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

1The OTs and the FCO

8.The FCO inherited responsibility for the OTs from the Colonial Office in 1968, via the short-lived Commonwealth Office. The OTs’ relationships with the UK have changed significantly since then. Most notably, in 2002 these territories, which had been colonies and later dependencies, were recategorised as Overseas Territories. This was intended to reflect a more modern relationship with the UK, based on partnership rather than dependency. Reflecting this modern partnership, 2002 also saw the creation of British Overseas Territories Citizenship, which placed OTs citizenship on an equal footing with British citizenship. Despite these and numerous other attempts to modernise the relationship, George Fergusson told us that the FCO’s role “has not been seriously reviewed” since it inherited it from the Colonial Office.10 The evidence we received suggests that many in the OTs believe it is now time to reconsider that role.

Whether the FCO is the right fit for the OTs

9.Several of the written submissions we received from members of the public suggested that they consider it disrespectful for a department responsible for foreign relations to also have responsibility for the OTs. For example, the submission we received from Andrew Fahie, the then-Leader of the Opposition in the British Virgin Islands (BVI), was based on feedback from public forums. In it he said that many people had “expressed the view that administering the OTs by lumping them with all other foreign interests is axiomatic to a modern relationship” and that “moving the administration of the OTs from the FCO should be a serious first step in modernising the relationship”.11 The submission we received from Shirley Osborne, Speaker of the Montserrat Legislative Assembly, was similarly based on feedback collected in public forums. It said: “Participants universally agreed that the FCO is not the appropriate body to be administering the affairs of the Overseas Territories”.12 This view was echoed in written submissions and oral evidence by several OT governments. Donaldson Romeo, Premier of Montserrat, said:

Many people question the very fact that the FCO is the primary interface between the UK and its Territories. This stems from the fact that Montserrat and the other Territories are legally British Territories and populated for the most part by British citizens. As such, Montserrat is neither foreign nor Commonwealth.13

10.Similarly, the Chief Minister of Anguilla, Victor Banks, said: “We are not foreign; neither are we members of the Commonwealth, so we should have a different interface with the UK that is based on mutual respect”.14 Derek Thomas, a member of St Helena’s Legislative Assembly, said: “We would like to be not treated as foreigners, but recognised and acknowledged as British citizens”.15 Eric Bush, speaking on behalf of the Cayman Islands’ government, also said: “The Cayman Islands and, indeed, other OTs are not foreign”.16

11.Not all OT governments agreed that the FCO was an unsuitable department for the OTs. In its written submission, the Falkland Islands’ government said that the people of the territory do not see themselves as foreign but that, “whilst it may seem strange for our constitutional relationship with the UK to be managed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, on reflection it is a logical home given the unique status of the Overseas Territories”.17 Teslyn Barkman, a member of the Islands’ Legislative Assembly, expanded upon this in oral evidence: “Certainly we don’t feel like a foreign entity. We are British and we are a part of the UK British family”. But, she said, “there is great strategy in having the Foreign Office. It has a base globally around the world that is useful to someone as logistically and geographically distinct as the Falkland Islands”. She added: “Certainly we cannot think of where we would fit better”.18

12.Some OT governments told us that they are not only concerned about the principle of being managed by a foreign ministry, but also by the practice of engaging with the FCO through its Overseas Territories Directorate (OTD). Some suggested that, while an increasing number of UK departments are involved with the OTs, OT governments’ access to Whitehall tends to be limited to the OTD rather than Ministers and their voices are not being heard. In its written submission, for example, the Cayman Islands’ government said that its relationship with the OTD was of “questionable efficacy” and added: “We are often left with the impression there is a view the British Overseas Territories are to be administered, rather than treated with respect as self-governing representative democracies in their own right”.19 In her submission, Blondel Cluff, CEO of the West India Committee, wrote:

The FCO acts as the lead department for the territories, although BOTs are entitled to access all HMG departments directly. A cross-Whitehall panel has been established to nurture direct access to all departments, but generally, enquiries tend to be referred back to OTD. Consequently, aside from short presentations made at Joint Ministerial Councils or politically led interaction, there is seldom any in-depth dialogue beyond OTD.20

13.Falkland Islands’ Assembly Member Teslyn Barkman told us that “the Falkland Islands have repeatedly demonstrated that we are a reliable, responsible and valued member of the UK family” but, she said, this partnership is not reflected in the way they interact with the Government. “Rather than being seen as partners”, she said, “we are in some ways more managed by officials in the FCO”.21 Ms Barkman concluded that “the relationship that the Falkland Islands wants to see is one that gives us greater ministerial contact”.22 Other OT governments told us that they want the way in which the FCO appoints officials in the OTs, such as governors, to be reformed. The Turks and Caicos Premier, Sharlene Cartwright-Robinson, said that she wants “to see the involvement of UK Overseas Territories in the selection of Governors”, while Anguilla’s Chief Minister, Victor Banks, said that he wants to see candidates for these roles to be chosen “from a wider base of skills and experience, beyond that of the UK civil service”.23

14.The situation is different for the governments of OTs that receive official development assistance (ODA). They told us that the problem is not that their relationship with the Government is dominated by FCO officials but that the FCO is not assertive enough. In practice, DFID is the dominant department. In his written submission, Donaldson Romeo, the Premier of Montserrat, said: “DFID officials are too involved in the decision-making process in Montserrat, and sometimes unfairly impose their will on the Government of Montserrat. This makes for an unhealthy relationship”.24 This was echoed by Janice Panton, Montserrat’s representative in the UK, who told us: “It is rather difficult for us because the FCO should govern and DFID should provide aid, but what we see is that aid and governance come mainly from DFID”.25 Councillor Derek Thomas from St Helena, which is also ODA-eligible, said: “We are in receipt of foreign aid from the UK through DFID, but we are British, not a foreign country. Decisions are made by DFID on our future funding, yet we are not involved in that process”.26

The FCO’s view

15.In October 2018, we asked the Foreign Secretary if he thought the FCO was the right department for the OTs. He said that this is a time when “we are thinking big thoughts about how things happen going forward” and that he was happy to look at any proposals for constitutional change, so long as it was done with the consent of the OTs.27 Two weeks later, the FCO’s Permanent Secretary, Sir Simon McDonald, told us that he hoped that the OTs could “continue to be handled from the FCO” and that “our increasingly good performance will be part of making the case for that effectively”.28 When we asked Sir Simon if another department, such as the Cabinet Office, would better suit the cross-departmental nature of HMG’s relationships with the OTs, he said: “I am sure the case could be made, but in the Cabinet Office there are even more distractions than there are in the Foreign Office”.29

16.Sir Simon told us that the FCO had “underinvested” in the OTs in recent years but that that is changing. Building resilient OTs is now one of the department’s top nine priorities, as outlined in its latest single departmental plan.30 Moreover, the PUS told us, the OTs would be in “the first line” in extra work the FCO would be doing under its plans for a post-Brexit Global Britain agenda, for which it had secured extra funding in 2018. Sir Simon elaborated what this would mean in practice:

We are doing it territory by territory, but in the first place we are reinforcing the offices of governors with extra staff. As you know, in many places they are very, very small staffs—one or two people—so getting an extra few bodies from head office is an initial part. I want to look at the relationship in a more fundamental way because that is a part of fulfilling our global responsibilities.31

17.In December 2018, we also asked the FCO Minister responsible for the OTs, Lord Ahmad, if his department was the right fit for the OTs. He said that, “in terms of where ultimate responsibility should sit, I think that is less important than what the approach of Her Majesty’s Government is”. He added that “the overall approach of the Government should be cross-Government” and that “we have installed that mechanism and governance structure in our dealings with the Overseas Territories”.32 Lord Ahmad also referred to a particular advantage of managing the OTs from the FCO: the ability to plug them into the FCO’s wider work, to integrate them into UK policy towards the Caribbean and to raise their profile in the Commonwealth, something some OT leaders and representatives told us was important to them. Lord Ahmad went on to say:

I feel very strongly as a Minister—I include not just myself in this, but others too—that when we go and talk about the British family, that must be inclusive of the British Overseas Territories. Having geographical Ministers responsible for different parts of the world should complement representing the Overseas Territories’ interests in respect of regions. That is the view I have.33

The way forward: Possible alternatives to the FCO

18.The OTs’ struggle to be heard in Whitehall may stem from the fact that, while the officials in the OTD are dedicated and knowledgeable, their work is segregated from the FCO’s core responsibilities. They may, in short, be ill-placed to access or influence other parts of Whitehall on the OTs’ behalf. George Fergusson told us that it is “quite a difficult thing for a small part of the Foreign Office, which otherwise does not do domestic policy, to tap into other Whitehall departments”. He suggested that “the Cabinet Office would find it slightly easier to get other Whitehall departments to pay attention to territories”.34 In his written submission, Mr Fergusson further argued that the Cabinet Office would be “better placed to engage with other specialist parts of Whitehall to make relevant expertise and support available to the OTs”. He proposed that the Cabinet Office’s UK Governance Group absorb the OTs Directorate and the Ministry of Justice’s Crown Dependencies Team to “create a group big enough to allow for the development of a specialist career path with a core of expertise”. He added:

In organisational terms, carrying out the UK Government’s constitutional roles for OTs and managing relationships with the Crown Dependencies fits more logically and coherently alongside the management of the UK Government’s other constitutional relationships. This should also help clarify in Whitehall, and beyond, what the UK’s responsibilities are towards OTs.35

This suggestion was echoed by the Anguillan Chief Minister, Victor Banks, who said: “I would like us to consider a more appropriate department to interface with Anguilla, such as the Cabinet Office”.36 In its submission, the Cayman government proposed that “the Cabinet Office should designate one Minister to be regularly accountable to Parliament” for the OTs; that the Cabinet Office should assume responsibility for the annual OTs-UK Joint Ministerial Council; and that it should “work to integrate the British Overseas Territories requirements into the existing COBR Civil Contingencies frameworks”.37

19.Some want to go a step further by setting up a department dedicated to the OTs. Feedback from public forums in Montserrat indicates that there is public demand there for a “dedicated Ministry, Minister or other comparable office” for the OTs.38 Similarly, the Montserrat Premier suggested that thought be given “to whether the OTs should have their own department at the top level of the UK Government”.39 Others argued that this is not necessary. In its submission, the RSPB—which runs extensive programmes in the OTs—argued that it is more important to share knowledge and awareness of the OTs across Whitehall:

Whilst there is relatively significant resource within the capable Overseas Territories Directorate of the FCO, most other Whitehall Departments have a chronic lack of Overseas Territory capacity. Whilst other Departments now at least have a named civil servant with part-time OT responsibility, their capacity is normally spread over many other policy areas as well. They also lack any detailed understanding of the Territories, with no visits to Territories to see situations on the ground. This makes providing any level of tailored and impactful support almost impossible to achieve.

20.The RSPB recommended that this “good governance challenge” be addressed through the establishment of “a ‘One British Realm’ Knowledge Exchange programme” to facilitate and fund “long-term (1–2 year) placements between the UK and the Overseas Territories, both in Government and in civil society”. This, it argued, would benefit good governance in the OTs and address a knowledge deficit in the UK, and “it would be a practical means of bringing the important political sentiment that the UK and OTs are part of ‘one family’ to life”. This would, according to the RSPB, mirror the practice in the French government relating to its OTs.40

21.Some of the Overseas Territories feel that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office should not be the lead UK department for the OTs. Some believe that this arrangement reinforces the perception that the OTs are foreign and that it is not fit for purpose given the cross-government nature of the UK Government’s modern relationship with the OTs. However, not all OTs agree and some feel that the FCO has long experience of working with the OTs, it has expertise in managing relationships with the countries that surround the OTs, and it deals on a daily basis with international treaty obligations relevant to the OTs. It is time for the UK Government to seriously engage with this issue and to do so in a fair and transparent manner. Before the next full meeting of the OTs Joint Ministerial Council the Government should therefore commission an independent review into cross-government engagement with the OTs and the FCO’s management of its responsibilities towards them. Drawing on international comparisons, this review should consider alternatives to the FCO and assess the costs, benefits and risks associated with moving primary responsibility for the OTs away from the FCO. The findings of the review should be presented to the House and shared with the elected OT governments as soon as is feasible.

22.There is a widespread feeling in the OTs that the quality and quantity of their communications with UK Government departments needs to improve. The OTs’ needs extend far beyond the FCO and their voices must be heard elsewhere in Whitehall. Towards this end, the FCO should draw up plans for a secondment programme between government departments in the UK and the OTs, including assessing the likely costs and level of interest in UK Government departments. The FCO should include specific proposals, costs and a timeline for this in its response to this report.

23.The FCO must ensure that the officials it appoints in the Overseas Territories have the skills necessary both to build constructive relationships with the OT governments and to ensure that the territory’s governance meets the highest standards. In its response to this report, the FCO should explain the processes it has in place for advertising and recruiting for positions in the OTs, such as governorships, and what it does to consult the OT governments on these appointments. The FCO should also outline the training it provides to the officials it appoints in the OTs, both in advance of and during their postings, and how it assesses their performance.

24.There is no single name that properly describes the UK, the Overseas Territories and the Crown Dependencies as a collective family of nations and territories. In its response to this report the FCO should lay out plans for a consultation on whether there should be a name and what such a name should be.

25.The people of the Overseas Territories are deeply proud of their British heritage and continue to feel a strong sense of loyalty to the Crown and a close bond with the United Kingdom. The flying of the flags of all Overseas Territories and Crown Dependences in Parliament Square for the weekend of the Queen’s Birthday Parade, “Trooping the Colour” and for all State Visits since 2012, has been a source of enormous pride in the OTs. To many in the OTs, this symbolised that they were fully part of the British family and gave them long overdue recognition. However, their request to lay a Poppy Wreath on Remembrance Sunday at the National Service of Remembrance at the Cenotaph in Whitehall has not been accepted, thus far. There is a unanimous wish amongst the governments of the OTs that as their citizens have fought and died in the service of the Crown in various conflicts over the centuries, that they too should be able to pay tribute in the same way as Commonwealth nations, whose representatives lay a wreath each year at the Cenotaph. Since 2014, the Ambassador of Ireland has also been invited to lay a wreath in memory of Irish citizens who have served in the British Armed Forces, yet the OTs and the Crown Dependencies are still denied that same right. The Committee believes that it is time for this anomaly to be rectified. Before Remembrance Sunday 2019, the Foreign Secretary should explore the possibility of extending an invitation to each OT to send a representative to lay their own wreath, or at the very least one wreath laid by a different OT representative each year.

10 George Fergusson (OTS0110)

11 Virgin Islands Public Meetings (OTS0047). This submission was made in September 2018. Mr Fahie was succeeded as Leader of the Opposition by Ronnie Skelton in December 2018.

12 The Office of the Montserrat Legislative Assembly (OTS0093). See also: Mr Kedrick Malone (OTS0100).

13 Office of the Premier of Montserrat (OTS0082)

17 Falkland Islands Government (OTS0124)

19 Cayman Islands Government (OTS0109)

20 The West India Committee (OTS0053)

24 Office of the Premier of Montserrat (OTS0082)

27 Q383 [Oral evidence from the Foreign Secretary, 31 October 2018]

28 Q94 [FCO budget and capacity, and annual report 2017–2018, 13 November 2018]

29 Q95 [FCO budget and capacity, and annual report 2017–2018, 13 November 2018]

30 Foreign and Commonwealth Office single departmental plan, section 3.3 [accessed 21/01/2019]

31 Q89 [FCO budget and capacity, and annual report 2017–2018, 13 November 2018]

35 George Fergusson (OTS0110). Mr Fergusson suggests that responsibility for the Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus should remain with the Ministry of Defence.

37 Cayman Islands Government (OTS0109)

38 The Office of the Montserrat Legislative Assembly (OTS0093)

39 Office of the Premier of Montserrat (OTS0082). This is the practice in France, which established a Ministry for Overseas France in 2012. In France’s OTs, this Ministry exercises the powers exercised by the Ministry of the Interior in metropolitan France. See: Embassy of France (OTS0128)

40 RSPB (OTS0070)

Published: 21 February 2019