[John Bercow in the Chair] — Overseas Territories

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:37 pm on 23rd April 2009.

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Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs) 4:37 pm, 23rd April 2009

I congratulate the Committee on producing such a well researched and well thought through report. It is clearly the product of a significant number of hours in evidence sessions both in Westminster and in far-flung locations in the middle of oceans around the world. I also congratulate Mike Gapes on introducing the debate.

Obviously, almost by definition, the debate has been wide-ranging. This is perhaps the first time that I have seen direct Government action as a result of a Select Committee report. Often Select Committees are influential on the Government and, over time, Governments might eventually adopt some of their recommendations. However, in this case the Government launched an inquiry into the Turks and Caicos Islands within days of the publication of the report, which speaks volumes about the standard of the work and the level of the evidence that was submitted. Even if it has not been acknowledged by the FCO, which could change today, others in House see its value.

The overseas territories are varied and face different challenges. In meetings that I have had with representatives of some of them, I have been struck by how different life is in a small island community, with perhaps only a few thousand other people. Although family life can go on as normal, there are some challenges when it comes to the governance of such small areas—Sir John Stanley said that some territories are as small as a council ward. Indeed, the remoteness of many of the territories offers challenges to some of the things that we might take for granted, such as secondary, further or higher education. Rather than going to university a couple of hundred miles from home as people in this country might, people could end up flying halfway round the world. British citizens living in the territories face specific challenges, and it is right that the House should address them.

We have heard a range of excellent speeches from hon. Members of all parties. It is a particular pleasure to follow my hon. Friend Bob Russell, who made a compelling case for the airport to proceed without delay in St. Helena. By an interesting coincidence, St. Helena is the patron saint of Colchester.

As the report is large, I will focus my remarks on a few key issues: Diego Garcia, tax havens, the environment and witness protection. However, a couple of other points have been made. Recommendation 23, which deals with equality of gender and sexual orientation, has been mentioned by various Members. When one reads it, one suddenly thinks, "Hang on a second. These are British territories." One would assume that such basic provisions for equality of gender and sexual orientation exist, so it is staggering to read not only that they do not exist but that there has been some hesitation and reluctance to adopt them, to the extent that in the Caribbean, the Government themselves have had to introduce legislation on equality of sexual orientation. It needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. As was mentioned in an earlier intervention, it is surely an issue of basic human rights, and the Government have a responsibility to act in their own territory.

Another small but important and symbolic issue, raised in recommendation 15, is the laying of wreaths at the Cenotaph. It seems absolutely nonsensical if a territory wants to lay a wreath that it should not be allowed to do so. We do not want to force them, and if they would rather it is generally done on their behalf, that should be okay, but I fail to see what the problem is and why it cannot be dealt with swiftly by the Government saying, "Yes, absolutely. We will change the procedures, and that will happen from this coming November."

Recommendation 21 relates to freedom of information legislation and encouraging overseas territories to adopt it. I welcome the Committee's recommendation. I am a firm believer in freedom of information legislation. It is good that the Government introduced it. I believe that the legislation introduced in Scotland is superior and enables more accountability, but it is a start. We have already seen it used to create more transparency within Government, which can only be a good thing. I welcome the Government's response, which says that they will encourage overseas territories to adopt such legislation. I welcome the Minister's comments on how and how often that encouragement will take place.

There are two related issues on Diego Garcia. First, on extraordinary rendition, it is right that the report should deplore the use of that UK territory as a refuelling stop for extraordinary renditions and, as reports would have us believe, as a CIA black site for interrogation of suspects. There is significant evidence to suggest that that has occurred. A Council of Europe report concluded in June 2007 that

"we have received concurring confirmations that United States agencies have used the island territory of Diego Garcia, which is the international legal responsibility of the United Kingdom, in the 'processing' of high-value detainees...the UK Government has readily accepted 'assurances' from US authorities to the contrary, without ever independently or transparently inquiring into the allegations itself, or accounting to the public in a sufficiently thorough manner."

That is quite a damning conclusion. The word "processing" is one of the most appalling euphemisms that I have come across, considering the torture that lies behind it. Clearly, just receiving assurances from the United States is not good enough. It is not good enough for the House or for the constituents whom we represent, particularly when it is viewed in the context of previous assurances from the United States that no extraordinary rendition flights passed through or refuelled in UK territory, when the US said subsequently that two had done so.

Although it is welcome that the Foreign Affairs Committee will be conducting an inquiry into torture complicity allegations—my party has long called for an independent inquiry into the matter—a Select Committee inquiry should not be the only thing happening. It should not just be left to a Select Committee. The UK Government themselves ought to be investigating the allegations in detail, not just relying on the US. As we have seen, the US has been seen not to tell us the entire truth about the matter on at least one occasion.

It is good news that the Foreign Secretary has said that he will co-operate fully with the new Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry, as it is regrettable that he refused to appear before the Joint Committee on Human Rights to discuss the issues during its inquiry earlier last year. It will be helpful for him to appear. I am sure that Select Committee members will be robust in their questioning.

In January, the new US President, for whom we all have such hopes, announced plans to close down the black sites that we suspect might be operating on Diego Garcia. It will be interesting to see how that progresses. I hope that the Minister will do all that she can to encourage that process around the world, particularly in UK territories.

The Chagos islanders are the other big, controversial issue on Diego Garcia. This debate has included various eloquent contributions on the matter from my hon. Friend Andrew George and from members of the all-party group, the hon. Members for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for Romford (Andrew Rosindell). The report says that there is a strong moral case for the return of the islanders. I fail to see how anybody could argue seriously against that moral imperative. The Government have behaved pretty shamefully in the matter.

The great and, sadly, late Robin Cook, when he was Foreign Secretary, promised that he would not appeal the Court of Appeal's decision, but we now find in the report that at least £2 million in taxpayers' money has been spent on appeals. Clearly, the Foreign Office needs to put its hands up, say "We got this wrong" and act accordingly. The reasons why the Chagossians cannot return seem patchy. Security is one of the main reasons given, but the place where they want to settle is about 135 miles from the US naval base. Any boat can pass freely within three miles of Diego Garcia. If someone can moor their yacht there without being seen as a security threat, why are people a threat who just want to return to their homeland and live an ordinary life? I hope that the Minister will have happy news on that issue, but I will not hold my breath for it in this debate.

Financial issues are of huge importance in the territories. The report focuses strongly on money laundering, although a lot of recent political attention has focused on tax avoidance. Our Prime Minister is enjoying grandstanding on financial issues on the international stage, but we need to get our own house in order when it comes to tax avoidance.

The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling put it incredibly well when he pointed out that at the G20, seven British territories were named and shamed in the OECD's list of countries that have not agreed to or implemented its international tax standards. That is an appalling situation, and it should not be tolerated, particularly in some of those territories where the UK is directly responsible for financial regulation. In some territories there is absolutely no barrier to reform, as the Government are in a position to implement it, and in other areas, pressure must be applied to ensure that we live up to international standards. The allegations in the report that the FCO was being complacent are supported by evidence. If several of our territories are still on the grey list, the action that is required has certainly not been taken.

It is important for the FCO, in collaboration with the Governors of the territories, to consider how to develop their economies in other ways. We must recognise that the revenue and income from financial services has formed a large part of the economy in many territories. Moving away from tax avoidance would have an impact on their economies. Support will therefore be needed to develop economic avenues that are less shady and internationally embarrassing.

In its report, the Foreign Affairs Committee considered reports from the Environmental Audit Committee, on which I serve. I am pleased that it agreed with the recommendations of our two reports on biodiversity and the environmental legacy and resources of flora and fauna in the territories. Many of the territories are remote places with unique and fragile ecosystems. Since the report was published, the Environmental Audit Committee has published a further report on biodiversity. Unfortunately, our record and our progress are not much better in ensuring that the biodiversity in those areas is not lost at an alarming rate. There are many endangered species to be considered. This is therefore an issue of great concern.

The Government response helpfully stated that there is an interdepartmental ministerial group on biodiversity. When the Environmental Audit Committee considered the issue, it appeared that that group did not have a great track record for meeting or acting. The response said that the next meeting of that group would

"look into the feasibility of carrying out a full strategic assessment of the needs of the Territories."

Will the Minister update us on that, given that the Government response was published in September 2008? Presumably that meeting has taken place. The feasibility study or the strategic assessment might be well under way.

Finally, I turn to witness protection and the Turks and Caicos Islands. It was stunning to hear the tales of Select Committee members receiving evidence from people who were too scared to put their name to what they were saying about corruption. The Leader of the Opposition in the TCI spoke of a

"general atmosphere of fear and intimidation".

That is clearly unacceptable. The Committee is to be commended for securing the evidence and for treating people in a sensitive and confidential manner. That is not an environment that we want to see continue. The Government have acted on the issues in the TCI, but the wider issue of witness protection has been raised. I understand that some territories in the Caribbean are working together on a justice protection Bill to give effect to an inter-territory witness protection scheme. What progress has been made on that?

The report exemplifies the fact that the work of Select Committees is a vital part of what happens in the House. It is important to the scrutiny of Government and to the quality of debate. It ensures that hon. Members are well informed. Witnesses, in particular British citizens, must therefore be free to talk openly and honestly to Members of Parliament. Without such frank evidence, Select Committees cannot continue to function in the way that they do. That is an appropriate point to end on and I hope that the Government will point to some progress on ensuring that this situation will not arise again.