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Chagos Islands

Volume 776: debated on Thursday 17 November 2016


My Lords, I shall now repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer to an Urgent Question tabled in another place on the Chagos Islands and the British Indian Ocean Territory. The Answer was as follows:

“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 British Indian Ocean Territory in the late 1960s and indeed the early 1970s. It is right that the UK Government should have paid substantial compensation to Chagossians—nearly £15.5 million in current prices. 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, however, 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, including with an independent feasibility study of the practicalities of resettlement and a public consultation, which sought to better 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 it 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 be difficult for any new population, and especially for elderly Chagossians returning to the islands; and there would also be a lack of realistic economic opportunities. The Government have now considered all the available information and decided against resettlement of the Chagossian people, on the grounds of feasibility, defence and security interests, and the cost to the British taxpayer.

While we have ruled out resettlement, the Government are determined to address the aspirations of Chagossians that drove them to seek to resettle: for instance, the desire for better lives and to maintain a connection with the territory. In order to meet those aspirations, the Government are creating a significant and ambitious support programme to provide Chagossians with better life chances and are 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 cost-effective programmes which will make the biggest improvement in the life chances of those Chagossians who need it most”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Statement. Yesterday’s decision is nothing less than a fundamental denial of the human rights of the people of the Chagos Islands. Their hopes were raised with the publication of the KPMG report about feasibility and those hopes and aspirations have, I fear, been cruelly dashed. On the issue of feasibility, will the Minister give us and the people of the Chagos Islands some indication of what factors were taken into account? Will he publish all the factors that were considered in reaching this decision, in order to ensure that there is full transparency?

Turning to the £40 million that has been promised over 10 years, the Minister indicated that communities would be consulted. Can he give further guarantees about how the people of the Chagos Islands will be involved in spending that money? In particular, what proportion will be devoted to ensuring that they can return to their homes—I find it difficult to use the term “visit”? Finally, what assessment has been made by the Government of the impact this decision will have on other overseas territories, particularly Gibraltar, which are feeling very fragile at the moment in light of the decision to withdraw from the EU? I hope that the noble Earl will be able to respond to these points.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Collins. Clearly, we know that this decision will come as a disappointment to the many Chagossians who have expressed a desire to resettle. We recognise their emotional links to the island and their desire to go back to their former way of life. The manner in which the Chagossians were removed in the late 1960s and early 1970s was wrong; it should not have happened. We look back on that period with sincere regret, but we cannot turn back the clock. We have to be realistic about the challenges that a resettled community would face.

The factors that we took into account were many and various, including those cited in the KPMG report. We considered what could be done to respond to Chagossian aspirations, but the main factors were the potentially high and very uncertain costs, the long-term liabilities for the UK taxpayer and security considerations.

As regards the £40 million, we wish to work with the Chagossian communities and the Governments of Mauritius and the Seychelles to understand the challenges and to develop cost-effective programmes which will make the biggest improvement in the life chances of those Chagossians who need it most. The door is very definitely open to those conversations. As regards the impact on other overseas territories, I do not believe there are any. This is a unique situation.

My Lords, the Government have established a large and very impressive marine conservation zone around the BIOT. There have been some suggestions that that needs policing and that therefore there are jobs for Chagossians who might not just visit but work on the islands. How do the Government intend that that marine conservation zone should be policed against the many fishing fleets that would like to use it? Have we consulted with the Americans about this, and do we expect the Americans to be on the Chagos Islands for the foreseeable future—for the next generation? If we are talking about the future, how are we planning for the long term?

My Lords, what has happened is a rollover of the current agreement, which had a break clause at the end of 2016. By not breaking silence, as it is officially termed, we are allowing that rollover to take place for the next 20 years. We declared the marine protected area that the noble Lord referred to in 2010. It is highly valued by scientists from many countries. They consider it a global reference site for marine conservation in an ocean that is already heavily overfished. We are aware that some concerns have been raised about the motives for the creation of the marine protected area; in other words, that it might have been designed to thwart future resettlement. I categorically repudiate that suggestion. We are very serious about conserving that area. Unfortunately, I am not aware of any employment prospects that could arise from this.

My Lords, I declare an interest as vice-chairman of the All-Party Group on the Chagos Islands. If the United States Government say—and have said for a long time—that they are not opposed to resettlement and that the security concerns can be easily managed, what security concerns do the United Kingdom Government have that overrule and override the American Government’s decision, which was repeated as recently as earlier this year when President Obama had discussions with the then Prime Minister?

My Lords, it is important to understand that security was not the only consideration that governed the decision that has been made. There are no restrictions on applications by Chagossians to be employed on Diego Garcia. The United States has said that it is committed to hiring qualified candidates as positions become available. Indeed, the contractor is required to recruit people from Mauritius and the Seychelles, provided they meet the necessary requirements. We are aware that some Chagossians have been offered positions working for the US contractor on Diego Garcia over the past two years, but these were declined because of local conditions, which are pretty basic, and the rates of pay.

Members of the all-party group, of which I am one, are extremely grateful to all three Ministers for appearing at our meeting yesterday. However, we remain very surprised at the intemperate haste with which the Statement was rushed out before the meeting, when it had been planned for the end of the year. Bearing in mind that respected analysts have estimated that the cost of resettlement would be about £20 million—half of what the Government propose in the Statement for additional compensation—what conditions will Her Majesty’s Government now consider attaching to the renewal of the agreement with the Americans over the base, in the interests of justice and international human rights law?

My Lords, I can only say that we very much regret that the timing of the meeting with the all-party group coincided with the Government’s decision. It would have been improper to have come to that meeting pretending that no decision had been made when in fact it had. As the noble Baroness knows, attempts were made to have the meeting earlier than yesterday, but that did not fit one or both sides.

As regards the costs of resettlement, they were set out with a big health warning by KPMG which said that the costs could vary by up to 50% more than it had estimated. I am aware that the noble Baroness has submitted a paper to my noble friend Lord Bates, and he will be writing to her in response as soon as possible.

My Lords, yesterday’s Written Statement states:

“The Government has also considered the interaction of any potential community with the US Naval Support Facility”.—[Official Report, Commons, 16/11/16; col. 11WS.]

Were the Americans consulted on this decision? The Minister has expressed regret about the original decision, so how can the interests that determined the original decision be reflected in this decision?

My Lords, we consulted a number of stakeholders, including the Americans. We then considered the findings from that process and from the KPMG report. We then commissioned a study to refine the assumptions in the KPMG report and conducted a public consultation to which a number of Chagossians—there were not very many, about 844 people—replied. The decision was taken not in haste but on the basis of close analysis of all the considerations.