Stormy waters: Debating the British Overseas Territories in Parliament

By Nichola Harmer, University of Plymouth

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Photo Credit: Robin S. Taylor CC BY 3.0

August marked the start of peak hurricane season in the Caribbean, where last year Category 5 Hurricanes Irma and Maria wrought destruction across several of Britain’s overseas territories.  Criticised for an initially slow and unstructured response to aiding islanders affected by the disaster, the UK government recently announced a new improved strategy for monitoring and responding to future hurricanes. The plan includes improved coordination between the UK, the overseas territories, and other international actors, as well as the investment of further resources in the region, and additional insurance.

The devastation and loss caused by the hurricanes last year brought to public attention the continuing responsibilities of the UK to the overseas territories. Initial limitations on the UK Government’s use of overseas development assistance funding to aid the islands underscored their unusual position as non-independent territories in an international political system geared towards independent states. The crisis also brought back into the public spotlight wider and sometimes contentious issues surrounding the relationship between Britain and its fourteen remaining overseas territories.

In an article in The Geographical JournalI explore this relationship by examining the main concerns regarding the overseas territories expressed by MPs and Lords in the British Parliament between 2010 and 2017. The overseas territories are diverse, including a number in the South Atlantic Ocean:  the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, St Helena, Tristan da Cunha, Ascension Island and British Antarctic Territory. In the Pacific Ocean there is tiny Pitcairn Island; in the Indian Ocean the highly contentious British Indian Ocean Territory, where the inhabitants were expelled in the 1960s and 1970s to make way for a US military base; in Europe there is Gibraltar and the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia in Cyprus, and there are six territories in the Caribbean.

Parliamentary debate on the territories during the researched period reflected this diversity, covering subjects as disparate as defence, the need to protect the rich biodiversity in many of the territories, the Brexit vote, the construction of an airport on remote St Helena, and the rights of Chagossians to return to the Chagos Islands in The British Indian Ocean Territory. Interest in the overseas territories was fairly evenly split between the main political parties and they were discussed both in the Lords and in the Commons.

Analysis of Parliamentary debate showed a peak of interest in the overseas territories in 2016, with many parliamentarians raising questions around this time about transparency in the financial services sector, which forms a significant part of the economy in some overseas territories. This coincided with revelations about tax-dodging in the so-called ‘Panama Papers’, an Anti-Corruption Summit held in London in 2016, and debate in Parliament of a Criminal Finances Bill.

Concerns among many parliamentarians about achieving greater financial transparency in offshore finance led to debate about the sensitive issue of whether or not it was right to impose legislation on the overseas territories. Many of the territories, although under British sovereignty, have varied but often significant levels of political autonomy. Territory inhabitants (except for voters in Gibraltar for EU elections) have no representation in the British parliamentary system. Nonetheless, the UK Parliament is empowered to make laws which affect lives and livelihoods in the overseas territories.

During debates, many parliamentarians expressed the view that the UK should make it compulsory for overseas territories to introduce registers of beneficial ownership to help strengthen measures combating financial crime, an activity which impacts significantly on both developed and developing countries. Others argued that the imposition of legislation was out-of-step with the post-colonial era practices and that the territories should instead be encouraged by the UK to do more on financial transparency. An amendment to the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill adopted in Parliament earlier this year (requiring overseas territories to hold open registers of beneficial ownership in companies registered in their jurisdictions by 2020) was recently greeted with fierce criticism in the British Virgin Islands. The Premier, Dr Orlando Smith, described it as “a fundamental breach in the constitutional relationship and modern partnership between the United Kingdom and the Virgin Islands” and as a threat to the economy and reputation of the islands.

This dispute and the wider debates within Parliament draw attention to the ongoing, and at times controversial and difficult, relationship between Britain and its offshore territories. In July this year, the Foreign Affairs Committee announced an inquiry on the future of the UK overseas territories, which will consider their resilience, how the Foreign Office and Commonwealth Office manages its responsibilities towards them, and how it considers their future. The political, economic, ethical and reputational entanglement of the British state, with its widely dispersed and hugely varied territories, points to the continuing complexity of current political geographies involving the UK. Ongoing tensions over financial transparency, efforts to strengthen disaster response in the territories following last year’s hurricanes, and a plethora of historic and emerging issues from across the territories, mean they are likely to remain firmly on the radar of parliamentarians and of keen interest to political geographers seeking to better understand the complexities and implications of relations between states and the offshore territories.

About the author: Nichola Harmer is a lecturer in Human geography at Plymouth University.

BBC. (2018). Hurricane Irma: MPs say UK’s response ‘lacked structure’. Retrieved from https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-43308421

The Guardian. (2018). Britain ‘will strengthen response to hurricanes in the Caribbean’. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/jul/04/britain-will-strengthen-response-to-hurricanes-in-caribbean

Harmer, N. (2018). Spaces of concern: Parliamentary Discourse on Britain’s Overseas Territories. The Geographical Journal Article. DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12273

Smith, O. (2018). Premier Smith Statement on United Kingdom Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill. Retrieved from: http://www.bvi.gov.vg/media-centre/premier-smith-statement-united-kingdom-sanctions-and-anti-money-laundering-bill

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