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British Indian Ocean Territory

Volume 718: debated on Tuesday 6 April 2010

Private Notice Question

Tabled By

To ask Her Majesty's Government why the Foreign Secretary announced the establishment of a marine protected area in the British Indian Ocean Territory during the Easter Parliamentary Recess.

My Lords, on 1 April 2010, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary announced the creation of a marine protected area in the British Indian Ocean Territory. The decision to establish an MPA was taken following a full public consultation and careful consideration of the many issues and interests involved. The consultation was launched on 10 November 2009, and due to the significant interest shown in the issue, the deadline for response was extended to 5 March 2010. Since the launch of the consultation, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has corresponded extensively with Parliament on this issue, including with the chairs of the FAC and APPG on Chagos. There was also a Westminster Hall debate on 10 March and I myself have corresponded with a number of Members of this House. We believe that the creation of this MPA is a major step forward for protecting the oceans and we will continue to work closely with all interested stakeholders in its implementation.

I thank the Minister for her reminder that this was a 1 April announcement. Does she recall that in the 10 March debate in the other place the Foreign Office Minister who replied promised to keep Parliament informed before a final decision was taken? Does she also recall that the head of the consultation exercise is on record as saying that it would take three months after the closure of the consultation to complete a report? Is she also aware that a European Court of Human Rights assessment is still pending on this and that the Government have not yet given any indication as to how they will manage to enforce this MPA? What then is the hurry, with these many uncompleted consultations and questions, for the Government to rush this out on Maundy Thursday?

I reassure the noble Lord that we intend to continue to work closely with all interested stakeholders, both in the UK and internationally, in implementing the MPA. We have not drawn a line under this and discussions will continue. The UK courts have ruled that ECHR is not applicable in BIOT and the compensation has been paid in full and all claims settled. We are defending our position in Strasbourg on that basis and we believe that the UK has no legal obligations to pay any further compensation.

My Lords, there is a more alarming scenario to explain why the rightful inhabitants of the two Chagos atolls, 130 miles away from the Diego Garcia base, have been kept out. Following the information in the Sunday Times of South Africa last month that Diego Garcia is being prepared for a nuclear or other strike against Iran, can my noble friend assure the House that Diego Garcia will not be used for an assault on Iran and tell us what conditions, if any, have been agreed with the Americans for the use of Diego Garcia?

I reassure my noble friend that the general policy is that we allow the United States to store only what we ourselves would store.

One body feeling that they were not well consulted or worked with over the marine park project are the Government of Mauritius, in whose territory part of the marine park lies. Is the noble Baroness aware of the considerable anger and dismay that has been expressed by Mauritian government authorities about how they were not consulted and not involved in the whole process that the Minister described, and will she comment on that?

My Lords, I am aware that that has caused considerable discussion in the lead-up to an election in Mauritius. They consider the impact on Mauritius to be extremely serious, but the establishment of an MPA would have no effect on our commitment to cede the territory to Mauritius when it is no longer needed for defence purposes. I know that that is a sensitive issue, and, indeed, an election issue, but our commitment to Mauritius remains unaffected.

My Lords, in her Answer, the noble Baroness said that she continued to work closely with all the stakeholders. How will she work closely with the people of the Chagos Islands and, in particular, how can she explain to them that this decision is without prejudice to the rights that may be conferred on them by the decision of the European Court when it takes away their only source of livelihood?

My Lords, following the Law Lords’ ruling of 22 October 2008, which upheld the validity in law of the BIOT (Constitution) Order 2004, there is no right of abode in the territory, although Chagossians will raise the issue of fishing and other rights of employment. I point out that a number of Chagossian people have visited Diego Garcia and have talked to the Americans about possible employment. The case is now at the European Court of Human Rights. As my right honourable friend said in the other place, creation of the MPA is without prejudice to the ongoing proceedings in the European Court of Human Rights. Should circumstances change, all options for a marine protected area, including fishing rights, may need to be reconsidered.

I pointed out in my original Answer that we have had a long period of consultation, where many stakeholders and others have petitioned and given their reasons for their decision on the issue. I point out that about 90 per cent of those who submitted a view to the consultation were in favour of the marine protection area.

Is the Minister aware that this is probably one of the most important conservation decisions that this Government have made in their entire tenure, and is supported globally by many countries? One of the most heartening things about the decision is just how much support there has been from a variety of stakeholders across the globe. The important conservation interest of that area is now secure, thanks to that decision. Is the noble Baroness aware of how much support there is across the world for the decision?

The noble Baroness is right to point out that we are protecting an area of outstanding natural beauty which, in terms of presentation and biodiversity, is among the richest on the planet. The UK has created one of the largest marine protected areas and has doubled the coverage of the world's oceans benefiting from protection. I confirm that the BIOT Administration will take the MPA forward so that that is achieved in a realistic, sustainable and affordable way.

My Lords, can the Minister explain what impact the declaration of an MPA will have on the operations of the US base on Diego Garcia and how the United Kingdom will ensure that the Americans observe these conditions, given how very few British personnel there are in Diego Garcia?

In 1966 an exchange of notes with the United States made the whole archipelago available for the defence purposes of both Governments as they may arise. This remains the case, and the United States has continued to confirm it on a number of occasions with our Government. The Prime Minister has said that our treaty obligation with the US requires us to maintain sovereignty over the whole of the archipelago.