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7.47 pm

Mr. Michael Trend (Windsor): I reiterate my support for the Bill. Its passage through the House has been refreshingly free of party political sniping. Many of my right hon. and hon. Friends and I would have liked to see the measure passed when we were in government. I congratulate the Minister and the Government on introducing it.

I agree that there is a need to get the measure into law as expeditiously as possible. I welcome the Minister's comments to the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Peter Bradley) about finding a way to finesse the important matter to the islanders of St. Helena of their anniversary and the generous gesture that has been made.

I have one or two regrets about the Bill. We have heard about higher education opportunities for people on some of the territories. I should have preferred it if we could have made statutory provision for that in the Bill. We raised the matter in Committee, but it is not to be. It is clear that the Government will not move on that. I know that in various Departments the Government have schemes to help the overseas territories where there are special training requirements or where special expertise is needed.

I ask the Government to be sympathetic with regard to further and higher education. There is no reasonable prospect of very many islanders from around the world being able to afford the residence that would be necessary and the cost of higher education. I hope that the

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Government will keep a special place in their mind to ensure that there is a steady flow of well-educated younger people coming from and going back to the territories.

I was interested to hear from my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) about the ship and the airport. I believe that the St. Helenians and others who are interested in the matter—the Falkland islanders, the Ascension islanders and even those on the ship—recently had a vote, which came out decisively in favour of building an airport on St. Helena. There are arguments for and against that. One can appreciate the problems of an airport, including its cost and the expense of replacing the boat.

However, the islanders and those associated with the islands have expressed a clear, democratic view that they want to take what many must perceive as a risk. I hope that the Department for International Development and other partners in the project will give it a clear run. The circumstances of the islanders, especially those on St. Helena, are unusual. If they want an airport, I hope that the Government can ensure that they get it.

I regret that it was not proper to discuss British overseas citizenship in the context of the Bill. It is purely a coincidence that I wrote to the Minister yesterday about a constituency case of a British overseas citizen in Tanzania. She was given, probably mistakenly, a full British passport 10 years ago. When she tried to renew it, she was told that she should not have had it in the first place. However, for 10 years, she was sure that she was a full British citizen, and she believed that her children would also have that status. I ask the Minister to consider the letter carefully because the status of British overseas citizens remains unsatisfactory. We may have to revert to the matter on another occasion. When our authorities have made errors, sympathy should be shown to those who have been misled for some time.

My greatest regret is that we have failed to make progress on establishing an annual report to the House on the subject. The Minister rightly pointed out that several extraneous debates took place around the Bill. That happened because many hon. Members are interested in the subject, but it is rarely discussed in the Chamber. The Minister said that we cannot have an annual report or debate. However, he also said that the Overseas Territories Consultative Council meets annually in London in the autumn, and that the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs can consider the overseas territories. Perhaps it could schedule an annual discussion. The Government might wish to invite somebody from the Committee to the Overseas Territories Consultative Council; perhaps hon. Members could be involved in the meeting. If the Minister asked me, I should be delighted to attend this year.

There is frustration that we do not have sufficient opportunity to discuss such important issues except during short Adjournment debates. I ask the Minister and the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee to consider whether a regular event could be held.

Simon Hughes: I support that idea. Although there may be some obligation on the Government, I hope that the parties collaborate to facilitate a regular annual debate.

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Other subjects have set a precedent, which we could usefully follow. Pressure on the Government should be maintained.

Mr. Trend: That was a helpful intervention. There is a problem of democratic deficit. The Government have made laws and are writing constitutions for some territories, which have no direct representation here. That problem will not go away. It will be exacerbated if the Government have other ambitions to make laws in those territories. For the sake of everyone's sanity, I therefore recommend a regular occasion for considering such matters. A problem could thus be perceived when it appeared on the horizon rather than when it got closer.

I thank the Minister, especially for the many letters that he has written and the explanations that he has given. I am particularly grateful for a recent letter about Cyprus. I probed the matter delicately in Committee, and he provided a full explanation. I am now an expert on the way in which British citizenship relates to Cyprus, and the circumstances of our treaty. I am sure that that also applies to him. I am also grateful to those in his office who have spoken to me about the complicated circumstances on Pitcairn. I hope to be kept in touch with events there as they unfold.

I congratulate the Father of the House and the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) who have done so much for Chagos islanders. I acknowledge that the Government have taken an important step forward with grace and style. That is a good development.

I wish the Bill and our new citizens well. They may not be full citizens, as some of us would like, but they are British citizens and they will have passports like the rest of us. That development, long overdue, will be welcome in all the territories. I hope that the Bill is passed.

7.56 pm

Bob Russell: Liberal Democrats welcome the progress that the Bill has made; it is on its final stretch. I thank the civil servants and Ministers who have been involved in the journey from the start.

The reasons for introducing the Bill have not been mentioned this evening. It should be put on record that a grave injustice was done 20 to 21 years ago. It is to the Government's credit that they are righting that wrong. The importance of 21 May for St. Helena has already been mentioned. However, resolving citizenship problems as soon as possible is important for all the overseas territories for the reasons that have been given. We are considering 200,000 people. That is not a large number in the grand scheme of things.

I want to concentrate on St. Helena because it introduced me to the subject that we are considering. Shortly after the 1997 general election, I received a letter from a constituent who drew my attention to the injustice that had been inflicted on that island and the other territories. That led to my visiting St. Helena. There is a connection between the island and my constituency because St. Helena is the patron saint of Colchester; I was educated at St. Helena school. The spelling is the same as that of the island, but the pronunciation is different. Many Saints who reside in the United Kingdom will welcome

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the Bill. I am sure that we all know Mr. Calvin Thomas, one of our Doorkeepers. He is one Saint who will be delighted that progress has been made.

More people per head of population on St. Helena volunteer for Her Majesty's armed forces than anywhere else that is connected with the United Kingdom. We have responsibility for the territories, but they have no elected representation here. When we examine constitutional reform, perhaps we could consider a way in which all overseas territories can have an input into the democratic process here.

St. Helena has a slogan: ACE—"A" for access, "C" for citizenship and "E" for economy and education. Tonight we are moving firmly towards putting a tick against the "C" for citizenship. Reference has been made to education, but the economy of the island needs more than just education; it needs further sustainable help.

That brings me to the "A" for access. Although this is not dealt with in the Bill, the island's future depends on access. I have had the joy of visiting it, but it took a week to get there. It was an enjoyable trip, but the island cannot fulfil its economic destiny if the only access to it is by means of a week's journey by boat; an airfield is required.

This is a joyous evening, and I congratulate the Minister and his team. If he can deliver these provisions by 21 May, there may well be a statue of him in Jamestown in the future.

8 pm

Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford): I reiterate the comments of many hon. Members in congratulating the Government on introducing the Bill. It is long overdue, and I regret the fact that these measures were not introduced by the Conservative Government. All British people should be given equal rights, and be treated in exactly the same way, whoever they are and wherever in the world they may live. I believe that everybody in this democratically elected House of Commons should support that view.

I commend the Government on taking this great step towards giving the people of the overseas territories the right to British citizenship that has been denied them for so long. The Minister talked about many of the overseas territories being geographically far away from the British isles. That is true in many cases. They are not far away, however, in terms of their desire to be British or of their determination to have the same status that we and our constituents enjoy. So, while I congratulate the Government—as everyone has done tonight—I believe that that is a matter to which greater consideration should be given.

My hon. Friend the Member for Windsor (Mr. Trend) said that there was a democratic deficit, and that is absolutely true. We should all be concerned about that problem; it involves British people whom we in this Parliament govern. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who is not here tonight, spoke in the debate in Westminster Hall last week on Gibraltar. He said that the Prime Minister of Gibraltar was Tony Blair. He also said that the Chancellor of the Exchequer of Gibraltar was Gordon Brown, and that its Defence Secretary was Geoff Hoon—

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