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Overseas Territories Joint Ministerial Council

Volume 767: debated on Thursday 3 December 2015


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall repeat a Statement made in another place earlier today by my honourable friend James Duddridge, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. The Statement is as follows:

“I thank the honourable Member for Foyle, Mark Durkan, for his Urgent Question, which gives me an opportunity to talk about the excellent work of the Overseas Territories Joint Ministerial Council. The meeting formally concluded late last night, but in reality it will carry on today with a number of bilateral meetings across Whitehall, including with me.

The Joint Ministerial Council is the highest political forum established under the 2012 overseas territories White Paper. It brings together Ministers, elected leaders and representatives from the overseas territories for the purpose of providing leadership and shared vision across the territories.

At this year’s meeting, we discussed a large range of subjects, including child safeguarding, economic development, financial services transparency, climate change, sustainable energy, education and skills and the challenges of providing healthcare in small jurisdictions. We also discussed sports participation by the overseas territories, pension arrangements with the Department for Work and Pensions, governance and security. We had a very full communiqué, establishing how we would work together over the coming year. It has been very successful and I look forward to further meetings later today, following up on some of the commitments made last night”.

My Lords, the latest issue of Private Eye reported that, in the tax year 2013-14, there were 11,000 property purchases in the UK using tax-haven companies. Confirming that this issue was discussed, the Minister said that we need to open up beneficial ownership so that criminal assets can be seized before they are moved out of the reach and jurisdiction of the UK Government. This morning, the Minister spoke only of an agreement to create central registries, and did not mention the words in the final communiqué about “similarly effective systems”. Has there been agreement from all overseas territories with financial centres to create central registries, or have some agreed only to “similarly effective systems”? If so, which ones?

My Lords, this is clearly a work in progress, and progress has been made. I have seen the flow chart showing where red and orange have gone to green, and progress has been achieved. The noble Lord asked about similarly effective systems. It may be that in some of the jurisdictions a centrally-held register is not seen as the best way forward. However, we have made clear that, in working in partnership with the overseas territories, it is important to have good governance and transparency. As my honourable friend said this morning, the discussions that have taken place over the past two days have been set out in the communiqué, and all the territories with financial services sectors agreed to hold beneficial-ownership information in their respective jurisdictions via central registers or similarly effective systems. We then said that we would give the highest priority to discussing how to take that forward, and I hope that we will then be in a better position to give the exact details that the noble Lord requests.

My Lords, a number of houses in Windsor, Maidenhead, Kensington and Chelsea and various other safe Conservative seats in or around London are empty, either permanently or for much of the year. I have heard the Conservative Benches talking about this scandal, so this is a matter of great interest to the Conservative Party as well as to others. We were told after the G8 summit that the Prime Minister intended to establish publicly accessible central registers for beneficial ownership of companies in overseas territories and elsewhere. We appear not yet to have achieved central registers, nor even that our law enforcement and security agencies will have access to such central registers. How slowly does the Minister expect further progress to be made, and when can we at least ensure that the security services and police will have access to central registers in what are British sovereign territories?

My Lords, progress is being made on gaining access for the National Crime Agency to information that is held. It is important that we continue to do that work in co-operation with the overseas territories. We have been making progress, and I shall give some examples, which may help the noble Lord, Lord Collins, as well. Gibraltar will implement a central registry of company beneficial ownership in line with the EU fourth money laundering directive. Bermuda already has a central register. The British Virgin Islands have agreed to bring all beneficial ownership onshore, and the Cayman Islands are introducing a centralised platform. Montserrat will implement a central register with the information publicly available—though, I recognise, on the payment of a fee. Fruitful discussions have taken place on developing a timely, safe and secure information exchange process to increase our collective effectiveness for the purpose of law enforcement, in which, whatever our party or none, we all have an interest.

My Lords, in asking this question, I declare an interest as a member of my family works in the Cayman Islands. Is my noble friend aware of how welcome paragraphs 9, 12 and 16 are? Paragraph 12 states:

“It is not appropriate to refer to British Territories as ‘tax havens’”.

Furthermore, will she confirm in relation to paragraph 16 that “beneficial ownership information” is only,

“for the purpose of law enforcement”,

and nothing else?

My Lords, my noble friend is right to refer to the fact that the overseas territories involved in discussions about beneficial ownership are international financial centres, which is an appropriate way to describe them. My noble friend is right to point out that paragraph 16 refers to,

“technical dialogue between the Overseas Territories and UK law enforcement authorities on further developing a timely, safe and secure information exchange process to increase our collective effectiveness for the purposes of law enforcement”.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that I was right in noting that in the long list of subjects that was covered by the council in its discussions in the past few days, there was no reference to the possible effect on the overseas territories of a vote to leave the European Union, which would presumably have extremely important implications for them as far as aid, trade and the movement of people are concerned? Will she say whether this matter was discussed and whether the Government are helping the overseas territories to understand what the implications would be? Will she say whether the Government of Gibraltar really appreciate and understand that if this country were to vote to leave, Gibraltar will leave too, however it votes, and that its border with Spain will become an external border of the European Union, not an internal border?

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, as I have done during the passage through this House of the European Union Referendum Bill, that we take responsibility for advising Gibraltar of the impact of its membership of the EU—through the fact that we are a member—and of its rights and responsibilities and the consequences that flow from them. I have also made it clear that we work in partnership with Gibraltar and that Gibraltar will be taking its own decisions about how to implement the European Union Referendum Bill. I am sure we will be further able to discuss with Gibraltar the broader issues about trade and the other matters to which the noble Lord referred.

With regard to the impact on other overseas territories, the noble Lord makes a very interesting point, and I shall certainly take it back.

My Lords, our nation, with the overseas territories, controls the largest area of ocean and EEZs of any nation in the world. Has there been any discussion about the protection of those huge areas and the development of their economic potential for the countries themselves and our nation?

I am very glad that the noble Lord raises this point, particularly as COP 21 is under way at the moment. He is right that the overseas territories include some of the most remote and biologically interesting places on earth, and contain more than 90% of our biodiversity. I assure him that that is why these matters were under discussion and why the UK Government made a commitment to protect these unique and diverse areas from being damaged. We have made that clear in the past, and we aim to designate the largest contiguous no-take MPA in the world around Pitcairn in 2016. We are working with the Ascension Island Government to protect 50% of their waters from fishing activities, and we are also working with South Georgia, the South Sandwich Islands, the British Antarctic Territory and the British Indian Ocean Territory. This is a vital matter for those overseas territories.

My Lords, following on from my noble friend’s question, can I probe a little further? The Minister mentioned one or two overseas territories which were publishing registers, but could she say whether all overseas territories are participating in the central registers, and what is the timetable for doing this? Obviously the next stage is to make sure that these are public.

My Lords, discussions are ongoing about whether those registers will be public. Of course, some overseas territories feel that that is not appropriate to them. These discussions are continuing, but we have made great progress. We do not put a deadline on this, because the overseas territories have their own elected Governments; therefore we work in partnership with them. We do not dictate to them but work with them.

My Lords, in the past, representatives of the overseas territories have accompanied Ministers in their attendance at international meetings and conferences; I know that from my own experience, particularly in the Department for Education. However, it has been pointed out to me that at the recent and current meetings in Paris on climate change, no representation from the overseas territories was invited by the Government. Given what the Minister has said in reply to the previous question and that the overseas territories are likely to be greatly affected by climate change, is that not a mistake, and what is the Government’s policy on this for the future?

My Lords, our policy has been very firmly to engage the interests of the overseas territories in our discussions on climate change. I can say that with some confidence simply because it is one of my ministerial duties at the Foreign Office to be in charge of our participation in the COP 21 process. Therefore I have been involved in the soft diplomacy, which has involved my working with the small island developing states, not only in this country but when I have visited New York and attended ministerial week there. My noble friend is right to say that the overseas territories do not as of right have the opportunity to attend a vast range of international meetings because they are not sovereign nations, but they are able to attend the summit occasions by invitation. On this occasion I assure her that they have been fully involved in discussions beforehand, and I believe—although I do not have a record of this—that they submitted their views to the association of small island developing states when they came to their conclusions.