Overseas Territories — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:42 pm on 31st October 2013.

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Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 6:42 pm, 31st October 2013

My Lords, I hope that the Minister listened carefully to what the noble Lord, Lord Brooke, has just argued. In many ways, of all the questions that he will be asked this evening, that is one that he must answer tonight.

I will also start by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, on securing this debate. It is an important and timely debate, with the forthcoming 2013 Joint Ministerial Council about to start. I agree with her that it is a shame that there are not more speakers. Perhaps one of the reasons is that this debate has commenced after 6 pm on a Thursday evening in the autumn/winter, on, of all nights, Halloween. I wonder whether that has been a factor in keeping noble Lords away.

I have had the pleasure of working very closely with the noble Baroness in a number of fields over a number of years, perhaps most significantly as joint officers of the British Council All-Party Group. If I need to, I declare an interest as chairman. The whole House admires and has long admired the noble Baroness’s unrivalled knowledge and expertise in the field of foreign affairs generally, as well as the overseas territories, and her practical skill in getting things done. She does not just talk, but acts as well.

I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon, is to answer this debate. Many of us on these Benches—can I let him into this secret?—admire his performances at the Dispatch Box. I have certainly enjoyed our jousts on the subject of legal aid. However, I have to tell him that there will be little jousting between the Front Benches tonight. To use the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, in the previous debate that she instigated on the territories:

“This debate is not … political. Indeed, I think that it is probably the least contentious … of government policy”.—[Hansard, 10/3/11; col. 1797.]

I agree but that is not to say that the Opposition do not have questions they would like answered. We agree with the comment of the noble Lord, Lord Howell of Guildford, in that debate, namely:

“This is a complex and wide-ranging portfolio”.—[Hansard, 10/3/2011; col. 1796.]

We are united in our commitment to the principle of self-determination whether it concerns Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands or any of the other overseas territories. It is for the peoples of the territories to decide their own future.

The Government’s White Paper, published in June 2012, builds on work done by the previous Government. Noble Lords should not simply take that from me; that generous comment was made by the Minister, Mark Simmonds, who used that phrase in a debate in another place on 11 December 2012. The Labour Government’s 1999 White Paper strongly influenced their policy during their time in office and, I venture to suggest, influenced the present Government when they produced their own White Paper last year.

Mr Simmonds also said in another place:

“I see the focus of the UK Government in the year ahead as assisting the territories with their priorities, rather than what we think their priorities should be”.—[Hansard, Commons, 11/12/2012; col. 15WH.]

We agree with that sentiment, as we do with the words of the communiqué that was issued following last year’s Joint Ministerial Council. Part of that communiqué was read out by the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, a few minutes ago. It states:

“We are committed to a modern relationship based on partnership and shared values. We share a commitment to the principle and right of self-determination. The people of each Territory have the right to choose whether or not their Territory should remain a British Overseas Territory. Any decision to sever the constitutional link between the UK and a Territory should be on the basis of the clear and constitutionally expressed wish of the people of the Territory”.

We agree with that.

It has been obvious for a long time that some of the overseas territories are poorer than others. Not only are they situated around the world but their natural resources, histories and the forces that have moulded them are very different. The economic typhoon that has gone round the planet has affected the overseas territories, particularly those which are less well off. In our view the British Government have a duty to assist those territories that are feeling the effects of that economic typhoon most severely. I hope that the Minister agrees.

The subject of tonight’s debate—economic diversification in the overseas territories—may be key to gaining or recovering financial health. Many of the overseas territories are situated in beautiful and environmentally compelling parts of the world, and thus have built up and sustained a tourist industry that can be particularly vulnerable to downturns and recessions in larger, more industrialised, countries from where the tourists come. Sometimes tourism has taken the place of indigenous industries such as fishing or farming. When income from tourism falls, trouble may loom unless alternatives are found. Some of those alternatives have been mentioned in tonight’s excellent debate. Given that background, what is Her Majesty’s Government’s policy in terms of giving aid and assistance to overseas territories that may require them? I believe that the answer to that question is at the heart of this debate.

Much has been said about Anguilla and I am not going to repeat it, but I ask the Minister to answer those questions about the role of the Department for International Development and say whether some help can be given to that country, which clearly needs it. Many of us have received representations over the past 24 hours and it is important that the Government come up with answers.

Air passenger duty was mentioned in particular by the noble Lord, Lord Blencathra, in his excellent speech. Will the Minister answer the question posed by the noble Lord? It is a crucial question and it looks on the face of it as if the operation of the system is unfair.

The issue of financial transparency is obviously important—one that the Government should take seriously, and I have no reason to believe that they do not. I ask the same question that my noble friend Lord Boateng asked: ahead of the Overseas Territories Joint Ministerial Council in London on 26 November, will the Government ensure that as part of efforts towards economic diversification overseas territories take steps to ensure greater financial transparency? Specifically, will all overseas territories sign up to the Multilateral Convention on Mutual Administrative Assistance in Tax Matters? That is an important question to which many outside this House would like an answer.

In conclusion, this has been an excellent debate. I very much welcome the fact that it has taken place and we all look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.