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Chagos Islands

Volume 617: debated on Thursday 17 November 2016

(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to make a statement on the future of the British people of the Chagos Islands and the British Indian Ocean Territory.

The islands of the Chagos archipelago have been British territory since 1814, when they were ceded to Britain by France. In 1966, the UK agreed with the United States to make the British Indian Ocean Territory available for the defence purposes of the US and the UK, and the Chagossian people were removed from the islands. Like successive Governments before them, this Government have expressed their sincere regret about the manner in which Chagossians were removed from the British Indian Ocean Territory in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is right that the UK Government paid substantial compensation to Chagossians—nearly £15.5 million in current prices—and the British courts and the European Court of Human Rights have confirmed that compensation has already been paid in full and final settlement.

We must now look forward, not back, on decisions about the future of the British Indian Ocean Territory. The Government have considered this complex issue very closely and carried out an independent feasibility study of the practicalities of resettlement and a public consultation, which sought better to gauge the demand for resettlement by illustrating the most realistic way in which resettlement would hypothetically take place. The Government have looked carefully at the practicalities of setting up a small remote community on low-lying islands and the challenges that such a community would face. We were particularly concerned about the difficulty of establishing modern public services, about the limited healthcare and education that it would be possible to provide—which would create difficulties for any new population and especially for elderly Chagossians returning to the islands—and about the lack of realistic economic opportunities.

The Government have now considered all the available information and decided against the resettlement of the Chagossian people on the grounds of feasibility, defence and security interests, and the cost to the British taxpayer. Although the Government have ruled out resettlement, we are determined to address the aspirations that drove Chagossians to seek to resettle—for instance, their desire for better lives and their wish to maintain a connection to the territory. To meet those aspirations, the Government are creating a significant and ambitious support programme to provide Chagossians with better life chances and developing an increased visits programme. The British Government intend to liaise with Chagossian communities in the UK and overseas and to work closely with the Governments involved to develop the kind of cost-effective programmes that will make the biggest improvement in the life chances of those Chagossians who need it most.

I thank the Minister for his reply, but does he not understand the shock, anger and dismay among members of the Chagossian community in the United Kingdom, in Mauritius and in the Seychelles who were displaced from their homeland in the 1960s at the Government’s decision not to allow resettlement? Does he not realise that they are British subjects who are entitled to the same rights, freedoms and self-determination that all British citizens should have? How can the Government defend the right of self-determination for the people of the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar and other British overseas territories, while completely denying the same rights to the people of the Chagos Islands?

Why have the Government ignored the arguments put forward over the years by the all-party parliamentary group on the Chagos Islands and by experts concerning viability, sustainability, cost, funding, defence and security, international human rights obligations and the views of the courts, which since 2000 have deplored the treatment of the Chagossians? Have the Government properly considered the Supreme Court conclusion that, in the light of the KPMG study, maintaining the ban on Chagossian return might no longer be legal?

Does the Minister accept that the United States was not opposed to resettlement and that any security concerns would be easily manageable, just as they are when indigenous people around the world who live around military installations are accommodated? Will he clarify whether the right of abode, which is different from resettlement, can be restored, giving Chagossians the right to visit their homeland whenever they wish? Does he not see that this decision continues to undermine the United Kingdom’s human rights record and the British sense of fair play? Why should Chagossians, who are British, be treated any differently from other nationals of overseas territories? How does this leave the Government’s so-called “unwavering commitment” to human rights?

British Chagossians should have the right of self-determination that is afforded to all Her Majesty’s subjects, who rightly expect the protection of the Crown, which is being denied to the Chagossians today.

I fully accept my hon. Friend’s passion on this subject, which he has demonstrated for many years. He has become a champion of this issue. However, as he will appreciate, the Government and I do not agree with many of his points. First, we do not consider that the right of self-determination actually applies to the Chagossians. In fact, the issue here is one of sustainability and viability—[Interruption.] Well, let me go into that.

When I was an International Development Minister, looking at communities such as the Pitcairn Islands, one needed to appreciate that it is demographically difficult to sustain a population of that size in such a remote area: services cannot be provided; the travel distances are enormous; and the costs are quite significant. The costs here have been estimated to vary between £55 million for a mere 50 people and something like £256 million for 1,500. The obligation on Her Majesty’s Government to pay on an annual basis the costs of sustaining the population would be triggered. When no hospital is available and when care cannot be delivered urgently, it is unsustainable to expect a community of any such size to exist in such a setting.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker. After four decades of intense debate on the disgraceful relocation of the Chagossians, after the campaign for their resettlement and after all the legal disputes, the marches and rallies, the parliamentary debates and the reviews and inquiries, it is disappointing that the Government thought they could deal with the issue with a 500-word written statement in the other place yesterday.

After KPMG provided a comprehensive analysis of the resettlement options, why have we not at least seen an equally detailed evaluation of those options from the Government, so that we can understand the rationale behind the decision? We are told that cost is one of the three factors, but that comes from a Government who have spent £285 million building an airport on St Helier—[Hon. Members: “St Helena.”] Whether it is called St Helier or St Helena, the fact is that we have spent £285 million on an airport where it is impossible to land planes. If cost is of such importance, let us put it in that context. If the Government are prepared to spend such amounts on an airport that does not work properly, why not evaluate this situation in those terms?

We are told that the agreement with the United States on the Diego Garcia military base is another factor, but that agreement is due to expire at the end of this year. Has the Minister even discussed with the incoming US Administration whether the renewal of the agreement could be made conditional on both parties facilitating the resettlement of the Chagossians?

Finally, we are told that feasibility is also a factor, but why has that not been tested by means of a pilot programme of relocation, as considered by KPMG? The treatment of the Chagos islanders is a dark stain on our country’s history. Yesterday’s decision, and the manner in which it was made, has done nothing to remove that stain. It is another disgraceful attempt to cover it up, but it will not be covered up. The Chagossians can be assured that the Opposition, led as we are by someone who has campaigned for them for 30 years, will never give up on their right to return.

May I at least agree with one thing the hon. Lady said, which is that we all deplore the relocation that took place in the 1960s, and the manner in which it took place? That is why compensation has been paid to those who were displaced in that manner. May I also point out that the written statement yesterday was not in another place, but here in this House of Commons?

The statement goes out in parallel to both Chambers. Perhaps the hon. Lady would like to learn something about how parliamentary procedure works. It went out at the same time.

The Government have been looking at this issue for more than four years, and the decision was made at Cabinet level by appropriate Ministers. During that process, there has been a full consultation. Perhaps I should point out that, of those invited to express a view, 832 people answered. When it was described what life on the islands would look like, only 25%—approximately 200 people—indicated that they would like to go to reside on the islands. As for Diego Garcia, the hon. Lady needs to appreciate that the Chagos Islands, or the British Indian Ocean Territory, comprise 58 islands—it is not just Diego Garcia. The agreement is likely to be renewed before the new President comes in and is expected to continue—indeed, it will continue—until 2036.

It has been my privilege, since 2010, to represent one of the largest communities of the Chagos Islands anywhere in the world—it is certainly larger than that on the Chagos Islands. I have pursued this issue since before being elected to this place and it has been my honour to do so. I believe that the Chagos islanders have a right of return, and I am very disappointed with yesterday’s statement by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I note that a compensation package of £40 million over 10 years has been proposed. Can the Minister say a little bit more about how that will be spent in local communities such as mine in Crawley? And rather than just regretting the forced eviction of Chagos islanders from their homeland, will the British Government now apologise?

Yes, I am very prepared to—and do—apologise. That is why compensation has been paid, and the matter has been recognised by the courts. My hon. Friend, who has a large Chagossian population in his Crawley constituency, has taken a keen and proper interest in this issue ever since he was elected. That must be respected, as must his views and opinions. He has touched on something that is very important, which is that, in looking forward, the Government intend to allocate £40 million, shared between the Department for International Development and the Foreign Office, to address the needs of Chagossians wherever they are—whether in Mauritius, the Seychelles or the United Kingdom. In respect of how that will be paid, some of it will qualify as official development assistance—the DFID element—and the rest will do lots of other things in conjunction with the communities and with the Governments in the countries in which they reside. I very much hope that this £40 million over 10 years will be well spent and particularly address the needs of those older Chagossians, who might have been displaced in the ’60s and ’70s, but who are still alive and who are perhaps the ones in greatest need.

Has it occurred to the Minister that, in the era of President Trump, an island group in the middle of the Indian ocean, thousands of miles from anywhere, might be one of the safer and more desirable places on this planet? In the late 1960s, the community on the Chagos Islands was fully employed and perfectly sustainable. How can the Minister seriously argue now that it would not be so in modern times, particularly with the advantage of an airport with a very long runway? Finally, the Minister has said that the right of self-determination does not apply here. Why exactly is that? The shame of successive Administrations is not something to do just with the 1960s and 1970s. It covers the past 15 years, where successive Administrations have used every effort through the courts to block and tackle the rights of the Chagossians, including the use of the royal prerogative, disgracefully, against Her Majesty’s subjects. Instead of apologising for the past, will the Minister properly address the future and allocate to these people their right of self-determination and their right of return?

The right hon. Gentleman’s reference to the runway refers to only a very small part of the archipelago, where there are 58 islands. There is no obvious manner in which a few people on low-lying islands will be able to sustain themselves economically without outside help.

As for what the right hon. Gentleman describes as the runway, and hence implicitly Diego Garcia, the nature of the employment there did not prove attractive to those Chagossians who were consulted, because in most cases they are people who cannot take their families and work in a solitary manner, and they did not find the likely package of employment attractive. The right hon. Gentleman may shake his head, but that is the response that came through in the consultation.

On self-determination, the legal advice that we have received is that the Chagossians were not and are not a “people” for the purposes of international law and hence self-determination.

There are many issues that we could raise in connection with the statement, and many of us did raise them on 25 October, when there was a Westminster Hall debate on the issue. At that time, I asked the Minister what the timeframe was for announcing his decision about the islands, and we were told that it would be announced before the end of the year. Does he accept how regrettable it is for many of us to have read the contents of the written ministerial statement in The Guardian on Tuesday night and how concerned we were, whether the written ministerial statement was published in this House or the other place, that it was published two hours before a long-standing meeting of the all-party parliamentary group to discuss the matter? Many of us feel that that was an affront to many Members. Will he undertake an investigation to determine how the statement ended up in a national newspaper, rather than here on the Floor of the House?

I understand what my hon. Friend is saying, although the Minister to whom he refers was not me. What I am doing today is repeating a statement that was made in another place. I hope and believe that the APPG was afforded proper respectful attention. I think that there were three Ministers there, properly explaining the policy. Quite how the matter got into The Guardian I do not know. All I can say is that that is not the natural paper for Her Majesty’s Government, and I therefore suspect that the sources probably lie elsewhere.

The Guardian contacted me on Tuesday and asked me whether the Minister was going to make an announcement. Nobody in this House or in this country thinks that Britain behaved well in the 1960s in relation to the Chagos Islands. How we behaved then is a disgrace. The question is how we proceed now. Many people have suggested, incorrectly, that the Chagos marine preserve zone, which was initiated in 2010, was deliberately put in place to prevent the Chagossians returning to the British Indian Ocean Territory. That is completely untrue. Will the Minister update us on where we are now with protecting the biodiversity there, which is vital not only in itself, but to the entire east coast of Africa?

I acknowledge the keen attention that the hon. Gentleman gave to the matter when he was a Minister. He is right that the creation of a marine protection area or zone has no bearing on what we are discussing today, but in respect of his subsequent question, I am pleased to say that I was in Washington last month at the ocean summit and, because we have a number of these islands as part of our historic legacy, I was able to announce a 4 million sq km marine protected area around many of them, which puts the UK in the forefront of marine biodiversity and protection.

Did any of the estimates for the cost of resettlement include the building of a prison such as we have had to build in Pitcairn?

I am not aware that they did, but my right hon. Friend and successor as Minister in the Department for International Development puts his finger on an example of a small community on a remote island that has had serious difficulties—demographic, behavioural and economic difficulties. Under our legislation we are obliged to offer reasonable support to such a population, even though on the Pitcairn Islands there are only 46 people. Simply for child safeguarding, when I was a Minister I insisted that all teenagers go to New Zealand to be educated, rather than suffer improper behaviour on the island.

I know the Minister quite well, and I detect a bit of embarrassment about his statement today, perhaps partly because of the way this whole thing has been handled, with a statement being rushed out yesterday, having been leaked to the papers. This is a very sad day for our country and it reflects so badly on our attitude to human rights across the world. Is there anything he would listen to that would make the Government change what I think is a deplorable decision?

I am afraid I have to say directly to the hon. Lady that I diametrically disagree with her. I am not in any way embarrassed, although, of course, when it comes to leaks, I neither like nor approve of them. However, this is the final decision. I do not think it is deplorable. Certainly in my direct experience, and looking at the evidence—and, indeed, in response to a consultation where so few people actually said, given what they thought the conditions would be in living there, that they wanted to go—it is not deplorable or a breach of human rights to say that, in our judgment, this would be creating a community that would actually not be sustainable and that, probably, at the end of the day, would be neither safe nor happy.

This is a sensitive decision, but it is the right decision. Is the Minister of State aware that, when I was Minister for overseas territories, I actually travelled out to the Chagos Islands and also went out to the outer islands? I think I am the only person in the House today who has visited. It was certainly quite a difficult experience; over five days, I spent only 15 minutes on land in a bed. This is a massive area, and it is very difficult to get to. It would be wholly impossible to populate the islands, as other Members of the House have argued. Does the Minister agree that, while this is a sensitive issue, it is good to have what I hope will be closure on it going forward?

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend, who has served, of course, as a Minister. As he says, he is probably the only one of us who has visited. I really think that what he has said is right: it is wise to realise that, despite the many arguments we have heard for repopulating the islands, that would not lead to an attractive existence for those who lived there, in what we foresee as the circumstances in which they would live. For instance, if someone has appendicitis and it takes them five days to get to a hospital, they are probably not going to get there alive. I hope the House will listen to my hon. Friend’s first-hand evidence and experience.

What have the Government actually decided here? They say they will not facilitate resettlement, but do they accept or not that the Chagossians have a right of return or a right of abode? If I won the lottery and decided to spend my winnings on building a paradise retreat for myself on one of the Chagos Islands, would that kind of development be permitted?

It would potentially be illegal. In my view, it is quite clear that our decision is that there should not be resettlement or repopulation on these islands.

When we renegotiate this treaty with the Americans for the use of the Chagos Islands, could not part of the conditions of agreement be that Chagossians should be the people of choice for employment in the American airbase there? They would then be sustained by the American infrastructure and be looked after that way. That would be an honourable thing for us to do; what we decided to do yesterday is dishonourable.

I do not agree with my hon.—and gallant—Friend. I do not think this is dishonourable. As I have already said, Diego Garcia is only one small part of this large archipelago. The nature of the employment there would not necessarily prove attractive, and it is not seen as practical to link subsistence payments for a repopulated series of islands to the use of the defence base, for which, at the moment, there is no payment anyway.

May I assure the Minister that I understand better than most people in this House the challenges of providing public services in remote island communities? However, if the Chagos Islands are where people belong and that is where they want to be, they have an inalienable right to be there. What the Minister describes today as practicalities exist only because of what this country did some decades ago. Paying £40 million over 10 years cannot buy out our responsibilities.

Notwithstanding the fact that, as I said earlier, the manner in which the Chagossians were displaced in the ’60s and ’70s was deplorable, we think it inappropriate to return them. We have to look to the future, not the past. Compensation has already been agreed and upheld in the courts, so we are now trying to offer a forward-looking support package of £40 million in the manner that I described.

If resettlement went forward as an option, how resilient would that be to climate change and changes in sea levels, which have been a problem elsewhere in the area? Will the Minister explain the background on the business of ceding the archipelago to Mauritius if it is no longer used for defence purposes?

My hon. Friend answers his own questions in a way. Yes, the islands are low-lying and so do face some of the perils of climate change, although I hope that recent decisions and the actions of Governments will stop the water level rising any further. He is correct in saying that there is an understanding that we would cede the islands to the Mauritians in the event that they were no longer needed for defence purposes.

I believe this decision to be wrong. I also believe that the FCO has not comported itself well in how this information has come out. This morning I spoke to my constituent, Louis Elyse, who is the leader of the small Chagossian community in Wythenshaw and Sale East. He is utterly heartbroken and said that it was cruel and unusual that the KPMG report gave so much hope only for it to be undermined in such a way by Government yesterday.

It is not entirely fair to say that the KPMG report was undermined by Government. The report gave a whole range of possible scenarios, and consultation then followed. I say again that only 25% of the 832 people who responded after further discussions indicated that they would want to return. These are very, very small numbers that would, under the KPMG report, trigger a very high cost per capita. I very much hope that the package we have announced will benefit those of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents who qualify for assistance as Chagossians. It is on those people on his own doorstep that I would like to concentrate the expenditure of this money. We are very happy, in the FCO and DFID, to discuss how that might take place.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to increase the number of visits to the Chagos Islands, and the package of measures for elderly people who were removed forcibly from the islands. Will he undertake to ensure that priority is given particularly to enabling elderly former residents of the islands to return to see the land of their birth, and their children and other parts of their family to see the beauty of the area?

My hon. Friend puts his finger on a very important element of the support package that has been designed. It is a heritage package, in most respects, such that those who were born there and are still alive can go back and see the place of their birth, while those who are descendants can see the origin of their heritage. I very much hope that an appropriate amount of the £40 million will be directed to that end and will promptly facilitate exactly what he has described.

A study by the coalition Government in 2014-15 concluded that resettlement was possible and affordable if Diego Garcia was involved. What consideration was given to that option? How have we moved from the resettlement that the previous Government decided was a good idea to a statement today that says there will be no resettlement at all?

The link with Diego Garcia as a potential payer, as it were, for all this is illusory, particularly because following consultation and the discussions that followed the KPMG report, it was clear that few, if any, Chagossians really wanted to work on the base.

On the rights of Chagossians, the United Nations has found in their favour in regard to return, and recently the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has found against the UK Government and criticised their policy. Why is the Minister ignoring the view of the United Nations?

We are not ignoring the view of the United Nations, and I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s interpretation. For all the reasons that I have described at length today, this would be an impractical proposal that would not lead to happy lives for those who might choose to go there.

The original decision is a throwback to colonial thinking, and the support package currently on offer does not even match the original discount given to Polaris nuclear missiles, so more money should be made available. More recently, the KPMG report says that it is feasible for Chagossians to return, and despite the Minister’s comments on the quality of life that they would get, the consultation showed that more than 200 of them want to do so. How can the Government decide that they are not allowed to return because they would not get a good enough quality of life?

Because of the expense and, indeed, because they would not get a good quality of life. Only 200 maximum said that they wished to do that, and it is not the case that the KPMG report said that it was straightforwardly feasible. It presented a number of scenarios, most of which came out at a very high cost that could not justify the resettlement of Chagossians on the islands.

I am sure that the Minister knows his history. A couple of hundred years ago, his predecessor would have stood in the same place and assured Parliament that the colony called America could not possibly deliver a decent standard of life to its people. Does not he accept that if the decision whether it is in the interests of islanders to return is made here and they are not given the right to decide, that is a return to the days of the arrogant, colonial, Britain-knows-best days, which should have been consigned to the dustbin of history 100 years ago?

No, because, as I have already said, that right of self-determination is not considered legally to apply. We have gone through all the arguments today and explained why we think that would be impractical. It is better to look to the future and to make sure that the help that the islanders need, wherever they are, be it in Mauritius, the Seychelles or the United Kingdom, is properly given by Her Majesty’s Government.

The Minister’s statement about no right to self-determination will have much wider implications and will be listened to by many people on other islands and rocks around the world. Will he make it clear to those people who may have felt a shiver down their spine when they heard that statement that Her Majesty’s Government do not intend to roll back self-determination anywhere else?

My interpretation of the hon. Gentleman’s question—I think that this will be to his satisfaction—is that he is implicitly also referring to sovereignty. May I make it absolutely clear that questions as to the existence or presence of a population on the British Indian Ocean Territory do not affect our position on sovereignty? We have no doubt whatsoever about our sovereignty of the British Indian Ocean Territory.