[John Bercow in the Chair] — Overseas Territories

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:13 pm on 23rd April 2009.

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Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Conservative, Tonbridge and Malling 3:13 pm, 23rd April 2009

The hon. Gentleman shows the same acuity as the hon. Member for Hyndburn. He, too, has anticipated precisely the point that I was about to make.

I am not totally surprised that such a situation could arise in an overseas territory, as they have some considerable vulnerabilities. In this overseas territory there is a very small electorate of some 12,000 people, which is about the size of a single county council ward in my constituency. That is the totality of the electorate. Combine that with the fact that we found, extraordinarily, that while people were Ministers they were able to make pots of money for themselves, for members of their family and for their political cronies, and frankly, a corruption and bad governance disaster is waiting to happen, and that is precisely the situation in the Turks and Caicos.

What surprised me more than that actually occurring on the Turks and Caicos Islands was that the Foreign Office seemed to be so oblivious for so long as to what was happening. I can only take the Foreign Office's position at face value on the basis of the memorandum that it submitted to our Committee at the start of our inquiry. I give the House the opening sentence, which states what the memorandum was meant to be about:

"This memorandum is provided in response to an invitation from the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs to provide information on the exercise by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of its responsibilities in relation to the Overseas Territories and the FCO's achievements against Strategic Priority No 10, the security and good governance of the Overseas Territories."

That is what the memorandum was all about. I reread it, and there is not one whiff of a reference to corruption, or to anxiety or even worry about what was happening on the Turks and Caicos Islands.

The Committee was in an extraordinary position: we received a lavender-scented memorandum from the Foreign Office at the same time as we were being bombarded with distinctly malodorous memorandums from the Turks and Caicos Islands across the Atlantic.

Only one of two conclusions can be drawn from such a situation. If one were cynical—I am not—one could say that the Foreign Office was out to pull the wool over the Committee's eyes, to mislead the Committee. I do not believe that that is how present Ministers or their officials would wish to conduct themselves before the Foreign Affairs Committee. If one takes the view that the Foreign Office was not trying to pull the wool, I am afraid that only one other conclusion can be drawn: the Foreign Office was asleep on the job, or most certainly half asleep, and it simply had not woken up to what was happening on the Turks and Caicos Islands.

To be fair, this is not the first time that that has happened in respect of a British overseas territory—it is the second time. The first time was over a very long period under Conservative as well as Labour Governments. The FCO completely lost sight of what was happening over decades in the appalling child abuse scandal on the Pitcairn Islands. That went on until it was finally exposed in 1999. Twice now we have had the Foreign Office apparently not in any way keeping up to speed with what was happening in an overseas territory, and with very serious consequences as a result.

I conclude by putting some questions to the Minister. What lessons has the Foreign Office actually learned from the Turks and Caicos Islands experience? The situation is a self-evident disgrace. Surely there are profound lessons to be learned within the Foreign Office as to how it should conduct itself towards the overseas territories. What is the FCO now doing to make certain that, following the Pitcairn Islands and the Turks and Caicos Islands, there are no further such repetitions?

Finally, I put this, if I may, to the Foreign Secretary: is the Foreign Office looking hard at whether it is giving the right attention to deployment of Foreign Office personnel, and the degree of calibre that attaches to those who work either in the overseas territories section of the Foreign Office in London, or in the overseas territories? The Minister may tell me that I am wrong, but I fear that the overseas territories section of the Foreign Office, whether at home or abroad, is seen as a backwater or cul de sac. Would someone who wants their career path to lead to permanent under-secretary of state volunteer to go into the overseas territories section of the Foreign Office? I fear not.

In the light of the Turks and Caicos situation, I hope that the Foreign Office is considering fundamentally how it is resourcing those who go into the overseas territories section. The one inescapable fact is that that part of the Foreign Office, and that alone, has ultimate responsibility for the good governance of people overseas.