HL Deb 28 July 1964 vol 260 cc980-91

3.20 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I have it in Command from the Queen to acquaint the House that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Bill, has consented to place Her prerogative and interests so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.

My Lords, I should first like to express my thanks to your Lordships for facilitating the passage of this measure. It is the outcome of many months of hard work and deep consideration, and of many weeks of detailed and intensive negotiation. I regret that your Lordships should not have had more time in which to study the Bill, the proposed Independence Constitution and the proposed Defence and Financial Agreements, which all form part of the arrangements for Malta's independence.

The Bill itself follows the normal pattern of other Independence Bills. Clause 1 provides for the transfer of sovereignty on a date to be appointed by Order in Council. It is expected that this will be in the latter part of September. Clauses 2 and 3 deal in the normal form with questions of British nationality consequent upon Malta's attaining independence. Clause 4 provides for the amendment of existing laws to take account of Malta's independence, and repeals the earlier constitutional instruments which will be replaced by the new Constitution. I do not think that your Lordships will wish me to go into further detail about the provisions of the Bill which, as I have said, follows the general pattern of other independence Bills, but I feel sure your Lordships will wish me to say something about the new Constitution and about the Defence and Financial Agreements.

It is just a year since we held the Malta Independence Conference here in London, attended by representatives of all the Maltese political Parties. The proceedings and outcome of that Conference are described in the Conference Report (Command Paper 2121). The Conference confirmed that the two main political Parties, holding 42 out of the 50 seats in the Legislature, were seeking early independence. Although these two Parties were in complete agreement on seeking early independence, they could not reach agreement on the form of the Independence Constitution. The three smaller Parties, with eight seats in the Legislature, said that independence at the present time would be premature, and they asked that a referendum should be held to confirm that the majority of the people of Malta did, in fact, favour early independence. My right honourable friend explained to the Conference that, from the large number of votes cast for the two pro-independence Parties at the last Election, it appeared that a substantial majority favoured early independence. However, since this conclusion was disputed by the three smaller Parties he suggested that any possible doubt on this question should be eliminated by a referendum, and that in the meantime further discussion of the Constitution should be deferred. As it was not possible to reach agreement between the Parties on this proposal, it had to be abandoned.

In these circumstances, and bearing in mind that the request for early independence had been a principal feature in the electoral programme of both the main Parties, my right honourable friend announced a target date for independence not later than May 31, 1964. My right honourable friend requested the Prime Minister of Malta to have further consultations in the meantime with the leaders of the other Parties, with a view to reaching compromise on the form of a Constitution. By the end of the year Dr. Borg Olivier had not been able to achieve any agreement in Malta, and further consultations took place in London, again without result. This led to a request by Dr. Borg Olivier that the British Government should them-selves settle the Constitution. As your Lordships know, the principal difficulty had centred on the position of the Roman Catholic Church, and my right honourable friend was naturally reluctant to intervene in such a delicate matter of this sort.

The Prime Minister of Malta then decided to hold a referendum in which the electors were asked to vote for or against the Constitution for independence which the Government of Malta had published and for which they had received the endorsement of the Malta Legislature. The result of the referendum in fact added nothing to the information already available. Forty-two per cent. of those qualified to vote cast their votes in favour of the Constitution, and 35 per cent. against. The smaller Parties, which did not dissent from the main features of the Constitution, instructed their supporters either to spoil their papers or to abstain. In other words, the referendum merely confirmed the position reached at the Conference; that is, that the great majority of electors supported the Parties who were asking for early independence, but neither of those Parties was prepared to agree to embark upon independence under a Constitution acceptable to the other.

My right honourable friend then decided that the only way to bring the matter to a conclusion was to work out a solution acceptable to Malta which would also be acceptable to the British Parliament and which would conform with the principles which had been adopted in other Independence Constitutions. The problem was to secure the acceptance of the Malta Government to the amendments which we considered necessary to their proposed Constitution. It was also necessary to obtain the agreement of the Malta Government to the terms of the Defence Agreement and to the financial settlement.

So far as the Constitution was concerned, the changes made were as follows. First, a clause—Clause 46 in the proposed Independence Constitution—was inserted prohibiting discrimination on racial or religious grounds. This is a normal feature of Independence Constitutions. Secondly, Clauses 48(10) and 48(11) of the Malta Government proposed Constitution were omitted. These clauses would have had the effect of exempting the Roman Catholic Church from the application of the code of human rights. We fully understand the special position of the Roman Catholic Church in Malta, and have not forgotten that when the people of Malta voluntarily entrusted their country to King George III they secured a pledge that the special position of the Church would be preserved. But the Roman Catholic Church is itself a protagonist of the rights of the individual, and no doubt it was for this reason that the Malta Government, with the good will of the ecclesiastical authorities, have agreed to omit these clauses.

I turn now to the Defence Agreement and to the Financial Agreement, which it is intended should come into effect immediately after independence has been achieved. Malta has an important part to play in the defence of the Free World, and the Defence Agreement enabling British Forces to remain in Malta for a period of ten years affords them very much the same facilities as they have at present. This will be to Malta's benefit not only because of the substantial expenditure by our Services in Malta, but also because of the employment which the British Forces also generate. At the same time we do not overlook the fact that such expenditure will be at a lower level than it was in the past, because of the Services run-down which became necessary a few years ago.

This inevitable consequence of changes in defence requirements imposes a need to develop and diversify the economy of Malta; and that need, my Lords, is recognised in the Financial Agreement. The terms of that Agreement are, I think your Lordships will agree, generous. They provide for aid of up to £51 million over ten years. There is a firm commitment to make available up to £18.8 million in the three years to March 31, 1967—the period when Malta's needs will be most acute. Up to £31.2 million will be available in the subsequent seven years, subject to the continued operation of the Defence Agreement. In addition, we will provide up to £1 million for the restoration of historic buildings now occupied by our Services.

The Government of Malta sought from us a firm commitment to provide aid for their recurrent Budget for as long as it might be needed. They foresaw that such a need might exist until 1970. We have undertaken to provide budgetary assistance of up to £600,000 in the current financial year, subject to Parliamentary approval. We told the Prime Minister of Malta that we could not enter into an advance commitment as regards budgetary aid for future years, but that we should be prepared to consider any requests for such aid which the Malta Government might make from time to time. We have, however, agreed to one measure which will relieve the Maltese Budget during the operation of the Agreement on Mutual Defence. The Malta Government accepted the provisions which are normal where forces are stationed in independent countries, for duty-free entry into Malta of imports for our Service needs. But in view of Malta's difficult budgetary position we propose, again subject to Parliamentary approval, to make good each year the loss to their revenue which would otherwise result from this arrangement.

My Lords, it is the sincere belief of Her Majesty's Government that the people of Malta will make every endeavour to ensure that this liberal Constitution shall become the foundation of their democratic liberties. The history of Malta has been a noble chapter in the annals of European freedom, and I am sure that Malta will remain true to her great tradition. I know that your Lordships in all parts of the House will join in wishing Malta Godspeed. My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be read a second time.

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

3.33 p.m.

THE EARL OF PERTH rose to move, as an Amendment to the Motion, That the Bill be now read a second time; to leave out all the words after "That" and insert "This House, while approving the principle that the people of Malta should be free to choose their destiny, is of the opinion that no specific proposals should be passed by Parliament until the Maltese people have been consulted either through new elections or by referendum, and therefore declines to give a Second Reading to this Bill."

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I beg to move the Amendment to the Motion for the Second Reading, which stands in my name on the Order Paper. Before I go further in my speech, I want to make three points absolutely clear. The first is that I am, as it were, speaking on my own. I am not speaking on behalf of anybody in Malta, whether they be ecclesiastical authorities or anybody else. Indeed, in the past week I should scarcely have had time to get in touch with anybody in Malta. The second point is that I do not intend to discuss the Bill or the Constitution or anything to do with it, for, though others may wish to, I do not think it is appropriate to do so. Thirdly, I am not against independence for Malta if that is what the Maltese want. I doubt that very much, but I will come on to that point later.

Perhaps, before I go into further detail, I might recall that my first political assignment was at the Round Table Conference with many of your Lordships who are here to-day. At that time, which was some eight years ago, I paid my first visit to Malta and during that visit I learned to have deep affection for the Maltese people and developed interest in and respect for the island. There were its memorable towns and churches, its great fortresses which bastioned us against the attacks of our enemies over the centuries, its trusting people, its many and happy children, and, above all, their daily way of life of which religion is a natural and simple part.

In 1802, when the Maltese chose to seek our protection, there were something fewer than 100,000 Maltese on the island. To-day, 160 years later, there are well over 300,000, and the reason for this is largely that we have fostered and developed the people of the island. Bearing this in mind, surely it is our responsibility to be satisfied that what is happening at this moment, what we are proposing to do, is right in their interests as well as in ours. Their future is in our hands to-day.

We have had, all of us in both Houses, less than a week in which to consider and decide upon what has been negotiated—I was going to say, almost in secret—whether on the Constitution, whether on defence or whether on assistance. In less than six hours another place gave their approval to the Bill, and we are expected in a few hours to-day to give our approval also. My Lords, is that the way in which we should fulfil our responsibilities to an island which has been in our care and served us so well for so long? If there were a good reason for this hurry I could well understand it, but is there a good reason? Is there in Malta to-day a clamour and demand for independence which, if not satisfied, will cause undying hatred among the Maltese people? Is there a smouldering, burning resentment against us, which will break into insurrection if they do not get independence in the next several weeks?

What has been happening in recent times? The Prime Minister of Malta has felt so satisfied about things at home that he has been able to spend weeks, nay, months, in listless negotiation over here. So your Lordships will see that there is no urgency coming from the people of Malta But yet, as I have said, during the night, Constitution, Defence and Assistance Agreements have all been initialled and sprung upon us, and we are asked to rubber stamp these Agreements.

There has been no chance for the Maltese people to react, although I myself feel confident that it has struck a chill into many of their hearts. There has been no chance for any of us to question, to probe, to discuss, to try to discover what is the attitude of the Maltese people. There has been no chance for public opinion to express itself. No, my Lords, the Government know best and we must accept all they are saying! Even if they do know best, even if they are right, is it really the way to treat us, that in this short space of time we are called on to approve these very important Agreements on this very important question?

I can think of reasons for this hurry. For example, some may say, "Well, we have got a pretty good Defence Agreement with the present Government of Malta. If we wait longer, if we wait till somebody else is in power or till there is a new Prime Minister in Malta, maybe we shall not get terms of these kind. It may be that it will cost us more money; so let us take what we can now." My Lords, as we have heard the noble Marquess say, there is some doubt about even this Defence Agreement. Otherwise, he would not say, "No aid after three years if you do not carry out the terms of the Agreement". That shows that it is recognised that, once the country is independent (and this is a point which I think we are sometimes apt to forget), it can do what it likes. It can make agreements, it can break agreements; and we have no recourse.

My Lords, I am no defence expert, and many of your Lordships may be. But I am clear about one thing—this has been borne out by history, and I do not believe that history changes, regardless of the weapons that may be developed: that he who controls Malta controls the Mediterranean. My Lords, let us be clear about this. The idea of Malta standing on its own as an independent island, or independent islands, does not really hold water. It cannot, in fact, be independent. Sooner or later someone around the Mediterranean is bound to get control of the islands in one way or another. We are throwing away this great prize for which we have given so much. We shall be throwing away all in the next day or two, unless, as may possibly happen if I move my Amendment, I have your Lordships' support.

I think there is another reason why there has been this hurry, this hustle. We have heard from the noble Marquess that this particular set of negotiations started a year ago. But, of course, when you start negotiations like this, and when they have dragged on month after month, impatience develops, and you have a vested interest in securing the success of the negotiations without paying attention to anything else that may be happening. Your whole effort and your whole thought is, "Let us get these negotiations through". Then, suddenly, as we have heard, the chance arose, and the thought was, "Grab it. It is one more tick on the blackboard; one more country independent". This, I believe, is one of the reasons for what we have seen.

My Lords, over the last month I have tried, and some friends of mine have tried, again and again to influence the Government, to persuade them to think again about granting. Malta independence now. I think there is little or no evidence that the people of Malta want it. We have heard the figures of what happened at the last elections. Out of 50 seats, 42 went to Parties which had independence on their platform. But, of course, when Mr. Mintoff's Labour Party put independence on their platform, Dr. Borg Olivier's Party was bound to follow—"Who's for liberty? We are all for liberty". It is true that two or three of the smaller Parties had the courage to say that they still did not stand for it and wanted to wait. In any event, that Election was not fought on independence. Your Lordships will all recall what it was fought on. It was fought on the question: For or against Mintoff? Your Lordships will remember the bitter struggle there was; and the whole of the forces of the country were thinking purely of that. And because Dr. Borg Olivier's Party was the largest and the oldest Party, those who wanted to keep Mintoff out said, "We will vote for him; we will vote for Dr. Borg Olivier; his Party offers us the best success". That, my Lords—and this is my point—is what the Election was fought on, not independence; and the figures of who got what in the way of seats have no possible bearing.

I could, of course, be wrong in my belief. Very well; let us test it—and this is what we have asked. Let us test it by a referendum. But for some reason which has never been clear to me—and we have heard the noble Marquess say it again this afternoon—the Government abandoned the request for a referendum because the two major Parties did not want it. My Lords, is that not rather curious? Have we not our responsibilities? Have we not got a responsibility to find out what the people of Malta may want? It is very curious that we should say, "Because these people do not want it, we will therefore not have it". Either they are already independent or, if we have a responsibility, we should not have abandoned the referendum; we should have asked. A referendum was held, but it was not on this question. It was a complicated question that was asked, and it got a complicated answer, and, as your Lordships have heard from the noble Marquess, it did not tell us anything new.

My Amendment calls for "no specific proposals" being put before Parliament until after there has been a referendum or new elections. I have used the words "no specific proposals" because I want us to test out something other than independence for the people of Malta. What I have in mind is coming back again to the proposal which was originally put forward at the Round Table Conference and was subsequently voted upon in both Houses and accepted. I refer to the thought of integration. I would add to the thought or the suggestion of integration that with integration should go economic equivalence. Unhappily, integration failed five years ago, and it failed because the then Prime Minister, Mr. Mintoff, put forward new demands just at the very moment of success—new demands for money, new demands for guaranteed employment—and the Government at that time felt that this was both unreasonable and unfair. I was myself Minister of State for the Colonies at the time, and I fully supported in every way the Government's decision. But, my Lords, I have often since wondered whether I was right.

I recall that at that time I went to see Mr. Aneurin Bevan, who was a good friend of Mr. Mintoff and very keen on integration. I told him the whole of the story, hoping that he would be able to influence Mintoff to change his demands. He listened to what I had to say, and he recognised my sincerity. Then he commented that they were good arguments for a banker, but he wondered whether politically it was wise. I have often since wondered whether politically it was wise. Is it too late now? There is just one chance, and it is in your Lordships' hands: that we should, before independence, seek to discover whether the people of Malta would rather opt for integration.

Integration would solve the three great problems which will otherwise plague us for many a year to come. It would solve the economic problem, because I have no doubt that if Malta were a part of the United Kingdom then, with its climate, its skilful people and its many workers, industry would flock there. Tourism would be a thriving industry, and the spectre of unemployment, which so much occupies the Maltese to-day, would disappear. The problems of the Church, about which we have heard, would disappear, because over the last 160 years the Church has seen how well we in this country behave in such ecclesiastical matters and it would undoubtedly have no hesitation in putting its trust in our continuing as we have in the past.

Lastly, what about defence? Malta would be part of us, so our defence anxieties would all vanish and the Western World would be that much happier. I believe that if we asked the Maltese this question they would welcome it and jump at the opportunity. It might be rather a happy thing if, for a change, instead of finding everybody wanting to leave us, we should find somebody who said they wanted to join us. I believe they would do just that.

I must repeat that, over the months, I and my friends have been asking the Government again and again to test Maltese opinion. Now we are at, not the eleventh hour, but one minute to twelve, or even later. The seconds are ticking on. I myself do not see quite what we can do unless your Lordships join me in refusing this Second Reading. This is a pretty unhappy thing to have to ask you to do. But I have had one thought—and I have warned the noble Marquess of the question I am going to ask him. That is, if the people of Malta show in the next weeks, by a petition or some other means, that they wish for integration and economic equivalence, then will Her Majesty's Government consider the position anew, and consider it sympathetically? I know that one of the easy answers to my question is: "It is a hypothetical question and we never answer hypothetical questions". But I think that this is too important a matter to allow that sort of reply. I am not asking for a firm undertaking that, in the event, they will be given integration; I am asking that we get a sufficiently encouraging reply from the Government, so that if the Maltese wish for this opportunity they can organise themselves to seek it.

Your Lordships may say: "Why not later?" The answer is that later vested interests will have developed, a pattern will have grown up, and undoubtedly it would be too late. I shall attach great importance to the answer to the question I have put. If I get sufficient encouragement, then I feel perhaps my Amendment should be withdrawn; but, if not, I think one is in duty bound to consider the position most carefully. I deeply believe that integration offers not only us but the Maltese the best solution and a new era of happiness. Surely it is worth while asking the Maltese this question; or shall we throw away the chance all of an afternoon? I beg to move.

Moved, to leave out all the words after "That" and insert: This House, while approving the principle that the people of Malta should be free to choose their destiny, is of the opinion that no specific proposals should be passed by Parliament until the Maltese people have been consulted either through new elections or by referendum, and therefore declines to give a Second Reading of this Bill."—(The Earl of Perth.)