The Role of the FCO in UK Government - Foreign Affairs Committee Contents


Written evidence from The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB)

SUMMARY

  • The FCO has a crucial role to play as lead department on the UK Overseas Territories, in particular with regard to their highly threatened environments.
  • The very limited capacity of these small communities means that FCO support is essential if their unique biodiversity is to be conserved and the UK's international obligations met.
  • Current levels of environmental funding for the Overseas Territories remain grossly inadequate. The FCO must strengthen the Overseas Territories Environment Programme and obtain increased financial support from Defra, DfID and DCMS.
  • The FCO has a vital role to play in representing the interests of the Overseas Territories across Whitehall, where they are frequently overlooked.
  • The upcoming cross-government strategy on the Overseas Territories is warmly welcomed and could provide an excellent example of the FCO fulfilling the much-needed leadership role.
  • The new Overseas Territory strategy must include a section on the environment and a strategic assessment of urgent environmental funding priorities.
  • Governors' offices have a critical role to play in improving the environmental governance of the Overseas Territories and building the capacity of both their governmental and non-governmental environmental institutions.

Thank you for the opportunity to make a submission to this consultation. Our response centres on the FCO's role as the Government department with overall responsibility for the UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs), with a particular focus on their highly threatened environments.

1.  The RSPB is the UK partner of BirdLife International, a network of over 100 grass-roots conservation organisations around the world. As part of our commitment to the conservation of biodiversity worldwide, we have for over 14 years provided financial, technical and advisory support to emerging NGO partners and local governments in the UK Overseas Territories.

2.  The RSPB works on the Overseas Territories because of their outstanding global importance for biodiversity. These remote jurisdictions are home to well over 500 species found nowhere else on earth, including more endangered bird species than the entire European continent. Their unique habitats are also internationally recognised, containing the world's largest and most pristine coral atoll (the Great Chagos Bank) and, arguably, the most important seabird island on the planet (Gough Island). This remarkable richness places a very high level of responsibility on the UK Government to protect the biodiversity of these Territories.

THE UK OVERSEAS TERRITORIES

3.  Whilst rich in unique wildlife, the human populations of the Overseas Territories are small. For example, the Pitcairn Islands support more endemic species than their total human population.[10] The Territories are highly dependent upon the natural environment for their livelihoods—the economies of many of the islands rely heavily on the revenue raised from fisheries and nature tourism. However, much of their unique biodiversity is under severe threat. Over 90 UKOT species are now classified as critically endangered (compared to just 14 critically endangered species in the UK), and the last global extinction in the UKOTs occurred as recently as 2003 (the St. Helena Olive).

4.  The Territories' capacity to respond to environmental crises and conserve their threatened wildlife is strongly constrained by limited human and financial resources. Environment departments and local conservation organisations, if they exist, only have small numbers of staff that are stretched very thinly. In some Territories, for example Tristan da Cunha or Pitcairn, the population is so small that no significant capacity or finance is available to deal with pressing environmental issues. On yet other Territories, for example, BIOT or South Georgia, there is no local population and the FCO has direct responsibility.

5.  Although the Overseas Territories are locally self-governed, the UK Government retains responsibility for external affairs, including the implementation of international conventions such as the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Ramsar Convention, the Cartagena Convention, the World Heritage Convention, CITES, the Convention on Migratory Species and the Agreement on the Conservation of Albatrosses and Petrels. The UK Government has also signed up to the 2020 target to halt the loss of biodiversity, which makes the Territories a very high priority for action as over 87% of the threatened species for which the UK is responsible are found there. Finally, the UK Government has signed an Environment Charter with most of the Territories, which is a formal agreement that lists the commitments of the respective parties to support environmental management.

6.  The current lack of capacity and finance in many Territories means that UK Government support is essential if species extinctions are to be prevented, the economic benefits derived from the natural environment maintained, and international obligations met. The FCO, as the Government department with overall responsibility for the Overseas Territories, therefore has a clear role to play in ensuring that the urgently required conservation action is supported and delivered.

7.  In July 2008, the Foreign Affairs Committee produced a Report on the Overseas Territories. In its Report, the Committee argued that the current levels of environmental funding provided by the UK are "grossly inadequate" and recommended that it should be increased.[11] The RSPB has calculated that a minimum of £16 million/year is required for the Territories to meet their biodiversity priorities.[12] If increased funding is not identified, endemic species for which the UK Government is responsible will certainly become extinct and the UK Government will fail to meet a number of its international obligations. It will also increase the risk of the UK being seen as hypocritical in urging other nations, such as those with rainforests, to take conservation action whilst we do not conserve threatened biodiversity within our own jurisdiction.

THE FCO'S ROLE IN UK GOVERNMENT

8.  The tiny communities of the 14 Overseas Territories have very limited representation in the apparatus of the UK Government. Unlike France, they have neither a "Ministry of the Overseas Territories" to advocate their interests, nor any representation or official observers within the Houses of Parliament. Although they have very specific needs, communities such as Pitcairn (47 inhabitants) do not have the capacity to staff permanent UK delegations to represent their interests. Consequently, the Overseas Territories have very little voice in Westminster and have been frequently overlooked. The FCO thus has a crucial role to play in representing their interests to other Departments across the entire breadth of Government activity.

9.  The RSPB warmly welcomes the commitment in the FCO's new Business Plan to develop a new cross-government strategy on the Overseas Territories by July 2011. Such a joined-up strategy is urgently needed. At present, FCO, Defra, DfID, DCMS and MoD all cover issues affecting the UKOTs, though the lack of a joined-up strategy means that the Territories have frequently fallen through gaps in clear Departmental responsibility. A strategic approach is desperately required, with one department, the FCO, taking a clear responsibility for overall delivery.

10.  The new Overseas Territories strategy must include a section on the environment. The Foreign Affairs Committee in its 2008 report highlighted the fact that the Government has not "carried out any kind of strategic assessment of Overseas Territories' funding requirements for conservation and ecosystem management", and described this lack of action as "highly negligent". Such a strategic assessment of urgent funding priorities is yet to be carried out, let alone funded appropriately. A comprehensive assessment of the state of biodiversity in the UKOTs, with prioritised actions and concomitant funding, is required.

11.  At present, the FCO contributes approximately £500,000 per year to the Overseas Territories Environment Programme (OTEP), a fund run jointly with DfID to support biodiversity conservation in the UKOTs. The fund clearly represents some of the most cost-effective conservation spending possible, but it can only meet a fraction of the demands required of it and, crucially, has not been able to provide the long-term institutional capacity which small agencies on the Territories need. There is also no long-term guarantee for the fund which means it cannot be used strategically. The continuation of a strengthened OTEP is required, as is the provision of adequate financial and human resources to support and strengthen the UKOTs' limited capacity. This must be achieved either by obtaining increased funding from other Government departments such as Defra, DfID and DCMS, or by focusing further FCO spending on the Territories.

12.  The FCO, as overall lead department on the UK Overseas Territories, has to ensure that other departments do not overlook their UKOT responsibilities. It is simply not enough for the FCO to point to other Government departments as being responsible for particular issues. As overall lead department, the FCO has to work to ensure that other departments actually deliver their responsibilities. At present, the Territories are frequently overlooked. For instance, Defra took lead department responsibility for UKOT biodiversity in 2009. However, the Department still has no full-time staff working on Overseas Territories issues and made no mention of the UKOTs in its recent Business Plan, despite the Territories being home to over 87% of the threatened species for which the UK is responsible. DCMS provides a further example. The department is the lead on the World Heritage Convention, yet has provided no funding towards the restoration of threatened UKOT World Heritage Sites, as urgently required by the UN.[13] DCMS sets the policy directions for the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), one of the key sources of funding for World Heritage Sites in the metropolitan UK, but the UK focus of these directions effectively renders UKOT World Heritage Sites ineligible due to their location. In this instance, the Minister for the Overseas Territories, Henry Bellingham, has announced that he will approach DCMS to make the case for including the UKOTs in HLF funding. We believe this is an excellent example of the FCO fulfilling its role of representing the Overseas Territories within Whitehall, and would welcome similar action with other departments.

13.  Even if Defra and DCMS do step up to the mark, the FCO still has an important role to play as it has direct contact with the Territories and so is often in a position to represent or support their biodiversity interests. The in-Territory knowledge and relationships of FCO staff are crucial for the delivery of effective and strategic UK Government action. Moreover, the FCO has direct responsibility for some of the most biodiverse and ecologically important Territories of all—BIOT and South Georgia—so must be able to work on environmental issues itself.

14.  The RSPB would suggest that one indicator for assessing the Foreign Secretary's claim to be putting the FCO "at the centre of Government" is by monitoring whether the department is effective at mainstreaming one of its core responsibilities—the Overseas Territories—into the other relevant Government departments.

15.  The FCO must also work to ensure that the interests of the UKOTs are better represented at an EU level. For instance, the EU's main funding tool for biodiversity (LIFE +) is currently closed to the UK Overseas Territories, though open to the French Outermost Regions. Such a major funding source would have a highly significant impact on UKOT conservation, and the FCO needs to work with Defra to ensure that strong representations are made to the European Commission in order to open up LIFE + and develop new funding streams like the BEST initiative.[14]

THE ROLE OF THE FCO'S NETWORK OF OVERSEAS POSTS

16.  The RSPB appreciates the support given by Governor's offices on Territories to biodiversity conservation projects, as well as efforts made by the FCO to brief Governors and other office-holders before they take up office on Territories. However, considering the fundamental importance of the natural environment to the economies of the Territories, we are concerned that some posts do not give it sufficient priority. As Governors are involved in the highest levels of decision-making in the Territories, they could play a much greater role in ensuring:

(a)  better provision of information to Territory governments on the importance of the natural environment to the economy and quality of life.

(b)  the UK Government's responsibilities for international conventions such as the Convention on Biological Diversity are implemented.

(c)  the establishment and implementation of effective environmental governance systems on the territories (eg land planning, strategic environment assessment, environmental impact assessment etc.).

(d)  the promotion of UK conservation expertise in the Territories and support to UK funded environmental projects.

(e)  the provision of support to assist capacity-building in civil society within the environment sector.

(f)  the encouragement of all Territories to ratify and strengthen existing multilateral environmental agreements by helping to implement them through the provision of financial and technical support.

(g)  all development programmes, particularly those funded by the UK Government, undergo appropriate environmental assessment before they are considered for approval.

(h)  greater support from the FCO and UK Government in responding rapidly to urgent environmental threats.[15]

THE FCO'S ROLE IN EXPLAINING UK FOREIGN POLICY TO THE BRITISH PUBLIC

17.  The FCO has a key role to explain to the British public the UK's responsibilities with regard to the Overseas Territories. Greater awareness of the Overseas Territories would help solve many of the problems that arise from being out-of-sight and thus out-of-mind. For instance, the French Government has declared 2011 to be the Year of its Overseas Territories. A similar action in the UK would be of great benefit in showcasing to the British public the unique communities and biodiversity for which the UK is responsible.

THE FCO'S ROLE IN RELATION TO NON-GOVERNMENTAL ORGANISATIONS

18.  Non-governmental organisations such as the RSPB have a long history of working effectively in partnership with emerging NGO partners and local governments in the Overseas Territories. This has lead to a detailed understanding of the particular environmental challenges faced by the individual Territories, as well as long-term relationships with key partners. NGOs such as the RSPB are thus well placed to work with and advise the FCO on the development of relevant policy. NGOs can also deliver desired conservation outcomes. A pertinent example is the RSPB's Henderson Island Restoration Project, to which the FCO has contributed £188,000 via the Overseas Territories Environment Programme (OTEP). The RSPB has raised over £900,000 from non-governmental sources and will soon lead the operation to save this threatened World Heritage Site.

19.  The FCO also needs to work to build up effective and sustainable non-governmental organisations in the Overseas Territories. Civil society has a very valuable role to play in improving governance and delivering successful, community-supported conservation outcomes. Many Territory-based NGOs rely to a significant extent on funding from Territory governments however, so are not able to respond objectively when consulted on issues such as development proposals because they may be threatened with budget cuts if they raise objections. Staff at these very small organisations may also not have the skills and/or sufficient time to engage effectively in policy or planning processes. The FCO and the Governors' offices need to work to support civil society in the Overseas Territories, consulting with local organisations early and often, and helping them to build capacity.

29 November 2010


10   There are only 47 Pitcairn Islanders and over 70 endemic species in the Pitcairn Island group. Back

11   Report is available at:
http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200708/cmselect/cmfaff/147/147i.pdf.  
Back

12   The Costing Biodiversity Conservation Priorities in the UK Overseas Territories report is available on the RSPB website at:
http://www.rspb.org.uk/Images/ukotfinancingcons_tcm9-158352.pdf. 
Back

13   August 2010: Henderson Island World Heritage Site (Pitcairn), Decision 34COM 7B.27. June 2009: Gough & Inaccessible Islands World Heritage Site (Tristan da Cunha), Decision 33COM 7B.32.  Back

14   The voluntary scheme for Biodiversity and Ecosystems Services in the European Overseas Territories (BEST) is a follow-up to the "Message from Reunion". It aims to establish a voluntary scheme for the protection of species and habitats, inspired by the Natura 2000 approach. It is currently under discussion at the European Commission.  Back

15   For instance the 2006 stranding of an oilrig off the coast of Tristan da Cunha, or the introduction of new invasive alien species. Back


 
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