By Michael Jarvis, London, UK
The 2020 UK and Overseas Territories Joint Ministerial Council (JMC) meeting will be as much remembered for its packed agenda and being held virtually, as will be for the unexpected resignation of the UK Minister for the OTs, Baroness Liz Sugg.
The Minister quit over the UK government’s policy - announced in the during - the JMC to cut its international aid budget from 0.7% of GDP to 0.5%, a drop of around £4 billion.
While the UK’s aid programme does not directly affect the Cayman Islands, some other territories such as volcano-ravaged Montserrat, rely on it.
However, in the event of a disaster, it is the pot of funds from which the UK generally dips into to help the OTs recover.
Coming out of this year's meeting, the British government has assured the OTs that it “remains committed to meeting the reasonable assistance needs of Territories where financial self-sufficiency is not possible, as a first call on the aid budget.”
However, it stresses that “as a first step, the UK will look to the Overseas Territories to make full use of their financial resources to address their needs and will consider further requests for financial support on a case-by-case basis.”
The UK's Department for International Development (DfID) which oversaw the UK’s global aid budget of £13 billion, and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office(FCO) were recently merged into a Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).
With Brexit looming, the British government has reassured the OTs that it acknowledges that its withdrawal from the EU will impact them, "particularly in the areas of eligibility for and access to funding, and trade.”
Key to UK-OTs relationship post-Brexit will be matters of economics, aid, governance and constitutional relationship.
“The UK Government has and continues to represent the interests of the Overseas Territories in the UK-EU negotiations, in particular on trade and funding programmes,” it says, adding that in consultation with Territory Governments, it will “take their interests and needs into account when designing future funding streams, programmes and policies to promote the sustainable economic development of the Territories.”
Another pressing issue impacting the OTs and the UK - and the rest of the world - is the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
The British government, as the administering authority, said it “recognised the significant global impact and shared challenges of COVID-19, and congratulated the Territories on their handling of the response to the pandemic so far.”
The Territories in turn thanked the UK for "its outstanding support received both at Ministerial and official level throughout the pandemic."
Pointing out that both had “worked together closely” to tackle COVID-19, the release states that had “underlined their strong links based on partnership, shared values and mutual respect”, adding that they are “committed to continue to work collaboratively to combat health crises, both now and in the future.”
The issue of economic resilience was a focal point of discussion in this year's talks with the UK saying it is “committed to supporting the Overseas Territories in building successful and resilient economies, and promoting the development and the well-being of its inhabitants.”
“We recognise that although all are unique, the Overseas Territories, as small and open island economies, are particularly vulnerable to external shocks. Clear economic development plans, underpinned by strong public financial management, can help to create diverse and resilient economies in which people, businesses and governments can look ahead to the future with confidence.”
While it says that “The UK will support the Overseas Territories to increase their economic resilience through technical support and encouraging best practice in financial management,” the JMC report emphasises a key point from the UK’s perspective.
"The UK will look to the Overseas Territories to make full use of their financial resources to address their needs and will consider further requests for financial support on a case-by-case basis,” it stated.
Other issues addressed coming of the this year’s JMC include the OT’s relations with the United Nations and the Commonwealth where it concludes that: “The Territories’ links with the Commonwealth and United Nations will continue to be important. The UK is committed to strengthening these links. The UK also welcomes initiatives to develop links with regional organisations and with Territories and countries neighbouring the Overseas Territories.”
On support for students in the UK especially in a post-Brexit environment, the UK Government and the UK’s devolved administrations confirm that students from the Overseas Territories will continue to be eligible for Home Student fee rates on the same basis as now, based on three years’ ordinary residence in an Overseas Territory or the UK.”
The issue of self-determination remains an ultimate goal although not a pressing priority for most OTs.
In addressing that the JMC “reaffirmed the importance of promoting the right of self-determination for the peoples of the Territories, something which is a collective responsibility of all parts of the UK Government.
In a commitment with implications for Gibraltar especially noting the longstanding territorial squabble with Spain, it notes: “For those Territories with permanent populations who wish it, the UK will continue to support requests for the removal of the Territory from the United Nations list of non-self-governing Territories.”
CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE ENVIRONMENT
The environment also featured prominently during the meeting with the session noting that “the Overseas Territories are the custodians of internationally important habitats, with rich and varied biodiversity, from Antarctica to the tropical oceans.
It was noted that “as coastal and island communities, our economies rely upon healthy and abundant marine environments.”
The British government reiterated that the representation of the UK and Overseas Territories in the international maritime arena is undertaken as a single entity by the UK on behalf of all and compliance with conventions is a shared collective responsibility.
With the environmental impact on societies and economies, especially for OTs dependent on tourism, it was agreed that “a well-administered maritime infrastructure minimises the risks of a maritime incident in territorial seas.”
It also proposed up-to-date laws and enforcement powers to pursue polluters to recover the high-level costs associated with such incidents.
“We continue to maintain our outstanding reputation for clean clear waters and promote our tourism with confidence,” it emphasised.
Also highlighted is the UK government’s commitment to environmental funding such as Darwin Plus will support joint objectives to preserve the wonderful array of biodiversity across the Territories for generations to come, and to be an example to other communities in responding to the global biodiversity emergency.
The Overseas Territories and the UK Government also pledged to work together to secure agreement on ambitious action to tackle climate change on a global scale at the COP26 Summit in Glasgow.
It was agreed that by the time of the COP26 Summit, each government will endeavour to communicate a territory-led plan for climate change adaptation and mitigation, which contributes towards global carbon emission reductions.
The UK Government and Overseas Territories will continue to work together closely in the lead up to COP26, to ensure the Overseas Territories’ interests are represented.
As the host of COP26, the UK Government said it “endeavours to offer the Overseas Territories opportunities to showcase their environmental initiatives at the summit, including in areas such as transitioning to renewable sources of energy and disposal of waste.
It also committed to providing the OTs with technical and financial assistance where this is required.
Regarding border security, it was agreed that cooperation and support from the UK will continue to address “the challenges faced globally, including in some Territories, of rising levels of illegal migration and border security issues and the subsequent impacts on society.”
Against a background that “there is no health without mental health”, the importance of raising the awareness and understanding of mental health was discussed along with tackling the stigma that persists around mental health.
It was also recognised that there is already work being done in this area in most OTs with UK support.
The United Kingdom Overseas Territories Association (UKOTA) will host a webinar on mental health in December for Territory and UK leaders and experts to have an open discussion on priority issues around stigma, mental health systems and awareness campaigns.
Child safeguarding was also addressed against a background that whiule progress has been made in this area complacency cannot be allowed to set in.
“There is always more that can be done to ensure that children can grow up in an environment where they can be free from harm, flourish and meet their potential,” the UK and OT leaders agreed.
The role of a Children’s Commissioner or similar function is to be looked at to see if it might be appropriate for each Territory.
Another issue tackled was that of domestic abuse with officials expressing concern about the increased incidence of domestic abuse globally, and the damaging effects both for individuals and for society.
“We acknowledged that tackling domestic abuse requires a holistic approach, including law enforcement, education and medical professionals, and the criminal justice system.”
Initiatives being taken by the OTs were outlined with a “committed to identify opportunities and to take measures to tackle domestic abuse and to strengthen our system-wide response.”
Prisons and prison reform was also on the agenda with “the Overseas Territories and UK recognising the unique context and needs of prisons in the Territories.”
The UK said it will continue to support the OTs by providing expertise, project support and by facilitating a network of experts across the Territories to support the development of tailored Territory prison standards.
The JMC is the highest forum for political dialogue and consultation between UK and elected leaders and representatives of the OTs discussing matters of political, social, economic and constitutional concern between the governments of the Overseas Territories and the UK Government.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also joined the OT leaders and UK representatives in this year’s virtual summit.
Leaders also heard from HRH Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales.