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Session 2001- 02
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Standing Committee Debates
British Overseas Territories Bill [Lords]

British Overseas Territories Bill [Lords]

Standing Committee D

Thursday 6 December 2001

[Mr. John Butterfill in the Chair]

British Overseas Territories Bill [Lords]

9.45 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I beg to move,

    That, during proceedings on the British Overseas Territories Bill [Lords], the Committee do meet on Tuesdays at half-past Ten o'clock and at half-past Four o'clock and on Thursdays at fifteen minutes to Ten o'clock and at half-past Two o'clock.

I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Butterfill. It might be polite if I were to alert hon. Members to the fact that the Government have tabled a small amendment regarding an aspect of citizenship for the Ilois, in response to a point raised by my hon. Friends the Members for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) on Second Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1

British overseas territories

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

Mr. Bradshaw: Clause 1 gives legal effect to the decision to change the collective of name of the territories from dependent territories to British overseas territories. This policy was announced in a White Paper in March 1999, and it is intended to reflect the changing relationship between the United Kingdom and these territories.

Clause 1 substitutes ''British overseas territories'' for the old heading ''British dependent territories'' in schedule 6 to the British Nationality Act 1981, and makes that change wherever else the phrase occurs within the 1981 Act. The clause also inserts into schedule 1 of the Interpretation Act 1978 a new definition of British overseas territory, which would be the same as that in the British Nationality Act 1981. These name changes are simply alterations of labels and involve no changes to substantive law.

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk): First, I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Butterfill. I know that proceedings are in safe hands.

We have no difficulty with the change described by the Minister. I agree that it updates the language of the definition of our relationship with overseas territories, and we are happy to support it.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): My concern, which I raised on Second Reading, is the inclusion of the British Antarctic territories in the list of British overseas territories. I acknowledge that nobody lives permanently in the British Antarctic territories, but with climate change one never knows—given time many folk may live there. There are two scientific bases, and although they are not permanently occupied, they are sometimes occupied for 365 days in a year. I realise that this may seem an entirely theoretical point, but I am questioning the inclusion of the British Antarctic territories because of the British claim on them.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to debate that later in proceedings; it is not relevant to clause 1 stand part.

Jeremy Corbyn: I would not disagree with you, Mr. Butterfill, but perhaps I can help you with an explanation. Adopting clause 1 in its current form would not prevent me from making this point when we debate later amendments, but it would mean that the Committee would have approved what we agree to be British overseas territories, and I am at variance with that view. Is it in order for me to proceed?

The Chairman: If the hon. Gentleman wishes, his amendments can be grouped with clause 1 stand part and debated now. That would replace their present grouping. I would be happy to permit that, but I should stress that they could not be debated again later.

Jeremy Corbyn: If that is the case, we will come to the issue in due course, when I hope to catch your eye.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 2

British overseas territories citizenship

Mr. Bradshaw: Clause 2 does for citizens what clause 1 does for territories. It changes the terms British dependent territories citizenship and British dependent territories citizen, as provided for in the British Nationality Act 1981, into British overseas territories citizenship and citizen respectively. It also provides that all references to British dependent territories citizenship and citizen in any enactment, including secondary legislation, made before commencement of the Bill should be read as British overseas territories citizenship and British overseas territories citizen. The changes are the corollary of those made to the collective name of the territories. They are simply alterations of labels, not changes of substantive law.

Mr. Michael Moore (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale): I also welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Butterfill, and if the Bill continues at this rate, I look forward to serving under you for what may be a short time. We support the thrust of the Bill and wish it a speedy passage. Due to a prior commitment, I cannot be here for the full sitting this morning, but the speed of the proceedings may make that irrelevant.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 3

Conferral on British overseas territories citizens

Mr. Michael Trend (Windsor): I beg to move amendment No. 2, in page 2, line 21, leave out subsection (2).

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

Mr. Trend: 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.

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

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

The Chairman: 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.

Mr. Trend: 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?

Mr. Bradshaw: 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.

10 am

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.

 
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Prepared 6 December 2001