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Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Canning Town) (Lab): I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

BUSINESS OF THE HOUSE

Ordered,

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Yesterday, the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) made a point of order. He was rightly concerned about an invitation that was sent yesterday to hon. Members and journalists to a meeting that was planned to take place in the House next Tuesday. I regret that the meeting was booked in my name and I wanted to take the first opportunity to assure hon. Members that, contrary to normal requirements, I was not shown the invitation for clearance prior to dispatch. I would not have authorised it if I had done so. As soon as I became aware of the incident, I cancelled the room booking and told the group in question that the meeting was firmly off. I asked the group to notify those who were invited. I greatly regret any inconvenience to Officers of the House or concern to Members.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): The House will be grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that clear on the record, so that the least inconvenience is caused to anyone.
 
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Incident in Iraq

6 pm

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): We have received reports of a serious incident in Iraq. I know that hon. Members will appreciate that it is often difficult immediately to establish a clear picture of events and precise details of what has happened. However, I greatly regret that I can confirm to the House that, in an attack on British forces in the Black Watch area of operations, we have suffered a number of casualties, including three fatalities. The process of informing their next of kin is under way, and I hope that hon. Members will accept that that should take place before we release fuller details. However, I can say that United States forces helped to provide urgent medical support at the scene of the incident, for which I know that our forces were grateful.

I know that I speak for the whole House when I say that our thoughts are with those soldiers and their loved ones.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex) (Con): I thank the Minister for coming to the House with the grave news. Her Majesty's loyal Opposition extend their deepest condolences to the families of the three soldiers of the Black Watch who have this day given their lives in action, and to the families of those who have been involved in the incident.

The country will want to wish the Black Watch well as they continue to carry out their duties.

Mr. Paul Keetch (Hereford) (LD): This is indeed tragic news. On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I send our condolences to the families of those killed and injured, to the members of the Black Watch and all the members of Her Majesty's armed forces serving in Iraq.Whatever our views on the war, our armed forces are performing a difficult job under difficult circumstances. Our thoughts are with them tonight.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): On behalf of the Scottish National party, I should like to express shock and sadness at the death and injury of Black Watch soldiers in Iraq. Everyone's thoughts go to their families and friends. I am certain that the Minister appreciates that the tragic news will have profound implications for public opinion in Scotland.


 
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Diego Garcians (Surrey)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Margaret Moran.]

6.3 pm

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): I echo the expressions of concern that hon. Members throughout the Chamber have uttered about the incident in Iraq.

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise an issue that causes considerable and immediate concern in my constituency, but clearly has far wider implications and has its origins in a distant place and at a distant time. As well as my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), my hon. Friends the Members for Mole Valley (Sir Paul Beresford), for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling), for Woking (Mr. Malins) and for Chichester (Mr. Tyrie) have taken a keen interest in the matter—it is good to see my hon. Friends in their places—and wish to be associated with my remarks.

I must admit that until I received a telephone call on the evening of 19 October, I was only sketchily aware of the long and wretched story of the Chagos islands and their people. It is a shabby story of international power politics and betrayal. It is a stain on the integrity of British foreign policy. I know that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is not responsible for foreign policy, but I will argue that it now has a key responsibility for the consequences of what happened.

I do not wish to replicate the excellent speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) in Westminster Hall yesterday. The focus of this debate is on the practical problems that we face now and in the future. It is clear, however, that past Government actions led directly to the call that I received on 19 October, and to the problem that we are discussing today. It is therefore worth rehearsing those briefly.

In 1966, Harold Wilson's Government acquiesced to an American request to purchase and depopulate the British Indian Ocean Territory in order to build an airbase on the principal island of Diego Garcia. It has been suggested that, in return, Britain got a special offer on Polaris submarines. Be that as it may, the plantations were closed, and with them the island's economy. The supply ships were diverted and the majority of the islanders were exiled to a slum area of Port Louis, the capital of Mauritius. Some went to the Seychelles. Eventually, in November 2000, following an action brought by the chairman of the Chagos refugees group, the High Court ruled that the islanders had the legal right to return. Attempts to return, however, were obstructed and proved unsuccessful.

Under the British Overseas Territories Act 2002, a majority of the exiles became British citizens, allowing them to enter and reside in the United Kingdom. In 2003, about 100 destitute islanders arrived at Gatwick airport and settled in Crawley, West Sussex. It is good to see the hon. Member for Crawley (Laura Moffatt) in her place, as I know that she has wrestled with this issue for some considerable time. It is reported that the support that they have so far received from West Sussex county council has cost local taxpayers £500,000.

I have said that this is a shabby story. The latest and, perhaps, shabbiest twist of all came in June this year. On the day of the local government and European elections,
 
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when eyes were elsewhere, without notification to the House, let alone debate, the Government signed two Orders in Council, the effect of which was to overturn the High Court judgment and reimpose the legal ban on the islanders' ability to return to Diego Garcia.

This is the position: the Government have finally cut off the remaining hope of returning to the islands, and legislated to enable the islanders to come to Britain. Given that the only other choice available is to remain in Port Louis, where they claim to live in conditions of poverty, drug abuse, unemployment and prostitution, it is hardly surprising that many would prefer to make a new life in Britain. Certainly, I have no argument with their decision to do so.

Now we come to the telephone call of 19 October. It was from Councillor Mrs. Spiers, leader of Reigate and Banstead borough council. She told me that 45 islanders had arrived at Gatwick and, following a court decision that discharged West Sussex county council from an obligation to house all but the most vulnerable of them, 33 had effectively thrown themselves on the mercy of her council. They were being housed in temporary accommodation in Horley in my constituency, at a cost of some £20 per person per night. Her question was straightforward: she understood the plight of the islanders, but why should the council tax payers of Reigate and Banstead be solely responsible for footing the bill for their maintenance? That is a question that I hope the hon. Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark) will answer directly.

My expectations of a helpful response are not high. When my conversation with Councillor Mrs. Spiers had ended, and having established via the Home Office that this was not an immigration issue—on the ground that the individuals concerned were British—but a matter for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, I sent an urgent fax to the Minister for Local and Regional Government, setting out the issue and concluding:

I then provided the direct contact details of the leader and chief executive of the council.

That was on 19 October. It is now 4 November, and nobody from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has bothered to make any contact with the council. It would be helpful if the hon. Gentleman could explain why there has been no communication at all, despite that urgent request.

My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate and I visited the islanders last Friday. They have been moved into a block of sheltered flats, somewhat to the alarm of a number of elderly residents, and although their accommodation is cramped, they are being well cared for. The council deserves to be congratulated on the way that it has handled the issue. It immediately reacted with humanitarian assistance, while at the same time seeking to protect local residents from a potentially open-ended financial liability. It thus sought to discharge its moral duty to the islanders and fiduciary duty to local people.
 
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As the Minister will know, solicitors acting for the Chagossians successfully sought a judicial review of the council's decision to refuse temporary accommodation in respect of one of the applicants, on the ground that he was not habitually resident. Pending the outcome of the judicial review, the council decided to accommodate all the islanders, in order, as it said, to save the public purse from any further judicial review requests. The court determined on 1 November that the council should continue to house them until the outcome of the review of the original decision. Meanwhile, the council is assessing the islanders' entitlements under separate homelessness legislation. I am sorry if this all sounds a bit complicated, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I am afraid that it is.

The House might take the view that it was strange for the court to come to a decision that the islanders could arguably be considered to be habitual residents of the United Kingdom when they had only been here for a couple of weeks. But this decision only serves to underline the need for the Government to intervene to resolve the matter. Having looked at the full circumstances of the case and its history, Mr. Justice Moses acknowledged—and this is significant—that the real issue was the Government's need to address the problems of the islanders. He said that there were very unusual circumstances in the case, and that, in his view, a substantive case could be made that the habitual residence occurred as soon as the Chagossians arrived in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Justice Moses stated that he had great sympathy with the local authority, saying that it was certainly arguable that this was a matter not for the authority but for central Government. However, he was quite clear that, in a humane and civilised society, it was unacceptable not to provide any temporary accommodation for the islanders, as that would merely mean that they would return to Gatwick, where there were no facilities whatever. He is quoted in today's edition of the Surrey Mirror under the rather unhelpful but none the less true headline, "You foot bill for homeless Diego Garcians", saying:

Given the unique circumstances of the case, this judgment seems understandable. However, it does nothing to resolve the difficulties faced by the council, or the basic injustice of requiring my constituents, and those of my hon. Friends the Members for Reigate and for Epsom and Ewell, to foot the entire bill for housing the islanders for an undetermined period of time.

And it does not end there. While the immediate issue surrounds the 33 islanders in Horley, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that, in response to my written question, the Foreign Office stated on 1 November that


 
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My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate asked in the debate yesterday why more than 900 passports had been applied for when these people had perfectly good Mauritian travel documents of their own. It would be responsible to conclude that at least 900 people are actively considering following their compatriots to Gatwick; a further 4,100 are in a position to do so. It would be logical to expect them to want to settle close to other former islanders in the Horley and Gatwick areas. It would therefore be sensible for the Government to make plans now for this event.

I am aware that solicitors acting for the islanders are seeking an exemption from the relevant regulations so that, on arrival, they may be deemed eligible for housing and other benefits. If they are successful in this, it would certainly help the council's legal bills, but it would compound the problems that it faces in meeting the needs of the islanders from its very limited means. I am sure that I do not have to warn the hon. Gentleman of the consequences were thousands of islanders to arrive and were the cost of their maintenance to remain a local responsibility.

I am proud to say that local people have to date shown sympathy and good will towards the islanders, although I have already been asked by one homeless man why he is sleeping rough in a playing field when the islanders are not. I remind the hon. Gentleman that there are at present about 2,000 people already on the waiting list for housing in the Reigate and Banstead area. Good will can be stretched only so far. It is therefore essential that, in replying to this debate, he understands the potentially very serious nature of the issue.

As I said in yesterday's debate, the long-term solution lies with the Foreign Office, and I was pleased to hear that the Foreign Office Minister has indicated that he would consider raising the question of aid measures with the Department for International Development. However, the short-term solution lies with the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. We are seeking a solution that is fair both to the islanders and to local residents. The problem has arisen as a result of action by central Government, and it is time for central Government to shoulder their responsibilities.

The Minister may recall that a few years ago, when Surrey unexpectedly played host to General Pinochet, the county police were awarded a special one-off payment from the Home Office to help offset the exceptional security costs associated with their new temporary resident, on the ground that he was in Surrey for reasons to do with Government decisions entirely beyond Surrey's control. There is an obvious parallel in the present case.

Let me end with another quotation from the Surrey Mirror's report of the recent court hearing:

I look forward to the Minister's response to that simple request.

6.15 pm


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