Nationality and Borders Bill - Report (1st Day) – in the House of Lords at 3:34 pm on 28th February 2022.
Baroness Lister of Burtersett:
Moved by Baroness Lister of Burtersett
1: After Clause 4, insert the following new Clause—“Provision for Chagos Islanders to acquire British nationality (1) Part 2 of the British Nationality Act 1981 (British overseas territories citizenship) is amended as follows.(2) After section 17H (as inserted by section 7), insert—“17I Acquisition by registration: descendants of those born in British Indian Ocean Territory(1) A person is entitled to be registered as a British overseas territories citizen on an application made under this section if they are a direct descendant of a person (“P”) who was a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies by virtue of P’s birth in the British Indian Ocean Territory or, prior to
My Lords, in moving Amendment 1, I am grateful to my fellow signatories; to BIOT Citizens and Chagossian Voices for their assistance; to the APPG on the Chagos Islands, of which I am a member; and to all those noble Lords from across the House who supported a similar amendment in Committee. The breadth and strength of that support reflected the recognition that this amendment is about rectifying a long-standing injustice in citizenship law, just as earlier, welcome clauses in the Bill do.
The injustice that Amendment 1 addresses concerns the descendants of Chagossians, who were all evicted from their homeland by the British Government to make way for a US airbase back in the 1960s and early 1970s, and who remain exiled. Those descendants are now denied the right to register as citizens, which they would have had were they still resident in their homeland. The reason they are denied that right is because they are no longer so resident, but that is because they have been exiled from that homeland by the British Government.
The amendment would simply end the “appalling injustice”, as Conservative MP Henry Smith put it. To allay government concerns about the open-ended nature of his Commons amendment, which received considerable support, this one applies a five-year time limit for registration. The consequences of the injustice include broken families, divided communities, insecurity for those living here who are undocumented, hardship and the aggravation of the trauma associated with exile.
To give one example, provided to me by Chagossian Voices, S, born in Mauritius, is the son of a Chagossian who is British by descent and is now in exile in Crawley. S has lived in the UK since the age of eight. When he turned 18, his mother used her meagre savings from her job as a cleaner to apply for his British citizenship; this was rejected, but he was then granted a limited visa, which has now expired. She cannot afford to reapply and fears that her son could be deported at any time. “I am terrified of my family being split up”, she says. This cannot be right.
What this means to Chagossians has been made painfully clear to me in emails I received following Committee, and I think, too, to the Minister, who very kindly met some of us, including Rosie Lebeck of BIOT Citizens last week. In Committee, the Minister expressed her sympathy and empathy, and I believe that she genuinely understands what is at stake here, but that has not yet been translated into the actions needed to remedy this injustice. Instead, she pointed to how some second-generation Chagossians would benefit from the earlier clauses in the Bill, which address discrimination in nationality law. When questioned, neither she nor her officials could say how many that would be—I suspect not many.
The Minister has also spoken about how the Government are looking at what more can be done to help Chagossian families seeking to settle here, but we have been given no details of what that might mean and, in any case, that is to ignore once again the importance of citizenship—a theme running through many of our debates in Committee. She also talked about a willingness to consider how the £40 million fund set up to support Chagossians settled in the UK might be used, but that fund was announced more than five years ago and, to date, I understand that only £800,000 has been spent. Certainly, some of the fund could be used to defray any costs associated with this amendment, but it is no substitute for it.
We come to the nub of the matter. In Committee, the Minister reiterated the Government’s concern that the amendment would be contrary to long-standing government policy and warned that it goes further than the rights available to many other descendants of British nationals settled elsewhere around the world—but how many of those other descendants are settled elsewhere because they have been forcibly exiled by the British Government? None, I would suggest. As a junior Minister in the Commons acknowledged, the Chagossians’ case is unique, yet the Government appear terrified that to concede on this amendment would create a precedent, despite there being no other group in this situation. Why can they not follow the advice of the noble Baroness, Lady Falkner of Margravine? In Committee, the noble Baroness suggested that the Minister needs to make it clear in the response today—it may not be her response; it may be his response—that he or she
“does not intend this Act—a humanitarian Act—to set a precedent”.—[
In conclusion, no one knows for sure how many Chagossians would avail themselves of the right contained in this amendment, but the best estimate, based on a census carried out by BIOT Citizens, is no more than 1,000. That said, this is not a question of numbers but of finally putting right what everyone accepts is an injustice. I hope that we will take the opportunity provided by the Bill to end this injustice. If the Minister does not accept the proposed new clause or offer to come back with an alternative at Third Reading, I shall beg to test the opinion of the House. I beg to move.
My Lords, as vice-chair of the All-Party Group on the Chagos Islands, I will add one brief point to the amendment so persuasively moved by my noble friend. If resettlement had taken place following the High Court ruling of November 2000 that the ordinance banning the Chagossians’ return was unlawful, it would have much reduced the need for an immigration route to the UK. Her Majesty’s Government should lift that ban immediately, in addition to accepting my noble friend’s amendment. The recent Mauritian expedition helpfully showed that there is no reason why the Chagossians should not return to their homeland. Some will probably want to do that rather than come to the UK, which would much diminish the apparent problem that the Government have.
My Lords, I sat as a judge in one appeal on the Chagossians and learned about the disgraceful behaviour of successive Governments of all political views—not, I have to say, the Lib Dems because they were not in power, but certainly the Conservatives and Labour have each left the Chagossians to their fate. One appalling thing they did was take an agreement from them whereby they signed away their rights for some paltry sum, such as £1,500. It is time that at least some of these Chagossians got some rights. As the noble Baroness who moved the amendment pointed out, this situation is unique. Therefore, the Government really should be generous and understanding and do something to repair the appalling damage done in the past by this Government, as well as the previous Labour Government.
My Lords, I recognise that the Bill removes discrimination against those, including some descendants of Chagossians, unable to claim previously through their mothers or unmarried fathers. But with this amendment we are talking about a limited number of people, in the hundreds—maybe 800 to 1,000—who, as descendants of Chagossians evicted from the islands, will still have no rights to British overseas citizenship and, in due course, British citizenship even with Part 1, even though they would have that right if they had not been evicted. In Committee, the Minister’s only answer was that
“offering this right is contrary to long-standing government policy.”—[
That position does not take into account the exceptional nature of what happened to the Chagossians. No other British Overseas Territories citizens suffered this fate. Chucking out colonial subjects in the modern age was also, I hope, contrary to good government policy. If an exception could be made for the Chagossians then, one can be made now.
My Lords, in Committee there seemed to be some representations from noble Lords who did not know about the plight of the Chagos Islanders; they were hearing about it for the first time. There is so much injustice in the world that it is very difficult to keep track of all the consequences of British and American imperialism, but it is one of the beauties of your Lordships’ House that any of us can table amendments that can be debated and discussed. I say a big thank you to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, for debating this issue and for her powerful speeches on this cause. Having had the issue raised in Committee, and now again on Report, no one can claim ignorance of this real injustice. We have to take action. It is time for the United Kingdom to make reparations for forcing changes on the Chagos Islanders. This amendment is the beginning of that process and the Greens support it completely.
My Lords, I commend the Government, in that this Bill seeks to remedy some long-standing injustices and discrimination in British nationality law. That is why I am so sad that there has been a refusal so far to accept this amendment. The Chagossians are the only category of British Overseas Territories citizens who were expelled and excluded from the British territory in which they lived by the British Government themselves in modern times. I commend the BIOT Citizens group, the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, and my honourable friend Henry Smith in the other place, who called this an “appalling injustice”. He is right.
As others have said, this is a unique case and it sets no precedent, but unfortunately the Government seem to be relying on the cause of the injustice to refuse to remedy that same injustice. I know my noble friend is sympathetic and has empathy with the situation that these good people find themselves in. In his response, could he explain why the Government are refusing, without simply saying that this sets a precedent? Clearly, it does not. There is no other group in this situation. If there is, could the Government enlighten us as to who that group might be? Knowing that this situation arose as a result of Britain wanting to support the United States in the Cold War, and, at this time, as we face global perils, today would be a timely opportunity to remedy this injustice. It is an enormous injustice in terms of the Chagossians’ lives, but tiny in the scope of this Bill. Action would show that we recognise our responsibilities to people we have wronged in the past.
This amendment is wholly reasonable. The noble Baroness, Lady Lister, has tried again and again to change the wording to include stricter time limits, accommodate the Government’s concern and reach some kind of compromise. So I hope my noble friend will be able either to accept it or commit to coming back with the Government’s own amendment at Third Reading. Otherwise, I shall, in good conscience, vote in favour of this important amendment.
My Lords, I strongly support Amendment 1, to which I have added my name. I declare an interest as a vice-chairman of the Chagos Islands (British Indian Ocean Territory) All-Party Parliamentary Group. How do the Government have the neck to condemn others for far less, while at the same time standing condemned by both the International Criminal Court and the General Committee of the United Nations for refusing to allow the Chagos Islanders and their descendants citizen rights to return to their homeland, despite promises that they would be allowed to do so after 30 years? I remember, as long ago as 2013, reading out a letter from a Pentagon Minister to the then Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister saying that the Pentagon had no objection to the return of the islanders to Diego Garcia, being used to having indigenous people living alongside island military bases in the Pacific.
My Lords, I must correct the noble Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, in one regard: the Lib Dems could have done something about this when they were part of the coalition Government. I am not particularly pointing to the Lib Dems: we are all guilty of the shame of what has happened to the Chagos islanders. All three parties, I am afraid, have done nothing to deal with the dreadful situation the Chagos islanders find themselves in as a result of successive Governments of all parties. I hope that my noble friend the Minister—he is having a hard time today, now having to answer this question as well as previous ones, and I really do feel sorry for him—can offer us some hope in this matter today.
My noble friend Lady Williams explained when we discussed this issue previously that the problem is that what we are asking for runs counter to long-standing government policy. However, the truth is that we ourselves created this situation. Surely, long-standing policy should be flexible enough to deal with a problem which we ourselves created. There is no group of people other than the Chagossians in this situation, and that is why we have to be flexible. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, has looked again at this amendment and drawn it ever more tightly, so that fewer additional problems can arise. I commend her on that effort.
We know from events such as the Windrush scandal that issues such as this are a matter not just of law but of how individual cases are handled in Home Office administration. I do not criticise that administration because I know from my own experience as a Member of Parliament how difficult such cases can be to deal with, and I often sympathise with it regarding the decisions it has to make. However, I would like the Chagossian community to be given some particular form of access to government. Perhaps an officer should be allocated to deal with their problems on a regular basis, so that there is a point of contact in the Home Office whom they can go to as a matter of course. I found during my previous experience as a Member of Parliament that this can make a huge difference to those who often simply want to contact in an easy and friendly way people who understand their problems, having been long versed in them.
I hope that my noble friend the Minister can give us some succour on this administrative issue, as well as on the legal matters. This issue is not going to go away.
My Lords, I declare my interests as set out in the register. This would be absolutely the right thing to do at this time, in order to demonstrate UK leadership. When it comes to long-standing government policy, we are a democracy and we should evolve, and policies should evolve with it. These people deserve our support in being given the right to go back to their homes. If we are to have any standing in the world, let us show that leadership today.
My Lords, this is a unique situation. These islanders were forced out of their homes not because of any objection to them, but to facilitate the development of bases desirable, perhaps, rather than necessary, in war. They have done nothing wrong and would be entitled, were they still there, at this level, to the citizenship which the Act gave them. The only reason they are denied it is that they are not now living where they would be, had they been left at home. That cannot in any way be imputed to their blame or against them in desiring to get what they would have otherwise had.
I want to understand what this long-term government policy is. Is it that people who have been damaged by activities of that kind should not be recompensed, or is it some other policy? Unless and until this extended government policy is explained, it is hard to see what sort of policy worthy of the name could be applied to making a refusal in this situation. It is difficult for those of us who are old enough to carry responsibility for what the Government did, but more difficult still to carry responsibility for what the Government are now apparently refusing to do.
If there is anything wrong with the drafting of the amendment—I am not conscious of it, but it may be pointed out—I see no reason why the Government should not extend this until Third Reading and correct any mistake. As I say, I do not see anything wrong with it, but I am always subject to being corrected and therefore I leave that open for my noble friend the Minister to deal with.
The real essence of it is that these people were put out of their homes for reasons that had nothing to do with any deficiency, damage or ill-considered action on their part. Nobody has suggested that they did anything wrong, and I find it very difficult to see why they should not get the benefit of what they would have had if they had not been wronged.
My Lords, I rise very briefly to say a few words in tribute to one of the most remarkable parliamentarians I have ever known and one of the best friends I have had in my time in Westminster: the late, great Tam Dalyell. He was on to this before anybody. He campaigned publicly and in the House of Commons. If he is looking down on your Lordships’ House as we debate this afternoon, I think he will have a thrill of satisfaction having heard the speeches we have just heard, particularly that of my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay of Clashfern.
It is never too late to put right a wrong. It is never too late to offer justice to those to whom it has been denied. It is incumbent on any Government who value their own self-respect to put right this wrong. I had to hear my noble friend’s other answers from the Bar of the House. I sympathise with him; he has drawn not one but two short straws today, and he is a new Minister, but he will earn enormous credit from your Lordships’ House if he is able to get up and say, “Yes, this is an overwhelming moral argument. Yes, I accept the justice of it. Yes, I will take it away, talk to my ministerial colleagues and come back with something satisfactory”—although, in my view, this is satisfactory—“at Third Reading”. If he does that, I know the noble Baroness who moved the amendment will be satisfied; she is indicating that she will. If he cannot do that, I hope she divides the House and I will be with her.
My Lords, I hold my hands up: I am one of those who, as the noble Baroness, Lady Jones of Moulsecoomb, mentioned earlier, did not know much about this issue before we started this debate. However, I followed it and pay tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, for the way in which she has led this. It is quite clear that it is completely unjust and needs to be dealt with. I hope that the Minister has noted that, while in most debates, many of us around this House and the noble Lord, Lord Horam, will not agree, we agree on this one completely—100%. There is no justification for anything other than accepting this amendment.
My Lords, to assist the House to move swiftly on to votes, we on these Benches will try to restrict ourselves to one speaker who will speak for us all, unless we are provoked by subsequent contributions. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, that it is rather unfair to the Minister—particularly as he is a new Minister—to ask him to deviate from his script. However, we agree with my noble friend Lady Ludford and with all other noble Lords.
My Lords, my noble friend Lady Lister of Burtersett has set out the background to and purpose of this amendment. As we know, currently only those born on the islands and the first generation born in exile have the right to British Overseas Territories citizenship and, therefore, to British citizenship. As a result, families have been broken up and communities divided. Some members have access to citizenship rights while others do not.
In the Commons, as has already been commented on, the Government accepted, on
“would undermine a long-standing principle of British nationality law … under which nationality or entitlement to nationality is not passed on to the second and subsequent generations born and settled outside the UK and its territories”.—[
The reason that the small number of Chagossians in question do not meet this condition is because they are descended from people who were evicted against their will from a British overseas territory. That is why they are unique, as the Government have already conceded. They did not leave of their own free will to settle elsewhere: they were kicked out—forcibly evicted. There would be no precedent set by agreeing to this amendment. In effect, the Government are using, in support of their case to deny these Chagossians the right to British citizenship, the cause of the very injustice which this amendment seeks to address. We support this amendment, and it would appear that we are far from the only ones in this House to do so.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, for meeting my noble friend Lady Williams last week and for the opportunity to hear further about the issues impacting the Chagossian community. As has been said previously, both in Committee and when my noble friend met the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, last week, and as noted by my noble friend Lady Altmann, the Government empathise and sympathise with the Chagossians about how they were treated in the 1960s and 1970s.
It is, however, important to clarify who this amendment seeks to assist. It is not those Chagossians who were of the generations born on the British Indian Ocean Territory, as they have always been British nationals and have been automatically considered both British Overseas Territories citizens and British citizens since 2002. Similarly, it is not their children, the first generation of Chagossians born outside of British territory, who are also both automatically British Overseas Territories citizens and British citizens. It is also not those in the first generation of Chagossians born outside of British territory, who, as the Chagossian community highlights, have missed out on rights to British nationality due to historical legislative unfairness, and this Bill already seeks to rectify that issue.
This amendment is limited to those in the second and successive generations of Chagossians born outside of British territory who, like all children of British nationals by descent, face a different route to British nationality. For this generation, if they wish to acquire British nationality, it is right that they must establish a close, continuing connection with either the UK or a British overseas territory by lawfully residing and settling there, although I recognise that since the 1970s, it has not been possible to establish such a link to the British Indian Ocean Territory. This must be in line with either the UK’s or an overseas territory’s Immigration Rules. This has also been the case with Hong Kong British Nationals Overseas, who do not have a right of abode in British territory and must complete a period of residence in the UK before acquiring the permanent residence status that is required in order to naturalise as a British citizen.
The points raised by the descendants of Chagossians, who are members of the second generation born outside British territory and who are now seeking to settle in the UK under the Immigration Rules, are often very complex. As the Minister for Safe and Legal Migration has stated in the House of Commons, the Home Office is keen to consider what more we could do to support those families seeking to settle here under the current system.
The Home Office is actively engaging with the Chagossian community to identify practical proposals that would support the second generation born outside British territory in navigating the system. In addition, the Home Office is discussing with the FCDO how the £40 million Chagos support fund, referenced by the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, could be used to deliver further support for Chagossians seeking to settle here under the Immigration Rules. Those discussions are current and ongoing, and I had some this morning.
As the Government have consistently stated, allowing entitlements to—
I thank my noble friend for giving way. Can I ask him to confirm that, had the grandparents of these individuals not been expelled against their will from their islands, these people would now be entitled to the citizenship we are currently denying them?
I think I have already answered that question. It is to do with the generations born outside British territory, so yes.
As the Government have consistently stated, allowing entitlements to citizenship to be passed on beyond the first generation born outside the British territory, bypassing requirements to reside and settle here by those who do not have a continuing connection with the UK, would unfortunately undermine a key principle in British nationality law that applies to all other descendants of British nationals born abroad.
I recognise that the noble Baroness’s amendment has sought to limit the right to register as a British national to current generations who must apply within a limited timeframe. However, this does not alleviate the Government’s concern that offering this right is contrary to long-standing government policy and goes much further than the rights available to many other descendants of British nationals settled elsewhere around the world today.
I finish by saying that I have listened very carefully to this debate, and I realise I am something of a lone voice.
I apologise to the Minister, but could I ask him to deal with this unique position? There is, as far as we know, no other group of people who have been evicted as they have and have not been allowed to go back. They are in a special position, but the noble Lord is not even dealing with that point.
I can only deal with it by extension, which is to say that it would be contrary to long-standing government policy to even deal with it.
I have listened very carefully to this debate. I have taken on board what the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham has said about broad agreement—of course I have, and I will take it back to the Home Office. I will also take my noble friend Lord Horam’s suggestion back to the Home Office about dedicated support within the department, which strikes me as a very sensible suggestion. I am afraid that I am going to earn no credit with my noble friend Lord Cormack, because I invite noble Baroness to withdraw her amendment.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken. I think it is unusual to have more support from the Government Benches than from any other Benches—and very strong support it has been.
The two interventions really put their finger on how the poor Minister—I am afraid he is making a face—did not address the fact that this is a unique case, as the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, said. As the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, said, if their grandparents had not been forcibly evicted and kept in exile, these people would probably still be living on the Chagos Islands and be entitled to British citizenship. It is citizenship that they want. Certainly, the Chagossians who have been in touch with me are desperate to be seen as citizens; they do not want to come through some intricate way of dealing with the Immigration Rules—that is not what they are seeking.
I am sorry that the Minister has not addressed the key issues here. The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, described successive Governments as demonstrating “disgraceful behaviour”. As the noble Lord, Lord Horam, said, we all, in terms of our political parties—not the Green Party, but all the others—have responsibility here. This is our opportunity to put this injustice right. I wish to seek the opinion of the House.
My Lords, the Minister has said that he would take it back. It may well be that if he takes it back—
The Minister said that he would take it back, but not with a view to bringing it back at Third Reading. Therefore, I must test the opinion of the House.
Ayes 237, Noes 154.