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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:00 am on 10th March 2010.

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Photo of Laura Moffatt Laura Moffatt Labour, Crawley 10:00 am, 10th March 2010

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.