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3 Nov 2004 : Column 119WH—continued

Diego Garcia

4.30 pm

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): I see this debate not in isolation but as part of Parliament's role in the continuing unhappy and shaming saga of our country's treatment of a small group of its subjects and their descendants, namely, the Chagos islanders, who are drawn principally from Diego Garcia, the largest island in the chain.

I use the term "subjects" advisedly. Although it implies a rather unfashionable view of the relationship between the people and their sovereign, I am entirely clear that my sovereign—in practice, her Government—owes her subjects a profound duty of care. That duty of care is cast as a sacred trust on a sovereign power to promote the welfare and advancement of the people under article 73 of the United Nations charter, but our Government have shamefully and disgracefully honoured it over four decades, and mainly in the breach, in the case of the Chagos islands.

In coming to an understanding of this issue—embarrassingly late, given my service as a special adviser in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—and in raising it on behalf of my constituents, who are now being invited to pay the nation's price, I am still astonished that a liberal democracy in the early 21st century continues to behave in a shabby manner towards its subjects.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) for his work on the issue and for raising it in the Chamber on 7 July. I also pay tribute to the Father of the House, whose work over four decades on behalf of these unfortunate people is an example to us all.

My remarks should be seen in the context of the debate on 7 July, which focused on the Orders in Council, promulgated on European and local election day on 10 June, which prevented the right of return to the islands as lawfully established four years earlier in a British court. In pursuing the matter, I am in complete harness with my hon. Friends the Members for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) and for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling) in that we all represent council tax payers of the borough of Reigate and Banstead. I am also grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) and for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford) for their support, and for the presence in this debate of the hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt), whose constituents are also affected by the issue and who has been dealing with it for about a year.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey will be pursuing the issue of the Government's obligation to the council tax payers of Reigate and Banstead in an Adjournment debate tomorrow with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. I intend to focus the rest of my remarks on the Government's obligations to the islanders.

Sir Paul Beresford (Mole Valley) (Con): It would be very useful for the ODPM to provide the Minister with a sincere statement about the plight of these people and the cost to local government.

Mr. Blunt : In the era of at least proclaimed joined-up government, I hope that the two debates can be viewed
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in conjunction with each other. I do not know whether the Minister will have anything to say on behalf of other Departments when he replies, but I will draw attention in the rest of my remarks to the risks that the Government are running under their current policy.

The only thing to be said for the Government's position on the Chagos islanders is that it is clear. The Orders in Council were detailed in a written ministerial statement and left no room for doubt. The statement read:

The lack of consultation and the way in which the decision was taken and promulgated were outrageous, and I am far from convinced that the decision was correct. Indeed, it was probably practically and morally wrong, but at least it was clear.

The Chagos islanders, in the Government's view, are not going home. That leaves 5,500 islanders and their descendants, who live mainly in Mauritius and the Seychelles and who are now entitled to British citizenship and residence, with no practical alternative if they are to extricate themselves from their largely poverty-stricken existence but to come here in increasing numbers. Some 900 passports have been issued so far by the high commissioners in Mauritius and the Seychelles. The Prime Minister was either misleading or misinformed when he told my hon. Friend the Member for Epsom and Ewell last week that my hon. Friend was exaggerating the number of people who would come. Why does the Prime Minister think that 900 passports have been applied for when these people have perfectly good Mauritian travel documents of their own?

Now that the Government have slammed the door on people returning to the Chagos islands, they must prepare for a significant part of the community to come here. A failure to plan will result in the events that   have engulfed the borough of Reigate and Banstead in the past month being repeated a hundredfold. Uncontrolled immigration of those people would be a disaster.

I am advised that 95 per cent. of the original islanders are illiterate, as are 40 to 50 per cent. of their descendants, because of the way in which the Mauritian education system works. If someone fails to meet the necessary standards at 12, their formal education comes to an end. The vast majority speak not English but a French patois, and even now interpreters are being sought to converse with the 32 islanders with whom the borough of Reigate and Banstead is coping, as classical French speakers are deemed inadequate to interpret the reviews of the islanders' circumstances.

The first groups of these British citizens have arrived destitute at Gatwick over the past two years. A few have already settled in the area. In the wake of the Orders in Council, we are facing an uncontrolled immigration of penniless and unqualified British citizens to one part of the country. The huge sympathy for their plight, when understood nationally, will almost certainly rapidly turn to anger and resentment as local services are overwhelmed.
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The islanders are bound to concentrate in one area if immigration is uncontrolled, as they will lack the ability to communicate outside their group. The social problems that they endured in Mauritius will simply be repeated here. This country can and should avoid that. The least that we can do is properly prepare those in the community in Mauritius and the Seychelles who wish to exercise their right to move to the United Kingdom.

There is an overwhelming case for controlled immigration. I hope that the Minister will urgently consider a properly funded programme, which would teach such people English, equip them with the skills and training to enable them to be part of the United Kingdom work force, and provide services to enable them to identify jobs and homes in the United Kingdom before they leave Mauritius and the Seychelles. Legally, we cannot control their immigration but, practically, we can prepare for those British citizens, now habitually resident in Mauritius, who wish to come to the United Kingdom.

The Foreign Office is more than capable of administering a suitable programme over several years—that is how long it will take—that will help such people to meet the challenge. It could co-ordinate the resources of the British Council and other Departments in order to do that. I cannot imagine that any teachers sent to the Seychelles or Mauritius on programmes run by the British Council or other Departments will regard it as a punishment posting.

Also, if the Foreign Office administers such a programme, it will at least go a little way towards making up for its unhappy role in the affair of the Chagos islanders over the past four decades. Failure to make investment in such a programme will not save any money. It will cost far more to provide for education, training, housing and social services in the United Kingdom after an unprepared population arrives. In all probability we would cause further social disaster for an isolated and mistreated people. If we do not deal with the issue now, in years to come we may find that we have forced the islanders to turn to crime to support themselves, and the criminal justice budget will then make a contribution to this sorry saga.

The Government's decision to block a return to the islands requires follow-up action now. Telling the local authorities of Crawley, Reigate and Banstead, Surrey and West Sussex that they are on their own could be disastrous. Controlled immigration must be the objective of government policy. As that means discharging our moral obligations generously, we will be doing the right thing for the right reasons. I invite the Government to do so.

4.40 pm

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr.   Blunt) for the opportunity to make a short contribution to this important debate, and I congratulate him on securing it. As he will know, I intend to return to this issue from a local government perspective tomorrow, and I will return the compliment should he wish to participate in my debate. The issue affects both our local authorities and those of other hon. Members whom he has mentioned.

The Minister is not responsible for local government finance, but I hope that he is sufficiently joined up with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to understand
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that the decisions taken by his Department about the Chagos islanders have direct consequences for local government in this country. The Orders in Council signed by the Government in June are a key reason why three weeks ago a group of 45 people from Diego Garcia turned up at Gatwick airport. As the Minister will know, the Orders in Council overturned a High Court ruling that the ordinance preventing the return of the islanders to their homeland was unlawful. Effectively, the Government acted to ensure that the islanders could not return to their homeland.

Given that the prospect of returning to destitute conditions in Mauritius lacks, shall we say, appeal, as my hon. Friend and I discovered during our recent visit to Horley in my constituency, where many of the islanders are housed, their decision to come to Britain has a certain logic. As British citizens, they have every right to be here but, thanks to this Government, they have no right to go home. The question is what further rights they have to housing, food and other benefits, and those matters are the subject of a complicated and expensive legal process.

I would be grateful if the Minister could let me know when he responds what discussions, if any, took place between his Department and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister about the likely, indeed inevitable, consequences for local government and local authorities of the decision to issue the Orders in Council. As my hon. Friend pointed out, the treatment of the islanders has been grossly unjust. From the original decision of Harold Wilson's Government to round them up and evict them, to the shabby decision earlier this year to overturn the High Court ruling, the whole story is a discredit to this country. To that injustice is added another. The cost of keeping the islanders in temporary accommodation is falling exclusively on local council   tax payers. That is patently unfair. The problem is entirely of the Government's making and the Government should shoulder responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

My hon. Friend and I will return to the issue tomorrow, as the Minister knows. The short-term solution is in the hands of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, but the long-term solution lies with this Minister's Department—a just solution that either allows the islanders to return to Diego Garcia, which I admit is unlikely given the Government's attitude, or, as my hon. Friend has suggested, at least provides them with the skills that they will need in order to make successful new lives in this country.

There have been too many evasions and too many excuses already. We look to the Minister to come forward with a clear and positive initiative that is fair to the islanders and to our constituents.

4.43 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Bill Rammell) : This is a genuinely important debate, and the second opportunity that we have had to air these issues in this Chamber. I understand the concerns that have been expressed. I congratulate the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) on securing the debate. I hope that the similar debate that takes place tomorrow with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister will reflect the strategic
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importance of these issues and the way in which the Government are attempting to work on them across the board.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I have every sympathy with the predicament in which he and the Reigate and Banstead borough council find themselves as a result of the arrival of that group of Chagossians in his constituency. His is not the first constituency to see such an arrival. Earlier groups arrived in Crawley, and I have had several meetings with my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) about it. Indeed, I am due to see her early next week to discuss it further.

There is a debate tomorrow on local government provisions for Diego Garcians in Surrey. Therefore, I intend today to concentrate on the history of the British Indian Ocean Territory and the chain of events that has led to the present situation. Properly, I shall leave local government provisions to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester) (Con): Given the huge pressure that councils will find themselves under, particularly West Sussex county council, before the Minister leaves that subject, will he give us some idea of his Department's view in principle on how to handle the extraordinary burden that will be placed on those county councils? How should that be met, and is it acceptable that it should be met entirely by local people?

Mr. Rammell : The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the best way to resolve the issues is not necessarily by one Department telling another on the Floor of the House what it can and should do. Nevertheless, I can assure him that the Foreign Office is in touch with other Whitehall Departments, including the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Department of Health, on this issue. We have also been in contact with West Sussex county council, and that will continue. That is one reason that I am seeing my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley next week.

Sir Paul Beresford : On the same point, if the Minister is in discussions, he will be able to tell us what his Department is contributing and what the other Departments are contributing. That could make tomorrow's debate much simpler.

Mr. Rammell : As I said earlier, it is properly the place of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to respond on specific local government provisions.

Hon. Members will forgive me if I am brief, because of the limited time available. If Opposition Members would like more detailed information on the history of the Chagossians and the British Indian Ocean Territory, I should be happy to be contacted after the debate to arrange for such information to be given. However, I shall now give a brief overview of the situation. The islands of the Chagos archipelago, located in the middle of the Indian ocean, were ceded to Britain by the French in 1814 together with Mauritius, of which the islands were a dependency. Under British rule, the islands, which were populated by copra plantation workers and
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their dependants, continued to be administered as a dependency of Mauritius. Prior to Mauritius achieving independence in 1968, and with the agreement of the Mauritius Council of Ministers—that is an important point—the islands were detached in 1965 to form—

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Rammell : Let me finish this sentence. I want to make some progress because I have some important background information to get on the record. The islands were at that stage—

Mr. Blunt : May I assist the Minister?

Mr. Rammell : I will finish this point, then I will give way. The islands were detached in 1965 to form part of the British Indian Ocean Territory, which was created to provide for the defence needs of Britain and the United States. The copra plantations were becoming no longer economically viable, and partly for that reason, and   partly because of defence requirements, it was eventually decided that the islanders should be relocated. That was done in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The vast majority of islanders—some 1,200—were relocated in Mauritius, but some went to the Seychelles.

Mr. Blunt : All of us here are familiar with the background, and I hoped that the Minister could start his reply from a later point. We understand that the Government have made their decision through the Orders in Council. Does he accept that that is a given? The merits of that were discussed in the debate initiated by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and I do not want to revisit them now. I instead invite the Minister to address the question of what we do now in the light of that decision.

Mr. Rammell : With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I was aware that two debates were coming one day after the other, and I spoke to him yesterday to clarify what issues he intended to address. The indication that I then received was that this debate—properly, as it was to be   a Foreign Office debate—would be about the background, history and rationale for what we have done and that, properly, the issues about local government finance would be addressed in tomorrow's debate. That is what I am seeking to do.

Although the hon. Gentleman said that people are aware of the background, some of the interventions suggest that not everyone is fully aware of it. I should like to repeat what I said in this Chamber on 7 July about the measures taken by successive Governments, both Conservative and Labour. That is an important point in respect of the speech by the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth). I heard the references to Harold Wilson and to this Government but I think that he has forgotten the role of past Conservative Governments. [Interruption.] With respect, that is the point that was made, and that is what I am properly responding to.

The measures taken by successive Governments of the 1960s and 1970s to depopulate the islands did not—to say the least—constitute the finest hour of UK foreign policy. I do not seek to justify what was done in the
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1960s or the 1970s. On 12 October, the Foreign Secretary indicated in the House that he understood how controversial were the measures taken many decades ago to relocate the Chagossians to Mauritius and the Seychelles.

The nub of the problem, however, is that, regrettable as those measures may have been, this Government have   to deal with the situation as it exists today. The responsibility of the UK Government for what was done   in the 1960s and 1970s has been acknowledged by successive Governments since then, as is demonstrated by the substantial sums in compensation that have already been paid to the Chagossians.

The issue of compensation is directly relevant to the debate. Compensation was made available on two occasions. At the time of the relocation of the islanders, £650,000—equivalent to almost £5.5 million in today's terms—was made available to the Mauritius Government specifically to assist with resettlement. Subsequent to that, in 1982, an ex gratia payment of £4 million—equivalent to £9 million today—was put into a trust fund for the benefit of the Chagossian community in Mauritius. Furthermore, the Mauritius Government made land available to the value of £1 million. At the time, it was agreed by all concerned, including the Chagossians themselves with the benefit of independent legal advice, that the payment was in full and final settlement of all claims against the UK arising out of the Chagossians' transfer to and resettlement in Mauritius, as well as their preclusion from returning to the Chagos islands.

Those payments amount to more than £14 million in today's prices. The Chagossians' lawyers advised them that that was a fair and reasonable settlement. In 2002, proceedings in the High Court were initiated in an attempt to secure further compensation, and in October 2003 the High Court dismissed the case in full in a comprehensive judgment. On 22 July this year, the Court of Appeal refused leave to appeal against the judgment.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I apologise for not being present for the opening speech. I was detained in the main Chamber at the time.

Despite all that the Minister has said, can he not accept that the Chagos islanders have been very badly treated? They have lived, and continue to live, in very poor conditions and great poverty, largely in Mauritius and to some extent in the Seychelles, and there is a moral duty on the British Government to recognise that poverty of people who are British citizens, and to ensure that a new assistance package is agreed with them.

As the Minister knows, a delegation is coming here later this month. It will have the opportunity to meet him, so that he can hear at first hand how awful the lives of many Chagossians have been in Mauritius since they were dumped on the quayside all those years ago.

Mr. Rammell : As my hon. Friend knows, I respect his conviction and integrity on this issue and the way that he has campaigned on it. Nevertheless, there has been a High Court ruling, which makes it clear that we are not required to pay further compensation. That is the situation. However, as is proper for any accountable Government, we will receive and listen to
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representations. I have done that with regard to my hon. Friend and, as he knows, I am prepared to meet with representatives of the Chagossian community later this month.

In 2000, the High Court, in judicial review proceedings brought by the Chagossians, held that the provisions of the British Indian Ocean Territory Immigration Ordinance 1971, which prohibited the unauthorised entry of any person into any part of the territory, were invalid in so far as they applied to the   Chagossians. Accordingly, the ordinance was amended so as to remove the prohibition in respect of the Chagossians, except with regard to entry into Diego Garcia itself. Subsequently, an independent study into the feasibility of resettlement, which had meanwhile been commissioned by the Government, concluded that resettlement of the islands on anything other than a short-term and purely subsistence basis would be highly precarious and would involve expensive underwriting by the British Government for an open-ended period, and probably permanently. That is pertinent to some of the points made by the hon. Member for Reigate.

I emphasise that that study was carried out by experts independent of Government, and because of that—and equally because of the need to ensure and to maintain the availability and effective use of the territory for defence purposes, for which it was created and set aside in accordance with the UK's treaty obligations—the Government decided, after long and careful consideration, that resettlement could not take place.

Mr. Blunt : Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Rammell : No. I need to respond to the points that have been made. I will give way if there is time.

Accordingly, the Government legislated to restore full immigration control over the whole territory, and that was done in June 2004.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the manner in which these changes came about and the fact that they were undertaken through Orders in Council. I remind him that that has been the normal way of legislating on the overseas territories under successive Governments.

Mr. Blunt : All those points are familiar to anyone who read the debate or attended it on 7 July. I understand that the proposals I have made are fresh to the Minister, but all I am seeking from him is an acknowledgement that in the light of the Orders in Council something needs to be done. I understand that that something would have to be the subject of advice from his officials and other Departments.

Mr. Rammell : With respect, I am trying to be as open and frank as I can, and there is a problem with the hon. Gentleman's seeking to initiate a debate on local government finance matters, and then requesting that the Foreign Office responds.

The hon. Gentleman has worked in the Foreign Office. Other hon. Members in the Chamber who have been in government will know the legitimate difficulties involved. Specifically in response to some of the points that he made about the low level of literacy among the Chagossian community, there are currently no aid programmes to assist through the Department for
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International Development, because Mauritius particularly is a middle-income country and there have been, at today's prices, substantial elements of compensation. Nevertheless—and without commitment— that issue has not been put to us before and I will consider it.

Following the arrival of the Chagossians in Mauritius and the Seychelles, the majority automatically acquired Mauritian or Seychelles citizenship when those countries achieved independence. In addition, most Chagossians retain their status as citizens of the UK and colonies, and the British Overseas Territories Act 2002 gave them the additional status of full British citizens.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth : Will the Minister just try to answer my question about the extent of discussions between his Department and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister about the consequences of the Orders in Council for local government?

Mr. Rammell : I have already made it clear to the hon. Gentleman and to the hon. Member for Reigate that we have, on a number of occasions, been in contact with other Whitehall Departments, including the ODPM, the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department of
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Health, and with the local authority, and we will continue to be so. I also made it clear that I was seeing my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley to discuss the matter further. Given my responsibilities, and those of the Foreign Office, I do not believe that I can go further in responding to something that is properly a matter for discussion in the debates tomorrow.

I reiterate that I am not seeking to justify what happened in the 1960s and 1970s. I have said on several occasions that I do not regard that as the finest hour in the conduct of UK foreign policy. However, the fundamental problem faced by this Government was this. It is almost 40 years since the Chagossians last inhabited the islands and, accordingly, given the independent advice on the feasibility and sustainability of the repopulation of the islands, it would not have been responsible for the Government to say, "The repopulation can take place and we will pick up the financial consequences." Considering the matter in the round, that would be a significant financial liability in the context of our overall contingent financial liabilities for the overseas territories.

I understand the points that have been made and I have tried, within the terms of the debate, to respond.

Question put and agreed to.

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