[John Bercow in the Chair] — Overseas Territories

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:54 pm on 23rd April 2009.

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Photo of Andrew Rosindell Andrew Rosindell Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 3:54 pm, 23rd April 2009

I am delighted that the Foreign Affairs Committee has chosen to delve into issues relating to British overseas territories. British overseas territories get a mention in Parliament very infrequently, so it is excellent that the Select Committee has done such splendid work in looking into so many issues relating to the overseas territories, for which we are ultimately responsible. I commend all members of the Committee for the work that they have done.

We do not have a huge amount of time, so I will not go through all the different issues that have already been raised. There are a number of things that I agree 100 per cent. with. I shall speak about one or two of them later, but first I would like to talk in general about the overseas territories and why we are in such a muddle when it comes to dealing with territories for which we are ultimately responsible. Why has the United Kingdom never sorted out a sensible way of arranging territories and giving them representation and proper recognition? Why is it that so long after all the countries that wanted independence were granted independence, those that remain—the British overseas territories—are left in limbo? They are not really totally British—they are not treated as though they are British and as though their people are equal to our constituents. We have so many examples of that; I shall give a couple now.

The volcanic eruption on Montserrat in 1997 devastated communities there. Many of those poor people had to come and live in Britain, rather than we in this country providing the money that they needed to rebuild their communities much more quickly. The airport that is needed on St. Helena, which no doubt Bob Russell will speak about at length, has been put on hold. I am referring to the appalling so-called "pause" in negotiations. That is disgraceful. It is against what has been pledged by Her Majesty's Government.

I know the Minister well; I speak to her regularly on all these issues. I know how committed she is to trying to improve the situation of the overseas territories, but to be honest, she is hamstrung because of an institutional feeling within the Foreign Office. I mean no disrespect to members of staff from the Foreign Office who are present, but there is an institutional feeling that the overseas territories do not matter, they are secondary, they are not that important and they can just be left. That is why we get these appalling situations such as those on Pitcairn and in the Turks and Caicos Islands. That all fits together if we think about our failure in this Parliament to work out a proper way of giving representation to British overseas territories.

There are many ideas on the subject. Andrew Mackinlay, for whom I have enormous regard on this issue, spoke an enormous amount of sense and I agree with so much of what he said. He suggested, and I have suggested before, that we should have a Select Committee for overseas territories. This issue should not be under foreign affairs. They are not foreign; they are British. Why is it under foreign affairs? Why are British overseas territories—territories of Her Majesty the Queen—under the Foreign Office? They are neither foreign nor Commonwealth. They are not members of the Commonwealth in their own right. There are British overseas territories in the Commonwealth only via Britain, so they should not really be under the Foreign Office at all. They should be placed in the same Department, whichever Department that is, as the British Crown dependencies. Jersey, Guernsey, the Isle of Man and the British overseas territories should all be placed together under one Department, but not the Foreign Office.

This issue will never be solved while we treat the overseas territories as foreign. They are British, and long may they remain so. None of the British overseas territories or Crown dependencies wants independence. Bermuda possibly did, but even that seems very unlikely, if not unlikely to happen at all. So let us forget the fact that they were part of the British empire. Let us move on; let us take things forward. Let us take the British overseas territories and Crown dependencies and give them proper status—the status that they deserve.

It is shameful that loyal subjects of Her Majesty the Queen and British subjects are treated as they are, that they are not allowed to lay a wreath on Remembrance Sunday and that the flags of their territories are not flown for the trooping of the colour. We have the flag of Mozambique flown because it has joined the Commonwealth, but it has never been part of the British empire; it has never been under the British monarchy. When it comes to the Queen's birthday parade, however, where is the flag of the Falkland Islands? Where is the flag of Gibraltar? Where are the flags of the Cayman Islands or Montserrat? Where are the flags of Crown dependencies such as Jersey, Guernsey, Isle of Man and Alderney? They are nowhere to be seen—but the flag of Mozambique is.

We insult these people. We insult them when they have disasters—as, for instance, when Hurricane Ivan hit the Cayman Islands. I went to the Cayman Islands on a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association visit in 2006, and I know how hurt those people felt. Disaster struck, and they needed our support. Where was the Navy? Was the Government offering support? The islanders received little support, if any. That is something for which we are all responsible, and we should not let such things continue.

Perhaps we should allow the British overseas territories to have elected representation in the House of Commons. Perhaps we should find a way to give them their own Members of Parliament; we would have to consider carefully how it could be done. Would they have their own representation, or would each territory be linked to an existing constituency? Either way, the hon. Member for Thurrock and I believe that it is wrong in the modern world that British people, for whom we have ultimate responsibility, should have no vote and no say. We can declare war on their behalf, and we can make foreign policy on their behalf. We could join the euro if we wished to—I hope that we never do—but if we did, what would happen to the Falklands pound? We make the decisions on all those matters.

We now have devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with the clear example of Scottish MPs voting on English matters. We can therefore resolve the problem for the overseas territories; we know that they can be accommodated here because of what has happened as a result of devolution. Of course, they should not vote on issues that have no effect on them, but if it is a matter that affects the overseas territories—many things do—they should have the right to vote in this Parliament. I accept that that probably will not happen, and even if it does it is a long way off.

Why should we not have a Select Committee? Let us consider what Australia does for its small number of territories. Norfolk Island, Christmas Island and Cokos Island do not have representation as elected representatives in Canberra; instead, there is an external territories committee. Those islands can air grievances and talk about issues that matter to them; they have a voice in the Canberra Parliament. As a result, they are not disregarded. Above all, they are not treated as foreign. They are treated as being part of Australia, even though technically they are slightly separate—rather like our overseas territories and Crown dependencies. Australia and New Zealand treat their overseas territories far better than we treat ours.

A range of issues needs to be addressed. The crux of the matter is that Parliament has not been doing the right thing. Under Governments of both parties, we have sidelined the issue. No Government have a particularly proud record in that respect. The present Government brought in the British Overseas Territories Act 2002, and I applaud them for that. It was a great step forward to give British citizenship to all citizens of the overseas territories. However, it was only the first step. We need to do a great deal more to resolve matters.

The other matter that must be mentioned today is that of the Chagos islands. By any standard of democracy, of human rights and of treating people in a decent manner—however we look at it—that was wrong. It was a terrible thing to have removed those people from their homeland, to have chucked them out, taken them from where they lived and put them in a foreign place and then denied them the right ever to return.

Jeremy Corbyn and I do not agree about much, but we certainly agree on that question. We are working together through the all-party group on the Chagos islands, because at the end of the day it is about treating people in a decent and humane way. How could anyone justify what happened to those islanders? I do not understand how any Minister could ever have justified that. We must put matters right. The Minister knows my opinion on the matter, and I have a deep suspicion that she has some sympathy with it, but the reality is that the institutional line taken by the Foreign Office can never be broken. We need to be truthful with ourselves; we should value the overseas territories, treat them as British and ensure that such mistakes are not repeated.