HC Deb 07 December 1979 vol 975 cc876-86

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Cope.]

4.5 pm

Mr. Christopher Price (Lewisham, West)

I want to raise the issue of the condominium of the New Hebrides, which is probably one of the lesser known colonial territories in the world. It is a unique territory, since for the past 100 years—certainly for about 70 years—it has been governed jointly by both Britain and France.

The New Hebrides is now moving towards independence. A constitution has already been drawn up. I congratulate the Minister on his efforts in Vela. Those who work there say that he contributed significantly to the final success of the constitution talks. An election has been held. The Vanuaaku Pati—it would not like to be described as such, but it is a broadly English-speaking party since it has a majority of English-speaking people as members—won an almost two-thirds majority of all the seats on the island.

This is a significant situation since, apart from the Pitcairn Islands, this will be Britain's last political responsibility in the Pacific Ocean. It is important that, as the New Hebrides moves towards independence, that independence is gained in a smooth transition and that the new Government are free from intimidation by interests on the island which might make the life of the new independent Government difficult.

I understand that the constitution, as it has been worked out, is the most satisfactory constitution that the members of the Vanuaaku Pati feel could have been achieved on the issues of land and citizenship. There may still be difficulties about land. Therefore, I hope that the Government will keep an eye on these issues.

In the light of recent events, a new and special responsibility lies on the Government. Not only have we, jointly with the French, the responsibility to hand over to an independent Government the New Hebrides free from any externally backed internal subversion, but we, as Britain, have a particular responsibility. The island is to be handed over in such a state that one hopes that over the years the colonial inheritance of the British and French will merge into a New Hebridean feeling, but for a few years there will be clashes.

It is our duty to ensure that the anglophone interests are properly protected on independence. I do not want to say a great deal about the French role in the Pacific. Indeed, I do not want the Minister to comment on what I am about to say now because I know that he has a delicate role with the French. In many ways the British Government have played a more honourable role in handing over our territories to independence in the Pacific than have the French. The French still maintain troops both on New Caledonia and in French Polynesia. They have made it clear that they do not foresee the prospect of independence for either New Caledonia or for French Polynesia in the foreseeable future.

The French continue to use underground sites near the island of Muroroa in Polynesia for nuclear testing. That brings grave and serious protests from the small independent island States which have joined those who, for many years, have tried to make the Southern Hemisphere a nuclear-free zone. The French alone are a serious obstacle to that objective.

The handing over of our responsibilities and the questions that I ask are against that background. Just over 10 days ago, on the island of Santo, which is one of the northernmost islands in the New Hebrides group, there was an attempt—not unprecedented—to intimidate members of the Vanuaaku Pati. That intimidation was organised by an individual called Jimmy Stevens. This man has been associated in the past with unsavoury American interests which were attempting, not only in the New Hebrides but in other parts of the Pacific, to create a gambler's tax haven and a refuge for criminals.

Those events of 10 days ago have now died down, I am happy to say. I learnt by telephone from the New Hebrides today that all is quiet on the island of Santo. Have the Government any information which connects this recent attempt at intimidation with what I call Mafia interests? It is the belief of Walter Lini, the Chief Minister of the New Hebrides, that there are still connections with business men in Costa Rica and Hawaii, some of which involve both former and existing members of the Mafia. The more that the Government can say about this, the better.

In the past, land on Santo has been sold to French colons and through them to Americans who used to have connec- tions with what was known as the Phoenix Foundation. Can the Government say whether any land is similarly owned there at the moment? The Government have done well with the constitution for the New Hebrides, but time and time again British Governments have misjudged the attitude of Pacific islanders to the question of land ownership. Half of the trouble that we experienced with the Banabans might have been avoided had we had a greater understanding of how they felt about land. It is not just that they cannot conceive of the idea of privately owned land, but they cannot understand that land can belong to private citizens. They not only believe that land belongs, inalienably, to the whole people, but they are completely affronted by the concept of land ownership. They believe it to be an immoral idea.

The constitution does safeguard the land and makes it clear that land is in the ultimate ownership of the Government of the New Hebrides. However, I understand that there are certain exceptions to that rule for urban land. Is the Minister satisfied that the land provisions in the constitution make it impossible after independence for those groups which have been trying to achieve control in the new New Hebrides and elsewhere to take control of land in the future? What proportion of the land is in the ownership of what I call the colons? I do not use that word in a pejorative sense. It is the easiest way to describe French people who qualify for citizenship because they have lived in the New Hebrides but are similar to people of French origin in New Caledonia and French Polynesia, which are not going independent. Are the Government satisfied that the new New Hebrides Government will be able to stand up against powerful financial interests which, for better or for worse, happen to be in the hands of the French colons?

I have been fairly outspoken, but I do not intend disrespect to the French Government. They have been wholly proper in their efforts to achieve independence, alone with the British Government. However, the French role in the Pacific is entirely different from ours. The people of the Pacific see the position in that way, and that gives us a particular responsibility.

I now turn to the transition to independence as it affects the House of Com- mons. What date in 1980 is the Minister aiming at for independence? In which month does he estimate independence will be achieved? Will there be a White Paper on the constitution? If so, when will it be published? Why have we not had a White Paper already since the details were fixed some time ago?

I asked some questions recently about legislation. It was said that if the New Hebrides Government want to remain in the Commonwealth, legislation might be needed. May we have clarification about whether an independence Bill is required? Many of those who follow affairs in the Pacific think that if we hand over independence, an independence Bill should be passed by the House. The Minister will have to use a cogent argument if he wishes to persuade me to the contrary.

Can the Minister confirm that it is open to the New Hebrides Government to be included not only in the Lomé convention, as the other Pacific States have been, but in the British Commonwealth and its French counterpart so that we shall have a stake in the Pacific? That would be an enormous gain in the sense of improving understanding between former British and former French colonies. All hon. Members will wish to pass to the new Government of the New Hebrides our good wishes for the future as they move to independence.

I turn to the question of aid. The position of the New Hebrides in the Pacific is unique. In no similar country in Africa has the West left the people in the appalling position of speaking two major European languages so that even senior people in the community find it difficult to communicate. No real effort has been made to help the people through that language barrier.

Could something be done, through the aid provision, to establish some sort of outpost of the university of the South Pacific so that the New Hebrides—in some small way at first, perhaps, but growing to something better—might become a kind of language centre where those who throughout the Pacific, whether from the French-speaking or the English-speaking territories, wish to perfect their bilinguality can achieve that? I know that the small number of bilingual people has been a problem, even within the Vanuaaku Pati of the New Hebrides.

That is my last point, and I hope that in the time that I have left to the Minister he will be able to answer as many as possible of the questions that I have put.

4.20 pm
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Peter Blaker)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) for initiating this debate, as it gives me the opportunity to tell the House about the significant progress that is being made towards the achievement of independence for the New Hebrides next year. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks about my own role in the recent constitutional conference.

The New Hebrides, which I visited in September, with my French colleague, M. Dijoud, is a unique territory. I should like to pay a tribute to M. Dijoud for the close co-operation that I enjoyed with him at that time and since then.

The New Hebrides is a condominium where both Britain and France have jurisdiction. There are two colonial Governments, two police forces, two systems of education and several varieties of competitive Christianity. In short, most things are duplicated. This curious situation has its origin in an Anglo-French naval treaty of 1887. The basic constitutional document which established the unwieldy machinery to which I have just referred is the Anglo-French Protocol of 1914.

The New Hebrides has been within the sphere of influence of both Britain and France. This has had, as the hon. Gentleman indicated, some unfortunate results. Although the people of the New Hebrides can communicate with each other in Bislama, a form of pidgin, both English and French are the languages of the Administration. It has also retarded the growth of a real sense of New Hebridean nationhood and left the country divided on cultural, linguistic, religious and, latterly, political lines. In view of this legacy of differences between the anglophone and francophone New Hebrideans, the progress of recent months is all the more remarkable and all the more welcome.

I come now to the more recent history. British and French Ministers met New Hebrides political leaders in July 1977 and drew up plans for independence by 1980. But, despite this agreement in principle, the divisions to which I have referred frustrated real progress until very recently.

In November 1977 the anglophone Vanuaaku Pati boycotted elections to the Representative Assembly. We were then faced with a predominantly francophone Assembly, with anglophone interests, as represented by the Vanuaaku Pati, excluded from the democratic process and committed to a policy of opposition to the lawful elected Government.

British and French Ministers recognised that in these circumstances the prospects of preparing the country for a successful independence were remote. My predecessor, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, and the responsible French Minister M. Paul Dijoud, made strenuous efforts to find a way out of the constitutional deadlock. They are to be congratulated on formulating the proposals which have led to the progress which even a year ago would have appeared almost impossible. Their proposals envisaged the establishment of a Government of national unity in which francophones and anglophones would be equally represented and which would be responsible for drafting an independence constitution and preparing for fresh elections on a basis acceptable to all political parties.

Those proposals were accepted by the opposing political groups, and in December 1978 a Government of national unity was formed. In March this year, the New Hebrides Government appointed a constitutional committee to work out a constitution for an independent New Hebrides. They were assisted by constitutional advisers provided by Britain and France.

The prime purpose of my visit in September of this year, together with M. Dijoud, was to take part in a constitutional conference with the members of the constitutional committee and the New Hebrides Council of Ministers. I am pleased to report that on 19 September the draft constitution was unanimously accepted by the constitutional committee and the Council of Ministers.

The conference decided also that elections would be held on 14 November to the Representative Assembly and to regional assemblies for the islands of Santo and Tanna. On 23 October the constitution was formally adopted by the British and French Governments in an exchange of notes signed in Paris.

The exchange of notes, which will be published as a Command Paper, provides for the New Hebrides to become independent next year under the constitution agreed in Vila in September. The precise date of independence will be determined in consultation with the New Hebrides Government, and I expect a decision on this to be made soon.

Under the constitution, the New Hebrides will be a republic with an elected President as Head of State. It will have a unicameral legislature and a Cabinet responsible to it headed by a Prime Minister. The constitution provides for the protection of fundamental human rights and freedoms of the individual, citizenship, the judicature and the public service.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the important question of land, and he asked what proportion of land is now owned by colons. The constitution provides that all land in the republic will belong to the indigenous custom owners and their dependants. It requires that Parliament shall enact a national land law. It goes on to say that Parliament shall prescribe such criteria as it deems appropriate for the assessment of compensation and the manner of its payment to those persons whose interests are adversely affected.

The hon. Gentleman said that successive British Governments had failed to understand the importance of land in the minds of the Pacific people. I do not think that I can accept that stricture. But when he went on to say that this alleged misunderstanding helped to explain the problem of the Banabans, it seemed to me that, whatever may be the merits of that argument, one lesson which we can learn from the New Hebrides is that if the Banaban claim to independence from Kiribati had been accorded, the implications for secessionist movements in other parts of the Pacific, and notably in the New Hebrides, would have been very serious.

The hon. Gentleman asked also about the Phoenix Trust. I do not have to hand the information for which he asks about the ownership of land by the Phoenix Trust, but I shall see whether I can obtain it and write to the hon. Gentleman.

The French and British Governments and the New Hebridean leaders have accepted that, particularly in a country where a sense of national unity has still to be forged, it is essential to make arrangements for safeguarding the interests of minorities. Representatives of the islands of Santo and Tanna felt strongly at the time of the constitutional conference in September that there was a risk of their interests being neglected by a possibly predominant anglophone majority in the central Government in Vila. For that reason, it was agreed that, in addition to the Representative Assembly in Vila, there would be regional assemblies on those two islands.

I pay tribute to the New Hebridean political leaders whose wisdom and moderation over months of difficult negotiation have made these achievements possible. I think that the results of the constitutional conference are evidence of the determination of New Hebrideans to work together in the common interests of the country.

The hon. Gentleman asked about legislation. I am advised that no independence Bill will be necessary as we are not here dealing with a colony; we are dealing with a condominium. However, legislation will be necessary if, as we hope, the New Hebrides applies to join the Commonwealth.

The hon. Gentleman made an interesting suggestion about language, education and the university of the South Pacific, which I shall certainly consider.

In the elections on 14 November, the Vanuaaku Pati obtained 26 of the 39 seats in the Assembly. It also obtained majorities in both regional assemblies. The new Representative Assembly met for the first time on 28 November and elected its Chairman. The President of the Vanuaaku Pati, Fr. Walter Lini, was elected Chief Minister. Fr. Lini subsequently named an eight-man Council of Ministers.

The elections themselves were conducted in an orderly and peaceful manner, and it is unfortunate that when the results were offcially declared on 19 November certain elements on the islands of Santo and Tanna displayed their open opposition to the lawfully elected Government. In Santo Town, supporters of a local political movement, called Na Griamel, engaged in acts of intimidation against Vanuaaku Pati supporters and several hundred people were reported to have fled from the island in fear. However, following consultation with the New Hebrides Government, British and French officials were successful in persuading the leader of the Na Griamel movement to call a halt to these acts of provocation. No further incidents have been reported. The situation at present is calm, and indications are that it should remain so. On the island of Tanna, threats to the peace by supporters of a custom movement were similarly averted by the timely intervention of British and French officials.

As my hon. Friend the Minister of State assured the House on 22 November, in reply to a private notice question, the British Government accept full responsibility, together of course in this case with the French Government, for the internal security and the external defence of the New Hebrides. I hope that good sense will prevail and that there will be no repetition of the troubles on Santo and Tanna which I have just described. But I can assure the House that we are prepared to take all necessary steps to preserve the peace of the New Hebrides as long as we are responsible for it.

Although the precise date has yet to be fixed, we are now embarked on the final stages of the road to independence.

Some anxiety was expressed that attempts might be made by some elements to delay independence. I have no reason to expect that that will be so. The date for independence will be fixed between the French, British and New Hebrides Governments. It is the firm intention that it will take place next year.

Close co-operation between the two metropolitan Governments and the New Hebrides Government is obviously essential if the road to independence is to be traversed smoothly. I am confident that before long the New Hebrides will have achieved independence, and we look forward to welcoming the new State to the international community as a member of the Commonwealth; and, indeed, we hope that it will retain equally close links with the community of French-speaking countries.

But the New Hebrides is a poor country, at least in economic terms. It will continue to need help from reliable friends. Hon. Members will be aware of reports that disreputable foreign business interests, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, have attempted from time to time to encourage separatist movements in the New Hebrides, and, indeed, elsewhere in the Pacific, for their financial gain. We are watching the position closely, but I have no evidence that such business interests were directly involved in the disturbances which took place in Santo after the elections.

As far as British aid is concerned, the House will understand that I am not in a position this afternoon to give precise details of the size of our programme after independence, but it will be generous and commensurate with the needs of the country. I am confident that the French Government, too, will assist the new State.

I believe that the new-found unity in the New Hebrides will be strong enough to overcome the divisive effects of nearly 70years of condominium rule and that the determination of New Hebridean leaders to succeed will result in a viable and democratic independent State.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Five o'clock.