HC Deb 05 July 1983 vol 45 cc255-60

11.9 pm

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

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

I wish to make the case for a council of the British dependent territories. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr. Whitney) on his elevation to the Front Bench and wish to say how pleased his many friends were on his appointment to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. We shall all benefit from his long experience and knowledge of the subject.

The United Kingdom's dependent territories are many. They are of different shapes and sizes and have different locations. They include, for example, Bermuda with a population of 54,670 — according to the excellent publication, Whitaker—the British Virgin Islands with a population of 12,034; the Falkland Islands with a peacetime population of 1,813, and its dependencies; Gibraltar with a population of 29,648; the Pitcairn Islands with a population of only 54; St. Helena with 5,147, and its dependencies, including Ascension Island with a population of 1,051; Tristan da Cunha with 295; the Cayman Islands with 17,955; Montserrat with 12,073. In addition we must consider the Turks and Caicos Islands with 7,436; St. Kitts with 35,000; Nevis with 9,300 and Anguilla with 7,000. The status of those islands may be resolved so that they cease to be dependent territories. The United Kingdom is also responsible for a number of uninhabited territories throughout the world.

Leaving aside Hong Kong, with its large population of 5 million or more, these territories, most of which could not expect to be and would not want to be independent, involve a total population of about 130,000.

We must ask what we should do with them. One extreme possibility is to abandon them all to the United nations and for the United Kingdom to retreat and have nothing more to do with its overseas posessions, acquired centuries ago and, which in many cases, are still the homes of many British people. The territories have a great strategic, historic and economic importance to the free world. It would be unthinkable for us to abandon them.

The difficulty is that, apart from times of crisis, we tend to neglect our dependent territories. We know about the Falklands because of the war. A considerable sum is being spent there to develop them economically and to defend them. Gibraltar, a bastion of the free world, has its difficulties because of the claim to it by Spain, its economic difficulties, and especially the question whether the proposed commercial dockyard there is an adequate economic substitute for the naval dockyard that the Government wish to close. Without islands such as St. Helena and Ascension we could not have mounted successfully the operation to liberate the Falkland Islands.

Before the Second World War we tended to neglect our territories. After the war, when I joined the colonial service, there was a Colonial Office which as a Department of State had its own Question Time. Attention was given to the colonial empire. Most of the members of that empire have achieved independence and statehood. The affairs of our dependent territories are now looked after by a few comparatively junior officials in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and there is scarcely any sustained interest in Parliament. There are fewer dependent territories today, but those remaining are of great strategic value and we must look to their development.

Hundreds of British troops died for our right to be in the Falklands. We are now developing real interests there. The question is: could a similar crisis occur elsewhere? So many of the territories are strategically exposed. They contain undeveloped resources and often have uncertain political conditions. We need to raise the level of knowledge and understanding about our dependent territories and their participation with us in a permanent association between the United Kingdom and its territories overseas.

I was fortunate in being able to initiate a debate on 15 April, when I suggested that elected representatives should be provided from each of our dependent territories to sit in a reformed House of Lords, thereby giving those territories permanent representation in this legislature. I also suggested that we should decolonise those territories and integrate them within the concept of the United Kingdom. We should make all their inhabitants British citizens, just as all inhabitants of Gibraltar and the Falklands are British citizens. There are comparatively few people remaining who are British dependent territory citizens apart from the inhabitants of Hong Kong.

I ask the Government to institute some permanent agency in London to serve as a forum for discussion, as a meeting place for inhabitants from the dependent territories and as an information centre. It would provide for the dependent territories what the Commonwealth Secretariat General now provides for the independent states of the Commonwealth. Perhaps it could be modelled on the Commonwealth Institute, which serves the independent Commonwealth.

There is a building not far from this place, an international conference centre in Broad Sanctury, that is huge and is to be devoted to conferences involving many foreign states. If we can provide that for foreign states, surely we can do much more for our own people. Within that building we could accommodate some sort of institution and a meeting place for a council of the British dependent territories, possibly with its own secretary general.

At the same time we should surely have a Select Committee to keep all developments in the British dependent territories under review and to issue periodic reports on their welfare. There are many problems to consider—for example, the Gibraltar dockyard and the future of the Falklands.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister can tell me what is happening about the status of students from dependent territories with respect to the payment of fees at British universities. My hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Mr. Fallon) has been pursuing that point. It is ridiculous to charge those students what we charge students from foreign countries, especially as students from the European Community, including those from the French territories of Guadalupe and Martinique, are regarded as home students for the purpose of fees. The position of Hong Kong is different, but surely it should be possible for students from our dependent territories to be treated as home students in this country when attending universities, whether de jure or de facto. I do not mind how it is done, but it should be done.

A new arrangement for the dependent territories would be welcomed in the territories concerned, especially in the larger ones and in Gibraltar and the Falklands. In the others, the welcome would perhaps be more muted because, as a former colonial officer, I know that local administrations will not be anxious to support anything which they believe does not have the approval of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, and colonies, being by nature undemocratic, will not be anxious to add their voice of encouragement to my plea. But wittingly or unwittingly, more than 100,000 people have committed themselves to our charge without the privileges and pleasures of being British citizens resident in this country. We owe it to them to make that connection worthwhile, to defend them against attack, to stimulate their economic and social development, but above all to show them that we care about them. I believe that the provision of a single institution embracing them all would be a good way to start that process.

11.22 pm
Mr. Michael Morris (Northampton, South)

I associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) and point out to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary that this is a pincer movement from these cloisters.

I hope that the Under-Secretary will 'De able to offer the review to my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington and I draw his attention to the four countries — The Maldives, St. Vincent, Nauru and Tuvalu — that are special members of the Commonwealth. In a sense they are analogous to the dependent territories; they are not totally dependent on us, but they are certainly related to us. If there is to be a review and further arragnements are to be made, someone should consider what is to be a meaningful special status within the Commonwealth.

11.23 pm
Mr. Tom Arnold (Hazel Grove)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) for allowing me to participate in his Adjournment debate.

Our country has nothing to apologise for in our record on decolonisation. I share my hon. Friend's views about the need to strengthen the relations between our remaining dependent territories and the House, so long as those territories wish to be associated with the United Kingdom in their present form. I strongly believe in the right of self-determination and always have done, bur, to the extent that the populations of the territories to which my hon. Friend referred wish to remain part of the present constitutional arrangements, they should be allowed to do so.

The Government should note that, in the aftermath of the Falklands war, the House will be concerned about—and will keep a close watch over—all the activities in the dependent territories and, indeed, at the United Nations. I have no doubt that, at the general assembly this autumn, the United Kingdom will find itself pilloried, as is frequently the case, in the decolonisation committee on its attitude towards some of the dependent territories. That is why I believe that my hon. Friend is right to raise this issue.

The Government will face a tricky battle at the United Nations, because there will be a concerted effort once again by the Latin American countries to put Great Britain in the dock over the Falkland Islands. It would be as well for the Government to assure the House and the country in advance of the debates that will take place in the autumn —debates that we shall undoubtedly lose in terms of the substantive resolution—that there will be no backsliding on this issue.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be able to give an assurance that our permanent representative in New York will fight hard to ensure that our case is properly put forward.

I also associate myself with the sentiments expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington.

11.25 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Ray Whitney)

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) for his generous remarks and kind welcome and for the opportunity to break my duck at the Dispatch Box from such kind bowling as he provided, with able support bowling from my hon. Friends the Members for Hazel Grove (Mr. Arnold) and for Northampton, South (Mr. Morris).

It is a pleasure to speak on this subject in a debate opened by my hon. Friend, who has long experience in British territories overseas, parts of which are now the Commonwealth, and who has consistently shown deep concern for dependent territories and Commonwealth countries. It is also a pleasure to return to a subject which was given a good airing—also on the initiative of the hon. Member for Orpington—on 15 April.

I listened with great interest to the proposition which has been put before the House tonight — that of a council for the dependent territories—and I am happy to give my hon. Friends the assurance that we will study carefully the suggestions that have been made and consider what our reactions should be to them. In the time available tonight I can offer only a brief response and what must inevitably be a preliminary reaction.

I must make it clear at the outset that we do not think that the dependent territories as a whole are quite as neglected as the hon. Member for Orpington suggested. There are regular, practically day-to-day, contacts with those territories at a number of levels. Many leaders of opinion in the dependent territories are frequent visitors to London; they have discussions with Ministers at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, with the Minister of State at the Overseas Development Administration and with ODA officials.

Representatives of the dependencies are increasingly attending a wide variety of international conferences and many dependencies are members of a number of international and regional organisations. Some territories, such as Hong Kong, Bermuda, the Caymans and the Falkland Islands, already have their own offices in London. Some, like St. Helena and the Virgin Islands, have their own representatives in this country, and others are represented here by the Eastern Caribbean Commission or the West India Committee. Thus, there is already a wide range of relationships, and we should have to consider carefully what the changes proposed by my hon. Friend would do to those.

In terms of other relationships, I am glad of this opportunity to refer to students from the dependent territories, an issue which has received some misleading coverage in the press in recent days. A fund is available in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to help students from the dependent territories. It is used as wisely and judiciously as possible. Obviously judgments must be made territory by territory, but, for example, the case which has received most attention—students from the Falkland Islands—has been misreported. Students from the Falklands in the United Kingdom are charged on the basis of students from Britain, rather than being charged overseas students' fees, the balance being made up from the FCO fund to which I referred. That is one manifestation of Britain's concern for our dependent territories.

Much ministerial time continues to be taken up, for example, by Hong Kong and Gibraltar. Only last week Sir Joshua Hassan, the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, was here, and this week the governor of Hong Kong is here. Therefore, a great deal of ministerial, indeed prime ministerial, time is devoted to the dependent territories.

My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington referred to interest in Parliament. That is a matter for us in the House and not one for the Government. My hon. Friends who are present and many other hon. Members ensure that considerable parliamentary attention is given to the dependent territories.

Another manifestation of Britain's concern for the dependent territories can be seen in our not ungenerous aid programme. If we leave aside Hong Kong and Bermuda, we are talking about a population of 74,000. In the financial year 1982–83 they received £16 million worth of aid. St. Helena alone, for example, received £1,000 per head.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is not complacent. Any relationship with any organisation can be improved. Our general policy towards the dependent territories—it has been the policy of a succession of British Governments—has been to give every help and encouragement to the territories which, where independence is feasible, wish to become independent, while not forcing independence on those which do not wish it.

We must take account of our obligations under articles 73 and 74 of the United Nations charter, which I believe we fulfil under the present arrangements. We shall defend the status and the relationship of the dependent territories with the United Kingdom. We do not wish to create the impression that the intention of setting up a council would be to discourage the people of the dependent territories from the option, where they wish to exercise it, of independence. That would not be our intention were that to be in accordance with their wishes.

An early step would have to be to consult the dependent territories. As my hon. Friend has said, another issue that we shall have to consider carefully is the significant differences that exist between the various territories. My hon. Friends know as well as or better than I do that those differences exist and I do not need to elaborate them at this juncture.

I am somewhat nervous about the proposal that these considerations might lead to the creation of a new quango. I became a little upset by the suggestion that the permanent agency could be locked into Broad Sanctuary and the great new conference centre with a secretary general and an information centre exchanging forums of discussion.

These are some of my first reactions. I hope that they do not seem too negative for they are not intended to be. I am sure that my hon. Friend will be the first to agree that we are a forward-looking Government who are open to new ideas. We have been presented with one that we shall consider most carefully, and on behalf of the House I thank my hon. Friend for giving us the opportunity of this debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes to Twelve o'clock.