[Relevant documents: oral evidence taken before the European Scrutiny Committee on
Before we start, in order to accommodate this debate and the subsequent debate, I am placing a five-minute limit on speeches after the Front Benchers have spoken.
I beg to move,
That this House
is committed to upholding the interests of British Overseas Territories and their citizens;
recognises the special historical, cultural, and social bonds that bind the United Kingdom and Overseas Territories;
and calls upon the Government to ensure that British Overseas Territories citizens’ rights as British citizens are upheld, to defend the sovereignty and borders of Overseas Territories from foreign powers, and to consider the unique circumstances of each Territory when formulating policies which affect them.
I declare an interest as chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the Turks and Caicos Islands. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting this debate on the day of the Joint Ministerial Council, the annual summit of British overseas territories here in London. I also thank my hon. Friend James Sunderland, who is a great friend of the overseas territories and whose application for this debate I inherited, and all those who have come to the Chamber today to speak about the great British overseas territories.
I invite the whole House to join me in welcoming representatives, civil servants and elected representatives from seven overseas territories, who have come to the House today to observe the debate from the Public Gallery. It is a joy to have them with us.
Over the last week, we have witnessed our global British family at its very best. The coronation of His Majesty the King was a special moment, and to see the leaders of British overseas territories at the coronation, representing their communities with great pride, was a historic moment. While Westminster Abbey may be only a short distance from this place, it is a mighty long way away for someone who has come from Tristan da Cunha or the Pitcairn Islands. The long voyages undertaken by the leaders of every overseas territory demonstrate the bonds that unite our global family.
As I mentioned, the JMC, where the leaders of overseas territories come together, is taking place today. Last year, the JMC was cancelled at extremely short notice, when some leaders had already begun their journey to London, because that journey can take over two weeks for some of them, so I am keen that today’s JMC is a particular success.
British overseas territories span Europe, the Caribbean, the Pacific and the Atlantic. They vary in size, population, culture, climate, food, tradition, challenges and opportunities. The British global family is diverse and requires policy that recognises this diversity. That is what we will debate today. I hope the Government will adopt an ethos that recognises the unique circumstances of each territory and that makes sure they feel heard, valued and supported.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the bedrock of the 16 British overseas territories is the concept of the right of self-determination, and yet in the case of the British Indian Ocean Territory, this Government are ignoring the views of the Chagossian people and negotiating directly with a third-party country, Mauritius, against the interests of the indigenous people?
I am sure a number of colleagues plan to talk about that in their speeches, so I will make progress with my own points so that colleagues will not have their speeches cut short.
Our debate today is one not of a paternalistic House of Commons, but of a body of representatives that recognises that within families there are responsibilities but also great opportunities. Today, I will set out specific requests but also commonalities that need to be raised within our family. In response to the point made by my hon. Friend, it is worth reiterating that all British overseas territories enjoy the right to self-determination, as set out in article 1 of the UN charter. They decide their own Government and their own constitutional relationship with the United Kingdom. The fact that they have decided to maintain a constitutional link with us does not diminish this most sacred of rights. I am sure the whole House will join me in reiterating our wholehearted and unwavering commitment to defending that principle, in spirt and in law.
While we believe that there is no question or debate over the right to self-determination, some members of our family face those seeking to undermine that fundamental right. At the G20 talks in March this year, Argentina unilaterally ended the 2016 pact on the Falkland Islands. That was wrong. The Government must continue to reject any demands from Argentina to revisit the issue of the sovereignty of the Falklands. We must be clear that the right to determine the future of the Falkland Islands is the sole prerogative of its islanders. In 2013, 99.8% of all Falklanders who voted chose to remain British. There is no debate over the right to self-determination.
I draw the House’s attention to another area where the Falklanders require our support. Under the United Nations Committee of 24, the Falkland Islands is currently classified as a non-self-governing territory, but we know that is factually incorrect, both under the first Falklands constitution, signed in 1985, and under the new constitution, signed into law by Her Majesty the Queen in 2009. The Falkland Islands is self-governing but willing to refer its foreign and defence policy to the United Kingdom. The Government should help the Falklands to correct that misclassification, so that the Falkland Islands will be recognised at the UN as the proud, self-governing territory that it is.
On the subject of sovereignty, I turn to Gibraltar and its right to remain a UK overseas territory. Under the double lock guarantee, the UK has given a solemn assurance that it will never enter into any negotiation on Gibraltar’s sovereignty in which Gibraltar is not content. The post-Brexit negotiations are not yet concluded and we must ensure they are guided by the double lock principle. I am sure the House would condemn any future compromise on that. If, for whatever reason, Gibraltar is left with no negotiated outcome, I would urge the Government to provide the support needed to deal with any economic uncertainty and ensure the continued success of the Rock.
While overseas territories choose to remain part of our global family, that does not mean we should blindly accept the status quo. We should challenge ourselves to provide the best possible support for their individual hopes and needs, and try to support them to achieve those. We should embed engagement across Government directly with overseas territories, rather than relying on all manner of priorities to be dealt with through the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office as some sort of arbiter.
There is widespread frustration about just how difficult it is to engage in even basic dialogue with Government Departments. Surely, given our belief in self-determination, it is only right that overseas territories make their own case to Government Departments, rather than relying on the Foreign Office to act as messenger. They make their own case best when their voices are heard. That will also help to tackle any lingering belief in paternalistic governance.
The Foreign Affairs Committee made that recommendation in 2019, because neither the territories nor their citizens are foreign. Therefore, it is fundamentally at odds to have them supported through the Foreign Office. I urge the Government to drastically change how OTs are treated. That starts with beefing up the powers of the overseas territories directorate so that it is not seen as some sort of backwater—I apologise to civil servants observing the Chamber today—and ensuring it has the powers that are needed and that Ministers give it sufficient focus. I also urge the Minister to have all Government Departments update their strategies on the OTs, because not one of them is less than a decade old. That cannot be right; we need to update the individual strategies.
The UK’s relationship with OTs is characterised by obligations and opportunities on both sides. We face problems, including in protecting our oceans. The British maritime estate is the fifth largest in the world. It offers sanctuary to a plethora of wildlife from the south Atlantic to the Indian and Pacific oceans. Some 94% of unique British wildlife can be found in the territories, from breeding turtles in Ascension, coral reefs in Pitcairn and great whales in the Falklands to the many species that call the tropical forests of St Helena and Montserrat home. In addition, I encourage all wildlife lovers to make sure they follow the long-awaited hatching of osprey eggs in Rutland, which is expected in the coming days.
Britain plays a leading role in global conservation, thanks to the partnership of our territories and two key initiatives: the Blue Belt and Darwin Plus programmes. Without our global family, this would not be the case. It is safe to say that our overseas territory communities contribute more to protecting the ocean, per head of population, than anywhere else on earth, so we should be grateful for their contribution as part of the global British family.
Environmental initiatives demonstrate the power of partnership, but there are other areas in which the UK can do more as a partner. One such area is education. All overseas territory citizens are British citizens, yet they were finally granted access to tuition loans when studying in the UK only in 2022. The process for applying for a tuition loan remains far too complicated for those from OTs, not least because they have to send in their applications by post, which may be convenient for people who live in Rutland or lovely Melton Mowbray, of pork pie fame, but is slightly more difficult for those who live in St Helena, which is nearly 5,000 miles from the UK.
Does the hon. Lady not think it is a great shame that the newly established University of Gibraltar is not entitled to accept British students on home fees or to access the UCAS system? It works one way but it is not reciprocal, and that needs to change if we are a true family.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. We may not always agree, but on that we absolutely do. I am sure that if Mr Speaker was in the Chair, he would be entirely in support of the hon. Gentleman’s point, because he is the Chancellor of the University of Gibraltar —I am sure he will reward the hon. Gentleman later this afternoon.
Education is key, and another issue is that should OT citizens come here to study, they cannot access maintenance loans to support them. University life is already too expensive and we can better support those who come to the UK. It is a matter of fairness.
Does that not demonstrate the importance of Government Departments taking the overseas territories really seriously in terms of the policies they develop and their implementation, and why it is so important that the overseas territories have a strong voice in each Department?
I agree entirely with my right hon. Friend, who was of course formerly the Minister with responsibility for the overseas territories. I know that during her tenure, the overseas territories felt incredibly respected and, crucially, heard. They do not want to be listened to; they want to be heard. I thank my right hon. Friend for all she did in her time in that role.
Although it is difficult to finance university life, funding a Government is more so. As a leading global economy, the UK can borrow money at beneficial rates, but this option is not available to our overseas territories. During the pandemic, we allowed Gibraltar to borrow £500 million under a sovereign guarantee, thereby protecting the Rock’s economy at a time of economic instability. When we can, we should use our economic clout to support our overseas territories to develop sustainably, to grow their opportunity and prosperity, and to invest in infrastructure. This will also help to avoid the debt traps faced by many developing economies and the interference of loan sharks such as the Chinese Communist party. I therefore hope that the Government will consider the expansion of sovereign rate loans to more overseas territories.
Although direct funding is important, I wish to make it clear that most overseas territories are financially independent and economically self-sufficient, and proud of that, but they do rely on us to represent them globally and make their case. There are of course caveats to this relationship, and I believe that the UK was right to sign up to the EU code of conduct on business taxation in 2013. The code was designed to ensure that companies could not avoid taxation. However, our departure from the EU has left many OTs feeling that they are governed by a code they can no longer influence, so I urge the Minister to consider engaging with them directly on that matter.
A commitment was given to implement public registers of beneficial ownership by 2023; will the Minister update us on that? The issue is important because registers provide greater public access to information about beneficial ownership, improve private sector compliance with sanctions, and can help to pre-empt sanctions evasion and improve transparency in respect of designated individuals. In the Cayman Islands, for example, the central register has a 24-hour response time to information requests from law enforcement, and $8.8 billion dollars of Russian assets were frozen following the illegal renewed invasion of Ukraine. We know how important such information is to support sanctions against not just Russia but all terrorist and autocratic actors.
I wish to highlight accessibility as a common issue that requires urgent attention. Many overseas territories are extremely remote. I recently met the Chief Islander of Tristan da Cunha and understand that the Foreign Office is undertaking a review of the possibility of subsidising a boat for the Tristan Government. Currently, a boat visits the island just 10 times a year from Cape Town. It would not be an expensive measure and would massively help islanders, particularly during health emergencies. My heart goes out to the individual who recently lost their life after a stroke, and who was unable to be removed from the island in time to receive the healthcare that would have saved their life. That is unacceptable, as too are the quotas for how many residents from each OT can receive NHS treatment.
A Tristan-owned vessel would also allow eco-tourism to continue and develop more tourism revenue over time to pay for its upkeep. Tourism is key to our overseas territories in the Caribbean. However, if the industry is to continue to thrive, investment in airports and portage is needed. The Turks and Caicos Islands have an airport business development plan ready, but it is sat waiting for UK sign-off. Equally, Anguilla and the British Virgin Islands are seeking support with the expansion and improvement of their airports. We must support, not hinder, such projects across the territories. More than that, I encourage the Government to see OT-led infra- structure projects as an opportunity for British investment and British businesses. It is not enough for us to think of action on the OTs only when they are in trouble; we should be enabling prosperity and growth. No one is asking for a handout; they are asking for a hand-up. Let us ensure accessibility, be it by sea or by air.
In today’s day and age, accessibility is particularly key online. I urge the Minister to reconsider the decision to close down the digital support team for overseas territories. I was shocked to find out that it had been closed without MPs having been made aware. It is vital that we help OTs to digitise the services that they provide to their citizens.
Before I wrap up, I wish briefly to touch on the situation in Haiti, because it is severely impacting on Turks and Caicos. Haiti is a humanitarian catastrophe and a state on the brink of failure. There is not one democratically elected representative; cholera is rife; and political and economic corruption supported by more than 200 armed gangs that use Haiti as a drugs and firearms haven is suffocating everyday life for individuals there. The result is tens of thousands of Haitians fleeing across dangerous stretches of water, which often leads them to Turks and Caicos, which cannot cope. We urgently need to work with the Caribbean Community, the Organisation of American States and France to restore security and stability.
We should also provide TCI with radar surveillance assistance, because that is exactly what the US has done for the Bahamas, and co-ordinate a stronger naval presence in the region. Last year, we saw a leaked diplomatic telegram from the then governor of TCI, who made it clear that the UK had delayed in providing important security support to overseas territories, and particularly to Turks and Caicos when it was suffering the highest murder rate in the world because of drug lords transiting through the country. Then, we were too slow. It took a threat to remove Turks and Caicos from our global family for the Government to take action. When we took action, it was incredibly effective, and those responsible for the vast majority of murders are now behind bars and awaiting justice. Now that our family are asking for help once more, let us make sure that we are not found wanting.
I wish briefly to mention a call for all overseas territories to fully support their LGBTQ+ communities. We need to legalise same-sex marriage and we need the UK Government to do more than simply support it in principle. In families there are arguments and disputes—not least across the Christmas table—but we know that we can talk to our friends and family more honestly than we can talk to any other, so it is crucial that we have the conversation.
I started by saying that we are blessed to be part of a truly global family. I pay tribute to the Speaker and to the Deputy Speaker, Mr Evans, for all they have done to raise the voice of our overseas territories in this place. Together, we represent the best of global Britain. Our partnerships are ensuring the survival of the world’s rarest creatures and protecting millions of miles of oceans; we act as a beacon of stability in a rapidly changing world; and our bonds of history and friendship remain steadfast, as seen at the coronation of His Majesty the King. Therefore, it is in the tradition of this friendship and in a spirit of optimism for the future of British overseas territories that I commend the motion to the House.
Order. The Opposition and Government Front Benchers and the SNP spokesman will wind up at the end of the debate, so we now move to a five-minute limit on speeches.
I commend almost everything that Alicia Kearns just said. I shall focus on a number of areas, one of which is the UN committee that looks at the decolonisation of territories. Currently, all our overseas territories are listed as non-self-governing territories; in fact, we hold most of the non-self-governing territories on that list. There are four ways to be removed from that list and becoming normalised in international relations.
I recently visited Gibraltar, where the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has just launched an inquiry on the current status of the overseas territories. One of the deputy premier’s top priorities for Gibraltar was to be removed from that list. I had similar conversations in the Falkland Islands, where there is the same determined wish to be removed from it.
There are only four ways to be removed from the list. The first three are to become a sovereign state, to gain free association—a number of states have done so with New Zealand—or to be fully integrated into Britain. We should remind ourselves that that is the model that Malta voted for and asked for and that this place blocked it, which I think was wrong. I believe it must now be stated very clearly that that is always an option for any territory. I should love to hear the Minister say that, if a territory wants to be integrated—that is, to be able to send MPs to this place—it will be welcome to do so.
There is also the possibility of a bespoke option. The problem is that the UN committee consists of China, Cuba, Iran, Russia, Syria and Venezuela. While the first three options involve “yes or no” questions, the fourth requires a vote in the committee, and there is clearly no chance—no hope in this world—that its members are ever going to vote for a bespoke option for a British overseas territory. We must therefore find a clever solution that fulfils the aim of one of the other three—a solution that involves a binary choice, does not require a vote in the committee and involves a “yes or no” question—to allow those territories to be normalised in international law.
That is important to the overseas territories because it gives them access to certain elements of the United Nations, and allows them to stand proud on the international stage However, it also requires Britain to make it clear that these territories are self-governing and that they decide their future. I was pleased to hear what was said earlier about the British Indian Ocean Territory. We must make it clear that people who were displaced through no fault of their own should have the right to engage in discussions about the sovereignty of the piece of land concerned. We should, of course, also offer a decent remuneration package, whatever the outcome. Earlier Governments, both those led by my party and those led by the Conservatives, have been on the wrong side of history in this regard, and we must make amends.
Currently, the Crown dependencies and the overseas territories are treated differently by different Departments, namely the Ministry of Justice and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office. I do not think that that is right today. In my view, we should have a Department that looks after the overseas territories and the Crown dependencies, with a Secretary of State. That might sound like a big ask, but we have Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, although those nations and regions of the United Kingdom effectively govern themselves and perform their own tasks. The Secretaries of State are there to ensure that the wheels are oiled in their negotiations and deliberations with the British Government. I believe that the overseas territories and Crown dependencies deserve nothing less and that is what we should offer them.
It seems wrong to me, in this modern world, that when we are negotiating international treaties there is no representation for the OTs. Britain intervened on Bermuda to stop its laws on the declassification of cannabis. I think it was right for it to do that. It was wrong for Britain to intervene on the basis of international treaties on which Bermuda had had no say in this place. I hope that we can resolve that issue as well.
Dotted across the globe, in some of the most remote and hard-to-reach locations, are our overseas territories. They are some of the most beautiful places in the world, but they are not just beautiful. They lie in strategically important locations, giving the UK a global footprint, but above all, they are part of the British family. That is something that the Government must always remember, respect and reflect in our support for them.
I had the privilege of being the Minister responsible for the overseas territories last year, and I want to turn back the clock to the autumn of 2021. Countries across the world were still in lockdown, facing travel restrictions and grappling with how to deal with covid, and the overseas territories were no different. However, when I hosted the Joint Ministerial Council in November 2021, there was a universal “thank you” to the British Government for the supply of vaccines to every overseas territory in the world—and that was no mean feat. As I have said, these are some of the most remote locations in the world. Getting supplies to them is difficult at the best of times, let alone at a time when travel was even more difficult, but the FCDO team did a remarkable job in facilitating that supply, and I want to place my thanks to them on record. I will never forget being at the airport in the Cayman Islands when the British Airways flight landed in early 2022 with booster vaccines on board. That was a very good example of our support for the British family.
I am sure that many Members will join me in welcoming the new OT strategy, and I should be interested to learn from the Minister this afternoon what plans there are for its development and publication. This seems to me to be an ideal week for the voices of the overseas territories to be heard in the development of the strategy, given that the JMC will meet today and tomorrow and a conference was held here yesterday. An important suggestion made yesterday was that the strategy should be developed collaboratively between the Government and the territories themselves.
I should like the FCDO to address the way in which we work across Government on matters relating to the overseas territories. When I was a Minister, I often found myself convening and cajoling Departments in relation to such matters. I was pleased to hear that the Foreign Secretary recently confirmed that each Department does have a Minister dedicated to the overseas territories, but that cannot be seen to be a token gesture. Those Ministers must take their responsibilities for the OTs seriously.
I am conscious of the time, but I want to touch on the question of how Departments can help the OTs to become more resilient. Resilience has been the watchword of the last few years and that is no less true today. All Departments should give more support to the overseas territories to help them prepare for unexpected shocks, be they a global health crisis, global inflation, or the risks of climate change. We have all seen global energy prices increase, and the overseas territories are particularly vulnerable in that regard. I know that there is a real enthusiasm and desire to transition to renewables, so I should be interested to hear from the Minister what further support can be given to the OTs in achieving that.
Climate change could be a debate in itself, and we had a panel session devoted to it at yesterday’s conference, but I want to make a point about the Caribbean Islands and their vulnerability to hurricanes. I should like to hear from the Minister what preparations have been made with the Ministry of Defence to prepare for the hurricane season. Hurricane Irma was devastating for many Caribbean OTs, and we are still rebuilding critical infrastructure today, as I saw at first hand in Anguilla last year. We have already heard today about the importance of infrastructure and connectivity. There is no limit to the overseas territories’ aspirations and ambitions, but they are often hampered by poor infrastructure.
My right hon. Friend has referred to Anguilla. I failed to mention this earlier, but 80% of its water is lost because the infrastructure is so old. Surely it should be a priority for the Government to ensure that the water infrastructure is rebuilt to prevent the appalling amount that is lost while water is being transported around the islands.
That is a very good example of the need for us to provide infrastructure support. My hon. Friend talked about ports and airports—about transport as well as digital connectivity. Many are seeking support, whether they are directly funded and supported by the UK or looking to attract investment and, in some cases, capacity building and technical expertise. Unfortunately, I cannot possibly cover every single project this afternoon, or every subject that we might want to discuss—although as I say, my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton did a sterling job of covering so many.
I want to wrap up by making one point, and this is where I started. The overseas territories are part of the British family and we need to redouble our efforts to strengthen our relationship.
Given the responsibilities the UK holds for the inhabited territories, it is important that we take the time to recognise the close relationships we have with them. The ever-evolving geopolitical landscape will naturally influence our relationships with the overseas territories, so the Government’s approach to them must evolve, too. It cannot remain static.
Much like Scotland in the 2016 EU referendum, Gibraltar overwhelmingly opposed leaving the EU, with nearly 96% of voters casting their vote for remain. We all know the complications that have arisen for UK citizens resident in Gibraltar as a result. Gibraltar is also very patriotic. The people want to remain a part of the UK and we saw that in 2002 when a referendum on joint British-Spanish sovereignty was held. Despite their great affection for the Spanish, the people of Gibraltar are often described as “more British than the British”. That sentiment of wishing to remain one of the British overseas territories should be respected and protected. To do that, the UK Government need to ensure that they strengthen that relationship, provide a voice for Gibraltarians and fight their corner. For example, the UK Government could support the case for Gibraltar’s inclusion in the UK healthcare procurement model, which would allow Gibraltar to buy medication at the same price as the NHS. To once again draw a comparison between Gibraltar and Scotland, there is a wish for the UK Government to replace grant funding lost as a result of our withdrawal from the European Union. Post-Brexit negotiations continue and issues with the border are significant. Thousands cross it daily and, to allow the economy in Gibraltar to thrive, those crossings need to be as painless and easy as possible. I hope that that is something ongoing talks can achieve.
Another territory that has seen its sovereignty challenged, of course, is the Falkland Islands. Although the Falklands were once at the very forefront of parliamentarians’ minds—thinking particularly back to the ’80s—they are perhaps a little overlooked in recent times. The Falkland Islands Government held a referendum on their status as a British overseas territory more than a decade later than Gibraltar, in 2013, with a 92% turnout. More than 99% of voters were in favour of remaining an OT. It is important to remember that the result came at a time when the Falklands were growing from reliance on the UK to becoming more of a partner to it. As the geographical region within which the islands sit becomes more important, the Government should recognise the benefits of a British presence there.
Argentina recently rowed back on the 2016 communiqué and called on the UK Government to renegotiate the islands’ sovereignty against the wishes of the vast majority of islanders. Islanders know that they cannot take the right to self-determination for granted in the face of that. That is incredibly sad. Without that right, so much of the wonderful progress that they have made in developing their society would not have happened.
Finally, I want to touch on Bermuda, where the people voted to remain an overseas territory in 1995. Polling earlier this year showed that 80% of residents continue to oppose independence. I am sure I am not alone in recognising that we should not take the allegiance of this, the oldest British overseas territory, lightly. In fact, we should continue to support and uplift that beautiful island nation. For example, Bermuda’s economy continues to enjoy growth in the international business sector, with that industry providing 4,642 jobs in 2022. As one of Bermuda’s key trading partners, it is imperative that we play our part in supporting the nation as it takes steps to further strengthen its position as a hotspot for international business.
In closing, it is important to reflect on and celebrate those important relationships with the overseas territories and the progress that both they and we have made, as well as to encourage continued close working in the future. Although many of those countries cherish their status as overseas territories, the ties are maintained through consent. The Government must ensure that the British overseas territories are not merely an afterthought —an extra appendage to the UK—but recognised as partners. I look forward to hearing the Minister set out how the Government intend to do just that.
I am privileged to be called so early in the debate, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend Alicia Kearns for picking up the baton of the debate. I refer members to my registration of interests.
As vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the British overseas territories, as well as the chair of a number of individual overseas territory groups, my personal interest in the subject goes back a long way. I am perhaps one of the few members to have served in Cyprus, in Gibraltar, the Falklands, Ascension, South Georgia and Diego Garcia. I am very lucky to have done so.
The overseas territories are a vital part of our UK family. They are strategically essential in terms of footprint basing and geography, but they are also essential to the projection of UK soft power around the world. They have a common language and culture, they have similar hopes and aspirations and we must not underestimate or take for granted their value to the UK. If I have to make one point today, and one point only, it is that our overseas territories need more love. In this era of global competition, the hunt for resources and strategic basing, and instability across the world, our foes are circling and we need to cement what we have as a nation.
To admire the problem, if I may, for a moment, Brexit was not kind to the overseas territories. What we must do now is lock the overseas territories into free trade deals with us and all our partners and think more broadly, to the Commonwealth. How fantastic would it be for global Britain to have such a network of trade arrangements, particularly with the Commonwealth? Just think of what that might be worth to the UK. Think of the potential. The 2019 UK White Paper has gone nowhere, so where is it, please, Minister?
Of course any work that we do—I welcome the point about the new strategy—has to be done with the overseas territories, not for them. Last year’s ill-fated Joint Ministerial Council has at least been put to bed now, with an excellent session this week. Of course, the Minister is in the Chamber today, which is entirely appropriate, but ministerial visits need to be a lot longer. Does it need a Minister in the House of Commons? Perhaps.
We need to station civil servants in the overseas territories for longer too, and delegations from the overseas territories to the UK visiting the FCDO need more than 30 minutes at a time. We must roll out the red carpet for these very important people and listen to their concerns. We also need a clear and regular bilateral dialogue to fix specific issues because, of course, the OTs are very different. One size does not fit all.
My hon. Friend and I recently visited the Falkland Islands together to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their liberation from Argentina. We were told at the time of our visit that we needed to do more to support the Falkland Islands in their negotiations with the European Union over tariffs on their squid exports to the EU. Does he agree that we need to be more robust and supportive of the overseas territories when they are negotiating with the European Union?
I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I need to be careful about what I say, for obvious reasons, but I entirely agree that that needs to be the case. For example, the Falklands are suffering from tariffs on fish right now. We need to do that very quickly indeed. Why not also create a specific department in the FCDO for the overseas territories and the Commonwealth? We could have longer JMCs, perhaps, and a new strategy. There is lots that we need to do.
What about the specifics? I cannot hope in five minutes to cover the totality of the subject, but we need a new trade arrangement with the overseas territories to reflect the changes in the arrangements with the European Union and with other countries. The British Virgin Islands, in particular, wants its prescriptive court order lifted. It has a new Government and a superb new Prime Minister, so it is time for the BVI to fulfil its potential and move forward.
Tristan da Cunha needs a boat, as we heard, for obvious strategic and medical reasons. And we cannot concede sovereignty of the Chagos islands until we fully factor in the Chagossians. The archipelago is also militarily important. South Georgia’s fisheries could be brought under the governance of the Falkland islands.
The residents of all the OTs must benefit from their potential, and all the overseas territories need support on infrastructure, utilities and climate change. The UK’s relationship with the overseas territories has recently been referred to as “benign neglect”. I do not subscribe to that powerful phrase, but it is a wake-up call for us in this place. We need to do more to cement our relationship with the overseas territories. They should not be seen as somehow subordinate to the UK. They simply want to be partners, and self-determination must therefore be perceived as well as real.
One size does not fit all, and this must be reflected with each overseas territory being given more red carpet and more bilateral arrangements. The OTs are very special, and they are very proud to carry the UK flag. The UK must therefore seek to get more from them while offering more back, as true partners for mutual benefit. Nothing is broken, far from it. This is a fantastic opportunity that the UK and its partners in the overseas territories must embrace.
I had the great privilege and honour of visiting the British Indian Ocean Territory in 2019 when, at the invitation of the Foreign Office, we had the opportunity to inspect the extraordinary naval facilities that we share with the Americans on those islands. The right of self-determination is a bedrock of all the British overseas territories, yet, in the case of the British Indian Ocean Territory, the right of self-determination is being trashed and completely ignored by this Government.
I rise to express my dissatisfaction with this Government and their handling of the situation. The Chagossians, those beautiful people, were expelled from their islands in 1968 to make way for an American military base, and they were treated appallingly by Mauritius. Some Chagossians came to the United Kingdom and some went to the Seychelles, but others went to Mauritius, and the Mauritians treated them as second-class citizens. Mauritius spent the money it was given to look after them on other things.
The Chagos islands are 2,000 km from Mauritius and have never been part of that country. When we gave Mauritius her independence in 1965, it was made abundantly clear that these islands were to be portioned off and would remain under British control. Moreover, we gave Mauritius more than £3 million of British taxpayers’ money as final settlement for the islands. Think for a moment just how much £3 million was worth in 1965, yet now, more than 50 years on, Mauritius is determined to overturn this agreement and seize the islands from Britain. We have lost rulings on this issue in the International Court of Justice, where Mauritius has taken us for arbitration. The right of self-determination should be at the forefront of our conduct. The negotiations with Mauritius must stop, and the Chagossians, of whom there are about 4,000, must be allowed to return. There must be a referendum of the Chagossians in the British Indian Ocean Territory on whether they want independence or to remain British. I know from all my conversations with the Chagossians that they are proud Brits, and they want to remain part of the British family.
The total territory of the Chagos islands is 10 times the landmass of Gibraltar, which we also use as a naval and military base. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that a thriving community could be created in those islands alongside and supporting the military? The binary option being pushed by the Government is detrimental to all sides.
I completely concur with the hon. Gentleman’s sentiments. The Chagossians are descendants of slaves from Africa and Madagascar. They have their own language, their own food, their own music and their own traditions. Their 58 islands are a paradise in the middle of the Indian ocean, and to hand their territory to a foreign country is colonialism on steroids. It would be an absolute disgrace if that were to happen.
Let me say how disappointed I am with other British overseas territories—some of them are with us in the Gallery today—who are eloquent in demanding their rights, including the right of self-determination. Gibraltar, in particular, is always effective in lobbying us. However, a key term of emotional intelligence, which is a subject I have recently been studying, is interdependence. The overseas territories are letting themselves down by not putting enough pressure on the British Government over the rights of the Chagossians. If the Chagossians’ rights are ignored today, it will be the rights of the other overseas territories that are ignored in the future.
We are re-entering the Indian and Pacific oceans. As you will remember, Mr Deputy Speaker, Lee Kuan Yew remonstrated with us in 1971 for leaving our bases in Singapore. We were going through a period of malaise at that time, lacking in confidence. The AUKUS naval agreement we have signed with the Americans and the Australians to re-enter the Indian and Pacific oceans is essential, particularly as we see growing Chinese expansion in the South China sea, stealing hundreds of atolls from the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and other territories, pouring concrete to turn them into giant military installations.
I asked the then Foreign Secretary about this seven years ago, and the response was, “We don’t have an opinion about the disputed uninhabited atolls in the middle of the Indian ocean.” We are turning a blind eye to Chinese expansionism in the South China sea while bending over backwards to accommodate Mauritius’s spurious claim to our islands. This year we are entering CPTPP, the world’s fastest-growing trading bloc, so this area will become increasingly important to the United Kingdom.
I feel so passionately about this issue because it goes to the nub of how our relationship with the British overseas territories will develop and be protected for the future. Please let us combine to challenge the Government on their outrageous, nefarious and immoral conduct over the British Indian Ocean Territory.
It is a great pleasure to speak in this debate and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Alicia Kearns for securing it.
It has been a fantastic week of visibility for the variety of the British overseas territories: first, with their participation in the coronation of King Charles III last Saturday; with the always wonderful display of their flags and those of the Crown dependencies in Parliament Square; and with the Joint Ministerial Council going ahead this week. Yesterday, it was good to see the UK Overseas Territories Association conference take place in Portcullis House, where we heard powerful contributions about their sheer variety and the contribution made by the British overseas territories, from the Antarctic, to Europe, the Caribbean, and the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans, to this country and to the world. Mr Speaker was very generous in hosting many representatives of the British overseas territories in Speaker’s House just the other day, where we had the unveiling of a beautiful window at the entrance that displays all the emblems of the British overseas territories and Crown dependencies.
At yesterday’s UKOTA conference, we heard again about the significant environmental contribution that the overseas territories provide, not only to protecting and enhancing biodiversity for the British family of nations, but to the globe, by protecting and enhancing our environment. Some 2.5 million square miles of ocean are protected through the Blue Belt and Darwin initiatives, which is a positive contribution indeed.
In the short time remaining, I briefly wish to mention a few issues that have already been touched on by other right hon. and hon. Members. The crisis that is occurring in Haiti is causing intolerable immigration pressure on the Turks and Caicos Islands and is resulting in serious criminality. I ask the Government to continue fully engaging on that. On Gibraltar it is important that its pragmatism and patriotism are recognised and supported by the UK Government as it continues its negotiations with the EU.
Following on from what my hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski said, I must, of course, mention the British Indian Ocean Territory. As I have said many times in this House, the Chagos islanders have been appallingly treated over more than half a century, from being exiled from their homeland to being dumped in other countries that have treated them badly, to having their citizenship rights denied. I am glad that last year an amendment that I tabled to the Nationality and Borders Bill righted that final injustice on citizenship, but now yet another injustice is being visited on them: they are being completely disregarded by the UK Government when it comes to being consulted and to their right of determination over the future sovereignty of the Chagos islands and the BIOT. That is appalling and, as my hon. Friend has said, it is a security risk for us and the democratic world; where we step back, China will step in.
Finally, the British overseas territories and our Crown dependencies are not properly represented here in London. They should have a separate Department and a Secretary of State; they are neither foreign, nor Commonwealth, which must be recognised and respected. We also need representation here in this UK Parliament—
One thing I did miss out earlier was that in 2019 our Foreign Affairs Committee said that there should be an overseas territories Committee of the House of Commons, made up of members of the Select Committee chaired by my hon. Friend Sir Robert Neill, and of the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Defence Committee, and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee; it should involve all those Committees that best care about the issues that matter to the overseas territories. Does my hon. Friend Henry Smith agree that it is deeply concerning that four years on the Government have given no consideration to the need for such cross-party, cross-Select-Committee working?
I should perhaps declare an interest, as a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and of many all-party groups on the overseas territories. We need far greater recognition here, both in how Parliament scrutinises policy towards the overseas territories and Crown dependencies, and how they are represented here. Could there be some sort of representation in the other place? Alternatively, as Lloyd Russell-Moyle was saying, if they chose to be a part of this country, could there be representation here in this Chamber as well? We need to do far better on this.
Our overseas territories are not backwaters. They are the very frontier of protecting our environment, providing defence for the world and enterprise. It is about time the UK Government properly paid them respect.
I declare my interest as chair of the UK Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. I congratulate my hon. Friend Alicia Kearns on calling this debate, thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting it, and welcome those members and colleagues who have joined us in the Gallery for this important debate. I also thank Mr Speaker and others for their incredible support of the overseas territories, making sure that they are not forgotten and, I hope, not seen as a backwater.
My right hon. Friend Amanda Milling was right in what she said. The 14 overseas territories are part of us. They are with us at every event, whether it be the loss of our Queen or the coronation of our King. They are not foreigners, as my hon. Friend Henry Smith has just said, and they are not the Commonwealth. They should be dealt with, supported and embraced as part of our nation.
Self-determination is crucial to the overseas territories, but, by virtue of the fact that the Crown, through the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, has quite large powers to legislate and direct, we have a responsibility to our overseas territories here in Parliament to ensure that those powers of Government are exercised carefully and fairly, and this debate is part of that today.
We have already had one example of when things go wrong. Last year’s Joint Ministerial Council, for example, was cancelled at late notice. There are infrequent opportunities for individuals to come here from the overseas territories and get decisions that may be long overdue. Overseas territories should not lose out because of things that are going on in our Government; they should be put above that. If representatives from the overseas territories require more help, more ministerial resources, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister—I do mean friend because he is a friend of mine—whether he would consider making sure that they are made available to them.
We know that the challenges faced in the overseas territories are as unique as the territories themselves— St Helena, the Ascension Island, Tristan da Cunha and Pitcairn. I have to say that when my right hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase was talking, I was grasping my badge from the Falkland Islands. When I was there it was May 2020. I think I was there for just a few days—I missed out on being there a lot longer because of the pandemic—but we had a wonderful welcome none the less. The territories are all very different and all very vulnerable in their own ways. They are particularly vulnerable to natural disasters. I remember talking to some colleagues from Montserrat about the continuing impact of the volcanic eruption that was many decades ago now but still continues to be felt locally. As our Government continue to focus on protecting the environment and setting ambitious net zero targets, perhaps the Minister could say a little about what more support we could give our overseas territories in this effect as well.
As chair of the UK CPA, Mr Deputy Speaker, you would expect me to turn most of my comments to the role of our organisation in helping support governance in the overseas territories. It is the UK branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association that does the most extraordinary amount of work to support the UK overseas territories project. Work done by the UK CPA supports the UK Government in discharging their constitutional responsibility to ensure good governance in the overseas territories. The project began in 2016 and works with each territory alongside the National Audit Office and the Government Internal Audit Agency to enhance good governance and oversight of public finances. These things are vital to ensure the flourishing of the territories, and the CPA runs many bilateral and multilateral meetings on top of that.
At the end of last year, parliamentarians visited Westminster for the Fifth Overseas Territories Forum on the oversight of public finances and good governance. The Speaker of St Helena visited last year, and the CPA facilitated a Clerk secondment to the Anguilla House of Assembly last July. There was the Westminster seminar in March and other meetings. The CPA does a huge amount to fill some of the gaps left by the Government’s approach to the overseas territories, and we are very grateful to the Government for allowing us to have that opportunity. At a time when our budgets are under pressure, I hope the Minister might also take the opportunity at the Dispatch Box today to reconfirm the Government’s commitment to the CPA’s role in this and commit to ensuring that we have budgets available to do so in the future.
If time allowed, I would also have spoken about Girl Guiding UK, but I will have to leave that for another day. The withdrawal of girl guiding in the overseas territories is something that I will be exploring with them directly.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Alicia Kearns for securing this debate. I wish to make a brief intervention in my capacity as the Chair of the House of Commons Procedure Committee. It has struck me, in the work we are carrying out, that in this place we often fail to recognise the impact of what we do here on those very important parts of our family, the overseas territories and the Crown dependencies.
I was struck by that most when I visited Gibraltar last year as a delegate of the BIMR—British Islands and Mediterranean region—meeting of the women’s part of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. There are a lot of acronyms. Our delegation was very ably led by your colleague, Mr Deputy Speaker, my right hon. Friend Dame Eleanor Laing.
As parliamentarians do when we get together, we talked about how often we meet, what the hours are and what the facilities are like. We were shocked to discover that in Gibraltar, the Parliament had not met for about five months. In fact, last year the Parliament in Gibraltar met on only six occasions. It has already met on eight occasions this year. The reason we were given for the meetings of Parliament not happening was that there simply was not capacity in the system to have Parliament meeting while Gibraltar, which is on the frontline of the land border with the European Union, was absorbing the impact of the UK leaving the EU.
I pass no judgement on the decision to leave the European Union; this is not a comment on that. The comment I want to make is that I do not think we, in this place, thought about that. I have a horrible suspicion that, when we were debating that decision, the impact on places like Gibraltar and other overseas territories simply was not discussed. I do not disagree that these issues are talked about at a ministerial level, and I know the Joint Ministerial Council discusses them, but where in our procedures do we have the ability to give a voice to our friends, our family, in the overseas territories and Crown dependencies?
The right hon. Lady makes an important point. My view, as I have expressed, is that we should have MPs here with voting rights. Other areas do it differently. In the US, for example, there are representatives without voting rights, but with full participation rights. We must find a solution along those lines, otherwise we are all negligent. They are the best people to make their own voices heard.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the best people to listen to on these matters are those from the overseas territories—and, I must say, the Crown dependencies, which are also impacted by what we do.
Our inter-parliamentary relations are incredibly important. The CPA, the British Group of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which I chair, and the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which I am honoured to co-chair, are important forums in which we can have dialogue and discuss these matters, but we simply do not allow them to be heard in the legislative process.
The Procedure Committee, which I chair—my hon. Friend James Sunderland is a fellow member—has been discussing, as part of an inquiry we have been carrying out for some time on the territorial constitution, how we might work better as the UK Parliament in Westminster to appreciate the impact of what we do on the devolved nations, the Crown dependencies and the overseas territories. As Chair of the Committee, I intend to ensure that we think about real changes to procedure that we could recommend and that this House could adopt.
I sense from what has been said in the Chamber that there is an appetite to build into our processes and procedures the ability for those voices to be heard. As we have heard, the overseas territories matter so much to us in Parliament, for many reasons—I will not repeat them. They matter to our constituents and to the whole of the United Kingdom, and we must make sure that when we make decisions in this place, they do not have unintended consequences that adversely affect our friends, because that would be tragic.
I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend Alicia Kearns on securing this important debate, in which we celebrate the diversity of the global family that is formed by the British overseas territories.
On a personal level, this debate is a timely one for me. With Lloyd Russell-Moyle and other members of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, I visited Gibraltar just two weeks ago. I am very pleased to see Dominique Searle, the special representative of the Chief Minister, in the Gallery. I would like to thank him for the excellent way he looked after us. During the visit, we met leaders from across Gibraltarian civil society, including the Governor, the Chief Minister and the vice-chancellor of the excellent new University of Gibraltar, whose chancellor is, of course, Mr Speaker.
As we have heard, PACAC has recently opened an inquiry into the status of the overseas territories in the 21st century—another reason why this debate is so timely. The motion quite properly calls on the Government to ensure that the rights of the citizens of the territories, as British citizens, are upheld. To be fair to the Government, and indeed to their predecessors, I believe that that is what they have been doing progressively over recent years, particularly as a consequence of the British Overseas Territories Act 2002, under which the people of the overseas territories automatically became British citizens. That, I found, was particularly welcome in Gibraltar, where previously Gibraltarians had simply had the right to apply for British citizenship. That Britishness is a source of great pride to the people of Gibraltar and, I have no doubt, to the citizens of the other overseas territories.
Each territory is, of course, unique, as we have heard and as the motion acknowledges. The Cayman Islands and Bermuda have populations in excess of 60,000 and Gibraltar has a population of some 34,000, while Pitcairn has a population of only 40 to 50. The Government have a responsibility to take each territory’s individual circumstances into account when deciding on its future arrangements, and that is what I believe they do.
The Government must also—as the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown pointed out—consider the stance of the United Nations, whose special committee on decolonisation has judged that all 10 permanently inhabited overseas territories have not yet attained a measure of self-government. I would question that. Gibraltar, for example, enjoys a huge degree of self-government: it has an elected Parliament of 18 Members, with a Chief Minister and four other Ministers responsible for domestic issues, including taxation. Indeed, it is almost entirely self-governing, save in respect of external affairs, defence and internal security, which are reserved to the United Kingdom.
Constitutionally, the UK may legislate for the overseas territories. That plays into the narrative that appears to have been adopted by the special committee: that the territories continue in reality to be colonies. In the case of Gibraltar at least, I have no doubt that the Gibraltarians are entirely happy with the current position. They certainly would not regard themselves as colonials.
However, this issue has to be addressed constitutionally, as the hon. Member for Brighton, Kemptown pointed out. I believe that an important function of the inquiry that PACAC has launched will be to discuss and consider the options available to each individual overseas territory. I think that there is a strong argument for saying that, in the case of at least some of the territories, integration should be pursued and those territories should send a Member to this Parliament. That is what the French have done, for example, and there are very few arguments that the French overseas territories continue to be colonies.
I appreciate that many right hon. and hon. Members are making the point that we should have Members of Parliament for the overseas territories in this place, but it is important to reiterate that that should happen only if it is the wish of the overseas territories. When the Foreign Affairs Committee spoke to them, many said that they would not want that. I am not dismissing the argument, but I am saying that, crucially, that should happen only if the overseas territories see it as the best way for their voices to be heard in this place.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course, the Government’s position is that the individual overseas territory should enjoy self-determination. I spoke to a number of Gibraltarians who were very keen on the idea of integration, and I am sure that that would be the case in a number of other overseas territories, too. PACAC will consider that in the context of its inquiry.
Was it not surprising that everyone we spoke to in Gibraltar and a number of people I have been contacted by from other overseas territories said, “I support it, but I’m sure someone else will be against it, and I don’t want to make waves.” There might well be overwhelming support, but it has never been properly tested by the populations of those areas.
The hon. Gentleman is entirely right. I do not think I met a single Gibraltarian who was averse to the idea of integration with the United Kingdom. This is something that we need to consider carefully.
It is clearly the case that many Gibraltarians now—particularly younger ones—regard a trip to the United Kingdom essentially as a bus trip; they use the easyJet and British Airways services quite routinely. They regard themselves already as de facto integrated with the United Kingdom, so the constitutional status of the overseas territories in that regard must be considered. To repeat, this will have to be carefully considered in the PACAC inquiry.
To conclude, the British overseas territories are important elements of the global British family and, as is clear from this debate, are highly valued by Members on both sides of the House. The Government and the House should be careful to ensure that their interests are reflected and protected, and those issues will be carefully considered by PACAC in the course of its inquiry.
I am delighted to be called to speak in this debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Alicia Kearns on securing it. Much of what I will say in the next few minutes will reflect what I heard yesterday at the parliamentary conference on the OTs, because, in the absence of any formal representation of the OTs in this House, of which we have heard much, I believe that today is an opportunity for them to have their voices heard through the medium of right hon. and hon. Members. On a personal level, I have long supported the OTs, as is evidenced by my membership or vice-chairmanship of several of the relevant APPGs and, equally, by the tie from the Falkland Islands that I was gifted when I was there in February.
The word that has resonated loudest this week in the various events for the OTs has been “family”. The OTs are members of the British family, and, as in any family, each member has its own characteristics, its own strengths and weaknesses, its own identity and its own uniqueness. It was put far more eloquently than I can put it yesterday by Gibraltar’s Environment Minister, who said simply:
“there is superpower in our diversity”.
Like any family, each member will need support at different times of their life. As one Minister suggested yesterday, there has been a feeling that the OTs have sometimes been victims of a situation where others try to define their problems and find solutions to them, whereas they need and want to do it for themselves, with support offered and available but not imposed.
For many of the overseas territories, there are shared challenges and threats, while others are individual. We have heard a good deal about the shared threat from climate change, which, in some cases, is existential. However, not all challenges are common, and I have been particularly struck this week by the experience of two territories—Turks and Caicos Islands and Pitcairn—for very different reasons. As the Premier of Turks and Caicos put it, his people live perilously close to the failed state that is Haiti. Illegal immigration into Turks and Caicos is rife, and that is exacerbated by drug running and gun running. The authorities there are working extremely hard to protect their islands from the waves of uncontrolled numbers of people flooding their homeland, but I hope that the Government here will offer help that can be taken up if that is so desired.
The risks to Pitcairn are entirely different but just as severe. With a current population of only 36 people, there are serious questions about the long-term viability of the islands. Sadly, the school has just closed because there are no young children left on Pitcairn. There are very few people of working age, and the population is ageing. Pitcairn’s Mayor talked to me of the recognition of the need to adapt to survive. His hope and that of other islanders is that more people will see the opportunity of a life in Pitcairn. It struck me when he remarked yesterday that, as one person from Pitcairn who was in the United Kingdom, more than 2.5% of the population was here—that is how small the population is.
In talking about challenges, I recognise that we must be careful not to imply in any way that the OTs are helpless dependants. The truth is very different, as they are all rightly keen to point out. To take just one example that was made to me yesterday, according to analysis by Capital Economics, the British Virgin Islands supports jobs, prosperity and Government revenues worldwide, especially as a result of its role as a centre for financial and professional service firms.
Having covered a considerable amount of the globe in the last couple of minutes, I would like to say a little bit about the Falkland Islands. It was absolutely right that Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister sent a taskforce to liberate the islands in 1982, just as it remains absolutely right today that we maintain a strong military presence to defend the right of islanders to self-determination. During the trip with the armed forces parliamentary scheme in February, we saw how all three services of our armed forces play crucial roles, both separately and working together.
There are now new threats to the Falkland Islands, though. Fisheries account for approximately 40% of the islands’ GDP, but are under threat, particularly from illegal fishing by Chinese supertrawlers just outside Falklands territorial waters, so it is important that the Falkland Islands’ economy diversifies. One potential solution is the extraction of oil. Of course, that must be done extremely carefully, given our commitment to net zero, but I very much hope that the Treasury will give the proposals that are currently in front of it—known as Project Sea Lion—extremely serious consideration.
Does my hon. Friend share my concerns that the Argentinian Government’s current rhetoric regarding the Falklands, funnily enough, falls in an election year, and is it not utterly abhorrent that a politician would use individuals’ right to determine their own futures for their own political gain?
As with pretty much everything else she has said this afternoon, my hon. Friend is absolutely on the money. She is completely correct, and the way that the Argentinians have behaved in what is—as she rightly points out—an election year is truly outrageous and incredibly offensive to the people of the Falkland Islands. I know from talking to their representative over the past couple of days that the Falkland islanders are very grateful that we have recognised that in this place in recent weeks.
To conclude, the OTs afford us a tremendous global footprint of strategic and economic significance. Gibraltar’s Minister rightly remarked that through, and thanks to, the OTs, we have already had global Britain for many years. Let us not forget that there are plenty of hostile nations that are looking for new friends, especially in strategic locations, so we should not take our traditional allies for granted. Let us be clear that, as the premier of the BVI pointed out, even in smallness, there is opportunity. The mayor of the smallest OT, Pitcairn, summed it up perfectly: the overseas territories matter because they are British, because they are part of our family.
This has been a most welcome and important debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Alicia Kearns on securing it. We have talked about the value of all the overseas territories as part of the British family. I want to concentrate on one part of that family, Gibraltar. I refer the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, having had the honour to chair the all-party parliamentary group on Gibraltar for a number of years now, and the pleasure and privilege of being a regular visitor to the Rock over that time. I, too, have benefited from the advice and assistance that many Members have had from the Gibraltar Government’s representative office in London, headed up by Dominique Searle, who is in the Gallery.
Gibraltar is absolutely clear in its determination to remain solely British in its sovereignty. That has been reaffirmed by 99% of its electorate at two successive referendums. It is important, therefore, that we reject the notion that it should be classified as a non-governing territory, as with the others. However, I gently say to some of my hon. Friends that it is entirely for the people of the overseas territories to determine their relationship in terms of representation here. Any inquiry may be interesting and useful, but it would be presumptuous of any of us to suggest to any overseas territory what form its representation and relationship should take—actually, it would run slightly contrary to the suggestion of self-determination. It is for them to initiate; it is for us, as their friends and family, to support them in all the choices they make.
One of the choices that Gibraltar made was to be British, and to accept a referendum result that it had voted overwhelmingly against. Gibraltar’s relationship with the European Union, because of a land border, is inevitably different, and 96% of the voters of Gibraltar would have preferred that we had remained in the European Union. However, the Gibraltarians, as part of the British family, went with the democratic vote of the British family, and we owe them in consequence of that. The most important thing that we owe them, which must be delivered by the Foreign Office, is a proper UK-EU treaty on Gibraltar that reflects the particular needs that Gibraltar has.
Gibraltar has transformed itself magnificently over the past few decades, from a traditional garrison-come-dockyard economy into a diverse and thriving economy with tourism, internet businesses and, in particular, a very successful financial services sector. To fuel and make that economy work, some 15,000 people a day cross the land border with Spain at La Línea. Keeping that land border free-flowing is an essential prerequisite of any deal, which must be achieved in a way that respects Gibraltar’s sovereignty and integrity. That should not be impossible to do. It should be the top priority of the Foreign Office in resolving the remaining EU-UK issues. I assure the House it is the top priority of the Spanish Foreign Office; it ought to be a high priority for us, too. The deal should work for both sides, because the economic prosperity that Gibraltar generates greatly assists those regions of Spain adjoining it in the Campo de Gibraltar. It would be in everyone’s interests, so we must get the deal done. Should we fail, heaven forbid, we would have a moral obligation to pick up the economic costs that would fall upon Gibraltar in consequence. The best thing to do is to make sure that never happens and that we get a deal.
The second thing is the practical support we can give to Gibraltar in various specific ways. The success of the University of Gibraltar has already been referenced. It is right that we should treat those students as home students for the purpose of access to UK loans. They should also surely have access to research funds, such as the successor to the Horizon programme. They lost that when we lost the EU, and we should ensure that is included in a deal. Gibraltar University has a successful midwifery course and programme. Bizarrely, Gibraltar midwifery qualifications are not recognised by the UK Nursing and Midwifery Council. I hope the Department of Health and Social Care will put that right. The most important thing beyond that is the position of Gibraltar’s health service, which cannot procure NHS supplies at the same price as the rest of the UK. That cannot be logical. Those are practical things. We talk about them being family and we should treat them as family.
That is absolutely right. The airport was designed in a way that, had relations between Britain and the EU been different, could have been extremely beneficial to both sides of the border. That may yet still be possible. There is good will, and no one has worked harder than Gibraltar Ministers and their officials to try to get a deal on this. Absolute maturity and good faith have been demonstrated by Gibraltar, and it is important that we support it. It is also important that we talk to the MOD about the operation of the airport, because I was rather shocked to see that the airport had to close the other day because the Met Office could not send somebody to make sure that the weather forecasts were available. We have to get that right and treat Gibraltar on a proper basis. Those are basics that we ought to get right.
My hon. Friend touched on the officials. May I put something on the record and ask his advice, as a learned friend? Recently, there was a controversy where a senior civil servant of the Foreign Office was lambasted and publicly named in the media as having undermined British sovereignty in Gibraltar. Does he share my unease that individuals in this House, or perhaps those associated with them, chose to brief against a Foreign Office civil servant who has no right of reply? They cannot contact the media, correct the record or speak up on their own behalf. I am gravely concerned about reputation and the standard that sets. Does he agree we should be considerate in the way we speak about civil servants, who cannot respond?
I entirely agree. I am glad to say that the Chief Minister of Gibraltar made a clear statement after that unfortunate comment was made, making it clear that there was no question of concern for the Government of Gibraltar as to the competence or probity of the official’s conduct. Fortunately, nothing was done to prejudice negotiations, but the raising of that did not help at that time, and it was a needless distraction. I hope therefore that we will show the same maturity as Gibraltarians have throughout the whole process.
The final thing I was going to touch on was the whole question of sovereign rate borrowing, which has already been referred to. Because of the pandemic, Gibraltar had to borrow significantly. We were grateful for the support it was given. It wants to continue to be able to borrow money at UK sovereign rates, because the sovereign rate guarantee means it can get a much more attractive rate. Given that we are already charging it more than the rest of the UK would pay for its NHS supplies—much of that went to keep its health service and economy going—surely we owe it the decency of a guarantee of 25 years’ repayment at sovereign rates on the money that was borrowed to assist it during the pandemic.
Gibraltar is a brilliant place. I hope many Members will join the all-party group, and I hope they will be at the national day again this year, joining the people of Gibraltar in reaffirming their British identity, but we need to give them practical support in the interim now.
It is a genuine pleasure to wind up for the SNP in this genuinely very interesting debate. I pay tribute to the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Alicia Kearns, for bringing this important subject forward.
I think it is safe to say that the SNP’s world view on this stuff is different from many of the views we have heard from colleagues today. Global Britain is not our project. For the SNP, our vision for Scotland’s future—Scotland’s best future—is as an independent state going back into the European Union, acceding to NATO and, indeed, acceding to the Commonwealth in our own right. We recognise that the UK is the successor state for a lot of the relationships we have been talking about today, and our primary interaction with the overseas territories would be via the Commonwealth frameworks and, indeed, our close friendly relationship with the UK post independence.
I say that global Britain is not our project, but it is worth stressing to colleagues that I do not wish it harm. The overseas territories are important partners and the UK is going to be an important partner for an independent Scotland, so even if our world view comes to pass—I accept that many colleagues do not want that to happen —we want to see the overseas territories do well, and we want to see a deep and flourishing partnership between the UK and those overseas territories.
Self-determination is part of the SNP’s DNA and we would go further even than the United Nations. We believe that the right of people to choose their Government and choose their constitutional arrangements is absolutely fundamental to democracy. We recognise that the right to self-determination under the UN charter is limited to cases of oppression, a post-colonial setting and, indeed, invasion, but we would go further than that. So we would utterly agree with colleagues who have expressed support for the overseas territories’ right to self-determination.
I recognise that, where that right to self-determination is a right to independence, it is also a right to decide to be a British overseas territory and to have whatever representation it wants to have within this framework. I think there are a number of ways that could be ameliorated and improved, but I deeply respect the choice of overseas territories to have whatever status they want and whatever representation they want as part of the British family, and I hope Members would accept my good faith when I say that.
However, with that right comes responsibilities. It is important that we take stock of the relationship with the overseas territories and the coronation of the new King is a good opportunity to do that. That stocktaking exercise is taking place across a number of the overseas territories themselves. We also need to take proper note of the choices that our decisions make on them. I could not agree more with James Sunderland, who said that Brexit has not been kind to the overseas territories. We fundamentally agree on that point.
However, leaving the EU in the way that we did has upset the constitutional balance within the devolved settlement for Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and, indeed, London. All parts of the constitutional furniture within the UK were predicated on all of us being in the customs union, the single market and, indeed, the EU. That has been changed and it has also been changed for the overseas territories. We have heard much mention of Gibraltar. I had a number of talks with the Gibraltarian Government when I was a Member of the European Parliament trying to find some solutions for them. Likewise, fisheries quotas for the Falkland Islands and lots of other things besides have not had the degree of attention that they deserve from this place, and I think there is a job for all of us to improve on that.
I agree with the point the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee made that, if the overseas territories are not foreign, dealing with them via the Foreign Office apparatus seems to be missing something of a trick. I suggest that Denmark and France particularly have ways of interacting with their overseas territories that would bear quite a bit of analysis from the FCDO and, indeed, the UK Government more widely, in finding new ways of doing this, but always accepting that it is up to the overseas territory to decide the interaction that it wants and it deserves. It is not for anyone to tell it what it should be.
Policy impact and policy coherence are deeply important. Friends can speak honestly to friends, and a number of the overseas territories are globally recognised industrial tax evasion centres. There are implications for us in that, especially in terms of the consequences of the stepping up of the Russian invasion; there is a role in sanctions busting there as well. Policy coherence is important, therefore. We are sanctioning Russian oligarchs and organisations and seizing dirty money, and the overseas territories have a very important role in that as well. I ask the Minister to pick up on comments about the need for a register of beneficial interests. That is deeply important for transparency both at home and abroad.
The hon. Gentleman is making the very serious allegation that some British overseas territories are tax havens or being used in some nefarious way for funds. Which ones is he referring to and what evidence does he have for that?
I was going to be more polite and say some are and indeed some are not, but if the hon. Gentleman wants some statistics, in February 2022 Transparency International linked £830 million-worth of property in the overseas territories and Crown dependencies to individuals close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. In 2018 Global Witness said £34 billion was currently invested by Russians with links to the Russian Government in overseas territories. The Global Witness report of 2018 also said that £68.5 billion in foreign direct investment from Russian residents had been directed towards the overseas territories from 2007 to 2016. I acknowledge progress has been made by some of the overseas territories, but we also must speak frankly to our friends and there is an issue that needs to be dealt with.
I touched briefly on this in my speech, but I want to make it clear that every overseas territory has fully complied with the sanctions that this House has placed as a result of the renewed illegal invasion of Ukraine—every single one—so while I agree that there is progress to be made in other areas, in this area we should give them full credit: they have stood behind us on that.
I agree, and I have pressed in a number of previous debates in this place for complementarity of the sanctions regime across the overseas territories and a number have done very well, but we must maintain vigilant on this. In the same way that London is a centre of dirty money, the overseas territories play a part in that network as well and we must be vigilant on that point.
On other obligations, reciprocity must go in both directions and I warmly recognise the role the overseas territories play in the fight to mitigate climate change and protect biodiversity. More can be done to support them in those efforts. So, it is right that we reassess our relationship with the overseas territories. They are an important partner in what we all want to see—the protection of biodiversity and the protection of people from climate change—and the UK can do more to recognise and support their efforts. The SNP wishes the Minister well in that endeavour.
I also thank the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Alicia Kearns, for securing this crucial debate and ensuring the concerns and priorities of the overseas territories remain within the focus of this House and for the Government to hear. As shadow Minister in that capacity, I draw attention to my declaration in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, in particular my visits to Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands as a guest of their Governments in the last year.
I also thank the members of all the overseas territories and their representatives who are here today in the Gallery to watch the debate and who have been at many events this week. It was a pleasure to speak at the United Kingdom Overseas Territory Association conference yesterday and to meet many of the chief Ministers and representatives over the last few days. I particularly thank the presidency of UKOTA for the work they have done this year around the coronation of His Majesty and Her Majesty. It was a pleasure to see representatives of the overseas territories marching in that parade, as well as the flags and all the other things we have seen. I also want to thank the Speaker for his leadership and work on this issue and his generosity in hosting us all this week in Speaker’s House.
The UK’s overseas territories are indeed an integral and cherished part of the global British family, and it has been a profound honour for me in my role as Labour’s shadow Minister to have now met, I believe, all of the democratically elected leaders of the overseas territories. I have also been able to visit four of the overseas territories: I have seen at first hand the warmth, innovation, diversity and distinctiveness of the people and environments in each. I have swum with penguins in the south Atlantic in the Falklands; and indeed I have taken tea at the Rock Hotel in Gibraltar.
I will not as I know what the hon. Gentleman wants to say; he is very kind, but we do not have a lot of time.
On that more humorous note, I also want to be really serious, candid and honest. Far too frequently, debate and discourse on this issue have been based on glib generalisations and a lack of understanding that fails to take account of the uniqueness of each overseas territory, be that constitutional, environmental or economic.
I am grateful. The hon. Member rightly refers to the overseas territories as being cherished. I rather doubt that I will get a commitment from the Minister for a referendum for Chagossians and the British Indian Ocean Territory, so will he and the Labour party, in the spirit of what Lloyd Russell-Moyle said, at least give a commitment that a future Labour Government would give those people the right to a referendum on self-determination?
Despite some extremely committed individual officials and Ministers in the FCDO and those who work alongside the Administrations, we have seen far too little consistency, understanding, engagement and, crucially, listening. A future Labour Government would set out five key principles to guide our relationships with the overseas territories. First, we believe in devolution and democratic autonomy, and establishing clear consistency on constitutional principles of partnership and engagement. Secondly, we believe in listening. I firmly believe in the principle of “nothing about you without you.” Thirdly, we believe in partnership. A future strong and stable relationship between the UK and each of the overseas territories must be built on mutual respect and inclusion; indeed, that involves all Government Departments, not just the FCDO. We also believe that rights come with responsibilities. In our British family, we share common values, obligations and principles including a robust commitment to democracy, the rule of law and liberty, and the protection of human rights, including, as rightly mentioned, those rights of LGBT+ people, women and girls, and people living with disabilities. We also believe in the advancement of good governance and, of course, ensuring proper democratic accountability and regulation.
Finally, let me be clear that for as long as the people of the overseas territories wish to remain part of this British family, we will robustly defend their security, autonomy and rights. As has been rightly pointed out, that is not least in the case of the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar, where a firm commitment to self-determination has been expressed by their peoples. That is Labour’s commitment, and I know that it is shared by many across the House. We would also move away from the notion that one size fits all. It does not when it comes to the overseas territories.
We need to ensure that our constitutional relations are diverse and nuanced in law and practice. On sanctions, I agree with the point made that in many circumstances we saw the overseas territories and crown dependencies move faster than the UK Government in implementing robust sanctions regimes. We have also heard that, in many decisions, whether on our relationship with Europe, trade negotiations or climate negotiations, the overseas territories have not been heard, respected or engaged in processes at the heart of Government.
We also want to see transparency in how the territories are administered. I believe that many overseas territories have called for a code of conduct for governors and for robust processes and consistency in how they operate.
I had the unique experience of sharing an apartment with Stephen Doughty and my hon. Friend Daniel Kawczynski—it was an interesting dynamic for that week. It is true: I saw the hon. Member swimming with penguins. However, the point is a serious one. Having got to know him, I know that he is a clever guy and that he gets it. Will he please assure the House that Labour’s policy is to respect the military capabilities, military basing and military strategic imperative that we have in some of our overseas territories?
I absolutely assure the hon. Member of that. Indeed, I will come to that specifically.
I want briefly to reference the issues that have come out of the debate in relation to people. We heard many examples, many of which I discussed with representatives from the overseas territories yesterday. There is the impact for citizens when things are not done right, whether in relation to travel, healthcare or education. We heard how Tristanians cannot open accounts with UK retail banks and how students who hold British overseas territories passports require student visas in some cases, but they do not get priority, so the processing time means that they often have to defer positions at higher education institutions. We heard about the issues that Bermuda faced with its passport codes and issues that impacted on travel opportunities. I share the concerns raised about girl guiding suddenly being withdrawn from overseas territories.
There have also been direct impacts from the poorly executed Brexit deal, not least in the Falklands and Anguilla. The Falklands fisheries now have to pay €17 million in tariffs on those crucial squid. I raised that issue in debates during that period. Perplexingly, a British overseas territories citizen is not eligible to use the passport e-gates at UK airports, despite having biometric passports, often produced in the same way as ours. However, people from the European economic area can use those gates. That seems an absurd situation. The Minister is listening and I hope that he takes that into consideration.
We have heard about the issues of infrastructure and access, particularly to the remote territories such as Tristan. Anguilla is looking to expand its runway and faces issues with water and infrastructure. Departments need to work together. It cannot just be the Foreign Office; it has to be the Ministry of Defence, the Department for Transport, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and others.
We have heard a lot, rightly, about the environment. Our overseas territories play a crucial role, whether that be the marine protected area in the Pitcairn Islands, the national climate change policy of the Turks and Caicos Islands, St Helena’s blue green agenda, Montserrat wanting to invest in renewable energy and dealing with the legacy of the volcanic eruption, or the Cayman Islands’ conservation efforts. They play a crucial role not only in contributing to our climate change agenda and biodiversity but dealing first hand with the impact of climate change.
In my final minute I want to refer to security. We have a duty to protect and defend our citizens and our overseas territories, which the Opposition is resolutely committed to. We also have strategically important military bases and territories. In the face of geopolitical threats, whether from China, Russia or elsewhere, we must work closely with our overseas territories not only to defend their citizens but to recognise the strategic import of places such as Diego Garcia, Ascension, the Falklands and Gibraltar —places where James Sunderland served. The Opposition are resolutely committed to that. We need to support them in their internal security. St Helena has not had Home Office support in checking watch lists and sanction lists. I hope that the Home Office can assist with that.
On Chagos there is a complex and nuanced set of issues. There is an historic injustice that I have rightly referred to in the past. We must balance national security, our compliance with international law and obligations, and the rights and wishes of the Chagos people, who have long suffered. I have heard their voices clearly. There are also environmental and biodiversity concerns, which I set out a few months ago.
The overseas territories are a crucial and indispensable part of our global British family. We must have a modern, respectful and engaged partnership with them all, and Labour will stand with them as part of that global British family.
I congratulate the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, my hon. Friend Alicia Kearns, on securing this debate. I welcome the opportunity to recognise the UK’s long-standing and deep partnership with our overseas territories. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s commitment to all our British family, and to my hon. Friend James Sunderland for his service, which needs to be recognised.
I would like to put on record the Government’s appreciation for the Speaker’s commitment to overseas territories and for the fantastic event that he hosted on Tuesday night. We appreciate all his work to support overseas territories, and their leaders and representatives, to progress discussions with key stakeholders over recent days. I join him in championing our British family.
The Minister for Overseas Territories, Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park, would have been delighted to take part in this debate. Since he sits in the other House, it is my honour to respond on behalf of the Government. I welcome the opportunity to recognise the UK’s special relationship with our overseas territories. I acknowledge the representatives here with us in the Gallery today and the leaders who are actively involved in the Overseas Territories Joint Ministerial Council, which is literally in full swing, being hosted by Lord Goldsmith and attended by the Foreign Secretary. Together, UK Ministers and elected leaders of the overseas territories are discussing actions to support our shared goals, find solutions and work out how to tackle shared challenges. The Joint Ministerial Council presents an important opportunity to strengthen the UK’s unique partnership with the territories and to celebrate our rich cultural and historical ties. Above all, it is a platform for this Government to reaffirm and demonstrate their first and overriding priority towards the overseas territories: to protect and promote the interests of British people.
The Government are committed to upholding our constitutional responsibilities and interests in the overseas territories. As was made clear in the 2023 integrated review refresh, we remain committed to protecting the United Kingdom’s core national interests, ensuring the security and prosperity of the British people across the UK, Crown dependencies and the overseas territories.
The Prime Minister has recently asked each relevant Cabinet Minister to nominate a lead Minister responsible for the overseas territories within their Department. Lord Goldsmith, who is the Minister for the overseas territories, will convene a regular meeting of those Ministers as a ministerial group, to ensure that the UK meets its constitutional responsibilities. Indeed, several Ministers from the UK Government are meeting with JMC attendees today.
The Prime Minister has also agreed that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office should lead on a new cross-Government strategy for the overseas territories, working closely, in partnership, with our overseas territories, a point that was made by Margaret Ferrier, among many others. At this point, I am not able to say what the strategy will look like, but I am clear that the commitments in the 2012 White Paper remain relevant and that it will be developed in partnership with—I stress the word “with”—the overseas territories. The timing of when that will be developed is being discussed in the JMC right now. I hope that helps to answer some of the questions raised by my right hon. Friend Amanda Milling, especially given her distinguished service working with the Minister responsible for the overseas territories.
We believe that this is the way forward, rather than setting up a new Department. Others have suggested that there should be MPs or some form of representation for the overseas territories in this House. So far, we have not had any formal representations from any territory on that matter. We recognise the important role of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association and the work it has done to share our love, as my hon. Friend James Sunderland said, and to support our OT family, as my hon. Friend Rob Butler set out. We have given important support to the work of the CPA.
I recognise the important work of my right hon. Friend Karen Bradley, my parliamentary neighbour, in recognising that the work done in Parliament can have an impact on OTs. We look forward to seeing her work on procedure.
We also recognise the new inquiry on OTs that has been launched by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee. We are pleased to see that. We often look forward to hearing views not just from politicians but from academia and other states. However, as my hon. Friend Sir Robert Neill has said, which was echoed across the Chamber, only the people of each overseas territory can decide their own future and what relationship they want with the UK.
The UK is working in close partnership with each territory. The overseas territories have first call on the UK aid budget and there is an uplift in support for ODA-eligible territories. The UK has provided £85 million of official development assistance to support St Helena, Montserrat, Tristan da Cunha and the Pitcairn Islands. That is an increase of £1.2 million from the previous year.
He mentions Montserrat. There is currently no working ambulance on the whole of Montserrat, as the only ambulance on the island is currently broken down. Could my right hon. Friend say how we can get an ambulance out there, using the ODA budget or by some other means? Alternatively, perhaps colleagues could reach out to local organisations to see if anyone has an ambulance they could donate. This is an urgent issue.
I understand my hon. Friend’s point. A lot of detailed questions have been asked in the debate; I will pick them up and make sure that the relevant Departments follow up on them.
I will, but then I need to make progress because Madam Deputy Speaker is giving me an eye, and we know what that means.
I thank the Minister for giving way. I was recently in conversation with my opposite number, the chair of the public accounts committee in Montserrat. That committee has concerns about some expenditure from the governor general’s office but has been told by the British Government, as have I, that it is not possible for the committee to have sight of it. I recognise that there are challenges in a small jurisdiction, but I would be grateful if I could talk to the relevant Minister about the matter, because I am quite concerned.
I will gladly arrange that meeting.
We are supporting the overseas territories with funding dedicated to constitutional and international obligations on the environment and climate, and exciting work has been taking place in that respect.
I highlight the work that we are doing in preparation for this year’s hurricane season. From
Many Members talked about the importance of providing security support. We have done that and will do more of that, particularly in respect of the challenges faced by the Turks and Caicos Islands. As the Minister for the Americas and Caribbean, I am well sighted as to the situation in Haiti. We continue to work with international interlocutors in like-minded states to see how we can provide support for that situation. We are providing electronic border systems for the Turks and Caicos Islands, along with maritime surveillance aircraft, which will be a real help.
Members made many points and I am afraid I will not be able to answer them all. We continue to work with the Falklands to mitigate the impact of tariffs on fisheries and we are open to all opportunities to do so.
We are making progress, and will continue to ask for progress to be made, on registers of beneficial ownership. Sanctions apply and are being applied by overseas territories. Frozen Russian assets in the territories amount to more than 9 billion US dollars. The sanctions are biting and playing an important role.
Will my hon. Friend join me in commending the overseas territories for their implementation of sanctions? This time last year, the speed and volume of the sanctions coming through was enormous and it was a huge task to implement them. I really do think we should commend the overseas territories for that.
Hear, hear—absolutely. It is important work. We recognise, however, that further progress needs to be made on registers of beneficial ownership, and we will do all we can to provide support for that work over the weeks and months ahead.
Points were made about Gibraltar. We are of course working hard with the Government of Gibraltar to make progress, and we remain confident that, with flexibility on all sides, a deal is possible. I understand the points about the University of Gibraltar; we will work with the Department for Education on that.
Important points were made about the British Indian Ocean Territory and the sovereignty-related issues there. Although the negotiations are clearly between the UK and Mauritius, we recognise the diversity of views among Chagossians. We take those views seriously and have a further engagement event planned for the coming weeks.
I think I have probably taken as much time as you will allow, Madam Deputy Speaker. I would like to take more, but I conclude by reiterating the fact that the UK shares an important relationship with the overseas territories. We are all part of the British family, and that relationship is built on respect and trust. We will continue to work in close partnership to strengthen our relationship yet further in the years and decades ahead.
I thank all my right hon. and hon. Friends throughout the House for taking the time to contribute to today’s debate. We too infrequently get to hear the views and wishes of our friends—our family—from the overseas territories. I hope that everyone in the Gallery today has felt heard and listened to, and that we have given voice to some of the issues—I definitely tried to cover an encyclopaedia of issues in my speech. I hope we have shown that we believe strongly in their self-determination, that we believe strongly in what they bring to our family, and how important they are to all of us in this place.
I have just suggested to my hon. Friend Henry Smith, a fellow member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, that the Committee might invite the governors of all the overseas territories to give evidence to us over the next year, so that they can speak to us directly about the issues that matter most to the territories they represent.
Let me end by thanking all our visitors very much for coming here. I am aware that we got them into the Chamber an hour and a half before the debate started! I also thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the commitment of this Chair to our overseas family.
I thank the hon. Lady, and add my own warm welcome to our friends from the overseas territories.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House
is committed to upholding the interests of British Overseas Territories and their citizens;
recognises the special historical, cultural, and social bonds that bind the United Kingdom and Overseas Territories;
and calls upon the Government to ensure that British Overseas Territories citizens’ rights as British citizens are upheld, to defend the sovereignty and borders of Overseas Territories from foreign powers, and to consider the unique circumstances of each Territory when formulating policies which affect them.