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2.15 pm

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South): It was, and it may well remain, my intention to make a brief contribution. I must be honest, however, that in view of the breathtaking hypocrisy of the general political points made by the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring), I am tempted to speak for far longer.

One of the main thrusts of the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks echoed what Baroness Rawlings said about waiting too long for the legislation. Perhaps four years is too long, but had the Tories been elected in 1997 we would still be waiting for a report, and we would probably still be waiting in 2005. It is a little strange to hear the hon. Gentleman claim that we have been waiting too long.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned Lord Waddington. He said in his contribution to the debate in another place that he had raised the possibility of restoring British citizenship to the British dependent territories when he was Governor of Bermuda. The then Tory Government made it clear that there was no possibility of that being considered while there was still a threat from Hong Kong and, even if that threat were to recede, they would still be highly unlikely to restore British citizenship to citizens of the British dependent territories.

Peter Bradley: Although Lord Waddington made a thoughtful contribution to the debate in the House of Lords, it is worth pointing out that before he was the high commissioner for Bermuda he was Home Secretary and would have had more influence had he made that suggestion then.

I want to reiterate a point that my hon. Friend raised in his intervention. Never mind waiting for the legislation, it would not be necessary to legislate had it not been for the British Nationality Act 1981 and previous legislation enacted by the Conservatives.

Mr. Marshall: Naturally, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments, but I wish that I had refrained from giving way because he makes two of my main points.

Lord Waddington was one of the most illiberal Ministers ever to serve in the Home Office. My hon. Friend might have forgotten—I am sure that the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), who also served on the Standing Committee that considered

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the 1981 Act, will remember—that prior to Lord Waddington becoming Home Secretary he was the Minister of State responsible for interpreting and deciding immigration matters. As someone who wrote to him in that capacity, I cannot remember him ever giving a favourable response to a request for people in this country to be permitted to stay. As I said, he was one of the most illiberal Ministers to occupy high office in the Home Department.

The hon. Member for West Suffolk also referred to St. Helena. I almost cried for the island and its population. I appreciate their difficulties, but the Opposition are shedding crocodile tears. The hon. Gentleman referred to the royal charter granting the status of St. Helena and the right of its people to come to the United Kingdom. I remind him that the British Nationality Act 1981 removed those rights. I can only say, with due diffidence on my own part, that in the Committee proceedings on that Bill we protested against that, but the then Tory Government were impervious to our arguments and rode roughshod over those historical rights. It ill behoves the Opposition now to criticise the Government when the primary responsibility is theirs, and we are restoring rights to people who had them removed.

I certainly welcome the Bill without reservation. As the Under-Secretary said, it restores the right of citizenship of, and abode in, the United Kingdom to those people who are currently citizens of the British dependent territories. In view of the way in which I voted last night, it is a pleasure to be able to say publicly that, on this occasion, the Government are to be applauded.

I say that not only because of the contents of the Bill but because for the first time since 1966, nearly four decades ago, we have legislation on nationality and immigration which gives people a right—the right of abode in this country. For the past 40 years, each piece of legislation on nationality and immigration has successively taken away rights, ultimately removing all right of entry to, and of abode in, the United Kingdom. I certainly applaud the Foreign Secretary and the Under-Secretary, who has introduced the Bill today.

As I have already said, I served on the Standing Committee that considered the British Nationality Bill in 1981. There are still a few of us left in the House. I have already mentioned the hon. Member for Ruislip- Northwood. We also have the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), who then went under the name Selwyn Gummer, and the hon. Member for East Hampshire (Mr. Mates), who was then the hon. Member for Petersfield; namely Michael Mates. I mention his name in case some hon. Members do not know to whom I am referring.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. It is normal just to refer to the hon. Member's constituency, and I do not think that there is any need to spell it out for the House.

Mr. Marshall: I am aware of the propriety and the rules of the House, but I was trying to be helpful.

To show how long the Tories have been involved in racist nationality and immigration legislation, and how high within the party that involvement ultimately went,

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I should also point out that the Tory Whip on the Committee was a Mr. John Major, who subsequently became Prime Minister.

Tony Baldry: I think that we have had enough of this. Will the hon. Gentleman be fair-minded and acknowledge to the House that the Government would not be introducing this Bill now if Hong Kong were still a dependent territory?

Mr. Marshall: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I have no intention of hiding away from the problem that Hong Kong posed, so I shall come to that question. [Interruption.] I did not hear what the hon. Member for West Suffolk said.

John Austin: It was not worth hearing.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. That is a good example of how sedentary interventions simply disturb the debate.

Mr. Marshall: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I sought to intervene on several occasions during the speech by the hon. Member for West Suffolk by rising in the normal manner, rather than trying to make my comments from a sedentary position. Unfortunately, he refused to give way. If he wishes to intervene and repeat his remarks so that I can hear them, I will give way.

Mr. Spring: I apologise to the hon. Gentleman for not giving way to him, but I did not see him rise. I hope that he acknowledges that I generously gave way to a number of his colleagues.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the hypocrisy of our supporting the Bill after we complained that, although the way was clear for it to be introduced after 1997, there was a delay in doing so. Following the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), he then admitted that that was due to the Hong Kong situation. I do not see where the hypocrisy is, and I feel that his remarks were neither called for nor fair.

Mr. Marshall: They were totally fair and they were called for. There was no reason for the then Tory Government to treat the 200,000 people who are now citizens of British dependent territories in that way just to protect the position of Hong Kong. If they had wished, they could have allowed those people to be British citizens, with the right of abode in this country, even if they could not allow them to retain citizenship of the United Kingdom and colonies. Unfortunately, 200,000 people scattered around the world have had to suffer an injustice because the Tory Government in 1981 were not prepared to give them justice. They had to suffer for that Government's decisions on Hong Kong.

Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford): As a new Member of the House, may I ask the hon. Gentleman whether he agrees that we should not waste time discussing what previous Governments did, and that our time would be better spent considering how we can now benefit the people of the overseas territories? Does he agree that it is rather strange that we are debating the future of people in

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the British overseas territories who have no right to vote in British elections or to have a democratic say in what goes on in this House?

Mr. Marshall: I can only say in my defence that I dwell—I hope at not too great a length—on the events of 20 years ago because, since I came into the House in 1974, I have always sought to protect the rights of British citizens both in this country and overseas. I have witnessed, particularly between 1979 and 1997, increasingly racist nationality and immigration law. I hope that this Bill now closes that chapter. We are seeing that trend reversed, which is why I so warmly welcome the Bill.

Mr. Wilkinson: Does not the hon. Gentleman find it interesting, and does not he draw any conclusions from the fact, that Her Majesty's Government have seen fit to introduce the Bill to grant British citizenship to people living in the overseas territories but have introduced no measure to end the statelessness of children of British overseas citizens born in east Africa?

Mr. Marshall: Again, the hon. Gentleman anticipates a point that I hope eventually to reach.

Returning to the Standing Committee on the British Nationality Bill, you will recall, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the legislation sought to bring into line nationality and immigration law at the same time. It abolished the citizenship of the United Kingdom and colonies, and introduced three types of citizenship for the people concerned: British citizenship, citizenship of British dependent territories and citizenship of British overseas territories. Only the first of those conferred the right of abode in the United Kingdom.

Despite the overwhelming strength of the arguments that Labour Members advanced in the Committee on the 1981 Act—we were led by Lord Hattersley, who had by far the better of the debate—we failed to persuade the Tory Government of the day of the injustice inherent in the legislation. That Government were so obsessed with the potential threat of mass migration to the United Kingdom from Hong Kong on its being handed over to China that they were prepared to ride roughshod over the claims of 200,000 people living in the other dependent territories. We repeatedly levelled that charge and the Tory Government never convincingly refuted it. I am delighted that that injustice is now to be removed.

I wish that the current Government had been bolder and taken the opportunity to restore rights to British overseas citizens. The Tory spokesman and the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood mentioned stateless children in the Cayman Islands and in Kenya. My understanding of previous debates and of remarks made by Foreign Office Ministers is that if there are stateless children, they will be given British citizenship. I would like to hear the Minister's comments and his estimate of how many people are involved.

A decision has to be made on the position of British overseas citizenship, which is held by a group of people who are scattered throughout the world. Their numbers are dwindling and many are elderly, so a decision would not cause large numbers of new British citizens. Furthermore, that category of citizenship is racially discriminatory. For those reasons, I urge the Government to be bolder and to restore rights to British overseas citizens.

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I also urge the Government to recreate a single British citizenship, which would cover not only British overseas citizens, but British protected persons, British subjects and British nationals (overseas). The three latter categories of person should also be brought within the ambit of British citizenship.

I apologise for having taken the House down a path that leads back 20 years. I welcome the legislation, but I urge the Government to turn their mind to introducing a single British citizenship, so that we can do away with the various categories that I have described.

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