Question for Short Debate
My Lords, today’s debate is timely because it follows not only His Majesty’s recent Coronation, which saw the gathering of our global British family—something in which I was proud to take part in my capacity as honorary colonel of the Cayman Islands Regiment—but the annual summit of British Overseas Territories that followed, the Joint Ministerial Council, held here in London, which by all accounts has been a great success.
One of the reasons for that success is down to my noble friend the Minister. I have had a close working relationship with and interest in our OTs for many years and, if I am honest, it is not an interest that I have always found shared across government. However, I can genuinely say that, when it comes to this Government’s interest in and support for our OTs, we appear to have turned a corner. That is in no small part down to my noble friend and his team at the FCDO. An obvious recent example of this is the timely and effective delivery of vaccines during Covid, which did much to reinforce the benefits to OTs of their enduring relationship with the UK. Without wishing to embarrass him, I want to highlight the contribution of Mr Adam Pile to that delivery.
A similar debate last week in the House of Commons had as its Motion:
“That this House is committed to upholding the interests of British Overseas Territories and their citizens; recognises the special historical, cultural, and social bonds that bind the United Kingdom and Overseas Territories; and calls upon the Government to ensure that British Overseas Territories citizens’ rights as British citizens are upheld, to defend the sovereignty and borders of Overseas Territories from foreign powers, and to consider the unique circumstances of each Territory when formulating policies which affect them”.
That is a neat summary of where I am sure your Lordships’ House would aspire our relationship with the OTs to be.
While each territory is unique in its relationship with the UK, the one thing that underpins that relationship is that all British OTs enjoy the right to self-determination. The fact that they maintain a constitutional link with the UK is ultimately their choice. I am sure noble Lords will join me in reaffirming our commitment to defending that principle.
Spanning the globe, British OTs are as diverse in their geography as they are in their culture. One size certainly does not fit all and that requires both sensitivity and agility from HMG if they are to support the unique circumstances, constitutions, challenges and opportunities of each territory.
It is that challenge that I turn to first. I have always been slightly perplexed as to why that relationship is held by the FCDO. After all, our OTs are not foreign, are not part of the Commonwealth—other than through UK membership—and only four of the 14 are eligible for development assistance. While the FCDO may manage the relationship, it holds few if any of the levers of power to support OTs when required. Whatever the 2012 White Paper may say, it is my experience that this arrangement leads other government departments into thinking that OTs are not their responsibility.
Take, for example, recent events in the Turks and Caicos Islands, where the double challenge is faced of potentially being overwhelmed by Haitian migrants and a spike in violent crime. Both are areas of responsibility of the Home Office but, as we have discussed before, HMG’s support to TCI when threatened by these challenges left considerable room for improvement. I recently visited TCI with the Chief of the General Staff, yet when I raised my concerns with the Home Office on my return it was clear that its impression was that this was a matter for the FCDO.
While I appreciate that the Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister have now written to all government departments reminding them of their responsibilities to OTs, that does not solve the structural problem that we have in the Government. More important, there is no guarantee that their successors will be as committed, which is why I believe we should consider structural change. OTs need direct access to all government departments. I know that my noble friend likens the FCDO’s co-ordination role to air traffic control in relation to OTs’ needs but, from a machinery-of-government perspective, does my noble friend not think the co-ordination of support to the OTs should be the responsibility of the Cabinet Office?
In my remaining time, I simply want to highlight both some successes and challenges that we have with our relationships with the OTs. The first success is one close to my heart and relates to the overseas territory regiments. Last week, I chaired the overseas territory regimental conference in Bermuda and I express my enormous thanks to both the governor and the commanding officer of the Royal Bermuda Regiment, Lieutenant-Colonel Ben Beasley, for facilitating this.
We now have six OT regiments. The original four—the Royal Montserrat Defence Force, the Falkland Islands Defence Force, the Royal Bermuda Regiment and the Royal Gibraltar Regiment—all date back either in their current form or as antecedent units to the 1890s, while the two new units, the Cayman Islands Regiment and Turks and Caicos Islands Regiment, date back to just 2019 and 2020 respectively.
Following a visit to Montserrat in 2018 post-Hurricane Irma in my capacity as Minister for the Armed Forces, I wrote to all the OT governors without a regiment suggesting that they create an Army Reserve unit within the territory to help to deliver on-island humanitarian assistance and disaster relief capability for immediate post-hurricane support. I promised full support from the Ministry of Defence in their establishment and I am delighted that, despite both being created during Covid, the new regiments have been a success and are capable of delivering food, desalinated water and emergency accommodation as well general assistance to the Government in times of crisis. The purpose of the conference last week was to evolve the units to be able to assist each other in times of crisis in addition to support from the UK. I would be grateful for the Minister’s continued support in their development and perhaps even encouragement for the British Virgin Islands to join the club.
I also draw his attention to two minor issues. One is ensuring equality in medallic recognition for the OT regiments in line with their UK counterparts. With particular reference to the Royal Bermuda Regiment, the other is supporting its campaign to have the battle honours of its two antecedent regiments—the Bermuda Militia Artillery and the Bermuda Volunteer Rifle Corps—transferred to the new regiment. It is a small but emotive and important issue.
The next success regards the environment. The 14 UK OTs collectively contain more than 90% of the biodiversity for which the UK is legally responsible under the Convention on Biological Diversity. To use the Cayman Islands as just one example, the islands are home to more than 3,000 documented native species. Over the past 40 years, successive Cayman Islands Governments have worked to develop a comprehensive framework of legislation and policy aimed at safeguarding the sustainable future of the islands’ natural environment.
The Cayman Islands has led the world in protecting marine habitats. Currently, an impressive 48% of the Cayman Islands nearshore coastal waters are protected through an enhanced marine protected area network. As a testament to the efforts of the Cayman Islands, with the backing of the UK Government, the Little Cayman marine parks and protected areas, which I had the pleasure to visit last September, have been added to the tentative list to become UNESCO world heritage sites for their exceptional importance to marine biodiversity and their incredible natural beauty. I hope that my noble friend will continue to support this application.
I also draw your Lordships’ attention to the role of some OTs in supporting the UK’s imposition of sanctions on Russia. Cayman, for example, established a joint task force, Operation Hektor, which has resulted in Russian frozen assets to 14 April 2023 of $8.88 billion and €298.6 million respectively.
There is also the OTs’ contribution to the Red Ensign Group, the UK flag state, made up of the 13 constituent British maritime administrations of the UK, overseas territories and Crown dependencies. It is one of the leading flag states of the world. It sits on the International Maritime Organization’s council and is acknowledged for its technical leadership. It is an excellent example of the benefits of the UK, OTs and Crown dependencies working together.
I end with three challenges to bring to my noble friend’s attention. The first is student visas. Students with British OT passports require a visa to study in the UK. In order to obtain the necessary visa, students must submit an application to the nearest British high commission located in another jurisdiction, which is often an expensive and lengthy process. The Minister knows that this issue was raised at this year’s Joint Ministerial Council and I would be grateful if he could outline how the Government intend to address it.
The second challenge is Girlguiding. Girlguiding UK’s board of trustees announced that British Girlguiding Overseas, which has around 2,600 members in 36 countries and territories, will no longer be part of Girlguiding UK. These OT branches have been in place for nearly 40 years. Frankly, this seems an incredibly short-sighted step as we seek to foster yet stronger links between our OTs and the UK. Given that Girlguiding UK will continue to support the Crown dependencies of Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man, I simply ask my noble friend to use his best endeavours to encourage Girlguiding UK to reverse this retrograde step.
The final point I wish to raise with my noble friend is successive Governments’ frozen pension policy for pensioners living overseas, including those in certain British Overseas Territories who are prevented from accessing a full state pension that increases in line with inflation. It has turned the annual state pension uprating into a postcode lottery. Pensioners living in overseas territories that have an existing social security arrangement with the UK, such as Bermuda and Gibraltar, receive their full uprated state pension, while others living in, for instance, the Falklands Islands or St Helena do not. These pensioners are living not in a foreign country but in a British territory, so why is the policy of uprating not applied equally to all the overseas territories?
My Lords, I will return to the issue of values and rights, as introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, in his excellent opening speech. I am afraid that our views will diverge.
People living in the British Overseas Territories deserve nothing short of the same respect for their human rights and fundamental freedoms as that available to those living in the United Kingdom. Indeed, in 2012, the United Kingdom Government recognised that being an overseas territory entails responsibilities, and that territory Governments are expected to meet the same high standards as the UK Government in their respect for human rights. The UK Government also recognised that they have a fundamental responsibility to promote the political, economic, social and educational advancement of the people of the territories to ensure their just treatment and their protection against abuses.
It is in that spirt that, on 6 July 2022, I introduced the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) (Overseas Territories) Bill to make provision for the marriage of same-sex couples in the six overseas territories that currently do not permit same-sex couples to marry. My Bill sought to make what would now be regarded by most people in the UK, and in the majority of overseas territories that have enabled same-sex marriage, as a positive change to the law to allow same-sex couples to gain full and equal recognition of their loving and committed relationships.
I believe that the ability to marry the person we love is an incontrovertible and fundamental human right. Every person in your Lordships’ House today recognises this, because every person in your Lordships’ House would be horrified if they were told that their current marriage was not recognised by law or, in the future, that they could not marry the person they loved. Denying two adults the right to marry on the basis that they are the same sex is an outrage. This House recognised that outrage and put an end to it in England and Wales when it played a pivotal role in passing the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013.
This House must take a lead in respect of those overseas territories that will not address the outrage of marriage inequality themselves. We can and should protect same-sex couples from the abuse of discrimination and legislate to grant them the right to marry. I have heard repeatedly all of the arguments against the UK doing this—that it is a sensitive issue, that we must respect the right of territory Governments to choose for themselves, and that if we do not, we will damage our partnership with the overseas territories. I reject every single argument I have heard against the UK Parliament taking a lead in this area for one simple reason. We are dealing with something so corrosive and destructive of human existence and dignity: excluding people from access to marriage, which is universally recognised as a fundamental right. I believe that we have a moral obligation to act.
I hope, perhaps in vain, that the Government will find time for my Bill to enable us to take a simple step that will transform the lives of same-sex couples in the overseas territories at no cost to anyone. If they will not find time for my Bill, we will return to this issue time and again until it is settled. Justice must, and will, prevail.
Other areas of discrimination are faced by LGBT people in some of the British Overseas Territories and the Government must also address those. Inequality and discrimination diminish every single one of us and undermine the notion of a civilised society.
In conclusion, I want to take this opportunity to thank Professor Paul Johnson OBE, executive dean at the University of Leeds, for working with me to design the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) (Overseas Territories) Bill. Professor Johnson is known to many noble Lords for his ongoing work in this House and the other place on designing legislation to advance equality for LGBT people, not least in respect of enabling those in the United Kingdom shamefully mistreated because of their sexual orientation to access disregards and pardons—something which, with my noble friend and ally Lord Lexden, we continue to press the Government fully to deliver on.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton, for securing what I believe is an extremely important debate.
My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, and to offer Green support for his Private Member’s Bill and whatever we can do. I also thank the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton, for securing this debate.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, I will briefly reference frozen pensions, because it is a huge issue for 500,000 pensioners living overseas who cannot access a full state pension that increases in line with inflation. Many of those pensioners live in the overseas territories, and it is, in essence, turning the rest of their life into a postcode lottery. Pensioners living in overseas territories such as Bermuda and Gibraltar receive their fully uprated state pension, while those in the Falkland Islands, the Caymans or Anguilla see their pensions fall in value year on year. Some of them get as little as £20 a week. One example that has been shared with me is of Roger Edwards, a Falklands War veteran. He lives in the Falklands and now receives a state pension of just £106.50 a week compared to the full basic state pension of £156.20 a week, losing £1,800 a year as a result.
If I was going to do a checklist, I would also note in this debate the issue of economic crime. However, given that we will cover that again soon at the Report stage of the economic crime Bill, I will park it on one side.
In the time available, I will focus mostly on an issue that I have pre-warned the Minister about: that of carbon emissions in the Falkland Islands and more broadly, and the climate impacts of what is happening there. I fear that there is considerable confusion among the Government about this situation. I shall cross-reference a couple of Written Questions that I have put to them and responses that do not seem quite to add up.
The first of those Questions is HL6972, which was answered on 3 April. My Question was about the steps the Government were taking to work with the Government of the Falkland Islands to complete an emissions inventory for any potential future fossil fuel development. The Answer I received from the Minister stated:
“As a self-governing Overseas Territory, economic development, including the development and exploitation of hydrocarbons, is a matter for the Falkland Islands Government”.
In essence, that Answer appeared entirely to deny any responsibility here in Westminster. I then asked a further Question on 27 April, HL7503, about
“whether climate change emissions from British Overseas Territories are part of the UK’s total accounting for emissions and included in the Net Zero by 2050 target”.
The Answer I received was that
“emissions from the UK territory are in scope of domestic Carbon Budgets and the Net Zero target, in accordance with Section 89 of the Climate Change Act 2008”.
Those two things do not seem to square up. The Answer further stated:
“The UK’s ratification of the Paris Agreement, including its 2030 Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), is being extended to include CDOTS”—
or Crown dependencies and overseas territories.
I have been trying to make sense of how this all fits together. Part of the issue arises from the fact that, on 7 March 2007, the UK notified the UNFCCC that it wished to include Bermuda, the Cayman Islands and the Falkland Islands in the UNFCCC. UN documents indicate that, shortly afterwards, the Government of Argentina notified the Secretary-General that they objected to this territorial application.
I am sorry; I have just given a very technical run-through, but I do not think the Government have been very clear about what is happening here. I do not necessarily expect the Minister to answer this rather complicated tangle fully today, but I hope he will commit to write to me afterwards to outline exactly where the Government see emissions for the Falkland Islands.
There is also a much broader issue. I note a very useful briefing from the RSPB, which all noble Lords taking part in this debate will have received, looking at crucial aspects of the British Overseas Territory and the climate emergency. That briefing notes:
“No UK Government Department has clear responsibility for supporting the Territories on climate adaptation, and there is no strategy in place to do so”.
This is a serious issue that really needs to be tackled. The RSPB briefing also notes:
“Many Caribbean Territories also still have very weak or absent development planning frameworks”,
which means that developments are taking place that are destructive to both climate and nature. They simply do not have the resources to deal with this.
Returning specifically to the Falklands, it deserves to be noted that the current population is about 3,500, growing at about 3% a year. None the less, it has an area half that of Wales, so it faces some very big issues, particularly with carbon emissions and peat. The Falklands have an amazing ecology; it is a place of no native trees, amphibians or reptiles, interestingly. But tussock grass, the naturally dominant species, when undisturbed can grow up to 10 feet high and is the fastest method of forming peat in the world.
The other relevant factor is that the Falklands are notably dry. The average rainfall, in some areas, ranges from 200 millimetres to 600 millimetres per year. The former end of that is definitely drought territory, even speaking from my Australian origins, and it is getting drier. The peat soil is drying out and blowing away.
There is also the very large issue of oil. The North Basin is thought to hold 580 million recoverable barrels of oil—a very large amount. The Falkland Islands Government are very keen to see the development of that, because of their budget’s huge dependency on fisheries. The UK Government have a real responsibility to work with and help the democratically elected Government of the Falkland Islands on these issues. This is a really big issue, which I do not believe the Government have got to grips with, which I am pushing them to do.
In the interests of full disclosure, earlier this year, I was in the Falkland Islands under the Armed Forces parliamentary scheme. I met members of the Falkland Islands Assembly, local officials and others, which very much informed what I have said today.
My Lords, I add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Lancaster on having been successful in the ballot and securing this timely debate.
When the late Queen died last September, I had just arrived in Gibraltar with a parliamentary delegation. The next day, the newspaper headlines were “The Queen of Gibraltar has died”. Fortunately, we were able to sign the book of condolences in the Governor’s house and to attend the firing of the 97-gun salute, by the Royal Gibraltar Regiment, from the harbour.
That proves, together with the turnout of premiers and other high-ranking leaders of overseas territories for the King’s Coronation, that the peoples of the overseas territories are without doubt among His Majesty’s most loyal subjects. That is in part because of the Coronation but also because of the joint ministerial council, which took place last week, the UKOTA meetings and the 40th anniversary celebrations, meetings and events that have taken place during the past year. There has been a great deal of activity recently.
In saying this, I thank the CPA—the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association—for its ongoing work, which is not always recognised, and, especially, the public accounts committees of some of those territories, which operate successful financial centres. I also acknowledge the current Mr Speaker’s clear championship of these tiny territories and the warm welcome that he always gives at Speaker’s House. Speakers have always been very happy to receive and support the overseas territories, but Sir Lindsay is particularly active and recognised in this respect.
Over the years, I have introduced and participated in numerous debates about the overseas territories, and I am an active member of the British Overseas Territories All-Party Parliamentary Group, as well as most of the bilateral groups. In preparing for this debate, I took a look at one such debate that I introduced in February 1994.
The obvious changes since then are, of course, the name change from dependent territories, as it then was, to overseas territories, and the fact that Hong Kong was then one of their number, adding a large number of people to the statistics. Although Hong Kong is no longer an overseas territory, we still have an ongoing feeling of responsibility for its people and for those who have been disadvantaged by the changes. I stated in that debate that there were 58 people on the Pitcairn Islands, and now, according to the Library’s excellent briefing, it appears that only 50 people are left there.
The common factors that I noted then remain much the same. I said that
“they are virtually all island communities, English-speaking and essentially they have the same legal systems and democratic processes. However, from then on their needs and aspirations are diverse. There can be no blanket answer, I realise, to all their needs, but there are points of similarity and common interest between them”.—[Official Report, 9/2/1994; col. 1574.]
In that sense, nothing much has changed.
I have tabled Motions in recent years to have further debates on the overseas territories but, unfortunately, I have not been as successful as my noble friend in the ballot. My themes then would have been very much on the subjects of climate change, which has been referred to, and humanitarian and hurricane relief. The overseas territories, particularly in the Caribbean, have had great problems with hurricanes and the recent ravages. In this context, I should perhaps mention Montserrat in particular. I hope my noble friend can give us some assurances that the overseas development fund will be managed with the overseas territories very much in mind.
The other issue is biodiversity. The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, has already referred to the RSPB’s comprehensive briefing. Given that some 84% of the UK’s biodiversity is found in the various overseas territories, that is clearly a very important issue on which I hope my noble friend will be able to give us some assurances.
Given the time, I will mention quite rapidly the post-Brexit issues, such as the border issues for Gibraltar —it is not only Northern Ireland that has such issues as a result of Brexit—and the problems the Falklands Islands has had with its main export, squid, and with exports and entry to the European Union. I realise that I am running out of time. There is the issue of the European Union funding which went to the overseas territories. To what extent has that now been replaced, as promised by our Government?
Once again, I thank my noble friend for giving us this opportunity. I look forward to the rest of the debate.
My Lords, first, I declare a special interest in relation to the overseas territories: my father and grandfather were Bermudian, so I feel a very special part of that island. The noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, did not mention that we had a strong naval tradition there—certainly that was my father’s and grandfather’s part in that island.
I thank the noble Lord for initiating this important debate. He mentioned last week’s debate in the Commons. My honourable friend Stephen Doughty, the shadow Minister covering the overseas territories, set out five key principles that would guide a future Labour Government’s relationship with them. It is worth spelling out those five key principles again, because they reflect what the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, said.
The first is devolution and democratic autonomy, which is about establishing clear consistency on constitutional principles of partnership and engagement. The second is listening and the principle of “Nothing about you without you”. The third is partnership. A future strong and stable relationship between the United Kingdom and each of the overseas territories must be built on mutual respect and inclusion—indeed, that involves all government departments, not just the FCDO.
The fourth key principle is the fact that rights come with responsibilities, as the 2012 White Paper recognised. In our British family, we share common values, as the noble Baroness mentioned, and legal traditions. We share obligations and principles, such as a robust commitment to democracy, the rule of law and liberty, and the protection of human rights, including those of people living with disabilities, women and girls, and—as my noble friend Lord Cashman raised—LGBT+ people. The cause that my noble friend advanced is absolutely right. We all share in our family the same rights, and we should all be treated in the same way. The fifth principle is the advancement of good governance, ensuring proper democratic accountability and regulation.
As my honourable friend said in the debate in the Commons, Labour has committed that we will defend their security, autonomy and rights, including in the case of the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar. I am pleased to see representatives of the Gibraltar Government here this afternoon.
The UK’s overseas territories are each a cherished and important part of the global UK family, each one with its own nuances that are too often overlooked and ignored. Far too often, the debate around the overseas territories is based on generalisations that fail to consider their uniqueness and the vibrancy of each territory and its history. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, that we must move away from the notion that, when it comes to the overseas territories, one size fits all.
My party believes firmly that the future of the overseas territories must be led first and foremost by the wishes of their people and communities. Labour will always be guided by the concerns and priorities of the people of the overseas territories. It is imperative that the relationships between the United Kingdom and each of those territories are built on mutual respect and trust, not just in the FCDO but across the whole of government, as the noble Lord said in his introduction. We need a very clear, joined-up strategy on the way the UK delivers for the overseas territories and their people. All too often we have seen oversights and bureaucratic issues that present unnecessary and enduring difficulties for those living in the overseas territories.
Naturally, to be part of the British family there are obligations which must be fulfilled pertaining to the values we all share, including the protection of human rights, the advancement of good governance and ensuring proper democratic accountability. These are very important points.
I have some specific questions for the Minister on two issues that I suspect are close to his heart. Primarily, can he tell us how the Government, across all departments, are collaborating with the overseas territories to deliver on sustainable development? How are we working to match the goals set out in the 2030 agenda? The climate crisis poses a unique threat to small islands—as the noble Baroness said, most of our British Overseas Territories are small islands. Can the Minister provide an update on the overseas territories biodiversity strategy, which is so vital to their future?
More generally, under Chapter XI of the UN charter, the UK has a responsibility to represent the overseas territories’ interests in the UN system. How does the UK engage with the democratically elected leaders of the BOTs at the UN? How do we ensure that their voices are heard at every level?
The steps that the Government are taking to ensure proper security collaboration with the UK overseas territories are vital to ensure not only our geopolitical reach but that those policies relating to our defence, security and foreign policy are matched. The noble Lord, Lord Lancaster, mentioned sanctions. I agree with him that our overseas territories have been very strong in implementing those policies, but how are we not just supporting them in adopting sanctions but ensuring that they have the capacity to implement and monitor them properly?
Those are vital issues to ensure the future of our relationships globally. I hope the Minister will reflect on the positive elements we are talking about. Across all parties, we share a genuine commitment to the overseas territories.
I start by thanking my noble friend Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton for tabling this debate and giving the Committee an opportunity to discuss and celebrate the UK’s relationship with the overseas territories. The OTs are a core part of the British family. The UK has a responsibility to ensure their security, good governance and prosperity. We also have a moral obligation to protect the safety of the inhabitants of the territories, just as we do for inhabitants of the UK. Although we cherish our territories, the noble Lord, Lord Collins, is right to emphasise that our partnership is built on mutual respect, as it must be. I reiterate the same commitment that my predecessors have made: the UK Government will defend the right of the territories to choose their own future.
As Minister for the Overseas Territories, I hosted all their elected leaders earlier this month for the 10th joint ministerial council. This came just a week after the leaders attended the Coronation and gave us the opportunity to celebrate the British family’s shared history together. My noble friend Lady Hooper made the point very well on both the response of the overseas territories to the sad death of Her Majesty the Queen and the celebration of the King and contribution to his Coronation.
We were joined by Ministers and officials from across the Government at the JMC. Our discussions covered top priorities, including migration, economic resilience and essential services. We made joint commitments to tackling urgent shared issues, such as the environment, financial transparency and healthcare access. While I am pleased that we are making progress on a range of important issues, it is also clear that there is much more to do. There are shortcomings that the Government undoubtedly must address, some of which my noble friend Lord Lancaster highlighted.
We have a fundamental duty to protect and support the territories, but the sad truth is that we have, at times, been found wanting. But I am determined and our Prime Minister has been clear that our territories will be prioritised across Government. I take this opportunity to echo the remarks of my noble friend Lord Lancaster about the Foreign Office or FCDO team, some of whom are behind me. I am lucky to work with such a diligent, hard-working, committed team. They go well beyond the call of duty in their support of the overseas territories.
However, it is also necessary for me to say, as has been said by a couple of other speakers, that while the FCDO is the lead department at the centre—I have used the term “air traffic control” before, because it accurately reflects our role with the OTs—we do not control the levers of delivery. They exist elsewhere, in other departments, so it is crucial that other departments step up to fulfil their reserved responsibilities to the overseas territories—whether it is the MoD providing vital logistical capabilities to respond to hurricanes or the Home Office bolstering the border security of territories responding to large levels of irregular migration.
Beyond meeting our reserved responsibilities, departments can contribute to and learn from British communities in these extraordinarily diverse and rich territories. We must do more. I know the Prime Minister shares this view: he has written to all departments, directing them to fulfil their responsibilities and, crucially, to nominate a dedicated Overseas Territories Minister, who will liaise with me. I will convene regular meetings of these OT Ministers to ensure that we are meeting our obligations.
The noble Lord, Lord Collins, asked about—but I am not sure he used the term—the OT strategy. He was talking about a government strategy on the OTs and that strategy is under way. The FCDO is leading that work but, again, this effort must go across the whole of government and involve the territories.
I return briefly to the question that my noble friend Lord Lancaster raised about why the FCDO should be the lead department on this within government. It is a difficult question to answer, because there is no obvious right or wrong, but I think it is right that our staff working on the OTs are experienced at working overseas and that our ambassadors and UK missions are joined up to advocate for the OTs internationally and to defend their sovereignty, especially the rights of the Falkland Islanders. A number of our ambassadors have played a crucial role in securing support for the islanders and their right to determine their own future.
I hope my noble friend is reassured that the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and I are completely committed to ensuring that the Government deliver for the territories. My noble friend Lady Hooper made a point about the Speaker and I simply echo her remarks: the Speaker is a champion for the overseas territories and he has been superb.
Of course, the ambition of all the territories is to be economically self-sufficient but, where this is not possible, we support them with overseas development assistance. The OTs continue to have the first call on our development budget. I am proud to say that, despite pressures across the ODA landscape, the FCDO team behind me was able to increase official development assistance to the eligible territories. This year, we will provide £85 million to the Governments of St Helena, Montserrat, Tristan da Cunha and the Pitcairn Islands. That will account for between 60% and 95% of the territory Governments’ budgets and will provide essential services, including education and healthcare.
In addition, we are investing many more millions in infrastructure in the territories. For example, we are providing £30 million for St Helena, £40 million for Montserrat, £4.5 million for Pitcairn and £2.5 million for Tristan.
Since we are not short of time, many years ago, in opposition, I was privileged to travel to St Helena to make an assessment of whether we would build an airport. After seven days of bobbing on a boat from Cape Town, I think my first decision was that it could definitely have an airport. Could my noble friend give an update on the success of that airport? There were a few troubles to start with.
I thank the noble Lord. I think I am still limited to my 12 minutes —it is crazy; I do not make the rules—so I shall be very brief. The theme of airports cropped up a lot during the JMC. St Helena has its working airport; Ascension’s representatives arrived there on the inaugural flight. There is work going on in Anguilla, Montserrat and other places.
I will move on to the environment because I am going to run out of time and I have quite a few issues to cover. We are investing significantly to protect the ecosystems and biodiversity of the overseas territories, which are of global importance. It has been said already that they harbour over 90% of the UK’s biodiversity. They have numerous endemic species and they really are of global importance. I think the FCDO’s Blue Belt programme is one of the great conservation stories of my lifetime. We have supported it with around £40 million of funding this year. The programme now protects 4.5 million square kilometres of ocean. That does not even include the Cayman project my noble friend mentioned, which is extraordinary—and, yes, of course, I am very supportive of its UNESCO application.
We have invested more than £45 million over the last decade in biodiversity and conservation projects. I am thrilled that Defra has committed a further £10 million each year until 2025, and I hope it will go beyond that too. In response to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Collins, we have also worked closely to ensure that the voices of our overseas territories are amplified and magnified at UN climate change and biodiversity summits. We did that in Glasgow very effectively and we continue to do it. Indeed, I spoke to the UAE just yesterday and made this point then as well.
The noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, raised a number of issues. First, based on everything I understand, it is the Falklands Islands’ right to pursue fossil fuel development, and we support its right to develop its natural resources as we support all the overseas territories in that regard. We are working very closely with the Falklands Islands Government to build local capacity so that if and when the development happens, it is properly regulated to the highest possible environmental and safety standards.
The noble Baroness asked about the emissions and where they are calculated; I will write to her on this topic to give a specific answer. However, I would make the point that the OTs contribute very little to emissions. Their contribution to nature, biodiversity and marine ecosystems is vastly disproportionate. It is right that we should focus more on that. We are working with the OTs which want to join the international agreements on emissions. As I say, in the interests of time, I will get back to her with more details on that.
She asked about who in government is in charge of this adaptation. She rightly said that almost all the overseas territories are islands and therefore acutely vulnerable to the changes we know are happening. That point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, as well. This came up a lot, as your Lordships can imagine, at the JMC. It is very clear that the OTs have a particular vulnerability. The responsible Minister is Trudy Harrison at Defra. She spoke at the JMC and we had a very wide-ranging conversation. The FCDO also provides funding through the CSSF for environment and climate change work. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Collins, the biodiversity strategy is being consulted on right now—it is happening.
We continue to support the territories in building their resilience to hurricanes and disaster response. That includes FCDO funding for annual training, equipment and warning systems. We also provide operational support. From next week, HMS “Dauntless” will be there, ready to act if necessary. I pay tribute to the regiments and defence forces in Bermuda, Turks and Caicos, Montserrat and Cayman, which will play a key role as first responders when natural disasters affect the overseas territories.
I will not be able to answer all the questions about regiments and medallic recognition, but I have a good answer for the noble Lord—I shall follow up afterwards, if he does not mind. Likewise, we are working on the Royal Bermuda Regiment’s battle honours. I know that colleagues in the Ministry of Defence are looking closely at that issue now, but I will give him a fuller answer in due course.
On visas, we know that it is vital that students with British overseas citizen passports are able to study in the UK. This is an ongoing issue. I assure the noble Lord and others that I have written in very strong terms to the Home Office Minister on this. We are following up and making ourselves as big a pain in the backside as possible to ensure that we resolve that issue.
The issue of Girlguiding is beyond our control as a Government, but it has been raised by me and by others.
Finally on this, the noble Baroness, Lady Bennett, raised the issue of state pensions, which was also raised at the JMC. I committed to follow up with the DWP, which I am on the cusp of doing. I very much hope that we will be able to resolve the issue, but I cannot promise any particular outcome because it is beyond my control, I am afraid.
Briefly on security and borders, which is one of our key priorities for the OTs, we are investing £18 million in security for the Caribbean through our integrated security fund. In the BVI, we are working with the Government to improve governance and increase law enforcement. Irregular migration and serious crime are threatening to overwhelm the Turks and Caicos Islands. The Foreign Office has taken measures, including tendering for a maritime surveillance aircraft, training law enforcement officers and helping fund electronic border infrastructure, but it is crucial for the Home Office to deploy its expertise and resources to prevent the territory becoming overwhelmed, which could happen. We will continue to work very hard on this issue as well, and I will continue to lobby my counterparts in other departments to ensure that every department of government fulfils its responsibilities in full to the overseas territories.
I am likewise very pleased to see representatives from Gibraltar here. I assure noble Lords that we are continuing to work with Gibraltar to conclude a treaty with the EU covering its interests. I will not be able to go into detail now, other than to say that we are steadfast in our support for Gibraltar and will not agree to anything at all that questions or compromises on sovereignty.
I realise that I am over time, but I feel obliged to answer the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Cashman, which was echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Collins, on equal marriage. I thank him for his work on this issue. As he would expect, I very strongly agree with the points he made, but policy on marriage is an area of devolved responsibility. That is simply a fact. It is the responsibility of the territories to legislate. It is worth acknowledging that a lot of progress has been made. The majority of territories have legal protections for, and recognition of, same-sex relationships and we are working hard to encourage others to do the same. I know that that is not the answer that he was hoping for, but we have to respect the fact that these islands are not subjects of direct rule from Westminster. There is a process that they have to follow.
I can see that I need to bring this to an end. I thank noble Lords for their contributions. The territories really are a massively important part of the UK family. I am deeply committed, as are the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and others, to ensuring that we do everything we need, constitutionally and morally, to support these wonderful overseas territories. We continue to do so.