[John Bercow in the Chair] — Overseas Territories

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:54 pm on 23rd April 2009.

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Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 4:54 pm, 23rd April 2009

It is a great privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Bercow.

I too congratulate the Chairman of the Select Committee and its members on their work. In particular, I congratulate them on their work on the Turks and Caicos Islands. It is rare that a Select Committee report shows an immediate cause and effect. A number of us fear that all too often, Select Committee reports come under the "so what?" category. From my experience of working in Whitehall 20 years ago, the dear old Minister of Defence was only ever frightened of one parliamentary Committee. That was the Public Accounts Committee because it had the National Audit Office at its disposal to break in and enter. Of course, the Treasury finally got the PAC reports and found out that the Minister of Defence had perhaps not been telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The Foreign Affairs Committee is to be congratulated.

I endorse the view of the Chairman of the Select Committee that it is easy for journalists and others to criticise overseas trips. The Foreign Affairs Committee certainly has a greater right to them than others. There are colleagues who could be described as members of the all-party surf and sand group because they sometimes go overseas for reasons that are not well defended. However, in this case there is a definite example of how a Select Committee, by going out into the field, obtained the necessary evidence. It not only brought to light widespread corruption and intimidation, but enabled the Foreign Office to carry out its duties.

It is regrettable that we are only now debating a report and departmental reply from last September. The advantage is that we have come up to date in the cases of the Turks and Caicos Islands and the Chagossians. I will touch briefly on three or four substantial issues that have emerged not only from the report, but from the contributions of hon. Members in this debate.

In 1999 the Government introduced the White Paper, "Partnership for Progress and Prosperity" on overseas territories. I had concluded before the debate and am now convinced that there should be another White Paper on this issue, whether under this Government or the next in a year's time. From the report and from issues that have been raised today, it is clear that we need a reassessment of the relationship between the British Government and the overseas territories. There must be a strategic vision.

My right hon. Friend Sir John Stanley put his finger on an important point when he spoke of the section of the Foreign Office that deals with overseas territories. One has to be sensitive because one is referring to officials who put as much time and work as they can into dealing with the issue. There is no doubt in my mind or in the minds of others that the section of the Foreign Office that deals with overseas territories does not immediately attract the young, ambitious thrusters. I may be wrong, but I suspect that Sir Nigel Sheinwald was never involved in overseas territories. He will have shimmered through other so-called more important issues.

However, any of us who study history—particularly the history of the Foreign Office—know that areas that are regarded as backwaters sometimes become very important. I suspect that the poor devil in the Foreign Office in the early 1920s who was dealing with Czechoslovakia and who was told that it was not an area that would be important was much in demand circa 1937-38. My serious question for the Minister is, how many officials in the Foreign Office are dealing with overseas territories? I suspect that it is an enabling section, which has to call on the advice, support and expertise of other Departments. This is an important issue and I am interested to know the answer.

That issue leads to another that the Committee raised in its report, which has been raised by at least one hon. Member today—the crucial relationship between the Governors of overseas territories and the people being governed. We all know that, historically, Governors of colonies on overseas territories tended to be selected by a set of criteria that would now be regarded as quaint. It was a way of getting rid of people, telling them to go off and govern New South Wales. Until the 1960s, if the Whips wanted a safe seat, they could hold out as a prospect to Sir Humphrey Bumble the idea that he could go off and govern somewhere very pleasant in the world. This issue was touched on in the report, and we like to think that things have changed since those days, but will the Minister outline in some detail the way in which Governors' posts are advertised, and what criteria, in terms of characteristics and knowledge, the Foreign Office and individual territories look for?

Will the Minister also tell us about the remit that is now given to Governors? I suspect that it is easy to parody those individuals, but they have to perform a difficult balancing act. They must balance the responsibilities of Whitehall against the responsibilities to the territories of which they are Governors. There is no doubt about what the Select Committee has drawn out, particularly in relation to the Turks and Caicos Islands. Governors may, at the end of the day, have been unable to act at all, because of the double constraint of the pressure brought upon them by living within that territory and the kind of benign neglect that came from Whitehall saying, "We hear what you say, but we don't want to hear what you say."

There is another irony to this matter, which has been touched on by Andrew Mackinlay and my hon. Friend Andrew Rosindell. We are debating this constitutional representation, which is a very important aspect of the Select Committee report, as British MPs in the House of Commons, but just beyond the green rope in the Chamber are at least some members of the overseas territories who are privileged to come and listen to our debate and to the great people here, in the sort of king-emperor's Parliament, who decide their fate. One serious point that was raised by a number of hon. Members was the question whether there should be some representation from the overseas territories directly in the House of Commons. There are all kinds of anomalies to that. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford has a powerful interest in Gibraltar, where the citizens can now participate in the European elections, so they have a direct link there. That was a classically, wonderfully British compromise. We need to consider that question. I am open-minded on the matter because my conversations with representatives of the overseas territories have not convinced me that they would all be enthusiastic about having a Member of Parliament here, because the House of Commons could then take a direct interest in their territories, and, indeed, might interfere in them. Some of them, at least, might not be terribly enthusiastic about that.