HC Deb 02 February 1967 vol 740 cc788-91
The Minister of State, Commonwealth Affairs (Mrs. Judith Hart)

With permission I will make a statement about St. Vincent.

As the House will know my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs, invited the Chief Minister of St. Vincent and the Leader of the Opposition to London to discuss the steps necessary to resolve the unfortunate uncertaintities about the electoral position which arose from the closeness of the General Election results and four outstanding election petitions.

After full discussion over the past 10 days, agreement has been reached between Her Majesty's Government and representatives of the Government and representatives of the Opposition party of St. Vincent, that the Secretary of State should appoint a Boundary Commission to delimit 13 constituencies, and a Supervisor of Elections to prepare new electoral rolls and to supervise the next General Election which will be held not later than the end of 1968. Until these elections have been held there will, therefore, be no increase in the size of the present Legislature. On this basis, and subject to the enactment of the West Indies Bill, it was agreed that St. Vincent should become an Associated State not later than the 1st June, 1967.

I should like to pay my sincere tribute to the constructive way in which the representatives from St. Vincent took part in the discussions, and to the spirit of compromise which they showed in arriving at an agreed solution. It was, I believe of very great importance to St. Vincent that every effort should have been made to reach an agreed solution.

I have placed in the Library of the House copies of the document which was signed yesterday afternoon. Since it makes changes in the constitutional and transitional proposals embodied in the earlier White Paper (Cmnd. 3021), it will he published as a White Paper as soon as possible.

Mr. Wood

Is the hon. Lady aware that her statement that agreement has been reached will be received with satisfaction? May I ask her two questions? First, what will now be done to hasten the solution of the electoral problems still facing the island, and secondly, will that date of 1st June, 1967, be the operative date for Statehood status whether or not these problems are solved?

Mrs. Hart

Yes, it will. I know how pleased the right hon. Gentleman will be that agreement has been reached, and I am grateful to him for his contribution in not pursuing the matter during Tuesday evening's debate, when matters were at a rather critical stage. As for the election petitions, as he knows, four are now before the court and they must take their course. We cannot say when they will be finally decided, but both delegations said that they entirely shared our view that it was most desirable that they should be resolved as quickly as possible. We obviously looked at what might be done to speed up the process, but what was quite clear is that anything which we could do would be regarded as, and would be, an interference by the Executive in the administration of justice. There is, therefore, nothing for it except to let matters take their course, and hope that this will be as speedy as possible.

Mr. Chapman

Is my hon. Friend aware that some of us at least will regard this solution with dismay, and consider that this is not an entirely fair compromise between the Government and the Opposition in St. Vincent? Is she aware that the decision, which means that the new elections will be postponed until the end of 1968, is unfair on the present Opposition, which really won the last election by having a majority of votes?

Mrs. Hart

I am sorry that my hon. Friend looks on this agreed solution with such dismay. I think that an agreed solution is much more preferable to a disagreed one—that is, a situation in which the British Government might have had to impose a solution. Secondly, on the discussion which we have had and the proposals which each side made, I assure my hon. Friend that this is an absolutely fair, straight-down-the-middle solution. Of course, the Opposition party would have liked early and fresh general elections, but I am afraid that to agree to that would have meant that we should negate the democratic right of the people of St. Vincent who have elected five members to five of the seats—and their seats are not challenged. Moreover, this would have taken away the rights of those involved in the election petitions. We cannot allow a decision to hold a General Election to detract from people's rights in the courts. This is essentially the problem.

Mr. David Steel

While congratulating the hon. Lady on reaching this settlement, may I ask her whether she is aware that the difficulties of St. Vincent stem largely from the fact that its electoral system is very nearly as undemocratic and unfair as ours? [Interruption.] I am glad that I have the support of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Chapman). Since we have avoided this system whenever possible in other Colonies, would she say whether the Commission and supervisor will be empowered to consider the question of an improved electoral system?

Mrs. Hart

The system will be improved by the mere fact that an impartial and neutral Boundary Commission is drawing up new seats. I am happy that our discussions were not complicated by the question of proportional representation.

Mr. John Hall

I thank the hon. Lady for carrying out her promise to let the House know the results of her negotiations as early as possible. We are very appreciative of that.

I should like to ask the hon. Lady two questions. First, apart from the question of the date of the election, on which I am sure there is a lot of disagreement, did the Opposition make any other reservations on which they were later overborne? Secondly, will she ensure in any recommendations she makes to the St. Vincent Government that they do not, for their own sakes, allow the introduction of a Liberal Party?

Mrs. Hart

I should not attempt to intervene in St. Vincent politics to the extent which the hon. Gentleman has suggested. On his first point, many varying proposals were put forward by both sides. It was necessary to arrive at a fair solution and to get it agreed by both sides, if possible. I do not know how well the hon. Gentleman knows the Leader of the Opposition in St. Vincent, but I can assure him that he would not have signed the agreement if he did not feel that he would be able to satisfy his own people in St. Vincent that it was fair.

Earl of Dalkeith

Is the hon. Lady aware that many of us are delighted that good sense has prevailed and that St. Vincent will not be left on its own when the other Caribbean islands advance towards constitutional changes? Can the hon. Lady say whether the Boundary Commission will consist of individuals from this country or from St. Vincent?

Mrs. Hart

I cannot at the moment. As the hon. Gentleman may know, recent boundary commissions have contained people from other Commonwealth countries. I cannot at the moment say exactly who the best people will be or whether they will be available when they are needed.