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I recently visited Monte Cassino, the scene of the battle for Rome in world war two. Between 17 January and 18 May 1944, four battles were fought there. The soldiers involved on our side were called allied troops but, with the exception of the Polish forces who finally went over the top, they came from Commonwealth
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countries. A total of 54,000 men from Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India and Canada were lost, as well as a number of Gurkhas. The reality of what happened came home to me during my visit. The separate cemeteries contain many thousands of tombstones, and I was struck by the ages of the troops buried there. Most of them were in their late 20s or their 30s and 40s, and most would have been married with families. That explains why, in my village, there were a lot of single-parent families and ladies who remained single. As a child, I did not understand that there were no men because they had gone away to fight battles as part of the Commonwealth.

After the war, shoals of people from New Zealand and Australia came to the UK on six-week boat voyages. They fly here nowadays, and many if not all of them are skilled. They are doctors, dentists, nurses, farmers, accountants and lawyers, or experts in banking, finance or construction. Some stay, others move on to other parts of the world, and some go back. For decades, university graduates have been among New Zealand’s biggest exports, and in the main they have come to this country. However, the UK has become a progressively less receptive home country over the past few years. Entry is slowly becoming more difficult, and I believe that that is to the UK’s disadvantage.

People from New Zealand, Australia, Canada and South Africa are exactly the type of immigrants whom this country needs. In general, they have high skills, earn high net incomes and pay a lot of tax. They are almost invisible to the social services, and they integrate well into British society. After all, most of them have parents, grandparents or even great-grandparents who came, either directly or indirectly, from the UK. They share culture, language and heritage with people here and, although they tend to play slightly better rugby, they blend in and add value to the UK. That ability to blend in here was recognised at last Saturday’s rugby grand slam game, as the Welsh national rugby team have a coach who comes from New Zealand. [ Interruption. ] I had to say that.

The UK is increasingly closing the door on Commonwealth immigration. Australians and New Zealanders never took advantage of their ability to go through the channel for aliens at airport immigration, even though it is often the quicker way through, but their degrees in medicine, dentistry, accounting and the law are not being accepted as they have been in the past. I find that extraordinary. Highly trained professional people who come to the UK are being required to sit extra exams so that they can work here, even though they all speak English and the quality of their degrees is every bit as good as the ones conferred in this country.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I have much sympathy with what my honourable colleague is saying, and I want to reassure him that the UK standards authority is not adopting a punitive approach. The requirement to sit extra exams is often to ensure that international standards are complied with. Moreover, some countries do not accept British qualifications, unless the people who hold them do top-up exams.

Sir Paul Beresford: That is an interesting intervention, but the requirement is not reciprocal. I do not believe that the standards in New Zealand, Australia, Canada
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and so on should differ from the ones that apply here. If degrees from the United Kingdom are acceptable in those countries—as they are—there should be reciprocation, especially as a disproportionate number of the medical, dental and legal teaching staff of UK universities are New Zealanders and Australians. The same applies in the United States and Canada, but without the same difficulties.

Andrew Mackinlay: It is the same for secondary schools.

Sir Paul Beresford: Indeed.

It is worth re-emphasising the contribution to the UK’s academic background and academic progress made by the old Commonwealth nations. Lord Rutherford began the process, and it has continued. To refer to my original profession, at a time when the NHS is looking for dentists, and we are encouraging Polish and Indian graduates to come to the UK, we are shutting down on people from Australia and New Zealand, who could be every bit as good.

I am further disappointed to find that the UK proposes to cut visitors visas. At present, UK visitors to Australia and New Zealand can have six-month visitor visas. If the UK visitor finds work that is beneficial to New Zealand or Australia, they can apply for a two-year working visa without having to return to the UK to fill in the application form, which might lead to that person finding that the job has gone when they go back. The process is not reciprocated by the UK. First, the UK proposal to cut the period for the visitors visa from six to three months is an unpleasant slap in the face, and I hope the Government will rethink it. Secondly, will they also rethink the requirement that people must return to Australia or New Zealand to apply for an extension or change to their work permit?

Even more upsetting is the proposal to abolish ancestral visas, which are a real link and recognise the special status of the Commonwealth—they do not apply only to Australia and New Zealand. They were introduced in 1972 to allow a Commonwealth citizen aged 17 or over to come to the UK provided that they could show that one of their grandparents or parents was born in the UK and that they intended to take or seek employment in the UK. After five years, the person can apply for settlement. The Home Office Green Paper suggests abolishing the kith and kin visa. I understand that the New Zealand and Australian Governments are, to put it mildly, very unimpressed. The timing of the suggestion is rather bad. This is the centennial year of New Zealand’s becoming a Dominion, yet the door has been closed even further.

The Commonwealth is very special for its people. In these difficult days, the United Kingdom needs to build on that family of nations and not destroy the willingness and desire to be in harmony with the United Kingdom in the Commonwealth.

2.53 pm

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): I am pleased to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate. Like earlier speakers, I stress the importance in the 21st century of the UK Government’s not undervaluing the potential of our
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links with the Commonwealth. In the past, when apartheid still ruled in South Africa, the Commonwealth, linking countries from north and south under the leadership of Sir Sonny Ramphal, was able to play an important and constructive role in the process that eventually led to the peaceful move from apartheid to a fully democratic Government in South Africa.

I listened with interest to the speech by the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford). In many ways his speech was moving, but when he spoke about the old Commonwealth he was, in effect, speaking about the white Commonwealth. To try to structure immigration and visa requirements so that they give the white Commonwealth privileges that are not available to the new Commonwealth is not tenable. It is, however, important to keep our links with the Commonwealth.

I remember when the ancestral visa to which the hon. Gentleman referred was introduced. That was before I was a Member of Parliament, but I used to work in the Home Office and took a particular interest in such issues. It was then called the patriality clause, and the point about the patriality clause was that at a time when the Government were bearing down on Commonwealth immigration generally, it allowed persons from the old Commonwealth—the white Commonwealth—access to this country that was denied to the Commonwealth as a whole. While I support the feeling behind the hon. Gentleman’s speech, the outcome of his proposals would be different sets of regulations for the old Commonwealth and the new Commonwealth. That would not be tenable, nor could I explain it to my constituents from new Commonwealth countries.

Sir Paul Beresford: I was concentrating on the old Commonwealth, but in fact the ancestry visa conditions apply across the Commonwealth; that is my first point. Secondly, the hon. Lady ought to understand, as she would if she had ever been to Australia or New Zealand, that many of the immigrants that go from this country to Australia or New Zealand are not white.

Ms Abbott: I am aware that in principle the ancestral visa conditions apply across the Commonwealth, but in practice the people best placed to take up the ancestral visa have always been people from the old Commonwealth, who are more likely to have had parents and grandparents who were born here. In practice, if we look at the numbers, the people who have benefited from the old patriality clause and what is now called the ancestral visa were overwhelmingly people from the old Commonwealth. I say again that I understand the hon. Gentleman’s feelings of sentiment as a New Zealander. I would contend that people from the Caribbean and India feel as strongly about Commonwealth links, in their own way, as people from New Zealand and Australia, and it is simply not tenable to sustain arrangements that give people from the old Commonwealth advantages over those from the new Commonwealth.

Simon Hughes: This is an important and topical issue. May I put it to the hon. Lady that there are strong views on the subject in the Caribbean communities in this country? The hon. and learned Member for
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Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) and I attended a meeting upstairs with representatives of the Jamaican community, and they were as troubled by the removal of the ancestry clause as those people whose concerns were reflected by the hon. Member for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford). The numbers may in theory make the issue of more interest to people from Australia and New Zealand, but in terms of strength of commitment, the issue is just as important to third-generation Caribbean people in this country.

Ms Abbott: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I think that the concern that he is speaking about is a more general concern that people in the Caribbean feel about the way that the tide of change in immigration and visa requirements has weakened their links to this country generally. The truth is that it would be very unusual for someone from the Caribbean to be able to take advantage of what was the patriality clause, and is now the ancestral visa. However, that was my response to the very interesting speech by the hon. Member for Mole Valley.

I want to talk about a particular group of countries in the Commonwealth—those in the British-speaking Caribbean. I should, I suppose, declare an interest, because my family are from Jamaica, I retain strong links of family and friendship with the region, I am the chairman of the British Caribbean all-party group and I write regularly for newspapers in the region. I have stronger ties to it, possibly, than many people in the Chamber.

The first thing to say about the Commonwealth Caribbean—this follows on from the previous speech—is that I would contend that people in the Commonwealth Caribbean countries feel as strong a tie to the United Kingdom as anyone from New Zealand, Australia or Canada. As I said in an intervention, I sometimes take exception to some of the debate on citizenship and nationality, in which it seems to be assumed that immigrants need to be coaxed to feel British, need to be taught how to be British, or need a period of probation before they can be fully regarded as British. I entirely accept that the Government are entitled to have clear and firm rules on immigration and nationality. I entirely accept that citizenship is a proper issue for debate.

I take exception on behalf of my parents and their generation to the notion that that generation of immigrants from the Caribbean needed to be taught about being British. In many ways, they were prouder of being British than anybody in this Chamber can imagine. In fact, one of their disappointments in coming to this country in the ’50s and ’60s was that the British people, whom they had put on such a pedestal and been taught to admire and revere, occasionally did not accord with their idea of British values and what Britishness was all about. That is the paradox. Those people so revered the British that when they came here they were disappointed that the British were not as British as they had been taught to believe. I make that point because that generation is passing away. We have a debate about nationality now that assumes that immigrants have a strangeness and insularity that is certainly not true of Commonwealth immigrants.

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I want to put on the record my sense of sadness at the way in which the Commonwealth in general and the Caribbean in particular appear to have slipped down the agenda when it comes to the concerns of the Foreign Office and Ministers. There are a number of reasons for that. It is partly because a generation of Members of Parliament who had live and direct links with the Caribbean have passed away. Not many Members of Parliament now could remember the young Michael Manley and the young Caribbean politicians who came here to study in the ’50s and ’60s. There are no politicians on the Opposition Benches like Bowen Wells, the former MP for Hertford and Stortford, who had a passionate commitment to the Caribbean because of long-standing business links with the region. A generation of politicians who had those links with the Caribbean—for whatever reason, be it business, politics or personal experience—are no longer here.

In every conceivable way, the Caribbean has slid down the agenda: in the number of staff working on Caribbean matters in the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development; in the seniority of Ministers who take responsibility for Caribbean matters; and in the amount of aid that goes to the Caribbean. I can let the House into a secret. There were Caribbean leaders who used to say that they preferred John Major to Tony Blair, because at least with John Major they could talk to him about cricket.

Simon Hughes: And he had lived elsewhere in the Commonwealth.

Ms Abbott: He had. Anyway, I threw that fact in as a matter of general interest.

One of the other reasons why the Caribbean has slid down the agenda of Her Majesty’s Government is that it is talked about in development and Foreign Office circles as a middle-income country. The notion is that Britain should focus on the poorest countries and not middle-income countries like Jamaica, Trinidad, Barbados or Guyana.

I put it to the House that the global and general figures for income and GDP in the Caribbean mask poverty every bit as severe and savage as can be found in countries that are commonly regarded as poorer. Not only that, but the general figures that would indicate a middle-income country mask a poverty and deprivation that has a power to impact on this country in a way that poverty and deprivation in countries further afield cannot. If there is a dispute about guns and drugs in Kingston, it will be resolved on the streets of the inner city in Hackney, Brixton and Southwark. Whatever Ministers might feel about the relevance of Caribbean matters in 2008, in practical and community politics the links that bind the fate of the Caribbean region to the fate of this country’s inner cities are very close indeed. It is not wise or sensible to say, “We’ve moved on—they are middle income. What is the significance of this now?” If they catch a cold in Kingston, they are sneezing in Hackney.

I want to say something else about the way in which the Caribbean has slid down the agenda. Wherever we go in the Commonwealth, we see that the people there take their links with Britain more seriously than, sadly,
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people in Britain now take their links with the Commonwealth. I have spoken in this debate in order to flag up my sense, which is reflected in some of the facts and figures, that the Caribbean and its concerns have slid down the agenda. I responded to the, in many ways effective, speech that we heard earlier on behalf of the old Commonwealth because it is very important that in talking about Commonwealth links, we always try to talk about the Commonwealth as a whole. As I said earlier, the strength of feeling about the British links is as strong in the Caribbean and other parts of the new Commonwealth as it is in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

The first of the issues of concern to the Caribbean that I want Ministers to take on board relates to trade, the economic partnership agreements and the economies of the countries of the Caribbean. The British-speaking Caribbean as a whole consists of the islands that sugar made, and by that I mean islands whose social structures, economic and trade patterns and even patterns of transport links are all rooted in patterns that grew up under the mono-culture of plantation-produced sugar. Of course, the world has moved on and the Caribbean cannot continue to rely on what used to be called imperial preferences. It must open its markets and embrace the opportunities that free markets and free trade offer it, but we have to remember that—be it shipping or air links, the structure of financial services or even patterns of employment and education—it is still, even to this day, very much shaped and structured by the experience of a region that for more than a century was dependent on one or two major cash crops.

Money is available now to move the Caribbean forward to take advantage of the economic partnership agreements, but more needs to be done to enable that money to be drawn down from the European Union, and to ensure that that funding is not just sucked in by Governments and corporations, but actually helps the people on the ground who are suffering from the transition from the traditional crops of sugar and bananas. We cannot overstate the difficulties that some of the poorest people in the Caribbean are facing with the move from traditional cash crops to a completely different economic era.

I stress to Ministers that it is in our interests to ensure that the very poorest people of the Caribbean do not suffer unduly from free markets and free trade, not because it is a humanitarian thing to do, which it is, but because, even though the sugar and banana cash crop industries that we are seeing the end of are a declining part of the economies of those countries in income terms, they are still the largest employers of male manual labour in the region. If they are allowed to crash without sufficient attention being paid to the transition, we will not have cane-cutters in Westmorland, Jamaica, becoming computer inputters; banana farmers in St. Lucia will not become maids in hotels. The redeployment and the transition that take place will not be as imagined by civil servants, with men in their 40s and 50s suddenly becoming white collar workers. It will be a redeployment and transition into the drugs trade.

I have argued time and again in the House that Government need to make the link between the war against drugs and their policies in relation to trade,
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employment and economic development in the region. Unless we have meaningful policies for trade and economic development in the region, we will find it very hard to fight the drugs trade. What is an unskilled young man in one of those countries to do if the sugar or banana industry, where he or his father once found a living, is collapsing? That is the question to be asked. I am aware that funding is available from the EU to help with the transitional phase, but more attention needs to be paid to how easy it is to draw down that funding and whether it is reaching the people and the communities who most desperately need help in the period of transition.

The topic of immigration has come up in the context of ancestral visas. I am a little sceptical about the argument for them, because I know the history and what they were intended to do. Another issue is the arrangements that we are proposing in relation to nationality, which would almost force people to decide between taking British citizenship and abandoning the passport of their country of origin. Up till now it has been possible to be a resident of the United Kingdom and to have all the rights associated with that status, but still to hold on to a Commonwealth passport, with no diminution of rights.

Ministers, I think, do not understand why people would do that. Why would they want to be in this country for 30 or 40 years and still not apply for British citizenship? It does not make sense. That is what Ministers think, and that is why they are seeking to force people to abandon their Jamaican or Trinidadian passports and become British citizens. I should say that I forced my own parents to do that many years ago because I could see where things were going. It makes no sense, but it is about sentiment.

Some of the most loyal British residents are people who have held on to the passport of their country of birth, not because they lack commitment to Britain, not because they are not prepared to play a full part in British society, but for reasons of sentiment. It would be wrong to force people to give up the passport issued by their country of birth, on the basis of some notion that not getting British citizenship means that, in some sense, they lack commitment to this country.

One of the ways in which we have helped the Caribbean is through the work, help, support and funding that we have given to fight crime. That is valued throughout the region but particularly in Jamaica, especially the deployment of British officers to support the Jamaican police force. Mark Shields, who is very senior in the Jamaican police force and who at one time served in Hackney, is a hero in Jamaica and very well respected. The general support that we have given and the deployment of officers out there is valued, and long may it continue.

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