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British Indian Ocean Territory

Volume 723: debated on Tuesday 14 December 2010

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, further to the Written Answer by Lord Howell of Guildford on 28 October (WA 326-7), on what they spent the £1.5 million allocated to the British Indian Ocean Territory fund in 2009-10.

My Lords, the £1.5 million allocated to the British Indian Ocean Territory Administration was used to offset some of the costs of running the territory’s patrol vessel. The patrol vessel has helped to enforce the fisheries regime, and now it will enforce the marine protected area. It is also an important tool to help ensure the security of the territory and to enforce environmental and other regulations which apply in the British Indian Overseas Territory. The vessel has hosted groups of Chagossians in recent visits to the outer islands of the territory.

I thank the Minister for that very detailed Answer. Can I ask him about two further economies? Now that what the Times has described as “petty manoeuvres” by officials to keep the Chagossians from their home have been exposed, could not Her Majesty's Government be brave enough to save the legal costs of the European court case—about £5 million, I think—and start the process of return for these unfairly exiled people? Secondly, does he agree with me that the vast majority of the world’s marine protected areas have allowed the original inhabitants to remain there to help with the conservation work?

The noble Baroness, who follows these matters very closely, has raised a number of important issues. I think that one has to reject the talk of manoeuvres to keep Chagossians from their home. Fundamental and very difficult dilemmas must be faced by those who have the responsibility, or who want to take on the responsibility, of deciding how to solve this problem. The matter is before the European Court of Human Rights at the moment, and remains before it, and that is our position. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has said that we continue to examine this policy in detail, and that is what we will do, but the fundamental position that we take was, I think, taken exactly by the previous Administration as well and is based on some very difficult but hard realities about both our needs for defence and the rights of those concerned.

My Lords, will my noble friend ask the Americans to agree to the publication of the minutes of the politico-military discussion with US officials in October 2009 in so far as they covered the return of the Chagossians to their outer islands? Does he agree that, despite attempts by the FCO to ventriloquise the Americans into making a statement that even a small number of Man Fridays—as they contemptuously refer to the inhabitants—would jeopardise military operations at the base, the Americans have said nothing official on that subject since President Obama took office?

I do not think that I can comment on the WikiLeak gossip that has circulated around the globe. Much of it is very inaccurate or taken completely out of context, so I would not like to comment further on those matters.

I declare an interest as the vice-chairman of the all-party group that was described by a foreign official in WikiLeaks as being persistent but non-influential. The Minister mentioned defence. In our last meeting with Mr Henry Bellingham on 15 November, I mentioned to him a letter that we had had from Mr Lawrence Korb, former Assistant Secretary of Defence in America, who said that there was no good national security reason for not allowing the Chagossians to return to Chagos, including Diego Garcia. Is that the view of the Foreign Office as well?

The view of the Foreign Office is embodied in the fact that we are involved in the case at the European Court of Human Rights, and we are really not in a position to comment further except to say that we stand by the arguments and the justifications that lead us to remain in that position in the legal process. As I said, my right honourable friend has said in another place that we continue to examine this in detail and to look at the policy, but I cannot offer the noble Lord anything other than to say that the case is before the European Court of Human Rights, that the arguments are on the table there and that this matter has to be resolved there.

As another member of that non-influential parliamentary group, I ask the Minister whether he is not concerned that it appears that Foreign Office officials have managed to irritate both the Mauritian Government and the United States Government by using the marine protection agency as a cover for denying the Chagossians the right to return.

I do not know where my noble friend gets this concept of a cover from, except presumably from WikiLeaks. There is no question of a cover; they are completely separate issues. However, when it comes to handling them, we are concerned because we have inherited a situation in which there was certainly a lot of misunderstanding and even ill feeling between us and the Mauritian Government. We are very anxious to talk to the Mauritians again and to try to handle this matter better than it has been handled in the past.

My Lords, has the Foreign Office had the opportunity, since the coalition came into office, to discuss this issue directly with the United States Government?

There are ongoing discussions with the United States Government about this and other matters related to broad defence needs and to the particular problems we are discussing today. So the answer is yes: discussions have been ongoing at various levels.

Does the noble Lord agree that the European court is likely to decide in favour of the Chagossians and that it is high time that the Foreign Office prepared for the massive compensation scheme which will arise and to forecast where the money will come from? The money cannot come from Mauritius, and we have the responsibility.

I cannot possibly speculate on the outcome of a legal process—but the noble Earl has rightly pointed to one of the possible outcomes should it go a certain way, which has a really vast implication in terms of resources.