HC Deb 05 May 1975 vol 891 cc1168-74

Order for Second Reading read.

11.5 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Miss Joan Lestor)

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

The Constitution of Malta was amended on 13th December last year and Malta then became a republic within the Commonwealth. As the House is aware, when a Commonwealth country makes this change from a monarchical to a republican Constitution it is necessary for legislation to be introduced in the United Kingdom to make appropriate consequential changes in our own law.

In accordance with established practice on previous occasions, the proposed legislation is short and, I believe, uncontroversial. The Bill itself provides that the law of the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man existing on 13th December 1974 in relation to Malta and to persons and things belonging to or connected with Malta is not affected by Malta's change to re-publican status. Much of the legislation on the statute book which relates to Commonwealth countries was formulated when those countries were under Her Majesty's sovereignty. As a result, one finds in it terms such as parts of Her Majesty's dominions and it is in order that such legislation should continue to cover Malta in her new status that the present Bill is required.

The Bill will have the same effect on the law of the United Kingdom's dependent territories in so far as that consists of Acts of the United Kingdom Parliament extending to them, and also of Orders in Council extending such Acts to them. The local legislatures in the dependencies do not have the competence to make the necessary provision themselves.

Malta remains a full member of the Commonwealth. The other member countries, including Britain, were consulted and have welcomed her continued membership. A number of other Commonwealth countries have become republics during their membership of the Commonwealth and these changes have not affected the status of Her Majesty as Head of the Commonwealth nor the esteem in which she is held by the peoples.

Malta is a fully independent nation and has been since 1964. We do not believe that her new status as a republic will in any way affect the good working relations between our two countries. The close bonds of friendship between us have been built up over more than a century of co-operation and have survived through times of great hardship, particularly in the dark days of the war, when the Maltese people inspired the admiration of so many with their steadfastness and courage in the face of great affliction.

We hope that our offer of technical assistance will make a valuable contribution to Malta's welfare. Likely fields for it are currently being discussed with the Maltese Government.

The first President of the new Republic is Sir Anthony Mamo, the former Governor General. Mr. Mintoff continues as Prime Minister.

Messages of goodwill for the prosperity of the new republic were sent on 13th December from Her Majesty the Queen, from the Prime Minister and from the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary. I am sure that the House will want to join with me—

Mr. John Page (Harrow, West)

Before the hon. Lady draws to the end of her peroration, could she tell the House, in a few words, the major changes which the Bill will make?

Miss Lestor

The Bill makes changes so as to meet the necessary requirements to take account in our own legislation of the fact that Malta has become a republic. When Malta became independent it was assumed and known that she would ultimately go on to be a republic and that a Bill to make Malta a republic would have to pass through the House. Therefore, those changes, such as they were, were already incorporated in the independence Bill. Therefore, there are no basic changes which we have to take into consideration. Malta is a republic. All the relationships we have had with Malta in the past, and all the results flowing from those relations, still apply.

11.11 p.m.

Mr. Christopher Tugendhat (City of London and Westminster, South)

I gather that, in the absence of the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and the other Ministers, the Under-Secretary of State is in charge of the Foreign Office. I should like to wish her the best of good fortune in this onerous task, which I am sure that she will not wish to last for too long.

I do not believe in repetition. As 1 think our noble Friends in the other place made clear, we accept the Government's interpretation of the Bill. It is very much on the same lines as previous measures, the most recent of which was the Sri Lanka Republic Act 1972. We associate ourselves with the good wishes which the Government have expressed to Malta.

Malta has been associated with this country for a long time. The bonds which bind us and that island are still very close. Malta is a member of the Commonwealth and has an association with the European Community. I am sure that the Under-Secretary of State, like myself, hopes that our joint connection with that organisation will remain in its present happy state for a long time to come. Malta is also in the ambit of NATO. We hope that that will continue.

We are also pleased that nothing in this Bill in any way changes the status or position of the Maltese people living in this country, who make a notable contribution to our life. Again, nothing in the Bill changes or alters the arrangements concerning emigration from Malta to this country. In other words, this is simply a tidying-up measure which enables the Maltese people to go on their way as a republic.

We should like to wish the people of Malta God-speed in their decision and to associate ourselves with the good wishes which the Government have expressed.

11.13 p.m.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles (Winchester)

I feel that it is appropriate for a former naval person to speak for one minute about this Bill and to recall the connection which runs like a golden thread through the history of the United Kingdom and Malta.

Although it is a fait accompli that Malta is a republic, I regret it. I feel that both Malta and Britain may in due course come to regret it as well. I hope, however, that the new status of Malta within the Commonwealth will allow continuing economic and political cooperation and, subject to the vicissitudes of Government policy, co-operation in defence matters too, because the facts of geography remain as they have been through the centuries, in that Malta is the key to the Mediterranean.

11.15 p.m.

Mr. John Page (Harrow, West)

As one who knows Malta well and who loves Malta dearly, I was sad when Front Bench speakers seemed to consider as a matter of comparative unimportance the change of the present status of Malta to that of a full republic. It seems to me that the ties of the Commonwealth must be extremely weak, fibrous and thin ii they can disappear by a wave of a wand.

It is often considered unwise and improper to involve the Chair in a debate, but I well remember that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, were on the Government Front Bench at a time when Malta was going through one of her most difficult periods and that you stood up manfully for the people of Malta.

Like my hon. and good Friend the Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles), I wish Malta well in the future, and I can confirm what the Minister said about the high esteem in which Her Majesty the Queen is held by the people of Malta. But when, before becoming a Member of this House, I was asked by one of my hon. Friends who was then Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party whether I had any major disagreements with the party's thinking, my reply was that I thought that once we had independence and republics within the Commonwealth we could write off the Commonwealth. I believe that I have been proved right over these past 15 years. This seems to be yet another sad but, I suppose, inevitable addition to the weakness of the British Commonwealth in allowing republics and independence within it.

There are two matters of detail about which I wish to ask the hon. Lady. First, what will be the position of appeals to the Privy Council in the new circumstances? Secondly will there be any change in the agreed figures of the immigration quota from Malta? It would seem insignificant if there were no change. It would be significant if there were a change. In this significant moment for Malta, the Commonwealth and this House of Commons, I should like to know the answers to those two questions.

11.18 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

It is difficult to understand how the Minister can say that there will be no difference in the situation between our country and Malta as a consequence of this Bill when in her Government's White Paper on defence it is hinted clearly that when the present defence treaty with Malta ends it is not proposed to renew it, that it is not expected that it will be renewable, and that measures are being taken now in that regard. How the hon. Lady can say that no change is contemplated surpasses imagination.

11.19 p.m.

Miss Joan Lestor

I should not like anything to surpass the imagination of the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw). His argument is quite accurate. But the point is that it is not because of the Bill. I was asked what changes arose as a result of the Bill. Defence matters are not the direct result of the Bill. This is not a matter of controversy, and I am not trying to pretend that something is when it is not. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would have been aware of that.

As for appeals to the Privy Council, there is no provision in the law of Malta itself for appeals to be brought from the Maltese courts to Her Majesty in Council or to the Judicial Committee. It has not, therefore, been necessary to make any reference to such appeals in the Bill.

As the hon. Member for the City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Tugendhat) pointed out, there is no change concerning immigration and relations between Britain and Malta. As he also pointed out, I am in charge of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office at the present time, and, therefore, it is not for me to pursue the point about the EEC and related matters.

I am grateful to hon. Members for the welcome they have given to the Bill. I do not regard it in terms of regret that Malta has become a republic. Whatever our views may be about that, I am sure that all of us, as has been indicated, join in extending to the President, the Government and the people of Malta our very best wishes and the expression of our pleasure that they wish to remain as members of the Commonwealth.

11.21 p.m.

Mr. Victor Goodhew (St. Albans)

Before we part with the Bill I should like to place on record the memories that some of us have of the gallantry of the people of Malta during the war. The fact that that country of all countries was awarded a British decoration, the George Cross, which is normally awarded only to individuals, is something that we hope the Maltese will always prize. It is a memory that we hold dear. I hope that it will always bind us to the people of Malta, despite the fact that many of us regret the moving away commemorated by the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House—[Miss Boothroyd.]

Bill immediately considered in Committee.

[MR. GEORGE THOMAS in the Chair]

Clause I ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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