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Bilateral Relations with Caribbean Countries

Volume 821: debated on Thursday 28 April 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to expand and improve bilateral relations with Caribbean countries.

My Lords, the UK and the nations of the Caribbean have strong and enduring relationships based on mutual respect, trust and shared values. Through increased ministerial engagement and the UK’s diplomatic network in the Caribbean, the Government continue to develop modern partnerships across the region that deliver on our priorities, including the rules-based international system, climate change, advocacy for small island developing states, development, trade and security.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Does he agree with me that realm status in the Caribbean, and indeed elsewhere, confers considerable mutual benefits? Although decisions about the monarchy’s future in these realms are for the people of those countries—after a referendum, we hope—surely the FCDO should not be neutral in this but keep stressing the substantial benefits of the status quo. Does the Minister also agree that, in the recent tours they carried out, the Cambridges and the Wessexes showed good judgment and good humour and did both their country and their monarchy proud?

I thank my noble friend for his comments; I absolutely agree. As he said, decisions about the future relationship between Caribbean countries and the United Kingdom are ultimately for the people themselves. That is the bedrock of our arrangement through the Commonwealth and the associations that he talked about. The approach we take is a model for other powers around the world when it comes to states and Governments with which they are associated.

My Lords, the UK’s trading relationship with the Caribbean is under a rollover European Union agreement—an EPA. The European Union has subsequently updated its Cotonou agreement so there is now a new deep and comprehensive relationship with the 15 CARIFORUM nations. Looking forward, does the Minister agree that we should move at pace for a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement with all 15 CARIFORUM nations that goes beyond simply tariffs, trades and history and looks forward to a new trading relationship that includes sustainability and closer people relationships?

The noble Lord is absolutely right: the Caribbean is a region of huge importance and potential to the UK. We have asked Darren Henry MP, our Caribbean trade envoy, to focus specifically on building the pipeline of UK capability. We are keen to better engage the diaspora on trade and investment opportunities in the region. We look forward to the continued implementation of the CARIFORUM-UK EPA trade agreement, which covers the largest number of countries—14, plus Haiti as an observer. In fact, it is the largest agreement we have apart from the trade and co-operation agreement with the EU. It is our most comprehensive trade agreement with developing countries and covers areas ranging from goods and services to public procurement and sustainability.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the considerable—and increasing—Chinese involvement and engagement in the Caribbean states? It is happening not only in the Caribbean but in the South Seas as well. Is he aware that this is about not just trade agreements, double taxation agreements and loans, which often cannot be paid back, but weapons training and officer training? We have now reached a point where the Chinese are seeking to establish in another Commonwealth realm a full naval maintenance base, including a police and military presence. This has gone very far indeed. Will my noble friend remind his colleagues in the Foreign Office that, while we are neglecting many parts of the Commonwealth, other countries—notably China—are realising the strategic value of these states and moving in fast? We need to have a better understanding of the vital security nature of the Commonwealth and give it proper attention.

My noble friend makes an extremely important point in relation to the Caribbean which could just as easily be made in relation to small island developing states in the Pacific, for example. The 2021 integrated review noted very clearly that China’s increasing power and international assertiveness is likely to be the most significant geopolitical factor in the 2020s. China now has one of the largest diplomatic presences in the Caribbean after the UK, US and Brazil. China continues to expand its engagement in the region as part of its broader strategy to secure support for its belt and road initiative and to reduce support for recognition of Taiwan. Unfortunately, the Caribbean’s infrastructure needs, which are significant, provide an opportunity for China to increase its influence, and much of that comes through Beijing’s loan strategy, which my noble friend just alluded to. All this makes it even more important that the UK steps up its support for, and partnership and engagement with, countries across the Caribbean and, for the same reason, the Pacific region.

My Lords, can I touch on the issue of influence and values that the Minister mentioned? Human Rights Watch has reported that seven countries in the eastern Caribbean still maintain anti-LGBT laws, a relic of British colonialism, as Theresa May once said at a previous CHOGM. Can the Minister tell us, ahead of CHOGM 2022 in Rwanda, what steps the Government are taking to encourage them and others to end this appalling discrimination?

The noble Lord makes a hugely important point. I cannot say is it true of all the engagements that we have on a bilateral basis with members of the Commonwealth, particularly those countries that take the regressive views that he has outlined in relation to LGBT issues, but certainly in most of those exchanges this issue is raised and the UK has always stood up internationally, as we do domestically, for the rights of LGBT communities.

My Lords, in welcoming the Government’s plans, which my noble friend has outlined, may I ask him to clarify whether these extend only or mainly to the English-speaking Caribbean, or to other countries such as Cuba, the Dominican Republic or Haiti?

Obviously, the UK has a particularly strong and valued relationship with those English-speaking countries with which we share a very close history, but our involvement and interest in the region goes beyond them. For example, the Prime Minister had meetings yesterday with a number of leaders of Caribbean countries, not all of them English-speaking. We have many issues in common, not least the question of China but also climate change, which is regarded by most Caribbean countries as literally existential.

My Lords, small island states of the Caribbean do not qualify for ODA, yet they have real needs. Might not the Government’s policy carry more conviction if it addressed more realistically the understandable demands of the Caribbean for reparations for slavery?

The noble Lord makes an important point about ODA. In the current system, the unique vulnerability of small island developing states to issues such as climate change and shocks such as Covid is not recognised. It was made very clear over the last couple of years that they are uniquely vulnerable, and consequently their economic ranking can change very quickly. That is not reflected in the system of recognition, which means that you have countries which, for all intents and purposes, should be ODA-eligible but are not according to the current rules. This is an issue which we are raising robustly in the OECD. I hope that we can see some changes there. Additionally, the UK is working with Fiji and other countries on a global taskforce on access to finance. One of the problems is that it is incredibly complicated accessing finance from the multilateral institutions. They are bureaucratic, time-consuming and so on. We are working very hard on that too, and that is recognised by the small island developing states in question.

My Lords, rightly, the Minister has just mentioned the significance of climate change in the Caribbean. The hurricanes in the region are much more extreme and frequent than they used to be, but can be tracked across the Atlantic. The United Kingdom was behind the curve when it came to Hurricane Irma, for example, not holding a COBRA meeting until several days after it had hit. Can the Minister reassure us that the Government are far better prepared to help the overseas territories if and when they are hit by similar hurricanes?

I can. The United Kingdom, not least through its presidency of COP, has raised the issue of adaptation to climate change. We know that, whatever we do in mitigation, change is inevitable whether we like it or not. Enabling vulnerable countries to adapt as well as they can and to deal with natural disasters, which are happening with increasing intensity, is a top priority. Although we have not set a forensic target, our view is that the balance of investment in climate change issues should be more or less 50:50 between mitigation and adaptation. Other donor countries are increasingly following us on that.

My Lords, further to that question, I declare my interest as honorary colonel of the Cayman Islands Regiment. Both the Cayman Islands Regiment and the Turks and Caicos Islands Regiment were created by this Government after Hurricane Irma in 2017 to ensure that there is on-island capability to deal with post-hurricane events. I am sure the noble Baroness is deeply reassured by the Government’s action, which directly addresses her question. I remind your Lordships’ House that there are not only Commonwealth citizens in the Caribbean but British citizens in the overseas territories. I simply ask for reassurance from my noble friend that those citizens are properly consulted when legislation is passed through your Lordships’ House.

I am sure many noble Lords are envious of the noble Lord’s job and would be willing to swap, but he makes a good point. I can certainly provide that reassurance.