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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:28 am on 10th March 2010.

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Photo of Keith Simpson Keith Simpson Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 10:28 am, 10th March 2010

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.