Select Committee on Environmental Audit Fifth Report

UK Overseas Territories

73. In our last report on the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, we discussed the importance of the UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs). These 14 territories, which include the Falkland Islands, are globally significant in terms of their biodiversity resources. We found during the course of the inquiry that many environments in the UKOTs are under threat, and that the current level of support being provided to the UKOTs for the protection of these resources are not adequate. We concluded that the "Government must act decisively to prevent further loss of biodiversity in the UKOTs", and that this would involve a move "towards increased and more appropriate funding for conservation and ecosystem management there".[113]

74. DFID and FCO responded that they agree that "a longer-term funding commitment would enable a more strategic approach to be taken, but [that they] are currently providing resources to the Overseas Territories for environmental management to the fullest extent [they are] able".[114] The Government pointed out to us that FCO funding for the UKOTs via the Overseas Territories Environment Programme (OTEP) had been increased by £94,000 for the financial year 2007/08, to £469,000, although it stated that future allocations would depend on the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review. DFID has also increased its allocation, to £1.5 million for the period 2007/08-2009/10, an increase of £125,000 annually. OTEP will therefore receive just under £1 million in 2007/08. It also highlighted the fact that the JNCC was enhancing its support for biodiversity in the UKOTs, "in part due to increased resources from DEFRA through its financial settlement".[115]

75. The RSPB recently published a report that attempts to provide an outline estimate of the cost in meeting biodiversity priorities in the UKOTs, "to facilitate a comparison of current expenditures with identified needs". The analysis estimated that total costs amount to some £16.1 million per year between 2007 and 2011, in addition to existing local expenditure on biodiversity conservation. The report's authors concede that the estimates are only intended to be indicative, and are also incomplete, but they stress that the figures suggest that current funding is "insufficient to meet biodiversity conservation priorities".[116]

76. During the Sub-committee inquiry into the UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, the DEFRA Minister, Barry Gardiner MP, acknowledged the problems that the UKOTs face in meeting environmental degradation challenges.[117] The Sub-committee asked the FCO Minister about these concerns and he said that:

We take very seriously our activities in the Overseas Territories. Many of those territories have limited capacity and so it is important that we help build capacity, build resources and we utilise across government our resources, whether it is Defra resources or DIFD resources or our own resources, and to do it in a practical way, not just getting them to sign up to activities but to actually help them in a practical way forward.

So we have to make sure that we are very proactive in ensuring that our Overseas Territories are covered in an effective, practical way in international agreements or in any programme work that we are doing, whether it is in biodiversity or other programmes on sustainable development and that means in most instances putting practical programmes in place.[118]

77. This strong acceptance by the Minister of the need to support the UKOTs, seems at odds with the current funding situation, which appears based on what the FCO and DFID can 'spare', rather than on a strategic assessment of need. The UKOT Conservation Forum (UKOTCF) stressed that they were grateful to the FCO, "not simply for contributing to their funding but also for their support in promoting improved environmental policies in the UKOTs".[119] The NGO provided a number of examples of the environmental projects that the FCO has contributed to, one in particular demonstrating the apparent current strategic disarray of environmental funding, as well as the benefits of increased environmental funding:

[The]Ascension Seabird Restoration Project. This 2001-2003 project tackled another invasive problem—the feral cats on Ascension. It was technically challenging for the RSPB and the Ascension Administrator to manage because of the terrain and because the cooperation of every island resident and visitor was essential. However, because of its scale the project has already produced benefits far beyond the complete elimination of feral cats (the largest island anywhere on which this has been achieved) and the growth of new seabird colonies. The budget allowed for the first year's salary for a full-time conservation officer in the Ascension Island Government (Tara Pelembe, a Saint [Ascension islander] with a degree in geography). The project became the subject of her M.Sc and her full-time position—now wholly funded by the elected Ascension Island Council out of local taxes—has enabled her to work with local volunteers to establish (with funding from OTEP) Ascension's First National Park on Green Mountain. She has also supported work on Green Turtle conservation, attracting several graduate students from the UK.

This textbook example of capacity building has, however, a catch. The seabird project was not a typical small project: it cost £0.5 million, the same as the FCO's current annual contribution to OTEP for ALL the UKOTs. While the RSPB and other Forum members had developed the environmental and business case for this project over many years, this had been repeatedly rejected by HMG on budgetary grounds. Ironically, the money was found from the FCO's programme budget, when a non-environmental large UN-related project fell through and there was a risk of an embarrassing underspend, which would have been clawed back by the Treasury. The fortuitous implementation of this strategic large project has a kick in the tail. The Ascension Conservation Officer has just been recruited to a new post in the Joint Nature Conservation Committee—to work on UKOTs issues. The Forum greatly welcomes this further demonstration of the JNCC's commitment to the territories: and we are delighted to see this example of Ascension helping with capacity building in the UK![120]

78. We welcome the fact that FCO and DFID have, in the short term, increased their financial support for better environmental management in the UKOTs, but we are concerned that this has not been undertaken on the basis of an analysis of need. Research by the RSPB suggests that even with this funding increase a considerable funding shortfall will remain in the UKOTs for biodiversity protection.

79. Iain Orr of BioDiplomacy told the Sub-committee that part of the reason why the UKOTs have been neglected by the Government is that they are often seen "by many officials and ministers as problems rather than as overseas relations sharing a common British heritage", and that the rest of Whitehall "often treats issues involving the UKOTs as for them or the FCO to 'sort out'".[121] He argued that "one of the FCO's prime undischarged responsibilities is to convince every part of [the Government] (especially the Treasury and DEFRA) that only by a sea-change in attitudes to the UKOTs will the UK be able to meet its commitments" towards them, both international and domestic.[122] The UKOTCF told us that the Government's domestic commitments to the UKOTs were established in a series of Environment Charters agreed in 2001. The Charters "have shared principles, followed by separate commitments made by each territory and by the UK".[123] The UK government's commitments follow a common pattern:

Help build capacity to support and implement integrated environmental management which is consistent with [the territory's] own plans for sustainable development.

Assist [the territory] in reviewing and updating environmental legislation.

Facilitate the extension of the UK's ratification of Multilateral Environmental Agreements of benefit to [the territory] and which [the territory] has the capacity to implement.

Keep [the territory] informed regarding new developments in relevant Multilateral Environmental Agreements and invite [the territory] to participate where appropriate in the UK's delegation to international environmental negotiations and conferences.

Help [the territory] to ensure it has the legislation, institutional capacity and mechanisms it needs to meet international obligations.

Promote better cooperation and the sharing of experience and expertise between [the territory], other Overseas Territories and small island states and communities which face similar environmental problems.

Use UK, regional and local expertise to give advice and improve knowledge of technical and scientific issues. This includes regular consultation with interested non-governmental organisations and networks.

Use the existing Environment Fund for the Overseas Territories, and promote access to other sources of public funding, for projects of lasting benefit to [the territory's] environment.

Help [the territory] identify further funding partners for environmental projects, such as donors, the private sector or non-governmental organisations.

Recognise the diversity of the challenges facing Overseas Territories in very different socio-economic and geographical situations.

Abide by the principles set out in the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development and work towards meeting International Development Targets on the environment.[124]

80. The Sub-committee asked the Minister whether his department had assessed the success of the Environment Charters, and was told that the "UKOTCF is currently gathering information on the progress in implementing the Environment Charter Commitments for each Territory". This is due to be published as a report towards the middle of this year, to feed into a wider review of the Charters with other departments and UKOT governments.[125]

81. International commitments for which the Government also has a joint responsibility in the UKOTs include those under the Convention on Biological Diversity, Ramsar, The Convention on Migratory Species and CITES.[126] UKOTCF argued that the FCO does not have the expertise to address most of these domestic and international commitments, on which DEFRA leads in most cases.[127] It stressed that "the UK government and civil society will never achieve policy coherence on the UKOTs concerning trade, development and environment if this is treated as primarily a matter for the FCO".[128] The NGO argued to us that the "core problem" concerning environmental and governance issues in the UKOTs is that:

… the UK exercises sovereignty over the territories primarily through the FCO (which appoints Governors and Administrators to work with the locally-elected governments), but in many specific areas that matter to the UK as a whole—and to the UK's international reputation - the FCO lacks essential skills or resources. This would not matter much as far as trade, development and the environment are concerned, if—as should be the case—other parts of HMG accepted their responsibilities and made staffing and budgetary provision for work relating to the UKOTs. A key FCO responsibility should, therefore, be acting as a champion for the UKOTs throughout Whitehall and in the FCO's network of relations with companies, NGOs and institutions whose expertise can benefit the UKOTs.[129]

82. The RSPB provided us with an example of the failure of Departments to work together in providing adequate support for the UKOTs. It told us that when a UKOT has a query on an environmental issue for which the FCO is not responsible, it is not clear who should provide the support. It argued that the "roles and responsibilities are not clearly defined and it is almost as if they are trying to pass the responsibility between two government departments so it just slips between the cracks".[130] The RSPB also alleged that the UKOTs are not a high priority for DEFRA, and also that "although they have perhaps the expertise they do not have the connections on the ground like the Foreign Office does".[131] Sarah Sanders from RSPB did accept that "there has been a move to try and improve working relationships between [FCO, DEFRA and DFID] for the UK Overseas Territories but… there is still room for a lot of improvement".[132]

83. We are disturbed that witnesses have stressed to us that departments other than FCO and DFID do not provide the level of support to the UKOTs that is required. Although DEFRA does provide some direct and indirect support, the level of this does not fill the specialist environmental gaps that are apparent in the UKOTs. We recommend firstly that DEFRA be involved at the highest level in reviewing the Environment Charters. The Inter-Ministerial Working Group on Biodiversity should provide the focus for this review to ensure coordination between departments. It is necessary for this review to assess whether both the Government, and the governments of the UKOTs, have met their respective obligations under the Environment Charters and Multilateral Environmental Agreements. Secondly, DEFRA should be given joint responsibility towards the UKOTs. This should be reflected in an updated UK International Priority, to include environmental protection alongside security and good governance in the UKOTs. This will also have to be reflected in DEFRA's Comprehensive Spending Review settlement. Finally, as part of the Environment Charter review, the case for larger and more routine funding must be explored. Given that the Treasury is currently conducting a spending review, it is imperative that this funding analysis feeds into, and influences, the Treasury's ultimate decision as to spending allocations for FCO, DFID and DEFRA.

84. If the Government fails to address these issues it will run the risk of continued environmental decline and species extinctions in the UKOTs, ultimately causing the UK to fail in meeting its domestic and international environmental commitments. Failure to meet such commitments undermines the UK's ability to influence the international community to take the strong action required for reversing environmental degradation in their own countries, and globally.

113   Environmental Audit Committee, First Report of Session 2006-07, The UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, HC 77, paragraphs 133 & 140 Back

114   Government response to the Committee's First Report of Session 2006-07: The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, May 2007, Back

115   ibid Back

116   RSPB, Costing Biodiversity Priorities in the UK Overseas Territories, 2 April 2007, Back

117   Environmental Audit Committee, First Report of Session 2006-07, The UN Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, HC 77, Ev 44 Back

118   Ev 62 Back

119   Ev 73 Back

120   Ev 73 & 74 Back

121   Ev 17 Back

122   ibid para 29 Back

123   Ev 72 Back

124   Ev 72 Back

125   Ev 64 Back

126   Ev 73 Back

127   ibid Back

128   Ev 75 Back

129   Ev 74 Back

130   Qu 8 [Ms Sanders] Back

131   Qu 10 Back

132   Qu 11 [Ms Sanders] Back

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Prepared 23 May 2007