Relations between the EU and the Overseas Countries and Territories

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Mr. Borrow: On that point, does my hon. Friend agree that it would be wise of the Government, having been successful in the case of the Chagos islands in the House of Lords last week, to adopt a constructive, conciliatory approach to see if the wrongs that have been done in the past can be righted by discussion and negotiation, without the threat of legal action, which has been the excuse for not having constructive dialogue for many months?
Andrew Mackinlay: Yes, of course. I do not wish to digress, but the matter is relevant because the document says that there are no citizens there. That is why I raised the issue.
On European Union norms, the document also relates to access to the jurisdiction of the European Court. In my view, having read the document twice, everyone in the territories and, by inference, the people from the Chagos islands, can and should have access to the European Courts. We should welcome that. However, the Minister’s clarification on that point would be welcome.
The document says that the overseas territories are not members of, or subject to, Europol. That is interesting, because clearly and demonstrably they should be and I think that that was the view of Her Majesty’s Government. My reaction is: let us get on with it and ensure that they are subject to the various law enforcement agencies of the European Union and western Europe. That would be a good idea. I suspect that the territories of the other countries that I mentioned are subject to such agencies.
I was sorry to see the previous Minister leave her post. She was dismissed, although I do not use that word unkindly. The trouble is that too many Ministers are dismissed too often here. There is never a settlement, so it does not matter how talented the current Minister is because she cannot—I am not knocking her—be on top of the brief. Under a system whereby Prime Ministers are fickle and change people around, there is a cost and loss to Parliament, because, demonstrably, new Ministers have to learn things again.
The previous Minister was cognisant of the deficiencies in law and order in some overseas territories. To her credit, she appointed somebody to investigate the stewardship, conduct and government of the Turks and Caicos Islands and that person is about to embark on that investigation. It took the Foreign Affairs Committee to reveal that. As you know, Mr. Pope, at best the Committee was only able to have a cursory look at some overseas territories. However, again, the Foreign Office hides behind the governors, and the Government and the Opposition are reliant on them. In many cases, we do not know whether a governor is good, bad or indifferent. In some cases, in my view, they have been indifferent and that needs to be remedied. Of course, if I were in France, the Netherlands or Denmark, I would probably know because they send a representative to their legislature, but that does not happen here.
There are European norms on issues such as discrimination. We know that there is a significant disparity in our overseas territories regarding things such as sexual orientation discrimination and gender discrimination. The British Government should say to the European Union, “We think there should be a constant European norm in our overseas territories in that regard.” We can say to the national legislatures, “Look, you can implement your own domestic legislation, but it has to be within these parameters and it is now time that you did it.” Of course, there is a precedent for that because the United Kingdom did it in respect of the abolition of capital punishment. However, for reasons that I cannot understand, Her Majesty’s Government and the Opposition acquiesce by their silence in standards that are not acceptable or up to European Union norms. This was an opportunity for the United Kingdom to proclaim that it was going to act and, if there was any similar disparity in the overseas territories of the other three countries, we could have shown the way.
Mr. Borrow: Will my hon. Friend comment on the difference between the UK position and its overseas territories, and France and most of its overseas territories? As French overseas territories are directly represented in the French Assembly, the same law that applies to mainland France also applies to, for example, the islands of the Caribbean in relation to many of these issues?
Andrew Mackinlay: I am totally at one with my hon. Friend. I am certain that there is no disparity between France and its territories. However, as I have said, we—this United Kingdom Parliament, of which I am a Member, and the Government, who are answerable to this Parliament—acquiesce by our silence in that disparity. Possibly that might be news to the Minister, in which case I hope she will stand up and say, “I will not put up with this any further. I will instruct Sir Peter Ricketts and all those people to get a move on and bring forward an order whereby we can get these norms into existence.”
It is worth noting that paragraph 27 of the Foreign Affairs Committee report states:
“We agree with the Environmental Audit Committee”—
a Committee of this House—
“that the Government does not appear to have carried out any kind of strategic assessment of Overseas Territories’ funding requirements for conservation and ecosystem management. We conclude that given the vulnerability of Overseas Territories’ species and ecosystems, this lack of action by the Government is highly negligent.”
The report goes on to say that
“the FCO cannot abdicate responsibility for setting levels of funding given its knowledge of Overseas Territories’ capacity and resources.”
On the occasion of considering this European document, this debate, the view of the Environmental Audit Committee and that of the Foreign Affairs Committee should send a message to the Government—and, if I might say, the Opposition too, who also have obligations with regard to this matter—that they should have a root and branch review of our attitudes to the overseas territories. This situation cannot go on any longer and if we do not act, we will suffer substantial embarrassment, as we did in relation to the Pitcairn Islands. I hope the Minister will acknowledge that some of these matters are a high priority for her.
The Chairman: I apologise to Jo Swinson for calling her second to speak, but Mr. Mackinlay was so swift on his feet, I called him instead.
5.14 pm
Jo Swinson: I should have leapt to my feet more quickly, Mr. Pope, so that is not a problem at all.
I shall briefly make several points about the overseas territories and the documents that we are discussing. Obviously, the relationship between UK overseas territories and the EU is important, not least for the 140,000 people who live in those territories. To pick up on a point made by the hon. Member for Thurrock, it strikes me that those people add up to the equivalent of two parliamentary constituencies.
The Minister referred to the vulnerability of overseas territories, and how, if that is measured by poverty and GDP per capita, many do not fall into a vulnerable category. However, they are vulnerable in terms of environmental protection and the impact of climate change on what are mainly island states, as well as to natural disasters, as we saw recently with Hurricane Ike in the Turks and Caicos Islands.
I was in Cuba during the summer and had the opportunity to meet officers from the British vessel, Wave Ruler, which patrols in that area throughout the year. I confess that I was somewhat ignorant about the excellent work done by the Ministry of Defence and the British officers out there. The event that the ambassador organised was very informative, and I thought it worth putting on the record the gratitude and relief that I and, I am sure, other hon. Members feel for their hard work in dealing with drug smuggling and counter-narcotic activities, but when there is an emergency, such as a hurricane, they can slip in in its wake, even before the aid agencies arrive, to provide basic assistance in the first hours after it strikes. I know that that was welcomed when the devastation hit the islands.
I want to pick up on some of the points made by the hon. Member for Thurrock, and to underline the importance of environmental protection in our overseas territories. The British Virgin Islands have been described in the UN environmental vulnerability index as being extremely vulnerable. Climate change has been transformed since the last review 10 years ago, so it is right that environmental protection and measures to mitigate and to adapt to climate change must be in the Government’s mind when they respond to the Green Paper and produce the finished document. The situation now is totally different from that of a decade ago.
I am a member of the Environmental Audit Committee, which heard evidence from the UK overseas territories conservation forum during our recent inquiry into biodiversity. It said that the Government’s approach to environmental protection “remains fragmentary and inadequate”. The Foreign Affairs Committee’s report also highlighted that, and we heard evidence that there are 240 globally endangered species just in the UK overseas territories, 74 of which are on the critical list. The importance of the problem cannot be overstated.
The Government may utter warm words, but I want to know—perhaps the Minister will tell the Committee today or take the matter up later—what they will do to respond to the Foreign Affairs Committee’s report and the claims and criticisms that the Environmental Audit Committee made in subsequent reports in recent years. It is important that the Government act.
In the context of funding streams, there is a danger that we are asking the EU to do what the Government are unwilling to do. The Green Paper states that
“questions are being asked about the interest of having the Community promote the sustainable development of the OCTs...where a Member State has ceased to provide direct bilateral development assistance to some of its own OCTs.”
If we are not doing what we need to do, we are in a weak position if we then argue about what the EU should do.
I welcome the brief discussion about the Chagos islanders, about whom an appalling decision was made. It is important that the Government not only get things right for territories that are inhabited, but have a proper management regime for territories that are not. I draw the Committee’s attention to the rendition flights that went through Diego Garcia. We were told that they had not happened, but it was later admitted that two such flights had gone through Diego Garcia, although how much confidence we can have in that, when, effectively, the American Government had already misinformed us about the flights, is debatable. In the light of such information, the UK Government need to rethink how they manage their territories with regard to protecting human rights around the world.
Andrew Mackinlay: In the longer version of the hon. Lady’s speech, as in mine, I would have drawn attention to the fact that a great refugee problem from Haiti is hitting and over-burdening some of our overseas territories, yet there is no constant Royal Navy presence in those areas. It is not seen as a core business for the Royal Navy to protect and resist, but in the interests of the United Kingdom and of the European Union, we need to address the issue. In a sense, it involves one of our borders, because if one gets into an overseas territory and works for citizenship, one gets European Union citizenship. Should not our Foreign Office use our armed forces to protect and promote the borders of the overseas territories against the refugee problem from Haiti and elsewhere?
Jo Swinson: The hon. Gentleman certainly makes a lot of sense, but the armed forces are hugely overstretched—in part due to the dismal failure of our efforts in Iraq, which the Government, again, should rethink. However, rather than stray too far, I was about to conclude my remarks, and I do so now.
5.21 pm
Gillian Merron: I thank the Committee for discussing this important matter, which is about the links between the EU and the overseas territories and how we might improve them. It is worth restating that Britain’s close links with the overseas territories are based on partnership and on mutual responsibilities and obligations.
I shall make a few general points before going on to some of the specifics that have been raised in the debate. I re-emphasise to the Committee the importance of those links, and, in that context, the Government welcome the Green Paper as a valuable contribution to the start of a renegotiation of the overseas association decision. I am encouraged that the process has started early and is being conducted openly and transparently, and I wish that to continue. The Green Paper poses a number of questions, and it is helpful that the Commission has taken a close look at the current relationship and suggested areas where we, collectively, might concentrate our efforts for the good of all the overseas countries and territories. As today’s debate has clearly demonstrated, the relationship between the EU and our overseas countries and territories covers many areas and provokes a range of views, and, frankly, it demands change.
Although the Commission has not yet posted on its website its responses to the Green Paper, hon. Members will be interested to know that the Joint Nature Conservation Committee’s response focuses on the importance of environmental issues and sustainable development, and that features in the Green Paper. It is also worth saying that although some areas will be challenging to us, there is some recognition of the tremendous opportunities for the overseas territories. For example, the Commission holds the opinion that overseas countries and territories should be regarded as centres of excellence, and that gives us huge opportunities to move forward.
As I said in my opening remarks, there are still some five years before any new association or partnership comes into effect, and, for the overseas countries and territories and the European Union, there will no doubt be many new developments during that time. Whatever the future holds, however, I restate to hon. Members that we will continue to work closely with the overseas territories on the future of their relationship with the EU. We have not ruled anything out, and I look forward to hearing how the Commission plans to take forward the renegotiation of the overseas association decision. The first opportunity will be at the annual forum, which takes place in the Cayman Islands next month. I want to encourage territory leaders, as I meet them over the next few days, to continue to engage with the process. I will be restating that point.
I turn now to specific points raised by Committee members; if I have missed any, I am more than happy to write to them. On the Turks and Caicos Islands and corruption, I pay tribute to the Foreign Affairs Committee for raising a number of concerns and allegations that led to a commission of inquiry being appointed to examine whether corruption and serious dishonesty in relation to past and present Members of the Turks and Caicos Islands House of Assembly may have taken place in recent years. As my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock has mentioned, that inquiry will be led by the right hon. Sir Robin Auld. There has been a delay; the inquiry will not be able to report until mid-February, as a result of the hurricane. However, a number of additional steps have already been taken in the Turks and Caicos to reduce the scope for corruption, including the establishment of an integrity commission, the human rights commissioner, complaints commissioner, a ministerial code and a public service code of ethics and integrity, the appointment of an experienced chief auditor and the adoption of a comprehensive proceeds of crime ordinance. I want the Committee to be aware that the investigation will continue, but that there is no sitting back and waiting. I look forward to seeing the results of the investigation.
The hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire also made generous comments, which I will relay back, on the UK response to the hurricane. I thank her for those comments. In terms of preparedness, there is no doubt that there were tremendous moves forward. There were no casualties, although there could have been. The Committee should acknowledge the improvements that have been made. British advisers and additional staff provided support before and after the storm. HMS Iron Duke and RFA Wave Ruler landed personnel and provided aerial reconnaissance and emergency assistance in the immediate aftermath and the Department for International Development contributed to the immediate relief effort through the Red Cross and the Pan-American Health Organisation, as well as moneys for the supply of the Royal Navy ships. We will continue to work closely with the Turks and Caicos Government in support of efforts to repair the damage that was done.
My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock and the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire mentioned the important matter of the environment. Committee members may be aware that we already have a number of projects funded by the overseas territories environment programme—an FCO and DFID-funded programme of some £1 million a year—to eradicate rodents and invasive plants, for example, in the territories. I would be happy to make further detail available on that. My general point is that we, as a Government, take our environmental responsibilities seriously, in this regard and in others. The territory Governments are responsible for the environment. The British Antarctic Territory is a world leader in environmental stewardship. Fishery management in South Georgia has been certified as meeting the highest global standards. I use those as examples of the commitment that we have shown, but, again, our commitment, directly and through the EU, will continue.
My hon. Friend raised the matter of voting in the European Parliament. I understand that this proposal has not been raised by the Governments of the territories. The wish has not been expressed as yet. I am not aware that it is forthcoming.
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Prepared 28 October 2008