HC Deb 13 February 2002 vol 380 cc270-83 7.18 pm
Peter Bradley (The Wrekin)

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 3, line 28, leave out subsections (2) and (3).

The amendment will be no surprise to the Minister because I raised the substance of it in meetings with him, in several interventions and in my own speech in the course of the Second Reading debate and, more recently, in a parliamentary question. Indeed, I gave notice of it to his Department. The amendment's purpose is very simple: to ensure that there is no delay in implementing the Bill, which Members on both sides of the House greatly welcome, once it has been passed. The central reason for that is to ensure that the people of St. Helena can celebrate their 500th anniversary as the British citizens that they thought they were, at least until 1981.

Nothing in the Bill suggests that citizenship rights must be dependent on the issuing of a passport—indeed, such a suggestion would be absurd because, as I pointed out on Second Reading, passports may confirm but certainly do not confer citizenship. A passport is not and never has been regarded as a prerequisite for citizenship. Even if the Bill is passed without a concession or the amendment being made, many people in St. Helena and the other British overseas territories, just like people in this country, will enjoy their citizenship and the rights that accompany it without ever applying for, possessing, needing or using a passport.

I accept that it would be administratively tidier to resolve the questions surrounding the design, printing and issuing of passports before citizenship is confirmed: those who have long waited to have their rights restored would simply have to wait a little longer. However, there are two important matters that I wish to draw to the attention of the House and especially my hon. Friend the Minister.

The first was raised with me yesterday by the representative in London of the St. Helena Government, and has been raised before by other hon. Members. It relates to those whose work permits will expire between Royal Assent being given to the Bill and the commencement of its provisions. Are we really going to require such people to leave the country to reapply for an extension of their visa and their work permit? I hope that the Minister can give some comfort on that point.

The second issue is of central importance to me and to the people of St. Helena. As I said, this year they celebrate the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the island by the Portuguese. The anniversary falls on 21 May, and the event is of huge significance to the Saints. No people were more affronted or more disadvantaged by the loss of their citizenship rights than the Saints. They believed that they held those rights in perpetuity, not least because of the royal charter conferred on them in the 17th century by Charles II. No people were more delighted by the Government's welcome commitment in the White Paper and, subsequently, the Bill to the restoration of their rights.

I cannot imagine that the Government do not recognise the importance of this anniversary to the Saints, nor that the Minister does not acknowledge both the cause for rejoicing that the restoration of their rights would represent, or the dismay that its further delay would cause. I seek an assurance that the administrative difficulties with issuing passports mentioned at various stages of the Bill's passage can be resolved, and that commencement can take place before 21 May. If such an assurance is given, I will be happy to withdraw the amendment. Alternatively, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can provide a different sort of reassurance: that commencement will not be linked to the issuing of passports. In either event, the people of St. Helena and of other British overseas territories, will have their citizenship rights restored before that important date.

The matter may not be of great moment to many people. It may not be of great importance to Foreign Office and Home Office officials in Whitehall, but it is of huge symbolic value to the Saints. I appeal to the Minister to exercise his discretion to ensure that 21 May is a red letter day for the Saints. I urge him not to be a party-pooper but to ensure that 21 May in St. Helena, if not Bradley day, is Bradshaw day—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Well, if creeping will secure the concession, I am only too happy to do it on behalf of the Saints. I hope that he will take the opportunity to give full expression to the intention of legislation for which the Government deserve credit, and which would be the subject of celebration in St. Helena.

Bob Russell (Colchester)

I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) on his amendment, and on the spirit of the argument that he has expressed this evening. He speaks for everyone with a love for and an association with the island of St. Helena in voicing the dear wish that by 21 May the citizenship of its people will have been restored. That citizenship was removed against their wishes. I endorse the hon. Gentleman's arguments and invite the Minister to assure the House that, come the 500th anniversary celebrations, the people of the island of St. Helena will have had their citizenship restored so that they can celebrate as all of us want them to.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw)

I can imagine almost nothing worse than being labelled a party-pooper, so I hope to be able to say something that will send my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) and the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) away happy.

We appreciate and share hon. Members' desire that the people of St. Helena should be able to celebrate their quincentenary on 21 May as British citizens. Our concern is that the amendment would do more to get in the way of achieving that goal than to achieve it. Were the amendment accepted, it would have consequences for those provisions of the Bill relating to the acquisition of British citizenship after commencement. That would require a further Government amendment to correct, which would delay the Bill's passage.

Let me explain why it is necessary to have a gap, albeit a very small one, between Royal Assent and commencement. It is because many fairly complicated administrative arrangements have to be put in place to allow citizens of British dependent territories, as they are now, to obtain proof of their new status on commencement. As my hon. Friend says, that proof will, in most cases, take the form of a new passport showing their new British status.

To issue passports, we need to make practical arrangements, including agreeing the format with the overseas territories. That has not been easy. Although many in the House have been waiting a long time for the Bill, many in the overseas territories are surprised at the speed with which it has proceeded through Parliament. Some had concerns about the appearance of their passports, and time is needed to train the staff involved.

We have every confidence that the practical arrangements will be in place to allow a commencement date well before St. Helena's quincentenary on 21 May, but—my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin should pay attention to this—in the unlikely event that the passport issuing arrangements are not in place by mid-May, we would make an order specifying 21 May as the commencement date.

The Home Office has been extremely kind and agreed that if we do that, it will make exceptional arrangements to allow immediate exercise of the new rights. Those arrangements would allow those who hold British dependent territory citizenship passports derived from a connection with a territory other than the sovereign bases in Cyprus to use those passports as evidence of the right of abode in this country until such time as a full British citizen passport becomes available to them.

I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that the issue relating to work permits is one for the Home Office. However, I shall take it up with my colleagues in that Department and hope that they will be as flexible in interpreting the law as they have been about accepting BDTC passports in lieu of British citizen passports. In the light of those arrangements, I ask him to withdraw his amendment.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I was listening carefully to the Minister and hoped to intervene before he sat down. Will he deal with the point raised by the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) about the principle that a passport is not needed to establish a person's eligibility for citizenship? The hon. Gentleman made the important point that some people may not need or seek a passport. It would be reassuring to people from St. Helena and the other territories if the Minister put it on the record that, although an expedited procedure for passport acquisition will be put in place, for which we are grateful, the citizenship rights of those who have no passport and do not want to apply for one will be confirmed by 21 May at the latest, or by some earlier date if the procedures are completed. That is the other assurance sought by the hon. Gentleman.

7.30 pm
Mr. Bradshaw

Yes to both of those.

Peter Bradley

There is no need for me to detain the House a great deal longer. I would be the most unpopular person in Westminster if I did, since we are probably going home early tonight.

I pay tribute to the Minister and those who advise him. If government were always so simple and it was always so simple to do the common-sense thing, we would probably all be out of a job. The news will be greeted, I am sure, with great approbation in St. Helena and by those in this country who have supported their cause over many years. This is a very good Bill, whose consideration has reached a happy conclusion in the House. I thank the Minister again, and beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn

Order for Third Reading read.


Mr. Bradshaw

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I have listened with interest to the points made on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report. Nationality is a fascinating and emotive subject. The Bill may be short, specific and contain few clauses, but the debate surrounding it has opened windows on different aspects of life in territories with close and long-established cultural and traditional links with the United Kingdom, but which are geographically far removed from these shores, and in some cases isolated.

The passage of the Bill will mean that British dependent territories citizens will be full British citizens. They will be able to apply for British passports, to live, study and work in the United Kingdom and the rest of the European Union, and to share the benefits of British citizenship that we all take for granted.

I have noted with pleasure that the Bill commands widespread support in the Chamber, and I am extremely grateful to the many right hon. and hon. Members who have welcomed its introduction and spoken in favour of its speedy and successful passage. I know that for many people in the overseas territories, Royal Assent and commencement cannot, as we have just discussed, come quickly enough. I hope that commencement will be very soon after Royal Assent.

The Bill was first introduced in another place in June last year. It came to this House after thorough and wide-ranging debate, but without amendment. It has provided opportunities for hon. Members to raise a number of issues—not always central to the Bill—about the overseas territories, and in the process it has raised the profile of the territories themselves.

This was always a good Bill, but the amendment in favour of the Ilois, agreed in Committee, means that the Bill leaves us even stronger. I commend it to the House.

7.33 pm
Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk)

We welcome the Bill, as we have throughout its progress through the House. It contains many important and positive aspects, and my party strongly supports its aims.

The legislation is of great importance to the citizens of the 16 British overseas territories, which include Gibraltar, the Falkland Islands, British Antarctic Territory, Bermuda, Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat, the Pitcairn Islands, St. Helena, the British Indian Ocean Territory, the Chagos Islands and South Georgia. The legislation enjoys their full support and, as always in this House, we should pay great attention to the views of the people directly affected by it. Our relationships with those territories are multi-faceted and valued by all concerned.

Hon. Members will be aware of questions surrounding an airstrip on the island of St. Helena. The issue has been raised on a number of occasions, particularly in another place by the Earl of Iveagh, a constituent of mine. I am glad that it has been aired. In making decisions on such issues, we of course bear in mind the economic development of the area. The hon. Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) has sought to raise the profile of the island, and we are all grateful to him for doing so.

The Bill is about granting British citizenship to the citizens of our overseas territories, recognising our partnership with them and giving them proper and accorded status.

I am grateful to the Minister for the clarifications that he has offered on Second Reading and in Committee on various areas of concern. I am pleased that he has clarified the status of abandoned infants under the Bill, making it clear that citizenship granted to an abandoned infant will not be grounds for any parent or guardian who subsequently comes forward to claim it.

I am also grateful to the Minister for clarifying European Union citizenship rules as they relate to the Bill. As I understand his answers, the EU's regulations extend to territories, not to people. Therefore, citizenship regulations would apply only if a British overseas citizen who became a British citizen took up abode in the UK. That is welcome news.

There are still, however, one or two areas that we would note for future reference. One is the question of overseas fees for higher education—a matter that has been brought to the attention of the House before. It is understood how the rules work; it has become something of an EU matter. However, I should like to take this opportunity to say that the such education has a knock-on effect. It impacts on the lives of a number of young people who are able to study in this country and then return home with the knowledge that they have acquired. Such education also establishes great links with this country and most particularly benefits students' respective homelands.

The education of such young people is a tremendous investment, not only for those involved but in establishing the affection and ties that inevitably arise when part of one's education is in this country. We must continue to bear that in mind and to monitor it.

Simon Hughes

The hon. Gentleman will know that there is widespread support for that point of view. Many of us who represent universities and others hope that the necessary cross-departmental efforts can bring about the change that he has advocated and that many of us want. That will be very important and another sign of our support for the next generation of people in overseas territories.

Mr. Spring

I endorse the hon. Gentleman's message, which I am sure the Minister will have taken on board.

I am pleased that EU citizenship regulations, as they relate to the Bill, have been clarified. The relationship of the overseas territories with the EU and general nationality rules continue to be important. I truly hope that the Government will keep a wary eye on that.

I reiterate my party's full support for the amendments made in Committee, as I did during those proceedings. I once again pay tribute to the hon. Members for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) and for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) for raising the issue of the Chagos islanders. The injustice was insufficiently recognised in the House, and hon. Members will be grateful to both hon. Gentlemen for drawing the matter to their attention in a compelling way. I hope very much that the right of return of the islanders, as recognised in a recent High Court case, will be clarified further and that the process will be taken on accordingly.

Overall, this is a very important, welcome and much supported Bill. It works towards a partnership, as the White Paper desired, and demonstrates our commitment to the citizens of British overseas territories, wherever they May be. Once again, I commend the work that has been done on the Bill and the Minister's courtesy while navigating its passage through the House and clarifying its clauses. We fully support the Bill's objectives and welcome its Third Reading.

7.38 pm
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

I thank the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) for his kind remarks about the Chagos islanders and the way that my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and I have raised the matter in the House. I understand that the Minister is suffering some discomfort, so I shall be as brief as possible. So that he can get away, I shall not ask any complicated questions.

I enjoyed serving on the Committee that considered the Bill. I am particularly grateful to the Minister for sending me a lengthy and full answer to my interminable questions on the role of Antarctica in the Bill. Particularly since nobody lives there, it was very helpful of him to discuss at smile length the possible citizenship of people who might at some point live there—apart from if they are in some terrible Channel 4 programme and are stuck there. That could be a good idea. I am grateful to the Minister for that. I am not sure that I wholly agree with him on the Antarctic, but I promise not to discuss it further this evening, save to say that I have a whole box of papers on Antarctica from the time that I have been in the House. The former right hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale and I raised the matter during consideration of the Antarctic Minerals Bill and at other times.

I agree with the hon. Member for West Suffolk about the right of access to further and higher education in this country for overseas citizens. I do not pretend that there is any simple, logical answer, but some way should be found for us to ensure that people who, after all, will be given British citizenship as soon as the Bill is enacted, should have access to higher education institutions in Britain. That seems proper and sensible, and I hope that some Means can be found to achieve it.

I welcome the amendments that the Minister moved in Committee—I subsequently withdrew mine—concerning the British Indian Ocean Territories, the Ilois people and their right of access to citizenship. As my hon. Friend well understands, there is a good deal of resentment among the Ilois People about the way in which they were removed from the islands by secret interstate negotiations in the 1960s and 1970s, and deposited on Mauritius or, in the case Of some, on the Seychelles, given minimum compensation and forgotten about.

Once again, we should reiterate our thanks to Olivier Bancoult and all who have campaigned so successfully and so well for so long, culminating finally in a successful High Court action which allowed the Ilois the right of return to the Chagos islands. That is an important step forward and has been warmly welcomed.

However, I ask the Minister to bear in mind that the right of return has been authorised by the High Court in this country. There is the possibility of a class action being taken in the United States on behalf of those who were moved from Diego Garcia, which is currently a US base, and that to date no Chagosians have been allowed to return to the islands. I understand that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is sponsoring an environmental impact study and a study of the economic viability of a return to the islands. We look forward to the results of those studies.

Just before Christmas, I took part in a lengthy and useful meeting with Baroness Amos in the Foreign Office with Olivier Bancoult, Richard Gifford, his solicitor, and a small delegation. We discussed all these issues. It is strange that the Chagos islanders—the Ilois people—are not allowed to return to the islands, yet I understand that the British Indian Ocean Territories police do nothing about passing millionaire yachtsmen drawing up their yachts alongside the outer islands of the archipelago and staying there for a considerable time without being told to move on.

Any Chagos islander trying to go back gets stopped by fishery protection vessels on their way to the islands. There seems to be something wrong there. [Interruption.] As my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Colin Burgon) says, there could be a bit of class politics going on. Although such notions are not supposed to be popular among those on the Government Benches, some of us still understand them—[Interruption.]—and even practise them.

I do not ask the Minister to respond immediately, but I hope that he will look into the matter. Will he also assure me that when the assessments are complete and we have a meeting with Baroness Amos in April, when Olivier Bancoult is returning to the UK, we will be able to discuss the practicalities of returning to the archipelago as a whole, the support that will be given to the community to do that, the employment practices of the United States on the base, and importantly, the opportunity for the islanders to visit the islands, to visit their burial sites and their ancestral homes, and to see the place from which their parents grandparents were so brutally plucked away in the 1970s?

I hope that my hon. Friend can ensure that the British Indian Ocean Territories authority will arrange for that return to take place, initially as a visit, and that when we finally have our meeting in April with Baroness Amos, which I hope to attend, we can explore the practicalities of return.

My final point relates to the islanders themselves. Had they remained on the Chagos islands, had Diego Garcia never become a base, and had the cold war never happened, the islanders would have had an elected authority of some sort. They would now be residents of those islands and they would be receiving passports, just like the people of St. Helena and all the other places. The Chagos islanders were plucked away, so the Bill had to be Specially amended in Committee, and I am grateful to the Minister for that enormous step forward.

Had the Ilois people remained on the Chagos islands, their elected authority would have been supported by public funds, as is the case in all the other territories. Apart from the minimal compensation given to the Ilois on settlement in Mauritius, they have received no support whatever. We should be grateful to the Mauritius Government for the support that they have given, but the Ilois have lived in poverty. For Olivier to come to this country, they must arrange a collection among the community to buy him an air ticket so that he can negotiate with the British Government on behalf of his people. I hope that when we meet in April, there will be some recognition of the need for practical support for the community, and in addition, for pensions for the older members of the community, and access to further and higher education—primary education is provided by the Government of Mauritius.

I welcome what has been achieved so far. It has been a great step forward, but we are not quite there yet. A ghastly injustice happened. It has not yet been put right. The Americans are not allowing Chagos islanders to work on the base. The British Indian Ocean Territories police are not allowing them to return to the islands, and the impact assessment seems to be taking rather a long time.

I assure my hon. Friend the Minister that my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and I are well seized of the matter and have no plans to let it go. We will keep on raising it in the House. We recognise the importance of what has happened, but there is a way to go. Justice will finally happen when the Chagos islanders can make a genuine choice to continue living in Mauritius or the Seychelles or to return to their ancestral homes, with the right to see the graves of their ancestors and the place from which they were so brutally taken away. A horrible injustice happened; let us put it right.

7.47 pm
Mr. Michael Trend (Windsor)

I reiterate my support for the Bill. Its passage through the House has been refreshingly free of party political sniping. Many of my right hon. and hon. Friends and I would have liked to see the measure passed when we were in government. I congratulate the Minister and the Government on introducing it.

I agree that there is a need to get the measure into law as expeditiously as possible. I welcome the Minister's comments to the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) about finding a way to finesse the important matter to the islanders of St. Helena of their anniversary and the generous gesture that has been made.

I have one or two regrets about the Bill. We have heard about higher education opportunities for people on some of the territories. I should have preferred it if we could have made statutory provision for that in the Bill. We raised the matter in Committee, but it is not to be. It is clear that the Government will not move on that. I know that in various Departments the Government have schemes to help the overseas territories where there are special training requirements or where special expertise is needed.

I ask the Government to be sympathetic with regard to further and higher education. There is no reasonable prospect of very many islanders from around the world being able to afford the residence that would be necessary and the cost of higher education. I hope that the Government will keep a special place in their mind to ensure that there is a steady flow of well-educated younger people coming from and going back to the territories.

I was interested to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) about the ship and the airport. I believe that the St. Helenians and others who are interested in the matter—the Falkland islanders, the Ascension islanders and even those on the ship—recently had a vote, which came out decisively in favour of building an airport on St. Helena. There are arguments for and against that. One can appreciate the problems of an airport, including its cost and the expense of replacing the boat.

However, the islanders and those associated with the islands have expressed a clear, democratic view that they want to take what many must perceive as a risk. I hope that the Department for International Development and other partners in the project will give it a clear run. The circumstances of the islanders, especially those on St. Helena, are unusual. If they want an airport, I hope that the Government can ensure that they get it.

I regret that it was not proper to discuss British overseas citizenship in the context of the Bill. It is purely a coincidence that I wrote to the Minister yesterday about a constituency case of a British overseas citizen in Tanzania. She was given, probably mistakenly, a full British passport 10 years ago. When she tried to renew it, she was told that she should not have had it in the first place. However, for 10 years, she was sure that she was a full British citizen, and she believed that her children would also have that status. I ask the Minister to consider the letter carefully because the status of British overseas citizens remains unsatisfactory. We may have to revert to the matter on another occasion. When our authorities have made errors, sympathy should be shown to those who have been misled for some time.

My greatest regret is that we have failed to make progress on establishing an annual report to the House on the subject. The Minister rightly pointed out that several extraneous debates took place around the Bill. That happened because many hon. Members are interested in the subject, but it is rarely discussed in the Chamber. The Minister said that we cannot have an annual report or debate. However, he also said that the Overseas Territories Consultative Council meets annually in London in the autumn, and that the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs can consider the overseas territories. Perhaps it could schedule an annual discussion. The Government might wish to invite somebody from the Committee to the Overseas Territories Consultative Council; perhaps hon. Members could be involved in the meeting. If the Minister asked me, I should be delighted to attend this year.

There is frustration that we do not have sufficient opportunity to discuss such important issues except during short Adjournment debates. I ask the Minister and the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee to consider whether a regular event could be held.

Simon Hughes

I support that idea. Although there may be some obligation on the Government, I hope that the parties collaborate to facilitate a regular annual debate. Other subjects have set a precedent, which we could usefully follow. Pressure on the Government should be maintained.

Mr. Trend

That was a helpful intervention. There is a problem of democratic deficit. The Government have made laws and are writing constitutions for some territories, which have no direct representation here. That problem will not go away. It will be exacerbated if the Government have other ambitions to make laws in those territories. For the sake of everyone's sanity, I therefore recommend a regular occasion for considering such matters. A problem could thus be perceived when it appeared on the horizon rather than when it got closer.

I thank the Minister, especially for the many letters that he has written and the explanations that he has given. I am particularly grateful for a recent letter about Cyprus. I probed the matter delicately in Committee, and he provided a full explanation. I am now an expert on the way in which British citizenship relates to Cyprus, and the circumstances of our treaty. I am sure that that also applies to him. I am also grateful to those in his office who have spoken to me about the complicated circumstances on Pitcairn. I hope to be kept in touch with events there as they unfold.

I congratulate the Father of the House and the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) who have done so much for Chagos islanders. I acknowledge that the Government have taken an important step forward with grace and style. That is a good development.

I wish the Bill and our new citizens well. They may not be full citizens, as some of us would like, but they are British citizens and they will have passports like the rest of us. That development, long overdue, will be welcome in all the territories. I hope that the Bill is passed.

7.56 pm
Bob Russell

Liberal Democrats Welcome the progress that the Bill has made; it is on its final stretch. I thank the civil servants and Ministers who have been involved in the journey from the start.

The reasons for introducing the Bill have not been mentioned this evening. It should be put on record that a grave injustice was done 20 to 21 years ago. It is to the Government's credit that they are righting that wrong. The importance of 21 May for St. Helena has already been mentioned. However, resolving citizenship problems as soon as possible is important for all the overseas territories for the reasons that have been given. We are considering 200,000 people. That is not a large number in the grand scheme of things.

I want to concentrate on St. Helena because it introduced me to the subject that we are considering. Shortly after the 1997 general election, I received a letter from a constituent who drew my attention to the injustice that had been inflicted on that island and the other territories. That led to my visiting St. Helena. There is a connection between the island and my constituency because St. Helena is the patron saint of Colchester; I was educated at St. Helena school. The spelling is the same as that of the island, but the pronunciation is different. Many Saints who reside in the United Kingdom will welcome the Bill. I am sure that we all know Mr. Calvin Thomas, one of our Doorkeepers. He is one Saint who will be delighted that progress has been made.

More people per head of population on St. Helena volunteer for Her Majesty's armed forces than anywhere else that is connected with the United Kingdom. We have responsibility for the territories, but they have no elected representation here. When we examine constitutional reform, perhaps we could consider a way in which all overseas territories can have an input into the democratic process here.

St. Helena has a slogan: ACE—"A" for access, "C" for citizenship and "E" for economy and education. Tonight we are moving firmly towards putting a tick against the "C" for citizenship. Reference has been made to education, but the economy of the island needs more than just education; it needs further sustainable help.

That brings me to the "A" for access. Although this is not dealt with in the Bill, the island's future depends on access. I have had the joy of visiting it, but it took a week to get there. It was an enjoyable trip, but the island cannot fulfil its economic destiny if the only access to it is by means of a week's journey by boat; an airfield is required.

This is a joyous evening, and I congratulate the Minister and his team. If he can deliver these provisions by 21 May, there may well be a statue of him in Jamestown in the future.

8 pm

Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford)

I reiterate the comments of many hon. Members in congratulating the Government on introducing the Bill. It is long overdue, and I regret the fact that these measures were not introduced by the Conservative Government. All British people should be given equal rights, and be treated in exactly the same way, whoever they are and wherever in the world they may live. I believe that everybody in this democratically elected House of Commons should support that view.

I commend the Government on taking this great step towards giving the people of the overseas territories the right to British citizenship that has been denied them for so long. The Minister talked about many of the overseas territories being geographically far away from the British isles. That is true in many cases. They are not far away, however, in terms of their desire to be British or of their determination to have the same status that we and our constituents enjoy. So, while I congratulate the Government—as everyone has done tonight—I believe that that is a matter to which greater consideration should be given.

My hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend) said that there was a democratic deficit, and that is absolutely true. We should all be concerned about that problem; it involves British people whom we in this Parliament govern. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who is not here tonight, spoke in the debate in Westminster Hall last week on Gibraltar. He said that the Prime Minister of Gibraltar was Tony Blair. He also said that the Chancellor of the Exchequer of Gibraltar was Gordon Brown, and that its Defence Secretary was Geoff Hoon—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. The hon. Gentleman is now moving outside the scope of the Bill. This is a Third Reading debate and he must confine his remarks to the contents of the Bill before the House.

Mr. Rosindell

I shall certainly do that, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Although we are all congratulating the Government on introducing the Bill, we must look beyond it. We have to consider the other people for whom we have responsibility—the people of the British overseas territories—and I hope that the Minister will take on board the points that I have made.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) on his steadfast defence of the people of St. Helena. I also congratulate all those who have spoken up for the rights of the people of the British Indian Ocean Territory, and I am delighted that their rights were acknowledged in Committee. This is a huge step in the right direction. I commend the Government on what they are proposing to do at this stage, but I ask them to look at this issue in the longer term, to consider the points made about democratic representation, and to give all British people of the overseas territories the same rights that we enjoy in the British isles. My hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) suggested on Second Reading that these matters could also be considered in discussions relating to the constitutional reform of the House of Lords, and I hope that the Government will take that point on board.

8.5 pm

Mr. Bradshaw

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Please forgive me if I rattle through my speech somewhat. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) pointed out that I was feeling a bit under the weather, and I am hoping to get through this before I have to rush out. I shall try to do so without hurrying too much.

I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have participated in the debate. As ever, it has been excellent, and I am particularly grateful for the constructive and courteous approach adopted by the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) throughout the Bill's passage through the House. He raised a number of issues that have been raised before in Committee and elsewhere. On higher education—an issue raised by a number of hon. Members—we have a great deal of sympathy with the citizens of the overseas territories who will become British citizens under the Bill. I can only repeat that the Bill deals with citizenship, not residency. Rights and access to higher education, and help with higher education funding in this country, are dependent on residency, not on citizenship.

That does not mean, however, that the Government are not looking at new ways in which we could help, particularly in the case of some of the more remote territories that have no higher education facilities. Some such schemes are already in operation, and I remind hon. Members that a review of higher education funding is currently going on in Government, to which I hope they will contribute, making the points they have made here tonight.

I should like to associate myself with the comments of the hon. Member for West Suffolk and other hon. Members on the Ilois. That brings me to the role played by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North throughout the passage of the Bill; he has made an outstanding contribution. He is right to say that a terrible wrong was meted out to the Ilois people, and, step by step, we are putting that right. Certainly, as long as I am in this job, I shall continue to listen very sympathetically to any representations that he makes that are similar to those he made this evening. I hope that he will take up the issues directly in a meeting that he is having with my noble Friend who leads on the matter of the overseas territories in the other place, Baroness Amos.

My hon. Friend's question about the yacht intrigued me, so I asked my officials for advice. Apparently, there is nothing to stop anyone from returning to the outer islands. It is just that, at the moment, the Ilois want us to do it for them; they want us to organise a resettlement package. So, in theory, in the unlikely event of an Ilois having the money, they could hop on to one of these yachts and go back. There is no law against people arriving on the outer islands.

Jeremy Corbyn

A bit of hitch-hiking, perhaps.

Mr. Bradshaw

Yes, I suspect that that is something that both of us did in our younger days—if not still, when I occasionally find myself stranded in strange parts of the world.

The hon. Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend) touched on the issue of higher education, and I hope that what I have said will encourage him. I was asked why there was no statutory provision written into the Bill, and I have explained that that is because the Bill is about citizenship, and not about residency, which is what confers rights to higher education funding. The hon. Gentleman also spoke about St. Helena's access problems. He will be aware that the Department for International Development has agreed to fund the lower amount already, and it is discussing helpfully and sympathetically with the St. Helena Government how the difference can be made up between the cost of the airport and the new ship. I promise to give close attention to the letter that the hon. Gentleman has written to me on British overseas citizens, although that subject was outside the scope of the Bill.

The hon. Gentleman and the hon. Members for Colchester (Bob Russell) and for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) expressed their disquiet that the citizens of the overseas territories do not have political representation. They do, however, have such representation in that a lot of them have quite a high level of self-governance. I would suggest that they also have indirect political representation in this House and in the other place. The total population of the overseas territories is about 200,000—less than twice the population of my constituency. Given the time that the two Houses spend debating the overseas territories—quite rightly—and the time Members dedicate to championing the cause of those territories, I think they are better represented than many of our constituencies.

Mr. Rosindell

I understand that there is a proposal for Western Isles with a population of 21,000, to retain its single Member of Parliament. Gibraltar has a population of 29,000.

Mr. Bradshaw

As Western Isles is part of the United Kingdom, there is a substantial difference.

One or two Members pointed out that a review was currently being conducted of second-stage reform of the House of Lords. I urge Members, through their parties or through the usual channels, to make their feelings known about how the overseas territories might be represented in that way; but the suggestion that they are under-represented is, I think, a long way from the truth.

The hon. Member for Colchester picked up a point made earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley), which I did not catch, about statues. I hope there was no suggestion that—given the small role I have played in the Bill's passage—there should be a statue of me. Many others have been involved, not least Lady Amos, the lead Minister on these matters, and my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, who was responsible for the White Paper in which the Bill had its beginnings. My right hon. Friend still shows a great interest in the Bill, and he was extremely helpful in securing the Ilois amendments. Many people, not least in the House of Commons, do a great job in championing the causes of the overseas territories, and would be far worthier subjects of any statues, wherever they might be erected.

I thank hon. Members for supporting a Bill that means so such to so many. In particular I thank my officials, who have done an excellent job in getting the Bill through so smoothly and responding to Members' queries about its details. Those officials will consider what more needs to be done in the light of today's debate. In the meantime, I am delighted that we have agreed that the Bill can be returned to another place for final approval.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed, with amendments.

Back to
Forward to