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23 Apr 2009 : Column 178WH—continued

I have listened closely—not only today, but on other occasions—to the concerns that Committee members have raised. Let me also clearly put on the record that without any doubt the Committee itself played a key role in uncovering and bringing to the Government’s further attention deeply worrying information relating to the TCI. I commend the Committee’s energy, dedication and commitment in that regard. I pay particular tribute
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to the right hon. and hon. Members who visited the TCI in pursuit of that matter. I continue to be grateful for the efforts, insights and attention given to what is undoubtedly a difficult problem.

As mentioned, we all know that on 10 July last year, after careful and detailed deliberation, the then Governor appointed a commission of inquiry. We await its final report, which is expected in May. Questions have been asked about the delay and extension of the date for the final report. Sir Robin Auld has asked for the extension because of the work generated by what is called a Salmon letter exercise. The purpose of such letters is to give recipients an opportunity to make representations to the commission before it makes it final findings and recommendations. The reality is that there are recipients who have failed to meet the extended deadlines set by the commission of inquiry.

I can confirm to hon. Members that, unless the commission’s final report significantly changes our current assessment of the situation in the TCI, we will act to deal with the problems and restore the principles of good governance to the islands. That intervention is, of course, for an interim period only. In the current climate of financial uncertainty and vulnerability, it is vital that the Turks and Caicos Islands establish, adhere to and promote principles of good governance to restore their international reputation.

Let us also be clear that the Turks and Caicos Islands Government, not the UK Government, are responsible for the present crisis, but, ultimately—I am sure that we all share this view—the Turks and Caicos islanders will want to see the right solutions found to the challenges that they face. In all our actions, it is the interests of those islanders that is uppermost in our minds, and that will continue to be the case.

Mike Gapes: I am pleased that the FCO has given such a public thank you to our Committee for the work that we did in bringing these matters to a head. Given that the final report was delayed in November until April, and now until the end of May, does the Minister accept that it is important that delays do not continue indefinitely? Clearly, there could be great difficulties on the Turks and Caicos Islands if there is a long interregnum before the final decision on the Order in Council coming into effect?

Gillian Merron: My hon. Friend is right. I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will understand that the extensions were given purely to ensure that the work is done and not for any other reason; but of course, we need to draw the matter to whatever is the appropriate close.

The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) raised several general points which I want to address about the reaction of the FCO to problems on Turks and Caicos Islands, the Pitcairn Islands and so on. I can give reassurance on several points. We have instructed Governors to review the Turks and Caicos Islands commission interim report and to ensure a thorough assessment of any systematic controls that need improvement in their territory. From my discussions with representatives of the territories, I am in no doubt about how exercised they themselves
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are about the report on Turks and Caicos Islands, because they wish to keep their reputation. I hope that we can use the report to great benefit across the overseas territories.

We have also revised the requirements on those being appointed to governorship to ensure that they have the right capabilities for the job and that they are clear about their responsibilities for good governance. We have also made it clear—I hope that this will be welcome—that Governors who raise concerns about good governance will have support from the FCO. I speak from my experience of giving that assurance to the British Virgin Islands.

The hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) asked about the appointment of Governors. They are appointed by the No. 1 personnel board of the FCO, which is chaired by the permanent under-secretary. I can advise him that no ex-politicians are Governors. Indeed, there is diversity, and they are now recruited from beyond the FCO. As was reported to the Select Committee, all Governor positions are advertised to all members of the diplomatic service and home civil service through the civil service recruitment gateway, and they are also open to employees of non-departmental Government bodies.

On St. Helena, I would say to the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) that the announcement of a pause in negotiations over the airport was a blow to many, and I understand that. Unfortunately, as has been acknowledged, no territory is immune from the effects of the current economic crisis. There must be consideration about whether building an airport in times such as these is the most appropriate choice, particularly as we find ourselves not just in these times but in somewhat rapidly changing circumstances.

Bob Russell: Could the Minister say who pulled the plug? Was it the Foreign Office, the Department for International Development or the Treasury? Will she confirm that the Government’s own sums state clearly that within a decade the capital cost of the airport would turn the island’s economy around, so that it no longer required any economic support from the United Kingdom?

Gillian Merron: As the hon. Gentleman knows, DFID is responsible for the matter; but of course, it crosses several Departments. Like me, he will have seen the DFID consultation document, to which contributions are invited until 31 July. I strongly urge him—I am sure that he has done or is doing this—and anyone else who has an interest in the matter, to participate and make their views known. I openly discussed that with the representatives of the overseas territories when they met me in London.

I reaffirm the Government’s commitment to ensuring access to and from St. Helena, and we will not contemplate a lesser service than that provided by RMS St. Helena.

I wish to turn to the British Indian Ocean Territory and put on the record once again—I am glad to do this—that we deeply regret the forced resettlement of Chagossians and the hardship that resulted from it. The Foreign Secretary said:

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However, the truth is that we have to look forward. I have said many times in meetings with interested parties that we cannot turn the clock back. As hon. Members have said, an application to the European Court of Human Rights has been communicated to the Government, and we will respond to it.

I continue to keep in touch with the many communities. In addition to the meetings referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn), I have also visited the community in Crawley at the invitation of my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) and the Diego Garcian Society, and the FCO will continue to organise and fund visits to the territory by Chagossians. We have received several further requests in that regard. However, the reality is that following the judgment of the Law Lords, our policy will remain that no one has the right of abode in the territory or the right to enter it unless authorised. Our reasons are well rehearsed. I accept that they are not well received by several hon. Members in the debate, but they include reference to defence and security and to the reality and feasibility of resettlement.

Jeremy Corbyn: When does the Minister expect there to be a response to the European Court of Human Rights request?

Gillian Merron: I am afraid that I cannot answer that, but I am happy to keep my hon. Friend informed, as I am able.

On finances, the G20 leaders agreed on the need to tackle tax havens and to stand ready to deploy counter-measures against jurisdictions that do not meet the international standard on the exchange of information. All the territories committed several years ago to meeting the standard, and we welcome the progress made by
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Bermuda, Gibraltar, the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands in signing, or agreeing to sign in the near future, new tax information exchange agreements with EU and OECD member states that will count towards meeting the international standard.

The list that has been referred to in the debate shows in a factual way the extent to which jurisdictions meet the standard on exchange. Indeed, the Prime Minister wrote to territories following the London summit, welcomed the fact of their commitment and encouraged them to meet the standard. To advise hon. Members who made the inquiry, no replies have yet been received to the Prime Minister’s letters, but I am conscious of the importance of meeting the standard to avoid sanctions being taken by the G20. The Government are looking at how we can support the overseas territories—for example, we are funding three-year public sector reform projects across the territories through the National School of Government. Work is in progress.

Andrew Mackinlay: Will the Minister give way?

Gillian Merron: I am afraid that I will not, as I am just drawing my comments to a close.

The Government are committed to working closely with the overseas territories to ensure security and good governance. I thank right hon. and hon. Members who are here today, and in particular you, Mr. Bercow. I thank members of the Foreign Affairs Committee for their continued interest in and support of the territories, and I look forward to continuing our work in this regard.

Question put and agreed to.

5.29 pm

Sitting adjourned.

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