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13 Feb 2002 : Column 270

Orders of the Day

British Overseas Territories Bill [Lords]

As amended in the Standing Committee, considered.

Clause 8

Short title, commencement and extent

7.18 pm

Peter Bradley (The Wrekin): I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 3, line 28, leave out subsections (2) and (3).

The amendment will be no surprise to the Minister because I raised the substance of it in meetings with him, in several interventions and in my own speech in the course of the Second Reading debate and, more recently, in a parliamentary question. Indeed, I gave notice of it to his Department. The amendment's purpose is very simple: to ensure that there is no delay in implementing the Bill, which Members on both sides of the House greatly welcome, once it has been passed. The central reason for that is to ensure that the people of St. Helena can celebrate their 500th anniversary as the British citizens that they thought they were, at least until 1981.

Nothing in the Bill suggests that citizenship rights must be dependent on the issuing of a passport—indeed, such a suggestion would be absurd because, as I pointed out on Second Reading, passports may confirm but certainly do not confer citizenship. A passport is not and never has been regarded as a prerequisite for citizenship. Even if the Bill is passed without a concession or the amendment being made, many people in St. Helena and the other British overseas territories, just like people in this country, will enjoy their citizenship and the rights that accompany it without ever applying for, possessing, needing or using a passport.

I accept that it would be administratively tidier to resolve the questions surrounding the design, printing and issuing of passports before citizenship is confirmed: those who have long waited to have their rights restored would simply have to wait a little longer. However, there are two important matters that I wish to draw to the attention of the House and especially my hon. Friend the Minister.

The first was raised with me yesterday by the representative in London of the St. Helena Government, and has been raised before by other hon. Members. It relates to those whose work permits will expire between Royal Assent being given to the Bill and the commencement of its provisions. Are we really going to require such people to leave the country to reapply for an extension of their visa and their work permit? I hope that the Minister can give some comfort on that point.

The second issue is of central importance to me and to the people of St. Helena. As I said, this year they celebrate the 500th anniversary of the discovery of the island by the Portuguese. The anniversary falls on 21 May, and the event is of huge significance to the Saints. No people were more affronted or more disadvantaged by the loss of their citizenship rights than the Saints. They believed that they held those rights in perpetuity, not least because of the royal charter conferred on them in the 17th century by Charles II. No people were more delighted by the

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Government's welcome commitment in the White Paper and, subsequently, the Bill to the restoration of their rights.

I cannot imagine that the Government do not recognise the importance of this anniversary to the Saints, nor that the Minister does not acknowledge both the cause for rejoicing that the restoration of their rights would represent, or the dismay that its further delay would cause. I seek an assurance that the administrative difficulties with issuing passports mentioned at various stages of the Bill's passage can be resolved, and that commencement can take place before 21 May. If such an assurance is given, I will be happy to withdraw the amendment. Alternatively, I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can provide a different sort of reassurance: that commencement will not be linked to the issuing of passports. In either event, the people of St. Helena and of other British overseas territories, will have their citizenship rights restored before that important date.

The matter may not be of great moment to many people. It may not be of great importance to Foreign Office and Home Office officials in Whitehall, but it is of huge symbolic value to the Saints. I appeal to the Minister to exercise his discretion to ensure that 21 May is a red letter day for the Saints. I urge him not to be a party-pooper but to ensure that 21 May in St. Helena, if not Bradley day, is Bradshaw day—[Hon. Members: "Oh!"] Well, if creeping will secure the concession, I am only too happy to do it on behalf of the Saints. I hope that he will take the opportunity to give full expression to the intention of legislation for which the Government deserve credit, and which would be the subject of celebration in St. Helena.

Bob Russell (Colchester): I congratulate the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) on his amendment, and on the spirit of the argument that he has expressed this evening. He speaks for everyone with a love for and an association with the island of St. Helena in voicing the dear wish that by 21 May the citizenship of its people will have been restored. That citizenship was removed against their wishes. I endorse the hon. Gentleman's arguments and invite the Minister to assure the House that, come the 500th anniversary celebrations, the people of the island of St. Helena will have had their citizenship restored so that they can celebrate as all of us want them to.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I can imagine almost nothing worse than being labelled a party-pooper, so I hope to be able to say something that will send my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) and the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) away happy.

We appreciate and share hon. Members' desire that the people of St. Helena should be able to celebrate their quincentenary on 21 May as British citizens. Our concern is that the amendment would do more to get in the way of achieving that goal than to achieve it. Were the amendment accepted, it would have consequences for those provisions of the Bill relating to the acquisition of British citizenship after commencement. That would require a further Government amendment to correct, which would delay the Bill's passage.

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Let me explain why it is necessary to have a gap, albeit a very small one, between Royal Assent and commencement. It is because many fairly complicated administrative arrangements have to be put in place to allow citizens of British dependent territories, as they are now, to obtain proof of their new status on commencement. As my hon. Friend says, that proof will, in most cases, take the form of a new passport showing their new British status.

To issue passports, we need to make practical arrangements, including agreeing the format with the overseas territories. That has not been easy. Although many in the House have been waiting a long time for the Bill, many in the overseas territories are surprised at the speed with which it has proceeded through Parliament. Some had concerns about the appearance of their passports, and time is needed to train the staff involved.

We have every confidence that the practical arrangements will be in place to allow a commencement date well before St. Helena's quincentenary on 21 May, but—my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin should pay attention to this—in the unlikely event that the passport issuing arrangements are not in place by mid-May, we would make an order specifying 21 May as the commencement date.

The Home Office has been extremely kind and agreed that if we do that, it will make exceptional arrangements to allow immediate exercise of the new rights. Those arrangements would allow those who hold British dependent territory citizenship passports derived from a connection with a territory other than the sovereign bases in Cyprus to use those passports as evidence of the right of abode in this country until such time as a full British citizen passport becomes available to them.

I am sure that my hon. Friend is aware that the issue relating to work permits is one for the Home Office. However, I shall take it up with my colleagues in that Department and hope that they will be as flexible in interpreting the law as they have been about accepting BDTC passports in lieu of British citizen passports. In the light of those arrangements, I ask him to withdraw his amendment.

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): I was listening carefully to the Minister and hoped to intervene before he sat down. Will he deal with the point raised by the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) about the principle that a passport is not needed to establish a person's eligibility for citizenship? The hon. Gentleman made the important point that some people may not need or seek a passport. It would be reassuring to people from St. Helena and the other territories if the Minister put it on the record that, although an expedited procedure for passport acquisition will be put in place, for which we are grateful, the citizenship rights of those who have no passport and do not want to apply for one will be confirmed by 21 May at the latest, or by some earlier date if the procedures are completed. That is the other assurance sought by the hon. Gentleman.

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