HC Deb 29 April 1968 vol 763 cc794-8

Mr. James Johnson (by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs whether he will make a statement on the situation in Hamilton, Bermuda.

The Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. George Thomson)

Yes, Sir. I regret to tell the House that on the night of 25th April there were disturbances in the Colony of Bermuda. The disturbances continued on the night of the 26th, in the course of which several fires were started. Fourteen persons were injured, including five police officers, but, I am glad to say, there was no loss of life. There has been much damage to property.

On the 26th a state of emergency was declared, the Bermuda Regiment was embodied and the police reserves were called out. At the request of the Governor, H.M.S. "Leopard" was diverted to Bermuda on the 27th, and a company of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers was sent from this country on the 28th. The situation is now quiet. One hundred and four arrests have been made, including a number for breaking the curfew.

The Governor has announced that he will appoint a Commission of Inquiry into the causes of the disturbances and the House would not wish me to say more about that aspect before that Commission has reported. I am sure that it would be the wish of the whole House to join me in the hope that this small island will soon return to the tranquility of which it has hitherto been so proud.

Mr. Johnson

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he not consider it unusual, as I do, that such a small incident occurring at a fair in support of handicapped children should spark off such a serious situation? Is there not a danger in the fact that the police force is mainly white in a predominantly negro population? Has my right hon. Friend seen the leading article in The Times of today—

Mr. Speaker

Order. Even Private Notice supplementary questions should be brief.

Mr. Johnson

Does not the leading article in The Times, a searchlight on political disequilibrium, show the fundamental cause lying deep below the surface?

Mr. Thomson

Our unhappy experience in a number of different parts of the world recently is that sometimes only quite a small incident is needed to spark off regrettable trouble. I do not think that the composition of the police force in Bermuda is the major factor in this matter. The force is multi-racial, but it has great difficulty in persuading Bermudians, whether white or coloured, to volunteer in sufficient numbers and in these cases posts often have to be filled by recruitment from overseas.

Mr. Braine

We fully share the right hon. Gentleman's regret that these disturbances have taken place and certainly support the prompt sending of British troops. We are very glad to learn—and perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will again confirm that this is so—that since their arrival the situation has quietened. Can he say whether there has been any injury or loss to British personnel or property? As the Governor is to set up a Commission, it might be improper to ask further questions, but will the right hon. Gentleman undertake to report any development to the House?

Mr. Thomson

I can immediately confirm that, as always happens when British forces arrive, there was an immediate quietening effect. I shall seek to keep the House informed of any new developments. As Bermuda is a British Colony, it is not possible to distinguish British-owned property from property owned by other people, but I regret to have to tell the House that the damage to property has been substantial.

Mr. Driberg

Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that those who are investigating the cause of the riots will seek to find out whether they are due to the political frustration of the supporters of the party against whom the constituency boundaries have been gerrymandered?

Mr. Thomson

Yes, Sir. I can assure my hon. Friend that when the Commission of Inquiry is set up it will have terms of reference which will enable it to make the most thorough investigation into the background to these troubles.

Mr. Dodds-Parker

Does not this incident underline the necessity for having adequate reserves for even the happiest and quietest of places?

Mr. Thomson

I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the fact that the troops concerned went there at a few hours' notice and that the strategic forces available in this country will continue to be available.

Mr. Will Griffiths

Does my right hon. Friend yet know the personnel who will comprise the Commission? May we have an assurance that a majority of the Commission will be representative of the coloured majority in the island of Bermuda?

Mr. Thomson

I cannot give any information about that yet. The Governor has only just taken his decision to set up the Commission, but I will certainly carefully bear in mind the important point which my hon. Friend makes.

Mr. Lubbock

Were the Inniskilling Fusiliers air-lifted by R.A.F. Air Transport Command? If so, on behalf of the House, will the right hon. Gentleman congratulate Transport Command on doing the job so quickly and draw to the attention of the House the splendid service which this Command can render to people in islands like this now that it has the Super VC10 in service?

Mr. Thomson

Yes, Sir. I am happy to join the hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to Transport Command. I myself took the decision about sending the forces yesterday morning and the troops were in Bermuda by teatime local time. In fairness, I ought also to pay tribute to the crew of H.M.S. "Leopard" who, not only in Bermuda, but in a number of other islands in the area, have responded promptly and effectively to calls for help to pacify troublous situations.

Mr. John Lee

Is it not obvious that these riots were, at any rate in part, caused by dissatisfaction with the Constitution? Will the terms of reference of the inquiry enable it to look at the Constitution as well as the immediate cause of the disturbances?

Mr. Thomson

I should not like to seek to prejudgie what the Commission may find to be the cause of the riots, but I have already given an assurance that the Commission of Inquiry will be able to make the most searching investigation. As for the constitutional aspect, the Governor is dissolving the Legislative Council later this week and a general election under the new Constitution, which has been approved by this House, will take place on 22nd May.

Mr. Henry Clark

The House will have little doubt about the ability of Lord Martonmere to pick a wise Commission of Inquiry, but will the right hon. Gentleman seriously consider offering the services of advisers, experts and others in this country to assist the Commission's work, for in a small Colony like Bermuda it must be difficult to get a full spread of views and complete impartiality?

Mr. Thomson

I join the hon. Gentleman in his remarks about the Governor, Lord Martonmere, who is well known to hon. Members on both sides of the House. I have been in touch with him by telephone today and assured him that we should be ready to give whatever expert help was necessary.

Mr. Michael Foot

Does my right hon. Friend's reply mean that this Commission of Inquiry will report before the general election takes place, for some of the issues in dispute affect the whole question of registration, which obviously affects the election? Does he recall that when the Bill went through the House there was deep concern about many of its constitutional provisions and that certain undertakings were given which would affect the election itself? Can we have a report from my right hon. Friend about how those undertakings will be implemented?

Mr. Thomson

The undertakings given by my right hon. Friend the then Minister of State have all been carried out. However, our main undertaking related to the future and it was that if, after the general election under the new Constitution, the Government of Bermuda or any of the parties in Bermuda wished to discuss further changes, in any direction and involving constitutional matters, Her Majesty's Government would be ready to discuss them.

Sir Knox Cunningham

The right hon. Gentleman told the House that he took the decision to send the troops. Surely this is a matter either for the Cabinet or the Secretary of State for Defence, not for him?

Mr. Thomson

If I had waited until today for the opportunity of a Cabinet meeting on this, the very first Member to rise on the opposite side of the House to criticise me for being dilatory might well have been the hon. and learned Gentleman.