I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the Chagos Islands.
Thank you, Mr Rosindell, for the opportunity to consider the many issues that confront the UK Government in respect of the Chagos islands. It is my privilege to serve under your chairmanship as a member of the all-party parliamentary group on the Chagos islands.
It would be remiss of me not to begin the debate by highlighting the presence of the Chagossians, other interested parties and Members from all political parties who have taken the time and trouble to be present here today; it is rare for a humble Westminster Hall debate to be so well attended. The interest in the debate reflects the widespread concern, and high levels of interest, from across the world for the people of the Chagos islands. Many here today have worked tirelessly to highlight the injustices perpetrated on the indigenous people of the Chagos islands over many years by a nation state that, quite bluntly, should know better.
The plan hinged on shameless exploitation. During a five-year period from 1968 to 1973, every single Chagossian man, woman and child was forcibly removed in secret from the islands. None has since been allowed to return. For the past 50 years, Chagossians have lived in poverty. To the utter shame of every UK Government and the 17 Foreign Secretaries since, that ethnic cleansing of an entire people has been variously ignored, glossed over or actively misrepresented.
The purpose of the annexation was to facilitate the leasing of the largest island in the Chagos archipelago, Diego Garcia, to the United States to allow the construction of an enormous military base. The base remains today. We now know that, in return for annexing the archipelago and expelling its people, the UK Government received a cash discount of £11 million on Polaris nuclear missiles, which is equivalent to about £200 million today when adjusted for inflation.
The story of Chagos has been a chronicle of abuse, naked greed and bullying on a grand scale. Indeed, it is a narrative of the hideous abuse of power and trust perpetrated against a humble people and an account of the success of a plan that hinged on the reprehensible neglect of a people’s inalienable human rights. Many believe that abuse of power falls within the International Criminal Court’s definition of a crime against humanity. That may be so, but we can be certain that human rights were sacrificed by the UK Government in a sordid deal to secure weapons of mass destruction. I am sure the Minister agrees that that is an appalling legacy.
Before 1968, more than 2,000 people lived on the Chagos islands, with many having family histories dating back almost 200 years. Chagossians had a thriving society, with numerous villages, schools, hospitals, churches and businesses, and a unique way of life. Unknown to Parliament, and in clear breach of United Nations charters, the UK plotted to deliberately destroy that society. The truth about the cleansing of the Chagossians, and the Whitehall conspiracy to deny that there had ever been an indigenous population, did not emerge for almost 20 years, until files were unearthed at the Public Record Office in Kew by the historian Mark Curtis, the journalist John Pilger and lawyers acting for the former inhabitants of the islands, who were campaigning for a return to their homeland.
The islands are an archipelago. There are hundreds of islands and more than enough space for everyone.
In 1982, when the truth leaked out, the islanders exiled from Mauritius were awarded derisory compensation of less than £3,000 per person. Those exiled to Seychelles were awarded no compensation. It was noted then that it had been
“entirely improper, unethical, dictatorial to have the Chagossian put their thumbprint on an English legal, drafted document, where the Chagossian, who doesn’t read, know or speak any English, let alone any legal English, is made to renounce basically all his rights as a human being.”
Was the annexation improper? Certainly. Unethical? I have no doubt. Dictatorial? Absolutely. Those are strong words, but that is exactly how the UK Government have treated and continue to treat the people of Chagos. That is what the Minister is here today to explain.
I understand that Diego Garcia remains the United States’ largest military base outside north America. There are two runways, over 30 warships, more than 4,000 troops and a satellite spy station located on the island. The base has been used as a launch pad for invasions, including those of both Afghanistan and Iraq. It is still in use, and that use is still encouraged by the UK Government.
In 1966, terms for the lease of Diego Garcia were agreed at $1 a year. On expulsion, the indigenous population were allowed to take just one suitcase each. They were forced into the hold of the SS Nordvaer and transported to Seychelles, where they were held in prison cells before being transited elsewhere, many to Mauritius. Wherever they were sent, they were left without financial support.
“We must surely be very tough about this. The object of the exercise was to get some rocks which will remain ours; there will be no indigenous population except seagulls…The United States Government will require the removal of the entire population of the atoll.”
Denis Greenhill replied in August 1966:
“Unfortunately, along with the birds go some few Tarzans or Men Fridays whose origins are obscure and who are hopefully being wished on to Mauritius etc. When this has been done I agree we must be very tough and a submission is being done accordingly.”
It is impossible for the UK Government to hide behind that correspondence. The casual disregard for human life it evidences is chillingly calculated, unambiguous and staggering. Nevertheless that “tough” action provoked legal action that has ultimately led to all of us being here for this debate today.
It was estimated in 2007 that the litigation costs to the UK taxpayer for Government action against the Chagossians had amounted to over £4 million; that has no doubt increased after more recent legal proceedings. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is hypocritical of UK Governments to spend money in that way when many Chagossians have been denied fair compensation from the UK?
My hon. Friend has raised a valid point that I will come to shortly.
In 1975, a former resident of the Chagos archipelago, Mr Michel Vencatassen, initiated a claim for compensation in the courts of England against the UK Government. The claim was settled in 1982 in an agreement under which the United Kingdom would pay £4 million into a fund for the former residents of the archipelago. Together with a previous payment of £650,000 made to the Government of Mauritius in 1966, that £4 million was later held as
“full and final settlement of all claims” arising from the removal or resettlement of the population of the Chagos archipelago—despite the fact that many Chagossians have received no compensation at all.
Other verdicts in the English courts went in favour of the Chagossians, in 2000, 2006 and 2007. But in 2008 the House of Lords overturned them all and ruled in favour of the UK Government. That bizarre ruling argued that the Chagossians were deprived of their right of abode lawfully. The ruling resulted in the formation of the all-party group on the Chagos islands, which has since met over 50 times and has attracted members of every single political party represented at Westminster. Full cross-party representation on such a group is very rare indeed.
Undaunted by the 2008 ruling, a group of Chagossians continued to pursue their claims before the European Court of Human Rights. In December 2012, the European Court judgment Chagos Islanders v the United Kingdom held that the claim was inadmissible, on the grounds that in settling their claims previously in 1982 and accepting and receiving compensation, the applicants had effectively renounced further use of legal remedies. Following the ruling, Mr Grieve, then Attorney General and speaking for the UK Government, said:
“we regret very much the circumstances in which they were removed from the islands and recognise that what was done then should not have happened.”
Fine words on a flawed judgement—flawed because, I note again, not all Chagossians were compensated.
Five weeks before the general election in 2010, parallel to the actions on deprivation of right of abode, the then Foreign Secretary, David Miliband—now, it is worth noting, president and chief executive officer of the International Rescue Committee, where he oversees humanitarian relief—ignored the advice of diplomats and rushed through the establishment of a marine protected area around the UK-controlled Chagos islands. That declaration was another significant, desperate and cynical attempt to anticipate legal claims on right of abode and to continue subverting the human rights of the Chagos people.
At The Hague on
More recently, on
“which reduces us to cheap labour for the military base, with no rights at all”.
Considering that consultation on resettlement, the Minister should know that the proposed conditions of resettlement amount yet again to a gross violation of the Chagossians’ most basic human rights.
The Prime Minister of Mauritius has also rejected the premise of the UK Government’s consultation and has demanded that Chagossians who wish to resettle on the archipelago should be able to live in dignity and enjoy their basic human rights. I support that view. The Prime Minister of Mauritius stated earlier this month at the United Nations General Assembly:
“The Chagos archipelago was illegally excised by the United Kingdom from the territory of Mauritius prior to its accession to independence, in breach of international law and resolutions of this Assembly.”
In the wake of that illegal excision, the Mauritians residing in the Chagos archipelago at the time were forcibly evicted by the British authorities, with total disregard for those people’s human rights. Most of them were moved to the main island of Mauritius. The Government of Mauritius are fully sensitive to their plight and their legitimate aspiration as Mauritian citizens to resettle on the archipelago. Mauritius welcomes the award of the arbitral tribunal delivered on
“We welcome the tribunal’s decision that the ‘marine protected area’ purportedly declared by the United Kingdom around the Chagos archipelago was established in violation of international law.”
That is an excellent summary of the current situation.
The current resettlement proposals offer no right of abode and stipulate that Chagossians must return to their islands as “contract workers”, with no right to buy land or property. Moreover, the resettlement is intended to be for a trial period, beginning with a two-year pilot, after which resettlement may be cancelled. During the pilot period, Chagossians will not be allowed visitors on their islands, despite hundreds of wealthy tourists visiting the islands each year, mooring their yachts, living in Chagossians’ abandoned homes and spending their time on the islands largely unmonitored. Similarly, unlike with Tristan da Cunha and Pitcairn, the UK Government’s resettlement proposals advise that no education services will be provided, thereby effectively excluding families with children from returning to their islands.
In short, the consultation and the terms of resettlement are transparent, unsatisfactory and quite obviously designed to scare the indigenous people and ensure that resettlement on the Chagos islands fails. The refusal of the consultation document to guarantee support for Chagossians if resettlement is cancelled after two years means that Chagossians face an unenviable dilemma, and an unattractive and very insecure future. Furthermore, many Chagossian groups in Europe—for example, in Switzerland and France—have not been consulted on the resettlement proposals at all. As an exercise in engagement, the consultation is therefore effectively worthless and should be viewed and condemned as such.
To be clear, the UK Government’s consultation fails spectacularly to address the key issues and should be roundly dismissed. It is, of course, welcome that the UK Government are considering how to make Chagossian resettlement a reality, but the terms of resettlement must be fair to Chagossians. The current proposals are not.
The basic premise advanced by the UK Government of there being “uncertainty” over both resettlement costs and demand is simply inaccurate. Indeed, recent freedom of information requests reveal that KPMG, which evaluated resettlement options and developed the costings, has described its own estimates as having been made with “pessimism”. It remains unclear who instructed that pessimism, but I am sure we will find out at some point. To put that pessimism into context, one estimate suggests “capital and training” costs of £267.5 million over six years to resettle 1,500 people. Another scenario is costed at £4.04 million per person to meet the capital costs of “resettlement and security” over the first 10 years.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned a figure of 1,500 Chagossians. Roughly that number of people were dispossessed in the first place. I would have thought the number was greater now, given everything that has happened with families. Is it still 1,500?
It is not 1,500. I think the number of Chagossians and their dependants is now approaching 5,000, but one of the scenarios put forward in the consultation document suggests that 1,500 people might be resettled.
There is, in fact, no consistency and no credible explanation for the overly high cost estimates of resettlement in the consultation document, but perhaps the Minister will take this opportunity to explain the pessimism included in the figures. KPMG’s pessimistic estimates suggest resettlement costs could start at £64 million over three years, which represents a tiny percentage of the Department for International Development’s budget. It is certainly far less than the £200 million cash discount achieved by the UK Government on the leasing of Polaris nuclear missiles in 1966. Indeed, £64 million seems a bargain by comparison.
Clearly, the report said there was no fundamental reason why the Chagossian people should not return to the Chagos islands. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that given the injustice, money should not be the reason for not giving these people the right to return? Money should not be an issue in this case.
Thank you, Mr Rosindell. This is clearly a complicated and important debate for the many people who are in the room today. I absolutely agree with Kate Hoey: this is not and should not be a debate about money. There are moral imperatives attached to the resettlement of the Chagos islanders.
As the UK-US agreement on the use of Diego Garcia approaches expiration on
Will the Minister confirm that Mark Simmonds’s statement on
Beyond all that, however, there is a human, moral imperative to resettlement. I have already noted that there are Chagossians here today. Some of them want to return to their homeland to live out their lives. Some younger Chagossians want to live and work in the land of their parents and grandparents. All of them want to see their homeland grow and prosper again. All of them want their right of abode reinstated, and, in respect of their right of abode, the decision of the Supreme Court is awaited. Regardless of the Supreme Court’s ruling in respect of the 2008 majority Lords verdict, all right-minded people must continue to argue for the most fundamental and basic human rights to be restored to the Chagossian people.
I urge the Minister not to rise at the end of this debate to recount yet another pitiable series of excuses as to why the UK Government should not, cannot or will not act to resettle the Chagos islands. Excuses, and we must be very clear on this point, are not acceptable. The UK Government’s continuing human rights abuses perpetrated upon the Chagos islanders are simply unacceptable. All of us in this room today know the truth about Chagos. We know what the islands are used for. We know who uses the islands. We know the ecology of the islands and the ecology of the ocean surrounding the islands. We know the rainfall pattern of the islands and that the islands are not dangerous, uninhabitable or sinking. We know the social history of the islands. We also know the true scale of the wrongs that have been perpetrated and the true cost of resettlement.
Rise today, Minister, and tell us—all of us here and those watching at home—what you are going to do now to right the wrongs inflicted upon this people. Rise today, Minister, to apologise to the Chagos islanders and to explain to all of us what you and your Government intend to do now to compensate Chagossians, particularly those in Seychelles. Explain how you will work to support the resettlement of all Chagossians, and how you will reinstate the vibrant society that they once maintained and which the UK Government so casually destroyed, and continue to deliberately and wilfully subvert today.
Minister, return to the Chagossians their human rights, as codified in the universal declaration of human rights, including their right of abode. Provide clarity on their citizenship status and their right to develop economic activity. Chagossians offer no threat to the operational activities of Diego Garcia, and I urge you to use the period in which the terms of the UK-US agreement on the use of Diego Garcia are being renewed to agree that both Governments will support the Chagossian people.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once again, Mr Rosindell. I congratulate Dr Monaghan on securing this important debate.
There are more Chagos islanders in this Grand Committee Room than exist on the Chagos archipelago; that great injustice is visible here today. I first came across the issue of the Chagos islands when I was a teenager, reading a book about the remaining British overseas territories, and I was appalled then by what happened under the Wilson Administration in the late 1960s. It was the sort of appalling colonial abuse that one would associate with what happened 150 or even 200 years ago. Little did I know that, later on, I would have the honour and privilege to represent in my constituency the largest Chagos islands community anywhere in the world, first as leader of West Sussex County Council, where we were pleased to do what we could to support the community arriving at Gatwick and into this country. Latterly, over the last five-and-a-half years as a Member of Parliament, I have also been pleased to be a member of the Chagos islands all-party group and to advocate on behalf of the Chagos islanders.
The hon. Gentleman has set out many of the arguments, which I will not repeat because of the constrictions on time. However, it is important to state today that we cannot turn back the clock, but we can do the right thing now. He mentioned that people live next to airbases all around the world, and it should be no different in the Chagos islands. I commend this Government and the previous coalition Government on at least starting the process of a consultation, which of course finally ended yesterday evening. With the anniversary of the creation of the British Indian Ocean Territory in a couple of weeks’ time, now is the moment that the Government should follow through and agree to the resettlement. Funds are available, such as European Union funds or the international aid budget. We have one of the most generous international aid budgets anywhere in the world, and we should be using it for the benefit of these British citizens and their right of return to their homeland.
I want briefly to mention those Chagos islanders who would prefer to stay living in this country, although I absolutely accept the need to acknowledge that the majority rightly wish to return. I appreciate that this is an issue for the Home Office, but further work needs to be done on passports and visa issues, which are something that many of my constituents grapple with. I thank members of the Chagos community in this country for the respectful way in which they have fought for their rights, given the appalling injustice that has been done to them.
On sovereignty, I would probably disagree with the hon. Gentleman. I believe that the ideal solution is that the Chagos islanders should be allowed to return to their homeland and then, just like every other overseas territory, it should be up to them to decide under which sovereignty they wish to live in the future. I could say much more, but given the time, Mr Rosindell, I will finish, because I would like to encourage other Members to contribute as well.
I did not actually come to speak in this debate, but I would fully agree with what has just been said. We have to find a middle ground. Let me say to the Minister that the duty falls on us to find a way to get the Chagossian people back to their homes—a way that works with them there, living with schools, with their own religions and with their home around the base. That is all I want to say.
It is delightful to have you chairing this particular debate, Mr Rosindell, as I know you have been involved with this issue in the past.
I pay tribute to all the members of the all-party group, who, over a period of time, have really tried to keep this issue in the spotlight. In particular, I pay tribute to the new leader of my party, my hon. Friend Jeremy Corbyn, who chaired the all-party group for many years through thick and thin. He has done a huge amount, and I know that he would like to have been here today, but I do not think he can be.
To me, it is unbelievable to think that what we did to those people 50 years ago could happen today. We would not have let it happen, and the fact that it did and that they are still waiting for their human rights to be restored so many years later is shameful for all of us. Now is the perfect time to get this return-fare package,
50 years on, particularly with the negotiations with the United States coming up next year. We just have to be absolutely firm: this will not be renegotiated unless we have a fair return for all the islanders.
I have already spoken about the cost, and I congratulate Dr Monaghan on securing the debate and on outlining the history of the situation so clearly. Anyone who reads the history cannot be anything other than moved by the injustice of what happened to those people. We now have an opportunity, 50 years on, to really make their return happen. Money should not be the issue. It is there, and if the Government were to work with the people themselves on how they want this to happen, once we have made the decision that it is going to happen—I hope that has now been accepted, with the report from the independent study stating that there is no reason whatever why they could not go back—we have to make it happen as quickly as possible.
However, we have to work with the Chagossian people to make sure that when they go back, they do so under terms that they are happy with, and that they will not be misled again or sign up to all sorts of agreements that afterwards cannot be carried out. I am very supportive today of that return happening, and I again pay tribute to all the Chagossian people, who have shown such dignity over many years about this dreadful thing that happened to them 50 years ago.
I, too, commend Dr Monaghan for bringing this very important matter to our attention. I also commend my hon. Friend Henry Smith for his contribution. I just want to add that I consider it a gross injustice to remove 1,500 people against their will. It is a gross injustice then to have an airbase, with a very questionable history in this century, on their land. It is a gross injustice to create a marine protected area without consulting the people who should be there, in their homeland.
I did not know about this matter when I was younger; I wish I had known. I owe thanks to my constituent, George Beckmann, who brought it to my attention. I am honouring a promise that I gave him as a candidate that I would stand up for the Chagos islanders. You deserve your home; you deserve reparation and an apology; and I am very privileged to be in the same room as you today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. As a member of the all-party group on the Chagos islands, I am pleased to be able to speak in this debate, but it would clearly be better for everyone concerned if there was no need for a debate to be taking place after all these years.
We heard from my hon. Friend Dr Monaghan that the history of this starts in 1965-66. It was in 1966 that the agreement was made about the US naval base. That was before I was born, so I tried to imagine what drove the thinking at the time. There was the cold war. Did people believe that the actions were justifiable at the time? However, even if I try to put myself in the position of people then, there is no way to justify what happened—clearing the people from their homeland and trying to cover that up and justify it as involving only contract workers. Worse than that, we have had 50 years of cover-up and blocking since then. That is what is truly shocking.
I will give a flavour of the timeline. In 1971, the UK Government issued an immigration ordinance prohibiting return to the islands. In 1982, compensation was paid, whereby it was obviously hoped that the matter would disappear, but the compensation was paid only to Chagos islanders in Mauritius and not to those living in the Seychelles. That obviously forced the issue into the courts. In 2000, the High Court ruled that the ordinance was illegal, which the UK Government seemed to accept, but then decided not to accept—another shameful outturn. In 2004, new orders were issued prohibiting a return, which forced the matter back through the courts. In 2006-07, the Chagos islanders won in the High Court and then the Appeal Court, but unfortunately in 2008 the UK Government took the matter to the Law Lords and got a decision favourable to them, on a split decision.
The year 2009 is also very significant. The European Court had suggested that a friendly out-of-court settlement could be pursued, but that was not taken up by the UK Government. At the same time, the UK Government said that they had a moral responsibility to the Chagos islanders that would never go away. The Government actually said that the moral responsibility would never go away, but at the same time, behind the scenes, they were working on plans to create the marine protected area, so that was more double-dealing. Also in 2009, an immigration Bill was passed. The UK Government refused to accept an amendment that would allow special consideration for the Chagos islanders, so their dependants are not entitled to British citizenship. That is another strand of the story and it is very important now, because some of the people who were forcibly moved from their islands settled in the UK, but are now being told that UK descendants are not entitled to British citizenship.
In March 2015, it was ruled that the marine protected area violated international law. Unfortunately, we also discovered—from WikiLeaks of all things—that the MPA was, as was suspected, just a mechanism to prohibit the islanders from returning. That is more shameful deceit in recent times by a UK Government.
My hon. Friend touched on the KPMG report. At least, as was said, the recent Government commissioned a feasibility study in relation to allowing the islanders to return, but it is pessimistic about the costs. The estimates are £23 million for housing and public buildings for 150 people and £10 million for housing for a pilot involving 50. There is no doubt that those costs are designed to scare the Government and give them an excuse not to do that.
I will quickly conclude—apologies for having gone on. The Government now need to sort out three key issues: allowing a claim for resettlement; citizenship for dependants, who now, understandably, perhaps do not want to move back because they have been displaced for so long; and the future sovereignty of the islands. We need to get this matter sorted and remedy the wrongs of the past 50 years.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell; I know that you take an interest in these matters. I congratulate my hon. Friend Dr Monaghan on securing a debate on an issue to which he has long been committed and which is highly topical. I welcome the work of the all-party group and the various hon. Members who have spoken. I note that the honorary president of the APPG, Jeremy Corbyn—I do not know whether he is right honourable yet—is with us. I welcome him to his place; it is a very commendable show of support and solidarity.
In his maiden speech in the main Chamber, my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross highlighted both the cause of the Chagossian people and the historical experience of people in his own constituency who were affected by the highland clearances. In my constituency, the clearances are commemorated by, among other things, a plaque on the wall of the Lios Mor bar. The plaque names some of those most responsible for the forced removal of people and what it calls a form of ethnic cleansing. I will leave it to hon. Members to visit my constituency to determine exactly where in the bar the plaque is located, but it is in a place where it invites male visitors to pay those whom it names the respect it says they are due. Whether exactly the same attitude should be applied to those responsible for the forced removal of the Chagossians is not necessarily for me to say, but what is clear is that the situation is an injustice for which a resolution is long overdue.
Having had some experience of it, I would say that this looks like classic ethnic cleansing, and the human rights commissioner of the United Nations should take more interest in it.
That is a very fair point well made. We will perhaps have the Minister’s response to it.
The Scottish National party has for many years expressed its solidarity with the Chagossian people, and I want to take this opportunity to do so again today. At our spring conference in 2015, we agreed a resolution expressing frustration with the ongoing approach of the UK Government in relation to the Chagossian people and agreeing that the behaviour of the UK Government has consistently been contrary to well established laws on decolonisation and self-determination. These are, admittedly, complex areas of international law, but certainly the tradition in Scotland is that sovereignty should lie with the people, so irrespective of territorial claims by the United Kingdom, Mauritius or any other third party, the fundamental right to live and work on the Chagos islands should lie with the people who lived there until their forced removal at the hands of a UK Government.
We can welcome what slow progress there may have been, but the terms and conditions of the pilot resettlement proposal are minimalist to say the least. My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross went into that in considerable detail and highlighted the views of the Chagossian community. I hope that if the Chagossians, supportive organisations or any other people come forward with alternative suggestions or proposals, the Minister will listen to those, and that what is in the current consultation will not simply be presented as a fait accompli. I know that the APPG has suggestions about possible sources of funding for resettlement and has questioned the cost of resettlement highlighted in the KPMG report. The highest cost that I can find is £267 million over six years. Although that is not a small amount, I imagine that it pales in comparison with the amounts spent on building, maintaining and running a US defence base—a defence base, of course, that the Government admitted was used for rendition of prisoners. That only compounds the injustice that has happened in that part of the world.
Time is extremely short, so I cannot go into all the detail that I wanted to. That shows that this matter deserves time on the Floor of the House, once the Government reach a decision—or, indeed, before then—so that the whole House can have its say. The debate raises a huge number of wider questions about the sovereignty of peoples and the role of current and former colonial powers—questions of geopolitical and military-industrial significance. If so-called developed countries can trample on the rights of small nations and communities out of military or political expediency, it makes it difficult for those countries to lecture so-called less developed countries or encourage them to smarten up their act on respect for human rights and the rule of international law. There are far too many historical—and current—examples of forced removal and migration of peoples, with the impact that that has on culture, economies, ways of life and the environment.
In the case of the Chagos archipelago, there are clear paths to restoration and the chance to right an historic wrong. If the Government can show some political will and make the kind of progress that has been called for, not only will some kind of justice be done to the Chagossian people, but there will be hope for other communities in similar situations elsewhere. If they cannot, the only conclusion that can be reached is that attitudes that should have set with the sun at the end of the British empire are, in fact, still stubbornly and unnecessarily at work at the heart of Government today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell. I should let hon. Members know that I took on my new role only this morning, but I have long been familiar with the historic injustice done to the Chagos islanders. I defer to the expertise and passion of others, not least my hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, the president of the all-party group, about whom my hon. Friend Kate Hoey spoke. I pay tribute to Dr Monaghan for his powerful, personal and thorough exposition of the appalling treatment of a people.
Does my hon. Friend believe, as I do, that the debate is timely as all hallows’ approaches? For 50 years, the Chagossians have not been able to mourn the souls of their dead adequately, because there has been no right of return.
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have noted many historical dates, and that tragic celebration is an apposite time to have this debate.
Henry Smith spoke passionately about his constituents and gave a stark illustration of the injustice that has been done to them. I have strong sympathy with his views on sovereignty: that fundamental choice in the future must lay with Chagossians. My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall made a similar and powerful point. The people of Chagos must be at the heart of decisions about their future, and they have shown great dignity throughout the long decades of struggle on this matter. I commend many of the other comments that have been made.
I have absolute and deep regret, which I know is shared by the official Opposition, over the way in which the Chagossians were forcibly resettled in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I, for one, cannot justify those actions or excuse the conduct of a previous generation and previous Governments, whether they were Labour or otherwise. In my view, the UK Government have a fundamental moral responsibility towards the islanders that will not go away. I urge the Government to do all that they can to seek a resolution.
Hon. Members attending the debate will know that that is a view shared throughout the House, including by the Leader of the Opposition. Let us be frank; this is not the only episode of regrettable action or events in the turbulent process of decolonisation. Members will be aware that I have long supported the cause of Somaliland, which is also a former British colony. The difficult fact is that, as in that case, we as successor generations often find ourselves left with complex legal and practical conundrums involving other sovereign states, international bodies and treaty obligations, which often conflict, or at least appear to conflict.
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the original actions, the fact is that the base on Diego Garcia exists and there are agreements between the US and the UK, based, as we know, on the 1966 exchange of notes. I fundamentally believe that there must be a way of resolving that, and that is a common view among those who have contributed to the debate. The all-party group has said that any renewal of the 1966 agreement must be conditional on a commitment to facilitate and support Chagossian resettlement. I note what the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross said to Bob Stewart on that point. There is a practical possibility of that happening, so why do we not get to it?
I have a series of brief questions for the Minister before I allow him to reply; I am sure that we all want to hear from him. First, will he update us on the status of the negotiations with the United States on the renewal of the 1966 notes and any views on the US’s amenability to resettlement alongside any base that might remain? Secondly, what is his reaction to the legitimate concerns raised by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross about whether the current proposals for resettlement are adequate for the Chagos islanders? Thirdly, what is the UK Government’s position on the judgment on
I finish by expressing my great sympathy with the concerns of the Chagos islanders. That is certainly the view of the Official Opposition, and we seek to work with the Government to find whatever solution can be found to achieve the resolution of their desires and hopes for resettlement, and to right the historic wrongs.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Rosindell, particularly on this subject, in which I know you share a great interest. The fact that so many people have turned up to the debate shows the passion behind the views on this subject. I wager that this is the first time for a very long time—if ever—that the Leader of the Opposition has turned up to a Westminster Hall debate. I will be challenging the House of Commons Library to disprove that hypothesis. It is good to see him here alongside my new opposite number, Stephen Doughty. I look forward to working closely with him on a number of issues.
I congratulate Dr Monaghan on securing the debate, and particularly on getting it today, which is timely for the consultation. He built on a passionate view of the Chagos islands and particularly reflected on the situation in the highlands. I was not there for his maiden speech, but I have read it and it was powerful. It was echoed in the comments by Patrick Grady about the parallels between the problems in both situations.
The all-party group has historically been very active on these challenging issues, and I am grateful for its ongoing contributions. Although I have met members of the group informally, other Foreign Office colleagues have met the group formally in my absence, and quite rightly so.
In response to the debate, I would like to focus on the resettlement of the islanders and recognise the very real problems of their removal in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I begin by reassuring the House that I am considering the matter carefully, and that I plan to travel to the islands to see for myself the situation, to probe some of the issues that were raised during the consultation and to overcome some of the problems that are in the KPMG report, so that I am as informed as I can be before making recommendations and taking decisions on the subject. I hope to do that very soon, because I am acutely aware that this is a long-standing problem.
I apologise for not being here for the earlier part of the debate. I am doing what I have condemned many others for doing by turning up late and taking part. Please forgive me.
I declare an interest as the president of the Chagos islands all-party group and as someone who has been a passionate advocate for the Chagos islanders for a very long time. I am delighted that the Minister will be travelling there and meeting the islanders. I hope that he will—I am sure he will—understand the humanitarian hurt that the Chagos islanders have suffered, the justice of their right to return and the real possibility that that could be brought about.
I hope the Minister will agree, as soon as he returns from that visit, to meet the all-party group and have a serious discussion with it and the islanders, so that we can finally put to bed this horrible period in British history when a group of islanders, wholly innocent of anything, were so abominably treated and so brutally removed from their homes. They have suffered for so long and fought so valiantly for their human right to live where they were born and grew up.
I would certainly be happy to meet the all-party group after my visit, and, if time allows, perhaps meet one or two members of the group informally before then to gain some understanding of the issues involved.
A number of points were made, and I will try to move swiftly and cover as many as I can. This Government, like successive Governments before them, have made clear their regret over the wrongs done to the Chagossian people over 40 years. I will not seek to justify those actions or to excuse the conduct of an earlier generation. What happened was simply wrong. In the words of the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, it is an appalling history. Therefore, it was right historically to pay substantial compensation. The British courts and the European Court of Human Rights have confirmed that that compensation has been paid in full and final settlement. Quite rightly, we are here today in the middle of another process.
Decisions about the future of the British Indian Ocean Territory are difficult. Occasionally, they are presented as being slightly more simplistic. Although cost is not the main issue, it is one of many issues and we should consider it. Successive Governments have opposed resettlement on the grounds of feasibility and defence. The House will recognise that there are fundamental difficulties, but we should look to how those could be overcome.
In 2000, the Labour Government looked at the practical challenges of returning Chagossians to the territory permanently and concluded that that would be precarious and entail expensive underwriting for an open-ended period. However, in 2012 under the previous Foreign Secretary, the then right hon. Member for Richmond, the policy review was announced, including the new study into the feasibility of resettlement, which concluded in January this year with the KPMG report. That independent study showed that resettlement could indeed be practically feasible, but that significant challenges remained. I hope that some of those challenges will be picked up in the consultation, in the work that Ministers have commissioned subsequently and by me in my visit and subsequent meetings. In March 2015, Ministers at Cabinet level carefully considered the KPMG study, which brings us to where we are now. We will continue to look at those issues in detail.
The consultation that ended yesterday was well received. More than 700 written responses have been received, and officials met more than 500 Chagossians in their own communities in the UK, the Seychelles, Mauritius, Switzerland, France and as far afield as Tasmania. It is important that we consult as widely as possible. While we know that many Chagossians do want to go back, it is important to recognise—as shown in the independent feasibility study and more recently—that some Chagossians are more interested in securing other forms of support in the places where they live. We should assess what we can do for everyone, not just those who are returning.[This section has been corrected on 10 November 2015, column 1MC — read correction]
The consultation looked at options that fall short of full resettlement. If it turns out that we cannot do that, we should not simply do nothing. There are other issues—financial, legal and social—and the question of the ability of the military facility on Diego Garcia to operate unhindered. The US Government have expressed concerns about operating alongside a community, but I recognise the points that have been made by strong advocates, some of whom have met people on the doorstep, such as my hon. Friend Dr Mathias, and some of whom are long-standing advocates, such as my hon. Friend Henry Smith, who has been bending my ear on the subject from probably the day I was appointed and will continue, quite rightly, to do so.
I will not give way, as I only have one and a half minutes left and I will probably not manage to cover all the points that have been made.
A number of issues about the Supreme Court were raised. I do not want to get into critiquing ongoing legal cases, but my understanding of the issue around the United Nations convention on the law of the sea is slightly different from that presented to the House. While UNCLOS found for the UK Government on sovereignty, it was only on the process of the consultation that it said the consultation with Mauritius was not sufficient. I encourage the Mauritian Government to engage in resettlement discussions with us but, to date, they have unfortunately refused to do that. It would be incredibly helpful.
I take my responsibilities as Minister very seriously on this matter, which is why I am allocating a lot of time to it. I have read every single word of the KPMG report. I will do so again on what I understand will be a very long journey out to the islands. If time allows and I am able to, I will try to get to the outer islands; that is an important element so that I can look at all the options before taking recommendations to more senior Ministers and before the Government come to a decision. In conclusion, it is an important issue, and I sincerely thank the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross and everyone here for their time.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Chagos Islands.