HC Deb 22 May 1973 vol 857 cc377-90

Order for Second Reading read.

10.58 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.

The House will be aware of the circumstances which led to the emergence of the State of Bangladesh from the conflict of December 1971. Her Majesty's Government accorded de jure recognition to Bangladesh on 4th February 1972. On 18th April 1972, Bangladesh joined the Commonwealth.

The purpose of this Bill, therefore, is to make the necessary changes to British law to take account of the fact that Bangladesh is now an independent sovereign State within the Commonwealth. The Bill will, in certain respects, have retrospective effect to 4th February 1972, the date when Her Majesty's Government recognised Bangladesh. The introduction of the Bill has been timed to coincide with that of the Pakistan Bill, since the subjects dealt with by the two Bills are to some extent inter-related.

This is a simple Bill. It is largely based on the nearest precedent, the Singapore Act 1966, which amended our law to take account of the separation of Singapore from Malaysia and its establishment as a separate, independent Commonwealth country.

The majority of the Bill's clauses are of a technical nature dealing, for example, with the insertion of the word Bangladesh in legislation which refers to independent Commonwealth countries by name. When Pakistan became a republic in 1956, we passed legislation on the usual lines to secure that the operation of our existing law in relation to Pakistan was not affected. Clause 1 of this Bill makes corresponding provision in relation to Bangladesh.

The most important clauses of the Bill are those dealing with nationality. Persons from Bangladesh in this country have so far enjoyed the privileges of Commonwealth citizenship only because, paradoxically, they retained their Pakistan citizenship under Pakistan legislation.

Clause 2(1) of the Bill therefore amends the British Nationality Act of 1948 in order to secure that persons who are citizens of Bangladesh under the law of Bangladesh will possess the status of Commonwealth citizens under our law.

Bangladesh passed a law on 15th December 1972 providing for citizenship of Bangladesh. When first published, this law was so drafted as to cause some doubt whether many of the people from Bangladesh in this country would qualify for Bangladesh citizenship. The Bangladesh Government has since published an amendment to the law making it clear that persons from Bangladesh in this country have Bangladesh citizenship.

Any persons from Bangladesh who do not qualify for Bangladesh citizenship would of course still retain their Pakistan nationality, although they would become aliens once the Pakistan Bill becomes law.

However, it is possible that Pakistan might at some time in the future amend its law to deprive persons connected with Bangladesh of Pakistan citizenship and the persons affected might include those settled in this country who have not acquired Bangladesh citizenship. If this were to happen any people in this category in this country would become stateless.

Clause 2(2) therefore guards against such a possibility by enabling the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary to make an order under which they could still be treated as citizens of Pakistan and so retain their option to apply for registration as citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies under the transitional arrangements of the Pakistan Bill.

I should emphasise that this is a precautionary measure since in the present circumstances we see no reason to suppose that the situation which I have just described is likely to arise.

We welcomed Bangladesh's decision to join the Commonwealth as an independent, sovereign State. It is therefore logical that we should make the necessary amendments to our law to take account of this new situation. I am sure that the House will wish to speed this Bill on its way.

11.3 p.m.

Mr. Ivor Richard (Barons Court)

The Government are getting themselves in the most frightful muddle this evening. I assume that 3rd February 1972 is the date upon which Bangladesh became an independent republic. Is that the significance of the date as it appears in the Bill? I assume that someone on the Treasury Bench will be capable of telling me what is the significance of that date since it appears in about four different places.

Lord Balniel

I thought that the hon. and learned Gentleman was listening to what I said. I said that the Bill will in certain respects have retrospective effect to 4th February—not 3rd February —1972, the date upon which Her Majesty's Government recognised Bangladesh.

Mr. Richard

I am much obliged. So the British Government recognised Bangladesh as from 4th February 1972. Prior to that date citizens of Bangladesh were presumably, in British law, citizens of Pakistan. As from 30th January 1972 Pakistan ceased to be a member of the Commonwealth. In the unlikely event that there is someone who would have been a citizen of Bangladesh had he remained there but who came to the United Kingdom between 3th January 1972 and 4th February 1972, he is presumably in a limbo. He is not Pakistani, because he cannot be admitted under the Pakistan measure we have dealt with, and he is not Bangalees until that measure comes up for recognition.

I do not know whether there are many, or any, such people. The number is not important. What is important is the idocy of the present state of affairs and the anomalies and absurdities which will arise if the Government insist on the date of 30th January 1972 in the Pakistani measure. The dates in the two measures will not coincide and someone may find that he is a citizen of neither country or both.

Therefore, there are certain points of detail in the Bill which we shall want to look at in Committee. Particularly, I shall want to look at the terms in Clause 2(2) by which it would seem that any provision of the law of Pakistan made after 3rd February 1972 comes within the provisions of that subsection. The effect on British law, whether in the Pakistan Act, the British Nationality Act 1948 or any other Act, is capable of being nullified by a decision of the Government by means of a statutory instrument passed by this House which would secure that whatever the effect of the provision it would be disregarded in determining for the purposes of the 1948 Act whether a person is a citizen of Pakistan.

Secondly, the provisions of Clause 3(1) say that the Government by Order in Council after the passage of three years beginning with the day on which the Act is passed may make adaptations by a mere Order in Council of an Act of Parliament already on the Statute Book without the necessity for that Act to be brought before the House for amendment. On the face of it, this seems a very wide provision. I am not exactly certain what the constitutional effect is, but on the face of it to give a Government this power by a mere Order in Council—subject presumably an annulment, but one is not sure —seems a rather large interference with normal constitutional procedure. In the normal way we amend one Act by another Act.

On the merits of the Bill I do not think there is a great difference between the two sides of the House. The Bill is clearly necessary in view of what has happened on the Indian sub-continent in the last two years. If Pakistan ceasing to be a member of the Commonwealth is irrevocable and the Government are treating it as an established fact, we must obviously make provision as we have in the Pakistan Bill and it is obviously right that in the case of Bangladesh we should make provision for the creation of Bangladesh and its accession to the Commonwealth.

I think the feelings of the whole House about the creation of Bangladesh were somewhat mixed. At one and the same time we regretted that a Commonwealth country, Pakistan, was engaged in civil war, and we regretted the disturbance and disruption which it suffered. As I said in the debate on the last Bill, it was perhaps clear that the attempt to create one political unit out of both East and West Pakistan, in retrospect and with hindsight, was doomed to failure from the start. It is as well that we have recognised that fact and, with the emergence of Pakistan as an independent State on the sub-continent, it is as well that this Bill should be given an unopposed Second Reading.

I will say only one word about the future. Someone once asked, "If there are to be two Pakistans, why not five?" Whatever form the political organisation on the Indian sub-continent may take, the real problem facing the people there remains basically the same, namely the problem of how to equate the food supply to the population, how to raise the standard of living of some of the poorest people in the world, and how to industrialise a nation of this size and complexity. On that part of the task the Opposition wish Bangladesh well in its future.

11.10 p.m.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Bradford, West)

I shall not detain the House long. I want to take part in this debate because this Bill again emphasises the need for a radical review of our laws of citizenship.

My hon. Friend the Minister of State said that until the introduction of the Bill Bangalees resident in the United Kingdom had enjoyed the rights of Common- wealth membership and the rights of Commonwealth citizens because they enjoyed Pakistan citizenship. When we discussed the Pakistan Bill a little earlier this evening, it was argued that Pakistan citizenship in the intermediate stage did not confer rights. Therefore, it would appear that both the Pakistan Bill and the Bangladesh Bill could be taken together in Committee because their ramifications appear to dovetail./ The Minister said that Bangladesh had issued a law giving Bengalees, people who originate from what was East Pakistan and who are now resident in the United Kingdom, Bangladesh citizenship. This matter has wider implications than was at first imagined. Pakistan does not recognise Bangladesh and it is questionable whether we are right to say that Pakistan citizens in our law should be subject to the edicts of the Government in Dacca.

My right hon. Friend argued that what was being done was necessary to protect Bangalees in the United Kingdom in the event of Pakistan renouncing its Bengali citizens in Britain. That is a hypothetical point and we should not seek to legislate for what a Government of another independent sovereign country may or may not do.

We then come to the question how one defines who are and who are not Bangalees as opposed to Pakistanis and how one identifies them. This matter has implications in terms of the register of electors which we discussed on the Pakistan Bill. Are we to demand that these people produce identification papers before the electoral registration officer can do his work? In many instances they will have Bangalee names and be quickly identified, but some Bangalee names are similar to Pakistani names since they are Muslim in origin and are not easy to distinguish.

On the question of documentation, passports and so on, some Bangalees resident in the United Kingdom have Pakistani passports which may just as well have been issued in Karachi as in Dacca because of the earlier unitary nature of the State. Exactly how do we identify these people?

Lastly, I come to a practical matter. Schedule I refers to the Armed Forces. Service in the Armed Forces is not open to aliens. In the Schedule, we rightly and appropriately continue the possibility for citizens of Bangladesh to serve in the Armed Forces and the Civil Service. It will be remembered that by virtue of the Pakistan Bill, Azad Kashmiris are to become aliens. In the days of the British Army in India, at least 50 per cent. of recruits came from the people of Azad Kashmir and Punjab. It is perhaps the supreme irony that the people most inclined to military service may find themselves, as a result of the Pakistan Bill, unable to serve in the British Armed Forces, whereas the Bengalis, who have never been regarded as a martial people, will be able to continue to serve.

In all these matters, I am emphasising the need for a new law of citizenship and the need to consider both these Bills together in Committee.

11.15 p.m.

Mr. John Stonehouse (Wednesbury)

I welcome the Bill. In doing so I should perhaps declare an interest, as I am a citizen of Bangladesh and Chairman of the British Bangladesh Trust which was set up last year to establish a closer relationship between Britain and Bangladesh.

In welcoming the Bill, I dissociate myself from the academic and legalistic interpretations adopted by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Barons Court (Mr. Richard), who seemed to me to misunderstand completely the reasons for the creation of Bangladesh and the emotive force behind it.

Bangladesh was created by the overwhelming will of millions of people who felt that the colonial régime of Pakistan could no longer be borne and that the military repression of Pakistan had to be fought against with all the will at their command. In recognising in this Bill the eventual emergence of Bangladesh as a full member of the Commonwealth, we should recognise the background to the struggle of the Bengali people for their legitimate rights.

It is all very well to talk about the unitary State of Pakistan which Britain created. For many years that unitary State was a fiction. The Bengali people suffered under the yoke of domination from Islamabad and in time it became completely intolerable. Anyone who looks at the background to the struggle over many years—not only over the nine months of guerrilla war which ended in December 1971—will know that the Bengali people were completely justified in their fight for the independence that they achieved.

I pay tribute to the attitude of this Government not only in recent months but during the months when Bangladesh was struggling for its independence. This Government allowed the independence movement for Bangladesh to have its home here in London, and they allowed Mr. Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury to lead that independence movement and to develop a campaign for the rights of the people of Bangladesh. Mr. Justice Abu Sayeed Chowdhury of course is now the President and Head of State of Bangladesh. One of the reasons why there are such good relations between Britain and Bangladesh is that this country, adopting the traditions of many centuries, allowed the people of Bangladesh in Britain to campaign for their independence even during the months when it looked as though their campaign was forlorn. I thank this Government for what they did during that period and for the humanity that they showed.

I also thank the Government for adopting an intelligent attitude to the emergence of Bangladesh without in any way antagonising Pakistan. They have adopted a sensible course.

I share the regrets expressed during the last debate by so many right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House that Pakistan decided to leave the Commonwealth. It was a completely unecessary act. I very much hope that it will decide to come back. I do not believe that that act was in any way brought about by the actions of Her Majesty's Government who have tried to be fair to both sides.

I should like to deal with two specific issues. The first is the urgent need for the exchange of populations in the Indian sub-continent. There are many tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of Bengalis still detained in Pakistan, and they wish to return to Bangladesh, their homeland. They are being kept in Pakistan against their will. There are many thousands of Biharis in Bangladesh who have opted for Pakistan citizenship. There are also many prisoners of war kept in India, and they want to return to their homeland in Pakistan.

The Indian and Bangladesh Administrations have made a sensible proposal that there should be an exchange of these populations to bring an end to this human suffering that has gone on for far too long.

I welcome the statement made by the Leader of the House last Thursday when I drew attention to Motion No. 315, which has been signed by a larger number of right hon. and hon. Members than any motion since the new Session began apart from the motion on thalidomide children proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Widnes (Mr. Oakes). That shows the tremendous support there is for a just solution to the problems in the Indian sub-continent. I very much hope that the expression of view by the Leader of the House on Thursday will be followed by the Government in all possible quarters assisting in bringing about a solution to this problem.

The second issue to which I wish to refer concerns the continuing debts of Pakistan which certain members of the Aid Consortium wish to visit on the new country of Bangladesh. This seems patently unfair when it is clear to anyone who has looked at the situation that Bangladesh has not been able to enjoy any of the assets that Pakistan had from previous years. Bangladesh has not been able to acquire any of the ships or aircraft, and it certainly has not been able to acquire any of the gold reserves that Pakistan had before Bangladesh achieved independence. The gold reserves were removed from the Bank of England to Peking in secret flights by Boeing aircraft of PIA, and I believe that they still reside in the People's Republic of China.

As Bangladesh has had no access to the assets of Pakistan, to which it contributed when it was East Pakistan, it is not reasonable that it should be expected to pick up Pakistan's debts. For certain countries to suggest that Bangladesh should not have aid and assistance to enable it to recover from the awful disasters that it has suffered in the last few years, because it has failed to pick up what are alleged to be Pakistan's debts, is patently unfair. I hope that the Government will see to it that, in the councils where this problem is debated, they will take this reasonable view and argue that, until Pakistan recognises Bangladesh, there can be no question of Bangladesh accepting any of Pakistan's debts.

I welcome the Bill and thank the Government for the way in which they have treated the Bangalees residing in this country and for the treatment which the Bill will accord them.

11.26 p.m.

Mr. Bruce Douglas-Mann (Kensington, North)

I associate myself with the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury (Mr. Stonehouse). It is probably a consequence of the fact that we are debating the Bill immediately after the Pakistan Bill, which involved many technicalities and mainly affected people living in this country, that both Front Bench speeches on this Bill also concentrated on technicalities. There has not been as strong an expression of welcome from the House as I would have wished to see for the fact that Bangladesh is now becoming a member of the Commonwealth. The Minister expressed a welcome, but I wanted to express it more enthusiastically.

With my right hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury, I made an emotionally shattering visit to the refugee camps in India in April 1971 and made a brief and somewhat illicit visit into what was then East Pakistan. I saw something of the terrible destruction and agony of that period. I subsequently went back to Bangladesh, last May. To see then a country whose independence was created out of more suffering, hardship, poverty and death than that of any other country at any time in history, developing and struggling to get on its feet, to see it succeeding, to see the immense and remarkably successful efforts of its people and its potential to become a thriving democratic country in the Commonwealth despite its poverty and the disasters it has suffered was immensely encouraging.

Therefore, I strongly associate myself with what my right hon. Friend said. I further endorse his remarks about the debts, and also about the exchange of population. I spent a great deal of time last May visiting the camps where the Biharis were living in conditions of extreme squalor, although nothing like the conditions in which the refugees had been living whom I had seen a year earlier. I hope that Pakistan will accept the need for such an exchange of population. I hope that Pakistan will treat the unhappy Biharis in Bangladesh, who are suffering now largely as a result of their loyalty —mistaken, I believe, but undoubtedly loyalty—to what was Pakistan as loyal citizens of Pakistan who should be allowed to settle there, in the only country they can regard as their home. I also hope that Pakistan will allow the Bangalees to return to Bangladesh. Then there would be no difficulty, I am sure, in the solution of the problem of the prisoners in India.

The Bill involves technicalities and contains certain nonsenses which I hope will be resolved in Committee. But what is surprising about both Bills is that the Government have talked as though it were in some way a contribution to community relations in this country to produce a substantial number of people who will, we are assured, remain resident in this country, whose rights to continue to live here will be in no way challenged, but who will not have the right to register as citizens and who will have to go through the process of naturalisation before they can be fully secure or exercise rights of citizenship.

In concluding the debate on the Pakistan Bill the Minister completely failed to give any reason for his view that cut-off dates of 30th January and 4th February 1972 for Pakistan and Bangladesh, respectively, were right. He gave no reason for his view, which is expressed in the proposed legislation, that it is in some way beneficial to community relations in this country to have people who are only half-way citizens. I trust that this Bill and the Pakistan Bill will be amended in Committee in order to ensure that that restrictive approach is changed, because I cannot believe that it is healthy for a substantial number of people to live in a country for a long period without full citizenship and without being able to vote.

But these are issues for the Committee. They were fully aired in the pre- vious debate. I conclude by reiterating my delight that Bangladesh is now becoming a member of the Commonwealth. I am sure that she will become one of the most successful members.

11.31 p.m.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

I strongly welcome the Bill. I express my personal satisfaction that the fruits of membership of the Commonwealth will follow from it for Bangladesh. Like my hon. Friends, I have paid two visits to the country in the last year and have been struck by the progress that is being made.

I want to advert briefly to the somewhat unevenhanded way in which the Government have treated the Pakistanis and the Bangalees in the two Bills. It strikes me as somewhat odd that whereas the decision of the Pakistani Government to leave the Commonwealth on a particular date is taken to be the date at which Pakistanis ceased to enjoy the benefits of the British Nationality Acts, the date at which Bangladesh itself considered that it came into existence is not similarly regarded as the date on which the citizens of Bangladesh might reasonably have expected the rights of commonwealth citizenship to flow.

The date at which Bangladesh claims it came into existence as a State is not the date at which the British Government gave de jure recognition, namely, 3rd February 1972. It was much earlier —21st March of the previous year—when the so-called Government in exile made a broadcast declaring independence. That is the date on which the rights of citizens of Bangladesh are determined in Bangladesh law, and it is the date from which the Bangladesh Government have claimed loyalty and from which it has proscribed members of the East Pakistan Government for acts of collaboration with enemy powers in Pakistan.

I shall not go into the merits of the attitude of Bangladesh to that issue, about which I am deeply concerned; I simply draw attention to the somewhat anomalous differences between the Government's treatment of Bangalees and Pakistanis in the respective Bills. Like my hon. Friends and almost everyone else who has spoken, I believe that this must be rectified by the Government in Committee. I profoundly hope that they will seek to make a fundamental change. particularly in the Pakistan Bill.

Mr. Richard

Perhaps the House will allow me to say that I should not like the suggestion to be placed on record unanswered that officially, as the Opposition, we did not welcome the accession of Bangladesh to the Commonwealth with great warmth and hope for the future.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury (Mr. Stonehouse) has not had the advantage of sitting in on our earlier debate today on the Pakistan Bill. We spent a great deal of time on that Bill on the detail—perhaps unnecessary detail—and intricacies of citizenship and nationality. If I erred, perhaps, in approaching this Bill in a technical and legal way, it was because it seemed to me that we should have approached the Pakistan Bill in an even more technical and legal way than we did.

Concerning the merits of this Bill, I hope that everyone in the House and the country, and in Bangladesh, will realise the warmth, affection and hope with which we greet the Bill and the accession of Bangladesh to the Commonwealth.

Lord Balniel

With the leave of the House, I should like to make some brief remarks in conclusion.

Just as the hon. and learned Member for Barons Court (Mr. Richard) felt himself chided for having dealt with the technicalities of the Bill and not the broader sweep of welcoming the accession of Bangladesh to the Commonwealth, I felt that the hon. Member for Kensington, North (Mr. Douglas-Mann) chided me slightly for also having dealt with technicalities and not with the broader foreign affairs aspects. However, he will appreciate that the Bill has a very narrow purpose. At present Bangladesh citizens enjoy Commonwealth citizenship by virtue of their Pakistan citizenship under Pakistan law. The purpose of the Bill is to ensure that people who are citizens of Bangladesh under Bangladesh law will possess Commonwealth citizenship.

It is for that reason, and because Her Majesty's Government accorded de jure recognition of Bangladesh as long ago as 4th February 1972 and on 18th April 1972 Bangladesh joined the Commonwealth, that I did not enter into the wider foreign affairs aspects.

From a reading of the debate, I have no doubt that anyone who is interested in the affairs of Bangladesh will recognise that Bangladesh has the good will of this House. That has been expressed in the speeches of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Wilkinson), the right hon. Member for Wednesbury (Mr. Stonehouse), the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), the hon. Member for Kensington, North and the hon. and learned Member for Barons Court, who spoke on behalf of the Opposition.

We wish Bangladesh's people and territory prosperity and good fortune in the years which lie ahead.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee, pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).