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There are 14 UK Overseas Territories (OTs), with a population of around 270,000 people. Ten are inhabited, and their populations range from over 60,000 in the case of Bermuda and the Cayman Islands, to 40 in Pitcairn.

Most Territory inhabitants are British citizens. They form part of the same undivided realm with the UK where the King is sovereign, and the UK Parliament and Privy Council have unlimited power to legislate for them. However, in practice elected Territory governments have substantial autonomy in domestic affairs and UK legislation relating to them is rare and often controversial with Territory governments.

The Library briefing The OTs: An introduction and relations with the UK, provides an overview of the Territories and the UK’s responsibility for them.

This briefing sets out UK ministerial responsibility for the OTs, debates on their representation in the UK Parliament, challenges raised, and proposals to strengthen OT scrutiny on legislation relating to the Territories in the UK.

How are the inhabited Territories governed?

Each Territory has its own constitution and system of Government. For the larger Territories, their constitutions are based on the Westminster system with a ministerial system of government, elected parliaments or assemblies, a cabinet, and chief minister/premier. The Falkland Islands has a committee-system of government, and Pitcairn an Island Council.

All the Territories have a UK-appointed Governor, who generally holds responsibility for managing the Territory’s external affairs, defence and internal security like the police, and often the power to make or veto laws.

Aside from St Helena, Tristan da Cunha, Montserrat, and Pitcairn, the Territories are largely ineligible for UK aid and are instead economically self-sufficient. Being separate governments, the UK does not bear liability for their debts and taxation is a Territory matter. International treaties the UK signs are not usually extended to the Territories without consultation.

UK Government responsibility

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) is the lead department for the Overseas Territories. Current UK Government policy on the OTs is set out in a 2012 White Paper, and the Government holds an annual ministerial council with the Territories. Other departments, such as the Ministry of Defence, have also published engagement strategies.

In 2019, the Foreign Affairs Committee and some OT Governments called on the UK Government to consider a separate department for the OTs or moving responsibility to the Cabinet Office. No changes were made.

The UK Parliament and the Territories

As a matter of constitutional law, the UK Parliament has unlimited power to legislate for the Territories. However, passing legislation for the Territories is rare. The most recent example was that in 2018 when the requirement to maintain registers of beneficial ownership was extended to the Territories. The UK Government acknowledged the “ill-feeling” created over what many OTs felt was an “overreach” by the UK Parliament. Many Territories called for strengthened protections from such moves in the future.

The Foreign Affairs Committee is primarily responsible for scrutinising UK Governors and the Government’s work with the OTs—its most recent report was published in 2019. The Committee is also sent draft Territory constitutions before they come into force to enable parliamentary scrutiny.

In May 2022, the Commons Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, hosted a conference of Speakers and officials from six Territories. The resulting communiqué included an undertaking to explore direct scrutiny by OTs within the committee system on issues relating to them and strengthening parliamentary democracies.

Direct representation at Westminster

Many OT Governments and successive UK Governments have opposed representation in the UK Parliament. The idea of a committee of MPs to scrutinise the OTs has gained wider support, though hasn’t been established.

While the issue of representation was considered in the 2000s by several committees, and other European parliaments do have mechanisms for the representation of their OTs, there are no current UK proposals.

Past objections include the challenges of equal representation for the Territories (even the largest is smaller than the average UK parliamentary constituency), the potential for dominance by larger Caribbean OTs in the case an MP is shared, whether it would undermine Territory autonomy, and reduce access to wider parliamentarians. Proponents argue it would strengthen ties and enable Territories to have a voice on issues that impact them, such as international affairs. Supporters have also stressed representation should not come at the cost of Territory self-government.

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