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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:19 am on 10th March 2010.

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Photo of Jo Swinson Jo Swinson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs) 10:19 am, 10th March 2010

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 23 April 2009, we had a debate in this Chamber on the overseas territories, when I and other hon. Members noted that the Foreign Affairs Committee's seventh report of Session 2007-08 concluded that there is "a strong moral case" for allowing the Chagossians to return. I stand by my statement then that the Government have acted shamefully in preventing them from returning.

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 10 June 2004, which was called "Super Thursday" with reference to the fact that it was the day of the European Union, local and mayoral elections, and therefore was ideally timed to escape the attention of politicians, the public and the press. Last May, the Justice Secretary admitted on BBC Radio 4 that he had "exchanged speed for legitimacy" when he chose to use Orders in Council, because that was "simpler" than putting the decision before Parliament. That is just not good enough. It may be simpler for the Government, but that does not mean that there should not be proper accountability in this place.

After the European Court of Human Rights asked the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to reply by 17 July 2009 stating how it would respond to the Chagossians appeal, I was happy to sign early-day motion 1949, which was tabled by the hon. Member for Islington, North and signed by 51 other MPs. It called on the Government to consult Parliament before the FCO responded, but the FCO went ahead and responded without Parliament's being consulted. I hope that the Minister will explain why the Government do not see fit to give parliamentarians a say in such an important matter.

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.