When he became minister of state at the Foreign Office, Lord Tariq Ahmad expected the Caribbean and the British Overseas Territories to be the “nice and quiet” part of his portfolio.
“It has definitely been nice. I would not say it was quiet over the last two years,” he said of his term to date, which had presented “a challenge”.
First, the House of Commons passed into law a section of the UK Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill against the will of the government. The passage of the act instructs the UK government to issue an Order in Council directly installing a public register of the beneficial owners of companies in the overseas territories, if they have not implemented them by the end of 2020.
The extreme measure prompted much criticism in the territories, which referred to it as a fall back “into colonial times”.
Then a cross-party parliamentary group of the Foreign Affairs committee of the House of Commons issued a report calling for “a reset” of the relationship between the UK and its territories.
The report recommended the UK government set a deadline by when the overseas territories must have legalised same-sex marriages and legislate for the territories, once again through an Order in Council, if the deadline is not met. The committee also suggested that belongership and equivalent concepts such as Cayman status should be phased out to enable British citizens in the territories to vote or hold elected office. The committee report reiterated its call for the establishment of public beneficial ownership registers in all territories, saying it was “a matter of national security” for the UK.
The UK government rejected the demands to impose LGBT rights and changes to the political representation of residents in the territories. In addition, it negotiated a delayed timetable that would give the territories until 2023 to establish public ownership registries, but the pressure from UK lawmakers put the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in an awkward position.
Lord Ahmad acknowledged the last two years had been “rocky” at times at a press conference in connection with the pre-Joint Ministerial Council Meeting and the first UK/Overseas Territories International Trade Conference at the Kimpton Seafire on June 27.
The demands by UK lawmakers went against government policy, the minister responsible for the overseas territories said, adding he had personally defended in the House of Lords the right of the territories to deal with the matter as they saw fit.
However, the House of Commons had voted differently and government was now obligated through parliament to issue an order in council.
“In essence, what we are looking at is building on the positive relationship that we have with the Overseas Territories,” he said. This could be done in a constructive way, working through technical groups to meet the 2023 date.
Lord Ahmad, who is also the UK minister responsible for human rights, said those rights should be universal.
“It is encompassed in the whole essence of charter of human rights,” he said. “I equally accept that there are issues of sensitivity within the area of LGBT rights, but I look at our own journey in the UK.”
He noted that a hundred years ago women did not have the right to vote and now the UK has had two female prime ministers.
“We ourselves on the issue of LGBT rights move forward constructively. And there will be people that have different opinions. And I think it is important that we recognise people have different perspectives,” the minister said.
“Some have very strong views which emanate out of faith, but the dialogue on this and the discussion on this must be marked by respect.”
He said the UK has made clear where it stands on this issue and noted that in many territories certain aspects of LGBT rights are currently decided by the court system.
“Every family has its ups and downs, the important thing is how to come through it,” Ahmad said. “How we come through it is through respecting different perspectives, respecting the different speeds at which different territories are moving on key issues.”
At the same time, the UK government was making sure that the international obligations any territory has are met.
Despite the difficult times, he said the relationship between the UK and its territories was “on a strong foundation” and “in a very good place”.