New govt will not allow resettlement, says Foreign Office minister

Remember the statements of support for the Chagossians from William Hague and Nick Clegg during the election campaign?

Hague, now Foreign Secretary, promised that the new government would “work to ensure a fair settlement of this long-standing dispute”, while Clegg, now Deputy PM, said New Labour had “mistreated” the Chagossians, and that the government had a “moral responsibility” to allow them home.

As a result, the Chagossians were expecting a break with the policies of the previous government. But there seems to have been a sudden change of heart. In a letter sent to Olivier Bancoult, chairman of the Chagos Refugees Group, Henry Bellingham, Minister responsible for the Overseas Territories, has said:

“The UK government will continue to contest the case brought by the Chagos Islanders to the European Court of Human Rights. This is because we believe that the arguments against allowing resettlement on the grounds of defence, security and feasibility are clear and compelling… The Government also believes that a Marine Protected Area (MPA) is the right way ahead for furthering environmental protection of the Territory and encouraging others to do the same in important and vulnerable areas under their sovereign control.”

Bellingham’s letter goes on to restate the arguments we’re so familiar with hearing from the Foreign Office: that compensation has already been paid in a full and final settlement and that feasibility studies deemed resettlement “precarious and costly”.

To say this comes as a surprise is an understatement. The last thing we knew, Hague was still conducting a review of policy on Chago, which wasn’t expected to be complete until after parliament returns in the autumn. It’s hard to see how he can reconcile the view outlined in Bellingham’s letter with his previous pledge to seek a “fair settlement” of the matter, or his comment since the election (in a July meeting with Philippa Gregory, bestselling author and patron of this association), that a return to the outer islands would seem like the best solution.

The statement (variations of which have also been sent by Foreign Office officials to supporters of this association) has been released during parliament’s summer recess, without the opportunity to consult the All Party Parliamentary Group on Chagos or, for that matter, cabinet.

Is this really how the new government intends to conduct itself in dealing with Chagos? Breaking its promises of change? Burying bad news in the summer recess? Failing to consult parliament? If so, it’s going to face resistance from within its own ranks. Government members who have called for the legal case against the islanders to be dropped include senior Lib Dems such as Business Secretary Vince Cable, Ed Davey, Chris Huhne and Lynne Featherstone. From the Tories, Keith Simpson has said the islanders “must be placed at the heart of any decisions taken about their homeland”, while Henry Smith (who represents the hundreds of Chagossians living in Crawley) said the decision to bypass parliament with the 2004 Orders in Council was “quite wrong” and that the islanders have a human right to be allowed home. Mark Field, Peter Bottomley, Bill Cash and Anne McIntosh have also criticised New Labour’s treatment of the islanders.

It’s starting to look like the words of support for the Chagossians during the election campaign may have been just that: words. Parliament returns from recess on 6 September – make sure your MP knows that you expect the promise of ‘new politics’ to be fulfilled.

See Sean Carey’s post on the New Statesman blog, here, for more on this.

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  1. [...] 1 (August): In a letter sent to Olivier Bancoult, chairman of the Chagos Refugees Group, Foreign Office minister Henry Bellingham reneged on [...]

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