[John Bercow in the Chair] — Overseas Territories

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:10 pm on 23rd April 2009.

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Photo of Gillian Merron Gillian Merron Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Foreign & Commonwealth Office 5:10 pm, 23rd April 2009

I thank the Chairman of the Committee, my hon. Friend Mike Gapes, and its members for giving life to the debate. There is no doubt that the Committee's report is a substantial piece of work. As we have heard, it certainly contains many important and wide-ranging recommendations, for which we are grateful. Of course, in large part, we agree with many of the recommendations.

I am glad to have the opportunity to take part in a debate that has been interesting and has covered many subjects. I put it on the record that I am more than glad—indeed, I am proud—to be the Minister responsible for overseas territories. As right hon. and hon. Members have acknowledged, I know that the overseas territories are important and deserve our full attention. That is why I am glad not only to carry out my ministerial role, in which I am supported well by officials in the Department, but to have this debate today.

Before I tackle the points made, I shall mention some general and important matters. First, our overall relationship with the territories is, of course, enshrined in each territory's constitution. That relationship was set out in the 1999 White Paper, "Partnership for Progress and Prosperity". The Government are committed to the future development of the territories and their continued security for as long as they choose to retain the link between the United Kingdom and themselves.

It is right that territory Governments should take the majority of decisions in the territories because that is the nature of the modern relationship. However, it is also true that we expect and demand the highest standards of governance in return. Many territories have made great strides in their development, and much has been achieved since the 1999 White Paper. As we have discussed today, it is also true that other territories fail to meet their obligations and responsibilities. Where that is the case, the Government will intervene, as we have demonstrated in the Turks and Caicos Islands.

My experience is that our relationship with the territories is what I would call open and frank. Both sides can, and do, express their views freely. That was demonstrated clearly to me on my recent visit to the British Virgin Islands, when I chaired the Overseas Territories Consultative Council in October last year, and met territory leaders for the first time. I and all those present felt that the meeting had been successful, and we agreed to work together on a number of issues, many of which have been raised today.

One important outcome was the agreement that, at this year's Overseas Territories Consultative Council, we should include a forum to discuss the 1999 White Paper now that we are 10 years on. The aim of that forum will be to examine progress and to discuss what remains to be done and how to take forward the White Paper agenda. I shall be glad to keep the Committee informed of those developments. I recognise that the UK's OT relationship needs improvement. You will have noticed, Mr. Bercow—as have I—that many of the contributions have been about those matters in one form or another. I have listened closely to the debate, and I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will welcome the further discussions with the overseas territories that I intend to take forward.

Since the Government's response to the report was published in September, I am pleased to report to hon. Members that there has been progress in a number of areas. I shall put on the record a few examples. A new constitution came into force in the Falkland Islands on 1 January. That reiterated the UK's commitment to the islanders' right to self-determination and to enhancing local democracy, transparency and accountability. A new constitution for the Cayman Islands will be put to a public referendum on 20 May.

In a document that came into force on 1 April this year, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence agreed new terms, conditions and fares for the use of the south Atlantic air bridge by civilians flying to and from the Falklands and Ascension Islands. It is an improved service that includes two flights a week, more seats and a premium economy service. The cost of that has been mentioned and right hon. and hon. Members will be aware that both the National Audit Office and the Select Committee on Public Accounts recommended that the Falkland Islands Government should take a greater share of the risk and cost.

Elections for an islands council on Ascension Island were successfully held in October and a new council was sworn in by the Governor on 27 October. Since then, councillors have been working actively with the Governor and administrator on a number of priority issues. Recently, I attended the first ever joint session of the Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meeting and the Arctic Council in Washington. At that meeting, we adopted two declarations relating to the international polar year and the 50th anniversary of the Antarctic treaty. We also reaffirmed the consultative parties' continued commitment to the objectives and purposes of the Antarctic treaty system.