HC Deb 17 March 1964 vol 691 cc1186-90
The Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations and for the Colonies (Mr. Duncan Sandys)

Some weeks ago, the Prime Minister of Malta, Dr, Borg Olivier, informed me that the Maltese political parties were still unable to agree upon joint proposals for their independence constitution or upon any procedure by which the issue could be referred to the electorate for decision. He therefore asked the British Government to settle the matter on their own responsibility.

Since the points of difference centre upon delicate to issues affecting the relations between Church and State, I was naturally anxious that any decisions I might have to take should be based upon as wide a measure of assent as possible. Therefore, before replying formally to Dr. Borg Olivier's request, I invited him and the leaders of the other parties to discuss the position further with me. I also sought the views of the Archbishop of Malta.

I had hoped that it might be possible, if not to reach agreement, at least to narrow somewhat the gap between the opposing points of view. Unfortunately, the talks were unsuccessful and revealed no basis for any compromise.

In the circumstances, Dr. Borg Olivier decided to defer his request to me to adjudicate, pending the holding of a referendum. It is his intention to present to the Malta Legislature a Constitution drafted by his Government. Provided that this is endorsed by the Assembly, he will submit it to the electors through a referendum in which they will be asked the question. "Do you approve the proposed Constitution for Independence?"

The ultimate responsibility for deciding the constitutions of dependent territories rests with the Parliament here. Nevertheless, we always try to take full account of public opinion and of any special circumstances in the countries concerned. I therefore assured the Prime Minister of Malta that, provided the referendum is held under conditions which, in the opinion of the British Government, are fair and free, we will endeavour to be guided in our decisions by the wishes expressed in it by the Maltese people.

With the agreement of the Prime Minister of Malta, I would propose to appoint observers to witness and report upon the conduct of the referendum.

Mr. Bottomley

Earlier, the Prime Minister of Malta decided against a referendum because the leaders of the Opposition there did not agree. Can the Secretary of State say whether the Opposition leaders have agreed to the holding of a referendum? Can he give an assurance to the House that there will be freedom for all parties to hold meetings and to use broadcasting facilities and that, as in this country when we have an election, there is no undue influence to prevent an elector registering his vote according to his wishes?

Can the Secretary of State tell us something more about the observers? How will they be appointed? Where will they be appointed and what kind of person will be appointed? Can the right hon. Gentleman tell us how long will be the period of the referendum and when the result will be known?

Mr. Sandys

As I explained, the talks had revealed that there was no agreement either on the form of the Constitution or upon the procedure for consulting the people. There was a complete deadlock.

I did not particularly want to settle these rather delicate ecclesiastical questions, and, in view of that, the Prime Minister of Malta—I think rightly—thought that it was better for him to take the responsibility for putting some question to the electors in a referendum.

We hope that the referendum on the Constitution—which he is to draft and lot which I have no responsibility—will at any rate clarify the views of the people of Malta on this question.

With regard to the conduct and the conditions of the referendum, as I explained, I propose to appoint observers and, through that method, to satisfy myself as to the conditions under which it is held. In the light of the report of these observers, I shall decide the importance to attach to the results shown by the ballot box.

Mr. H. Wilson

Would not the right hon. Gentleman agree that he must insist, in the drafting of this proposed Constitution, on safeguards for the voter comparable and equal to the safeguards which have been written in the Representation of the People Act in this country about undue influence and putting the voter in spiritual jeopardy in the exercise of his vote? Would not the right hon. Gentleman recognise that there is a widespread feeling on both sides of the House that the citizens of Malta should have the same rights in this respect as everyone in this country?

On the question by my right hon. Friend about the timetable, will he recognise that however desirable is the need to get independence agreed quickly it is more important to get this problem dealt with rightly rather than speedily, and that no one in the House would want to have further Mediterranean island difficulties which could be avoided—by patience in this case—and by very careful consideration of the particular problem which I know the right hon. Gentleman has so much in mind?

Mr. Sandys

I have very much in mind the question of human rights and liberties. This is a matter which arises in every constitution for independence which we have to prepare. My views are, I am sure, quite well known to all concerned and I have made it clear to the House that Parliament here has the last word in these matters.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the important thing is to get it right if we can, but I would also like not to have avoidable delay.

Mr. Wall

Does my right hon. Friend's statement mean that any dispute between Church and State in Malta is now a matter for the Maltese Parliament? If so, I congratulate him on having the judgment of Solomon.

Mr. Sandys

I think that I have made it clear that this Parliament must have the last word and must decide what shall be the constitutions for those countries to which we give independence.

Mr. Grimond

Is the question which the Secretary of State read out to be the only one in the referendum? If so, is he satisfied that it is sufficiently clear and unambiguous so that if a person votes against the question he will be taken, I imagine, to be against the constitution but not necessarily against independence? Will the right hon. Gentleman look at this again to see that the wording is clear?

Mr. Sandys

I made it clear that it is not my referendum, although I have proposed various formulæ at different times. This question will enable people, with the different views which are held by the three main groups in Malta, to express themselves by the ballot box.

Mr. Woodnutt

Is my right hon. Friend aware that all the minority parties in Malta have been asking for a referendum and that they will be extremely pleased that the decision has now been made? Is he also aware that it is extremely difficult to draft the referendum in such a way that it will be possible to answer it with a straight "Yes" or "No"?

Knowing Maltese politics as we do, is it not very likely that one pressure group or another will boycott the referendum and say that it is not to be answered? Has he made any provision for the possibility that fewer than 50 per cent. of the electorate will answer? What does he propose to do if the referendum is answered only by a minority? Will he accept it as being the wish of the people in that circumstance?

Mr. Sandys

I hope that my hon. Friend is right about the referendum being welcomed by at least the centre parties. The first information I have is that some of them are thinking of boycotting it. But I must again remind the House that this is not my referendum. I will have to judge the results as best I can in the light of what happens. I cannot foretell what that will be.

Mr. Awbery

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the conditions under which the last General Election took place in Malta were quite irregular and that the election ended with the Government now in power? Will he take greater precautions to see that the people of Malta have full opportunity to express their views in the referendum? Will he take steps to send not only representatives from this country, but representatives from the United Nations, which would be an unbiased body, to observe the position?

Mr. Sandys

I do not see why the hon. Gentleman should assume that an election is irregular because it produces a victory for a party of which he does not approve. With all respect to the United Nations, it has not been our practice to bring in outside authorities to conduct elections in British territories and I do not intend to begin now.

Mr. Dudley Williams

May I refer back to the point raised by the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond)—the question of independence? Does not my right hon. Friend know that there has been considerable expression of opinion in Malta that the vast majority of the people there do not want independence at all? Will he give an assurance that there will be ample provision in the referendum for people who hold that view to express it?

Mr. Sandys

I have said that those who wish to, express their views in the referendum will be able to do so on this formula.