HC Deb 22 November 1979 vol 974 cc560-2
Miss Joan Lestor

(by private notice) asked the Lord Privy Seal if he will make a statement on the situation of the island of Santo in the New Hebrides.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

There have been a number of instances of intimidation of the population in Santo town by supporters of the Na Griamel movement. This movement is opposed to the Vanuaaku Party, which won a two-thirds majority in the National Representative Assembly elections on 14 November.

Events in Santo are being kept under constant review, and the British resident commissioner, accompanied by his deputy and the French deputy resident commissioner, have flown to Santo to assess the situation personally.

Our latest information is that the situation is now quieter, but that further threats to law and order cannot be entirely discounted. A joint force of two platoons of the local police mobile unit is on standby in Vila to fly to Santo should the situation demand it.

Miss Lestor

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Will he give an assurance to the House that the arrangements that are being made, should there be any further outbreaks, are satisfactory to stop a UDI taking place, which would inhibit the path to independence that had already been agreed and that is possibly one of the reasons why the disturbances have taken place? What contact has he with the French to ensure that we are working closely together in the administration of the New Hebrides until independence takes place next year?

Mr. Ridley

The current opinion of the British and the French resident commissioners is that the situation is containable. If we receive evidence to the contrary from them we shall take further action. However, it is the intention of Her Majesty's Government that the whole of the group of islands should proceed to independence in acordance with the plans already made.

Mr. Christopher Price

Will the Minister accept that according to the information that I have received by telephone very recently the situation is much worse than that which he has given the House to believe? Is he aware that the leader of the insurrection in Santo, who lost the general election and is backed by American money emanating from Vesco, wants to set up a gambling haven on that island? Is he further aware that there are reports that the French are unwilling for the police force to be used because their own nationals—their own colons—are involved in the insurrection? Will he give us an assurance that if the situation demanded it a mounted, mobile police unit in Vila would be used to help put down the insurrection, and that we should not stand by and allow UDI to take place?

Mr. Ridley

My information is as recent as, and perhaps even more reliable than, the hon. Gentleman's. I give him the assurance that the mobile police force will be used if, in the opinion of those resident and responsible in the New Hebrides, it is required. We shall go further than that if events prove that further action is necessary.

Mr. Roper

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the British Churches that have links with the Churches in the New Hebrides have heard disturbing reports in the past 24 hours and are anxious that the Government and the French Government take every step to bring the matter under control again? Is he satisfied that two platoons of mobile police are adequate to deal with what seems to be a deteriorating situation?

Mr. Ridley

At present it is not evident that even the two mobile platoons of police are required to maintain law and order. However, if they are required, they will be sent. If they are inadequate, further forces will be sent.

Mr. Shore

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that it is unacceptable to us all on both sides of the House that the results of a recent election should be sought to be set aside by the losing party? Will he make that entirely plain? Will he assure the House that in this territory, among the most unusual of all our possessions, our partners, the French, are seeing totally eye to eye with us and are co-operating to the full in restoring law and order?

Mr. Ridley

I entirely support the right hon. Gentleman's view that the supremacy of the decision of the electorate should always be adhered to. I assure him that we are working closely with the French and that the decisions on the ground will be taken, as they have to be, by joint agreement between ourselves and the French. It is my information that there is no reason why that should call in question the action necessary to maintain law and order in Santo.

Mr. Speaker

Business Question.

Mr. Cryer

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I take points of order after the Business Question.