[John Bercow in the Chair] — Overseas Territories

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 23rd April 2009.

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Photo of Mike Gapes Mike Gapes Chair, Foreign Affairs Committee 2:30 pm, 23rd April 2009

Members of our Committee are aware of that, and we referred to the importance of St. Helena in our report. I shall talk a little more about St. Helena when I have finished with the Falklands.

Another issue for Falkland Islanders is the strategic environment in which they find themselves. On 28 March, during his tour of Latin America before the G20 summit, the Prime Minister stated, prior to a meeting with the Argentine President, Cristina Kirchner, that there was "nothing to discuss" regarding the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands. It is reported that he also said there were

"ongoing discussions about flights to and from" the islands. At the moment, anyone who leaves the Falkland Islands by air has to fly around Argentina to Chile, or has to go via the air bridge. Clearly, that is not ideal for people on the islands.

The Committee had previously recommended that the Prime Minister should press the Argentine President to agree to the establishment of a regional fisheries management organisation for the south-west Atlantic and to reiterate the islands' right to develop a hydrocarbon industry. I am interested to know whether those issues came up in the discussions with President Kirchner and whether there has been any improvement in the attitude of the Argentine Government to those important matters, which are of concern not only to Falkland Islanders, but to the UK, because the islands are UK territory.

Bob Russell mentioned St. Helena. The Committee concluded that the building of an airport and related infrastructure on St. Helena could be a significant step towards self-sufficiency for the territory. However, there was concern about the cost, and we asked the Government to provide figures to demonstrate that they had selected the most cost-effective option for bringing St. Helena off dependency on aid. The Government responded:

"While the airport is a higher cost option than sea access, in terms of the projected benefits to St Helena the airport is the most cost effective option for the Government over the long term."

That was the Government's position, as expressed by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, in September 2008, but on 8 December 2008, the Secretary of State for International Development decided, in light of the global economic situation, to pause negotiations on the airport. Subsequently, on 9 April 2009, a letter was sent by the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, Mr. Foster, that seemed to kick the whole thing into the long grass. I understand that a firm of contractors was there and that the process was about to begin, but that everything is now in disarray. Much concern has been expressed by people in St. Helena about the implications for the viability of St. Helena and about having the most cost-effective solution, as that was accepted by our Government only three months before they decided to put it on hold. Clearly, this matter raises some big issues, and I would be grateful to hear more from the Foreign Office about it. The Minister has experience of DFID, so perhaps she can understand where it is coming from. Can she speak on behalf of both Departments to give some hope to the people of St. Helena that this issue will not drag on for years, that the uncertainty will be brought to an end and that the most cost-effective way forward will be found?

I also want to discuss Diego Garcia, but I am conscious that other hon. Members might want to talk about it, so I shall not spend too long on it. We had meetings with and heard evidence from the Illois—the Chagossian people who were disgracefully excluded from their homeland and sent away in the 1960s—and we were very concerned about that issue. In May 2007, the Court of Appeal decided that those people had the right to return to the outer islands of the British Indian Ocean Territory. Subsequent to our report, however, the Government won their appeal in the House of Lords, on 22 October 2008, and the Orders in Council that were made in 2004 to prevent the Chagossians, or Illois, from returning now stand.

The Committee has taken the view that, although the legal case has been determined, the moral case for allowing the return of those people has not been determined, and we have recommended that third-generation descendents of exiled Chagossians should be extended British overseas territories citizenship. We made that recommendation on the ground that their birth in Mauritius was a consequence of exile, not of choice, but the Government declined to accept that recommendation on the basis that it would set a precedent for citizenship to be extended to a third generation of people who were born outside the UK or its overseas territories. Clearly, however, those people had no choice about being forcibly removed from their homes by a British Government, so this case is an exception and should be treated in an exceptional manner.