Table of contents
On 25 May 2023, the House of Lords is scheduled to consider the following question for short debate:
Lord Lancaster of Kimbolton (Conservative) to ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the current relationship with the overseas territories.
1. The UK’s overseas territories
The UK has 14 overseas territories. They range from small islands in the South Atlantic, such as Saint Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha, to large territories in the Caribbean, such as the British Virgin Islands and the Cayman Islands.
Figure 1. Map detailing the UK’s overseas territories
Ten of the overseas territories are permanently inhabited by British nationals. Collectively, these overseas territories have a population of approximately 272,000 (as of 2022). The following table provides statistics on the population, geography and economy of these 10 territories.
Table 1. Statistics on the UK’s 10 overseas territories permanently inhabited by British nationals
|Overseas territory||Total population (2022)||Land area (square kilometres)||Gross domestic product (purchasing power parity)|
|British Virgin Islands||31,000||151||US$1.65bn (2021)|
|Cayman Islands||69,000||264||US$6.75bn (2021)|
|Falkland Islands||4,000||12,173||US$320mn (2020)|
|Pitcairn Islands||50||47||No data available|
|St Helena, Ascension and Tristan da Cunha||5,000||122||US$48.7mn (2020/21)|
|Turks and Caicos Islands||46,000||948||US$1.06bn (2021)|
Population data has been taken from: United Nations, ‘Data portal: Population division’, accessed 17 May 2023; and Central Intelligence Agency, ‘World factbook: Pitcairn Islands’, accessed 17 May 2023. Geographical data has been taken from individual country profiles from the Central Intelligence Agency, ‘World factbook’, accessed 17 May 2023. Economic data has been taken from individual country profiles from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, ‘Country profile’, accessed 17 May 2023; Gibraltar government, ‘GDP, 2006/07–2021/22’, 28 June 2022; St Helena government, ‘Gross domestic product for 2020/21 estimated at £39.2mn’, 31 March 2022; and Falkland Islands government, ‘Falkland Islands national accounts 2010–2020’, 28 January 2022, p 5. Figures for GDP have been rounded.
2. Constitutional affairs
The government has a legal and constitutional responsibility for its overseas territories. Every overseas territory has its own constitution, which sets out its system of government and its relationship with the UK. These constitutions usually provide for a governor or commissioner, an elected legislature and ministers. The governor or commissioner is appointed by the crown, on the recommendation of UK government ministers, and is typically responsible for domestic affairs such as financial services and social policy (education and healthcare). In addition, the constitutions outline the UK government’s obligations in the territories in areas such as defence, foreign affairs and internal security.
As a matter of constitutional law, the UK Parliament has “unlimited power” to legislate for the territories. Through the privy council, the government can issue orders in council, which are legally binding instruments approved personally by the monarch at a meeting of the privy council. Orders in council may be utilised to revise an overseas territory’s constitution or to legislate for the overseas territories. For example, in 2000, the then Labour government legislated to decriminalise consensual homosexual sex between adults in private in five overseas territories. However, more recently the UK government indicated that it would not introduce further orders in council in this area. In 2019, the government told the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee that it would not intervene through legislation or an order in council to legalise same-sex marriage in its overseas territories. It explained that as policy on marriage law was “an area of devolved responsibility, it should be for the territories to decide and legislate on”. Nevertheless, it said that it was working to “encourage those territories that have not put in place arrangements to recognise and protect same sex relationships, to do so” and that it engaged with all the overseas territories to ensure that their legislation complied with international human rights obligations.
The UK government can also instruct a governor to pass, reject or amend legislation in certain territories, including Ascension and Tristan da Cunha. However, the government does not have the power to do so in Bermuda, Montserrat and St Helena, where the governor does not have the power to make laws.
The privy council has an important role in the administration of justice in the overseas territories. While the UK’s inhabited overseas territories have established their own justice systems according to their constitutions, territories use the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council (JCPC) as their highest court of civil and criminal appeal. Appeals to the JCPC are typically heard by five judges, although in certain situations, three judges may preside. The JCPC typically comprises Supreme Court justices, with the two courts sharing a building and several administrative functions.
During a debate in the House of Commons on the overseas territories on 11 May 2023, David Rutley, parliamentary under secretary of state at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), said that the government was “committed to upholding our constitutional responsibilities and interests in the overseas territories”. Mr Rutley also revealed that Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had recently asked each relevant cabinet minister to nominate a lead minister to be responsible for the overseas territories within their government department. These ministers, alongside the minister for the overseas territories, Lord Goldsmith, would form a ministerial group and convene regularly. Additionally, the minister stated that Mr Sunak had agreed that the FCDO should lead on a new cross-government strategy for the overseas territories. However, Mr Rutley did not reveal the contents of the strategy or when it would be published.
Mr Rutley also said that Lord Goldsmith would be hosting the annual meeting of the Joint Ministerial Council on 11 and 12 May 2023, which “presented an opportunity to strengthen the UK’s unique partnership with the territories and to celebrate our rich cultural and historic ties”. Following the meeting, the FCDO published a Joint Ministerial Council communiqué covering various subjects such as the partnership between the UK government and overseas territories, climate change and healthcare.
3. Defence and security
The UK is responsible for defending its overseas territories and providing military support to ensure their security (excluding Antarctica, as the UK is a signatory to the Antarctic Treaty 1959). This includes working with the governments of overseas territories to counter external threats, international terrorism and organised crime. Examples of how the UK defends and provides security to its overseas territories include:
- South Atlantic Islands: Successive UK governments have stated that it is their responsibility to safeguard UK sovereignty of the Falkland Islands and the islanders’ right to self-determination. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) retains responsibility for the external defence and security of the Falkland Islands and its surrounding maritime area, which, alongside Ascension, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, are overseen by the Commander British Forces. In addition, the Royal Air Force (RAF) has a permanent base on the Falkland Islands. Separately, the Falkland Island Defence Force operates as the territory’s local reservist infantry unit.
- Gibraltar: The MOD holds similar responsibilities for the external defence and security of Gibraltar, its residents and territorial waters. British Forces Gibraltar maintains the territory, comprising personnel from the British Army, Royal Gibraltar Regiment, Royal Navy and RAF, contributing to the security operations of the territory.
- Ascension Island: The UK retains sovereign rights on the territory, although the US military has run Wideawake Airfield since 1942. Today, the RAF uses Ascension Island as a staging post for flights between the UK and the Falkland Islands.
- Caribbean territories: The role of the UK’s military presence in the Caribbean is to “deliver security and reassurance to the overseas territories”, particularly in disaster relief operations. A maritime presence is maintained by a Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship throughout the year, which is normally supplemented by a Royal Navy frigate or destroyer during the hurricane season between May and November.
- British Indian Ocean Territory: This territory has been under continuous British sovereignty since 1814. Its largest island, Diego Garcia, has been used as a joint military base by UK and US forces since 1966.
- Sovereign Base Areas, Cyprus: Since Cyprus gained independence in 1960, the UK has maintained sovereignty over the Western Sovereign Base Area, located at Akrotiri, and the Eastern Sovereign Base Area, located at Dhekelia, which are primarily used for military purposes. RAF Akrotiri is based in these areas and serves as a hub for various operations, including hosting Typhoon fast-jet deployments to support UK military operations globally, conducting trials for the new Lightning (F-35) aircraft and accommodating Royal Navy ships during visits.
In its 2021 integrated review, ‘Global Britain in a competitive age: The integrated review of security, defence, development and foreign policy’, the government outlined its “responsibility to ensure the security of the fourteen overseas territories”. The review set out priority actions that the UK was taking to support its overseas territories in “deterring and defending against state and non-state threats”. These actions included:
- defending against incursions by other countries’ vessels in British Gibraltar Territorial Waters
- “significant” investment in the Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus to maintain security and contribute to Eastern Mediterranean security efforts alongside allies
- maintaining a permanent presence in the Falkland Islands, Ascension Island and the British Indian Ocean Territory
- sustaining a permanent maritime presence in the Atlantic and Caribbean for counter-trafficking operations and providing humanitarian assistance and disaster relief during the annual hurricane season
- promoting the right to self-determination for the people inhabiting overseas territories
- upholding UK obligations under the Antarctic Treaty, including those related to the British Antarctic Territory
In March 2023, the government published an update to its 2021 integrated review, the ‘Integrated review refresh 2023’. In the update, the government restated that its “first duty” was to “promote and protect the United Kingdom’s core national interests”. This included ensuring that its overseas territories were “free from coercion, protected from harm, and able to maximise our economic and social wellbeing”.
In May 2023, the government detailed in a House of Commons debate on the overseas territories how the UK was providing security support to the territories. This included providing electronic border systems and maritime surveillance aircraft to the Turks and Caicos Islands, because it viewed the territory as being at risk from illegal immigration by people fleeing violence in Haiti.
4. Financial support and aid
Whilst the UK retains responsibility for the overall economic stability of its overseas territories, the territories are largely self-governing in financial matters. This includes territory governments being responsible for decisions on taxation and public spending.
Despite this, some overseas territory governments have established agreements with the UK regarding borrowing guidelines. These guidelines govern the amount of money that the territories can borrow and the conditions under which they can borrow it. The guidelines have been established to ensure that borrowing by overseas territories remains sustainable and does not pose a risk to their financial stability or to the UK government, which guarantees the borrowing of certain territories. For example, in 2014, the government of the Turks and Caicos Islands agreed a framework for managing the public finances of the overseas territory that included “principles of good financial management”, in addition to proposals on its debt ceilings.
The government has previously stated that the overseas territories should utilise their financial resources in the first instance. It said that requests for further financial support would be considered on a “case-by-case basis”. The government has confirmed that, where the overseas territories are unable to achieve financial self-sufficiency, the overseas territories would be “a first call on the aid budget”. As of August 2022, four territories (Montserrat, the Pitcairn Islands, St Helena and Tristan da Cunha) qualified for overseas development aid (ODA). In October 2022, the government stated that approximately £80mn would be allocated for ODA in the overseas territories for the financial year 2022/23. Further, ineligible overseas territories could potentially requalify for ODA in the future if they experience crises or natural disasters that significantly impact their economy.
5. Read more
- Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, ‘2023 UK and Overseas Territories Joint Ministerial Council communiqué’, 12 May 2023
- House of Commons Library, ‘The overseas territories: An introduction and relations with the UK’, 20 January 2023
- House of Commons Library, ‘The UK overseas territories and their governors’, 30 June 2022
Cover image by Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office on Flickr. Map by Geord0 on Wikimedia Commons.