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23 Apr 2009 : Column 147WH—continued

Following the conclusion of the inquiry, the Committee decided to look at that issue as part of our ongoing human rights work. We will be taking evidence from the Foreign Secretary in June regarding the Department’s human rights annual report, when we will doubtless have the opportunity to raise that and other matters.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): I am delighted to hear that the Committee will hold that further inquiry, which is certainly required. I am sure that the Committee respects the desire of many Chagossians to return not just to the outer islands, but ultimately to Diego Garcia. Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the US’s treatment of those islands, particularly for the purposes of rendition, might well change if the Chagossians were allowed to return? Will his inquiry also look at the nature of the lease that the US has with the UK with regard to the future conditions under which the US can occupy that island?

Mike Gapes: We have already received a number of written submissions from various organisations and individuals, including some hon. Members, on exactly those matters. When we conclude our report, we will no doubt have lots of submissions and evidence to take into account, but I cannot prejudge what the report will say. It would be remiss of me to speculate on that, because I am dependent upon the decisions of my colleagues. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear!”] My colleagues agree vigorously.

The Committee also concluded that any resolution of the UK sovereignty dispute with Mauritius over the British Indian Ocean Territory must take the Chagossians’ wishes into account. However, the Government response states simply that discussions about the cession of the territory would be

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and that

That does not quite go as far as we would like, and I hope that, if and when that matter is on the agenda, the Government will give it further consideration.

A further issue has recently arisen as a result of reports coming out of the United States. An article in The Daily Telegraph on 30 March 2009 quotes documentation that has been revealed in the United States. It shows that the US had planned to use Diego Garcia, rather than Guantanamo Bay, as the place to hold al-Qaeda people and others whom they picked up in Afghanistan and elsewhere. That article quotes Karen Greenberg of the New York university school of law, who interviewed a number of the senior military officers involved in setting up the camp for a new book called, “The Least Worst Place”. The article states:

That means that, as far as we are aware, thankfully, there was no torture by waterboarding in Diego Garcia and no complicity on the part of the British Government in that action. That shows the importance of the European Court of Human Rights, the European convention on human rights and the international legal standards that we have in this country and this continent. Even though the US military have total control of Diego Garcia, in practice they did not think it possible to use it as the Indian ocean equivalent of Guantanamo Bay.

I shall mention a number of other issues before I conclude. In correspondence with us, the Government have confirmed that the question of overseas territory representatives being able to lay a wreath at the cenotaph on Remembrance Sunday is still under consideration. Given that we have six months in which to make the arrangements, I hope that a decision will be made and we will soon be informed of the outcome.

On human rights in general, we recommended that the Government should take steps to ensure that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender status is made illegal in all overseas territories. The Government have subsequently informed us that they raised the matter at the Overseas Territories Consultative Council, but that

In places that are British territory, someone can be discriminated against without any redress if they happen to have a different sexual orientation. That is not just in the Caribbean; concerns have also been expressed by people from Gibraltar who have contacted me about the issue.

Mr. Pope: The British Government have a legal obligation under the European convention that applies to Gibraltar—there is case law that says it applies to Gibraltar—so it is reasonable for us to ask what the Government are going to do about the matter.

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Mike Gapes: The Minister has heard that point and I hope she will respond to it.

We also raised the issue of the so-called rights of non-belongers and wanted that to be an item on the OTCC’s agenda. I understand that it was discussed at last October’s meeting. However, we were told that there was resistance to change by the representatives of the overseas territories. The Minister told us:

I would be grateful for an update on that and if the Minister could tell us whether there has been any progress. Clearly, in some cases people who are very long-term residents do not have full rights within the societies in which they are resident.

The Committee also expressed concerns about environmental issues. Some overseas territories are almost unique environments and have important wildlife, fauna and flora. However, difficulties have been caused by rapacious development—such as that on the Turks and Caicos Islands—insufficient consideration and, sometimes, insufficient funding.

We took the view that the environmental funding that the UK currently provides to the overseas territories is grossly inadequate and should be increased. We described the Government’s position as “highly negligent”. They acknowledged that more could be done to help the territories tackle environmental issues, which are not so much a matter for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as for the Government as a whole. The Government said that

That group met on 15 January. If possible, I would like to know the outcome of that meeting and whether any progress has been made. Are other Departments with responsibility for these issues coming forward? Is the FCO taking the matter any further?

Finally, I turn to the question of a claim made to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf for the sea bed around Ascension Island and the other places I have mentioned. It is a matter not just for the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, the South Sandwich Islands and the British Antarctic Territory; it has wider implications. A claim has been made with regard to the Falklands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, but a similar claim should be made with regard to Ascension Island. However, the Government informed us that in May 2008, they formally notified the commission that they would not make a full submission to define the continental shelf beyond 200 miles in the British Antarctic Territory, although they reserve the right to do so. On the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, the Government said that they were still considering an approach to the commission.

The deadline for submissions is May 2009, so I would be grateful if I heard whether the Government’s considerations have concluded and whether there will be a submission on the limits of the continental shelf in the areas I mentioned. In an answer given in December,
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the Minister said there had been no developments at that time, but I would be grateful if I heard whether there have been any since, given that it is nearly May.

There are other issues on which I could have touched. I have not discussed all the 14 overseas territories in detail, and I apologise to residents of those territories—I hope that my colleagues will pick on other matters.

Let me say in passing that the Committee’s report was long overdue. I hope that our successor Committee—whoever its members are—will look at these issues again relatively early in the next Parliament. Our work has shown the importance of keeping the FCO on its toes. It is also important that there are people of sufficient status and weight in the Department itself who can really make a difference.

It is also important that the choice of governors is given careful consideration, so that we have the right people in place. Governors have to deal with sometimes difficult political environments and personality issues, as well as fractious politics, in what are often very small communities where everybody knows everybody else. It is sometimes more difficult to deal with issues in such societies than it is in larger communities, which one might think would have bigger problems. In small communities, everybody knows everybody else’s business, and when misdemeanours occur, people sometimes do not want to take the risk of talking to strangers about them.

What we discovered in the Turks and Caicos Islands was a vindication of the work of our Committee, the House and hard-working Members of Parliament. Even though the Evening Standard might denounce us, we doour job and we are proud of the job that we do. Frankly, if we did not do it, there would be even more serious problems—not just in the overseas territories but elsewhere in the world.

3.13 pm

Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): I am glad to follow the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), who used his excellent and extremely well-judged speech to bring out all the salient issues with which the Committee dealt in its important inquiry.

As has been said, this is the first time for well in excess of 15 years that the Foreign Affairs Committee has carried out an inquiry into the overseas territories en bloc, although we have dealt with them in a considerable number of other reports. We have done reports on individual territories, such as Gibraltar, and we have had occasion to refer to the overseas territories in our annual response to the Foreign Office’s human rights report. The present report was, however, a major undertaking, and I am glad that hon. Members have an opportunity to debate it and the Government’s response.

For reasons that will become apparent, I shall focus much of what I want to say on the Turks and Caicos Islands. Before I do, however, I want to cover two other issues. I start with an important comment that the Chancellor of the Exchequer made in his statement following the G20 summit, when he said:

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In his subsequent contribution, the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench Treasury spokesman, the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), asked a very precise and pertinent question of the Chancellor:

Although the Chancellor made some generalised comments about tax havens in response to the hon. Gentleman, he signally failed to answer that precise question. He must have had the answer; he had referred to the OECD report, so he must have had it in his brief. Surely his officials would have told him how many of the countries on the OECD’s “name and shame” list were British overseas territories. However, the Chancellor declined to give an answer. I do not know why he did, but perhaps it was because he judged that it might have been something of an embarrassment to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The answer to the question asked by the hon. Member for Twickenham as to how many overseas territories are on the OECD’s “name and shame” tax haven list is seven. I come to a slightly different score from the Chairman of the Committee in terms of the total number of overseas territories—I make it 15, but he and I will have a discussion as to which bit of Antarctica we have or have not missed out. However, it does not really matter whether it is 14 or 15. Three of them have no permanent resident populations. The fact is—this is a matter of considerable concern—that more than half of our British overseas territories are on the OECD’s “name and shame” list for tax havens. I will be glad to help the House by naming the territories concerned. They are Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands—

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir John Stanley: I will just finish, if I may. The others are Gibraltar, Montserrat and the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Andrew Mackinlay: The reason why I erupted is that financial regulation on the Cayman Islands is wholly the responsibility of the United Kingdom Government. In their jurisdiction, over which they have responsibility, the British Government here in London—not the overseas territory’s Government—are acquiescing in something that offends the OECD guidelines, and that is happening with their full knowledge and full consent. On the Cayman issue, therefore, they do not even have the fig leaf of suggesting that these things are happening because the overseas territory Government and legislature are dragging their feet.

Sir John Stanley: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, but even if there is a slightly lesser degree of delegation in the case of the Cayman Islands, the ultimate responsibility for ensuring that all seven of the British overseas territories that I mentioned are removed from the OECD’s “name and shame” list still lies with the British Government.

Does the Minister agree that it is somewhere towards shocking that half the British overseas territories are on the OECD’s “name and shame” list for tax havens? If she does agree that that is pretty shocking, will she tell
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us what steps the Government will take to ensure that not one single British overseas territory will be on the OECD list when it is next published?

I want to talk now about Gibraltar. I have not so far been wholly complimentary about the Foreign Office’s performance with respect to the overseas territories, but as—I hope—a reasonably fair-minded sort of guy, I want to say that I think its performance on Gibraltar has, under the present Government, been much better than under the previous Conservative Government. In particular, the Government have brought home the 2006 Cordoba agreement, which was a signal achievement. It involved the solution of a series of issues that had previously been regarded as intractable: the airport issue, the border control issue, the wretched Spanish pensions issue, which had gone on for ever, and the issue of the number of telephone lines from outside that would be allowed into Gibraltar.

In addition, on a matter that, as Members of the House may know, is close to my heart, the Cordoba agreement paved the way to enabling the whole EU to ratify the 1996 Hague convention on the international protection of children. That was an important and significant achievement, but—and I am afraid there is a “but”—there is still one big issue outstanding. I do not mean sovereignty, because that is unresolved and probably will be for the foreseeable future. The remaining big issue is the continuing refusal of the Spanish Government to allow NATO aircraft and naval vessels into Spanish airspace or waters when they are going to and from Gibraltar.

That is an issue that the Foreign Affairs Committee has returned to again and again. In our 2003 report on Gibraltar we urged the ending of those restrictions by the Spanish Government, and we did so again in the report on the overseas territories that we have before us. Our recommendation in that report is clear:

I am very disappointed by the lack of robustness of the Foreign Office’s response to our recommendation, which was:

That is truly supine. I dug out some earlier parliamentary questions that I tabled, and the tenor of that response to the Committee’s latest report is almost the same as an answer that I got to a question I tabled for the Secretary of State for Defence seven years ago. The answer that I received on 31 October 2002 on the same issue was:

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