HC Deb 09 January 2001 vol 360 cc181-94WH 11.30 am
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

It can hardly be often that parliamentary longevity allows even so ancient a Member of the House of Commons as I have become to revisit events in which he was deeply and personally involved more than three decades ago. Of course, much of what seemed unsatisfactory—I use a gentle word—to us then has been significantly illuminated by the lifting of the 30-year rule. If I delve into the past, I do so because the past is centrally pertinent to the present. I am referring particularly to Britain's obligations to the Ilois in the light of what occurred in the 1960s and early 1970s, and how we make up for turfing those unfortunate people out of their homeland.

If I may be personal, the story started in Leeds, the city of the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle). He may remember Dick Knowles, the Labour party agent, who later became the leader of the Labour group in Birmingham and much else. On a celebrated occasion, he invited me to take part in an educational conference in Leeds. I accepted willingly, not thinking that it was necessary to obtain the permission of the then Yorkshire regional organiser of the Labour party, the formidable John Anson. When John Anson discovered that I had turned up in Leeds without his permission, there was great trouble, which was taken as far as the national agent, Dame Sarah Barker, and the party's general secretary, Len Williams.

Len Williams became my friend in this matter and was subsequently made the Governor of Mauritius—not on account of my activities I hasten to add. After an Inter-Parliamentary Union visit to Japan and Indonesia on which I was lucky enough to go, I came back by Mauritius and stayed with him. He was a formidable figure at that time, plumes and all. His wife Margaret, Lady Williams, a sensitive and extremely nice lady, was interested in what had happened to the Ibis and took me to see some of them. That lasting impression, from more than 30 years ago, made me concerned about their cause.

I should like to go over a letter, of which the Foreign Office has a copy. It is dated 13 November 1970, from the Pacific and Indian Ocean Department to Sir Bruce Greatbatch, Government House, Port Victoria, Seychelles, and is signed by Eleanor Emery. I hasten to add that I am not in any way persecuting those who became distinguished civil servants. Eleanor Emery became an ambassador in southern Africa.

I rang Eleanor Emery in Cambridge after the article by Matthew Parris appeared in The Times to say that I was raising the matter. I also asked the Foreign Office to contact her, which it has done. She said in her letter: As you will have gathered from Washington Tel. No. 3229 to the F.C.O from the "Times Diary" of 9 November, and from the two P.Q.s in our telegram B.I.O.T. 22 of 10 November, there has recently been a revival of public interest in the British Indian Ocean territory. The two questions in our telegram received written answers as follows— I had asked those written questions—

Mr. Maudling: I have been asked to reply. The details of my right hon. Friend's exchanges with President Nixon are confidential. Reggie Maudling is long since dead, but I was friendly with him and he expressed concern about the issue, although there is no pertinent reference to it in his memoirs. The second parliamentary question that she referred to was answered by Lord Balniel, then Minister of State for Defence who said: None. The British Indian Ocean territory remains available for the construction of defence facilities by the British and United States Governments under the Agreement signed with the United States Government in 1966 (Command 3231).—[Official Report, 12 November 1970; Vol. 806, 239–55.] I talked to Lord Balniel, now the 29th Earl of Crawford and Balcarres, and gave his ex-directory number to the Foreign Office. It would be proper for the Foreign Office to reveal what he said, unless it was a private conversation. The conversation that he and I had was in my view private, apart from his expression of great unease in relation to the recent court case. Will the Minister comment on that?

Eleanor Emery's letter went on: Mr Dalyell is not, however, giving up. He has tabled a further series of questions for the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State. On Monday 16 November he is to ask what discussions the Secretary of State has had with the Government of Madagascar on British/United States bases or staging posts in the Indian Ocean. The Minister will understand very well that to get a question on the Order Paper one has often to use devices such as asking about the Government of Madagascar. That is why I shall ask the present Prime Minister a substantial oral question, which appears on the Order Paper as No. 6 for Wednesday 17 January, requesting pertinent discussions with the Government of the Seychelles.

The letter continued: The following day he is to ask the Prime Minister if he will discuss with Mrs. Gandhi the development of British/United States bases, staging posts in the Indian Ocean. On 1 December he is to ask the Prime Minister if he will make an official visit to Diego Garcia and, two days later, he will also ask whether the Prime Minister will make an official visit to Aldabra Atoll. I had again asked that question to get the subject on the Order Paper—if the Prime Minister had made an official visit to Aldabra atoll at that time he would have been away and cut off from British Government for at least a month. Eleanor Emery went on: We shall continue to try to say as little as possible (particularly until the Congressional hearings are concluded, probably around mid-December at the latest) to avoid embarrassing the United States administration. That is the nub of the matter. Miss Emery continued: Apart from our overall strategic and defence interests we are also concerned at present not to have to elaborate on the administrative implications for the present population on Diego Garcia of establishment of any base there. We would not wish it to become general knowledge that some of the inhabitants have lived on Diego Garcia for at least two generations and could, therefore, be regarded as "belongers". We shall therefore advise Ministers in handling supplementary questions about whether Diego Garcia is inhabited to say that there is only a small number of contract labourers from the Seychelles and Mauritius engaged to work on the copra plantations on the Island. That is being economical with the truth.

The letter continued: Should a Member ask about what would happen to these contract labourers in the event of a base being set up on the Island, we hope that, for the present, this can be brushed aside as a hypothetical question at least until any decision to go ahead with the Diego Garcia facility becomes public. One of my objections is that the questions were indeed brushed aside. Since then the papers have become available from the court case.

Before I say anything else, it is legitimate to ask—as Matthew Parris asked in Saturday's article in The Times that has been studied in the Foreign Office—for at least an explanation from Eleanor Emery and others as to why they did that. If a case can be made for their actions, it is up to the Minister and the Foreign Office to tell us why they did what they did. I suspect that it was about the Anglo-American relationship.

I now turn to the confidential document of 26 July 1968 that was released to the court, signed by Michael Stewart. I should explain that I knew the late Michael Stewart very well. I was his deputy on the first Labour delegation to the indirectly elected European Parliament at Strasbourg. I was asked to write his obituary for The Independent, and later I was asked to write 800 well-sculpted words for the "Dictionary of National Biography". When one is Oven a viva voce on a person by those in charge of the DNB, it means that one knows that person fairly well.

Michael Stewart's document said on page 6: Resettlement will involve some small expenses but it is not expected that there will be any financial difficulty in this. When the arrangements are complete, and they may be complicated by a recently completed survey which found that 128 individuals (about 34 per cent. of the total population of 389) are now second generation inhabitants of Diego Garcia, we would propose, as agreed at the time of the creation of the British Indian Ocean Territory, to deny, if necessary, the competence of the United Nations to concern itself with a territory which has no indigenous population. That is just not the case. By any stretch of the English language, there was an indigenous population, and the Foreign Office knew it. I suspect that that is why, on a Strasbourg night, Michael Stewart apologised for the actions taken over the British Indian Ocean Territory.

I also suspect that that is why Harold Wilson, to whom I used to gossip a lot when he was Prime Minister and afterwards, came as near to making an apology as he ever did on anything. I am a great admirer of Wilson, but he was a great self-justifier, and on this issue there was a good deal of embarrassment. Edward Heath ought to feel some embarrassment because on 8 December 1970, oral question No. 6 was: Mr. Dalyell asked the Prime Minister if he will pay an official visit to the Chagos archipelago in the Indian Ocean. Mr. Heath said: I have no plans to do so. I said: Are we building a £120 million base in the archipelago?—[Official Report, 8 December 1970; Vol. 808, c. 245.] There was a curt reply, which was followed up by Frank Allaun and Sir Frederick Bennett for the Conservatives. The issue had been drawn to the Prime Minister's attention. Surely Parliament has some right in thinking that when these matters are dealt with at the highest level some attention will be paid to the truth.

On 16 December 1970, on a point of order—Selwyn Lloyd let me go on and on—I raised the issue and did so repeatedly until an Adjournment debate was held. The Minister will be thankful that this debate is not taking place at 3.58 am, as the previous one did on 20 March 1974. The unfortunate late Joan Lestor had to answer it. The issue was brought to the House's attention, not least by a young MP on 25 November 1975, who was deeply interested in these matters: Mr. Robin F. Cook asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will list all the islands in the British Indian Ocean Territories—[Official Report, 25 November 1975; Vol. 901, c. 119.] Pertinent questions were asked on 13 October 1975, at columns 637 and 558, and so it goes on.

The point of this debate is to establish that there is a moral obligation. In a letter from Sheridans, the solicitors in the court case, Richard Gifford states: Matthew Parris ("You are never too old to face your lies") rightly highlights the boldness with which Parliament and the United Nations were lied to, before removal of the entire population of islanders. He is astonished that the official was so relaxed about telling her colleagues in the civil service that there was no permanent population. The reason is simple. She was in fact acting under orders originating at the very highest level. I am afraid that that is the nub of the problem, and indeed the Foreign Office have a copy of the Sheridans letters.

The purpose of this debate is to ask what help can be given to the islanders and perhaps to the Chagos social committee. A feeling is abroad that the islanders should be returned to the place from which they came. To put it bluntly, I think that may be unrealistic. A friend of mine of all those years ago was then a young Ph.D. at Cambridge, and subsequently became professor of geography at that university. Twenty years ago he took up a chair at Berkeley in California because of the facilities that he was offered. He is David Stoddart, an excellent man. I believe that the Minister's officials have been in touch with him. His judgment—and I ought to record that it may differ from that of the lawyers acting on behalf of the llois—is that it would be unrealistic to return people to that part of the archipelago if they are to depend on copra and salt fish. I should like to know whether the Foreign Office hold the view put forward by the lawyers or the view put forward by David Stoddart.

The purpose of raising the matter in this quiet moment of the Chamber's proceedings is to ask what can and should be done. Our country has a moral obligation to do something. I look forward to hearing the contributions of my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) and the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan), and to the Minister's reply.

11.50 am
Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

It would be remiss of anyone speaking after my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) not to pay an enormous tribute to him, both for his incredible memory and for his persistence in sticking with this issue for such a long time. Not many hon. Members are in Parliament long enough to see the 30-year rule come round full circle and be able to tell exactly what is going on. His description of the people of the now British Indian Ocean Territory islands under successive British Governments shows how even-handed my hon. Friend's criticisms are. He takes no prisoners, having despatched three Prime Ministers in the first five minutes of his speech. There could be no nicer intellectual jailer than my hon. Friend, to whom we owe an enormous debt for what he has achieved.

We are dealing with a most appalling process of history. The treatment of the people of Diego Garcia and other islands would have done credit to Palmerston or any other 19th-century British Foreign Secretary. An entire population was dismissed in a few lines: the people are dispensable; they will be sent somewhere else; we will take over the islands because we have done a deal with the United States to allow them to develop a naval and airbase there. A frisson goes down my back when I recall the high-level bombing of Iraq, with planes taking off from Diego Garcia to rain down high explosives on that country. We should also remember the shameful way in which these people were treated in the 1960s and the cavalier attitude of Britain and the United States. As a cold war gesture and, I suspect, as a quid pro quo for Britain withdrawing from Suez, Diego Garcia was offered as a base.

At the very least, we should now be offering the peoples of these islands an enormous apology and congratulating Olivier Bancoult and others who campaigned steadfastly for so long. It is disappointing that the right to return to the islands was won through legal action in the British courts, rather than through a political decision taken by the incoming Labour Government in 1997 to put right the wrong done historically. I deeply regret that.

Mr. Dalyell

It is not only the present Government: what about all previous Governments of both political parties? Lord Crawford told me that he never saw the previous Administration's papers and I am sure that the incoming Government of 1974 never saw the crucial papers of the Heath Government of 1970–74. That is a serious matter. I understand why incoming Governments are not supposed to see their predecessor's papers—it is because political capital could be made from them. However, it is surely sensible, in certain matters, for Foreign Office officials to draw attention to what happened in the previous half decade.

Mr. Corbyn

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Greater transparency of paperwork between successive Governments is important, although I am not sure how to achieve it. This country may be too bound by the 30-year rule. What happened to the people of those islands was hardly a secret. Minority rights groups reports have been prepared and statements have been made by the Mauritius Government and by people who have lived in squalid conditions in Mauritius for a long time. It has just been convenient to ignore what went on. Today, my hon. Friend the Minister has an opportunity to explain what process the British Government intend to follow.

Following my disappointment at the failure of the present and previous Governments to take a political decision to right this wrong, I have again been disappointed by the churlish attitude that has been taken even since the High Court decision. In The Guardian of 13 December it was reported that The foreign secretary…initially tried to block the islanders' return but caved in after last month's court setback. His office has accepted that it will have to pay the costs of resettling the islanders, but it will fight any claims for compensation, arguing that it will have done enough if it meets the costs of making the islands habitable again. It is not possible to compensate financially for the humiliation of taking people away from their ancestral home to an island a long distance away and telling them, "That's your lot. You will have to make the best of things in Mauritius, instead of being allowed to return." I should hope, at the very least, for a more open approach.

I want to make a few quick basic points to leave my hon. Friend the Minister and the Opposition Front-Bench spokesperson time to say a few words on the matter. First, I reiterate that there is a right of return to the archipelago as a whole. What discussions are taking place with the United States about the right of return, and access, to Diego Garcia itself, from where most of the people were originally taken? Secondly, I hope that The Guardian is wrong and that the Government are prepared to settle a compensation claim rather than just to pay the costs of returning the people concerned to the islands.

Thirdly, I hope that development aid will be provided urgently. Clearly, it will not be possible just to return, without the construction of a landing jetty, housing and, crucially, a method of obtaining fresh water supplies. An airstrip will be needed too. There will also be a need for an impact assessment covering the effect of that development on the island's ecology and a study of what gainful employment could be provided there.

Fourthly, as I am sure that my hon. Friend will be well aware, an assessment is needed of the environmental damage already done to the area in more than 40 years of military activity. That should cover water and land pollution among other things.

Fifthly, during discussions about the court case, the Foreign Office intimated that it believed that the military treaty that was signed in 1966 to allow the construction of the US base on Diego Garcia took precedence over everything else that arose in the discussions. We need to know exactly what status is accorded to that treaty. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow in his comment that there was something more than a little illegal, and certainly outwith the United Nations charter and principles, in the signing by Britain and the United States of a treaty that denied people in a third country the right to remain and live there.

Finally, the issue arises that, during negotiations on independence for Mauritius, after the principle had been agreed, the British Government announced that what is now the British Indian Ocean Territory could not be part of Mauritius. As I understand matters, the Mauritius Government are now preparing a claim that the islands should be restored to the sovereignty of Mauritius, and that complicates both the original independence legislation passed in the British Parliament and the elation ship between Britain and the United States with respect to the treaty. I hope that the Government will adopt an open approach, give a full, open and frank apology to the people who have been so wrongly treated and act with all speed to try to repair the hurt and damage done. However, if there is a period of bureaucratic procrastination and an unhelpful approach, that hurt and damage will be compounded by the fact that, having won a case in open court, on which I congratulate the islanders, it will become a sour process of history in the years to come. I hope that the Minister will give us some hope in that respect.

12 noon

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

Some events cover politicians and civil servants with glory, but the recent release of documents surrounding the events in the British Indian Ocean Territory will not be numbered among them when the history books are written.

The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) made a valuable contribution. The article by Matthew Parris was referred to by both previous speakers and much quoted. The opening line Cool facts can bear more eloquent witness than yards of overheated commentary certainly applies to the case that has been presented so consistently in the past 30-odd years by the hon. Gentleman. His unfailing instinct for something wrong or fishy has finally led us to the Chamber today. I shall not take up too much time in the debate as, like the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn), I want to hear what the Minister has to say on the subject.

The removal of the Ilois was an act of barbarism; they were spread into the Seychelles and Mauritius. People who went overseas for medical treatment found that they could not get home because there was no transport. It was a barbarous act by anyone's standards. I have been to Mauritius. One could not hope to go to a more pleasant island, or meet a more peasant people. The island is doing fairly well economically; it has political stability and a good growth rate. It is a great place to live, but the Bois have never fitted in or prospered there. Only a small percentage of them have made a life outside their poor and impoverished community within Mauritius.

The Ilois have not fared well, but at least their 30-year struggle was rewarded by the latest court ruling. I am pleased that the Government do not intend to oppose that ruling. The past will have to be considered carefully, but I am anxious about the future. I want to reinforce some of the questions asked by the hon. Members for Linlithgow and for Islington, North and add a few of my own for the Minister to field. I hope that he will consider the matter to be significant and of such importance that, if he cannot answer the questions in detail on his hind legs today, either for lack of information or lack of time, he will have the courtesy to answer all the questions in detail, in writing to the hon. Member for Linlithgow and to me.

The possibility of return has been raised and, as we know, the leadership of Olivier Bancoult of the Chagos refugee group has led to that state of affairs. As the hon. Gentleman said, however, what is the real possibility of any of the islanders returning to the outlying islands? It is obvious that they will not return to Diego Garcia. What evaluation has been carried out of the numbers of Ilois who wish to return and what are their views? What type of compensation are they seeking? Do they want their situation to be improved in situ, or elsewhere in the world, or are they requesting infrastructure, buildings, and support to return to the outlying islands? How realistic is it to expect fishing and coconut farming to support a population there? Is it not pie in the sky to think that tourism, in the immediate future, could be an income earner for a returning population?

Back in November, the Minister said that he was carrying out a feasibility study and that it was too early to say when it would be ready but that it would not be less than a year. Well, perhaps after 30 years a year is not a long time, but it is a study not of the former Soviet Union but of a small archipelago. What can possibly take more than a year and who is carrying out the study? What are the terms of reference? Who is paying for it? How much is the contract worth? Is there any way in which the contract can be speeded up and more emphasis put into it?

Mr. Bancoult is reported to have applied for £500,000 of British and EU development funds for building up the refugee group. What is the status of the application? Where has it got to? What is the reaction within the European Union and indeed within Government to any application that might have been made or may be forthcoming? The hon. Member for Islington, North touched on the subject of sovereignty. Mauritius believes that it has a right to this group of islands. What discussions has the Minister had with the Government of Mauritius? What assessment has been made in the Foreign Office of any likelihood of success of a claim of sovereignty over the islands?

We have a special relationship with the US and long may it continue. I understand that Madeleine Albright visited Mauritius last month. Has the Foreign Office spoken to the US Secretary of State about her discussions with Mauritius? Has the Foreign Office ascertained the US position? Have the Government spoken to the US Government since the court ruling? The US letter of 21 June to the Foreign Office said: A resident population … could well imperil Diego Garcia's present advantage as a base. Is that still the position? Are the US Government still against any return to any of the outlying islands?

The lease on Diego Garcia expires in 2016, which is not so long ahead in terms of the 30 years that we are covering in this debate. What intentions do the Government have for the base in 2016 and for the renegotiations with the Americans as to whether they wish to use it? What security implications would result from the decommissioning or abandonment of that base? If that were the case, what studies have been done into the clean-up and reinstatement that would be necessary to enable regular habitation of the island?

The Ilois have been compensated. I believe that £650,000 was paid in the initial stages and then there was a trust fund of £4 million. I understand from the answers in Hansard that no assessment had been made on the distribution of that £4 million as of last month. What further assessment has now been made of the distribution of those compensation funds? To whom did they go? How were they passed out? What did they achieve? I understand that there are further legal actions, potentially in the United States and in the UK. Could the Minister update us on that?

The past is not covered in glory. Some amends have been made but there is an awful lot more work to be done. Justice Laws said that he was pleased with the openness of the Foreign Office. Like the hon. Member for Islington, North, I hope that that openness will be continued by the Minister today. What does the future hold for the Ilois and what are the Government's plans to put right a great wrong?

12.8 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. John Battle)

I have listened attentively to the debate. The contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) was as usual outstanding. He has spoken about and followed these issues for over 30 years. It is rare that an hon. Member can read the papers which include his contribution to the issue when they are released 30 years later. It is typical of his usual—and, I am tempted to say, unusual—exemplary diligence as a Member of Parliament that when he raised these matters back in the 1970s he said: I believe that to go ahead with this project would sow the seeds of trouble for some years to come—[Official Report, 20 March 1974; Vol. 870, c. 1267.] That was very prescient.

When my hon. Friend spoke about the roots of his interest going back to meetings in Leeds—I have to say, courteously, that that was slightly before my time—he quoted a phrase that was used of him: "Mr Dalyell is not … giving up." He is known for sticking at things and for sticking at them in detail, with a patience and courteous tenacity that embodies the best practice for Members of Parliament in our parliamentary democracy. I thank him for his presentation of the subject, which has provided the opportunity for another contribution to the continuing debate and pressure for action. The process cannot rest here: this debate is another step along a road that my hon. Friend has followed diligently.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) also has a great and commendable record of championing and campaigning for international justice, and for speaking up for neglected and oppressed minorities.

In preparing for the debate, I had a conversation with my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Mr. Goggins), who recommended that over the next few days I should read a book by Philip Gourevich called "Stories from Rwanda", in which the author says that power is the ability to make others inhabit our story of reality. That ability to get people to live in one's own version of the truth rather than theirs, or on one's own terms rather than theirs, is relevant to the history of this debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow has spoken about the British Indian Ocean Territory for more than 30 years, and few Members of Parliament have his knowledge of, or long experience of campaigning for, that remote overseas territory in the middle of the Indian ocean. Much has been said and written over the past three decades about the history of the creation of the British Indian Ocean Territory, some of which has been accurate and some of which has been fanciful. We have inherited an historical legacy. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North referred to the "appalling process of history", which allows other people wrongly to be written out of the script. History has brought us to where we are, and we have to deal with the situation in which we find ourselves.

Although I do not intend to go over all the historical ground in detail, I should like to make a couple of points in that context. I assure hon. Members that neither I nor the Government seek in any way to justify the past actions of successive Governments. As my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow regularly points out in his even-handed way, both Labour and Conservative-led Administrations have, since the mid-1960s, played a part in the formative years of the creation and development of the British Indian Ocean Territory. In November, in the aftermath of the High Court action that was brought by one of the Ilois, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said: The Government has not defended what was done or said thirty years ago … We made no attempt to conceal the gravity of what happened. I hope that that will act as the context for the continuing debate and campaign.

Mr. Dalyell

Will the Foreign Office contact Eleanor Emery—who is now 82 and with whom I had a nice conversation—to find out what she has to say about the matter? Matthew Parris's question must be answered. There are many others from whom it may have been more to the point to ask for explanations, such as some permanent secretaries at the Foreign Office, and our distinguished Labour colleague, the late Sir Tommy Brimelow. I am curious to know what was said and whether an attempt was made to find out about Miss Emery's version of the story.

Mr. Battle

The straightforward answer is that the Foreign Office has contacted both Eleanor Emery and Mr. Stoddart, to whom my hon. Friend also referred. The unpacking of the past, if I might put it in those terms, continues as we try to unravel what happened.

With regard to the islands' economic potential and survival, there had been a relatively short period of economic activity before the British Indian Ocean Territory was created from the islands of the Chagos archipelago and other islands that were subsequently transferred to the Seychelles. In fact, the islands depended entirely on the production of a single crop: copra. By the mid-1960s, the industry was in decline and the islands' population was falling. It was a low-wage, not a prosperous, community, based on plantation agriculture. Standards of living were supported by subsistence fishing and the keeping of poultry and other small stock in back yards. As a letter published in The Times on 20 December pointed out, the Chagos islands were not paradise in the past. Although that does not justify the situation, it does provide a little context.

Nor should we forget the geo-politics of the time.

Mr. Dalyell

Ah, yes.

Mr. Battle

The cold war was all too real, and the Russian navy was a significant presence in the Indian ocean. We had retained sovereignty since 1814, and our American military alilies had resources. It should be pointed out that it was agreed that some land should be made available to meet strategic interests. That was the truth of the geo-politics of the time.

Why and how the decision was taken to establish the American naval facility on Diego Garcia, which is the largest atoll in the archipelago, has been debated in this House, in the courts and in public. Our Government have done more than any other at least to illuminate those questions, rather than run from them. We have trawled the files and papers of the period and made them available for scrutiny. We have not tried to cover up matters that reflect badly on Governments or officials of the day. We have not shirked from putting in the public domain correspondence that I am to tempted to label racist in tone. As was said, that correspondence shows a certain economy with the truth. Indeed, I can do no better than to quote Lord Justice Law's judgment in the High Court action brought by an Ilois, Mr Bancoult, in November last year. Lord Justice Laws said: I wish to commend the wholly admirable conduct of the relevant government servants and Counsel instructed for the respondents who have examined and then disclosed without cavil or argument all the material documents contained in the files of government departments, some of which (as will be obvious from the narrative I have given) are embarrassing and worse. This has exemplified a high tradition of cooperation between the executive and judiciary in the doing of justice and upholding the rule of law. That is a view with which Mr Justice Gibbs has associated himself, and I am sure my hon. Friend would agree that it suggests that the current attitude differs somewhat from that of the past

Mr. Dalyell

That is true.

Mr. Battle

The Government lost the case in the divisional court. However, we should note that the case concerned the validity of the territory's immigration law, not the rights or wrongs of the way in which the Ilois were removed from Diego Garcia and the outer islands of the archipelago. Although we were given leave to appeal against the judgment, we decided not to do so. We took that decision not because we accepted that our legal case was unsustainable, but because the Government had no wish to continue to contest the claim of the Ilois to return to parts of the Chagos archipelago where such a return might be feasible.

An analogous case arose during my time at the Department of Trade and Industry On behalf of mine workers, a case was brought, and won, against the previous Government in respect of compensation claims. This Government could have appealed against the decision, but we did not do so because we took the view that the mine workers should get that compensation.

I hope that we have provided tangible proof that our Government are taking an approach that differs from that of their predecessors. It differs because of the respect that we give to the human rights of peoples everywhere—at home and abroad. If we had to face the problems that Governments of the late 1960s dealt with in respect of the Chagos archipelago, we might handle them very differently, not least because of the diligence and campaigning work of Members of Parliament.

My hon. Friend referred to the correspondence with Miss Emery, and much has been made in the press and in the House of a few of the hundreds of letters that go back to the 1970s that we disclosed to the courts. He made clear his own reaction to that correspondence—it was a mixture of concern about people being deceived and aggrieved and distaste at what he described as cynical lying by the Government of the day. I hope that we can now conduct public affairs in a way that does not attract such epithets.

We are mindful of the treaty obligations, which my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North questioned and asked us to re-examine. I want to assure hon. Members that, as the courts have recognised, the Government have administered the affairs of the British Indian Ocean Territory in as honest, open and transparent a manner as they can, and they will continue do so.

Mr. Corbyn

That is an important point. I imagine that the Minister will confirm that there is a treaty obligation between Britain and the United States concerning Diego Garcia. There is an agreement on independence between Britain and Mauritius that specifically excluded the Chagos islands from the Mauritian independence arrangements. There is now a court decision that the Government have said they will no longer contest, which gives the islanders a right of return to the islands. Which has priority: the deal with the United States military or the case of the Chagos islanders to return to all the islands of the archipelago?

Mr. Battle

That question was raised previously. I shall come to the relationship with the United States on the treaty, and if my hon. Friend is not happy with my explanation, he can question me again and I will try to respond more fully. We confirm that the islands will be ceded to Mauritius when they are no longer required for defence purposes, subject to the requirements of international law. That is our long-term vision, but although we have differences with the Government of Mauritius over the sovereignty of the islands—which are not affecting our relationship with Commonwealth colleagues in Mauritius—there is a context in which we can work for the future. It is complex and not easy, but my hon. Friend rightly points to the legacy of the past. Because of the treaty being in the way, Diego Garcia has been exempted from the conditions, and perhaps that does not reflect the injustice of the original decisions.

The chief treaty obligations that are of relevance to the future of the islands and the interests of some of the Ilois in returning to them are those related to the use of the territory for strategic defence purposes. That is at the core of the point made by my hon. Friend. We are committed to allowing our American allies to develop and use facilities on Diego Garcia. Their value was referred to in the High Court action. Lord Justice Laws said: There is no doubt but that the defence facility which the base provides is of the highest importance. In a letter of 21 June from the US State Department, it is described as an "all but indispensable platform" for the fulfilment of defence and security responsibilities in the Arabian Gulf, the Middle East, South Asia and East Africa.

Mr. Dalyell

I do not seek an instant reply, because that would be silly, but before I ask the question of the Prime Minister on 17 January, could the Government reflect on the request that Sheridans have made, that there be a joint tribunal between the Americans and ourselves on the question of compensation?

Mr. Battle

I take note of my hon. Friend's request. He courteously always gives notice to allow Government and officials to anticipate his questions and to work out a considered, reflective reply. We shall work with him to ensure that he can tailor his question to the Prime Minister so as to obtain the details that we can helpfully make available. I am more than happy to work with him on that basis.

I want to say a few words about compensation in general. We have relaxed immigration controls on the entry of members of the Ilois community who want to return to the territory. They are free to return to it without the need for an entry permit, unless they want to go to Diego Garcia. Control of entry to that island is a treaty obligation and is necessary for security and safety reasons. However, there is no reason why the Ilois cannot seek employment with any of the employers of civilian labour on the island of Diego Garcia.

Mrs. Gillan

Has the United States agreed that the islanders may return to any of the outlying islands? The letter of 21 June stated that that could imperil the base's status. Has that now changed?

Mr. Battle

I stand to be corrected, but I am clear in my mind that the answer is yes. The only debate concerns Diego Garcia. The Ilois can go to Diego Garcia for employment and there is no legal barrier to their employment on the same basis and conditions as other Mauritians.

My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North referred to the environment. The outer islands to which some Ilois now want to return have been uninhabited for 30 years. Such undisturbed environments are rare, and the outer islands are acknowledged by international scientists to be one of the most important remaining examples of pristine coral atolls in the world, so we must exercise a duty of care. We have done as much as we can to learn about them and we shall continue to do so over the years and to protect them. A major scientific expedition in 1965 added to information about the natural ecology of the islands, so there has been research into the environment. We are mindful of our responsibilities, and previous Governments have been reminded of them regularly by hon. Members.

The core question concerns the feasibility study for resettlement, to which the hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) referred. She made her point well and asked why the process cannot be speeded up. I cannot give her the details now of who has the contract and how much it will cost, but I shall send them to her. There is no secrecy about the feasibility study.

Environmental matters are at the forefront of our mind as we consider the future, including the availability of water. There are scientific questions to ask about resettlement. Those questions will form part of the work programme for the independent consultants who have been asked to assess the feasibility of resettlement of the outer islands of the territory. There is much that we must learn before we can say with confidence whether a settled, self-supporting community capable of generating a decent standard of livelihood for itself is possible on those tiny islands in the middle of the vast ocean.

I have not visited Diego Garcia, but I have visited other Pacific islands and some of the key questions concern the economic viability of communities that are isolated and under pressure. Tremendous environmental problems of pollution and degradation arise when trying to provide places for survival, whether in Kiribati or Tuvalu. We shall press on with the work and the feasibility study. We have been advised that a significant time will be required before we can obtain the data to judge whether there is enough water to sustain a settled population. The alternative to a natural water supply is desalination, which would undermine the economics of some potential investment and increase the cost to any society of trying to maintain itself. There are problems.

We do not know how many Ilois might want to return to the territory. They are not a monolithic community. Most are Mauritian citizens, but some are citizens of the Seychelles, as well as being British dependent territory citizens. Hon. Members will recall that in 1999 a White Paper on the overseas territories "Partnership for progress and prosperity" suggested that British citizenship should be offered to those in the overseas territories who do not have it. We regret that it has not so far been possible to find parliamentary time to introduce the necessary legislation, but I want to take the opportunity to confirm our commitment to making good that pledge as soon as practicable. That would have an impact in this case.

In the White Paper we said that the offer of citizenship would not apply to citizens of British dependent territories who had that status as a result of their connection with the British Indian Ocean Territory. I confirm that we are reconsidering that, and I hope that we shall be able to offer British citizenship to Ilois citizens of British dependent territories. I mention that because it is part of the full equation. We must analyse the situation scientifically to find out who wants to return.

We have been put on notice that the Ilois will be seeking compensation for the 30 years of displacement and distress that they have suffered. They are also taking advice on whether they can instigate claims for compensation in the American courts. In addition, they have asked for immediate help from Britain in the form of pensions and other income support for older, poorer members of the community in Mauritius. We want to look forward—

Mr. Eddie O'Hara (in the Chair)

Order. It is time for the next debate.