[John Bercow in the Chair] — Overseas Territories

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 4:07 pm on 23rd April 2009.

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Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North 4:07 pm, 23rd April 2009

I start by saying how much I welcome this debate. As Andrew Rosindell said, such a debate should be held on the Floor of the House rather than in this Chamber.

I thank the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs for undertaking its investigation into the overseas territories, and particularly for examining the question of the British Indian Ocean Territory—the Chagos islands and Diego Garcia. I am chair of the all-party group on the Chagos islands, and I was pleased not only that the Foreign Affairs Committee undertook its investigation but that it invited Olivier Bancoult and Richard Gifford to give oral evidence to the Committee. There was a sense of democratic justice when we finally saw Olivier Bancoult giving evidence on behalf of those who were grievously wronged so long ago. I thank the Committee for that and for those two of its recommendations.

I shall speak only about the Chagos islands. They were depopulated in a rather disreputable deal done in the 1960s between the Government and the United States Administration. It was probably a trade-off for British non-participation in Vietnam and Polaris. The US wished for a base on the Chagos islands, and they were given Diego Garcia.

For reasons that have never been fully or rationally explained, US security needs apparently extend beyond the base on Diego Garcia to the entire island—and the rest of the archipelago, which is several hundred miles away. The islanders were forcibly removed. Some were enticed out on the basis of educational or medical requirements and sent to Mauritius; and some were more or less forced on to boats and taken to Mauritius, where they were simply dumped on the quayside.

A little later, compensation was rather grudgingly given, but it was insufficient and many islanders were conned out of it and have lived in terrible poverty ever since on the island of Mauritius. The former Member for Linlithgow, Tam Dalyell, took up the case on many occasions, as did the former Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook. Tam first met the islanders when he visited Mauritius and its then governor.

The issue of what we do now is very important. The Chagos islanders, having been dumped on the island of Mauritius with minimal compensation—some went to the Seychelles—stayed together as a community, which is deeply significant. It would have been very easy to give up and disappear, but they felt they had been wronged and that they had had a reasonable living on the Chagos islands—it was largely a combination of copra-growing, subsistence farming and fishing. This was an ideal. They are descendants of imported slaves and Portuguese and others who landed there, and have become an identifiable group and a community in themselves.

In staying together, they fought a legal campaign for a very long time for the right to return. On going through some papers from when I was first elected to this House, in 1983, I found that one of the earliest letters that I received was from Oliver Bancoult of the Chagos islands. With a sense of enormous justice, in 2000 they were finally granted the right of return by the High Court. It was a very significant legal victory. The right of return was enshrined in that decision, not to Diego Garcia, but to the rest of the archipelago. The then Foreign Secretary, the late Robin Cook, announced that he would not appeal against the decision and would therefore cause resettlement to become a possibility. Robin Cook had campaigned on the issue of Diego Garcia as a Labour Back-Bencher in the 1970s.

Preparations were being made for the islanders' return. A year later the British Overseas Territories Act came before Parliament and an amendment was put forward by Tam Dalyell, the former Member for Linlithgow, and me, to extend British citizenship to British Indian Ocean Territory citizens, even though they were no longer resident there, because they had been forcibly removed. We withdrew our amendment in the face of a complementary amendment from the Foreign Secretary, and they were duly given British citizenship. As the Select Committee correctly pointed out, however, there was an anomaly, because third-generation islanders were denied citizenship. That was pointed out at the time, but unfortunately the Foreign Office could not accommodate those concerns. I am pleased to say that the Select Committee has made that recommendation, and I hope it can be taken up.

Granting British citizenship, however, is not the same as saying that those people must be resident in Britain. They cannot return to where they came from: the British Indian Ocean Territory. In effect, they have a choice of either continuing to live in Mauritius, or coming to live in this country. The one place they cannot go is the place from which they derive their right to British citizenship—the British Indian Ocean Territory. It is an utterly absurd decision.

The preliminary feasibility study was prepared—I have a copy of this very extensive document—and discussions were under way concerning the right of return. Quite honestly, had a group of islanders simply returned between 2000 and 2004 and taken up residence—as itinerant and very wealthy yachts-people occasionally do—the British Government would either have had to not pursue the Orders in Council or, which is more likely, would not have been prepared to face the international opprobrium of once more evicting people who had every right to be there. Unfortunately, no islanders returned during that period, because they trusted the Foreign Office statements saying that they would be entitled to and allowed to return to the islands.

The Orders in Council were challenged by the excellent solicitor acting on behalf of the Chagos islanders, Richard Gifford, and the case went through the courts, all of which found that the Orders in Council were wrong in law and practice and unfair on the islanders. In the latter part of last year, however, the case went to the House of Lords, where a judgment was made, on a majority verdict, allowing the Foreign Secretary's appeal against the High Court decision and upholding the Orders in Council. A joint statement made by Richard Gifford and Oliver Bancoult after that decision read:

"The government has therefore achieved a victory in banning the islanders permanently from their homeland, and they are in shock at this reversal of previous decisions, and the loss of their cherished right to return home...However, the two dissenting judges, Lord Bingham and Lord Mance, decided that the orders were void because it was beyond the power of government to abrogate such a fundamental right as the right to return to one's homeland. Moreover, they also conducted a searching critique of the reasons advanced by ministers. In summary, the minority judges dismissed the reasons given in a stern critique of the evaluation conducted by ministers in secret."

What do the islanders do next? They have a right to, and will, take their case to the European Court of Human Rights, and they might well win. I am pleased that the Minister is taking this issue seriously, that she met with the all-party group on the Chagos islands and that she received a delegation consisting of myself and the all-party group secretary, Andrew George. I am also grateful to her for meeting Oliver Bancoult and a delegation of islanders, in order to understand their position, when they visited this country recently.

The Minister has a choice to make, however. She could argue that the Orders in Council were the right way forward. As a democrat, I object to all Orders in Council, but I object in particular to these ones because they are so blatantly unfair. However, going through the European judicial process would incur yet more legal costs for the Government. It would no doubt cost a great deal of money—even more than the huge legal costs incurred over the past 10 or 15 years of this sad story. Alternatively, she and the Foreign Secretary could recognise that we are simply wrong and that the islanders should not have been removed in the first place—it was immoral and deceitful. They should never have been forced to live in the desperate poverty that they have known in Mauritius. I have been to visit them there and seen the way in which they are forced to survive.

The Minister could then consider the possibility of returning the islanders. Not every islander will want to return. A number have made their homes in this country, as they are entitled and welcome to do. Most live around Crawley. I also think that we should suspend the habitual residence test, so that they can gain benefits as soon as they arrive in this country. It is a very unpleasant anomaly and has caused great misery and hardship. However, a number of them would like to make use of their right of return. The feasibility study needs to be updated, revisited and developed. I suspect that the cost of returning the islanders would be rather less than the total legal cost of pursuing the case—legal costs get awfully expensive, given the legal aid costs and the cost of the court and counsel provided by the Foreign Office.

One could also consider the ecology and sustainability of the islands. In opening this debate, the Committee Chairman correctly pointed out the pristine environmental conditions on the Chagos islands. That is very important—do not underestimate it! The Chagos Conservation Trust has done a great deal of work. One of its proposals is that there should be no settlement on the islands, and that instead, they should be preserved in a pristine national environment and used for research purposes and everything that goes with that.

I understand the argument. At one level it is very seductive, but if we consider it further we come to the old Greek problem of who guards the guards. Someone has to protect the pristine environment from illegal settlers, so people end up living in that environment to protect it from undesirables who wish to live there. Who better to protect the pristine environment than the very people who kept it in that state in the first place: the islanders themselves? It is perfectly possible to have a return to residence on the island, with a sustainable way of life and a very limited degree of visiting rights for eco-tourism and other such things. Fishing licences should be properly controlled and managed to ensure that there is no over-fishing, and that such income goes to the islands themselves rather than anywhere else. Then, we would have to some degree restored our moral standing in the world by accepting that what we did in the 1960s and 1970s was simply wrong.

We have formed an all-party group on the Chagos islands. We have a considerable, all-party membership—as we are obviously required to do—and it is very enthusiastic. Something that brings together both me and the hon. Member for Romford must have some kudos. The group is determined to pursue the issue all the way through.

The UN Human Rights Council has considered the issue, focusing on discrimination, the treatment of indigenous people and the question of international law. On all those reckonings, Britain is on the wrong side in its treatment of the Chagos islanders. Let us let justice be done, allow the islanders to return and recognise that what we did was an historical wrong. If we make the apology, as we frequently do, let us then carry it through by righting the wrong and allowing the return to take place. I thank the Select Committee for having the time and courage to undertake such a study and to welcome the witnesses who gave evidence. I look forward to its continuing to be active and supportive on this issue.