The British Overseas Territories (OTs) are a set of largely self-governing territories spanning nine time zones, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the Antarctic to the Caribbean. These territories are not part of the UK and each has its own constitution, but all share a bond with the UK and a pride in their deeply-rooted British identities. For the Overseas Territories, Global Britain is a living reality and they have a valuable part to play in it.
On the whole, OT-UK relations are stable but there is some appetite for reform in a number of areas. The FCO’s role as the lead department for the OTs is one such area. Some OTs feel that it is inappropriate for a department responsible for foreign relations to also have responsibility for governing British territories and many OT governments feel that they are being managed by FCO officials rather than treated as partners, and that their voices are not being heard elsewhere in Whitehall. That is why we are recommending that the Government commission an independent review into cross-government engagement with the OTs and the FCO’s management of its responsibilities towards the OTs and to consider the costs, benefits and risks of moving primary responsibility for the OTs away from the FCO.
The UK’s relationships with the OTs were placed under strain in May 2018 by the passage of the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act (SAMLA), which requires the OTs to publish registers of beneficial ownership. Some OTs say that this will impact their financial services sectors and make them less competitive. We believe it is a matter of national security, because there is evidence to suggest that money tied to autocratic regimes has been connected to OT-registered companies, and that considerations of competitiveness cannot prevent action. The public in the UK and elsewhere have a right to see beneficial ownership information and we are calling on the Foreign Secretary to lay out plans for achieving this.
Beyond the specifics of SAMLA, some OTs say that its consideration and passage raised wider questions about Parliament’s relationship with the OTs. There is little appetite in the OTs for major change, such as the OTs sending MPs to Westminster, but most agree that there needs to be greater scope for Parliament to examine OT issues, particularly given the cross-departmental nature of the Government’s engagement with the OTs. We therefore think the time is right to consider establishing a new formal mechanism by which the members of relevant select committees can scrutinise the UK Government’s administration of, expenditure on and policy towards the OTs.
In the long term, rethinking how the Government and Parliament interact with the OTs will help to ensure that the UK’s bonds with the OTs remain strong. There are also steps both sides can take in the short-term. On the one hand, the UK Government needs to ensure that those who should be able to claim British Overseas Territories citizenship can do so and that OT citizens can access NHS treatment in the UK when they need to. On the other hand, belongership and its equivalents are wrong: we do not accept that there is any justification to deny legally-resident British Overseas Territory and UK citizens the right to vote and to hold elected office. The UK Government should initiate a consultation with the elected governments of the OTs and agree a plan to ensure that there is a pathway for all resident UK and British Overseas Territory citizens to be able to vote and hold elected office. Moreover, those OTs that have not yet legalised same-sex marriage should move towards doing so. These steps can ensure that the concept of Global Britain can be underpinned by shared values and commitments.
Streamlining funding for the OTs is another way in which their relationships with the UK can be strengthened. For some, this means having certainty about the long-term outlook for funding large-scale infrastructure developments, for others it means helping to tackle climate change and continuing and expanding the Government’s Blue Belt programme, which helps to conserve the OTs’ globally significant environments. That is why we are recommending that the UK Government set up a dedicated development and stimulus fund for the OTs.
Published: 21 February 2019