Clause 7 - Short title, commencement and extent

British Overseas Territories Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:30 am on 6th December 2001.

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Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 10:30 am, 6th December 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 3, line 12, after 'Schedule 1,' insert—

'(aa) section (The Ilois: citizenship)'.

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West

With this it will be convenient to take the following: Government new clause 1—The Ilois: citizenship.

Amendment No. 8, in schedule 1, page 4, line 12, at end insert—

'''; or—

(c) and persons removed from the Chagos Islands and their descendants''.'.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

The amendment would exceptionally extend the granting of British citizenship to Ilois who are born outside the British Indian Ocean territory on or after 26 April 1969 and before 1 January 1983 whose father was not British, and who were unable to inherit their mother's British nationality under the law at that time. The amendment will grant to those persons British citizenship and British overseas territories citizenship. That will put them in the same position as all others who will become British citizens after commencement.

The Government recognise the unique double disadvantage faced by the Ilois that was mentioned by my hon. Friends the Members for Islington, North and for Linlithgow on Second Reading. The Ilois will benefit from the amendment because they were excluded from the British Indian Ocean territory and the fact that the law at the time prevented them from inheriting British nationality from their mothers. We accept that there is a strong moral case for including them in the grant of citizenship.

After 1 January 1983, Ilois born outside the British Indian Ocean territory were able to inherit British nationality from either parent, subject to the normal restrictions on the transmission of citizenship to children born outside British territory. Before 26 April 1969, there was no policy of exclusion. Therefore, the Ilois who left the British Indian Ocean territory before that date are not subject to the same disadvantage as those who are prohibited by Government policy and British Indian Ocean territory law from returning. The Government cannot be held responsible for actions taken in individual cases before that policy was decided.

Will you allow me to speak to amendment No. 8, Mr. Butterfill?

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

Thank you, Mr. Butterfill.

Amendment No. 8 would extend British citizenship to all Ilois born in and outside the British Indian Ocean territory and their descendants. All Ilois born in British Indian Ocean territory will be eligible for British citizenship under the Bill. Extending the grant of citizenship to future generations would put the Ilois at an advantage over all other overseas territories and British citizens by descent who cannot pass on their citizenship to future generations. In contrast, the Bill as amended by the Government will put the Ilois born outside British Indian Ocean territory, and therefore British by descent, in exactly the same position as other British citizens by descent.

In the light of my explanation, I ask the Committee to approve the amendment.

Photo of Richard Spring Richard Spring Conservative, West Suffolk

We welcome the new clause as it closes an important loophole in the Bill and goes some way to rectifying the sense of injustice felt by the islanders for their treatment by Britain in the 1960s. The arrangements made by the British and United States Governments saw the people of the Chagos islands removed from their homes and conveyed to other Indian ocean islands. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Islington, North for raising the issue on Second Reading and, with the hon. Member for Linlithgow, for bringing the matter to the attention of hon. Members. I think that most Members were ignorant of the islanders' plight.

As the hon. Member for Islington, North eloquently pointed out on Second Reading, the islanders feel dispossessed of what was their homeland and shabbily treated by Britain. The recent case in the High Court won them the right of return, but no date was set for it to be effective. The question remains whether it applies now or in 2016 when the lease expires. The judgment appeared to contain no qualifications. The Bill would have excluded those born while the Ilois were in exile from their islands from qualifying for British citizenship. That would have been unfair and unreasonable, and we welcome the resolution of the matter this morning.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

I thank the Minister for moving the amendment this morning and for recognising the strength of feeling that was put forward on behalf of the Chagos islanders by my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and myself on Second Reading and during an Adjournment debate in the House. My hon. Friend has, in particular, taken a long-term, consistent and honourable interest in the plight of the Ilois people from the Chagos islands. The least that we can do is put right as far as we can the wrong that was done to them.

I will not go into all the background, because it is not necessary. However, it is worth placing on record that it was a particularly shabby act as part of the cold war strategy in the 1960s for someone to decide that Diego Garcia would be a nice place for a base and to remove the islanders with minimal compensation. The Ilois have stayed together as a community—mainly in Mauritius, but some in the Seychelles and a few scattered around the world—in poverty and with a burning sense of injustice. The least we can do is pay tribute to Olivier Bancoult and the others for conducting the campaign and for taking the case to the High Court. We should put on record our appreciation of Richard Gifford of Sheridans for representing them and winning their case on right of return. I realise that it is not the burden of the Minister's amendment, but it should go on record that those people fought democratically, peacefully and legally and won their right of return. I look forward to a meeting that Mr. Bancoult is having with Baroness Amos next week when we will further examine right of return and practical financial support from Britain for education, social and economic purposes.

The Minister pointed to the past ridiculous imbalance because of gender discrimination on rights of dissent, and the amendment puts that right. Will he explain the selection of 26 April 1969 and January 1983? The concept of the British Indian Ocean territory was established in 1965 so it would be logical to use that date.

My amendment, which may be technically deficient, proposes a right of British citizenship by descent from a male or female Chagos islander. If we create a cut-off date of 1983, we suggest that people have to pay a penalty for being removed from the island. Everyone accepts that it was wrong to remove them, and they have a right to return, which is now established in Government policy and law. It is slightly perverse to put a limit on that.

Yesterday, we had a useful meeting with the Minister and his officials in the Foreign Office, for which I am grateful to him for arranging. It was explained to me that if a Chagos islander—an Ilois person—returns to their island on the agreed date of return, they can assume British citizenship by virtue of residency in a British overseas territory and any children are entitled to that as well. If a person born of a Chagos islander since 1983 were denied the right of British citizenship, that could create an exceptional loophole. That person would have Mauritius citizenship, but his or her children would have British citizenship despite the fact that their parents were living with them in the Chagos islands. That may sound complicated but it is not really: I am trying to simplify it. I am glad that everyone is so understanding. Will the Minister deal with that point?

If it is in order, Mr. Butterfill—I do not want to stretch your patience further—can the Minister clarify the progress of studies on the right of return and its environmental circumstances? I realise that that is stretching the amendment, but I would otherwise be forced to return to the point later, and no one would want that. Is the Minister aware of legal concerns about the American occupation of part of Diego Garcia? Does the right of return and citizenship extend to the people there, or are they excluded by the presence of the American base and the treaty between Britain and the United States?

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West 10:45 am, 6th December 2001

Order. The hon. Gentleman is now going too wide. I have been tolerant but he has already strayed into his new schedule, which we cannot consider because of the lack of a money resolution. I have been tolerant but he has already strayed into his new schedule, which we cannot consider because of the lack of a money resolution. He is now referring to matters that are without the scope of the Bill.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

I shall swiftly move back into the scope of the Bill. What does the Minister believe the situation would be of persons resident on the American base in Diego Garcia, which is clearly within the purview of the British Indian Ocean territories? I assume that all persons resident, occupied and working for the base, some of whom are civilians, will be excluded from the provisions of the Bill but I think it is important to have that clearly on the record.

We should also put on record our thanks to all those who have brought about the beginnings of a sense of justice for a people who have been so grievously wronged by the arrogance of various Government's in the 1960s and 1970s. These people were ignored and forgotten for far too long.

Photo of Mr Michael Trend Mr Michael Trend Conservative, Windsor

I have one question but I also pay tribute to the hon. Member for Islington, North and the Father of the House, the hon. Member for Linlithgow who have fought tirelessly on behalf of this population for some years. In connection with the loophole, are the Government now confident that they have complied with the High Court judgment last year?

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

I will start by answering the question from the hon. Member for Windsor. Yes, we are satisfied.

I also congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North and thank him for all his hard work and for drawing this loophole to the Government's attention. Like all Committee members who have taken the trouble to find out about the plight of the Chagos islanders, I can only feel shock and incomprehension that people could have been treated in that way in my lifetime. One of the positive signs that we have moved forward on human rights, thanks to the pressure from my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North and others, is that such treatment would be impossible today. We are going a long way to make good the damage that was done in the past.

The reason for the cut-off dates is that 26 April 1969 was the date when the Prime Minister of the day signed off the policy of exclusion from the British Indian Ocean territory. So we are not going back any further because anyone who left the British Indian Ocean territory before that date did so voluntarily. Using 26 April 1969 as the cut-off is generous because the vast majority of Chagos islanders who did leave left significantly later. We have drawn the measure as widely and as generously as possible.

The reason for the cut-off in 1983 is that that was the date at which people could begin to inherit British citizenship or British dependent territories citizenship, as it then was, through their mother, which they could not do before if they did not have a father with British citizenship. The provisions would bring back in—probably only a few hundred people at most—those who otherwise would have been excluded from the Bill.

The amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North would extend indefinitely the inheritance of British citizenship for the Chagos islanders. We do not believe that is necessary because, as of November 2000 they have the right to return, and future generations will inherit British citizenship by virtue of their residency in the British Indian Ocean territory. The amendment is not desirable because it would set an enormous precedent for British citizens and British overseas territory citizens all over the world who will then ask why they cannot inherit British citizenship through the generations even if we are not resident in a British overseas territory or in the United Kingdom.

The Bill will not disadvantage the Chagos islanders. Under the Government amendment, the children of the Chagos islanders who were forced to leave will automatically be granted British citizenship. If those children go back to the Chagos islands, their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren will automatically become British citizens.

Finally, my hon. Friend asked about progress on the feasibility study. It is still on course for completion by the middle of 2002. Any further phases will depend on the outcome. He also asked whether the Bill covers people resident in Diego Garcia. It covers only those who are currently British dependent territory citizens; anyone who is not will fall outside the Bill's scope.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

I am grateful for the Minister's reply. I was asking specifically about the Ilois people—their rights of descent and the adoption of British citizenship. It is recognised in law that these people were wrongfully removed and it is perfectly clear who they are. Records have been assembled and only a limited number of people are involved. I see no reason why the Bill cannot make specific provision—analogous to the amendments and the new clause proposed by the Minister—to acknowledge the Ilois people's rights to British citizenship, on the basis of the legal recognition that they were wrongfully removed from the Chagos islands. That would not affect any other people who freely chose to move from one British overseas territory to live somewhere else. It would be specific to the Ilois people.

Photo of Ben Bradshaw Ben Bradshaw Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Foreign and Commonwealth Office)

The Government amendment is narrowly drawn because we felt that the children of Chagos island mothers had suffered a double injustice. They would not otherwise have been included in the Bill. My hon. Friend is asking for a much wider extension in the light of the acceptance of the principle of return. That is unnecessary and would open us to claims from other British overseas territory citizens for the same right now that the impediment for the Chagos islanders to return—their right to inherit British citizenship through subsequent generations—is no longer in place. I therefore ask my hon. Friend to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

I hear what the Minister says. The Government amendment represents an enormous step forward and I thank him and the Foreign Secretary for it. Many people are happy, particularly those in the Chagos islands and Mauritius, who are visiting the Foreign Office next week for further discussions. I am not, however, satisfied with the Minister's final point. We had the same discussion yesterday and no doubt will debate the matter again. Although I may return to the issue on Report, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West

Order. Although we are debating the hon. Gentleman's amendment together with the Government amendment, he does not need to withdraw it now. It needs to be moved formally before it can be withdrawn. If, when we reach amendment No. 8, the hon. Gentleman does not move it, that will be sufficient for it to fall.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

Thank you, Mr. Butterfill. In that case, I will not move the amendment, but simply reiterate that I may wish to return to the issue on Report.

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West

The hon. Gentleman does not have the opportunity to move the amendment at this stage of our proceedings and, now that he has assured me that he does not wish to move it, I shall not need to call it.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause 7, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.