HC Deb 16 November 1971 vol 826 cc381-90

11.30 p.m.

Mr. Ray Carter (Birmingham, Northfield)

Any debate on the island of St. Helena must be prefaced by some general information about the island's whereabouts, because there is a great deal of ignorance on the subject. First, however, I should like to refer briefly to a letter I received from a firm of London solicitors, Messrs. Bartlett and Gluckstein, threatening to take legal action should I disclose publicly grievances put to me by citizens on the island of St. Helena.

I took up the matter with the Clerk of the House and I am assured that those solicitors only just escaped invading the privilege of an hon. Member. I think it most repugnant of them that they should have taken that action and I assure them and the South African interests on the island that I shall continue to do what I can to bring about a proper and just situation for the St. Helenans.

For the benefit of those who read this debate, one ought to say that St. Helena lies on a line drawn roughly between Angola and Brazil, 1,200 miles out into the Atlantic Ocean. It is a small island of 47 sq. miles and has a population of about 5,000. The majority of those people are of coloured origin. West Africans, Portuguese, Spanish, even Chinese and, of course, British have left their imprints on the island's 400-year history, and there are at present 50 or 60 white people on the island.

St. Helena is Britain's oldest colony, and it is noted for the fact that it was Napoleon's last place of residence. Since the introduction of steam navigation, however, the island has gone into a fairly steady decline and during that time the island's economy has been dominated by one company, Solomon and Company, which has run virtually all the economic activity on the island. Another peculiar fact about the island is that it did not obtain adult suffrage until 1968. It is since that year that most of the island's troubles in modern times have arisen.

I should remind the House that coloured people on the island of St. Helena have an almost hysterical yet well-founded hatred of apartheid. When they think of South Africa they think of its social and political system and, therefore, any South African, however well intentioned he might be, carries with him the odium of the regime of South Africa.

In 1968, feelings were such that when Solomon and Company were taken over by South African interests, a delegation from the island came to London. As a result of a meeting with the then Labour Government, an agreement was reached which ceded to the St. Helena Government a large block of shares in the company which, it was hoped, would prevent South African interests from dominating the company. It should be pointed out, although I find this extremely strange, that four of the seven directors were permitted to come from the South Atlantic Trading and Investment Company, a South African company, with the islanders having only three directors. As I have said, all the island's trouble stems from that point in its history.

It is what has transpired since then which prompted an islander to write to me in August. He asked that I should not disclose his name. Many of the islanders are dependent on either the Government or, more particularly, Solomon and Company for employment and walk around in fear in case it should be disclosed that they are opposing the company, since they fear that they may lose their jobs. Jobs are hard to come by on the island. The standard of living is appallingly low, the average wage being between £3 and £5 a week. The revenue of the Government has fallen from £517,000 in 1966 to £417,000 in 1970.

The breakdown of the allegations of my correspondent falls into two general categories: first, the way in which a South African director and fellow-directors of Solomons were running the economy; and second, a number of individual allegations.

Since I received that letter, I have spoken to many people who, until a few weeks ago, lived on the island—both British and St. Helenans. While they cannot verify the minutest detail of every individual allegation, they nevertheless support the general allegations which have been made. Some of these people are the Rev. Mr. Johnson, the first ordained native St. Helenan, now a member of the Anglican Church in this country; his wife, Mrs. Joyce Johnson, who until a few weeks ago was one of the 12 members of the Legislative Council; Professor Harland, who was on the island for about 31 months until two or three weeks ago doing medical research; a former Voluntary Service Overseas worker, now back in Britain after living and working on the island for three years; and another former resident. All these people have confirmed that there is a great deal of bitterness, unrest and hatred on the island, so I believe that I am justified in saying that the general allegations put to me by residents from the island are true.

The first and most serious of all the problems—it is from this that most of the difficulties arise—is that South African involvement in the economy is disturbing the coloured people on the island to a point at which they have taken up a position of open hostility towards Solomon and Company and its total economic activity on the island. They are also bitterly upset that, in that 1968 agreement, there was a promise by the sister company of S.A.T.I.C., to promote a fishing industry on the island. This has not been carried out and, after repeated requests by the most recent Governor, who has since been replaced, no development has taken place. That promise still has to be implemented to aid the economy and produce a source of food for the islanders.

Another criticism is that there is open association—I have since had this confirmed—between the police and the Chief Justice, who lives in Rhodesia and goes to the island a couple of times a year, between Mr. Thornton, the managing director of Solomon and Company, who carries a British passport but also a South African passport, and the ex-colonialists who live on the island, the people who, until a few weeks ago, were in the colonies on the Continent of Africa but who now live on St. Helena. It is said by people, and goes far beyond allegations, that since 1968 the white minority have formed a clique which is treating the islanders with paternalism and at times open contempt.

There was a recent incident when a judge came to the island and passed a judgment which the islanders thought hostile to them. On leaving the island the judge, having been escorted to the island by the police, was seen to jump up and down and wave in a mocking gesture to the islanders, as if to say that once again they had been defeated and the small white minority had won.

Another sore point with the islanders—it is also a sore point with the Government and with the former Governor—is the fact that, Mr. Thornton refuses point blank to produce audited accounts of Messrs. Solomon and Company and it is widely suspected that any profits in the company are being sent straight back to South Africa. Another fear is that Mr. Thornton, who runs the company in a ruthless way, might develop the economy of the island to a point where it would disrupt the base of the economy, which produces a poor standard of living, low wages but high prices. If he encourages richer South Africans to come on the island, this could have a disruptive impact on its economy.

Those are the general allegations, all of which add up to a situation of bitterness and resentment on the island. Then there are individual cases which emanate from this situation. The first is police brutality. I put this matter to the Minister at our meeting a few weeks ago. Then it was denied, but subsequently has been proved to be true. As a result a police inspector has been sacked. The police have refused to investigate complaints made against members of the white community. For example, there was a case of attempted rape by one of the members of the white community which the police supposedly investigated and found to be unproved. In fact, the complaint was investigated by none other than the same man who was subsequently dismissed for brutality. One surely would not place too much confidence in his finding.

There is also a complaint alleging that when the Chief Justice comes from South Africa, he brings with him much of the social mores of South Africa and tends to pass judgments against that background. I referred earlier to what happened when he was last on the island.

The picture is of an island which until 1968, although poor and poverty stricken, was nevertheless content. With the breaking up of the old family of Solomon and the passing into the hands of South Africans of the management and direction of the company, there has since been a situation of upheaval and bitterness on the island; there has been resentment and division. Some 25 per cent. of the white people on the island are now South Africans and the great fear of the islanders is that they will increasingly move to a position closer to that of South Africa. It cannot be denied that social tension exists. I have newspaper cuttings and all kinds of letters to prove this as a fact.

The last Governor was frustrated by the powers held by Thornton, the director of Solomon and Co., who runs this concern in a quite ruthless way. The Governor in his last address to the Legislative Council was most critical of the way the company was running its affairs. He said it was not producing audited accounts to show precisely where money was going within the company. At least half the revenue of the St. Helena Government comes from the British taxpayer and when the islanders can see that money going into the hands of the South African company with the possibility of any profits going to South Africa, we can understand their resentment.

I therefore put to the Minister what I think should be done, given the present state of affairs on the island, remembering that there are 5,000 loyal British subjects living there. It is an island which will always have to stay linked to Britain, and it has played a great part in our country's history.

First, the British Government should buy out the interest of S.A.T.I.C. in the Solomon Company and establish a co-operative on the island. Second, the fishing industry should be developed with Government aid. I am reliably informed that it offers a great potential. Third, a harbour should be built. Given a harbour, the big liners which now tour round Africa could stop and disembark passengers. This is not possible at the moment, but it would assist greatly in the development of tourism.

Fourth, a suggestion which may be more controversial but which is a possibility if the islanders agree, France has a long historical association with the island. It has a consul on the island and it owns land there which was ceded to France by Queen Victoria, it being Napoleon's last home. I ask the Government seriously to consider the possibility of establishing a condominium which would allow France and Britain jointly to administer the island, if for no other reason, although it goes much further, than that it would double the income coming to the island. I am sure that the growing numbers of French people who cruise round the world would welcome the opportunity of tying up to a modern harbour and going ashore for one or two days to visit the island which was the home of their most famous son.

It is no good the Minister saying tonight that South Africans can be quite nice people. The islanders do not see them in that light. If I were a coloured individual living on a small island in the middle of the Atlantic with no means of communication apart from a telegraph link and 40 ships calling each year, I should be rather worried when I saw so much of the island's economic activity being taken over by South Africans.

I believe that we have a debt to the islanders. It is for that reason that I ask the Minister to consider the points that I have made. I repeat that an inquiry should be set in train at the earliest opportunity, first, to clear up the allegations which have been made and, second, and more important, to deal with the long-term future of the island.

11.48 p.m.

Mr. Mark Woodnutt (Isle of Wight)

The House should know that there is another side to this coin. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Carter) has let his imagination run away with him by taking note of a petition signed by 12 people whose names he will not mention and the policy of apartheid in reverse pursued by the Press in St. Helena.

It so happens that the Chief Justice of the island, to whom the hon. Gentleman referred, was staying with me a month ago. He gave me the facts. Incidentally, contrary to the hon. Gentleman's allegation about the Chief Justice making vulgar gestures, I was told that the gesturing was done by the islanders, who assumed that he was South African whereas in fact he is British. I understand that one of the group of people taking part in the demonstration was a lady magistrate.

11.49 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Anthony Kershaw)

I have had some difficulty in recognising the island of St. Helena from the doleful description given by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Carter). He referred to South African influence and to Mr. Thornton. Mr. Thornton, who was born in the United Kingdom and has a United Kingdom as well as a South African passport, bought a major shareholding in Solomon and Company in 1969. Immediately after that, the St. Helena Government bought one-third of those shares, giving them the right to appoint a Government director to the board of the company. That agreement, as worked out by Lord Shepherd, who was at that time Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, was signed by the Governor, by the members of the Executive Council and by the General Secretary of the St. Helena General Workers Union.

So far as I know, there has been no complaint from any shareholder about how the company is working and there is an obligation in the company's charter, so to speak, that there shall be no colour bar, no racial discrimination, in the way it is carried on. I have heard nothing about there being a refusal to disclose audited accounts. If there had been such a refusal, surely the Government director on the board would have been able to play his part. There are sometimes delays, but I am sure that there has been no refusal. I have no information that anything irregular has occurred.

The hon. Gentleman said that 25 per cent. of the inhabitants of St. Helena now come from South Africa.

Mr. Carter

I said 25 per cent. of the whites come from South Africa.

Mr. Kershaw

I misunderstood the hon. Gentleman. According to my information, there are only two.

Mr. Carter


Mr. Kershaw

The hon. Gentleman made allegations about the police and the police chief who has left. This gentleman, contrary to reports which have been made, is not a South African. He served in the Rhodesian police and resigned at the time of U.D.I. because he did not like U.D.I. It is untrue that he has been sacked because of police brutality or for any other reason. At the end of his contract he decided not to stay. There is no question of his having been sacked for any dereliction of duty. Shortly after he left, there was a petition, signed by all the remaining policemen on St. Helena, who are all St. Helenans, that he should be reinstated and asked to serve a new term. The Governor did not think that this was desirable. Nevertheless, that shows the regard in which he was held.

Concerning the Chief Justice, as my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Wight (Mr. Woodnutt) said, he is not a South African. He served some of his time in the Colonial Service in Tanganyika. The hon. Member for Northfield said that he had decided a case which the islanders thought was against their interests. The only case of which I know is the unhappy case of a pig which died. It had a bad leg and there was a dispute whether it should have been destroyed. I am sorry to tell the hon. Gentleman that the pig is now dead, so there is nothing we can do about it. However, I doubt whether it can be said that the case was decided against the interests of the islanders either individually or collectively.

The hon. Gentleman asked about economic aid. He is rightly concerned about the economic future of the island. Admittedly this is a difficult problem, and I cannot foresee any spectacular breakthrough.

St. Helena has no natural resources and has not been able to produce even such primary necessities as vegetables, meat and milk in sufficient quantities for her own consumption. One of the difficulties is that for many years, until the industry finally collapsed in 1965, much of the land in St. Helena was used for growing flax. The land which previously grew flax now has to be cleared before it can be used to grow other crops, and this is made even more difficult by the mountainous terrain. The collapse of the flax industry has involved Her Majesty's Government in providing increasing grant-in-aid. In 1966 it was about £195,000. It rose by a steady progression to about £307,000 in 1971–72 in a 12-month period.

An official of the Overseas Development Administration visited St. Helena last year. His report recommended that the tight budgetary situation should be eased by the transfer of certain items, such as agricultural machinery, local equipment and new buildings and improvement to existing buildings, from budgetary to development aid. An extra £20,000 in development aid was provided in this way.

A recommendation that the Department of Trade and Industry should be asked to examine the possibilities of an airfield was also followed up. The Department advised that the critical immediate requirement would be for an airfield to take aircraft capable of operating between St. Helena and the mainland of Africa. The type of aircraft required would need a runway of approximately 9,000 feet and the Department of Trade and Industry considers that there are at least two locations where a runway of this length can be constructed. The Department's proposals are now under consideration by the St. Helena Government. On the face of it, it would seem inevitable that any scheduled air service would have to pass through South Africa or Angola.

The main feature of the present development programme is the improvement of the existing water supply system at a cost of £113,000 over three years. The hon. Gentleman mentioned fishing, and I agree that there has been a dispute, but there is room for difference of opinion about whether resources for fishing exist. The waters around St. Helena, as the hon. Gentleman may know, are extremely deep and fishing conditions are difficult. If fishing has not been prosecuted with the vigour which was at one time hoped, one must look at the conditions under which it has been carried out. The hon. Gentleman has mentioned a harbour. He will be glad to know that work is proceeding on the breakwater at Jamestown, and this may help in the future.

The hon. Gentleman referred to a series of remarkable charges which he received in a letter written in August which, he believes, are substantially true. The charges go very far, as he will agree. They are charges of rape, perjury, police brutality, unlawful intercourse, conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, assaults, corruption of various kinds and intimidation, down to vulgar tittle-tattle, all couched in extravagant terms and all based on an anonymous letter. Who made them I do not know. Certainly it was not the Governor. It was not the Acting Governor. It was not any elected representative of the people. It was no office holder.

St. Helena is a small island far away from its nearest neighbours, and it may be that isolation sometimes tends to drive people in on themselves and leads them to magnify incidents which in a larger community would pass with little remark. One must, therefore, make allowances. I am nevertheless surprised that these unsupported allegations should have received such willing credence from the hon. Gentleman who, right from the start, gave them to the Press in this country before he got in touch with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and was clearly more interested in spreading them than in establishing the truth of the rumours. Almost without exception they have been proved to be utterly false or very much magnified.

However, I make no complaint that the hon. Member should raise these matters. After all, he is in no better position than anyone else to judge the truth of the letters he receives, and it is his duty as a Member to see that they are ventilated. It gives me a chance, nevertheless, to refute them. I believe that it would be wrong to have an inquiry into such allegations on the evidence that the hon. Member has put before the House, and I cannot hold out the slightest hope that that will be done.

We now have new Governor on the island. We have a new police chief. We are about to have a new Chief Justice. Let us hope that these new winds will join with the balmy breezes of St. Helena so that the islanders may regain the contentment to which their amiable and pleasant temperament entitles them and which their circumstances can afford.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Twelve o'clock.