Global Britain and the British Overseas Territories: Resetting the relationship Contents


1.The British Overseas Territories (the OTs) are spread across four oceans and nine time zones, from Bermuda in the Atlantic to Pitcairn in the Pacific.1 Most of the OTs are permanently inhabited and largely self-governing. They are not part of the United Kingdom, but the UK has an obligation under article 73 of the United Nations Charter to provide for the wellbeing of their inhabitants.2 The total population of the UK Overseas Territories is only about 250,000, but they encompass some of the greatest biodiversity in the world. The largest continuous marine protected area in the world surrounds the Chagos Islands and the UK has plans to develop two further marine protection zones around Pitcairn and Ascension. Henderson Island and parts of Tristan da Cunha are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

2.Numerous UK government departments work in or on the OTs, notably the Department for International Development (DFID), which spends more than any other department on the OTs. It is the FCO, however, that is ultimately responsible for managing the UK’s international obligations towards the OTs and its relationships with their elected governments.3 It is the FCO that appoints the UK civil servants who serve as governors of the OTs, acting as liaison between the UK and the territory and bearing responsibility for its good governance and security.4 It is also the FCO that convenes the OTs Joint Ministerial Council, a forum that brings together UK Ministers and the elected leaders and representatives of the OTs and which meets in full once a year.

3.The UK’s relationships with the OTs have been under the spotlight in recent years for several reasons: the Brexit vote in 2016 and its potentially seismic impact for several OTs; Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017, which had a devastating impact on several OTs in the Caribbean; and the consideration in and approval by Parliament in 2018 of the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act, requiring registers of beneficial ownership to be published in the OTs, which some OTs describe as unconstitutional. In the light of these developments and the questions they have raised about the UK’s relationships with the OTs, we launched an inquiry into the future of the OTs in July 2018, the first major OTs inquiry by the Foreign Affairs Committee since 2008.5

4.There has been significant interest in this inquiry from across the OTs. The scale of engagement in the inquiry reflects something that was reiterated to us on numerous occasions by OT leaders and representatives: they are proud to be British Overseas Territories; they have a very strong sense of British identity (although this varies in depth and strength between the Overseas Territories); and they care greatly about maintaining their bonds with the UK and ensuring that their relationships with the UK Government and Parliament are resilient and fit for purpose. The evidence we received suggests that for many people in the OTs, Global Britain is a living reality. These territories are not part of the UK, but they see themselves as members of a global British family. The strength of this identity was summed up by Eric Bush, the Cayman Islands’ government’s representative in the UK, who told us: “We were settled by the British, and being British is in our DNA—it is who we are”.6

5.Yet this is not a universal feeling. In oral evidence, former Governor of Bermuda George Fergusson told us that the UK’s relationships with the OTs are “almost fated to be difficult” and that “there will always be a degree of confusion and pushing and pulling” between the UK and the OTs.7 According to Fergusson, this is because the OTs differ in what they want from the UK. Some want more autonomy from the UK; some want to be closer to the UK; others are happy with the status quo. Mr Fergusson concluded that there “will always be something around, but I don’t think the relationship is too bad”.8 Dr Peter Clegg from the University of the West of England echoed this view. He said that there is little appetite in the OTs for independence, suggesting a general satisfaction with the status quo, but, he added, there are occasional “difficult periods” in UK-OT relations.9 The evidence we received suggests that we are in one of those periods and that the long-standing assumption that the UK can take a hands-off approach and bear little cost or liability is under strain. This tension has arisen not least because some OTs want the UK to do more, in terms of financial support, for example, but do not want the UK Government and Parliament to interfere in what they see as their internal affairs.

6.During the course of this inquiry we received evidence from numerous elected leaders and representatives and members of the public about issues of importance to individual territories. These territory-specific issues are beyond the scope of this report, but we are grateful to those who have brought them to our attention and we have reported the evidence we have received on these issues to the House. In the very final stages of the inquiry we were alerted to a recent influx of irregular migrants from Haiti into the Turks and Caicos’ territorial waters. We intend to pursue this issue with FCO Ministers.

7.We would like to thank those who participated in this inquiry and provided invaluable oral and written evidence, including the elected leaders and representatives of Anguilla, Ascension Island, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Falkland Islands, Montserrat, Pitcairn, St Helena, Tristan da Cunha and Turks and Caicos.

1 They are: Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Antarctic Territory, the British Indian Ocean Territory, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, Pitcairn, St Helena (with Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha), South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands, the Sovereign Base Areas, and the Turks & Caicos. For a summary of each territory’s constitutional relationship with the UK, see the Island Rights Initiative’s report and factsheets on mapping the UK’s responsibilities for human rights in the OTs and Crown Dependencies (December 2018).

2 United Nations Charter, Chapter XI, Article 73.

3 This applies to the permanently inhabited OTs (Anguilla, Bermuda, BVI, the Cayman Islands, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, Pitcairn, St Helena, Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha, and the Turks & Caicos). The British Antarctic Territory, the British Indian Ocean Territory and South Georgia & the South Sandwich Islands do not have permanent populations. They are governed by an FCO official who serves as Commissioner. The Falkland Islands’ governor fulfils this role for South Georgia. The exceptions are the Sovereign Base Areas, which have a permanent population but are administratively treated as Cypriot territory. They are managed by the Ministry of Defence.

4 For an overview of the role of a governor, see the FCO’s response, dated 12 September 2018, to FOI request 0885–18, regarding the role of the Governor of the Cayman Islands.

5 Foreign Affairs Committee, Overseas Territories (7th report of session, 2007–2008).

6 Q43

7 Q9 Mr Fergusson was also non-resident Governor of Pitcairn between 2006 and 2010.

8 Q9

9 Q72

Published: 21 February 2019