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3.53 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): I welcome the debate and the Bill. I want to refer to three of the overseas territories. My hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Thamesmead (John Austin) highlighted the plight of the Chagos islanders and the British Indian Ocean Territory. I shall also refer to Antarctica and the sovereign bases in Cyprus.

I tabled early-day motion 380, which noted

the British Government have responded to a number of their demands. I shall try to explain those demands.

The situation of the Chagos islanders is very serious. In the mid-1960s, the British Government indulged themselves in a deal with the United States in which the people of the Chagos Islands—the Ilois people—were to be removed. The majority of them were to go to Mauritius and some to the Seychelles, and the largest island, Diego Garcia, was to become an American base. Unfortunately it still is an American base, and is being used as we speak in the bombing campaign in Afghanistan.

Ever since they were removed, the Chagos islanders have rightly demanded a right of return. They have protested strongly at the way in which they were removed—internal memorandums that have since been revealed used disgusting language against them, describing them as people like Man Friday—and they have sought a right of return. Many lived and still live in great poverty in Mauritius and in other places, and they feel dispossessed.

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It was my privilege last July and August to attend two sessions of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights. The first was on indigenous peoples, in which the Chagos islanders were represented, and the second was the sub-commission on human rights. This issue was raised on a number of occasions.

I shall give some further background. The Chagos islanders have pursued their eternal quest for a right of return with enormous diligence, brilliantly led by Olivier Bancoult and others from the elected committee. They pursued their case with the help of an excellent English solicitor, Richard Gifford of Sheridans, and last year took the case to the High Court, where they won an historic right of return—a declaration of their right of return to the islands. That right of return was made without qualification, and ultimately was not appealed by the British Government, even though they initially responded that they would appeal against the judgment.

There are clearly problems over the right of return to the largest island, Diego Garcia, because the British Government have signed a lease agreement with the United States, which has another 13 years to run. There are serious questions about the legality of that lease arrangement, which may well be challenged in the American courts in the near future.

I have tabled a number of written parliamentary questions, and I had a meeting with Baroness Scotland when she was the Minister dealing with this issue. On several occasions, I have discussed with the Foreign Office what will happen about the right of return. The British Indian Ocean Territory's high commissioner announced that there would be a feasibility study of the right of return and an environmental impact assessment.

That concern for the environment is touching, given that the presence of a small number of people—a few thousand—re-inhabiting the islands of the archipelago is unlikely to have an enormous environmental impact. After all, they managed to live there for several hundred years in an entirely sustainable way by fishing, picking coconuts and small-scale farming.

The idea that a small number of people returning to the islands is about to destroy that pristine environment is laughable. Far greater damage has been done to the archipelago around Diego Garcia by the presence of the American base, including the removal of some coral reefs to allow large American military ships to get to the base. If the experience of the United States leaving other bases around the world is anything to go by, the condition in which they leave Diego Garcia will be pretty appalling, if and when they finally leave, as we hope they will, in 13 years' time.

I hope that when my hon. Friend winds up the debate he will assure me that, on 3 and 4 December, when Olivier Bancoult visits London, he will be able to have a meeting with the Minister or with Baroness Amos, who is directly responsible for this matter. I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that it is extremely important that the Chagos islanders be treated with the courtesy they deserve and that such a meeting be afforded to them.

Mr. Trend: I seek clarification, because I have not understood this point. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that, as a result of the court judgment, the inhabitants have the right to go back home straight away, but the Government are delaying their return? I am not trying to make a party

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political point. I had assumed that they would not be allowed to go back until 2016, but the hon. Gentleman seems to be telling us something different.

Jeremy Corbyn: The hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head. The High Court judgment authorised the right of return without the setting of a specific date, so it might be assumed that that means now.

There is also the perverse issue of the deal made between previous British Governments and the United States over Diego Garcia. It could be said that the issue should be viewed in two ways: as well as the opportunity, possibility and right of return to the rest of the archipelago, which is a subject of the current environmental impact assessment, there is the secondary—or, rather, connected—question of the right of return to Diego Garcia.

I hope that the Minister will tell us when the assessment will be completed, and what assistance is being given to the islanders to return and, indeed, to visit and be consulted, as part of the arrangements for the assessment. They have very imaginative ideas about how the islands could survive. They are extremely intelligent and capable people, who do not deserve to be treated in a way that suggests that they should not sit at the conference table. They have submitted some ideas to me, including a return to fishing and coconut growing but also small-scale farming, eco-tourism and a number of other activities. They care deeply about the archipelago, and would be ideal custodians of it.

I have referred to the wider issue of Diego Garcia. The lease expires in 13 years. Several thousand nationals of other countries currently work for the American base on the island. Some people, however, are specifically barred from civilian employment there: Ilois, or Chagos islanders. The Americans do not trust them, I assume—or the British do not trust them; I am not sure.

I hope the Minister will tell us why the only people in the world who are not allowed to work on Diego Garcia are those who were expelled from it in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The arrangement is surely very unfair. Obviously, the island could be at least a temporary source of employment. The expulsion was one of the great injustices of the 1960s and 1970s, and the last Foreign Secretary made considerable efforts in that connection when Labour were in opposition.

I now want to make a number of points. My great friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell)—the Father of the House—may wish to do so as well, as he has taken an enormous interest in the issue.

Responding to the demonstration outside the high commission in Mauritius, Lady Amos wrote to the solicitors representing the Chagos islanders. She replied to a number of points, including the suggestion that a visit was needed. Apparently, the possibility of a ship to take the islanders to the Chagos Islands at least for a visit is being investigated. Will the Minister confirm that that is happening, and also that the Foreign Office—or, more specifically, the Indian Ocean territories—will bear the cost of the visit, rather than the islanders' being expected to pay?

There is also the question of resettlement, and the expected date for the pilot scheme. Another question, which has been raised by a number of Members on both sides of the House and therefore cannot be seen as a party political issue, relates to birth certificates and rights of residence.

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As I have explained, the islanders were removed against their wishes, and many have subsequently led a very poor existence—some in Mauritius, some in the Seychelles, and a smaller number scattered around the world. Some of those are in France, some in this country and some in Switzerland. I have met many on foreign visits.

Birth certificates are a sad subject. Apparently many birth records were lost and then discovered somewhere else, which does not say much for the quality of administration. Furthermore, there is the question of what rights are held by children born since 1968 in Mauritius, the Seychelles or anywhere else to a parent who was a Chagos islander. Being born in Mauritius would have given them an automatic right to Mauritius citizenship, but there is an added complication: Mauritius has a claim on the islanders, because it would like to take over the islands and make them part of Mauritius.

I want the Minister to make it clear that when the right of return is exercised, the islanders' children will be included and will be entitled to the same privileges and rights—and will have the same responsibilities—as every other person in the British overseas territories included in the Bill. That, surely, is a fundamental demand.

The issue of compensation for the islanders is mentioned in Lady Amos's letter of 15 November to Sheridans. I accept that the British Government paid the Chagos islanders individual compensation some years later—belatedly and reluctantly: it was not paid on a collective basis. We are talking about a poor community that suffers from high unemployment and poor access to further and higher education. I shall not pursue the issue of individual compensation, but I would be grateful if the Minister could say whether there is any possibility of general support and compensation for the community as a whole. That would enable elected representatives—in particular, Olivier Bancoult—to travel to this country for important meetings. It strikes me as perverse in the extreme that a poor community should be expected to organise collections to buy an air ticket enabling Olivier Bancoult to meet representatives of the Foreign Office.

I feel that a social aid trust fund should be established. The Chagos islanders would be the trustees and administrators. The Foreign Office has already accepted the legitimacy of the raising of these matters by the elected representatives of the people. Surely, just as in the case of any other overseas territory, it is our responsibility to support the elected form of government. We have a recognised and elected committee here, and elected representatives there should be supported as they clearly deserve to be. The issue of pensions should also be considered.

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