Does the hon. Gentleman not recognise that the Chagos islanders have already won their right of return? That happened in a landmark High Court judgment last year. As yet, however, there is no specific facility for their return, beyond an environmental impact assessment study that is taking place now. Is it not high time that these people were allowed back to all the islands?
The hon. Gentleman has a particular interest in the subject. The House will have heard what he said, and I am sure that we should consider it.
The relationship between Britain and the overseas territories is also important to the development of their economies. A prominent example, which many will doubtless cite later, is St. Helena. I mention St. Helena for a specific reason: it illustrates the problems of distance and inaccessibility. I therefore hope, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will not mind if I refer to it at some length.
I am pleased to say that it was my constituent the Earl of Iveagh who, on 30 July 1997, introduced the British Nationality (St. Helena) Bill. It was intended to provide for the acquisition of British citizenship by those with connections with St. Helena. It gives me great pleasure that this Bill deals with many of the issues to which my friend was so dedicated, including the need to boost employment, the need for an airstrip, and the value of education opportunities for the young people of the island. It is regrettable that the earlier Bill did not make more progress.
I pay tribute to Ned Iveagh, who pursued the issue so singlemindedly and highlighted the plight of St. Helena before his departure from the House of Lords. On Second Reading, on 23 October 1997, he spoke of the "overwhelming sense of Britishness" on the island. He said:
"The majority of the people are Anglican; their schools teach using the national curriculum, and, of course, the language is English."
The citizens of St. Helena should have the right to British citizenship. They should be able to go through the British-European Union channel at British airports.
In 1997, Lord Iveagh rightly asserted:
"The civil rights of the St. Helenians were granted by King Charles II in 1673 by Royal Charter, which stated that its people"
at this point he quoted from the charter
"'Shall have and enjoy liberties, franchises, immunities, capacities and abilities of free denizens and neutral subjects within any of our dominions to all intents and purposes as if they had been abiding and born within this our kingdom England or in any other of our dominions'".
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He was also right to add:
"This freedom has been eroded by the introduction of work permits for Saints"
that is, St. Helenians
"who want to work in the United Kingdom, followed by the British Nationality Act 1981".
Does the hon. Gentleman believe that legislation of the 1960s, and indeed the British Nationality Act 1981which conflicted directly with the royal charterwas in any way unlawful?
The legislation was passed, obviously, and I do not think that it was successfully challenged. As the hon. Gentleman will surely accept, however, things have moved on. We are dealing with a limited number of people in specific circumstances.
Members have spoken a great deal about the situation in St. Helena, especially since the changes in shipping patterns, and I am very glad that we have now reached this stage.
Lord Iveagh pointed out that giving St. Helenians the right to British citizenship was important because it would address the "poor economic status" of the island and its dependencies. He also spoke of the unemployment problems that have sadly led to a damaging brain drain from the island. He said:
"Restoring full British passports will create a much needed release valve for the islanders, who seek to raise their living standards from a very low base."
An issue that is of great concern to the people of St. Helena, and to many Members, is the need for an airstrip on the island. During that debate of 23 October 1997, Lord Iveagh said:
"The island's economic status is punctuated by lost opportunity. A Ministry of Defence survey back in 1941 declared an airstrip as feasible. It is now 1997 and there are still no plans for an airstrip. The island is very well served by the RMS 'St. Helena', which is an extremely versatile ship with a highly dedicated crew. However, the case for an airstrip comes into its own when we consider such things as medical emergencies and the development of the island's full tourist potential."[Official Report, House of Lords, 23 October 1997; Vol. 582, c. 847-8.]
The islanders of St. Helena are dependent on the United Kingdom for their transport links with the rest of the world. Those links have changed dramatically in the past 30 years, but the Government seem to be set on providing the cheapest option. They are focused on a short-term solution. The current proposals require spending £26 million on replacing a passenger cargo ship, and will require the continuation of an annual subsidy to operate the service.
A recent recommendation, which will require £38 million in the short term but has the possibility of earning revenue in the long term, is to build an airport on the island. The 1999 White Paper itself recognised the problem when it stated:
"In 1997, 8,698 tourists visited St. Helena but without an airport, no safe anchorage for yachts in heavy seas and the limited capacity of the passenger/cargo ship RMS St. Helena, tourism is unlikely to develop rapidly".
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In a written answer, in July, the Secretary of State for International Development stated:
"The St. Helena Leisure Company has held preliminary discussions with the St. Helena Government and my Department about its proposals to provide leisure facilities on the island. At the request of the St. Helena Government, we have made available to the Company a copy of the recent report of the 'Comparative Study of Air and Sea Access' for St. Helena. We understand that the Company wishes to take account of the study's findings in further formulating its proposals to the St. Helena Government."[Official Report, 5 July 2001; Vol. 371, c. 264W.]
The Minister would also do well to read the comments of the late Lord Shackleton, who was a great supporter of St. Helena, and who argued on many occasions for an airport on the island. An airport matters to the people of St. Helena, as no airport means no tourists in any substantial number. Give the islanders an airport and the significant boost to the local economy, not to mention the much speedier transport link that will ensue will be greatly appreciated. Such action would also encourage people of other countries to invest in the island, whichas Viscount Colville of Culross stated in another place, on 10 July 2001would be of great benefit to it.
An airport is one means of boosting the economy of St. Helena. By helping St. Helena to achieve that objective the Government would be giving the islanders the opportunity to exercise more economic independence. I assure the Minister that, for the sake of an extra £12 million, the Opposition will not stand in their way.
From the development perspective, we must all welcome the easing of the education restrictions that are currently endured by those wishing to study in the United Kingdom.
The hon. Gentleman is making a strong case for building an airport now. Why was one not built in the 18 years of the previous Conservative Government?
The hon. Gentleman will know that the way of linking St. Helena to the outside world has changed dramatically. Previously, shipping went regularly between the United Kingdom and South Africa, and for many years much of it stopped off at St. Helena. Much of that shipping has now ceased, thereby aggravating the problem. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that.
Will my hon. Friend confirm that only those citizens of the overseas territories who come to the United Kingdom and take up UK citizenship have access to education here? The idea that all citizens of the overseas territories are able to avail themselves of higher education here and then return to the overseas territories is a misconception. All the Bill does is to provide people with the opportunity to come here and gain citizenship, from which other rights would follow.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that issue, which I was about to address. If he is successful in catching the eye of the occupant of the Chair, he may wish to expand on the issue.
Hon. Members may be aware of the difference in the fees structure. The University of Manchester, for example, offers a very good degree in medicine. For a UK or EU citizen attending that university, the fees for the first four years amount to £4,300. For all others, the fees for the first year alone are £9,700. Fees for the third and fourth
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years are significantly higher. The total fees bill for four years amounts to some £54,200. Through this Bill, we are offering, to some at least, tertiary education at an affordable price, and that is welcome.
In the past, I have said to interested parties, such as the British Council, that there is an important long-term gain for Britain in attracting the brightest and the best to this country. I understand that it is open to individual universities to interpret the regulations on fee status and that decisions on access to education and differential fees are based on residence and not citizenship.
What assurances can the Minister give on the measures he is looking at to encourage universities to undertake initiatives to encourage young people from these territories to study in Britain? There is an argument that under a changed status many islanders may leave to visit Britain either to work or to stay. I point to what happened on Tristan da Cunha, which faced a full evacuation in the 1960s to the United Kingdom. An overwhelming majority of the population returned to their homes when the all-clear was given. Indeed, the top estimate of those who would leave St. Helena at present amounts to some 500 people. People obviously prefer their own home base.
All the evidence points to the fact that the Bill will lay foundations that can assist the British territories in their development and in their partnership with the United Kingdom.
Another issue that Opposition Members are glad to see addressed by the Bill is the resentment that many feel concerning airport procedures at present. In 1998, my noble Friend Lord Waddington, who has substantial experience of the British territories as a former distinguished Governor of Bermuda, informed the Foreign Affairs Committee that the vast majority of white Bermudans of Anglo-Saxon descent have British citizenship but the vast majority of black Bermudans do not. He went on to say:
"At Gatwick the whites go through the British and EU Channel. The black Bermudians, even Premiers and Cabinet Ministers, are lumped in with the foreigners and queue to obtain leave to enter. It is scarcely surprising that this causes immense resentment and black Bermudians simply cannot understand why as a matter of common courtesy those for whom Britain has a responsibility are not treated as favourably as foreigners for whom Britain has no responsibility."
We welcome the fact that this situation will no longer continue.
On the values of our relationship with the British territories there is also the issue of aid. One cannot forget the valuable contribution made by the British Government to Montserrat when nature took its violent course, spewing volcanic lava and ash over half the island and leaving its capital destroyed. It is right that we made that contribution.
As a friend of the territories I would like to flag up a note of caution regarding this Bill. We will be seeking clarification on several issues which concern the fine detail of the Bill, and I am certain that the Minister will be able to provide assurances.
The House may not be aware that some Governments of the overseas territories would not welcome this Bill if it came with conditions attached to it, such as an obligation to introduce British tax rates and regimes. It would be of concern to the Governments of the territories, to their people and indeed to the House if this Bill were to result in an unwelcome excessive influence of EU law
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in the internal affairs of the British territories. The EU is seeking an active influence. A memorandum on a meeting of the preparation of the euro group and Council of Economic and Finance Ministers, which took place in July this year, stated:
"As far as the EU's tax Code of Conduct is concerned, we must continue with member states to ensure that the timetable established by the Council of Economic and Finance Ministers of November 2000 for rollback of harmful business tax measures, including in dependent and associated territories of Member States is observed."
This matter was discussed in a letter to my noble Friend Baroness Rawlings, on 15 October this year, from the Baroness Amos, who stated:
"The territorial scope of application of EC law is defined in the EC Treaty. This specifically excludes the Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus and, with the exception of Part Four of the Treaty concerning the 'Overseas Countries and Territories' (OCT), the other Overseas Territories apart from Gibraltar. The EC Treaty applies, with some exceptions, to Gibraltar as a 'European territory for whose external relations a Member State is responsible'. The relationship between the other Overseas Territories and the EC is governed by the Council decision on association with the Overseas Countries and Territories, which is periodically renewed (the latest OCT decision is due for adoption in December and will run until 2007). The granting of British Citizenship to Overseas Territories citizens under the provisions of the Bill will have no effect on the Overseas Countries and Territories decision, nor on the constitutional relationship between the EU and the Overseas Territories. It follows that the Bill will have no effect on the rights of nationals of EC Member States, including British citizens, in the Overseas Territories, because the Territories fall outside the scope of the EC Treaty."