I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill is a technical measure, required following the change of status in Mauritius on 12 March 1992 from that of a realm to a republic within the Commonwealth. The Bill follows well established precedents and seeks essentially to ensure that the operation of our existing law in relation to Mauritius is not affected by the change of status. Some hon. Members have some questions which I shall be happy to answer, but I trust that hon. Members will agree that the Bill is non-controversial.
The decision to become a republic was, of course, for the Government of Mauritius to take and did not in any way require the concurrence of Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom.
The new constitution of Mauritius makes provision for appeals to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. Hitherto, appeals from Mauritius have lain to Her Majesty in Council, but that is no longer appropriate now that Mauritius has ceased to be part of Her Majesty's dominions. The Bill therefore makes provision to enable Her Majesty in Council to authorise the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council to exercise the jurisdiction conferred upon it by the new constitution of Mauritius to hear appeals direct from the courts of Mauritius.
I am sure that hon. Members will be happy to learn that the Government of Mauritius have told the Commonwealth Secretary-General that they wish the country to remain a member of the Commonwealth now that it is a republic. The Secretary-General has consulted members of the Commonwealth, who agree to this proposal.
I have no doubt that hon. Members will join me in wishing Mauritius and its people a peaceful and prosperous future.
The Bill may be seen at two levels: the formal and the more fundamental. At the formal level, I wholly accept what the Minister said: it is a technical measure. Even if becoming a republic had been controversial in Mauritius —as indeed it had been, with two previous attempts by the Prime Minister to steer his country along the path to independence and his rejection of the Opposition view that there should be a referendum on the issue—it cannot be controversial in this country. It is a necessary piece of legislation, as the Minister has said, consequent on the decision of the Government of Mauritius in March to become a republic within the Commonwealth. The Bill was passed by the legislative assembly in Mauritius last year. The effect is that Sir Veeraswamy Ringadoo, the Governor-General, will become the non-executive President, and the Head of Government will be the Prime Minister, Sir Anerood Jugnauth.
The change brings the number of republics in the Commonwealth to 29, and reduces the number of constitutional monarchies to 16. It leaves Swaziland, with its national monarchy, as the sole African Commonwealth country which is not a republic. That perhaps puts this measure in context. Hence, the change of status is not unusual in any way and, as the Minister underlined, it is wholly within the competence of the Government of Mauritius to change its status, as it will.
We are, of course, glad to hear that it is the desire of the Government of Mauritius to remain a member of the Commonwealth, the world's oldest association of sovereign states. It shows the flexibility of the Commonwealth that such changes can take place under its umbrella. Indeed, in a world where increasingly regions are developing into blocs, it shows the value of the Commonwealth to find it uniquely straddling all the normal divisions in the world and acting as a bridge between regions.
I said that there were two levels—the formal and the more fundamental. At the more fundamental level, it can be said that Commonwealth membership entails adherence to certain values, even if in fact for many countries they can remain only an aspiration. Those Commonwealth values were last enshrined at the last Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Harare in the so-called Harare declaration of 20 September 1991.
It may be of help to the House to spell out at least some of the principles to which each of the Commonwealth countries subscribed in Harare, and express certain anxieties about Mauritius. The Harare Commonwealth declaration said that the Commonwealth was a voluntary association of sovereign independent states, each responsible for its own policies. It also said:
Its members also share a commitment to certain fundamental principles …Those principles have stood the test of time, and we reaffirm our full and continuing commitment to them today.
Those principles included
the individual's inalienable right to participate by means of free and democratic political processes in framing the society in which he or she lives".
The declaration continued:
we pledge the Commonwealth and our countries to work with renewed vigour, concentrating especially in the following areas:
the protection and promotion of the fundamental political values of the Commonwealth;
democracy, democratic processes and institutions which reflect national circumstances".
It also underlined the value of the Commonwealth in providing a means of monitoring elections and helping Commonwealth countries along the route to democracy,
strengthening the capacity of the Commonwealth to respond to requests from members for assistance in entrenching the practices of democracy".
Those are the key Commonwealth principles, declared as recently as last October at Harare. The Minister here tonight and the Government of Mauritius will recognise that certain anxieties have arisen from the conduct of the elections held last year. Deep anxiety was expressed before the election by Dr. Navin Ramgoolam, leader of the Mauritius Labour party and son of See Woosagur Ramgoolam, who steered Mauritius to independence.
Dr. Ramgoolam appealed to the Prime Minister to allow Commonwealth observers to monitor the elections. He asked, for example, that the electors should be able to use their identity cards during the election, that transparent ballot boxes should be used and so on, because of his worries about the conduct of the election. Unfortunately, all his requests were rejected. The Prime Minister said in repect of Commonwealth observers, "Over my dead body."
In the event, the Labour party received 40 per cent. of the national vote, yet gained only three directly elected seats out of 60. It gained four seats as best losers. It emerged with 40 per cent. of the vote but only seven seats out of 64 in the legislative assembly. As the Minister is well aware, there have been several allegations of vote rigging during the election.
For example, in the edition of L'Express published only on Monday of this week, there is a quotation from Dr. Ramgoolam. May I say that L'Express is in no way allied with the Mauritius Labour party? He alleges that 4,000 votes were rigged in each constituency.
I cannot reasonably expect the Minister to respond to those allegations. In any event, there has been a reference to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. But the Minister should at least be aware of the allegations and, I hope, ready to express anxiety to the representatives of Mauritius when he meets them. I retrospect, it is sad that the Prime Minister of Mauritius was not prepared before the election to accept the reasonable requests by Dr. Navin Ramgoolam.
On perhaps a lighter note, one action of the Prime Minister subsequent to the election may commend itself to the Government. I understand that he has issued a 500 rupee bank note with his image on it. Perhaps more significantly, he has issued one for a mere 20 rupees with the image of his wife on it. I do not know whether our Prime Minister would be interested in following that precedent. Perhaps one might have a 50p Norma note. I suspect that our population would respond to that in exactly the same way as I understand that the bulk of the population of Mauritius have responded.
Having expressed anxieties about the conduct of the election, and knowing that this is a short debate and that my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) will certainly express other anxieties in relation to Diego Garcia, I finish on this note. As members of the Opposition, we accept that the Bill raises no point of principle in relation to United Kingdom law. With those few observations, I wish the people of Mauritius prosperity and a happy future within the Commonwealth family, as did the Minister. We value both our bilateral relations with Mauritius and the Commonwealth relationship between our two countries.
I begin by declaring two prejudices. My first is against republics, although not all republics. The republic of Venice was not a republic against which we should be particularly prejudiced. Also, I have to say that the United States of America, formerly one of the Crown dominions, has made a triumphant success of its period as a republic.
Human constitutional experience has taught us that a constitutional monarchy is the best form of government. It is the job of all statesmen, wherever they may be, to ensure stability, continuity and tranquillity, and those three principles have always been best met by a constitutional monarchy.
My second prejudice is that I do not like Her Majesty's realm to be diminished. One of the effects of the Bill will be to remove the Crown from the Government of Mauritius, albeit formally and constitutionally, rather than in any real sense. Nevertheless, the Crown will be removed from the constitutional expression of sovereignty in Mauritius, which will become a republic.
Having said that, I unequivocally welcome the Bill and the stages upon which Mauritius is embarking. My wife was born there, and my father-in-law served the Crown there as a colonial servant for a long time. My wife still has many relatives on the island, and her great-grandfather was its first archdeacon, when they were considered to be more important and useful than they are now.
I have had the honour of making two private and substantial visits to the island, and I also served as an officer of the British-Mauritius parliamentary group—alas, a group which is a great deal less active than it ought to be. I have some personal and family knowledge of the island, and I take this opportunity to say how well Mauritius has used its years of independence. If we are honest with ourselves, we will concede that not all the Crown dominions have made a success of self-government when they have become independent, but Mauritius has done so. It has successfully managed the transfer from one political generation to another.
I am bearing in mind the anxieties about elections expressed by the hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson). Having regard to my prejudices about republics, if there has to be a republic it is best if it is one in which the president expresses the sovereignty of the country rather than being an active participant and promoter of its Government. If Mauritius becomes a republic along the lines of the Federal Republic of West Germany, the state of Austria or of Switzerland, where the presidency symbolises sovereignty, but does not lead the Government, it will be the best sort of republic. If a country has a presidency and a parliamentary democracy —as Mauritius has—it is more likely to make a success of republican government.
I hope that Mauritius will stick by the examples of countries that retain a presidency but also have a Prime Minister and a parliamentary democracy, as they are the most likely to secure those principles of statesmanship—stability, continuity and tranquillity.
There is no doubt that Mauritius has achieved remarkable successes since its independence in 1968. It is one of the most successful third-world countries. Considerable economic transformation took place during the 1980s. All credit to the Government and people of Mauritius for what they have managed to achieve, at a time when the common agricultural policy, among other things, has been making life difficult for the primary producers of agricultural products such as sugar. There have been special arrangements to allow quotas of Mauritian sugar into the European Community, but the massive production of sugar beet in Europe has not assisted colonies and islands such as Mauritius.
The Mauritians have diversified and followed many free market principles of economic management, and they are reaping the benefit. I noticed that there had been an improvement in the material condition of the people between my visits to the island.
Mauritius is an island of considerable beauty, 'with a remarkable coral reef, which manages to protect it from the ravages of the ocean in which it sits. Its people come from remarkably different cultural backgrounds and, on the whole, are making a success of living together in a comparatively small area. They have achieved a degree of economic diversification that is admirable, and the standard and quality of their lives has improved to an extent that is not only admirable and praiseworthy but a good example to other third-world countries which are trying to make a similar improvement.
From personal experience, I welcome the way in which Mauritius have been developing. I wish the Mauritians well in the years ahead as a republic, although I confess that I wish that they were not taking that step.
My experience of Mauritius is not so deep as that of the hon. Member for Corby (Mr. Powell), but I share his feelings about the warmth of the Mauritian people and the staggering beauty of the island.
Perhaps I should present my credentials for speaking. I was fortunate enough to be a member of an excellent Inter-Parliamentary Union visit to Japan and Indonesia in 1969, and was able to return via Australia and stop off at Mauritius. I did so partly because I had Mauritian friends from my student days in Edinburgh, and because the then Governor-General of Mauritius was that wonderful man, the late general secretary of the Labour party—Len Williams. I should like to think that he and his wife did a great deal to consolidate the good relations between Britain and Mauritius. Also, the unforgettable Ram—a tremendous figure—was a friend to so many of us in the Labour party at the time and was very kind to young Members of Parliament. I remember him with respect and affection. Therefore, like the hon. Member for Corby, I hope that I speak with warmth towards Mauritius.
I must raise three issues, of which I have given notice. I raised the first issue in the House more than a quarter of a century ago, at inordinate length. It concerned Diego Garcia and the 116s people. The brief background is this: the Ilois are a small minority of about 2,000 people, who were formerly residents of Diego Garcia in the Indian ocean. They are now resident in Mauritius. The Chagos islands were inhabited from about 1776 by a fishing company and leper colony under French rule. After the Napoleonic wars in 1815, they, along with Mauritius, came under British colonial rule and received new immigrants from Africa and India, and a successful copra industry. Those varied peoples developed a distinct culture and a Creole dialect.
Hopping a couple of centuries brings us to December 1966 and to the period preceding the independence of Mauritius. Britain demarcated the Chagos and other isolated islands from Mauritius as the British Indian Ocean Territory. Incidentally, the British Government of the day were a Labour Government. I am in no way criticising a Conservative Government, because many of the unsatisfactory events took place—I make no bones about it—under the Wilson Government, although those of us who are deeply interested did not realise some things until the congressional hearings of 1975.
In the same month in 1966, the British Indian Ocean Territory was leased to the United States for defence purposes for 50 years with the option of a further 20 years. From 1972, three further agreements were signed between the two countries allowing for military construction and expansion on Diego Garcia, which had become the main United States base in the Indian ocean. That happened under the Heath Government. Those agreements meant that the Ilois people had to leave and that was undertaken in a most secretive, underhand and shame-making manner.
The Ilois had the long-standing custom of visiting Mauritius for visits and shopping. From 1965 until the mid-1970s, the United Kingdom Government did not allow the Ilois people in Mauritius to return home. In fact, the Ilois were forced to squat in the slums of Port Louis or work in sugar plantations—a type of work to which they were not used. They had very little money, so some starved and all suffered great hardship. It will be no surprise to hon. Members that they were particularly vulnerable to any type of disease; such diseases are fought off easily by those of us from populated or industrial societies, but are very difficult to combat if one comes from a remote island such as Diego Garcia.
The copra plantations were run down and food imports were cut. From 1965 to 1971, about half the population of Diego Garcia were pressurised into leaving. The remainder —about 800—were assembled and removed at short notice in September 1971, at first to smaller islands not required by the military and then, in 1973, to Mauritius where they were left without help or compensation. The removal was carried out in secrecy until the facts became known at a United States congressional hearing in 1975 and after media coverage in the United States and the United Kingdom. The removal was completed surreptitiously. Although it is not relevant to the debate, I wonder which Ministers knew what was happening. I have talked to some of my former colleagues who were powerful Ministers at the time and they said that they knew nothing about it; I am sure that they are being truthful.
There has been a long fight for compensation by the Ilois and their supporters in Mauritius and the United Kingdom. Compensation was given to the last shipload of Ilois, who staged a demonstration on the removal ship. A small amount of compensation was available from 1973 to the islanders, but they did not receive it until 1978. In 1976, the United Kingdom Government paid £600,000 to the Government of Mauritius for the resettlement of the Ilois, but that was inadequate and there were also delays on the part of the Mauritius authorities.
In 1979, the United Kingdom Government offered the Ilois a further £1·25 million, but stipulated that the Ilois must sign a document renouncing their right to return to the British Indian Ocean Territory. I accept that that document was signed, but we should ask whether such a comparatively simplistic people—I do not mean that in any derogatory sense—should have been asked, under pressure, to sign such a document. What moral value resides in that type of agreement?
After consultation, most of the llois rejected the offer. There were demonstrations in 1980 and 1981, and the British Government agreed that talks between the two Governments and the Ilois should take place. That was in June 1981. The talks, in London, centred on the need for improved compensation. The Ilois asked for £8 million in order to give land, a house and some cattle to each family. The United Kingdom Government offered the original £1·25 million only and an extra amount of £300,000 for technical assistance. No agreement could be reached, but the Ilois, who were now desperate, decided to ask for compensation at an amount somewhere between the two sums. A final agreement was reached—a so-called full and final settlement—in March 1982.
The terms were that the Ilois were to be given £4 million in addition to the money already paid, and that the Mauritian Government would give land to the value of £1 million and that the money was compensation
for all acts done by or pursuant to the Indian Ocean territory order of 1965.
However, Mauritius saw nothing in the wording of the agreement to preclude a return of the British Indian ocean territory to Mauritius. What exactly is the position of Her Majesty's Government on the status of the British Indian Ocean Territory in relation to Mauritius as covered by the Bill?
Compensation did not solve all the problems of the Ilois. There were delays in the payment, and although it was originally hoped to establish a job creation scheme, the economic situation of the Ilois was so desperate that they demanded an individual share-out. After improving their housing, many Ilois had nothing left and suffered from the high unemployment in Mauritius. They also attempted to gain compensation from the United States, but to date they have not succeeded. Yet the Ilois today are better organised and gaining in confidence. Although they are settled in Mauritius, almost all of them have expressed a wish to return home.
I have had it confirmed today by people who know Mauritius intimately that that is indeed the position—the llois want, as much as ever, if not more than ever, to go back, even only on a temporary basis at first, for such human reasons as attending to family graves.
Is there any question of their going back to an island which is now a massive military base? Coupled with that, what is the future of the Anglo-American agreement? Although the lease is for half a century with the option of another 20 years, have the circumstances altered because of developments in the so-called cold war, or will the base remain because of possible developments in the Gulf or in such countries as Iran and Iraq? Diego Garcia was, in fact, the main American staging post during the Gulf war. I repeat, it is a massive base.
What do Her Majesty's Government believe are the rights of those people who have been dispossessed? On their most modest request, will they be able to go back at least to tend their ancestral graves? I am told that that means a great deal to them.
The position is not exactly happy. I do not expect a favourable answer tonight. In a written question in the other place, the noble Lord Kennet asked the Government
Whether in the light of the changed international situation they are considering any alteration in the arrangements that currently govern Diego Garcia, and whether its most recent population (other than the personnel of the United States Armed Forces) has expressed any wish to return there.
In reply, Baroness Chalker, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, said:
There are no present proposals to alter the arrangements currently governing Diego Garcia. The former plantation workers (Ilois) are now largely integrated into Mauritian and Seychellese society. Schemes agreed in 1973 and 1982 to facilitate their resettlement (at a cost to the United Kingdom of £4·65 million) have now been completed."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 19 May 1992; Vol. 537, c. 28.]
To interpret that parliamentary answer, it said that, from the point of view of the British Government, that was the end of the story. Indeed, on 24 July 1990 I did not do much better when I asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs
what are his responsibilities in relation to the Ilois people from the British Indian Ocean Territories who are currently in Mauritius.
The present Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, then the Minister of State, Foreign Office, replied:
None. All are Mauritian citizens, although some may also be British dependent territories citizens."—[Official Report, 24 July 1990; Vol. 177, c. 156.]
Then, on 24 October 1990, I asked
what discussions he has had with the Government of Mauritius on the future of Ilois persons displaced from the British Indian Ocean territory resident in Mauritius.
The answer, again from the present Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, was:
None. Those concerned were given considerable financial assistance to resettle and their future now lies in Mauritius." —[Official Report, 24 October 1990; Vol. 178, c. 217.]
That was a hard answer, and tonight I am really asking the Government to reconsider it—[Interruption.] I think I hear the Minister saying that he cannot reconsider it. At least he can refer the matter to his colleagues.
I want to know about the future of the base. Is it to be American for ever? It was given to the Americans on the basis of a threat relating to the Soviet Union and the red army in circumstances which have changed considerably. I appreciate that it may be unreasonable to expect the Minister to make a statement tonight, but there may be other occasions when such a statement could be forthcoming.
For the sake of completeness, I should read into the record the observations by the Secretary of State on a petition of 12 April 1988 from residents of the United Kingdom for action to secure the return of the Ilois people to Diego Garcia. Responding to that on 9 May 1988, the Secretary of State commented:
Before the creation of British Indian Ocean Territory (BIOT) in 1965, the status of the Ilois on the Chagos Archipelago was as contract employees of the copra plantation owners. Neither they, nor those permitted by the plantation owners to remain, owned land or houses. They were employees, with licences to reside there at the discretion of the owners, and moved from island to island as the work required. With the establishment of BIOT in 1965 the plantations, by now in economic decline, were purchased by the Crown. When it was decided to make the islands available for joint defence purposes to the United States and United Kingdom governments, the future of the plantations could not be guaranteed, and they were eventually closed.
The Ilois were given the choice of returning to Seychelles or Mauritius; the majority, some 1,200 people, returned to Mauritius where they had close ties, the last arrivals taking place in 1973. Payments totalling nearly £5 million were made towards their settlement. In 1972 Her Majesty's Government paid £650,000 to the Mauritius Government. After years of disagreement about how it was to be spent, the Ilois settled for cash in 1978, by which time accrued interest had raised its value to £936,000. In 1982 the Ilois Trust Fund was set up with an ex-gratia payment of £4 million from the United Kingdom government, the express purpose of which was to assist with the settlement of the Ilois in Mauritius as self-sufficient members of the community. This payment represents a generous, full and final settlement of the Ilois' claims. It was welcomed as such by the Government of Mauritius which, for its part, provided land to the value of £1 million. The Ilois community in Mauritius were fully associated with the Agreement, and its representatives took part in negotiations as members of the all-party Mauritian delegation. In these circumstances a meeting between Her
Majesty's Government, the Mauritian Government and the Ilois, as suggested in the Petition, would be inappropriate and serve no useful purpose.
It may have seemed inappropriate in May 1988, but could there not, in June 1992, be a change of heart on the matter? At least the subject should be reopened, and I am asking tonight for that to happen.
I am not talking about some sort of Sue Lawley desert island but about a people's homeland and a culture which, I am told, has not gone away. Indigenous people have rights on this planet. I urge that those rights be respected.
The House will be relieved to hear that the two other subjects that I wish to raise, and about which I have given notice to the Minister, will not delay hon. Members, because yesterday I was fortunate to catch Madam Speaker's eye and raised—as reported in Hansard at column 878—the issue of the mangroves. In Mauritius, as elsewhere in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific, there are some lush mangrove forests with pristine coral reefs, which the hon. Member for Corby has seen and spoken of.
The combination of those two interacting ecosystems produces a vast amount of fish, shellfish and seaweed and provides sustenance and employment for local fishing communities. I gather that the situation in Mauritius is not so bad as it is in some places in the Indian ocean and the Pacific, where coral reefs are dead and mangroves have disappeared.
Considering how many people are now at Rio participating in important discussions, I am entitled to ask whether Her Majesty's Government, and the Overseas Development Administration, have a view about the protection of coral reefs and particularly mangroves. It is a highly important subject.
The third issue I raise concerns the situation of the Aldabra atoll, which I understand has an intimate connection with the Seychelles. A quarter of a century ago, I tabled more than 70 parliamentary questions on the subject. The Minister may consider that I have asked an undue number of questions tonight. They are nothing compared with what happened in the late 1960s when I was questioning the then Labour Government.
I sent those questions to eight leading Americans, such as Glen Seabourg, who was then a senior person in the Atomic Energy Authority and a friend of mine, to crusty old Senator Maclennan of Arkansas, to Ed Wenk, then secretary of the Marine Scientific Council, to Congressman Reuss and to Vice-President Humphrey, who was chairman of the Marine Scientific Council, who had been nice to me in Washington, just as he was agreeable to many other visitors.
They all sent those questions to Secretary McNamara, deluging him and asking for his comments. The final piece of good fortune was that the secretary of the Smithsonian, Dillon Ripley, was passing through London and I had the opportunity to see him at his hotel at midnight. He promised to take my questions to the President of the United States, which was his right as secretary of the Smithsonian. He kept his promise.
As a result of a combination of factors, and partly because of the excellent briefing by the late professor Sir Ashley Miles—it was the first time that the Royal Society had briefed a politician; he was the biological secretary —a head of steam was built up and it was decided that a staging post on Aldabra atoll would be a bad plan. Thank goodness it worked out that way, because it is a unique ecosystem, and since then it has been set up as a successful outstation of the Royal Society.
The story was further continued when the Royal Society, by amicable agreement, gave up its outstation to a combination of the Seychelles Government, with an input from the Mauritian Government, and the French and American academies of science. As I understand it, it is extremely well run and there are now proposals to have ecotourism of a very disciplined kind.
I would like to ask the Government in 1992 whether they have any locus in the problem of Aldabra. With the developments in Mauritius and, to complete the picture, it has to be said, in the Seychelles, are they certain that this unique ecosystem will be preserved for humanity as it has been during the past quarter of a century?
Aldabra is an extraordinary place, being unique not only for the giant tortoise of the Indian ocean but for the flightless rail and the pink-footed booby. What has defended this and made it all possible is its inaccessibility and the description of the coral as hard and sharp as razor blades. Long may that continue.
What I want to know is whether the advice from the Foreign Office is that all of that will be preserved for mankind or whether we may have problems of possible injury to this unique and important ecosystem. I thank the House for being patient.
I would not attempt to speak with the knowledge and experience of the hon. Members for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and for Corby (Mr. Powell) on the island of Mauritius, but obviously, a Bill of this nature, which involves constitutional change, is always a matter of interest to someone from Northern Ireland. I share the regret of the hon. Member for Corby that the decision has been taken in Mauritius to cease to have the Queen as head of state and instead to become a republic. None the less, that is its decision, and for us this evening it is simply a technical matter to approve the Bill or otherwise. Certainly the Ulster Unionist Members will be supporting it.
I too had the privilege of visiting Mauritius as the guest of its Government some years ago, when I was a Member of another Parliament. As has already been said, it is a most beautiful island. One of the things that really impressed me about it was the fact that it is multiracial and multireligious, and such a combination is somewhat explosive in many islands in the world—we can think of Sri Lanka, Cyprus or even Ireland. There is always a problem when one has a mixture of religions and nationalities.
There has been criticism of the recent election in Mauritius, and some doubt has been cast on whether it was contested fairly and properly, but tributes should be paid to the way in which democracy has thrived in the multiracial society in Mauritius for the past 25 years since it became an independent state.
As I said, Mauritius is a beautiful island. It is good to see its sugar cane industry prospering and to know that the fishing industry is going well, which is more than we can say for the fishing industry in the United Kingdom. It is also good that tourism is flourishing in the island. It benefited considerably when South Africa was cut off from much of the rest of the world. Mauritius became very much a playground for many South Africans, and that helped the tourist industry to thrive and develop. I would strongly recommend that people go there for a holiday. It is somewhat far away, but it is well worth a visit, and the food is very good. There is still a strong French influence in Mauritius. I suspect that most people who live there do not call it Mauritius—it is more likely to be called Ile Maurice—but that is by the way.
There is one final point that I want to place on record, which will always be a lifelong memory of my visit to the island—the fact that a young man from Wales, who obviously has the surname of Jones, has dedicated most of his life to preserving the pink pigeon in Mauritius. It had almost become extinct. Only eight living birds remained. He dedicated his life to maintaining that breed of bird, and I am glad to say that he is being successful. I am glad to have this opportunity to place on record a tribute to his work.
This has been a short debate, but certainly one of interest. My hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Mr. Powell) demonstrated how, in the British Parliament, there is always someone who has contact with and experience in every area of the world, just as there is always someone who has experience and knowledge of every subject in the globe. One might include the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), with his wide range of knowledge and the inquiry and interest that he pursues, under that heading.
Mauritius is certainly a success story. As my hon. Friend the Member for Corby said, and as the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) also commented, the per capita income of the Mauritian people in 1989 was just under US $2,000 per year. I expect that the figure has risen since then, but that is the latest figure that I have. That is a remarkable achievement for a third-world country with very little natural resource in a part of the world where per capita incomes are low and for a country which is isolated by poor communications, which Mauritius undoubtedly is. Mauritius is also a success story in terms of democracy since its independence.
The hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) said that the Labour party supported the Bill, and I am grateful to him for that. But he raised certain anxieties which I have no doubt will be considered by people at a high level in the Government of Mauritius. I am sure that the debate will be followed with interest in the newspapers of Mauritius and that the hon. Gentleman's remarks will be read by a wide audience.
I cannot respond to the hon. Gentleman's allegations and criticisms, but I want to make one or two general points abut the constitutional arrangements in Mauritius over the years. As I say, it is an example of a small third-world country with historic connections with Britain, about which we all know, which has had considerable success in the path of democracy since independence.
The general election on 15 September 1991 resulted in a landslide victory for Sir Anerood Jugnauth's ruling coalition. As the hon. Gentleman said, 57 of the 62 seats were won by the ruling party, four Opposition Members were added under a best loser system, and all that is to be compared with 39 seats won by the Opposition in 1987.
The hon. Gentleman expressed concerns that have been raised with him by his friends in Mauritius and, in particular, the distinguished parliamentarian, Dr. Navin Ramgoolam, the son of an even more distinguished father, if one may put it like that. I cannot comment on those allegations, but we understand that an appeal might come from Mauritius on the question of alleged vote rigging. We understand also that a candidate in the election has lodged an application with the Supreme Court of Mauritius for leave to appeal to the Judicial Committee, but that final leave to appeal has not yet been granted. That matter will be for judicial consideration, and I have no doubt that it will be properly attended to by whatever judicial forums it goes before.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow asked a series of questions. We are all aware that he is a campaigner of tenacity. He demonstrated that again tonight. An issue that he first raised 25 years or 26 years ago remains one that he pursues today. He never lets go. I am sure that we have not heard his last word on the subject even tonight, and that as long as there is breath in his body the hon. Member for Linlithgow will continue to serve as a distinguished parliamentarian—as he has done ever since I first entered the House, and I know before—and to raise issues about which he feels strongly.
I will make some comments, but I am afraid that they will not satisfy the hon. Member for Linlithgow as a fundamental change of Government policy. We are strongly of the view that the future of the plantation in Diego Garcia could not have been assured at any early date. Once the trade in copra with Mauritius ceased, there was no viable economy in the islands.
In 1966, the then British Government—which the hon. Member for Linlithgow honourably admitted was a Labour Government—offered the choice of resettlement in Mauritius or in the Seychelles. As most of the inhabitants of Diego Garcia maintained close ties with Mauritius, the majority of them—some 1,200 people—settled there, with the final arrivals in 1973.
The hon. Gentleman told the story as he understood it. I am sure that he was carefully briefed at the time, maintained his notes in his files, and has refreshed his memory. His briefing was certainly fuller than that which I received, so I cannot comment in detail on all the matters that he raised. Nevertheless, I can confirm certain facts.
There were two substantial ex gratia payments to the Ilois people—a sum of £650,000 first, and a further sum of £4 million in 1982. That constituted substantial compensation of nearly £5 million, which is presumably worth double today. The money was administered for the benefit of the ex-islanders' community by a trust established by the Mauritius Government, who agreed to make available land for resettlement worth £1 million.
Those funds were made available to a total of 1,200 men, women, and children, and should be viewed as generous payments. No one could reasonably argue that those were not generous sums of money for just over 1,000 people. On a per capita basis, the total produces a significant sum of money for each individual concerned.
I was asked by The Sunday Times to review Sir Sonny Ramphal's remarkable book, "Our Country the Planet", and I invite the Minister and his advisers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to read those passages in which Sir Sonny argues at some length, and extremely convincingly, that no price can be put on rain forests. Equally, I suspect that there is no price that relatively simple people can be asked to put on their atoll. One cannot consider it in monetary terms—it is their being and their life. Their ancestors died there. One cannot say that they all arrived just like that—there were indigenous people there.
The hon. Gentleman shows himself the campaigner he is, in holding the view that one cannot put a price on a person's home in the way that I described the situation. However, the British Government have received no recent representation of which I am aware from the Ilois people. All the evidence we have—I know that the hon. Gentleman might challenge this—suggests that the bulk of the population are fully integrated into Mauritian society.
I cannot from this Dispatch Box tonight—the hon. Gentleman knows this—reconsider the answers that the hon. Gentleman was given. I am afraid that there is no possibility of the former Ilois plantation workers returning.
As to the mangrove swamps, the environment is one of our agreed priority areas for assistance to Mauritius. We note the reference in the Mauritius environmental action plan to mangrove swamps as nursery grounds for shrimp and fish. The problem has been properly identified in the eyes of the Mauritian Government, but it is not identified in the plan as a matter for donors' action. We have not been asked to assist in that area, so we have not taken a view upon it. If a request for assistancee were made, we would consider it.
We are very active in other environmental areas. Management assistance is given by the Severn Trent water authority to the Mauritius central water authority, and in the next aid talks we have to agree a project for assisting the environmental development of certain northern islets. Both projects represent contributions to the Mauritian Government's action plan, and we are also funding a scheme to assist the mapping of state lands.
The hon. Member for Linlithgow referred also to Aldabra. During business questions to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House yesterday, which were my guide, the hon. Gentleman referred to the matter of Aldabra's status, which he raised tonight. I am afraid that I took that to mean Aldabra's constitutional status, not its environmental status.
I will comment on its constitutional status, but I cannot say anything about its environmental status—other than that I have some personal knowledge that Aldabra is a beautiful example of a pristine environment. The campaign against a staging post launched by the hon. Member for Linlithgow was described at the time by The Daily Telegraph as a personal triumph, and the hon. Gentleman should legitimately take some credit for the fact that no staging post was built on Aldabra.
The islands of Aldabra, Desroches, and Farquhar were returned to the Seychelles on their independence in 1976. They had historically always been part of the Seychelles group since the acquisition following the Napoleonic wars. The present constitutional position of the islands is not in any doubt. As far as I am aware, there is no claim to sovereignty in respect of those islands by any Government against the Seychelles sovereign.
The Minister has been more than courteous, and I thank him genuinely for the trouble that he has taken. May I leave him with one thought, however?
It would, of course, be fatuous to suppose that the Minister could make an announcement of substance tonight, but will he ask his colleagues, particularly the Foreign Secretary, whether they see a case for at least talking seriously to the Americans about the future of the lease—be it 50 or 70 years—in such changed circumstances? All this was done when the fear of Russia was still present. Now the ball game is different, and I should have thought that there was a case for at least reopening the discussion.
Again, the hon. Gentleman has made his point in his own incomparable way. I have no doubt that he will pursue the subject with vigour, as he pursues so many other subjects, but I can give him no undertaking that the Government will give serious consideration to the points that he raises.
I congratulate Mauritius on its achievements since independence, on sustaining a truly successful working parliamentary democracy, and on establishing a prosperous and rapidly developing economy. It has, on occasion, been described as a model for other developing countries—rightly, in my view. I am sure that every hon. Member wishes the republic a prosperous future—a future in which the friendly relationship that it enjoys with people in Britain continues, and in which the royal family are still loved, although it will no longer be a realm.
I thank the Minister again for the trouble that he has taken.
Let me repeat that indigenous societies, however small, have some moral rights in the latter part of the 20th century to return to their homelands—especially when the uses to which their homelands have been put have been changed by world circumstances. That should be borne in mind even in the case of a small and rather simple people.