The Chagos Islands (BIOT) All-Party Parliamentary Group held its 44th meeting on 15 October.
As the new Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) Minister for Overseas Territories (OTs), James Duddridge, had felt that he was not yet ready to meet the Group Prof. Charles Sheppard, Chairman of the Chagos Conservation Trust and his colleagues Alistair Gammell and John Turner, who had requested a meeting in July, attended the first part of the meeting.
The Vice Chairman (Henry Smith MP standing in for Jeremy Corbyn MP) welcomed the representatives of the Chagos Conservation Trust (CCT) and looked forward to hearing about its work. The conservation and environmental aspects of resettlement were discussed. Members were pleased to note that while the CCT mandate was to protect the unique environment of the Chagos Islands, CCT was not opposed to resettlement. Prof. Sheppard and his colleagues thought that Diego Garcia was well suited and ecologically sensible, given the available facilities and infrastructure there, though this was a decision for politicians. Members drew attention to the benefits of resettlement for conservation and the types of employment that Chagossians could undertake, especially on Diego Garcia. They agreed to keep in touch with CCT.
The Group then went on to discuss the Parliamentary Questions (PQs) and Questions since the last meeting on 15 July. Members noted that on 4 September Mr Duddridge had said in reply to a PQ that “he expected officials to begin substantive discussions with US colleagues about post-2016 arrangements later this year, as the conclusions of the feasibility study on resettlement of Chagossians begin to become clear”. It was also noted that in a letter in mid August to the Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) Mr Duddridge had stated that “The 1966 Exchange of Notes provides for a two-year window (December 2014-December 2016) during which we can decide whether and on what terms to extend the agreement with the US for a further 20 years. We are clear that we will consider all aspects of US presence in any discussions on this, and the Government will of course reinforce our expectations on permitted US use of the territory.” The Group felt that US co-operation and assistance in resettlement was necessary and an obvious condition for extending the agreement. The Group would engage the FAC on the renewal of the 1966 agreement.
As KPMG’s September report was received just prior to the meeting it was not possible to consider it in detail. However the Group was pleased to learn that KPMG would submit a first draft of their study to the FCO in mid November which would be circulated to “stakeholders” the following week. Members reiterated that they expected Parliament to debate the study before Ministers made decisions on it.
Members considered the Chairman’s letters, on behalf of the APPG, to the new Foreign Secretary and to Mark Simmonds, then Minister for OTs. It was decided to renew the invitation to Mr Duddridge (successor to Mr Simmonds) to meet the Group at its next meeting.
Legal developments were considered. It was noted that the decision of the First Tier Tribunal (Information Rights) that Environmental Information Regulations applied to BIOT by virtue of the extension of English law to BIOT in 1983, had not been appealed by the FCO. The Group saw this as significant progress for freedom of information. This would facilitate the work of researchers making requests for environmental information held by FCO/BIOT. The Group was also informed of the decision to grant legal aid to the Chagos Refugees Group in pursuit of their claim to the Supreme Court that the House of Lords majority verdict in 2008 had resulted from an apparent breach of the duty of candour by officials.
The next meeting will be on 3 December.