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British Indian Ocean Territory

Volume 749: debated on Wednesday 27 November 2013

Question for Short Debate

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have for the future of the British Indian Ocean Territory.

My Lords, I will not rehearse the tragic story of the exile of the Chagossians again. Numerous Hansard references can do that. I will just remind your Lordships that it was an acknowledged fundamental injustice—acknowledged not least by the present Government.

As the noble Lord, Lord Luce, said in the most recent parliamentary mention on 17 October:

“This remains a blot on our copybook which we must rectify”.—[Official Report, 17/10/13; col. 695.]

I am very pleased that he will speak tonight, and I look forward to the contributions of my friends the noble Lords, and my noble friends. The noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, added that it was,

“contrary to the core values … in the Commonwealth charter”.—[Official Report, 17/10/13; col. 703]

Their views are shared all round this House and very widely in the media, including the Times and ConservativeHome, so all efforts to put all or part of this injustice right will be widely welcomed.

The Minister will be aware that five years ago an all-party parliamentary group, of which I am a member, was established to press for justice. It will have its 40th meeting on 17 December. I congratulate the chair, my honourable friend Jeremy Corbyn, for his unshakeable determination to restore the rights of the Chagossian people, and our indefatigable co-ordinator, David Snoxell, whose advice has been unfailingly constructive. On 17 December we shall have something to celebrate: the latest step in the progress that has been made since the Foreign Secretary’s announcement 11 months ago that he would take stock of the policy on resettlement. I commend the Minister, Mark Simmonds, for the publication on 19 November of the draft terms of reference for a new feasibility study into the resettlement of the Chagos Islands.

The draft terms are thorough, far-reaching, objective and imaginative. It is a very good start to have a wide range of options and a comprehensive analysis of factors, including environmental, social, economic and legal. I am very pleased to see that the legal section explicitly includes human rights. Clearly the Foreign Office is not frightened, like some, of using these words, part of our core native values. Incidentally, Magna Carta, too, has something to say about wrongful exile. This draft, in fact, implicitly acknowledges the violation of the human rights of the Chagossians. The reasoning for the abolition of the rights of return and abode in 2004 has now largely been discredited by this whole new approach, so they should be restored.

I was particularly taken by the possibility that the British Indian Ocean Territory could become a new model for sustainable development. I remind noble Lords that the UK’s latest marine protected area, in the Pitcairn Islands, will seek to employ the people living there to maintain it. That is surely the right model, rather than depopulating it of its rightful inhabitants.

It was very good to see emphasis on possible resettlement on Diego Garcia. I assume that there must have been some prior consultation with the United States, which is also progress and will be supported everywhere. The commitment to wide consultation, especially with the Chagossians, is also to be commended. Can the noble Baroness assure me that Mauritius will also be consulted?

As to costs, I would demur from the assumption in the draft that these fall solely to the UK. I myself established with Commissioner Piebalgs of the European Union—through the offices of my noble friend Lady Ashton, which is not the only good thing she has done recently—that the UK would be eligible for resettlement funds for the Chagos Islanders, and it is not unrealistic to expect contributions from the international community, the American Government or, modestly, the Commonwealth. Let us not give up before asking.

When we come to the timeframe, let us remember that this most welcome progress has not been rapid. The Foreign Secretary’s commitment to work towards a just solution was first made in March 2010, over three years ago. On the timetable proposed, it looks as if the terms of reference will not be in final form until next year, to be followed by a period for selecting the consultants, so that the study might not be ready until just before the election in 2015. This is a risk. I understand that following the completed study, there will be a policy review into which it will feed. This, of course, will go wider, and include, for instance, renegotiation of the 1966 UK/US agreement, sovereignty and future management of the marine protected area.

There really must be a solution before the election. I urge Her Majesty’s Government to shorten this timetable to get it in well before the election. Can the noble Baroness advise her colleagues that procedures should be simplified where possible so that it takes six not 12 months; that the consultants should be chosen by the quickest appropriate means rather than lengthy tender; and that experts be identified without delay? These must, of course, be drawn from specialists in small island development, familiar with the culture, strengths and history of the Chagossians. I ask for the Minister’s response to these points, if not now, in a letter.

We have come a long way from the lament of the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, the noble Baroness’s predecessor at the Dispatch Box, answering my late noble friend Lord Brockway—Fenner Brockway—on 11 November 1982, that,

“the departure of the Ilois from the island settlements must have been a sad and distressing occasion”.—[Official Report, 11/11/82; col. 411.]

That is a far cry from the present Foreign Secretary’s admirable statement that,

“it is not in our character as a nation to have a foreign policy without a conscience, and neither is it in our interests”.

But it has taken too long to get there and we still need to make up for that.

My Lords, I congratulate warmly the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, on securing this debate and on all the hard work that she has put into securing a just solution for the problems of the Chagos Islands and their inhabitants over many years.

I agree with the noble Baroness in welcoming the feasibility study on resettlement of the Chagos Islands announced by the Government last week, and I also agree with her that the consultants should be invited to produce their final report in time for the policy review to be carried out, and conclusions reached on it, before the 2015 general election campaign. That was the view expressed by the Chagossians themselves in their response to the initial consultation published by the FCO in September, and by the chairman of the All-Party Group on the Chagos Islands in a letter to the Foreign Secretary of 16 July—a reply to which, I am sorry to say, has yet to be received.

One would hope that there would be consensus between the political parties on the absolute right of the inhabitants to return to the homeland from which their ancestors were unlawfully evicted almost half a century ago. Certainly, my right honourable friend the Deputy Prime Minister has always been strongly supportive of the rights of the Chagossians, and I am sure that he would have a major input into the policy review if it took place this side of the election. I can say much the same about the right honourable gentleman the Foreign Secretary, who was always supportive of the rights of the Chagossians when his party was in opposition. I therefore hope that when the policy review is conducted the coalition will come to the conclusion that we all hope for: namely, that the Chagossians should have that right of return. However, if the feasibility study does not take place this side of the election and the review has not been held by the time the campaign begins, the principle of those rights, and the attitude of the parties to it, would obviously be factors to be considered by the British electorate in deciding how to vote in 2015.

The only factor mentioned in the ministerial Statement as needing to be considered, other than the practicality of resettlement, is whether the presence of the Ilois on the outer islands, 140 miles from Diego Garcia, would have any adverse effects on the operations of the US base. We know from WikiLeaks that the US embassy did not respond to an FCO request to,

“affirm that the USG requires the entire BIOT for defense purposes”.

The embassy received the famous assurance from the FCO’s director of overseas territories, Colin Roberts, that there would be no “Man Fridays” on the BIOT’s uninhabited islands. It would be useful if the Government would now cancel that 2009 undertaking and obtain an assurance from the Americans that they would have no objections under the UK/US 1966 exchange of letters to a repopulation of the outer islands. There is no reason why this clarification should be deferred until the feasibility study has reported, as the ministerial Statement appears to suggest. The obvious peg for the matter to be settled is when the 1966 agreement comes up for renewal in 2014.

Picking up the point made by the noble Baroness, there is no mention of Mauritius being consulted at the stage when preliminary views were sought on the feasibility study, in spite of the fact that we are committed to returning the islands to Mauritian sovereignty when they are no longer required for defence purposes. Yet we are nearing the point when major decisions will be made about the future of the Chagossian people and of the Chagos Islands, in which it is inconceivable that Mauritius, as the future sovereign power, would not be involved.

There is an appeal pending in a case brought by Mauritius against the UK under the international Convention on the Law of the Sea, to be heard in mid-2014, which is indirectly about the UK’s failure to consult Mauritius on the declaration of the BIOT as a marine protected area—the motivation for which, as we now know from the WikiLeaks cable, was to make resettlement impossible.

There is also an appeal to be heard in March 2014, in a case brought by Monsieur Olivier Bancoult on behalf of the Chagossians, challenging the consultation process on the MPA, where the High Court had ruled that the WikiLeaks cables were inadmissible as evidence. It would be a disaster for justice, not just for the Chagossians, if this decision was upheld, but I hope that neither of these cases will be used as a reason for boycotting the Mauritians now, thereby risking further litigation in the future.

As my noble friend is aware from our correspondence, I strongly believe that we should attempt to engage Mauritius in a dialogue about the future management of the islands and of the MPA, both of which will ultimately be its responsibility. Certainly, Mauritius should be invited to comment on the draft terms of reference for the feasibility study, including in particular the proposed timeframe, which was discussed so ably by the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker.

I also suggest that to help break the ice, the new BIOT science adviser, Dr Mark Spalding, who seems ideally suited to the task, along with scientists on the BIOT Science Advisory Group, should have a meeting with their Mauritian counterparts to discuss a joint approach to the MPA and the science of Chagos, sharing data, current research and scientific measurements. The draft terms of reference of the feasibility study make it clear that the MPA can be amended. Revising it now, in consultation with Mauritius and with the Chagossians to take account of their interests, would potentially save much trouble in the future.

My Lords, like the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, for introducing this debate, particularly at this time, in the light of the Government’s decision—a good decision—to have a wide-ranging feasibility study on the future of the Chagossians.

I think that it was in early 1982, when I was a Minister of State at the Foreign Office and had responsibilities for the African continent and the Indian Ocean, that I paid my first visit to Mauritius. When we landed, we were the only aeroplane at the airport. I came down the steps and the high commissioner whisked me away. At that point, I noticed that there were some 2,000 people at the airport. I expressed surprise that for one aeroplane there should be 2,000 people and I asked him why they were there. He said, “That’s a demonstration”. I said, “A demonstration against whom?” He said, “A demonstration against you”. So I said, “Look, if there’s a demonstration, the important thing is to meet the leaders. Please lay on the demonstration again and ask them to demonstrate again”.

They demonstrated the next day outside the high commission. I invited the five leaders, five marvellous Chagossian ladies, to come in and have tea. That was the first time that I realised that what we had done in the late 1960s and early 1970s by expelling 1,500 people, going back two, three and even four generations, was a really black mark for our country. It was serious abuse of human rights. I very much regret that, because I decided with the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, to resign very soon after that, I did not do more about the issue at that time.

I believe that the issue has undermined our voice in the case that we put for human rights all over the world. If we are going to argue for upholding the Commonwealth charter on core values, which we do, we have to be able to say that we are strong, in our own country and in our own foreign policy, on respecting human rights. Last week, on 21 November, we had a splendid debate, led by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in which I could not take part, on human rights all round the world. When we do that, we need occasionally to pause to remember that we abuse human rights from time to time. In this case, we have, and we need to put it right.

I commend the Government for taking this action. I commend the Foreign Secretary and Mr Simmonds, the Minister, and the previous Minister for Africa and the Indian Ocean, Mr Bellingham, for the thought that they have given to this issue and for the way in which they are searching for a way forward. We should also remember the late Robin Cook, who, in 2000, restored the right of return, which was then abrogated in 2004. He should be remembered for that.

As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, said, as the Government have now taken the lead on that issue, it is also essential that they should decide on the way forward before the 2015 election. As the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said, the critical factor is that, under the 1966 exchange of letters between the United States and the United Kingdom on Diego Garcia and the British Indian Ocean Territory, the idea was that after the completion of 50 years, renewal for another 20 years from 2016 would be considered. This is the critical factor in why decisions need to be taken speedily. There would not be adequate time between the summer of 2015 and the renewal, if there is to be one, in Diego Garcia in 2016, for a new Government to give proper consideration to all those issues. The time span would be too short.

I should like to mention three aspects of this that are relevant to the timing. First, there is the feasibility study, which is admirably broad-ranging. It is imaginative and takes into account every facet of the issue, looking at all the options, costs, environmental issues, employment, political and economic issues, the fishing problem—which is very important to the Chagossians—ecotourism, and so on. Against that background, as the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, said, there is the study by the Foreign Office of the bigger issues to do with the future of the British Indian Ocean Territory, the future of the marine protection area, the sovereignty issues, resettlement of the Chagossians and relations with the United States and Mauritius.

I agree that it is very necessary that the feasibility study should be completed speedily, preferably by mid-2014, to give time for the Government to have discussions with the United States and Mauritius, after the completion of the study but before the election. That means speeding things up. That is why this debate is important.

The second issue is our relations with the United States and the need, in my view, for informal discussions, even at this stage, before the study is completed. Both the United Kingdom and the United States need to understand the mutual parameters on this issue that we have to live with. In the past two or three years, during my visits to Washington, I have called in on the State Department. On all occasions, I have asked where it stands on Diego Garcia and the British Indian Ocean Territory. One positive answer that I have always had is that the United States is prepared seriously to consider the employment of Chagossians in Diego Garcia itself, if that is what Chagossians want.

Where there may be a problem—this would be for discussion with the British Government—is over security issues, if there is any arrangement made by the British Government for the outer islands, 150 miles or so from Diego Garcia, to be settled. Even then, the State Department says, “If the British Government put a proposition to us, we would certainly be concerned about security but we would look at it seriously”. We need to facilitate things by having informal discussions with the United States now, rather than leaving it until later.

My last point is about Mauritius. I entirely agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, said. We need to engage; we need a diplomatic dialogue. After all, Mauritius is a strong partner of ours in the Commonwealth. It is a former colony. We therefore have very strong links. It is an old friend of ours, and we have a common interest in the issues that have recently been discussed at CHOGM in Sri Lanka about maintenance of human rights in Sri Lanka itself. That is an important factor. We have common ground on human rights issues. Relations between the British Government and Mauritius have soured over the past three or four years. That is a pity. It is largely due to the imposition of the marine protection area, just before the previous Government lost office, without any proper discussion with the Mauritian Government.

We need to restore good relations with Mauritius. We need to have a good dialogue. I hope that the Minister can say something about that. After all, when we eventually decide—as we will at some point—that sovereignty over the British Indian Ocean Territory should be handed back to the Mauritians, it will be fundamental for them. It is essential that they are regarded as a vital player in any Chagossian solution. Many questions need to be covered, such as the future of the Chagossians, the possibility of co-management of the outer islands and sovereignty issues. We are all aware that there is a legal appeal at the moment against the marine protection area, but it would be much better if we could pursue a dialogue and get talking about how it may evolve in the longer term.

I congratulate the Government on what they have done. I hope that they will move forward urgently with things—particularly the feasibility study—and, at the end of the day, will get the credit for finding a solution before the next election.

My Lords, it is good that my noble friend Lady Whitaker has raised the plight and the future of the Ilois as, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Luce, a considerable black mark on our late colonial history, which has been revealed in documents provided for various court cases. Of course, the Ministers and civil servants involved are now either dead or retired. Most of the Ilois have no personal knowledge of life on the islands. Things have moved on remarkably from that black mark in the late 1960s. We should perhaps partially understand the problems of those decision-makers in the context of the Cold War. Strategically, our ally, the US, needed a secure base, and the local population was cleared—indeed, sacrificed—to provide that. Successive UK Governments have since ignored the problem, except when forced to take note during litigation.

Of course, more weight is now given to the case for the islanders, but the strategic importance of the islands to the US remains: a secure base within easy distance of that most volatile region, the Middle East. Presumably the United States will wish to renew the lease in 2016. It will have to be fully consulted on future plans as, as all colleagues have said, will the Government of Mauritius. Hence, I ask: have the US authorities given any clear indication that they are prepared to be helpful not only in employment of those Ilois who so wish but, for example, in the use of the airfield to supply those Ilois who choose to return?

The complex history is set out very well in last December’s decision of the European Court of Human Rights, where proceedings started almost 10 years ago. There have been many excuses over the years. The first is that there is no settled population, only migrant workers. That was shown conclusively to be false. The second was that adequate compensation was offered and accepted as full and final settlement. That was confirmed by the courts and, indeed, the European court. Global warming and rising sea levels make a return to some of the islands precarious. Again, there is the excuse that since the evacuation the Ilois have been given the opportunity to settle in the UK, with all the benefits of life in a developed country. Will life under the palm trees be attractive, particularly to the younger generation who have seen the bright lights of the West? Questions must be asked about the viability of the old way of life, as described in another context by Arthur Grimble in A Pattern Of Islands, which was about his work in the Gilbert and Ellis Islands. Perhaps he romanticised a rather benign colonial rule, with indigenous people waiting for the coconuts to fall from the trees and the fish to enter their nets.

Now we approach the end game. The UK Government deserve congratulations on accepting their responsibilities. A feasibility study will take place, so in perhaps less than 18 months the Ilois will know their future. I adopt what has been said; it must ideally be done before the election. We must recall that a similar study in 2004, nine years ago, concluded as follows:

“whilst it may be feasible to resettle the islands in the short-term, the costs of maintaining long-term inhabitation are likely to be prohibitive … resettlement is likely to become less feasible over time”.

Well, time has passed and the question for the feasibility study is whether that statement remains true.

I have met representatives of the Ilois over the years and have enjoyed their hospitality, having met them socially in Mauritius. I have listened sympathetically to their justified complaints but I am troubled by one key consideration. They have been in exile now for perhaps almost 50 years and it is tempting when forced into exile, as they have been, to have a rather rosy view of life before that exile. How long would such a memory survive, in the potentially harsh and isolated reality?

Although opinions vary, it is said conclusively that most Ilois wish to return. There is of course a cost. There will be renewed infrastructure and modern facilities—those which they have enjoyed in the West and in Mauritius, such as hospitals, schools, drinking water and energy—will have to be provided. Is settlement likely to be precarious in the medium and long term? How will the Ilois be supplied by air and by sea? How far will the US be constrained for security reasons in any help that it can provide? What will be the nature and extent of the consultation with the Government of Mauritius? Will the clear majority for settling in BIOT survive the change for long, particularly for any younger people who “return” but have never been to the islands? What jobs will there be on the US base? Will there be scope for eco-tourism?

I concede of course that these are all questions for the feasibility study. It is important that the independent experts be appointed as soon as possible, because there must be a limited field of experts in this esoteric area of small island development. Perhaps a staged return is called for, with a small pilot project. The problem there is that the people who are likely to return will be those most enthused about and committed to the prospect of return. If they stay there for a relatively short time, it is hardly a case for spending vast sums on the infrastructure.

After almost 50 years, the problem certainly bristles with complexities but I am glad that our Government have at last recognised their responsibility. I hope that as a result of regular consultation with the islanders, they will get a clearer picture of the options. Surely, a just solution can be found consistent with both the wishes of the islanders—the Ilois—and their interests. That is what they deserve, as a grave injustice has been done to them over the past decades.

My Lords, about an hour and a half ago a charming lady came up to me and said, “I wonder if I could persuade you to speak in my debate”. It was the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker. I realised that the rest of my party had gone off to some smart dinner, while I was going to eat quietly here, but what the noble Baroness did not know is that I have a great affection for Mauritius.

When I was in the banking world we dealt with most of the world’s countries, including the Commonwealth ones, and I used to allocate Easter for an adventure and take my small son with me. One year, that adventure was to Mauritius to see whether we could help it compete with the Seychelles on tourism. I happened to mention it to Lord Jellicoe, who was the Leader of the House. He said, “They’ve got sugar over there. Go and have a look round, will you?”. Anyway, I went with my family, including my five year-old son.

I arrived at the airport to find a crowd there, rather as it was for the noble Lord, Lord Luce. The crowd was clapping, cheering and waving and a man came up to me and said, “How nice to meet you. My name’s Ramgoolam—I am the premier. How nice of you to come. Have you come to look into sugar? But why don’t you enjoy yourself on holiday? I’ve made a booking for you in a hotel and here’s my driver Dypoo, who will take you around and show you things”. We had a really wonderful time and 10 years later, Dypoo became one of my international spies—he was driving the ambassadors in Washington. However, I fell in love with the place. It was not really the most suitable for sugar but, at that time, tourism was on the make. The Seychelles had grabbed everything, rather as the Maldives have now, and Mauritius was a bit flat. However, we happened to own Thomas Cook and managed to do some help out there.

Being an islander, I have always had affection for islands. I love the sea and coastlines. One thing I keep citing in your Lordships’ House is that if you take the coastlines of the Commonwealth, it has 60% of the total in the world. In the Mauritian area of the Indian Ocean there are 112,000 kilometres of coastline. What do the seas mean to us? In fact, they mean fish, which is effectively one of the highest added-value products in the world at the moment. Your Lordships will be aware that illegal fishing is now estimated to be at between $10 billion and $24 billion per annum, and that there is worry about the depletion of fish stocks. Going with that illegal fishing, there is then the piracy and extortion taking place worldwide. If you take a view of the islands in that part of the world, it becomes quite a significant business.

I speak of Mauritius but I do not know the other islands. I have them all plotted on a map; I have the coastlines and the population of each, the distances they cover, whether the coral is good or not and whether any underground cables were laid there. But it is an important place as a staging post, as the United States reckons. We should not forget that RAF Gan, as I think it was called, used to be there. As an island nation, dependent on the sea and with our own large fishing fleet, we cannot ignore it. At the moment, our own fleet is 21% of the world’s fleet and has 27% of its gross tonnage. Mauritius has 49 vessels totalling 53,000 tonnes.

It is in the maritime sector that we could attach much importance to our relationship with this place, which I love and to which I would like to find a reason to go back again. There was a moment there when I saw someone on a stick and a bit of board, windsurfing. I had never seen a windsurfer before. In a short time, I had fallen in again and again but there was my small son, aged five, windsurfing on the back of some door or other with a Mauritian boy. I fell in love with that place, as I do with any islands. When I look at the whole Indian Ocean I say that we should have a political, economic and commercial strategy of our own. The Indian Ocean is important. I have not come to piracy yet, which is a favourite subject, but that will be for another day.

My Lords, how marvellous it was to hear about the fantastic trips the noble Lord, Lord Selsdon, took to Mauritius. I hope that one day I will be able to do the same. I congratulate my noble friend Lady Whitaker on securing this debate and on her commitment to this important cause.

Britain has always considered itself to be a country where fair play is important, where the rule of law is respected and where rights are enforced, but there is a land far away which should prick the nation’s moral conscience, in the unfair treatment meted out to the inhabitants of the Chagos Islands, otherwise known as the British Indian Ocean Territory, by the UK Government.

This group of 54 individual tropical islands was home to around 1,500 people—the Chagossians—for more than a century and a half. The UK Government evicted them in the early 1970s in order to allow the United States to build a military base on Diego Garcia, the largest island in the area. This is now the only island which is inhabited and it is inhabited only by US military and civilian contracted personnel.

Today only around 700 Chagossians survive, scattered around the globe following their forced exit from the island. Many are living in profound poverty and are still reeling and suffering severe psychological problems from their sense of dislocation and from being separated from their homeland. This is a complicated story interwoven with imperialist overtones, environmental concerns, military and defence considerations, costs concerns, compensation claims and an unfolding tragedy of a people wronged.

The 1966 exchange of notes between the UK and the US, which led to the forced evacuation of the island, can be extended for a further 20 years in 2016, but with a provision for termination in 2014 so, as the noble Lord, Lord Luce, suggested, now is a good time to reassess what should happen next.

A number of the islanders still yearn for the opportunity to go back to their native land. I therefore begin by welcoming the fact that the Government will commission a new feasibility study on the resettlement of the British Indian Ocean Territory. The draft terms of the study are comprehensive and thorough. There are some difficult issues to assess in the feasibility study. The Government will be aware that the Labour Government in 2000 also commissioned a study to assess to what extent it would be feasible for the outer islands to be reinhabited. I am afraid that the report concluded that resettlement was not feasible. As time has passed, many have concluded that some of the findings, in particular the scientific predictions relating to climate change, have proved not to have been accurate. While welcoming the new study, I first ask the Minister: are there any other significant factors which have changed since 2000 to make the Government think that this study will come to a different conclusion from the one commissioned in 2000?

The first obstacle to overcome would be the renegotiation of the terms of the agreement with the US defence authorities, which have an agreed right to use the island. I am sure it is not beyond the wit of the US defence force to live alongside, or to protect their base from, the Chagos Islanders. They seem to manage fairly well in Guantanamo, where they have lived side by side with the Cubans for decades. Who knows, it might even be helpful for the US to employ some of the islanders at its base.

Beyond that, in theory it would be fairly simple to allow the Chagossians to return—to simply say, “Yes, home you go”—but the real question and issue is: what would they be going home to? What, if any, is our responsibility in the UK to the islanders and their standard of living, in particular in view of the fact that successive UK Governments have undertaken to cede the territory to Mauritius when it is no longer needed for defence purposes? Will the Minister confirm that the current Government also agree that the islands should be transferred to Mauritius at some future date?

There is very little on the islands. The islanders led a basic existence prior to 1966 with very little infrastructure in place, just a few schools and clinics. The marine protection area status which has been granted to the waters around the islands in recent years would have to be developed and adjusted to allow artisanal fishing, as already happens outside the marine protection area around Diego Garcia. The costs of resettlement and a clear understanding by all sides of what resettlement will entail must be explored in the feasibility study, and we must be sensitive in what we ask of the British taxpayer in a time of austerity. However, I urge the Government to heed the advice given by my noble friend Lady Whitaker and explore fully the opportunities for the costs of resettlement to be shared between other interested Governments, the EU and the US.

There are significant risks associated with resettlement, including an understanding that most of the islanders who left in the late 1960s will be well over 60 years of age, and there will be very little access to healthcare. These people may not want to settle on the island; they may want simply to visit the country of their birth. At the very least, the opportunity to visit is surely something which should be explored in the feasibility study.

It is, however, also an opportunity to be creative in what could be offered. Will the Minister say whether the designation of the seas surrounding the islands as a marine protection area will be seen as a threat or an opportunity, and who will make the judgment on this? Will the consultants appointed to make the recommendation be given any kind of political steer?

We welcome the fact that there will be ongoing consultation with stakeholders before the document is finalised, in particular with the Chagossian community. I echo the suggestion that the consultation should be extended to the Mauritians.

Finally, I echo my noble friend Lady Whitaker’s concerns about the speed of the process. There is a suggestion that the feasibility study will take at least 18 months to conclude. It need not take that long. We will be nudging right up against the general election, so will the Minister undertake to ensure that Her Majesty’s Opposition are consulted on the final wording of the terms of reference prior to its commissioning?

My Lords, I begin by expressing my thanks to the noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, for highlighting the important issue of the future of the British Indian Ocean Territory. I am grateful for the important contribution she makes through her membership of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Chagos Islands, and I am sure many noble Lords share her deep interest.

I will therefore focus on the Chagos Islands and the question of the resettlement of the islanders after their compulsory evacuation in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This Government have expressed regret about the way the resettlement was carried out at that time, and we do not seek to justify those actions or excuse the conduct of an earlier generation. What happened was clearly wrong, and therefore it was right to pay substantial compensation. Both the British courts and the European Court of Human Rights have confirmed that compensation has been paid in full and final settlement.

Decisions about the future of the British Indian Ocean Territory are more difficult. Successive Governments have opposed resettlement on the grounds of feasibility and defence. Noble Lords will recognise that we must be honest about the challenges and concerns. In 2000, we looked at the practical challenges of returning the Chagossians to the territory permanently, concluding that it would be precarious and entail expensive underwriting by the British Government for an open-ended period.

However, the Government recognise the strength of feeling on this issue and are not dogmatic. In December, my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary announced that we would review our policy, and my honourable friend Mark Simmonds announced in July that we intend to commission a new study into the feasibility of resettlement. Officials from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office consulted extensively with more than 400 members of the Chagossian community and their supporters on that issue over the summer. Views within Chagossian communities varied widely on the issue of resettlement. Although a majority expressed a preference to return to the territory, many concerns and issues were highlighted which this study will need to consider carefully.

The Government have taken these views into account in shaping the proposed terms of reference for the study which we published, as announced by my honourable friend Mark Simmonds, on 19 November. We will continue to consult widely throughout the review, sharing emerging findings as the study develops and seeking views so that all relevant factors are taken into consideration. I will make sure that the Opposition are informed of that.

The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, and the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, asked about the 2002 study and what had changed. We have no reason to doubt the 2002 study conclusions, which showed that lasting settlement would be precarious and would entail expensive underwriting by the UK Government. However, the Government recognise the strength of feeling on this issue and that others believe that resettlement could feasibly be carried out. It is therefore right that we look at this issue again.

The noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, and the noble Lord, Lord Anderson, asked whether the US had agreed to the study. The territory is British and our policy there is a matter for us. We have of course kept the US closely informed on progress, and we welcome the US presence on Diego Garcia, which is important. We consider it to be a significant and important strategic asset, both to us and to them.

The noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, also spoke about the policy review in relation to Diego Garcia. This policy review will deal with the issue of resettlement. Ministers’ decisions on this issue will bring helpful clarity to both sides in time for discussions on the continuation of the 1966 UK/US agreement. We are clear about the sovereignty of the islands.

The noble Lord, Lord Avebury, asked whether the feasibility study would also include Diego Garcia. We said in the Written Ministerial Statement announcing the terms of reference for the study that a key factor for Ministers to assess when considering the study will be the ability of a military base to continue and to be able to function undisturbed within each option being considered. The study will bring helpful clarity to a range of issues when we begin substantive discussions with the US Government on the successor agreement to the exchange of notes which govern the use of the island.

The noble Lord, Lord Luce, my noble friend Lord Avebury and the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, asked about the handover of the island and the role of Mauritius. We are of course keen to return to constructive dialogue with Mauritius on the British Indian Ocean Territory and have invited the Mauritian Government to input their views on the study’s terms of reference. The study is of course without prejudice to ongoing legal proceedings which the UK is defending. We will not be making concessions on sovereignty.

My noble friend Lord Avebury also asked about a joint scientific committee, and potential for joint work between Mauritius and the British Indian Ocean Territory. We welcome the engagement of Mauritian scientists in helping the scientific community better understand the unique and pristine environment of the British Indian Ocean Territory, and in the scientific structures co-ordinating that science.

The Government are acutely aware of the need to make progress on implementing this important study. Officials are taking forward the procurement process so that we can start the study promptly and, to that end, a supplier will be appointed from a selection of those that have already competed for a place on an HM Government framework agreement, rather than a full tender. We must, however, ensure the best value for money and access to a range of credible suppliers so that the right product is delivered.

The noble Baroness, Lady Whitaker, stressed the need for speed. We recognise the desire for speed, but that should not detract from our ability to conduct a thorough review which draws on the best possible expertise. By using an existing, pre-competed, government framework in order to benefit from a streamlined route for purchasing consultancy services, we are deploying the quickest timeframe possible. It is our intention to complete the study within 12 months of appointing a consultant. The previous study took 18 months to complete. That study and other relevant background material will need to be considered as part of the new review.

The noble Lord, Lord Anderson, outlined practical concerns and difficulties that could come from a resettlement. We have not set any parameters in predetermining whether or not resettlement would be feasible. We have said that it will not prejudice the outcome of the study and that we will publish the study in its entirety. However, we recognise the challenges to resettlement, especially of low-lying islands.

It is important for us to get this work right. This study is a complex one. It will require expertise in a range of issues such as the infrastructure, amenities and economic sustainability for a modern community. It will also consider the impact on the unique environment of the British Indian Ocean Territory. The selected consultants will draw on the advice of independent experts where they do not have that expertise themselves. In assessing the potential options for resettlement, the Government will wish to balance a range of factors, including whether they could be accommodated without inhibiting the operation of the existing military base. In addition, I am sure that noble Lords will agree that the study must also capture the full costs of any resettlement options, associated risks and the costs of mitigating them, to make an informed decision.

To conclude, I reassure the House that, while it is the Government’s intention to complete the study as quickly as possible and to ensure value for money, all relevant issues will be properly considered. However, the Government will not prejudge the outcome. It will be for Ministers to make their assessment after completion of the study.

The challenges to resettlement of these islands after all these years are very real. Nevertheless, the Government recognise the interest of Members of this House and the importance of a renewed debate on this issue. That has been an important aspect of that consideration. I will continue to keep the House informed and updated as the feasibility study progresses.

House adjourned at 8.26 pm.