[Mr Clive Betts in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered Government policy on the British Indian Ocean Territory and Chagos Islands.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I rise to address the House as chairman of the Chagos Islands British Indian Ocean Territory all-party parliamentary group, a role I gladly accepted exactly one year ago when I took over from my predecessor, the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn), when he became Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition. He founded the group back in 2008, having championed the cause of justice for the Chagossian people since his election to Parliament in 1983. Today I am proud to follow his good work at such a crucial point, with a decision being made on resettlement, so we understand, in the very near future.
I say to the Minister and to the whole House that, before the end of 2016, the United Kingdom has a duty to put right this great wrong. It is a wrong that has failed to be resolved by every UK Government for more than half a century. Now is the moment to end the years of shame and bring justice and dignity, which the Chagossian people so rightly deserve. Today, the Chagos BIOT all-party parliamentary group includes 47 Members representing all 10 political parties in Westminster, as well as House of Lords Cross Benchers. I speak on behalf of the broadest possible spectrum of politicians as well as many in the general public, media and international community, all of whom seek justice for the Chagossian people.
BIOT and Chagos islands policy has been debated in both Houses since the 1970s. The most recent debate was a year ago in this very Chamber, led by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan), and there has been a steady flow of interventions and parliamentary questions from Members on both sides of the House. Fifty-one years after the creation of the British Indian Ocean Territory and 49 years since the expulsion of the Chagossians began, this must surely be one of the longest periods of exile in the history of the world.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and congratulate him on this important debate. He mentioned that it is a pivotal time in this saga. He may well come to this point, but does he agree that the Anglo-US agreement gives a big opportunity to secure some additional rights for the Chagossians—for example, perhaps more Chagossians can be employed on the US air base at Diego Garcia?
I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, which was absolutely to the point. As a former Minister for the British overseas territories, my hon. Friend knows only too well that those possibilities exist. As he rightly said, I will come to those points later, but I thank him for his support over many years for the Chagossian cause.
The whole House will be grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this issue, and he has rightly pointed out the all-party support that there is. Given the enormous amount of money—millions of pounds—spent by the Government in resisting resettlement initiatives, does he agree that the only serious issues now are conservation and resettlement, where there does not seem to be a major problem, the Americans, where there does not seem to be a major problem, and economic existence? If some of the money spent on resisting their claims had been spent on resettlement, we would have had the pilot resettlement and would know how much further we can go.
My hon. Friend makes a superb point. He is completely right: had previous Governments addressed that long ago, we would not be in this very unfortunate position today. It only takes common sense to realise that this could have been resolved a long time ago, and that the money spent has been a huge waste. The appalling record that we have left in not dealing with this when it should have been dealt with has left many of us feeling very sad. That is why we hope that, today, we will get some indication of whether the Government will now resolve the matter once and for all.
Hope for a resolution came in November 2000 following the High Court judgment and the decision of the then Foreign Secretary, the late Robin Cook, who restored the right to return to the outer islands. That remained the case until that right was withdrawn in June 2004 by Order in Council—thus overturning the High Court and bypassing Parliament. Then, nearly four years ago, as Foreign Secretary, William Hague announced a review of the policy, the results of which are still awaited. The Government now state that they intend to make a decision on resettlement before the Christmas recess this year, so today I will focus on why the decision should be in favour of resettlement and on the consequences of not doing so.
The expulsion of the Chagossian people from their homeland remains a blot on the UK’s human rights record, and a breach of international human rights law and, many would argue, of Magna Carta itself, the very basis of our cherished liberties. As long as this situation prevails, I believe the United Kingdom remains guilty of double standards. How can Her Majesty’s Government argue that the people of the British overseas territories of Gibraltar or the Falkland Islands should have the right to remain living peacefully in their homelands and their right of self-determination, and be prepared to use the British armed forces to defend their rights, yet at the same time refuse to accept that the exact same principle applies to the Chagossian people of the British Indian Ocean Territory who, despite their forced removal from their island home, have remained loyal subjects of the Crown throughout and cherish the fact that they are British subjects?
If the UK refuses to allow the Chagossians the right of return to live in their homeland if they choose, will the Minister explain how that fits with Britain’s desire to be re-elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council next year? A decision to grant the right of return would surely demonstrate that, under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the United Kingdom is now taking its human rights responsibilities very seriously indeed.
I am sorry, Mr Betts, that I was a few seconds late. I ask my hon. Friend whether the right to return should also imply a right to a job. I really am concerned that when the Chagossians get home, there will not be a decent economy for them to function in, apart, perhaps, from working for Americans. We should try to build up some kind of support society, as it were.
My hon. Friend makes a valid point. We are talking about a community that has not lived there for more than 50 years, and just giving the right of return on its own is not good enough. We will need to ensure that there are adequate facilities for the people to live in an appropriate way and to work. There are many options, including working for the Americans on the base on Diego Garcia and possibly working in conservation in the marine protected area—I will come to those matters later. He is absolutely right: we cannot just say, “Go home if you wish”, but do nothing to support the community. It was our British Government who forcibly removed them in the first place, so if they go back, we have a duty to ensure that they have adequate resources to have a sustainable community.
This is surely an appropriate time for our new Prime Minister to end this shameful episode once and for all, and to make a right decision after so many years of procrastination by her predecessors. The recent report by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination urged the UK to
“hold full and meaningful consultations with the Chagossians...to facilitate their return to their islands and to provide them with an effective remedy, including compensation.”
To argue, as sadly Her Majesty’s Government seem to, that the convention does not apply because the British Indian Ocean Territory has no population when the UK expelled those people in the first place must rank as the height of cynicism. The UN Human Rights Committee, which monitors observance of the UN human rights covenants, has on two occasions urged Her Majesty’s Government to rectify the situation and report on the measures they have taken to comply with the international covenant on civil and political rights. The committee’s last report said:
“The State party should ensure that the Chagos islanders can exercise their right to return to their territory and should indicate what measures have been taken in this regard. It should consider compensation for the denial of this right over an extended period. It should also include the Territory in its next periodic report.”
In June, the UK Supreme Court concluded that, in the light of the 2014 KPMG feasibility study that found no obstacle to settlement, maintaining the ban on a Chagossian return may no longer be lawful. The judgment noted that if the Government failed to restore the rights of abode, it would be open to Chagossians to mount a new challenge by way of judicial review on the grounds of irrationality, unreasonableness or disproportionality. After 17 years of litigation, is it not high time that our Government stopped incurring litigation costs that must now amount to several million pounds? Although there is one outstanding case relating to the marine protected area, which the Supreme Court will hear next year, surely the Minister must agree that the resumption of further litigation cannot be in our national interest.
The extension on 30 December this year of the 1966 UK-US agreement for the use of the island of Diego Garcia for a further 20 years provides an ideal peg for agreeing to resettlement. It is the unanimous view of the all-party parliamentary group that the extension should be conditional on both parties agreeing to support and facilitate resettlement. If the UK does not make the extension conditional, there is a danger of losing important leverage with the United States. A decision in favour of resettlement might then be postponed for many years to come. We simply cannot allow that to happen.
I am sorry for being a couple of minutes late to the debate. After the debate last year, I received a letter from one of my constituents who had watched, having previously known nothing about the situation. He said to me, “What is behind this? After all these years, what would make Her Majesty’s Government decide not to allow resettlement?” Can the hon. Gentleman tell us, from his long experience, what is behind the fact that the Government might not agree to what seems to be an absolutely just case for allowing the Chagossians to go back home?
As always, the hon. Lady makes an excellent point and gets to the heart of the issue. I only wish that I could give her an answer. Perhaps the Minister can. I certainly know that it is not down to the United States of America because, as a member of the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, I have raised the matter every time I have been to Washington. When I ask why it is not possible for the Chagossian people to go back and why Washington blocks it, the Americans say, “We’re not blocking anything.”
I find it astonishing that the situation has gone on for 50 years—half a century—and that no one has got to the bottom of it. Of course there are financial implications. Any responsible Government cannot just agree to something without working out how things will be funded, but we have a moral responsibility. This has gone on for so long and it has been handled totally differently from all our other overseas territories, where self-determination has been paramount.
I hope to catch Mr Betts’ eye later and make a contribution, but I have visited the islands with the Americans. They were very clear when we were on the island and in subsequent discussions with me when I was a Minister and with the Government more generally that they unequivocally oppose resettlement. I am not sure exactly who my hon. Friend has spoken to but, as far as I am concerned, the Americans have always opposed resettlement.
I thank my hon. Friend, a former Minister, for his helpful intervention, but that is not what I have discovered when I have directly confronted the Americans. I would love to know which particular American said that they oppose resettlement because when I speak to senior level Americans in Washington, they are baffled and do not really understand.
The Leader of the Opposition has raised the matter with President Obama, and I understand that even he had no understanding of what objections there could possibly be. It is completely contrary to the attitude when Americans have air bases elsewhere, where the local community work on the bases. There is no sense and there is no moral justification.
We might as well have the full list of the former Ministers with responsibility for the matter. It may be that President Obama is not very well sighted on the precise situation of the Chagossians, but it is certainly true that every single American official that I had formal dealings with in relation to the British Indian Ocean Territory was absolutely clear that they wholeheartedly opposed any resettlement. That should not be the defining point for a British Government, but it is an important factor to bear in mind.
We will move on from this point because, even if it is correct—I do not believe it is—this line has been carried forward by every generation without anyone questioning its original purpose. The duty of Her Majesty’s Government is to defend the rights and freedoms of Her Majesty’s subjects. These people are Chagossians. They are British. They are of equal status to the people of the Falkland Islands or Gibraltar, and there is no way on this planet that we can justify treating them in an inferior way. Sadly, that is what successive Governments have done but, in this very year, we have a chance to rectify it. In my view, it has been clear for many years that there is no fundamental objection from the United States to resettlement, even if it is of the outer islands, rather than Diego Garcia.
My hon. Friend has come to an important point. I hope he will forgive me for not being able to stay for the rest of the debate. When I was a Minister, I put forward a good suggestion, and the officials said, “That’s against ministerial policy.” I asked the Secretary of State, “Is it against your policy?”, and he said, “No, it’s not against mine.” That is an example of the historical negative: one cannot do something in a new way because it has not been done that way before.
The Americans ought to be big enough to say which island they want protected and what will happen with all the rest. We are not talking about something as small as the Isle of Wight, close to the mainland. We are talking about the Indian Ocean Territory. There are plenty of opportunities. Any sensible American could say, “Yes, there’s no problem. Let’s argue about some margin, but there is no particular problem, and there is no particular reason for total exclusion.”
My hon. Friend is correct. We must fully accept the need to secure the base and its operations, but I believe that a resettlement, even on Diego Garcia, can be made compatible with that requirement, as is the case with other US bases around the world. Indeed, the US may find that a neighbouring community of Chagossians could provide a convenient source of workers and security personnel when they are trained for work on the base.
The all-party parliamentary group had expected the Government to make a decision on resettlement following the KPMG report in February last year. We were not convinced of the need for yet another consultation with Chagossians, this time on likely costs and the demand for resettlement. Although it is impossible to remove all uncertainty, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office consultation showed 98%—or 825 Chagossians—in favour of resettlement. In reality, fewer will take up that offer, but there will certainly be enough to make resettlement viable. Of course, all Chagossians rightly want the restoration of their basic right to visit their homeland at any time of their choosing.
Our all-party group believes that a pilot resettlement for 50 to 100 people on Diego Garcia is the best starting point, but we should consider the outer islands if the Americans have genuine security concerns. That would cost more and would not please some conservationists, although many think that conservation and resettlement can be compatible and are necessary for an effective marine protected area. Chagossians could fill a much-needed conservation protection role. Travel would then be via the Maldives. The APPG would not support any alternative options to resettlement unless they were the collective wish of the Chagossian groups in Mauritius, the Seychelles and here in the United Kingdom. We see the restoration of the right of return and abode, which was denied by Orders in Council in June 2004, as a basic requirement.
As the United States was complicit in the removal of the Chagossians from their homeland, it is perfectly reasonable to expect the US to contribute in kind and money to the resettlement. Also, we would expect the Department for International Development, which already finds it hard to spend its budget, to contribute as the British overseas territories are, I believe, supposed to have a first call on the aid budget. With further support from non-governmental organisations and private sector funding, the costs of resettlement need not be much of a burden on the UK taxpayer.
The Times published a letter from the APPG on 7 November 2015, which said:
“Discussions with the US, for the renewal next year of the 1966 agreement on the use of the Territory, provide a unique opportunity to resolve the future of the Chagossians and of the Chagos Islands. Fifty years on Britain should dispose of this albatross and rectify the injustices and human rights violations of the past.”
The continuing damage to the UK’s reputation for promoting human rights far outweighs the costs, liabilities and risks of trying out resettlement. There would be all-party support for resettlement, not least from the leader of the Labour party, who is now the honorary president of our APPG. There would be negative international repercussions if we did not restore the rights of return and abode to the Chagossian people. There would be damage to the UK’s reputation in Africa and wider afield, playing to those who accuse us of ongoing colonialism, with a knock-on effect for the Falkland Islands and Gibraltar and for the ongoing actions in the United Nations General Assembly, the United Nations Human Rights Council, the African Union and the Commonwealth.
Hopes having been raised more than four years ago, the Chagossian and Mauritian reactions will, inevitably, be greater than ever before. The national and international campaign is certain to continue, with ever more negative publicity for the United Kingdom Government. As a Government-supporting MP, that is something that I do not wish to see. It cannot be in the UK’s interests for that situation to continue for a further 20 years. Allowing resettlement will be welcomed by the United Nations, by Parliament, by the media and, I believe, by the vast majority of the British people.
There could be no better time than now to make this decision. As the all-party group said in its letter to The Times on 4 July 2016:
“It is time for a political decision which restores the rights of the Chagossians to return to Chagos and to put this shameful episode behind us.”
Order. The Minister asked at the beginning of the debate whether it would be appropriate for him to take off his jacket. In view of the temperature in the room, which seems to be trying to replicate the temperature of the area we are talking about, it is fine if anyone wants to follow suit and remove their jacket.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the Chagos islands, on securing this timely debate.
As the hon. Gentleman said, we have had 50 years of denial, cover-up, obstruction and plotting against the rights of the Chagos islanders. This is a truly shameful episode that reflects a lot of what is wrong with UK foreign policy—it is truly a hangover of colonial thinking. Imagine if Vladimir Putin and his officials were discussing moving on some “Man Fridays” or “Tarzans” to clear room for a military base, and imagine if they then forcibly evicted those people, allowing them to take only a suitcase, before dumping them at docklands or holding them intermediately in police cells. We would be incandescent with rage, and we would say it is typical of such an authoritarian leader, yet that is what has happened in the UK’s name within the lifetime of many of us in this room.
Worse, as part of that operation, these people were used as bargaining chips for the Polaris nuclear missiles. Imagine the detachment and the uncaring attitude that saw the islanders cleared for a US naval base and an £11 million discount on the Polaris system. That trading of people’s homes, livelihoods and heritage has an equivalent value of £200 million today, which would more than pay for the return of the Chagos islanders.
Even since the true picture emerged after initial denials and cover-ups, the UK Government have spent approximately £3 million defending the indefensible in court. That sum was revealed to me yesterday in a written answer, and I am sure it will be a quantifiable lawyer cost that excludes civil servant and ministerial costs over a 17-year period. Will the Minister confirm that the true costs are greater than the £2.6 million mentioned in the written answer?
The costs become more pertinent when we consider that the Supreme Court judgment in June concluded that, in light of the KPMG study, maintaining the ban on Chagossians returning may no longer be lawful. It is also interesting that the Supreme Court castigated the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, noting that its conduct in withholding important documents has been “highly regrettable”. That sums up the denials and cover-ups over this 50-year period.
There have been plenty of other wrongs, too. One was the creation of the marine protected area, which has been deemed to breach international law and has been confirmed by WikiLeaks to be a ruse to prevent people from returning to the islands.
As the Minister who introduced the marine protected area, I should respond to that specific point, which has been raised several times in the press. When my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) asked in the House of Commons whether the marine protected area was being advanced merely to prevent people from returning to the Chagos islands, I made it absolutely clear that that was not the case and that these were two completely separate matters. For that matter, the then Member for Crawley pointed out that the Chagossians in Crawley, who had been asked whether they were in favour of the zone, supported it by 90%. These two matters are completely separate.
I thank the ex-Minister for his intervention. It is clearly difficult for me to argue against him on one level, but a view has been taken that the zone breaches international law, so I stand by the spirit of my comments.
The Immigration Act 2016 denies British citizenship to Chagos islanders’ descendants, which creates an absurd position whereby the UK is refusing to cede sovereignty over the islands yet is denying British citizenship to descendants. That is a complete contradiction.
Another wrong that I would like the Minister to address is that Diego Garcia has reputedly been used for rendition flights. Will the UK ever give us the true picture on that? As the hon. Member for Romford said, another ongoing deception appears to be that the original clearance and the subsequent non-return is a security matter, yet we know that yachts continue to visit the Chagos islands, and people live near US bases all over the world. A base in itself should not be a barrier to return, especially in the outer islands. I have listened to interventions from two ex-Ministers, who said that the Americans oppose return. It is therefore incumbent on the Minister to make the true position clear. How much consultation have the Government really had on the return of Chagos islanders? Is that factored into the potential renewal of the agreement, which is due at the end of this year? What is the true American attitude?
I believe that the exorbitant costs quoted in the KPMG report are also being used as a potential barrier to return to the islands. We must remember that, again, the UK benefited from an initial cash discount worth £200 million in today’s money and that, as the hon. Member for Romford said, the international development fund can easily accommodate those costs. I also remind the Minister that if the Government released some of the military spending that is double-counted as international aid, it could be put to much better use to support the return of the Chagos islanders. There is also the clear moral argument that the islanders should have the right to return, and that 98% of Chagossians surveyed want to return. I remind the Minister that time is running out for some of the original inhabitants who were cleared off 50 years ago.
This issue has been debated in both Houses for more than 50 years. As has been pointed out, members from all parties in the UK Parliament have joined the all-party group, which shows the will of the House of Commons. I also note that the Scottish National party passed a conference resolution calling for right of return for the Chagos islanders. Once again, I plead with the Government, after 50 years, to do the right thing.
Order. Three hon. Members want to speak. We have until half-past 4, so that gives Members no more than eight minutes each.
It is a pleasure to serve once again under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. As a vice-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the Chagos islands, I thank and congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on securing this important debate.
About three decades ago, I remember reading a book that outlined, chapter by chapter, all the remaining British overseas territories, many and varied as they were. When I came to the chapter on the Chagos islands, I could barely believe what I was reading. As recently as the late 1960s, through Orders in Council, the then Wilson Administration forcibly evicted the people of the Chagos islands from their homeland, and they were dispersed, mainly to Mauritius, but also to the Seychelles and other parts of the world. It was a story that I would have expected to have read from 150 or 200 years ago, a colonial account, but it was just within my lifetime.
Little did I think that 20 years later, I would be personally involved in the situation. I was leader of West Sussex County Council, an area that contained Gatwick airport, the main route from Port Louis in Mauritius, when many Chagos islanders who had been exiled to that country started arriving at Gatwick, and we needed to house them and support those British citizens coming to the UK mainland. Since then, I have had the privilege of representing, in my constituency of Crawley, the largest Chagos islander community in the UK, and possibly one of the largest populations anywhere in the world. There are many more Chagos islanders in Crawley than there are, sadly, on the Chagos islands themselves; I do not think that any indigenous islanders are permitted on the islands.
Over the years, we have heard excuse after excuse for why Chagos islanders cannot have right of return to the British Indian Ocean Territory. We have heard arguments that the US objects on military grounds to the islanders’ presence, yet there are US air bases in this country and around the world where civilians live in close proximity, and indeed, as we have heard, work there. Why should it be any different for the British Indian Ocean Territory?
Is the hon. Gentleman aware of any examples from his constituency of Chagossians who have applied for jobs on Diego Garcia, or any opportunities that the Americans have publicised and made available? Is there any appetite among the Chagossians in his constituency and elsewhere to secure some of those jobs?
I thank the former Minister for overseas territories for the attention that he has always given the issue. I can answer the last part first by saying that yes, the Chagos islanders would very much like to live and work in their homeland, but I am not aware of any employment opportunities being offered by the US authorities or the British authorities, who are also present on the island.
Other excuses have been used over the years, including environmental reasons such as sea level rise. There is some evidence to suggest that due to the uniqueness of the ocean topography there, in a rare exception, sea levels are falling slightly around the Chagos islands. During the devastating Indian ocean tsunami on Boxing day more than 10 years ago, the Chagos islands were not affected by the tsunami risk. Then, as we rehearsed a few moments ago, there are the arguments involving the marine protected area, but it does not extend right up to the shore—there is a limit, three miles out, I believe—and subsistence fishing is allowed, so it is not really a reason either.
I still want to nail down this particular issue. I have never thought that the marine protection zone played any role in whether people could or could not be resettled in the Chagos islands. The overwhelming view that I heard from Chagossians was that they wanted the marine protection zone to be put in place, for the protection of their own future livelihood.
I think that the marine protection zone is a distraction, and another reason why there should not be a bar to resettlement.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Romford mentioned in his opening remarks, we are now coming up to a break clause in what is essentially an agreement between the United Kingdom and the United States about the future use of Diego Garcia, which occupies a strategic location. It was strategic during the cold war and the various Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts, and given the ongoing turmoil in the middle east, it remains so. It is in Washington’s interest to continue to have an air base there. We have only until the end of the year, just over two months, to sort out the issue, which is why this debate is so important. We are in a strong position to set conditions for the United States. If it wants to renew its military presence on Diego Garcia for a further 20 years, the US should help us facilitate a right of return for the Chagos islanders.
How many people are we talking about when we talk about those who wish to return to the Chagos archipelago? How many people are there already—I think it is about 3,000 maximum, and they are transitory—and how many people from there want to go back?
I am grateful for the interest that my hon. Friend is showing in this debate. I have yet to meet a Chagos islander or somebody of Chagos descent who does not want the right of return. I think hundreds of people, or possibly a few thousand, want to return. However, the important thing is the principle of being allowed to return. As for the makeup of the current population on Diego Garcia, it is of course US and British military personnel, as well as a lot of Filipinos who work on the base in a service capacity.
Perhaps my hon. Friend can enlighten me because I am puzzled by this. The former Minister said the Americans absolutely object to Chagossians going there, but Filipinos go there. How can that be right? I do not understand what the problem is. As it is their homeland, the Chagossians are surely the right people to help on the airbase. This puzzles me.
I am as perplexed as my hon. Friend. It is one of those appalling ironies that appear time and again when we debate this sorry matter in British history. I am a patriotic person, but on this issue the British Governments of many persuasions over many decades should be ashamed.
I do congratulate the Government on convening an independent commission on the right of return, which has concluded that return is possible. Mention has been made of the international aid budget. The costs of return have been estimated at well below £100 million, which is a small fraction of the overseas aid budget. As my hon. Friend the Member for Romford says, the British overseas territories have first call on that budget.
In conclusion, there is no reason why Chagos islanders should not have the right of return. We cannot turn back time and we cannot undo the past four and a half decades, but we can put things right now. Time is running out with regard to the leverage that we have with the United States and their lease renewal, so I therefore implore the British Government to do the honourable, decent, British thing and allow these British citizens to return to the British Indian Ocean Territory.
Order. Will hon. Members who wish to speak please stand? There are people now standing who had not stood before. If each Member takes six minutes, we will get everybody in.
I had the privilege of travelling to the islands last November during a two-year stint as a Minister for various parts of the world, including the overseas territories. My views are personal and not those of Her Majesty’s Government, but they are based on two years of looking into the matter. I certainly read every word of the KPMG report and every piece of consultation that came across my desk very fully, and I have spoken to all the key people involved.
We cannot undo an historic wrong, but we can mitigate it. In all candour I must say to hon. Members that I do not believe it is right to repopulate the islands as part of that mitigation, but there are things we can do. I want to explain why. I visited Diego Garcia, the military base that formed a part of the main island, and I visited the part of the island that does not have a military base and the outer islands. During my five-day visit I slept in a bed for 15 minutes; the rest of the time I spent travelling. The time that I got to actually do any visiting was quite small.
I mention this because it was a very expensive trip to get there. This is the line of route that everyone will have to take, as will every block of cement, every video recorder or TV, or—in many cases—the foodstuffs we will have to take. I travelled via Singapore and Bahrain on a military flight. I then travelled on a rough fishing vessel for nearly 20 hours to get to the outer islands, where I got on to a military RIB that was able to conduct assaults on islands. We were unable to get on to the island and we had to jump into the water to wade to the outer islands that had coconut palms right up to the beach and there was foliage hanging off the beach area into the water. I am not saying one could not populate the islands, but the concept that the outer islands are an idyllic possibility is for the birds. They were difficult, overgrown, humid areas that were accessible only where the Marines had gone in and chopped down foliage.
I asked to look at a memorial that was put there and I asked whether we could cut through to the cemetery, which was a depressing place with lots of small graves of children and babies. When the outer islands were depopulated, they were very difficult places to live. Had it not been for the British Government depopulating those islands, I am not sure how viable they would have been within five years, given the only revenue stream was coconut oil, which was already declining. It was difficult to support life even at that time.
I will try to give way in a second if I can.
On the main island, the military element of the island is not just a runway. There is space for tens of thousands of troops to be potentially deployed on hard standing. In the conservation area going up into the old town, the houses are falling apart. There is no real infrastructure there at all. I met British and American military there. During the whole of my trip I was with Americans and Brits. I am unequivocal as to the American position on a political and diplomatic level.
The former Minister is painting a wonderful picture for someone like me who would love to undertake such a journey. When he was a minster, a consultation was undertaken with members of the Chagossian community. The then Minister said on 12 April:
“I recognise that Chagossians have urged us to announce a decision soon, and we very much hope to do so.”—[Official Report, 12 April 2016; Vol. 608, c. 171.]
Can he give us his recollection of that time and when he thought a decision would be made by the Foreign Office?
I think the hon. Gentleman is citing a debate in this room. It was certainly not my intention that things would be left quite so far. We have had a change of Prime Minister and the focus has been elsewhere, but at that time we were waiting for the full consultation to complete. I also met other hon. Members, so I extended the consultation. There is a broader process; it is not simply one Minister making a decision.
The islands have a great use for prepositioned ships. I went on board one of the five prepositioned ships. They have five or six storeys—like multi-storey car parks—with the smallest vehicles being almost the width of this room. Two Afghanistan and Iraq style wars could be conducted for a month using those ships. They are absolutely essential to American, British and global security. Many other nations use that area.
I also met the Filipinos who worked there. They lived in not great accommodation, in what I would describe as a prefabricated hut with rooms on either side and a shared bathroom in the middle. Those cost contractors about £1 million to put in place for accommodation for two, because of the costs of getting all the equipment on to the island. I do not think we can underestimate the costs.
I also visited a hospital that was used by the Americans, the Brits and the Filipinos. Provision was basic, so anyone giving birth or experiencing complications needed to be flown off the island, and it was very difficult to move around the island.
Is the former Minister suggesting that we go round the world and perhaps depopulate lots of other British overseas territories, such as Pitcairn, St Helena and Tristan da Cunha? Shall we just depopulate? Is that the right thing to do?
Certainly, if Tristan da Cunha or Pitcairn were unpopulated, I think it would be wrong to repopulate those islands. If the Americans were not on the island I am not sure it would be the right thing to repopulate Diego Garcia. We cannot provide the level of services that people demand. In the United Kingdom we are already providing benefit to people in Diego Garcia as members of the British public. After I stopped being a Minister, I visited Mauritius, where I saw the community—[Interruption.]
I apologise for taking longer than I might have over my speech and for not taking more interventions. I am happy to attend the all-party group—and, indeed, to join the group, if I would be accepted as a dissenting member—and to discuss my visit and experiences with parliamentarians in a bit more detail.
Order. Members now have only four minutes for speeches, because we must start the winding-up speeches at half-past.
I will make my comments very quick, but perhaps by saying less rather than speaking quickly.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on making, as always, a cohesive speech to set the scene. The issue is full of uncertainty. The three issues of resettlement, the marine protected area and sovereignty are weighty, and much thought needs to go into them. That is why it has taken so long to come to firm conclusions and why I join the all-party group in asking for the right decision to be made.
We all know the history of the islands and the reason why the British Government took the steps they did to secure defence for us and our allies. What was done was necessary at the time. The human aspect is that more than 1,000 islanders had to move from their home. My heart goes out to the people who had to settle elsewhere. We cannot ignore that, but we need to think about it in the context of that time in our history, when defence was at a premium. We are not at the same point, internationally, as we were. Perhaps we no longer need the use of the islands, but that decision cannot be taken without regard to the pressures put on us by the UN tribunal judgment. We cannot ignore it. Clearly, decisions were made by Britain as a colonial power and we still have the right to make those decisions.
I know that we do not have—indeed, we may not even want—the reputation of a colonial power, but we do have responsibilities that must be addressed, such as the legacy of colonial nations. Despite the legal steps that Mauritius has taken recently, it should be hoped that we can work together to determine what is best for all involved. We are the closest of allies with another former colony, although after Brexit I do not know if that is still the case, considering President Obama’s “back of the queue” remarks. It is to be hoped that relations with Mauritius can be rebuilt. I am certainly of the belief that those who were resettled must have the option to return home, and must be aided in doing so, should it be decided that the issues have progressed enough for our security in the area to be solid without having the territory.
We asked the islanders to leave, and we must be of a mind to help them to go back if that is what is needed. However, we should not bear the responsibility alone. Our American allies were instrumental in the decision-making process in the 1960s and they should now facilitate the resettlement of islanders as a matter of urgency. The American military base in Diego Garcia plays a large part in considerations, and there are certainly responsibilities on the part of the Americans. Will the Minister explain what discussions have taken place with our allies to see what role they will play in resettlement in the near future?
The marine protected area was legally established—that has been a big issue in the debate—and is a further decision for the Government. I would again urge caution. The fact is that we had the right to take the steps that were taken. Now is the time to reconsider what is needed and how we can help facilitate the return of those who want it. However, the issue is not one for emotions alone. It requires in-depth thought, and consideration of our global defence and security strategy. We cannot ignore the human aspect, but we must understand that there is a larger picture to be considered.
I will be quick, Mr Betts. Let us be quite clear. Diego Garcia is the largest US base outside continental America. Its strategic position is vital for the western world. It is clear that it has got to stay, because, in these troubled times, we should not give up such a positioning. Diego Garcia has a huge air base. It also has facilities for military ships and, clearly, it is a forward mounting base for a large number of troops—allied troops, not just Americans—if necessary.
We all understand the importance of the base’s strategic position in the middle of the Indian ocean. We understand why it was built there. We also probably understand why Chagossians were evicted between 1967 and 1973. I understand it, but it is wrong. It was wrong then and it is wrong now. A solution is required to this problem and compromise is necessary. The British Government—our Government—say they want to try to get people back. That is great, but it is clear that the base is going to have to stay there. It must stay there. It is too good a strategic military facility for us to give it up lightly. Well, I do not think we are going to give it up. It is not ours. It is America’s, but actually we own the territory—or do we? Actually the Chagossians own it. I am very much in favour of getting Chagossians back to their homeland.
My hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) has suggested a way for that to happen. If there are about 3,000 Filipino people working there, and about 3,000 Chagossians want to return, how about slowly changing the mix, so that Chagossians can go back and have a job there if they wish? It is mad that Chagossians cannot work there but Filipinos can.
I will be very brief. I just wanted to comment on the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart). I do not think there is any question of the base being given up in our lifetimes because it is obviously of key strategic importance. We should follow the advice of my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), whose speech introducing the debate revealed great wisdom and huge experience on everything to do with the overseas territories. We need to draw a distinction between the different arguments.
The argument about resettlement is incredibly important. We have had a report and heard many speeches. I personally feel that there is a powerful case. I take on board entirely some of the obvious practical objections and difficulties. My hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge), who was my successor as Minister with responsibility for Africa and the overseas territories, went to the British Indian Ocean Territory and the Chagos islands—I was removed from office before I had the chance to do so, unfortunately. The House appreciated his words of wisdom this afternoon. There are many practical difficulties, but with the help of DFID and with a great deal of imagination and innovation, the arguments are quite strong.
We need to separate that issue from jobs on the base. We need to be clear about the fact that the distances involved are huge. Diego Garcia is many miles from the outer islands. We are talking, therefore, on the one hand, about possible resettlement not on Diego Garcia as such but in the old villages and towns on the outer islands, and on the other about jobs on the base. We need to draw a distinction. There are a lot of jobs, provided mainly by the United States Air Force and the American military, but also by the smaller UK team there. It is a great pity that the old town is in a dreadful state, and that American corporate social responsibility has not put money into building up the old town and repairing some of the buildings and putting some of the Filipinos and other workers into them rather than Nissen huts or containers.
The logic behind my questioning of my hon. Friend the Member for Romford and my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) about what effort the Americans are making to employ more Chagossians in Diego Garcia is that there are many jobs available. I would like there to be some sort of outreach programme in Mauritius and the Seychelles, and in Crawley, to find out what the demand would be. That could be an important next step—it is absolutely doable and achievable now—and a key part in the negotiations about renewal of the agreement. There is a great opportunity to do that but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Romford pointed out, time is running out. The Foreign Office really needs to put a great deal of effort into seeing whether some form of scheme can be put in place immediately. I hope the Minister takes that on board.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts, and to speak on this matter in Westminster Hall for the second time. The first was exactly a year ago, in the debate secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Dr Monaghan), who sends his apologies that he cannot be here today. I congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on securing the debate, on giving us a comprehensive introduction to the current situation and on replacing the right hon. Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn)—I am sure some Labour Back Benchers wish that that was as easy in all circumstances as he appears to have found it.
This has been a comprehensive debate. To leave plenty of time for the Minister to respond, I will dwell briefly on just a few points: resettlement of the Chagos islanders as a human rights issue; the weakness of the various arguments that we have heard against resettlement; and a couple of broader questions about the sovereignty of the islands and their use as a US base.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Alan Brown) said, the Scottish National party clearly stands for the principle of self-determination. It is great to hear so many Conservative Members standing up for that principle today, and I hope they will want to endorse it again if the Scottish Parliament considers another referendum Bill. We have stood in solidarity with the Chagossians for a long time; indeed, in 2004 my right hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond) said in this Chamber:
“The more we discover about the matter, the more disgraceful, underhand and thoroughly disreputable the long-term treatment of those few thousand people is shown to have been.”—[Official Report, 7 July 2004; Vol. 423, c. 277WH.]
That disgraceful treatment continues to this day, at the cost of the United Kingdom’s reputation as a defender of fundamental human rights. We remain guilty of double standards and hypocrisy; as was said earlier, if the eviction took place today, it would be considered a breach of fundamental human rights under international law.
In 2009, the right hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson), who was then a shadow Foreign Office Minister, said in this Chamber:
“There is no doubt that there is a moral imperative.”
“what I suspect is the all-party view that the rights of the Chagossian people should be recognised, and that there should at the very least be a timetable for the return of those people at least to the outer islands”—[Official Report, 23 April 2009; Vol. 491, c. 176WH.]
That was the Conservative position in 2009; it would be interesting to hear whether it still is, now that the Conservative party is in actually a position to do something about it.
We have heard a number of objections about the feasibility of resettlement, not least from the former Minister, the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge). I say to him with the greatest respect that there may well be logistical challenges to resettling people on the islands, but—as the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) said—this is about their right to return almost as much as it is about whether they do return. As for logistics, there is a US naval base, which I presume has electricity and running water, on the island. If it is possible for the United States Government to build such a sophisticated base of operations in such a remote location, surely it is possible for people to choose to make their own lives on the island in the way that their ancestors did for generations.
I apologise for the fact that I could not be here for the start of the debate. Hon. Members will recall my position on the matter as the shadow Foreign Office Minister in the last debate: I am a strong supporter of righting this historical injustice. With respect to logistics, we have been able to move ahead with building an airport in St Helena, and we have done many other things in the overseas territories that have cost an awful lot and have been logistically difficult.
Absolutely. I do not think any of this is beyond the wit of man. The point has been made several times that if the Government diverted some of the money they spend on litigating the issue towards helping the people they forcibly removed to resettle in their own homes in their ancestral territory, the infrastructure issues could be overcome.
I am excited to hear what the Minister has to say about the US position, given the differing views we have heard on what that might be, but perhaps we should flip our perspective. Perhaps we should think about not whether resettlement is a barrier to US activity, but whether US activity has to get in the way of resettlement. Those things ought to be able to co-exist, although perhaps there are questions about the US use of the area as well. The former Assistant Secretary of Defence under Ronald Reagan, Lawrence Korb, has said that there is “no good…reason” to oppose the Chagossians’ return. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun said, yachtists seem to visit the island pretty frequently, so there does not seem to be much of a security concern there.
Nor should conservation and the right to return be mutually exclusive. I imagine that people who want to live on remote islands want to live in harmony with nature, ensure that their lifestyles are as sustainable as possible and respect the sustainability of the environment, even if the marine protected area is on questionable legal ground—or in questionable waters.
There are general questions about the sovereignty of the islands. It is not just a question of the right to return. We are in a critical phase, with the roll-over of the 1966 agreement about to take place. I would be interested to hear whether the Minister believes that part 2 of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 applies. That Act places treaty ratification into statute and requires parliamentary scrutiny of it. We may be faced with the roll-over of a treaty, but surely the particular circumstances of the 20-year extension mean that it should be subject to the affirmative procedure in Parliament, and surely the Government have nothing to hide or to be concerned about. If the Minister cannot answer that question today, I hope he will do so in the not-too-distant future. In any event, not only Parliament but the Government of Mauritius must be included in any future dialogue.
Finally, there are issues relating to the use of the naval base, as my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun alluded to. It is important that we get assurances that the British Indian Ocean Territory has not been used for the illegal rendition or torture of detainees during the so-called war on terror. If it has, people should be brought to justice. We call on the Government to recognise that Diego Garcia is part of the internationally recognised African nuclear weapon-free zone and to give assurances that no nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction have ever been placed there. They must also give assurances that military installations on Diego Garcia have not been used to store cluster bombs, in violation of their treaty obligations under the convention on cluster munitions.
The SNP stands fully behind the right of the Chagos islanders to return home. As recently as 16 September, we heard that the Government want to keep the matter under review, but we need an answer at long last. As several hon. Members have noted, it is not clear what makes the Chagos situation so unique. Why are the Government so insistent on standing in the way of the right of return? Is it cost, is it security, or do they simply not want to admit that successive Governments have got it wrong? Britannia has not ruled the waves for some considerable time; the sooner the UK Government realise that, the better.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Betts. I congratulate the hon. Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) on securing this important debate and on the work of his all-party group, which has relentlessly promoted the issue in Parliament.
The Chagos islands attract cross-party consensus on the right thing to do. Today is the day to break through the institutional inertia, the sense of paralysis and the 17 years of expensive litigation that has amounted to millions of pounds of public funds wasted. This could all have been sorted if it had been looked at from the beginning as a fundamental human rights issue.
Many Members have made excellent contributions today. The hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) described the appalling irony that Filipinos who work on the base in Diego Garcia are permitted to live there, but indigenous islanders cannot—a very important point. Mr Bryant, the Member for Rhondda, observed that while the US position should definitely be taken into consideration, it should not be the defining principle for this Parliament. Mr Duddridge described—
Order. It is not appropriate to address hon. Members by name; please refer to them by constituency.
Thank you for that timely reminder, Chair—Mr Betts. [Laughter.]
The hon. Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge) described vividly his journey to the British Indian Ocean Territory islands. He also described some of the difficulties of any resettlement package, which are of course understandable after 50 years. However, there remains a question simply of justice. It is some 51 years since the creation of the British Indian Ocean Territory and 49 years since the expulsions began—that must be one of the longest exiles in world history.
Nearly four years ago, on 20 December 2012, the then Foreign Secretary Lord Hague announced a review of policy, and in 2013 he commissioned the much mentioned KPMG study into the feasibility of a return for the islanders. That study was concluded in 2014 and published in February 2015. It found no insuperable obstacles to resettlement. In a further consultation with the Chagossians, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office found that 98% of the 825 who responded were in favour of resettlement.
With the extension of the 1966 UK-US agreement on the use of the British Indian Ocean Territory due by 30 December this year, now is the ideal time to allow Chagossians who want to do so to return to their homeland and rebuild their lives. In any case, all Chagossians want to be able to visit their islands at will. The all-party group believes that the extension should be conditional on both parties agreeing to support and facilitate resettlement, and that that should be reflected in a new side agreement.
It has been clear for some time from various discussions, including those between my right hon. Friend the Member for Islington North (Jeremy Corbyn) and President Obama last autumn, that although there are concerns that need to be addressed, the US has no strong objections to resettlement; otherwise, I am sure they would have come up at that meeting. We need to look carefully at the conservation issues, but we know that there are several miles around the islands in which fishing can be undertaken as a subsistence occupation.
The cost of resettlement could be reduced by simple infrastructure and the supply of goods and services from elsewhere in the region, such as Mauritius. We should look to the US, the European development fund and the DFID budget for that—after all, the Secretary of State for International Development said this morning that she was looking for some new projects to fund. I am sure that there are British companies that would be interested in infrastructure projects on the islands. Resettlement need not be much of a burden on the taxpayer, particularly compared with how much has so far been spent on expensive legal fees.
The continuing damage to the UK’s reputation for the promotion of human rights far outweighs the cost, liabilities and risks of trying out a resettlement. The UK’s reputation is tarnished by the ongoing violation of fundamental human rights. It is clear that this is not a one-party issue; it is cross-party, and we agree about it. As the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) said, it was wrong then and it is wrong now.
In June, the Supreme Court concluded that in the light of the KPMG study, maintaining the ban on the Chagossians’ return may no longer be lawful. The court noted that if the Government failed to restore the right of abode, it would be open to Chagossians to mount a new challenge by way of judicial review on grounds of irrationality, unreasonableness and disproportionality. The court castigated the FCO, noting that, in withholding important documents, its conduct had been “highly regrettable”. Surely, after all these years of expensive litigation, costing several million pounds, this should be the day on which we proclaim that we will do the right thing. If we do not rectify the situation, it will be for ever on our consciences. I note the presence of several former Ministers; I think that is because this issue must be resolved.
In 23 April 2009 the right hon. Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson), then a shadow Foreign Office Minister, said in this Chamber on behalf of the Conservatives something that the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) quoted earlier. It is worth repeating:
“There is no doubt that there is a moral imperative…I suspect…the all-party view”
“that the rights of the Chagossian people should be recognised, and that there should at the very least be a timetable for the return of those people at least to the outer islands…The Foreign Office should recognise that the House of Commons feels very strongly on that.”—[Official Report, 23 April 2009; Vol. 491, c. 176WH.]
More than seven years later, can we now expect the Government to fulfil that commitment?
If the Minister could leave a couple of minutes at the end for the mover of the motion to wind up the debate, that would be appreciated.
It is a pleasure and an honour to respond to this very important debate, in which Members have eloquently summed up the wrongs and challenges facing the Chagossians, as well as the length of time it has taken for us to work towards a solution. Like the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West), I am conscious that there are present many previous Ministers who covered the portfolio. At one point I thought I could just stand back and allow them to answer all the questions, such is their detailed knowledge, which I shall draw on as I develop my points.
I begin as others have by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) not only on securing the debate and raising the issues, but on his work throughout the Commonwealth. He gives a sterling effort in ensuring that the voices from the British overseas territories are heard and that these matters are debated. The whole House pays tribute to him for that. I also congratulate him on his election to chair of the all-party group, which is important in promoting these debates and in ensuring that these matters are considered.
I apologise on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and the Americas. Normally he would respond to the debate, but is currently travelling. We have been keeping notes on all the questions that were raised, and I will ensure that they are in his in-tray when he returns from his overseas visit.
I shall be up-front straightaway and, like successive Governments before this one, make it clear that we need to express our sincere regret about the manner in which the Chagossians were removed from the British Indian Ocean Territory in the late 1960s and early 1970s. We can all agree that what happened was wrong. That has been summed up by many of the voices we have heard during the debate, but most powerfully by my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith), who made the case very clearly indeed. What happened in the ’60s and ’70s was unforgivable.
We are aware of the Chagossian community’s strong attachment to the islands and their long-stated wish to resettle. It is the job of the Government to examine the issue dispassionately. We must consider the interests of the Chagossian community as well as the wider UK interests, including our security and the interest of UK taxpayers, and we must be honest and realistic about the lifestyle that a resettled population might expect. That is why, as we have heard, in 2012 the Government launched a review of the resettlement policy to understand the demand, viability and cost. We have taken great care over that work, commissioning an independent feasibility study, consulting widely, including with our US allies, and visiting and listening to all those with expertise and interests.
I must be clear that, as has already been articulated, establishing a small and remote community on the territory would not be straightforward. The independent feasibility study published in 2015 found that resettlement could be viable, but also highlighted significant practical challenges, including the difficulty of establishing modern public services, healthcare, education and economic opportunities, particularly job prospects. The challenge that we face, even if we want to pursue this ambition, was best and vividly described by the former Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend East (James Duddridge)—he described the challenges we face on some of the outer islands that might be considered for resettlement. It would be a very difficult task indeed.
When the House last debated this issue almost a year ago, a 12-week public consultation had just concluded. The results of that consultation were published in January 2016. It found that, although resettlement was a key issue for the 832 Chagossians who responded, there were more nuanced views about the resettlement scenarios. Only a quarter of those who were in favour of resettlement were also content with the realistic scenarios of how it might work in practice. Our consultations highlighted that further work was needed to refine those policy options—what actually works in practice? That work is under way and when it is complete, the final policy decision will be taken and announced to Parliament and the public. As yet, there is no fixed date for that announcement, but I assure hon. Members that we expect it to be before the end of this year.
Will the Minister elaborate more fully on what exactly that additional work, which he says is ongoing, is in terms of policy, lifestyle and presumably the viability of a settlement?
As I touched on, the work is on some of the economic opportunities that exist, lifestyles and the ability to provide the necessary support. We need further work to ensure that the proposal is viable. I think that it was mentioned in one of the earlier contributions that it is simply not enough just to find a solution to return those who want to go back; there needs to be a viable and sustainable community. The options need to be examined in more detail.
I am very grateful to the Minister for setting out a time frame—he said he hoped to make an announcement by the end of the year. He will correct me if I am wrong, but did I understand that he just said that a quarter of the respondents to the consultation said that they did not want to go back? I ask because the House of Commons Library is under the impression that 89% of the 895 Chagossian respondents supported resettlement.
If I may, I will get a more detailed report on the analysis that came back from the consultation and write to my hon. Friend so that he is fully appraised of the response to the consultation. However, the bottom line is that the details about how a resettlement would work in practice need to be pursued. We hope to make sure that that happens, but I will articulate to the Minister responsible that we want an answer and a report back to Parliament within the year.
Many hon. Members have stressed the strategic importance of the military location. Anybody with a military background is soon made aware of the significance of Diego Garcia and its role internationally for our allies, for NATO, for the United States and for Britain. The joint UK and US military facility on Diego Garcia contributes significantly towards global security—I cannot stress it any more than that. It is central to our operations, and to those of the United States and our international partners, to counter threats in the region, including terrorism and piracy. The continuing operation of the base is a key factor that we must take into account in our considerations.
One hon. Member asked about dual accounting in official development assistance and defence spending. I will make it very clear that there are occasions when military activity comes under the Ministry of Defence budget and qualifies for ODA activity. I complained about that when I visited Afghanistan and found that Britain was doing work in military training, mine clearance and so on, which is “ODA-able” but we were not charging for it. We were doing things that did not go towards that figure. It is very important to put into context that this is not a competition as such. Those who make the ODA rules—it is not us—recognise that certain minimal activities to do with stabilisation, reconstruction and peacekeeping can be paid for by military personnel. There are not many activities, but there are some.
On that very point, would it be possible to use the Royal Air Force’s Voyager aircraft—the big ones—to take Chagossians back for a visit, and then bring them out again?
That is another point I will pass on to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe and the Americas to consider when he gets back.
The British Indian Ocean Territory marine protected area in the north, which the UK declared in 2010, is highly valued by scientists from many countries. They consider it to be a global reference site for marine conservation in an ocean that is heavily overfished. We are aware that some concerns have been raised about the motives for the creation of the MPA, but those concerns are unfounded and I was pleased that previous Ministers were able to clarify exactly how the MPA came about.
The UN convention on the law of the sea arbitral tribunal found no evidence of improper purpose in the creation of the MPA. This issue has been scrutinised by UK courts, which have consistently found, including as recently as May 2014, that there is no substance whatever to the allegations of improper use. The arbitral tribunal found that we should have consulted Mauritius about the establishment of the MPA, so as to give due regard to its rights, and we have started a series of bilateral meetings to implement the tribunal award. The most recent of those meetings took place in August.
I reassure the House that the Government are very aware of the views and concerns of the Chagossian people, and of all those who support them. Those views have been fully and passionately represented by hon. Members today. We want to make the right decision, based on all relevant factors, including what we have heard during the course of our consultations with Chagossians living here in the UK, and with Chagossians in Mauritius and the Seychelles. We have to balance the Chagossians’ views against the practical difficulties that our feasibility study has highlighted, the very real concerns about costs, and our need to operate a military facility that is vital to our security.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Romford for securing this important debate, and all hon. Members for their contributions. The Minister for the Commonwealth and the United Nations, Baroness Anelay of St Johns, is looking forward to meeting the all-party group in due course.
I thank hon. Members from all political parties who have contributed to this important debate today. However, we still do not know what will happen. We are still waiting anxiously to find out what Her Majesty’s Government’s decision will be. It is not only those of us here in Westminster Hall today who are waiting but the people of the Chagos islands, whose spirit has been broken these last 50 years.
We in this House have a duty, first and foremost, to stand up for the interests of the British people, and the Chagossians are British. They are as entitled to their human rights, their dignity and their right of self-determination just as much as we are in this Chamber and just as much as our constituents are. We defend our overseas territories and their rights to remain British and to self-determination, and yet we single out one of them and say, “Your rights are not at the same level as the others.” There is no moral justification for that.
I say to the Minister that my right hon. Friend the Member for Broadland (Mr Simpson) made it clear when he was shadow Foreign Minister that this issue had to be addressed when we were in government. Why after six years have we failed to do so?
I do not buy for one moment the idea that the islands cannot be inhabited. That is propaganda. Other remote islands around the world—the Maldives are not that far away from the Chagos islands—are fantastic tourist destinations. If they can be inhabited and used, whether for marine conservation or as a military base—we defend the importance of the military base on Diego Garcia—there is absolutely no reason why we cannot come up with a plan to put right this situation, which has gone on for far too long.
I know the Minister is a defender of the rights of British subjects to self-determination in the rest of the overseas territories. I ask him please to take this back to the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister. Please say to them that this is the last chance—the very last chance—that we are going to get, prior to the potential renewal of the agreement between the US and the UK, finally to resolve this injustice and to give the Chagossian people the same rights that we would always defend for our own constituents.
The British way is to stand up for human rights and self-determination, and to give people the right to determine their own destiny. As my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) said, let us do the British thing and give the people of the Chagos islands the right to continue to be British in their own homeland.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered Government policy on the British Indian Ocean Territory and Chagos islands.