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Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con):
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) for allowing me to make a brief
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contribution, and for his kind words about my debate with the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for Harlow (Mr. Rammell) yesterday.
Yesterday's reply was extremely disappointing. It did not suggest that the Government were treating the issue with the seriousness and immediacy that it requires. It is a consequence of the Government's Orders in Council, presented in June, that we now face what is potentially an increasingly difficult challenge for local authorities. It is very important for the services required for these people to be established in Mauritius and the Seychelles before they come to the United Kingdombut if the Government are not going to do that, they really must offer assistance to the local authorities that have to host the people.
There is a clear need for joined-up government. If the hon. Member for Gillingham has nothing to offer local authorities this evening, as the Under-Secretary had nothing to offer the people of Diego Garcia and the rest of the Chagos islands yesterday, I must tell him that this will certainly not be the last he has heard of the matter.
The Government are well aware of the importance of the issues facing local authorities as a result of the arrival of a number of Chagossians in Britain. I hope that following my response the hon. Gentleman, and the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), will appreciate the importance that we attach to this, and will also take account of the resources that have been and are available and of other issues arising from the case.
Because there was clearly a very good debate in Westminster Hall yesterday, and because my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs responded to it, I do not want to go into details of the history at great length; but following what the hon. Member for East Surrey has said, I want to put one or two things on record.
The Chagos islands were part of the dependency of Mauritius, and continue to be administered under that scheme. On achieving independence in 1968, with the agreement of the Mauritius Council of Ministers they were detached to form part of the British Indian Ocean Territory, which was rightly created to meet the defence needs of the United States and Britain. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will know that the plantations to which he referred were ceasing to be economically viable at the time. For that reason as well as for defence reasons, it was decided that the islanders should be removed. That happened in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
The vast majority of the islanders, some 1,200, were relocated to Mauritius, although some went to the Seychelles. They automatically acquired either Mauritian or Seychelles citizenship when those countries achieved independence, and they retained their status as citizens of the United Kingdom and the colonies. Entirely correctly, under the British Overseas Territories Act 2002 they were given the additional status of full British citizenship. That carries the right of abode in the United Kingdom, and as we know and the hon. Gentleman mentioned, some have taken up that
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opportunity. Of course, that also gives them freedom of access to other European countries, but the suggestion that the Orders in Council may have been used in an underhand way is incorrect. The hon. Gentleman will be well aware that it is common practice to deal with such decisions through the use of Orders in Council when amending the constitution of an overseas territory, so nothing different was done in that regard. In addition, some of the islanders were in fact seeking British citizenship before the Orders in Council were put in place. They continue to apply for such citizenship, as we know.
Any Chagossian applying for a British passport at our high commission in Mauritius receives clear guidance on what to expect if they travel to the UK. This guidancein the form of a leaflet in English and Creole that is placed in each passportstresses that it is their responsibility to ensure before travelling that they have the necessary resources, or that they can rely on friends or family who are already here.
"Those Chagossians who are British citizens are of course free to go the United Kingdom if they wish. However, as you know, those that do exercise this right cannot expect more favourable treatment than any other British citizen going to the United Kingdom from abroad and, just like any other British citizen, they have to fulfil the normal conditions of entitlement and habitual residence before qualifying for social security benefits etc. These entitlements are clearly set out in the leaflet which accompanies each new passport issued to members of your community by the British High Commission passport section."
Paul Clark: We have a duty and a responsibility to ensure that we communicate clearly to such people their position and rights, to the extent that they prevail. We are making it clear through the issuing of that letter that those who seek to come here as British citizens have no automatic right to accommodation or benefits. As I understand it, that letter was given wide coverage in the Mauritian press. Such information is also given to every new applicant for a British passport, including the 900 people who recently applied, to whom the hon. Gentleman referred.
Paul Clark: Nothing has gone wrong with the logic. What we have to understand is the legal responsibilities and the legalities of the process of becoming a British citizen, and the rights to which that entitles individuals. I will deal in due course with homelessness, local authorities and the resources available.
I turn to the Reigate and Banstead case. I listened very carefully to what was said about the number of such people who could come to this country. That is an issue,
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but we have to deal with the facts. It was suggested that thousands could come, but the fact that 900 people have applied for passports does not mean that all will come here to seek accommodation and resources; it is not necessary to follow that logic. Small groups of Chagossians have made their way to the UK. The most recent group, of some 43, arrived at Gatwick airport at the beginning of October. I have said very clearly that they are welcome to be here in the UK, but we have also made it clear that they are expected to support and accommodate themselves when they arrive. Income-related benefits and local authority housing are generally not available to persons from abroad, including British citizens, who are not habitually resident in the UK.
In the case of the most recent arrivals, I understand that they were all accommodated by West Sussex county council for a temporary period while care assessments were made under the National Assistance Act 1948. I believe that the county council is continuing to accommodate a small number of them. Most of the Chagossians were subsequently required to leave the hotel accommodation provided by West Sussex council, and it seems that the next port of call for them was the housing authority. Accommodation was provided by West Sussex in Horley, in the hon. Gentleman's constituency in the district of Reigate and Banstead borough council. About 31 applications have now been made under the homelessness legislation.
We must recognise that homelessness legislation is there to protect all people who are genuinely homeless or claim to be genuinely homeless. That is why I laid out clearly what our High Commission says to British citizens about what they can expect. When they are here, they then fall under the provisions of the homelessness legislation, which provides an important safety net for vulnerable people who find themselves facing a housing crisis.
Where specified criteria are metthat is, that applicants are eligible for assistance, have become homeless through no fault of their own and fall within a priority need groupthe local housing authority must ensure that suitable accommodation is available until a settled home can be found. Lesser duties apply in cases where homelessness is intentional or where the applicant does not have a priority need for accommodation. Those categories are defined in the legislation.
I understand that the decision by Reigate and Banstead, in all the cases concerning the Chagossian arrivals, was that the applicants were ineligible for housing assistance because they were persons from abroad who were not habitually resident in the UK, or the wider area including the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man. I am sure that all hon. Members would agree that it is important for proper decisions to be made concerning homeless applications, and would understand why safeguards are built into the legislation.
Applicants have the right to ask the local authority internally to review a decision that they are ineligible for assistance, and I understand that the Chagos islanders have exercised that right with the Reigate and Banstead borough council. As a further safeguard, the legislation also gives local housing authorities a discretionary power to accommodate applicants while they carry out
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a review. Reigate and Banstead council originally decided not to exercise its power to provide applicants with accommodation, pending an internal review. There has also been a review of the High Court proceedings, to which the hon. Gentleman referred.
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