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23 Apr 2009 : Column 172WH—continued

Will the Minister update us on that, given that the Government response was published in September 2008? Presumably that meeting has taken place. The feasibility study or the strategic assessment might be well under way.

Finally, I turn to witness protection and the Turks and Caicos Islands. It was stunning to hear the tales of Select Committee members receiving evidence from people who were too scared to put their name to what they were saying about corruption. The Leader of the Opposition in the TCI spoke of a

That is clearly unacceptable. The Committee is to be commended for securing the evidence and for treating people in a sensitive and confidential manner. That is not an environment that we want to see continue. The Government have acted on the issues in the TCI, but the wider issue of witness protection has been raised. I understand that some territories in the Caribbean are working together on a justice protection Bill to give effect to an inter-territory witness protection scheme. What progress has been made on that?

The report exemplifies the fact that the work of Select Committees is a vital part of what happens in the House. It is important to the scrutiny of Government and to the quality of debate. It ensures that hon. Members are well informed. Witnesses, in particular British citizens,
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must therefore be free to talk openly and honestly to Members of Parliament. Without such frank evidence, Select Committees cannot continue to function in the way that they do. That is an appropriate point to end on and I hope that the Government will point to some progress on ensuring that this situation will not arise again.

4.54 pm

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): It is a great privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow.

I too congratulate the Chairman of the Select Committee and its members on their work. In particular, I congratulate them on their work on the Turks and Caicos Islands. It is rare that a Select Committee report shows an immediate cause and effect. A number of us fear that all too often, Select Committee reports come under the “so what?” category. From my experience of working in Whitehall 20 years ago, the dear old Minister of Defence was only ever frightened of one parliamentary Committee. That was the Public Accounts Committee because it had the National Audit Office at its disposal to break in and enter. Of course, the Treasury finally got the PAC reports and found out that the Minister of Defence had perhaps not been telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The Foreign Affairs Committee is to be congratulated.

I endorse the view of the Chairman of the Select Committee that it is easy for journalists and others to criticise overseas trips. The Foreign Affairs Committee certainly has a greater right to them than others. There are colleagues who could be described as members of the all-party surf and sand group because they sometimes go overseas for reasons that are not well defended. However, in this case there is a definite example of how a Select Committee, by going out into the field, obtained the necessary evidence. It not only brought to light widespread corruption and intimidation, but enabled the Foreign Office to carry out its duties.

It is regrettable that we are only now debating a report and departmental reply from last September. The advantage is that we have come up to date in the cases of the Turks and Caicos Islands and the Chagossians. I will touch briefly on three or four substantial issues that have emerged not only from the report, but from the contributions of hon. Members in this debate.

In 1999 the Government introduced the White Paper, “Partnership for Progress and Prosperity” on overseas territories. I had concluded before the debate and am now convinced that there should be another White Paper on this issue, whether under this Government or the next in a year’s time. From the report and from issues that have been raised today, it is clear that we need a reassessment of the relationship between the British Government and the overseas territories. There must be a strategic vision.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) put his finger on an important point when he spoke of the section of the Foreign Office that deals with overseas territories. One has to be sensitive because one is referring to officials who put as much time and work as they can into dealing with the issue. There is no doubt in my mind or in the minds of others that the section of the Foreign Office that deals with overseas territories does not immediately attract
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the young, ambitious thrusters. I may be wrong, but I suspect that Sir Nigel Sheinwald was never involved in overseas territories. He will have shimmered through other so-called more important issues.

However, any of us who study history—particularly the history of the Foreign Office—know that areas that are regarded as backwaters sometimes become very important. I suspect that the poor devil in the Foreign Office in the early 1920s who was dealing with Czechoslovakia and who was told that it was not an area that would be important was much in demand circa 1937-38. My serious question for the Minister is, how many officials in the Foreign Office are dealing with overseas territories? I suspect that it is an enabling section, which has to call on the advice, support and expertise of other Departments. This is an important issue and I am interested to know the answer.

That issue leads to another that the Committee raised in its report, which has been raised by at least one hon. Member today—the crucial relationship between the Governors of overseas territories and the people being governed. We all know that, historically, Governors of colonies on overseas territories tended to be selected by a set of criteria that would now be regarded as quaint. It was a way of getting rid of people, telling them to go off and govern New South Wales. Until the 1960s, if the Whips wanted a safe seat, they could hold out as a prospect to Sir Humphrey Bumble the idea that he could go off and govern somewhere very pleasant in the world. This issue was touched on in the report, and we like to think that things have changed since those days, but will the Minister outline in some detail the way in which Governors’ posts are advertised, and what criteria, in terms of characteristics and knowledge, the Foreign Office and individual territories look for?

Will the Minister also tell us about the remit that is now given to Governors? I suspect that it is easy to parody those individuals, but they have to perform a difficult balancing act. They must balance the responsibilities of Whitehall against the responsibilities to the territories of which they are Governors. There is no doubt about what the Select Committee has drawn out, particularly in relation to the Turks and Caicos Islands. Governors may, at the end of the day, have been unable to act at all, because of the double constraint of the pressure brought upon them by living within that territory and the kind of benign neglect that came from Whitehall saying, “We hear what you say, but we don’t want to hear what you say.”

There is another irony to this matter, which has been touched on by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) and my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell). We are debating this constitutional representation, which is a very important aspect of the Select Committee report, as British MPs in the House of Commons, but just beyond the green rope in the Chamber are at least some members of the overseas territories who are privileged to come and listen to our debate and to the great people here, in the sort of king-emperor’s Parliament, who decide their fate. One serious point that was raised by a number of hon. Members was the question whether there should be some representation from the overseas territories directly in the House of Commons. There are all kinds of anomalies to that. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford has a powerful interest in Gibraltar, where the
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citizens can now participate in the European elections, so they have a direct link there. That was a classically, wonderfully British compromise. We need to consider that question. I am open-minded on the matter because my conversations with representatives of the overseas territories have not convinced me that they would all be enthusiastic about having a Member of Parliament here, because the House of Commons could then take a direct interest in their territories, and, indeed, might interfere in them. Some of them, at least, might not be terribly enthusiastic about that.

Andrew Mackinlay: Let me make two points. First, giving the people of Gibraltar a vote at the European elections was not a typical British compromise; it was resisted and opposed by the man who is now the Secretary of State for Justice, who said it would not be done, but he was taken to court by a voter in Gibraltar who won, and beat the British Government.

Secondly, I have never suggested that there should be a Member of Parliament for the overseas territories. This is about access. I used as a parallel the Congress of the United States; the representatives who go to Congress from Guam, the American Virgin Islands and American Samoa have the title “delegate”. They are basically non-voting Members, but they can stand up and shout “Foul!” when appropriate, and they can have the normal dialogue and intercourse with other honourable Members. That is what is necessary—not the ability to vote on Essex or Ludlow or Scotland.

Mr. Simpson: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. When I said that it was a typically British compromise, I was perhaps trying to hide the blushes of the Secretary of State for Justice, but of course the hon. Gentleman would never hide his blushes.

The hon. Gentleman’s second point, about the different perms that we could have, is something that we need to consider. Indeed, we need to hear the views of the overseas territories, as they will not have a unified view on that.

My next point is about what was widespread corruption in the Turks and Caicos Islands, and about the issues that hon. Members have identified about the G20 demand that pressure should be brought to bear on tax havens, and about the letter written by the Prime Minister. I urge the Minister to throw some light on that, if at all possible, because it seems strange, to say the least, that we have a list identifying seven overseas territories that are on the OECD blacklist, the finances of one of which are directly administered by the Treasury. I will restrain myself from making any party political points about the Treasury’s inability to come up with any accurate figures to do with the Budget—oh, I have not restrained myself, but I know that hon. Members will know what I mean. This is a very serious issue indeed and it has to be gripped, not only because the Government and Parliament are responsible, but because, whether they like it or not, the overseas territories have to realise that it is not in their interests to appear on such a blacklist. If the overseas territories department at the Foreign Office is not responsible for this issue, then it will have to be the Treasury’s responsibility. As a consequence of this debate, the Select Committee on the Treasury might want to consider this issue.

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On corruption within the Turks and Caicos Islands, and the suggestions that there could be corruption elsewhere, we know that from the 1950s onwards in Hong Kong there was widespread, systematic corruption on a vast scale, particularly within the police. It was only after the establishment of a permanent corruption commission, which was given enormous powers, that the corruption was rooted out. I am not suggesting necessarily that we should establish corruption commissions within individual territories such as the Turks and Caicos Islands, but perhaps the Foreign Office should think about having an establishment in Whitehall that is able to root out that kind of corruption. I merely float that as an idea, but it should be borne in mind.

I want to give the Minister time to respond, so I shall move to the final issue that I want to raise. On the Chagos islands, as several hon. Members have said, we find absolutely incredible today what happened there only 40-odd years ago, in which successive Governments colluded—particularly the treatment of those people who were literally dumped in Mauritius. Other peoples have been evacuated in the past, as I found out when I went to Gibraltar. As a military historian, I am ashamed to say that I did not know that large numbers of Gibraltarians were forcibly evacuated during the second world war. Indeed, Miss Gibraltar 1999, who was showing me around, said that her parents had experienced the blitz. They had been put in one-star hotels in South Kensington, and had endured the blitz, whereas many others had gone to the Canary Islands. However, at least those people were brought back at the end of the war and received some form of compensation.

There is no doubt that there is a moral imperative, but there is also a political problem that we cannot shy away from. Perhaps the Minister will be able to resolve this issue. I suspect that the British Government’s change of mind relates directly to 9/11 and the war in Afghanistan. They might be legally locked into the situation, but that should not mean that they do not take into account what I suspect is the all-party view that the rights of the Chagossian people should be recognised, and that there should at the very least be a timetable for the return of those people at least to the outer islands, if not the inner islands. The Foreign Office should recognise that the House of Commons feels very strongly on that.

I praise the Committee’s report. This Government or the next Government, which I hope will be Conservative, should look again at the strategic policy of our relationship with the overseas territories. That should be done in 2010—perhaps after the next general election—when we should establish a new relationship and strategic vision.

5.10 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Gillian Merron): I thank the Chairman of the Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), and its members for giving life to the debate. There is no doubt that the Committee’s report is a substantial piece of work. As we have heard, it certainly contains many important and wide-ranging recommendations, for which we are grateful. Of course, in large part, we agree with many of the recommendations.

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I am glad to have the opportunity to take part in a debate that has been interesting and has covered many subjects. I put it on the record that I am more than glad—indeed, I am proud—to be the Minister responsible for overseas territories. As right hon. and hon. Members have acknowledged, I know that the overseas territories are important and deserve our full attention. That is why I am glad not only to carry out my ministerial role, in which I am supported well by officials in the Department, but to have this debate today.

Before I tackle the points made, I shall mention some general and important matters. First, our overall relationship with the territories is, of course, enshrined in each territory’s constitution. That relationship was set out in the 1999 White Paper, “Partnership for Progress and Prosperity”. The Government are committed to the future development of the territories and their continued security for as long as they choose to retain the link between the United Kingdom and themselves.

It is right that territory Governments should take the majority of decisions in the territories because that is the nature of the modern relationship. However, it is also true that we expect and demand the highest standards of governance in return. Many territories have made great strides in their development, and much has been achieved since the 1999 White Paper. As we have discussed today, it is also true that other territories fail to meet their obligations and responsibilities. Where that is the case, the Government will intervene, as we have demonstrated in the Turks and Caicos Islands.

My experience is that our relationship with the territories is what I would call open and frank. Both sides can, and do, express their views freely. That was demonstrated clearly to me on my recent visit to the British Virgin Islands, when I chaired the Overseas Territories Consultative Council in October last year, and met territory leaders for the first time. I and all those present felt that the meeting had been successful, and we agreed to work together on a number of issues, many of which have been raised today.

One important outcome was the agreement that, at this year’s Overseas Territories Consultative Council, we should include a forum to discuss the 1999 White Paper now that we are 10 years on. The aim of that forum will be to examine progress and to discuss what remains to be done and how to take forward the White Paper agenda. I shall be glad to keep the Committee informed of those developments. I recognise that the UK’s OT relationship needs improvement. You will have noticed, Mr. Bercow—as have I—that many of the contributions have been about those matters in one form or another. I have listened closely to the debate, and I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will welcome the further discussions with the overseas territories that I intend to take forward.

Since the Government’s response to the report was published in September, I am pleased to report to hon. Members that there has been progress in a number of areas. I shall put on the record a few examples. A new constitution came into force in the Falkland Islands on 1 January. That reiterated the UK’s commitment to the islanders’ right to self-determination and to enhancing local democracy, transparency and accountability. A new constitution for the Cayman Islands will be put to a public referendum on 20 May.

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In a document that came into force on 1 April this year, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence agreed new terms, conditions and fares for the use of the south Atlantic air bridge by civilians flying to and from the Falklands and Ascension Islands. It is an improved service that includes two flights a week, more seats and a premium economy service. The cost of that has been mentioned and right hon. and hon. Members will be aware that both the National Audit Office and the Select Committee on Public Accounts recommended that the Falkland Islands Government should take a greater share of the risk and cost.

Elections for an islands council on Ascension Island were successfully held in October and a new council was sworn in by the Governor on 27 October. Since then, councillors have been working actively with the Governor and administrator on a number of priority issues. Recently, I attended the first ever joint session of the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting and the Arctic Council in Washington. At that meeting, we adopted two declarations relating to the international polar year and the 50th anniversary of the Antarctic treaty. We also reaffirmed the consultative parties’ continued commitment to the objectives and purposes of the Antarctic treaty system.

Jeremy Corbyn: Will the Minister confirm that no proposal was made by any party to undertake mineral exploration in the Antarctic and that the principles of retaining the Antarctic as a zone of peaceful scientific research remain? Will she also confirm that we are adhering fully to the environmental protocol?

Gillian Merron: My hon. Friend is right—indeed, that is contained within the Antarctic treaty. Much of the discussion was about the very strengths that he has just mentioned. The treaty was based on putting sovereignty claims aside; it was about peace and science, and it retains that position. We re-committed ourselves to that, so there is no change in relation to the matters about which he inquires.

The last example of development that I want to mention is that the Government of Bermuda opened a London office for the first time in February. That is fitting because Bermuda celebrates its 400th anniversary this year.

I shall now turn to the specific points made, which have been many and various. On the Turks and Caicos Islands, from the outset, I would like to say that there have indeed been concerns for many years about poor governance. The Blom-Cooper inquiry in 1986 into allegations of arson and corruption led to the suspension of ministerial government in Turks and Caicos for some two years. It is also true that rumours of corruption continued. Successive Governors have said that anyone with concerns about corruption will need to provide evidence. In 2006, a previous police investigation failed due to lack of evidence.

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