HC Deb 30 June 1981 vol 7 cc801-16

Order for Second Reading read.

The Lord Privy Seal (Sir Ian Gilmour)

I have it in Command from Her Majesty the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Belize Bill, has consented to place Her prerogative and interest, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

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

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

I believe that it would be for the convenience of hon. Members if I were briefly to introduce the Bill and give something of the history leading up to this evening's debate and come back at the end to answer any questions which hon. Members may wish to ask.

As the House knows, the purpose of the Bill is to make provision for the attainment of independence by Belize within the Commonwealth and for connected matters of nationality and the consequential modification of other enactments. I believe that it will commend itself to all parts of the House.

Belize, or British Honduras, as it was formerly known, became a British colony in 1862. However, the history of British connection goes back much further, to settlements established by shipwrecked British sailors in the mid-seventeenth century. These were later augmented by disbanded British soldiers and sailors after the capture of Jamaica in 1665. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the settlement was subject to frequent attack from the surrounding Spanish settlements, but the settlers eventually obtained by treaty the recognition of their rights to engage in the logwood industry.

After the decisive battle of St. George's Cay in 1798, de facto British control was established, leading to full sovereignty. The border with Guatemala was agreed by treaty in 1859, but, as most hon. Members will be aware, Guatemala later reverted to a claim for sovereignty over the whole of Belize on the allegation that we had failed to build a cart road.

The continuing controversy over this has bedevilled our relations with Guatemala and in later years has greatly hindered the constitutional development of Belize. The consequences of this dispute have been that British troops have been garrisoned in Belize for quite some time. Progress has been slow—in fact, non-existent—towards independence. Belize became fully internally self-governing in 1963, and the belief at that time was that it was about to proceed to independence.

However, 18 years have gone by and it is not until tonight that we are able to bring the Bill before the House. Perhaps the only satisfactory consequence of this unhappy delay has been that Belizeans have become adept at managing their own affairs. They have developed a constitution and a political system that are well proven and which will carry them forward into independence as a mature political society.

As hon. Members know, successive Governments have tried to negotiate a settlement of the dispute with Guatemala. Indeed, my predecessor, the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil (Mr. Rowlands), will know all too well how difficult that is. We tried, and for two years we have been engaged in hard negotiations with Guatemala, with Belizean representatives present. We have made it clear throughout those negotiations that we sought a negotiated settlement but that independence could not be delayed for ever and that we would comply with the United Nations resolution that independence would be granted to Belizebefore the end of this year's United Nations General Assembly.

It was, therefore, a great pleasure to us all that we got as far as signing the heads of agreement with Guatemala at Carlton Gardens on 11 March this year. Although those heads of agreement were not a legal treaty, they formed the basis upon which a better relationship could be established between Belize and Guatemala, the Guatemalan claim to Belize territory could be dropped, and various economic and transport co-operative efforts could be launched.

It is still necessary to turn those heads of agreement into a treaty or treaties. The first series of meetings in May succeeded in turning a large bulk of the heads of agreement into treaty language, and the next round will start next Monday between ourselves, the Belizeans and the Guatemalans. I approach next week's talks with the greatest of hope for success. I am sure that if all parties to those negotiations concentrate on their determination to find a solution, we will be able to do so not too long from now.

The points that remain, although tricky and difficult, are not many, and are not of such importance as that of ending the dispute and setting a secure foundation for future progress for Belize.

As hon. Members will know, there was some political turmoil in Belize after the publication of the heads of agreement. I shall not go deeply into that because it is now quiet in that country. But I believe it was to do with the suddenness of the progress made as a result of the heads of agreement and the impending progress towards independence. It was compounded by fears about the security situation after independence as well as by a number of misapprehensions. I hope that it will be possible to assuage those misapprehensions.

The Premier of Belize, Mr. George Price, has provided an opportunity for a referendum on the treaties with Guatemala, if and when they are signed, before independence. All going well, that referendum should take place in August. I believe that that has given those who are worried the opportunity to express their fears in debate and later at the ballot box.

For the first time, therefore, there is now the real prospect of Belize proceeding to independence free from external threat.

The outcome of the forthcoming treaty negotiations with Guatemala will clearly influence the defence provisions that will need to be made. I wish, however, to make it clear now that Her Majesty's Government intend to make arrangements for the future security of Belize which will be appropriate to the circumstances, whatever they may be.

Hon. Members will know that a constitutional conference was held at Marlborough House from 6 to 14 April, at which the principles of the constitution which Belize will take into independence were agreed. The report of the conference was published as Cmnd. 8245. It is a matter for regret that the Belizean Opposition chose not to attend the conference, but the Belizean public had been given ample opportunity to study the Belize Government's proposals before the conference and a number of written submissions from organisations and individuals in Belize were tabled at the conference and taken fully into account. We are satisfied that proper opportunity was given to individuals and groups in Belize freely to express their views on the Belize Government's proposals and thus to play a part in the shaping of the new constitution.

I shall be happy to send any hon. Member a copy of the draft constitution, but I must stress that it is still a draft, as a few amendments are still under discussion with Belizean Ministers who are at present in this country for that purpose. Any amendments made will, of course, be consistent with the report of the constitutional conference.

Mr. Christopher Price (Lewisham, West)

Does the Minister know of any precedent for an independence Bill being brought before the House for all its stages so early in negotiations, before all the details of independence have been settled?

Mr. Ridley

As I said to the hon. Gentleman—and I intended to return to his point—Belize is to receive its independence by the end of this year. It has gone through all the proper stages of a constitutional conference and an opportunity for the House to debate the legislation. There is nothing exceptional about this. It is a perfectly standard way of proceeding. Indeed, Belizeans may well feel that it has been held up for 18 years.

The fact that there is a dispute with Guatemala, which we very much hope will be settled, is something which has been going parallel with Belize's progress to independence since we first embarked upon trying to solve this problem.

Dr. M. S. Miller (East Kilbride)

How can the Minister project his sights into the future and say that Belize will be granted independence before the end of the year when the result of the referendum may produce a state of affairs in which it is not possible to proceed to independence?

Mr. Ridley

Both hon. Members have slightly pre-empted something that I wished to say.

The referendum is not about independence. It is on the question of whether the treaty with Guatemala, if there is one, shall be approved. The implications of that are entirely to do with security. Clearly, the voting in the referendum will have great security implications. Nevertheless, it does not affect independence. As I have said, we have given the Belize Government an undertaking that we shall comply with the United Nations resolution.

The draft constitution contains comprehensive provisions for the protection of fundamental human rights and freedoms that will be especially entrenched and other institutional provisions that will essentially preserve the basic institutions and procedures to which Belizeans are accustomed and which have served Belize well.

Belize will be a constitutional monarchy, with the Queen as Head of State. There will continue to be a bicameral legislature to which the Prime Minister and his Cabinet will be responsible. The electoral system will be founded on universal adult suffrage, and there will be provision for securing the independence of the judiciary and for final appeal in important cases to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council.

I am confident that the constitution will meet with general approval in Belize. The Bill confers power to provide a constitution by Order in Council, the constitution to come into effect on independence day.

Referring to the points made by the two hon. Gentlemen, the Bill is only an enabling Bill. Independence can be granted only by an order made under the Act. It is not our intention to make that order and set a date for independence until the treaties have either been successfully negotiated or perhaps—I very much hope not—have failed, and then, of course, the referendum has to take place. It would be improvident to set a date at this moment until we know precisely when those processes will be complied with.

However, the Belizean Government have high hopes of getting the stages completed quickly, and would like to proceed to independence as soon as may be thereafter. It is likely that the independence date will be during the long Recess. Therefore, it seemed right to present the Bill to the House so that we have power to grant independence to Belize during the recess. Otherwise, there might be an unnecessarily long delay until the Bill could be enacted, perhaps in November.

In any event, as I said, we intend to make sure that independence is granted before the end of the year, but I am sure that the House will agree that it would be a mistake to prejudice our chances of securing an agreement with Guatemala by rushing the independence date before the negotiations are complete.

Mr. Christopher Price

What is the most recent precedent for independence being given by a Bill in this way but made subject to an order?

Mr. Ridley

The country last granted independence by order was St. Vincent, in one of the associated States, under the West Indies Act.

Dr. M. S. Miller

Belize has waited 18 years. Why is it necessary to rush the matter through now, when there is an important hurdle to be overcome in the form of the referendum? Why has this method been chosen? There will be no question of a debate or discussion in Parliament. The order can be laid during the recess. Indeed, I believe that that is the intention. Why could not Belize wait a little longer?

Mr. Ridley

Because the Premier of Belize has high hopes of achieving his independence in September, and he has good reason for wishing to do that. I very much hope that he will succeed. However, before we can be sure of that, we have to complete the treaties and hold the referendum, so I cannot definitely tell the House that that will be possible.

I have explained the problem, and shall do so again if hon. Gentlemen want me to later in the debate. I believe that we should meet the eventuality in a standard form, which is to take an enabling Bill, such as the West Indies Act, and make an order under it when the time is ripe.

I shall not go through the Bill in greater detail. The standard provisions about nationality are contained in the later clauses. The hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) has tabled an amendment to them.

The Bill is a standard independence Bill. I assure the House that there is nothing unusual in its provisions. It only remains for me to wish Belize all good fortune in the future and to say that it has richly deserved its independence after such a long and frustrating delay.

11.5 pm

Mr. Giles Radice (Chester-le-Street)

The Labour Party is strongly in favour of independence for Belize, partly because we are in favour of independence for British dependencies wherever that is a practical possibility and partly because of the strength of the Belizean case.

As hon. Members know, Belize has been self-governing since 1964. It has proved itself an extremely effective and politically stable democracy, with regular and free elections. If the literacy rate is a test of fitness for democracy, Belize has one of the highest in the area. Indeed, it has a 90 per cent. literacy rate. Most importantly, the Government of Belize are strongly in favour of independence and won the November 1979 election on an independence platform. Clearly the Government have a mandate from the electorate for independence.

Independence also has strong support from the international community. There have been several United Nations' resolutions in support of Belize's right to self-determination, independence and territorial integrity. The latest UN resolution was passed on 11 November 1980. It specifically called on Britain—there were seven abstentions but no votes against—to convene a constitutional conference to bring Belize to early independence and at the latest before the end of the 1981 session. Therefore, the UN considers the matter to be urgent.

The constitutional conference has been held successfully. Therefore, I am sure that no hon. Member will stand in the way of Belize's independence. We should warmly. welcome the emergence of a new, independent and democratic nation in Central America. In that area democracy is by no means the norm.

The Minister must answer several questions, some of which have already been raised by Opposition Members. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman may have tried to answer my first question already. What is the timetable? What is the date for independence? Can the Minister keep the September deadline? What is the relationship between independence and settlement with Guatemala? Must settlement come, before independence? What is the relationship between independence and the referendum promised by the Government of George Price? What happens if the referendum turns down the settlement? Does that affect independence?

The Foreign Secretary was ambiguous about this matter when he spoke in the other place on 12 May. I should be grateful if the Minister would clear up the matter. In a sense, the Minister has already answered my next question. Will he confirm that hon. Members will not have another opportunity to debate this subject before independence? The question of nationality arises. Can the Minister guarantee that the Bill will not create any so-called "overseas citizens", as defined by the British Nationality Bill? That Bill has disturbed many Opposition Members. Will the Bill, on independence day, create either citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies or citizens of Belize? We hope that there will not be any third category. We believe that the Under-Secretary of State—the hon. Member for Shoreham (Mr. Luce)—has given that assurance, but we should like to hear it confirmed.

As we all know, and as the Minister remarked, the main reason for the long delay in the achievement of independence has been the long-running dispute with Guatemala. All hon. Members hoped that following the heads of agreement in March we would quickly be able to proceed to a settlement that would guarantee the security of an independent Belize. However, I think I am right in saying that since then the talks have got off to rather a slow start. I believe, indeed, that the negotiating session in London last month had to be cancelled. It would be helpful if the Minister were to make a fuller statement on the current state of negotiations and the problems involved. How far have the Government progressed towards achieving a settlement?

It would also be helpful if the Minister could say something about the security issue. This is obviously crucial to the future of an independent Belize. Given the difference in size and resources and, dare I say, the type of regime between Belize and Guatemala, and given the United Kingdom's obligation to an independent Belize, the Belizeans are entitled to ask for assurances from this country on security.

I underline the support of the Opposition for and our welcome to an independent Belize. We wish it well. However, it is only realistic to accept that it will become independent in a tough and difficult world. It will continue to need assistance from this country, both economically and in terms of security for a considerable time. It is essential that we should pledge our continuing commitment not only in a moral sense but in a practical way to the integrity of an independent Belize.

11.12 pm
Mr. Christopher Murphy (Welwyn and Hatfield)

The road to Belizean independence has been long and tortuous, not least because of the fundamental problems relating to another road—that for carts—which has led to difficulty between Guatemala and Britain in consequence of the 1859 treaty. However, tonight sees an historic step along the way to that final destination, brought about as a result of the determination shown by Her Majesty's Government and by my hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) in particular, as well as that of the people of Belize and their elected representatives.

For some 18 years, the former colony has enjoyed full internal self-government as well as certain delegated responsibility in the conduct of its external affairs. The Bill, when it is enacted, will pave the way for Belize's independence within the Commonwealth. It is a particular source of pleasure that links between Britain and the new nation will thus be maintained and, it is to be hoped, strengthened.

Following the long association of our two countries, the spirit of parliamentary democracy has been inculcated in the political system and the governmental institutions of Belize. This most valuable of assets must be carefully protected in an area unfortunately renowned for dictatorship and violent upheaval. It is vital, therefore, in the transitional period to full nationhood, that the defence of the new State should be safeguarded by British involvement where necessary.

The many great opportunities for an independent Belize are considerable. So, too, are the many great challenges. As the Belizean national anthem, "Land of the Gods", reminds us, this tranquil haven of democracy is one where nature has blessed thee with wealth untold. I am certain that the House will join me in wishing the new nation of Belize every success and good fortune on its coming independence.

11.15 pm
Dr. M. S. Miller (East Kilbride)

It is always a pleasure to welcome another example of decolonisation and to look forward to the birth of another completely independent nation.

As a country that, for many hundreds of years has had colonies, we have obligations towards our colonies. Those obligations do not stop when the process of independence begins. We have to consider the benefits and advantages to the colony in the immediate term after independence and in the longer term, but not with a view to obstructing that path or with an intention of preventing the colony from becoming independent. We must collaborate with the colony to decide the most advantageous moment for the colony to have its independence.

Any benefit to the mother country at this stage should be cast aside. The benefit should accrue to the colony. We should not consider ourselves but other interests in that connection. There must be full agreement with all the people of the country.

The threat from Guatemala has been mentioned. I associate myself entirely with the comments of and the welcome given by my hon. Friend the Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Radice). He also mentioned Guatemala.

The evil of Guatemala's intentions towards Belize is by no means dispelled by the sort of blandishments that Guatemala has been making in recent months, The people of Belize have every right to be suspicious of the intentions of Guatemala upon her borders. The people of Belize also have much justification for their concern that some deals may be being done which are not to the long-term, medium-term or short-term advantage of the country when it becomes independent. I make no judgment on that.

Mr. Ridley

What does the hon. Gentleman mean? Is he suggesting that a country which signs a document containing heads of agreements to bury its claim and to live in peace with its neighbour has a more sinister motive than if it had not done so? Surely he must be aware that the logic of what he is saying is that the treaty, if there is one, or the heads of agreement should be welcomed as a step in the right direction rather than suspected, as he seems to suggest.

Dr. Miller

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has directed my attention to that. I make no judgment on whether the suspicions of the people of Belize are entirely justified. Nevertheless, one has to take cognisance of the experiences that they have had of that type of regime. My hon. Friend, with some diffidence, asked whether he dare mention the type of regime that Guatemala is. We know that it is an unstable, dictatorial regime whose views can change at the whim of the dictatorial power that rules the country.

Mr. Christopher Price

Does my hon. Friend agree that, apart from the instability of Guatemala, which will surely move in the democratic way in which Latin America is almost certain to go in the next few decades, it is one thing to welcome an agreement but another to allow a Bill to pass through all its stages at 11 o'clock at night and to be implemented by an order at the whim of the Government in the middle of the summer holidays?

Dr. Miller

I agree. My hon. Friend anticipates my remarks. It is disconcerting that the Bill should be handled in this way. If it goes through tonight, as it will, that will be the end of it for Parliament. We shall not be able to have a debate or make an amendment. An Order in Council will be laid before Parliament. Neither a negative nor a positive procedure is attached to it. The procedure leaves us impotent. It is hopeless to try to argue further.

There will be a referendum. That is good. However, if the heads of agreement or the treaty proposed by the Belize Government is not accepted by the people of Belize there will be a different ball game. The Minister should explain what the Government's view would be in such a situation.

I do not dispute that independence was an issue in the election less than two years ago. Independence has been an issue in Belize for the past 18 years. Elections have been won on that issue. Everyone in Belize wants independence. However, they are worried about the concessions that the country will have to make so that Britain can shed almost its last remaining colony in the area.

Will the Minister take seriously—I ask no more—the possibility of there being a strong voice in Belize which says "We want independence but we want to be certain that when it is granted it will not be at the expense of parts of our territory which have always been our territory"? They want such an assurance. If the Minister can give that assurance, the controversy surrounding the independence question will be removed and everyone in Belize will welcome it.

11.23 pm.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Windsor and Maidenhead)

I shall be brief and will not weary the House with history. I congratulate the Minister because he has done an enormous amount of work to bring about a solution between Guatemala and Belize.

A resolution by the United Nations puts an obligation on us to give independence. Independence was endorsed by the Belize electorate almost two years ago.

The important thing is that the Bill has been brought forward. The fear expressed by the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Dr. Miller) concerning the security of the people of Belize after independence is the only worry that remains. My hon. Friend made it clear that a British presence will be there as long as is necessary—I think that those were his words. That is the one thing that worries the people of Belize. As long as they know that the British presence will be there—schedule 2 of the Bill clearly says that we shall be allowed to do that—and as long as they know that they will get assistance in other forms from this country, not only will the Bill be implemented but the heads of agreement can be made.

Underlying everything is the continued assistance to Belize from this country, and, even more important, the knowledge that Great Britain and its forces would be behind the people of Belize in the event of any emergency. As long as that is understood, the danger from Guatemala will to a large extent be removed.

I wish my hon. Friend every success in the last part of the negotiations—the finalisation of the heads of agreement or the treaty, whatever it is called—and I hope that he will be able to bring them to a successful conclusion.

11.27 pm
Mr. Edward Rowlands (Merthyr Tydfil)

I declare a four and a half year interest in the problems of Belize in the negotiations with the Guatemalan Government and in the whole dilemma of the desire to achieve independence for Belize and to have a secure future, which lay with a settlement with Guatemala.

During those four and a half years I came to two simple conclusions. The first was that there was no justification in any shape or form for continuing to impede the right of Belize to independence. That was and should be fundamental to our thinking. In that sense, I welcome the Bill, in that it takes the process a stage further forward. There should not be any veto on the development and the process of Belize to independence.

Secondly, I came to the conclusion that the best solution was not only independence for Belize but an agreed settlement with Guatemala. I say that, not because one wants to negotiate with an authoritarian regime or to deal with people who have no sense of democracy but because, given the geographical situation and the circumstances and the arrangements that prevailed at the time, it was desirable and essential for a successful, secure and developing Belize that the longstanding dispute should be resolved by negotiations.

It is in that spirit and by those criteria that I judge the Bill. Genuine questions need to be asked about the context in which the Bill has been brought to the House. My hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride (Dr. Miller) and I have always disagreed on emphasis. His comments implied that the Opposition at the last election were wholeheartedly behind the concept of independence. In fact, they fought the last election on a 10-year moratorium, which in my opinion was virtually the Guatemalan case. I do not support that line. I believe, too, that the Government of Belize and Premier Price gained support for the line he took that, despite all the difficulties, Belize should proceed to independence.

We must therefore ask the simple question whether this Government, with the Belize Government, in their negotiations with Guatemala, have achieved circumstances in which Belize can now proceed to secure independence. In this respect I strongly support the questions by my hon. Friend the Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Radice) about the position. Where do the negotiations stand? The attainment of a secure independence for Belize depends upon an agreement between the Belizean people, the Belizean Government and the Guatemalan Government.

There have always been two sets of negotiations. One set has covered the constitutional processes and has been between the Belizean and British Governments. The Minister has pointed out that that has proceeded in an orderly fashion. There is little to be argued about with the Belize constitution. The second set of negotiations has covered the settlement talks between Belize, Britain and Guatemala in which the hope has been to achieve a common agreement between all three parties on the way in which Belize should proceed to independence and on the way in which the longstanding dispute should be resolved. Where does this tripartite negotiation stand? We read in today's press that talks are beginning in New York next week.

What is the role and function of the referendum in this process? The Belizean Government endorsed the heads of agreement earlier this year. If the three Governments reach agreement on a tripartite basis where will that agreement stand, since the whole issue will be subject to a referendum in Belize? How are all these various activities to be co-ordinated?

Dr. M. S. Miller

Since there is suspicion—and I am not judging whether the suspicion is justified—would it not be better for the referendum to be supervised by an organisation with no vested interest in the area?

Mr. Rowlands

My hon. Friend uses the word "suspicion" in a variety of contexts and circumstances that I have heard many times and with which I disagree. The word is used frequently. There is suspicion about whether Premier Price is selling out the interests of the Belize people. The word is frequently used—I have often come across it in four and a half years—to undermine the authority of Belizean Government in their negotiations. I in no way share the sentiment represented by that word.

I have had dealings with the Opposition in Belize. I could in many respects as easily develop a series of suspicions about them, as I could about the Belize Government. I believe that the referendum in Belize, like the last elections there and like the whole democratic process in that country, will be conducted fairly. There is no need for the United Nations or any third party organisations to become involved. I believe in the Belize democratic processes. They have worked successfully and reasonably over the years.

In many ways one can foster a whole series of worries and suspicions within a small community about what is taking place and what is being negotiated. In a sense Premier Price cleared the decks by saying that there would be a referendum on the agreement between Britain, Guatemala and Belize. What happens—this has been the dilemma of the negotiations for many years—if we promote the independence of Belize—which the Bill does, and the Minister has indicated a time scale which he hopes to achieve—but the arrangements break down, either because the Belize people turn down the heads of agreement or because agreements are not reached in a bilateral context?

The Minister said that the arrangements made for the defence of Belize and the British contribution to that would be appropriate to the circumstances. We do not know what those circumstances will be. In a sense I agree with the points made by some of my hon. Friends, although I am not sure that they made them in the same context as I make them. I passionately believe that Belize should proceed to independence. I passionately believe that the understanding and agreements made in March between the Government, Belize and Guatemala should be followed through with every determination. It is no task of any hon. Member to try to cast deep suspicions on those agreements and understandings. We must uphold them, because they were supported by the three parties concerned.

We must ask ourselves what happens if, somewhere between now and the end of the year, a number of possibilities occur. The Belizeans may turn down the arrangements, or, despite the heads of agreement, the negotiations may break down between the three parties. Will the Government proceed to give Belize independence by September, October or November? More important, will the Government commit themselves to further military support for an independent Belize if an absolute agreement is not achieved? I ask that question because of last week's discussion about defence. I know that the Belize guard ship is intrinsic to the operation. I assume that it will not be phased out under the arrangements made by the Secretary of State for Defence.

I am worried about the role and function of our defence arrangements which have served us well in the past, and not only in a military capacity. When Belize was bowled over by a terrible hurricane a decade ago the modest naval presence in that area helped to solve the problems. Where do Belize, the negotiations, the commitments and the guarantees that we need to give to the Belize people stand in the combination of all those factors?

We should give Belize independence. We should support Belize, which has asked for independence. That independence is passionately supported by the international community. There can be no Guatemalan veto on those proceedings. The successful negotiating position of the Minister has pushed forward the proceedings. I hope and wish that we shall achieve a successful settlement between the three parties. The Bill has been introduced, rightly and understandably, before the negotiations have been successfully concluded. That being so, we are entitled to ask what will happen if there are not merely hitches but fundamental breaches in the agreement during the coming months.

11.40 pm
Mr. Christopher Price (Lewisham, West)

I have never been to Belize and I am no relation of the Prime Minister of Belize. I give a warm welcome to the Bill. I believe in the decolonialisation of Central and Latin America generally. If Belize has problems with Guatemala, I think that Guatemala will emerge from its present position into that of Nicaragua and many other states in Central America and will tread the path of a genuine democracy.

It is wrong in principle to complete all the stages of a Bill in one night, and especially at this hour of the night, whatever the Bill. That must be so on purely constitutional grounds. I realise that the Minister has been furnished with dozens of precedents by Labour Governments. I agree that it has been the habit of the house to push through Bills of this sort in one night. However, it is wrong. Back Benchers who are not privy to the Front Bench mafia are right to say that now and again.

The principle of a decent gap between Second Reading and Report, during which the arguments advanced on Second Reading may be reflected upon and amendments tabled for Report, is a perfectly good one. That has nothing to do with parties or Governments. Whenever the present procedure is adopted, it is right that a Back Bencher like myself, someone who has never tasted the fruits of Government, whatever they may be—

Mr. Bob Dunn (Dartford)

And is never likely to.

Mr. Price

—should say that it is wrong, especially in the presence of such learned ex-clerks on the PPS Bench as the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mr. Rhodes James), who know so much more about these principles than I do. I should add that that is meant to be a compliment.

My second reservation is one that I make with even more fervour. When bringing independence Bills before the House, it is wrong to say that we should have independence first and negotiations later. I know that-the example of St. Vincent has been brought forward and I am sure that the Minister has been furnished with dozens of precedents.

Mr. Rowlands

Such as Zimbabwe.

Mr. Price

Indeed. I am sure that there are many others. The House has indulged in the procedure on many occasions. It has said "We hope so much that this country will go independent that we will give it its independence notwithstanding that everything depends on Government negotiations." In constitutional terms it is wrong. It is incumbent upon the Government first to negotiate independence and to come to the House secondly.

I am not against the decent collusion that takes place between the Front Benches. I know that a Government have to get their business through and that Whips and others have to collaborate to get the business through. Nevertheless, it is improper when dealing with independence Bills, which could have an important effect on the future of not only the individual country but the countries around it, to engage in negotiations and to come to the House thereafter.

It is all very well saying "We can put an order through in the hols", which is fundamentally what the Minister is saying—"Let's get it through and then, some time between the Labour Party and Conservative Party conferences, at the turn of September into October, the matter can all be settled by an order in council." That is not how it should be done.

The process of decolonialisation should be rather more orderly than the process of colonialisation. This is not an orderly process. It is subject to accident of a kind that we might be sorry about later. I very much hope that we shall not be, and that the whole matter will go smoothly. I have good hopes that it will, but there is a principle here that we should get right, and we have not got it right on this occasion.

My next point concerns the assurances that have been given. It is right that, in the act of decolonialising, Britain should give certain assurances about the immediate aftermath to the countries that are achieving their independence. One of the most recent independence measures to pass through the House was the New Hebrides Act 1980. It was necessary for this country to intervene militarily to achieve independence. It could not have been achieved had not the Royal Marines been sent in to what is now Vanuatu. It was logistically possible for that to be done because we had friendly relations with Australia and other countries round about.

I suspect that in the case of Belize, once it has independence, it may be slightly more difficult logistically if military intervention is necessary. I am deeply opposed to such action, but if one is to give assurances there must be some guarantee that one can deliver what one has promised. Therefore, the Minister has a duty to say a little more about what promises we have given to Belize and the degree to which we believe we can deliver.

I shall say a little more about my next point when I speak to my amendment. I am very grateful that it has been selected, although it is starred. In my experience, the Home Office has had a slightly heavier hand than the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has had on all the independence Bills to come before the House in the past decade. The small print in this Bill, all about grandfathers and grandmothers, who is legitimate and who is illegitimate, and so on, is nothing to do with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I acquit the Minister of having any contact with those parts of the Bill, which are to do with those principles that the Home Office, no doubt unrepresented by the functionaries attending the debate, has insisted on going into the Bill because it is the first independence Bill to be introduced during the passage of the British Nationality Bill.

Throughout the Bill one sees the words "British Nationality Act 1981". It is worth reminding ourselves that there is no such thing yet, although the coincidence of the Royal Assents may be such that the Government get it right in the end.

There is a reference to the British Nationality Act 1981. I understand that there are plenty of precedents for that in parliamentary history and, therefore, one allows such things through. However, this is simply a reminder that it is all very well with this anticipatory legislation, hoping that the British Nationality Bill will go through, but there is many a slip 'twixt cup and lip. Sometimes those things do not happen. We may be put in the ludicrous situation of passing a Bill which refers to an Act which does not exist. We should proceed in an orderly rather than a disorderly manner in the passing of such Acts and make sure that we do not pass an Act of Parliament referring to one Act of Parliament until that Act of Parliament is on the statue book. I shall reserve the points which I want to make about the heavy-handed—

Mr. Rowlands

I am glad that my hon. Friend has drawn the Minister's attention to the fact that this matter comes under the clause entitled "Operation of existing law".

Mr. Price

My hon. Friend is absolutely right.

I have tabled a modest amendment to the Bill to put down a marker. One could have put down about 150,000 amendments to the Bill and kept the debate going a tiny bit longer. Because this is the first independence Bill to go through during the passage of the British Nationality Bill, and knowing that there will be future independence Bills, particularly the Hong Kong Bill to come one day, it is important to ensure that the Government are aware that nothing in the Bill will be taken by the Opposition. I hope, as a totally irrevocable precedent for what goes in future Bills. It needs a nationality Bill lawyer of the sort of which I am not, to go through the provisions of the Bill and check whether they are at one with the principles we want in a nationality Bill. I believe that we shall come to that point later during our modest Committee stage.

I give a warm welcome to the principle of independence but not nearly such a warm welcome to the method the Government have chosen. I would have been just as critical of my own Government as of this Government, as I have been in the past on independence Bills. The twin points of putting a Bill through all its stages in the same day and putting a paving Bill with an order to create independence are wrong in principle, because that could land the House in an extremely difficult, and possibly ludicrous situation later, if everything crumbles in Premier Price's hands, which I earnestly hope it will not.

Mr. Ridley

With the leave of the House, I shall reply to the many points which have been raised in the debate.

I welcome what all hon. Members have said about their hopes for the future of Belize and their good wishes upon its impending progress towards independence. I am glad that not one hon. Member dissented from those sentiments. I am sure that the House will wish to echo the words of my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn and Hatfield (Mr. Murphy) that we must do all that we can to ensure the protection of this new democracy as it travels to independence in a turbulent and difficult region not known for its democratic tendencies.

I was asked many questions. I shall deal first with those not connected with the points raised by the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street (Mr. Radice) before turning to the substance of the main questions.

I do not believe that the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) can make too much of the fact that all stages of the Bill are being taken tonight. The hon. Gentleman has had ample opportunity to table amendments and has done so. It is a common practice for Bills of this nature. There is no curtailment of debate or of democratic opportunities to amend. Had the Opposition found this procedure inconvenient, they could have discussed it with my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. But it is not without advantage that we can debate these problems at our leisure without feeling that we are holding up discussion on any other measure on the Order Paper.

The hon. Gentleman said that it was wrong to grant independence by order. Had the Bill contained a date for independence, that presumably would have met his point. I should be happy to have the House recommend, perhaps in September, by which time I might be able to insert the date in the Bill. It is for hon. Gentlemens' convenience that we debate it now rather than during the recess.

There is no difference between the two procedures. We can debate it now and the date will be announced as soon as we can be sure of it, or we can debate it later with the date in the Bill. There is no basic difference in procedure or democracy in either of those two ways of proceeding. The principle of the Bill is to grant independence. The exact nature of the date is a matter of fine tuning.

I must tell my hon. Friend the Member for Windsor and Maidenhead (Dr. Glyn) that in no sense did the United Nations compel us to give independence to Belize. A resolution was moved in the United Nations General Assembly that Belize should receive independence by the end of this year, and we thought it right that that should happen. We put our names to that resolution with the full intention of complying with it, and we still believe that we shall and can. However, it was not because of that pressure alone, but because we associated ourselves with that intention and we still do.

Dr. Glyn

I am sorry if I gave my hon. Friend the wrong impression, but I understood that we were morally bound to carry out what we had agreed to do.

Mr. Ridley

I never like the word "morally". We are perhaps bound in honour, and we are certainly bound to try hard, but I do not know how I would interpret "morally" in that context.

I come to the main questions touched on by hon. Members. I begin with the question about negotiations with Guatemala. I had hoped that we might have concluded the treaty by this time. It is still my sincere hope and expectation that we can do so very soon, perhaps next week—who knows. We shall certainly enter those negotiations, as I believe will all parties, in the spirit that we must finish them quickly.

I must point out that we accepted the obligation to take Belize to independence under the United Nations resolution irrespective of whether there was an agreement or not. Therefore, if there is no agreement, it must be that in due course we take Belize to independence.

Hon. Members have asked about the referendum. The internal self-governing State of Belize is able to decide whether to have a referendum, what question to ask and how to organise it and we have no power at all to influence that decision. The decision to hold a referendum was therefore not one about which the British Government were consulted, nor do we have any say, either in law or in any other way, about whether it is held.

As the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydfil (Mr. Rowlands) rightly pointed out, it is a referendum on a treaty which is ostensibly between Britain and Guatemala, although the referendum is to be held in Belize. It is therefore an internal matter for them. If the Belizeans vote "Yes" in the referendum, the sooner that is done, the sooner we may proceed to independence without any trouble. As the whole House would agree, that would clearly be the ideal course.

If the Belizeans voted "No" in the referendum, that would be their affair. They decided to have a referendum and they will have made the decision that there should not be such an agreement. I cannot honestly be sure what the consequences of that would be. I think that it would be grievously difficult to predict how various countries around the world would react to that situation. Nevertheless, that is the business of Belize, because we have given an undertaking that we shall take Belize to independence by the end of the year, whatever happens. As it has asked for that independence, we shall pursue it in the way that I have stated.

Mr. Rowlands

I am trying to follow the Minister's presentation. If the Belizeans say "No" to an agreement struck between the British and Guatemalan Governments, will that agreement then be in force?

Mr. Ridley

It would be difficult to conceive of an agreement between Britain and Guatemala, if it were rejected by Belize, having any chance of being in force when Belize goes independent, because nearly all the provisions of the agreement relate to Belizean territory. I therefore cannot see how that could be. If the Belizeans prefer to go to independence without a treaty, that is their decision. I think that all hon. Members would agree that to do that would be to proceed upon a reckless and unnecessarily dangerous course.

That brings me to the question of security. I repeat what I said, as hon. Members were interested in my words. Her Majesty's Government intend to make arrangements for the future security of Belize which will be appropriate in the circumstances, whatever they may be.

There are three possible sets of circumstances. The first is that a treaty is approved by the referendum in Belize and also in Guatemala, as it must be, because the Guatemalans too, have to go thorough constitutional processes. Belize will then proceed to independence in an atmosphere of mutual friendship, trust and peace. In that case, we shall take whatever precautions are necessary to secure the situation.

Others will be doing the same, of course. Belize will be a member of the United Nations and of the Organisation of American States. It will be guaranteed by the Rio treaty, which provides that if any one member of the Organisation of American States is threatened or attacked all the other members are bound to come to its assistance. That itself is a strong guarantee. As I have said, we shall add whatever we believe to be necessary to that.

If the negotiations break down, we have already said that we would see Belize right, and the formula that I have applied still stands, because that was the original undertaking that we gave to the Belizeans when we set out on the negotiation.

Of course, the third set of circumstances is that the treaty is agreed but not ratified by the referendum in Belize. In that case, I suggest, it would be an extremely perilous independence, because who can guarantee security in an area like South America, with a rejected Guatemala and all sorts of other people trying to get in on the Act? At a time like that, the danger would be great indeed, and I have told the Belizeans that the reaction of the United Kingdom Parliament and Government must not be taken for granted in those circumstances. I hope that that clears up the position.

Dr. M. S. Miller

It may clear up the position in the Government's mind, but it somewhat confuses the people of Belize. They are to be presented with a dangerous situation. They are to be made an offer that they cannot refuse, which is not the way to conduct democratic affairs.

Mr. Ridley

It is right to make offers of peace that people find difficult to refuse. A treaty of friendship with a powerful and hostile neighbour is not an offer that anybody should refuse or that people would forgive if it were easily refused. It is a matter of great importance. The idea that Belize could wantonly reject a treaty of friendship with its neighbour and expect there to be no consequence would strike anyone who knows Central America as unwise.

Finally, the hon. Member for Chester-le-Street asked me about the state of the negotiations. We believe that about 80 per cent. of the ground has been covered and agreed. I admit that some difficult problems remain. I could go into them, but it would be better not to pre-empt the last bits of the negotiation. They relate to the sea—the treatment of certain areas of sea passages, the use of certain uninhabited keys off the coast of Belize and various other matters to do with that. However, important though they are, they are not life and death matters compared with the enormous importance of burying the claim and allowing Belize to proceed to independence which the whole House hopes will be happy, prosperous and peaceful, without its neighbour claiming it.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Le Marchant.]

Bill immediately considered in Committee.


Clauses 1 and 2 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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