HC Deb 28 January 1985 vol 72 cc118-24

Order for Second Reading read.

10.28 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Tim Renton)

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

The purpose of the Bill, which has been approved in another place, is to make minor amendments to certain United Kingdom enactments to take account of the recently acquired status of Brunei and the Maldives as members of the Commonwealth. It will have no effect on the laws of Brunei and the Maldives.

Britain's historical connections with those two countries are particularly interesting. The sultanate of Brunei first entered special treaty relations with the United Kingdom in 1846 and subsequently enjoyed the status of a protected state until 1971. Subsequently, the United Kingdom continued to exercise direct responsibility for Brunei's external relations until 31 December 1983. On that date, Brunei resumed her status as a sovereign and independent state and was admitted to the Commonwealth with effect from 1 January 1984.

Britain's connections with the Maldives date back to the 18th century when, on taking possession of Ceylon, we extended our protection to the Maldives. In 1948, the Maldives were granted self-government, but the United Kingdom continued to maintain control of their external relations. In 1965, the Maldives became a fully independent sovereign state outside the Commonwealth but were admitted to the Commonwealth, at their own request, as a special member in July 1982.

Brunei and the Maldives are thus united in their membership of the Commonwealth. They are both small in area and in population and predominately Moslem, but in many respects they are strikingly different and they have their own roles to play.

As the House knows, Brunei has been endowed with abundant resources of petroleum and natural gas. The associated revenues make her one of the wealthiest nations in Asia, with substantial foreign reserves. She is actively developing an individual foreign policy commensurate with her economic strength as a member of the United Nations, the Commonwealth and the Association of South-East Asian Nations. Brunei is already playing her part with her ASEAN partners — Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand — in contributing towards promoting stability in south-east Asia.

At a time when Brunei has been taking up her international role in the United Nations and within ASEAN, we are particularly proud of the fact that she has elected to join the Commonwealth and will continue to maintain her close traditional ties with the United Kingdom. We attach importance to assisting in the continued development of Brunei. Britain has long provided teachers and other experts for Brunei, and about 2,000 Brunei students are studying in Britain. We retain major investments in the Brunei economy, particularly in the vital energy sector. We are a major trading partner.

Through those various channels we keep in the closest contact with modern day Brunei, thus preserving a tradition extending back for more than a century. Then, as now, both Brunei and we have benefited from our happy association.

The Maldives, on the other hand, have been endowed with one of the most idyllic locations in the Commonwealth, as an ever-increasing number of British tourists are finding out for themselves. As Lord Alport was moved to say in another place: You will certainly find there a very hospitable, very delightful and very attractive people to meet and you will find as well charming islands and a charming environment."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 20 November 1984; Vol. 457, c. 513.] We remember with much pleasure that President Gayoom made a successful visit to Britain in May 1982, as a guest of the Government, during which he called on the Prime Minister, lunched with Her Majesty the Queen and announced the Maldives' application for membership of the Commonwealth. We were pleased to welcome him back to London in June 1984 and were delighted that he was able to address the Royal Commonwealth Society conference on the important and appropriate subject of small states in the Commonwealth.

Our long association with Brunei and the Maldives has made our relationship with both particularly close. It remains so now that they are independent, as was demonstrated by the warm reception that the Bill received in another place. Many noble Lords described their connections with both Brunei and the Maldives and expressed their good wishes to both countries.

I know that those sentiments are shared by many hon. Members on both sides of the House. In particular, I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Morris), who is sorry that he cannot be here, has expressed personal interest in, and support for, the Bill.

Therefore, it gives us great pleasure to welcome the admission of Brunei and the Maldives to the Commonwealth—a process on which the Bill puts the seal. We are confident that we shall continue to build on our long-standing friendship with both countries.

The amendments which the Bill makes to United Kingdom enactments follow the precedents of the Papua New Guinea, Western Samoa and Nauru (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1980 and the New Hebrides Act 1980. These precedents relate to countries which, like Brunei and the Maldives, required only such legislative provision as was consequent on their accession to membership of the Commonwealth.

In the case of former British colonies, the relevant independence Act passed on the achievement of independence, and almost simultaneous accession to the Commonwealth, includes these necessary amendments to other United Kingdom legislation which place the state on the same footing as other Commonwealth countries. However, both Brunei and the Maldives have achieved full sovereignty and membership of the Commonwealth without the need for such an independence Act.

Clause 1 and the schedule provide for the necessary modification of United Kingdom enactments. Paragraphs 1 and 2 of the schedule provide for amendments to section 427(2) of the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 and to the Whaling Industry (Regulation) Act 1934. Because nationals of Brunei and the Maldives will be brought within the definition of "British subjects" in enactments passed before the coming into force of the 1981 Act, it is necessary to amend the Merchant Shipping Act 1894 and the Whaling Industry (Regulation) Act 1934 in such a way as to exclude Brunei and the Maldives from their application.

Paragraph 3 of the schedule provides for an amendment to the Imperial Institute Act, as amended by the Commonwealth Institute Act 1958. Brunei and the Maldives will thereby be included as countries which may be represented on the board of governors who are consulted when arrangements for the Commonwealth Institute are changed.

Paragraphs 4, 5, 6 and 7 of the schedule provide for amendments to Acts relating to Commonwealth forces and their discipline while on visits to the United Kingdom. These amendments make provisions for forces raised in Brunei and the Maldives similar to those which apply to forces raised in other Commonwealth countries.

Paragraph 8 provides for an amendment to the British Nationality Act 1981. The Maldives will be added to the list of Commonwealth countries under schedule 3 of that Act. Paragraph 8 applies to the Maldives only. The similar consequential change with regard to Brunei has already been effected by Order in Council.

I am sure that all hon. Members will wish to join Her Majesty's Government in welcoming the Bill. Although the amendments which it introduces have practical implications in only limited fields, they are changes which should be made if nationals of Brunei and the Maldives are to be given their proper Commonwealth status in this country.

10.38 pm
Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

The Minister's warm words of welcome are shared by Opposition Members. It is a pleasant surprise of our Commonwealth history that two such different territories can be brought together in one Bill. It illustrates the unique nature of the historical development of our colonial or, in this case, quasi-colonial past.

Both countries, as the Minister said in what one might describe as his fascinating history lesson, went through a period as British protectorates, and for a time we were responsible for the external relations in both countries; both are somewhat artificial in geographic terms; both have populations fewer than 200,000 people; both are mainly Islamic in religion; and both have historic links with our military forces—one thinks of the problems we had in the mid-1970s in our relationship with Gan and of the Gurkha detachment in Brunei.

The similarities between the two territories end there. The Maldives with their 20 coral atolls depend on fishing and are relatively poor. Brunei with its oil wealth is per capita one of the richest countries in Asia. Brunei has, however, a number of problems. Behind the wealth and apparent stability there is, as I am sure most friends and observers note, a need to modernise its political structures. The elective parts of the constitution have been in abeyance for some time. Sadly, Brunei has a number of political prisoners. Brunei faces the problem faced by most Islamic countries—the need to work out its relationship, in terms of its laws and so on, in line with the new radical impulse of Islam.

Recently, there were difficult negotiations over the future of the Gurkhas. It would be helpful if the Under-Secretary of State explained whether there are any circumstances in which the Gurkha battalions — still under the control of the Ministry of Defence—could be used for internal purposes. In 1962, the Gurkhas were used to suppress the rebellion which followed the success of the Brunei People's party in the only democratic elections held in the territory in 1961. In another place, Lady Young, speaking on behalf of the Government, said that the presence of the Gurkhas contributed to the stability of Brunei and of the surrounding area. Is the Minister confident that the guidelines are sufficiently clear? Is he confident that, in an internal emergency, there would be no misunderstanding between Britain and the Sultan about the role that the Gurkhas can play at such a time?

There is much that is positive about development in the Maldives and Brunei and much that is to the credit of the Sultan's Government in terms of the development of welfare services and looking ahead to the period when the oil runs out. The Brunei people will then need to depend very much on their own resources, particularly agriculture. The fact that there is a lack of personal income tax makes other people in other countries jealous of Brunei.

The problem in Brunei is not shortage of cash but the lack of the trained human resources which are necessary for the development of that country. There is a shortage of key personnel and a need for technical assistance. I am pleased to note how much our Government and the Governments of neighbouring Commonwealth countries have done to assist Brunei in its technical development. The Under-Secretary of State referred to the fact that there are about 2,000 students from Brunei in Britain. It is especially gratifying to note that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Malaysia and Singapore have given a helping hand to Brunei in training diplomatic personnel and in introducing Brunei, step by step, to international organisations. We are confident that that co-operation within the Commonwealth can be further developed.

As the Minister has said, the Bill is relatively minor and technical. It marks the fact that both territories have achieved their independence in a mood rather different from that to which we are accustomed with the majority of our Commonwealth countries. Hence, the Bill makes minor consequential changes to United Kingdom law, making a formality of the end of the quasi-dependent relationship. For example, under paragraph 8 of the schedule, the addition of the Maldives to the countries whose citizens are defined as Commonwealth citizens under the British Nationality Act 1981 will make no practical difference to that country.

We look forward to welcoming the two territories to full Commonwealth status, and we shall do all that we can to make them full members of the Commonwealth family. It is good to know that they see advantages in joining the Commonwealth. It illustrates the diversity which is, perhaps, the strength of the Commonwealth connection.

I understand that as yet no application has been made by either territory to join the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, but I am confident of their eventual membership. They will be welcome in that organisation. We wish both countries well. We look forward to continued co-operation within the Commonwealth family to our mutual benefit.

10.45 pm
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Our welcome is no less enthusiastic for the Bill and the accession to the Commonwealth of these two states. I shall not emulate my noble Friend Lord Tanlaw who, when the matter was discussed in another place, was able to point to the fact that three generations of his family, culminating in his grandfather, had been made hereditary rulers of Sarawak by the Sultan of Borneo in the 19th century, an arrangement which lasted well into this century. I make no such claim.

I emphasise our enthusiastic support for Brunei's accession to the Commonwealth and for British relations with Brunei. There is a well-established trading relationship and Brunei has an increasing stake in the British economy. Strong trading relations must be maintained between our countries.

Brunei is the 49th full member of the Commonwealth. I hope that it will not be long before similar legislation is before us to welcome the 50th, which should be Namibia. The sooner the better, because that story has been going on for too long. The Maldives have been independent since 1965 and have special membership of the Commonwealth, enjoying all the benefits of membership without being involved in Heads of Government meetings. Both countries are small states, within the normal definition of that term, and 70 per cent. of the smaller states are members of the Commonwealth. Both must be aware that small, while being beautiful, can also mean being vulnerable. The matter of vulnerability was thrown into sharp relief by the Grenada crisis.

The Commonwealth Heads of Government have set in train a study of the special needs of small states including their defence and economic needs. The presence of the Gurkhas in Brunei and Brunei's interest in the protection of its territory has been mentioned.

We must also be aware of the economic vulnerability of the Maldives. It is a poor country, and we hope that it will benefit from the tourism, to which the Minister referred, and strong links with and support from Britain. Interest has been expressed about the development of permanent trade and political representation in London. We hope that that will come about.

The hon. Member for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) mentioned the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. It has published a report on the security of small states and has explored the Commonwealth dimension in that. We must all hope that those ideas can be developed.

The Commonwealth is an extraordinary community of nations to which those two have been added. It covers more than one third of the world's population and one third of the nations with membership of the United Nations. The fact that on achieving independence so many of those territories have chosen freely to become members of the Commonwealth is remarkable and a great tribute to the Commonwealth's potential and possibilities.

There are links of language, culture, history and shared institutions, but we in Britain must remember how much we have to do to sustain that connection, and the arrival of two more states within the Commonwealth in recent years, of which this Bill is the culmination, should remind us of that. In all Government policy, whether we are talking about overseas students, broadcasting services to the Commonwealth or other policies, we must remember our side of the commitment to the Commonwealth and how much that should imbue every aspect of Government policy. We also hope that involvement in the Commonwealth will be the means of widening and spreading democracy in all its members.

10.50 pm
Mr. Renton

I thank the hon. Members for Swansea, East (Mr. Anderson) and for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) for their interesting contributions to our short debate. The hon. Member for Swansea, East referred to the disparity between the two countries covered by the Bill. He was quite right, but what is interesting—the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed picked up this theme—is the fact that, despite that disparity, those two countries are now united not only in that both are independent and have a long association with this country but also in their membership of the Commonwealth. That is a striking feature of the Commonwealth.

Like the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed, I read the speech made by Lord Tanlaw. It would be hard for any hon. Member of this House to emulate the close four-generation connection of the Brooke family with the development of Brunei, but what we can do is to show the high regard in which we hold the two countries in question. That is a tribute to the friendship between the United Kingdom and Brunei and the Maldives, and bodes well for our future relations.

The hon. Member for Swansea, East referred to the question of the Gurkhas. The Gurkha battalion is being retained in Brunei at the request of the Sultan. He believes —as do Her Majesty's Government—that its presence contributes to the stability of Brunei and the surrounding area. Other members of the Association of South-East Asian Nations have shown their understanding of the arrangement. The arrangement is also beneficial to the United Kingdom in that the battalion is found in rotation from the Hong Kong garrison and has, in Brunei, opportunities for training that are unavailable in Hong Kong. The battalion remains an integral part of the British Army, under the operational control of the Ministry of Defence. It is the intention that the battalion will normally remain in Brunei.

The Governments of the United Kingdom and of Brunei are committed to consult on matters of mutual concern under their treaty of friendship and co-operation of 1979. There should therefore be no possibility of misunderstanding such as the hon. Member for Swansea, East feared.

The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed rightly referred to the special needs of small states. That is a singularly appropriate point in reference to the Maldives. He will be pleased to note the encouraging progress made with the study commissioned at the 1983 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in New Delhi, which the British Government continue strongly to support. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office made an initial contribution to the study for the Commonwealth Secretariat in June 1984 and our memorandum, published by the Select Committee in July, is the fullest statement to date of British policy in that area. The committee that was set up continues to make its inquiries and undertake its research, and we await with great interest the conclusions of the study.

It is probably worth stating that our basic approach is to emphasise the objective of prevention rather than cure, through greater regional co-operation by the small states themselves, the provision of technical assistance and training assistance for the armed and police forces, an active information policy, the promotion of political and cultural links and the maintenance of an adequate diplomatic presence in as many small states as possible. The hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed spoke in moving terms about the development towards democracy in many countries throughout the world and how many of them have become members of the Commonwealth. I am sure that the whole House wishes to welcome these two countries as members of the Commonwealth. I should like all hon. Members present to join me in expressing our desire that our close friendship with Brunei and the Maldives should be long and fruitful. We are proud to see them as fellow members of the Commonwealth and it is in that vein that I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

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

Bill immediately considered in Committee; reported, without amendment.

Bill read the Third time and passed, without amendment.

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