British Overseas Territories Bill [Lords]

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Mr. Spring: Except for penguins.

Mr. Bradshaw: Yes.

I assure my hon. Friend that access to the British Antarctic Territory, which is already strictly controlled, and access arrangements under the legislation will remain completely unaffected by the Bill. People will not be allowed to go there willy-nilly. We have cordial and friendly discussions with the Chileans and the Argentines about the territory. We have scientists there and they have personnel based there, so far without any problems in our bilateral relationships with those countries. Against that background, I ask my hon. Friend to withdraw the amendment.

Jeremy Corbyn: I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. My amendment was not necessarily concerned with the title. The territory could be called many things, such as the Antarctic world park—British presumed section.

I have two points. There are many territories where there is a dispute about territorial claim. One can think of Kashmir, the Falkland Islands and many other places. However, even where there is a dispute involving a number of countries about a place, there is usually a high degree of recognition that it is currently held by one country. With Antarctica, no one recognises anyone else's claim at all, although the Minister is right that all those claims are held in abeyance and there is quite a good working relationship.

However, that relationship is not good enough to extend as far as agreeing the setting up of an environmental secretariat to help to police the environmental protocol. I urge the Minister to do all that he can to encourage a secretariat to be set up, by coming to an agreement with Argentina, Chile and South Africa about its location.

I agree that it is unlikely that a large number of people will be living in Antarctica in the near future. Therefore the issue of citizenship is not overwhelmingly important, although I believe that we have a responsibility to that continent to preserve it as a world environmental park. I tabled the amendment largely for that reason. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Trend: I beg to move amendment No. 3, in page 2, line 24, leave out subsection (3).

The amendment would remove the linkage in clause 3 between British citizenship and the British Nationality Act 1981. I understand that the amendment would cause havoc for the Bill and I do not want to do that, but I want the Minister to say more on one point. The 1981 Act insists that an overseas citizen must fulfil a residency requirement before he or she can enjoy benefits in this country such as education and social services. That is fair for most cases, but for the poorer territories, it would be desirable to remove subsection (3) and, thus, the linkage.

Some territories covered by the Bill are wealthy and would not wish to take part in an agreement on shared rights and responsibilities. However, some of the poorer countries, if offered the opportunity to take a full part in British life—paying taxes and enjoying benefits—would almost certainly fall heavily on the benefit side of the equation. In such territories, it is impossible for ordinary people to achieve a tertiary education.

The Minister wrote in a letter—he writes well—that the Government recognise the special circumstances of some territories and have tried to help by setting up a good government fund for civil servants in areas such as police, prison and fire services, immigration services, accounting and internal audit departments and children's services. The Minister's letter lists the relevant islands. Those services are important to administrators, who make up a good part of the British Government, so it is understandable that the Government are keen that there should be good government on the islands.

However, the scheme leaves two things out of the equation. First, the arrangements do not offer a degree of certainty or continuity, which even small and distant communities need. Secondly, there is no reference to higher education for ordinary citizens of the islands.

Imagine a parent on Pitcairn, St. Helena or Ascension Island whose child has received a basic education through the island's excellent education system but then finds that there is no prospect of further education without going to Britain or another country. As they proudly bear the title of British citizen, and as there is no possibility of higher education in their own country, it would be reasonable for them to assume that they would not have to fulfil a residency requirement in this country. A parent on Ascension Island who wanted their child to go into higher education would have to come to Britain and fulfil the residency requirement or pay overseas fees until the residency requirement has been met. Both options are expensive.

I imagine that few individuals would fall into that category, and I know that scholarship funds and other assistance are available. It was suggested in another place that universities should accept the responsibility, take up the challenge and be generous. One hopes that they will. However, in conferring nationality and tying it to the 1981 Act, we lose an essential flexibility. If we were to determine, on the basis of national income, a percentage of national income, or average national income, which populations should be entitled to subsidised higher education, as is the case for British citizens, we would be doing the territories a great service.

The principle behind the amendment is to appeal to the Minister to understand and to help families and individuals in territories where there is no higher education by making the link with Britain clearer and giving them the same financial assistance as people have the right to expect by dint of residency in this country. The problem cannot be solved unless someone helps; the new British citizens have a right to some clarity and certainty about their future position.

Mr. Bradshaw: There may be some misunderstanding of subsection (3), which is about the problem of inheriting British citizenship. It ensures that when the Bill is enacted, British overseas territory citizens not living in a British overseas territory are classified as British citizens by descent to ensure that their children do not inherit British citizenship. It is a principle of our nationality law that British citizenship can be inherited only through one generation unless there is another reason—residence, for example. I shall not be surprised if you rule me out of order for responding to the points made by the hon. Member for Windsor, Mr. Butterfill.

The Chairman: I shall be lenient.

Mr. Bradshaw: Thank you. The points that the hon. Gentleman made about rights such as access to higher education, benefits and so on that we enjoy as residents of the United Kingdom were made on Second Reading and in the House of Lords. Those rights have nothing to do with citizenship, although we have great sympathy for citizens in overseas territories such as St. Helena, who do not have easy access to higher education. It would be extremely difficult to extend more rights to those people than are enjoyed by UK citizens who are born and bred in the United Kingdom, because children who are born and bred here who live abroad for more than three years lose domestic access rights to higher education.

The misunderstanding behind the amendment is that the residency requirements that the hon. Member for Windsor referred to are not governed by the British Nationality Act 1981, but by other primary and secondary legislation, for example, on education and health.

Mr. Trend: I am sure the Minister understands the intention of the amendment. I had hoped to give notice of the issues I wanted to raise. I am interested in what the Minister said and I am disappointed that he could not enter into a discussion on a matter about which I spoke earlier, which was not ruled out of order. If he has further thoughts on the predicament of people who live on the islands and their dilemma about higher education for their children, I shall be glad to hear them.

If people living on the islands were asked whether they wanted to join in the tax and benefits system of the United Kingdom, some would say yes. They would not find that onerous; in some cases, their average income is extremely low, but they would fall mainly on the benefits side of the system, which would include higher education. However, they have not been given that choice. Some people on the wealthy islands would not touch such a proposal with a bargepole as it would interfere with their other arrangements.

I am concerned mainly with the islands that are, by our standards, extremely poor and cut off, one or two of which do not have a future unless the new generation is educated and has a chance to return home and encourage prosperity—

The Chairman: I have been very tolerant in allowing the hon. Gentleman to stray pretty far from his amendment. My tolerance is now stretched rather more than it should be and I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would conclude. Does he intend to withdraw the amendment?

Mr. Trend: With a sense of disappointment, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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

10.30 am

Mr. Bradshaw: Clause 3(1) sets out the basic rule by which British citizenship is conferred on existing British overseas territories citizens, as renamed by the Bill, and it provides for automatic acquisition of British citizenship. The Secretary of State will appoint the commencement date by order.

Subsection (2) sets out the only exception to the rule: those who owe their BOTC status to sovereign base areas on Cyprus. If a person were a BOTC by connection with another overseas territory, he or she would still be eligible for British citizenship. The base areas are excluded because of their establishment by treaty with Cyprus, under the terms of which they can be used only as military bases and not for the creation of any wider community.

Subsection (3) defines which of the persons who become British citizens under subsection (1) are to be treated as British citizens by descent for the purposes of the British Nationality Act 1981. That is necessary, as I intimated in my reply to the hon. Member for Windsor, because such persons cannot normally pass citizenship automatically on to their children.

 
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Prepared 6 December 2001