HC Deb 25 July 1986 vol 102 cc863-70

11 am

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

Mr. Speaker, with permission, I would like to make a statement about the Turks and Caicos Islands.

On 27 March the House was informed that a commission of inquiry had been set up by the Governor of the Turks and Caicos Islands, one of our remaining Caribbean dependencies. The commission was asked to investigate allegations of arson of Government offices, corruption in the Public Works Department and related issues. The Commissioner, Mr. Louis Blom-Cooper QC, submitted his report to the Governor in London on 4 July. Mr. Blom-Cooper has found arson of a public building by persons unknown. He has also found the Chief Minister and two of his ministerial colleagues unfit to hold ministerial office. The report states that Ministers have indulged in unconstitutional behaviour, political discrimination and administrative malpractices. The commission also finds that the leader of the Opposition party and a senior Opposition figure have been involved in a conspiracy to commit public order offences to overthrow the present Government. The commission observes that such is the corrupting effect of patronage throughout the system that this was the only means of protest available to them.

We have agreed with the Governor that we must treat these findings extremely seriously. It is essential that we put right what has gone wrong. Many islanders would like to see an end to present abuses. We have accordingly decided that, in the interests of the islanders themselves, the administrative structure of the islands must be changed to prevent ministerial abuses. This is partly because the present constitution, dating from 1976, was drafted on the assumption, which was not borne out, that local Ministers should be given wide responsibilities in preparation for eventual independence. The Chief Minister and his colleagues resigned yesterday morning. The Governor then announced in the Turks and Caicos Islands that we have amended the constitution by means of an Order in Council. This replaces the existing Executive Council with an Advisory Council consisting of members nominated by the Governor from among the most respected and responsible islanders. It will include members of the elected Legislative Council, which will remain in existence. The Governor has already received assurances of support from a number of respected islanders.

This is an interim measure. We are not suspending the constitution and substituting direct administration through the Governor. We are not taking away the franchise. We will appoint a Constitutional Commission to review the constitution and make recommendations for the future. It will aim to conclude its review by the end of the year and will be followed by fresh elections.

These decisions offer the opportunity for active cooperation by the islanders themselves. Reports we have received so far show that the essential interim measures we are taking to restore good government will receive the islanders' full co-operation and understanding. We and they have a common interest in ensuring regional stability. We are keeping Commonwealth Caribbean Governments and others closely informed.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

I shall not be tempted by the echo of the previous debate that the statement has clearly evoked in some of my colleagues, because this is an important matter for the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Given the difficult situation on the islands that the Minister has described, and the dependency status under the 1976 constitution, the Opposition accept the right of the British Government to take the action described. We believe that it is in the best interests of the islanders, in the light of what we understand to be the findings of the Blom-Cooper report. We welcome the Minister's assurance that there will be full and continuing consultation with respected leaders in the islands on all the action to be taken, and also the assurance that there can be a swift return to administration by elected island representatives.

I have a few questions to ask the Minister. First, will he confirm that the Blom-Cooper report will be published today—it is not yet available in the Vote Office—so that the House can know the background to this statement? Is not assistance urgently needed to tackle the growing drugs menace on the islands and to develop a healthy economy so that they will not be dependent on money from drugs, which is a growing market? Will assistance be given to equip the coastguard and the police to tackle that problem? The drugs barons have greater resources than have the islands Government. Will the Minister look with his colleagues at the Overseas Development Administration to see what financial help can be given to the Government on the islands for this purpose?

Will there not remain a problem of organising political and administrative structures, not just on the Turks and Caicos Islands, but on a number of island dependencies with small populations? Will the Government look at the options for tackling this problem?

My next question is on an important matter, which has been pressed on me by people who know the islands and the situation in the Caribbean well. Will the Government refrain from using anything other than civilian forces to deal with law and order on the islands, unless it is absolutely necessary?

As the House is about to rise, will the Minister give us an assurance that he will keep all the Opposition parties informed over the next few months and report on what we hope will be a speedy return to stable democratic government on the Turks and Caicos Islands?

Mr. Eggar

I welcome the tone and content of the hon. Gentleman's questions. We value the support that we are receiving from the official Opposition on what, as he says, is a difficult and delicate situation.

We hope that the Constitutional Commission will report by the end of the year, but we can give no firm assurances. The Blom-Cooper report is to be placed in the Library, not in the Vote Office. If hon. Members want copies, I am sure that we can make them available.

I have taken careful note of the points that the hon. Gentleman made about drugs and general crime prevention. We have a regional police adviser stationed in the Turks and Caicos Islands and a number of measures have been taken in this sector. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the islands are already in receipt of some £5 million per annum of both budgetary and capital aid from the ODA, and that is a considerable commitment.

I am delighted to be able to say that we are just about to commence a long-term review of our remaining dependent territories, and I hope that that will be welcomed.

The hon. Gentleman stressed the need for the use of civilian police rather than other forms of support for law and order, and I share his desire that that process will be used. I willingly undertake to keep Opposition parties informed, as well as other hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Sir John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

Who will lead the Constitutional Commission? Will the Legislative Council still be able to legislate while these temporary measures are in force? What is the reaction among the islanders to these measures, which are recognised on both sides of the House to be regrettably necessary?

Mr. Eggar

We are not yet able to announce the name of the person who will head the Constitutional Commission, but we have every expectation that it will be a leading Caribbean statesman. We also hope to appoint to the commission a citizen of the Turks and Caicos Islands. The Legislative Council will remain in place, but the Governor will take executive decisions as advised by the Advisory Council, which is replacing the Executive Council as an interim meas0075re. The announcement of the change was made in the Turks and Caicos Islands yesterday. It is now about 5 am there. The initial reports are that developments have been generally welcomed by the vast majority of the population.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

I welcome the statement and endorse the Government's action. It is obviously right to purge Ministers who do not behave themselves. Does the Minister agree that the only long-term hope for the economy of the islands is development of tourism and the financial centre there? Does he agree that that can be done only against a background of international confidence? The Government's action has gone a long way to underpin such confidence.

The report contains much useful background and historical information. It merits wider circulation than the House. Will the Minister consider making it an HMSO paper? Will he examine the North Creek situation? There is widespread feeling that it requires urgent attention before the commission is put in, as there is wide scope for scandal and corruption. That issue is developed in the report.

Does the Minister agree that this is an example of why we should have a longer-term policy for smaller dependencies such as Pitcairn and Tristan de Cunha and other legacies of the colonial age? Is it not time that we had a longer-term policy to deal with such issues?

Mr. Eggar

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support, which we value. I take his point about the future of the islands lying with tourism, and perhaps a financial centre. There is some evidence to suggest that the arrest of the Chief Minister last year, and other incidents, has led to a loss of confidence among external investors. We hope that the measures that we have announced will provide a different atmosphere, restore stability and encourage people from outside to invest in the islands in sectors such as the hon. Gentleman described.

I shall consider what the hon. Gentleman said about the report. It is bulky and lengthy, and I am not sure whether it is appropriate to make it an HMSO publication, but we shall consider ways in which to make it more generally available.

I note what the hon. Gentleman said about North Creek. As for longer-term policy, I have said that we are embarking on consideration of just that.

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the sensitive and sensible way in which he has approached this difficult problem. Will he elaborate on what he said about consultations with other Caribbean countries in the Commonwealth? What support has he received from them? I hope that he will consult them closely on how to deal with the problem in the longer term.

In his review of the constitutional arrangements in the Turks and Caicos Islands, will my hon. Friend take account of the difficulties of running an independent nation with such a small population without there being any reserve powers outside? He has had to take extra constitutional means to bring to book Ministers who have misused their powers. It is essential that, in any future arrangements, reserve powers should lie somewhere outside the islands.

Mr. Eggar

I thank my hon. Friend for his initial remarks. We have informed several Caribbean states and others of our actions. We will keep them closely in touch with developments. We intend to have the Constitutional Commission headed by a leading figure in the Caribbean. We believe that we can benefit in the next few months from help and exchanges of information with other Caribbean countries.

We have reserve powers, and have effectively exercised them by the Order in Council. My hon. Friend's general question about reserve powers is, however, something that we will want to consider in the light of the review of our future relations with dependent territories.

Mr. Mark Hughes (City of Durham)

I visited the Turks and Caicos Islands a few years ago. Is the Minister aware that the previous Governor impressed on me the high quality of Ministers, the quality of whom has now been found to be less than high, coming from so small a population? Did the Government, through that Governor, receive advance advice that all was not well? Is the Minister satisfied that Club Mediterranée and other conspicious investment such as that is the best way to get over the islands' immense paucity of water and other natural resources?

Mr. Eggar

The present Governor is very well respected, and it is largely as a result of actions that he has taken that the Blom-Cooper report and other measures that I have been able to announce today have been instituted.

As for Club Mediterranêe and Providenciales Island, I agree with the hon. Member for Roxburgh and Berwickshire (Mr. Kirkwood) that the economic development of the islands must be associated at least in part with the development of tourism. Despite the anxieties that have been expressed by hon. Members and others about the level of expenditure on the runway on Providenciales Island, the Club Mediterranêe development has been spectacularly successful. There has been a large increase in the number of beds in a short time and it provides a significant amount of employment. It is significant that that island is the most economically self-sufficient in the Turks and Caicos chain.

Sir Philip Goodhart (Beckenham)

When considering the problems of the Turks and Caicos Islands, will my hon. Friend remember that a mini-state such as this just does not have the internal resources necessary to deal with any serious internal or external threat? Will he also remember that a fully independent mini-state would be under constant threat from drug smugglers, the Mafia and political extremists?

Mr. Eggar

I entirely take my hon. Friend's point. I should like to endorse what he said about the considerable threat posed to our dependent territories, and to independent states, in that part of the world by the activities of drug traffickers. It is also impossible to underestimate the problems that the industry associated with drug trafficking poses.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

The Minister mentioned the £5 million investment and praised the current economic development that it has generated. Does he remember that, on the half-day debate on this matter on 14 March 1983, the House thought that the investment would not succeed? Will he confirm that the budgetary support that it was supposed to eliminate continues? Does he recall that the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, in HC26 for 1980–81 and HC112 for 1982–83, showed that the Minister who was then responsible, the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), fudged the figures to get such investment and demonstrated a certain amount of shady land development?

I welcome what the Minister said about a review. Will other Commonwealth countries be consulted?

Mr. Eggar

I do not for one moment accept the hon. Gentleman's remarks about my right hon. Friend the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley). Indeed, I notice that my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells), who was also a member of that Select Committee, does not agree with that interpretation of the report.

The Club Mediterranée development has produced considerable benefits for the Government of the Turks and Caicos Islands in the form of taxes and employment. We shall certainly consult other Commonwealth Governments, particularly other Caribbean Governments, and keep them in touch as matters develop.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

Is my hon. Friend aware that the corruption and maladministration in the Turks and Caicos Islands have been notorious for years in the Caribbean? Why have the Government delayed so long in dealing with that? Such corruption and maladministration may be commonplace in the independent territories of the Caribbean, but it is intolerable that they should have gone on for so long in a colony under direct British administration. Does it not illustrate the need for us to take a fresh look at all our dependent territories and to institute something like a council for the dependent territories to ensure that there is continuous supervision at a parliamentary level?

Mr. Eggar

I shall certainly take that suggestion into account when we go through the review of our relations with our dependent territories. Prior to Mr. Blom-Cooper's report we did not have clear or sufficient evidence of ministerial abuse on which to take firm action. It is true, however, that there were some rumours. Because the report and inquiry produced evidence of abuse that would stand up, we took the line recommended by Mr. Blom-Cooper.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Minister aware that there is nothing so pompous as a Tory Minister giving a report to the House of so-called malpractices on an island where the population happen to be black on the very day of a debate about the malpractices, political discrimination and unconstitutional behaviour of the Prime Minister of Britain? My hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) is just passed on with a wave of the hand when he raises that matter—

Mr. Eggar


Mr. Skinner

I have not done yet. Get down.

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) should bear in mind that this is a private Members' day, and should make his questions succinct and to the point, on the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Mr. Skinner

Does the Minister agree—

Mr. Eggar


Mr. Skinner

I have not finished. The hon. Gentleman crawled to get that job.

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Skinner

He did. He made a crawling speech.

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will the hon. Gentleman put his question briefly?

Mr. Skinner

Does the Minister agree that in the report that he read he referred to the Chief Minister being dismissed because of unconstitutional behaviour, administrative malpractice and political discrimination? Are they not crimes of which the British Prime Minister is also guilty? If we want to make progress in this country, it would not be a bad idea to get Louis Blom-Cooper to deliver a report on this Tory Government and get the seedy lot out.

Mr. Eggar

We can always rely on the hon. Gentleman to lower the tone of any discussion. I just hope that he will take the opportunity afforded by the recess to work out his bile.

Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)

May I urge on my hon. Friend the desirability of giving additional financial resources to the Turks and Caicos Islands at the time of these new and welcome measures? British forces have been very effective in Belize in helping the Government there to handle the drugs problem. Will serious consideration be given to deploying British service men in a similar role in the region of the Turks and Caicos Islands?

Mr. Eggar

I have taken careful note of my hon. Friend's first point, but we must be careful about involving our forces in drugs work in Belize or other areas. The forces are really there to do another type of work. We must always bear that in mind.

Mr. Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

I wonder whether my hon. Friend can help me with this matter, which he will no doubt agree has some immediacy. As the Government of the Turks and Caicos Islands banned their athletes from appearing at the Commonwealth Games but have now, to all intents and purposes, fallen, can those athletes take part in the games? If so, will my hon. Friend encourage the organisers of the games to welcome them, no matter how late the hour of their appearance?

Mr. Eggar

As far as I am aware, the Turks and Caicos Islands did not have an entry in the games, so there is no point in their withdrawing or staying in.

Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North)

Is my hon. Friend aware that drug trafficking and related criminal activities affect not only the Turks and Caicos Islands, but the region as a whole? Will my hon. Friend ensure that the closest consultation is carried out with the other Caribbean Governments mentioned in his statement and with the Government of the United States of America in order to defeat such activities?

Mr. Eggar

I agree with the point made by my hon. Friend. Indeed, only three or four weeks ago I had discussions with United States Government agencies in Miami about the drug problems in the Caribbean area.

Mr. Speaker

We now return to the Adjournment motions. May I suggest that the hon. Member for Dorset, North (Mr. Baker) and the next hon. Member to speak, the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon), split the five minutes between them, so that they have two and a half minutes each on their half hours?