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10 Mar 2010 : Column 76WH—continued

I hope that in his reply, the Minister will acknowledge the anger and outrage of islanders. The feasibility studies have been designed to create the aura that incredible expense and infrastructure would be required, in order to detract from the possibility of the islanders ever returning to the islands. I ask the Minister to look again
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at the issue, in particular at how the islanders have been treated and at the possibility of reaching a quick out-of-court settlement so that we can move on. We should have the marine protection zone, which would be a legacy of the British Government and Prime Minister, but that should be part of a wider settlement package that gives the islanders the right of return.

Andrew George: Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the Foreign Office has identified the exiled Chagossian community as one of the stakeholders in the consultation for the proposed marine protection zone? Is it not odd that the Foreign Office recognises them as stakeholders in the environment, but will not let them go back to it?

Jeremy Corbyn: Absolutely. The islanders do not have the right of return, but they have recognition as stakeholders who will contribute to the consultation exercise. It is a non sequitur to say that we will consult them, but do not trust them to live there. In other words, we trust their opinions, but do not trust them to look after the place should they have the right of return.

I mentioned that I attended a seminar at Royal Holloway college in January. There were 100 scientists and conservationists from around the world who had prepared various petitions and statements. Some supported the marine conservation zone and others supported it, but also wanted the rights of the islanders to be taken on board. There has been a marked reluctance by some who support the zone to acknowledge any human involvement or considerations in the matter, which I find extraordinary.

The islanders have made their case. The legal position is that Britain separated the Chagos islands from Mauritius. As I said, I believe that that was contrary to the UN General Assembly resolution of the time. There is an issue about our relations with Mauritius to be resolved. I hope that the Minister will say something about the ongoing discussions with the Mauritius Government.

The Foreign Secretary has an interest in considering this matter. I commend him for meeting the Chagossian community in this country and hope he will give the same service to the Chagossian community that lives in Mauritius on his next visit. The community in this country has lived in some poverty, as I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley will explain. They have been denied access to benefits because of the habitual residence test, which is bizarre considering that they are British citizens following an amendment that Tam Dalyell and I tabled at Committee stage of the British Overseas Territories Act 2002. I hope it will be recognised that, as British citizens and passport holders, they are entitled to the same rights as anybody else in our society.

I have mentioned several people in this debate and will conclude by recognising two people who should be acknowledged and thanked. The first is Richard Gifford, a lawyer who has shown steadfast support for the islanders' right of return over decades. He has been to Mauritius and the Seychelles on many occasions. He has led the case through all the courts and all the chicanery. Such people, who go far beyond their professional demands, should be recognised, thanked and supported. The second person is David Snoxall, the former British high commissioner to Mauritius, who,
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in retirement, has given a lot of energy and support to the Chagossian community and to the case for their right of return.

Finally, I mention again Olivier Bancoult, the chairman of the Chagos refugees group, whom I know well and have known for many years. It is remarkable that this small community, which was taken from its islands all those years ago and literally dumped in Mauritius and the Seychelles, did not spread asunder over the world, go to the four winds and disappear as an entity, but has stayed together and campaigned and petitioned together. There was a great sense that justice had been achieved in 2000, when the High Court in Britain gave the islanders the right of return. It is up to us to follow that through.

Olivier sent me an e-mail that said:

I know the Foreign Secretary met Allen Vincatassin, who is one of the prominent people in the Chagos community in Crawley, but he should also meet Olivier and his group when he next visits Mauritius. We have a chance to do something good: withdraw the case from the European Court of Human Rights, reach a settlement, allow the islanders to return, and protect the environment and the pristine marine life there by letting the islanders themselves look after it. We can right a wrong; we can correct an injustice. Apologies and catharsis are a good thing, but one has to go the whole way and finish the case by allowing the islanders to return. I hope the Minister can give us some good news when he replies to the debate.

10 am

Laura Moffatt (Crawley) (Lab): I am delighted to take part in the debate and I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing it. This important subject requires proper consideration. In Parliament, when we talk about overseas issues that have a direct impact on our streets in the UK, this matter must be at the top of the agenda.

Most of us who have grown up understanding the injustice that has taken place and how islanders were treated like cattle and removed to Mauritius and the Seychelles have a great sense of the wrong that has been done. Those people were subsequently given access to a British passport and turned up in the centre of a town virtually destitute, with just a great sense of hope to see them through. The system let them down in many ways and they needed to be supported, helped and guided through very difficult early days, so it is inspirational to look at that community now.

That sense of inspiration comes from watching a community establish itself in the UK and making sure that it is part of what we are-our fabric-through, for example, participation in the voluntary sector. It is very special to realise that the children of that community are doing extremely well at school and that its first students have gone to university. We need to congratulate that community on establishing itself in such a way. However, those people are not the only Chagos islanders whom we need to consider. Many others have, for whatever reason, not been able to make that move, and their views must be considered.

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This matter has given rise to hugely diverse views, which are deeply and passionately held. We sometimes become over-excited if we hear someone saying something that does not accord with our particular view, but it is right and proper that I should articulate the views of the islanders who have settled in Crawley. I have very close contact with those people, and I spend a great deal of time listening to the issues that have become a running sore for them. The work to secure visits to the island has been tremendous for the community-not only for the two groups of six that were able to visit the islands and come back with their reports of that pristine environment, which I understand everyone wants to protect, but for those who could not travel, as they attended presentations to see the beautiful pictures.

That, however, is not good enough. No one can survive on a dream that existed decades ago. For the community, creating contact between the islands and those who have been removed-who may still be in Mauritius and the Seychelles or in the United Kingdom-is vital. I firmly believe that people must have a choice about the right of return. That is the cornerstone of all the work that has taken place, but it does not mean that everyone will wish to return, and we need to make that very clear.

When the court cases were under way, many people who had settled from the islands came to see me to say, "It doesn't mean that I'll have to go back, does it?" They felt there was a sense of compulsion about the matter. It is important that the sense of the right of return remains, and that it is achieved. How that is managed is the big issue we are debating today, which can often become a little overheated.

Andrew George: The hon. Lady introduced part of her speech by saying that there are diverse views. Does she not accept that, in fact, she is describing two views? One view is that those Chagossians who choose to do so should have the right of return and resettlement; another view is that they should be denied that right. There are just two views, not a diversity of views.

Laura Moffatt: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I absolutely disagree, mainly because I have heard many more than two views. It is impossible to state that the right of return is just a basic right of return. There are many permutations of the right of return and the way in which that is managed is crucial. Some people say that the right of return should be run through some sort of trust and that those who hail from particular islands should have complete control of that. The big issue-where there is great difficulty-is that some people do not believe that Mauritius should have sovereignty over the islands. If that is part of the package, it will never satisfy that group. That is why we need to have a debate between the communities as well.

Jeremy Corbyn: I have two points to make. First, it was very traumatic to watch the film made by the 100 people who went on a visit to the islands. Secondly, does my hon. Friend acknowledge that it is possible to separate the issue of the future sovereignty of the islands from that of the right of return, which is what we are currently pursuing through the courts? It is important that we consider both matters in order, rather than necessarily as part of one package.

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Laura Moffatt: I respect and understand my hon. Friend's view, but the trouble is that some of the issues are often linked to another given. For some of the islanders, the given seems to be that sovereignty will be transferred to Mauritius to allow the right of return, and that is where they have a huge difficulty. We need to try to separate out these matters. I utterly agree that if we start from the basic right of return and look at the overlying issues, many of those will relate to the differences between those who come from different islands. I am constantly amazed by the differing views, which depend on the island from which someone hails. The Diego Garcian community has a different view, for example, from islanders from Peros Banhos. I have no doubt that that will continue because it is human nature, but politicians need to be mindful lest they just bundle up the islanders and assume that they have a single opinion. It is untrue that there is one single viewpoint, and we need to take proper account of that.

We are faced with a community that, after a sticky start, is doing extremely well in the United Kingdom. One of the sickest sights I have ever seen was that of honourable and decent people sitting outside the offices of social services because they were being denied basic benefits, and seeing other people, in effect, campaigning against British passport holders. That made me determined to support the Chagossian community in any way I could. I sincerely believed any investment made through social services in that community at that early stage would be repaid, and it is being repaid in spades.

The islanders have become part of our cultural history and part of the community, participating in different events and sharing with us a rich culture of music and dance. It is a bright and intelligent community that has contributed to Crawley, so much so that it is easy to be sucked into the sense of optimism that grew out of a very difficult start. Indeed, Alex Morrison, one of the reporters from our local newspaper, the Crawley News, now volunteers with the group to help them publicise their events. Many people have taken the community into their hearts.

A film crew is now producing a film about Crawley as a town of immigration, called "The Road to Crawley", as it is a place where different groups of people have come to live over the years, since the 1960s, and we are now a diverse town. All those groups that have contributed to our town are being filmed, and the last group to be filmed is the most recent one to have entered Crawley in significant numbers, and is made up of people from the islands. They have become part of the fabric of the town, and we accept that there is a new group contributing to our lives.

People in Crawley understand that that community is self-sufficient and ambitious, both for themselves and their children. They still encounter huge difficulties with language and with having to learn a completely new way of life, but they are determined to overcome them. In addition, they are still concerned about what will happen to their islands, which they care about, and the families who have been left in Mauritius.

There is a big concern about visas, and I would be interested to hear the Minister comment on that. It is okay to grant someone from the islands a British passport, but if they have been living in Mauritius the likelihood that they will marry someone from Mauritius is high, and they would then have all the difficulties relating to
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access and the ability to live as a family. That issue is still causing concern and upset among those who have left the islands. I believe that that needs to be sorted out as a debt of honour-I know that that word has been used before in the debate, but I firmly believe that it is the right terminology for the response to that group of people.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North is right that the Diego Garcian Society met the Foreign Secretary last week, but it was not the only group to meet him to discuss the matter. The Chagos islands groups also met him, which was important, because we need to widen participation and hear all the views. One would think that there were only two views if one listened to only two groups, but there is actually a multiplicity of responses to the cruel effect of removing people from their homeland and forcing them to create a new lifestyle for themselves, which the islanders have done first in Mauritius and now in the UK. I keep saying it because I mean it: that is a group of people I greatly admire for the way in which they have managed their lives.

With regard to the marine protection zone, no one could argue that it does not stem from the highest ideal. I have seen photographs of those fantastic islands and their pristine beaches, although ground is being lost to the Indian ocean, so global warming has clearly had a huge effect on the islands. They have some fantastic and rare wildlife, such as tree frogs, which I had never seen before, and beautiful turtles in crystal-clear waters. Part of the reason for that is that no one is allowed to go there. One of the pictures shows a sign stating that absolutely no fishing and no trespassing on the beach are allowed. Those environments have been preserved as a result of removing a community.

How then do we allow a degree of involvement by the community in the future of the islands without spoiling that? I can see that there is a purist view, which I think the Chagos Environment Network holds, and I understand completely where it is coming from. When I received a letter on the matter, I was concerned that there was not even one name on the list of those campaigning for the marine protection zone, and I wrote back to say so. I have been reassured that more consultations are under way with islanders, but I was disappointed that that did not involve those communities from the start. In a sense, the environment must be preserved in aspic, without anyone being able to take part in activities, such as fishing, that might benefit the community.

Once again, we need to be clear about the community and who we are going to consult. It is like motherhood and apple pie to say that one must involve the local community, but who will those people be? Will it be the Government of Mauritius or just the islanders from the area where the marine park will be established, or will we have a wider consultation? That is why it was important that the Diego Garcian Society organised its own ballot so that it could contribute to the debate. I was delighted to be able to assist by getting a ballot box and ensuring that the ballot was conducted correctly so that people could have their say on the consultation in November.

There are many unanswered questions, and not one of them can be settled in just one debate, although I believe that today we have a good opportunity to have a
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gentle look at the matter so as not to get to the point at which people are driven to take positions that might be difficult to get out of. I am a huge supporter of the Government, but at times I cringe and wonder why we are continuing to cause difficulties through the courts. Half of me understands that it is about trying to protect a position, but at times I believe that we need to look more creatively at how we establish the rights of those islanders, particularly before 2014, when we will have to give a definitive response before the Americans decide what they want to do with Diego Garcia in 2016. We have some time to have those negotiations with all those people, to respect the myriad views on the matter and to settle it once and for all.

We must ensure that the British Government hold their head up, because I firmly believe that they have dealt with the matter decently and honestly. However, I think that the legal issue is really making mischief among those who are trying to find a solution. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has treated the community in Crawley with nothing but dignity and has offered help, advice and support. It would be difficult to argue anything else. Whenever we have requested meetings and visits, they have been granted. The time that those people arrived on the islands on a small fishing boat was a moment they will never forget, and I was pleased that women went along on the second visit, because the first one was an all-male event. Those visits have enlivened the interest of the community in Crawley and ensured that they have a sense of history and of where they come from.

I can only speak for the community that I know and greatly appreciate in Crawley, so I will conclude my remarks by stating that it would wish those islands to remain under the protection of the United Kingdom. For that community, any other discussion is extremely difficult, so now we see just how difficult the subject is.

10.19 am

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): I congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Jeremy Corbyn) on securing this debate. As other Members of the House know, he has been a passionate campaigner on this issue for many years, and today he set out the case using his great knowledge of the subject in a powerful speech. I struggled to find anything in it with which I disagreed.

I reiterate my support and that of many in my party for the Chagos islanders' campaign to be allowed to return to the outer Chagos islands. On 23 April 2009, we had a debate in this Chamber on the overseas territories, when I and other hon. Members noted that the Foreign Affairs Committee's seventh report of Session 2007-08 concluded that there is "a strong moral case" for allowing the Chagossians to return. I stand by my statement then that the Government have acted shamefully in preventing them from returning.

I also had an opportunity to raise the issue last month in a European Committee debate that covered a wide range of issues, and at that time the Minister for Europe was firm in his disagreement. I am hopeful that we may get a slightly more positive response from this Minister.

In October 2008, the House of Lords ruled that the Government had acted legally when they issued two
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Orders in Council forbidding the Chagos islanders from returning to the outer Chagos islands. The ruling was based on a series of statutes in British law which state:

regardless of whether its actions are

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