I’ve been thinking, off and on, about the marine wildlife riches around Pitcairn Island since the meeting at the Royal Society last week. It was wonderful to get some comments on this blog from Pitcairn Islanders too.
I hope it’s not too presumptuous to think that the case for strong protection of the marine wildlife, supported as it is by the whole human population of the Pitcairn Islands, should rapidly come to pass.
But it’s becoming clearer to me that the way that the UK government handles the UK Overseas Territories is far from ideal. This is a classic situation where responsibility is shared and therefore disappears through the cracks between government departments.
My main interest in the UKOTs is in their history, their people and their wildlife but clearly they are relevant to the UK because of their military value, economic value, and all sorts of other values. And so we see that the Department for International Development has a hand in some of the UKOTs – the economically poorer ones like Pitcairn. This always strikes me as being tremendously politically incorrect! Why isn’t DFID involved with the poorer parts of Glasgow, Newcastle or London? But that’s how it is, and the trouble with that is that DFID has a very poor grasp of environmental matters – ever since Claire Short got rid of most of the experts in her Department years ago. So DFID worries me.
Believe it or not, the Department for Culture Media and Sport also has a bit of a role as it has responsibility for World Heritage Sites – and Henderson Island, Gough Island and Inaccessible Island are all World Heritage Sites (along with the Town of St George on Bermuda). DCMS has put forward St Helena and the Turks and Caicos Islands as potential World Heritage Sites too. DCMS is the parent body for the National Lottery but has not given guidance to the Lottery to make money available for the UKOTs (you can’t buy lottery tickets in UKOTs (but then I have never bought one in my life)).
Defra recognises that the environment of the UKOTs is important and that what happens in those places can contribute to UK international obligations. But Defra will say that it has little money to spend on the UKOTs and that the FCO is loaded with resources. In addition, the Defra staff dealing with the UKOTs are split between terrestrial and marine branches and so almost everything about the UKOTs requires a meeting between people for whom the UKOTs are one rather small part of their already busy jobs.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office do see the UKOTs as important but will pass the buck to other departments whenever it comes to doing anything that the FCO feels isn’t their bag. And that certainly applies to anything environmental.
The impression one gets, talking to people involved in the UKOTs, is that the variety of government departments makes life difficult. Particularly when they behave like a bunch of kids with lots of ‘it’s not me it’s him!’ thrown in.
Trying to sort this out is probably one of the reasons why the Environmental Audit Committee is investigating sustainability in the UKOTs right now.
In the recent (June 2012) Overseas Territories White Paper the Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary wax lyrical about the interest and commitment of the UK to the UKOTs. But both, rightly, go further.
David Cameron says: ‘We see an important opportunity to set world standards in our stewardship of the extraordinary natural environments we have inherited.’ – well said, Prime Minister!
And William Hague says: ‘We have not in the past devoted enough attention to the vast and pristine environments in the lands and seas of our Territories. We are stewards of these assets for future generations.’ – well said, Foreign Secretary!
I am happy to acknowledge that here two of the most senior members of the coalition government have sent the right signals, said the right things and thought the right thoughts. But as with Directors General of the BBC, or Chief Executives of Banks, you also have to be a manager as well as a leader. Saying it is not enough – you have to make it happen.
Delivering better stewardship of the extraordinary environments of the UKOTs is currently a shared responsibility of many junior civil servants distributed across Whitehall Departments and each with many other things to do. So, my fear, is that it just won’t happen without a nudge from above.
I wouldn’t expect the Prime Minister to spend more than a few minutes on this subject in his busy life, so here is the draft of an email for David Cameron to cut and paste and send to DFID, Defra, DCMS and FCO.
‘Come on chaps – get a grip! The UKOTs are important to us and we are making a bit of a meal of all this. I’d like you all to come up with a plan for some real action on environmental progress. Some ideas that will make us look good (we are struggling a bit on that ‘greenest government ever’ thing) and which tick lots of boxes for contributing to international agreements. If it’s going to cost a few million quid then so be it – we need some good news on the environment and I’ll tell George to look for some money down the back of the sofa if it’s needed. Come back to me with some ideas in a fortnight.’
There you are PM – cut and paste – and send!