HC Deb 27 July 1960 vol 627 cc1648-53
The Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. Iain Macleod)

As I have repeatedly made clear, Her Majesty's Government are anxious to restore representative government in Malta. During the fifteen months that the present Constitution has been in operation, important progress has been made in diversifying the economy, but it was never intended that this Constitution should remain in force any longer than was necessary. Her Majesty's Government have decided that the time has now come to work out a new Constitution under which elections may be held as soon as it has been introduced.

Last December, I myself visited Malta, and during his recent visit my right hon. and noble Friend the Minister of State has had valuable informal consultations with the representatives of a wide range of Maltese opinion and many professional associations and interests on how to restore representative government while, at the same time, not abandoning our responsibilities to the people of Malta

Her Majesty's Government have come to the conclusion that the quickest and most satisfactory way of moving to early elections lies in the appointment of a small constitutional Commission, including a member from another Commonwealth country, whose task will be to formulate detailed constitutional proposals, after due consultation with representatives of the Maltese people and local interests. The method of consultation will be for the Corn-mission itself to decide.

The Commission will have to take account of Her Majesty's Government's intention that the Maltese people should be given the widest measure of self-government consistent with Her Majesty's Government's responsibility for defence and foreign affairs and their undertakings in respect of the public service, the police and human rights generally. Within this framework, the Commission will be free to make such recommendations as it sees fit.

I am glad to be able to announce that Sit Hilary Blood has accepted appointment as Chairman of the Commission, and that Sir Alfred Roberts has agreed to serve as a member. As I have said, I also hope to add a member from another Commonwealth country.

The Commission will go out to Malta as soon as possible. When its report has been received Her Majesty's Government intend that elections shall be held on the basis of a new Constitution, in the drawing up of which the people of Malta, the Commission and the United Kingdom Government will all have played their part.

Mr. Callaghan

We all welcome the attempt by the Colonial Secretary to break the deadlock in Malta, but may I ask him two questions? First, why is it that the directive which is being given to the Commission is so much narrower than that given in respect of the island of Singapore, when, although the Government reserved defence matters, they did not reserve to themselves foreign affairs, the maintenance of law and order, the public services, or human rights generally? Can the Colonial Secretary tell us why he feels it necessary, in the case of an island similar to Singapore, to keep this close control?

Secondly, what reply is he to make to the first question which he is bound to be asked—on the attitude of Her Majesty's Government towards the demand of a large section of the Maltese people for what is called self-determination, that is, the right to determine their own future, whether they stay in or go out of the Commonwealth?

Mr. Macleod

In a sense, the two questions are one. The Round Table Conference, as the hon. Gentleman knows very well, came to the conclusion that the responsibility of Her Majesty's Government in relation to defence and foreign affairs should broadly follow the lines of my statement today. With respect, I do not think that anything has changed from that. There is a difference with the other pledges. The reason is that my predecessor gave pledges in relation to individual members of the police and public service, in view of what had happened in Malta and the personal threats which had been made about them. I intend to fulfil those pledges to the full.

On Malta's long-term future, I should make it clear that what I am suggesting is what I believe to be the quickest way forward. Frankly, I believe that it is a better way than having conferences, in view of the history of conferences about Malta over the last few years. I believe that the quickest way forward is the step now in contemplation. I should make it clear that I am not saying "never" and not saying "always" in relation to what I may call the far future. I believe that this is the right step to take now in this stage in Malta's development.

Mr. Callaghan

While we recognise that the Government have at least learned that it is no good using the word "never," does the Colonial Secretary also appreciate that the people of Malta will want to have some idea of the proposed ultimate goal of this very limited form of self-government which he intends to ask the Commission to propose? Will he carefully consider, before the Commission starts work, making clear Her Majesty's Government's view about the issue of self-determination? I do not wish to prophesy gloom, but I believe that if he does not do so, he will never hold the elections which he wants and which we all want so that there shall be constitutional progress.

Mr. Macleod

I do not share the hon. Gentleman's view of the future for Malta. My statement is quite clear and speaks of the widest measure of self-government consistent with Her Majesty's Government's responsibility for defence and foreign affairs… As I have pointed out, that is precisely in line with the earlier recommendations of the Round Table Conference.

I have carefully considered how the people of Malta can be consulted. It could be done by having a conference, but I have rejected that for the reason that at the last conference which we had for Malta it was impossible even to get the political parties into the same room, and I think that the position might be the same today. Therefore, I have left that out. I do not wish, and I do not think that anybody in the House wants me to, to impose a constitution. I have given much thought to the possibility of convening a national assembly, which has happened twice in the history of Malta since the First World War, but that seemed to me to be an entirely unwieldy body.

Therefore, I decided on a Commission of three with someone like Sir Hilary Blood, who has, perhaps, more experience than anyone else in the country of this sort of work, and a well-known statesman of world rank in trade union affairs, like Sir Alfred Roberts, and a third member coming from another Commonwealth country, who, I think, will be an important addition to the strength. Having such a body in Malta talking to the Maltese people is the best way to consult them about their future.

Mr. Wall

While I welcome the proposal, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he can tell the House when he expects to receive the report of the Commission, so that a general election may take place in Malta?

Mr. Macleod

I cannot tie the Commission to particular times, but I expect to have its report at, say, the end of the year, and that elections will then be held in the first half of 1961.

Mr. J. Griffiths

I welcome the new initiative in Malta and note the Secretary of State's reference to the Round Table Conference, on which it was my privilege to serve with several of my colleagues. While taking the view about the limitations on the form of defence, and so on, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, and recognising the Maltese people's desire to have a form of political independence which had some reality, we were driven to the conclusion, agreed by a large majority, that the one way of satisfying both military responsibilities and the desires of the Maltese people for real independence was by a proposal for what we called integration.

Are we now to understand that, if the Commission concludes that the desire of the Maltese people for independence is to be satisfied beyond mere self-government, any further consideration of integration will be rejected and that the only alternative will be that some day Malta will become completely independent?

In considering the Constitution, are we to understand that the Commission will at least begin with the assumption that there will be adult suffrage?

Mr. Macleod

I was not a member of the Round Table Conference and I know only what I have read about it. Integration is not what might be called above the surface in Maltese political thought. I always thought that it was an imaginative idea and what I have said in no way rules out the Commission's consideration of the concept of integration, if it so wishes. Questions of suffrage are for the Commission, but I have no doubt that it will follow the long-established traditional practice of Malta in this matter.

Sir P. Agnew

While I believe that within the terms of reference which my right hon. Friend has announced there is ample provision for a wide restoration of self-government in Malta, can he say whether he envisages that the Commission, while it will regulate its own procedure, of course, will visit Malta to take evidence?

Mr. Macleod

Yes, certainly it will and, I would have thought, more than once.

Mr. Driberg

When the right hon. Gentleman talks about "the widest measure of self-government" consistent with this, that and the other, especially defence—which somewhat recalls what was being said about Cyprus six years ago—and when he also talks about human rights, does he accept explicitly that one of those human rights is self-determination and does he accept the proposition that self-determination is applicable to the Maltese people?

Mr. Macleod

I made that position clear earlier. There is a verse in a hymn which says: …I do not ask to see The distant scene; one step enough for me. I am announcing this step and I am making no reservations or prophecies about the future after that.

Mr. Brockway

Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that after the failure of integration it is quite clear that the mass of the majority of the people in Malta, as expressed in the Labour Party, which was the Government of Malta, will now be satisfied with nothing less than independence, and that unless the terms of the Commission are such that they include a consideration of independence, it will be very unlikely that that party will give evidence to the Commission?

Mr. Macleod

There is more than one opinion in Malta, and if the hon. Member has followed Maltese politics lately he will conclude that there is more than one opinion even inside the Maltese Labour Party.