Previous SectionIndexHome Page

5.2 pm

Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate. I am pleased to follow many of those who have spoken, not least the hon. Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart). She spoke fluently and I agreed with much of what she said, especially her last sentence. I believe that we—Parliament—have not acted properly in respect of the British citizens of the overseas territories. It is time to treat them as we expect our constituents to be treated—equally. We have not done so and although the Bill goes some way toward achieving that, a great deal remains to be done.

The Bill is long overdue, but Parliament should be doing far more to further the rights of British people who live in various territories around the world, 14 of which the Minister listed. I am secretary of the all-party Gibraltar and Falkland Islands groups, and a member of the St. Helena group, the Cayman Islands group and the Overseas Territories group—I have a special interest in

22 Nov 2001 : Column 531

the subject. I speak today to express my belief that it is our fundamental duty to treat all those who are British in exactly the same way. I strongly object to the fact that in our—purportedly—modern and democratic society, we still treat people who are British differently, and in many cases unfairly.

Our overseas territories are enormously important, but they are often forgotten. I am pleased that we are having a lengthy debate today, as it has enabled many of the issues that surround the overseas territories to be explored. I am only sorry that more hon. Members are not present. Our overseas territories are inhabited by people who regard themselves as British—just as we all do—yet they do not all have the opportunity to be legally considered full British citizens, nor are they granted the rights and responsibilities that British citizenship entails.

From conversations with citizens of the overseas territories, most recently with people I met in Gibraltar when I visited the Rock in September to celebrate their national day, I know of their great pride in being British. They do not want to be anything else. We can understand that view. Our constituents would not want to be considered as anything but British, so why should people in the overseas territories? Why should there be any question that they are different from people in my constituency or the constituencies of other hon. Members?

The citizens of the overseas territories do not question their identity and are confused when we do not reciprocate by treating them as British, so I warmly welcome the spirit of the Bill. The measure will rectify the situation, and will extend British citizenship to all who are citizens of the British overseas territories. That move is long overdue and will, I am sure, be warmly welcomed by the people of all those territories.

We have only to consider the history of many of the overseas territories to see their natural links with the people of the United Kingdom. Anguilla was colonised by English settlers from St. Kitts in 1650. That was pointed out to me when I had the privilege of visiting St. Kitts three months ago.

In 1609, shipwrecked English colonists settled in Bermuda. I recently met the new, Labour, Prime Minister of Bermuda and discussed that point with her. Pitcairn was discovered by the British in 1767. Indeed, each of the overseas territories has significant links with and ties to the United Kingdom, deeply rooted in their history. Whenever a referendum is held, such as that in Gibraltar in 1967, the people of the territories vote overwhelmingly to remain British.

Earlier in the debate, much was said about the record of the Conservative Government on this subject. I have not been a Member of Parliament for long, and I was certainly not a Member under the previous Conservative Government, so I shall not defend their actions. None the less, when an overseas territory was threatened and we were put to the test, we had a Conservative Prime Minister—Lady Thatcher—who led the Government and the country in our defence of the people of the Falkland Islands, restoring them to the liberty that they deserved.

I clearly recall, however, that the then leader of the Labour party, Mr. Foot, and many Labour Members were not so enthusiastic about sending a taskforce to defend the freedom of the people of those islands. I am pleased that many Labour Members now share the view of

22 Nov 2001 : Column 532

Conservative Members that it is our duty to defend all British people, wherever they are in the world. That most certainly includes the people of the overseas territories.

Several Members made points about St. Helena, including my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring), and other Members spoke about the people of the Chagos Islands and of the British Indian Ocean Territory. I concur with those remarks. The people of the British Indian Ocean Territory were treated shamefully, and I hope that in years to come—sooner rather than later—the British Government will address that and will recompense them.

The Bill barely breaks the ice as regards treating the people of the overseas territories as fully equal members of our extended British family. The measure makes only a start towards giving the people of the overseas territories the support they deserve; it serves only as a limited statement of our commitment to them. Even though we are extending the hand of British citizenship and telling them that they are legally, as well as emotionally, British, that still does not give them the right, for example, to direct representation in Parliament. I agree with the Minister who, in his opening remarks, said that words such as "colony" are outdated. We should decolonise the overseas territories and treat them as we do our own constituents. They should have votes to elect Members of Parliament and be given the same democratic rights as any British subject, whoever and wherever they are in the kingdom. We should extend the right to vote to all citizens of British overseas territories.

Mr. Wilkinson: I am sorry to seek my hon. Friend's indulgence again, but is it not extraordinary and does it not reflect badly on our country that Gibraltarians are denied the chance to vote in the European Parliament elections, whereas the people of Gaudaloupe have their own Member of the European Parliament? French Caribbeans have representation, but there is no European representation for the European British.

Mr. Rosindell: I thank my hon. Friend and agree with him entirely. The people of Gibraltar are told that they will have the right to vote in European elections, although the British Government have not yet stated how that will manifest itself or how they will be able to vote. I am pleased that a commitment has been made, but the issue needs to be addressed. As my hon. Friend mentioned, France gives the residents of its overseas territories an equal right to vote, not only in European elections, but in French national elections. There is no reason why we should not do the same; we should behave in a modern democratic manner. It makes no difference whether someone lives in Port Stanley or Slough; if they are British, they should have the right to vote.

Fiona Mactaggart: The direction of the hon. Gentleman's remarks makes me anxious. Thousands of people in Slough are not British but can vote in British elections. I am concerned that the hon. Gentleman is trying to attach citizenship to the right to vote in a way that we have never accepted in this country.

Mr. Rosindell: I cannot understand why the point is difficult to grasp. In the democratic modern world in which we want to live, the democratic modern United Kingdom has overseas territories. Geography, to my

22 Nov 2001 : Column 533

mind, is an irrelevance; what matters is the fact that we are talking about British people who, like those of us in the Chamber and those whom we represent, wish to be treated exactly the same. I cannot understand the problem with giving those loyal British subjects the same rights as we enjoy.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton: In his early days in the House my hon. Friend is playing a leading part, and I agree with everything that he has said. The Bill is about citizenship so, if we have given a commitment to a people to whom we are now giving full citizenship—the people of Gibraltar—and they have the right to vote in a referendum and vote for no association with Spain, is it not obligatory for the UK Government to recognise and accept their decision?

Mr. Rosindell: I hope that it is obligatory. I certainly hope that Ministers will respect the rights of the people of Gibraltar if there is a referendum. I cannot understand why that is even an issue and find it puzzling. Why should there even be a question that the people of Gibraltar would not have that right to self-determination? I have extracts from the United Nations charter of 1945, which make it clear that people of all the overseas territories of the United Kingdom should have the right of self-determination. I find it insulting to the people of Gibraltar that any British Minister should go to Barcelona to discuss the future of Gibraltar, without the agreement of the elected—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The debate is not about the future of Gibraltar. It is about British citizenship.

Mr. Rosindell: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I shall proceed with issues relating directly to the Bill. We are telling residents of the overseas territories that they can travel freely in Europe with the authority of their British status, yet we maintain that they cannot elect a Member of Parliament to Westminster, where decisions relating to the acceptance of Britons' free movement in Europe are debated and decided.

I accept that the Bill is non-reciprocal, for many good reasons. Territories will therefore not become members of the European Union in their own right, but by being more closely linked with the United Kingdom, they will encounter EU regulations and practices, such as customs agreements, which will affect them directly. The most significant issue may be the threat from EU plans for tax harmonisation. My hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk, the shadow Minister, mentioned that and quoted a memorandum. I emphasise that that is a genuine fear which we should consider.

Evidence shows that the overseas territories will be affected by the European Union, but while Britain supposedly prides itself on democratic governance, the Bill permits British citizens to remain disfranchised, powerless to change the political agenda that affects them because they have no representation in the House of Commons. I am sure that the overseas territories do not want political structures imposed over their existing systems by us or by the EU. That would interfere with their tried and tested systems of government, and I hope

22 Nov 2001 : Column 534

that no one seeks to do that. It would also have a serious impact on their local economies, with which we would not want to interfere.

Truly to recognise citizens of the overseas territories as British—as I hope all hon. Members want to—we must do more than grant them citizenship. We must not simply tell them that they can live on the mainland if they want, and leave them to it, occasionally informing them of the latest round of EU rules and regulations that may affect them. That is not how we should treat the citizens of the overseas territories. They must be enfranchised and given a political voice, like every other British citizen. It is unacceptable to me and, I hope, to most of those present, that we claim to believe in democracy, yet we treat one British citizen differently from another. That is discriminatory and should be condemned.

I find the Bill astonishing in one respect, although I shall not deal with the matter in detail. Through the Bill, the Government are attempting to send a message to the people of the overseas territories that they have our full support, and that by making them British citizens, we are recognising them as an integral part of the British spirit, yet at the same time the Government are pursuing an agenda to abandon thousands of fiercely proud Gibraltarians. We in the House must ensure that, regardless of which party is in government, we work to guarantee the rights of the people of all overseas territories. We should not negotiate away their independence, but defend their freedom, sovereignty and rights, just as we all would in a dispute regarding our constituents. I would see no distinction between a resident of Pitcairn and a resident of Portsmouth. Every British citizen should be treated in the same way.

The Bill gives the overseas territories a greater degree of pride in being British, but it does not give them an equal deal. I urge hon. Members to support it, but I also urge the Government to look at the overseas territories again and to do so in a manner that will treat them equally as British, with no strings or conditions attached.

Next Section

IndexHome Page