Last outposts of empire are denied British passports

Click to follow
AN embarrassing new conflict has erupted between senior Government ministers - this time over plans by Robin Cook, the Foreign Secretary, to grant full UK passports to around 150,000 inhabitants of the last remnants of the British empire.

Mr Cook's proposal to extend full UK nationality to the British Dependent Territories, which he hoped to announce in 10 days' time, has been put on hold after a forceful intervention by Jack Straw, the Home Secretary. After the Brown-Blair split over the Chancellor's biography, this dispute again sets Cabinet colleagues against each other.

The awarding of passports was to have been the centrepiece of a review of the territories ordered by Mr Cook after the row over the Montserrat volcano eruption last year. Government insiders say the Foreign Secretary is furious that he will now be unable to announce anything much more than a change in title to the British Overseas Territories.

The Foreign Secretary had hoped to produce concrete proposals before his visit to Montserrat later next month. The Home Office's intransigence will come as a big blow to the territories, which have long battled for full nationality rights.

Mr Cook, who will give a keynote address at the Dependent Territories Association conference in London on 4 February, is refusing to concede defeat. For the time being, though, he has agreed there is no prospect of rapid change.

Today, citizens of just two of the 13 dependent territories - the Falklands and Gibraltar - have full UK passports. The territories affected, all colonised by Britain but not granted independence, are: Anguilla, Bermuda, the British Antarctic Territory, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Montserrat, Pitcairn, St Helena, South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, and the Turks and Caicos Islands. They range in size from Bermuda, which boasts thriving tourist and financial sectors and a population of 61,000, to Pitcairn, with just 58 people. Those who live on the islands are not allowed to reside permanently in the UK and require permits to work here and visas for travel to other EU nations.

The Conservative government resisted any change in status because of the large number of Hong Kong citizens who would be eligible for passports. But with the handover to China completed, Mr Cook is keen to provide the 150,000 people remaining in the last vestiges of the former empire with passports.

His department argues that most of those who would benefit are unlikely to want to settle in the UK. He is making the proposal because he wants to tighten up the relaxed financial regulations in the territories which have seen many become offshore tax havens. He sees citizenship as the only "carrot" to force through tough measures.

However, Mr Straw argues that the granting of passports is a major step which demands much more detailed discussion with other departments. He is also worried that Hong Hong citizens might try to claim the same rights retrospectively.