Clause 3 - Conferral on British overseas territories citizens

British Overseas Territories Bill [Lords] – in a Public Bill Committee at 9:45 am on 6th December 2001.

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Photo of Mr Michael Trend Mr Michael Trend Conservative, Windsor 9:45 am, 6th December 2001

I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 2, line 21, leave out subsection (2).

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West

With this it will be convenient to take amendment No. 4, in clause 4, page 2, leave out lines 39 and 40.

Photo of Mr Michael Trend Mr Michael Trend Conservative, Windsor

I welcome the Bill. It has the support of the Conservative party and puts right a past injustice.

I would like to make a small observation about the procedure of the Bill, which I also hope to cover under new clause 6. The Bill offers a rare opportunity to discuss British overseas territories. One can write to the Minister, but it is a complex matter in which some of us have developed an interest and it is unusual to have an opportunity to discuss it. On Second Reading, I suggested to the Minister that the Committee could have an informal meeting to discuss the Bill before formal proceedings began as the other place has done in recent years. The Minister said that he was happy to do so. I am sure that he has good reasons for not arranging such a meeting as he has written long, detailed letters, which are available in the Library.

I cannot pose all my questions through amendments, but I want to follow up a question I asked on Second Reading with a probing amendment. Pre-meetings are useful for finding answers to basic questions, especially in respect of non-contentious Bills with little party-political sport.

The amendments would remove the references to the sovereign bases of Akrotiri and Dhekelia on Cyprus. On Second Reading I asked the Minister about their constitutional arrangements and he told me that they were governed by treaty. I should like to know more about the treaty, why British nationality cannot be conferred on people born on those bases, what happens when a service man has a child and—a question much debated at the time of the 1981 Act—what happens to foundlings. Foundlings are an extreme and unusual circumstance, but it does happen from time to time. If someone went to open the NAAFI on Monday morning in Akrotiri and discovered a baby neatly wrapped in—[Hon. Members: ''Swaddling clothes''.] It would be more likely to be a sheet, as the climate is pretty hot there.

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West

Order. The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, but foundlings are fully covered by new clause 2 and should be debated then.

Photo of Mr Michael Trend Mr Michael Trend Conservative, Windsor

Of course. I mentioned it now only because people in the sovereign bases in Cyprus have a unique national status.

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West

Order. I am happy for a reference to be made to it now, but foundlings should not be debated until we reach the new clause.

Photo of Mr Michael Trend Mr Michael Trend Conservative, Windsor

Of course I understand, though it is the acid test for this amendment, too. I do not wish to detain the Committee any longer. Will the Minister tell us more about the arrangements in the treaty and explain what provision can be made for the extraordinary circumstances that I mentioned?

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

Let me start by addressing some of the general points that are slightly outside the narrow scope of the amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend). I understand his desire to discuss the overseas territories more extensively. I felt the same on Second Reading, when I was immensely impressed with the level of knowledge displayed by right hon. and hon. Members who have obviously spent time becoming experts on some of the more obscure parts of our former empire.

I know that the hon. Member for Windsor contacted my office and I hope that he received courteous and informative responses. We invited 69 hon. Members to a meeting, though it was before Second Reading, and only six turned up. I apologise for not arranging another meeting between then and now. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel that my office and that of my noble Friend Baroness Amos are open to him.

The hon. Gentleman asked why the sovereign base areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia in Cyprus are excluded. I spelled out the reasons on Second Reading, but will try to provide more detail now. The bases are restricted to military purposes under the 1960 treaty of establishment, which was signed by the British Government and the Government of Cyprus. I will provide the hon. Member for Windsor with more specific details from the treaty.

In the 1960 treaty, the United Kingdom gave an undertaking not to set up and administer a wider community, and it would be unwise for us to jeopardise our—not always easy—arrangements with the Government of Cyprus over an important military base by committing what they might consider to be a provocative act that contravened the spirit of the treaty.

It is also important to remember that most civilians who live within the boundaries of the two bases are Cypriot nationals, even though they are, or could qualify as, British dependent territories citizens. Many of them are from the pre-existing village of Akrotiri, which falls partly within the boundaries of one of the bases.

As hon. Members know, Cyprus has applied to join the European Union, and when its entry is finalised—hopefully sooner rather than later—there will be no other benefit to be gained from British citizenship. The hon. Gentleman asked about children of British service personnel who are born in Cyprus. They are British citizens by descent. He also asked about foundlings—that lovely term. They will automatically become British dependent territories citizens, but neither they nor other residents of bases will become British citizens.

Hon. Members should also bear in mind that Cyprus is at an important crossroads between the middle east and Europe. We have already had difficult experiences with refugees from the middle east landing in Cyprus and claiming asylum in the bases. The potential to acquire British citizenship through the back door could be a huge pull factor and make us, and Cyprus, vulnerable to a large influx of asylum seekers. We want to avoid that if we can, because it would also undermine the military integrity of the bases.

Photo of John Randall John Randall Opposition Whip (Commons) 10:00 am, 6th December 2001

How do the asylum seekers arrive? Do they get in by coming along the coast? I ask the question from the point of view of security. The bases are military, and if asylum seekers can get in, one wonders who else can.

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

They arrive by sea and most of them are accommodated in a refugee camp. As I said, the base in Akrotiri has expanded to envelop part of a village that has also expanded. Asylum seekers who are there at the moment do not pose any particular security risk. However, if we extended the treaty's provisions to cover the bases, there would not just be a handful of people who might be eligible for British citizenship. The fear is that more people would be attracted to go to Cyprus and make applications for asylum. I should add that none of the asylum seekers there has been granted asylum.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

What would be the British Government's attitude if a political arrangement was reached in Cyprus and there was a demand for the return of the bases to Cyprus sovereign territory? A previous president favoured that, and there is a body of opinion that there should be no British sovereign bases in Cyprus.

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

I cannot predict what the Government's response would be, but the status of the bases is enshrined in the 1960 treaty, and their future would have to be agreed with the Government of Cyprus.

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Labour, Chorley

Commonwealth soldiers or Gurkhas could be serving in Cyprus. If their children were born there, would they have British nationality as they are on a British sovereign base in Cyprus?

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

No, they would not, because sovereign bases are excluded from the provisions. Such children would, however, be entitled to British overseas territories citizenship.

Photo of Lindsay Hoyle Lindsay Hoyle Labour, Chorley

I will press the issue a little more to ensure that I understand it. Would a Gurkha family based in Cyprus have the right to British overseas territories nationality?

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

Not necessarily. My hon. Friend asked whether their children born there would have that right. The child would have the right, but the parents would not have the right just by residency.

Photo of Mr Michael Trend Mr Michael Trend Conservative, Windsor

That is an extremely interesting answer. May we return to the position of children born of uncertain parentage in the bases? The Minister said that such children would be entitled to British overseas territories citizenship, which, as I understand it, is the first stage in being granted British citizenship. However, in the case of the sovereign bases in Cyprus, I do not believe that there is a procedure to transfer BOTC citizenship into British citizenship. When such children grew up, would they be left in limbo, unable to progress to British citizenship? What would happen to them?

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

In the vast majority of cases, they would also have dual citizenship as they would have Cypriot citizenship, but there is no procedure for them to gain British citizenship as the bases are outside the provisions of the Bill. They would simply have British overseas territories citizenship.

Photo of Mr Michael Trend Mr Michael Trend Conservative, Windsor

So it is theoretically possible for a child who was discovered in the sovereign bases to acquire British overseas territories citizenship but not Cypriot citizenship and to have to retain that for the rest of their lives without becoming any other sort of citizen.

Photo of Mr Michael Trend Mr Michael Trend Conservative, Windsor

I am grateful to the Minister and intrigued and intrigued by his replies. I would be grateful if at some stage his office could fill me in a little further. I am particularly interested in how law operates on the sovereign bases and whether they operate under the law of Britain, the law of Cyprus or military law, as this is part of the legislative arrangements made for them.

I accept that we must adhere to the treaty with the Government of Cyprus. Matters will be made much easier by Cyprus joining the European Union and I am in favour of that. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

I beg to move amendment No. 6, in page 2, line 23, at end insert

''or the British Antarctic Territories''.

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West

With this it will be convenient to take the following: New clause 7—British Antarctic Territories—

''This Act shall not apply to the British Antarctic Territories.''.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

The amendment and new clause would remove the British Antarctic territories from the purview of the Bill and thus create no further problems about the British territorial claim.

There are a number of reasons for this. British Antarctic territories are a claim on part of Antarctica. Chile, Argentina and many other countries also have claims, most of which overlap each other. Hardly any part of Antarctica has not been claimed by several countries at the same time.

This has created the potential for enormous conflict. I shall not weary the Committee with a full history of Antarctica, but say simply that there have been two pieces of legislation on it in the past 15 years: the Antarctic Minerals Act 1989 and then the Antarctic Act 1994.

The Antarctic Minerals Act was designed to allow for mineral exploration. After an environmental protocol was agreed, the Act was superseded by the Antarctic Act which was designed to put into British law the environmental protocol, which meant there would be no mineral exploitation and only scientific research would be done in Antarctica.

A large body of opinion in the United Nations and elsewhere has two beliefs. The first is that the Antarctic should be seen as a world wilderness park and not as the subject of competing territorial claims. That is reflected in the spirit of the environmental protocol. Secondly, it supports the rapid establishment of a secretariat and committee to protect Antarctica from overbearing tourism because it is a pristine environment that needs protection. Unfortunately, there has not been as much progress as there should have been on the implementation of the protocol, despite the principles behind it.

Removing Antarctica from the Bill would be seen as a step towards the principle of a world park. A theoretical case concerning potential British citizenship in the future could be incredibly complicated. What if a group of people pitched up in a part of Antarctica that had been claimed by Britain, Chile and Argentina? There are such territories. As the territorial claim is not widely recognised around the world, there is no point in having it in the Bill. I believe that for administrative purposes it has been dealt with by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office because no one could think of where to put the Antarctic office.

My hon. Friend the Minister is enjoying his position responsibility for British overseas territories, despite being terrified by the number of hon. Members who are walking encyclopaedias on the subject. I invite him to consider the amendment and thank him for a helpful letter and excellent map that he sent to me. If I may say so, the map proves my point, and he should encourage the Foreign Secretary to make arrangements for the Foreign Office to have an Antarctic office. I do not believe that there will be many takers for the role of high commissioner, although I imagine that the Government Whips Office could press for it to be a political appointment. I could see strong competition for a politically appointed high commissioner for the Antarctic. Will the Minister turn his attention to those matters?

Differently from the rest of the world during the 1950s, Antarctica was taken out of the cold war equation by a 1957 geophysical conference, which recognised it as a zone of peace. That principle was developed by the environmental protocol on the understanding that the pristine environment must be preserved and used only for limited eco-tourism and scientific research. Removing Antarctica from the Bill would be a helpful step in that direction.

I am sure that the Minister understands my point, and he is welcome to visit Antarctica with me so that we can look at it together.

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

I am sure that we could invent a new Christmas game and discuss whom we would like to send to be governor of Antarctica. Several hon. Members from a sedentary position have already volunteered some of their colleagues.

The hon. Member for Islington, North is right, and hon. Members who have not seen the map should have a look. It is extraordinary as it looks like one of those cakes that we normally associate with shares of votes in general elections. There is no doubt that the situation in Antarctica is complex, and segments of the cake are claimed by more than one country. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that parts of the section claimed by the United Kingdom are claimed also by Chile and Argentina.

The amendments would exclude any person holding British overseas territory citizenship solely by connection with the British Antarctic territory from being granted British citizenship. New clause 7 would have the further effect of excluding British Antarctic territory from the change of collective name that the Bill effects. I am not sure whether that is my hon. Friend's intention. Citizenship is being granted to individuals, not to territories. It has no impact on the sovereignty of those territories or on our or anyone else's claims to sovereignty where they are disputed.

If we excluded the British Antarctic territory on the grounds that our sovereignty over it is in dispute, we should also, logically, exclude all other territories where sovereignty is similarly disputed. That would include the Falklands and the British Indian Ocean territory, whose people my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North strongly argued should, exceptionally, be included in the grant of citizenship. There is no reason to exclude such territories; on the contrary, there are good reasons in principle to include them.

Including the British Antarctic territory in the list of qualifying territories under the Bill has no impact on the international position of our sovereignty claim, which is held in abeyance along with all other pre-existing claims on Antarctica under article IV of the Antarctic treaty. Under United Kingdom law, the British Antarctic territory is treated as an overseas territory and as such should be included under the terms of the Bill. It should certainly be included in the change of collective name from British dependent territories to British overseas territories. As I said, that reflects our new relationship with the territories as set out in the 1999 White Paper.

My hon. Friend raised concerns about citizenship and the possible environmental impact of people flocking to live in the British Antarctic territory. Despite global warming, that is an unlikely prospect, even in the medium and long term.

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

Yes.

I assure my hon. Friend that access to the British Antarctic Territory, which is already strictly controlled, and access arrangements under the legislation will remain completely unaffected by the Bill. People will not be allowed to go there willy-nilly. We have cordial and friendly discussions with the Chileans and the Argentines about the territory. We have scientists there and they have personnel based there, so far without any problems in our bilateral relationships with those countries. Against that background, I ask my hon. Friend to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North

I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. My amendment was not necessarily concerned with the title. The territory could be called many things, such as the Antarctic world park—British presumed section.

I have two points. There are many territories where there is a dispute about territorial claim. One can think of Kashmir, the Falkland Islands and many other places. However, even where there is a dispute involving a number of countries about a place, there is usually a high degree of recognition that it is currently held by one country. With Antarctica, no one recognises anyone else's claim at all, although the Minister is right that all those claims are held in abeyance and there is quite a good working relationship.

However, that relationship is not good enough to extend as far as agreeing the setting up of an environmental secretariat to help to police the environmental protocol. I urge the Minister to do all that he can to encourage a secretariat to be set up, by coming to an agreement with Argentina, Chile and South Africa about its location.

I agree that it is unlikely that a large number of people will be living in Antarctica in the near future. Therefore the issue of citizenship is not overwhelmingly important, although I believe that we have a responsibility to that continent to preserve it as a world environmental park. I tabled the amendment largely for that reason. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Mr Michael Trend Mr Michael Trend Conservative, Windsor

I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 2, line 24, leave out subsection (3).

The amendment would remove the linkage in clause 3 between British citizenship and the British Nationality Act 1981. I understand that the amendment would cause havoc for the Bill and I do not want to do that, but I want the Minister to say more on one point. The 1981 Act insists that an overseas citizen must fulfil a residency requirement before he or she can enjoy benefits in this country such as education and social services. That is fair for most cases, but for the poorer territories, it would be desirable to remove subsection (3) and, thus, the linkage.

Some territories covered by the Bill are wealthy and would not wish to take part in an agreement on shared rights and responsibilities. However, some of the poorer countries, if offered the opportunity to take a full part in British life—paying taxes and enjoying benefits—would almost certainly fall heavily on the benefit side of the equation. In such territories, it is impossible for ordinary people to achieve a tertiary education.

The Minister wrote in a letter—he writes well—that the Government recognise the special circumstances of some territories and have tried to help by setting up a good government fund for civil servants in areas such as police, prison and fire services, immigration services, accounting and internal audit departments and children's services. The Minister's letter lists the relevant islands. Those services are important to administrators, who make up a good part of the British Government, so it is understandable that the Government are keen that there should be good government on the islands.

However, the scheme leaves two things out of the equation. First, the arrangements do not offer a degree of certainty or continuity, which even small and distant communities need. Secondly, there is no reference to higher education for ordinary citizens of the islands.

Imagine a parent on Pitcairn, St. Helena or Ascension Island whose child has received a basic education through the island's excellent education system but then finds that there is no prospect of further education without going to Britain or another country. As they proudly bear the title of British citizen, and as there is no possibility of higher education in their own country, it would be reasonable for them to assume that they would not have to fulfil a residency requirement in this country. A parent on Ascension Island who wanted their child to go into higher education would have to come to Britain and fulfil the residency requirement or pay overseas fees until the residency requirement has been met. Both options are expensive.

I imagine that few individuals would fall into that category, and I know that scholarship funds and other assistance are available. It was suggested in another place that universities should accept the responsibility, take up the challenge and be generous. One hopes that they will. However, in conferring nationality and tying it to the 1981 Act, we lose an essential flexibility. If we were to determine, on the basis of national income, a percentage of national income, or average national income, which populations should be entitled to subsidised higher education, as is the case for British citizens, we would be doing the territories a great service.

The principle behind the amendment is to appeal to the Minister to understand and to help families and individuals in territories where there is no higher education by making the link with Britain clearer and giving them the same financial assistance as people have the right to expect by dint of residency in this country. The problem cannot be solved unless someone helps; the new British citizens have a right to some clarity and certainty about their future position.

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

There may be some misunderstanding of subsection (3), which is about the problem of inheriting British citizenship. It ensures that when the Bill is enacted, British overseas territory citizens not living in a British overseas territory are classified as British citizens by descent to ensure that their children do not inherit British citizenship. It is a principle of our nationality law that British citizenship can be inherited only through one generation unless there is another reason—residence, for example. I shall not be surprised if you rule me out of order for responding to the points made by the hon. Member for Windsor, Mr. Butterfill.

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

Thank you. The points that the hon. Gentleman made about rights such as access to higher education, benefits and so on that we enjoy as residents of the United Kingdom were made on Second Reading and in the House of Lords. Those rights have nothing to do with citizenship, although we have great sympathy for citizens in overseas territories such as St. Helena, who do not have easy access to higher education. It would be extremely difficult to extend more rights to those people than are enjoyed by UK citizens who are born and bred in the United Kingdom, because children who are born and bred here who live abroad for more than three years lose domestic access rights to higher education.

The misunderstanding behind the amendment is that the residency requirements that the hon. Member for Windsor referred to are not governed by the British Nationality Act 1981, but by other primary and secondary legislation, for example, on education and health.

Photo of Mr Michael Trend Mr Michael Trend Conservative, Windsor

I am sure the Minister understands the intention of the amendment. I had hoped to give notice of the issues I wanted to raise. I am interested in what the Minister said and I am disappointed that he could not enter into a discussion on a matter about which I spoke earlier, which was not ruled out of order. If he has further thoughts on the predicament of people who live on the islands and their dilemma about higher education for their children, I shall be glad to hear them.

If people living on the islands were asked whether they wanted to join in the tax and benefits system of the United Kingdom, some would say yes. They would not find that onerous; in some cases, their average income is extremely low, but they would fall mainly on the benefits side of the system, which would include higher education. However, they have not been given that choice. Some people on the wealthy islands would not touch such a proposal with a bargepole as it would interfere with their other arrangements.

I am concerned mainly with the islands that are, by our standards, extremely poor and cut off, one or two of which do not have a future unless the new generation is educated and has a chance to return home and encourage prosperity—

Photo of John Butterfill John Butterfill Conservative, Bournemouth West

I have been very tolerant in allowing the hon. Gentleman to stray pretty far from his amendment. My tolerance is now stretched rather more than it should be and I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would conclude. Does he intend to withdraw the amendment?

Photo of Mr Michael Trend Mr Michael Trend Conservative, Windsor

With a sense of disappointment, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, that the clause stand part of the Bill.

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

Clause 3(1) sets out the basic rule by which British citizenship is conferred on existing British overseas territories citizens, as renamed by the Bill, and it provides for automatic acquisition of British citizenship. The Secretary of State will appoint the commencement date by order.

Subsection (2) sets out the only exception to the rule: those who owe their BOTC status to sovereign base areas on Cyprus. If a person were a BOTC by connection with another overseas territory, he or she would still be eligible for British citizenship. The base areas are excluded because of their establishment by treaty with Cyprus, under the terms of which they can be used only as military bases and not for the creation of any wider community.

Subsection (3) defines which of the persons who become British citizens under subsection (1) are to be treated as British citizens by descent for the purposes of the British Nationality Act 1981. That is necessary, as I intimated in my reply to the hon. Member for Windsor, because such persons cannot normally pass citizenship automatically on to their children.

Photo of Michael Moore Michael Moore Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

On Second Reading we debated the practical steps required for commencement. The Minister has subsequently written to Committee members to explain them. I am still confused about the practical difficulties that may delay commencement. We have heard about training, and presumably passports are an issue, but those issues have been mentioned since the Bill began its progress in the other place. Will the Minister tell us what progress has been made? My hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) is concerned that the citizens of St. Helena should have a chance to become British passport holders before the island's 500th anniversary. Is that still on course?

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

Although the hon. Gentleman says that the difficulties have been debated for months, we hope that the Bill will become law quickly. Territories have different views on how the passports should look and practical problems arise. We are confident that we will meet the 500th anniversary deadline that is so important to the people of St. Helena.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.