Diego Garcians (Surrey)

– in the House of Commons at 6:00 pm on 4th November 2004.

Alert me about debates like this

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Margaret Moran.]

Photo of Peter Ainsworth Peter Ainsworth Conservative, East Surrey 6:03 pm, 4th November 2004

I echo the expressions of concern that hon. Members throughout the Chamber have uttered about the incident in Iraq.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an issue that causes considerable and immediate concern in my constituency, but clearly has far wider implications and has its origins in a distant place and at a distant time. As well as my hon. Friend Mr. Blunt, my hon. Friends the Members for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), for Woking (Mr. Malins) and for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) have taken a keen interest in the matter—it is good to see my hon. Friends in their places—and wish to be associated with my remarks.

I must admit that until I received a telephone call on the evening of 19 October, I was only sketchily aware of the long and wretched story of the Chagos islands and their people. It is a shabby story of international power politics and betrayal. It is a stain on the integrity of British foreign policy. I know that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is not responsible for foreign policy, but I will argue that it now has a key responsibility for the consequences of what happened.

I do not wish to replicate the excellent speech of my hon. Friend Mr. Blunt in Westminster Hall yesterday. The focus of this debate is on the practical problems that we face now and in the future. It is clear, however, that past Government actions led directly to the call that I received on 19 October, and to the problem that we are discussing today. It is therefore worth rehearsing those briefly.

In 1966, Harold Wilson's Government acquiesced to an American request to purchase and depopulate the British Indian Ocean Territory in order to build an airbase on the principal island of Diego Garcia. It has been suggested that, in return, Britain got a special offer on Polaris submarines. Be that as it may, the plantations were closed, and with them the island's economy. The supply ships were diverted and the majority of the islanders were exiled to a slum area of Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius. Some went to the Seychelles. Eventually, in November 2000, following an action brought by the chairman of the Chagos refugees group, the High Court ruled that the islanders had the legal right to return. Attempts to return, however, were obstructed and proved unsuccessful.

Under the British Overseas Territories Act 2002, a majority of the exiles became British citizens, allowing them to enter and reside in the United Kingdom. In 2003, about 100 destitute islanders arrived at Gatwick airport and settled in Crawley, West Sussex. It is good to see Laura Moffatt in her place, as I know that she has wrestled with this issue for some considerable time. It is reported that the support that they have so far received from West Sussex county council has cost local taxpayers £500,000.

I have said that this is a shabby story. The latest and, perhaps, shabbiest twist of all came in June this year. On the day of the local government and European elections, when eyes were elsewhere, without notification to the House, let alone debate, the Government signed two Orders in Council, the effect of which was to overturn the High Court judgment and reimpose the legal ban on the islanders' ability to return to Diego Garcia.

This is the position: the Government have finally cut off the remaining hope of returning to the islands, and legislated to enable the islanders to come to Britain. Given that the only other choice available is to remain in Port Louis, where they claim to live in conditions of poverty, drug abuse, unemployment and prostitution, it is hardly surprising that many would prefer to make a new life in Britain. Certainly, I have no argument with their decision to do so.

Now we come to the telephone call of 19 October. It was from Councillor Mrs. Spiers, leader of Reigate and Banstead borough council. She told me that 45 islanders had arrived at Gatwick and, following a court decision that discharged West Sussex county council from an obligation to house all but the most vulnerable of them, 33 had effectively thrown themselves on the mercy of her council. They were being housed in temporary accommodation in Horley in my constituency, at a cost of some £20 per person per night. Her question was straightforward: she understood the plight of the islanders, but why should the council tax payers of Reigate and Banstead be solely responsible for footing the bill for their maintenance? That is a question that I hope Paul Clark will answer directly.

My expectations of a helpful response are not high. When my conversation with Councillor Mrs. Spiers had ended, and having established via the Home Office that this was not an immigration issue—on the ground that the individuals concerned were British—but a matter for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, I sent an urgent fax to the Minister for Local and Regional Government, setting out the issue and concluding:

"I would be most grateful if you might let me know what provisions exist for your Department to provide financial support to the Council to cover these exceptional circumstances: and it would also be greatly appreciated if you could arrange for an appropriate official to contact the Council as a matter of urgency in order to discuss the situation".

I then provided the direct contact details of the leader and chief executive of the council.

That was on 19 October. It is now 4 November, and nobody from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has bothered to make any contact with the council. It would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman could explain why there has been no communication at all, despite that urgent request.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate and I visited the islanders last Friday. They have been moved into a block of sheltered flats, somewhat to the alarm of a number of elderly residents, and although their accommodation is cramped, they are being well cared for. The council deserves to be congratulated on the way that it has handled the issue. It immediately reacted with humanitarian assistance, while at the same time seeking to protect local residents from a potentially open-ended financial liability. It thus sought to discharge its moral duty to the islanders and fiduciary duty to local people.

As the Minister will know, solicitors acting for the Chagossians successfully sought a judicial review of the council's decision to refuse temporary accommodation in respect of one of the applicants, on the ground that he was not habitually resident. Pending the outcome of the judicial review, the council decided to accommodate all the islanders, in order, as it said, to save the public purse from any further judicial review requests. The court determined on 1 November that the council should continue to house them until the outcome of the review of the original decision. Meanwhile, the council is assessing the islanders' entitlements under separate homelessness legislation. I am sorry if this all sounds a bit complicated, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I am afraid that it is.

The House might take the view that it was strange for the court to come to a decision that the islanders could arguably be considered to be habitual residents of the United Kingdom when they had only been here for a couple of weeks. But this decision only serves to underline the need for the Government to intervene to resolve the matter. Having looked at the full circumstances of the case and its history, Mr. Justice Moses acknowledged—and this is significant—that the real issue was the Government's need to address the problems of the islanders. He said that there were very unusual circumstances in the case, and that, in his view, a substantive case could be made that the habitual residence occurred as soon as the Chagossians arrived in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Justice Moses stated that he had great sympathy with the local authority, saying that it was certainly arguable that this was a matter not for the authority but for central Government. However, he was quite clear that, in a humane and civilised society, it was unacceptable not to provide any temporary accommodation for the islanders, as that would merely mean that they would return to Gatwick, where there were no facilities whatever. He is quoted in today's edition of the Surrey Mirror under the rather unhelpful but none the less true headline, "You foot bill for homeless Diego Garcians", saying:

"The prospect of their wandering around and gravitating back to Gatwick is not something that any civilised human being can contemplate."

Given the unique circumstances of the case, this judgment seems understandable. However, it does nothing to resolve the difficulties faced by the council, or the basic injustice of requiring my constituents, and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Reigate and for Epsom and Ewell, to foot the entire bill for housing the islanders for an undetermined period of time.

And it does not end there. While the immediate issue surrounds the 33 islanders in Horley, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that, in response to my written question, the Foreign Office stated on 1 November that

"it is estimated that there are about 5,000 Chagossians who enjoy British citizenship with the right of abode in the UK following the coming into force of the British Overseas Territories Act in May 2002. Since then, the British High Commissions in Mauritius and Seychelles have issued more than 900 British passports to Chagossians".—[Hansard, 1 November 2004; Vol. 426, c. 73W.]

My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate asked in the debate yesterday why more than 900 passports had been applied for when these people had perfectly good Mauritian travel documents of their own. It would be responsible to conclude that at least 900 people are actively considering following their compatriots to Gatwick; a further 4,100 are in a position to do so. It would be logical to expect them to want to settle close to other former islanders in the Horley and Gatwick areas. It would therefore be sensible for the Government to make plans now for this event.

I am aware that solicitors acting for the islanders are seeking an exemption from the relevant regulations so that, on arrival, they may be deemed eligible for housing and other benefits. If they are successful in this, it would certainly help the council's legal bills, but it would compound the problems that it faces in meeting the needs of the islanders from its very limited means. I am sure that I do not have to warn the hon. Gentleman of the consequences were thousands of islanders to arrive and were the cost of their maintenance to remain a local responsibility.

I am proud to say that local people have to date shown sympathy and good will towards the islanders, although I have already been asked by one homeless man why he is sleeping rough in a playing field when the islanders are not. I remind the hon. Gentleman that there are at present about 2,000 people already on the waiting list for housing in the Reigate and Banstead area. Good will can be stretched only so far. It is therefore essential that, in replying to this debate, he understands the potentially very serious nature of the issue.

As I said in yesterday's debate, the long-term solution lies with the Foreign Office, and I was pleased to hear that the Foreign Office Minister has indicated that he would consider raising the question of aid measures with the Department for International Development. However, the short-term solution lies with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. We are seeking a solution that is fair both to the islanders and to local residents. The problem has arisen as a result of action by central Government, and it is time for central Government to shoulder their responsibilities.

The Minister may recall that a few years ago, when Surrey unexpectedly played host to General Pinochet, the county police were awarded a special one-off payment from the Home Office to help offset the exceptional security costs associated with their new temporary resident, on the ground that he was in Surrey for reasons to do with Government decisions entirely beyond Surrey's control. There is an obvious parallel in the present case.

Let me end with another quotation from the Surrey Mirror's report of the recent court hearing:

"Told that, until the legal issues were resolved, there was nothing that Central Government could do, the judge suggested: 'Well, write a cheque'".

I look forward to the Minister's response to that simple request.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Opposition Whip (Commons) 6:15 pm, 4th November 2004

I am grateful to my hon. Friend Mr. Ainsworth for allowing me to make a brief contribution, and for his kind words about my debate with the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Mr. Rammell yesterday.

Yesterday's reply was extremely disappointing. It did not suggest that the Government were treating the issue with the seriousness and immediacy that it requires. It is a consequence of the Government's Orders in Council, presented in June, that we now face what is potentially an increasingly difficult challenge for local authorities. It is very important for the services required for these people to be established in Mauritius and the Seychelles before they come to the United Kingdom—but if the Government are not going to do that, they really must offer assistance to the local authorities that have to host the people.

There is a clear need for joined-up government. If the hon. Member for Gillingham has nothing to offer local authorities this evening, as the Under-Secretary had nothing to offer the people of Diego Garcia and the rest of the Chagos islands yesterday, I must tell him that this will certainly not be the last he has heard of the matter.

Photo of Paul Clark Paul Clark Assistant Whip 6:16 pm, 4th November 2004

I congratulate Mr. Ainsworth on securing the debate.

The Government are well aware of the importance of the issues facing local authorities as a result of the arrival of a number of Chagossians in Britain. I hope that following my response the hon. Gentleman, and Mr. Blunt, will appreciate the importance that we attach to this, and will also take account of the resources that have been and are available and of other issues arising from the case.

Because there was clearly a very good debate in Westminster Hall yesterday, and because my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs responded to it, I do not want to go into details of the history at great length; but following what the hon. Member for East Surrey has said, I want to put one or two things on record.

The Chagos islands were part of the dependency of Mauritius, and continue to be administered under that scheme. On achieving independence in 1968, with the agreement of the Mauritius Council of Ministers they were detached to form part of the British Indian Ocean Territory, which was rightly created to meet the defence needs of the United States and Britain. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will know that the plantations to which he referred were ceasing to be economically viable at the time. For that reason as well as for defence reasons, it was decided that the islanders should be removed. That happened in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

The vast majority of the islanders, some 1,200, were relocated to Mauritius, although some went to the Seychelles. They automatically acquired either Mauritian or Seychelles citizenship when those countries achieved independence, and they retained their status as citizens of the United Kingdom and the colonies. Entirely correctly, under the British Overseas Territories Act 2002 they were given the additional status of full British citizenship. That carries the right of abode in the United Kingdom, and as we know and the hon. Gentleman mentioned, some have taken up that opportunity. Of course, that also gives them freedom of access to other European countries, but the suggestion that the Orders in Council may have been used in an underhand way is incorrect. The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that it is common practice to deal with such decisions through the use of Orders in Council when amending the constitution of an overseas territory, so nothing different was done in that regard. In addition, some of the islanders were in fact seeking British citizenship before the Orders in Council were put in place. They continue to apply for such citizenship, as we know.

Any Chagossian applying for a British passport at our high commission in Mauritius receives clear guidance on what to expect if they travel to the UK. This guidance—in the form of a leaflet in English and Creole that is placed in each passport—stresses that it is their responsibility to ensure before travelling that they have the necessary resources, or that they can rely on friends or family who are already here.

In addition, our high commissioner in Mauritius wrote to the leading member of the Chagossian community on 27 September. It is worth quoting that letter, which states:

"Those Chagossians who are British citizens are of course free to go the United Kingdom if they wish. However, as you know, those that do exercise this right cannot expect more favourable treatment than any other British citizen going to the United Kingdom from abroad and, just like any other British citizen, they have to fulfil the normal conditions of entitlement and habitual residence before qualifying for social security benefits etc. These entitlements are clearly set out in the leaflet which accompanies each new passport issued to members of your community by the British High Commission passport section."

Photo of Peter Ainsworth Peter Ainsworth Conservative, East Surrey

I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman explained whether that letter is legally binding in any way, and if so, whether anyone had told Mr. Justice Moses.

Photo of Paul Clark Paul Clark Assistant Whip

We have a duty and a responsibility to ensure that we communicate clearly to such people their position and rights, to the extent that they prevail. We are making it clear through the issuing of that letter that those who seek to come here as British citizens have no automatic right to accommodation or benefits. As I understand it, that letter was given wide coverage in the Mauritian press. Such information is also given to every new applicant for a British passport, including the 900 people who recently applied, to whom the hon. Gentleman referred.

Photo of Peter Ainsworth Peter Ainsworth Conservative, East Surrey

The point is that such people are currently receiving accommodation at the expense of the public purse, so something seems to have gone wrong with the hon. Gentleman's logic.

Photo of Paul Clark Paul Clark Assistant Whip

Nothing has gone wrong with the logic. What we have to understand is the legal responsibilities and the legalities of the process of becoming a British citizen, and the rights to which that entitles individuals. I will deal in due course with homelessness, local authorities and the resources available.

I turn to the Reigate and Banstead case. I listened very carefully to what was said about the number of such people who could come to this country. That is an issue, but we have to deal with the facts. It was suggested that thousands could come, but the fact that 900 people have applied for passports does not mean that all will come here to seek accommodation and resources; it is not necessary to follow that logic. Small groups of Chagossians have made their way to the UK. The most recent group, of some 43, arrived at Gatwick airport at the beginning of October. I have said very clearly that they are welcome to be here in the UK, but we have also made it clear that they are expected to support and accommodate themselves when they arrive. Income-related benefits and local authority housing are generally not available to persons from abroad, including British citizens, who are not habitually resident in the UK.

In the case of the most recent arrivals, I understand that they were all accommodated by West Sussex county council for a temporary period while care assessments were made under the National Assistance Act 1948. I believe that the county council is continuing to accommodate a small number of them. Most of the Chagossians were subsequently required to leave the hotel accommodation provided by West Sussex council, and it seems that the next port of call for them was the housing authority. Accommodation was provided by West Sussex in Horley, in the hon. Gentleman's constituency in the district of Reigate and Banstead borough council. About 31 applications have now been made under the homelessness legislation.

We must recognise that homelessness legislation is there to protect all people who are genuinely homeless or claim to be genuinely homeless. That is why I laid out clearly what our High Commission says to British citizens about what they can expect. When they are here, they then fall under the provisions of the homelessness legislation, which provides an important safety net for vulnerable people who find themselves facing a housing crisis.

Where specified criteria are met—that is, that applicants are eligible for assistance, have become homeless through no fault of their own and fall within a priority need group—the local housing authority must ensure that suitable accommodation is available until a settled home can be found. Lesser duties apply in cases where homelessness is intentional or where the applicant does not have a priority need for accommodation. Those categories are defined in the legislation.

I understand that the decision by Reigate and Banstead, in all the cases concerning the Chagossian arrivals, was that the applicants were ineligible for housing assistance because they were persons from abroad who were not habitually resident in the UK, or the wider area including the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man. I am sure that all hon. Members would agree that it is important for proper decisions to be made concerning homeless applications, and would understand why safeguards are built into the legislation.

Applicants have the right to ask the local authority internally to review a decision that they are ineligible for assistance, and I understand that the Chagos islanders have exercised that right with the Reigate and Banstead borough council. As a further safeguard, the legislation also gives local housing authorities a discretionary power to accommodate applicants while they carry out a review. Reigate and Banstead council originally decided not to exercise its power to provide applicants with accommodation, pending an internal review. There has also been a review of the High Court proceedings, to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Photo of Peter Ainsworth Peter Ainsworth Conservative, East Surrey

We are running short of time, so I would be grateful if, before the hon. Gentleman concludes, he could say very simply whether he believes that it is fair that our constituents should foot the bill, solely and by themselves, for these people who are here as a direct consequence of the Government's actions. Does he not think that it would be a fairer system if the Government shouldered their own responsibility in this case?

Photo of Paul Clark Paul Clark Assistant Whip

Of course, the hon. Gentleman will be well aware of the substantial moneys that local government receives for a whole host of activities that councils have to carry out and have to meet in the numerous operations in which they are involved. That was very much the point that I was making. Members cannot ignore the substantial increases in moneys that have gone to local authorities. There has been a 30 per cent. real-terms increase over the last seven years. That is a fact and there is no question about it. Additionally, substantially more moneys have been announced in the spending review earlier this year as going into local government finance generally. Authorities in Surrey have benefited from the extra money that we have made available. Surrey county council received a grant increase 7.7 per cent. increase in this year's settlement, well above the average for county councils. District councils also received good grant increases, with Reigate and Banstead receiving a grant increase of 3.6 per cent.

Photo of Paul Clark Paul Clark Assistant Whip

I will give way if there is time, but I want to answer the hon. Member for East Surrey properly. The House will be aware that the homelessness provision given by the Government to local authorities is made by means of the formula block known as the environmental, protective and cultural services. Local authorities have substantial flexibility when it comes to its use.

We have also given local authorities substantial direct resources through the rate support grant, but the issue at the heart of this debate is of a piece with the difficulty in respect of homelessness and housing that all authorities face, but especially those in London and the south-east. The pressures are substantial.

The Government are putting substantial moneys into meeting the requirements of making affordable housing available and making provision for homeless families. That is true in Reigate and Banstead, and everywhere else in the country. We are well aware of the pressures that local authorities face, but we have made substantial additional resources available.

I know that the events under discussion were unexpected, but we expect local authorities to plan for any such contingency that might arise. Substantial increases in resources have been made available to Reigate and Banstead, and substantial reserves are available to enable local authorities meet any contingency.

Legislation is in place to protect people who are genuinely homeless, and the necessary procedures are in hand. We expect local authorities to be able to deal with any contingencies that arise. We recognise the important pressures faced by local authorities, and the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs said yesterday—

The motion having been made after Six o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-seven minutes to Seven o'clock.