The Role of the FCO in UK Government

Written evidence from the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum


An important part of the FCO's role is to ensure that the distinctive interests of the overseas territories are taken into account right across government. As lead department for the UK overseas territories, the FCO needs to act as their guardians and ensure that all government departments play their role in safeguarding those interests. Parliament needs to be able to rely on the FCO to support the effectiveness of appropriate institutions of good governance in the territories (e.g. freedom of information acts, an Ombudsman or equivalent, provision for independent review of major planning and fiscal decisions). Where non-governmental organisations in the territories and in the UK have relevant experience – as is the case on many environmental issues – the FCO (and other government departments) should make sure that their contributions are welcomed, and early, towards policy development and implementation.


1 The UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum (UKOTCF or the Forum) promotes the conservation of biodiversity, ecosystem services, and their contribution, together with other aspects of natural and human heritage, to the well-being and sustainability of the UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs). Member organisations include leading environmental bodies in the UK, the UKOTs, and the Crown Dependencies (CDs). The last (the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man) share many conservation challenges and aspects of governance with the UKOTs, including reliance on HMG to represent their interests internationally, under international conventions, including Multilateral Environmental Agreements (MEAs), and in related negotiations. UKOTCF and associated organisations have given evidence to earlier inquiries by the FAC and other select committees in relation to the fulfilment of the UK's responsibilities in respect of the UKOTs.

2 This submission relates primarily to the UK's overseas territories for two reasons. First, that is in line with our priorities. Secondly, the FCO leads within government on policy concerning the overseas territories. The forthcoming White Paper on the overseas territories will be drafted by FCO officials and approved by FCO ministers, as was the 1999 White Paper - with, of course, contributions from and agreement by other government departments. We would hope that the Committee would accept that their should be no dilution of policy within the 1999 White Paper, nor from the specific commitments on the UKOTs made in the 2006 White Paper on the UK’s foreign policy. A case can perhaps be made for a different institutional structure. The overseas territories are not foreign and – as with other sub-national jurisdictions (the devolved administrations and the Crown Dependencies) – voters at these sub-national levels of government remain British citizens. However, this inquiry concerns the current responsibilities of the FCO. Precisely because they are not foreign countries, the overseas territories are sometimes not given the attention they deserve. That said, we are greatly encouraged by the importance which current FCO ministers attach to the territories – evident in that two territories have already been visited by Mr Bellingham; through recent speeches; and by the fact that the territories are listed as one of the FAC's priority issues. We hope this will be reflected in your report.

What is the FCO’s role in UK Government?

3 The FCO has three inter-related roles. The first is making policy in areas where it has the lead role. The second is its coordinating role, where other departments often have the primary input on policy, but where there are overseas bilateral, regional or international dimensions that need to be taken into account. Third, the FCO has a managerial role in staffing and managing our network of overseas posts (including in the UKOTs) and in using them to communicate with other governments and overseas or international governments and other organisations.

4 Under present arrangements, the FCO is the lead department in Whitehall for the UKOTs. That means that, in relation to the UK Parliament and to the international community, the FCO is responsible for the good governance of the territories. However, most territories have their own locally elected governments, so a delicate balance has to be struck between respecting the autonomy of the territories and making sure that appropriate standards are observed in such areas as public security, the integrity of public administration and justice. The responsibilities of governors of overseas territories are not easy because they need to communicate to the people and government of the territory the policies and concerns of UK ministers and officials where these affect the territory; but they also have to make sure that ministers and officials in Whitehall are aware of local concerns.

5 Policy areas where the FCO has the lead include such fundamental issues as constitutional reform, and the appointment of governors and their staff. However, many areas can impact on overseas territories where the lead and the expertise lie elsewhere: offshore finance, international transport, international trade, climate change, defence, physical planning, education in the UK, nationality. Here the crucial role of the FCO is a coordinating one, to make sure that the interests of the UKOTs are taken into account. That means making sure that other government departments are aware, for example, that international agreements may affect the UKOTs as well as the metropolitan UK. One area of direct interest to UKOTCF is multilateral environmental agreements. Here the lead department is usually Defra but, even here, there is not one single division with responsibility as, for example, marine and fisheries are dealt with by different officials than those that deal in general with the MEAs. Because of the rich biodiversity of the UKOTs (comparatively much richer than in metropolitan UK), there is often much directly relevant experience in NGOs, both in the territories and in the UK. However, there is also a crucial issue of resources, both human and financial, for good environmental governance in the territories. The territories are often small in population and remote. Many of the areas richest in biodiversity are islands that have no permanent resident population but where the threats to biodiversity stem from historic damage to the environment, often through invasive alien species: goats, rats, even reindeer in South Georgia, and several plants species. Support from the UK is essential, and the FCO thus has a dual role both in providing support and in making sure that appropriate support is provided by other government departments and by collaboration with NGOs.

6 A historic example of the complexity of the FCO's role in respect of the overseas territories in working with other government departments and with NGOs is provided by the proposal made in 1998 by a US company, Beal Aerospace, to construct a satellite launch station on Sombrero, an uninhabited island in the Caribbean overseas territory of Anguilla.

7 First, the Governor needed to advise FCO of the proposal, which had been made directly to the Government of Anguilla (GOA); and to ask that the FCO make expert advice available. Much of that went beyond the competence of FCO officials. Other departments had to be consulted on international agreements on space, on international transport, on trade, on biodiversity and on planning. The government of Anguilla asked the FCO to arrange for the UK Planning Inspectorate to help it organize a public consultation on the proposal and on the Environmental Impact Assessment prepared by consultants for Beal Aerospace. There was a major NGO contribution involving several UKOTCF members, as independent evidence was needed about the island's unique ecosystem. The FCO also had to handle lobbying from the company and from the US government.

8 The main lesson from this example is that the FCO can best support the overseas territories when it uses its power of convocation to draw in outside expertise as early as possible, including other departments and civil society.

How should the Foreign Secretary’s claim to be putting the FCO "back where it belongs at the centre of Government" be assessed?

9 In relation to the Overseas Territories, the FCO should be assessed in terms of its active engagement with other government departments and with civil society. The existence of the overseas territories and their distinctive contributions to the extended British family is not well understood, either by officials or by civil society throughout the UK. The FCO needs to develop a more active role in explaining that part of Britain's human and constitutional diversity lies in these territories beyond our shores, but within the extended British family.

Could the FCO better organise and utilise its financial and human resources so as to fulfil its role?

10 In relation to the Overseas Territories, one way government as a whole could better organise resources, with the FCO taking a leading role, would be by encouraging secondments between departments and the governments of overseas territories (especially, but not only, governors' offices). That would give territories the benefit of wider Whitehall expertise than just that developed in the FCO; and over time it might help to build up a greater appreciation in other Whitehall departments of the distinctive features of life for fellow British citizens in the overseas territories.

11 The most important task, however, is for the FCO and other departments to work with the overseas territories to make sure that there are local structural checks and balances to support good governance - and that these work effectively, with adequate resources. Small territories are often like towns or villages: all the political players know each other and many are inter-related by family or business relationships. This can mean undue personal influence in such areas of life as access to information, planning permission and the operation of an independent judicial system.

12 In part, the position of the Governor’s whole role is very different from that of an Ambassador by providing a constitutional guarantee of the UK's ability to intervene when that is necessary to ensure good governance. Nevertheless – as has been seen in the current example of the Turks and Caicos Islands – needing to invoke the constitutional authority of the governor to intervene is likely to be a sign that things have gone badly wrong at much earlier stages. It is not for the UKOTCF to offer views here on any specific territory. But in such areas as freedom of information, access to an Ombudsman (or comparable independent authorities guards against maladministration) and provision for independent review of major planning and financial decisions, it is far better for the citizens of the overseas territories that there are appropriate structures in place to enable them to hold elected and unelected officials to account. To rely too far on governors, who are, after all, generally "birds of passage", to guarantee good governance of the overseas territories is unrealistic. Governors should be seen primarily as helping the FCO to ensure that the interests of the territories are appreciated throughout HMG and civil society in the UK; and to protect the territories' interests internationally. Good governance should generally be assured for the citizens of the overseas territories through local democratic institutions working within adequate local checks and balances, with the FCO monitoring actively.

How does the FCO work across Whitehall? Are the FCO and its resources organised so as to facilitate cross-Government cooperation?

13 How the FCO works across Whitehall is partly for it to explain in ways which encourage clarity in how its ministers and officials understand their own role. One way to do this (which relates also to the first two headings) would be to identify areas where effective cooperation with overseas countries, bilaterally, regionally and within international organizations, is important for securing HMG's policy objectives; and identifying the ways in which ministers, senior officials and desk-officers (including in overseas posts) coordinate their work. At the simplest level, this may simply mean making sure that relevant officials in other government departments are kept in the picture. However, the civil service, and indeed coordination in general, needs leadership, so effective joined-up government is only likely when there is meaningful contact between ministers, not just officials, when policy implications cross departmental boundaries. Any interdepartmental working groups established, whether at ministerial or official level, should actually meet and function on a regular basis.

What should be the role of the FCO’s network of overseas posts?

14 Their role should be to support and serve all UK citizens, their governments, their civil institutions and commercial companies. They should do this, of course, for those who have good reason to call on their services. Governments is plural because while it will often be the FCO and other central government departments that inform posts of personal and institutional interests that may need their support, these interests may often best be defined by other levels of government, including those in the overseas territories as well as the devolved administrations and the Crown Dependencies.

What is the FCO’s role in explaining UK foreign policy to the British public?

15 The role is not just to explain foreign policy, but to relate it to other policy areas and to show how they are interrelated. Classic examples are defence, trade, international development, global environmental issues, conflict prevention and resolution. As far as environmental issues are concerned, the FCO has sensibly retained a key role in climate change but now takes a far less direct interest in the loss of global diversity and environmental degradation, especially of the marine environment, with the single exception of polar regions (because of the UK's territorial stake in Antarctica and in the Antarctic treaty system). While it is right that the lead on specific international issues such as policy within the Convention on Biological Diversity should lie with Defra, the FCO needs to retain an active interest and engagement. The greatest stake that Britain has in both global biodiversity and in the marine environment is one where the overall lead lies with the FCO: the overseas territories.

What should be the FCO’s role in relation to non-governmental organisations?

16 The FCO has generally shown an awareness of the importance of NGOs in public life in Britain. UKOTCF has experienced a good spirit of cooperation in the past with the FCO, which had waned a little in recent times, but is now building once more, and we very much hope it continues to do so – and certainly the Forum will play its part. What matters above all is that consultation is part of a natural working pattern, rather than just when governments feel the need to demonstrate that consultation has taken place. There can be a tendency, when an issue has any degree of sensitivity, for different government departments to get together to decide what their position will be, before engaging with NGOs. That is not the best way to benefit from the different perspective which NGOs can often provide; and which can help governments to avoid mistakes. A classic illustration of this has been the derivation of the UK Government’s rather deficient "UK Overseas Territories’ Biodiversity Strategy". This document was agreed by Defra, DFID, FCO and JNCC, but received no input from NGOs, private sector or scientific institutions – all of which are listed, rather ironically, in the Minister’s foreword as a prerequisite for success.

Given the new Government’s emphasis on using the FCO to promote UK trade and economic recovery, how can the Department best avoid potential conflicts between this task, support for human rights, and the pursuit of other Government objectives?

17 This question has perhaps limited application to environmental issues in the overseas territories. However, respect for the human rights of those who are UK citizens by virtue of their being associated with a UK overseas territory is fundamental to the credibility of the FCO in promoting good governance internationally and human rights, as well as good fiscal and environmental governance.

UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum (

3 December 2010