UK Parliament Committees
It is well recognised that attitudes to the UKOTs in the UK Parliament are important for influencing the approach of the UK Government, and that pressure from parliamentary bodies can significantly affect HMG policy. A number of points given in evidence by us to the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee and Foreign Affairs Committee have been taken up in the Committees’ reports. We believe that this pressure has had an effect in relation to support for environmental protection in the UKOTs, whether changes are announced or made more quietly.
Much of the work done by the House of Commons and the House of Lords is done by select committees, which examine issues in detail, from government policy to proposed new laws.
There are Select Committees in the House of Commons which concentrate on particular governmental departments (such as the Foreign & Commonwealth Office, which has the policy lead on UKOTs). A smaller number of House of Commons Select Committees (such as the Environmental Audit Committee) and most House of Lords Committees cut across the departmental structure. The Committees which have taken an in-depth look at UK Overseas Territories are mainly the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Environmental Audit Committee.
In 2007, we gave evidence to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) inquiry into Overseas Territories, which issued its report in July 2008. In line with the Forum’s evidence, the FAC was critical of HMG, including the low level of its support for environmental management in the UKOTs. The Committee expressed particular concern also over allegations of corruption in the Government of the Turks & Caicos Islands (TCI). (This issue has major implications for conservation because many aspects centre on the issue of allocation for built development of Crown Land, including nationally protected areas and others of importance to nature and heritage conservation.) Subsequently, a Commission of Inquiry was established to examine these allegations. The interim report recommended suspension of the constitution, and strengthening of the Attorney General’s office and courts. This resulted in a period (2009-2012) of direct rule by UK Government, before a restoration of local elections. Several court cases are on-going.
The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee published, in May 2011, its report on the role of the FCO in UK Government. We gave a submission to the Committee in respect of the FCO’s role in leading on UK Overseas Territories matters. The full report is available here.
The main points relating to UKOTs include:
74. In David Miliband’s 2008 Strategic Framework for the FCO, the reference to the OTs which had previously been included among the department’s priorities disappeared. It has not been restored in the various sets of priorities set out for the FCO under the current Government. In its major Report on the Overseas Territories in 2008, our predecessor Committee identified particular challenges that its role in relation to the OTs poses for the FCO, as well as serious problems arising in connection with a number of Territories, above all the Turks and Caicos Islands (TCI). The Committee concluded that the FCO ‘must take its oversight responsibilities for the Overseas Territories more seriously’. In this context, the previous Committee welcomed the assurances which it received from the previous Government that the disappearance of any reference to the OTs from the FCO’s official priorities did not imply any downgrading in the importance which the department attached to this area of its responsibilities. Nevertheless, at the end of the previous Parliament (in its last Report on an FCO departmental annual report, in March 2010), and in light of continuing problems in a number of OTs (most notably TCI), our predecessor Committee felt obliged to declare itself still ‘unconvinced that the department [was] exercising its responsibilities for them with sufficient diligence’.
75. We received two submissions to our present inquiry stressing the importance of the FCO’s role with respect to the OTs. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) and the UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum (UKOTCF) both emphasised the importance of: the FCO’s role in representing the OTs to Government and officialdom in London, and ensuring that the UK public is aware of the Territories; its duty to ensure that other departments take the OTs elements of their responsibilities seriously; and its direct responsibilities for the OTs, particularly with respect to biodiversity and the environment, and including the quality of OTs Governors’ work on these issues.
76. The Government intends to publish a White Paper on the OTs later in 2011. The Foreign Secretary told the House on 10 March that he planned to secure cross-departmental agreement through the National Security Council (NSC) to the strategy underpinning the White Paper. The Foreign Secretary also announced increased funding for some OTs projects and programmes. Both the RSPB and the UKOTCF welcomed what they saw as early signs that under the current Government the FCO was devoting greater effort to OTs matters. However, we have continued to be made aware of serious problems in TCI.
77. We conclude that the FCO’s responsibility for the UK’s Overseas Territories (OTs) constitutes an important – but sometimes overlooked – part of its role in UK Government, and one that needs to be discharged with due seriousness. We welcome indications that the Government is seeking to strengthen the FCO’s work on the OTs, including by making a greater effort to lead across Government on OTs matters. We look forward to engaging with the Government on its planned White Paper on the OTs, and may return to the issue of the FCO’s role in respect of the Territories in that context.
Over many years we have also supported the work of the Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), providing written and oral evidence to inquiries. This included an inquiry, in April 2008, into Halting Biodiversity Loss. Its report, published in November of that year, drew heavily on our submission, and criticised the UK Government for its approach. Key recommendations from the EAC included that HMG should:
- adopt a truly joined-up approach to environmental protection in the UKOTs/CDs across the various Government Departments involved;
- make better use of the Inter-Departmental Ministerial Group on Biodiversity in this regard;
- give Defra joint responsibility for the UKOTs (and reflect this in future spending settlements); and
- address the dire lack of funding and information for environmental protection in the UKOTs.
The EAC concluded that “One of the most important contributions that the Government could make to slowing the catastrophic global biodiversity loss currently occurring would be to accept its responsibilities and to provide more support for the UK Overseas Territories in this area.” Following this robust assessment, there were some signs of changes in the UK Government’s approach to environmental protection in the UKOTs. In HMG’s response to the EAC report (published in February 2009), for example, the Government noted that it has asked JNCC to develop a strategy for HMG for biodiversity protection in the UKOTs. Whilst we were pleased that some progress is being made, we expressed concerns that, despite our previously accepted role, and the clear weight given to its evidence to Select Committees, on-going policy development in this area lacks transparency, and that the NGO network which we had coordinated is being less involved than would have been the case previously.
In 2012, the first White Paper on the UK’s Overseas Territories since 1999 was published. It aimed explicitly to build on the earlier one, which was good news; as the then Prime Minister’s language in his foreword: “We see an important opportunity to set world standards in our stewardship of the extraordinary natural environments we have inherited.” However, there were also worrying examples in the previous year of real weaknesses in policy, and little sign of the commitments in the Environment Charters and in the White Paper to work closely with civil society. There are more recent signs both of improved links between Whitehall and NGOs and of continuing problems on the ground.
In September 2012, the Environmental Audit Committee launched an inquiry into Sustainability in the UK Overseas Territories. This was partly in response to the new White Paper. We contributed written and oral evidence to the EAC and several recommendations were made to HMG as a result of our evidence. One example was recommendation (no 25) was that the “FCO [Foreign and Commonwealth Office] must immediately contact the UNECE to ascertain whether the UNECE believes that the UK has extended ratification of the Aarhus Convention to all the UKOTs. We recommend that the FCO reviews its standard procedure for excluding the UKOTs from the stipulations of international treaties under Article 29 of the Vienna Convention and consider introducing a more transparent procedure.” They suggested that the FCO defined the scope of a treaty on signature, which was done as a result.
Disappointingly – to us our members and associates, the EAC, as well as others in UKOTs and Britain – the subsequent UK Government response published in March 2014 did not grasp the opportunities that EAC recognised and all the inputs to its Inquiry presented. Instead – and, despite the words of the then Prime Minister in his foreword to the 2012 White Paper, “We see an important opportunity to set world standards in our stewardship of the extraordinary natural environments we have inherited” – UK Government chose to maintain that it did not have responsibility towards the environment in UKOTs, because this is devolved. The EAC, legal specialists [see the 2011 book, British Overseas Territories Law by Ian Hendry and Susan Dickson; ISBN 9781849460194 and Bermuda Ombudsman] and we all take the view that this is incorrect, as one can devolve authority and powers, but not responsibility, especially under the archaic colonial laws under which UKOTs are still governed. UK Government appears to hold this view too, because it insists on the UKOTs fulfilling standards on financial matters, for which the relationships between UK and UKOTs are the same as those relating to the environment.
Some progress on some of our and the EAC’s recommendations include:
- On 27th March 2015, the Government of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands (GSGSSI) announced the declaration of the extension of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to SGSSI, followed by the Falkland Islands in June 2016. Ten UKOTs/CDs are now included in the UK’s ratification, leaving 11 not yet included. UKOTCF had organised a workshop at the Gibraltar conference for those considering joining.
- The Pitcairn Islanders and UK conservation bodies have long called for a marine protected area around the Pitcairn Islands. Intended implementation of this measure was announced by UK Government in the annual Budget announcements on 18th March 2015.
- Anguilla has decided to join UK’s ratification of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), leaving TCI as the only territory not yet included.
- At its meeting on 12th March 2015, Anguilla’s Executive Council decided to nominate Sombrero Island Nature Reserve Marine Park as Anguilla’s first Wetland of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention. Sombrero was one of the sites in the UKOTs and CDs proposed for Ramsar designation by the review commissioned by Defra in 2005. This review was conducted by UKOTCF in consultation with local governmental and NGO bodies.
- Noting the EAC’s comments on effective development controls, UKOTCF welcomed the implementation (after delay) of environmental measures in relation to the new St Helena Airport, recently constructed. However, it remains a matter of concern that conservation measures started only halfway through the construction rather than before and continue to suffer problems. This needs to be viewed in the context that conservation bodies, including UKOTCF, decided – in view of the needs and constraints – not to oppose the airport development provided that every possible environmental safeguard was put in place. Sadly, this proved not to be the case, especially now it has become apparent that DFID ignored the advice of its consultants on taking account of the environment in building the airport, resulting in a less functional airport than planned, huge mis-use of UK tax-payers fund and greater impact on the natural environment than necessary to achieve the end.
- The European Commission announced a new round of BEST scheme funding BEST 2.0.
With a change in Parliament after the General Election in 2015, came a new EAC Chair, who has continued to show an interest in the UKOTs picking up the mantle from her predecessor. As such, in 2016, several new inquiries were launched, particularly given the result of the EU referendum.
These were: (1) the Future of the Natural Environment after the EU Referendum; (2) the Sustainable Development Goals in the UK; and (3) Marine Protected Areas Revisited. UKOTCF gave written evidence to all and oral evidence to that on MPAs. All reports have now been published and several UK Government responses to these have now been appended.
An additional submission was made to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee inquiry on Leaving the EU: negotiation priorities for energy and climate change policy. This report cross-references the submission made by UKOTCF, highlighting the need for replacement funding for UKOTs when the UK leaves the EU. In 2018, a Sustainable Sea inquiry was launched specifically mentioning the biodiversity in the UKOTs and the UK’s global responsibility to protect it.