HL Deb 24 October 1961 vol 234 cc685-93

4.2 p.m.

LORD WALSTON rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are aware of the general feeling of dismay and bewilderment in the island of St. Lucia as a result of the Order in Council which, in effect, sets aside a High Court decision dealing with the validity of the recent elections in the Colony; and of the unfortunate effects this Order is likely to have upon respect for democratic forms of government in territories shortly to become independent. The noble Lord said: My Lords, before starting to speak to this Question, I feel that I should declare such interest as I have in this matter, in that I am a farmer in the island of St. Lucia, and most of the people involved in this particular incident to which I shall refer are at any rate personal acquaintances of mine, if not personal friends. There is little time left to deal with the matter. I shall therefore make my comments as short as 'possible, and I hope that sufficient time will be left at least for an Answer.

In the middle of April of this year there was a General Election held in the island of St. Lucia. At that General Election the Labour Party gained nine of the ten seats, and the People's Progressive Party, under which name the Right Wing Party, somewhat curiously, posed, gained the remaining seat. It appeared, therefore, that there was going to be a strong Government composed of the Labour Party Members, as there had been prior to the General Election. However, some half hour or so before the final time at which protests against the validity of elections could be lodged the Opposition lodged protests against all nine of the successful Labour Members on the ground that they had used wrong nomination papers. They did not mention the fact that they themselves had also used the same nomination papers; but that was fair enough. As it happened, one of the protests was ruled out on the ground of invalidity, and that, by a rather important coincidence, happened to be the protest against the leader of what by now had become the dissident branch of the St. Lucia Labour Party—one might almost call it the "Bevanite group"; because they learn quite rapidly from what goes on in this country.

Therefore, one had in the middle of May a situation in which there was one undisputed People's Progressive Party member, one undisputed Labour Party member, the leader of the dissident group, and eight disputed Labour Party members, the majority of whom were of the orthodox Labour Party. The island was therefore left in a state of uncertainty until this case had been heard by the Supreme Court. The case duly came up towards the end of July, and in early August, or it may have been the end of July (I am not certain of the exact date), a Judge of the Supreme Court delivered his decision, which invalidated the elections of the eight Members whose election was in question.

That was the situation when the Judge had delivered his judgment. But with-in 24 hours of that judgment being delivered news arrived in the island that by Order in Council Her Majesty's Government had, in fact, validated the elections. The ground on which that was done may seem to us sitting here to be perfectly reasonable. There was no fraud; there was no suggestion that the will of the electors had been flouted; there was no deception at all: it was purely a matter of a very technical slipup which had been perpetrated by all candidates of all Parties, both successful and unsuccessful. So it may be said: "Why bother about it? It is only validating something which is common sense." But, my Lords, the situation in St. Lucia, and in many other similar areas of the island, is not exactly what it is here. I should like to read to your Lordships an extract from a letter I received from a highly respected citizen of St. Lucia regarding this matter. He wrote: It is felt that the Order in Council could be reasonable in a country with mature politics and a high standard of education, but certainly not in these islands. We have all along felt that once a judge has ruled the ruling must be upheld, and now we may as well be living in Cuba or other Latin American countries. He goes on to say: All this could lead to a multitude of future dictatorial and injudicious legislation, especially when we shall have received independence, which is so near. In other words, Her Majesty's Government has given our politicians an example of what they can do under independence. The judge, in pronouncing judgment on the election petitions, said that in matters pertaining to elections strict compliance with the law must at all times be adhered to. We agree with him. Otherwise, corruption, particularly with our high rate of illiteracy, is bound to creep in rapidly. That is the reason why I feel it is right to raise this matter in your Lordships' House.

It may be said, perhaps cynically: "What does it matter, in an island the size of the Isle of Wight, with a population of 100,000? Maybe there was some slip-up in the Colonial Office and things did not go quite so rapidly as they should have done. Maybe the legal department was over-worked and had more important matters to deal with." But, my Lords, it is not merely one small island. A decision of this kind, a deliberate flouting, as it seems to them, of the High Court Judge's decision and the overruling of it by Her Majesty's Government's decision, is bound to have an effect on countries just entering into democracy. I said earlier, perhaps slightly flippantly, that they learn quickly from us in their Bevanite troubles and the dissident Labour group. But they learn in other ways, too. If Her Majesty's Government, finding that something has been done that is not to their liking, that a Judge has given a decision with which they do not agree, or which it appears may lead to complications and undue and unnecessary trouble, make an Order in Council, or pass retrospective legislation, or what you will, that, I maintain, is bound to lead to a disastrous state of mind in these countries which have just received, or are just about to receive, their independence, particularly when, not many miles away, we have the example of Cuba and of Castro. For that reason alone, I consider that this has been a most unfortunate action on the part of the Colonial Office.

There is one further point where I feel the action has still further repercussions. We are seeing now, in many of these former Colonies as they gain their independence, that once Parties, groups or tribes no longer have to unite in order to get rid of the imperialistic yoke, they find that they have themselves to fight among, too. We see this in Kenya today more seriously than in St. Lucia. If any action of the Government tends to exacerbate the struggle between the different groups which already exist, then it must be a bad action. I hope that it is not too late for Her Majesty's Government to do something to right the very serious wrong impression which they have made as a result of this unfortunate Order in Council.

4.10 p.m.


My Lords, as a former administrator of the island of St. Lucia, I have some knowledge of the island, its people, their problems and their aspirations. They have a traditional respect for law. They have recently become great devotees of democracy, and this act, which here seems perfectly reasonable perhaps, must seem to them to be an arbitrary act which can upset the Supreme Court decision and can also show that irregularities in a General Election can be permitted. I hope Her Majesty's Government will see that everything is done to explain the reasons which led to the Order in Council, so that there will be no misunderstanding, or so that the misunderstanding which has already aroused passions in the island can be minimised. In view of the shortage of time, I will say no more.

4.12 p.m.


My Lords, it is a most unfortunate thing that time has been so limited this afternoon, because I believe that a grave injustice has been perpetrated. My information comes from a professional man in St. Lucia of the highest integrity. We have mutual friends, and I feel that I can rely upon his information. My noble friend has given all the details and consequently I cannot elaborate the case as I should have wished.

May I just mention these points? This case was due to be heard in the Supreme Court of St. Lucia at the end of July. On July 31 the learned Judge ruled that the long line of election petitions tended to the view that the rules in respect of nominees must be strictly followed, that the provisions had been violated, and that the nominations were consequently void. On August 2 a fourth petition came up for hearing. Counsel for the respondent objected that since the months of August and September were months during which the court was on vacation, no civil matters could lawfully be then heard. The learned Judge adjourned the court sine die in order to consider the objections, intimating that the parties and counsel would be duly notified when the court would be ready to make its ruling.

This is really the most outrageous point. On the following day it was rumoured that the Government of St. Lucia had sent a telegram to the Colonial Office, asking for legislation to enable them to retain their seats. Public outcry was immediate and vociferous. I see the noble Earl looking at the clock. This is most difficult. The fact is that action was taken in this country, and on August 8 an Order in Council was made validating retrospectively the elections and going over the head of the Judge in the Supreme Court. There is a very strong case. We want to hear the noble Earl, and I am told there are only four minutes left, but I ask him to reconsider this matter, because although St. Lucia is a very small place, the ripples that go out from St. Lucia in the Caribbean during the next year may be of such a kind that this case will have the most unfortunate repercussions.

4.15 p.m.


My Lords, I am extremely sorry we have such a limited time, because clearly the concern expressed by the noble Lord who put down the Question and the noble Lord, Lord Twining, and also the noble Baroness, Lady Summerskill, shows the anxiety felt. I have, I think, an absolutely cast-iron answer which I should want to be broadcast in St. Lucia in particular. Whether I shall be able to give it to your Lordships in the five minutes or so at my disposal I do not know, but I hope I shall. I hope your Lordships will find that it is quite clear that, so far as Her Majesty's Government are concerned, there is no question of disregarding the high standing and repute of the Supreme Court of St. Lucia.

May I very quickly give your Lordships some facts? The elections were on April 14. Before those elections all candidates were given by the returning officer a form in regard to their nomination. Subsequently, as it will appear, that form proved to be wrong, in that it was based on the 1951 rules for elections, and not on those for 1953. But the only difference in substance was really ridiculously small. In the 1951 rules they were to be duly qualified in the electoral district, whereas the 1953 rules laid it down that they could be duly qualified in the Colony of St. Lucia. As a matter of detail, there is no difference at all. What happened? The elections were fought, and the result was the return of nine Labour and one Peoples' Progressive Party candidates. As always, there are 21 days in which to file objection. Some wise person in the Peoples' Progressive Party found the slip that had been made, and on the Saturday, at the last possible moment, objections were lodged. I suppose your Lordships may say that this is a perfectly proper political manœuvre. But let us recognise that that is what it was, remembering that everybody had fallen into the same category.

In due course the case came up before the courts. For one reason or another —a chapter of unfortunate things—we were not officially advised of this position until rather late. The reason for that, I think, was that the chief minister and his chief official were both over here on an important conference, and consultation with them did not take place until they got back. As soon as they arrived back this question was discussed and we were officially advised. What were we to do? You have heard from me just what was the difference and what was this technical fault. It did not seem appropriate to us to ask for a special meeting of the Privy Council to validate this purely technical issue. Rather did we think it appropriate that it should be put right at the next meeting of the Privy Council, which was, as a matter of fact, on August 2. On August 2 the validating Order was duly made.

By great bad fortune, if you like, the Judge to whom this case had been put gave his ruling (we had no idea he was going to do it, or we might have tried to ask him to wait a day or two) on July 31. But you will see from the account I have given that this was not cause and effect, if I may put it that way, but rather that the whole thing had been arranged and decided long before. Let us see what the learned Judge said at the time he gave his ruling. He regretted that there was an absence of provision in the St. Lucia law corresponding to the provision of Section 16 of the Representation of the People Act, 1949, in this country. Your Lordships will know that, under that Act, if a returning officer makes a mistake which does not substantially vary from the law as directed and does not affect the results of the election then it is forgotten. This is exactly what was the position in regard to St. Lucia, and exactly what we did in the Order in Council. We, in effect, gave the power, or took action, which would have been ordinarily possible in St. Lucia if they had had the same type of section in their election laws as Section 16 of the Representation of the People Act, 1949. It is obviously the right course to follow to give expression to the will of the people and to avoid having another set of elections—they had just had one—merely because there was a technical mistake which the Judge and everybody wished had not happened.

Why does all this agitation go on? I must make clear this issue—and I do not blame people or political Parties—of a political agitation. What happened after the elections, as your Lordships have heard, is this. There were nine Labour and one People's Progressive Party candidates elected. The Labour Party split. These things happen in many places, I know. The splinter Party said, "Here is a chance for us to have new elections, and we shall see if we cannot get the existing Government out and return ourselves." So for the last weeks they have been agitating on this chance, as they see it, of upsetting things and having new elections, although as I think and hope I have explained satisfactorily to your Lordships, there is no ground for them—in fact very much the opposite. The will of the people was expressed in the elections, and to have new ones would be both expensive and defeating the normal course of democracy which we all understand so well. As I say, this is why at this moment one gets this agitation. There are, as I have endeavoured to show, no clear grounds—no grounds at all—for general "dismay and bewilderment" as mentioned in the noble Lord's Question.

I hope, in the light of this explanation—which I have had to give much more quickly than I should have wished—that the people will no longer have that dismay, and will understand that what was done was done not in a spirit of trickery or so that one could invalidate the courts but rather so as to ensure quite clearly that the wish of one and all should be given effect. I would end with an expression of hope that these people who petitioned, whose petition has been answered and who have been told that there is no ground for reopening the issue, will drop it and have recourse to what is the normal form of Parliamentary opposition; and, if successful, then they themselves may form a Government.


May I ask the noble Earl before he sits down, as he has a little unfairly said that this is a political matter, whether he then suggests that the Judge of the Supreme Court had a political bias when he ruled in opposite manner to the Government here?


Certainly not, I would not think of suggesting such a thing. The Judge said he had to work strictly according to law. He also expressed regret, as I outlined, that there was no section similar to one over here. By that very expression he showed that he would have wished the course to have been otherwise; and, as I have tried to explain, and I think quite adequately, the Order in Council gives just that effect to the very wish that the Judge expressed.

House adjourned during pleasure.

House resumed.