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Damian Green: The Minister is right that those are extremely interesting figures. He said that the Chagossian community in Britain is about 1,000. Is that number fairly stable or has it been growing in recent years?
Mr. Woolas: My understanding is that that number is fairly stable; I have no evidence that the movement is exponential or that the curve is getting steeper. However, I want to emphasise that that number is an estimate. It is better than a guess, but it is an estimate none the less. There are no accurate figures on the number of Chagossians in the UK.
The Committee will want to know the Government’s position on this issue. The proposal in new clause 1 is to extend British citizenship to a further generation of Chagossians; that is, to the children of the children who, it is argued, would have been born in qualifying territories if the resettlement had not taken place.
Tom Brake: Does the Minister also acknowledge that, to some extent, the 1969 cut-off date is not entirely fair? As he said himself, the fact is that ships stopped going to the Chagos islands and a lot of people had to move out before that. So that 1969 cut-off date is not an actual fixed point.
Mr. Woolas: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. Indeed, I said that the resettlement started in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The particular date in 1969—I think that it was a date in August 1969—does not take on board the practical point about the ships that he made. The difficulty that the Government have is that we are talking about children of children and what could have happened to those people retrospectively, if the Committee follows my logic.
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In the debate on this subject in the other place, Lord Brett expressed sympathy on behalf of the Government for the circumstances that had brought about the situation. The vast majority of Chagossians who from 1969 onwards resettled from the British Indian Ocean Territory—principally Diego Garcia, but the other islands as well—are now in Mauritius, which of course is not covered. The new clause seeks to address what the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington sees as an imbalance in the rights of former residents of the Chagos islands, and would enable children who were born outside the islands, potentially due to the resettlement of their parents, to acquire British citizenship in the same way as they would have done but for that resettlement.
The intended beneficiaries of the provision, if I understand the new clause correctly, would be second generation Chagossians born outside the British Indian Ocean Territory and the UK qualifying territories—not those who were resettled, but their children. The new clause seeks to ensure that those children are able to pass on the right to citizenship to future generations born to them outside the UK qualifying territories.
In discussing the new clause, I have been made aware of discussions being held between the Foreign Office and the Chagossians and their representatives on the broad range of issues relating to resettlement. The hon. Gentleman referred to the all-party group on the Chagos islands, which I understand last met on 30 May and is giving support to those representations on resettlement. The principal issue they have raised with us is their right, or suggested right, to resettle on the islands, rather than—not instead of—the issue of resettlement. Of course, Miss Begg, you would not allow me to address that issue here because it is not covered by the Bill. Suffice it to say, we are sympathetic to the position of second, and subsequent, generation Chagossians who were born in Mauritius or the Seychelles. I appreciate that is not the issue raised in the new clause, but I thought it would help the Committee to know that that was our focus.
Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): There is some merit in the Minister setting the debate in a wider context. Has he had any advice about the consequences of accepting or not accepting the new clause for the various sovereignty claims to the islands? Mauritius has made a claim on the British Indian Ocean Territory and may have understandings about what will happen when the United States finishes using Diego Garcia. I cannot remember the position, although I knew it once. There could be implications for the rights of people who are citizens of the British Indian Ocean Territory by descent but who are now in Mauritius and the other islands.
Mr. Woolas: The straightforward answer is no, although I absolutely see the hon. Gentleman’s point. There is a relationship between the issue addressed by the new clause and the issue I have just raised, and I will take that up with my colleague in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I cannot remember who that Minister is after the reshuffle but I think it is still my noble Friend Lord Malloch-Brown, or at least it was at 9 o’clock—please do not put that in Hansard. [Interruption.] I am advised that it is my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda.
Moving swiftly on to the bit we are interested in, citizenship, otherwise than by descent, that can be transmitted to the next generation, born outside the UK, can only be acquired by persons who are born in the UK or a qualifying territory, who are naturalised in the UK, or who are born outside the UK or a qualifying territory to a British citizen in particular circumstances, for example a British citizen in the Crown service.
Furthermore, Chagossians who are British citizens through living in Mauritius or other parts of the Indian ocean could, if they so choose, elect to live in the United Kingdom. We understand, as I have already said, that some have done so. That means that any child born to them in the UK or a qualifying territory would acquire British citizenship automatically at birth by virtue of being born to a British citizen.
When a child has not been born in the UK but has been born in Mauritius or another part of the Indian Ocean it is probable that they will have acquired the citizenship of the state in which they were born. Any decision to allow British citizens by descent with a connection with the British Indian Ocean Territory to pass on their citizenship could lead to representations from other British citizens. British citizens by descent who are ordinarily resident in the UK and who have children born to them outside the UK cannot transmit their citizenship under section 2 of the 1981 Act, unless—there is a caveat—they are working in specified employment under Crown or designated service.
The policy on transmission of British citizenship by persons who hold that status by descent only is, therefore, strictly applied. The policy is designed to ensure that children born outside the UK to a British citizen by descent acquire British citizenship only when there is an ongoing close connection with the UK—the principle will also apply in my arguments on new clause 6—and, therefore, in cases where that connection is broken, on a temporary basis only. It is thus inappropriate to amend the class of British citizenship acquired by that group. So to amend would lead to similar representations from others who have British citizenship by descent only. There is no adequate case for such an extension.
Damian Green: I hear what the Minister says. This seems to be the central point where numbers come in. He has just said that the proposal would set a precedent for other groups of people. What rough quantum of numbers are we talking about?
Mr. Woolas: I thought I had been through that.
Tom Brake: I think that the hon. Member for Ashford is asking what are the other categories of people whose claims the Minister says would be reinforced if the Chagos islanders were granted permission.
Our policy is consistent and empathetic to Chagossians when there has been an application by the first generation and when we have been able to use the powers that we have to grant citizenship, but those children, who may be grown up now, of course, who have acquired citizenship of another country—predominantly Mauritius—have no such close connection with the United Kingdom. Therefore, retrospectively, to turn that back would imply difficulty, although that is not quite the right use of the word “retrospectively”. We do not see how the Government can separate the nationality rights of Chagossians from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s general policy regarding the Chagos islands. That relates to the point made by the hon. Member for Reigate.
Although the Government have not sought to justify the actions taken in the 1960s and 1970s, we have maintained the line that our obligations—legal and otherwise—have been settled by previous compensation awards, and by the grant of British citizenship under the 2002 Act. If hon. Members are concerned that we have shut the door on Chagossians, the provisions in that Act should be borne in mind, although, to be fair, I think that the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington has acknowledged that point, if not today, during previous debates.
The British Indian Ocean Territory is currently British sovereign territory—none of it is US territory. Recently, Foreign Office Ministers have repeated publicly, and have given the commitment to the Mauritians, that when the UK no longer requires the BIOT for defence purposes, we will cede the territory to Mauritius. Of course, we have given no indication of the time scale for that, but it is important because it will transfer rights to Mauritians, which we think is the best way to address the wrong that the hon. Gentleman wants addressed.
The UK-US agreement was signed in 1966 and resettlement continued until 1973, when of course there was a Conservative Government. I take the point made by the hon. Member for Ashford about Harold Wilson, but I think Edward Heath continued the policy.
I have tried at some length to show how our strategy will address the problem raised by the new clause but without the associated difficulties. As the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington said, new clause 6, on stateless minors, would extend current provisions that enable a person born stateless outside the United Kingdom or qualifying territories to a British national, to acquire the same type of British nationality as their parent. That relates to provisions in schedule 2(4) to the British Nationality Act 1981.
It is not unreasonable to insist on a period of residence before registering a stateless person. I shall address the example given by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington. The entitlement to British citizenship should not be available to someone with no ties to the United Kingdom or with only a distant connection, such as a grandparent or a parent’s connection through a former colony. Those who acquire British citizenship, and therefore the right to abode in the UK, should have a real association with this country, such as through a period of residence. Despite our commitment to reducing statelessness, we can only go so far to compensate for the fact that other nations do not share that commitment, and so do not provide for the acquisition of citizenship by children born in their territory.
Indeed, I fear that some countries would abuse such a change were we to make it. I can think of several countries that would do so—as I am sure the Committee can. It should give the hon. Gentleman some reassurance in his campaign to hear that the requirements under schedule 2 of the British Nationality Act 1981 are in accordance with article 4 of the United Nations convention on the reduction of statelessness, because the fear is that a country that was not signed up to the convention could discriminate against groups—perhaps minorities—by denying them citizenship of their country in the belief that it would be taken advantage of if signatory countries made those changes.
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If we accept the proposed new clause, it would allow children born overseas to British overseas citizens and British subjects to become British citizens if they would otherwise be stateless. To illustrate my point, I shall give an example of how that could work. When Uganda became independent in 1963, despite having been born in Uganda, a large number of citizens of the UK and the colonies did not acquire Ugandan citizenship because neither parent was born there. Such people became British overseas citizens and may now have children—a second generation born in Uganda—who cannot acquire citizenship because under current Uganda law, a child born there would not be a citizen if neither a parent or a grandparent is or was a member of an indigenous community that existed, incredibly, in 1926 or was a citizen at the time of the child’s birth. I am not sure from where that date came, but that is the law there.
The amendment would mean that a child born to such a British overseas citizen parent would be able to register as a British citizen and would therefore have a right to abode here without the child or parent having a close connection to the UK. The United Kingdom makes adequate provision for children born stateless who have a connection with the UK or an overseas territory to acquire citizenship. In doing so, we believe that we meet our international obligations as set out in the 1961 convention.
Let me further reassure the Committee on the point about discretion. As has been said, we do not give a guarantee that if people move to the UK they will acquire citizenship. However, if they live here for three years before applying on behalf of their children, the law provides a registration entitlement under paragraph 4 of schedule 2 to the 1981 Act. That means that there is no need for discretion to be exercised under section 3(1), which relates to an open discretion to register a child. However, schedule 2, paragraph 4 provides for stateless children born outside the UK whose parents are British citizens, British overseas territory citizens, British overseas citizens or British subjects. If they moved to the UK for three years, under that paragraph they would be able to apply for the child’s registration. Subject to the normal good character-type caveats, schedule 2, paragraph 4 provides not for ministerial discretion but for that entitlement. In a way, schedule 3 is an open discretion.
I am more than happy to look at the specific example that the hon. Gentleman used, but my understanding—I caveat my answer with that—is that the advice we gave was that they could come here. His concern that there was no guarantee—that it was a pig in a poke for them—is covered by schedule 2, paragraph 4. Again, I am trying to suggest that we have a strategy to meet the point without the consequential dangers.
I must move on; I am being urged to do so from both sides of the Committee. The final amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington relates to a difficult area of policy: the rights or supposed rights of illegitimate children of British fathers. I have been asked whether we have any estimate of how many such people there are. Her Majesty’s Government have no such estimate. We have not made one.
It is not known how many illegitimate children of British fathers there are in the world. It is an area of speculation that I do not wish to get into. It assumes many things, such as whether the father knows—in my speaking notes, it says “in my experience”. The point has been made. It is a serious question, though, and I respect it. The answer is that we do not have an estimate, and neither do we have experience that could allow us to make a fair extrapolation.
The new clause would enable registration by any person born illegitimately to a British citizen father before 2006. The hon. Gentleman’s point of principle is important, because the rights of children born illegitimately should be recognised as a general principle, and we did so in the 2006 Act. He is very reasonably trying to right a wrong, but let me again describe our approach.
We now come to the Secretary of State’s discretion exercised in relation to those born illegitimately to a British father. The discretion is exercised under the broad remit of section 3(1) of the 1981 Act, which came into force in 1983, to enable the registration of children born before 1 July 2006 who are the illegitimate children of British citizens or settled fathers. That has been the case since the Family Law Reform Act 1987 removed any distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children in other areas of law.
Parliament changed the law on 1 July 2006 to enable British citizen fathers to pass on their citizenship to a child born to them out of wedlock. The change, however, was not made retrospective, because of the difficulties that would have been created for those affected in relation to any other citizenships that they held. That is, of course, still the case.
The policy adopted in relation to the exercise of discretion under section 3(1) is that registration can take place if the Home Secretary is satisfied about the paternity of the child, all those with parental responsibility have consented, the good character requirement is met and if, had the child been born to the father legitimately, he or she would have had an automatic claim to British citizenship or an entitlement to registration.
The exercise of discretion under section 3(1) applies only to those who are minors on the date of application for British citizenship. There is no power in law, discretionary or otherwise, to register as a British citizen a person who was born illegitimately to a British citizen father before 2006 and who is now an adult.
The question of numbers is complicated by the fact that many of those who were illegitimate at birth may since have been legitimised by the marriage of their parents. Many children born illegitimately to a British citizen father between 1983—the onset of the 1981 Act, from when retrospective discretion is applied—and 2006 will have become British by virtue of being born to a British citizen mother. Many people will have been registered under the discretion exercised by the Secretary of State as long as they were minors on the date of application. Many others born illegitimately before the change in law who are now adults may well have naturalised as British citizens under section 6 of the British Nationality Act 1981. However, it is impossible to say.
In addition to the guessing game—I say this not to score points but to put it on the record—I am advised that the new clause is technically incomplete in that it does not determine whether someone registered under it would acquire British citizenship by descent or otherwise than by descent and so reflect the precise circumstances of their birth. There is also a minor technical difficulty. The hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington recognised that the 2006 Act addressed the principal issue. We effectively apply that through our discretion retrospectively to 1983, but to do so further would be a step into the unknown. It would be a difficult move to take.
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