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We have formed an all-party group on the Chagos islands. We have a considerable, all-party membership—as we are obviously required to do—and it is very enthusiastic. Something that brings together both me and the hon. Member for Romford must have some kudos. The group is determined to pursue the issue all the way through.

The UN Human Rights Council has considered the issue, focusing on discrimination, the treatment of indigenous people and the question of international law. On all those reckonings, Britain is on the wrong side in its treatment of the Chagos islanders. Let us let justice be done, allow the islanders to return and recognise that what we did was an historical wrong. If we make the apology, as we frequently do, let us then carry it through by righting the wrong and allowing the return to take place. I thank the Select Committee for having the time and courage to undertake such a study and to welcome the witnesses who gave evidence. I look forward to its continuing to be active and supportive on this issue.

4.22 pm

Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): It is not only the Chagos islanders who feel betrayed by the Government. I endorse all the points made by the previous speakers, and I congratulate the Foreign Affairs Committee on its excellent report.

I want to concentrate purely on the island of St. Helena, which was under the flag of England before the Union of Scotland and England. The islanders are proud British subjects and I endorse the points made by the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) in that regard. There is a sense of betrayal and disbelief that their Government, after all the promises, should, at a relatively late stage, pull the plug on the airport. As the Chairman of the Select Committee pointed out, the project was agreed in September. Work was due to start when news came through of the pause, which is now more than a pause; it is an exceptionally long delay. It may be more than a delay.

Paragraph 342 of the Overseas Territories report states:

I am chairman of the all-party parliamentary Island of St. Helena group. The patron saint of Colchester is St. Helena—same spelling, different pronunciation. My wife, myself and our three children were all taught at St. Helena school in Colchester. That is the connection. Moreover, I have visited the island, which is more than any Minister has done at any stage in the 450 years that it has been under the Crown of England or Britain. The island was discovered by the Portuguese, but the English, being the English, found it subsequently and thought it would be better off under English and then British jurisdiction.

The islanders are a very proud people. There is a sense of disbelief and outrage at the way in which events have unfolded. The island is one of only three territories that are dependent on British aid. All the evidence points to the fact that the airport would quickly transform the island from being a net recipient of aid to being self-sufficient within a decade. Doing nothing is the Government’s option C, and it is a very expensive
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option. Incidentally, I hope that the Committee will make a robust response to the consultation, stressing the valid points that have been made.

Although no Minister has ever visited the island, royalty has, as have various Members of Parliament. I find it remarkable that no Minister has thought it necessary to visit St. Helena. After all, Napoleon went there. One of the reasons why an airport would be very popular is that it would attract tourists from France as well as from this country and around the world. It is interesting, therefore, that no British Minister has been there.

It is worth contrasting St. Helena with the Falkland Islands in the south Atlantic. What a great pity that the Argentines did not invade St. Helena at the same time. Since the invasion, hundreds of millions of pounds have been invested in the Falkland Islands, but not in St. Helena. I am bound to observe that the resident population of the Falkland Islands, which is half the number of St. Helena, is predominantly, if not exclusively, white. The population of St. Helena is predominantly non-white. We have economic apartheid by this Government in two islands in the south Atlantic.

Following on from the points made by the hon. Members for Romford and for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) about the laying of wreaths, there are many young people from the island of St. Helena who serve in Her Majesty’s armed forces. During the Falklands war, the islanders of St. Helena readily gave up the Royal Mail ship St. Helena, which was the only means of access to their island, so that it could sail to its fellow south Atlantic islands to assist in their liberation.

To the lasting shame of successive Governments, those who served on the RMS St. Helena have been denied the south Atlantic medal on the spurious grounds that the vessel was not in the exclusion zone for long enough. That is not their fault. They volunteered, they went down and were kept out of the exclusion zone. They should have had that medal; they should have had it 25 years ago. It is an absolute disgrace. It is small things such as that which cause outrage. We are talking here of three dozen medals. Surely, for goodness’ sake, the British Government can give recognition, even after all these years, to people who went to help the British flag, the British Army, the British people, the British Navy, the British Air Force to liberate British people in the Falklands?

Option C in the consultation document—the do-nothing option—talks about providing alternative means either to keep the Royal Mail ship St. Helena going or chartering separate passenger and freight vessels, which will cost £20 million to £30 million. I am not sure whether that is per year or in total; it is a bit ambiguous. There are contradictions in the document: it states that the airport will cost £300 million or more, yet option A, on the front page, states that the approximate cost will be between £230 million and £260 million in the next five years. Even within this one document, the Government cannot keep to the same financial story.

The cost of subsidy in the next five years will be in the region of £100 million to £125 million. An airport would transform the island not only from being dependent on the British taxpayer so that it would be self-sufficient, but so that it would generate income of anything up to
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£33 million. The simple sums are that in five years, the island’s self-sufficiency would pay for the cost of the airport. We could take the pessimistic view that it could take eight to 10 years, but we would at least have begun to move in the direction of self-sufficiency. None the less, within a maximum of 10 years, the construction of an airport on the island of St. Helena would make it self-sufficient so that it no longer required economic support from the mother country.

Incidentally, there was some confusion in the debate about the number of overseas territories. According to the Committee’s report there are 14, but we could include the two dependencies of St. Helena, namely Ascension Island and Tristan da Cunha. I hope that 16 would be the definitive measure.

Over the years, I have developed quite a file of parliamentary questions and reports of debates on the matter. In answer to a question I tabled as recently as 27 March, I was told that in the past 10 years, the total subsidy from the British taxpayer to St. Helena has been nearly £120 million. For the next four or five years, as I indicated, the subsidy will be between £100 and £125 million. One assumes that, over 10 years, that sum will double. What an extraordinary coincidence that the subsidy over 10 years is in the same ballpark as the cost of constructing the airport.

The population of St. Helena—this is borne out in the evidence taken by the Committee—is lopsided. The economic generators—the mums and dads—are departing from the island, leaving their children behind with aunts, uncles or grandparents, while they go and sustain Britain’s interests on Ascension Island, in the Falklands or, sometimes, in the UK, because the incomes that can be paid on St. Helena are considerably less. When I went to St. Helena—admittedly, it was 10 years ago—one of the two police sergeants was just about to leave the island to work in the Falklands. He could earn more money as a toilet cleaner there than as a police sergeant on St. Helena. It cannot be right that because people in the Falklands earn far more, the population of St. Helena is made up of the elderly and young.

I will not go into the details of the report because time is pressing, but they are illuminating. I am more than happy to share my file with the Minister—I suspect that it is greater than her briefing because the material in it goes back many years.

The do-nothing option—option C—would create a serious concern about the serviceability of the current RMS St. Helena. The case for the airport is set out clearly in early-day motion 1113. There can be no moral justification for not accepting its argument. Without St. Helena, the British empire in India could not have gone ahead as it did. With the opening of the Suez canal, St. Helena’s importance for the Indian subcontinent was no longer paramount, but the island was still crucial for the British empire in Africa. The island has been of more importance and for many more years than the Falkland Islands, which have been important only relatively recently.

If the Government spent on St. Helena just a tiny proportion of the money that they spend on the Falklands, it would transform the island, the population of which are the most deprived loyal British subjects in the world, into self-sufficiency. That could happen within a decade of the airport’s being built. Equally importantly, it
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would mean that the island’s population could be all-embracing in that it would no longer be made up predominantly of the young and elderly.

The Government have betrayed the people of St. Helena. What makes the situation even worse is that, until September, there was a hope and a belief that the Government were genuine, but they broke their word because, they said, of the changing world economic situation. There is no denying that there is a changing economic situation, but the construction of the airport would mean that St. Helena would not be dependent on British overseas aid. The economic argument is powerful and the moral argument is overpowering. I therefore urge the Government to take seriously what the Committee said and to do the right thing. They should build the airport without further delay.

4.37 pm

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I congratulate the Committee on producing such a well researched and well thought through report. It is clearly the product of a significant number of hours in evidence sessions both in Westminster and in far-flung locations in the middle of oceans around the world. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) on introducing the debate.

Obviously, almost by definition, the debate has been wide-ranging. This is perhaps the first time that I have seen direct Government action as a result of a Select Committee report. Often Select Committees are influential on the Government and, over time, Governments might eventually adopt some of their recommendations. However, in this case the Government launched an inquiry into the Turks and Caicos Islands within days of the publication of the report, which speaks volumes about the standard of the work and the level of the evidence that was submitted. Even if it has not been acknowledged by the FCO, which could change today, others in House see its value.

The overseas territories are varied and face different challenges. In meetings that I have had with representatives of some of them, I have been struck by how different life is in a small island community, with perhaps only a few thousand other people. Although family life can go on as normal, there are some challenges when it comes to the governance of such small areas—the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) said that some territories are as small as a council ward. Indeed, the remoteness of many of the territories offers challenges to some of the things that we might take for granted, such as secondary, further or higher education. Rather than going to university a couple of hundred miles from home as people in this country might, people could end up flying halfway round the world. British citizens living in the territories face specific challenges, and it is right that the House should address them.

We have heard a range of excellent speeches from hon. Members of all parties. It is a particular pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Colchester (Bob Russell), who made a compelling case for the airport to proceed without delay in St. Helena. By an interesting coincidence, St. Helena is the patron saint of Colchester.

As the report is large, I will focus my remarks on a few key issues: Diego Garcia, tax havens, the environment and witness protection. However, a couple of other
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points have been made. Recommendation 23, which deals with equality of gender and sexual orientation, has been mentioned by various Members. When one reads it, one suddenly thinks, “Hang on a second. These are British territories.” One would assume that such basic provisions for equality of gender and sexual orientation exist, so it is staggering to read not only that they do not exist but that there has been some hesitation and reluctance to adopt them, to the extent that in the Caribbean, the Government themselves have had to introduce legislation on equality of sexual orientation. It needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. As was mentioned in an earlier intervention, it is surely an issue of basic human rights, and the Government have a responsibility to act in their own territory.

Another small but important and symbolic issue, raised in recommendation 15, is the laying of wreaths at the Cenotaph. It seems absolutely nonsensical if a territory wants to lay a wreath that it should not be allowed to do so. We do not want to force them, and if they would rather it is generally done on their behalf, that should be okay, but I fail to see what the problem is and why it cannot be dealt with swiftly by the Government saying, “Yes, absolutely. We will change the procedures, and that will happen from this coming November.”

Recommendation 21 relates to freedom of information legislation and encouraging overseas territories to adopt it. I welcome the Committee’s recommendation. I am a firm believer in freedom of information legislation. It is good that the Government introduced it. I believe that the legislation introduced in Scotland is superior and enables more accountability, but it is a start. We have already seen it used to create more transparency within Government, which can only be a good thing. I welcome the Government’s response, which says that they will encourage overseas territories to adopt such legislation. I welcome the Minister’s comments on how and how often that encouragement will take place.

There are two related issues on Diego Garcia. First, on extraordinary rendition, it is right that the report should deplore the use of that UK territory as a refuelling stop for extraordinary renditions and, as reports would have us believe, as a CIA black site for interrogation of suspects. There is significant evidence to suggest that that has occurred. A Council of Europe report concluded in June 2007 that

That is quite a damning conclusion. The word “processing” is one of the most appalling euphemisms that I have come across, considering the torture that lies behind it. Clearly, just receiving assurances from the United States is not good enough. It is not good enough for the House or for the constituents whom we represent, particularly when it is viewed in the context of previous assurances from the United States that no extraordinary rendition flights passed through or refuelled in UK territory, when the US said subsequently that two had done so.

Although it is welcome that the Foreign Affairs Committee will be conducting an inquiry into torture complicity allegations—my party has long called for an
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independent inquiry into the matter—a Select Committee inquiry should not be the only thing happening. It should not just be left to a Select Committee. The UK Government themselves ought to be investigating the allegations in detail, not just relying on the US. As we have seen, the US has been seen not to tell us the entire truth about the matter on at least one occasion.

It is good news that the Foreign Secretary has said that he will co-operate fully with the new Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry, as it is regrettable that he refused to appear before the Joint Committee on Human Rights to discuss the issues during its inquiry earlier last year. It will be helpful for him to appear. I am sure that Select Committee members will be robust in their questioning.

In January, the new US President, for whom we all have such hopes, announced plans to close down the black sites that we suspect might be operating on Diego Garcia. It will be interesting to see how that progresses. I hope that the Minister will do all that she can to encourage that process around the world, particularly in UK territories.

The Chagos islanders are the other big, controversial issue on Diego Garcia. This debate has included various eloquent contributions on the matter from my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) and from members of the all-party group, the hon. Members for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) and for Romford (Andrew Rosindell). The report says that there is a strong moral case for the return of the islanders. I fail to see how anybody could argue seriously against that moral imperative. The Government have behaved pretty shamefully in the matter.

The great and, sadly, late Robin Cook, when he was Foreign Secretary, promised that he would not appeal the Court of Appeal’s decision, but we now find in the report that at least £2 million in taxpayers’ money has been spent on appeals. Clearly, the Foreign Office needs to put its hands up, say “We got this wrong” and act accordingly. The reasons why the Chagossians cannot return seem patchy. Security is one of the main reasons given, but the place where they want to settle is about 135 miles from the US naval base. Any boat can pass freely within three miles of Diego Garcia. If someone can moor their yacht there without being seen as a security threat, why are people a threat who just want to return to their homeland and live an ordinary life? I hope that the Minister will have happy news on that issue, but I will not hold my breath for it in this debate.

Financial issues are of huge importance in the territories. The report focuses strongly on money laundering, although a lot of recent political attention has focused on tax avoidance. Our Prime Minister is enjoying grandstanding on financial issues on the international stage, but we need to get our own house in order when it comes to tax avoidance.

The right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling put it incredibly well when he pointed out that at the G20, seven British territories were named and shamed in the OECD’s list of countries that have not agreed to or implemented its international tax standards. That is an appalling situation, and it should not be tolerated, particularly in some of those territories where the UK is directly responsible for financial regulation. In some territories there is absolutely no barrier to reform, as
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the Government are in a position to implement it, and in other areas, pressure must be applied to ensure that we live up to international standards. The allegations in the report that the FCO was being complacent are supported by evidence. If several of our territories are still on the grey list, the action that is required has certainly not been taken.

It is important for the FCO, in collaboration with the Governors of the territories, to consider how to develop their economies in other ways. We must recognise that the revenue and income from financial services has formed a large part of the economy in many territories. Moving away from tax avoidance would have an impact on their economies. Support will therefore be needed to develop economic avenues that are less shady and internationally embarrassing.

In its report, the Foreign Affairs Committee considered reports from the Environmental Audit Committee, on which I serve. I am pleased that it agreed with the recommendations of our two reports on biodiversity and the environmental legacy and resources of flora and fauna in the territories. Many of the territories are remote places with unique and fragile ecosystems. Since the report was published, the Environmental Audit Committee has published a further report on biodiversity. Unfortunately, our record and our progress are not much better in ensuring that the biodiversity in those areas is not lost at an alarming rate. There are many endangered species to be considered. This is therefore an issue of great concern.

The Government response helpfully stated that there is an interdepartmental ministerial group on biodiversity. When the Environmental Audit Committee considered the issue, it appeared that that group did not have a great track record for meeting or acting. The response said that the next meeting of that group would

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