Overseas Territories (Sustainability)

– in Westminster Hall at 3:02 pm on 8th May 2014.

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[Relevant documents: Sustainability in the UK overseas territories, Tenth Report from the Environmental Audit Committee, HC 332, and the Government response, HC 1167.]

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee 3:04 pm, 8th May 2014

I start by thanking the Liaison Committee for making it possible for this debate to take place in Westminster Hall. The background to it is the Rio+20 conference, all the work being done on climate change and the importance of Her Majesty’s Government embedding sustainability into all policies, right the way across government. It is important that the overseas territories are not excluded.

This is the tenth report by the Environmental Audit Committee in this Session, and I thank the members of the Committee, many of whom are here today, for their tremendous work ethic. I also thank the Officers of our Committee, who work so hard behind the scenes on so many different cross-cutting reports, not least this one on the overseas territories.

Our report was launched in March 2013, following up on an earlier report, “Halting biodiversity loss”, which we published in 2008. The feedback that I have had from so many people in so many ways about the importance of the 2008 report and the difference it made makes me absolutely certain that the follow-up to it is critical. I hope that this report—I will come on to the detail of our recommendations in a moment—can make as much difference as the previous one.

We had four oral evidence sessions, with witnesses including non-governmental organisations, civil servants, those working in the United Kingdom overseas territories, developers with an interest in the overseas territories, a Minister from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, a Minister from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and civil servants from the Department for International Development. By the time we finally published our report, we had taken extensive evidence.

In a way, the purpose of today’s debate is not only to take the Government to task for their response to our recommendations, but to impress upon Parliament that the work we are doing is part of an ongoing process. I refer to the work that many NGOs have done, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds among them—it has done an audit—the continuing discussion taking place among those from the overseas territories involved in the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, and the further work going on with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the RSPB. With today’s debate, we want to get up a head of steam, to get some kind of momentum, so that the follow-up to our report will truly make a difference. That is so important. I am pleased that the BBC is taking an interest in this matter, through the World Service. Like many, I look forward to the report due out, I think, on 20 May, on the collaborative work with the BBC. Public awareness of the work of the overseas territories is important for us all.

Why is sustainability in the overseas territories so crucial? There are at least 517 globally threatened species in the overseas territories, compared with 194 in the UK. The overseas territories also contain undisturbed habitats of international significance. Those habitats and species are threatened by development. The hon.

Member for Hendon (Dr Offord) and I saw that when we were in the Cayman Islands. I have no doubt that there are many examples, right across the overseas territories, of unconstrained development because of a lack of the kind of baseline environment laws that we take for granted in the United Kingdom. Overall, the overseas territories hold more than 90% of British diversity. The RSPB reliably tells us that DEFRA does not have a single staff member dedicated to working with the charity full time, and that DEFRA spends only 0.3% of its biodiversity conservation budget—something like £1.6 million per annum—in the territories. It is no exaggeration to say that our overseas territories contain some of the richest remaining biodiversity on the planet and that we have a duty of care to safeguard it.

The Environmental Audit Committee is particularly interested in overseas territories because all 14 of them are under UK sovereignty; Parliament has unlimited power to legislate for them as matter of constitutional law and has a responsibility to ensure good governance. The hon. Member for Hendon will expand on some of those issues when he comes to speak. It is important to say that our Select Committee was keen to scrutinise sustainability in the overseas territories, but we are mindful of our moral responsibilities. It is important to note that we cannot impose what should and should not happen on other elected Governments, but at the same time, Parliament does have sovereignty and cannot abdicate its responsibilities towards the overseas territories. A fine balance must be struck that leads to protection of the environment and biodiversity while taking sustainability and how to achieve it on board.

The Environmental Audit Committee’s report contained 15 constructive—I would say that—recommendations. I will not give the Government’s response all that many points out of 10, because only three recommendations were wholly and unreservedly taken on board, but three is better than none. I also welcome the greater priority given to sustainability issues at the most recent Joint Nature Conservation Committee meeting, held this year. If nothing else, the report will help to ensure that environmental issues regularly get on to the agenda, which could make an important difference. I am also pleased that the Government agreed with the Environmental Audit Committee’s recommendation that they should seek, where possible, EU environment funding for overseas territories under the LIFE+ scheme. Will the Minister provide an update on that?

I want to concentrate on some of the recommendations that the Government rejected and to explore why they were rejected. I start with the Government’s comments on paragraphs 22 to 25 of the report about the Aarhus convention, as they are almost indicative of the Government’s response to that and of Parliament’s role in sustainable development. The Aarhus convention is the bottom line. If it is not properly ratified, the work of NGOs and elected Governments in the territories to deal with the weaknesses that the Environmental Audit Committee identified in planning, development and control will be undermined. The Aarhus convention, with the right to information and the opportunity for consultation that it provides, is the starting point for many of the necessary safeguards.

In the evidence that the Select Committee received from both the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Foreign and Commonwealth

Office summed up the lack of clarity around how the Government are seeking to ratify and extend the Aarhus convention. The Government response contained inaccuracies and I am pleased that they have now corrected the record and have made it quite clear that they have not sought to extend the Aarhus convention to the overseas territories, which is progress. The Select Committee wants that extension.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

I compliment my hon. Friend on her work and that of the Environmental Audit Committee. As I understand it, the Aarhus convention suggests that the local population should be included in discussions about protected areas and environmental protection, but that clearly did not happen in the case of the British Indian Ocean Territory’s marine protected area. Does the Committee have a view on that?

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee

We believe that the Aarhus convention is the starting point and should apply. We hope that our recommendations will help the Government to work with the overseas territories to find a way to do that. We want clarity, which is necessary above all else.

A key strategic recommendation in the Environmental Audit Committee report is about the overseas territories’ relationship with the United Nations. The overseas territories are not sovereign states, so they are not members of the United Nations, but they are represented by the UK. Given the small populations of the overseas territories—those that are inhabited—that is a sensible arrangement. It is also an opportunity for the UK to fulfil its historical and critical responsibility to the overseas territories by facilitating their engagement with UN treaties and projects.

The UN convention on biological diversity is the flagship treaty to protect biodiversity. The UK has not extended the ratification of the treaty to most overseas territories, so the Select Committee recommended that

“the FCO must agree a timetable to extend ratification of the CBD with all inhabited UKOTs where this has not yet taken place.”

The Government rejected that recommendation, referring to “capacity constraints” and other reasons why overseas territories could not easily do it themselves. They also stated that they have

“no intention of imposing obligations that the UKOTs are ill-equipped to fulfil.”

However, many small independent nations—I could name many—that are not backed by the environmental expertise, support and guidance of the UK have ratified the convention on biological diversity. Is the Minister aware of any overseas territories Government who have stated that they do not want to engage with the convention on biological diversity, which is a flagship UN treaty? If there no dissent, we should be doing everything possible to get overseas territories included in this biological protection.

The Environmental Audit Committee also recommended in paragraph 19 that

“the FCO immediately extend ratification of the CBD to all uninhabited UKOTs.”

I am bit puzzled by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office response, which neither accepted nor rejected this recommendation. Will the Minister provide a little more clarity on that? The Government did refer to ongoing projects on South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands which will

“put the territory in a very strong position to have the CBD extended.”

However, that is not quite the same as stating the Government’s position. Will the Minister explain the barriers to extending the ratification of the CBD to all uninhabited overseas territories?

On biodiversity monitoring, the Environmental Audit Committee heard throughout the evidence sessions that the rich biodiversity of the overseas territories has not been effectively catalogued. Unsurprisingly, we recommended that

“Defra must draw together UKOTs Governments, NGOs such as the RSPB, civil society and research institutions to agree a comprehensive research programme to catalogue the full extent of biodiversity in the UKOTs.”

We see that as a precursor to all kinds of other protection. In their response, the Government stated that

“there is no single group responsible for overseeing biodiversity survey, monitoring, research and data management” and pledged to

“consider whether such a group would add value”.

I wonder whether the Minister has considered whether cataloguing the biodiversity of the overseas territories would add value, and agrees with us that it is important to do it. Perhaps he will also anticipate in his remarks the launch of a report about the collaboration of the RSPB with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

I mentioned how struck we were by lack of resources in the overseas territories, and in the UK Government. Much more could be done with all the expertise already available within Government and in local authorities. Perhaps under twinning or other arrangements existing expertise could be used for the benefit of the overseas territories. We think that would be a way forward.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour, Edinburgh North and Leith

On the question of lack of resources, I was struck by the capacity of non-governmental organisations: the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum appears to operate on a shoestring, and has had its funding reduced. Should the Government be looking for ways to ensure that the NGOs with which they must have a working relationship are properly funded?

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee

I agree. There is an important issue here: we may be in a time of austerity, as everyone reminds us at every opportunity, but that does not mean that the only cuts to be made, or the first ones, should be those that affect the environment. Our report is intended to highlight the fact that there would be many dividends for the overseas territories, and for the UK as a whole, from investing in and safeguarding our natural resources, and valuing them properly. That means resources for NGOs as well as Governments, as my hon. Friend Mark Lazarowicz said.

It is clear—we certainly saw it in the Cayman Islands—that many NGOs operate on good will, on a shoestring. It is not a decision for us to impose on overseas territories Governments, but there may be all kinds of ways in which they could adopt best practice with a view to funding some of the work that is needed. All kinds of suggestions were made to us, including a sustainability tax. There is almost a case for a Joint Nature Conservation Committee agenda on ways of identifying sources of finance to ensure that much-needed, urgent work gets done.

The Government might well ask why we made our recommendation on national lottery funding, but we felt that the environments of the overseas territories could be given protection through grants from the national lottery. The Heritage Lottery Fund currently funds conservation projects in the UK. I am sure that we can all think of constituency examples. It is legally permitted to fund conservation projects in the overseas territories, but that has never happened, because the Department for Culture, Media and Sport directed the fund to prioritise accessibility for UK residents in making grants; this is another example of the cross-cutting nature of the agenda and how it involves all Departments.

We recommended that the DCMS should extend the right to play the national lottery to overseas territories residents, which would allow it to direct the Heritage Lottery Fund to accord equal priority to applications for projects in the overseas territories and applications for projects in the UK. At a time when not much money is available, and where to look for it is an issue, we felt that our proposal might be a way forward, and were disappointed when the Government rejected it, citing a number of barriers, including

“installing and running lottery terminals in such distant and disparate areas” and

“the need to change legislation”.

I gently suggest to the Minister that so far the arguments against our suggestion have not been powerful enough, and I ask him to re-examine it. Perhaps he will in particular consider our recommendation about the internet.

The extension of the right to play the national lottery in the UK overseas territories would require a statutory instrument, not primary legislation, so the legislative burden would not be excessive. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. I am by no means suggesting that national lottery funding would be the one way of resolving all the underfunding issues of environmental projects and operations; but it is one small way of providing some much-needed investment for specific projects. I hope that the Government will consider that, and tell us why they have so far resisted that approach.

Zac Goldsmith will raise maritime issues in some detail, but I wanted to mention that the best biodiversity in most of the overseas territories is on the coast and under water. We want marine and coastal protection to be given special priority. I wonder how we can have sovereignty over the fifth largest exclusive maritime area in the world without having strategic plans in place. I would like the Minister to respond to our recommendations about a marine protected area in the Pitcairn Islands. The UK has signed up to the UN Aichi biodiversity targets. Target 11 is to protect 10% of the world’s oceans by 2020, and the Pitcairn Islands have asked the UK to establish a fully protected marine protected area around them. We believe that that would make a substantial contribution to achieving that significant world target. We therefore recommended the creation of such a marine protected area.

The Government gave reasons why they could not do that. We would like to know what things they could do. Is the Minister aware that our recommendations refer to satellite tracking as a practical and cost-effective enforcement tool? Has he made any assessment of the use of satellite technology in that way? We heard that a line on a map would be worth a great deal for marine protection, because it would set legal boundaries that responsible operators would respect, and provide a basis for future enforcement action. What is the Minister’s response to that argument?

There are 14 overseas territories, each with a wealth of biodiversity and many challenges, so it is impossible in this afternoon’s short debate to cover all the issues referred to in our report. Hon. Members will be able to expand on some of those issues in depth. I want to pay tribute to the inspirational work of the director of the Cayman Islands Department of Environment, Gina Ebanks-Petrie, whom the hon. Member for Hendon and I met. We felt humbled to see the work that she does, alongside many volunteers and the newly elected Cayman Islands Government, whose changing approach to the environment and adoption of new environmental legislation since our visit is paying dividends.

I could talk in detail about the waste tip that we saw there and the urgent need for action on that, and about the need for the same kind of standards that we have in the UK. I could talk about the need for expertise to make it possible to establish safeguards and standards, so that waste will not be burned and residue will not leach into the ocean. I could talk at length about various visits that we made. There were students from Aberystwyth university, and seeing them in action made us all the more determined to think about opportunities for twinning and sharing business expertise. The JNCC needs to be able to provide the machinery and framework to promote best practice.

I briefly want to mention our visit to the turtle farm. I stress that policy on and the operation of the farm are entirely a matter for the Cayman Islands Government. Any Government, however, whether a UK overseas territory or not, must take account of the importance of safeguarding biodiversity. I welcome the Cayman Islands Government’s intention to enter into dialogue with the World Society for the Protection of Animals about certain continuing concerns. If our report has helped to facilitate dialogue between the interested parties, so much the better.

I could also mention other details, including some about the Turks and Caicos Islands, where scheduling of the debt is causing issues that need to be looked at closely. In other islands, there are problems with invasive species and biosecurity, which we could help to resolve by providing expertise.

In conclusion, with such a wealth of biodiversity in our overseas territories, we require a step change in how the Government relate to them. The change of approach should involve addressing, rather than dismissing, the individual recommendations of our report; building on the work of the JNCC, individual Governments and NGOs; and bringing the combined expertise and resources of all relevant Departments to support the UK Government’s strategic role for the UK overseas territories, as well as the role of the UKOT Governments. In the Minister’s reply, I hope that he will engage with us on the issues, which between us we will raise, and give real cause for optimism that the sentiments of the 2012 White Paper will be translated into real action.

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon 3:31 pm, 8th May 2014

I thank all the passionate people who have assisted us with our inquiry, including Alistair Gammell, Heather Bradner, Josh Kaile, Gina Ebanks-Petrie, Tim Austin, Croy McCoy, Stuart Mailer, Wayne Panton, Fred Burton, Patricia Bradley, Ian Orr, Jay Esterman and Nick Beech. We are also indebted to many other people.

I would have liked to mention a number of matters —transparency, resources, biodiversity conservation, sustainability and many others—but time will prevent me from doing so. This afternoon, therefore, I will focus on one area, which is good governance, or rather the lack of it.

Many issues covered in the report are not simply to do with environmental policies, but involve standards of governance on the part of the UK Government and Governments in the overseas territories. The remit of the Committee in the report is to hold the UK Government to account for their overall responsibility for the good environmental practices of the overseas territories. When, for example, there is evidence that planning systems in many territories are not open, and that procedures for carrying out objective environmental impact assessments are either ignored or subverted, there is a role for the UK Government, through governors and ministerial engagement with the overseas territories, to encourage and provide support to improve standards of governance.

The result of failure to take early action and to address matters adequately was seen most recently in 2009 in the Turks and Caicos Islands, when the Government had to introduce direct rule. Given that action, it is a great pity that in the initial paragraph of the Government’s response to the Committee’s report, the Government make it clear that they do not regard the report, nor the wealth of evidence presented to them, as in any way worth addressing.

The Government talk of powers being devolved to the Governments of the UK overseas territories, whether the territory has locally elected politicians or Government-appointed officials, including governors and administrators. Through the UK Parliament, certain policy areas have been designated the responsibility of devolved administrations, such as locally elected governments and assemblies. Devolution means that the UK Government no longer have the legal authority to determine policy on some matters in the devolved administrations, except through subsequent parliamentary votes at Westminster. We can see this most notably in local government in the UK. The devolved administrations, which are the councils, are provided with financial resources to carry out work in the devolved areas. There is, however, no such parliamentary devolution to the overseas territories, whether of legal authority or budgetary resources.

The crucial concept for the UK overseas territories is not devolution. Indeed, that term does not appear in the index to Hendry and Dickson’s authoritative “British Overseas Territories Law” of 2011. The key constitutional concept is that of reserved powers, which are, uniformly, defence, foreign affairs and public order. As the same index reveals, however, a key non-parliamentary constitutional concept is that of the Government’s reserved general power to legislate by Order in Council.

Even if the constitutions of individual overseas territories have been modernised in certain respects during the late 20th and early 21st centuries, they still rely on colonial legal structures developed in the 18th and 19th centuries, and on the ability to govern by exercising the royal prerogative through Orders in Council. Constitutionally, the good governance of the territories is the responsibility of the UK Government.

The Government decide how to secure such good governance through departmental, ministerial and bureaucratic decisions. Generally, for territories with locally elected Governments, it is desirable for that to be achieved through local legislation, which takes account of local conditions, but respects standards that are often formulated to be observed in all territories over which the UK exercises effective sovereignty. Where Ministers deem it necessary, however, Orders in Council, without parliamentary debate in either the territory or the Westminster legislatures, can be used to impose new laws, including the suspension of a territory’s constitution.

Let me be clear: I am in no way opposed to proper delegation to the UK overseas territories, but as I said a few minutes ago, the Government’s arrangements do not achieve that, and they certainly do not justify the Government’s repeated attempts to claim that they have no responsibility for environmental issues in the overseas territories.

The Government assert in their response that it would be inappropriate to take greater ownership of environmental issues, as that approach would be in stark contrast to the objective, set out in the 2012 White Paper, of working in partnership with the territories to help them meet their environmental obligations. The idea of working in partnership, however, was set out in the 2001 environment charters, in which both sides made commitments that reflected their differentiated responsibilities for environmental good governance. The Government’s comment is in conflict with the Environmental Audit Committee and Foreign Affairs Committee reports of 2008, as well as our present report.

It needs to be clearly stated that there is no suggestion that the Government should take over managing environmental issues in the overseas territories, but the Government should introduce support for proper management. It is all very well for them to assert that they encourage territory Governments to join in the UK’s instrument of ratification of core multilateral environmental agreements, but the Government undermine their own assertion by making the erroneous comment that

“we have no intention of imposing on the Territories obligations that they are ill-equipped to fulfil.”

That is an attempt to set up an informal fallacy. The role of the UK, as recognised in the standard environment charters, is not to impose obligations, but to

“Facilitate the extension of the UK’s ratification of Multilateral Environmental Agreements of benefit to [the territory] and which [the territory] has the capacity to implement”,

and to

“Keep [the territory] informed regarding new developments in relevant Multilateral Environmental Agreements and invite [the territory] to participate where appropriate in the UK’s delegation to international environmental negotiations and conferences.”

The Government response to the Committee’s report also ignores international responsibility to help equip parts of sovereign UK territory to fulfil such commitments. Imposing treaties on unwilling UK overseas territories is not something that the Government have shied away from—we need only consider the case of the Turks and Caicos Islands in 2009, and the fiscal and financial framework in the Cayman Islands a couple of years ago. There is, however, a middle course between imposition and a purely reactive response to requests from UK overseas territories, as the Government have developed mechanisms to seek the changes needed in overseas territories—that is, to encourage and to assist.

In general, treaties that the UK ratifies reflect values and priorities that apply to all sovereign UK territory. If that is not the case, will the Minister provide examples of environmental treaties that it would be wrong in principle to extend to all or some UK overseas territories, although they are appropriate to the UK mainland? The core obligations under the convention on biological diversity are not onerous. Having legislation to create protected areas is fundamental, but effective implementation is also important.

In all countries and territories where the convention on biological diversity has been ratified, or to which a mainland country’s ratification has been extended, a great deal has been left to be put in place after that ratification or extension. Judged by some standards—when it comes, for example, to the creation of marine protected areas—the UK has not been a leader in meeting its CBD commitments. It therefore seems perverse to demand higher standards before extension to many of our overseas territories when they are specifically excluded from policy discussions and treaty negotiations. It would not have impressed the other states with whom the CBD was being negotiated had the UK announced, on ratification in 1992, that it was likely that 22 years later it would still be unable to extend the CBD’s principles to most of the UK overseas territories, including those with no residents.

The Government state that most of the territories are small islands or island groups that face resource and capacity constraints affecting their ability to consider or implement treaties. Although I can accept that view, will the Minister explain why the UK Government have not provided more resources to address those constraints—for example, staff from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, assistance in an environmental drafting capacity, or any other form of help? If the Minister believes that multilateral environmental agreements have no value when applied to areas of high biodiversity, will he argue his case in public for not extending such treaties to those areas, and for devoting large sums of UK taxpayers’ money to biodiversity on the UK mainland?

As a consequence of the inquiry, some overseas territories have introduced conservation measures and legislation; that is an achievement of the Committee, but I must ask why the UK Government are prepared to exercise hard and soft power in the UK overseas territories on financial matters, but not protect biodiversity and promote environmental sustainability.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office cannot abnegate its constitutional responsibility to ensure that good governance arrangements are introduced in the UK overseas territories. Sustainable development in the territories is contingent on their Governments’ implementing effective development controls, such as statutory environmental impact assessments for major developments and strategic infrastructure plans.

I urge the Government to consider investing to prevent biodiversity loss in the overseas territories, as it would make a direct and cost-effective contribution to meeting the UK’s international commitments under the CBD. The UK could make a significant contribution to achieving Aichi biodiversity target 11 by declaring new marine protected areas around the Pitcairn Islands, Tristan da Cunha, and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands. The Government have missed a significant opportunity in their response to the Committee’s report, but there is still time to take the action we have set out.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North 3:41 pm, 8th May 2014

I am pleased that we are having this debate today. As chair of the all-party group on the Chagos islands, I will address the issues surrounding the British Indian Ocean Territory. Although there are not a massive amount of references to the Chagos islanders in the report, it quite rightly discusses the need to protect all environments in British overseas territories, which I welcome.

As the House will be aware, the Chagos islands were finally depopulated in the early 1970s after a secret agreement between Britain and the US to do so in order to build a US base on Diego Garcia. The way that depopulation took place and the way that the islanders have been treated, frankly, are a source of shame for this country. Ever since, the islanders have been concerned about the environment that they left behind, the environment of Diego Garcia, and their right to return.

I recognise that this debate is not about the politics of the decision that was taken at that time, but we should place that decision in the context of the issues we are debating today. The islands represent a significant chunk of the Indian ocean. The archipelago is some distance from Diego Garcia, yet even though it is nowhere near the US base, it was depopulated apparently for reasons of security. There have been many court cases and actions about the depopulation, and the Foreign Office is at last undertaking a feasibility study on the right of return. Will the Minister clarify exactly when that feasibility study will report to us?

A marine protected area was introduced around the islands on 1 April 2010 in a statement to the House by the then Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. It was introduced without any consultation with either the all-party group on the Chagos islands, any of the Chagos islands organisations or, as far as I can work out, anybody else at all—it was simply announced. As chair of the all-party group, I was extremely annoyed, and tabled an urgent question, which Mr Speaker granted. Many Members expressed similar views. The proposal, which has now been carried out, was that there should be a no-take fishing zone around the archipelago. It is envisaged that there will be no return to the islands at all for the population.

I want to put it clearly on the record that the Chagos islanders were very angry at not being consulted on that proposal. I quote from a letter from Olivier Bancoult, the chair of the Chagos Refugee Group:

“We cited the unilateral declaration of the Chagos Archipelago as a Marine Protected Area as the perfect example of our views and interests being disregarded despite the fact that we voiced out our concerns and opposition loud and clear.”

In the same letter, written in July 2013, he goes on to discuss a meeting

“conducted in an honest manner during which both parties have had the opportunity to freely express their positions” and asks for more such meetings.

David Snoxell, the former British high commissioner to Mauritius, who is the voluntary co-ordinator of the all-party group on the Chagos islands and chair of the Marine Education Trust, said at the time—he is quoted in the 2013 Library briefing paper on the islands—that

“Everyone would have been happy with the creation of a marine protection area providing it had made provision for the interests of Chagossians and Mauritius, which it could so easily have done”.

That remains the position of the Chagos islanders, including those in Crawley who have opted to take residence in this country and have become British passport holders—well, most of them did—as a result of the British Overseas Territories Act 2002.

The Chagos islanders support the principle of a marine protected area. That is clear. As I said in my intervention on my hon. Friend the Chair of the Committee, it is clear that, in practical terms, a conservation process that we want to work has to be undertaken with the co-operation of the local population. They are most interested and affected and are most likely to look after the place. Instead, there was no consultation whatever with the Chagos islanders, who live as a community in Mauritius, the Seychelles and this country. We now have a rather ineffective naval presence that is supposed to be able to monitor what is going on throughout 630,000 sq km of ocean and protect those waters.

The only people who go to the islands are passing yachtspeople who have the money to spend their lives sailing around the world on expensive yachts, and people fishing illegally, who manage to enter the area because it is insufficiently protected. We should bear in mind that a population returning to inhabit the archipelago sustainably with licensed, limited and sustainable fishing would provide much better protection for an undeniably beautiful and pristine environment that has become an important haven for swordfish, sharks and other large sea mammals that have taken refuge there and whose populations are being protected as a result. Instead, the Foreign Office maintains an obdurate position of non-return of people to the islands—unless the feasibility study brings about a change of heart. I sincerely hope it does.

I also want to raise the issue of pollution of the waters around Diego Garcia. It is the largest island of the Chagos group and, as I explained, is some considerable distance from the archipelago. It became a base from which the United States has launched military operations to Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and so on. The US lease on the base runs until 2016. We are told that the base is well run, yet there are reports of considerable and disturbing levels of pollution caused by activities there. I will give an example. On 15 March this year, The Independent said:

The American military has poured hundreds of tonnes of human sewage and waste water into a protected coral lagoon on the British-owned base of Diego Garcia over three decades in breach of environmental rules…According to scientific advisers, elevated levels of nutrients caused by the waste—which have resulted in nitrogen and phosphate readings up to four times higher than normal—may be damaging the coral.”

On 28 March, The Independent revealed that the scientific adviser to the Foreign Office had criticised the British Government’s failure to protect those pristine waters. Russia Today reported on the issue at some length in an article entitled “US Navy pollutes islands cleared of natives in order to ‘protect environment’”. Even more seriously, there are concerns about radioactive pollution from nuclear-powered submarines that have been using the base there. I believe those reports to be credible, and it is important that the Foreign Office recognises that despite the fact that only the base and not the whole island is leased to the United States, the US has a responsibility to protect the environment there. The commissioner for the British Indian Ocean Territory also has responsibility, and that responsibility has clearly not been carried out if such pollution has taken place.

The issue, then, is what happens to the islands now. I received a letter from the Foreign Secretary on 14 February this year. The all-party parliamentary group on the Chagos islands asked that the feasibility study being undertaken in response to the many legal processes that have taken place be concluded as quickly as possible. I have a copy of the original feasibility study on the possibility of return, which was prepared in the early 2000s. It is in three very large volumes in my bookcase at home and was too heavy for me to carry in to show Members, but it concluded that the islands exist and that they sustained a small population through fishing and copra production. One hopes that a population can be supported there again.

The issue is really about the principle of the right of return. There are some well-thought-out positions on how the islands might be repopulated, how many people would go there and the sustainability of what would happen as a result. The principle must surely be that repopulating the islands would involve bringing in people who love the place—people who lived there and were heartbroken at being forcibly removed from the islands. They are the people best able to protect the environment. We have a rather strange situation in which a population was forcibly—and, in my view, illegally—removed to make way for an American base, and now we spend money on security to keep them out and prevent other people from going in and illegally fishing. Why not make a virtuous circle of it and allow those people to return, so that they can protect a pristine and valuable environment?

The issue is not going to go away. Every time the Foreign Office thinks that it is over and done with, it comes back, because the islanders have an amazingly steadfast determination to ensure that their case is heard. The Environmental Audit Committee report calls on the UK and US forces to

“work constructively to minimise the environmental impacts of military presence and to conserve the island” of Diego Garcia, and refers to the problem of nutrient discharges by US ships there.

I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm in his response that the Government are aware of the pollution occurring in Diego Garcia, that we are on track for the feasibility study to be undertaken on the possibility of return, and that the issue can be concluded within this Parliament—that is, that we will receive the report before the end of this year, so it can be properly debated in the House in January or February next year, before this Parliament is dissolved to make way for the general election in a year’s time. The islanders protected those islands for many years. They should have a right to return and continue that protection.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

Before I call the next speaker, may I indicate that because there was no vote in the main Chamber as anticipated, we must conclude proceedings by 4.30 pm? I therefore propose to start the winding-up speeches at 10 past 4. There are three people who want to speak before then, and I want to fit in Joan Walley, who led the debate.

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee

On a point of order, Mr Benton. I understand that the previous debate was extended because a Division was expected in the House, taking time from this debate.

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

I understand that, and I have sought guidance on it. My understanding is that business must conclude at 4.30, which is why I made the announcement.

Photo of Zac Goldsmith Zac Goldsmith Conservative, Richmond Park 3:55 pm, 8th May 2014

It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I will be quick. I congratulate Joan Walley on her opening remarks and her brilliant chairmanship of the Committee, of which I am proud to be a member. I will focus briefly on marine protected areas, which were a significant part of the report that we put together.

As Members will know, the oceans are under unprecedented pressure. It is estimated that 90% of all large fish are gone and that 15 of the world’s 17 large fisheries either have collapsed or are on the brink of collapse. A recent study published in Science magazine predicted that all the world’s fisheries will collapse by 2048 if current trends are allowed to continue. That matters for many different reasons—for biodiversity reasons, clearly, but also from a human point of view. One billion people depend on fish as their primary source of protein and 200 million depend indirectly on fishing as a source of livelihood, yet we continue to ravage the systems that provide fish, including one third of all mangroves, which we must not forget are the breeding ground for 85% of commercial fish. Only 5%—the true figure is probably less—of coral reefs are considered pristine nowadays. There is a lot that we need to do.

I will skip through the issues, such the lawlessness of the high seas, the fact that 1% of the world’s fleets are responsible for catching 50% of the world’s fish, and the fact that there are fishing lines that would stretch all the way from Westminster to Brighton and 10 billion hooks floating around the oceans. I will assume that Members agree that it is impossible to reconcile those tools of destruction with any hope of a sustainable future for our oceans.

I will focus on marine protected areas, because notwithstanding the remarks made by Jeremy Corbyn, they are the easiest, quickest and least controversial way of protecting the oceans. We know that marine protected areas work. During world war two, when fishing was prevented in the Atlantic, fish populations soared incredibly quickly. Spain has a terrible record on fishing around the world, but catches close to the famous Tabarca marine reserve, the country’s first, are 85% higher than elsewhere after just six years of protection. There are many other examples, which I am afraid I will not be able to mention.

Governments have agreed, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North mentioned, an international target of protecting 10% of coastal and marine areas by 2020, but progress has been incredibly slow, with less than 3% being given any protection at all and only 1% any real protection. That is depressing, but the good news is that we do not have to wait for international action or international agreement. The UK is in a position to show leadership, with or without our international partners. We have the fifth largest and the most diverse marine zone in the world—6.8 million sq km, comprising nearly 2% of the world’s oceans—and the vast majority of it is in the UK overseas territories, which between them harbour 90% of UK biodiversity.

Our report makes it clear that UK overseas territories are calling on the UK Government to help them to establish marine protected areas, and of course we must., Notwithstanding some of the comments that we just heard, we have made some progress, including the designation in 2010 of the British Indian Ocean Territory as the world’s largest fully protected marine reserve. However, we must consider three more hugely important territories: Pitcairn, Ascension and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

The Pitcairn Islands are, as many hon. Members will know, remote and neither polluted nor overfished. Their fish populations, including of top predators such as sharks, are healthy, and they have some of the best coral reefs in the world. They have intact deep-sea habitats and many species new to science. At present, they are totally unprotected and unpoliced, and it is only a matter of time before the area is devastated. A marine sanctuary there would be celebrated globally as one of the most significant conservation measures ever taken by any Government. The Pitcairns submitted a proposal to the Foreign Office last year for a highly protected marine reserve, which was supported unanimously by their population.

The second obvious opportunity is South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, which are uninhabited, so we would struggle to get the lottery machines there, although we could probably put a symbolic one there, just to get through the ridiculous legalistic response by the Government to that proposal. The islands have a vast marine area that is recognised worldwide for the importance of its wildlife. Home to more than 100 million seabirds and half the world’s population of southern elephant seals, it is one of the world’s most diverse and scientifically significant regions on the planet. The islands have already been identified as a priority for protection by the convention on the conservation of Antarctic marine living resources. A large-scale, fully protected marine reserve could be implemented with only a minor impact on current fishing or fishery income.

The third opportunity—I would go so far as to say that it is a golden opportunity—is Ascension Island, which lies in the middle of the rich equatorial waters of the south Atlantic. It is the peak of a gigantic undersea volcano. It holds the second largest green turtle nesting site in the Atlantic and is one of the most important tropical seabird breeding stations in the world. Its waters are full of significant populations of big ocean predators, including tuna, dolphins, sharks and marlin. A review of management options for Ascension’s maritime area is already under way, so the UK Government have an opportunity right now to declare a large and highly protected marine conservation area.

Politically, those steps are relatively easy and can happen incredibly quickly. The difficulty is, of course, in policing and enforcement, which inevitably come with some cost, but it is not clear how much. I believe that Pew told the Select Committee that the cost of policing Pitcairn would be around £600,000 per annum. South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands already have enforcement capability provided through a dedicated patrol ship, periodic visits from the Royal Navy, and occasional overflights by the Royal Air Force, while UK Government vessels regularly visit Ascension. Clearly we need a step change to improve monitoring, with proper vessel monitoring systems as mentioned earlier, and advances in remote sensing and satellite technology. That can come in time. To use a cliché, we cannot allow the best to become the enemy of the good.

Given their importance to nature and human livelihoods, the proven and unarguable benefits of MPAs, the fact that we have it in our power today to create the world’s largest fully protected marine reserves, and that even the more extravagant costs associated with protecting those sites represent only the tiniest fraction of the annual funding of the Department for International Development, that surely represents good value for money. Here is a golden opportunity for the Government; they just have to stop dragging their feet and take the opportunity.

Photo of Mark Lazarowicz Mark Lazarowicz Labour, Edinburgh North and Leith 4:02 pm, 8th May 2014

I will make three brief points.

First, I fully support the comments made by Zac Goldsmith and the report’s recommendations about the need for urgent action to declare marine protected areas around the Pitcairns, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, as well as Tristan da Cunha, as identified in the report. I should declare an interest: I understand that the principal settlement of Tristan da Cunha is called Edinburgh of the Seven Seas and one of the former settlements on South Georgia is called Leith Harbour, so as the Member of Parliament for Edinburgh North and Leith, I feel that I have a particular interest. I make that point to emphasise our historical role and responsibility for these areas. We chose to take them on as colonial possessions over the centuries, and we now have a responsibility to those communities and areas, and to the wider world community, to recognise their importance to the environment of the world. That is why I support the declaration of MPAs. I hope that the Minister will ensure that the Department moves with more speed on MPAs, and take up the interesting proposals circulated to us by Pew and National Geographic, which indicate some possible ways forward.

Secondly, I want to elaborate briefly on the intervention I made on the Chair of the Select Committee regarding support for the United Kingdom Overseas Territories Conservation Forum. I do not have a particular reason to single it out, except that it struck me when we, as members of the Select Committee, met with it that the forum was performing a vital role with limited resources. Certainly, if there is to be a proper relationship with the UK Government, with some degree of equality, we need to ensure that NGOs in particular are able to network among themselves across the overseas territories and to have a presence in the UK, which would allow them to ensure that their voices are put strongly to the UK Government.

My final point is that it is absolutely clear from the discussions and evidence we heard in the Committee, that there is a major gap in the parliamentary oversight of what the Government do in relation to the overseas territories and, where relevant, oversight and scrutiny of what the overseas territories do themselves. We have Select Committees for Northern Ireland, Welsh and Scottish affairs, but there is no equivalent parliamentary mechanism for the overseas territories. Clearly, I am not talking about setting up the same type of Committee for the overseas territories, but there needs to be some way in which Parliament fulfils its responsibility to the territories and their populations. I hope that, at some stage in the future, the parliamentary authorities will examine ways we can ensure that we provide that type of scrutiny and oversight as MPs, and that we monitor and scrutinise what the Government do. The example provided by my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn in relation to the British Indian Ocean Territory and the Chagos islanders illustrates the need for us to examine that issue and to put in place proper mechanisms for parliamentary scrutiny.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Labour, Southampton, Test 4:06 pm, 8th May 2014

I want to commend the Environmental Audit Committee’s report, which carefully drew a line between the United Kingdom’s responsibilities for environmental stewardship and sustainability in relation to its overseas territories and the interests, concerns and devolved rights and responsibilities of the populations of those territories. The Committee carefully drew that distinction in its report, but I am afraid that the Government’s response to the report did not.

In the introduction to the 2012 White Paper, the Prime Minister said:

“We see an important opportunity to set world standards in our stewardship of the extraordinary natural environment we have inherited.”

The White Paper itself set out principles of maximum devolution, where possible, of decision making to the populations of the UK overseas territories and assumed a continuing reduction in calls upon UK resources in that regard. It also set out the possibility of independence, with the wholehearted support of the populations of those territories if that is what they wished.

The White Paper also made a distinction between inhabited and uninhabited overseas territories. As we have already heard, that distinction is, shall we say, a little blurred, at least in the case of one overseas territory, which appears to be uninhabited, but in fact probably cannot be so regarded in the longer term.

In their response to the Select Committee’s report, however, the Government made a rather different point. They said:

“It would be inappropriate for the Government to take greater ownership of environmental issues”,

while at the same time saying that, while

“we encourage Territories to extend the UK instruments of ratification of MEAs and recognise the benefits they can bring, this should only be done when Territories are certain that they have the capacity and—where necessary—the provisions in place to meet the obligations under those agreements. The Government recognises that most of the Territories are small islands or island groups that face resource and capacity constraints which affect their ability to consider or implement treaties.”

That, of course, is true, but what about the difference in how those overseas territories themselves are situated in terms of resources and population? There is enormous diversity in our overseas territories, ranging from the Cayman Islands, with a population of 54,000, and Bermuda, with a population of 64,000—both arguably with substantial resources to meet the requirements regarding sustainability and to implement treaties suggested in the Government’s response to the Select Committee—down to islands such as Pitcairn, with a population of 51. It is clear that a number of those overseas territories would never be in a position to accord with the sort of considerations that the Government set out in their response to the Committee.

In terms of marine conversation zones and fully operating marine protected areas, such as those mentioned by Zac Goldsmith—I fully support what he said about the ambition for the UK and for those overseas territories to have those zones—it will inevitably turn out that the territories relating to those zones cannot fulfill the sort of obligations that the Government suggest in their response. Therefore, there is no alternative. The UK simply has to face up to the fact that those need to be properly resourced from the UK, with UK intervention and UK oversight of those zones in future. I am particularly—

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but we have to leave time for the wind-ups. I call Kerry McCarthy.

Photo of Kerry McCarthy Kerry McCarthy Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 4:11 pm, 8th May 2014

As ever, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Benton. I congratulate the Committee on yet another thoughtful and agenda-setting report. I must admit that I was a little surprised to see the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, George Eustice in his seat, given that this was listed as a Foreign Office debate, which is why I am here. I hope that does not suggest that Foreign Office Ministers are not interested in environmental sustainability in the overseas territories, and I hope that the Minister reports back to his Foreign Office colleagues on how today’s debate went.

In a debate on the White Paper back in December 2012, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Mark Simmonds, who has responsibility for the overseas territories, said that building stronger links with the OTs should not just be a matter for the FCO; it had to be “a cross-Whitehall effort”—so perhaps that is why the Minister is here. As we have heard, the Committee has noted that, although FCO civil servants are encouraged to visit the overseas territories, DEFRA staff are discouraged from doing so. DEFRA does not have a single staff member dedicated to working with them full time and spends only 0.3% of its biodiversity conservation budget in the territories, so I think discussion is needed between DEFRA Ministers and Foreign Office Ministers about how we can take some of these really important issues forward.

As the report sets out, the total population of the territories combined is just 250,000, but the countries account for some 90% of the biodiversity for which the UK Government have responsibility. There is an amazing range of biodiversity, encompassing vast expanses of ocean, thousands of coral atolls, tropical forests and polar areas. As we have heard, the OTs support unique and sensitive ecosystems and habitats of international importance, and are subject to significant threats. The report highlights how the UK still lacks a basic overview of these environments. The RSPB has set out how that lack of knowledge means that extinctions of species, such as the St Helena olive tree in 2003, which was the last global extinction, continue. The RSPB said that that was largely due to a lack of attention.

The report makes it clear that environmental protection of the territories is the UK’s responsibility, and that the constitutional responsibility of territory Governments for environmental protection of their natural environments does not subcontract

“the UK’s ultimate responsibility under international law.”

In signing the UN convention on biological diversity and other multilateral environmental treaties, the UK Government did so on behalf of the overseas territories. It should now negotiate the extension of the convention to the overseas territories where that has not yet taken place. As these countries

“have no international legal personality or treaty-making capacity”,

only the UK Government can co-ordinate ratification on their behalf. As we have heard, that is absolutely crucial for protecting their threatened environments.

If the UK Government are genuine in their belief that, as the Foreign Secretary said:

“We are stewards of these assets for future generations”,

and, in many respects,

“the Territories are more vulnerable than the UK”,

they need to live up to those responsibilities and take them seriously.

It is absolutely right that the UK puts pressure on the overseas territories to make them more financially transparent and democratically accountable. We know that work is going on on that front, but it is somewhat incongruous that, while the UK Government are prepared to broker an agreement with the territories with financial services industries to join a multilateral convention on enhanced tax transparency, they are not prepared to exercise similar powers to protect biodiversity. I get the impression that environmental issues were very much a side issue at the last joint ministerial council meeting in November, with overwhelming priority given to developing opportunities for trade and investment. Clearly, there is a need for economic development in the territories, but as the report sets out, that development must be sustainable.

The example was given of the British company, Crown Acquisitions, which has received planning permission for residential developments on the three Cayman islands. Two of the three islands have no development plans at all and minimal planning controls. Environmental impact assessments are not a statutory requirement for developments, and as I understand it, the company now owns 200 residential plots on Little Cayman, which is only 10 miles long and one mile wide, with a population of less than 170, a limited road network, limited fresh water and power, and inadequate waste management. It is also home to the largest population of red-footed boobies in the Caribbean, which live and breed in an area designated a wetland of international importance. Given the active role that the FCO is taking in assisting UK companies to develop business opportunities and invest in the overseas territories, it is important that the UK Government also see it as their duty to stop those companies profiting from a lack of environmental safeguards or effective development controls in some of those territories.

May I also take this opportunity to press the Minister about the turtle farm? I know that it has been said that the responsibility lies with the islands and not with the UK Government, but the Minister recently answered a question I asked him about shark finning, for example. He was very prepared to take a public stand condemning that and DEFRA is very prepared to take a stand condemning the ivory trade, yet it does not seem willing to take a stand on the protection of endangered green turtles.

I have heard reports that a few companies may be prospecting around the continental shelves of a few of the isolated islands in the south Pacific and south Atlantic, with a view to possible deep-sea mining. Are the Government aware of any interest in deep-sea mining in the overseas territories, have they had any discussions with companies considering that, and how do they see deep-sea mining working sustainably—or not—in parallel with marine environments?

It is a shame that Zac Goldsmith was cut short in his remarks on marine protected areas. I think he knows that we share very similar views on the topic. With regard to Pitcairn, I had the pleasure of meeting two of the islanders—Simon Young and Melva Warren Evans—when they were over in Parliament a while ago. We were shown an absolutely fantastic film demonstrating just how pristine and unexplored much of the marine environment is around the islands. As was said, the islanders unanimously want a marine protected area. That is their decision. It would make Pitcairn the largest fully protected marine reserve in the world and would contribute 2.5% towards achieving the global commitment made under the convention on biological diversity—Aichi target 11, which was mentioned. Will the Minister at least advise us whether there is likely to be a decision on that before the next election? I will not talk more generally about marine protected areas, as my hon. Friends have already done so, but I flag up the calls for marine protected areas around Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha, and for better protection around South Georgia and the Sandwich Islands.

Finally, I want to say that the Government are full of warm words—the overseas territories White Paper was full of fine words—but very little action is being taken. The Government need to be more ambitious in their vision for the overseas territories and take seriously their stewardship of these extraordinary natural environments. It is important that we continue to ask more of ourselves on these important issues if, as the Committee argues, we are to maintain the UK’s international reputation as an environmentally responsible nation state. I hope that we see from the Minister’s response today that he is prepared to do that.

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 4:19 pm, 8th May 2014

I am grateful to the Liaison Committee and to Joan Walley for securing the debate. I should also say that I am disappointed that, in a way, our debate has been undermined by the previous one. Let me reassure the shadow Minister, Kerry McCarthy, that although I am giving the Government response to the debate, we take this issue seriously across Government. The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend Mark Simmonds, gave evidence when the Environmental Audit Committee was considering the issue, and we work closely on it.

It is clear from today’s debate that people are very passionate about our overseas territories and the rich natural flora and fauna that they support. The UK has 14 very diverse overseas territories, 11 of which are inhabited, and between them they contain, as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North said, about 90% of the biodiversity found in the UK and its overseas territories combined.

I shall start by talking about some of the constitutional issues, to which my hon. Friend Dr Offord dedicated most of his contribution. Many of the recommendations made by the Committee and raised again today pertain to that aspect. The constitutional position was set out very clearly in the 2012 White Paper, “The Overseas Territories: Security, Success and Sustainability”, published by the Foreign Office. It made it clear that although the Government have a fundamental objective and responsibility for the security and good governance of the territories, each has its own constitution and local laws, and powers are therefore devolved to the maximum extent possible.

The inhabited territories are constitutionally responsible for the protection and conservation of their natural environments and for developing appropriate environmental policies and legislation. There is no appetite in the territories for the UK Government to take a greater role in managing environmental issues on their behalf, but that is not to say that we cannot provide considerable support. I want to come on to that issue later.

Photo of Joan Walley Joan Walley Chair, Environmental Audit Committee, Chair, Environmental Audit Committee

I will be brief, as our time is so constrained, but does the Minister not agree that there is a difference between management and a strategic overview?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

There is, and I will come back to that point, because I want to talk about some of the international aspects.

The second issue that I want to touch on is that of staff, because several hon. Members have suggested that DEFRA has no one dedicated to this subject. In fact, there are four DEFRA staff working on overseas territories issues, and they include the head of our international biodiversity policy unit. The report suggested that there should be more visits by DEFRA staff to the overseas territories. I am sure that there would be no shortage of volunteers to undertake those visits to see the wonderful specimens of wildlife that we have there, but I question the value of spending money on air fares when we could be spending money on projects that will deliver and will enhance the biodiversity of these areas. Also, not carrying out physical visits to these areas does not mean that they are not in regular contact with their counterparts in the territories. They certainly are. For instance, earlier this week we were speaking to officials from Tristan da Cunha about the islands’ biosecurity needs and the exciting news that a new bird species may have been identified on one of the islands. I am told that it is a prion and similar to a kiwi. We await peer review of that new discovery.

We also organise workshops and training for the territories. For example, in March, officials organised a practical workshop on how to implement the convention on international trade in endangered species. It brought territory officials together with representatives from DEFRA, the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency, the JNCC, Kew gardens, Border Force and the Government Legal Service. We also offer access to expertise and a range of services, including a plant pest identification service provided through the Food and Environment Research Agency which helps to protect both biodiversity and agriculture in the territories. That service has helped the territories to put in place measures to combat invasive invertebrate pests, and has to date identified 16 species new to science.

There is also, of course, regular discussion at ministerial level. We have the Joint Ministerial Council, which brings together UK Ministers and territory leaders and representatives and is organised collaboratively. The Environmental Audit Committee recommended that we should prioritise greater involvement of the territories in setting the agenda for those meetings, but I assure hon. Members that we already do that. We already have regular meetings with the UK-based representatives of the territory Governments in the run-up to Joint Ministerial Council meetings and, following discussions with them, we held Minister-led plenary sessions on the environment in 2012 and on renewable energy in 2013. Responding to specific territory requests, we also held in 2013 a technical discussion in which territory representatives were able to speak to UK experts on a range of environmental issues.

International agreements were mentioned by a number of speakers. As the Select Committee rightly pointed out, protection of the environments of the territories is relevant to the goals and targets set out in the convention on biological diversity’s strategic plan, which 193 countries around the world, including the UK, have already committed to implementing. As the Committee also pointed out, the convention has so far been extended only to four of the UK’s 14 overseas territories.

The Government recognise that most of the territories are small islands or island groups that face capacity constraints, which may affect their ability to consider or implement treaties. In such circumstances, we do not believe that it would be in the best interests of the territories, the UK or the wider environment to impose on the territories obligations that they are ill equipped to fulfil. We do, however, encourage territory Governments to join in the UK’s instrument of ratification of core multilateral environmental agreements. That includes working with them to ensure that they have the necessary measures in place to fulfil their obligations, providing technical advice and building capacity before extension of ratification takes place. As the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North made clear, the Select Committee recommended that the CBD be extended to other overseas territories. Although we believe that that is a matter for the territories themselves, I am pleased to be able to inform hon. Members today that my officials are currently working with a further three territories on just such an extension of the CBD.

Funding is important. The Committee’s own report acknowledged that DEFRA spending on the UK overseas territories has increased since 2007-08, and increased sixfold between 2010-11 and 2012-13. We do that mainly through mechanisms such as Darwin Plus. That cross-Government grant scheme, co-funded by DEFRA, the FCO and the Department for International Development, funds environmental projects in many of the territories. In the past two years, Darwin Plus has committed nearly £3.7 million to 29 projects in the territories. Returning to the issue of international agreements, it is important to note that in many cases the grants that are offered help to deliver and advance the objectives that were set out by the territories in the environmental charters, when those were put together and agreed on in 2001.

Photo of Matthew Offord Matthew Offord Conservative, Hendon

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way at such short notice. In the Cayman Islands, there is a conservation fund, which comes from a tax levied on people when they leave the islands. That has allowed a pot of money—£40 million—to accumulate, but the authorities are not able to spend it, because there are not governance arrangements in effect. Does the Minister think it wise to be spending UK taxpayers’ money overseas when they already have their own resources but they do not have the governance measures to allow them to spend it?

Photo of George Eustice George Eustice The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I was going to come on to the issue of the Cayman Islands. I am not familiar with the particular point that my hon. Friend has raised, but, consistent with the charters, I am able to say that, with UK Government support, the Cayman Islands’ long-awaited National Conservation Bill was passed on 13 December 2013. The law will, for the first time, give legal protection to Cayman’s unique and diverse land and marine-based natural resources. Although this is a delegated area of responsibility, the UK Government provided political support for the passing of the law, including through visits by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Boston and Skegness.

My hon. Friend Zac Goldsmith spoke about marine protected areas. The Government have been enthusiastic supporters of

MPAs, having established the largest no-take MPA in the world in the British Indian Ocean Territory in 2010. We have also established a 1 million sq km sustainable use MPA around South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, 20,000 sq km of which is a no-take zone. I am sure that the House will be pleased to hear that in 2009 the UK provided the science that underpinned the declaration of the first Antarctic marine protected area.

I want to mention a couple of other points that were raised. One was about EU funding and LIFE+. I can confirm that the Government worked with NGOs to allow that European fund to be used on these projects, and we continue to work with them on that. An issue relating to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport was raised. On that, one of the obstacles is that, in some of these countries, gambling is illegal. Nevertheless, certain organisations can already claim money.

We are running out of time, but let me say in conclusion that I think we have had a very good debate. I hope that I have managed to persuade hon. Members about our commitment to these issues, and we will be publishing on Monday—

Photo of Joe Benton Joe Benton Labour, Bootle

Order.

Sitting adjourned without Question put (Standing Order No. 10(13)).