Mention the name of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean and most people will respond; who?
If you’re a little more clued in you may have noticed that she has just been appointed by Blair as his special representative in talks for “memoranda of understanding”. In her hands lies the responsibility for negotiating deals with several countries in the Arab world that are suspected or known to practice torture which will see them make a paper commitment not to torture anyone we deport to their shores in future.
The list of countries here is about as unedifying as it gets. We already have such memoranda with Libya and Jordan and are seeking further agreements with other countries; Algeria we know is one of them and its suspected that the other will include Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Syria, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates.
On the back of that list alone, scepticism as to whether these agreements will mean anything is entire understandable.
However, that’s not why I’m writing about her – its not what she’s about to do, shabby though that is, that occupies my thoughts, but something she did last Decemeber – December 13th 2004 to be exact, when as a Foreign Office Minister she made a misleading and untrue statenent to the House of Lords.
That, as parliament watchers will know, is a very serious allegation – it’s certainly one I wouldn’t be making had I not the evidence to back it up.
Before we get to her statement and the evidence that it was misleading, let’s look first at what the Ministerial Code of Conduct has to say on the subject of misleading the House.
“It is of paramount importance that Ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity. Ministers who knowingly mislead Parliament will be expected to offer their resignation to the Prime Minister;”
Now, before I go on, I’m not alleging that Baroness Symons has deliberately or knowingly misled the House of Lords – I simply do not know whether the untruthful statement made is one of her own crafting or the product of a briefing received from her Civil Service advisors; that is ultimately a matter for the House of Lords to decide, but what I do know is that she did mislead the House of Lords and that at no time has she offered the House the correction required by the Ministerial Code – she may, to this point in time, genuinely be unaware of her error.
I’ve written, only recently, of the appaling treatment meted out to the former inhabitant of the Chagos Islands by the British government; its a story that has interested and appalled me since first reading it in Tim Slessor’s ‘Lying in State’.
The statement made by Baroness Symons in which she mislead the House relates directly to this sorry episode in our history, coming as it did in response to a question from Lord Beaumont of Whitley who asked the government simply:
“Whether they will reconsider their decision to prevent the British people of the Chagos Islands returning to their original homes.”
In answering this question, Baroness Symons made the following comments:
The expulsion of the people from these islands took place in the late 1960s and, as I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Beaumont of Whitley, is aware, the Government have already paid compensation to the Chagossians. There were two payments, which altogether amounted at the time to almost £5 million. In today’s value that amounts to some £14.5 million. At that time, the Chagossians’ own lawyers advised them that that represented a fair and reasonable settlement. It is important to remember that when the noble Lord implies—as he managed to do in his Question—that we have somehow behaved dishonourably.
I can correct one minor factual error straight away – the expulsion took place in 1971, under the Conservative government of Edward Heath, and not the 1960’s; although the policy and decisions leading to their expulsions were formulated by the previous Labour government of Harold Wilson. This is of no particular consequence as Baroness Symons’s temporal error at least places the primary responsibility for this matter with the right government.
Where we move, here, for genuine error to clear untruth is in the matter of the payments made to the Chagossians and the advice they allegedly received from their own solicitors.
There were two payments made in lieu of the expulsion of the Chagossians from their homes. The first, a sum of £650,000, was paid in 1973. This money, as Slessor notes, was not paid to the Chagossians themselves, but rather to the government of Mauritius where they were unceremonously dumped on the dockside with no one to meet them nor explain why they had been removed from their homes or what would happen to the next.
There were, at that time, around 1,500 Chagossians removed from the islands – Britain’s ‘generous’ settlement was, therefore, a little of £400 per head.
A second payment was offered, initially in 1979, of £1.25 million. In the intervening years, parliamentary questions from Tam Dalyell and others and a long feature articles in the Sunday Times in 1975, entitled ‘The Islanders that Britian Sold’ had ensured that questions about the conduct of the British governement toward the Chagossians had not, as the Foreign Office must surely have hoped, dropped entirely off the political radar.
This offer was upped, by 1983, to £4 million, still by no means a geneous figure had we been dealing with only the original 1,500 Chaggosians expelled some 12 years earlier without considering that, a populations so, that the actual number of people of direct Chagossian descent had increased over time – today, there are around 4,500 Chagossians when one factors in the descendents of those originally expelled from the islands.
It is in Tim Slessor’s account of the 1979 offer in which we find the evidence that Symons mislead the house in her statement:
Something must have pricked (just a little) the conscience of the Foreign Office, because in 1979 it tried another ‘full and final settlement’. This time the amount was £1.25 million. But there was a condition: each Ilois [Chagossian] had to sign a binding agreement to renounce any claim ever to eturn to the Chagos Islands. Some of the most destitute families signed without appreciating what they were doing [many were illiterate]. One imagines that it was a case of ‘if you want some money, then sign here’. But when other Ilois realised what was happening, they sent the English lawyer charged with the arrangements back to London – with a flea in his ear. Strangely, it was a law firm started by this same lawyer, Bernard Sheridan, which later became the legal champion of the Ilois.
Note the critical discrepancy between Symons’s statement and Slessor’s account – back in 1979, the Chagossians were indeed advised to accept the government’s compensation offer by the lawyer who is, today, the head of the law firm which has, since the mid-late 1980’s, represented their interests in taking British government to court (although it is a lawyer named Richard Gifford and not Bernard Sheridan, himself, who has actually represented them during this period) – however, at the time they were advised by Bernard Sheridan in relation to this offer, Sheridan was not acting for the Chagossians but for the British government.
All rather different from Baroness Symons contention that “the Chagossians’ own lawyers advised them that that represented a fair and reasonable settlement”.
Baroness Symons is no longer a Foreign Office minister; the duty to represent the Foreign Office in the House of Lords now rest with the FO’s Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Triesman, while Symons scours the Arab world cutting deals with repressive, undemocratic regimes.
Nevertheless, having demonstrated that Baroness Symons’s statement to the House of Lords on 13th December 2004 is, I think, clearly and unequivocally misleading in identifying the solicitor who advised the Chagossians on the government’s compensation offer as being their own solicitor when they were, in fact, acting for the government at that time, I think it only right and proper that I invite Lord Triesman or Baroness Symons (doesn’t matter which) to do as ther Ministerial Code of Conduct demands, correct this misleading statement and offer the House the obligatory and extremely humble apology that such occasions call for.
As for the matter of Symons remark that:
“It is important to remember that when the noble Lord implies—as he managed to do in his Question—that we have somehow behaved dishonourably.”
I would invite anyone to read my earlier piece on this subject and follow the links in it – you should then gain a full picture of exactly how successive British governments have treated the Chagossians over the last 30 years to the extent that, today, only a fool or a liar could possibly claim that we have behaved ‘honourably’ in this matter.
I suppose a blogswarm on this is out of the question? It would be appreciated.
Disillusioned Kid has news that the Chagossian’s challenge to the Orders in Council banning them from ever returning to their home is set to go to a judicial review on December 6th.