HC Deb 13 May 1958 vol 588 cc349-59

Considered in Committee; reported, without Amendment.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

10.11 p.m.

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


Hon. Members

Too late.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Charles MacAndrew)

The position is that the Third Reading of the Bill has been moved and I have called the hon. Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Parkin).

Mr. Parkin

I hope the House can spare a little time in further discussion on this Bill at this stage, because the Minister will realise that his replies last night were a little brief and not entirely satisfactory. There are several of us on this side of the House who were a little worried about the way in which he brushed aside questions asked at an earlier stage of the Bill.

I myself asked a fair number of questions about the system of law that would be in operation in Christmas Island under the Australians. I asked the Minister whether it would be the system of Chinese law as practised in Singapore, or whether it would be some other system, and he replied that the Australians could very well decide this matter for themselves, since they had a Chinese community in New Guinea. That raises a very interesting fresh point.

It may be true that there is a Chinese community in New Guinea, but I think it is very difficult to claim that these 2,000 labourers on Christmas Island constitute a community in any recognised significant of the work. They are for the most part temporary residents, having been sent there to earn a living. Furthermore, they have for the most part come from Singapore. If the Chinese in New Guinea have originated in China, it is likely that they will have a different system of law, and not necessarily one which has been modified from the multi-racial community of the Malay Peninsula.

It seems to me that then; are two important issues here. The first one is the sensitivity of the Chinese people in the world at the present time. Surely, it is very much to the interests of this country and the Commonwealth that we should have a relaxed relationship to the Chinese People's Republic. A revolution took place there independently of revolutions in other parts of the world, and those of us who have studied the matter have observed with great satisfaction that there were encouraging features of it which had been absent from some earlier social revolutions during this century. It would be most unfortunate if there were allowed to develop a sort of Chinese irredentist policy, a sort of super-nationalism among Chinese communities living outside the frontiers of the Chinese People's Republic.

There is no immediate evidence of such expansionist tendencies, but Lord Attlee has said that in his tour he found a certain fear among other countries in South-East Asia that Chinese communities among them might, in the new pride in the achievements of the Chinese People's Republic, adopt an irredentist policy of reunion with their own country, which would be most embarrassing.

Furthermore, the great quarrel which those of us in this country have with Communist parties is that in their enthusiasm for rapid and ruthless economic planning they have often neglected those human values and the dignity of the human personality to which both sides of the House attach so much importance. It would be unfortunate if, for lack of a little explanation of what is happening, the impression were given that we do not very much care about the values of the way of life of those people who are the subjects of the Bill, especially since those to whom we preach the ideals of greater personal freedom and greater human dignity have very recently in their history passed through periods when human life has not been held very dear.

The Chinese love their children very much. People who visit them find those children very lovable, but it is one of the facts of recent Chinese history that hundreds, thousands and even millions of Chinese citizens have been killed in disasters and flood which could have been avoided. There is a general feeling of resentment that society did not carry out——

Mr. Douglas Glover (Ormskirk)

On a point of order. What has the fate of the Chinese, with which the whole House has the greatest sympathy, to do with Christmas Island?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Gordon Touche)

The Bill deals with the transfer of Chinese people.

Mr. Parkin

I regret that the hon. Member was not with us at our earlier discussion of the Bill when he would have heard the Minister explaining exactly what the purport of the Bill was and how it was concerned precisely with the political fate of a group of Chinese persons, as the Minister described them.

Those of us who have been asking for further information are anxious that this transfer should be carried out without injuring their way of life while giving them a new citizenship which will not arouse resentment. I was trying to make the point, which I hope the hon. Member will appreciate, that although this may be a very small island in a very large ocean, that ocean happens to be surrounded by countries which are going through social revolutions and which we wish to adopt the cultural heritage of our own country as much as possible.

When we preach to them on standards of human liberties, surely we should see to it that those standards are meticulously observed by our own country in a matter of this kind. That is why some of us were asking the Minister last night precisely what was involved in this transfer of citizenship.

Mr. Glover

I do not think that anybody in the House has any lack of sympathy with the inhabitants of Christmas Island. I do not want the hon. Member to misunderstand me, but the fate of the Chinese on the Chinese mainland is a little remote from Christmas Island. I am sure that every hon. Member is 100 per cent. with him in trying to improve the conditions of the people of Christmas Island, but he must keep that narrowly to the point which we are discussing.

Mr. Parkin

I am grateful for that ruling, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and I shall endeavour to keep within the narrow confines of the Bill. It is not our fault that Christmas Island is geographically rather remote from everywhere. It is rather remote from Australia. That does not seem to me a good reason for disposing of the fate of these inhabitants without discussion at dead of night and in great haste.

I should like to remind the Minister of the questions I asked last night, which he did not answer. I shall not repeat them, even for the benefit of the hon. Member for Ormskirk (Mr. Glover), who has been giving me guidance about my speech, but I am wondering whether there is anything about the history of the phosphates company which might be brought to light to assist us in our attitude towards this Bill. What is the haste about this Bill? What has happened to that company, which owned the mineral rights in Christmas Island? There is nothing else to own. [An HON. MEMBER: "There are the birds."] The birds made a great contribution towards it; we know about that.

There was a private company working the minerals there, and it appears to have decided to do a deal with the Australian Government. Apparently it did not care to remain within the general administrative area of Singapore and could not face the prospect of possibly coming under an independent Singapore. Was it for that reason that this island was made a separate Colony last year? What were the terms so far as the Australian Government were concerned? How much was paid for the company? Where did that money go, and where is the company now? What conditions were laid down as part of the deal for the sale of the workings to the Australian Government?

Those seem to be relevant points. I hope the Minister will answer them and give some precise answers on the rights of inhabitants as to Australian citizenship and their own laws and customs before the Bill is given a Third Reading.

10.22 p.m.

Miss Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devonport)

I should very much like to say a word or two about this island. I know something about it, having visited it. Those Chinese who have been on the island have always been administered under British law. I pay tribute to the Australians, because in the Malayan Civil Service there have been a great many Australians who have full knowledge. I hope that will allow the hon. Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Parkin) to rest in peace in regard to the conditions he mentioned last night about the wives and families of those people.

Australians have worked for many years in the Malayan Civil Service and have been helpful in administering this island. The phosphate company is, I understand, a joint Great Britain, New Zealand and Australian company, and will remain so in future. I wish to pay tribute to the many Malayan civil servants who have worked in this island, in particular, Mr. Broome, who did a great deal when the Japanese invaded. He rescued many people and went into the jungle with Spenser Chapman and had the support of many of the people of this island. When this island comes under the no jurisdiction of Australia, we need have no fear for the future of these people. I think it will be for their mutual benefit.

10.24 p.m.

Mr. Maurice Orbach (Willesden, East)

I shall not detain the House for too long, but yesterday the Under-Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations said we were dealing with a constitutional change of some importance. In spite of the fact that we are dealing with a very small island, situated hundreds of miles from any other inhabited place, and with only 2,400 inhabitants, we are doing something which we believe will help us in the British Commonwealth in respect of those nations which are free and independent members of the Commonwealth. It is something which may further the whole idea of the Commonwealth.

In view of the questions asked yesterday on Second Reading, it is surprising that on the occasion of the Committee stage and Third Reading of this Bill no Law Officer of the Crown has troubled to attend. It is important that there should be one here. The Patronage Secretary should not shake his head. He should get busy, as busy as he is on occasions when we have a three-line Whip. It is important to have a Law Officer here so that we might have answers to some of the questions we raised yesterday and which the Under-Secretary of State found it difficult to answer.

We were not told the whole story about the island yesterday by a long way. The figures that we were given were ambiguous, as was the information. We were informed that every year there are 90 to 100 births on the island. There is, therefore, now some indigenous population. We were told yesterday, however, that there was no indigenous population. There were 93 births in 1954 and an average of 90 to 100 babies are born every year and grow up as Christmas Islanders.

Since 1st January, the island has been under the administration of the United Kingdom Government without any difficulty. It is proposed that the island should now go under the administration of the Australian Government, primarily because that country is responsible for importing the 350,000 tons of phosphates produced annually on the island and which are necessary for Australian agriculture. We accept that. What we are questioning is the constitutional position of the existing inhabitants of Christmas Island and other inhabitants who come there. The density is only 33 per square mile and it may become 169 or 200 per square mile of the 62 or 64 square miles comprising the island. I am not sure which is the correct figure, because the reference books give both figures.

Yesterday, I asked some specific questions. The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to tell us that the Chinese who are on the island today may opt for Singapore nationality and may continue that nationality, together with their British Commonwealth nationality, and that they may visit their families and friends in Singapore from time to time when their terms of duty expire. The hon. Gentleman said—the House should know this—that they may be offered registration as Australian citizens and that the Australian Government would look with sympathy at any request for entry into Australia. It is that last phrase about which I am concerned. [Interruption.] I can be concerned about it without the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Mr. Braine) mumbling away. Let him get up and say what he has to say.

Mr. Bernard Braine (Essex, South-East)

I should like to know whether the object of the hon. Member's speech is to cast any doubt on the adherence of the Australian Parliament and people to the rule of law and to respect for human personality.

Mr. Orbach

No, not at all. I was trying to explain the position in Australia, which I have visited. I have discussed the Australian nationality laws with Australian statesmen. All parties in Australia are wedded to what is called the "White Australia" policy. One of my hon. Friends said yesterday that there was a colour bar in Australia. I deny that there is any colour bar in Australia. The aborigines, who are coloured, are accepted as full citizens and assisted by the Federal and State Governments. There is an Australian white policy which precludes other coloured persons from coming to the country, and that is the issue I am raising. I am worried that these people who may opt for Australian citizenship may become second-class Australian citizens. I want them to be full Australian citizens, with all the privileges and duties.

I asked yesterday whether they would have the right to vote and the right to visit or to remain permanently on the mainland of Australia. If they are not to be given those rights, I suggest that this House would be doing a wrong thing in introducing a constitutional Measure which will produce discrimination against certain people who are today not subjected to such disabilities.

10.31 p.m.

Mr. E. Fernyhough (Jarrow)

I am sorry that this Bill is being treated in this flippant manner by hon. Gentlemen opposite. Normally they claim to be far more interested in the Commonwealth and Empire than are hon. Members on these benches. [HON. MEMBERS: "Wake him up."] I am quite sure that is the natural posture of my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, West (Sir T. O'Brien) when he is thinking deeply and is taking a great interest in what is being debated in this House.

I think it remarkable that we should have this display of hilarity when we are discussing the affairs of a small but an important part of the Commonwealth. Hon. Members should not be so annoyed about the fact that we want to ask a few intelligent questions. If they read the Second Reading debate, they will agree that not a single question asked on that occasion was unnecessary. We sought enlightenment on that occasion, and I am sorry to say that we did not get it. The Under-Secretary of State did his best, but his brief did not contain the information we wanted.

I asked how many of the 2,400 people affected by this Bill had been consulted. I asked what would be the position of a child of Chinese parents. As this is to be Australian territory, I presume that he would be an Australian citizen, and one of the rights of citizenship is to be able to visit the mother country. I should like to know whether such a child would be able to go to Australia when this Bill becomes law. I beg hon. Members opposite to appreciate that the issues involved here are causing great concern and strain throughout the world. It is a question of discrimination to which we must find the answer if the Commonwealth is to develop into the happy and unified family which we desire.

I therefore hope that before we send the Bill to another place the Minister will try to give us some enlightenment on the reasonable questions which we have asked. He will appreciate. I think, even though his hon. Friends do not, that what we said last night was constructive, that we in no way wished to delay the Bill and that all we sought were safeguards that the position had not been left in such a state that it would cause us headaches in the future. I hope that he will try to help us in the manner I have indicated.

10.36 p.m.

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

As my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Fernyhough) said, this is a very important Bill which deals with a constitutional change, and it is right that it should be examined carefully. Last night my hon. Friends asked pertinent questions and tonight they have endeavoured to do the same, and it is right that they have done so.

This is a case in which other Commonwealth countries are accepting their responsibility, and this is to be encouraged. For far too long the sole responsibility has been that of the United Kingdom. We are all at one in wishing to make sure that the well-being of the inhabitants of Christmas Island is well looked after.

I am a little concerned about what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington, North (Mr. Parkin). These are all British subjects, and this means that those who come from Singapore and are citizens of that territory have a right to go back there. There may be others who are not citizens of Singapore—they may be Chinese. I hope that the Minister will say that they will be given the opportunity, if they wish, to go back to China. If, on the other hand, they prefer to go to Singapore, I hope that he will make representations to the Government of Singapore to let them go there.

Last night we were told that the Australian Government would give sympathetic consideration to those who wish to go to Australia. I hope that we can go further than that. In the same way in which any British subject in the Commonwealth can come to this country, I hope that it will be possible either for Australia to give the inhabitants of Christmas Island complete Australian citizenship or for them to make it possible for these people to go to Australia to obtain it and to live there, if they wish. If that is done it will give more satisfaction to my hon. Friends.

I am surprised that my hon. Friend the Member for Paddington, North saw anything sinister about the transfer of the company's interests to the Governments of Australia and New Zealand. This was done in 1949, before what he had in mind was developing as it is today, and I can assure him, as a member of the then Government, that it was done with the best intentions.

10.39 p.m.

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

It was a little unfair of the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Ferny-hough) to say that he received no enlightenment from the debate last night, because he was frank enough to admit that when he came into the Chamber he was under the impression that the island which we were discussing was a different island situated many thousands of miles away in the middle of the Pacific.

I think I gave a very full answer to the points raised by the hon. Member for Paddington, North. As my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers) said, there is no question of a connection between Christmas Island and Chinese law. The law of Singapore is English law, and this law will continue to operate in Christmas Island until it is amended, again in accordance with the processes of English law, by the Australian Parliament and Administration.

I pointed out that the Australian Government have considerable experience of this sort of administrative problems, and I am sure that we can all place full reliance on the way in which they will carry out the responsibilities which they are to take over from us as a result of the Bill. I should like to emphasise the point which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Rochester and Chatham (Mr. Bottomley) made. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his help in replying to a point made by one of his hon. Friends, when he said that, in fact, the transfer from the private company to the Phosphates Commission of New Zealand and Australia took place in 1949. I am quite certain that it was in the interests of both those countries that that process should be undertaken.

Mr. Parkin

In the interests of Britain, it was a bad bargain.

Mr. Alport

That is a point which the hon. Gentleman must take up with his hon. and right hon. Friends who were the Government at that time. The fact of the matter is that it was not only a convenient arrangement but it was one in the interests of the economic development of the island.

Those who are born in the island after the transference has taken place will automatically become Australian citizens, but they will also be citizens either of the United Kingdom and Colonies or citizens of Singapore by descent. Therefore, as is the case for the majority of the inhabitants of the island, they will have dual nationality. The truth is that, as a result of the transfer, so far from the citizenship rights of the inhabitants being in any way damaged, on the whole, their citizenship rights will be extended.

As regards the attitude of the Australian Government to their particular responsibilities and the privileges which Australian citizenship carries in this respect, I have already said, when we were discussing the Bill on Second Reading, that the Australian Government have undertaken that they will consider sympathetically any applications which may come from people living in Christmas Island to go to Australia. I will remind the House that, although it is perfectly true that we have along tradition of free entry for British subjects into this country, that is not true of any other country of the Commonwealth. It would be unfair, I think, to criticise the Australian Government, or, indeed, the Government of any other Commonwealth country, because they do not necessarily follow the tradition which has been appropriate to the metropolitan country over a long period of history.

In the circumstances, I hope that the House will accord to the Bill the Third Reading. It is a Bill which I believe to be in the interests not only of the individuals who live in a far away and small part of the Commonwealth and Empire, but in the interests of us in the United Kingdom and of Australia and New Zealand as well.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.

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