At a time when the United Kingdom and her overseas territories are promising to recalibrate their relationship following this month’s Joint Ministerial Council meetings in London, we were glad to hear UK parliamentarians debate the topic at length on May 11.
Much of their talk was lip service — as was the resolution they ultimately passed — but at their best moments they aired reasonable ideas for improving the UK’s relationship with the OTs and crown dependencies. Their suggestions included the following:
• exploring mutually agreeable arrangements that will see the OTs removed from the United Nations’ list of non-self-governing territories;
• establishing a dedicated department led by a secretary of state to administer the OTs and crown dependencies in place of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office;
• devising ways to give the OTs better representation in the UK Parliament and in the halls of the UK government;
• giving OT leaders more time with UK leaders when they visit London;
• collaborating more closely on cross-border issues such as climate change, the environment and security; and
• establishing an overseas committee in the House of Commons, among others.
All these suggestions are sound, and we were glad to hear UK Parliamentarians airing them at such length as OT leaders looked on from the gallery.
On the other hand, many of the same steps were recommended in a 2019 report by the UK Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, and precious little progress has been made.
How, then, will they come about now? We hope the answer lies in what appears to be a renewed commitment to collaboration. Following the JMC meetings last week — where OT leaders met with UK ministers and others — a joint communiqué promised a new relationship between the UK and OTs. This is most welcome. But it is essential that all stakeholders are involved in deciding the way forward.
In the past, the UK Parliament’s record in this regard has been less than stellar. When the Foreign Affairs Committee launched its review process in 2018, for instance, it neglected to announce the exercise or solicit feedback in the Virgin Islands and other overseas territories.
Doubtlessly because of this one-sided approach, the committee’s final report included not only good advice but several tone-deaf recommendations that demonstrated a troubling lack of understanding of the OTs’ position on matters such as belongership and beneficial ownership registers. Not surprisingly, the OTs bristled.
Last month, a new review was launched by another Parliamentary body — the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee — to assess the OTs’ constitutional arrangements. Unfortunately, the PACAC seems to be making the same mistakes the Foreign Affairs Committee made in 2018: Though the new review was announced on the Parliament website on April 20, it was not officially announced here in the VI, and to date no consultations have been scheduled to discuss it.
When this newspaper asked the Governor’s Office about the review, the office responded that Parliament, not the FCDO, is administering the consultation process.
But we have to ask, “So what?” Surely Parliament should be working with the FCDO to spread the word throughout the OTs and make a proper effort to hear their perspective. To date, that appears not to have happened.
This disconnect — which suggests an astounding lack of communication at the most basic level — appears to be a clear example of the issues that MPs identified on May 11. Would it have arisen if the OTs were administered by a department led by a minister of state instead of the FCDO? We suspect not. The issue is just one example of many shortcomings that have needlessly bedevilled the UK-OT relationship in recent decades.
To jumpstart reforms, the promised new relationship is needed as soon as possible. To that end, the recent JMC commitments and the UK debate were important steps in the right direction. At a time when the VI’s own constitutional review is under way, we welcome such dialogue with open arms.
But it is imperative for all the talk to result in collaborative and comprehensive action — not just the tinkering at the edges that has gone on for too long.