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23 Apr 2009 : Column 152WH—continued

Here we are, currently celebrating the 60th anniversary of NATO. The Prime Minister went to the celebrations and made a statement to the House when he came back; yet our Spanish ally is engaged in indefensible restrictions on the movement of NATO aircraft and vessels over its airspace and in its maritime waters. I accept that the
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issue is not a British one but, at root, a NATO one. I ask the Minister and, through her, going right to the top, the Prime Minister, whether, in the 60th anniversary year of NATO, this is the moment to bring down the full force of NATO’s persuasiveness—and particularly that of the United States under its new President—and say, “Let us forget about these ridiculous restrictions, get them removed, and normalise relations between Spain and the rest of NATO with respect to Spanish airspace and maritime waters.” Is not now the moment when the strongest possible pressure should be applied by NATO as a whole to the Spanish on this issue?

I want to discuss the Turks and Caicos Islands. I was grateful to the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) for his generous personal comment at the outset of the debate. I was very glad that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) were in our trio of Committee members; they both made the most incisive and persistent contributions to unravelling what was going on in the Turks and Caicos, during our visit and subsequently.

All members of the Committee would agree that when we started our inquiry into the overseas territories we did not have any very clear idea—because we were waiting to see what evidence we would receive—which of them we would be able to visit. We were not going to be able to visit them all. They are spread, as the House knows, from the Pacific ocean through the Indian ocean to the Mediterranean, across the Atlantic and into the Caribbean: we would clearly have to pick carefully, given the time available to us, the territories that we would go to, even when we were splitting into three separate groups. It was apparent to us within a matter of weeks of issuing our press notice and calling for memorandums of evidence that a visit to the Turks and Caicos Islands would be among the highest priorities for the Committee in the course of the inquiry.

The memorandums that we received were unprecedented, in my experience on the Committee, with respect to their volume and, sinisterly, in the degree of fear that lay behind them, for those submitting them. Considerable numbers were sent anonymously because people were not prepared to divulge their names. A significant number came from people who were prepared to give their name, but who submitted the memorandum on the basis that it should be entirely private and confidential and would not be published, and that they would not be identified. Only a very few were put to the Committee on the basis that both the terms of the memorandum and the name of the sender could be published. Those appear in our report.

Mr. Pope: One of the things that I found most shocking on Turks and Caicos was that citizens of a British overseas territory were afraid to be seen in public with Members of this House, afraid to give evidence and afraid even to be seen at a reception talking to us. The only other places I have been to on overseas visits where people were in fear of talking to me as a Member of Parliament are places such as the People’s Republic of China. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that was a shocking thing?

Sir John Stanley: With his usual acuity the hon. Gentleman has anticipated the next sentences that I was going to say, almost word for word. That was indeed
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our experience when we went to the Turks and Caicos Islands. The written evidence clearly demonstrated that there was a climate of fear. When we arrived there, that was wholly confirmed. We had to arrange meetings with individuals who were prepared to see us only on condition that the place, date and time of the meeting remained absolutely a secret. Some were not prepared to see us at all, under any circumstances, because they feared that it would result in reprisals against them.

My experience was exactly the same as that described by the hon. Member for Hyndburn. The only other occasion on which I as a member of the Committee have had to meet people in such circumstances was on visits that the Committee made to the People’s Republic of China, when we had to take steps to meet political or religious dissidents in certain circumstances. That is the only other time when meetings had to be conducted in such a way, and it was truly shocking to us that such a situation was prevalent in a British overseas territory.

The Committee recommended that a commission of inquiry should be set up. The Foreign Office, to its credit, accepted the recommendation and announced the setting up of a commission of inquiry within days of our recommending it. The interim report of Sir Robin Auld has wholly vindicated our recommendation and the decision of the FCO to accept it. I shall give the House just a few sentences from Sir Robin Auld’s interim report. He stated that the Government of the territory

Andrew Mackinlay: Does not what the right hon. Gentleman has read out from the report of the independent inquiry appointed by the FCO say something about the stewardship of the Foreign Office over many years? Its man was there—I am not referring to any particular individual but to Governor after Governor. There is something wrong in London as well as in the territory on the stewardship issue.

Sir John Stanley: The hon. Gentleman shows the same acuity as the hon. Member for Hyndburn. He, too, has anticipated precisely the point that I was about to make.

I am not totally surprised that such a situation could arise in an overseas territory, as they have some considerable vulnerabilities. In this overseas territory there is a very small electorate of some 12,000 people, which is about the size of a single county council ward in my constituency. That is the totality of the electorate. Combine that with the fact that we found, extraordinarily, that while people were Ministers they were able to make pots of money for themselves, for members of their family and for
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their political cronies, and frankly, a corruption and bad governance disaster is waiting to happen, and that is precisely the situation in the Turks and Caicos.

What surprised me more than that actually occurring on the Turks and Caicos Islands was that the Foreign Office seemed to be so oblivious for so long as to what was happening. I can only take the Foreign Office’s position at face value on the basis of the memorandum that it submitted to our Committee at the start of our inquiry. I give the House the opening sentence, which states what the memorandum was meant to be about:

That is what the memorandum was all about. I reread it, and there is not one whiff of a reference to corruption, or to anxiety or even worry about what was happening on the Turks and Caicos Islands.

The Committee was in an extraordinary position: we received a lavender-scented memorandum from the Foreign Office at the same time as we were being bombarded with distinctly malodorous memorandums from the Turks and Caicos Islands across the Atlantic.

Only one of two conclusions can be drawn from such a situation. If one were cynical—I am not—one could say that the Foreign Office was out to pull the wool over the Committee’s eyes, to mislead the Committee. I do not believe that that is how present Ministers or their officials would wish to conduct themselves before the Foreign Affairs Committee. If one takes the view that the Foreign Office was not trying to pull the wool, I am afraid that only one other conclusion can be drawn: the Foreign Office was asleep on the job, or most certainly half asleep, and it simply had not woken up to what was happening on the Turks and Caicos Islands.

To be fair, this is not the first time that that has happened in respect of a British overseas territory—it is the second time. The first time was over a very long period under Conservative as well as Labour Governments. The FCO completely lost sight of what was happening over decades in the appalling child abuse scandal on the Pitcairn Islands. That went on until it was finally exposed in 1999. Twice now we have had the Foreign Office apparently not in any way keeping up to speed with what was happening in an overseas territory, and with very serious consequences as a result.

I conclude by putting some questions to the Minister. What lessons has the Foreign Office actually learned from the Turks and Caicos Islands experience? The situation is a self-evident disgrace. Surely there are profound lessons to be learned within the Foreign Office as to how it should conduct itself towards the overseas territories. What is the FCO now doing to make certain that, following the Pitcairn Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands, there are no further such repetitions?

Finally, I put this, if I may, to the Foreign Secretary: is the Foreign Office looking hard at whether it is giving the right attention to deployment of Foreign Office personnel, and the degree of calibre that attaches to those who work either in the overseas territories section of the Foreign Office in London, or in the overseas
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territories? The Minister may tell me that I am wrong, but I fear that the overseas territories section of the Foreign Office, whether at home or abroad, is seen as a backwater or cul de sac. Would someone who wants their career path to lead to permanent under-secretary of state volunteer to go into the overseas territories section of the Foreign Office? I fear not.

In the light of the Turks and Caicos situation, I hope that the Foreign Office is considering fundamentally how it is resourcing those who go into the overseas territories section. The one inescapable fact is that that part of the Foreign Office, and that alone, has ultimate responsibility for the good governance of people overseas.

3.41 pm

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I will not detain the House long, because my two colleagues have covered a lot of territory, in more ways than one, and very effectively, but I want to pick up one or two points. What disturbed me—I think you will share my view, Mr. Bercow—is the uncertainty of our assumption that the House is ultimately the Parliament for all the overseas territories. They may have delegated legislatures, but if the House decides to go to war, those territories go to war. They do not have an opt-out. This is their Parliament, and the UK Government can rescind and vary their constitutions as and when they wish.

We cannot escape our responsibility, but when we embarked on the inquiry, we discovered that there was uncertainty about whether Westminster parliamentary privilege extended to the overseas territories. I have no doubt that it does, and I was deeply disappointed that there was doubt about that. That raises important constitutional issues, and when the House considers privilege in relation to other matters, there should be no doubt that, if the writ of this place has any meaning whatever, parliamentary privilege must extend to every overseas territory. I hope that that can be addressed with dispatch, not by the Government—it may suit them if parliamentary privilege is not recognised as extending to overseas territories—but by the House.

Jeremy Corbyn: Does my hon. Friend acknowledge that that state of affairs will continue with no change while we continue with the mediaeval system of Orders in Council, whereby the Government may obtain the signature of the Head of State and bypass Parliament in its entirety, and we have no means of challenging that?

Andrew Mackinlay: My hon. Friend is absolutely correct, and if he will bear with me, I will come to Orders in Council and constitutions. I do not want to labour the point, but I want to emphasise it. The matter is a grave one for Parliament, and I was deeply disappointed by the ambiguous and uncertain advice that we received. I hesitate to say this, because I may be doing the gentleman wrong—I believe that it was Speaker’s Counsel—but it is unacceptable if parliamentary privilege does extend to overseas territories. That relates to witnesses’ anxiety, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) referred. We could not be confident that we would extend the right of parliamentary privilege to present stuff to our Select Committee. I hope that the matter will be addressed by the Government and, more importantly, the House authorities.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) referred to Orders in Council and the capacity to vary constitutions at short notice. I think the Select Committee has asked too little of the Government—28 days for notice of a variation Order in Council. An Order in Council varying the constitution of a territory, whether extending powers or rescinding them, is a grave matter and should be subject to full consultation, with plenty of time, by the Select Committee. Parliament should have an institutional mechanism so that there is good time for variations in constitutions, whether by Order in Council or any other method. We should have adequate time to examine such orders in detail and to assure ourselves that there is acquiescence not only by the territory Government, but by the Opposition parties when they exist in those overseas territories.

The issue underlines the wholly inadequate arrangements for oversight by the House of our legal and moral responsibilities for people in the overseas territories peppered around the world. It is a disgrace that, when we call ourselves a democracy, some people are denied access to this place. I regret that I could not persuade my colleagues to incorporate a robust recommendation in the report, but I invite them and the House to reflect on the matter. It is unacceptable that the overseas territories have no representation in or access to this place. As I said—I am not being flip—if we go to war, they go to war, yet they are denied that access. That is almost unique for overseas territories.

The US Congress has delegates from US Samoa, Guam and the US Virgin Islands. The National Assembly in Paris has people representing the overseas territories peppered around the world that are under the jurisdiction of the French Republic. They have access to the Assembly. The situation is similar in the Netherlands and Spain. Such representation is not only logical, but moral and democratic. We should be thoroughly ashamed that such representation is not available here. It would overcome some of the problems that my colleagues have highlighted.

The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) indicated that for years the House had assumed that the Governor of the British Virgin Islands—I am not referring to a specific individual—was competent, but that is now a serious issue. It has become clear that Governors have been incompetent, because there was no reporting back or flagging up of anxieties and there was poor governance. There was acquiescence through silence to a thoroughly unacceptable situation. We have no way of knowing whether those people are good, bad or indifferent.

At the very least—I hope that this will be done in the next Parliament—we should have a Select Committee on overseas territories and/or a Sub-Committee of the Foreign Affairs Committee to deal with overseas territories. They should have the mechanisms and duty to have dialogue, using modern technology, with the people, legislatures and governance of overseas territories, so that the Government have a hand in the matter.

A recent innovation is that representatives of the overseas territories come here once a year, and we are invited to receptions at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. They are important, and I am not dismissing them. However, there should be a week of formal hearings by the Foreign Affairs Committee or a special Committee that meets them not collectively but individually to probe and inquire into their stewardship of the overseas territories and to see whether there is a deficiency
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in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or other Departments. They may believe that they are not receiving sufficient support in overseas aid and development or in the drafting of legislation by the Ministry of Justice, or they may need advice, guidance and counsel from the Treasury.

I intervened rather testily on the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling, who was outlining things very well, but I just find it amazing that British Ministers have the audacity to get up at the Dispatch Box in the House of Commons and refer to the OECD list of jurisdictions that are deficient in terms of compliance on taxation, disclosure and so on when among them is at least one territory where the person in charge of all those things is appointed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—by the Foreign Secretary. Frankly, if there is a deficiency, the people to blame are the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Probably their officials in Whitehall have not told them the naked truth. I am telling them this afternoon: they are both the same and they are both to blame. I hope that some of the financial papers pick up on this and the Finance Ministers in the other countries will note that they cannot pretend that it is a remote problem that they are trying to get their hands on. This very afternoon, I am telling them that they are to blame. That should be addressed with some dispatch.

The Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South, also touched on the need to end discrimination in the overseas territories. That is particularly relevant given the Minister who will respond to the debate. I do not know precisely what she will say, but I find it bewildering that she would even attempt to excuse or defend acquiescence in continued discrimination on the ground of gender in overseas territories for which this place has the ultimate responsibility. That is happening and it must stop. It is a test of her veracity. I know that she is opposed to discrimination on the ground of gender and other categories of discrimination, but if she does nothing about it, she is acquiescing in it.

I was particularly exercised by the fact that there is conscription in Bermuda. I can find no reason why we should allow conscription there. The Bermuda Regiment has been delegated its funding by the local legislature and Government, but that does not excuse our allowing conscription to endure in the regiment of Bermuda. Even if I cannot persuade the House and the Minister on that, it is a fact that conscription is discriminatory. The only people who are conscripted are men. It has to stop. I find it pathetic when I hear Ministers protesting and saying, “Oh well, we’re working on it. We’re trying to do something.” The Minister needs to address the matter with some dispatch.

My final point relates to the laying of the wreaths. It defies belief that there cannot be an immediate decision on that matter. There is all this bogus nonsense about how there would be too many people and about the time factor. I have watched the Remembrance service every year since I was a lad, and what happens is that the people come up in tranches. In one big movement—it is done in a very dignified way—the high commissioners of all the Commonwealth countries move up to lay their wreaths. It takes about five seconds, and they do it with great dignity. Either we could extend that line or we could allow five or six seconds more for the wreaths of the overseas territories to be laid.

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Before the unilateral declaration of independence of Rhodesia, the representative in London of the Government of Rhodesia was given the status of high commissioner and he used to lay a wreath. There is a parallel here. The reason why I draw attention to that is that the constitutional status and relationship of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland before the break-up of the federation and the UDI was exactly the same as the constitutional relationship that exists with many of the overseas territories today—in particular, but not exclusively, Gibraltar. While I am on the subject of Gibraltar, it is amazing how Gibraltar is so critical to us, but all the overseas territories are critical to our international interests, our global reach. They have contributed to the defence of the United Kingdom. It is an enduring insult to them that this wrong has not been remedied before now. I hope that the Minister will cut through the red tape and announce a change this afternoon.

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