HC Deb 08 June 1961 vol 641 cc1391-8

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:

84. Mr. WALL

To ask the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations if he will make a statement about his recent visit to Southern Rhodesia.


To ask the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations what consultations he had with members of the Government and with leaders of the Opposition political parties during his recent visit to Southern Rhodesia; and whether he will make a statement.

The Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations (Mr. Duncan Sandys)

With permission, I will answer Questions No. 84 and No. 90 together.

The Constitutional Conference in Salisbury in February laid down the basis for a new Constitution for Southern Rhodesia and it was agreed that the Governments of the United Kingdom and Southern Rhodesia would proceed to work out the details of a new draft Constitution, in consultation where necessary with those who attended the conference.

Some weeks ago, the Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia convened a meeting of the groups concerned, to consult them on the framing of the more important sections of the Constitution and in order to obtain their views on certain matters, such as land, which were not dealt with during the Conference in February.

With one exception, all the groups concerned co-operated most helpfully, and the views they expressed have been taken fully into account. Although the National Democratic Party did not feel disposed to participate in these discussions, its views on all the main questions at issue were already known from the statements that it has made from time to time.

Last week, I went to Southern Rhodesia for a few days to have further consultations with the groups concerned and to settle with the Government of Southern Rhodesia a number of outstanding points in relation to the drafting of the new Constitution.

The new Constitution will have the effect of giving to the Africans, for the first time, substantial representation in the Legislative Assembly and will provide new constitutional safeguards which will enable the British Government to dispense with the reserved powers which we at present possess. These reserve powers have in the past proved to be a somewhat blunt instrument which, in practice, it was difficult to use.

The new safeguards include the enshrinement in the Constitution of a Declaration of Rights, in the creation of a Constitutional Council to examine and report upon all new laws and the grant of an unqualified right of appeal to the Privy Council on matters relating to human rights.

I am confident that these new provisions will provide safeguards for the liberties of all races which will be incomparably more effective than those afforded by the existing powers which they will replace.

Two White Papers will be presented to Parliament next week. One will contain a summary of the proposed changes. The other will give the detailed provisions of the new Constitution as a whole.

Mr. Wall

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the success of these talks, which will bring in an era of true partnership. I have two questions. First, when does my right hon. Friend expect the referendum on the Constitution to take place? Secondly, during his conversations did he discuss the Constitution of Northern Rhodesia and the effect that this might have on any future referendum on Southern Rhodesia?

Mr. Sandys

It is, of course, for the Government of Southern Rhodesia to announce the date of the referendum. I understand that they have no desire to delay it longer than is absolutely necessary. The two White Papers which will be presented to Parliament here will, of course, be presented simultaneously to the Legislative Assembly of Southern Rhodesia, and will be debated there.

My visit was concerned with the Constitution of Southern Rhodesia, as I have explained; but, naturally, I spoke to Sir Roy Welensky about Northern Rhodesia as well as about numerous other problems of common concern.

Mr. Marquand

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it would be desirable for the House to debate these two White Papers at an early opportunity, since it is impossible to cover all the ground by question and answer when we have not seen them?

Did the right hon. Gentleman have any discussions while he was there this time with the National Democratic Party? Is he satisfied that, during the procedure of the referendum, the National Democratic Party will have full opportunities for consulting African opinion in Southern Rhodesia, since at present its meetings are banned and many of its members are still in detention? What chance will there be for Africans to take part thoroughly and properly in the public discussion of all these matters during the referendum?

Since the right hon. Gentleman has told us that Her Majesty's Government propose to surrender some of their reserved powers, has he made any concession at all on the matter mentioned in paragraph 34 of the White Paper of February last, namely, the request then made by the Southern Rhodesian Government that he should agree not to legislate except at the request of that Government? At that time, the right hon. Gentleman, quite rightly in our opinion, refused to make any commitment. Has he gone further? Has he made any sort of commitment on that matter this time?

Mr. Sandys

Taking, first, the matter of the National Democratic Party, the right hon. Gentleman asked me about public meetings. Of course, the arrangement for the holding of public meetings is really for the Government of Southern Rhodesia and is not my concern.

Mrs. Castle


Mr. Sandys

Of course it is.

I invited all the political parties and other groups which had taken part in the conference last February to see me. I was able to see most of them. In some cases, when I was not able to see them, I spoke to the leaders on the telephone. The leader of the Asian group, for instance, was some distance away, and I had a long talk with him on the telephone.

I met about six of the leading members of the National Democratic Party, and I had a long talk with them of well over an hour, but, as is already known, it was their policy not to express any views on these matters. Although we discussed many matters of interest, I was not able to have a formal consultation with them on the specific points on which I was concerned to have their views.

Mr. Callaghan

But do the African people agree?

Mr. Sandys

It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to say that. I did my best to consult with these people. I invited them to come to see me. They came. I had a long talk with them. I pressed them to express their views on these points. However, as I said in my opening statement, I was already aware of their views, because they had made them known to me and to the public, and also in statements of a confidential character which they had given us on various subjects. I was aware of their views, but I still thought it right, before finally agreeing to the text of the Constitution, to give them a further opportunity to speak to me.

As I have explained, all they said to me was, "You know our views already. We have expressed them on a number of occasions. We do not wish to add anything further today", because it is part of their policy of protest—they are quite entitled to it—against the banning of meetings in the native reserves.

With regard to the point raised by the right hon. Gentleman concerning legislation, certainly no new commitment has been entered into; nor am I able to do so. This is a constitutional matter. It is not a matter for the Government. But the fact remains, I think, that in the view of most constitutional lawyers, since the grant of self-government to Southern Rhodesia in 1923, a convention has become established that the Parliament here at Westminster does not legislate for Southern Rhodesia, or in respect of any other territories which have domestic self-government, on matters within the sphere of competence of the Legislative Assembly of Southern Rhodesia as defined by an Act of this Parliament.

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will ensure that the question of a debate is raised through the usual channels.

Mr. Marquand

Despite what the right hon. Gentleman said about the constitutional position, may we have it clear that the constitutional position is that, if for any reason all these talks broke down, or there was a collapse of Government in Southern Rhodesia, Her Majesty's Government and this Parliament still have the right to legislate for Southern Rhodesia?

Mr. Sandys

Since this may well be a matter of controversy in the referendum campaign, I have to choose my words very carefully indeed. All that I would say is that, whatever the constitutional position is, nothing that I have done has altered it in any way.

Mr. Dugdale

The right hon. Gentleman has said that the reserved powers under the convention should not be used. Is it not a fact that the mere existence of those powers and the knowledge that they did exist has in the past prevented a great deal of discriminatory legislation from being introduced in Southern Rhodesia?

Mr. Sandys

When the right hon. Gentleman reads my statement in HANSARD, he will see that his supplementary question was based on a misapprehension.

Mr. Brockway

While leaving the broader issues for debate, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he will give a rather fuller answer on an immediate point? He went to Southern Rhodesia to try to get a constitutional settlement. Is it not the right of the African people to hold meetings and to consult with their own supporters and the African population an essential condition if there is to be a constitutional settlement? While the matter may be in the hands of the Southern Rhodesian Government, will not the right hon. Gentleman use all his influence to enable the Africans to enjoy that right?

Mr. Sandys

I quite understand the point, but I do not think that it is pertinent to my consultations with the National Democratic Party. We have had general discussions about all these matters. We know its general views, and that there is broad agreement on the kind of safeguards which are desirable to replace the reserved powers exercised by the British Government. But the kind of points about which I wished to consult the National Democratic Party was the exact drafting of the definition of discrimination and the precise arrangements for the election of the membership of the Constitutional Council. It is not possible to get much wisdom, on matters of that kind, from a mass meeting in the native reserves. It could have given me its advice and views on these points if it had wished. Although I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, it is unrelated to the problem of consultation on the detailed drafting of the constitution

Mr. F. M. Bennett

Since we all must want a fair and reasonable settlement for all races in Southern Rhodesia, is it not the view of my right hon. Friend that we should rest on his statement and wait until we have had an opportunity of studying the White Papers?

Mr. Callaghan

Is it not dangerous—indeed, is it not worse than dangerous; may it not be a breach of trust?—for us to regard these talks as successful if the Minister is unable to say that the Africans, for whom these reserved powers were devised and on whose behalf they are exercised, are ready to give to the Southern Rhodesian Government powers which, at least in reserve, are now attributable to Her Majesty's Government?

Is it not of vital importance that the Minister, whether he has made one, two or three approaches to them, should ensure that the channels of communication are open so that he can come to this House and give us a solemn assurance that the Africans on whose behalf we exercise these powers are ready for them to be relinquished to the Southern Rhodesian Government?

Mr. Sandys

These are the precise points which were discussed in great detail with all the African representatives at the conference which we had in February. At that conference it was agreed by all concerned that the reserved powers which are exercised by the British Government could properly and to everyone's advantage be replaced by more effective safeguards, namely, the Declaration of Rights, the Constitutional Council and appeal to the Privy Council. I think that all parties, all groups, which took part in the confer- ence have agreed that that is the right way to deal with the matter.

The only points on which I wished to consult them, not on these broad issues, were the precise arrangements—which, I am satisfied, are satisfactory, but none the less I wanted to give them the opportunity to comment on them—for the definition of the terms of discrimination in the Declaration of Human Rights and the precise arrangements for setting up the Constitutional Council. But there is agreement on what should be the safeguards to replace the reserved powers. I therefore have no hesitation in saying to the House that I am confident that these new safeguards will be more fully effective from the standpoint of the interests of all races in Southern Rhodesia than the reserved powers.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. I do not think that we can debate these wide matters now.