It might be convenient for those present for this debate if I announce at the start that I intend to commence the wind-ups at 10.30 am, which is the usual time to commence the wind-ups in these debates. If those who wish to catch my eye bear that in mind when they make their contributions, that would be very helpful.
I am very pleased to secure this debate today on the British Indian Ocean Territory. It is timely and very important, and I look forward with great interest to hearing the Minister's reply, because therein hangs the possibility of bringing about some real justice for people who, in my view, have been denied justice for a very long time.
The British Indian Ocean Territory consists of Diego Garcia and an archipelago of islands some distance away from Diego Garcia. The population of those islands have suffered a sorry tale of ill treatment, deception and injustice, caused by British and US policies and a high degree of secrecy and obfuscation by various Governments over a very long time. Everyone now recognises that the way that the islanders were treated was fundamentally wrong and many, many apologies have been offered to them. The islands were part of the British Indian ocean colonies throughout the 19th century. Essentially, they were places where copra was grown and some fishing was done. Their population had a virtually sustainable lifestyle.
In the 1960s, the United States was casting around for a base in the Indian ocean, to have a site that its cargo planes, ships and submarines could use as a naval facility in the Indian ocean as part of its Vietnam war effort. The then US President, Lyndon Johnson, and the then British Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, came to an agreement that Diego Garcia could be used as a US base and a lease arrangement was agreed. That was done in a considerable degree of secrecy and additional requirements were made that the outer islands, as well as the island of Diego Garcia itself, should be depopulated.
The population was systematically moved away and effectively dumped on the Seychelles and Mauritius. The islanders' case was taken up in the British Parliament by Robin Cook, who in 1970 was a newly elected Labour MP, and Tam Dalyell, who was also a Member of Parliament at that time and who only retired at the 2005 election. Both of them showed enormous support for the principle of justice for the islanders and for the suffering that they had been through.
Many newspaper articles and some books have been written on the subject. I recommend a recent book by David Vine, "Island of Shame". It is a very good read for anyone who wants to go through the history of what happened and the situation facing the islanders. A film by John Pilger, "Stealing a Nation", was shown on television and it is continually shown at other places. It is an important film, because it describes the brutality of the removal of the islanders.
The islanders were paid some compensation and I will come back to that issue in a moment. However, I do not believe that the compensation was anywhere near satisfactory. So we then have to look at the legal situation facing the islanders and their unquenchable desire for the right of return to their homelands, which is a right that is set out in international law and which is certainly a moral cause and a justification.
The background is that when the new colony was formed in 1965, to make way for the US base, there was a separation of the administration from Mauritius and Mauritius became independent in 1968. The detachment of the islands from Mauritius was in breach of the UN General Assembly resolution 1514 of 1960. The compensation paid to the islanders was minimal and in any event much of it was taken away by dishonest land dealers and others from the population who continue to live in Mauritius and indeed in the Seychelles. I myself have been to Mauritius and I have met the islanders in their homes there. I must say that they live in considerable poverty.
One should pay tribute to the spirit of the islanders, both those who are living in Mauritius and in the Seychelles, and to the Chagos Refugee Association and its iconic leader, Olivier Bancoult. Indeed, one must also pay tribute to the members of the Chagos community who have more recently come to live in this country, predominantly in Crawley, which is represented by my hon. Friend Laura Moffatt, who is present in Westminster Hall today for this debate. I understand that she wishes to contribute to the debate later on. Those Chagossians have also made their presence felt and raised a number of issues. However, as far as I am concerned, this is a debate about the legal process and the right of return.
In 1999, Olivier Bancoult, on behalf of the Chagos Refugee Association, sought a judicial review of the April 1971 Immigration Ordinance, which meant that anyone visiting the British Indian Ocean Territory required a permit. The High Court judgment of November 2000 found that ordinance to be unlawful. The then Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, accepted that judgment and amended the British Indian Ocean Territory constitution to allow the Chagossians to visit BIOT, except Diego Garcia, and the Foreign Office said that it would press for resettlement feasibility studies.
Rather strangely, just under four years later on election day 2004, the then Foreign Secretary, who is the current Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, my right hon. Friend Mr. Straw, announced that the Queen had agreed on two Orders in Council, one on the constitution and the other on immigration, which effectively negated the High Court decision of 2000. The matter was never put before Parliament, because an Order in Council does not have to be put before Parliament.
Olivier Bancoult then applied for a judicial review in the summer of 2006. Lord Justice Hooper and Mr Justice Cresswell quashed the Orders in Council. Leave to appeal was granted to the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn. In May 2007, the Master of the Rolls and Lord Justices Waller and Sedley upheld the High Court judgment on the grounds that the Orders in Council were an abuse of power, repugnant, irrational and unlawful.
Leave to appeal was refused, but the then Foreign Secretary petitioned the House of Lords and eventually the House of Lords agreed to hear an appeal. In October 2008, three of the five Law Lords held that the Orders were valid because the right of abode may lawfully be displaced for the time being in the interests of defence, but there was no reason why the ban should not be lifted if circumstances changed. In fact, there is no defence or security reason why Chagossians should not resettle on the outer islands, which are, after all, 130 miles away from Diego Garcia. That verdict was a majority verdict by the Law Lords.
An application was lodged, which is now before the European Court of Human Rights, alleging breaches of articles 3, 6, 8, 13 and article 1 of protocol 1 of the European convention on human rights. That application was held pending and resumed in 2009. Last June, the Court suggested that an out-of-court settlement should be made, but that suggestion was rejected by the Foreign Office. The Foreign Office submitted its observations in July 2009, and subsequently in October 2009 and January 2010. The applicants submitted their observations on
If the Court decides that the case is admissible, it will hear the case probably in early summer. There is no impediment to the Foreign Office settling the case out of court. I hope that, when the Minister replies to the debate, he can explain to all of us-the public as well as the House-why we are spending millions of pounds of taxpayers' money on endless legal cases, challenging every application made by the islanders and now challenging the case in the European Court of Human Rights.
I very much agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said in his doughty defence of these people. Does he agree with me that, in the context of, for example, the Constitutional Governance Bill, which says that it seeks to deal with questions of prerogative and treaties to ensure that Parliament has a much greater say in these matters, it is simply outrageous to have a situation in which the prerogative is used to achieve this tangle and undergrowth of injustice and in which, as the hon. Gentleman said, millions and millions of pounds are being spent for reasons that do not seem to be clear to anybody, except to make the position worse for the inhabitants of the countries concerned?
The hon. Gentleman is correct that a full democracy-I look forward to this country's becoming one-would allow Parliament the right to challenge decisions made by Ministers. In this case, the Foreign Secretary asked the Queen to authorise the Orders in Council, bypassing Parliament. That cannot be right under any circumstances.
Having sat through many of the High Court cases, I found it poignant to see the Foreign Secretary's barrister defending with great authority and gusto what I believe to be an unjustifiable, immoral position while a court full of Chagos islanders-now living in Mauritius or the Seychelles, or having made their homes in this country, mainly in Crawley-looked on as that expensive procedure went ahead. Why can we not recognise that a fundamentally immoral injustice has been done?
I agree with every word that has been said. I put it to the hon. Gentleman that it is not only immoral; it is also impractical. It will not work in the end, so the sooner we find a resolution, the better. Have the Americans given any indication whether they still support our Government's resistance, or have the British Government decided by themselves to dig in their feet and not move?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention and his support for the all-party group on the Chagos islands, which I chair and of which he is an active member. It looks increasingly as though the British Government on their own are pursuing the rather bizarre line that it is impossible to resettle the archipelago-as I said, it is 130 miles away from Diego Garcia-due to security issues. The case is being taken up in the United States. Members of the Senate and House are being lobbied heavily on the subject, as is the Administration. I get the increasing impression that the British Government are on their own in the matter.
The hon. Gentleman is making a strong case. He is arguing on moral grounds at the moment. From a British perspective, I think that we all believe that Britain should uphold the highest moral standards. Does he agree that although we are debating the rights of the Chagossians, the British Government are lowering our own moral standards by associating themselves with actions on Diego Garcia? It was eventually wrung out of the Americans that they had been using the island for the rendition of prisoners. Surely, if we in this country are to uphold the highest possible moral standards, we must above all protect and fight for the islanders' right to return as well as opposing the use of the islands in that manner.
Order. I appeal to those who want to take part in this debate that, tempting though it is to make a short speech during an intervention, the convention is that interventions should be brief and to the point.
Even if they are good short speeches, Mr. Howarth, I understand your point.
The hon. Gentleman is also an extremely active member of the all-party group. I have two points to make in response to his intervention. The first involves the moral case and the damage that such activities do to this country's moral standing. I was at the United Nations Human Rights Council a few years ago when the Chagos islanders came in considerable numbers as a delegation of indigenous people denied the right to return to their homeland. I found it embarrassing to be there as a Member of the British Parliament while a delegation stated that they had been denied the right to live on their own islands by a series of decisions made in Britain as part of a colonial legacy or hangover. The Chagossians were there to petition the United Nations. Of course they had every right to petition the United Nations-I was there to support them-but I wondered what it was doing to this country's moral standing in the world.
My second point concerns Diego Garcia. It is not part of the case that the islanders should be able to resettle in large numbers, or indeed any numbers, on Diego Garcia, because of the arrangements to lease most of the island for the US base. However, we should remember that Diego Garcia is at this moment, in law, a British Indian Ocean Territory. It is a British possession, if that is the right word. The Americans were eventually forced to admit that they had been using the island for extraordinary rendition flights. When that came out, the Foreign Secretary, who had clearly not been informed of it by the United States, was forced to apologise to the House. I would imagine that he was extremely embarrassed, and probably very angry, at having to do so, as he had been told constantly that the islands were not being used for extraordinary rendition. A degree of openness is necessary on the issue.
Moving to the case at present, a legal debate is going on. I have argued that the legal case is strong for the islanders' right to return. I fervently hope that they win their case at the European Court of Human Rights. When the hearing takes place, some time this year, I intend to be there to support the islanders and watch the process in the Court. If the islanders win at the ECHR, as they probably will, the British Government-it will be after the election-will either have to accept that decision or introduce yet more legislation in the House to try to negate it. That can be avoided if the Foreign Office climbs down, accepts that there is an overwhelming case for the right of return and discusses with the islanders and the Chagossian community in the UK how it could be carried out, the cost, who would pay for it and the environmental impact on the islands.
I commend the hon. Gentleman on the timeliness of this debate and his long-running campaign on the issue. Does he think that the problem for this and any subsequent Government is that they have got themselves on the hook of not wanting to resolve the issue? The European Court of Human Rights might find that the Government must move. Does he agree that having been boxed into a corner, the Government appear reluctant to get themselves off the hook rather than implicate themselves even further as the years go on?
The box is of the Government's own making from 2004 onwards. The previous Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook, who had a good record on the issue, declined to appeal against the decision in 2000, so it stood. In 2004, the Orders in Council were introduced. It seems necessary for all of us to help the Foreign Office get out of the box in which it put itself in 2004. Going through endless appeals and incurring incredible legal costs is not the way to do so. The way is through discussion, conciliation and arrangements for a proper return to the islands.
Proposals have been made, which I support, for the establishment of a marine protection zone around the Chagos islands. They are a unique and pristine environment. uninhabited except for itinerant yachtspeople who apparently call there from time to time. Some fishing also takes place, and an income is received from issuing fishing licences. The idea of a marine protection zone arises from the legislation passed by the House recently. In all other cases where marine protection zones are being established, they combine an absolute ban on the taking of organisms or fish and limited quotas and sustainable fishing arrangements.
Consultations on marine protection zones around UK islands rightly have to involve the local communities and fishing communities. It is obvious that to achieve such a zone, there must be consultation. The proposals for the marine protection zone around the Chagos islands include that there be no take and that, apparently, no consultation with anybody other than a fraternity of biologists and scientists. I have great respect for biologists and scientists and for what they are trying to achieve, but experience shows that conserving natural resources and ecosystems is best done by involving the local population. The experience of nature reserves in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean islands is that if a Government ordain that a certain area is a total environmental protection zone, which no one may enter, poachers come in and illegal activities happen. That leads to an army or security force creating a war zone to protect the zone. Achieving the co-operation of local people works very well, as in Madagascar.
I was happy to accept an invitation to Royal Holloway college in January to discuss these very matters.
The approach my hon. Friend describes presumes that people want to destroy their own environment. They are fighting to get back so that they can protect their environment. Is this not colonialism gone mad?
I suppose it could be called eco-colonialism. The best people in the world to protect the environment of the Chagos islands are the Chagos islanders; they are the people who love and understand the place, and the ones who would look after it.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Prime Minister of Mauritius hit the nail on the head in asking:
"How can you say you will protect coral and fish when you continue to violate the rights of Chagos's former inhabitants?"?
A less generous man than my hon. Friend might say that what is happening could be interpreted as a cynical move to negate any possible judgment of the European Court later this year.
As my hon. Friend says, I am far too generous to impute such motives to others in these matters. I will leave hon. Members to form their views on that.
I support the zone and, as far as I am aware, the islander communities in this country and in Mauritius support it, too. It is in nobody's interest to destroy the environment or ecosystem. There should be sustainable living by the islanders who wish to return. I do not know how many there will be, but the number will be much smaller than tens of thousands. It is the right of return that is so important and that, in particular, is what this debate is about.
I hope that in his reply, the Minister will acknowledge the anger and outrage of islanders. The feasibility studies have been designed to create the aura that incredible expense and infrastructure would be required, in order to detract from the possibility of the islanders ever returning to the islands. I ask the Minister to look again at the issue, in particular at how the islanders have been treated and at the possibility of reaching a quick out-of-court settlement so that we can move on. We should have the marine protection zone, which would be a legacy of the British Government and Prime Minister, but that should be part of a wider settlement package that gives the islanders the right of return.
Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the Foreign Office has identified the exiled Chagossian community as one of the stakeholders in the consultation for the proposed marine protection zone? Is it not odd that the Foreign Office recognises them as stakeholders in the environment, but will not let them go back to it?
Absolutely. The islanders do not have the right of return, but they have recognition as stakeholders who will contribute to the consultation exercise. It is a non sequitur to say that we will consult them, but do not trust them to live there. In other words, we trust their opinions, but do not trust them to look after the place should they have the right of return.
I mentioned that I attended a seminar at Royal Holloway college in January. There were 100 scientists and conservationists from around the world who had prepared various petitions and statements. Some supported the marine conservation zone and others supported it, but also wanted the rights of the islanders to be taken on board. There has been a marked reluctance by some who support the zone to acknowledge any human involvement or considerations in the matter, which I find extraordinary.
The islanders have made their case. The legal position is that Britain separated the Chagos islands from Mauritius. As I said, I believe that that was contrary to the UN General Assembly resolution of the time. There is an issue about our relations with Mauritius to be resolved. I hope that the Minister will say something about the ongoing discussions with the Mauritius Government.
The Foreign Secretary has an interest in considering this matter. I commend him for meeting the Chagossian community in this country and hope he will give the same service to the Chagossian community that lives in Mauritius on his next visit. The community in this country has lived in some poverty, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley will explain. They have been denied access to benefits because of the habitual residence test, which is bizarre considering that they are British citizens following an amendment that Tam Dalyell and I tabled at Committee stage of the British Overseas Territories Act 2002. I hope it will be recognised that, as British citizens and passport holders, they are entitled to the same rights as anybody else in our society.
I have mentioned several people in this debate and will conclude by recognising two people who should be acknowledged and thanked. The first is Richard Gifford, a lawyer who has shown steadfast support for the islanders' right of return over decades. He has been to Mauritius and the Seychelles on many occasions. He has led the case through all the courts and all the chicanery. Such people, who go far beyond their professional demands, should be recognised, thanked and supported. The second person is David Snoxell, the former British high commissioner to Mauritius, who, in retirement, has given a lot of energy and support to the Chagossian community and to the case for their right of return.
Finally, I mention again Olivier Bancoult, the chairman of the Chagos refugees group, whom I know well and have known for many years. It is remarkable that this small community, which was taken from its islands all those years ago and literally dumped in Mauritius and the Seychelles, did not spread asunder over the world, go to the four winds and disappear as an entity, but has stayed together and campaigned and petitioned together. There was a great sense that justice had been achieved in 2000, when the High Court in Britain gave the islanders the right of return. It is up to us to follow that through.
Olivier sent me an e-mail that said:
"Regarding the Marine Protected Area we will support it as long as it takes into consideration the fundamental right of the Chagossians. May I ask you to put a request to Foreign Secretary David Miliband who visited a Chagossian group in Crawley, that he considers meeting all the Chagossian groups as well?"
I know the Foreign Secretary met Allen Vincatassin, who is one of the prominent people in the Chagos community in Crawley, but he should also meet Olivier and his group when he next visits Mauritius. We have a chance to do something good: withdraw the case from the European Court of Human Rights, reach a settlement, allow the islanders to return, and protect the environment and the pristine marine life there by letting the islanders themselves look after it. We can right a wrong; we can correct an injustice. Apologies and catharsis are a good thing, but one has to go the whole way and finish the case by allowing the islanders to return. I hope the Minister can give us some good news when he replies to the debate.
I am delighted to take part in the debate and I congratulate my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn on securing it. This important subject requires proper consideration. In Parliament, when we talk about overseas issues that have a direct impact on our streets in the UK, this matter must be at the top of the agenda.
Most of us who have grown up understanding the injustice that has taken place and how islanders were treated like cattle and removed to Mauritius and the Seychelles have a great sense of the wrong that has been done. Those people were subsequently given access to a British passport and turned up in the centre of a town virtually destitute, with just a great sense of hope to see them through. The system let them down in many ways and they needed to be supported, helped and guided through very difficult early days, so it is inspirational to look at that community now.
That sense of inspiration comes from watching a community establish itself in the UK and making sure that it is part of what we are-our fabric-through, for example, participation in the voluntary sector. It is very special to realise that the children of that community are doing extremely well at school and that its first students have gone to university. We need to congratulate that community on establishing itself in such a way. However, those people are not the only Chagos islanders whom we need to consider. Many others have, for whatever reason, not been able to make that move, and their views must be considered.
This matter has given rise to hugely diverse views, which are deeply and passionately held. We sometimes become over-excited if we hear someone saying something that does not accord with our particular view, but it is right and proper that I should articulate the views of the islanders who have settled in Crawley. I have very close contact with those people, and I spend a great deal of time listening to the issues that have become a running sore for them. The work to secure visits to the island has been tremendous for the community-not only for the two groups of six that were able to visit the islands and come back with their reports of that pristine environment, which I understand everyone wants to protect, but for those who could not travel, as they attended presentations to see the beautiful pictures.
That, however, is not good enough. No one can survive on a dream that existed decades ago. For the community, creating contact between the islands and those who have been removed-who may still be in Mauritius and the Seychelles or in the United Kingdom-is vital. I firmly believe that people must have a choice about the right of return. That is the cornerstone of all the work that has taken place, but it does not mean that everyone will wish to return, and we need to make that very clear.
When the court cases were under way, many people who had settled from the islands came to see me to say, "It doesn't mean that I'll have to go back, does it?" They felt there was a sense of compulsion about the matter. It is important that the sense of the right of return remains, and that it is achieved. How that is managed is the big issue we are debating today, which can often become a little overheated.
The hon. Lady introduced part of her speech by saying that there are diverse views. Does she not accept that, in fact, she is describing two views? One view is that those Chagossians who choose to do so should have the right of return and resettlement; another view is that they should be denied that right. There are just two views, not a diversity of views.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I absolutely disagree, mainly because I have heard many more than two views. It is impossible to state that the right of return is just a basic right of return. There are many permutations of the right of return and the way in which that is managed is crucial. Some people say that the right of return should be run through some sort of trust and that those who hail from particular islands should have complete control of that. The big issue-where there is great difficulty-is that some people do not believe that Mauritius should have sovereignty over the islands. If that is part of the package, it will never satisfy that group. That is why we need to have a debate between the communities as well.
I have two points to make. First, it was very traumatic to watch the film made by the 100 people who went on a visit to the islands. Secondly, does my hon. Friend acknowledge that it is possible to separate the issue of the future sovereignty of the islands from that of the right of return, which is what we are currently pursuing through the courts? It is important that we consider both matters in order, rather than necessarily as part of one package.
I respect and understand my hon. Friend's view, but the trouble is that some of the issues are often linked to another given. For some of the islanders, the given seems to be that sovereignty will be transferred to Mauritius to allow the right of return, and that is where they have a huge difficulty. We need to try to separate out these matters. I utterly agree that if we start from the basic right of return and look at the overlying issues, many of those will relate to the differences between those who come from different islands. I am constantly amazed by the differing views, which depend on the island from which someone hails. The Diego Garcian community has a different view, for example, from islanders from Peros Banhos. I have no doubt that that will continue because it is human nature, but politicians need to be mindful lest they just bundle up the islanders and assume that they have a single opinion. It is untrue that there is one single viewpoint, and we need to take proper account of that.
We are faced with a community that, after a sticky start, is doing extremely well in the United Kingdom. One of the sickest sights I have ever seen was that of honourable and decent people sitting outside the offices of social services because they were being denied basic benefits, and seeing other people, in effect, campaigning against British passport holders. That made me determined to support the Chagossian community in any way I could. I sincerely believed any investment made through social services in that community at that early stage would be repaid, and it is being repaid in spades.
The islanders have become part of our cultural history and part of the community, participating in different events and sharing with us a rich culture of music and dance. It is a bright and intelligent community that has contributed to Crawley, so much so that it is easy to be sucked into the sense of optimism that grew out of a very difficult start. Indeed, Alex Morrison, one of the reporters from our local newspaper, the Crawley News, now volunteers with the group to help them publicise their events. Many people have taken the community into their hearts.
A film crew is now producing a film about Crawley as a town of immigration, called "The Road to Crawley", as it is a place where different groups of people have come to live over the years, since the 1960s, and we are now a diverse town. All those groups that have contributed to our town are being filmed, and the last group to be filmed is the most recent one to have entered Crawley in significant numbers, and is made up of people from the islands. They have become part of the fabric of the town, and we accept that there is a new group contributing to our lives.
People in Crawley understand that that community is self-sufficient and ambitious, both for themselves and their children. They still encounter huge difficulties with language and with having to learn a completely new way of life, but they are determined to overcome them. In addition, they are still concerned about what will happen to their islands, which they care about, and the families who have been left in Mauritius.
There is a big concern about visas, and I would be interested to hear the Minister comment on that. It is okay to grant someone from the islands a British passport, but if they have been living in Mauritius the likelihood that they will marry someone from Mauritius is high, and they would then have all the difficulties relating to access and the ability to live as a family. That issue is still causing concern and upset among those who have left the islands. I believe that that needs to be sorted out as a debt of honour-I know that that word has been used before in the debate, but I firmly believe that it is the right terminology for the response to that group of people.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North is right that the Diego Garcian Society met the Foreign Secretary last week, but it was not the only group to meet him to discuss the matter. The Chagos islands groups also met him, which was important, because we need to widen participation and hear all the views. One would think that there were only two views if one listened to only two groups, but there is actually a multiplicity of responses to the cruel effect of removing people from their homeland and forcing them to create a new lifestyle for themselves, which the islanders have done first in Mauritius and now in the UK. I keep saying it because I mean it: that is a group of people I greatly admire for the way in which they have managed their lives.
With regard to the marine protection zone, no one could argue that it does not stem from the highest ideal. I have seen photographs of those fantastic islands and their pristine beaches, although ground is being lost to the Indian ocean, so global warming has clearly had a huge effect on the islands. They have some fantastic and rare wildlife, such as tree frogs, which I had never seen before, and beautiful turtles in crystal-clear waters. Part of the reason for that is that no one is allowed to go there. One of the pictures shows a sign stating that absolutely no fishing and no trespassing on the beach are allowed. Those environments have been preserved as a result of removing a community.
How then do we allow a degree of involvement by the community in the future of the islands without spoiling that? I can see that there is a purist view, which I think the Chagos Environment Network holds, and I understand completely where it is coming from. When I received a letter on the matter, I was concerned that there was not even one name on the list of those campaigning for the marine protection zone, and I wrote back to say so. I have been reassured that more consultations are under way with islanders, but I was disappointed that that did not involve those communities from the start. In a sense, the environment must be preserved in aspic, without anyone being able to take part in activities, such as fishing, that might benefit the community.
Once again, we need to be clear about the community and who we are going to consult. It is like motherhood and apple pie to say that one must involve the local community, but who will those people be? Will it be the Government of Mauritius or just the islanders from the area where the marine park will be established, or will we have a wider consultation? That is why it was important that the Diego Garcian Society organised its own ballot so that it could contribute to the debate. I was delighted to be able to assist by getting a ballot box and ensuring that the ballot was conducted correctly so that people could have their say on the consultation in November.
There are many unanswered questions, and not one of them can be settled in just one debate, although I believe that today we have a good opportunity to have a gentle look at the matter so as not to get to the point at which people are driven to take positions that might be difficult to get out of. I am a huge supporter of the Government, but at times I cringe and wonder why we are continuing to cause difficulties through the courts. Half of me understands that it is about trying to protect a position, but at times I believe that we need to look more creatively at how we establish the rights of those islanders, particularly before 2014, when we will have to give a definitive response before the Americans decide what they want to do with Diego Garcia in 2016. We have some time to have those negotiations with all those people, to respect the myriad views on the matter and to settle it once and for all.
We must ensure that the British Government hold their head up, because I firmly believe that they have dealt with the matter decently and honestly. However, I think that the legal issue is really making mischief among those who are trying to find a solution. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has treated the community in Crawley with nothing but dignity and has offered help, advice and support. It would be difficult to argue anything else. Whenever we have requested meetings and visits, they have been granted. The time that those people arrived on the islands on a small fishing boat was a moment they will never forget, and I was pleased that women went along on the second visit, because the first one was an all-male event. Those visits have enlivened the interest of the community in Crawley and ensured that they have a sense of history and of where they come from.
I can only speak for the community that I know and greatly appreciate in Crawley, so I will conclude my remarks by stating that it would wish those islands to remain under the protection of the United Kingdom. For that community, any other discussion is extremely difficult, so now we see just how difficult the subject is.
I congratulate Jeremy Corbyn on securing this debate. As other Members of the House know, he has been a passionate campaigner on this issue for many years, and today he set out the case using his great knowledge of the subject in a powerful speech. I struggled to find anything in it with which I disagreed.
I reiterate my support and that of many in my party for the Chagos islanders' campaign to be allowed to return to the outer Chagos islands. On
I also had an opportunity to raise the issue last month in a European Committee debate that covered a wide range of issues, and at that time the Minister for Europe was firm in his disagreement. I am hopeful that we may get a slightly more positive response from this Minister.
In October 2008, the House of Lords ruled that the Government had acted legally when they issued two Orders in Council forbidding the Chagos islanders from returning to the outer Chagos islands. The ruling was based on a series of statutes in British law which state:
"In a conquered or ceded colony the Crown, by virtue of its prerogative, has full power...to act both executively and legislatively" regardless of whether its actions are
"for the benefit of the inhabitants of that colony."
In the 21st century, arguing that the British Government can do whatever they like in their overseas territories without regard for the interests of the inhabitants is morally reprehensible, and the law should surely be changed. I deeply regret that the Government have not taken the advice of the European Court of Human Rights and sought a settlement out of court with the Chagos islanders that would allow them to return to the outer Chagos islands, which, as we have heard, are 130 miles away from the others. This legal battle has gone on far too long, and it is a stain on Britain's reputation.
As has been mentioned, there is also a significant financial cost to the legal battle. In 2008, the Public Accounts Committee estimated that the Government had spent £2.1 million on the court battle with the Chagos islanders. Since then, there have been appeals to the House of Lords and to the European Court of Human Rights, which must have brought the cost to the taxpayer much higher still. I urge the Minister to stop wasting money on this legal case, particularly in the current economic situation, and to settle out of court with the Chagos islanders.
I am also greatly concerned that, at every stage of the legal battle, the Government have failed to consult Parliament on their decisions. In 2004, they used the Privy Council to issue two Orders in Council banning anyone from settling in the Chagos archipelago. The announcement was made on
After the European Court of Human Rights asked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to reply by
Laura Moffatt made an excellent contribution, in particular about her experiences with the Chagossian community in Crawley. She told the human story behind the issues of legality and principle that can so often be discussed in abstract terms. Of course this is not a simple issue-there are myriad different views within the Chagossian community, as within any community, as hon. Members know-but it is a real problem that the Government have failed to consult Chagossians themselves in the many instances when one would expect them to be among the first groups to be consulted.
The Orders in Council that were used to ban Chagossians from their home in 2004 were based on a 2001 feasibility study for resettlement, yet the Chagossians were not consulted as part of that study. Nor did the Government consult the Chagossians when they came up with their document on a marine protection area that was published for consultation in November 2009.
Like other hon. Members, I very much support the creation of an MPA in the Chagos archipelago. However, I am concerned that the Government have sought to develop a plan for it before a ruling has been received from Strasbourg on resettlement. I recently signed the Marine Education Trust's petition calling for the Government's plans for an MPA in the Chagos archipelago to make provision for the future possible return of the Chagos islanders to their home. A number of Liberal Democrat MPs have signed the petition as well as early-day motion 960, which was tabled by Ms Abbott. It carries exactly the same message, and I encourage any Members who have not signed it to do so.
Fishing would be vital to the survival of the Chagossians if they resettled on the outer islands, and the proposal to make provision for it in the MPA has received support from many environmentalists who have signed the Marine Education Trust's petition. The case was put forcefully by the hon. Gentleman that, in conservation terms, it is best to involve local communities to ensure that there is a lasting settlement that will protect the environment, and that everyone has bought into it.
Legal advice suggests that declaring an MPA without the support of the Chagos islanders and Mauritius would be illegal under the United Nations convention on the law of the sea. In a parliamentary answer to Lord Wallace of Saltaire, Baroness Kinnock wrote that the MPA must not
"impact on the operational capability of the base on Diego Garcia".-[Hansard, House of Lords, 22 February 2010; Vol. 717, c. WA234.]
She went on to state that the island may therefore have to be excluded from the MPA. I would be keen to hear from the Minister how the Government will work with the United States Department of Defence to reduce the impact of the military base on the environment, if that is the case.
I would like to turn to other impacts of the military base, particularly the troubling topic of rendition. I am sure that all hon. Members will agree that the use of Diego Garcia for extraordinary rendition of terror suspects is deeply disturbing, and that every effort must be made to prevent it from happening again. I understand that the US Government have not always been entirely honest with the UK about the use of Diego Garcia for that purpose, but surely we have a moral and legal responsibility to ensure that our territory is not used for such acts.
To that end, Mr. Tyrie has proposed legislation to tighten the criminal law on extraordinary rendition, and I understand that the proposals are being considered by the Ministry of Justice. The Justice Secretary has stated that
"The Government would not allow any rendition through UK territory that would put the UK in breach of its...human rights obligations".
However, we know that past assurances given by the US Government on the matter have turned out to be false, so I would be keen to hear what the Government are doing to ensure that the US does not use Diego Garcia for that purpose.
In conclusion, I make four points to the Minister. The Government should drop the legal case against the Chagos islanders at the European Court of Human Rights and settle out of court, as other hon. Members have suggested. The Government must consult Parliament on all major decisions concerning the islands, and consult the islanders themselves, the Mauritian Government and other stakeholders where it is clearly appropriate. They should make provision in any MPA for the Chagos islanders to fish in local waters should they resettle in the outer islands. Finally, they must take concrete measures to prevent the use of the British Indian Ocean Territory and, indeed, any others, for extraordinary rendition. I hope that the Minister will be able to respond positively to those points.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Howarth. I congratulate Jeremy Corbyn on raising this issue. He has been tireless over many years in doing so, as have other colleagues. Like Jo Swinson, I was also present when we touched on the Chagos islands in the debate on the Foreign Affairs Committee's report and also in the European Committee.
The hon. Gentleman said that this debate is about the Chagossians' legal right to return to the islands. He also said-I hope that I took this down correctly-that the British Government are, on their own, pursuing a case on a security issue all the way through the law courts. I shall return to that in a few minutes.
It seems to me that there are several interlocking issues here, with justice for the Chagossians being at the centre of them. While listening to the debate, I heard the outrage of many hon. Members here, as well as during previous debates, about the way in which the Chagossians were removed from the islands and are unable to return, but their case is not unique. When I first went to Gibraltar-as a military historian, I am ashamed to say this-I did not realise that in the summer of 1940, around 90 per cent. of Gibraltarians were forcibly removed. Many went to the Azores, and some were brought to London because it was thought to be safe. There was a certain irony in that because they lived in tenement flats and hotels in Pimlico, and then had to endure the blitz. By 1945, they were allowed back, but tens of thousands of people were involved.
In Norfolk-there are similar cases in Yorkshire and, of course, on Salisbury plain-at the beginning of the war, the army took over the Stamford battle area near Thetford. Many people in villages were forcibly removed and have never been allowed back. That is one of the little footnotes in history, and every 10 years or so a local television programme is made about it. I am not trying to compare or demean the Chagossian case, but there are other examples, although theirs is a specific one.
In reply to an intervention, Laura Moffatt made a good point in a fair speech. My experience when talking to many groups of Chagossians is that there is not one overriding view. There is a view about the right to return, but some Chagossian groups want to return, some want the right to return merely as visitors, some have business interests that they would like to develop-I have heard from some Chagossians that they would like to develop tourism, hotels and so on-and a substantial group wants the island to remain firmly a UK territory, and do not want it to be returned to Mauritius. The British Government have said that if the Americans decide to withdraw from Diego Garcia, responsibility for the island will return to Mauritius. I am making the point to show that, as the hon. Lady fairly said, and I am certain that the hon. Gentleman agrees, the issue is complex, not simple. Responsibility for resolving it must be with the British Government.
The US-UK military presence is also an issue. The UK presence is tiny on Diego Garcia. The issue has been highlighted by accusations of extraordinary rendition, and I do not want to go into the details, but it has highlighted the fact that the overall relationship between the United Kingdom and the United States is not always open and honest in the exchange of policy and intelligence.
The crucial point about the military presence on Diego Garcia, as the hon. Lady said, is that by 2014, we must consider proposals for any revisions of the agreement-2016 is the cut-off date-and that is only four years away. My best guess in 2010 is that it is highly unlikely that the United States will want to withdraw completely from Diego Garcia, because of the way in which the world has changed. I am not talking just about the conflict in Afghanistan. If one talks to people in the State Department and the Pentagon, they see Diego Garcia as being even more crucial both as a base for moving aircraft in and out-a supply base-and, as they see it, a strategic balance of power in the Indian ocean. My best guess is that in 2014 the United States will not want to withdraw. That will be a big attention-grabber for the British Government, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence.
Will the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the archipelago is a long way from Diego Garcia-130 miles-and that it is bizarre to argue that there is a defence and security requirement on islands that are the equivalent of one third of the distance from here to Paris, for example?
Yes. The hon. Gentleman got in just ahead of me. The Chagossians have made that point, and there is a genuine question for the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Defence here, and the State Department and the Department of Defence in the United States to answer. Do they believe, objectively, that if the Chagossians returned and there were some form of economic development, there would be a threat to their security? What sort of threat do they believe there would be? It should be discussed to decide whether it is credible. The Department of Defence may well say that there is no such threat, and that if there were it could be monitored.
We have reached the stage where the sort of secret agreements and discussions that we were able to have 40 years ago under consecutive Governments-this is not a party political issue; it was a Government to Government matter-cannot continue in quite the same way. There will be issues of confidentiality, but whoever are the Government after the general election will have to consider the matter.
The whole business of economic development of the area is crucial, and the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Lady made the point that some crucial issues will arise if some Chagossians want to return, particularly the development of the fishing industry. Mauritius also has an interest, and a matter in the documentation that worries me is the marine protection area. If the United Kingdom decided eventually to hand back the islands to Mauritius, I am not certain whether Mauritius would be legally liable to continue the MPA. That will be crucial from the point of view not only of the Chagossians, but of any investment that the United Kingdom and other partners have made in the development of the area.
There is a series of connected issues, and I conclude by saying that we must put the interests of the Chagossians at the heart of them. I do not believe that the Foreign Office has entirely ignored them, but they have tended to be of second or third-level importance. That cannot continue. I am trying not to be too parti pris, but we know pretty well that there will be a general election on
Finally, one of the first things that the newly constituted Select Committee on Foreign Affairs should do in the new Parliament is to consider the whole issue of the Chagos islands and all the matters that we have discussed today. I again congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the way in which he raised this important issue.
It is a tremendous pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Howarth. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn for securing this debate, and for his passion and long-standing advocacy on an issue that disturbs any reasonable hon. Member, whatever their roles and responsibilities. This is not part of my ministerial portfolio, so I am new to the matter, but I considered some of the issues when preparing for this debate, and the historical treatment of Chagossians by the British Government at the time is a scar on our history. It was totally unacceptable, and we should be ashamed of what was done in the name of this country.
I also pay tribute to my hon. Friend Laura Moffatt for a typically thoughtful and sensitive contribution to the debate, and more importantly, for the human and personal support that she has given to the Chagossian community in her constituency. I know that people in that community have great respect for the personal interest and commitment that she has demonstrated in ensuring that they are ultimately treated with dignity and respect. As my hon. Friend said, as a result of its efforts, the community is beginning to do well. A manifestation of that is the fact that some young Chagossians have the opportunity to go into higher education, perhaps for the first time. That is always a sign of a community that is progressing and moving forward.
There can be no doubt about the responsibility and culpability of this country for the decisions that were made in the late '60s and early '70s. Because of that, we owe it to the Chagossian community to ensure that we behave appropriately and in a way that, while remaining consistent with our interests, is also sensitive to our responsibilities.
The key issue raised during the debate was the right of return, and in that context it is important to look at the different legal processes that have taken place and explain why the Government felt that they wished to pursue the case legally. The first example of that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North mentioned, was when the Foreign Secretary made the decision to appeal the case to the House of Lords following other court decisions.
The reasons for that decision were threefold. First, following an independent feasibility study, we were convinced that lasting resettlement would be precarious and, if sponsored by the Government, entail expensive underwriting by the British taxpayer over an open-ended, probably permanent period. Secondly, restoration of full immigration control over the entire territory was necessary to ensure the availability and full effectiveness of the territory for defence purposes, particularly in the light of a change in security circumstances since 2000 and our treaty obligations to the United States. Thirdly, the Court of Appeal's judgment raised issues of constitutional law that we believed to be of general public importance. For those reasons, the Foreign Secretary felt at the time that it was appropriate to appeal the case to the House of Lords.
A lot of concern has been expressed today about the feasibility of resettlement and about defence, and during the debate, hon. Members have questioned the basis for our position on those issues. The independent study conducted in 2000 came down heavily against the feasibility of resettlement-I do not know whether hon. Members have had an opportunity to see that report. Although it concluded that short-term habitation for limited numbers on a subsistence basis would be possible, it emphasised that any long-term resettlement would, in reality, be precarious and costly. Hon. Members who are well informed will be aware that the outer islands-the largest of which is about the size of Hyde park-have been uninhabited for nearly 40 years and have no basic facilities or infrastructure. Therefore, in terms of objectivity, that feasibility study came out heavily against resettlement.
On defence, the 1966 exchange of notes with the United States made the whole archipelago available for the defence purposes of both Governments as they may arise. The terms of that note remain in force, and the United States has confirmed that, from its point of view, that situation is still valid.
It is also important to deal with compensation, and hon. Members have recognised that the Governments involved have made compensation available in the past. In the early 1970s, £650,000 was paid to the Government of Mauritius for the benefit of the Chagossians, and, in addition, the Government of Mauritius made land available to the value of a further £1 million. Further to that, under a 1982 agreement between Her Majesty's Government, the Government of Mauritius and representatives of the Chagossians, a further £4 million was paid by Her Majesty's Government into a trust fund for the benefit of the registered Chagossians. In today's terms, total compensation paid by the Government would equate to over £16 million.
A High Court judgment made by Lord Justice Ouseley on
I thank the Minister for the clarity of his response. Does he agree that there may be other ways to benefit the community and pay compensation, such as allowing limited activity on the island so that Chagos islanders can benefit as a whole, rather than providing money directly from the Government?
That goes to the heart of the question about access to the islands. My hon. Friend referred to the two visits that were facilitated and funded by the Foreign Office. That was entirely appropriate and we should certainly consider doing more of that in the future. There are a variety of ways in which we can demonstrate sensitivity and respect for the islanders and their relationship with their homeland.
Through financial compensation we have recognised our legal responsibilities, but of course there continues to be a moral responsibility, which is not as neat as a statutory or legal responsibility. How we deal with that moral responsibility needs to be an ongoing source of reflection for any responsible and reasonable British Government.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North asked about the European Court of Human Rights, and why the Government are using that to defend themselves. Let me explain why we are doing so. First, in the view of UK courts, the ECHR is not applicable in the British Indian Ocean Territory. Secondly, as I have said, the compensation that has been paid was in full and final settlement of all claims, and the UK has no legal obligation to pay any further compensation. Thirdly, the BIOT constitution is lawful, and hence there is no right of abode in BIOT. That is why we are defending ourselves through the European Court of Human Rights and have not felt able at this stage to settle out of court.
On that point, if the European Court of Human Rights decides in favour of the islanders rather than the Government, is it correct that the only way that the Government could avoid having to carry out the Court's wishes is through primary legislation in the House?
As far as I am aware, that is the case. Clearly, if I am told differently after the debate, I will write to my hon. Friend. However, that is my view, based on the information that I received in the run-up to the debate.
Let me deal now with the marine protected area. When the Foreign Secretary launched the public consultation on it in November last year, he pointed to what he described as a
"remarkable opportunity for the UK to create one of the world's largest marine protected areas and double the global coverage of the world's oceans benefiting from full protection".
Potentially, this is a very significant project, with wide ramifications.
We extended the consultation period because, as hon. Members said, we needed to consult as widely as possible, and the consultation concluded only last Friday. The all-party group has formally responded, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North. In addition to taking written contributions, we made sure that an independent facilitator was made specifically available to speak directly to Chagossians in Crawley and the Seychelles and by video teleconference to those in Mauritius.
I am not being coy when I say that the consultation genuinely closed last Friday, and we are not in a position at this stage to announce its outcome or how we intend to proceed. However, I would like to place on record that is important that hon. Members are briefed-I suspect that this may be the responsibility of someone else, who will, I hope, come from the Labour party-when the Government decide what to do next about the marine protected area. I am cognisant of the fact that hon. Members feel that there was not sufficient consultation with parliamentarians on the Chagossians in the past before apparently unilateral decisions were made. I therefore put on record a commitment to make sure, wherever possible, that interested hon. Members are briefed before we make final decisions on the marine protected area.
Let me turn briefly to the specific point that Jo Swinson made about extraordinary rendition. Other hon. Members, including Mr. Simpson, made the same point. We are all aware of what happened in 2008, but the key point is whether any assurances have been given that it will not happen again. It is important to put on record that in February 2008, when the issue came into the public domain and the Foreign Secretary made his statement to the House, the then US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, publicly underlined the firm US understanding that there will be no rendition through the UK, our overseas territories and Crown dependencies or our airspace without our express permission having first been received. Hon. Members may say that that was our understanding in the first place, but it is important that we have on record a reiteration of the fact that the US understands that these things were not acceptable and should never happen again. In terms of our special relationship with the United States, we are not happy with the way it has behaved historically on this issue, but we have to accept in good faith the assurance that the then Secretary of State gave.
That was really my question. Is this just a matter of accepting the word of the US Secretary of State in good faith, or is there anything else that the Government can do so that they have confidence that these things are not currently happening? Do we just have to rely on what the US says?
Of course, we have to take all possible steps to make sure that our laws and policies are respected, and that should be the case especially in the context of our special relationship. Historically, we were obviously given assurances that turned out not to be true, and that is totally unacceptable, whether it was the United States that did that or any other country with which we had any kind of diplomatic relations, let alone a special relationship. All that I would say to the hon. Lady is that we have now had an assurance, and we have to respect it. The United States was certainly left in no doubt, as has been said, about the fact that the Foreign Secretary was not only embarrassed, but angry that a country with which we pride ourselves on having a special relationship had, on this occasion, undoubtedly misled the British Government.
To conclude, the difference between legal and moral responsibility is not a simple issue. As hon. Members have said, there is no doubt that we owe the Chagossians justice, fairness and respect for the fact that we treated the population badly all those years ago. Subsequently, we tried to offer redress through compensation and by resettling Chagossians in this country, and my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley has spoken of her experiences in her constituency. Equally, the Government are defending their position for good reason. In the context of our responsibility to do what we believe is in the national interest and our moral responsibility to the Chagossians, we must continually review whether we are getting the balance right. We have no choice at this stage but to defend our position in the courts, but we must remember that we are culpable for what happened historically. That moral responsibility will never go away, and we have to find ways, as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North said, of constantly recognising that, accepting our responsibility and being held to account.