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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:38 am on 10th March 2010.

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Photo of Ivan Lewis Ivan Lewis Minister of State (Foreign and Commonwealth Office) 10:38 am, 10th March 2010

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 9 October 2003, and upheld by the Court of Appeal in 2004, looked thoroughly into the circumstances in which the 1982 settlement was reached. The judgment accepted that the payments were received as full and final settlement of all claims-that is important-and that the UK had no legal obligation, which I accept is different from a moral obligation, to pay any further compensation. Subsequent court cases have not changed that situation.