May 2009 update

  • In an article for The Times on the Privy Council, Frances Gibb touches on the Orders in Council used by the government in 2004 to block the Chagos islanders from returning home:

    “The Privy Council (which wields the Royal Prerogative and issues Orders in Council) is one of the most obscure and murky corners of the British constitution — yet its powers are far from antiquated or redundant. They can range from commuting the death penalty on prisoners in the Caribbean to dispossessing the Chagos Islanders of their homes. Her Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council is a body of advisers to the monarch, whose members are chiefly senior politicians who were members of the Commons or Lords, including bishops and hereditary peers.”

  • In BBC Radio 4’s ‘What is the Point of the Privy Council?’ on 12 May, Quentin Letts took a witty but thought-provoking look at that institution. He described the Royal Prerogative as ‘discretionary powers in hands of the crown but exercised by ministers which create laws which do not have to pass through Parliament or comply with human rights legislation.’ Patrick O’Connnor QC described it as a route entirely to evade debate and scrutiny in Parliament whilst making ‘real laws that affect people’s lives in fundamental ways…. Exclusion of the Chagos Islanders from their homeland was one of the worse political scandals of the second half of the last century.’ David Snoxell, UK’s High Commissioner to Mauritius at that time said ‘In June 2004 the Foreign Office decided to get rid of the problem altogether and used the device of Orders in Council – in effect they overturned a court order and bypassed Parliament. It’s inconceivable that it could have gone through Parliament because Parliament would never have accepted the permanent exile of the people from their homeland.’

    Jack Straw, then Foreign Secretary, signed the exclusion orders. He is now Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary with a green paper on the governance of Britain which promises to ‘reinvigorate democracy’ and make ministers more accountable. He was asked how he now justifies the decision to deny the Chagossians the right to return to their home? ‘It was a difficult decision with two alternatives: whether to do it by Orders in Council or by statute….it was simpler to use Orders in Council.’

    Quentin Letts then asked ‘Do you think the Chagos islands decision should have gone at least before the the Foreign Affairs Select Committee of the House of Commons?’ Mr. Straw replied ‘In retrospect, yes. I think, with the benefit of hindsight, that what I exchanged was speed for legitimacy.’

    Quentin Letts: ‘That is as near as you will get to a politician entering a guilty plea.’
    Later on the 12 May, in a House of Lords debate, Lord McNally (Liberal Democrat) said: ‘..there is a more serious accusation against the Privy Council—that it is a loophole in our democracy and accountability. This morning (on BBC Radio 4) Mr Jack Straw confessed that the Privy Council could be used in “exchanging legitimacy for speed.” He was referring to the particular instance of the use of the Privy Council in the case of Diego Garcia and the right of return of the Chagos islanders to their homeland. It is one single example, but it is such a shameful example that it bears examination. A group of citizens won their case in the courts of law yet the shadier part of our constitution provided by the Privy Council allowed that decision to be overturned and then upheld by this House.

    Tonight is not the time to examine the sad story of Diego Garcia in detail, but the more that is revealed of that story over 40 years, the more shameful it is for successive Governments of all political hues. However, it is right to ask whether the way that Privy Council powers were used does not shine a harsh spotlight on its powers and its uses by government.’

    Baroness Royall of Blaisdon (President of the Council, Privy Council Office; Labour) replied: ‘The noble Lord, Lord McNally, referred to what he called the shameful case of the Chagos Islands. As he said, my right honourable friend Jack Straw stated in a programme this morning that, with hindsight, he should have engaged in parliamentary scrutiny to debate the issue of the Chagos Islanders. I am sure that that is the case, and while I understand the concerns expressed, it is right to stress that the Privy Council is not a sinister counterbalance to the elected Government, or a means of avoiding parliamentary scrutiny.’

  • The Chagos Islands all party parliamentary group held its fifth meeting on 13 May. The next meeting will be on Tuesday 30 June. This is the report from coordinator David Snoxell:

    Allen Vincatassin, Leader of the Diego Garcian Community in Crawley was invited to address the Group. He explained the aspirations and position of his community who, whilst supporting the right of all Chagossians to return to their homeland, wished to remain in the UK and to be known as Diego Garcians. They wanted Diego Garcia to remain under British sovereignty.

    In private session the meeting went on to discuss the correspondence between the Chairman and the FCO Minister, Gillian Merron. Members noted that whilst the FCO wanted to continue a dialogue with Parliament their position remained unchanged. The meeting endorsed the Chairman’s letter to the Foreign Secretary inviting him to meet the Group before the summer recess.

    The meeting noted the 23 April Westminster Hall debate on the FAC Report on the OTs and that Chagos issues had been addressed in detail by the Chairmen of both the FAC and the APPG, and by the Conservative and Lib-Dem shadow ministers for Foreign Affairs who had stated that resolving these issues was ‘a moral imperative’ calling for the restoration of the right of return and for a timetable to be established.

    The Group considered a report on a meeting that the Chairman and Coordinator had had on 31 March with the Mauritian High Commissioner concerning future sovereignty of the Chagos Islands and resettlement which he said were inseparable issues. Mauritius firmly supported the right of return and would make this possible.

    The Group continued to support the amendments tabled in the Lords (concerning British citizenship for Chagossians who had been excluded in 2001) to the Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill which would shortly have its second reading in the Commons.

    The APPG was informed that the White House had decided that there would not be a reply to the Chairman’s letter of 28 February to President Obama. But they were encouraged that the US Embassy continued to take a close interest in developments and that the US side was ready to discuss the issues with the FCO. In view of this the Group felt that it would be helpful if the Chairman’s letter were made publicly available. The Group noted that Lord Luce had raised the issues with the State Department in early April.

    The resolution of the European Parliament of 25 March, ‘considering that the Union should work towards trying to find a solution for the Chagossians to allow them to return to their rightful homeland islands’, was felt to be very helpful. The meeting was informed that the European Court had accepted a delay proposed by the FCO of their response to the Chagossian Application, from 12 June to 17 July, and that the Court had asked the UK about its position concerning an out of court friendly settlement.

    The Group discussed the Radio 4 programme, (12 May, ‘What’s the use of the Privy Council?’) and comments by the former Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, who had submitted the 2004 Orders in Council depriving the Chagossians of their right to return. The Justice Secretary invoked his predecessor, Robin Cook (who restored the right of return in 2000) and admitted that in retrospect the Orders should have been submitted to the FAC for parliamentary scrutiny and that by not doing so he had exchanged legitimacy for speed. The implications for the Lord’s majority verdict and the European Court case were clear. The meeting also took note of the debate in the Lords on 12 May on the Privy Council in which Lord MacNally had drawn attention to the ‘shameful case’ of the Chagos Islanders and Mr Straw’s admission. It was also noted that Baroness Royall, replying on behalf of the Government, had agreed with Mr Straw that he should have engaged in parliamentary scrutiny to debate the issues of the Chagos Islanders.

  • The UK Seychelles Chagossian group held a meeting on 18 April to discuss the upcoming meeting with the Royal Commonwealth Society on Friday 29 May, at which the people of Chagos and dependents will have the floor for a presentation to raise awareness of their plight. The presentation will cover the history of the islands before exile including slides where possible plus traditional songs and a translation of these. Then there will be coverage of life in exile, how people are coping, and the various court cases. In conclusion, they will point out that ‘the original people of Chagos are dying of broken hearts and spirit. They are still waiting for justice to be done and it seems like this is dragging until all the people who really has the right to fight for the cause no longer has a voice. It has been 45 years and we believe it is time that justice is done and peace is found.’