn tail and go home. I cannot imagine such enthusiasm in the United Kingdom, so he is absolutely right.
I want to pay particular tribute to Ms Juliette Penn, who is the returning officer for the British Virgin Islands. She is a formidable woman, who organises her elections with some efficiency. I regret to say that my local returning officer could learn quite a lot from her about producing a result efficiently and with confidence. I press the Minister to consider what more we can do to partner and work with electoral registration officers in the overseas territories and those in other Parliaments and Assemblies, whether the Crown dependencies, the devolved Administrations or local government. The hon. Gentleman is entirely right; it would be incredibly patronising and foolhardy to think that this was a one-way process of the UK teaching the overseas territories how to do things. Quite often, it is the reverse.
That leads me nicely to the on-the-day observing that we do. It is our goal to visit all polling stations on polling day, which in some places can be a logistical challenge. In some territories, there are a very small number of electors on very small islands. One of our observers spent a day—I imagine not an unpleasant day—on an island that had 30 voters. He had to take a good book with him to get through the 12 hours while the polls were open. However, there is a serious point. We are clear about what we are looking for; we want to ensure that no treating of voters takes place and that no undue influence is placed on voters in the vicinity of the polling stations. As the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East will recall, we heard some fascinating tales from around the world. For example, in recent years, voters were taking their mobile phones, which now have cameras, into the polling booth when they cast their vote. They photographed their ballot paper, which they duly took to the polling clerk and put in the box. They then went outside to a gentleman sitting in a car about 100 feet away from the polling station, showed the picture of their ballot paper and received $100 or £100 in the local currency. Things that we would find absolutely astonishing have been common practice in some parts of the Commonwealth.
When we reviewed the last election in the Turks and Caicos Islands, it was clear that such things were not happening, because robust processes had been put place. I pay tribute to the Governor’s office, the local police and election officials for the work they have done with the parties to stamp out such behaviour. However, it is not an uncommon problem in some parts of the world, which is why our missions are so important.
We also attend the counts and, in some cases, the recounts. This is an area where there is still room for improvement. It was heartening to talk to the new Premier of the Turks and Caicos Islands, Dr Rufus Ewing, about the matter; I know the Minister will want to welcome him to his new role. On the island I mentioned, where there were only 30 voters, electoral officers took two hours to count the ballot papers—even my returning officer would not take two hours to count 30 voters’ choices. There is perhaps some room for a more efficient system to be introduced. The count is a vital part of the whole process. It is critical that the voters feel, and can see, that their democratic choices are reflected in the results. Although I may joke that the process is slow, there was no real dispute that it was fair. There was no indication that anything untoward had happened to the ballot papers between the close of the poll and counting.
Clearly, there are differences in approach. For example, rather than bringing all the ballot boxes to one polling station or to one count, the territories often count the votes in situ. They close their polling station at, say, 6 o’clock and go straight to a count, and I can see the advantage in that. In a new democracy, or one that is establishing its confidence, there is a strong argument that there should be as little movement as possible of ballot papers. To be fair, it makes for a long day for election officials and campaign workers. Dr McCrea, you and I have fought enough elections to know that our day does not begin when the polls open and end when the polls shut; there is a little bit before and a little bit after.
The CPA missions produce a report. If anyone is interested, they are publicly available from the Foreign Office. Both our report on the BVI and our preliminary report on the Turks and Caicos, which I think the Minister has had an opportunity to look at, said that the process was fair and transparent and that the people’s will had been adequately reflected in the results. While we recognise that some efficiencies can be introduced, it is fundamentally a robust system.
That leads me to the ways we can help some of the overseas territories strengthen their democratic processes. As the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden has mentioned, there are a number of overseas territories in the Caribbean. I will not list them all because I am bound to forget one, which would be a terrible offence. It strikes me that we can do more, through the governors, to encourage election officials to share good practice, and I would be interested to hear the Minister’s views. It is surely not beyond the wit of the Foreign Office to bring together the EROs for all the overseas territories to share common practice. Perhaps the Minister can outline what steps he is considering to encourage the returning officers from the BVI, the TCI and the Anguillas to observe the build-up to the Cayman elections that are taking place next year and to offer suggestions. In that way, they can build an informal network so that as each election comes round, the returning officers learn from each other.
The Minister will be aware of the role of the Crown dependencies within the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. On our mission last year to the British Virgin Islands, we were delighted to be joined by representatives from the Isle of Man and Guernsey. It struck me that on a practical level, they have more in common with the overseas territories. Like many of our Crown dependencies, their strength lies in shipping registries, tourism and financial services. They also have relatively small numbers of legislators in their Assemblies and Parliaments.
Earlier, the hon. Gentleman made the point that he would encourage the Minister for, or of, overseas territories—hopefully both—to look at EROs regionally becoming more involved in the process. Does he agree that one of the strengths of our mission was that it was chaired not by a politician from the United Kingdom Parliament, but by Joe Bossano, a Minister from the Gibraltarian Parliament? It would be constructive to have a cadre of politicians who were regionally involved in peer-to-peer assessment of the elections, rather than simply relying on people to travel over from Gibraltar or the United Kingdom, which is not the most economic thing to do. Furthermore, we do not have the same degree of expertise and the same understanding of those territories.
The hon. Gentleman makes an incredibly powerful and valid point. He is absolutely right, and I pay tribute to Joe Bossano for the way he led the observer mission; he spoke very eloquently, and with some credibility, about the role of overseas territories, which, of course, include Gibraltar. We need to encourage not just EROs but the overseas territories’ politicians to work together where appropriate. Clearly, it is slightly more challenging logistically for Members from the Falkland Islands to go to BVI, which, by my count, involves five stops or changes, plus a train journey from Brize Norton to Heathrow. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we should be encouraging the territories of, say, the Caribbean and Bermuda to work together as parliamentarians, especially as many of the territories have slightly different electoral systems. Some have not just districts but at-large, all-island systems which we do not have in the UK Parliament, although our colleagues in Scotland and Wales do to an extent. The different electoral systems are one of the things that we UK politicians must get our heads around. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that encouraging that involvement will be a slightly more economical use of the FCO’s pound.
I am very keen that within the British Isles and Mediterranean region branch of the CPA we have a group of parliamentarians who develop their skills, know what they are looking for and know how to write their reports. We are seeing the Minister next week and he is aware that one of the issues I am keen to talk to him about is how we develop skill-sets within this Parliament, so that we have a group of colleagues who are able to go to elections, whether in overseas territories, in Africa—if we are invited—or in Australia.
It is worth bearing in mind that having election missions is now the norm rather than the exception. Just last month, the United States had a delegation from overseas, including at least one Member of the House of Commons, my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mark Hendrick). I know that the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East has taken a great interest in Africa, and many African countries have such delegations. Territories and nations that do not have election observers from elsewhere run the risk of opening themselves up to questions such as, “What is it they have to hide?” Perhaps the Minister can enlighten me, but I think that there are very few countries in the world that do not have election observers; North Korea springs to mind. Perhaps he can think of a slightly more exhaustive list, but I think it would be a very small list of countries. Any electorate that has elections coming up should ask why they do not have election observers coming into their country or territory.
I want to touch briefly on the role of governors. I pay tribute to the two governors I had the privilege of working with during elections: His Excellency Governor Boyd McCleary of the British Virgin Islands; and His Excellency Governor Rick Todd in the Turks and Caicos. Can I press the Minister to say a little bit about the role of governors in helping to build the democratic processes? I particularly want to press him to say something about Governor Todd. He will be aware, as I am, that there has been a petition, which no one seems to be taking ownership of, criticising the Governor. I would be grateful if the Minister would place on record whether the Governor still has the full confidence of Her Majesty’s Government. Hopefully, he can put an end to the speculation that has started up in some quarters in parts of the Turks and Caicos.
In the remaining time, I will move away from talking about the Caribbean specifically. I hope that the Foreign Office will look at the CPA as a useful ally and partner in building the governance arrangements of the overseas territories. As I said, the CPA is a unique organisation. There is no other organisation in the world with a common identity and common history that brings together such an eclectic mix of assemblies and Parliaments, from sovereign nations through to Crown dependencies, devolved Parliaments and assemblies, and overseas territories. I would be grateful if the Minister could set out what he thinks the CPA can bring as a partner to strengthening the democratic processes.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) will be setting out the Opposition’s position on the territories shortly. In closing, I will just say that on the issue of air passenger duty there is genuine concern among our overseas territories that they are being discriminated against. I am sure you would agree, Dr McCrea, that it is a slightly bizarre situation that because we measure by distance to a capital, if someone flies to Honolulu they will pay far less in APD than if they fly to an overseas territory in the Caribbean or to Kingston or to any other Commonwealth country.
When the Minister met the premiers and chief ministers of the UK’s overseas territories last week the issue of APD was raised, so I would be grateful if he could set out how he found his first joint ministerial council—indeed, the first JMC. Perhaps he could say a little about what his priorities are for the coming 12 months and how he will evaluate success. I hope that he will also set out how we go forward with the White Paper, which was relatively uncontroversial, as far as a Government White Paper can be uncontroversial—I say that in the nicest possible way. I would be very interested to hear how he intends to take forward the ideas in the White Paper and the submissions from the CPA and others.
Finally, I wish the Minister all the best in his role. I know that he will find it deeply stimulating and challenging, and we look forward to working with him in the months ahead.
Thank you, Dr McCrea, for calling me to speak. It is a real pleasure to appear under your chairmanship; I think I am doing so for the first time.
I welcome the new Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds). I think that this is the first time we have had the opportunity to debate with each other; I suspect that the topic of today’s debate will not be the most controversial topic that we will address.
It has been a real pleasure to attend this debate, and I pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) for securing it. He has kept me in order on many occasions in the past and it is a pleasure to hear him on the other side of the fence, talking about this important issue. We have had a very interesting debate.
I am a great fan of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which is a tremendous institution in Parliament. My own constituency of Wrexham has benefited massively from the CPA, because we have developed a very strong link with Lesotho in southern Africa as a direct result of a visit that I paid there in 2005. It led to very close links between schools in my constituency and in Lesotho, which is a developing country. As a direct result of the CPA visit that I made, Wrexham hosted the Lesotho Olympic team. That sort of link, which is between not only parliamentarians but constituencies and institutions within constituencies, is what we should be working to try to achieve with the overseas territories.
One of the real challenges of modern parliamentary life is that the focus of MPs is very much on their own constituencies or their own constituency work; sometimes that work does not extend beyond the borders of the constituency, let alone of the United Kingdom. We all know that the overseas territories are an intrinsic and central part of our history. That has been very evident in this debate—they are part of what makes the United Kingdom, and it is absolutely imperative that we recognise that and continue to have a strong and developing relationship with them.
We have heard today about how those links are carried forward through the CPA and, of course, through other avenues. However, it is also the case that, because of the disparate nature of the overseas territories and their geographical spread, it is very difficult for the overseas territories and those developing knowledge of democratic institutions to secure regular experience of elections of the type that we have. We have secured our experience in a country of 60 million people.
It is very important indeed that we work with the overseas territories to share our experience of elections. I think it was the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden who made the point that we can also learn from the overseas territories, and my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) made the same point. In an era of turnouts of 12% or 15% in some UK elections, we must not think that we are in a state of grace as far as dealing with elections is concerned. The enthusiasm of a novel election process, as we saw all those years ago in South Africa and as we see today in other places, tells us and the people of the UK that democracy is an important process, which needs to develop. We also need to bring that experience from other places to the UK.
What we as parliamentarians can offer is the benefit of our experience, and I strongly agree with my hon. Friend’s point about electoral registration officers. In an era when communication is becoming easier because of the development of the internet, it is possible to maintain relations that might not have been possible 40 years ago. When the right hon. Gentleman visited St Helena, the prospect of maintaining contact with individuals there was so remote as to have been virtually impossible, but that is now possible once a connection is made. I would like relations to be extended to not only parliamentarians but the communities they represent in the UK, so that we can pool our resources and secure the relationships that are so necessary to building good governance and democracy in the overseas territories.
It is important that parliamentarians should be involved. Increasingly, under the European Union, electoral observation tends to focus on European institutions rather than Parliament. One theme I want to pursue with the Minister is that I would like more parliamentarians to take part in electoral observation missions to Commonwealth countries and the overseas territories. Elected politicians bring a substantial benefit to the observation process, and it is essential in a multi-party democracy that they play a role, although not an exclusive one, in electoral observation missions. It is unfortunate that that role has diminished in recent years, and while civil servants from a particular institution often go on missions, politicians are sometimes excluded.
Does my hon. Friend agree that one key advantage politicians have is not only that we can talk candidly, face to face, with fellow politicians, but that we have extensive experience as campaign workers before we are elected and during the process of being elected? We can therefore see what the wider political party is looking for from a process.
That is absolutely right. Elections in a democracy are about competition between parties. Campaigning is incredibly important, and politicians are much more familiar with that skill than even the most experienced electoral registration officer. It is therefore important that communication takes place, although the far-flung nature of the overseas territories makes it difficult for them to have the interactions that we have developed over the years. We should build strongly on our experience in that respect.
The other relevant issue—to be slightly more controversial —is financial transparency; I was pleased that it played an important part in the Foreign Office White Paper “The Overseas Territories: Security, Success and Sustainability”. The Government were clear about the importance of financial transparency, which is of great importance at present to my constituents and others across the country.
As democracy develops in the overseas territories, we must ensure that the transparency that goes with a well functioning democracy is also evident in their financial and taxation affairs. When we work with the overseas territories, and the British taxpayer makes a contribution to assist them, we cannot have a situation in which businesses and individual UK citizens might use them to avoid paying tax. We need to work with them to ensure that international principles on fair dealing in taxation matters are a central part of their developing democracy.
It is hugely important that the connection that the CPA has developed through visits over a number of years should continue. We should try to encourage more Members of Parliament to take part in such visits. There are many new Members, some of whom have arrived here only in the past month or so, and they need to know the importance of engaging with the overseas territories and with other countries beyond the UK and the important role that parliamentarians play in ensuring that good governance is spread across the world.
I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend for their hard work, for which they are not thanked often enough. There is huge respect abroad for the work of the CPA and the Inter-Parliamentary Union, and our colleagues abroad value the commitment of this Parliament—the mother of Parliaments—to developing institutions in countries that are building a level of democracy that we want to encourage.
I am pleased to support the thrust of the White Paper, which was published earlier this year. Clearly, it builds on the 1999 White Paper published by the then Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, under the previous Government. The Opposition have noted the commitments made to the overseas territories, and we strongly support applying the principle of self-determination to them. We want to ensure that they have a close link with this country, but we also want, in an age of devolution, to ensure that they have sufficient autonomy to deal with their individual circumstances and to build a democratic system appropriate to them.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. Does he agree that the serious discussion we are having gives the lie to the general mockery that occurs in the press whenever Members of Parliament try to improve relations with, and democracy in, other parts of the world—particularly those closely associated with us?
That is certainly the case. That work is often unseen; it is demanding and difficult and involves much discussion and thought. Much assistance is given to overseas territories, which have the difficult task of designing government—something that has taken 1,000 years in this place. It is hugely important to share our experience.
My hon. Friend is setting out a compelling argument. Does he agree that lending our expertise to promote local development is about not just political expertise but civil service expertise? I am thinking, for example, of the work the Department of Energy and Climate Change can do to help the Falkland Islands as they prepare for hydrocarbon exploration, and the work the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs can do to help protect the fisheries and the natural environment in the Caribbean.
The White Paper uses the word “partnership”, which is something that we need to build on. Owing to the size of our country and our experience, we have resources and expertise that the overseas territories cannot draw on; given our historical relationship and our links, it is important to share that expertise and work with them. We need to build a strong relationship that will endure, although it will change as democracy and good governance develop. The Opposition are committed to the continuing relationship with the overseas territories, to building good governance, to developing institutions and representation appropriate to each individual territory, and to working with the Government in taking that important agenda forward.
It is a pleasure to serve under your guidance this morning, Dr McCrea. I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) on securing the debate and generously allowing the time to be changed, and on the informed and articulate way in which he introduced it. I was keen to hear of his prescient and visionary visit to St Helena all those years ago. He will be delighted, as I think the whole House is, that the airport is predicted to open in 2016. I know from his remarks that he is ambitious to visit many of the other territories, but I hope that he will find time to return to St Helena to benefit from the airport, once it is open. I also congratulate the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which does an enormous amount of significant work. In particular, I congratulate Andrew Tuggey on his professional and detailed work to ensure that the CPA is such a success in building relationships and sharing knowledge between Parliaments. Long may that continue.
I thank the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty) and my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), who, sadly, is no longer in his place, for the work that they have done recently, particularly in the Turks and Caicos Islands. I look forward to discussing with them the report, which I have seen, and how to pursue the lessons that they think can be learned. I also thank the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) for his positive and thoughtful contribution.
I want to respond to specific points made in the debate, but also to take the opportunity, if Members will bear with me, to respond to comments by the hon. Members for Dunfermline and West Fife and for Wrexham about the projection made at the joint ministerial council last week. The JMC builds on the White Paper published in June, which sets out a strong and positive vision for the territories to build on their excellent facilities and ensure that, where appropriate, they can proudly retain their links with the UK for present and future generations. The White Paper sets out clearly the benefits and responsibilities of the relationship for the territories and the United Kingdom. As the hon. Member for Wrexham pointed out, it builds on work done by the previous Government as well, but we thought it important to set out in a White Paper the UK Government’s fundamental responsibilities and objectives to ensure the security and good governance of the territories and their peoples.
I want to say a little about the priorities for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in driving UK Government apparatus to support the development of the overseas territories. We should focus on three areas: building stronger links with the UK; getting the territories the support they need; and working together on good governance, financial management and economic planning, where necessary. My priority in the first strand of the work is to encourage more trade and investment to benefit both the territories and the UK. I have already had the opportunity in my time as the relevant Minister to visit the British Virgin Islands, Anguilla and the Turks and Caicos Islands. That allowed me to see for myself what opportunities exist. Those are not just in the sectors where some of the territories are already strong; there may be opportunities to assist them in diversifying their economic base, whether by expanding financial services, assisting with UK investment in tourism, or using UK companies to help build and develop infrastructure. To that end, Lord Green, the Minister for Trade and Investment, and I discussed those issues with territory leaders and a selection of business representatives last Monday in the Foreign Office, and that meeting has the potential to be significantly productive.
The point that I want to emphasise is that building stronger links with the territories is not just down to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but is a cross-Whitehall effort. Every Department has written a paper setting out how it can help. Eight of my ministerial colleagues met the territory leaders last week. The Department for International Development is doing particularly valuable and significant work, particularly in St Helena, Montserrat and Pitcairn, and through its temporary assistance in the Turks and Caicos Islands.
Another important area of work is the strengthening of political links with territory leaders. That was the thrust of the JMC last week. We have upgraded the meeting to make it our annual summit, which enabled us to discuss a substantive and significant agenda and to agree for the first time a detailed communiqué setting out an ambitious programme of joint working for the year ahead. If colleagues have not seen that joint communiqué I would urge them to look at it, because it responds to the sensible and correct point made by the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife about the action points and work streams that will flow from the JMC towards the next one, across a range of areas. I see the focus of the UK Government in the year ahead as assisting the territories with their priorities, rather than what we think their priorities should be. I took territory leaders to No. 10 Downing street to meet the Prime Minister—I understand that it was the first time that a British Prime Minister has met all the overseas territory leaders collectively—and the event was very well received and a positive time in all our diaries.
The second goal in my list of priorities is to make sure that the territories have the support they need. That was a common theme in the speeches this morning. We already provide significant development support, of which perhaps the most obvious example is the £350 million that we have provided for Montserrat since the volcanic crisis of 1995 to 1997, which destroyed the capital and economy; also, £247 million has gone to St Helena to build the airport, and for other aspects of its development.
In the context of supporting the territories to develop, a key element is making links with the Commonwealth. My right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden will be pleased to hear that that is a significant thrust of our efforts, set out in the White Paper. As part of that approach, the secretary-general of the Commonwealth came to the JMC and made a presentation. He received questions and responded to points that were made, and said that he greatly valued the part played in the life of the Commonwealth by the overseas territories. I can reassure him that we are working with the secretariat to explore what more can be done. The territories already participate in some areas—not just the CPA, important though that is. Some of them have participated in events aimed at supporting small island states, which have been particularly valuable as the territories have many challenges in common with other small island states elsewhere in the world, including some governance challenges. We continue to encourage the secretariat to invite the overseas territories to participate in Commonwealth meetings.
It might help if I explained why we are in the situation we are in. We very much agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden and the Foreign Affairs Committee that there should be a more formal tie between the overseas territories and the Commonwealth family, in the form of observer or some other status but, as Members will know, membership of the Commonwealth has to be agreed by a consensus of all Commonwealth Heads of Government, and the membership category is that of “sovereign state as full member”. In 2007, the Heads of Government endorsed the recommendation of the Commonwealth committee on membership not to establish any other status.
Officials have discussed different categories of membership with Commonwealth members, and it will come as no surprise that at the joint ministerial council last week territory leaders raised the matter with me, with other colleagues who were there and with the secretary-general. I have spoken to the Minister of State at the Foreign Office who has responsibility for the Commonwealth to see if we can work together to find a solution. Indeed, the Foreign Secretary told the Foreign Affairs Committee back in 2011:
“We are exploring the possibility of creating observer or associate member status of the Commonwealth, from which many overseas territories would benefit. We are still continuing to explore that possibility.”
The constitutional relationships with overseas territories and with Crown dependences are very different, but the ongoing discussions should certainly involve both.
I want to move on to important issues that some Members have raised: good governance, financial management and economic planning. We take very seriously the responsibilities for the security and good governance of the territories, and we believe that what is good enough for the UK should be good enough for the overseas territories as well. One key aspect of the White Paper was the commitment to strengthen training and exchanges between the public services in the territories and the UK. Our jubilee programme, which is worth £500,000, will fund some of the exchanges, with UK civil servants going to overseas territories to assist in building capacity and in training public servants through the civil service learning service, and overseas territories public servants being facilitated to come to the UK.
On 16 October, I opened the first meeting, in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, of the heads of public services, one purpose of which was to exchange best practice across a range of important areas for further work including procurement, codes of conduct for Ministers, parliamentarians and public services, and e-government—an area in which we think we can do significantly more together. However, as the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife rightly said, it is not just about overseas territories learning from us; there are things we can learn from them.
Democracy is flourishing in most overseas territories, and I am delighted that the new Turks and Caicos premier, Dr Rufus Ewing, was able to attend the joint ministerial council last week. He was extremely warmly welcomed, and he made a significant contribution to all our debates. It is an excellent and positive development that democracy has returned to the islands after a difficult period. It is important also to recognise that all overseas territory constitutions are different. They have developed over time, most of them have been updated and they are not necessarily set in stone; they need to be debated and discussed over the coming years.
All Members who contributed to the debate mentioned election observers. We rightly encourage observers to monitor elections all over the world, to promote internationally accepted standards, and we encourage other confident and open democracies, including the territories, to welcome observers.
I have to say that we are slightly disappointed that Bermuda has not recognised the need for election observers. The Governor of Bermuda has suggested to the Premier that as a sign of a mature, advanced and open democracy the country might invite an external independent team—perhaps a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association group—to observe its elections, but unfortunately the Government have decided not to do so. I raised the issue with the Bermudan Attorney-General and Minister of Justice last week, and she assured me that she would reflect our views to the Premier. Interestingly, the example I gave her was the comparison with North Korea, which the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife mentioned earlier. It is a positive sign, rather than a negative one, to accept external election observers.
The hon. Member for Wrexham is absolutely right about the need for more elected politicians to be involved as election observers. Although civil servants play a significant and important role, politicians can often bring a slightly different perspective—perhaps over a longer period, including during the campaigning before the election and what may or may not happen immediately afterwards, depending on whether it has been successful. I support the hon. Gentleman’s train of thought in that area.
The hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife talked about the electoral registration officers—EROs—in the overseas territories, and particularly in the Turks and Caicos Islands. We have included a partnership in TCI, and elsewhere, with an experienced UK election official. In TCI, the official supported the practical planning for the preparation of the new electoral roll, the training of election officials, and an arrangement for the counting and announcement of results.
As I mentioned, we have set up the jubilee programme to support training and exchanges between public servants in the territories and the UK, and a priority is to foster and support networks of professionals across the territories. I think that we will commend to the overseas territories the idea of a network of EROs, so that lessons can be learned and best practice put in place for future elections.
The hon. Member for Wrexham was absolutely right to speak about transparency in all financial matters. He will notice that in the White Paper there are two or three strands to that. The first is to ensure that overseas territories have in place proper legislation for appropriate and prudent fiscal and financial management. The Turks and Caicos Islands and the British Virgin Islands have that, as now do the Cayman Islands. The second strand is to ensure that we have proper, transparent, competitive tendering for procurement, so that there is no longer any opportunity for shenanigans. The UK Government have played a significant role in building capacity and in providing advice and training to enable that to happen.
I turn to the specific point about responsible fiscal and tax arrangements. Given the discussions held last week, previous actions relating to the overseas territories and the detail set out in the communiqué, both the UK and the overseas territories’ Governments accept the requirements to comply with international standards on tax transparency and financial regulation.
Tackling financial crime is important, as was set out at the JMC. Bermuda, the BVI and Cayman have tax information exchange agreements with the UK. The OECD, a global forum, says that the overseas territories meet tax transparency standards. I have met on a couple of occasions the impressive team that regulates the financial services sector in the British Virgin Islands, and there is a real desire in that sector to ensure that it keeps up to speed with international standards, which is what it is doing.
Overseas territories’ tax rates, of course, are their responsibility; individual territories have the right to set the tax rates appropriate for them. On secrecy, which the hon. Member for Wrexham alluded to, I would argue that they are at least as compliant as major financial centres in meeting international standards. We also have to be clear that revenues from the financial services sector make a huge contribution to ensuring that those overseas territories are self-funding, self-supporting and self-reliant.
Finally, the significance and importance of the relationship between the UK and the overseas territories has never been higher up the political agenda.
The Minister is doing an excellent job of setting out in some detail the Government’s position on a range of matters. I appreciate that he has to cover a large number of issues, but before he finishes may I press him to confirm that the Government have full confidence in Governor Todd? The Minister will be aware that there has been media interest in the Turks and Caicos about the work that Governor Todd continues to do.
As the hon. Gentleman may have picked up in his visits to the TCI and, to a lesser extent, to the BVI and elsewhere, there are always tensions between elected representatives and the Governors both in terms of who has responsibility for what and the perception—sometimes incorrect—that the UK Government are not always on the side of the elected representatives in a particular territory.
In a spirit of partnership and friendship, we should be listening to each other, but that does not always necessarily mean that we will agree. I have full confidence in all the Governors currently in place, and I said so forcefully at the JMC last week. Governor Todd in particular has done a significant job in running the interim Government who were put in place after the elected territorial Government were suspended, back in August 2009. On 9 November when the elections took place, he put the TCI in a significantly stronger place, across a whole range of areas, than the one in which they were in 2009.
Finally, I confirm that this significant area of policy will become increasingly important as we develop the workstreams highlighted in the communiqué. I am delighted that colleagues have expressed their positive desire to remain engaged and to make intelligent suggestions as to how we may develop the partnership even further.
I apologise to my right hon. Friend. I was not avoiding air passenger duty; I just did not see the piece of paper I had written it on.
My right hon. Friend will not be surprised to hear that I was lobbied vociferously both by the leaders of overseas territories in the Caribbean last week and by the wider Caribbean community. He will also be aware not only that there was a review of the operation of APD but that there was a meeting fairly recently, between representatives of the Caribbean high commissioners here in London and a Treasury Minister, to discuss APD further and to understand the issues.
I suggested to both the territories’ leaders and to those elsewhere in the Caribbean that there had already been significant discourse between the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Treasury, and that discourse continues. Those Caribbean leaders need to provide us with evidence of the negative impact of APD, particularly on the tourist industry. Mixed messages and mixed evidence are coming through so far.
The Minister may not be aware that the Eastern Caribbean economic union has seen a 20% drop in passengers from the UK since APD was introduced. In comparison, there has been a 1% drop in passengers going to the east coast of the United States, although I might be wrong. There is clearly evidence that the Caribbean is being disproportionately hit by the current APD arrangements.
That is interesting, because it is not uniformly the case. There was a drop back in 2009, but that has not remained consistent, nor is it consistent across the board. There are countries in which tourism has gone back up, which is why it is a complex issue to analyse. We are aware of the issue, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden is right to put it in the way that he did. We are still in listening mode.