HC Deb 12 May 1958 vol 588 cc161-75

Order for Second Reading read.

The Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. Alan Lennox-Boyd)

I have it, Sir, in Command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty places Her prerogative and interests, so far as they are concerned with the matters dealt with by this Bill, at the disposal of Parliament.

10.16 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations (Mr. C. J. M. Alport)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I should perhaps begin by explaining that the Christmas Island to which the Bill refers is that situated in the Indian Ocean about 200 miles south of Java. It should not be confused with the other Christmas Island, which in recent times has been the scene of certain atomic and nuclear tests.

The island with which the House is concerned tonight was first sighted by a certain Captain Mynors in his ship the "Royal Mary" in 1643. It remained uninhabited until the end of the nineteenth century, when it was discovered, as a result of a visit, I think by the Royal Navy who brought back certain specimens of the rocks, that there were large deposits of almost pure phosphate of lime. As a result, Chinese labourers were brought to the island, and in 1900 the first phosphates were exported.

In 1949 the Governments of Australia and New Zealand bought the Christmas Island Phosphate Company, and at the same time the lease of the whole island, which had previously belonged to the Company, was transferred to those two Governments. The production of phosphates has recently been running at the rate of about 350,000 tons a year and the island supplies about one-third of the phosphate requirements of Australia. In those circumstances, the House will recognise that the island is important to the economy of the Commonwealth of Australia.

In the past the island has been associated for administrative purposes with Singapore, which is situated about 800 miles to the north. There is, however, no natural link between the island and Singapore, and in view of the new constitutional arrangements which are now proposed for Singapore it was not felt appropriate some months ago, when the matter was considered, to continue the administrative link. Australia was logically regarded as the natural territory to administer an island in which it already had such considerable economic interests. The decision that this should be the future of the administration of the island was announced in the House in June last year, and with effect from 1st January of this year the island has been severed from Singapore and has been administered as a separate dependency of the United Kingdom.

Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom have made an ex gratia payment of £2,300,000 to the Government of Singapore to compensate them for the loss of revenue which they formerly enjoyed in respect of the phosphate exports from the island and we have in turn been reimbursed for this expenditure by the Governments of Australia and New Zealand.

In accordance with precedents set at the time of the transfer of the Cocos Islands, we have had to go through a rather elaborate constitutional procedure. The Australian Parliament has already passed an Act requesting and consenting to this Bill, and the object of the Bill is to enable the transfer by Order in Council of the island to the Commonwealth of Australia. As the House will recognise, the Bill closely resembles the pattern set when the Cocos Islands were similarly transferred some time ago.

There is one point which, in the case of a constitutional change of this sort, is always of particular concern to hon. Members on both sides of the House. That is to ensure that there is in no case, as the result of legislative action taken by this House, any loss of citizenship rights to any of the inhabitants of the territory concerned. The House will wish to know, therefore, how the future of the islanders is affected by this transfer.

There are no indigenous inhabitants in the normal sense of the word. All the persons who are resident in the island at present are there by reason of the operation of the Australia and New Zealand Phosphate Commission and in one way or another are closely connected with either mining the phosphate and its processing, or with some of the administrative requirements of the small community of some 2,400 persons there.

The transfer of the island will not affect the citizenship of the persons now on the island. They are for the most part emigrants or people who have been brought from Singapore. The Government of Singapore have given an assurance that, subject to the laws in force in Singapore from time to time, those on the island will be admitted to Singapore either permanently or on visits.

The Australian Government have given precisly the same assurances about the future position of the islanders in relation to Australia as they gave to the Cocos Islanders at the time of the transfer of that group of islands. Residents of the island at the time of the handing over to the administration of the Commonwealth of Australia will be given the option of becoming Australian citizens, and persons born on the island after that date will be Australian citizens by operation of the law. The Australian Government have said that they will consider sympathetically any application from the islanders to go to Australia.

Mr. B. T. Parkin (Paddington, North)

Do we understand that this will be a second-grade Australian citizenship? If an inhabitant of the island is to get Australian citizenship, has he not the same automatic right to go to Australia as he would have to come here if he were a British citizen?

Mr. Alport

It is not true that they will be second-class citizens in any way. The majority of the people concerned are those whose home is in Singapore and to the north and they will retain their rights in respect of Singapore. As I have said, any application which they may wish to make to go to Australia will be sympathetically considered by the Australian Government. That is exactly the same position in respect of Christmas Island as it is in the case of the Cocos Islands.

The following legal arrangements will be needed for the transfer of this island. When this enabling Bill has been passed, the Australian Government will then have to pass an Act accepting the island and undertaking responsibility for its future Government. Subsequently, an Order in Council will be made to provide for the actual transfer of the island.

The House will see that to all intents and purposes this is a single Clause Bill. The Preamble identifies the island and states that the Commonwealth of Australia has requested and consented to the Act, when it is passed. Clause 1 gives authority by Order in Council to make the transfer and deals with certain matters which arise therefrom. Clause 2 simply gives the Bill its Short Title.

This, as the House will realise, is one of those rather strange responsibilities that have come to us in the past as a result of the spirit of adventure of men and women of this country. Until relatively recently the island was uninhabited. The community at present living there is to some extent a merely temporary one, in so far as it has been the custom for a great many of the people to return after a period to the places of their origin. But there is no doubt that there is every logic for the island becoming the responsibility of the Government of the Commonwealth of Australia.

I am sure that the House will have noted the way in which similar responsibilities have been carried out in respect of the Cocos Islands and will feel satisfied with the proposal we are now putting before the House.

10.26 p.m.

Mr. A. G. Bottomley (Rochester and Chatham)

The Bill was introduced in another place, and the official Opposition there gave a welcome to it, but the Government live in such anxious times that until a moment ago they found it necessary to have both the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip present. I do not want to add to their difficulties tonight. The facts as stated by the Minister are correct, but there are one or two points that I want to put to him.

I imagine that many of us, like the Minister, at one stage thought that this Christmas Island was the Christmas Island where the hydrogen tests were taking place. We now know that it is not. It is a very small island—about half the size of the Isle of Wight—with two or three thousand inhabitants. To illustrate the difference between the way in which we used to approach matters and our present-day approach, I would point out that the Royal Navy was responsible for locating this island, and that in those days the Navy was bent not upon warlike purposes; it used to carry out peaceful pursuits.

As a result of exploration it discovered these very rich phosphate deposits. At the time a Conservative Government were in power, and instead of those phosphates being worked for the good of the community as a whole they were handed over to private enterprise. It was not until the Australian and New Zealand Governments saw the wisdom of public ownership that they bought out this private company. We therefore find that if we transfer this power to Australia we are passing over power to Governments who have nationalised industry. We are glad to find that in this respect a Conservative Government supports this movement.

At the moment, the island is a Colonial Office responsibility. When Singapore accepted responsibility it was very difficult for it to administer an island which was 600 miles away. I believe that it was on 1st January of this year that administrative responsibility passed from the Singapore Government to the Colonial Office—and if it was difficult for Singapore to administer this island, which was 600 miles away, it must be extremely difficult for us to administer it, when it is many more hundreds of miles away. Therefore, it seems to be logical to entrust the re- sponsibility to a sister country in the Commonwealth.

In this respect I think that it is right that Parliament should examine the matter very seriously. As the Minister has said, it has been a very complicated procedure. We do not want lightly to transfer territory from one Commonwealth country to another unless we are absolutely certain that the peoples of the territories concerned are in favour, and that the Governments concerned are in complete agreement. This happens to be the case, and the procedure that has been followed—because of the Statute of Westminster—is such that we in this Parliament have an opportunity of looking at the matter carefully, considering all the facts, and passing the Bill, which later becomes an Act of Parliament.

Likewise, a responsibility lies upon the Commonwealth Government to do a similar thing, so that before the transfer is completed both Parliaments will have an opportunity of testing the executive decision to make sure that the transfer is the right thing to do.

For the Opposition I should like to pursue the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Parkin), which I had intended to develop. It is important that the rights of the people, whatever the territory, Should be safeguarded. I understand that originally Chinese labourers were transferred from Singapore and elsewhere to be employed on the island in the phosphates industry. They spend a few years there and then go back. To the extent that they are Singapore citizens they have a right to go back. I understand the Singapore Government will sympathetically consider those who wish to go back. The situation is similar in the case of Australia, and claims for Australian citizenship and opportunities to go to Australia will be sympathetically considered.

We do well to remember that under the British Nationality Act, although the Indians and ourselves were anxious to do the right thing for the inhabitants of India, nevertheless it happened that many Indians were left stateless. We do not want a position in which citizens of Christmas Island find themselves stateless. I do not think the Minister has given a complete assurance, but I hope he will give one, that there will be no stateless persons whatever. I do not know whether it is now possible to continue the position in which there will be Singapore citizens, Australian citizens and United Kingdom and colonial citizens. If that could be considered we could be absolutely certain that all the citizens had their rights. We can take comfort in the fact that, whatever the situation, all will be British citizens and to that extent have the opportunity to came to this country.

It is possible that the island might be used as a base for one purpose or another. In these days of development of the helicopter and other means of transport islands which at one time seemed to be of no significance now prove to be important. The Cocos Islands were transferred last year and only recently Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother, when going to Australia found it necessary to alight from an aircraft on one of the islands. I hope there will be similar opportunities whereby this island could be so used if necessary.

I have no doubt that the arrangement with the Australian Government will be carried out in the usual spirit of harmony and co-operation. On behalf of the Opposition, I welcome the transfer to a sister country of responsibility for this island.

10.34 p.m.

Mr. Brian Harrison (Maldon)

I welcome this Bill for one reason in particular, which I shall mention in a moment. I should like to take up what was said by the right hon. Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mr. Bottomley) on the subject of phosphate deposits and the like. He said that the Australian Government had nationalised. I suggest that he study the problem a little more closely. He will find that the nationalisation as done by the Phosphates Commission is something very different from the awful organisation we know in this country in the nationalised industries.

Mr. Bottomley

The hon. Member will admit that it is not private enterprise?

Mr. Harrison

It is a very sound combination of the two.

The reason I welcome the Bill is that think this and the previous Bill dealing with the Cocos Islands highlights something which must be pursued with great force. I refer to the effort to disperse the Commonwealth's responsibilities throughout the Commonwealth. It is because this small Bill makes another Commonwealth country responsible for a part of the very far-flung Commonwealth that I particularly welcome it.

I should like my hon. Friend to make sure that before this Measure is enacted the citizens of this island will at least have equal status with the Australian citizens of, say, New Guinea, otherwise I think that we will be storing up a certain amount of trouble and setting a rather bad precedent. As I say, it is because a Commonwealth country is taking over responsibility for this place that I sincerely welcome the Bill. I hope that it is the forerunner of many others, including similar Measures for the Solomon Islands, and many other territories in the Pacific as well as in the Indian Ocean.

10.36 p.m.

Mr. Arthur Creech Jones (Wakefield)

It is a matter of some interest that we should find not only a Conservative Member but a Conservative Government urging on us the further dismemberment of the British Empire——

Mr. B. Harrison

No, no.

Mr. Creech Jones

When some of us were eagerly pursuing a course of transferring Empire to Commonwealth we were subjected to a great deal of criticism. However, I welcome this Bill. The proposal is the natural thing to do, and I believe that the administration of the island will probably be better under the Australian Government than it can possibly be under that of the United Kingdom or Singapore.

I suppose I should know the answers to the questions that I want to put to the Minister, but I just do not. When this transfer is effected, I take it that, should they apply for it, the inhabitants of Christmas Island will authomatically receive Australian citizenship. I take it, too, that the island will be administered under Australian law, and not under that of either the United Kingdom or of Singapore.

I should like to know—because the Minister has not so far enlightened us on this—how far the inhabitants themselves had been consulted about this transfer of sovereignty. This is a very important principle, and although it may have only a limited application in this case, the Minister should make perfectly clear to the House tonight whether or not such consultation has taken place. It is not a question of whether these inhabitants had their origin in Singapore or elsewhere, but that they are now bona fide inhabitants of a particular territory. It is a sound principle that at least some degree of consultation should take place when a transfer of this, or of any other kind takes place.

A further matter which, again, has not been mentioned, relates to royalties from phosphates. I am not clear what part of the royalties, or of the taxation on the industry was shared by the local inhabitants.

It will be recalled that in the case of the other famous phosphate island in the Pacific there is a specific welfare fund derived from the royalties on phosphates which is used for the well-being of the local inhabitants and the inhabitants of the neighbouring islands. Therefore, I should like to know whether any provision will be made by the Australian Government in respect of the welfare and happiness of the inhabitants.

These are just a few queries which I put to the Minister because in passing the Bill, which seems to me to be perfectly sound in its practical objective, we ought to be satisfied that the normal principles in respect of transfer have been observed.

10.41 p.m.

Mr. Maurice Orbach (Willesden, East)

We have had an exercise in geography and history which I have found extremely interesting. However, when the Under-Secretary touched on the constitutional procedure he seemed to be rather ambiguous, and I have no clear picture in my mind about exactly what is taking place.

I reiterate the questions asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mr. Creech Jones). I should also like to know why as a result of the transfer of the sovereignty of the island from Singapore to Australia we are paying £2 million in compensation. It seems that the economic benefits from the mining of phosphates went to a certain company under the administration of the New Zealand and Australian Governments. Therefore, I cannot see what revenue Singapore is losing. Why are we paying £2 million to Singapore as a result of the transfer.

Mr. Alport

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman did not hear the words that I added, that we are reimbursed for the expenditure of £2,300,000 by the Governments of New Zealand and Australia, so that there is no cost to the United Kingdom.

Mr. Orbach

Then I cannot question it at any great length, but it still seems to me to get muddier and muddier. Why are the Australians paying that money? But perhaps I ought not to pursue that subject. Someone in Canberra may ask the same question.

I am not happy that the 2,400 inhabitants of the island do not appear to have been consulted about their future. The Under-Secretary made it clear that, while these people, who had originally come from Singapore, could opt to return to Singapore or could apply for Australian naturalisation on Australia's taking over the island, they would not necessarily be allowed to visit Australia. I understand the reason for that—Australia has a white Australian policy—and I think the Under-Secretary ought to explain it to the House and make it clear that we are by this act participating in a discrimination that none of us would favour elsewhere.

Mr. Alport

indicated dissent.

Mr. Orbach

The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. He must answer this question. Are the 2,400 inhabitants of the island who may become Australian citizens to be given all the rights of Australian citizens, which would include the right not only to visit the Australian mainland, if they so wished, but the right to participate, by becoming part of a constituency of Australia, in the federal elections in Australia or in any of the state elections? It is important that we should know the answer.

I do not want to delay the passing of the Bill, but I could never vote for any Measure which took away from any people within the Commonwealth rights which they now enjoy or ought to enjoy by an Act of the United Kingdom Government. Unless the Minister satisfies us to the contrary, I feel that we might be participating in discrimination which I should not be prepared to support.

10.45 p.m.

Mr. E. Fernyhough (Jarrow)

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations for introducing the Bill. I am bound to confess that I have learned a little geography. In my ignorance, I thought that there was only one Christmas Island; I was not aware that there are two, and I thought that this Christmas Island was the one about which we have heard a great deal. I am quite sure that the passage of the Bill would have been a little less smooth had it been that Christmas Island rather than the one mentioned in the Preamble to the Bill.

I share some of the misgivings expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Orbach). This island has been populated over the years substantially by what the Under-Secretary referred to as Chinese labourers. I do not know whether they were ever allowed to bring their women folk with them when they returned, or whether their women folk were allowed to come with them; but if they did, it is obvious that there will be on the island, living in the British Commonwealth, what we look upon as coloured people.

For reasons best known to themselves, the Australian Government, we know, maintain a somewhat rigid colour bar. It would be very unfortunate if, in 1958, when all kinds of people are prepared to create difficulties for Her Majesty's Government whenever they can seize an issue of this kind, we were to hand over some 2,400 people to another Government, not assuring them of the same rights under that other Government that they now possess under Her Majesty's Government and Britain herself.

It is desirable that we should be given some information about these things. The Parliamentary Secretary should try to give us some breakdown of the figure of 2,400. What are the respective nationalities of these people? We do not want to see arise in any part of the Commonwealth the difficulties which have arisen in some territories in the past as a result of a colour bar. These things will become more and more important as the years go by. It would be well for us to safeguard ourselves from trouble in the future, so far as we can, in making provisions of this kind.

10.47 p.m.

Mr. B. T. Parkin (Paddington, North)

I am sorry that the Minister did not find time to answer more fully the question I put to him when he was good enough to give way to me. Although I appreciate that he was keeping his speech short, I thought it was a most unfortunate phrase to use in speaking of Christmas Island to say that it had no natural links with Singapore, in view of the fact that nearly all the people living and working there come from Singapore. It seems a singularly heartless way of approaching a problem of colonial administration to speak as if one were dealing with nothing but the top layer of a sort of oceanic volcano which the seagulls had left. I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman could give us a little further explanation.

I should like particularly to know how the Australians propose to administer the island. It was said on this side of the House as well as on the other that it would be easier to administer from Australia. Yet Australia is the one country in the Pacific which has not the slightest knowledge or experience of administering the affairs of Chinese citizens. The Australians are a people who have excluded themselves for a long period from any opportunity of getting such experience.

Surely, if there are any Chinese citizens whose customs must be extremely complex they are the Chinese citizens of Singapore. What will happen, for instance, to the marriage and property laws, as administered at present in Singapore, in relation to the affairs of these Singapore citizens now working in Christmas Island? I believe there is a special concession in Singapore to acknowledge the status of what are called secondary wives in the old-fashioned Chinese structure of society. The secondary wives have the same rights for themselves and their children as the primary wives. It is to be assumed that the administration of Singapore knows all about this sort of thing, and that there are no difficulties in the case of death and of legacies for the support of survivors. Now we are to give to our enthusiastic Australian relatives an entirely new problem. Where are the Australian administrators to be trained? Will they be seconded to Singapore for a special course in the social habits, and the legal interpretation of those habits, as practised in Christmas Island?

I think this raises a really serious problem, because somebody is going to be very disgruntled about this if I rightly gathered what the Under-Secretary of State said, that the Australians will kindly consider sympathetically the request if anyone who has Australian citizenship has the temerity to want to set foot in Australia. That is not good enough. I think it would be better if Australian citizenship were not conferred, and if it were said straight out, "This is the purchase of a phosphate island and the people who come to work in the island must make their own arrangements with Australia," than to pretend they are Australians.

I am certainly not as dazzled as my right hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mr. Bottomley) by the prospects of this wonderful nationalised industry. It seems to me that if this is the sort of thing hon. Gentlemen opposite can compare favourably with our own nationalised industries, then indeed this is an illumination of the Conservatives' notion of how nationalised industries are operated. Here is an island owned, lock, stock and barrel and mineral content, by one Government, and where all the work is done by people who come from another country; who are hired, but have no say in the administration of the island, and who have one employer. I do not know whether they have a trade union. If they should fall out of work, or if they should be a little awkward about conditions, what happens? It does not seem to me that there are any specially satisfactory conditions in working in a nationalised industry owned by a foreign country if there are no means of redress if difficulties such as I have indicated should arise. What happens?

Mr. Bottomley

That would be like a Communist industry.

Mr. Parkin

It may well be that under totalitarian arrangements, and where there is only one employer, that result would be produced. I suppose the building of the Pyramids was an example of a nationalised industry in those circumstances, where foreign labour was available. However, I must not be tempted by my right hon. Friend to cover the whole range of such State enterprises throughout history.

In this case we are entitled to some rather fuller reassurance, and I hope that we shall get it tonight. Then I hope that the further stages of the Bill will not be unduly protracted.

10.53 p.m.

Mr. Alport

By leave of the House, I will try to answer some of the points raised by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mr. Bottomley) and his colleagues. I think that perhaps the hon. Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Parkin) is unaware of the fact that Australia is responsible for the administration of New Guinea, and has been for some years past. In New Guinea there is a substantial Chinese community and, therefore, the Australians have plenty of experience of dealing with the administrative problems of the Chinese.

The right hon. Member for Rochester and Chatham asked whether any of the inhabitants of Christmas Island would be rendered stateless. I can assure him straight away that in no case will the existing and previous status of the inhabitants be affected. Indeed, their citizenship rights will, in many cases, be extended by this transfer. Those already there will have the right to apply for registration as Australian citizens, and those born subsequently will become Australian citizens by right of birth.

For instance, suppose a child born between 1st January of this year and the date of the transfer were the son of a man having a Singapore citizenship, that child would be entitled to treble citizenship. He would be entitled to citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies by birth; to citizenship of Singapore by descent, and he would be entitled to apply for registration as a citizen of Australia under the law which would come into force when the transfer takes place.

Regarding the consent of the inhabitants, I would remind the right hon. Gentleman that that question was answered by the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies in August of last year, when he said that we are not dealing with an indigenous population of long standing but with a population which has come specifically as a result of the operations of the Phosphate Commission, and in many cases their work there has been of a comparatively short duration. For those reasons, Her Majesty's Government did not think it necessary to consult them before deciding on this transfer.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the rights which would remain with the United Kingdom regarding defence and facilities for a civil air line. The Australian Government have made clear that they would co-operate fully with the United Kingdom Government to ensure that the facilities which might be available on the island were made available to us, if the necessity arose.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the treatment of the community from the point of view of welfare. If the nationalised industry is as good as he claims, it is clear, since practically all those living on the island are the employees of the nationalised industry—at any rate, they are the employees of the Phosphate Commission—that the right hon. Gentleman can with confidence leave that to the industry. It has a good history in the matter of looking after its employees.

I was asked how the Australian Government propose to administer the island. That is not a question which should be put to me and not one which I would answer. The experience which that Government have had and their great success in administering dependencies for which they have been responsible for years past shows that we need have no worries on that score.

Mr. Fernyhough

The hon. Gentleman has said that the population was 2,400 and that the Government did not think it was necessary to consult them because the vast majority were only temporary residents. Can he tell us what number are temporary residents?

Mr. Alport

I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman the number who would be regarded as permanent residents. There are a few adults who were born there and have grown up there, but the number is limited.

With the answers I have given, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends will feel assured that the decision represented by this Bill is one which is not only in the best interests of Australia, New Zealand and the United Kingdom, but also of this small and distant outpost of the Commonwealth and Empire.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to the Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Oakshott.]

Committee Tomorrow.