HC Deb 02 February 1977 vol 925 cc536-40
10. Miss Joan Lestor

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will pay a visit to Ocean Island.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Evan Luard)

My right hon. Friend has no plans to do so at present.

Miss Lestor

Is my hon. Friend aware that, since the judge in the recent court case concerning Ocean Island and the Banaban people said that it was up to the British Government to put right a very great wrong that had taken place in relation to Ocean Island, there has been growing concern in the House and in the country about the responsibility of the British Government? Will he please say what is likely to happen?

Mr. Luard

We are aware of the remarks made by the judge in the case to which my hon. Friend has referred. We are also conscious of the expressions of sympathy that have been expressed in the House and elsewhere for the Banabans. Our main concern is to reach a settlement that is fair to all those involved, including the Banabans and the Gilbertese. It is for that reason, as was announced a few days ago, that we have sent to the area Mr. Richard Posnett, once the Governor of Belize, to have discussions with all parties and to make recommendations for a solution.

Mr. Kershaw

Has not the case for the Banabans been very much overstated? Is not this a further attempt to get more cash that they do not wish to share with the rest of the territory? Did they not vote overwhelmingly to stay at Rabi? Is it not now our task, together with Australia and New Zealand, to work out a sensible policy and to make further attempts to settle them properly on Rabi, which they have not yet tried themselves?

Mr. Raphael Tuck

You go there and see.

Mr. Kershaw

I have.

Mr. Luard

As for the desire of the Banabans themselves to live on Rabi, it is the case that they voted by an overwhelming majority to go to Rabi in the first place to stay there. It is not contested that the majority of them want to stay there. That does not remove the problem of who should get the benefit of the revenues from phosphates on Ocean Island. It is a difficult problem. Should it go entirely to the 2,000 or 3,000 people who once lived on Ocean Island, or whose ancestors did, or should the benefits be spread among a large number of the people in the territory as a whole with which Ocean Island has been associated for a long time?

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon

Does not this whole horrifying story give meaning to the phrase "colonial exploitation"? Has not this story offended many decent people of all political persuasions throughout the country as well as those who use the phrase frequently? Does it need an ex-colonial governor to go there now after the whole matter has been thrashed out in court for several years and all the facts are known to everyone who is interested in the matter? Is it not about time that the British Government did somethting to recompense these people who have been exploited over many years?

Mr. Luard

Obviously we must be concerned with what happened at different times in the past, but the most important factors now are the views of those most intimately concerned, which include the Banabans themselves, both those on Rabi and those on Ocean Island, and the Governments of the Gilbert Islands, Fiji, Australia and New Zealand. It is important that we should know exactly what their views are, and it is for that reason that Mr. Richard Posnett has been sent out for discussions.

Sir Bernard Braine

As the Secretary of State is not to go to Ocean Island, where he would have seen for himself the Banaban homeland ravaged almost entirely for the benefit of Britain, Australia and New Zealand, will the hon. Gentleman make the position clearer in respect of two matters? First, what answer has been given to the Fijian Government's helpful request that if Britain will detach Ocean Island from the Gilberts Fiji will accept responsibility for it? Secondly, if Her Majesty's Government are prepared to make that concession, what parallel arrangements are being made to ensure that the Gilbert Islands, when they move into independence, have a viable economy and adequate aid to face a confident future?

Mr. Luard

It is true that I have not yet had the opportunity of going to Ocean Island. However, the hon. Gentleman will know that my hon. Friend the Minister of State went out to Ocean Island less than a year ago and saw the position on the spot for himself. It is true that the Fijian Government have made a suggestion of the sort that the hon. Gentleman described. I can say that no constitutional arrangement is excluded. Anything, including that, will be discussed and considered. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman's last point. If we were finally to decide in favour of a solution of that sort, it would make it necessary to consider what would be owed to the Gilbert Islanders, who had expected to continue to benefit from association with Ocean Island. We would make whatever arrangements we felt necessary in that situation.

Mr. Lee

Has there ever been an instance of a High Court judge castigating successive Governments in the way that Sir Reginald Megarry has done? Does not the question of the provision of an ex gratia payment stand by itself? Is it not a matter of compelling moral responsibility if this country's good name is to be preserved? Bearing in mind that these people, in contrast with those in various other parts of the world who give expression to their grievances by hijacking and terrorism, have acted in a peaceful and forbearing way—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is making a speech.

Mr. Luard

I do not think it is the case that the judge made continual accusations and charges in respect of the behaviour of successive British Governments. He made one highly-publicised remark about what he felt was the responsibility of the British Government. In general—he did this several times in his judgment—he went out of his way to express appreciation of the concern and care that British officials had shown for the welfare of the country over many years.

I agree that we must have concern for our reputation. We are concerned to try to bring about a settlement that is fair to all those concerned, a settlement that would take account of our responsibility for the Banabans and what has happened in the past.

Mr. Tapsell

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that there will be a general welcome in the House for the assurance he has given us this afternoon that, in seeking a fair solution to the Banabans' claims, the well-being and interests of the 55,000 Gilbertese will be fully safeguarded?

Mr. Luard

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. The population of the Gilbert Iislands is about 55,000 and there are between 2,000 and 3,000 Banabans. We have to consider whether, now that Ocean Island is in receipt of large revenues from the phosphates, it is right and fair that the benefit should go exclusively to 2,000 or 3,000 people or should be shared more widely among a larger number of people.

Mr. Spearing

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government are open to the accusation of having set up the interests of the Banabans as against those of the Gilbertese in the past and that they are now reaping the whirlwind? Will he assure the House that Mr. Posnett will look at other matters in the Pacific dependencies where things may have to be readjusted? Is he aware that there are hon. Members here who will see that right is done throughout the whole of the Pacific before Britain withdraws her colonial responsibilities from that area?

Mr. Luard

On the second part of my hon. Friend's question, clearly Mr. Posnett will not go throughout all British possessions in the Pacific and make recommendations for the whole area. He is concerned with a specific problem, which is not merely financial. It is a financial and constitutional problem. The two things are closely interrelated. Mr. Posnett will visit all those who have a legitimate interest in the subject and will make recommendations on both points. The Government will have to make a decision on the basis of his recommendations.

Mr. Paul Dean

On the constitutional position of Ocean Island, may we have an assurance that the Government will continue to support the Gilbert Islands Government so that the Gilberts can achieve independence intact, not dismembered?

Mr. Luard

I should not like to prejudice the result of inquiries which are just about to be made. The point made by the hon. Gentleman concerns a crucial element in the situation. It would be wrong for me to give the kind of assurance for which he has asked, because it would make nonsense of the visit that we are authorising. We shall take careful account of the legitimate interests of the Gilbert Islanders in any final solution of this matter.

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