HC Deb 10 February 1998 vol 306 cc129-31
5. Dr. Tonge

If he will make a statement on the review his Department is currently undertaking into British citizenship for the people of British dependencies. [26433]

Mr. Robin Cook

Last week, I announced the progress on our review of the dependent territories. We propose to improve their administration through a single specialist department, to require of them the highest standards of financial regulations and observance of international obligations on human rights, and to rename them UK overseas territories. We have also announced that the Government are exploring the possibility of granting British citizenship to all the citizens of those overseas territories who do not already have it. We are examining the matter sympathetically and urgently. We are currently in discussion on all elements of that package with the Governments of the overseas territories.

Dr. Tonge

Will the Foreign Secretary assure the House that the Government are doing everything possible to persuade the dependent territories to amend their laws against homosexuality? Is he aware that, in October, a written answer from the Foreign Office assured me that the Governments of the dependent territories had received an instruction to review their laws on homosexuality, yet in January the Office of the Governor of the Cayman Islands said that it had heard about the communique but not received anything officially? Have the Government contacted the dependent territories on the issue or not?

Mr. Cook

First, I encourage the hon. Lady and other hon. Members to use the new term of overseas territories. The term dependent territories does not do justice to the territories' very strong economies and self-government. That is why we propose to rename them.

On the particular human rights point, I singled out the issue of corporal and capital punishment in my speech to the Dependent Territories Association, which we shall be consulting. I also stressed the need to ensure that the territories' laws fully conform with international obligations, which will require some—not all—to address their statute on homosexuality.

Ms Abbott

The Foreign Secretary will be aware that his speech at the dependent territories conference last week was widely appreciated by representatives of the territories that attended. On the question of nationality, does he agree that we are talking only about 180,000 people? The largest single territory, Bermuda, has only 60,000 people, none of whom are likely to want to leave their very high standard of living to come here. Overseas territories simply want help with access to education and an end to the humiliation of black politicians and white politicians having to go through different channels at Heathrow airport. Does he recognise that it would be widely appreciated outside the House, as a graceful gesture as we approach the millennium, if citizenship were granted to overseas territories citizens?

Mr. Cook

I think that I would be wise to welcome my hon. Friend's appreciation while it is available. I fully agree with what she has just said. She slightly overstates the number of people concerned, because citizenship is already available to the citizens of Gibraltar and the Falkland Islands. That of course gives rise to some sensitivity in other territories of a different racial mix. She also rightly identified two points of great irritation to the citizens of dependent territories: when they come to Britain they have to go through the "other nationality" channel, and if they go to Europe, they need a visa. I hope that it will be possible for us to remove those irritations.

Mrs. Virginia Bottomley

In the light of the Foreign Secretary's answer, what assurance can he give that such treatment will be consistent with the handling of the people of Hong Kong?

Mr. Cook

Our proposal is to improve the consistency of treatment of citizens of overseas territories. At present, two territories have citizenship and the rest do not. Our proposal provides even-handed and consistent treatment for all our remaining overseas territories. Those who still represent or live in our overseas territories find it hard to be told that they cannot have citizenship because of what were the rules for Hong Kong, but now it is no longer a dependent territory.

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