Relations between the EU and the Overseas Countries and Territories

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Gillian Merron: On funding generally, I emphasise that we want access to EU funding to be more flexible, because it is not easy to access it, as the hon. Lady rightly pointed out. I cannot specifically comment on our French friends, but I will gladly return to her point on that. Currently, the situation with the overseas association decision is that some of the overseas territories are eligible to receive money directly. We want that to continue, but of course some overseas territories get moneys through regional development funding. My concern and that of the Government is to ensure that the right support gets to the right people at the right time and in the easiest way. Improvements can be made and the Green Paper gives us the opportunity to do so.
Andrew Mackinlay: First, will the documents be submitted formally for consideration by the overseas territories representatives during their visit to London? Secondly, was this matter was flagged up by the Foreign Office when it gave evidence to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, of which you and I are a member, Mr. Pope, when we conducted our inquiry on overseas territories?
Gillian Merron: May I ask my hon. Friend to repeat the second part of the question? I am afraid that I missed it.
Andrew Mackinlay: No doubt the Minister will have the Foreign Affairs Committee’s recently published report in her brief. Did the Foreign Office include the Green Paper in its evidence to us or invite us tantalisingly to consider it? If not, why not?
Gillian Merron: I will reflect on the second point. We welcomed the Foreign Affairs Committee report. In fact, I believe that we have accepted most of the recommendations. Where that is not the case, we have responded to it.
The consultative council came out of our previous White Paper and is a much valued opportunity. The Green Paper will be discussed this week. It was launched on 1 July, which was after the Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry. Therefore, it could not have been used when the Foreign Office appeared before the Committee. Of course, I or my colleagues will be more than happy to discuss the Green Paper with the Foreign Affairs Committee should it wish to do so.
Andrew Mackinlay: I would like to ask the Minister again: will the bundle of documents be considered by the overseas territories’ representatives during their meeting in London? Also, she told us that there would be a period of consultation when the overseas territories could make their own representations. How and when is it intended that the House will be made acquainted—cognizant of—the representations of the overseas territories as a result of that consultation?
Gillian Merron: The UK Government did, of course, encourage the overseas territories to respond and in July the then Minister wrote to the heads of territory Governments to encourage them to respond. We provided a summary paper of the main issues and the Minister offered further assistance to the territories if it was required, but none was requested. Responses from the territories are individual to them. The consultation period has only just closed. There is no obligation on them to consult or clear their response with the UK Government, prior to submission. To the best of my knowledge, the Falklands and St. Helena responded. Until I have had the opportunity to meet all the other leaders in the coming week, it would be wrong of me to say something to the Committee that I cannot substantiate.
Jo Swinson: Further to that, I take the Minister’s point that the overseas territories should have been encouraged to respond, but to what extent are their views fed into our Government’s response? Surely, that is vital, because—let’s face it—more weight will probably be attached to the UK Government’s official response than to the responses of all the overseas territories. That is the key point in ensuring that their feedback is contained in the Government’s response.
Gillian Merron: The hon. Lady is generous in commenting on the weight of the UK Government’s position, but although I take her point, it was for the individual territories to make their own representations; there was no requirement. I realise that the hon. Lady is not suggesting that we should have required them to do so. There was no requirement for them to go through the Government. Of course, there were discussions between the Foreign Office and the overseas territories, but it would be neither true nor right to say that the overseas territories made their submissions, in any way, through the UK Government. Indeed, we encouraged them to do it directly. That is right and proper. Consultations and discussions with our overseas territories on this matter, as with any other, are frequent and regular.
Mr. Simpson: Following on from that, it is likely that the French will have co-ordinated the response of their overseas territories. Rightly, the Minister has made it clear that how the individual overseas territories go about responding is up to them, but my Committee colleagues are pressing her on the fact that there must be some degree of co-ordination in terms of advice. One of the points that comes out of the paper under discussion is that although the territories are individual, they have a number of things in common. I suspect that we would like to press the Minister a little further on what exactly has been done.
Gillian Merron: I should reiterate—I have the paper in front of me—that the then Minister wrote to the heads of territories in July, enclosing a summary of the paper and encouraging them to respond. Committee members might feel that we should have sought more to come through us—I do not know; it is a matter of opinion. But that was not the case.
I emphasise that this was not a hands-off affair. Constant discussions take place between officials and Ministers at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I spoke to the Governors at the end of last week and, as I have mentioned, I will be meeting all the leaders of the overseas territories in the coming week. This is work in progress. The formal consultation has closed. We will seek to get the best for our overseas territories, working with them. That is why the consultative council this week is important.
Mr. Simpson: To take the discussion forward slightly, what consultations has the Minister had, or does she intend to have, with those members of the EU that do not at present have overseas territories? Obviously, only a minority do, although a number of European Governments—for example, the Germans—had colonies. It is important for Britain to put its case about its territories to the other countries that make up the majority.
Gillian Merron: The hon. Gentleman is right; the UK, along with Denmark, France and the Netherlands, has an interest in overseas territories. However, the UK Government will work on behalf of the UK territories in the way that I described in my opening remarks. I assure the Committee that we will continue the discussions with all the relevant bodies to secure the outcome that we seek.
Andrew Mackinlay: I want to take the Minister back to her reply. She said that the Green Paper was published on 1 July by the European Commission. Is she really saying to the Committee that when Sir Peter Ricketts opened the Foreign Office post on 1 July, he said, “Oh, what an amazing coincidence: a Green Paper on overseas territories”? Is she really suggesting that the Foreign Office had no early sight or cognisance of the draft Green Paper, which it should have acquainted the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs with previously? Also, why has she not subsequently written to the Foreign Affairs Committee, drawing its attention to the Green Paper in time for it to offer some observations?
Gillian Merron: I must be honest with the Committee: I feel at a bit of a disadvantage. Committee members will be aware that I was glad to take up the responsibilities of this post just over three weeks ago, so I am sure that they will be gentle—or perhaps not. I regret that I cannot give the direct answer that my hon. Friend seeks. I am afraid that in my previous post at the Department for International Development, overseas territories was not a matter to which I applied myself in the detail that I do now, but I shall gladly write to the Committee on the points that have been raised.
I also assure the Committee again that, as I suggested, there was dialogue in London with representatives of the overseas territories, and that it has indeed informed Her Majesty’s Government’s response. By way of comment to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock, before 1 July the FCO did know that there would be a Green Paper, but the detail of it was not certain.
Mr. Simpson: Will the Minister share with the Committee any initial Foreign Office thoughts about alternatives to the development model? Basically, the EU paper argues that the model is out of date, so has the Foreign Office managed to bring together some initial thoughts on what an alternative might be?
Gillian Merron: I cannot offer that, specifically, at this stage, but I reiterate my absolute assurance in respect of wanting to see the moneys at the right time and in the right place, and their being given more flexibly.
The Chairman: If there are no more questions, we will proceed to the debate on the motion.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 11238 and Addendum 1, the European Commission Communication: Green Paper: Future Relations between the EU and the Overseas Countries and Territories; recalls that such Communications are consultation documents and are not legally binding; welcomes the Commission’s Communication as the start of the process of the renegotiation of the Overseas Association Decision; and supports the Government’s response.—[Gillian Merron.]
4.58 pm
Mr. Simpson: Broadly, the Conservatives welcome the paper and the work done by the Select Committee, but it is obvious from the questions that I and other Committee members have put that we are concerned about several issues that, if not addressed, could be detrimental to our overseas territories. I hope that the Minister has taken those questions on board, and that we will have a further opportunity to debate this important subject, perhaps on the Floor of the House, because many hon. Members from all parts of the House feel strongly about it. At a future stage, when the Foreign Office has developed a grand plan or strategy, the Minister might want to put it to the House more formally, so that we might test it to the benefit of all concerned.
4.59 pm
Andrew Mackinlay: I trespass on this Committee because I am not a member of it. However, I feel strongly about the interests of the overseas territories, and, as you know, Mr. Pope, from painful earache experience, I have been going on about the issue for 10 years in the Foreign Affairs Committee, because I believe that the citizens of those territories are out of sight and out of mind of this place. They have no representation here and limited access, and it gives the Government and the Opposition a comfort zone, because they can pretend that they do not know what is going on in the overseas territories. They do not acknowledge their responsibilities to people who are often, though not in every case, struggling in difficult circumstances. I welcome the fact that we can at least detain this Committee for a while to do what 600 other Members should do: protect and promote the territories’ interests when there is no representation.
The documents set out the constitutional position in the overseas territories of the Netherlands, France, the UK and Denmark. They do not mention, however, that Greenland has a representative in the Danish Parliament, that a little island off the north coast of America, St. Pierre, has representation in the National Assembly of France, or that other territories have such representation or access in the Netherlands. As an aside, I note that the great United States extends to its overseas territories delegate status in its Congress. But the UK does not afford the people in our overseas territories any representation in, or access to, this place.
Mr. Borrow: There is a wide variety of UK overseas territories. Does my hon. Friend agree that while some of them are financially strong, and are able to ensure that their voices are heard in London, that is not financially viable for most of them, and that their voices therefore go unheard? Does he agree that only a small handful of the overseas territories are able to meet Members of this House on a regular basis?
Andrew Mackinlay: Precisely—that is true. But people are entitled to be represented on what is ultimately their legislature. I invite the Committee to pause and think about what would happen if the UK were to go to war. The overseas territories do not have the option of saying, “If you don’t mind, dear mother England, or Britain, we’ll sit this one out.” They have to go to war as well. Our armed forces, defence policy and foreign policy are also theirs, and they are entitled to have access here.
Taking up my hon. Friend’s point, and bearing in mind the documents—I do not know about you, Mr. Pope, but I had to read them a couple of times to get my head around them—some of the territories are so small that their capacity to marshal all the facts, communicate with people, check things out and do research would be somewhat limited. Although some of the big players, such as Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, have resources, legislature and a Government that can get on top of such issues, it would be much more difficult for the small, but legitimate, legislatures to give due diligence to and take cognisance of facts such as those before us today. That is the failure.
The bundle of documents reminds us that it is possible, under the European treaties, to extend the European franchise to all those places, and that should happen, because one does not have to be in the EU to do so. The territories are outside it, under the treaty and the special protocols, but they are entitled to vote, and we could extend to them the right to vote in European elections. Hon. Members might remember that Gibraltar, which is in Europe, was denied voting rights. When the Labour Government came into office, I asked the then Secretary of State for the Home Department, now the Secretary of State for Justice, whether he would extend the franchise, but he said no, and it took a good lady to take the British Government to court to establish those rights. The documents seem to show that there is no such right for the overseas territories, but it is within the capacity of this place to extend the franchise to them, and we should do so. I hope that that will be suggested to Europe when the UK responds to the documents.
I have other concerns. I criticise the Government because they seem not to have taken any note, in their documents and comments, of what the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs has said about our environmental obligations. The overseas territories are the custodians of, or have within their bounty, some of the most fragile ecosystems in the world, which are absolutely critical. Some are desperately conscious of this, but do not have the resources to protect and enhance, and some probably are neglectful. The thrust of evidence to the Foreign Affairs Committee was that we have an obligation. The UK cannot hide and pretend it does not have an obligation to protect such fragile ecosystems and micro-environments. We have an obligation to do that and this paper does not acknowledge it. I read the paragraphs relating to the environment and so on, but there was no acknowledgement of both our ultimate legal obligations and our moral obligations. That is why I suggest that there is a degree of abdication by us on this matter.
On the British overseas territories, the paper said that there are no citizens. Well, there are the people from the Chagos islands. No citizens are there because, shamefully, they were evicted. Recently the Foreign Affairs Committee suggested that the third generation should be extended citizenship rights. Of course, if people get citizenship rights, as these documents point out, they also get rights to European Union citizenship. The Government have ignored that in their response. I am ashamed that a Labour Government expelled such people. I look to this Labour Government to right the wrong and acknowledge it. In fairness to this Labour Government, a current or recent Minister said that this matter is shameful, that we should not have done it, but that we cannot put the clock back. However, at least we can help to heal the wounds and right the wrongs.
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Prepared 28 October 2008