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Girlguiding UK: British Overseas Territories

Volume 744: debated on Tuesday 23 January 2024

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the future of Girlguiding UK in the British Overseas Territories.

This is an issue that all of us here have a deep interest in. There are many others who I understood would try to be here, but I understand why they are not—there are always reasons, such as the weather in the past few days. None the less, many others wish to make a contribution. When it came to this debate, many Members took the opportunity to sign the early-day motion when it was down, and it is obvious to me that many people have deep concerns about what is happening.

I give special credit to two ladies in Westminster Hall today: the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) and the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins). They are well aware of the issue and I thank them for coming along; they will make contributions that will greatly add to the debate. I am pleased to see the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), and in particular the Minister in their places. We know that the Minister is always a dear friend to us all, and we have high expectations of his response. There is absolutely no pressure on him whatsoever, but to be fair to him I think he will realise what we are trying to say, why it is so important and why we believe this debate is crucial.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for selecting this debate and allowing me to speak on the topic, along with others. I declare from the outset that I am not a Girl Guide—that is probably fairly obvious. However, as a scout and a member of the Boys’ Brigade many moons ago, I have an affinity with my fellow youth organisations and a desire to speak out for those who, like me, have benefited greatly from being part of such a wonderful organisation and what it does, what it creates and how it can shape young people for the adult life of tomorrow. The fact is that the Girl Guides, Scouts, Girls’ Brigade, Boys’ Brigade, the Campaigners and many other similar organisations really sow seeds into the lives of young people, promoting teamwork, teaching new skills, and giving children the confidence to be with new people and try things that are out of their comfort zone. That is what they do: they mould, create and challenge. They give an opportunity for insight into what adult life can be like.

I was a proud member of the Boys’ Brigade and my boys followed that tradition, which their children now follow as well. I cannot say enough about all that is positive about such organisations. There is a much-loved Girl Guides organisation that has four units in Newtownards, my major town in the Strangford constituency—that is in one town alone—and it is easy to see why. The structure, the care and the wonderful volunteers make it so appealing to children, and it really is not an exaggeration to say that it makes up the fabric of community life, not simply in towns such as Newtownards and Strangford, but in rural and isolated villages throughout the Strangford constituency, because many parents take their children to the Girl Guides in Newtownards and elsewhere. I have attended many events hosted by the Girl Guides; I remember one in particular when I was the mayor of Ards and North Down Borough Council—it was a long time ago, in 1991 or 1992. I knew some of the leaders of the Girl Guides in Newtownards, and they invited me down. We had a wonderful night with the young girls and what they did that night, along with the leaders as well, so that occasion has always been memorable for me.

When it comes to speaking for the Girl Guides, I am happy to do so, because it really is an organisation that can do great things. I have always been impressed by the level of love and thought put into making the guides relevant and interesting for each new generation of children; it has a positive mindset. However, I was so sad to learn that the decision had been taken to close the Girl Guides in British overseas territories, including our army bases. For that reason, I requested this debate, along with the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North and others, so that we have a chance to discuss it and others have a chance to add their voice, along with mine, in asking the Minister to intervene and make contact with Girlguiding UK to offer support and help to enable the overseas aspect to continue. That really is so vital.

It bears reiterating that British overseas territories are precisely that—British. Others, like me, have a real love of their Britishness. I regularly tell people that I am British, because I believe in it. I love it. I like to tell others that we have something special. As such, there is an expectation that we can partake in things that are quintessentially British, such as being part of the local Rainbow group. It saddens me that the message sent out is that of an inability to work across the difficulties to allow these groups to continue to meet. I understand that there are difficulties, but we should look to the motto “Be prepared”; we should be prepared to go the extra mile to find a way to make it work. I ask the Minister to be prepared and to go that extra mile, as well.

In 2023, there were around 2,600 members of British Girlguiding Overseas in 36 countries and territories. I understand the risks that have arisen with the passage of time and the child protection obligations. Last night, the hon. Member for Watford (Dean Russell) introduced an Adjournment debate on AI scams. I just relate this story, because it is important; it shows that society has changed and that people can buy into scams and find themselves in difficulties. I made an intervention in that debate about elderly and vulnerable people.

In the days of my youth—you and I are probably of a similar vintage, Mr Chairman, so I suspect that they were the days of your youth as well—we did not lock the back doors. There was no necessity to do that. Life was different then, but life has changed. I understand the difficulties and necessities that have arisen with the passage of time and the child protection obligations. It is really important that we get those right, because society has changed and we have to protect people more than ever. However, those 2,600 members are left without that precious opportunity to be part of something global, something diverse, something useful—something that they can appreciate in a community that appreciates them. That is the importance of this issue, and the importance of holding this debate.

I am grateful to the hon. Member and fully support him in what he seeks to achieve. In June, in the same announcement that Girlguiding made over its desire to sell its centres in overseas territories, it announced that it would sell five centres in the UK including Waddow Hall in Lancashire, where many young people from my communities in Cumbria have enjoyed outdoor learning experiences. The Waddow Hall Trust is seeking to keep Waddow Hall as an outdoor education centre. Does the hon. Member agree that expanding access to outdoor education for all young people at primary and secondary school could be a real lifeline for centres such as Waddow Hall?

Yes, I agree. We need some extra thinking about how we move forward and how we retain—or better use—some of the centres, and I am sorry to hear about that happening in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. The doors are not closed yet, so hopefully there will be a resolution that can take us forward.

In April 2023, Girlguiding UK announced plans to end British Girlguiding Overseas—the BGO operation. The trust said that its decision reflected the challenges and risks of running organisations across those different regions. On 1 September 2023, girl guiding in the middle east, Africa, Asia, Benelux, France—European regions—was ended. Girl guiding on military bases ended at the same time. Girlguiding UK said that its girl guiding will continue in the UK’s overseas territories for the first few months of 2024—we are in those first few months now—after which a further update will be issued.

I refer Members to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. At the end of 2023, I was taken to the Falkland Islands by the Falklands Islands Government. That was paid for by the Falkland Islands Government. One of our meetings was with the Girl Guides themselves. They had been deeply affected and were very worried about the future of their movement.

The Falkland Islands is a wonderful place, but it is very small. It does not have many services for young children. It has a population of only 3,500 people. The Girl Guides provide a key lifeline, social outlet and a hobby for people. They are part of everyday life for the small population of Falkland Islanders. They told me that cutting off the Girl Guides would have a devastating impact on young girls in the Falkland Islands. Does the hon. Gentleman agree, especially when it comes to overseas territories with smaller populations, that we cannot let important organisations such as the Girl Guides go by the wayside, because it will have a huge detrimental effect? Does he also agree that people in the UK’s overseas territories are British, and that they should therefore be treated the same as British girls in the UK?

The hon. Gentleman sums up the core issue of this debate; I thank him for that. I was just about to mention the Falkland Islands, so he has pre-empted my next sentence.

BGO currently operates in nine of the UK’s 14 overseas territories: Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, St Helena and Ascension, and the Turks and Caicos Islands. Some of the people sitting in the Gallery are from those overseas territories and are here to add their support through their presence. In August 2023, the executive of the BGO said it had made alternative proposals for Girlguiding UK to continue operations, but these were rejected. It has said:

“We lobbied at the highest level of Girlguiding with a request to become a charity in our own right or to set up as a different charity as a franchise of Girlguiding. These alternatives, amongst many others, were repeatedly rejected by the Board and CEO. In particular, we presented a comprehensive proposal to become a charity in our own right on the same basis as the other regions. Despite the inclusion of a dedicated risk manager, office staff and a detailed risk assessment, this proposal was ultimately rejected by the trustees.”

Some 600 young girls cannot continue on their girl guiding journey, but my role as the Member in charge of the debate is not to throw recrimination or to apportion blame. That is never my way of doing things, because I always like to bring people along, if at all possible. My aim today is to ask what support this House can give our overseas territories and military bases to allow their children to continue their journey and live a fulfilling life. It was highlighted to me in an email that Girlguiding membership is hugely important,

“especially for our Armed Forces families. Young members and adult volunteers whose families were posted to Germany, Cyprus, Belgium, the Netherlands and the Falklands”—

the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) mentioned the Falklands—

“as well as other NATO bases, were able to transfer directly into a unit, making the initial transition to life in a new country a bit easier.”

When someone is taken to live somewhere else overseas, it is so important for them to be able to take some comfort in organisations with which they are familiar. The quote continues:

“Membership of the BGO/Girlguiding gave them an extended family and the support that goes along with that, in sometimes difficult situations. This support continued while their serving family members were on deployment.

That email raises a vital point that reiterates why this issue spans not simply the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, but the Ministry of Defence. Other Government Departments must have input into it as well.

I have also been contacted by a number of people living in the overseas territories to thank me and others for highlighting this issue, which is so important to them. They include Claire Montado, the commissioner of Girlguiding Gibraltar, who said:

“For us, the decision when announced was somewhat surreal. To treat the OTs as if we are not part of the UK is incomprehensible to us”—

it is incomprehensible to me and others in this Chamber as well—

“and does not acknowledge the relationship with the UK or their contribution to Britain over the centuries.”

That Britishness and togetherness is what this debate is about. Ms Montado continues:

“In the case of Gibraltar, we are all born with the right of abode in the UK. Our legal, educational, health systems etc are all UK based. We have even left the EU along with the UK because we are part of the UK.”

That tells us about the uniqueness of Gibraltar. She goes on to say:

“Girlguiding has been in continuous operation in Gibraltar for over 100 years. When the entire civilian population was evacuated (to Ireland, Jamaica, Madeira and London) during WWII to serve Britain and the world’s defence needs, Girlguiding continued in the evacuee camps. We are determined to keep Girlguiding going on the Rock, but it is culturally and geographically for us to do that within the UK umbrella. We are no different to the Crown Dependencies and should not be treated as such.”

I hold that view very close to my heart, which is why today’s debate in Westminster Hall is important. With all respect and humility, that is why we are asking Girlguiding UK and our own ministerial team to have a closer look at this to see how the risk can be managed, spread and dealt with to enable those hundreds of British girls—they are British girls—to be part of what the Girl Guides in my town of Newtownards take for granted. The affinity between the Girl Guide groups in Newtownards in Strangford and those across the world in the overseas territories is so important.

I conclude with this comment. I look forward to hearing what other Members will say, but my focus is on the Minister, and I want not words, but assurances. I say that to him very sincerely, very humbly. I ask that to try to find a solution, because solutions are what life is all about. When people come to me with a problem, they want the solution. Our job as politicians and MPs is to provide solutions. I think that we have solutions today. The right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North, who will follow me, and others who make speeches will all say the same thing. Today, there will be a unity of spirit, of thought, of focus, a unity of request to the Minister. I wish to see the action that he will be prepared to take to do all we can to foster this wonderful opportunity for all British girls, not only here at home, but across this wonderful world that we live in, and especially within the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the overseas territories. We are all British and we all wish to be British, so let us do our bit for the Girl Guides and the overseas territories.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on a brilliant opening to the debate. I will start where he finished—with a call for a solution. I know that solutions and suggestions for solutions have come forward from various guiding organisations within the overseas territories, such as setting up separate charities to enable them to continue.

I will start with some comments from the Minister’s opposite number in the Cayman Islands. The hon. Isaac Rankine MP, the Minister for Youth, Sports and Heritage—probably broadly comparable to the Minister present—made the point that Girlguiding Cayman Islands provides structure, guidance and leadership. That is what those in girl guiding in the overseas territories want to continue: the structure, the guidance and the leadership that has come from Girlguiding in the UK. That would allow the organisational structure to be maintained with sound governance and support from the governing body of Girlguiding. That is all that they are calling for: to let that umbrella of support and structure to be maintained. They are prepared to consider new, innovative and different ways to allow that to happen.

The response from those at Girlguiding UK, however, has been frightened. That is the only word I can use: they are frightened of the risk. They talk about risk management and the challenges of different legal structures in the territories, but those legal structures have been different for generations. Those legal structures were governing the territories 100 years ago, long before email existed or people could log on to the Girlguiding intranet to get all the policies around safeguarding that they needed, for example.

Safeguarding is not a new risk, tragically. Looking after the welfare of our young people has to be paramount—of course it does—but we know that there have been those who have not safeguarded children in various organisations across the globe for centuries. We are now much more alive to the risks; we have much better policies in place to manage the risks, and we have safeguarding structures that simply did not exist 100 years ago. I would therefore argue very respectfully to Girlguiding that, although of course it is a challenge to manage structures across the globe and it is not easy in a completely different territory and time zone, we have modern forms of communication that make things a great deal easier than they have ever been.

This may seem a little off track, but I want to talk specifically about Parliament Week, because it is an opportunity for us all to visit youth organisations across our constituencies—schools, Girlguiding, the Scouts or whoever. In the past year, I have taken full advantage of that opportunity, largely because myriad invitations came in from some great organisations, including the regional Girl Guides, the brownies and a whole host of schools. I must not forget that the Scouts invited me, too.

Although the rainbows exist now, the brownies is where it all started for me. I confess that it has been 40 years since I left the brownies with an armful of badges. I was very proud of those badges, including one about the international work of the brownies. As a small child 40 years ago, I learned all about the work of British Girlguiding Overseas, and it has stuck with me to this day. The only other thing that has stuck with me is my first aid badge, which could probably do with a bit of a refresher.

I remember the importance of those badges, and I remember learning about the different brownie and guide uniforms in different territories. As a child, it was incredibly exciting to know that I had something in common with girls all around the world. At the end of Parliament Week last year, I received a whole new collection of brownie badges, of which I am inordinately proud. They were awarded to me for having taken part in Parliament Week with the Nursling and Rownhams brownies and the North Baddesley brownies. I want to highlight what those girls were learning last year, undoubtedly in common with girls around the globe.

I went to the North Baddesley brownies, where the sixes have divided into three groups. They spoke of some of the challenges that different groups are facing, and they did so in an incredibly clever way. The unicorn group spoke about the challenges of gender stereotypes in the 21st century. The mermaid group spoke about the challenges of pollution in the ocean and how that affected mermaids; the climate and pollution challenges were made relevant to the mermaid icon that they had chosen. The ogres group spoke about the challenge of appearance-based bullying. It was all incredibly cleverly done, and it gave those young girls the opportunity to research an issue, think about its impact and then stand up and make a presentation on it.

I do not know whether colleagues in this House are ever struck by this, but I am constantly struck by how scared my constituents sometimes are when they have to get to their feet and speak publicly on any issue. In those brownie groups, seven, eight and nine-year-old girls were being taught to speak with confidence on a range of issues, and to present to an audience not just of their mums, dads and girl guiding leaders, but of me, their local MP. They had the chance to make the case directly to me. That is something that happens around the globe and in our overseas territories at the moment, and we are at risk of losing it. We are at risk of losing the voices of those young girls, who are undoubtedly being given the confidence to go on to contribute in later life.

Does the right hon. Lady agree that we all need to do as much as we can to promote youth organisations, and particularly uniformed organisations like the Girl Guides, in overseas territories and at home? They promote discipline, respect for genders and the sort of values that are often stereotyped and not reflected on television screens, but which we need to inculcate among our younger generation.

I am exceptionally grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that point, because it brings me on to one of my other visits during Parliament Week, which was to the regional headquarters of guiding in Salisbury. Having a region that stretches from Cornwall all the way to Hampshire is an interesting challenge, but that is what girl guiding does: it has big regions that manage to communicate effectively with one another. In Salisbury they came together to speak to me, and there were rainbows, guides, brownies and rangers in attendance.

I want to focus on one former Girl Guide who became a Salisbury city councillor: Eleanor Wills, who is now an ambassador and champion for guiding regionally. Eleanor has set up her own badge focusing on community and on giving young women the opportunity to contribute to their community and become community champions. Eleanor did that herself: she went on to become a local councillor and has been a real advocate and champion for young women. That is what guiding does, and I say respectfully that it is what we are lacking on a national and international stage. In democracies, parliaments and assemblies around the globe, we still have far too few women speaking up. Girl guiding has a role to play in making sure that we give girls their voice and encourage them to go forward with it.

Girl guiding sometimes leads to women ending up in this place, but those opportunities are at risk for British girls in our overseas territories. They could potentially be taken away from girls like Chelsea Been, the Turks and Caicos Member of the Youth Parliament. That young lady spoke so eloquently in the Youth Parliament debate on 17 November that she made a significant impact on Mr Speaker in this place: he often talks about her contribution, and how it is only right and fair that girls like Chelsea be allowed and empowered to continue finding their voices and using them. Her contribution in that debate in November was focused exclusively on what girl guiding had done for her in Turks and Caicos, on the involvement of both her grandmother and her aunt, who was a commissioner there, and on how guiding had given so many girls their voice.

I do not need to highlight this to the Minister, but I will anyway. The joint declaration of Governments of the United Kingdom and British overseas territories was published exactly a month ago today. One month on, we can reflect on that document, which rightly speaks to a modern partnership for a stronger British family. However, it manages to talk about family without using the word “woman” once, and we do make up 50% of that British family. We cannot have the strong, safe and prosperous societies that that document aspires to without everyone being able to

“play a full and active part in society.”

I am quoting very deliberately from the text.

I want to emphasise how Chelsea and generations of young women living in the overseas territories have cultivated their roles under the auspices of Girlguiding. To lose that without a fight would be abdicating our responsibility to girls like Chelsea who are yet to come.

My right hon. Friend is making an incredibly powerful argument. She paints a rosy picture of what girl guiding was and how it treated her, which is very good; I completely agree with her. However, as I am sure she knows, last year Girlguiding UK went through the biggest rebranding exercise in 113 years. It has changed lots of things, including the uniforms and the logo, to create a new identity to

“address outdated perceptions holding us back”,

according to its press release. Does my right hon. Friend share my concerns that Girlguiding UK sees the overseas territories as outdated and is therefore trying to refresh the brand by throwing off parts of the British territories? Is she concerned that it is not doing what it should be doing and looking after our British girls?

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. Every youth organisation has to refresh; it has to move forward and be relevant to the 21st century. In so doing, however, it must not cast the baby out with the bathwater. I am not sure that Girlguiding UK is taking the decision that the overseas territories are old-fashioned; it would be incredibly regrettable were it to do so. I think Girlguiding is taking the view that this is all just a bit too difficult and risky, so it is not going to do it any more. That is wrong. We do not want to encourage a generation of snowflakes. We want young girls to learn about how to manage risk, which can be an opportunity as well as a threat. We have to learn about risk. We cannot wrap ourselves in cotton wool. We have to recognise that it is through challenging ourselves and doing the difficult stuff that we actually get better.

We must not abdicate our responsibility to girls like Chelsea or to young women like Eleanor Wills in Salisbury. We want to make sure that British girls overseas are given the same opportunities. Of course, it is not just Turks and Caicos; the hon. Member for Strangford spoke about the important role that girl guiding has played in Gibraltar. I was struck by the briefing, which described how girl guiding had continued even through the war, when they were all evacuated and became refugees all around the globe.

I failed to declare an interest at the start of my speech: I chair the all-party parliamentary group for Cyprus. I benefited from a fabulous visit to Cyprus a couple of years ago, and there is another coming up—that is not an advert to colleagues! Girl guiding is a way for girls who get posted overseas with their serving forces family members to have some continuity and thrive with the same social engagement and structure—we are back to structure—with which they are familiar. When we go to a new country, it is sometimes difficult to blend in, assimilate and make that adjustment, but girl guiding can provide a route for girls to do so.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) made a point about the Falkland Islands. I have never been to the Falkland Islands, but I know that teenagers from the Falkland Islands end up in Winchester, adjacent to my constituency: Peter Symonds College is the catchment area college for the Falkland Islands, believe it or not. We want to ensure that girls can come from the Falkland Islands—a tiny community that is very remote from the rest of the United Kingdom—to this country and instantly assimilate, with a structure, a familiarity and a routine that they are used to.

I conclude with the point that I have made throughout: this is about giving girls their voice, giving them opportunities and ensuring that they can thrive and become independent young women in an increasingly difficult and challenging society, wherever they are in the globe. This is about managing risk and accepting that risk can sometimes be a challenge. My plea to Girlguiding UK is to stop being so risk-averse; to accept that comms around the globe are a lot easier in the 21st century than they have ever been; and to regard that as an opportunity, not as a chance to shy away from a long-standing tradition that is absolutely cherished by the girls I have spoken to.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and to follow the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes). I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) on his good sense in securing this important debate, which cuts to the heart of our sense of collectivity, particularly for young people.

I tabled early-day motion 212 on this subject and have written to Girlguiding UK to ask it to reconsider this important decision; I thank many hon. Members here who have already signed that early-day motion and my letter. Many organisations from overseas territories have written to me expressing their dismay at the decision, which they do not understand and were not involved in. There are currently 618 Girl Guides and 182 volunteer leaders in the overseas territories. The decision was taken without consulting them and seemingly without good reason.

The history of girl guiding was recognised by Girlguiding UK when it announced the decision for the overseas territories: it said that guiding for girls who live in British overseas territories has been

“a valued part of Girlguiding UK for much of our 113-year history”.

What has changed to make Girlguiding UK make this rash decision? Decisions like this should not be made just because things are difficult or challenging. Let us overcome the challenges. I ask Girlguiding UK to reconsider its decision and to see the good sense in the arguments that have been made today. I am interested to hear the Minister’s remarks, because I trust that he will have the good common sense to see the value of girl guiding in our overseas territories, particularly in the British bases.

I stand here as a former brownie; I think I was a pixie. I also remember, as a former Girl Guide, the joy and pride of earning badges and the hard work that went into them. There was a sense of working together with my friends in a common endeavour to achieve something greater than ourselves. I remember working for the entertainment badge—I cannot remember what it was called—and I remember my mum being very proud of me when I got the highest marks for safety in the home. I got a special award, and she got a phone call from whoever was the head of the brownies. It was one of her proudest moments as a mum—I remember that with great joy and great pride. I know how much girl guiding can do for young women and girls, how it can develop skills of leadership and how it can show that people working together can achieve great things. That is what today’s debate is about.

I want to touch on the rationale for the decision and the negative impact that it will have on the girls concerned. A range leader in the Falkland Islands wrote to me to say:

“They will be effectively be barred from the worldwide sisterhood of girl guiding…This is particularly impactful given our remote location and the complications of our geopolitical location.”

That is absolutely true, but why do we not take that risk and rise to the challenge? The world moves on, and girl guiding should be part of that. Its future in the overseas territories and on army bases cannot be put on the “too hard to deal with” pile.

I am proud to support this important debate. I agree with the hon. Member for Strangford that the decision is incomprehensible. I look forward to hearing the Minister’s view and seeing whether he can work with us to provide a solution to ensure that girl guiding in the overseas territories and on the army bases has a future.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair today, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) on securing this Backbench Business debate and on setting out the keenly felt concerns about the ability of girls in the British overseas territories to continue to benefit from all that girl guiding has to offer. The importance of girl guiding, and of the opportunities and experiences that it provides, has been amply illustrated by every Member in this debate, which speaks to the impact that girl guiding has in all our constituencies and across the world.

As the largest youth organisation dedicated completely to girls aged between four and 18, Girlguiding UK provides a vital growing space for many girls across the UK. Girl guiding allows girls and young women to develop their skills and confidence while providing opportunities to which they may not otherwise have access. Like many hon. Members, I am a former brownie and Girl Guide. On my way here today, I reflected on what was perhaps my first taste of leadership as a brownie sixer, and—like my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins)—I too was a pixie. As the mother of former rainbows and brownies, it is heartening to witness the ongoing success of Girlguiding UK, with over 300,000 girls and young women regularly coming together to have fun, learn new skills, go on adventures and make new friends. They are supported by the nearly 70,000 volunteers who enable that to happen by giving their time, skills and energy.

Girlguiding UK has 9,000 members in Nottinghamshire alone, and I have always welcomed the opportunity to meet up with its units in Nottingham South to see the brilliant work that it does. That includes a visit to Wollaton brownies during UK Parliament week to answer their tough questions about the role of an MP and how they can make a difference in their local community. I listened to guides voicing their concerns about the pressures that young women face regarding body image and mental health. I have loved seeing girls working in teams, getting creative, planning activities and presenting their ideas. Last year, I joined volunteer leaders in handing out medals at the Race for Life in Nottingham. I am always impressed by everything Girlguiding UK does to help girls and young women to thrive.

I therefore share the concern raised today regarding the closure of British Girlguiding Overseas. While we all understand the risks that Girlguiding UK identifies, and the resources needed to provide assurance, it is disappointing to contemplate hundreds of girls across the overseas territories missing out on the joys of girl guiding.

The UK overseas territories are an integral and cherished part of the global British family, and the Minister and I were both privileged to address the UK Youth Parliament late last year, which included representatives from the overseas territories. Girlguiding itself has acknowledged that

“guiding for girls who live in British Overseas Territories, has been a valued part of Girlguiding UK for much of our 113-year history.”

There are nine UK overseas territories in which Girlguiding operates and, according to the chief commissioner of British Girlguiding Overseas, there are 618 Girl Guides in the overseas territories and 182 volunteer leaders. I know those numbers have been said before, but they bear repetition. Although that is a very small proportion of all Girlguiding’s members, it would be very sad if British girls and volunteers living outside mainland UK were denied the opportunities that their mothers and grandmothers were afforded for so many years. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford South said, surely the challenges that Girlguiding cites are not insurmountable and can be overcome.

I am aware that my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), who is not present but is Labour’s shadow Minister for the overseas territories, also raised his concerns directly with Girlguiding UK in April 2023 and that he and other Members, including those present, have been working together in the hope of finding a solution that will allow girl guiding to continue in the overseas territories. In June 2023, before I took up my role, I also wrote to the Minister regarding the issue after constituents raised their concerns about the proposed changes and I was pleased to hear that he was engaging with Girlguiding.

The House last considered the proposals from Girlguiding in September 2023 when the hon. Member for Gosport (Dame Caroline Dinenage) led a debate on youth programmes and Girlguiding. The Minister assured the House then that he had been in regular contact with Girlguiding, and that he intended to make them aware of hon. and right hon. Members’ concerns. I would be grateful if he could update us on those discussions.

British Girlguiding Overseas operations in the middle east, Africa, Asia, Benelux, France and Europe closed on 1 September 2023, including units operating on military bases. I share concerns about how that decision will impact girls in armed forces families living overseas. The hon. Member for Strangford and the right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North made this point very clearly: it is a time in their lives when they might really need that sense of community that girl guiding provides. I understand that Girlguiding is in communication with the Ministry of Defence and other military stakeholders to explore future guiding support for girls on overseas military bases, and I should be grateful if the Minister would give us a flavour of any discussions he has had with his colleagues in the Ministry of Defence and how they are developing.

It is welcome that Girlguiding’s board of trustees decided to extend the timeline for girl guiding activities in overseas territories into this year to allow extra time to explore options that would allow operations to continue. I understand that Girlguiding proposed two options to Government. The first option sought Government funding and the second sought Government support for the management of welfare and risk. Girlguiding has said that the Minister was unwilling to provide Government funding to enable it to continue to operate in the British overseas territories—he might want to say more about that decision—but that his officials are working with it on a second option for an affiliate-type agreement, whereby a Government entity could be responsible for the girls and volunteers and Girlguiding would provide all the materials with which girls are familiar. I am sure that everyone hopes that the Minister will continue that engagement with Girlguiding, no doubt alongside his colleagues in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, to explore what is possible and to try to find a solution that ensures that girl guiding is still available to girls growing up in the British overseas territories. Perhaps the Minister can say more about that.

Despite Girlguiding being an internationally respected and valued charity that has been operating for more than 100 years, it is understandable that it is thinking about how best to use its resources. Charities across the UK are feeling the impact of a reduction in Government support and of the rising cost of living. The pressure on family budgets has undoubtedly made it harder for them to operate. It is not a new issue; it is affecting charities across the board. Just last week, the Charities Aid Foundation warned that much higher demand and sustained financial challenges are leading half of charities to say that they are at full capacity and cannot help anyone else.

The impact on young people is particularly concerning. We all know the benefits that activities such as girl guiding can have on children’s confidence and the development of valuable skills, yet services that support young people are being shut down or scaled back because of financial difficulties. Reductions to local authority funding resulted in the slashing of their expenditure on youth services in England by 73% since 2010, with more than 4,500 youth work jobs lost, and thousands of youth centres closed. That makes the opportunities provided by voluntary and community organisations even more important, so I understand the difficult decisions trustees face about how best to use their limited resources to maximum benefit, in accordance with their charitable objectives.

Investing in the next generation is absolutely vital. We know the benefits of good youth services and how they can transform young lives. Girlguiding is one of those services. I hope that the Government continue to engage with Girlguiding, and that a solution is found to ensure that girls across our overseas territories do not miss out.

Mr Betts, you pre-empt my admission. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today. I would like to thank the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) for tabling this important debate, and for the high expectations he has placed on me. I also thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes), and my constituency neighbour, the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins), as well as others who have contributed to this debate.

First, let me clarify why I am responding to the debate, as I know that the initial application was to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. Like the hon. Member for Strangford, I am incredibly proud to be British, and that includes our wider British family. This Government are committed to protecting the United Kingdom’s national interests, ensuring the prosperity of the British people across the overseas territories. The 2012 overseas territories White Paper sets out that Government Departments

“engage with and support the Territories in their areas of expertise and competence.”

Each Department is expected to support the development of the territories and collaborate on areas of mutual interest. For my Department, that means protecting vital youth services for British young people wherever they live, and working closely with Girlguiding to champion the continuation of British Girlguiding Overseas. I am therefore pleased to reply to the debate today.

The overseas territories are an integral part of the UK family and we are united by shared values. The long-standing partnership is based on collaboration and mutual interest, and the Government believe in a modern partnership with the overseas territories. At the UK and Overseas Territories Joint Ministerial Council in November, the UK Government and elected leaders of the territory Governments agreed a joint declaration. It sets out our united vision for a modern and productive partnership, which includes commitments to support and develop thriving and resilient communities, and to work in partnership to address the unique challenges facing the territories.

The declaration also reaffirmed the UK Government’s overriding priority to protect and promote the interests of the British people of the overseas territories. I note the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North, but I would add that it says in the declaration:

“We believe that the strongest, safest, and most prosperous societies are those in which all people”—

so that would include women—

“can live freely without fear of unlawful discrimination and play a full and active part in society.”

The UK strategy on overseas territories will include a chapter on communities, and will include women and girls within that. I hope that satisfies my right hon. Friend.

Last year, the Government provided £85 million in official development aid to eligible overseas territories to support infrastructure programmes. It has also provided £18 million of cross-Government funding through the conflict, stability and security fund to support justice systems, governance, border security and support for environment and climate changes. Additionally, the FCDO has provided another £19 million to ensure that priorities are met abroad and that the Government fulfil their constitutional and internal obligations. I hope that demonstrates how committed we are to supporting the territories to be vibrant and flourishing communities, and why my Department is dedicated to generating wider opportunities for their people. As the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), said, we have both had the privilege of hearing them directly at that amazing meeting of the Youth Parliament.

As highlighted by the hon. Member for Strangford, uniformed youth organisations such as Girlguiding make a tremendous difference to young people’s lives. Volunteers work tirelessly to provide early intervention, develop trusted relationships, facilitate opportunities and create safe spaces, helping to build thriving communities and supporting young people to achieve their ambitions. Other Members talked about their experiences in the brownies. You are right, Mr Betts—I was not in the brownies. However, I was in the cubs, and I remember my experiences there, not least camping in a field when the tent fell down at 3 am—that stayed with me for a long time. I also remember taking part in Remembrance parades as a cub, which instilled in me a value that I hold dear today.

Participation in uniformed youth groups is shown to provide long-term mental health benefits, improve young people’s skills for life, and support the development of positive personality traits. Such organisations have consistently demonstrated that members display increased confidence, reduced anxiety and increased community participation, which is incredibly important. The overseas territories were therefore understandably disappointed to learn that Girlguiding decided to cease its overseas operations. I know that many hon. Members were disappointed, and they have eloquently spoken of their concerns. I was equally disheartened, as I have seen the benefits that can be gained for young people who participate in the programmes hosted by organisations such as Girlguiding. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North mentioned, Mr Speaker has also taken a great interest in the issue and met Girlguiding in November alongside my officials and officials from the FCDO to discuss possible solutions.

I must emphasise that Girlguiding is an independent charitable organisation and its board of trustees has a fiscal responsibility to take decisions that are in Girlguiding’s best interest and to enable it to achieve its charitable purposes, secure its future and ensure the safety of its members. Those are not decisions that Girlguiding has taken lightly. We understand that its decision to cease overseas operations is due to the increasing complexity of providing Girlguiding’s board of trustees with appropriate assurances on both the safety of members and the integrity of operations, in line with its legal responsibilities across 36 countries and territories. Operations in the British overseas territories were initially scheduled to cease from 31 December last year. However, following discussions with my officials, Girlguiding’s board of trustees took the decision to delay that until the beginning of this year.

The hon. Member for Strangford told me to be prepared. I am pleased to say that we have been prepared. We have also been seeking ways to take this further. That has given us more time to consider all the options that might enable British Girlguiding Overseas to continue in the territories, and for conversations between Girlguiding, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the FCDO and the Ministry of Defence to continue. I would like to express my thanks to Girlguiding’s board of trustees for delaying the cessation of operations abroad so that we can fully explore all the options and support a local solution that is consistent with Girlguiding’s decisions about what is appropriate for the organisation. I totally understand the strength of feeling, and that is why we are carefully working across Government to see what solutions can be found.

Although I do not want to raise any expectations, we are having another meeting this evening with the overseas territories to explore the other available options. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Romsey and Southampton North said, girls such as Chelsea really do value girl guiding. I share my right hon. Friend’s support for ensuring that girls and women have their voices heard, and I will continue to ensure that we do everything we can to explore all the options that may be available.

In 2022, we committed to the national youth guarantee with an investment of more than £500 million to ensure that by 2025, every young person in England will have access to regular clubs, activities, adventures away from home and opportunities to volunteer. The aims of the guarantee are ambitious; to achieve them, we are investing in programmes such as the youth investment fund, the National Citizen Service, the Duke of Edinburgh award, the #iwill campaign and uniformed youth groups, in addition to supporting the sector workforce and strengthening the evidence base.

I cannot overstate the importance to me and my Department of providing opportunities for young people. We fully recognise the benefits that girl guiding brings to girls and young women. That is why the uniformed youth fund forms part of the national youth guarantee investment, providing Girlguiding with more than £2 million to create more opportunities to take part in girl guiding in England. Girlguiding has already created more than 3,000 new places, recruited hundreds of new volunteers and opened 100 new units, with more to come.

The hon. Member for Nottingham South asked why we were unable to offer funding. The uniformed youth fund is funded under section 70 of the Charities Act 2006, which limits where we can provide funding. Notably, activities funded must

“directly or indirectly benefit the whole or any part of England”.

But that does not mean that we will not explore all the available options to see what can be done.

Right hon. and hon. Members have given great examples of the work of Girlguiding, and I want to also offer my thanks to the organisation for the inspirational work it does in so many of our communities up and down the country. I recognise that that funding is limited to England under the Charities Act, but that does not negate the fact that we believe that every child, no matter where they live, should have access to a thriving youth sector. That is why my Department continues to lead those discussions. I hope to report back to Members following the meeting tonight, and I will also update Members as discussions progress.

In conclusion, youth services and organisations such as Girlguiding provide essential services for young people and communities. As a Department, we are absolutely committed to ensuring that all young people have access to those regular clubs, activities, adventures away from home and opportunities to volunteer. While that is being provided for young people in England, we are equally passionate about opportunities for young people wherever they are. We will continue to work with Girlguiding and explore every option that may be available to us. As I committed to a moment ago, I will update the Members present when those discussions have concluded.

Can I first thank all the right hon. and hon. Members who have made contributions? I thank the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), and the Minister as well. The right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North (Caroline Nokes) brought to the debate personal knowledge of being a Girl Guide, and of her participation in the brownies some 40 years ago—that is hard to believe; I am sure it is probably much less time than that. Whatever the case may be, I thank the right hon. Lady for her contribution. We heard about the safeguarding and risk management challenges and all the necessities that were put in place, and about how—I say this with all graciousness—the brownies helped the right hon. Lady to develop and promoted challenges and thoughts that brought her to this place today, a place where there should be that opportunity for young girls and ladies.

We are really fortunate, Mr Betts, to have three ladies here in Westminster Hall today who all were members of the brownies over the years. I do not recall another debate in which three of the MPs present were three former members of the same organisation. That is quite an achievement and reflects why this issue is so important.

The right hon. Member for Romsey and Southampton North also referred to the parliamentary week for Girl Guides and that is something that, if God spares me, I will take up next time around. She outlined very well what it does and talked about her trip to the headquarters in Salisbury and the young girls she met, in particular Chelsea. I have never met Chelsea but, judging from what the right hon. Lady said, she is an exceptional young lady who could end up in this place someday to represent the people in her constituency, wherever that may be. I look forward to that day.

My good friend the hon. Member for Bradford South said that Girl Guides overcome challenges. Really, that is what this debate is about: overcoming challenges. It is about the Girl Guides and the pixies, which she was a member of. I remember when the Girl Guides were operating in Greyabbey and one of the other villages nearby. I had three boys, so they went into the Boys’ Brigade, but the ladies always said to me, “You know, whenever you get a wee girl, she can join us in the pixies and the brownies.” Well, we never got the wee girl. We could not be sure that it would be a wee girl, and I think my wife was not really committed to having another child, so that opportunity did not come.

We have heard about people’s personal experience and the negative impact of closing down British Girlguiding Overseas, so I hope the Girl Guides can work with us to find a way forward. Minister, that is the request from the hon. Ladies—indeed, from us all. My hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) referred to the importance of the uniformed youth organisations. The Minister has really got that point, and his response to the debate also convinced us of that.

The hon. Member for Rother Valley (Alexander Stafford) referred to his time in the Falklands, which has a population of about 3,500, and the important work that the Girl Guides do there and in many overseas territories.

The hon. Member for Nottingham South, the shadow Minister, is another product of the pixies, the brownies and the Girl Guides. Wow—what personal experiences we have heard about today from all three hon. Ladies. It was a pleasure, a privilege and an honour to be here and hear those things. The shadow Minister referred to the opportunities that the Girl Guides give girls today, but these things do not just happen. There are 70,000 volunteers—I never knew that until this morning. These are the many people outside the Girl Guides who make it happen: the parents and the ladies, and no doubt the gentlemen as well, who all make a contribution.

The Girl Guides are also a valued part of the overseas territories and the United Kingdom globally. Indeed, they are a vital part of the Britishness that the Minister referred to. He and I—indeed, all of us here—clearly share that Britishness: that love and that commitment to Britain, which we very much treasure.

I am glad that the timeline for consultation has been extended. We hope that the Girl Guides will have the confidence to speak and act, and to invest in the next generation.

The Minister encapsulated things well. Although I perhaps put some gentle pressure on him in introducing the debate, and while others have also done so, we did so in a nice way, because we understand that he is a Minister who is always genuinely courteous to us all, and I think he understands this issue only too well. His response was incredibly helpful, and I think we will all take immense comfort from his words.

The Government have committed to retaining our Britishness in the overseas territories, protecting vital services such as the Girl Guides. The overseas territories are an integral part of the UK. There is a modern and productive partnership, and a commitment to that partnership and to the wider opportunities that Girl Guiding gives, including the camping out and Remembrance Sunday. I am reminded—as I am sure we all are—that every year, when I go to the Remembrance Sunday service at Newtownards, I always take note of the uniformed organisations, and the Girl Guides are always there. They are always smart in their uniforms and always in step—although they do take time to wave to their parents and grandparents as they walk. It is really important to instil that Britishness—that respect and that honour, which the Minister very much encapsulates. There is much comfort to take from his words, and I hope that is so for the ladies and gentlemen in the Gallery today on behalf of Girl Guides.

The Government have further committed to provide opportunities for young girls through the uniformed youth new groups fund for Girl Guides and other organisations in the United Kingdom. Some 100-plus units have been opened in the UK—I did not know that, so I thank the Minister for that update. He clearly understands why we secured this debate and why it is important, and the people here today are all committed to the same objective. In that respect, all of us, and probably the primary movers behind the debate, recognise in the Minister’s words an intention to find a solution. The talks are ongoing, and I am sure that the Minister will—I know he will—come back to each and every one of us and tell us what the results of that are.

We have confidence in the Minister, and in his ability, wish and strength of mind to find a solution. As I said earlier in introducing the debate, it is all about solutions—you know that, Mr Betts, as an elected representative, because that is what your constituents want to hear. This is about how we find that solution. Again, I thank the Minister very much for that. I thank all the people in the Gallery for coming along and, in particular, the right hon. and hon. Members who, in drawing on their personal experiences, made this such a good debate. It was a joy to listen to and a pleasure to behold.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the future of Girlguiding UK in the British Overseas Territories.

Sitting suspended.