Chagos Islands
Oral Answers to Questions — Foreign and Commonwealth Office
3:33 pm

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Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)

(Urgent Question): To ask the Foreign Secretary if he will make a statement on the declaration of a marine protected area around the Chagos islands and what consultation took place before the announcement was made.

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Chris Bryant (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Europe), Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Rhondda, Labour)

On 1 April 2010, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary announced the creation of a marine protected area in the British Indian Ocean Territory. It will include a no-take marine reserve where fishing will be banned. The creation of the MPA is a major step forward for protecting the oceans not just around the territory itself but throughout the world.

The decision to establish a marine protected reserve was taken following a full public consultation and careful consideration of the many issues and interests involved. The response to the consultation was high, with more than a quarter of a million people registering a view. The great majority of those responses came in the form of petitions, but the response was so wide-ranging that it was global, including from private individuals, academic and scientific institutions, environmental organisations and networks, fishing and yachting interests, members of the Chagossian community, British Members of Parliament and peers and representatives of other Governments.

The great majority of respondents-well over 90 per cent.-made it clear that they supported greater marine protection of some sort in the Chagos archipelago in principle. However, the views on the proposal were mixed and the responses were not confined to the options listed in the consultation document. The announcement is the first key step in establishing an MPA. There is still much work to be considered and we intend to continue to work closely with all interested stakeholders, both in the UK and internationally, in implementing the reserve.

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Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North, Labour)

The Minister must be aware that on 10 March I was given an undertaking in a Westminster Hall debate that consultation with interested parties, Members of Parliament and the Chagossian community would take place before an announcement was made. No such consultation has taken place, and there has been no communication with me as chair of the all-party group on the Chagos islands or with the Chagossian communities living in Mauritius, the Seychelles or this country.

The Minister will also be aware, because he gave the apology on behalf of the Government, that a terrible wrong was committed against the Chagos islanders in the 1970s and 1980s, when they were driven out to make way for a US base. Every other marine protected area proposed anywhere in the world by anybody includes a local human element to protect the zone. He knows full well that the Chagos islanders support the MPA, but not with a no-take policy; they support it with a sustainable fishing policy that will enable a sustainable community to return to their islands to live and look after the MPA.

Finally, the Minister will also be aware that later this year the islanders' long fight for justice and human rights, which has been fought so that they can return to their islands, will be heard at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. Many of us believe that the islanders will be victorious. At that point, will he accept that the islanders' return can also be protective of the environment from which they were so cruelly snatched all those years ago?

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Chris Bryant (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Europe), Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Rhondda, Labour)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work that he does as chair of the all-party group. He has brought the views of the Chagossians to the attention of many people in this House and further afield, expressing with clear articulateness their rights and needs. However, I should just say to him that our decision to set up the MPA has no effect on our relationship with Mauritius; it does not change one jot the guarantees that we have made to its Government. Nor does it have any effect on our relationship with the Americans in respect of Diego Garcia or on the hearings that will be held later this year at the European Court of Human Rights-this decision is entirely without prejudice to those.

I apologise to my hon. Friend and to the House, because it became clear to us that, notwithstanding the commitment made to him in the debate, no further information could have come in that would have made any difference to the decision on the protection of the marine environment in the British Indian Ocean Territory. He referred to the question of whether there should be a no-take agreement or a sustainable fishing arrangement. The truth is that very few sustainable fishing arrangements around the world have ever been successful, which is why we believe it vital that there should be a no-take arrangement in this area. Extensive consultation did take place over several months, including with my hon. Friend, part of which was, of course, the Westminster Hall debate that he led.

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Keith Simpson (- Shadow Minister, Foreign Affairs; Mid Norfolk, Conservative)

I congratulate Jeremy Corbyn on raising this urgent question. He initiated the debate in Westminster Hall and the Minister might wish to think again about what the hon. Gentleman said about the lack of consultation with the Chagossians; at the very least, even at the public relations level, that was unfortunate.

It is appropriate that the House considers these issues before Parliament is dissolved, given that the Chagos islanders' case is before the European Court of Human Rights. There is a great deal of sympathy from those on both sides of the House for the plight of the Chagossians, and their interests must be placed at the heart of any decisions made about their homeland.

I would like briefly to put two or three questions to the Minister. What discussions have the Government had with the Government of Mauritius since the Foreign Secretary's announcing the creation of the marine protected area in the Indian ocean, which the Conservative party welcomes? The Foreign Secretary said in his statement last week that the creation of the reserve

"will not change the UK's commitment to cede the territory to Mauritius when it is no longer needed for defence purposes".

Will Mauritius be legally liable to continue the marine protected area when that occurs? What safeguards will be put in place to ensure the long-term protection of the marine area and, in particular, any investment that the UK and other partners make in the development? Furthermore, what discussions have been had with regional states, such as Maldives and Seychelles? Are they supportive of the idea of a marine protected area? Finally, what steps are the Government planning to take to ensure effective enforcement of the ban on illegal fishing in the zone, and how will they ensure that the marine protected area is not simply a paper proposal without practical impact?

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Chris Bryant (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Europe), Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Rhondda, Labour)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his broad support for the measures that we are undertaking. I think that all Members of the House are keen to ensure that one of the areas of greatest biodiversity in the world, which is within British territory, can be protected for the future.

The hon. Gentleman asked some specific questions, including about what consultations and discussions there were with Mauritius. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke on Thursday with the Prime Minister of Mauritius, and there have been extensive discussions with others in the area. I should say, in answer to the hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North, that one of the things we have to do over the next few months is lay out precisely how the reserve will function. During that process, of course we have to discuss specific elements with the Chagossians, their representatives and Members of both Houses, and we are keen to do that.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the fishing. He will know that the British Indian Ocean Territory is particularly important not only because 784 different kinds of fish live on the coral reefs, but because many fish migrate through the territory, and it is the fishing of those migratory fish in the territory that is providing a major problem for fish stocks across the whole of the Indian ocean. That is why we believe that this is a particularly important moment. We will be suspending the three licences presently made available, which bring in something like £1 million a year, and finding the money elsewhere.

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Paul Keetch (Hereford, Liberal Democrat)

I also congratulate Jeremy Corbyn on raising this issue. Following the hon. Gentleman's important question about consultation, will the Minister say whether the Chairman and Members of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, which in this Parliament carried out an inquiry into our overseas territories, were consulted? Again following on from the hon. Gentleman's questions, will the Minister assure the House that the creation of the MPA, which the Liberal Democrats would, of course, automatically support, will not affect the ability of the Chagos islanders to return and have a sustainable community? Finally, will the presence of nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed US warships be permitted within the zone of the MPA?

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Chris Bryant (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Europe), Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Rhondda, Labour)

I hope that the hon. Gentleman understands that the Government feel deep regret-many right hon. and hon. Members have also expressed such regret-for how the Chagossians were treated in the late 1960s and early 1970s. However, we believe that that has now been settled in the highest court of this land by the Law Lords. Yes, a court case will be heard in the European Court of Human Rights, but this is an important step to take, notwithstanding any possible discussions or judgment handed down by the Court, because we believe that the biodiversity in that territory is essential to the world. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asks from a sedentary position whether the Foreign Affairs Committee was consulted. The whole House was consulted, the country was consulted, and we extended the consultation process by weeks so that others could take part. I must say that many Foreign Office consultations get hardly any replies at all, even from the Liberal Democrats, and yet in this case more than 250,000 people expressed their view-90 per cent. of them in support of the MPA. Notwithstanding the rows that some people want to raise about the process, I hope that they support the policy that we are adopting.

Several hon. Members:

rose -

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John Bercow (Speaker)

Order. This is a matter of considerable interest, as is reflected in the number of Members seeking to catch my eye, and I should like to accommodate everybody. There is, however, pressure on time, so pithy questions and answers are the order of the day.

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Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley, Labour)

My hon. Friend the Minister will know that the vast majority of endangered species are in British overseas territories, rather than on the UK mainland. The Government have been criticised in the past for not paying enough attention to this aspect of our overseas territories. What effect will the proposed area have on protecting endangered species?

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Chris Bryant (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Europe), Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Rhondda, Labour)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, and I pay tribute to her because, when she had responsibility in the Foreign Office for the overseas territories, she started a lot of the work that has enabled us to undertake such work now. Reference was made earlier to the coral reefs in the British Indian Ocean Territory. Actually, it is one of the few areas in the world where the coral reefs have been rapidly growing again, and that is because of the work that we have been able to do in recent years. We will now be able to do more. There are 220 species of coral there, many of which are specific to the Chagos islands, and we will be able to protect them by establishing the MPA.

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Peter Bottomley (Worthing West, Conservative)

Will the Minister try again to explain what happened between 10 March and 1 April, the first day after Parliament rose for Easter? Will he also kindly explain the size of the proposed area, and tell us whether the Chagossians' return to the islands will be affected by these proposals?

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Chris Bryant (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Europe), Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Rhondda, Labour)

There will be absolutely no effect on whether Chagossians have a right or do not have a right to return to the islands by virtue of the announcement that we have made. I thought that I had made that clear already-

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Chris Bryant (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Europe), Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Rhondda, Labour)

The hon. Gentleman is shaking his head, so I have obviously misunderstood the precise nature of his question. Doubtless he will inform me of it later. He also asked what happened between 10 March and 1 April. We made the decision that no further information could possibly be garnered that would affect whether it was right or not to establish a reserve now. That is why we decided to act. We believe that it is in the interests not only of the territory itself but of the whole of the Indian ocean and of the biodiversity of the planet that we start the MPA as soon as possible.

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Kate Hoey (Vauxhall, Labour)

The Minister has still not explained the reason for the urgency. The consultation ended only on 5 March, and the facilitator herself said that the process would take three months, so why has this been rushed through? Will he also answer this question: does this decision not rule out the Chagossian people ever going back to live there?

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Chris Bryant (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Europe), Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Rhondda, Labour)

As my hon. Friend knows, we do not believe that the Chagossians will be returning to the islands-[Hon. Members: "Ah!"] But this particular decision has nothing to do with that. It is completely separate from the decision, in its entirety. As I have already said, the House of Lords has made it clear that the position of the UK Government is correct in law, and the only place where there is now contention is in the European Court of Human Rights.

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William Cash (Stone, Conservative)

Does the Minister accept that he has just let the cat out of the bag? What he has just said clearly indicates that he is trying to separate the MPA from the rights of the Chagossians, who, as Jeremy Corbyn said in our debate the other day, are regarded as having been subjected to a terrible wrong. Given the Minister's much vaunted interest in human rights, would he be good enough to understand that some of us believe that when we are offered consultation, we expect to get it?

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Chris Bryant (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Europe), Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Rhondda, Labour)

There has been substantial consultation. This has been one of the most far-reaching-and the most replied-to-consultations that the Foreign Office has engaged in. More than 250,000 people took part in it, and 90 per cent. of them supported the idea of creating an MPA. However, this decision has nothing to do with the rights, or the lack of rights, of people to return to the islands of Chagos. Yes, I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman that what happened in the 1960s and early '70s was absolutely shameful. I agree with him that the early compensation that was paid was also shameful. Later compensation has been paid-something in the region of £14 million in today's terms. However, it would be unrealistic to expect the Chagossians to return to those islands, however much individual Members of this House might want that to happen.

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Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington, Labour)

Does my hon. Friend accept that he cannot hide behind environmentalism to mask what many of us fear is an encroachment on the rights and legitimate expectations of the Chagossian people? He argues that the consultation he carried out approved a measure of support for further marine protection, but does he not accept that very few people want further marine protection at the expense of the Chagossian islanders, which is what the House is concerned about this afternoon?

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Chris Bryant (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Europe), Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Rhondda, Labour)

The extension of the marine protected area and the new measures we are taking will not have any direct or indirect effect on the rights or otherwise of Chagossians to return to the islands. These are two entirely separate issues. Some have suggested that one should protect humans and not bother to protect the marine environment -[Interruption.] I know that that is not what my hon. Friend is saying, but in order to protect those who fish across the whole of the Indian ocean I believe that we have to protect the marine environment.

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Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster, Conservative)

Given that the Minister has called the treatment of the Chagossians "shameful", does he not understand the concerns reiterated on his side of the House by Kate Hoey that this is being rushed through in double-quick time? That will lead many-and not just the usual suspects-to suspect that the Government are using the environmental issue as a fig leaf for the continued abuse of these human rights.

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Chris Bryant (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Europe), Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Rhondda, Labour)

I have to underline for the hon. Gentleman that the environmental issues are very significant. The tuna that pass through the British Indian Ocean Territory feed many people across the east coast of Africa. Those supplies are being rapidly diminished. We need a no-take policy across the area. There are many other elements of biodiversity on the islands that we need to protect, but the decision has nothing to do with the rights or otherwise of the Chagossians to live on the islands.

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Laura Moffatt (Crawley, Labour)

One of the most important groups of Chagossians were consulted-the large group who live in Crawley. They were very clear that they wanted the marine protected area, but they were keen to keep a foothold in their history. Although most will decide to remain in Crawley-I am very glad they will do so-they are keen to have a stake in the islands' future. Can the Minister give us any assurance about that?

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Chris Bryant (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Europe), Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Rhondda, Labour)

I should pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has one of the largest Chagossian communities in the country in her constituency; I know that various Foreign Office Ministers have met her and the community. She is absolutely right that there should be an ongoing connection between the Chagossians and what happens with the MPA. That is why, as I said earlier, I am keen to ensure that, if I still hold this post after the general election, we have ongoing discussions with the Chagossian community in this country and further afield so that the implementation of the MPA meets the requirements and needs of the Chagossians.

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Anne McIntosh (- Shadow Minister, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; Vale of York, Conservative)

Will the Minister clarify what would happen if the islanders returned and were unable to fish, as that would make it difficult for them to live? If they return, will they still be able to fish under the new regime?

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Chris Bryant (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Europe), Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Rhondda, Labour)

As I said earlier, we believe it difficult and next to impossible to create a sustainable fishing regime in the British Indian Ocean Territory. Wherever it has been attempted elsewhere, it has failed. At the moment, the Chagossians have chosen not to take up any of the three fishing licences available within the British Indian Ocean Territory, but there are many elements involved in the question of whether life would be sustainable on the islands for the Chagossians-not least the fact that many of the buildings in which they lived back in the '60s and early '70s are no longer habitable.

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David Drew (Stroud, Labour)

My hon. Friend needs to be aware that this issue will not go away. Will he explain why conservationists and scientists feel that they have been used by the Government in their introduction of the marine protected area as a way of stopping the Chagossians from going home?

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Chris Bryant (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Europe), Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Rhondda, Labour)

Well, I am sorry. I am fond of my hon. Friend and I am sad that he has made that point this afternoon, as what he said is not my experience. The non-governmental organisations that I have spoken to have made it clear that they fully support the MPA.

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Tim Loughton (Shadow Minister (Children), Children, Schools and Families; East Worthing and Shoreham, Conservative)

Impressed though the House may be with the Minister's marine knowledge of the Chagos islands and his Rumsfeld-like impressions in not needing to know what he does not know, will he tell me what livelihoods remain for the Chagossians, many of whom live in my area of West Sussex? Secondly, will he tell us whether any pressure was brought to bear on him by his American counterparts in the naval base nearby?

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Chris Bryant (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Europe), Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Rhondda, Labour)

Absolutely no pressure was brought to bear by the United States of America on me or anybody else. I am not in charge of the community in the United Kingdom; I have responsibility only for the British Indian Ocean Territory itself.

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Barry Gardiner (Brent North, Labour)

May I urge my hon. Friend to stick with the science, because he is absolutely right? A no-take zone in the area is vital; upon it depend the livelihoods of more than 500 million people in the Indian ocean territories, because those coral reefs represent the seed bed for most of the marine fish life in the Indian ocean. It is an absolutely vital resource, and he must absolutely stick with the science. May I further urge my hon. Friend to understand that the coral reefs there are so sensitive and pristine that the scientists who work there do not even wear sun tan lotion for fear of contaminating the coral?

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Chris Bryant (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Europe), Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Rhondda, Labour)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I pay tribute to him for his long-term interest in these matters. The larger grouper fish and the wrasse are almost fading into non-existence in other parts of the Indian ocean and, without the protection that we will be able to provide in the British Indian Ocean Territory, they could well become extinct, thereby depriving many millions of people around the Indian ocean of any means of living at all.

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John Grogan (Selby, Labour)

Does my hon. Friend think that the late Robin Cook, who is the only Foreign Secretary really to have recognised the rights of the Chagos islanders, would have endorsed this decision-and if Robin Cook had taken this decision, does my hon. Friend not think that the least he would have done would be to come personally to the Dispatch Box to defend it?

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Chris Bryant (Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Europe), Foreign and Commonwealth Office; Rhondda, Labour)

Well, I am absolutely certain that Robin Cook would have wanted to bring forward the protection for the biodiversity in the British Indian Ocean Territory.