UK and Caribbean territories headed for showdown over same-sex marriage and electoral rights
The United Kingdom and its Caribbean overseas territories, in particular, are on a collision course over same-sex marriage, and voting and election candidacy rights for British citizens in the islands.
A just-published report by the UK’s parliamentary Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) makes the two controversial recommendations following a six-month inquiry which ended this month.
Titled “Global Britain and the British Overseas Territories: Resetting the relationship”, it’s the first major review of relations between the UK and its overseas territories since 2008.
Of the 14 British Overseas Territories (BOTs), five are in the Caribbean; Anguilla, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat and Turks and Caicos Islands; along with Bermuda in the North Atlantic, off the eastern coast of the United States.
The inquiry into their future relations with the UK as the administrative authority (or ‘mother country’) saw a plethora of submissions, and in-person presentations in London, from overseas territories’ (OTs) governments, the private sector, social partners, citizens and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).
The FCO has primary responsibility for the overseas territories, which all have a degree of autonomy.
Early reactions to the report focus on two important ‘points of friction’ as described within the FAC report itself.
These are same-sex marriage, and political voting and candidacy rights for British citizens in the islands.
The report declares: “…while the UK government should urgently address concerns held by the OTs – about access to NHS services, for example – the OTs must act to reduce areas of divergence and friction.”
It stresses, “this must include legalizing same-sex marriage and working with the foreign secretary to set out a timetable for the publication of registers of beneficial ownership in each OT.”
The FAC is particularly strident on the issue of same-sex marriages, adamantly recommending remotely enforcing the required legislation by Order in Council from London if the OTs don’t voluntarily comply.
“It is time for all OTs to legalize same-sex marriage and for the UK government to do more than simply support it in principle. It must be prepared to step in, as it did in 2001 when an Order in Council decriminalized homosexuality in OTs that had refused to do so.”
It also said that the British government “should set a date by which it expects all OTs to have legalized same-sex marriage. If that deadline is not met, the government should intervene through legislation or an Order in Council.”
Other ‘points of friction’ in UK/OT relations highlighted in the FAC report include the issue of citizenship and electoral rights for British citizens in the OTs.
“The government should urgently address concerns in the OTs about the issue of citizenship by descent and anomalies in the British Nationality Act that have taken too long to resolve,” the FAC report recommends.
It also stresses: “Belongership and its equivalents are wrong. While we recognize that the OTs are small communities with unique cultural identities, we do not accept that there is any justification to deny legally resident British Overseas Territory and UK citizens the right to vote and to hold elected office.
“This elevates one group of British people over another and risks undermining the ties that bind the UK and the OTs together in one global British family.”
It calls on the FCO to “lay out a timetable for this consultation process and set a deadline for phasing out discriminatory elements of belongership, or its territory-specific equivalents.”
The FCO itself does not escape reprimand.
The Foreign Affairs Committee describes it as “stuck in the past” regarding how it relates to the OTs.
In many submissions from the OTs, the very term “foreign” was questioned regarding their relationship with the UK.
As the FAC itself noted: “This is reinforcing the sense that many in the OTs have that they are not just far away from Britain, but foreign.”
There are a few recommendations that are likely to find favor with the territories.
Those include better access to the UK’s National Health Services (NHS), which is currently limited to four qualifying persons per year per territory, clarity and guarantees on how the UK proposes to fill any OTs funding gaps following Brexit – its departure from the EU, and a dedicated development and stimulus fund for the aid-dependent territories – Montserrat and St. Helena.
But it’s the culturally and religiously sensitive same-sex issue which warrants delicate handling.
Demanding that the UK set an ultimatum and directly “intervene through legislation or an Order in Council” as it did when it similarly forcibly outlawed homosexuality in the OTs in 2001, is a flashpoint.
The OTs, too, will have to deftly navigate this human rights minefield of an issue in the modern era.
The threat of imposed legislation also looms large within the recommendations on the thorny issue of public registries of beneficial ownership (the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act, SAMLA).
Likewise, the FAC is also quite firm in its stance on voting rights and the more contentious matter of electoral rights for British citizens in the OTs.
The latter would be a political concern where it could cause a power shift for some of the smaller OTs, given their population and voter demographics.
While the FAC contends that from its observations there is no appetite at present for direct representation in the UK parliament by the OTs, this recommendation might very well trigger a rethink.
The committee challenges the British parliament to “ensure that, while the people of the OTs are not directly represented in Parliament, there is a forum for the effective scrutiny of the decisions taken in London that impact them directly.”
It thinks “the time is right to consider establishing a new formal mechanism by which the members of relevant select committees can scrutinize government administration, expenditure and policy in relation to the OTs.”
One wonders if that goes far enough as a counterbalance to streamline the voting and especially the recommendation for elected office rights for British citizens in the OTs?
But it’s still early days in the life of this report and its recommendations.
One senses that it won’t be shelved, despite the UK being currently embroiled in its own Brexit mayhem.
There are several issues with timelines pending; among them the SAMLA beneficial ownership registry issue and the matter of same-sex marriage.
Will this report really trigger the ‘reset of the relationship’ between the OTs and the UK in the way that the FAC hopes or envisages?
That’s left to be seen. But it’s worth working towards.
There’s hardly much of an alternative.
• Mike Jarvis is a freelance journalist and commentator in London. Published with the permission of Caribbean News Now.