Cook clears the line to Montserrat

Foreign Secretary orders policy review of dependent territories

Robin Cook has launched a six-month review of Britain's Dependent Territories after admitting to a failure of communication over the Montserrat crisis. It also emerged last night that the House of Commons Select Committee on International Development is to reconvene to draw up a report on the Government's handling of the issue.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office officials will be asked to talk to each of the remaining 12 dependencies in the run-up to a major policy speech to the Dependent Territories Association (DTA) in February.

The Foreign Secretary said: "There has clearly been a failure of communication over the last few weeks - but not one of policy. We will go through the dozen territories and produce a custom-made solution for each one. The aim is to give them confidence that we are committed to them for the future. We want to give them the maximum opportunity to get on with their own business."

Mr Cook, speaking to journalists on his aircraft en route to South-east Asia, said that a review of policy on the dependent territories would be completed by next February, when he will address a DTA conference. The announcement won a warm reception from the DTA yesterday. Its chairman, Rom Russell, said: "We welcome the statement by the Foreign Secretary about the review of the dependent territories, in particular that he has taken a personal interest."

Mr Cook acknowledged that concerns over the future of Hong Kong and its 6.5 million inhabitants had dwarfed thinking on Britain's other dependencies in the past. The remaining territories include the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Bermuda, the Cayman Islands, St Helena and the Pitcairn Islands.

It also emerged last night that the select committee planned an investigation into the background to the Montserrat crisis. Bowen Wells, the Tory MP who chairs the committee, said he had written to its members and expected them to agree to reconvene. Some would probably visit the island.

"We recognise that this is an emergency and that there are very serious accusations being handed round. I think it is likely that we should get to the bottom of it," he said.

The Liberal Democrats claimed credit for both announcements last night, saying they had nudged both the government and Mr Wells into action. Menzies Campbell, the party's foreign affairs spokesman, said he had written to Mr Cook on the matter last week. He added that the review should lead to an offer of British citizenship for all the inhabitants of the territories - at present they do not have the right to live here.

"The people of the dependent territories are British subjects and it is time they were treated with the respect they deserve," he said.

After the sidelining on Monday of Clare Short, Secretary of State for International Development, Mr Cook issued a statement which appeared to praise Ms Short and her department for the work that they had done.

But Foreign Office officials do not hide their disdain for the way that Ms Short and her deputy, George Foulkes, have handled matters. As one official noted: "They haven't done the best of jobs in winning hearts and minds in recent days."

Ms Short was keen to take responsibility for managing the volcano crisis, when it first erupted. Mr Cook is unlikely to regret the fact that Ms Short has been left with political egg on her face. The apparent message is that a "safe pair of hands" is needed.

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