4.2 pm

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): I will make three brief points.

First, I fully support the comments made by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) and the report’s recommendations about the need for urgent action to declare marine protected areas around the Pitcairns, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, as well as Tristan da Cunha, as identified in the report. I should declare an interest: I understand that the principal settlement of Tristan da Cunha is called Edinburgh of the Seven Seas and one of the former settlements on South Georgia is called Leith Harbour, so as the Member of Parliament for Edinburgh North and Leith, I feel that I have a particular interest. I make that point to emphasise our historical role and responsibility for these areas. We chose to take them on as colonial possessions over the centuries, and we now have a responsibility to those communities and areas, and to the wider world community, to recognise their importance to the environment of the world. That is why I support the declaration of MPAs. I hope that the Minister will ensure that the Department moves with more speed on MPAs, and take up the interesting proposals circulated to us by Pew and National Geographic, which indicate some possible ways forward.

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Secondly, I want to elaborate briefly on the intervention I made on the Chair of the Select Committee regarding support for the United Kingdom Overseas Territories Conservation Forum. I do not have a particular reason to single it out, except that it struck me when we, as members of the Select Committee, met with it that the forum was performing a vital role with limited resources. Certainly, if there is to be a proper relationship with the UK Government, with some degree of equality, we need to ensure that NGOs in particular are able to network among themselves across the overseas territories and to have a presence in the UK, which would allow them to ensure that their voices are put strongly to the UK Government.

My final point is that it is absolutely clear from the discussions and evidence we heard in the Committee, that there is a major gap in the parliamentary oversight of what the Government do in relation to the overseas territories and, where relevant, oversight and scrutiny of what the overseas territories do themselves. We have Select Committees for Northern Ireland, Welsh and Scottish affairs, but there is no equivalent parliamentary mechanism for the overseas territories. Clearly, I am not talking about setting up the same type of Committee for the overseas territories, but there needs to be some way in which Parliament fulfils its responsibility to the territories and their populations. I hope that, at some stage in the future, the parliamentary authorities will examine ways we can ensure that we provide that type of scrutiny and oversight as MPs, and that we monitor and scrutinise what the Government do. The example provided by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) in relation to the British Indian Ocean Territory and the Chagos islanders illustrates the need for us to examine that issue and to put in place proper mechanisms for parliamentary scrutiny.

4.6 pm

Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): I want to commend the Environmental Audit Committee’s report, which carefully drew a line between the United Kingdom’s responsibilities for environmental stewardship and sustainability in relation to its overseas territories and the interests, concerns and devolved rights and responsibilities of the populations of those territories. The Committee carefully drew that distinction in its report, but I am afraid that the Government’s response to the report did not.

In the introduction to the 2012 White Paper, the Prime Minister said:

“We see an important opportunity to set world standards in our stewardship of the extraordinary natural environment we have inherited.”

The White Paper itself set out principles of maximum devolution, where possible, of decision making to the populations of the UK overseas territories and assumed a continuing reduction in calls upon UK resources in that regard. It also set out the possibility of independence, with the wholehearted support of the populations of those territories if that is what they wished.

The White Paper also made a distinction between inhabited and uninhabited overseas territories. As we have already heard, that distinction is, shall we say, a little blurred, at least in the case of one overseas territory, which appears to be uninhabited, but in fact probably cannot be so regarded in the longer term.

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In their response to the Select Committee’s report, however, the Government made a rather different point. They said:

“It would be inappropriate for the Government to take greater ownership of environmental issues”,

while at the same time saying that, while

“we encourage Territories to extend the UK instruments of ratification of MEAs and recognise the benefits they can bring, this should only be done when Territories are certain that they have the capacity and—where necessary—the provisions in place to meet the obligations under those agreements. The Government recognises that most of the Territories are small islands or island groups that face resource and capacity constraints which affect their ability to consider or implement treaties.”

That, of course, is true, but what about the difference in how those overseas territories themselves are situated in terms of resources and population? There is enormous diversity in our overseas territories, ranging from the Cayman Islands, with a population of 54,000, and Bermuda, with a population of 64,000—both arguably with substantial resources to meet the requirements regarding sustainability and to implement treaties suggested in the Government’s response to the Select Committee—down to islands such as Pitcairn, with a population of 51. It is clear that a number of those overseas territories would never be in a position to accord with the sort of considerations that the Government set out in their response to the Committee.

In terms of marine conversation zones and fully operating marine protected areas, such as those mentioned by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith)—I fully support what he said about the ambition for the UK and for those overseas territories to have those zones—it will inevitably turn out that the territories relating to those zones cannot fulfill the sort of obligations that the Government suggest in their response. Therefore, there is no alternative. The UK simply has to face up to the fact that those need to be properly resourced from the UK, with UK intervention and UK oversight of those zones in future. I am particularly—

Mr Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but we have to leave time for the wind-ups. I call Kerry McCarthy.

4.11 pm

Kerry McCarthy (Bristol East) (Lab): As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I congratulate the Committee on yet another thoughtful and agenda-setting report. I must admit that I was a little surprised to see the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Camborne and Redruth (George Eustice) in his seat, given that this was listed as a Foreign Office debate, which is why I am here. I hope that does not suggest that Foreign Office Ministers are not interested in environmental sustainability in the overseas territories, and I hope that the Minister reports back to his Foreign Office colleagues on how today’s debate went.

In a debate on the White Paper back in December 2012, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds), who has responsibility

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for the overseas territories, said that building stronger links with the OTs should not just be a matter for the FCO; it had to be “a cross-Whitehall effort”—so perhaps that is why the Minister is here. As we have heard, the Committee has noted that, although FCO civil servants are encouraged to visit the overseas territories, DEFRA staff are discouraged from doing so. DEFRA does not have a single staff member dedicated to working with them full time and spends only 0.3% of its biodiversity conservation budget in the territories, so I think discussion is needed between DEFRA Ministers and Foreign Office Ministers about how we can take some of these really important issues forward.

As the report sets out, the total population of the territories combined is just 250,000, but the countries account for some 90% of the biodiversity for which the UK Government have responsibility. There is an amazing range of biodiversity, encompassing vast expanses of ocean, thousands of coral atolls, tropical forests and polar areas. As we have heard, the OTs support unique and sensitive ecosystems and habitats of international importance, and are subject to significant threats. The report highlights how the UK still lacks a basic overview of these environments. The RSPB has set out how that lack of knowledge means that extinctions of species, such as the St Helena olive tree in 2003, which was the last global extinction, continue. The RSPB said that that was largely due to a lack of attention.

The report makes it clear that environmental protection of the territories is the UK’s responsibility, and that the constitutional responsibility of territory Governments for environmental protection of their natural environments does not subcontract

“the UK’s ultimate responsibility under international law.”

In signing the UN convention on biological diversity and other multilateral environmental treaties, the UK Government did so on behalf of the overseas territories. It should now negotiate the extension of the convention to the overseas territories where that has not yet taken place. As these countries

“have no international legal personality or treaty-making capacity”,

only the UK Government can co-ordinate ratification on their behalf. As we have heard, that is absolutely crucial for protecting their threatened environments.

If the UK Government are genuine in their belief that, as the Foreign Secretary said:

“We are stewards of these assets for future generations”,

and, in many respects,

“the Territories are more vulnerable than the UK”,

they need to live up to those responsibilities and take them seriously.

It is absolutely right that the UK puts pressure on the overseas territories to make them more financially transparent and democratically accountable. We know that work is going on on that front, but it is somewhat incongruous that, while the UK Government are prepared to broker an agreement with the territories with financial services industries to join a multilateral convention on enhanced tax transparency, they are not prepared to exercise similar powers to protect biodiversity. I get the impression that environmental issues were very much a side issue at the last joint ministerial council meeting in November, with overwhelming priority given to developing

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opportunities for trade and investment. Clearly, there is a need for economic development in the territories, but as the report sets out, that development must be sustainable.

The example was given of the British company, Crown Acquisitions, which has received planning permission for residential developments on the three Cayman islands. Two of the three islands have no development plans at all and minimal planning controls. Environmental impact assessments are not a statutory requirement for developments, and as I understand it, the company now owns 200 residential plots on Little Cayman, which is only 10 miles long and one mile wide, with a population of less than 170, a limited road network, limited fresh water and power, and inadequate waste management. It is also home to the largest population of red-footed boobies in the Caribbean, which live and breed in an area designated a wetland of international importance. Given the active role that the FCO is taking in assisting UK companies to develop business opportunities and invest in the overseas territories, it is important that the UK Government also see it as their duty to stop those companies profiting from a lack of environmental safeguards or effective development controls in some of those territories.

May I also take this opportunity to press the Minister about the turtle farm? I know that it has been said that the responsibility lies with the islands and not with the UK Government, but the Minister recently answered a question I asked him about shark finning, for example. He was very prepared to take a public stand condemning that and DEFRA is very prepared to take a stand condemning the ivory trade, yet it does not seem willing to take a stand on the protection of endangered green turtles.

I have heard reports that a few companies may be prospecting around the continental shelves of a few of the isolated islands in the south Pacific and south Atlantic, with a view to possible deep-sea mining. Are the Government aware of any interest in deep-sea mining in the overseas territories, have they had any discussions with companies considering that, and how do they see deep-sea mining working sustainably—or not—in parallel with marine environments?

It is a shame that the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) was cut short in his remarks on marine protected areas. I think he knows that we share very similar views on the topic. With regard to Pitcairn, I had the pleasure of meeting two of the islanders—Simon Young and Melva Warren Evans—when they were over in Parliament a while ago. We were shown an absolutely fantastic film demonstrating just how pristine and unexplored much of the marine environment is around the islands. As was said, the islanders unanimously want a marine protected area. That is their decision. It would make Pitcairn the largest fully protected marine reserve in the world and would contribute 2.5% towards achieving the global commitment made under the convention on biological diversity—Aichi target 11, which was mentioned. Will the Minister at least advise us whether there is likely to be a decision on that before the next election? I will not talk more generally about marine protected areas, as my hon. Friends have already done so, but I flag up the calls for marine protected areas around Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha, and for better protection around South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands.

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Finally, I want to say that the Government are full of warm words—the overseas territories White Paper was full of fine words—but very little action is being taken. The Government need to be more ambitious in their vision for the overseas territories and take seriously their stewardship of these extraordinary natural environments. It is important that we continue to ask more of ourselves on these important issues if, as the Committee argues, we are to maintain the UK’s international reputation as an environmentally responsible nation state. I hope that we see from the Minister’s response today that he is prepared to do that.

4.19 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (George Eustice): I am grateful to the Liaison Committee and to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) for securing the debate. I should also say that I am disappointed that, in a way, our debate has been undermined by the previous one. Let me reassure the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy), that although I am giving the Government response to the debate, we take this issue seriously across Government. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness (Mark Simmonds), gave evidence when the Environmental Audit Committee was considering the issue, and we work closely on it.

It is clear from today’s debate that people are very passionate about our overseas territories and the rich natural flora and fauna that they support. The UK has 14 very diverse overseas territories, 11 of which are inhabited, and between them they contain, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North said, about 90% of the biodiversity found in the UK and its overseas territories combined.

I shall start by talking about some of the constitutional issues, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) dedicated most of his contribution. Many of the recommendations made by the Committee and raised again today pertain to that aspect. The constitutional position was set out very clearly in the 2012 White Paper, “The Overseas Territories: Security, Success and Sustainability”, published by the Foreign Office. It made it clear that although the Government have a fundamental objective and responsibility for the security and good governance of the territories, each has its own constitution and local laws, and powers are therefore devolved to the maximum extent possible.

The inhabited territories are constitutionally responsible for the protection and conservation of their natural environments and for developing appropriate environmental policies and legislation. There is no appetite in the territories for the UK Government to take a greater role in managing environmental issues on their behalf, but that is not to say that we cannot provide considerable support. I want to come on to that issue later.

Joan Walley: I will be brief, as our time is so constrained, but does the Minister not agree that there is a difference between management and a strategic overview?

George Eustice: There is, and I will come back to that point, because I want to talk about some of the international aspects.

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The second issue that I want to touch on is that of staff, because several hon. Members have suggested that DEFRA has no one dedicated to this subject. In fact, there are four DEFRA staff working on overseas territories issues, and they include the head of our international biodiversity policy unit. The report suggested that there should be more visits by DEFRA staff to the overseas territories. I am sure that there would be no shortage of volunteers to undertake those visits to see the wonderful specimens of wildlife that we have there, but I question the value of spending money on air fares when we could be spending money on projects that will deliver and will enhance the biodiversity of these areas. Also, not carrying out physical visits to these areas does not mean that they are not in regular contact with their counterparts in the territories. They certainly are. For instance, earlier this week we were speaking to officials from Tristan da Cunha about the islands’ biosecurity needs and the exciting news that a new bird species may have been identified on one of the islands. I am told that it is a prion and similar to a kiwi. We await peer review of that new discovery.

We also organise workshops and training for the territories. For example, in March, officials organised a practical workshop on how to implement the convention on international trade in endangered species. It brought territory officials together with representatives from DEFRA, the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency, the JNCC, Kew gardens, Border Force and the Government Legal Service. We also offer access to expertise and a range of services, including a plant pest identification service provided through the Food and Environment Research Agency which helps to protect both biodiversity and agriculture in the territories. That service has helped the territories to put in place measures to combat invasive invertebrate pests, and has to date identified 16 species new to science.

There is also, of course, regular discussion at ministerial level. We have the Joint Ministerial Council, which brings together UK Ministers and territory leaders and representatives and is organised collaboratively. The Environmental Audit Committee recommended that we should prioritise greater involvement of the territories in setting the agenda for those meetings, but I assure hon. Members that we already do that. We already have regular meetings with the UK-based representatives of the territory Governments in the run-up to Joint Ministerial Council meetings and, following discussions with them, we held Minister-led plenary sessions on the environment in 2012 and on renewable energy in 2013. Responding to specific territory requests, we also held in 2013 a technical discussion in which territory representatives were able to speak to UK experts on a range of environmental issues.

International agreements were mentioned by a number of speakers. As the Select Committee rightly pointed out, protection of the environments of the territories is relevant to the goals and targets set out in the convention on biological diversity’s strategic plan, which 193 countries around the world, including the UK, have already committed to implementing. As the Committee also pointed out, the convention has so far been extended only to four of the UK’s 14 overseas territories.

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The Government recognise that most of the territories are small islands or island groups that face capacity constraints, which may affect their ability to consider or implement treaties. In such circumstances, we do not believe that it would be in the best interests of the territories, the UK or the wider environment to impose on the territories obligations that they are ill equipped to fulfil. We do, however, encourage territory Governments to join in the UK’s instrument of ratification of core multilateral environmental agreements. That includes working with them to ensure that they have the necessary measures in place to fulfil their obligations, providing technical advice and building capacity before extension of ratification takes place. As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North made clear, the Select Committee recommended that the CBD be extended to other overseas territories. Although we believe that that is a matter for the territories themselves, I am pleased to be able to inform hon. Members today that my officials are currently working with a further three territories on just such an extension of the CBD.

Funding is important. The Committee’s own report acknowledged that DEFRA spending on the UK overseas territories has increased since 2007-08, and increased sixfold between 2010-11 and 2012-13. We do that mainly through mechanisms such as Darwin Plus. That cross-Government grant scheme, co-funded by DEFRA, the FCO and the Department for International Development, funds environmental projects in many of the territories. In the past two years, Darwin Plus has committed nearly £3.7 million to 29 projects in the territories. Returning to the issue of international agreements, it is important to note that in many cases the grants that are offered help to deliver and advance the objectives that were set out by the territories in the environmental charters, when those were put together and agreed on in 2001.

Dr Offord: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way at such short notice. In the Cayman Islands, there is a conservation fund, which comes from a tax levied on people when they leave the islands. That has allowed a pot of money—£40 million—to accumulate, but the authorities are not able to spend it, because there are not governance arrangements in effect. Does the Minister think it wise to be spending UK taxpayers’ money overseas when they already have their own resources but they do not have the governance measures to allow them to spend it?

George Eustice: I was going to come on to the issue of the Cayman Islands. I am not familiar with the particular point that my hon. Friend has raised, but, consistent with the charters, I am able to say that, with UK Government support, the Cayman Islands’ long-awaited National Conservation Bill was passed on 13 December 2013. The law will, for the first time, give legal protection to Cayman’s unique and diverse land and marine-based natural resources. Although this is a delegated area of responsibility, the UK Government provided political support for the passing of the law, including through visits by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness.

My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) spoke about marine protected areas. The Government have been enthusiastic supporters of

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MPAs, having established the largest no-take MPA in the world in the British Indian Ocean Territory in 2010. We have also established a 1 million sq km sustainable use MPA around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, 20,000 sq km of which is a no-take zone. I am sure that the House will be pleased to hear that in 2009 the UK provided the science that underpinned the declaration of the first Antarctic marine protected area.

I want to mention a couple of other points that were raised. One was about EU funding and LIFE+. I can confirm that the Government worked with NGOs to allow that European fund to be used on these projects, and we continue to work with them on that. An issue relating to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport

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was raised. On that, one of the obstacles is that, in some of these countries, gambling is illegal. Nevertheless, certain organisations can already claim money.

We are running out of time, but let me say in conclusion that I think we have had a very good debate. I hope that I have managed to persuade hon. Members about our commitment to these issues, and we will be publishing on Monday—

Mr Joe Benton (in the Chair): Order.

4.30 pm

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).