By Michael Jarvis, London UK
A suggestion by a British MP (member of parliament) that the Overseas Territories (OTs) “should be invited to become equal members of the United Kingdom after Brexit” is worthy of consideration.
The idea comes from John Penrose, Conservative MP for Weston-super-Mare, a seaside town in Somerset, southwest England.
It should reopen this issue if the UK and the OTs are serious about ‘resetting their relationship’ as expressed in the title of a last year’s report by the UK parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee(FAC) in its inquiry into the future of relations between these two parts (partners?) of the United Kingdom.
In an interview with The House magazine, an independent publication covering the British parliament, Mr Penrose explained:
"What I am suggesting is they should be at least offered the chance to have an equivalent kind of devolution settlement that has already been agreed and negotiated with Scotland, with Wales and Northern Ireland."
The Overseas Territories would then become “equal elements” of the UK with the “same status” as Scotland, England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
“They would send MPs to the Westminster parliament here, they would have their own devolved governments like the Welsh Assembly or the Scottish Parliament, but it would just mean that it would be constitutionally stable, properly integrated, modern status for these overseas territories.
“It would show that we are committed to being a global nation post-Brexit.”
Mr Penrose argued the proposals would provide more “constitutional stability” surrounding the Overseas Territories, with the UK currently in dispute over Gibraltar with Spain and the Chagos Islands with Mauritius.
He rejects any suggestion that the move would be a return to Britain’s imperialist past.
“People might make that argument but because we are offering and suggesting that these territories become equal parts of the United Kingdom, it’s hard to make an imperialist argument about this at all. It is clearly something that is talking about equal status.”
Mr Penrose said it would depend on the devolution settlement as to whether the Overseas Territories, such as the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands, are subject to the same tax regime as the rest of the UK.
FOREIGN AFFAIRS COMMITTEE INQUIRY
This issue in its broad context what MP John Penrose is proposing was addressed, albeit inconclusively, in the 2018-2019 inquiry into future of relations between the UK and the OTs conducted by the FAC.
While he takes the route of the OTs being “invited”, the onus is also - and probably more - on the territories themselves to actively pursue the issue.
The FAC in its report titled ‘Global Britain and the British Overseas Territories: Resetting the relationship’, noted that “the elected leaders and representatives of the OTs that appeared before us had mixed views on sending MPs to Parliament.
“Some members of the public also told us in writing that it is time to rethink the principles of Parliament’s relationships with the OTs.
“We are aware that many people in the Overseas Territories feel that they do not receive the attention in Parliament that they might expect and that the Foreign Affairs Committee has not carried out a major OTs inquiry since 2008.”
But it also flagged that; “…given the competing pressure of other policy areas, and the requirement to scrutinise the whole gamut of the Foreign Office’s work, it is difficult to envisage another major OTs inquiry in this Parliament.”
As stated by the FAC, “this fails to do justice to the range and complexities of the issues facing the OTs, individually and collectively.
Mindful of this it concluded: “We believe the time is right to give serious consideration to establishing a formal mechanism by which members of the Foreign Affairs, Justice, International Development, EFRA and other relevant Committees are able collectively to scrutinise the UK Government’s administration of, spending on and policies towards the OTs.”
RIGHT TIME FOR A CHANGE
But that was before the 2019 UK snap elections and the inauguration of the new parliament.
Some of the OTs have also had elections since then, and in others, elections are pending.
Given the UK’s own election outcome, new parliamentary committees being constituted, and importantly, the reality of Brexit at the end of this month, it might the ideal time to revisit this particular issue.
Mr Penrose has a valid point and its worth examining to its fullest extent via an agreed method to determine the ‘will of the people’ of the OTs (i.e a referendum), or a vote in the respective OT parliaments/assemblies by their elected representatives.
The UK parliament would also need to have a say.
Whether the OTs having representation in the UK parliament is by invitation or request, this particular issue ought to be put to 'the stress test'.
It seems only logical, fair and democratic that the OTs have a direct voice in the British parliament on matters of the 'united kingdom that they are a part of and which affect them, and not just seen as mere attachments or just distant, detached appendages.
Distant they might be, but detached they are not and appendages they aren’t.