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23 Apr 2009 : Column 159WH—continued

3.54 pm

Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): I am delighted that the Foreign Affairs Committee has chosen to delve into issues relating to British overseas territories. British overseas territories get a mention in Parliament very infrequently, so it is excellent that the Select Committee has done such splendid work in looking into so many issues relating to the overseas territories, for which we are ultimately responsible. I commend all members of the Committee for the work that they have done.

We do not have a huge amount of time, so I will not go through all the different issues that have already been raised. There are a number of things that I agree 100 per cent. with. I shall speak about one or two of them later, but first I would like to talk in general about the overseas territories and why we are in such a muddle when it comes to dealing with territories for which we are ultimately responsible. Why has the United Kingdom never sorted out a sensible way of arranging territories and giving them representation and proper recognition? Why is it that so long after all the countries that wanted independence were granted independence, those that remain—the British overseas territories—are left in limbo? They are not really totally British—they are not treated as though they are British and as though their people are equal to our constituents. We have so many examples of that; I shall give a couple now.

The volcanic eruption on Montserrat in 1997 devastated communities there. Many of those poor people had to come and live in Britain, rather than we in this country providing the money that they needed to rebuild their communities much more quickly. The airport that is needed on St. Helena, which no doubt the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) will speak about at length, has been put on hold. I am referring to the appalling so-called “pause” in negotiations. That is disgraceful. It is against what has been pledged by Her Majesty’s Government.

I know the Minister well; I speak to her regularly on all these issues. I know how committed she is to trying to improve the situation of the overseas territories, but to be honest, she is hamstrung because of an institutional feeling within the Foreign Office. I mean no disrespect to members of staff from the Foreign Office who are present, but there is an institutional feeling that the
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overseas territories do not matter, they are secondary, they are not that important and they can just be left. That is why we get these appalling situations such as those on Pitcairn and in the Turks and Caicos Islands. That all fits together if we think about our failure in this Parliament to work out a proper way of giving representation to British overseas territories.

There are many ideas on the subject. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), for whom I have enormous regard on this issue, spoke an enormous amount of sense and I agree with so much of what he said. He suggested, and I have suggested before, that we should have a Select Committee for overseas territories. This issue should not be under foreign affairs. They are not foreign; they are British. Why is it under foreign affairs? Why are British overseas territories—territories of Her Majesty the Queen—under the Foreign Office? They are neither foreign nor Commonwealth. They are not members of the Commonwealth in their own right. There are British overseas territories in the Commonwealth only via Britain, so they should not really be under the Foreign Office at all. They should be placed in the same Department, whichever Department that is, as the British Crown dependencies. Jersey, Guernsey, the Isle of Man and the British overseas territories should all be placed together under one Department, but not the Foreign Office.

This issue will never be solved while we treat the overseas territories as foreign. They are British, and long may they remain so. None of the British overseas territories or Crown dependencies wants independence. Bermuda possibly did, but even that seems very unlikely, if not unlikely to happen at all. So let us forget the fact that they were part of the British empire. Let us move on; let us take things forward. Let us take the British overseas territories and Crown dependencies and give them proper status—the status that they deserve.

It is shameful that loyal subjects of Her Majesty the Queen and British subjects are treated as they are, that they are not allowed to lay a wreath on Remembrance Sunday and that the flags of their territories are not flown for the trooping of the colour. We have the flag of Mozambique flown because it has joined the Commonwealth, but it has never been part of the British empire; it has never been under the British monarchy. When it comes to the Queen’s birthday parade, however, where is the flag of the Falkland Islands? Where is the flag of Gibraltar? Where are the flags of the Cayman Islands or Montserrat? Where are the flags of Crown dependencies such as Jersey, Guernsey, Isle of Man and Alderney? They are nowhere to be seen—but the flag of Mozambique is.

We insult these people. We insult them when they have disasters—as, for instance, when Hurricane Ivan hit the Cayman Islands. I went to the Cayman Islands on a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association visit in 2006, and I know how hurt those people felt. Disaster struck, and they needed our support. Where was the Navy? Was the Government offering support? The islanders received little support, if any. That is something for which we are all responsible, and we should not let such things continue.

Perhaps we should allow the British overseas territories to have elected representation in the House of Commons. Perhaps we should find a way to give them their own Members of Parliament; we would have to consider
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carefully how it could be done. Would they have their own representation, or would each territory be linked to an existing constituency? Either way, the hon. Member for Thurrock and I believe that it is wrong in the modern world that British people, for whom we have ultimate responsibility, should have no vote and no say. We can declare war on their behalf, and we can make foreign policy on their behalf. We could join the euro if we wished to—I hope that we never do—but if we did, what would happen to the Falklands pound? We make the decisions on all those matters.

We now have devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, with the clear example of Scottish MPs voting on English matters. We can therefore resolve the problem for the overseas territories; we know that they can be accommodated here because of what has happened as a result of devolution. Of course, they should not vote on issues that have no effect on them, but if it is a matter that affects the overseas territories—many things do—they should have the right to vote in this Parliament. I accept that that probably will not happen, and even if it does it is a long way off.

Why should we not have a Select Committee? Let us consider what Australia does for its small number of territories. Norfolk Island, Christmas Island and Cokos Island do not have representation as elected representatives in Canberra; instead, there is an external territories committee. Those islands can air grievances and talk about issues that matter to them; they have a voice in the Canberra Parliament. As a result, they are not disregarded. Above all, they are not treated as foreign. They are treated as being part of Australia, even though technically they are slightly separate—rather like our overseas territories and Crown dependencies. Australia and New Zealand treat their overseas territories far better than we treat ours.

A range of issues needs to be addressed. The crux of the matter is that Parliament has not been doing the right thing. Under Governments of both parties, we have sidelined the issue. No Government have a particularly proud record in that respect. The present Government brought in the British Overseas Territories Act 2002, and I applaud them for that. It was a great step forward to give British citizenship to all citizens of the overseas territories. However, it was only the first step. We need to do a great deal more to resolve matters.

The other matter that must be mentioned today is that of the Chagos islands. By any standard of democracy, of human rights and of treating people in a decent manner—however we look at it—that was wrong. It was a terrible thing to have removed those people from their homeland, to have chucked them out, taken them from where they lived and put them in a foreign place and then denied them the right ever to return.

The hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and I do not agree about much, but we certainly agree on that question. We are working together through the all-party group on the Chagos islands, because at the end of the day it is about treating people in a decent and humane way. How could anyone justify what happened to those islanders? I do not understand how any Minister could ever have justified that. We must put matters right. The Minister knows my opinion on the matter, and I have a deep suspicion that she has some sympathy with it, but the reality is that the institutional line taken by the Foreign Office can never be broken. We need to
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be truthful with ourselves; we should value the overseas territories, treat them as British and ensure that such mistakes are not repeated.

Jeremy Corbyn: The hon. Gentleman’s kind remarks are well taken—[Laughter]—with great surprise all round. He is slightly mistaken about the institutional nature of some aspects of the Foreign Office. As Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook specifically did not appeal against the 2000 judgment that gave the islanders the right to return. In a sense, the Orders in Council made in 2004 vetoed everything that had been achieved previously by legal action.

Andrew Rosindell: I bow to the hon. Gentleman’s superior knowledge.

I know that the debate has been going on for many years, and I am sad that we are no further forward—that because of the House of Lords ruling, we are still stuck in this situation. I am deeply unhappy that there seems to be some sort of unofficial agreement with Mauritius—that once America decides to leave, Mauritius will take what is properly called the British Indian Ocean Territory. That is not right.

The remaining territories of the United Kingdom—the Crown dependencies and the overseas territories come to a total of 21, although we might argue about the number—must not be forgotten. They are all British and they will all stay British; we need only to sort out the right kind of representation and how we should govern them. The one thing that must be done, the one thing that must be addressed, is to sort out where they fit within government. They should no longer come under the Foreign Office. They should be treated as British, perhaps through the Home Office or the Ministry of Justice, or even a new Department that included Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Who can tell what the Government may decide to do? However, the overseas territories should all be included under one Department, and treated as British, not as foreign. Until we get that message across, until we change our attitude and properly sort out their representation here in this Parliament, through Government or the Department that represents them—only then can we hope to solve all the other problems that have permeated down and which were mentioned in the report.

I commend the Foreign Affairs Committee for what it has achieved. I hope that this will not be our last debate on the British overseas territories. We need a regular debate on the subject. We should not have to wait for another Committee report. Let us at least have an annual debate on the subject, just as we have annual debates on Scotland and Wales. We should do the same for the British overseas territories. From now on, we should all fight to ensure that they are treated as British and not as foreign territories.

4.7 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I start by saying how much I welcome this debate. As the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) said, such a debate should be held on the Floor of the House rather than in this Chamber.

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I thank the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs for undertaking its investigation into the overseas territories, and particularly for examining the question of the British Indian Ocean Territory—the Chagos islands and Diego Garcia. I am chair of the all-party group on the Chagos islands, and I was pleased not only that the Foreign Affairs Committee undertook its investigation but that it invited Olivier Bancoult and Richard Gifford to give oral evidence to the Committee. There was a sense of democratic justice when we finally saw Olivier Bancoult giving evidence on behalf of those who were grievously wronged so long ago. I thank the Committee for that and for those two of its recommendations.

I shall speak only about the Chagos islands. They were depopulated in a rather disreputable deal done in the 1960s between the Government and the United States Administration. It was probably a trade-off for British non-participation in Vietnam and Polaris. The US wished for a base on the Chagos islands, and they were given Diego Garcia.

For reasons that have never been fully or rationally explained, US security needs apparently extend beyond the base on Diego Garcia to the entire island—and the rest of the archipelago, which is several hundred miles away. The islanders were forcibly removed. Some were enticed out on the basis of educational or medical requirements and sent to Mauritius; and some were more or less forced on to boats and taken to Mauritius, where they were simply dumped on the quayside.

A little later, compensation was rather grudgingly given, but it was insufficient and many islanders were conned out of it and have lived in terrible poverty ever since on the island of Mauritius. The former Member for Linlithgow, Tam Dalyell, took up the case on many occasions, as did the former Foreign Secretary, Robin Cook. Tam first met the islanders when he visited Mauritius and its then governor.

The issue of what we do now is very important. The Chagos islanders, having been dumped on the island of Mauritius with minimal compensation—some went to the Seychelles—stayed together as a community, which is deeply significant. It would have been very easy to give up and disappear, but they felt they had been wronged and that they had had a reasonable living on the Chagos islands—it was largely a combination of copra-growing, subsistence farming and fishing. This was an ideal. They are descendants of imported slaves and Portuguese and others who landed there, and have become an identifiable group and a community in themselves.

In staying together, they fought a legal campaign for a very long time for the right to return. On going through some papers from when I was first elected to this House, in 1983, I found that one of the earliest letters that I received was from Oliver Bancoult of the Chagos islands. With a sense of enormous justice, in 2000 they were finally granted the right of return by the High Court. It was a very significant legal victory. The right of return was enshrined in that decision, not to Diego Garcia, but to the rest of the archipelago. The then Foreign Secretary, the late Robin Cook, announced that he would not appeal against the decision and would therefore cause resettlement to become a possibility. Robin Cook had campaigned on the issue of Diego Garcia as a Labour Back-Bencher in the 1970s.

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Preparations were being made for the islanders’ return. A year later the British Overseas Territories Act came before Parliament and an amendment was put forward by Tam Dalyell, the former Member for Linlithgow, and me, to extend British citizenship to British Indian Ocean Territory citizens, even though they were no longer resident there, because they had been forcibly removed. We withdrew our amendment in the face of a complementary amendment from the Foreign Secretary, and they were duly given British citizenship. As the Select Committee correctly pointed out, however, there was an anomaly, because third-generation islanders were denied citizenship. That was pointed out at the time, but unfortunately the Foreign Office could not accommodate those concerns. I am pleased to say that the Select Committee has made that recommendation, and I hope it can be taken up.

Granting British citizenship, however, is not the same as saying that those people must be resident in Britain. They cannot return to where they came from: the British Indian Ocean Territory. In effect, they have a choice of either continuing to live in Mauritius, or coming to live in this country. The one place they cannot go is the place from which they derive their right to British citizenship—the British Indian Ocean Territory. It is an utterly absurd decision.

The preliminary feasibility study was prepared—I have a copy of this very extensive document—and discussions were under way concerning the right of return. Quite honestly, had a group of islanders simply returned between 2000 and 2004 and taken up residence—as itinerant and very wealthy yachts-people occasionally do—the British Government would either have had to not pursue the Orders in Council or, which is more likely, would not have been prepared to face the international opprobrium of once more evicting people who had every right to be there. Unfortunately, no islanders returned during that period, because they trusted the Foreign Office statements saying that they would be entitled to and allowed to return to the islands.

The Orders in Council were challenged by the excellent solicitor acting on behalf of the Chagos islanders, Richard Gifford, and the case went through the courts, all of which found that the Orders in Council were wrong in law and practice and unfair on the islanders. In the latter part of last year, however, the case went to the House of Lords, where a judgment was made, on a majority verdict, allowing the Foreign Secretary’s appeal against the High Court decision and upholding the Orders in Council. A joint statement made by Richard Gifford and Oliver Bancoult after that decision read:

What do the islanders do next? They have a right to, and will, take their case to the European Court of Human Rights, and they might well win. I am pleased that the Minister is taking this issue seriously, that she met with the all-party group on the Chagos islands and
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that she received a delegation consisting of myself and the all-party group secretary, the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George). I am also grateful to her for meeting Oliver Bancoult and a delegation of islanders, in order to understand their position, when they visited this country recently.

The Minister has a choice to make, however. She could argue that the Orders in Council were the right way forward. As a democrat, I object to all Orders in Council, but I object in particular to these ones because they are so blatantly unfair. However, going through the European judicial process would incur yet more legal costs for the Government. It would no doubt cost a great deal of money—even more than the huge legal costs incurred over the past 10 or 15 years of this sad story. Alternatively, she and the Foreign Secretary could recognise that we are simply wrong and that the islanders should not have been removed in the first place—it was immoral and deceitful. They should never have been forced to live in the desperate poverty that they have known in Mauritius. I have been to visit them there and seen the way in which they are forced to survive.

The Minister could then consider the possibility of returning the islanders. Not every islander will want to return. A number have made their homes in this country, as they are entitled and welcome to do. Most live around Crawley. I also think that we should suspend the habitual residence test, so that they can gain benefits as soon as they arrive in this country. It is a very unpleasant anomaly and has caused great misery and hardship. However, a number of them would like to make use of their right of return. The feasibility study needs to be updated, revisited and developed. I suspect that the cost of returning the islanders would be rather less than the total legal cost of pursuing the case—legal costs get awfully expensive, given the legal aid costs and the cost of the court and counsel provided by the Foreign Office.

One could also consider the ecology and sustainability of the islands. In opening this debate, the Committee Chairman correctly pointed out the pristine environmental conditions on the Chagos islands. That is very important—do not underestimate it! The Chagos Conservation Trust has done a great deal of work. One of its proposals is that there should be no settlement on the islands, and that instead, they should be preserved in a pristine national environment and used for research purposes and everything that goes with that.

I understand the argument. At one level it is very seductive, but if we consider it further we come to the old Greek problem of who guards the guards. Someone has to protect the pristine environment from illegal settlers, so people end up living in that environment to protect it from undesirables who wish to live there. Who better to protect the pristine environment than the very people who kept it in that state in the first place: the islanders themselves? It is perfectly possible to have a return to residence on the island, with a sustainable way of life and a very limited degree of visiting rights for eco-tourism and other such things. Fishing licences should be properly controlled and managed to ensure that there is no over-fishing, and that such income goes to the islands themselves rather than anywhere else. Then, we would have to some degree restored our moral standing in the world by accepting that what we did in the 1960s and 1970s was simply wrong.

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