UKOTCF 2009: MP calls for better relations

Having direct representation in the British Parliament would tremendously assist the Overseas Territories in ensuring that their cause is properly championed, with wider implications for the improvement of life in the Territories than the environmental issues discussed at this year’s UK Overseas Territories Conservation Forum, held for the first time in the Cayman Islands. Business Editor Lindsey Turnbull was in attendance at the conference and reports on MP Paul Keetch’s presentation which outlined ways in which the OTs could improve relations with the mother country.

Member of Parliament for Hereford Paul Keetch also sits on the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee, which is charged with monitoring the policy, administration and expenditure of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and has visited over 30 countries during his tenure, with a particular interest in the UK’s overseas territories. Although he initially qualified his presentation at this year’s UKOTCF (held at the Westin Casuarina) by saying that his remarks were a reflection of his own views and not of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Keetch did admit that his thoughts no doubt reflected the thinking of many of his colleagues on the FAC.

New lines of communications
Although the UK’s Overseas Territories are British sovereign territory for which the UK has ultimate responsibility (and in particular in such areas as good governance, representation under international conventions and other international relations), they are not afforded any direct representation in the UK Parliament. Although there are mechanisms by which the UKOTs can highlight issues of concern, in particular through the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Keetch said that OTs should pursue as many lines open to them as possible.
“Overseas Territories hold a unique status and as such have unique concerns, but they hold low political status in the UK and there is confusion in the UK over their governance. There needs to be transparency in governance of the OTs,” Keetch said.

He explained that there were other options open to OTs to get their voices heard in the UK, including making submissions to relevant Select Committee inquiries or establishing contact through OT-friendly All Party Parliamentary Groups.

Keetch said that Select Committee reports can influence the UK government thinking when it comes to the UKOTs, in particular those arising from the FAC inquiry into Overseas Territories and also the Environmental Audit Committee inquiry into Halting Biodiversity Loss.

When it came to protecting the environments of the OTs, which are rich in biodiversity, Keetch said that he was disappointed that the UK government had not done more to assist. He cited one report from the UK’s Royal Society for the Protection of Birds which noted that 16 million was required in the OTs to protect ecosystems for birds. This report had not been taken seriously enough by the UK government, Keetch said.

UK needs to take responsibility
The UK is not the only country with overseas territories. Keetch said that countries such as France, Denmark and The Netherlands all have overseas territories and approach their governance differently to that of the UK.

“It’s time for the UK to stop feeling somewhat embarrassed about its overseas territories and give them more visibility in the UK parliament,” he said, citing as an example France affording overseas territories a representative in its parliament with voting rights.

Keetch was concerned with the UK’s attitude of devolving the responsibility of conserving the environment to the individual territories, while the territories still had to rely heavily on the UK for a variety of environmental treaties because they were not direct members of the organisations promoting the treaties (the United Nations, European Union to name a couple).

“In addition, the UK is facing a general election within the next twelve months and there will be a big churning of MPs, and the OTs will therefore have to get used to dealing with new MPs,” Keetch said. “I urge the OTs to not simply rely on dealing with the FCO but explore mechanisms such as the select committees, which will include MPs who have a specific interest in the OTs. The All Party Parliamentary Groups are influential groups with a mix of MPs and Lords with an interest in the OTs. Some are very good at lobbying for OTs. Raising awareness is key – questions can be raised in Parliament to seek the government’s views on certain issues and early day motions are another useful tool for probing government policies.”

The case for lobbying
Keetch cited St Helena as a good case in point. As one of the most remote places on earth situated in the middle of the Atlantic between Southern Africa and the Falkland Islands (off the coast of Argentina), St Helena has no airport at present. The UK government was duly lobbied with a concerted campaign by the inhabitants of St Helena and an airstrip was eventually slated, although current economic constraints have put these plans temporarily on hold.
“Even Prime Minister Gordon Brown has intervened on the issue, which is a good thing for the cause,” Keetch added.

The role of the governor
As the UK’s representative in the OTs, the Governor has a vital role to play in governance. Keetch said that the role of the Governor needed to be properly analysed and the criteria for selection and training of governors needed to be inspected.

While admitting that there were different levels of responsibility for different OTs and that governors generally required more resources to efficiently carry out their role, Keetch said that governors should not necessarily be career diplomats, who are not always the best choice for the post. “If they are middle aged then they are mindful of their career progression and won’t want to upset their career chances; if they are near the end of their career they are just one stop away from retirement,” he said.

As a suggestion, Keetch said governors might be chosen with a more political, military or business background and the criteria for choosing a governor should be opened up, to ensure a better match for the OT.

A new relationship
As an innovative thought, Keetch said that perhaps a new OT assembly could be created within the UK government that would deal directly with Parliament and consist of elected representatives from each of the OTs. No such body exists at present and there needs to be a democratic influence so that the OT cause is heard, Keetch stated.

“It’s time that each individual government department stops passing the buck when it comes to the UKOTs,” he said. “It is time for a dedicated junior minister with a real voice for the OTs in the UK government. The UK needs to pledge its support for ecosystems, provide more resources and take more responsibility for the OTs and take their oversight more seriously. This will only help to increase relations between the OTs and the UK.”

 

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MP Paul Keetch sat on a panel of experts at this year’s UKOTCF. From left, MP Paul Keetch; Samia Sarkis, Dept of Conservation Services, Bermuda; and John Cortes, Gibraltar Ornithological & Natural History Society

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