Last Thursday in a House of Commons debate, United Kingdom members of parliament discussed ideas for improving the UK’s relationship with her overseas territories, and they passed a resolution affirming their commitment to “upholding” OT interests.
The debate on a backbench business motion — which was attended by several OT leaders — was secured by Conservative MP Alicia Kearns, who kicked off the discussion with suggestions of her own.
Ms. Kearns, for instance, advised UK government departments to update their OT strategies, and she called on the UK to support the territories’ efforts to protect their environments, respond to climate change, improve education, and more.
“It is in the tradition of this [global] friendship and spirit of optimism for the future of overseas territories that I commend this motion to the house,” she said.
The rest of the debate centred around similar themes, with MPs covering topics as wide-ranging as enhancing OT representation, making beneficial ownership registers public, and improving cooperation in areas such as medical cannabis and environmental protection.
In the end, the House of Commons passed Mr. Kearns’ resolution, which proclaimed, “This House is committed to upholding the interests of British [OTs] and their citizens; recognises the special historical, cultural and social bonds that bind the [UK and OTs]; and calls upon the government to ensure that British [OT] citizens’ rights as British citizens are upheld, to defend the sovereignty and borders of [OTs] from foreign powers, and to consider the unique circumstances of each territory when formulating policies which affect them.”
During the debate, another much-discussed topic was the removal of OTs from the United Nations’ list of non-self-governing territories.
Labour Party MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle explained the four ways this could be achieved, emphasising the importance of finding a solution that allows OTs to be recognised on the international stage.
“The current situation is that all of our overseas territories are listed as non-self-governing territories. In fact, we hold most of the non-self-governing territories on that list,” he said.
The four paths off the list, he noted, include becoming a sovereign state; achieving free association as some states have done with New Zealand; fully integrating into Britain; or devising a “bespoke” option that must be approved by a vote in a UN committee consisting of China, Cuba, Iraq, Russia and Venezuela.
Mr. Russell-Moyle, however, expressed strong doubts about the UN committee’s willingness to vote for a bespoke option for a British overseas territory.
“We must therefore find a clever solution that fulfills the aim of one of the other three [alternatives],” he said, adding that leaving the list “gives OTs access to certain things in the UN and allows them to stand proud on the international stage. However, it also requires Britain to make it clear that these territories are self-governing and that they decide their future.”
Additionally, MPs suggested various ways to provide OTs with better representation in the UK.
“The British overseas territories and our crown dependencies are not properly represented here in London,” said Conservative MP Henry Smith. “They should have a separate department and a secretary of state. They are neither foreign nor Commonwealth, which must be recognised and respected. We also need representation here in this UK Parliament.”
Mr. Russell-Moyle spoke similarly, also calling for a dedicated department led by a secretary of state to oversee the OTs and crown dependencies in place of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.
“That might sound like a big ask, but we have a secretary of state for Northern Ireland, a secretary of state for Wales, and a secretary of state for Scotland despite the fact that those nations and regions of the United Kingdom effectively govern themselves and do their tasks,” Mr. Russell-Moyle said. “Those secretaries of state are to ensure the wheels are oiled in their negotiations and deliberations with the British government.”
He also recommended that the UK offer increased representation for OTs in negotiations for international treaties.
Several MPs also recognised the contributions of OTs in protecting the environment and fostering global economic growth, calling for a more respectful and supportive approach from the UK government.
Additionally, some MPs noted that many recommendations to improve the UK-OT relationship were made in a 2019 report by the Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee, yet little progress has been made to address them.
For instance, Ms. Kearns said, the report recommended the establishment of an OTs committee in the House of Commons to address the cross-party and cross-select-committee working needed for OT-related matters.
Though some OT leaders attended the House of Commons to observe the debate in person, VI Premier Dr. Natalio “Sowande” Wheatley wasn’t among them, he said during a Tuesday press conference.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t get to watch the debate because we had meetings while the debate was taking place,” Dr. Wheatley said. “But I did see some excerpts from the debate which I was pleased with, and I’m happy with the commitments which some parliamentarians have made to support the OTs. Of course, some people view it with suspicion, but I’m always a very optimistic person, and I believe that we do have persons who understand the need to support the overseas territories.”
He added that his government will continue to work with MPs, including through an all-party parliamentary group.
“We’ve had engagement with backbenchers, we’ve had engagement with government, we’ve had engagement with opposition, and we’ll continue those engagements in the best interest of the people of the Virgin Islands,” he said.