HC Deb 15 May 1973 vol 856 cc1391-435

Order for Second Reading read.

10.12 p.m.

The Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Lord Balniel)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I have it in command from the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of this Bill, has consented to place Her prerogative and interest, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of this Bill.

In introducing the Bill I want to set out for the House something of the British historical connection with the Bahamas and the recent constitutional developments which have resulted in the Bahamian request for independence. I shall also describe the broad features of the Bill itself. With the permission of Mr. Speaker and of the House, it is also my intention to wind up this debate, and I will then deal with matters that will be raised on the amendment of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell).

The purpose of the Bill is very simple: it is, in the words of the Preamble, to make provision for and in connection with, the attainment by the Bahamas of full responsible status within the Commonwealth. The Bahamas House of Assembly and the Senate passed a resolution, without any dissentient vote on 2nd November, 1972, requesting independence. At the same time they also passed a resolution making clear the wish of the Bahamas that the country should remain a monarchy within the Commonwealth. They asked that Her Majesty's Government should sponsor their application for Commonwealth membership. As the House will already know, the question of Com- monwealth membership for the Bahamas has been referred to the Commonwealth Heads of Government by the Commonwealth Secretary-General, who announced in Wellington on 3rd April that all had agreed to Bahamas membership on independence.

As the Empire has gradually transformed itself into a Commonwealth, and as Independence Bill followed Independence Bill, each Minister in turn has by custom briefly looked at the history of the country concerned and our connection with it.

Even before Christopher Columbus made the first European discovery of America he had first to discover the Bahamas, and it was on the island of San Salvador that he made his first landfall after the dramatic 36 days sailing across the Atlantic in 1492. British sailors and the British inhabitants of Bermuda and the Carolinas knew the Bahamas as far back as the early sixteenth century. Close association with the islands began in 1629 when Charles I included the Bahamas in a Royal Grant to Sir Robert Heath, the then Attorney-General.

The first permanent settlement came in 1647 when the Company of Elutherian Adventurers was formed in London with the specific aim of an organised and systematic colonisation of the islands, which by then had been completely depopulated and abandoned by the Spaniards. It can be said that Britain's close connection with the Bahamas really started from that time.

By 1665 the first settlement had been firmly established and, under the articles of the company, a regular system of popular government was introduced, including the creation of a Senate of 100 members. The Adventurers' efforts to populate the islands, however, were not particularly successful, and in 1670 the Bahamas were granted to the Lords Proprietors of Carolina. This was a wild time in Bahamian history, with buccaneers and pirates scouring the Caribbean and the Spaniards sailing the Spanish Main and retaliating for raids on their shipping.

All this, understandably, was too much for those high-sounding Lords Proprietors of Carolina who surrendered their government of the area to the British Crown in 1717. In passing, it is worth remembering that one of the Governors of the Bahamas who did much to restore order was Captain Rogers, who rescued Alexander Selkirk from the island of Juan Fernandez. We know Alexander Selkirk in literature as Robinson Crusoe.

Once Nassau was seized by the American Naval Squadron for a few days; once the islands were captured by the Spaniards—but a year later in 1783, they were confirmed as British by the Treaty of Versailles. The population of the islands then grew to about 11,000 with the influx of loyalist refugees from the American War of Independence. One can only touch on whole decades of history in a few words, but the 19th century in general was a period of lean years, with ups and downs and the wrecking of passing ships as being one of the more dramatic occupations designed to sink the ships but keep the economy afloat. Indeed, it was only the building of the Imperial Lighthouse Service in the 1850s and 1860s, which brough the practice to an end. Many of these lighthouses are still in operation and their future is dealt with in the Bill.

Today the prosperity of the islands depends very largely on the tourist industry. It accounts for 60 per cent. of the Government's revenue and for half of the country's foreign exchange earnings. The absence of any direct taxation, coupled with economic and political stability, has given the necessary encouragement for foreign investment and the development of an international banking industry.

I shall now pass very briefly to constitutional development in the Bahamas in recent years. Apart from the creation of a Legislative Council in 1841, the unwritten constitution of 1729 remained in force until the middle of the 20th century. The present legislature of the Bahamas can claim direct descent from 1729. It is the fourth oldest legislature in the British Commonwealth.

A ministerial system of government was introduced in 1963 after a constitutional conference. The Governor was required to act on the Cabinet's advice in all matters except those concerning defence, external affairs, internal security and the public service.

After the general election of 1968, which was won by the Progressive Liberal Party under Mr. Pindling, the present Prime Minister, a further constitutional conference was held. Bahamas was then granted the most advanced form of constitution possible short of full independence. A further general election was fought in September 1972 and Mr. Pindling and his party put to the voters the question of early independence.

The House will recall that the Government party won the election, obtaining 29 of the 38 seats in the House of Assembly and some 60 per cent. of the votes cast. Following that election success, the Bahamas Government published a White Paper outlining its proposals for independence. A resolution was passed in both Houses of the Legislature asking that independence should be granted. It is important to note that the resolution was passed without a dissenting vote.

An independence conference, in which delegates from both the Government and the Opposition took part, was held in London last December. Its purpose was to establish the principles on which the independence constitution should be based. The report of that conference was presented to this House in a White Paper Cmnd. 5196. Unanimous agreement was reached at the 1972 constitutional conference.

I do not think that the House will need a very detailed description of the Bill. In the main it follows the lines of previous independence Bills, and as is usual, the future constitution of the Bahamas will be embodied in an Order in Council to be submitted to Her Majesty in Council after the Bill becomes law. The terms of this constitution have been discussed with the Bahamas Government and Opposition and all the main provisions have been settled.

There are, however, three clauses of the Bill of which some explanation may be helpful. They are those relating to citizenship—Clauses 2 and 3—and to the transfer of colonial lighthouses to Bahamas Government ownership— Clause 5. The citizenship provisions reflect the arrangements which were agreed between Her Majesty's Government and the Bahamas representatives at the independence conference last December.

It was then decided that citizenship of the Bahamas should be automatically acquired at the time of independence by every person who, having been born in the Bahamas before independence, is a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies; and by every person having been born outside the Bahamas before independence who, on the day of independence, is a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies, if his father, having been born in the Bahamas, becomes or, but for his death, would have become a citizen of the Bahamas.

Also it lays down that after independence citizenship should automatically be acquired by every person born in the Bahamas after independence of a Bahamian parent; and every person born outside the Bahamas after independence whose father was born in and is a citizen of the Bahamas.

At the time of independence Bahamas citizenship would also be extended automatically to all citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies who acquired that status by naturalisation or registration in the Bahamas, with the exception of persons who have dual nationality; those registered persons who are not ordinarily resident in the Bahamas at the end of 1972; persons registering after the end of 1972; and naturalised persons who indicate that they do not wish to accept Bahamas citizenship.

The citizenship provisions are complicated. I apologise for wearying the House with them but they are important. We can discuss them in detail in Committee but perhaps I can make some general points now. First, with some very limited exceptions, of those persons who owe their citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies to their connections with the Bahamas, only those who also have a close connection with the United Kingdom or a remaining United Kingdom dependent territory will retain their citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies after Bahamian independence.

I have referred to the exceptions already. They are numerically insignificant. There is thus no danger of the Bill creating substantial numbers of United Kingdom passport holders with a right to come here at some point in the future. Nor will the Bill make anyone stateless.

The other point which I think may need a short explanation is the transfer on independence of the Imperial Lighthouse Service lights in the Bahamas to the Bahamas Government. There are at present nine lights, operated by the Department of Trade and Industry, which will be transferred on independence to the Bahamas Government, who will then assume responsibility for their operation and administration. We have agreed that the Bahamas Government should control these lighthouses after independence. With the Bahamas's heavy reliance on the tourist industry for their prosperity, it is essential to them that these navigational aids should be maintained around their coasts as a protection against shipwrecks and consequential pollution of their beaches.

I have spoken of our long period of association with the Bahamas, stretching back more than 300 years. With the passage of this Bill and with the introduction of the independence constitution, the Bahamas Government of today and the Governments of the future will take on the full constitutional responsibility of governing and administering an archipelago of islands, widely separated, with their different problems, and stretching over 700 miles from north to south. Over the years, many people have gone from this country, either as visitors or to earn their living there or to help in the administration of Government. Virtually without exception when one speaks to those who know the Bahamas, they speak of their friendship with the people, and their enjoyment of the climate and the beauty of the islands.

Independence for the Bahamas on 10th July 1973 does not mean that we will be cutting our ties. It means that we will be replacing them so that our constitutional relations will be on a new basis—with the Commonwealth of the Bahamas with full responsible status as a member of the Commonwealth. I am sure that, just as many thousands have visited the Bahamas in the past, so, after independence, many more thousands will continue to go there and build yet stronger the ties of personal friendship, enjoy yet more the common interest in sport and develop yet further the trade and potential of the area. In commending this Bill to the House, we wish their country and the people of the Bahamas every good fortune in the years which lie ahead.

10.28 p.m.

Mr. Goronwy Roberts (Caernarvon)

I compliment the right hon. Gentleman on his historical expertise. I am sure the House listened, as I did, enthralled by his account of the very colourful and worthy history of this new sister-member of the Commonwealth. It is a story of adventure and of courage, of missionaries and buccaneers—among the latter of which some of us, with a kind of reluctant pride, may count some of our forebears.

The Bill has all-party support. The right hon. Gentleman has described the steps by which the people of the Bahamas, through their Legislature, finally reach practical unanimity about the contents of the measure. We in this House are united, with one or two reservations on some point, in supporting the Bill. I am glad on behalf of Her Majesty's Opposition to extend our warmest good wishes to the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, as it will be known, as it enters this new phase in its history.

Our people and the people of the Bahamas are bound together, as we have heard, by very many ties of common experience, common effort in peace and war, and common language—I sometimes think also a common accent. The Bahamas, like Britain, have a very long tradition of parliamentary democracy, and we are delighted to see how firmly they are resolved to continue that tradition in their bicameral Legislature and to remain a monarchy within the Commonwealth. I am sure that we in this country will regard it as an honour to sponsor the application of the old State in a new guise for membership of the Commonwealth and of the United Nations Organisation. I take it that in both instances it is the United Kingdom which will be the sponsoring Power.

On 21st December last, the Foreign Secretary told the House: … the conference agreed on the substance of a constitution of the Bahamas as an independent sovereign State. I was glad to hear the right hon. Gentleman explain how the substance of the constitution had been agreed and that it would be the subject of an Order in Council at the appropriate time so that it was not necessary to include it in any form in this present measure.

The Foreign Secretary went on: Throughout their deliberations the conference had in mind their responsibility for ensuring that decisions were taken in the best interests of all the people of the Bahamas, whatever their race, colour or creed. Particular attention was paid to the need to provide constitutional safeguards ensuring the rule of law, protection of the rights and freedoms of the individual, the independence of the judiciary, the impartiality of the public service and the maintenance of the constitution itself."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st December 1972; Vol. 848, c. 468.] It is in the light of that passage of the Foreign Secretary's statement that the reservations which are still felt by some of the inhabitants of the Bahamas, especially the island of Abaco, should be seen.

The new State describes itself as a commonwealth, thus indicating its intention to share all rights and duties on an impartial basis. We in this country confidently expect that the people of Abaco, like the rest of the people of the new commonwealth, will realise that this is so from their experience of independence.

As we have heard, when this legislation is passed, Independence Day will fall on 10th July this year. Before then, Her Majesty's Government will have discussed with the Bahamas Government future defence and financial arrangements. I do not propose to press the right hon. Gentleman on either point now, but I am sure that he could give an indication that these discussions have begun already and are proceeding smoothly. Perhaps he will confirm this.

The provisions on nationality and citizenship are, I think, fully acceptable. As the right hon. Gentleman has shown, where they depart from previous provisions they are departures that hon. Members in all parts of the House will welcome, and doubtless there will be opportunities in Committee to look at this aspect of the measure. They are important provisions and, if there is any point of doubt or difficulty now arising or likely to arise, one hopes that it will be discussed and settled quickly. Much of the difficulty arising from nationality and citizenship questions arises from allowing them to drag on without attention at the earliest possible time.

The new State is being launched with expectations of economic and social progress. Its industries, as I was glad to see when I was there, are gradually being diversified. No doubt the Government, under the system of independence, will seek further to diversify the economy of these islands, but tourism and service will continue to be the main source of employment and of revenue.

In 1972 the Bahamas welcomed a record number of visitors—over 1½ million. This was an increase of 3.3 per cent. on the previous year. The Minister said that he looked forward to an increase in the number of people from this country, and no doubt from Europe, who will be visiting the Bahamas in future. At the moment the number of European visitors to the islands is a mere fraction of the very large total. It is only 41,000, and of that number only a fairly small proportion in turn are from the United Kingdom. However, the number of visitors of European origin and from this country is growing, and the steady improvement of airline services must contribute to a further increase in this category of visitor. It is to be hoped that the British content of this increase will also continue to increase.

I conclude with a general word of welcome for this measure and a hope that it will pass its successive stages speedily and successfully.

I recall that I had the honour of leading the United Kingdom delegation to the Commonwealth Parliamentary Conference when it was held in the Bahamas in 1968. Neither I nor any other member of that delegation will ever forget the warmth and dignity of the welcome extended to us. They are a very friendly people with a warm place in their hearts for this country. On that occasion the proceedings were admirably presided over by the Hon. L. I. Prindling, then, as now, the Prime Minister of his country and a most worthy leader of his people. To him, to the Government and Opposition of the Bahamian House of Assembly and Senate and to the people of the islands I am sure that all hon. Members of this House will wish continued success and prosperity in future.

10.38 p.m.

Sir Douglas Dodds-Parker (Cheltenham)

At this late hour I do not intend to delay the House very long.

I should like to congratulate my right hon. Friend on bringing to a successful conclusion negotiations that have been quietly going on for a number of years and to join the right hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Goronwy Roberts) in welcoming yet another independent member of the Commonwealth to another part of the family, as it were.

I speak as the vice-chairman of the United Kingdom branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association—at least until tomorrow—and I look forward to the new State attending our various conferences as a fully independent member.

My first indirect connection with the Bahamas was in the late 1940s in the Smaller Territories Committee, which was set up by Lord Attlee and Mr. Arthur Creech Jones to look into the possibilities of independence for these territories in the years ahead. It was not until 1965 that I had direct contact with the Bahamas, not so much in themselves, but in visiting other Commonwealth territories nearby.

The only point on which I slightly disagree with my right hon. Friend might be that some believe that Christopher Columbus's first landfall took place slightly further south in the Turks and Caicos islands. But we must leave it to those more expert than I in navigation to decide as the years go on.

I think we all realise that in an archipelago such as this with poor communications, which are always difficult with 700 islands, there are local difficulties. It is to be hoped that these will be resolved in future as communications improve. Such problems are not unknown in other parts of the world. In the north-west of the British isles not so long ago there were difficulties between islands whose communications were not so good.

I think that all hon. Members will sympathise with the feelings of certain minorities. We have seen in the past 30 years, during which the change from Empire to Commonwealth has taken place, that it has been difficult, if not impossible, to safeguard the interests of all minorities. But we hope that the new constitution, which is being voted on tonight in the Bill, can and will go a long way to resolve the fears and apprehensions of certain minorities.

Everyone in the House will watch with interest and sympathy the future of this new independent country. As the right hon. Member for Caernarvon said, there are not many natural resources in the Bahamas beyond the sun, the fresh air and the good will of the local inhabitants. Much will depend on them keeping a happy atmosphere there to continue to attract the overseas holidaymakers and others. I am sure that the House will wish good fortune to them in this change.

10.42 p.m.

Sir Geoffrey de Freitas (Kettering)

I wish the Bahamas every good fortune from the 10th July, when they become independent. I agree with the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Sir D. Dodds-Parker). Tourism is not an ignoble trade. I wish that in my constituency of Kettering, in the heart of England. we could offer anything like the sun and sand of the Bahamas. I wish them well.

From my experience of new self-governing countries within the Commonwealth, my only worry is that the Bahamas will remain a monarchy. So long as a new country is independent and yet remains a monarchy, there is a problem. The picture of the Queen remains in public buildings, in the courts, and so on. Unless it has been an independent country for a very long time, such as Canada, for example, these pictures are somehow associated with British rule.

The problem is that the British presence there, which should immediately be established as the presence not of a former colonial Power but of a friendly diplomatic mission, is confused. Many people believe that because the Queen's picture is on the walls of the courts and of other public buildings in some way we in this House have control over what is happening there, when of course we have not. The country becomes independent. Therefore, it should be seen to be independent. I am sorry that the Bahamas will remain a monarchy after independence because it will be a matter of a very few years at most, judging by other experience, before it ceases to be a monarchy.

It is important that right from the beginning the country should stand on its own feet and not be regarded by any of its own citizens as in any way dependent upon this country. Its Government should take the credit and the blame for what they do.

I wish the country well as an independent member of the Commonwealth. I hope that as soon as possible the Bahamas will become a republic and a worthy republic within the Commonwealth.

10.44 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

As I may introduce a slightly more critical note into the debate, I should start by explaining how I come to be associated with the controversy over the independence of the Bahamas and, in particular, with the claims of one of the constituent islands, Abaco.

I have no financial interest whatsoever in the Bahamas—unfortunately—or in their independence or in the exclusion of the island of Abaco from that independence. Last year, however, I was professionally instructed on behalf of a group of citizens of the island of Abaco to advise and help them in deploying their case to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Ministers at the time of the independence conference which took place last December at Marlborough House. I was so much attracted by the merits of the case which it was my duty to deploy—that is not always the experience of a member of the Bar—and I felt so strong a sympathy for the people of Abaco that when my professional connection finished I undertook to act in my political capacity to advance their cause as much as I could. While I have no financial interest in the matter, it is right I should say that much to the House should it be felt that in consequence I am somewhat biased in my approach. On the other hand, perhaps I know a little more about the matter than I should have known had I not pursued that course.

I put down on the Order Paper a reasoned amendment which has not been called. Of course, everything in that amendment can be discussed on Second Reading. I consider that there arise on Second Reading some considerations which the House should not pass over in ignorance. The main case for Abaco being excluded from independence and remaining a Crown Colony must be deployed in Committee. It is my intention to move the appropriate amendment in Committee. At this stage fairly general considerations arise.

I add one little supplement to my right hon. Friend's historical description. My right hon. Friend said rightly that the Bahamas have a long history of association with Britain. He mentioned the movement into the islands of British loyalists after the American War of Independence. Approximately 11,000 loyalists were moved down to various of the Bahama islands. Abaco was unique in that it was totally uninhabited when the loyalists were brought down in British warships and put on the island with their households and slaves. They have remained ever since. More than 90 per cent. of the present population of Abaco are the descendants of the British loyalists from the United States.

During the last two centuries the descendants of the loyalists have lived together and intermarried. It would be hard to define the racial extraction of most of those people. They cover all shades from white to black with most shades in between. As they have lived together in that way it is not surprising that there are none of the troubles associated with a mixed society which are so common in the world today. They are notable by their absence. It is very much a single community.

Loyalty to the British Crown is the historical reason for the islanders being there. It is an enduring theme of their life. It is of a reality and to a degree which must make some of us ashamed that in our own country there is not such devotion to Britain. It is still a live issue in Abaco. These people, 200 years after their ancestors' flight from America, found themselves suddenly faced with separation from the British Crown. What the right hon. Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas) said is absolutely true. My right hon. Friend is entitled to point out that the Bahamas have passed a resolution saying that they wish to remain under the British Crown. That will not last for long. The right hon. Gentleman may even be right in saying it should not last for long. It is a perfectly tenable point of view and I understand why he expresses it. It is unlikely to last for long. Therefore these people face, in practice, separation from that loyalty which has been the forming principle of their island's life for two centuries. That is wrong.

The other thing is that in the Bahamas in the last decade or two there has sprung up, based upon the island of New Providence, where nearly all the population of the Bahamas is—it is a very small island jammed with people, whereas Abaco must be 30 or 40 times as big and with only 4 per cent. of the population of the Bahamas—a somewhat virulent form of black nationalist Government. I do not propose to go into that. There may be a background which explains it in relation to New Providence or to other parts of the Bahamas, although I think not.

Certainly in Abaco this is a most unhappy prospect. The people are deeply perturbed at finding themselves involved in this kind of black nationalism. They refuse to take part in it and are denounced by the leaders of the PLP, the present ruling party, as "Uncle Toms and Aunt Chloes." That is a quotation from the Minister of Health in Parliament a few months ago, following the election and the question of independence becoming an issue.

This is what the Minister, who is also the Deputy Prime Minister, said: To all the Uncle Toms and all the Aunt Chloes I say—your days of prosperous destruction"— I do not know what he meant by that— are numbered and a doom, swift and terrible, is upon your behaviour—for we have overcome you and to the victor goes the glory. He had previously said the same thing at his party's convention a month after the election. By "Uncle Toms and Aunt Chloes" he and his colleagues mean people of colour who are not anti-white.

That perfectly sums up the population of Abaco. Political victimisation is the first thing they have to fear and they have already experienced the appropriate threats and, more than that, examples of it. The election was hardly over before individual cases of victimisation of the most alarming kind began to be manifested. I will not weary hon. Members, as I shall in Committee, with the specific examples. There are all too many of them. There is no lack of evidence. When I say in general terms that political victimisation is feared I can prove it with ample cases after the General Election in September. When I speak of black nationalism I can again justify it by specific quotations from Ministers of the Crown, as they are at present in the Bahamas. When I speak of corruption I can illustrate it with precision.

Contracts have been given to the highest tenderer instead of the lowest, because that tenderer is a PLP supporter. Abaco is a good case. A very big road had to be built there, 120 miles long. The contract was given to a company formed by a PLP supporter which owned no equipment at all and which put in the highest tender by a big margin. The company did not even own a wheelbarrow and had never built anything. It was given the contract and immediately sub-contracted the work to another company in the construction business. The first company put in a bid of 30,000 dollars a mile and sub-contracted for 20,000 dollars a mile. The two companies pocketed the difference. That kind of case can be multiplied in the island. This has produced a sense of profound depression among the people of Abaco. What are they to do? They do not want to become part of a black nationalist State of sharp antagonisms between black and white.

The prosperity of which my right hon. Friend spoke is not there now, because there are few developments in the Bahamas without imported skills. That may change one day, but not for a long time. For lack of them, businesses are collapsing. Half-built buildings are being put up for sale by mortgagees. Unemployment is rising because of the upsurge of extreme black nationalism being operated by extreme and inexperienced politicians.

What were the people of Abaco to do? In 1971 they petitioned Her Majesty to remain a colony of the Crown and that petition was signed by a considerable majority of the electors of Abaco. Of course, a counter-petition was quickly whipped up—and there are ways of whipping things up under a PLP Government.

I could quote letters from an ex-Governor to my right hon. Friend telling him in so many words that if he thinks the safeguards in the constitution for human rights with the sanction of the courts behind them will be of any value in the Bahamas, he is deceiving himself. That is so and I am afraid that we have had experience of that in certain other newly-independent countries where the spirit of nationalism has become established.

The petition went through the usual channels by the Governor, not to the Queen but to the Department of State concerned, and sank into the sand. That is all that has been heard of it. That is one sadness of our present state. People all round the world think that they can petition the Queen and that it means something, but we know that it does not and that one is merely presenting one's case to the Government for the time being.

The Government rate administrative tidiness highly and believe that because this has been an entity for a long time it should remain an entity. I took down my right hon. Friend's words. He called this an archipelago of 700 islands—

Mr. Jeremy Thorpe (Devon, North)

700 miles.

Mr. Bell

—700 miles long, widely distant from each other. These archipelago States of 700 miles length of small islands, widely distant from each other are artificial units to start with and if strains and stresses also occur and one has feelings, as one has in Abaco, one is paying too high a price for administrative tidiness. I understand the position of my right hon. Friend and his colleagues. They say that we are giving independence to this new unit and ask what is the point of starting by offending Mr. Pindling, who is the political leader, just for the sake of these islanders who have this somewhat old-fashioned view?

That is the tidy answer, but I must tell him I can only use my own judgment in this. According to what they told me, my right hon. Friend and the Secretary of State, and what they said on the public broadcasts in Britain and in the Press, they feel so strongly about this that if they cannot remain British by constitutional consent they will fight to remain British. I warn my right hon. Friend that he will have another but bigger Anguilla on his hands if in the Bahamas things turn out as one greatly fears they will if, and as the right hon. Member for Kettering says, the Crown fades out.

Mr. Sydney Chapman (Birmingham, Handsworth)

I have listened carefully to my hon. and learned Friend's argument that Abaco should be a Crown Colony and separate from the independent archipelago. What is the population of Abaco? What proportion is that population of the total population of the Bahamas? What is the position of the island in relation to the other islands of the Bahamas?

Mr. Bell

I did mention that the proportion is 4 per cent, of the population of the Bahamas. I did not give the other information because I am conscious that this is a Second Reading debate and we are not in Committee. The distance by sea from the nearest point of Abaco to the nearest point of New Providence is 50 miles. The island is north of New Providence and it and Grand Bahama are between Florida and Nassau. Abaco is on the deep water channel from the American mainland to Nassau. That is its geographical disposition.

I am here making a Second Reading speech. I shall want to put the case in Committee and ask the Committee to vote on it. I regard this as important matter which must come to a vote, but not now. I will conclude with a quotation from what one of the representatives whom I introduced to the Foreign Secretary said: Abaco, with its homogeneous, long-settled population, its size, its fertility, its abundant water, its deep water potentialities and its political will will never accept subordination to the strident black nationalism and politics of intrigue and financial venality which are now dominant in Nassau. There is nothing inside a union of the Bahama islands that the inhabitants of Abaco can do to reverse or even influence this. They are hopelessly outnumbered. They do not want the contamination to spread to Abaco. They do not want to be trapped in a society where all is black militant politics and everything comes second to these politics. Now, at this moment, when some of the Bahama islands are seeking to leave the British jurisdiction, we earnestly address to Her Majesty's Ministers on behalf of ourselves and those who could not come with us our application to remain within British jurisdiction and protection, and to develop our island in our own way. It has been said by some that responsible dissent never succeeds. We pray that this is not so and that our petition to become and remain a Crown Colony will be granted. Those are words that command deep respect. These people are British to the core and they want to remain British by the processes of the British constitution. I hope that we shall let them do that and not force them to take violent measures to remain with us.

11.4 p.m.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

The hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) said that he would inject a note of dissent into the debate and he has done so. However, it was right that his speech should have been made in view of the feelings which have been expressed in Abaco and the importance of the Government, while they remain responsible for the Bahamas, doing everything possible to remove dissension and to restore the spirit of harmony which we hope will characterise the granting of independence to the Bahamas.

I detected in the hon. and learned Gentleman's remarks some lack of proportion. He admitted to the House that a very small number of people were involved in this dissent—some 4½ per cent, of the population of the Bahamas as a whole. But he did not advert, as he might have done, to the fact that in the latest elections in the Bahamas, both the Official Opposition and the Government were united in agreeing that independence should be given to the Bahamas. The only difference between the two parties has at all times been over the speed with which independence should be achieved.

At the constitutional conference there was unanimous agreement on the terms on which independence was to be granted. There was no dissenting vote in the resolution passed by the Parliament of the Bahamas prior to the conference and subsequently the Government's majority has been increased at a further election. The democratic will of the people of the Bahamas has been as clearly expressed in this matter as it could have been.

Mr. Ronald Bell

There was no dissenting vote—perhaps it was felt unwise to walk out, but in some of these Legislatures that is the form of protest used. As for the attitude of the Opposition, that is set out in the White Paper, page 18, where the leader of the Free National Movement said: As I am sure all of us here are aware, the Free National Movement has the support of 40 per cent, of the Bahamians who voted in the recent elections, a 40 per cent, who feel that independence for our Commonwealth at this time is both unnecessary and unwise. As to why they did not vote as an Opposition, the Leader of the Bahama Opposition said: Nevertheless, we recognise the necessity for a responsible opposition realistically to accept the declaration of a majority of the Bahamian electorate, albeit only a marginal not an overwhelming majority.

Mr. Maclennan

The hon. and learned Gentleman will concede that what was at issue was the timing of independence and not the fact of independence— indeed that is set out in the White Paper. I must also take issue with the hon. and learned Gentleman in his description of the Government of the Bahamas as representative of a virulent black nationalism. Those are most unfortunate and ill-chosen words to describe a Government who have demonstrated in their years of office moderation and considerable sensitivity in their dealings with the opposition internally but also in their dealings with Her Majesty's Government and in their discussions, following the constitutional conference with the Government of the United States.

The hon. and learned Gentleman suggested that economic prosperity in the islands was threatened by this virulent black nationalism of which he spoke, but this description has too often been raised in the past in the Caribbean context as a cover for the protection of external interests in the islands—external capitalist interests which in the Bahamas have not always been in the interests of the islands. The Freeport scandal, of which the hon. and learned Member will be aware, was the very reason for the coming to office of the present Prime Minister. That scandal revealed that there was virtually a state within a state controlled by the Mafia. These are the facts. Land was being sold off at £1 an acre to people who were controlling not only the revenues of the gambling activities there, but even immigration into the island. The Government of Mr. Pindling was first elected to office to end this scandalous situation, which was almost universally recognised as such.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell (Southampton, Itchen)

What my hon. Friend says is obviously true, but surely this was largely confined to New Providence and not related to Abaco. Has my hon. Friend any evidence that the gambling elements were rife in Abaco?

Mr. Maclennan

No. but I should like to deal with what is behind the Abaco objections before concluding my remarks. I wanted to establish first that the overwhelming support of the people of the Bahamas has been given to independence and I believe that on 10th July the celebrations will be shared with complete unanimity by the political parties.

The question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. R. C. Mitchell) concerned the attitude of the people of Abaco to the granting of independence. It is certainly possible to view their affairs as the hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South did. That is not a wholly objective view, even of the situation in Abaco. But there is no unanimity on that island about the proper course for the British Government and the Government of the Bahamas to take.

It will be recalled that a number of representatives of the island of Abaco made official approaches to Her Majesty's Government at the time of the constitutional discussions in which the Minister was involved. At that time a leading spokesman of the people of that island was a certain Captain Leonard Thompson. Along with Mr. Errington Watkins, sole Member of Parliament for the island of Abaco, they made their representations. After the decision of Her Majesty's Government not to countenance fragmentation of the Bahamas, Captain Thompson withdrew his support from the Free Abaconian Group and he appears not to see eye to eye with the remaining leaders of the Group. However, I cannot speak from personal knowledge on that matter. Perhaps the Minister has information which he can give us.

Captain Thompson is one of the most influential people on Abaco. He is one of the largest land and property owners there and it is therefore wrong to assume that there is unanimity of view on the island about the future.

What is extremely unattractive about the situation, and what I regret having to raise in view of the rosy picture which the hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South has painted about the sweetness and light on Abaco, are the unusual representatives who have appeared in this country as spokesmen for the secessionist movement. Two who have come here appear to have strong American connections. I understand that at least one of them is an American citizen. They are Mr. Edwin Marger and Mr. Mitchell Wer Bell—no relative, I presume, of the hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South—who have come to London to make publicity for the Abaco cause.

These two men have given voice to what one can only call sinister sentiments. One of them said that he had come … looking for special personnel for a special situation. When his son, back on the island, was asked whether his father was looking for mercenaries in this country, he said, "Yes that is so. That is our way". That in itself is a somewhat sinister declaration, but it is conceivable and one must hope that these are threats that will not be carried out. But Her Majesty's Government are presumably well aware of these facts and are watching that situation with considerable attention.

Who is backing these people, outside the island of Abaco? The Bahamas have a long history of involvement with nearby countries—Cuba, Haiti and, more recently, Florida. The strategic importance of the Bahamas is undeniable, lying as they do 100 miles off the coast of Florida, 50 miles west of Cuba and close to Haiti. The United States Government are interested in the political development there and I understand from reports which have appeared in the Press that Her Majesty's Government have made some inquiries of the State Department about the activities of certain American citizens "operating", if I may use that euphemistic term, in Abaco.

If the Minister would prefer not to disclose—I would understand this—the full extent of these consultations tonight, I have no doubt that he will seek to keep hon. Members informed about the contacts which are developing between the Government and the United States Government on this question.

The United States at present has important military facilities, including a military tracking station, in the Bahamas and an underwater testing station which they share with us. This, and the question of the future territorial limits of the sea after independence, make the future government of the Bahamas a matter of some interest to the State Department and the Pentagon. It would therefore be of interest to know whether the Government have received any assurances from the United States Government that they will not be involved, even paternalistic-ally, in any activities which might unsettle the political situation. I know that it is the wish of the Government of Mr. Pindling to establish the closest and most friendly links with the United States, and his visit gave testimony to that.

Mr. Ronald Bell

Is it not correct that on a ceremonial occasion during that visit Mr. Pindling said to his host, the Vice President of the United States, that he hoped that the United States would be as generous in receiving the refugees from his, Mr. Pindling's, regime as the Bahamas had been in the past in receiving refugees from the United States.

Mr. Maclennan

I have not seen a report of that statement. The hon. and learned Gentleman may have seen it, but in any case I do not know what weight should be given to it.

After the constitutional conference in December, Her Majesty's Government said that it was their intention to have discussions with the Government of the Bahamas about future defence arrangements. My right hon. Friend the Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Goronwy Roberts) said that he did not wish tonight to press the Government about the content of those discussions, but I think that the House will want to know, certainly before 10th July, something of their content, and something about the future of the bases to which I referred.

In the light of our continuing interest in the social and economic prosperity of the Bahamas, we are also extremely interested to learn of the financial arrangements that will be worked out in some detail between the Government and the Government of the Bahamas. I hope that in Committee we shall hear something more about that.

The Government of the Bahamas, in their approach to independence, are faced with considerable problems, both in their domestic and their external relations. The systems of government which prevail in the countries contiguous to the Bahamas are not entirely similar to the longstanding parliamentary system in those islands. Indeed, there are people from those other countries who have sought refuge, moved to, lived in and had their being freely in the Bahamas. The problem of relations with neighbours may well be resolved, and we hope that it will be.

It will be interesting to know, and perhaps the Minister can tell us, whether any approaches have been made to the Organisation of American States, or are likely to be made to it, as that organisation may in time help to remove some of the difficulties that could arise.

The internal and social conditions in the Bahamas are not entirely satisfactory, but one is impressed by the zeal and sense of purpose of the Government in seeking to tackle them, and particularly in improving the health and education of the people of the islands. I think that what one must beware of is assuming that a desire to improve the living standards of the people by imposing taxation of the kind that would be normal in most democratic countries must be regarded as in some way an expression of what the hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South, referred to as virulent black nationalism. That slogan has scared off tourists, too. We in this country who have had experience of these things should recognise the facts as they are and realise that the Government are anxious to foster investment and tourism.

I conclude by wishing the Government of the Bahamas and all the people of those islands well in the years ahead following the granting by this Parliament of independence and their achievement of that goal on 10th July.

11.25 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel Colin Mitchell (Aberdeenshire, West)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) on highlighting some of the grave reservations which I have on the Bill. I had earlier approached it with a completely open mind. Having no knowledge of the Bahamas, my first contact with the problem came when the gentleman mentioned by the hon. Member approached me to ask for my advice on security in terms of secession by Abaco. I must, however, say that I am an unpaid non-combatant mercenary in that sense. I merely listened to people in London and tried to draw some conclusions.

I do not wish to make a long speech, because there will be plenty of time for that in Committee, but it would help a great deal tonight if my noble Friend the Minister of State in replying to the debate could give some of the answers which have been asked for by the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland and by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell).

From what I can see, we have established only that on 10th July some 300-odd years of British rule will end. The facts about how and why it is ending, or certainly the interpretation of those facts, seem to be contradictory.

It is right to say that Bahamian prosperity rests on the flimsy structure of tourism, but we should also add that it is a great tax haven, and a tax haven rests on the confidence of foreign businessmen. It has been apparent in everything that Mr. Pindling has said—I have never met him but I have read a great deal of what he has said—that he appreciates these facts strongly. There is also no doubt, however, that confidence is departing. For example the Cayman Islands, as we know from recent notoriety, are already absorbing much of the investment in the Caribbean.

I cannot comment on the citizen provisions because I cannot at present understand them, and I was glad and delighted when my noble Friend said that they were very complicated. But I can obviously comment, as anyone with common sense could, on the immigration policy which is introducing work permits, because this is basically a controversial matter. I gather that these permits and the idea behind them are particularly obnoxious to the democratically-minded Abacon-ians. For that reason if for no other, we should take a deep interest in the citizenship background.

I have been told that Abaco, with a large mixed population, wished to retain Crown Colony status, and there is a strong element which threatens to secede on independence. I do not want to over-dramatise in an area which lends itself to the most marvellous romanticism— we could all get carried away, as many have been already—but perhaps Her Majesty's Government are avoiding facing a Rhodesian UDI or an Anguillan-type situation but may be leaving exactly that for the newly-emergent Bahamas Commonwealth.

Undoubtedly the attitudes, as we have heard tonight, do not seem to be racial. Mr. Errington Watkins, for example, is not white-skinned, if that is the right phrase to use without wishing to cause offence, which I do not. In any event, Abaco is a racially mixed country, but there are fears of a dictatorship. Some of the long-term motives which have been expressed by Mr. Pindling's satellites are very frightening to anyone even as far away as here, let alone someone living on his own doorstep.

The Abaconians have claimed, and have produced a good written case saying, that with proper planning and effective management their island is capable of developing a sound agricultural base, greatly increased tourist trade and effective local industries. It sounds like something out of a Liberal Party pamphlet. I am sorry to interrupt the two occupants of the Liberal Bench, because I know that they have important things to talk about.

I see the case as one of the protection of minorities combined with a future security problem.

Mr. Thorpe

I did not intend any discourtesy. I was merely commenting to my colleague, the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Russell Johnston), that there are certain hon. Members even in this House who, without being in office, can terrify one by their statements.

Lieut.-Colonel Mitchell

I am delighted by that intervention from one so well-versed.

There has been a suggestion that Her Majesty's Government should consider Resolution No. 1514 of the United Nations, which says: Any Colony, however small, however unready, has the right to instant independence. This has been put forward by the Abaconians who threaten to secede. But if Her Majesty's Government leave without respect for the principle of independence, I believe that they have a moral responsibility for any future security problems which arise out of that secession. I say this advisedly again because I was approached privately for advice to the secessionists on security issues.

Lord Balniel

Was my hon. and gallant Friend approached by an Abaconian or someone of another nationality?

Lieut.-Colonel Mitchell

I was approached by the two gentlemen referred to by the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland. He referred to Mr. Mitchell Wer Bell III as a member of an organisation. It threw me somewhat into confusion when it was hinted that he might be a relative of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell), because he could have been a relative both of myself and my hon. and learned Friend. But I assure the House that Mr. Mitchell Wer Bell III does exist. He is a well-known American arms manufacturer. His credentials have been well-expressed by the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland. The other gentleman was Mr. Hall, an Abaconian, whose family has lived there for 200 years.

There is no doubt that when people talk in rather wild terms one immediately takes a responsible attitude. I have counselled restraint and constitutional moves for secession after independence, if that is what they think they are going to get. It would be unrealistic to think of anyone in this country interfering in that way between now and 10th July.

It is also fair to warn hon. Members of the strength and determination and energy of the organisation of the Abaconians who are talking about secession. They consider that they have an economic, administrative and financial case for Abaconion independence, and who am I to say that they have not?

It is obvious that it is too late to consider Crown Colony status on the basis of the island's viability as a self-sustaining economic unit, but I would like to hear whether my right hon. Friend believes that the mood in the Bahamas is as tense and explosive as some people would have us believe. If it is, then this Bill is not a tidy ending to another chapter in the great colonial rundown which so many of us have spent our lives conducting, but may be a dangerous fuse for a situation where history might record that lack of political will on the part of Her Majesty's Government left misery in its wake.

11.33 p.m.

Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness)

This debate has developed in a somewhat different way from what one might have expected having heard the Minister of State and the right hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Goronwy Roberts), whose speeches were, perhaps predictably and rightly, primarily directed at wishing the new Bahaman Commonwealth all prosperity in its independence. Subsequent speakers have rather changed the direction of the debate. The Liberal Party welcomes the introduction of the Bill and we hope very much that the future of the Bahamas will be stable and prosperous.

I do not want to go into detail because the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) made a quite remarkably long speech. I do not wish to become embroiled in the details. But if my memory serves me right, I think he was more than a little harsh on the question of Freeport. As I remember it, the Hawksbill Creek Agreement—a romantic-sounding name—was made with the then elected Government and it was as a consequence of that that we had the immigration agreement which was directed primarily at enabling skilled technicians to come in to build the deep water harbour, which has played such an important part in the development of the economy of the Bahamas.

We must get the question of Abaco into perspective. One figure that has not been quoted is the population, which is 6,500. That is just about the same size as the population of the Isle of Skye, in my constituency. From the way in which the hon. and gallant Member for Aber- deenshire, West (Lieut.-Colonel Colin Mitchell) was talking one would think that we were dealing with a large-scale problem of security, such as in the case of Rhodesia and UDI.

Lieut.-Colonel Mitchell

A more appropriate comparison might have been between the number of people involved in the IRA as a proportion of the number of Roman Catholics in Ulster.

Mr. Johnston

That is a rather alarming parallel.

Lieut.-Colonel Mitchell

All parallels are.

Mr. Ronald Bell

The hon. Gentleman is being very tolerant in giving way. Another parallel might be Anguilla. We are dealing with a much larger population than that of Anguilla.

Mr. Johnston

That parallel would be a more reasonable one.

The main point about Abaco is its size. Even if there were substantial, soundly-based reasons for treating it in a different way—because we accept enclaves in various parts of the world as the flotsam and jetsam of imperial conquest—it would be extremely difficult to conceive of a fair argument for treating an island so small and so far away in such a different fashion.

The second question about Abaco is the question of the justification of this proposal. I hope that the Minister will refer to that. Many charges and countercharges have been made across the Floor of the House. It seems to boil down to the question of colour. I am not talking about the rights and wrongs of that, because we all know that it is a matter of people's feelings. I recall that in The Guardian last December the leader of the Abaconian independence movement said that he had in mind that one of the functions that Abaco, treated in a different way, would fulfil, would be as an escape route for non-blacks. That ties in with what the hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) has been saying about the nature of the Government, as he alleges, in the Bahamas.

The hon. and learned Member is being less than fair to the Prime Minister of the Bahamas. It is true that some of his associates and his Ministers and up-and-coming politicians have expressed themselves in somewhat virulent language, from time to time. The right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) alarms some people in this country a great deal, yet he is hardly likely to lead a revolution from the barricades. We must get statements of this kind into a degree of proportion and balance them against the way in which the Government of the Bahamas have behaved in recent years, which does not lend support to the fears enunciated by the hon. and learned Member for Buckinghamshire, South. In the conduct of affairs in recent years, I do not think that there is evidence of repression. Although the hon. and learned Gentleman was not specific, in what he said there was an undercurrent of, "This is what we fear will happen"—

Mr, Ronald Bell

I was not specific, because I did not wish to detain the House with what I regard as Committee points in a Second Reading debate. But I claim to have particulars. If the hon. Gentleman is interested, I shall be happy to send him photo-copies.

Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Isle of Thanet)

There is considerable evidence that Mr. Pindling could easily start to take over, by expropriation and confiscation, the estates of people who have spent many years in the Bahamas. The people of the Bahamas have no one generic make-up. There is nothing to suppose that there is any body of people there who are entitled to have sovereign control in the sense that they are English, Irish or Gaelic. There is a great deal of evidence that we may face considerable problems of total expropriation or confiscation of estates if we go by recent behaviour and if Mr. Pindling behaves as other dictators have in recent years.

Mr. Johnston

That is grossly unfair. Anyone can look into the future and call forth all kinds of apocalypses, saying that this, that or the other may happen, expropriation may take place and dictatorships may rise up. I say that on the evidence of Mr. Pindling's conduct as Prime Minister in the existing situation there is no justification for wild allegations of that kind, nor are they appropriate in this debate.

We have to face the fact that, whenever and wherever independence is granted, especially to bits of country which are populated by a mixture of people from a mixture of places, inevitably there will be certain stresses and strains. Freedom has to do with stresses and strains most of the time.

I believe that Her Majesty's Government are right to introduce this Bill now, and from this bench the Liberal Party will support what they seek to do. I repeat that we wish the independent State of the Bahamas every success in the future.

11.43 p.m.

Mr. Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

In a powerful speech, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell) drew attention to some of the internal problems which may face the Bahamas on independence. However, I wish to follow more in the direction of the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) by referring to some of the external problems that the Bahamas may face as well.

Some years ago, I remember when the soldiers of the Parachute Regiment were landed in Anguilla stories were put about concerning the heavy involvement of the Mafia in that small island. So far as I know, there was no basis for the belief that the Mafia was up to evil doings, and there never seemed to be any reason in practice why the Mafia should interest itself in that small Caribbean Island.

The situation is very different in the Bahamas. My right hon. Friend referred to the fact that the Bahamas has often in the past been a haven for pirates and smugglers. Today, piracy can wear a more sophisticated dress. There can be no doubt that if the Mafia could secure a compliant Government in the Bahamas the prize would be very great indeed.

There can also be no doubt that the financial resources of the American underworld and, indeed, its physical fire power are substantially greater than anything that the Government of the Bahamas can hope to deploy. It also seems inevitable, if there is a move by American criminal interests in the Bahamas, that the CIA should be interested.

The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland said that he hoped that America would take a "hands off" attitude. It seems inevitable that, with this broad band of islands on the doorstep of one of the richest cities of the United States, the Americans are bound to take the closest interest in the internal happenings of the Bahamas.

In passing the Bill we may not be increasing the real amount of freedom that we are offering to the people of the Bahamas. In view of the special dangers that they face on the threshold of independence, I wish that, even at this late hour, the Government would consider some kind of direct referendum in the islands, particularly in Abaco, after a properly conducted campaign to see that the alternatives and the dangers were put to the people. I cannot think that we will look back with pride and pleasure on this evening if, through our good will, we merely pass a measure which indirectly leads to the establishment of the first independent Mafia state.

11.48 p.m.

Mr. David Waddington (Nelson and Colne)

I came into the Chamber some while ago and for quite a long time sat beyond the Bar not intending to take part in the debate, but, as I sat, I learned a great deal and became rather concerned as the result of what I heard. I therefore felt that I should say a few words.

The hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Russell Johnston) said that the population of Abaco was 6,500. I intended to intervene at that stage and ask whether he thought that in no circumstances should the citizens of the Isle of Skye have a right to self-determination and to look after their own affairs. This point worries me, because nobody has dealt with it.

If we have an artificial political creation, like the Bahamas, who dares to say that one group of people living on one of the islands forming part of that artificial political creation have no right, if they so wish, to remain citizens of the British Crown and no right to remain loyal to their sovereign?

It may well be that there is legitimate argument tonight as to whether there is a true overwhelming majority in Abaco to contract out of these proposed arrangements. That is one matter, I do not know where the truth lies concerning it. Un- like other hon. Members, I have not had an opportunity of studying the matter.

Mr. Maclennan

The hon. and learned Gentleman referred to the Bahamas as an artificial creation. He must be aware that this country, like the Bahamas, is an archipelago of islands whose unity is forged by history. Two hundred years of being regarded as an entity is scarcely an artificial creation.

Mr. Waddington

Yet I have heard from a number of hon. Members about the different characteristics of different parts of this archipelago, and about the different characteristics of the people who occupy Abaco as compared with the citizens of other islands in the archipelago.

Mr. Russell Johnston

Following exactly what the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) said, surely this applies exactly and precisely to the United Kingdom, where the individual parts have different characteristics, but it is not regarded as an artificial political creation.

Mr. Waddington

That brings me back to the point I was making about the island of Skye. I would not say that in no circumstances I would refuse to allow to parts of the British Isles the right to secede if the stresses and strains between the different parts of the British Isles became so great that it was far healthier that those parts should be allowed to secede than that they should be kept together against their will.

All I am posing is the question whether we are right to assume that, simply because Abaco is a part of the Bahamas, it must take part in this secession from the allegiance to the British Crown, even though there is apparently one island in that archipelago the majority of the citizens of which wish to remain citizens of the Crown and loyal to the Crown.

I have not studied this subject, but I should like my right hon. Friend the Minister to deal with this matter. At present I am far from convinced that we are entitled to assume that an island such as Abaco must join in the secessionist movement and must leave allegiance to the Crown whether or not it likes to do so. We are storing up a great deal of trouble for ourselves if we make this bland assumption.

11.53 p.m.

Mr. W, R. Rees-Davies (Isle of Thanet)

I for one, although I am alone, am totally opposed to the Bill. I want to say why and what the background to it is.

First, my father and both of my uncles, and many other members of my family, were associated with the Government of the Bahamas over a great many years. My father left this House and went to the Bahamas in the early part of this century, and he had the pleasure of responsibility out there.

I want to say something about the Bahamas. Very few people seem to know very much about the subject before us tonight. First, this man Pindling, who at present is in control, is another of those potential dictators, of whom we have had far too many in recent years. He is just typical of what we are seeing in Africa and in other parts of the world. There is no right for him to speak for the Bahamas, any more than there is a right for any other of these black people to speak for them.

The Bahamas has always been an area which has no particular racial control. The people who went there and developed the Bahamas were subjects of this country. They were loyal people who belonged to England. They were loyal to the monarch of this country. That is what built up the power of that island. The money which it has has developed entirely because of an understanding of the worth of Britain. It has nothing to do with a man like Pindling. Does the House imagine that anyone in that part of the world respects a man like Pindling? Go and ask them. They are frightened of him.

Mr. Ronald Bell

He is a Jamaican.

Mr. Rees-Davies

Yes. He is nothing to do with the Bahamas. The House does not understand this matter any more than it understands Bermuda or Abaco. Abaco is twice the size with a population of 6,500. Why should Abaco be told what to do by Pindling? Absolute rubbish!

I wrote to the Government some months ago and asked them to pay some attention to this matter. They have done nothing about it. All that has happened is that a few people in the Bahamas have passed a vote saying that they want to be independent. It is no bigger than the Isle of Wight and it has a smaller population. We are talking about an island with a population of a few thousand. Here we are talking pompously about the independence of a new country. Does the House want the Bahamas to be represented at the United Nations? What is the House talking about? Does the House wish to see it represented at the United Nations and to have the same right of vote as Great Britain or the United States or Canada? When will the House wake up? I have heard nothing like it.

A member of my regiment was murdered in Bermuda. He was murdered by a lot of scoundrels who want to throw us out. What does this country want to do? Go and ask our Front Bench. Yet we talk about another lot of independence. We will hear in another few months that Bermuda will be offered to become an independent country. I have never heard such nonsense in my life.

I was born in Hong Kong where my father was chief justice. I know Hong Kong from A to Z. Will Hong Kong be offered independence just because a small break-away team of Chinese want independence? Over my dead body!

It is high time that this country began to realise what constitutes a country and its ties. It is a deep-seated and genuine belief in the creation of a country which is worth while. There is no country in the Bahamas, and there never was. There are no ties. A lot of slaves were taken there to look after the people who brought them there. What do we think they want to do?

My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart) was right. We are playing into the hands of a small number of criminals who, if they get the chance, will move in and bribe some of the coloured people who, as anyone who really knows the country will understand, are capable of being bribed. They will take over by bribery and create a situation which is not a country at all.

It is about time that we began to be not quite so stupid. They started back in the Sudan. Look what they did there. I have listened until I am sick and tired of hearing it. People who have any knowledge or who have any deep and long understanding of this part of the world are just shouldered aside—" Oh, I am very sorry, old boy, but it is going this way. There is nothing we can do about it because they have passed a vote."

Are we so namby pamby that, because a small group of people on an island have passed a vote by a majority because they have been got at by others, we should approve this? Look at the Opposition Front Bench. What does the right hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Goronwy Roberts) know about the Bahamas? He led some deputation there. Does he understand the background? Does he realise that none of those people were natives of the Bahamas; they were all brought there? The people who created and built up the Bahamas were people from this country and many of them still hold interests in that part of the world. That is a fact.

Do we imagine that they want to be sold down the river to some people who cannot get majority rule? That is not how islands are run. Democracy does not operate in that fashion. It does not work that way any more than does the Dame of Sark. We have independence in the Isle of Man, which is a small island. I suppose we will go on in this headlong way. It will not succeed.

There is nothing in the Bill to safeguard the people in the Bahamas, to ensure that their goods will not be confiscated, their estates taken over. Mark my words this will happen. I asked for this safeguard. There is nothing to ensure that they will not find themselves thrown out after having built up and developed the island.

I hope we will not allow this to happen in Bermuda. As for Abaco, all I can say is that I hope that the people of Abaco will send, one and all, a united petition to the Queen and ask her to act. If I have to resign the Whip, God help me, I will rather than let down a group of people and leave them in the hands of a man like Pindling, whom no one has the right to respect on the views that he has vouchsafed over recent years. Let him read this and let him understand that there may be an awful lot of weak and flabby people in this country but there are one or two who are prepared to go out there and oppose him and get others to oppose him. There are still one or two of us left here who feel bitterly about the way our Government are behaving They have adopted an extraordinary attitude.

This should never have been done. It was sneaked through and we knew nothing about it. It was only at the last moment that we knew that these negotiations were taking place, based upon a vote in an area which has absolutely no claim to be an independent country, any more than the island of Corfu, given by this country many years ago to Greece, any more than other small islands in the Hebrides, any more than other islands all over the world. They are all small islands. Do not make them into countries.

If we do we will merely debase the whole system of government. They have not the staff, the people to enable them to operate a system of independence. They need, and ought to be proud of, the magnificent colonial service that has served them for many years. What do we wish to do? Destroy the people who have built up one of the most successful tourist areas, an area which is of the greatest importance to Britain? It is part of something which has made Britain shine in the West Indies.

People want to destroy it all because of a total lack of understanding of what really matters in life. It is not method of government, but it is some sense of loyalty to the people who built up an area, an island, a status, a way of life which all the word enjoyed in the West Indies. Now it is to be handed over so that a small group of people can be subverted by the American way of life, probably by those who can afford to buy them up and sell it down so that in a short space of time one will find it totally destroyed.

12.6 a.m.

Lord Balniel

During my introduction of the Bill I explained to the best of my ability the value of the Bill and the importance attached to it in the Bahamas and by Her Majesty's Government. I said that at the end of the debate I should try to answer as many of the questions raised in debate as I could.

Some of the points raised can most easily be dealt with in Committee. Amendments will be put down, I understand, by some hon. Members and some of the more detailed points can be dealt with in Committee.

However, the course of the debate has demonstrated that the Commonwealth of Bahamas, on achieving independence, will be faced with internal and external problems which have been referred to by various hon. Members and to which I shall try to refer. The pleasant thing is that, with the notable exception of the last speech by my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies) and perhaps the reservations expressed by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. Ronald Bell), the Bill has been welcomed.

I am bound to say to my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Thanet that he puts too little value on the vote in the Bahamas Parliament under the constitution approved by Her Majesty's Government in the past. The vote, after 200 years of parliamentary history, is something of great value and is enormously appreciated by the people of the Bahamas.

Although in speaking he apparently claims great knowledge, when he says that this Bill is being sneaked through the House of Commons, he is demonstrating an incredible ignorance of the situation.

The constitutional conference was a successor conference to the one held under the chairmanship of the previous Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Lord Shepherd. It was then forecast that a further conference would be held which would result in an independence constitution. This independence constitution, at the unanimous wishes of the political parties participating, was followed by a White Paper laid before this House, so it is neither just nor correct to imply that this Bill, of considerable constitutional importance to the Bahamians, is being sneaked through.

With that exception, the right hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Goronwy Roberts), speaking on behalf of the Opposition, the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Russell Johnston), speaking on behalf of the Liberal Party, and those hon. Members who expressed reservations about different aspects, have all expressed the hope that the move towards independence in the whole Bahamas will bring prosperity and good fortune to the people of Bahamas.

In essence, the speeches which have contributed to the debate, especially those on behalf of the political parties in this House, will give great pleasure when they are read in the Bahamas. The right hon. Member for Caernarvon and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Lt.-Col. Colin Mitchell) both spoke of the fundamental rights and asked how they will be entrenched. One must accept that when one grants a constitution and a country becomes independent there is always the possibility that the constitution will be overthrown, that dictatorial governments may be established and that the wishes expressed in the constitution can be destroyed. We see that happening not only in far distant countries but in countries close to our own.

Paragraph 12 of the White Paper sets out the fundamental rights which all hon. Members will regard as being of immense importance, rights which it is correct to include in a constitution. Paragraph 34 of the White Paper describes the provisions relating to the legal force of the constitution, citizenship, the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms, the establishment of Parliament, its sessions, prorogation and dissolution, the appointment of senators, the determination of the membership of the House of Assembly, the power to make laws and many other fundamental rights which have been especially entrenched in the constitution. They can be amended only if an affirmative vote carried by each House of the Legislature is carried by a three-quarters majority followed by approval of the amendments by a simple majority of the electorate in a referendum. I can think of no country in the world which has those fundamental rights so firmly entrenched in its constitution.

One can in one's mind envisage the possibility of the constitution being torn up, but that is not a view I share. That is not the impression of those who are living in the Bahamas. Although one has criticisms of certain aspects of the Bahamas Government's conduct, in general it commands the support of the people in the Bahamas.

The right hon. Member for Caernarvon asked whether the discussions on the constitution had begun and what state they had reached——

Mr. Goronwy Roberts

I asked about the way in which discussions—which it has been promised will take place before 10th July—on the financial and defence questions were proceeding. I do not want to press the right hon. Gentleman on that tonight. I only want to ascertain whether they are proceeding reasonably smoothly.

Lord Balniel

I will certainly deal with the defence aspects which were raised by the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan). The discussions on the constitution have now been completed and final drafting is in process of completion.

The right hon. Member for Caernarvon also asked whether we shall sponsor Bahamas' membership of the United Nations. In spite of the views of the hon. Member for Isle of Thanet, we will sponsor the United Nations membership of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas. It would not by any means be the smallest member of the United Nations.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Sir D. Dodds-Parker), who has had a long association in the service and development of the Commonwealth, in his political capacity as a Member of the House warmly welcomed the Bill. So did the right hon. Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas). But I could not quite follow his arguments regretting that Bahamas is anxious to remain a monarchy. I can see that in the eyes of some people the picture of the Queen might be misleading, but I believe that this desire to be associated with the monarchy is a desire that is warmly and strongly felt. In technical terms the Government of the Bahamas and the United Kingdom have agreed that on independence diplomatic relations will be established between the Government of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas and the United Kingdom Government and that a High Commission will be opened in London and Nassau.

Mr. Rees-Davies

The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas) was suggesting that it would be a better thing if the present control in the Bahamas came clean, and he suggested that they should be a republic now rather than that they should hide behind the hypocrisy that they are pretending to be in favour of a monarchy. Would my hon. Friend recognise the fact that Mr. Pindling and company do not want to be any part of the monarchy, but realise that there is a large number in the Bahamas who are sympathetic to the monarchy and who think that it is a good thing to try to pretend they are in favour of the monarchy at this stage?

Lord Balniel

My hon. Friend is entitled to his own views, and I am glad to be able to tell the House that I do not share them.

Sir G. de Freitas

Since I have now been brought into this discussion, perhaps I may repeat the point I sought to make, which is simply this. I feel that if a country is independent, it should be seen by its citizens to be independent. I hoped that as soon as possible the Bahamas would not have pictures of the Queen because it confuses people and makes them believe that we in this country still have control in some way or other over what is done. I do not agree with the extreme views put forward by the hon. Member for Isle of Thanet (Mr. Rees-Davies), but let us make it clear that independence means independence. I hope it will be made clear to the Bahamians that as soon as possible they will remain, as is to be hoped, inside the Commonwealth but that they will become not only an independent country but a republic.

Lord Balniel

If they had wished to become a republic, they would have asked to become a republic. I see the danger of confusion in the minds of simple people, but the wish of the elected representatives of the people of the Bahamas was that they should remain with the monarchy. In those circumstances it was right for Her Majesty's Government to accept the wish, but I fully understand the right hon. Gentleman's point.

I turn to a major part of this debate, namely the matter initiated by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckingham, South. If there is concern about an aspect of the Bill or about the future of a people or island, then it is right that it should be voiced in the House of Commons—and it could not have been more effectively advocated by my hon. and learned Friend. Equally, we had a balancing argument from the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland.

The motion tabled by my hon. and learned Friend which has not been called stated, That this House declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill which would confer full independence upon the Bahamas without declaring the provisions of the constitution upon which independence would be granted … This is the absolutely normal process of the movement of a country towards independence. When an independence Bill is considered by Parliament the normal practice is for Parliament to have before it only the terms of the conference report. Except where special provision is made for laying an order prior to submission to Her Majesty in Council, no precedent has been traced where the independence constitution has been submitted to the scrutiny of Parliament before being submitted to the Queen for her pleasure. There is absolutely nothing peculiar about the procedure that we are adopting. It was, for instance adopted in regard to the independence Bills for Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Cyprus, Jamaica, Tanganyika, Barbados, Guyana, Trinidad, Mauritius and Fiji, just to mention a few examples.

Mr. Ronald Bell

I accept that as true, and, in spite of all the recent precedents, in those cases there was no serious controversy as to the form of the constitution. As for my reasoned amendment, it should be read to include the reference about whether a unitary or federal constitution is preferred. The difficulty is that, whatever this House may think about it, there is nothing that we can do about it. If we were to agree that there should be independence but that it should be with a federal system we would be procedurally in a position where we could no nothing about it.

Lord Balniel

It is always open to my hon. and learned Friend to put down a substantive motion which would enable the issue to be debated. I am sure that his ingenious ability to the House of Commons would enable him to do that.

Mr. Ronald Bell

Does my hon. and learned Friend not know that a substan- tive motion of that kind would need a star against it on the Order Paper before it had a chance of being debated?

Lord Balniel

Frankly, I did not know that, but I take my hon. and learned Friend's word for it. The House is entitled to debate the matter on a substantive motion. I wish, however, to deal with my hon. and learned Friend's main points about the issue of the Abaco Islands. The position is as I said in my opening remarks. In the election of September 1972 the Government party campaigned on a platform of early independence and it won 29 out of the 38 seats in the House of Assembly. It won 60 per cent. of the votes cast. Abaco has two Members of Parliament. One of them is a member of the Progressive Liberal Party, which is led by Mr. Pindling, so he specifically stood on the issue of early independence. The other Member of Parliament is a member of the Opposition Free National Movement, Mr. Isaac's party, which was represented at the independence conference.

The Bahamas want independence. A resolution was passed in both Houses of the Bahamian Parliament without a dissenting vote although one member abstained in the vote, that independence should be granted. Abaco has been part of the Bahamas for 200 years. We have always treated it and administered it and governed it as an integral part of the whole. The governing party, the PLP, regards Abaco as an integral part of the Bahamas. The Opposition party led by Mr. Isaacs regards Abaco as an integral part of the Bahamas. No major political party in the Bahamas supports the idea of Abaco seceding. Government representatives, a delegation of elected representatives, and the elected Opposition representatives attended the conference. They unanimously agreed the report.

It has been argued during the course of the debate that Abaco has a geographical claim to separate treatment because it is some 50 miles away from Nassau, the capital of the Bahamas. The argument can be exaggerated. The Bahamas consist of 700 islands and atolls. Of these, some 22 are inhabited and many of them are much further away from Nassau than is Abaco. In general terms, what I think we want to achieve in the Caribbean is not greater fragmentation but greater cohesion.

Some hon. Members have created the impression that the inhabitants of Abaco unanimously or nearly unanimously desire a continuation of colonial status. This is very misleading. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South mentioned the Greater Abaco Council which he accompanied to London to discuss the matter with me. That Council did not consist of elected representatives of Abaco, although it did contain one Member of Parliament. The election of the other person who attended was in dispute and he decided not to follow it up, so he was not elected. They were appointed—not that there is anything wrong with that—and they put their views forward at the same time as the constitutional conference.

But since then, they have changed their policy. They were no doubt disappointed by the decision of Her Majesty's Government, but, in a meeting with the Bahamas Prime Minister on 19th March they said that they, on behalf of the majority of the people of Abaco—remember, they had been advocating Crown status for Abaco—now wished to be actively associated with the changes which were about to take place in the Bahamas.

Even more recently, on 26th April, the Council issued a Press statement which said: Having failed in this legitimate exploration of the possibility of separation, they are now persuaded that their duty is to work for the success of an independent and prosperous Bahamas. My hon. and learned Friend referred to someone who had said that Abaco would never accept subordination. These were the words of Captain Leonard Thompson who, we now understand, has decided to work for the unity of the Bahamas and not for the secession of Abaco. Also, the Council has made it clear that it does not wish to be identified with the small number of Abaconians who are trying to keep the issue alive. They have specifically rejected the idea of recruiting mercenaries, and have given their view that the reported recruitment is by people who are not even Abaconians.

Mr. Ronald Bell

I have made it clear to my noble Friend that this account which he has been given is not true. My difficulty is—first, in an intervention and second on Second Reading—to go into this at proper length, but I would summarise it—I will deal with it properly in Committee—by saying that this is all untrue. The "Greater Abaco Council" —a name which I coined myself to describe these individuals who came—has never met since December. As I told my noble Friend earlier today, of all these people for whom I appeared or acted, at most one has taken this line. If he has chosen to take over this rather good name which I was proud to think of and call himself the Greater Abaco Council, I shall not complain. There is no copyright in a name. But otherwise what my hon. Friend has said is so remote from the truth as to be quite absurd.

Lord Balniel

I adhere to what I said, and we can debate this in further detail in Committee.

In the 1972 election, more than one-third of the Abaco voters voted for the present governing party which specifically campaigned on the issue of early independence. In fact, 845 out of 2,286 votes were specifically cast for Mr. Pindling's party. As the hon. Member for Inverness said, we must keep a sense of proportion about this. The population of Abaco is only about 3 per cent. of the total population of the Bahamas, and the supporters of secession are clearly a substantially smaller figure than that.

The House will do no good service to the future of an independent Bahamas, nor to relations between an independent Bahamas and this country, if we elevate this into a major issue. Our desire is to have good relations with the elected Government in the Bahamas, and we believe that it is in the best interests of the people of all the islands of the Bahamas that they should work through their elected representatives. It is the desire of the United States, too, to have good relations with an independent Bahamas.

Finally, I propose to say something about the defence talks to which reference was made by the right hon. Member for Caernarvon, the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland and my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire, West. It was agreed at the independence conference held in December last that representatives of Her Majesty's Government and the Government of the Bahamas would meet before the date of independence to discuss defence matters. Exploratory talks on this subject, in which representatives of the United States Government participated, were held very recently in Nassau, and it is hoped that substantive discussions will take place on a tripartite basis very soon.

Apart from the natural concern aroused by the close proximity of the Bahamas to the east coast of America, the United States has a particular interest in the country because of the defence installations which are now covered by United Kingdom-United States of America bilateral agreements. Those talks have begun, they have begun well, and it is hoped soon to embark upon substantive talks.

I appreciate that I have not been able to answer all the questions that were asked during the debate but these can be followed up in Committee, and again I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Fortescue.]

Committee this day.