Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 261-279)


26 MARCH 2008

  Q261  Chairman: Good afternoon, Minister, and good afternoon to your colleagues. I ask members of the public who have just joined us to switch off mobile phones or put them on silent.

  Welcome, Mr. Turner and Ms Dickson. As you are aware, we are continuing this afternoon's double-hatted session with discussion of the other Overseas Territories, in which we have much wider responsibilities, both geographically and in terms of complexity, than the Minister for Europe has. Nevertheless, we are pleased to see both Ministers. Can you give us a sense of how the Foreign Office deals with the Overseas Territories overall in establishing consistency among them with regard to amendments to their constitutions? How do you decide how much self-government and responsibility we are prepared to entrust to particular territories, given their differences and complexities?

  Meg Munn: Perhaps you will permit me to say a couple of sentences first about how we approach that overall as it leads into the constitutional basis. When I first came into post, I obviously wanted to understand the relationships, so I went back to the 1999 White Paper, which clearly set out the principles on which the relationship between the Government and the Overseas Territories is worked out. Four fundamental principles basically still hold true in terms of the territories: self-determination, mutual obligations and responsibilities, freedom for them to run their own affairs to the greatest possible degree and a firm commitment from the UK to help the territories develop economically and assist them in emergencies. That is the broad framework within which we operate.

  In relation to the constitutions, the White Paper set out the view that it was important to modernise them to take account of the current situation and developments that had happened. One of the key issues is the size of the territories themselves, their capacity and what the people of the territories want to see in terms of their constitution. A negotiated process takes place. There is an important aspect. We continue to have legal obligations, in relation to which there are certain points that we will not give to them: our responsibility for international obligations, defence and, broadly, security. I think that covers the broad framework.

  Q262  Chairman: What we will not give over in the general sense is one thing, but within the different territories there are different criteria, or at least different practices, as regards the level of self-government. Could you be more specific? For example, do you make judgments about the competence of people, or the degree of influence by undesirable elements, both locally and in the region?

  Meg Munn: I do not think that is part of the discussion. Perhaps Leigh Turner, who is a bit closer to some of the ongoing negotiations, can give you a more specific response on that.

  Leigh Turner: Broadly speaking, we have principles that apply to all the Overseas Territories, which the Minister has set out. There might be a case, such as St. Helena, where the Governor retains responsibility for shipping. There might be a case, such as the Falklands Islands, where we have retained responsibility for permission to develop hydrocarbons. There will be a range of specific instances, varying from territory to territory, but we would also look at the capacity of the territory concerned. If it were a big territory, such as Bermuda or Cayman, it might have well developed institutions, compared with somewhere such as Pitcairn, which has limited capacity to run itself. There would be a sliding scale. I do not believe that we have ever said that a territory is so problematic that we cannot give it powers.

  Q263  Chairman: But in the case of Pitcairn, which has so few people, you cannot give it many powers, can you?

  Meg Munn: In relation to Pitcairn, clearly the structures and the way in which it operates are different from the way in which Cayman or Bermuda operate. There is a locally elected body, but it is clearly at a different level.

  Q264  Mr. Keetch: What about human rights—for example, a Bill of Rights? On legislation covering, for example, homosexual equality and civil marriages, would you require all overseas territories to have the same level of what we might call western European human rights views, as opposed to the different tradition that some of those territories might have on some of those issues?

  Meg Munn: There is a range of positions within what you said. In terms of UN conventions, the British Government are responsible for those, including in the territories, so we want the territories to be able to sign up to them and to have them as part of their legislation and the like. That has been one of the things that I have been particularly concerned about. At the Overseas Territories Consultative Council we discussed the fact that some territories had not signed up, particularly to some key conventions, and we want that to happen. In terms of the constitutions that are now being discussed for territories that have not put new constitutions in place, our view is that they should include issues relating to human rights, so that is part of the negotiation. Where there is a difference, we do not intend to say that territories must enact, for example, civil partnerships. That is not something we have gone that far with currently. It is an issue that I was questioned about at great length when I visited Cayman, which expressed concern that signing up to human rights within its constitution would automatically mean that it would have to have civil partnerships. That was not our view.

  Q265  Mr. Keetch: So, to be clear, you will not insist that any overseas territory would have to write civil marriages into its constitution.

  Meg Munn: No.

  Q266  Mr. Illsley: You gave the example of the Falkland Islands and said that the Government's permission would be needed to develop hydrocarbons. Is that what you meant—that the Falkland Islands would need the Government's permission to develop the hydrocarbon industry?

  Leigh Turner: What happens at the moment is that the Falkland Islanders have, in a number of cases, requested permission to license areas of hydrocarbon development. Those permissions have been granted and the development of hydrocarbons is going ahead, but if there were to be a major new change of policy on hydrocarbons, for example in relation to licensing a number of major new areas of Falkland Islands' waters, we would expect that to be cleared with us.

  Q267  Mr. Illsley: Does that imply that Her Majesty's Government own the rights to hydrocarbons around the Falklands? I know that issue is part of the negotiations on the new constitution.

  Leigh Turner: No, the Falkland Islands own the resources about which we are talking. But the point is that we regard something as important as the development of hydrocarbons as having potential international implications so it is right that we have some sort of handle on it.

  Q268  Mr. Illsley: Does that mean income as well as some sort of input and responsibility? Will HMG demand an income from any revenues from hydrocarbons?

  Meg Munn: We have not yet got to the position where any have been located. That would be a discussion we would have with the Falkland Islanders.

  Q269  Mr. Illsley: But will the Government be looking to obtain an income stream from that development?

  Meg Munn: That would be part of negotiations with the Falkland Islanders. They have not found any so we have not had that discussion.

  Mr. Illsley: I will take that as a "yes" then.

  Q270  Chairman: We will come on to some detailed questions about the Falklands later. At the moment, may I focus on more general questions? This may seem academic, but I think I should ask the question anyway. Could an overseas territory be granted independence without a referendum taking place in that territory?

  Meg Munn: The Government's position is that that is the way by which we would expect a territory to indicate that it wanted to have independence, but that does not rule out other mechanisms that might be acceptable—for example, if a political party went into an election on the basis that it would pursue independence and there was a clear majority for that party. We would have to look at each circumstance, but our position is that a referendum is the preferred route.

  Q271  Chairman: At the moment, because of changes with regard to relationships with the European Union, but also because of their own desire, there is not a pressing demand for independence in any overseas territory, is there?

  Meg Munn: I have not heard any territory Government express that view, but there are varying views. Certainly, when I was in Cayman they were in the process of constitutional discussions and some people wanted greater independence but still wanted to keep a link with the UK. I was clear about the issues on which we would not negotiate. Beyond that, I have not heard any expressions of a desire for independence.

  Q272  Mr. Moss: I was part of the delegation that went to Bermuda and as you well know, it had its referendum some years ago. It was put to us strongly that many people there would be against the second proposal to which you alluded, whereby a party could go into an election with a manifesto commitment to have independence. If you look at the results of the last Bermuda election, the percentage difference in votes was tiny. If there is a low turnout, there would be a move towards independence on less than 50% of the popular vote. Are you suggesting that would be acceptable?

  Meg Munn: No, which is why I was saying that if a territory wanted to go for independence on the basis of something other than a referendum, it would entirely depend on the circumstances. If a political party went into an election saying that it wanted independence and received 90%. of the vote, that would be a different situation from the scenario that you have described. We would want to consider that matter.

  Q273  Mr. Moss: May I turn to the appointment and role of Governors? What level of consultation does the FCO carry out with the Governments of the Overseas Territories before Governors are appointed?

  Meg Munn: There is a discussion with the particular overseas territory, ahead of the Governor's appointment, about the characteristics, experience and so on that they think are important to the position. That happens before the advertising and recruitment takes place.

  Q274  Mr. Moss: Is there any evidence to suggest that relations are improved if the appointment of, say, the Deputy Governor is a local appointment?

  Meg Munn: Not necessarily. Sometimes it can be the other way around, because we are talking about relatively small communities. Even the larger overseas territories are still, in our terms, relatively small communities, and there can sometimes be friction due to the long personal or political histories of people who are appointed as Deputy Governor. On another occasion, they can be somebody who is perfectly acceptable to, and enjoys the respect of, a range of people, so there is no clear correlation from appointing somebody who is local.

  Leigh Turner: In a number of recently agreed constitutions, there has been a slight trend towards Deputy Governors being locally appointed. We think that it is a good thing in principle; the question is how well it works in practice, and we are still sucking it and seeing.

  Q275  Mr. Moss: What are the key criteria that you consider when appointing a Governor?

  Meg Munn: I shall ask Leigh to give you a little more detail about the experience of appointments, but generally, one of the things that we bear in mind in the appointment of Governors is that it is a Foreign and Commonwealth Office role unlike any other. For people who have had experience in a number of other posts or missions in the Foreign Office, it demands a range of skills and abilities in addition to those that they have, so the right person may not necessarily be somebody who has had a career in the Foreign Office. People who have spent time in the Overseas Territories Directorate often make good Governors, but there is a range of specific issues.

  Leigh Turner: The basic principle, as for any other appointment, is that we want to get the best possible person to do the job. It is extremely demanding: it requires a good understanding of policy and, what we call these days, delivery issues—the ability to make things happen, often in environments where making things happen is not that straightforward. We have recruited several Governors while I have been in this job, and in some cases we have had a good field from within the diplomatic service or we have trawled Whitehall. On one occasion, in the case of the Governor of St. Helena, we recruited together with DFID, because it has large interests there, and we ended up advertising externally. We had 147 applicants before the deadline—a few came in after—and we appointed somebody from outside the diplomatic service, although they had Overseas Territories experience. It is a range of things.

  We have just appointed in the Turks and Caicos Islands somebody who does not have OT experience, but has a range of other experience operating in small posts—a very experienced character. In other cases, we try wherever possible to appoint people with direct experience.

  Q276  Mr. Moss: Are you saying that there are in place mechanisms that the Foreign Office can use if there is a problem with an incumbent Governor?

  Leigh Turner: Do you mean if somebody has already been appointed?

  Mr. Moss: Yes.

  Leigh Turner: That was not what I was saying.

  Q277  Mr. Moss: All right. May I extend the question to ask you whether such mechanisms are in place?

  Leigh Turner: Certainly, as with any other appointment. It has not happened in recent memory, not while I have been in the job, but we monitor the performance of our Governors very carefully. We try to keep very close communications with them. They operate in quite remote environments, and often they are the only people of their type there. It is not like being an ambassador in a big post, with a lot of ambassadorial colleagues, so we try to offer Governors as much support as we can and stay in close touch with them to ensure that they are doing a good job, which, I am happy to say, they all are.

  Q278  Mr. Moss: Why was the decision taken to upgrade the posting of the Governor to the Turks and Caicos Islands?

  Leigh Turner: Basically, we always look at all our posts, and we try to ensure that we have resources in the right place. We looked carefully at TCI, and we had been considering upgrading it for quite a while. Partly as a result of more flexibility in the way we are allowed to move resources around within Foreign Office budgets, which came to my aid, we were able to upgrade that post, which seemed to us an important one, in which we could use even more fire power than we had already.

  Q279  Mr. Moss: Should the head of the Overseas Territories Directorate be a less experienced official than the Governor who is reporting back to him?

  Leigh Turner: That is not really a question for me to answer.

  Meg Munn: I think that the process within the Foreign Office is to recruit people with the required skills and abilities to take on the role. It is essentially competence-based. That is the process for all posts. Some of the skills and abilities that one needs to run the Overseas Territories Directorate would overlap with what was needed to be a Governor, but some would be different. Someone who was a director of the Overseas Territories Directorate might well make a good Governor, but they might not. Those are different roles and competences, so it is not a question of more or less experience: it is about the right competences.

  Chairman: You touched in a previous answer on the Turks and Caicos Islands. May we now focus on those?

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