HC Deb 06 February 1981 vol 998 cc509-13 9.35 am
Lord James Douglas-Hamilton (Edinburgh, West)

On 9 December last year the House passed a resolution praying that Her Majesty give directions for the presentation, on behalf of this House, of a gift of a clock and gavel set to the Parliament of St. Lucia. The House passed a similar resolution at the same time that there be presented on behalf of this House a gift of a Speaker's Chair to the House of Assembly of Dominica. Following these resolutions on 13 January my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House moved that the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Dean), myself and Mr. John Sweetman, a Clerk of the House, be given leave of absence to present these gifts on its behalf.

I have to report that these tasks were accomplished. It was my good fortune to travel with two most cheerful and amiable companions. We were very grateful to be assisted in our arrangements by the British representatives, Mr. David Hallett and Miss Mary Maxwell. At both islands we were very warmly welcomed, each island having a charm and character of its own. At St. Lucia we arrived in the early hours of the morning and were met by the Speaker, Mr. Clarence Rambally. He explained to us at once exactly what it was like when St. Lucia was hit by the first hurricane for 100 years, on 3 August last year. He told us that he was sitting in his home while the hurricane roared round about when suddenly he felt a rush of water on to his head. He looked up and saw that the roof of his house had blown off into the middle of the nearby road. This was a common occurrence, and it was learnt early the next morning that the hurricane had left its mark on the island, when it was noticed that all electrical power had failed, communications were disrupted and the principal export, the banana crop, was almost totally destroyed. Moreover, schools and buildings had been left roofless, the hospital was badly damaged, trees had been uprooted, and roads were blocked with debris everywhere. In the wake of the hurricane there fell in the island an awful quietness.

It was against that background that we carried out of the instructions of the House, delivered Mr. Speaker's message of good will, and presented the clock and gavel set to the Parliament of St. Lucia. We made it clear that the gift was a symbol of the parliamentary tradition cherished by the people of our countries, marking the attainment of full independence by St. Lucia within the British Commonwealth, and that we brought from the House of Commons our best wishes for that country's well-being and future prosperity.

I reminded the people of St. Lucia of the gift that they gave to this House in 1950 to mark the occasion when this Chamber was reopened after being bombed in the war, and that we were grateful not only for their generosity but for the fact that their gift was in recognition of the fact that our Parliament and the freedoms that it has protected for centuries had to be fought for so that, as President Lincoln put it: government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth. My colleague the hon. Member for Leeds, West drew to their attention the importance and value of maintaining the rights and freedoms of Oppositions, and we handed over the keys.

I think that I have a duty to report to the House on the effect of the hurricanes. I would mention that both the Prime Minister—

Mr. Arthur Lewis (Newham, North-West)

The hon. Gentleman is taking too much time.

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is customary to listen to these speeches in silence, because of the House's gratitude to hon, Members who have undertaken a task on our behalf.

Mr. Lewis

Like you, Mr. Speaker, I have been here long enough to know this. I have heard it for the last 36 years. I was commenting upon the length of the expression of thanks, which is not usual, particularly on a private Members' day.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman is not usually guilty of such discourtesy.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton

I was not intending to say this, but I think that the hon. Gentleman makes it compulsory for me to do so. The reason why I feel that I have a duty to cover this matter fully is that this was the first occasion on which the House paid the expenses, because the effect of the hurricanes on the islands was so great. I explain that only because the hon. Gentleman pressed me for a reason for reporting to the House.

Both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition thanked us for the gifts, and my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office was there as the visiting Minister. He was publicly thanked for the amount of aid given by the Foreign Office. Indeed, the day after the hurricane, HMS "Glasgow" appeared at St. Lucia and spent days there providing medical assistance, landing stores and helping to restore services. Mr. Hallett, the British representative, was also extremely active.

Both before and after the ceremony we were shown the island and were given a tremendous welcome by all concerned. After two and a half days we were extremely sorry to leave.

We were grateful for the marvellous welcome that we received on the island of Dominica, where the Speaker, Miss Mary Davies-Pierre met us, and to whom, Mr. Speaker, we gave your greetings. It was apparent to us at once that Dominica had sustained the double misfortune of having had two hurricanes in rapid succession—hurricanes "David" and "Allen".

For 50 years Dominica had had no hurricanes at all, but on 29 August 1979 hurricane "David" struck with an almost unbelievable savagery for six and a half hours. Within a few hours, gusts of wind of up to 200 mph rendered homeless about 60,000 persons—the vast preponderance of the island's population. As well as that, at least 40 persons lost their lives and countless others were wounded by flying debris. The fields were set alight by forked lighting, the howling winds flattened the banana crop, the island's principal export, and parts of the island's roads ceased to exist. It was as though a huge blowlamp had gone over the island, scorching and scouring the countryside.

As for personal belongings, such as documents of ownership of houses, books, or anything of that nature, the storm that followed the winds ruined much of what was left. All communications with the outside world ceased until a ship was seen on the horizon. It was HMS "Fife", and through it medical facilities were provided and stores unloaded, and donors quickly responded.

As we drove towards the Parliament we could see the appalling after-effects of the cyclone. We were impressed by the remarkable spirit of cheerfulness and indomitable resolve, in the face of adversity, shown by the islanders.

Next day we completed the ceremony of handing over the Speaker's Chair, made of oak. The ceremony was impressive, and we felt that we were in the presence of a strongly established Parliament, whose procedures were followed exactly. The gift of the House was well received and the Speaker, acting with great dignity, was visibly moved when she occupied the Chair. A formal motion of thanks was passed by the House.

The Prime Minister, Miss Eugenia Charles, thanked both of us and presented a gift to the House of Commons, which, Mr. Speaker, has been conveyed to you. She made it clear that she also appreciated the visit of the Minister a few hours before—my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley)—and we were informed that, following both hurricanes, the Royal Engineers had performed an invaluable function by restoring the electricity system, mending many of the roads and repairing the schools and clinics, as well as restoring some of the shore fortifications. They were fortifications not against humans but against what the islanders described as the "fury of nature's wrath".

I am told that the Royal Engineers were not only extremely effective but very popular. It was made clear to us that an official request had been made for their return. I hope that that request will be given urgent and sympathetic consideration.

We were shown around the island and given a tremendous welcome, but the highlight occurred when the Prime Minister asked us to a party in her own house, in the home in which she had sheltered 150 people during the hurricane. She went out of her way to show us good hospitality.

It was a great honour for us to be asked to visit these two countries, with which the United Kingdom has had long ties through history, culture, trade and, above all, ties involving affection and respect. I hope that the friendship between our country and St. Lucia and Dominica will endure.

9.45 am
Mr. Joseph Dean (Leeds, West)

I am aware that the House wishes to move rapidly to other business, and I shall therefore limit my remarks.

I support what was said by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton), who led the delegation extremely well. We were warmly received on both the islands. Your own personal letter, Mr. Speaker, to both the islands' Speakers were read and valued greatly. They expressed nothing but friendship for this country, which was also reflected in the fact that they had adopted our procedures as their form of democracy within the Commonwealth.

The visit gave me a chance to see a part of life which I thought did not exist. Had my colleagues who are a little impatient seen some of the devastation on Dominica they would have realised that people have never had to exist in such squalor. The island was literally destroyed in six hours.

The people told us of 200-year-old coconut trees—their basic crop—being smashed. They will never grow again. Nevertheless, the people are tackling the job of rebuilding with the utmost vigour. They said that for the first few months they were almost punchdrunk by what had hit them.

I am sorry that because of the economic situation successive Governments have been unable to indulge in an expanding aid programme for this type of area. When we begin to recover from the world-wide recession—when our economic recovery gets under way—I hope that we can give the highest priority to such places, where we governed for a long time. That is the best message that could go from the House and the Government.

The islanders are certainly pro-British. They intend to protect their democracy. I have nothing but praise for the way in which they are conducting themselves within the type of democracy that we have shown to them. I was pleased, and felt privileged, to see what was happening in St. Lucia and Dominica. On both islands we met young people from this country, from various Government agencies, who were playing important roles in the rehabilitation of the forests and activities of that type. That is a commendable export, which shows results.

I do not want to be political, but I should point out that the islanders are worried because, as a result of present economic policies, their youngsters, who used to get the benefits of our university education, are finding it increasingly difficult to do so and are forced to go elsewhere. We would do well to take note of that fact when considering our future policy. If the children are educated in other places they may well start to turn away from us. The whole House would be saddened by such an event.

I support all that was said by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West. I was privileged and pleased to be able to represent the House on such an historic occasion.

Mr. Speaker

The House will be deeply grateful to both hon. Members for the way in which they have carried out the duty that we entrusted to them and also for the way in which they have expressed their experiences. I shall see that the resolution of the National Assembly—

Mr. Arthur Lewis

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am in the middle of addressing the House. I shall see that the resolution of the National Assembly of Dominica is entered upon the Journals of the House.

Mr. Lewis

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Before you do that, I should point out that some hon. Members may wish to oppose. I am not opposing. However, I would have thought that the Chair would listen to any opposition, if opposition there may be. I rise to support the motion—

Mr. Speaker

Order. There is no motion before the House. I have put no Question; I have merely expressed the gratitude of the House to the two hon. Members.

Mr. Lewis

A motion is a matter that is under discussion, and we are now discussing a vote of appreciation and thanks. I am not against that. However, I should like my comments on the record, as some of my hon. Friends may not appreciate the reason for my objection. I am not objecting to what was said, or to the manner in which it was said. Like you, Mr. Speaker, I have been a Member of this House for 36 years. I am one of only two. I have been present for most of these tributes. I am the only Back Bencher who can comment, because other hon. Members do not know as much.

This matter should have been debated in Government time, as is the usual custom. The main business of the House is a Bill on which 20 or 30 Members may wish to speak. The Government deliberately arranged for the matter with which we have just dealt to come on a Friday—in private Members' time. They will subsequently unofficially impose a Whip and kill the Bill that we are now to debate. That is an abuse of the procedures of the House. I attack the Government for trying to waste private Members' time.

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