[Mr. George Howarth in the Chair] — British Indian Ocean Territory

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 9:30 am on 10th March 2010.

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Photo of Jeremy Corbyn Jeremy Corbyn Labour, Islington North 9:30 am, 10th March 2010

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 23 October 2009 and in February 2010.

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.