[John Bercow in the Chair] — Overseas Territories

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:41 pm on 23rd April 2009.

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Photo of Andrew MacKinlay Andrew MacKinlay Labour, Thurrock 3:41 pm, 23rd April 2009

My hon. Friend is absolutely correct, and if he will bear with me, I will come to Orders in Council and constitutions. I do not want to labour the point, but I want to emphasise it. The matter is a grave one for Parliament, and I was deeply disappointed by the ambiguous and uncertain advice that we received. I hesitate to say this, because I may be doing the gentleman wrong—I believe that it was Speaker's Counsel—but it is unacceptable if parliamentary privilege does extend to overseas territories. That relates to witnesses' anxiety, to which my hon. Friend Mike Gapes referred. We could not be confident that we would extend the right of parliamentary privilege to present stuff to our Select Committee. I hope that the matter will be addressed by the Government and, more importantly, the House authorities.

My hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn referred to Orders in Council and the capacity to vary constitutions at short notice. I think the Select Committee has asked too little of the Government—28 days for notice of a variation Order in Council. An Order in Council varying the constitution of a territory, whether extending powers or rescinding them, is a grave matter and should be subject to full consultation, with plenty of time, by the Select Committee. Parliament should have an institutional mechanism so that there is good time for variations in constitutions, whether by Order in Council or any other method. We should have adequate time to examine such orders in detail and to assure ourselves that there is acquiescence not only by the territory Government, but by the Opposition parties when they exist in those overseas territories.

The issue underlines the wholly inadequate arrangements for oversight by the House of our legal and moral responsibilities for people in the overseas territories peppered around the world. It is a disgrace that, when we call ourselves a democracy, some people are denied access to this place. I regret that I could not persuade my colleagues to incorporate a robust recommendation in the report, but I invite them and the House to reflect on the matter. It is unacceptable that the overseas territories have no representation in or access to this place. As I said—I am not being flip—if we go to war, they go to war, yet they are denied that access. That is almost unique for overseas territories.

The US Congress has delegates from US Samoa, Guam and the US Virgin Islands. The National Assembly in Paris has people representing the overseas territories peppered around the world that are under the jurisdiction of the French Republic. They have access to the Assembly. The situation is similar in the Netherlands and Spain. Such representation is not only logical, but moral and democratic. We should be thoroughly ashamed that such representation is not available here. It would overcome some of the problems that my colleagues have highlighted.

Sir John Stanley indicated that for years the House had assumed that the Governor of the British Virgin Islands—I am not referring to a specific individual—was competent, but that is now a serious issue. It has become clear that Governors have been incompetent, because there was no reporting back or flagging up of anxieties and there was poor governance. There was acquiescence through silence to a thoroughly unacceptable situation. We have no way of knowing whether those people are good, bad or indifferent.

At the very least—I hope that this will be done in the next Parliament—we should have a Select Committee on overseas territories and/or a Sub-Committee of the Foreign Affairs Committee to deal with overseas territories. They should have the mechanisms and duty to have dialogue, using modern technology, with the people, legislatures and governance of overseas territories, so that the Government have a hand in the matter.

A recent innovation is that representatives of the overseas territories come here once a year, and we are invited to receptions at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. They are important, and I am not dismissing them. However, there should be a week of formal hearings by the Foreign Affairs Committee or a special Committee that meets them not collectively but individually to probe and inquire into their stewardship of the overseas territories and to see whether there is a deficiency in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or other Departments. They may believe that they are not receiving sufficient support in overseas aid and development or in the drafting of legislation by the Ministry of Justice, or they may need advice, guidance and counsel from the Treasury.

I intervened rather testily on the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling, who was outlining things very well, but I just find it amazing that British Ministers have the audacity to get up at the Dispatch Box in the House of Commons and refer to the OECD list of jurisdictions that are deficient in terms of compliance on taxation, disclosure and so on when among them is at least one territory where the person in charge of all those things is appointed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—by the Foreign Secretary. Frankly, if there is a deficiency, the people to blame are the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Probably their officials in Whitehall have not told them the naked truth. I am telling them this afternoon: they are both the same and they are both to blame. I hope that some of the financial papers pick up on this and the Finance Ministers in the other countries will note that they cannot pretend that it is a remote problem that they are trying to get their hands on. This very afternoon, I am telling them that they are to blame. That should be addressed with some dispatch.

The Chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South, also touched on the need to end discrimination in the overseas territories. That is particularly relevant given the Minister who will respond to the debate. I do not know precisely what she will say, but I find it bewildering that she would even attempt to excuse or defend acquiescence in continued discrimination on the ground of gender in overseas territories for which this place has the ultimate responsibility. That is happening and it must stop. It is a test of her veracity. I know that she is opposed to discrimination on the ground of gender and other categories of discrimination, but if she does nothing about it, she is acquiescing in it.

I was particularly exercised by the fact that there is conscription in Bermuda. I can find no reason why we should allow conscription there. The Bermuda Regiment has been delegated its funding by the local legislature and Government, but that does not excuse our allowing conscription to endure in the regiment of Bermuda. Even if I cannot persuade the House and the Minister on that, it is a fact that conscription is discriminatory. The only people who are conscripted are men. It has to stop. I find it pathetic when I hear Ministers protesting and saying, "Oh well, we're working on it. We're trying to do something." The Minister needs to address the matter with some dispatch.

My final point relates to the laying of the wreaths. It defies belief that there cannot be an immediate decision on that matter. There is all this bogus nonsense about how there would be too many people and about the time factor. I have watched the Remembrance service every year since I was a lad, and what happens is that the people come up in tranches. In one big movement—it is done in a very dignified way—the high commissioners of all the Commonwealth countries move up to lay their wreaths. It takes about five seconds, and they do it with great dignity. Either we could extend that line or we could allow five or six seconds more for the wreaths of the overseas territories to be laid.

Before the unilateral declaration of independence of Rhodesia, the representative in London of the Government of Rhodesia was given the status of high commissioner and he used to lay a wreath. There is a parallel here. The reason why I draw attention to that is that the constitutional status and relationship of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland before the break-up of the federation and the UDI was exactly the same as the constitutional relationship that exists with many of the overseas territories today—in particular, but not exclusively, Gibraltar. While I am on the subject of Gibraltar, it is amazing how Gibraltar is so critical to us, but all the overseas territories are critical to our international interests, our global reach. They have contributed to the defence of the United Kingdom. It is an enduring insult to them that this wrong has not been remedied before now. I hope that the Minister will cut through the red tape and announce a change this afternoon.