HC Deb 06 July 1955 vol 543 cc1136-40
The Prime Minister (Sir Anthony Eden)

With permission, Sir, I will make a statement about Malta.

In the discussions which he has been holding with my right hon. Friend the Colonial Secretary, the Maltese Prime Minister has put forward proposals for a closer association between Malta and the United Kingdom. Her Majesty's Government welcome this initiative. They feel sure that in all parts of the House there will be a sympathetic response to the suggestion that the two peoples should draw more closely together.

The administrative, financial and constitutional aspects of these proposals are closely linked. The administrative and financial aspects are at present under discussion with the Maltese Government delegation. On the constitutional side, there is included a proposal that Malta, while retaining its own Legislative Assembly, should, in the future, be represented in the Parliament at Westminster. The Government feel that all sections of political opinion in Parliament should have an opportunity to consider, and express their views upon, a new constitutional development of such importance.

They therefore propose to convene a round table conference, comprising representatives of all the political parties at Westminster, to consider constitutional questions arising from these proposals. This conference will meet during the Summer Recess. It will call into consultation representatives of the political parties in the Legislative Assembly of Malta. Her Majesty's Government believe that by this procedure of practical cooperation between the two Parliaments this imaginative proposal can be considered in a way that accords with its constitutional importance and with the interests of both peoples.

Mr. Attlee

I welcome the statement made by the Prime Minister. I think that the proposals put forward by the Maltese Government are of very great interest and importance and that we should not be afraid of setting a precedent. I do not think that there is a precedent in this case. The position of Malta is quite exceptional as one part of Europe which is attached to us and seeking self-government. This is a question which, I think, involves all of us in this House. It is for the House to consider any addition to its number of Members and, therefore, it is right that it should be considered by all hon. Members.

I would add one other thing, that in these constitutional matters time is of the very greatest importance. If the right opportunity is let slip, sometimes the whole matter slides away, various extremists take charge and the favourable moment is lost. I therefore welcome the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion that this round table conference shall be held in September in order that the Maltese people may not feel that there is any undue delay. When these matters are considered, it is my hope that they will lead to a closer association between the people of this country and the very gallant people of Malta, whose services in the last war we remember so well.

The Prime Minister

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman. Perhaps I should add that the procedure we had in mind was that in order to set up this conference there would be consultations through the usual channels about membership, numbers and other matters of that kind. I am informed that it is not necessary to have a Resolution. I should also add, for the convenience of the House, that we considered, as an alternative, procedure by Select Committee. We thought, however, that this procedure was preferable as being less rigid and better adapted to a constitutional matter of this kind.

Mr. C. Davies

I should like to add my own welcome to the proposals which the right hon. Gentleman has announced. This is a matter of such vital importance to the people of Malta, and of this country, that it must be considered very carefully by Parliament as representing the people. I assume, therefore, that the right hon. Gentleman's idea is that this is essentially a Parliamentary matter rather than an Executive matter.

While, of course, the round table conference would primarily be concerned with the constitutional question, will it also consider the administrative and financial matters, as I think that the two matters are so closely linked that they cannot be separated into watertight compartments?

The Prime Minister

I am much obliged to the right hon. and learned Gentleman. As I think I said in the statement, there are these three aspects of the issue. It will be for the round table conference to make its own decisions about the publicity and how it works, and so on, but I should imagine that it would be open to the conference—and should be—to consider the related matters, both financial and administrative, and indeed, judicial, and others which arise in this matter. It would certainly be able to call for whatever witnesses it thought right, who would provide evidence on the matter.

Mr. Teeling

Can the Prime Minister assure us that in the present discussions and the coming ones, the position of the Roman Catholic Church, which is the principal religion in Malta, will be safeguarded, and also that the principles in education and the discipline of the Sacraments as laid down by the Church will have the same consideration as they have heretofore enjoyed from Her Majesty's Government?

The Prime Minister

It is quite evident, and I am sure my hon. Friend would agree, that the question of the Church in relation to this question is one of the matters which will have to be considered, but I myself would not have thought it a question that it was impossible for us to deal with. There are many precedents, in our experience, where the handling of Church matters has been achieved by our Constitution by a method of tolerance and fairness to all concerned.

Mr. J. Griffiths

As I understand the statement, the discussions about the administrative and financial implications of the proposals are to continue. Will the conclusions arrived at from those considerations be made available to the round table conference by the time it comes to consider them, in September? Secondly, is it proposed that the Government or the round table conference itself will appoint a chairman?

The Prime Minister

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman raised the first point. I think that the short-term financial arrangements will be concluded fairly soon—I trust so—but there will be long-term proposals and discussions related to the round table conference which, I imagine, will not be concluded before the conference meets. Therefore, the discussions will be pari passu in that sense.

I think it would be usual for the Government to appoint a chairman, but perhaps we could discuss that matter through the usual channels.

Sir I. Fraser

Can my right hon. Friend say what proper part in the discussions on this matter the Dominion and Commonwealth Governments might have? Surely the situation of Malta is not one for us alone.

The Prime Minister

We have considered that, and, of course, the particular topic with which this round table conference will have to deal—the constitutional topic—will be for the Parliament of this country because this country will have to handle it, but we shall, of course, keep in contact with the Commonwealth countries as we proceed in the matter.

Mr. Robens

Can the Prime Minister say whether this decision has been communicated to the Prime Minister of Malta and whether the reaction of the Prime Minister is such that he feels satisfied with the decision arrived at and with the success of his mission?

The Prime Minister

This decision has been communicated to the two leaders of the delegation, the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition, in this country, but I think I ought to leave it to them to say anything which they feel they want to say about the outcome of the suggestions we have made.

Mr. Elliot

Will my right hon. Friend feel assured that his bold initiative in this matter will, at any rate, excite the interest of everybody in the House, and, I am sure, the sympathy and support of a great many; and, further, will he feel confident that in such imaginative approaches to constitutional matters both within and without this island he will have the support of hon. Members on this side of the House as well as that of hon. Members opposite?

The Prime Minister

I am much obliged to my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Bellenger

As this seems to be an unusual or, at any rate, a very rare method of dealing with these matters, and as it undoubtedly affects Parliament, can the Prime Minister say whether the deliberations of this round table conference will be in private or whether, as in the case of a Select Committee, the House will have access later to some of the evidence which the conference will have to consider?

The Prime Minister

It is, as the right hon. Gentleman says, unusual, but it is not unknown. There have been precedents—for instance, in respect of the Indian round table conference about which many hon. Members know. It will be for the round table conference itself to determine what parts, if any, of its deliberations it wishes to have in public or private. I think that we must give that measure of decision into the hands of representatives of this House.