James Sunderland urges Government to make the most of our special relationship with our Overseas Territories partners

James Sunderland calls on the UK Government to better cement our relationships with our Overseas Territories partners for mutual benefit and to seize the opportunities available from these diverse and strategically essential members of the British family of nations.

James Sunderland (Bracknell) (Con)

I am privileged to be called so early in the debate, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am also grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) for picking up the baton of the debate. I refer members to my registration of interests.

As vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the British overseas territories, as well as the chair of a number of individual overseas territory groups, my personal interest in the subject goes back a long way. I am perhaps one of the few members to have served in Cyprus, in Gibraltar, the Falklands, Ascension, South Georgia and Diego Garcia. I am very lucky to have done so.

The overseas territories are a vital part of our UK family. They are strategically essential in terms of footprint basing and geography, but they are also essential to the projection of UK soft power around the world. They have a common language and culture, they have similar hopes and aspirations and we must not underestimate or take for granted their value to the UK. If I have to make one point today, and one point only, it is that our overseas territories need more love. In this era of global competition, the hunt for resources and strategic basing, and instability across the world, our foes are circling and we need to cement what we have as a nation.

To admire the problem, if I may, for a moment, Brexit was not kind to the overseas territories. What we must do now is lock the overseas territories into free trade deals with us and all our partners and think more broadly, to the Commonwealth. How fantastic would it be for global Britain to have such a network of trade arrangements, particularly with the Commonwealth? Just think of what that might be worth to the UK. Think of the potential. The 2019 UK White Paper has gone nowhere, so where is it, please, Minister?

Of course any work that we do—I welcome the point about the new strategy—has to be done with the overseas territories, not for them. Last year’s ill-fated Joint Ministerial Council has at least been put to bed now, with an excellent session this week. Of course, the Minister is in the Chamber today, which is entirely appropriate, but ministerial visits need to be a lot longer. Does it need a Minister in the House of Commons? Perhaps.

We need to station civil servants in the overseas territories for longer too, and delegations from the overseas territories to the UK visiting the FCDO need more than 30 minutes at a time. We must roll out the red carpet for these very important people and listen to their concerns. We also need a clear and regular bilateral dialogue to fix specific issues because, of course, the OTs are very different. One size does not fit all.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con)

My hon. Friend and I recently visited the Falkland Islands together to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their liberation from Argentina. We were told at the time of our visit that we needed to do more to support the Falkland Islands in their negotiations with the European Union over tariffs on their squid exports to the EU. Does he agree that we need to be more robust and supportive of the overseas territories when they are negotiating with the European Union?

James Sunderland 

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. I need to be careful about what I say, for obvious reasons, but I entirely agree that that needs to be the case. For example, the Falklands are suffering from tariffs on fish right now. We need to do that very quickly indeed. Why not also create a specific department in the FCDO for the overseas territories and the Commonwealth? We could have longer JMCs, perhaps, and a new strategy. There is lots that we need to do.

What about the specifics? I cannot hope in five minutes to cover the totality of the subject, but we need a new trade arrangement with the overseas territories to reflect the changes in the arrangements with the European Union and with other countries. The British Virgin Islands, in particular, wants its prescriptive court order lifted. It has a new Government and a superb new Prime Minister, so it is time for the BVI to fulfil its potential and move forward.

Tristan da Cunha needs a boat, as we heard, for obvious strategic and medical reasons. And we cannot concede sovereignty of the Chagos islands until we fully factor in the Chagossians. The archipelago is also militarily important. South Georgia’s fisheries could be brought under the governance of the Falkland islands.

The residents of all the OTs must benefit from their potential, and all the overseas territories need support on infrastructure, utilities and climate change. The UK’s relationship with the overseas territories has recently been referred to as “benign neglect”. I do not subscribe to that powerful phrase, but it is a wake-up call for us in this place. We need to do more to cement our relationship with the overseas territories. They should not be seen as somehow subordinate to the UK. They simply want to be partners, and self-determination must therefore be perceived as well as real.

One size does not fit all, and this must be reflected with each overseas territory being given more red carpet and more bilateral arrangements. The OTs are very special, and they are very proud to carry the UK flag. The UK must therefore seek to get more from them while offering more back, as true partners for mutual benefit. Nothing is broken, far from it. This is a fantastic opportunity that the UK and its partners in the overseas territories must embrace.