[John Bercow in the Chair] — Overseas Territories

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 23rd April 2009.

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Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee 2:30 pm, 23rd April 2009

The Minister has heard that point and I hope she will respond to it.

We also raised the issue of the so-called rights of non-belongers and wanted that to be an item on the OTCC's agenda. I understand that it was discussed at last October's meeting. However, we were told that there was resistance to change by the representatives of the overseas territories. The Minister told us:

"I encouraged Territories' leaders to review the matter of rights for long-term residents and consider whether there was any scope for change, and for granting belongership within a reasonable timeframe."

I would be grateful for an update on that and if the Minister could tell us whether there has been any progress. Clearly, in some cases people who are very long-term residents do not have full rights within the societies in which they are resident.

The Committee also expressed concerns about environmental issues. Some overseas territories are almost unique environments and have important wildlife, fauna and flora. However, difficulties have been caused by rapacious development—such as that on the Turks and Caicos Islands—insufficient consideration and, sometimes, insufficient funding.

We took the view that the environmental funding that the UK currently provides to the overseas territories is grossly inadequate and should be increased. We described the Government's position as "highly negligent". They acknowledged that more could be done to help the territories tackle environmental issues, which are not so much a matter for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as for the Government as a whole. The Government said that

"the next inter-Departmental Ministerial Group on Biodiversity involving DEFRA, DFID, the FCO and the Joint Nature Conservation Committee will address the roles of individual government departments with regards to the Overseas Territories and look into the feasibility of carrying out a full strategic assessment of the needs of the Territories".

That group met on 15 January. If possible, I would like to know the outcome of that meeting and whether any progress has been made. Are other Departments with responsibility for these issues coming forward? Is the FCO taking the matter any further?

Finally, I turn to the question of a claim made to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf for the sea bed around Ascension Island and the other places I have mentioned. It is a matter not just for the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, the South Sandwich Islands and the British Antarctic Territory; it has wider implications. A claim has been made with regard to the Falklands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, but a similar claim should be made with regard to Ascension Island. However, the Government informed us that in May 2008, they formally notified the commission that they would not make a full submission to define the continental shelf beyond 200 miles in the British Antarctic Territory, although they reserve the right to do so. On the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, the Government said that they were still considering an approach to the commission.

The deadline for submissions is May 2009, so I would be grateful if I heard whether the Government's considerations have concluded and whether there will be a submission on the limits of the continental shelf in the areas I mentioned. In an answer given in December, the Minister said there had been no developments at that time, but I would be grateful if I heard whether there have been any since, given that it is nearly May.

There are other issues on which I could have touched. I have not discussed all the 14 overseas territories in detail, and I apologise to residents of those territories—I hope that my colleagues will pick on other matters.

Let me say in passing that the Committee's report was long overdue. I hope that our successor Committee—whoever its members are—will look at these issues again relatively early in the next Parliament. Our work has shown the importance of keeping the FCO on its toes. It is also important that there are people of sufficient status and weight in the Department itself who can really make a difference.

It is also important that the choice of governors is given careful consideration, so that we have the right people in place. Governors have to deal with sometimes difficult political environments and personality issues, as well as fractious politics, in what are often very small communities where everybody knows everybody else. It is sometimes more difficult to deal with issues in such societies than it is in larger communities, which one might think would have bigger problems. In small communities, everybody knows everybody else's business, and when misdemeanours occur, people sometimes do not want to take the risk of talking to strangers about them.

What we discovered in the Turks and Caicos Islands was a vindication of the work of our Committee, the House and hard-working Members of Parliament. Even though the Evening Standard might denounce us, we doour job and we are proud of the job that we do. Frankly, if we did not do it, there would be even more serious problems—not just in the overseas territories but elsewhere in the world.