HL Deb 24 February 1998 vol 586 cc543-5

2.48 p.m.

Lord Dormand of Easington asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have any proposals to change their policy on the sovereignty of the British Indian Ocean Territory and in particular whether they will agree to the return of the former inhabitants to those islands from Mauritius.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we have no such proposals. Our policy remains that the territory will be ceded to Mauritius when it is no longer required for defence purposes. It is possible for the Ilois to apply for contract work at the defence facility on Diego Garcia. But, given the lack of infrastructure needed to sustain inhabitation, a wider return by them to the other islands of the British Indian Ocean Territory is not a realistic prospect.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, if the territory is essential for defence purposes, although some people doubt whether that is the case, why cannot some of the islands be made available to be used for the return of the people to their homeland? There is nothing unusual about military bases and civilians existing side by side. In view of the Foreign Secretary's recent announcement of a review about the remaining British Dependent Territories, is not this a highly appropriate time for the matter to be reconsidered?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, it is true that some of the outer islands are some way from Diego Garcia; and they are not necessary for the defence purposes that I outlined in my original Answer. But for legal and logistical reasons it would not be possible to allow the Ibis to return to them. There is no prospect of re-establishing the copra plantations which originally drew the Ibis to that part of the world on any commercially viable scale. No infrastructure is left in any of the outer islands. There are no buildings, running water facilities or electricity. The territory's administration could not provide the longer term support that would be needed for such a small community. It could not provide medical and educational facilities or even basic supplies. So what the noble Lord suggests is simply not practicable.

Lord Beaumont of Whitley

My Lords, is not the statement that there is no infrastructure left on a par with the statement made by the government of the time that there were no inhabitants on the islands, when in fact they had just removed them? Given that it was Mr. Robin Cook who, as a Back-Bencher, first alerted another place to this shameful episode in British colonial history, would it not be very suitable if he found the way back for these unfortunate people?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, my right honourable friend is considering British dependent territory citizenship not only in connection with the former inhabitants of BIOT but of other dependent territories as well. I believe that my right honourable friend is endeavouring to address some of those issues.

The noble Lord referred to my right honourable friend's statements. They were made some 10 to 15 years ago. Since that time the defence requirements have developed. They have not diminished as a result of the ending of the Cold War. It is the fact that we still need the islands for defence purposes. The noble Lord says that those defence purposes are not so very great and that the islands were not inhabited in the past. It is not the case that the outer islands were heavily inhabited. I can assure the noble Lord that what I said in my original Answer about there not being facilities is factually correct.

Lord Dormand of Easington

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that Mauritius is a valued and enthusiastic member of the Commonwealth? She mentioned to me in her original Answer that the facilities are not there. Would it not be a darned good idea to start those facilities now because of the reputation which Labour governments have in developing other countries where standards have not been reached?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, this question was raised during the meeting with the Mauritian Prime Minister in October 1997. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs reiterated a commitment given by previous British governments that the territory would be ceded to Mauritius when no longer required for defence purposes. Other matters were discussed then. Moreover, in a Written Answer on 17th November 1997, my honourable friend the Minister of State also made the point. It is also worth remembering that the Ilois community was compensated originally with a sum of £650,000 and 10 years later with a further sum of £4 million for the disruption caused to their lives.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, referred to Mr. Robin Cook's position some years ago. Can the noble Baroness answer the question? Has Mr. Cook changed his mind? If he has, is it on the same basis as he changed his mind about cruise missiles? Some 16 years ago he was signing CND petitions against them.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am sure that all of us on occasions come to different conclusions in the light of changing circumstances—

Noble Lords


Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as I made clear to the House, I am aware that the statements were made 10 to 15 years ago. If the noble Lord would like to listen instead of talking to his friends, he might learn something. The fact is that the position has changed since then. The Government can reaffirm, as publicly stated in 1992 under the previous administration, that the territory will be ceded to Mauritius when no longer required for the defence purposes for which it is needed at the moment.