Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Seventh Report

6  HMG's overall approach to the Overseas Territories

428.  The Government's commitment to modernising Overseas Territories' constitutions and thereby devolving more powers to Overseas Territories poses a dilemma - having increased a Territory's level of self-government, how appropriate is it to step back in if things appear to be going wrong?[670]

429.  Our view, reflected in many of the recommendations we have already made, is that as long as the UK retains ultimate responsibility, and therefore has contingent liabilities, for an Overseas Territory, it must be willing to act on issues of very serious concern, even if they are in areas that have been devolved to local governments. Our Report has focused on governance, but other select committees have adopted the same approach in relation to other issues. The Public Accounts Committee called for greater willingness to use reserve powers to demand increases in funding of crime prevention and disaster management from local administrations and to bring in external investigators to investigate money laundering; and, for different reasons, the Environmental Audit Committee called for increased UK funding and involvement in environmental management, conclusions which we have supported in our Report.

430.  Deciding whether a governance issue is serious enough to merit intervention is a difficult assessment to make. Governors play a key role in monitoring developments, reporting them to London, and trying to persuade local governments to make improvements themselves. It is therefore crucial that individuals appointed have strong characters and good judgement. We agree with Meg Munn, who commented that being a Governor "is a Foreign and Commonwealth Office role unlike any other".[671] As the then Director of the Overseas Directorate told us, it is an "extremely demanding" role and requires "the ability to make things happen, often in environments where making things happen is not that straightforward". [672] A former diplomat, now head of consultancy BioDiplomacy, also told us that the hardest aspect of being a Governor was the ability to "remain sane and healthy in a society with which they may be unfamiliar and where support from day-to-day friendships may be lacking or compromised by their official position." [673]

431.  Meg Munn suggested that the right individual might not necessarily be a career diplomat.[674] The head of BioDiplomacy said that although a case could be made for having career diplomats as Governors, there were also questions worth asking, including whether a diplomat with a career/pension dependent on line managers in the FCO was best placed to defend the interests of the Territory in Whitehall and whether an emissary of the FCO was best placed to persuade Territory politicians over sensitive local issues.[675] The then Director of the Overseas Directorate gave us an example of a post (the Governor of St Helena) which had been advertised externally, leading to the appointment of an external candidate.[676] However, this does not appear to be usual practice.

432.  It is also vital that Governors receive proper briefing and support from London. The Public Accounts Committee has recently pointed out that the FCO has no dedicated training programme for Governors.[677] We were concerned during our inquiry to hear some witnesses allege that the Governor of the Turks and Caicos Islands had not received sufficient backup from the FCO when trying to address allegations of corruption. We also note that he had no previous Overseas Territory experience.[678]

433.  The FCO must also monitor the performance of Governors, a difficult task given that they operate in isolation, unlike, for example, Ambassadors who will have other diplomatic service staff in their Embassy.[679] Governors report back to the Director of the Overseas Territories Directorate.[680] During our visit to the Falkland Islands, the Islands' Legislative Council expressed concern about the fact that the Director is actually a more junior FCO official. When we asked Meg Munn about this, she replied:

[the FCO recruits…] people with the required skills and abilities to take on the role. It is essentially competence-based. […]Those are different roles and competences, so it is not a question of more or less experience: it is about the right competences.[681]

434.  Properly consulting and representing Overseas Territories on issues that affect them is an important part of creating the type of "modern partnership" which may prevent the need for direct intervention. We have a made a number of recommendations in this Report which we hope will strengthen the mechanisms currently in place for this. We intend to continue scrutinising the FCO's exercise of its responsibilities in relation to the Territories during the remainder of this Parliament. We trust that our successor Committees will also wish to take this obligation seriously.

435.  It is also important that the FCO lead by example on governance. We have criticised the FCO for its treatment of the Ascension Islanders in this Report. The leader of the Chagos Refugees Group also told us that the FCO's treatment of the Chagos Islanders "undermines any hope that the UK can provide an example of good governance in regard to its own citizens."[682]

436.  The head of BioDiplomacy also suggested that "an underlying issue" within the UK Government was a "tendency to see the Territories as burdens" and argued that HMG treated the Overseas Territories "as being mostly of peripheral interest[…], but […recognised] their potential to cause embarrassment to ministers, and to be the source of unwelcome contingent liabilities"[683] He highlighted two key assets of Overseas Territories, which we also recognise: their people, the overwhelming majority of whom "are loyal to the UK […and] part of Britain's heritage, as Britain is part of theirs" and the great strategic value of the geographical position of some Territories.[684] We also acknowledge that while we have highlighted governance concerns and contingent liabilities in this Report, many of the Overseas Territories have made great strides in their development and in some, standards of governance and implementation of international standards are equal to, or in fact exceed, the standards in the UK.

437.  We conclude that the Government has acted decisively in some Overseas Territories, for example in the investigations and prosecutions that took place on the Pitcairn Islands. However, in other cases which should also cause grave concern, in particular, allegations of corruption on the Turks and Caicos Islands, its approach has been too hands off. The Government must take its oversight responsibility for the Overseas Territories more seriously - consulting across all Overseas Territories more on the one hand while demonstrating a greater willingness to step in and use reserve powers when necessary on the other.

438.  We also conclude that the choice of Governor for a Territory, and the levels of training and support they are given, are crucial. We welcome the recent upgrading of the Governor post in the Turks and Caicos Islands. We recommend that the FCO should give consideration to opening up appointments of Governors more frequently to candidates outside the diplomatic service. We also recommend that the Director of the Overseas Territories Directorate should become a more senior post.

439.  Finally, the Committee concludes it is deplorable and totally unacceptable for any individual who has assisted the Committee with its inquiry to be subjected to threats, intimidation, or personal sanctions or violence in any form. If the Committee is informed of any such retaliatory measures being taken against any person who has submitted formal or informal evidence to this inquiry, it will take all appropriate steps within its powers.

670   Ev 144 Back

671   Q 275 Back

672   Q 275 Back

673   Ev 171 Back

674   Q 275 Back

675   Ev 171 Back

676   Q 275 Back

677   Public Accounts Committee, Seventeenth Report of Session 2007-08, Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Managing Risk in the Overseas Territories, HC 176, p 5 Back

678   Report by the Comptroller and Auditor General, Foreign and Commonwealth Office: Managing risk in the Overseas Territories, HC (2007-08) 4, Appendix Four Back

679   Q 277 Back

680   Except the Governor of Gibraltar, who reports back to the FCO's European Union Department. Back

681   Q 279 Back

682   Ev 105 Back

683   Ev 171 Back

684   Ev 171 Back

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