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Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I welcome the opportunity to debate what I consider to be a very serious issue. It touches on honesty in politics and in government, and it touches on issues of constitution and law and the way in which a group of people have been grievously treated by this country and, to some extent, the United States for more than 40 years.
The people who lived for hundreds of years on the Chagos Islands were descendents of its first inhabitants who had been dropped off there as slaves and traders or had settled there. They lived a settled existence, fishing and producing copra, and they inhabited an idyllic and pristine environment. Their problem was their locationthe Indian ocean. The United States was eyeing it up in the 1950s and 1960s as a potential base, and subsequently decided to build what they euphemistically called a "communications facility" on the island of Diego Garcia. The communications facility turned out to be two of the longest runways that the world had seen and a base from which 4,000 US troops could operate. The base is now routinely used for the bombing of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the United States considers it to be a crucial communications facility.
Prime Minister Wilson and President Johnson discussed the matter in the 1960s and decided to do a deal and evacuate the population of Diego Garcia to make way for the American communications facility. The Americans insisted on the evacuation of not only Diego Garcia, but the entire archipelago, despite the fact that its other islands were some distance from the putative communications facility.
The language used by the then Colonial Office was outrageous beyond belief. Simon Winchester wrote a wonderful piece on the subject in Granta magazine in which he quoted the then permanent secretary in the Colonial Office who described the population inhabiting the islands as a group of "Man Fridays" and stated that it would be simple and easy enough to move them out of the way. The deal subsequently went through and, to make ready for the American base, the British authorities proceeded to remove people from the islands. However, it was never done openly.
Only two days ago outside the Foreign Office, I met a man who was part of a demonstration there. He told me that he had left the islands in 1966 and that he was not allowed to go back, as many others were not. When they went to Mauritius or the Seychellesmainly Mauritiusfor medical treatment or education, they suddenly found that they could not go back.
When the time came for the British to remove the population in earnest, they did soputting them on a ship, taking them to Port Louis in Mauritius and simply dumping them on the quayside. When my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) speaks, I am sure that he will describe the conditions that he saw when he went to Mauritius at the time. The people were dumped there in terrible destitution. To ensure that nothing was left on the islands, the British commissioner had the problem of what to do with the islanders' domestic animals and pets. The dogs were rounded up
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and gassed, all the animals were killed and the islands were left empty and uninhabited to make way for the American base.
The poor islanders were forced to eke out an existence in terrible poverty in Mauritius and the Seychelles. Ignored by everybody, they managed to survive and they never gave up two things: first, the hope, determination and desperation for the right of return; and secondly, the hope that one day, somebody, somewhere would recognise the fundamental injustice of their treatment.
Time has moved on and it is 48 years since the original and disgraceful deal was done between Wilson and Johnson, but the injustice has not gone away. I visited Mauritius a couple of years ago to meet the Chagos islanders and to see the conditions in which they live. They are very poor indeed. We have to remember, and we should remember, that the compensation that they finally won, some 15 years after the original removal from the islands had begun, was mainly eaten up by debt collectors and land agents. No one was given sufficient compensation and no one was made rich or wealthy by the process. This has been the subject of a court case that is still going on, so I cannot comment on anything more than the original facts of the case. However, it seems that the islanders were cajoled into signing what they did not believe to be a full and final settlement, and were told to accept it as such. The injustice and the poverty go on.
When I was in Mauritius, I spent a week visiting as many Chagossian families as I could. I talked to them about their lives on the Chagos Islands, when they lived there, and their lives now. They described their sustainable form of living, the type of community, religion and schools that they had and their lives in general. It was fascinating to talk to them, but one could see the hurt in their eyes at the way that they were taken from the islands and dumped on the quayside at Port Louis. Many of those families still live in desperate poverty in metal huts with outside toilets and little furniture. Although the current Mauritius Government have been kinder to them than previous ones, they are still very poor people.
Those people, however, were always going to campaign for their hope of a right of return; they would never give up. Eventually, a case was lodged in the British legal system and, in a court order of 2000, they were granted the right to return under British immigration law. It was ruled that they had the right of return. The following year, a further step forward was taken when the British Overseas Territories Bill was introduced in Parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and I raised the question of the eligibility of the Chagos islanders for British citizenship, on the basis that they would be entitled to British citizenship like everyone else in overseas territories had they not been removed from the British Indian Ocean Territory. To their credit, the Government accepted the thrust of our argument, and a Government amendment was tabled and accepted in Committee. Therefore, the islanders were given the right to British citizenship. There is, unfortunately, a grey area in which I hope ministerial discretion will be used to deal with the small number of those who have fallen outside the provisions of that law.
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Things looked quite good in 2000 and 2001, and a compensation claim was lodged to re-open the issue. In meetings we had at the Foreign Office with the Minister's predecessor, Baroness Amos, on the right of return and the possibility of a visit, we thought that things were going very well. Indeed, in the Commons, Ministers have asserted two things. One is that there is a right to return, and the second is that there was no impediment to anyone going back at any time. Things were looking good, and we had hope, as did the islanders.
On 10 June this year, which everyone will remember as election day, staff at the Foreign Office were not out ensuring that people were voting. Instead, they were at the palace asking the Queen to sign an Order in Council. When I was told that an Order in Council had been signed, I misheard or misunderstood. I thought that it was a statutory instrument that I would be able to pray against, as I assumed other hon. Members would, so that decisions made by Ministers would be subject to some form of democratic accountability. I had to reconsider, and I spoke to Sheridans' Richard Gifford, the excellent solicitor who has represented the Chagossians for many years. He calmly explained to me that I had misunderstood, and that an Order in Council signed by her Majesty was law. It overrides everything in which we believe about the democratic accountability of the Government.
There are two orders: one is the British Indian Ocean Territory (Constitution) Order and the second is the British Indian Ocean Territory (Immigration) Order. I shall just quote a little of one, to give the Chamber a flavour of it:
"Subject to the provisions of this Order, the Commissioner"
"may make laws for the peace, order and good government of the Territory".
"without prejudice to the generality of subsection (1)",
"All laws made by the Commissioner in exercise of the powers conferred by subsection (1) shall be published in the Gazette in such manner as the Commissioner may direct. Every law made by the Commissioner under subsection (1) shall come into force on the date on which it is published".
We have handed power over to a commissioner. Never mind the fact that there were islanders living there and that several thousand people until that point had every right to live there; apparently, they now have no rights whatever. So much for the constitution order.
"An immigration officer, acting in his entire discretion, may issue or renew a permit or may cancel a permit before the expiration, subject to the right of appeal provided in section 10."
"A person aggrieved by any decision of an immigration officer may appeal to the Commissioner, whose decision shall be final and conclusive."
So the only person to whom one can appeal if one does not agree with a decision to prevent Chagos islanders going to their own islands is a commissioner appointed specifically to control the Chagos Islands in every way for evermore.
The Minister made a written statement to the House on 10 June, although frankly it should have been an oral statement and made at a time when he could have been cross-questioned about it. At least, however, we are debating the subject here in Westminster Hall today. His statement said:
"Following the departure of the Chagossians in the late 60s and early 70s, the economic conditions and infrastructure that had supported the community of plantation workers ceased to exist. While the judicial review proceedings were still pending, the Government therefore commissioned a feasibility study by independent experts to examine and report on the prospects for re-establishing a viable community".[Official Report, 10 June 2004; Vol. 422, c. 33WS.]
I have some comments to make on that. The Chagossians did not depart from the islands in the 1960s and 1970s; they were rounded up, taken away and thrown off the islands. Let us not beat about the bush: that was a disgraceful, immoral act. It is time that a Minister stood up and apologised for that act committed by the Government of the time and for the treatment of the Chagos islanders by succeeding Governments.
I was kindly given the three volumes of the feasibility study by the Foreign Office when it came out in November 2000, and it said that there were problems with water supply, periodic flooding, storms, seismic activity and so on, as the Minister points out. However, it did not say that no one could live there or that life was impossible on the islands. When pressed on the matter, the Foreign Office retreats into arguments about the potential cost of resettling the Chagos islanders. I have two points on that. First, they have a moral right to return. Secondly, would any Minister stand up in the House and say that the cost of keeping the population on Pitcairn, St. Helena, Tristan da Cunha or the Falkland Islands was such that we were going to withdraw the entire population? They would not dare.
Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend mentioned the Falkland Islands. Has he made any comparisons between the costs that he is talking about and the amount of money spent on defending the Falkland islanders when the Argentines invaded?
Jeremy Corbyn : Indeed, the costs are on two completely different scales. The costs involved in administering the Chagos Islands are very small. At the current time, all the income from fishing licencesabout £50,000 a yearis taken up by administration, and other money is paid to continue that administration. Were the islands to be resettled, however, and were there to be serious discussions with the islanders about resettling them, there would be an economy on the islands. There is fishing there, and the possibility of ecotourism or copra. Quite a lot of activities could take place on the islands. However, I do not get the feeling that there is any wish, desire, hope or intention of going down that road. The whole desire is to put the issue to one side and forget about it. That is because of an American base on Diego Garcia, for
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which I suspect nothing is paid, and because the Americans have said that they do not want anyone anywhere near their base owing to security concerns.
I think that we have every right to ensure the settlement of the outer islandsat leastand that we have a right to know exactly what is happening on Diego Garcia, which is, under the terms of the colonial order, sovereign British territory. Are there any prisoners on Diego Garcia? Is it being used for the sort of vortex of American justice such as occurs in Guantanamo Bay? I am assured that it is not. I want to hear that assurance again today and it would be much better if there were an independent inspection of what is going on.
I will make only a couple more points because I want to make sure that other Members get a chance to speak. On Tuesday, a group of Chagos islanders went to the Foreign Office to demonstrate. They handed in a petition signed by a substantial number of Chagos islanders who are living in this country legally. The petition demands:
"1. Restoration of our right of abode in the outer islands of the territory.
2. Restoration of our fundamental rights as British Overseas Territories Citizens.
3. The immediate payment of compensation.
4. The setting up of a pilot resettlement in the outer islands.
5. The setting up of a social survey in Mauritius and the Seychelles with recommendations to support the vulnerable group of our community.
6. The organising of a visit to the ancestral sites in the British Indian Ocean Territory for the Chagossians living in Mauritius, Seychelles and the UK"
and, presumably, anywhere else in the world. It seems to me that that is a minimal demand. I had a response from the Minister today and I hope that he will be able to give us further positive news on the possibility of a visit and a return to it.
What are the options open at present? There is the option of return, but the Prime Minister, when questioned on the subject by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) and myself in the House last week, did not give us any positive answers. I wrote to the Prime Minister straight after that, pointing out:
"The Chagossians' removal was the result of a particularly awful secretive deal done by the 196670"
"one had high hopes that this government would have improved upon their actions."
I go on to complain about the timing of the orders and point out that the early-day motion that I tabled, which has been signed by more than 60 Members, asks the Government to withdrawin other words, rescindboth the orders. The effect of that would be that the Chagos islanders would be allowed to return to their homes.
The letter from the Minister, which I received today7 Julypromises to continue discussions about the possibility of a visit. I welcome that and I hope that it can be arranged quickly. Last time a visit was arranged, a ship was chartered, but then it was mysteriously not available. That followed a lengthy discussion about the need to visit Diego Garcia as well as the other islands. I am sure that that was a coincidence and that I should
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read nothing else into it, but the islanders ought, at least, to have every right to visit all the islands, including the grave sites and so on in Diego Garcia.
It is very hard for us, as Members of Parliament in the comfort of Westminster, to understand what it is like to be taken from one's home for no reasonother than that some foreign power, of whom one is barely aware, wants to build a base thereand not to be allowed to visit the graves of parents, family or anybody else.
A letter has been sent to the Foreign Office by Sheridans law firm on behalf of the Chagos islanders. Richard Gifford wrote to me today and outlined a number of points. He asks the Prime Minister to speak to President Bush desperately quickly about the need to proceed with
"the resettlement . . . for the 'outer islands'",
"revision of the employment practices of the employment agency acting for the US",
becauseby some mysterious processChagossians seem to be denied the right not just to visit the islands but to work as civilians on the US base on Diego Garcia. That is of immense hurt to the Chagos islanders.
I feel frustrated about the process. I am sure that my friend, the hon. Member for Linlithgow feels even more frustrated because he has been a Member much longer than I have. An injustice, a wrong, a hurt was done in the 1960s and 1970s. It has not yet been righted. An apology has not been given. The right of return has not been granted. Surely the Government could rescind both orders and have proper talks with the properly elected representatives of the Chagos islanders on how we can carry out the law of this countrythe court order of 2000allowing that right of return. That seems to be the very least that we owe those people. They have suffered enough and they should suffer no more.
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I warmly congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this debate and endorse everything that he said in his excellent contribution.
I shall speak briefly because I know that other hon. Members also want to speak. I want to draw on two points that were raised by my hon. Friend and to give them a little more emphasis. I want to return to the origins of the scandal and to look particularly at what we now know, under the 30-year rule, was said in the Foreign Office about Diego Garcia and the other islands of the archipelago. Every Foreign Office Minister, up to and including current Ministers, and every Foreign Office staffer who has been involved in the story over the past 40 years should hang their heads in shame at what has been done to these defenceless people.
The 30-year rule information that we now know refers to the "problem" of Diego Garcia. It was not a problem until the realpolitik of the relationship between the United States and the United Kingdom made it a problem to get rid the islanders out of their homesto clear them, as we would say in Scotlandfor the
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convenience of an arrangement made between this country and America. Foreign Office documents show that one Foreign Office diplomat said that
"unfortunately along with the birds go some few Tarzans or Man Fridays whose origins are obscure, and who are hopefully being wished on to Mauritius."
The same documents show that Foreign Office officials were worried that they might be open to "charges of dishonesty" and referred to "old-fashioned" concerns about "whopping fibs" that Ministers were being asked to tell about Foreign Office policy. I am glad that at least one old-fashioned Member of Parliament, the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), has pursued the matter and championed the cause of the islanders over the past 40 years. The rest of us, perhaps with the honourable exception of the hon. Member who raised this debate, should be ashamed that we have not done more to support that campaign. The more we discover about the matter, the more disgraceful, underhand and thoroughly disreputable the long-term treatment of those few thousand people is shown to have been.
They were cleared from their island for the convenience of the United States and the United Kingdom, and most were abandoned in Mauritius. We know not just from assessments from friends of the islanders but from the High Court judgment that the conditions in which they have been living are disgraceful. They have been living in abject poverty, left to cope with an urban lifestyle when they have been used to a subsistence rural lifestyle. They were totally abandoned with pitiful and insulting compensation being offered over the years. That has been the fate of those few thousand people who were charged under the Crown to the protection of successive Governments but were abandoned disgracefully to their fate.
Mr. Hopkins : It strikes me that there is something of a parallel between what has happened to the Chagos islanders and the highland clearances in Scotland, when the rich and powerful drove the poor and weak from the land. That has scarred and informed Scottish politics ever since. Is it not significant that two of the three speakers here today are Scots?
Mr. Salmond : I am glad that the hon. Gentleman raised that point, because I was about to come to it. One of the first and better acts of the Scottish Parliament when it came back into existence on the mound was in a debate such as this when it apologised collectively for the historic injustice of the highland clearances. They were not the responsibility of any Scottish Parliament, but it was felt none the less by all parties in that Parliament that such an apology should be offered, and that was done by representatives of all the parties. I very much hope that the Minister will do exactly what the hon. Gentleman suggested and proffer some sort of apology to the few thousand Chagos islanders who deserve not just an apology but some sign that future action and policy will be different from that in the past.
The islanders won the High Court judgment in 2000, which was in the days of ethical foreign policy. I shared the hopes that were expressed earlier that at last something would be done to rectify the historical
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grievance and injustice. I accepted, as I think did many islanders, that there was an American base of long standing on Diego Garcia and that it might not be possible for all the islands to be reinhabited. However, basic rightssuch as the right to visit the graves of ancestors, to occupy the outer islands and to receive reasonable compensation, and the right of the duty of care that any Government and the Crown should have over these peopleshould have been respected as de minimis compensation for the wrongs and injustices of the past. In fact, none of that occurred, and instead the Government, in a sneaky, underhand way, passed two Orders in Council on European election day to prohibit debate, to remove what little rights had been won and to rectify loopholes in legislation that allowed the assertion of the human rights of the islanders and their descendants.
The analysis that the islands are no longer capable of sustaining occupation because of global warming must be pretty bad news for the American military baseperhaps the runway is about to disappear under water. I have an overwhelming feeling that if Mauritius could be persuaded to send just one gunboat to the outer islands to establish the Mauritian flag again in what is arguably its territory anyway, we would decide that the islands were worth reclaiming on behalf of the Crown and dispatch a taskforce to the Indian ocean.
Global warming is an interesting concept, because it conflicts rather dramatically with what is on the US navy website. In a welcoming introduction to "The Footprint of Freedom" and Camp Justice, Diego Garcia is described as a paradise on earth and it is said that one of the best stationings that any US serviceman can have is on Diego Garcia. The website states:
"Although it is a British Territory, there are fewer than 50 British personnel (or Brits as they are commonly known) on the island."
The Minister had better explain how the Government claim to know better than many respectable outlets of the US press. The Washington Post, for example, claims that prisoners are held on Diego Garcia for "rendering" before being transferred to Camp X-Ray. How confident is the Foreign Office in the information that the US authorities have offered it on what is happening on Diego Garcia, given that the Prime Minister seems to be revising his previous confidence in judgments that he has made about the international situation? Ultimately, the Minister should accept the collective responsibility of this and previous Governments for what has been done to the islanders. An apology should be proffered, but above all there should be a change of approach and of policy by the Government, who should offer some justice and some compensation to the islanders.
It may be thought that because of indolence or lack of concern among most Members of Parliamentthere are a few honourable exceptions, who are here todaysuch an issue is of no great moment, but it is precisely such issues that are of great political moment, because no member of the public could hear and understand what has happened to the islanders without having an overwhelming sense of injustice. If the Government cannot rectify the wrongs of the past for these few thousand people, what hope is there for their having any moral compass on the great issues of the day? Unless the Government are prepared to act and rectify the wrongs of the past, they are, in a moral sense, every bit as homeless as the islanders of Diego Garcia.
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Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) (Lab): Let none of us suppose that there is a complete lack of interest in this country on this issue. When the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) had the opportunity to put a question to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, I was in company in Scotland. However, I subsequently heard, not only in university circles but more widely, that it was an important question. Indeed, some people went so far as to observe that it was the most sensible question asked of the Prime Minister for some weeks.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) has inspired an important debate, but perhaps it comes 40 years too late. It was in 1964 that the Government began misdescribing the long-settled population as transitory workers in order to mislead the world into thinking that they had no obligations to that population. My clear recollection is that I raised the subject with the then Foreign Secretary, Patrick Gordon Walker. Frankly, having been defeated at Smethwick and about to be defeated at Leyton, his mind was on other things. A later Foreign Secretary was George Brown. When the general problem of the British Indian Ocean Territory was raised with him, he told me, in colourful language, to mind my own business. Perhaps I was not as tough then as subsequently, but George Brown was a formidable operator in his heyday. I raised the subject on the prompting of the late Sir Ashley Miles, the biological secretary of the Royal Society. It was his concern about the Indian ocean that first raised my acute interest.
Article 73 of the United Nations casts a "sacred trust" on a sovereign power to promote the welfare and advancement of the people, but the Government surreptitiously deported the islanders and misled the world about their status. At the United Nations on 16 November 1965, the British representative Mr. F.D.W. Brown, acting on the instructions of the Foreign Office, misdescribed the islands as
"uninhabited when my government first acquired them",
"labourers from Mauritius and Seychelles",
"freely worked out with the . . . elected representatives of the people concerned".
Instead, they bought the plantations, closed them down, forced the people to leave on boats, which incidentally were horribly overcrowded, and led them to exile, where they still remain. Their lives have been a tragedy of misery, poverty and despair, the only alleviation of which has been the heartfelt desire to return to their homeland, where their villages and ancestors lie.
In 1969, on my return from Australia, I stopped in Mauritius to stay the night with the former general secretary of the Labour party, Len Williams. Harold Wilson had wanted him out of Transport house and made him Governor-General of Mauritius. His wife Margaret Williams was a very intelligent and nice lady, and she decided that I should spend a morning with some Ilois people. It made a strong impression on me.
What is remarkable is that in the same speech by Mr. Brown representing the Foreign Office, he described the wishes of the Falkland islanders, whose
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representatives were consulted. Here we return to a previous intervention and a proper comparison with the Falkland islanders, of whom Mr. Brown said:
"It has been suggested that this population is somehow irrelevant and that it has no claim to have its wishes taken into account . . . it would surely be fantastic to maintain that only indigenous inhabitants have any rights in the Country".
"Peoples and Provinces are not to be bartered about from sovereignty to sovereignty as if they were chattels or pawns in a game".
These days, we are all too familiar with conducting foreign policy on the basis of false or misleading facts. The historical record now revealed by the islanders' legal struggle has after 30 years shown that a small and vulnerable population of British subjects can safely be written out of the history book on the pretext that they are not really a population at all. There is nothing new in deceiving the world while acting in breach of civilised standards of international and constitutional law. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North in his powerful speech.
"The people are to be governed, not removed."
"no colour of lawful authority."
"I have decided to accept the Court's ruling and the Government will not be appealing.
The work we are doing on the feasibility of resettlement of Ilois now takes on a new importance. We started feasibility work a year ago and are now well under way with phase two of the study.
Furthermore, we will put in place a new immigration ordinance which allows Ilois to return to the outer islands while observing our treaty obligations.
The Government has not defended what was done or said 30 years ago. As Lord Justice Laws recognised, we made no attempt to conceal the gravity of what happened".
History is repeating itself with the same moral turpitude. This time, given that the islanders had already been promised that the Government's policy was to move towards their resettlement on the islands, the new banishment is a cruel change to what has already been offered. Moreover, the reasons given are again based on inaccurate and misleading information.
The Foreign Office press statement claimed that it was the feasibility study that prevented resettlement. I am glad that this Minister is replying to the debate, and I thank him for his personal courtesy in seeing my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North and me in the Foreign Office. He cited a conclusion, supposedly made by the consultants in their executive summary, that the costs of maintaining long-term inhabitation are likely to
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be prohibitive. However, that was not based on any work of the consultants, whose terms of reference precluded any consideration of cost. Even if he had read only the executive summary, he would know from page 3 that the consultants reported:
"This report has not been tasked with investigating the financial costs and benefits of resettlements".
"human interference within the Atolls . . . is likely to exacerbate the stress on the marine and terrestrial environment and will accelerate the effect of global warming."
"resettlement is likely to become less feasible over time".
"At the present time it is not possible to quantify the risk associated with climate change for the Chagos Islands."
Finally, it is impossible to take seriously the suggestion that only a resettled population will face difficulties. Are we really to believe that the 64 islands offered back to the islanders by the then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston, are going to sink under the waves, while the one island occupied by the Americans is to provide defence facilities for generations to come? It is the biggest military base outside the continental United States.
"The deliberate misinterpretation of Ilois history and status, designed to deflect any investigation by the United Nations, the use of legal powers designed for the governance of the islands for the illicit purpose of depopulating them, the consequent uprooting of scores of families from the only way of life and means of subsistence that they knew, the failure to make anything like adequate provision for their resettlement, all of this and more is now part of the historical record."
"Defence may have replaced agricultural improvement as the reason, but the pauperisation and the expulsion of the weak in the interests of the powerful is the same. It gives little to be proud of."
Now there has been a cruel new blow to this mistreated population. Their hopes, which were raised by this Government, have been dashed. Nothing in this game of cat and mouse is any less culpable than the lies and inhumanity that characterised the removal of the population.
It is not, however, too late to render justice. The right of the islanders to return to their homeland should now be recognised, and proper scientific studies should be undertaken, with proper, independent input from respected scientists whose conclusions ought to be binding on the Government.
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Mr. John Grogan (Selby) (Lab): I am pleased to be able to make a brief contribution to the debate. I am relatively new to this subject, but when I read the press reports a few weeks ago I could not believe that the Government, whom I so strongly support, are taking this action. I know the Minister to be a good man, and I cannot believe that his sleep is not a little troubled due to these problems.
The test of any Government, or any man or woman, is how they deal with injustices felt by powerless people. I urge the Minister to make a stand on this issue; if there are forces beyond his office, outside or within the Foreign Office, that are urging this course of action, I urge him to take a stand. I have looked at the press releasethat is all we can go on as to the reasons why we are taking this action. I could see four: the risk of flooding; the precarious nature of life for any people who return; the effect on the delicate marine and terrestrial life caused by people who return; and the cost.
With regard to the risk of flooding, I have consulted one or two experts on the level of the land there, and a lot of it is higher than that in East Anglia. We know about flooding in my constituency of Selby, and if we accepted the argument on flooding that the Government are using, half of my constituency would be depopulated. Some outlying islands were inhabited in the past, and some were based on banks that were shifting in storms. There were tall copra trees on the islands and the inhabitants had worked out a mode of livinggrowing copra successfully, and in some cases raising huts on stilts. The argument does not seem overwhelming to me.
We have talked about the precarious nature of the life that would face any islanders who returned to the outer islands. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) was rather restrained and understated in quoting the American publicity about the islands. I shall detain the Chamber for a moment to give a little more flavour of what the US navy says about Diego Garcia in its message to its recruits. It says that Diego Garcia boasts
"unbelievable recreational facilities and exquisite natural beauty"
as well as "outstanding" living conditions. There is no mention of the threat of imminent demise from flooding. In fact, I understand that the US is seeking to extend the lease on its base, which would expire in 2016, so it is thinking long term. There is a windsurfers club, a yacht club, an annual Miss Diego Garcia competition, regular picnics to what the US describes as some of the best unspoiled beaches in the world, fishing, snorkelling and a beauty parlour. It does not sound that precarious to me.
As for the delicate marine and terrestrial life, the impact of the 1,500 US personnel, the British personnel, the 2,000 civilian contractors and the various military equipment must be at least as worrying, if it is the major concern, as the effect of some islanders returning to the outer islands.
The cost of returning is obviously a serious matter. From a preliminary scan of the literature, it is very difficult to work out whether any payment has ever been made by the US Government for the use of the island.
Mr. Hopkins : It occurs to me that with all the wonderful facilities at Diego Garcia, the American
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forces must have first-class health provision. Would it not be a generous offer if the Americans provided health services for the returning islanders in return for occupying part of their islands?
I would be interested to hear the Minister comment on whether any payment by the US Government has ever been made. Officially, the Foreign Office denies it, but time and again the suggestion in the literature is that the British Government at the time got a $14 million reduction in the cost of the Polaris nuclear missile system. I do not know whether that is true.
Clearly, with all the magnificent leisure, tourism and health facilities, it would not be beyond the wit of man or woman to develop a tourism strategy for the islandsperhaps the North Yorkshire tourist office could give some advice. I have a marginal seat, so perhaps there will be a job for me there. In any case, we do not seem to be dealing with a basket case of an economy, and I think the Minister knows that in his heart. It would be a great sadness for me and for other Memberspresent and not presentif a Labour Government did not bring justice to these islanders who have very little power. I appeal to the Minister to think again.
Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing the debate and on setting out in stark terms a dark chapter in our history and the impact it has had on the Chagos islanders. Other Members have dwelt at length on the history of what has happened, but I want to focus on the immediate past, the present and the future.
On resettlement, the Government statement of 15 June, which banned all rights of return of the Chagos people to their homeland, relied in part for its justification on the findings of the June 2002 feasibility study on the resettlement of the islands. Several hon. Members have referred to that and I want to highlight a couple of points.
That report concluded that the resettlement of the islanders would be prohibitively expensive and precarious to their safety. The Minister will be aware that Jonathan Jenness, who is a resettlement expert, carried out an independent review of that study. He examined the claims that the Government-inspired report made and it is clear that the Government's consultants were not given the task of assessing the financial costs and benefits of resettlement. The Department for International Development has not carried out, or received, any estimate of costs of the resettlement of the islands. I would be interested to know whether any Department has such figures.
On the safety of the environment, the review conducted by Mr. Jenness found that the Chagos Islands have a "benign environment" and that no available material can assess the possible consequences of global warming. As several hon. Members have pointed out, the Minister must explain why a micro
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climate exists in Diego Garcia, which ensures that it is safe from global warming, whereas the rest of the islands are under threat.
"it is fatuous to imagine that the islands cannot be resettled . . . they were settled, successfully for several generations".
Of course, Diego Garcia is successfully settled by the Americans and the BIOT administration. What assessment have the Government conducted of the review by Jonathan Jenness? Can they make any such assessment public, so that we can see how they responded to the valid points he made? I hope the Minister can say whether any discussions took place between the UK and the US Governments on these matters in the run-up to the decision that was taken on 15 June?
On compensation, to which other hon. Members have referred, it is clear that the level provided was insufficient and that when the Chagos islanders entered into the arrangement that we are discussing it was not made clear to them precisely what they were signing up to.
On visitation rights, the Minister must say why the security concerns are so great that people are not, for instance, allowed to return to visit graves. Before I turn to the issue of Camp Justice, I will discuss the report in today's papers that Mauritius may sue for Diego Garcia. Perhaps he can say also what discussions have taken place with the Mauritian Prime Minister on that subject. How many times has the UK been taken to the International Court of Justicethat is what is being proposed? Has the Prime Minister replied to Mr. Berenger's letter? I understand that he is very angry not to have received a response. Can we have assurances from the Minister that the Government will not retaliate and perhaps take it out on the Mauritian Government in relation to subsidies that they receive for sugar?
Mr. Salmond : On that point, a report in The Guardian today suggests exactly that. It is incumbent on the Minister to deny that pressure will be placed on the Mauritian Government not to pursue the case, which is their absolute right under international law.
I will briefly touch on the issue of Camp Justice, to which other hon. Members have referred. For those who are not familiar with it, I have a satellite picture of what it looks like. It is difficult to see individuals, but this is clearly an extensive camp.
Hon. Members have referred to reports in the Washington Post and Time magazine of claims that prisoners are being held in the camp by the Americans for so-called renderingwhich others have described as torturingor at least for questioning before being transferred to Camp X-Ray. Similar claims are being made by Mauritius-based campaigners; I understand that no journalist has been able to visit the camp.
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I hope, therefore, that the Minister can say how long he expects the camp to be operational. Is it designed to hold prisoners? Does the UK have control of any sort over the operations within the camp? Is there any dialogue with the US over what goes on in the camp? I understand that the US would need permission from the British Government to hold prisoners there. When a question was last raised about the matterin January 2003no such request from the US Government had been forthcoming. Have the US Government made any request to keep prisoners there more recently than that?
It would be extremely useful to clear up any misunderstanding by the Washington Post and Time magazine of the purpose of the camp if the Minister were to arrange for a visitpossibly a parliamentary visitso that hon. Members could see precisely what is happening and deal with any concerns we may have about prisoners being held there. I hope he can give us that assurance.
The issue is a sorry chapter in our past and it is poisoning our present. The Minister can start to repair the damage today; the Chagos islanders deserve an apology, compensation, assistance where they are based currently and a right of return. The Government's claim to be the champions of freedom will sound very hollow unless he can deliver on these promises today.
Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): This is probably the most important of all the debates in Westminster Hall in which I have participated since taking on the foreign affairs portfolio in November. I want to put three points on the record. First, I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and to the Father of the House the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) not only for speaking so powerfully, but for campaigning on the issue over so many years. Sometimes, we grapple with the legitimacy of this place when there is a powerful Government and a large majority on one side of the Chamber, but it is a legitimate and proper use of the House to raise injustices, national or international, on behalf of a host of people or of a relatively small number. I congratulate the hon. Gentlemen on how they have fought the corner for these people.
Secondly, a grave injustice took place in the 1960s and 1970s, and that is not widely known. It was a stain on our history and there is now an opportunity to do better. I confess that, in preparing for the debate, I found that my knowledge of the issue was extremely limited. I have learned a lot in the past few days in trying to grapple with the matter.
Thirdly, although the original decisions were taken by a Government led by Harold Wilson, a Labour Prime Minister, this is not a party political issue. Conservative Governments in the interim could have done more to put matters right and did not do so. I am interested not in apportioning blame, but in trying to see where we go from here.
Mr. Dalyell : I think I have his permission to say that Lord Balneil, who is now the 29th Earl of Crawford and Balcarres, was the very capable Foreign Office Minister
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in charge. He said that the only time during his career as a senior Conservative Minister in the Foreign Office when he was really unhappy about brief was on this issue.
I would like to think that what happened to the Chagos islanders in the 1960s could never happen again, given the way the media are today and our attitude towards human rights and transparency. However, when I think about the unlawful incarceration of so many people in Guantanamo Bay, which I have spoken about two or three times in this Chamber and in the House, that undermines my confidence in today's commitment to human rights as well as common sense.
We cannot undo the events of the 1960s, but we can do better in righting some of those wrongs. I intend to give the Minister 20 minutes for his winding-up speech, because many questions have been asked. Regardless of where I am in my remarks, I intend to sit downprobably abruptlyat 3.10 pm.
Many hon. Members have talked about comments that have come to light that were made by Foreign Office officialsand, sometimes, politiciansduring the abject episode in the 1960s. One of them sticks in my mind. It was made by Sir Paul Gore-Booth, the senior Foreign Office officialthe Father of the House probably knew him well. In 1966, he wrote to a diplomat:
"We must surely be very tough about this. The object of the exercise is to get some rocks which will remain ours . . . There will be no indigenous population except seagulls".
I appreciate that it is difficult for the Minister to respond to debates such as thisit seems 1,000 years ago that I was in his position. However, I ask him to go as far as he can in accepting that a major injustice took place. If he feels that an official apology is called for, everyone in this Chamber will welcome that.
It was sensible for the Government to carry out a feasibility study. We welcomed that, and we appreciated that it was made public and placed in the Library. I do not want to go into the details; others have successfully done that today. However, some of the reasons given for not coming down in favour of allowing people to go at least to the outer islands simply did not make sense. Others have powerfully made the point about global warming and flooding. Some of those reasons do not ring true. They are not credible, and I ask the Minister to answer some of the specific questions that have been asked.
In the Minister's statement of 15 June, he seemed to be saying two things at the same time. I am reminded of a famous statement: "If you are trying to sell shampoo, you can say that it makes your hair look shiny or you can say that it gets rid of dandruff, but you can't say both." The Minister appeared to be saying that the reason for the decision is global warming and the precariousness of living there, and that it is essential for
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security reasons, but he cannot say both. What is the real reason that the Government have taken this uncharacteristically robustand, I think, unfairposition?
To follow up on the comments of the Liberal Democrat spokesman about the Americans, I would like to know the extent to which they were involved in the recent decision to file the Orders in Council and to make the written statement. I recognise the importance of the US air base. It has been used to good effect in the recent wars in Afghanistan and the Gulf. B-52s have flown from there. I strongly support our alliance with the Americans and their commitment to global security. However, this Government need to grapple in their mind and conscience with the question of when an alliance becomes a relationship of subservience.
The Minister needs to deal with that point today. I was not in the House last Wednesday when the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) asked the Prime Minister a sensible question about this issue. Although the hon. Gentleman went over the top, as he sometimes does, the answer from the Prime Minister was a ranta total, blind commitment to the Americans. Can that commitment really be at any price, even at the cost of a major injustice to the people we are talking about today?
Mr. Salmond : I think the Prime Minister has some difficulty in distinguishing between a country called America, which has a constitution, and the personality of a President, George W. Bush, who has an Administration. The Prime Minister's inability to distinguish between the two is one of his major weaknesses.
Why on earth was it necessary for the Government to deal with this issue in the past few weeks in the way they have? Why was it necessary to execute Orders in Council, with no prior discussion, no consultation, no debate and no warning? It came as such a bolt out of the blue that, I freely confess, the Oppositionfor whom I take responsibility for the issuemissed it completely for a number of days. Perhaps we were focusing on the tremendous local election results that we received on 10 June and the fantastic European election results that we received on the following Sunday.What on earth was that all about? I understand that one of the officials in the Foreign Office publicity department, when pressed about the timing of the announcement, said:
"Obviously this was discussed at length within the Foreign Office".
"it was decided through our legal advisers that this was the most appropriate way."
"To do it any other way would have taken an inordinate amount of time."
"an inordinate amount of time".
Mr. Streeter : I am glad that the hon. Gentleman asked that question, because I checked this morning with the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), whether discussions were held at a higher level. There were no such discussions and no approach was made. There was no indication, no Chinese whispersnothing.
I say to the Minister that that is simply no way to introduce a major decision of this kind. It represents a major reversal in Government policy to slam-dunk and to prevent the islanders from returning. The order does not just say that we are not going to take them back; it actually says that we are not going to permit them to return. That is another point. Why is that so difficult? If the islanders want to take that upon themselvesI agree with those who say that we are supporting relatively uneconomic communities in other parts of our territorieswhy is it wrong?
I believe that it is possible for the Chagos islanders to return, at least to the outer islands. I understand the American sensitivity in terms of security and defence, but I do not know why they want every island cleared. The Americans tend to go over the top in such situations. We must have our own robust view on the matter. I believe that it is possible for the islanders to return to the outer islands, while still maintaining our treaty obligations to the Americans over the base at Diego Garcia. The Chagos islanders have been very badly treated.
I accept that difficult decisions must sometimes be taken for legitimate security and defence reasons. Tough decisions have to be taken by all Governments, but where they affect an innocent people, as in this case, the compensation should be generous. Decisions should be implemented in an honest and transparent way that does not compound the injustice. That clearly has not happened in this case, and the Minister has some explaining to do.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Bill Rammell) : I should like to start by genuinely congratulatingthese are not idle wordsmy hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this Adjournment debate. I do not always agree with him, but I admire and respect the commitment and passion with which he pursues the causes in which he believes. Similarly, I would direct those remarks at the Father of the House, who has pursued this issue diligently and persistently over a matter of decades, which is enormously to his credit. I know that concern for the Chagossians and interest in BIOT is genuine and long standing on the part of many hon. Members, so I think the opportunity of today's debate is important. From my perspective and that of the Government, it gives us a welcome opportunity to put on the record our position on BIOT and the reasoning behind our recent decisions, which I believe were justified.
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I shall start by acknowledging that, in my view, the decisions taken by successive Governments in the 1960s and 1970s to depopulate the islands do not, to say the least, constitute the finest hour of UK foreign policy. In no sense am I seeking to justify the decisions that were made in the 1960s and 1970s. Those decisions may be seen as regrettable, but the Government must deal with the current situation. The responsibility of the UK Government for the decisions taken in the 1960s and 1970s has been acknowledged by successive Governments since then, as is demonstrated by the substantial compensation that has already been paid to the Chagossians.
Having said that, the Government must deal with the situation that we face today, some 33 years after the depopulation. We have had to judge whether it is realistic, feasible or appropriate for the islands to be repopulated today. We do not have to judge whether what happened in the past was right or wrong, but whether it is appropriate, justifiable and sustainable to repopulate today. We have had to focus on that decision in recent weeks.
I believe that it would have been wrong for our decision to have been influenced by concerns about Government actions in the past rather than by the realities of today. Nevertheless, as I said earlier, successive UK Governments have acknowledged our moral responsibility; that was why compensation was paid.
I shall set out some of the history behind the creation of the British Indian Ocean Territory, and the chain of events that has led to hon. Members raising concerns on behalf of the Chagossian community today.
The islands of the Chagos archipelago, in the middle of the Indian ocean, were originally uninhabited and remained so until the French assumed sovereignty in the 1700s, and began to exploit them for copra in the 1780s. The islands became British when ceded, together with Mauritius and the Seychelles, by France to Britain in 1814. The islands continued to be administered from Mauritius.
During French rule, and for a short period thereafter, the copra plantation was run with slave labour. However, when slavery was abolished in all British possessions in the 1830s, the work force became contract labourers. That continued to be the basis of employment for as long as the copra plantations remained in operation.
Prior to Mauritius achieving independence, and with the agreement of the Mauritius Council of Ministers, the islands were detached in 1965several hon. Members referred to thatto form part of the British Indian Ocean Territory. The territory was created to provide for the defence needs of the USA and Britain. At that time, Britain gave Mauritius an undertaking to cede the islands to Mauritius when they were no longer required for defence purposes. Again, let me be clear that I do not seek to justify the decisions that were taken in the 1960s and 1970s.
Some time after the islands had been set aside for defence needs in 1965, it was decided that the islanders should be relocated to Mauritius and the Seychelles, and arrangements for that to be done were made in the late
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1960s and early 1970s. The vast majority of the islanderssome 1,200were relocated to Mauritius. At that timeI believe appropriatelyBritain made £650,000 available to the Mauritius Government for the express purpose of assisting resettlement. At today's prices, that is equivalent to almost £5.5 million.
It is worth mentioning that the majority of Chagossians automatically acquired Mauritian or Seychelles citizenship when those countries achieved independence. In addition, the British Overseas Territories Act 2002 gave the majority British citizenship. Such citizenship carries with it the right of abode in the UK, which some have already taken up, and freedom of access to other EU countries. That change, which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North, was widely welcomed by the Chagossians, and indicated the Government's commitment to our responsibilities.
At the time of the detachment of the islands from Mauritius, the population consisted solely of the employees of the copra plantations and their dependants. Some of those employees were transient contract labourers, but others had more settled roots in the islandsin some cases their families had lived there as plantation workers for several generationsand regarded the islands as their home. The people who had that sort of connection with the islands were known as the "Ilois", which is the Creole word for islanders, or as "Chagossians." The whole population was dependent on employment in the copra plantations for its livelihood and basic services.
In 1982, Britain made an ex gratia payment of £4 million in return for withdrawal of legal proceedings brought by a member of the Chagossian community in Mauritius, in addition to the previous £650,000 for the Chagossian community in Mauritius. Everyone who was registered as a Chagossianapproximately 1,350 peoplebenefited from the fund. At today's prices, that sum is the equivalent of £9 million. At that stage, it was agreed by all concerned, including the Chagossians and their representatives, that that payment by the British Government was a full and final settlement against all the claims against the Government arising from the relocation of the Chagossians to Mauritius, their resettlement there and their preclusion from returning to the Chagos Islands.
Nevertheless, in 1998, another member of the Chagossian community instituted judicial review proceedings challenging the validity of a provision of the BIOT immigration ordinance 1971, which prohibited the entry of any person into any part of the territory, unless they obtained permission to do so. The judgment, which was given in November 2000, held that the provision of the 1971 ordinance was invalid to the extent that it excluded the Chagossians from the whole territory. At that stage, the Government decided to accept that finding and not appeal, and the 1971 ordinance was replaced by a new one, which allowed the Chagossians to return and reside in any part of the territory, except, for defence reasons, Diego Garcia. A reasonable question at that juncture would have been, "What has changed between now and then?" That is a legitimate question to which I will try to respond.
At the same time as that judgment, the Government had also commissioned a study in 2000 into the feasibility of resettling the Chagossians on the islands
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other than Diego Garcia. I stress that that was done by independent experts. The report on the final phase of that study was made public in July 2002, at which stage a copy was rightly deposited in the Library of the House. I know that there has been much mockery of those conclusions this afternoon, but I am directly quoting from that study, which was drawn up independently. It concluded that
"whilst it may be feasible to resettle the islands in the short term, the costs of maintaining long-term inhabitation are likely to be prohibitive."
That was not dreamed up by a Foreign Office official or a Minister; it was the conclusion of the independent experts. I ask hon. Members, whatever they feel about past decisions, to consider whether it is realistic and sensible, having been presented with that advice, to move towards repopulation.
Jeremy Corbyn : Before the orders were madeif that was the basis of making themwhy was there no discussion with anybody, such as the islanders, who has knowledge or interest in the matter, or a real desire to see the Chagos Islands reinhabited? Why was this done by Ministers and officials in secret in the Foreign Office?
Mr. Rammell : There was always going to be an opportunity for these issues to be debated, but it was right, given the imminence of the intention to repopulate, that we took considered action, and I believe that we did so.
"Even in the short term, natural events such as periodic flooding from storms and seismic activity are likely to make life difficult for a resettled population."
"Human interference within the atolls, however well managed, is likely to exacerbate stress on the marine and terrestrial environment and will accelerate the effects of global warming. Thus resettlement is likely to become less feasible over time."
"the main issue facing a resettled population on the low-lying islands will be flooding events, which are likely to increase in periodicity and intensity and will not only threaten infrastructure, but also the freshwater aquifers and agricultural production. Severe events may even threaten life."
It also highlighted the implications for resettlement on such low-lying islands of the predicted increase in global sea levels as a result of climate change. That is where the facts, as my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) said, need to be taken into account.
It is worth highlighting that the highest points on the islands are only about 2 metres above sea level and, in most areas, are just a couple of feet above sea level. We have to make a judgment, but not on whether we already have an existing, settled population who we need to protect and support. We are talking about islands where there is no settled population at the moment. That is the factor that we must take into account. In effect,
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therefore, as I said in my statement to the House on 15 June, anything other than short-term resettlement on a purely subsistence basis would be highly precarious and would involve expensive underwriting by the UK Government for an open-ended period, and probably permanently.
We made an assessment based upon comparative costings with other overseas territories with which we have significant experience, and we believe that the initial resettlement costs would be of the order of £5 million in start-up costs and £3 million to £5 million annually thereafter. The Department for International Development thinks that those estimates are overly optimistic and that the costs may well be higher. We are not talking about minimal costs.
If one is prepared to sign a blank cheque for resettlement, one can repopulate, but we have a responsibility and significant contingent liabilities with the overseas territories and we must take accounts of costs.
Mr. Salmond : The sums that the Minister mentions are very small compared with the enormity of the issue and the blot on the moral conscience. Does the European convention on human rights apply to the British Indian Ocean Territory, and does the International Criminal Court have jurisdiction over Diego Garcia under the terms of the American lease?
Mr. Rammell : As I understand it, the ECHR does not apply, as there is no settled population. With regard to the hon. Gentleman's other question, I will respond later because I do not want to give a response that is not entirely accurate.
Due to the fact that settlement is not feasible, the Government decided after long and careful considerationthat was genuinely the caseto legislate to prevent it. Equally, however, legislation to restore full immigration control over the entire territory is also necessary, and I do not absolve ourselves from responsibility for this so as to ensure and maintain the availability and effective use of the territory for defence purposes for which it was constituted and set aside in accordance with the UK's treaty obligations entered into almost 40 years ago.
On that basis, two prerogative Orders in Council were made on 10 June restoring full immigration control over the islands of the British Indian Ocean Territory. Those controls extended to all persons, including members of the Chagossian community. This point has been made on several occasions, but a prerogative Order in Council is the normal way in which the UK Government legislate for an overseas territory. Indeed, legislation in that form on BIOT has been entered into in the past.
Jeremy Corbyn : All the other British overseas territories have some form of resident population and some form of representative local administration who are consulted before an Order in Council is made, which
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is, in effect, a decision made by the local population. Why was there no discussion whatever with any representative of the Chagossian community?
Several Members have raised questions about the manner in which we reached that conclusion and asked whether there was any pressure from the United States of America. Let me be abundantly clear: we made our decision based on our own assessment of the situation and not as the result of any pressure or lobbying from other parties. I have certainly received no representations from the United States and I do not believe that the Foreign Secretary has had any representations on the issue for a significant number of years.
I understand the concerns that hon. Members have for the Chagossians following the two Orders in Council, and I do not seek to justify or defend actions that were taken in the past, but the decision not to allow any form of resettlement on the islands was taken only after long and careful consideration of the current circumstances.
As far as compensation for the Chagossians is concerned, the High Court judgment established that we have no legal obligation to pay any further compensation beyond what has already been provided. The Chagossians have sought to lodge an appeal against that judgment but, as the compensation payments that have already been made are equivalent to £14.5 million at today's prices, I can make no promises about further payments. If hon. Members want to make further representations on that issue, however, we will listen to them as is our proper constitutional duty.
I understandthis was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, Norththe wishes of many Chagossians to visit the islands to see the graves of their ancestors. We have twice put in hand preparations for such a visit, but those fell through on both occasions for reasons that were absolutely and categorically beyond
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our control. I heard what my hon. Friend said on that, but the boat that was bringing the Chagossians to the islands was not owned by the British Government, who had no influence over it. At that stage, we were happy for the visit to take place and, as I have written today to my hon. Friend, we remain genuinely prepared to organise and finance a visit to the outer islands in co-operation with the representatives of the Chagossian communities in Mauritius and the Seychelles.
The current position on Diego Garcia is that the Americans have made it clear that, on security grounds, they cannot, at present, agree to a visit that includes the cemeteries there. Under our treaty with the Americans, access to Diego Garcia cannot be permitted without the agreement of both Governments. None the less, if the Chagossians confirm that they would like an organised visit to include Diego Garcia, I am prepared to make representations to the Government of the United States of America.
Another issue that I should mention concerns not the problems of the Chagossians but the claim that the Government of Mauritius have made to sovereignty over the BIOT territories. As the House will have seen from the written statement made yesterday, the Government have amended the UK's declaration accepting the jurisdiction of the International Court of Justice under article 36(2) of the court's statute. A copy of the revised declaration, set out in a letter to the United Nations Secretary-General dated 5 July 2004, has been placed in the Library of the House. As my written statement yesterday explained, the revised declaration makes changes to the former declaration put forward on 1 January 1969.
That former arrangement confirms a Commonwealth exception that excludes jurisdiction in respect of any dispute with the Government of any other country that is a member of the Commonwealth. That Commonwealth exception is of long standing, and is retained by a number of Commonwealth countries. The change that we have made broadens the scope of the exception so that it now covers a dispute with a Government of another country who have been a member of the Commonwealth. Although those changes are of general application, their immediate significance is that they prevent any Commonwealth country from circumventing the present limitations by withdrawing from the Commonwealth and then instituting proceedings against the UK Government in respect of an existing dispute. We have acted in that way to prevent such a move because we believe that that would be against the spirit of the existing Commonwealth exception, which is a view and a practice adopted not only by us but by many Commonwealth Governments.
As I have said on several occasions, we are not seeking to defend actions that were taken in the 1960s and 1970s, but we have to deal with the situation as it is today, some 33 years on, when there is genuinely no settled population in the BIOT territories. Previous Governments have introduced substantial compensation for past actions, which I think is right and proper. Clear and genuine evidence has been put before the Government on the longer-term viabilityor non-viabilityof repopulation of the islands. We have received a report based on independent advice from independent experts, which, at the very least,
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significantly questions the sustainability and viability of repopulation of the islands. In those circumstances, and given the overall context of an ongoing set of contingent liabilities to the overseas territories running into hundreds of millions of pounds, for us cavalierly to have gone ahead and said that we would allow repopulation to take place would not have been the right decision. I do not believe that it would have been a sustainable decision, and that was a significant imperative behind the reasoned position that we took.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North on having secured this Adjournment debate. I recognise the strength of feeling on this issue, and that what I have said will not be agreed with, or welcomed, by everyone. However, the debate has enabled us to have a significant airing of the issues.
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