HL Deb 24 April 1958 vol 208 cc995-1005

3.10 p.m.

Order of the Day for Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. I have it in command of Her Majesty to acquaint the House that Her Majesty places her prerogative and interests, so far as concern the matter dealt with by this Bill, at the disposal of Parliament.

There are, so far as I know, two Christmas Islands; this one and the one situated in mid-Pacific where our atomic tests have been made. This one, which is about 200 miles south of Java, was discovered by Captain William Mynors of the "Royal Mary" on Christmas Day—hence the name—1643, while on a voyage from Java to the Cape. The island which is about half the size of the Isle of Wight was uninhabited, and remained little known and was seldom visited until the end of the 19th century. There was exploration by men from Her Majesty's ships in 1857 and 1887. Their reports were unpromising, but some of the geological specimens brought back were found to be almost pure phosphate of lime. Probably because of this, in June, 1888, the British Government annexed the island and placed it under the jurisdiction of the Government of the Straits Settlements. Attempts were made to work the phosphate by various individuals, including members of the Clunies-Ross family of the neighbouring Cocos Islands, and by 1897 the Christmas Island Phosphate Company had been formed.

Chinese labourers were brought to the island and by 1900 the first consignment of phosphates was exported. Production has continued uninterruptedly, save during the years of the last war, and recently has been at the rate of 350,000 tons annually. In 1949 the Governments of Australia and New Zealand bought the Christmas Island Phosphate Company. At the same time the lease of the whole island, which had belonged to the Company, was transferred to the Governments of Australia and New Zealand.

The island had been associated for administrative purposes with Singapore, which is some 800 miles to the north. In view of the new constitutional arrangements now proposed for Singapore, it was not felt appropriate that they should be asked to continue to carry this responsibility for us. Australia, which draws a third of its phosphate requirements from the island, seemed the natural territory to administer it, and accordingly an announcement of this decision was made in the House of Commons on June 6, 1957. Following this, it was announced in the House of Commons on December 13, 1957, that it had been decided to detach the island from Singapore in advance of its transfer to Australia. Accordingly, detachment was effected by an Order of Her Majesty in Council as from January 1, 1958. Since then the island has been administered as a separate dependency of the United Kingdom.

This Bill, which is an Enabling Bill, allows the transfer by Order in Council to the Commonwealth of Australia. The Bill closely follows the pattern set when the Cocos Islands were similarly transferred. At the time of that transfer the necessity for such an elaborate procedure, which entailed Acts of Parliament in both the United Kingdom and Australia, was questioned. The noble Earl, Lord Swinton, who was at that time piloting that Bill through your Lordships' House, said: Finally all the lawyers agreed—so it must be right—that the only safe way of doing this"— that was effecting the transfer— was by an Act of Parliament in this Parliament, and a series of Acts of Parliament, of which ore has already been passed, in the Australian Parliament. The lawyers took three years to reach that decision, and I think that, the precedent having been set, we should be foolhardy to try any other method.

I feel sure that the main concern of your Lordships will be what happens to the islanders and their rights. There are no indigenous inhabitants; all who are there are there by reason of the operations of the Phosphate Commission, and their citizenship rights will remain unaffected. They will continue to be free to return to their own territories. For the most part they come from Singapore, and the Singapore Government have given art assurance that, subject to the laws in force in Singapore from time to time, those on the island will be admitted to Singapore either permanently or on visits.


Could the noble Earl say what is the population of Christmas Island?


The population of Christmas Island at the present moment is about 2,000 to 2,400. This means that those who do not to-day have Singapore citizenship may enter the Colony in accordance with appropriate regulations, and the Singapore Government will review cases of hardship, if any arise. In addition, the islanders, if they wish to enter Australia, will receive sympathetic consideration of their request from the Australian Government. This arrangement for Australia will be exactly similar to that made in regard to the Cocos Islands, although in a sense there is no real comparison, since Christmas Island has no indigenous population. In brief, I can assure your Lordships that the citizenship rights of the inhabitants are well cared for.

There are one or two other matters, such as civil aviation rights, where the same pattern as for the Cocos Islands would be followed if ever the question, arose, although there is at present no airfield there. Then there is what I would call the defence angle, which can be negotiated as and when it arises. Lastly, there is the question of compensation to Singapore for revenue that it derived from the phosphate operations. This amounted to some £130,000 a year. Her Majesty's Government have made an ex gratia payment of about £2.3 million to Singapore to compensate this loss of revenue, and they, in their turn, have been reimbursed by the Australian and New Zealand Governments.

So much for the matters which may be of interest about the island. There remains the technical carrying out of the operation. This Bill, as I have already said, is an Enabling Bill, and the technical carrying out will be through Order in Council. It is intended that the Order will provide for the transfer of the island, the revocation of the Order made in 1957, the transfer of all rights and powers, and liabilities and obligations, save two or three specific exceptions, from the Government of the United Kingdom or the Government of Singapore to the Government of Australia, and the disposal of legal matters at the time of transfer. The Australian Parliament will then pass an Act accepting the island and undertaking its future government.

There is, I think, little more that I can add, except perhaps to say that, while the procedure which has been followed may appear somewhat cumbersome, it is surely wise, even between members of a family to have things done in proper form. Because this arrangement has been between members of a family it has been carried out happily and in close co-operation between all three parties concerned. The citizenship of the inhabitants is assured, the Singapore Government has readily accepted the compensation offered, and the United Kingdom and Australian Governments have settled any matters between them of mutual concern. It may well indeed be that the whole transaction will be completed within about six or eight months from the Order in Council which detached the island from Singapore. That, it seems to me, is pretty good going, by any standards, where transfer of property is involved.

To turn to the Bill itself, the Preamble identifies the island, and states that the Commonwealth of Australia have requested and consented to this Act. Clause 1 gives the authority by Order in Council to make the transfer and deals in subsections with certain matters that arise there-from. Clause 2 gives the Bill its Short Title. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Perth.)

3.20 p.m.


My Lords, we on this side welcome this Bill and the transaction which it authorises. We understand that the main reason for it is that the main links of Christmas Island are now with Australia, and that since the island was detached from Singapore on January 1 last it is constitutionally, as well as geographically, in a very isolated position, so that it is as well that it should be put under the ægis of the Commonwealth of Australia.

The noble Earl has spoken to us about the question of the form of this transfer. It is interesting, because it follows, as he said, the form that was eventually decided for the Cocos Islands. The reason why it took so long for the lawyers—who have been paid a singular and unusual compliment by the noble Earl to-day—to decide on this question was because there is no change of sovereignty. The Queen is Queen not only of the United Kingdom but also of Australia. Obviously, it is necessary to have a Bill for purposes of administration here and in Australia, and also because certain statutes of this country are involved. That, I take it, is the legal reason. The Straits Settlements Statutes—this island was originally a dependency of the Straits Settlements—are the ones most affected.

The noble Earl has said that the population is just over 2,000. I found it rather difficult to get the vital statistics for this island. I eventually found them by mining in that very profitable source—though it is a source in which it is rather difficult to find anything—the Colonial Annual Report. The only mention of Christmas Island in the Report occurs in a line in one of the appendices, which states that in mid-1955 the area was 62 square miles (I take it that has not changed since) and the population 2,050—there may have been some slight change in that respect. It was annexed in 1888, then being uninhabited, and is rich in phosphates.

I think the step now proposed represents a principle that we should welcome, because in these days, and in present circumstances, there may be other islands in the Pacific or in the Indian Ocean which have closer links with Australia or New Zealand than they have with us. Also, it may be that in certain cases they can be more easily administered by one of our fellow members of the Commonwealth than from Whitehall, many thousands of miles further away from them.

I should like to ask a question—it is the only real question I have—about the inhabitants. According to the Secretary of State in another place on June 6, in a statement which was repeated by the noble Earl to-day, the population is not indigenous (whatever that may mean in this context) but is a labour force employed by the Phosphates Commission. The Commission, as the noble Earl has said, is representative of the two Governments of Australia and New Zealand. I cannot quite understand this, because we have had rule over the island since 1888, and phosphates have presumably been worked there since that date, or not long afterwards.

I cannot quite understand why there are no indigenous inhabitants. I can quite see that there are no indigenous inhabitants in the sense of people whose grandfathers and so on lived there, or whose families from time out of mind have occupied the island. Nevertheless, 1888 is a long time ago. and I should have thought there were families who lived in the island and traded there—perhaps engaged in fishing and similar activities—who were other than direct contractual employees brought from Singapore by the Phosphates Commission. It is difficult to believe in fact that there are not a few such people. There may be a few hundred of them. Perhaps the noble Earl will give us some information on that point, because if there are such people then they may have to be treated in a different way from labourers who have been brought for a few years on contract from Singapore to work in the phosphate industry on the island.

There are three courses available these people on the island; they can return to Singapore at the end of their engagement; they can be given certain facilities of migration (it is not explained where to, but presumably to the same place as in the case of the people of Cocos, namely, North Borneo), or there is the prospect that is held out to them of citizenship of Australia. I do not think that, so far as the indentured labourers are concerned, they would want to go to North Borneo. Obviously, they would want to return to Singapore. On the other hand, they might wish to have this citizenship of Australia. But if there are people whose normal residence is in the island, and who were born and bred there, they might fall within the second class; in other words, they might want to go to North Borneo and make their homes there, rather than remain under the new dispensation.

I think we ought to know something about those people whose normal residence is on the island, because, obviously, if there are any—we are told there are not—then they fall within a very different category from the indentured labourers. I take it that the main body of people are Chinese, as they come from Singapore, although there may be a few Indians. I should like to know what the facilities for Australian citizenship are. At the present moment, in most cases possibly they have British citizenship, although that is not quite certain as they come from Singapore. But in certain cases they probably have citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies. What prospects are the Australians holding out? Is the fact that they may be of Chinese nationality going to affect the facility with which they will get Australian citizenship? As they are now under our control and responsibility, I think we ought to be assured on that question, and I should like to ask the noble Earl whether the Government of the United Kingdom have had any discussions with the Australian Government on this point.

I had some contact with the Australian Government in the early stages of the Cocos Islands transfer, and I always found them most helpful and ready to do everything they possibly could to satisfy any difficulties that we had with regard to those islands, and I feel quite sure that the Australian Government will be only too ready to help in any difficulties we may have over Christmas Island. The financial arrangements seem quite satisfactory. I presume that as the only operators in the island were the Australian and New Zealand Governments, there are no Colonial Development and Welfare commitments.

There is one last point I would mention, and that is with regard to the user of the island. I assume that the island conies within the Agreement recently arrived at—particulars of which are given in Command Paper 410—between the Government of the United Kingdom and the Government of the Commonwealth of Australia for air services. I mention this matter because I do not know in the least whether at the moment there is any possibility of the use of this island for air services. These remote islands have a possibility of use in the future. One never knows in these days, with the differing ranges of aircraft, what spots will be likely to be used by British aircraft, either as staging posts or refuelling points. For political reasons, many of our customary points for staging and refuelling are now going out of use, so far as we are concerned.

The Cocos Islands are a case in point. Twenty-five or thirty years ago people would have laughed if anyone had said that the Cocos Islands were likely to be an important staging post for aircraft. In fact, they are so to-day. We saw that the Queen Mother's aircraft arrived there only a short time ago. They are an important staging post, and it may be that this island also will become one. I assume—though I should like to be assured of this—that it falls within the Agreement concluded this year with the Australian Government. I should also like to remind the noble Earl that the fact that the island may be rather rugged has no bearing on the point, because I feel quite certain that in a few years' time aircraft will not need long runways; they will be taking off and landing vertically, going backwards as well as forwards, and will be able to hover, as they can now. These various improvements have not yet been made the attributes of the normal civil aircraft, but they will be within the lifetime of many noble Lords present. We must realise that this island, like others we may be handing over to other Commonwealth countries, may in years to come have importance in that respect. Finally, my Lords, we on this side wish the Christmas Island well, and we wish the island a very happy future as part of the Commonwealth of Australia.


My Lords, the Government have not informed us whether there are any women living on this island. If there are not, it is very difficult for the population to become indigenous.

3.32 p.m.


My Lords, if I may be pardoned for a brief intervention in this debate, my excuse is that I am an old member of the Service which was once responsible for the administration of Christmas Island, and perhaps I know more about it personally than most Members of your Lordships' House have had the opportunity of knowing. I should like to welcome this transfer to the administration of the Commonwealth of Australia, because in days gone by the administration of Christmas Island under the Malayan Service was always rather an administrative nuisance. The island had no obvious connection with Malaya. It is about 190 miles South of Java, and it is naturally, especially under modern conditions, one of the outposts of Australia. In regard to the population of the island, it is true that there are no indigenous inhabitants. I think that all the inhabitants owe their connection with the island to their employment by the phosphates company. The indigenous inhabitants are a peculiarly large specimen of land crab which inhabit the forests and undergrowth in the hilly centre of the island and come down, to the great nuisance of the temporary inhabitants, during the mating season to the beach to perform their biological operations there. They are a nuisance until they retire again to the inland highlands.

Christmas Island is only about twelve miles by nine, and it rises in places to over 1,000 feet above the sea; and it is itself the top of a volcanic mountain of about 15,000 feet, and there are immense depths of sea all round it. It is obviously, in modern conditions, highly desirable that it should be under the control of the Government of Australia. The centre of the island is in the nature of a plateau, and if it were necessary in the future for it to become of use in the way of an air base, it could be made eminently suitable for that purpose. I feel that the minor details, such as the question of people living there who may have been there perhaps for more than one generation, owing to the length of our connection with the working of the phosphates, can safely be left to the Government of Australia, which in my experience (and it has been quite considerable, in the Pacific and otherwise) has never been lacking in consideration for people in such circumstances.

3.35 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to know that the Bill as such is welcome to the various speakers today. The noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, raised one or two questions with which I will try to deal. I am rather nervous about getting into arguments as to the exact definition of the word "indigenous." I would say to the noble Viscount, Lord Esher, that there are a few women on the island at the present time; there is indeed a handful of children who have been born there. But, in general, the labour that has come has been recruited on a contract basis, and at the end of the contract it goes back to where it came from. The greater part are citizens of Singapore. The noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, raised this question, very rightly, because of his anxiety about the citizenship rights of the inhabitants who might come from different parts of the Commonwealth. So far as those who have been born on the island are concerned, at the present time they are, of course, British citizens and citizens of Singapore.


They are citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies?


That is correct. So far as the future is concerned, the pattern to be followed in relation to Australia is exactly the same as has been followed in connection with the Cocos Islands; and, with the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, and the noble Lord, Lord Milverton, I feel quite happy to leave it to the Commonwealth of Australia, as in the past, to take care of any question that might arise. On the point of aviation rights, again we are following exactly the same pattern with the Government of Australia as has been followed in the case of the Cocos Islands to which the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, referred. Therefore, if, in the future, there are aeroplanes which not only go forwards and backwards but hover and want to come down there, we shall have the same rights as operate in relation to the Cocos Islands. That, I think, deals with the various points raised.

On Question, Bill read 2a: Committee negatived.