HL Deb 17 July 1967 vol 285 cc46-56

4.46 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


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


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The purpose of the Bill is important, but quite simple. It is to enable Her Majesty's Government to establish by Order in Council a new Constitution for Bermuda. There is also provision for future amendment, if necessary, of that new Constitution. This new Constitution will follow the full outline decided by the Bermuda Constitutional Conference which was held in London last November. The details can be found in Appendix A to the published Conference Report.

In recent months, we have been legislatively concerned with a number of Colonies and Protectorates. Each has had its own characteristics. Bermuda shares with others with which we have dealt an abundance of sunshine and a long history of association with Britain, but its special feature is the seniority of its Parliament. Representative government was introduced in 1620, and the Parliament of Bermuda is the oldest in the Commonwealth outside the United Kingdom. However, the best friends of Bermuda could scarcely claim that her Constitution throughout the centuries has kept pace with the times. The present Constitution is the sole surviving example of the type found in the original American Colonies.

Prior to 1963 the franchise was based entirely on property, and property owners could vote in every parish in which they owned land. In 1963, when the present House was elected, the franchise was extended to all over 25 years of age, and the property owners were restricted to a single additional vote. In 1966, following the recommendations of the Joint Select Committee, the additional property vote was abolished and the voting age was reduced to 21.

Looking at these constitutional developments, some would say that the rate of reform in the last four years has been astonishingly rapid. On the other hand, there are those who are inclined to dwell on the extraordinary sloth displayed in the previous three centuries. Something of the same difference in standpoint has led some in the Colony to say that the proposed new Constitution goes too far, and others to declare with equal convic- tion that it does not go far enough. The probability is that the present pace of reform is about right, and, as my honourable friend in another place has emphasised, this proposed new Constitution is, after all, part of a process of development which will not come to an end with the passing of this Bill or the adoption of the proposed Order in Council. Moreover, the Minister of State has given an undertaking that if, after the 1968 Election, any of the Parties in Bermuda press for further changes in the Constitution, Her Majesty's Government here will be ready to consider their proposals.

I have spoken of the almost imperceptible political growth until very recent years, and it is only right for me to emphasise the extremely successful economic growth which has taken place over the same period. Bermuda is one of the most prosperous communities in the world. Moreover, it is a multiracial society, with some consequential controversy, I agree—For example, controversy over the issue of boundary lines; controversy over the question of qualification of political candidates—but it has been controversy without strife, and I am sure we all hope that it will remain that way. I read that Admiral Sir George Somers, while leading a group of colonists bound for Virginia around the year 1609, was wrecked on the island. It was Sir George who first sent out to the world favourable reports of Bermuda's attractions. Since then the travel agents have avidly emphasised the truth of what he said, and the airlines, particularly of the United States and Britain, have made what was always an attractive holiday, one that is practically available for thousands of people. I am sure that all in this House will share the hope that, with the proposed new constitutional step forward which this Bill will make possible, social and economic progress will continue to go forward hand in hand. With the degree of ability possessed and the tolerance shown by members of both the minority and majority political parties, and with the political sagacity of the present Governor at their disposal, we can have every expectation that this hope will be realised. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Beswick.)

4.52 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, as I am sure your Lordships are, for the way in which he has introduced this Bill to your Lordships this afternoon. I rather suspect that your Lordships will decide to approve it. For my part, it makes a very pleasant contrast to the Bill we have just been discussing, the Aden Bill. We are dealing here with one of the balmiest and loveliest islands in the world, with a people who enjoy a remarkably high standard of living and who lately have made very marked economic progress. They, of course, receive no aid from us. In fact, Bermuda makes a not inconsiderable contribution to our hard-won currency reserves, and therefore is able to look us in the economic eye. Not least, we are dealing here with a bi-racial community where, at least until now, the races, coloured and white, have contrived to co-exist in a very high degree of harmony. We are also dealing with one of the oldest Constitutions in the Commonwealth, second only in antiqiuity to ours.

I recognise, of course, that even in the most beautiful of all islands man may not have yet succeeded in devising the best of all possible constitutions, and I have of course noted the criticisms which have been voiced about this Constitution in another place. The fact that they were voiced on behalf of the Bermuda Progressive Labour Party, P.L.P., by Left-Wing members of our unprogressive Labour Party, the U.L.P. if I may so call it—and the constitutional adviser of the P.L.P. is Mr. Bing, of Ghana fame—does not of itself of necessity rob those criticisms of all validity. There have been criticisms of the fact that the new constituencies proposed by the recent Boundary Commission will still be unevenly drawn and possibly weighted in some cases against the poorer voters. But I think I am right in saying now that in the worst case the disproportion has been reduced from a factor of something like ten to a factor more like three. There has been criticism of the system of registering voters, the voluntary system as opposed to our more automatic procedure. There has been some criticism of the fact that public servants in Bermuda are not able, or have not been able, to stand for election, although I understand that under the most recent proposals industrial employees, bus drivers and the like, will now be able to present themselves for election. If so, it removes what seems to me at least to be an obvious anomaly, and one which, of course, is to the disadvantage, very possibly, of the coloured community in Bermuda.

There may be deviations in this proposed new Constitution from the strictest possible application of the pure doctrine of "one man, one vote". Nevertheless, it represents, as the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, has said, a very large measure of advance, and as such it is to be welcomed. It is also, as I understand it, about the most which the existing bridge between the parties in Bermuda will bear at present. It seems to me that, in these neo-colonial and post-colonial days, we must choose our stance very carefully when we are considering colonial Constitutions. We can reject the opinion on the spot and impose a solution, or we can seek the best possible compromise, and this is, as I understand it, what has been done in this case. I think I am right in saying that much of the credit for the compromise goes to the wisdom and assiduity of the Governor. It may go a little against the grain for me to say this, but I should be less than frank if I were not to make it clear that in this case—I admit it is a very rare case—the present Government have acted wisely. That being so, I am glad to advise my friends on this side of the House to support this Bill.

4.57 p.m.


My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, for the concise manner in which he moved the Second Reading of this Bill. We on these Benches support the Bill, believing it to be, as the noble Lord, Earl Jellicoe, has said, a step forward—not a very big step perhaps, but still a step; and for this reason we support it. Bermuda, as your Lordships know, consists of a series of islands which are the summit of an extinct volcano. It has a population of about 40,000—that is the last Census figure I have seen. The islands were mentioned in The Tempest when Shakespeare talked about the "still vexed Bermoothes", the Elizabethan way of describing Bermuda. The main exports are lilies and lily bulbs, and the main imports are United States tourists and those who object to paying high taxes, whether individuals or companies.

These islands were uninhabited when they were discovered, in the way described by the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, so there is no problem here about some small group who are regarded as the aborigines. There are, in fact no aborigines: the inhabitants are all either immigrants of a wealthy nature or sons of immigrants, or grandsons or great-grandsons, not nearly as wealthy as the others. I was rather surprised to hear the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, describe this place as one of the most prosperous countries in the world. I should have thought that the prosperity did not go all the way down. It is true that there is a group which can be described as highly prosperous, but I should not regard the prosperity as being by any means universal.

I am rather, not surprised but concerned, at the curious timing of this Bill that it should have been introduced in the same week as another measure of Her Majesty's Government. A few minutes ago, on the Aden Bill, the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton referred to the famous speech of Mr. Gladstone at the Dalkeith Cornmarket in, if my memory is right, 1886, when he began the Midlothian campaign and proposed a United Kingdom Federation—England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. The noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, appeared to bemoan the fact that this has never come into being. It is odd that only this week, so different from the treatment of Bermuda, which is getting a very considerable advance—is really getting domestic self-government to a vast degree—the British Government, the Labour Government, in their Local Government in Wales proposals, not only decline any domestic Parliament but propose only a nominated Advisory Council for my nation of 2½ million people of ancient stock. Bermuda is going forward; and quite rightly. But Wales is going back, because 400 years ago we had a nominated Council with executive powers. Now the Labour Government are proposing a nominated Council without executive powers. How many hundred years more must we wait even for a nominated Council with executive powers? I hope in the next Session to give your Lordships a chance to remedy that situation.

To revert to Bermuda, may I ask the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, first of all, whether Bermuda is still a paradise for those gentlemen, and perhaps ladies—and companies too—who object to paying high taxation? If so, are there any grants, taxes, loans or Exchequer subsidies paid by the United Kingdom Government, in other words, by the United Kingdom taxpayer, to this delectable island, to finance those who do not wish to pay any tax there? Next, can the noble Lord tell us what defence arrangements are proposed, either external or internal? Only a few weeks ago we passed a similar Bill with regard to another territory, a group of islands in the Caribbean, and already an appeal has been made by the Prime Minister there for British troops to go to his aid in trying to subdue some of his people in one of the islands, which wants to break away from him and his Government. So I think it is important to know what defence arrangements are being made by Her Majesty's Government, and what defence arrangements are being sought.

Thirdly, is there any suggestion that there is going to be a large administrative headquarters—a Governor, I presume, with a number of Ministers, with a large number of civil servants, all to administer a territory of the size and population of an English market town? I have previously suggested to your Lordships that in these places they tend to put on a very small horse an enormous amount of harness, so that eventually the horse staggers and falls under the weight of the harness. I take it to be true that Bermuda will not have any representative at the United Nations; so that there will not be any Cadillacs from Bermuda floating around New York. This happens in so many cases where small independent, non-viable territories have become members of the United Nations.

Then what is the position of the United States base which in 1940 we traded to the United States in exchange for a large number of obsolete destroyers? They were extremely handy at that time. But what is the position to-day? Is this base still in existence? If so, what arrangements have been made for the transfer of sovereignty over the base to the Bermuda Government?

Finally, are any improvements suggested with regard to social services in Bermuda? We know already that certain suggestions have been made by the Progressive Labour Party; but, quite apart from those, I am sure that a number of social services are needed in Bermuda. The people there are like people in most parts of the world. They need far more social services than they have at present. I think it would be interesting and valuable to Members of this House if the noble Lord could give an indication that more money will be spent on social services in Bermuda, even if it means that taxation is, for the first time, levied there. I see no reason at all, in this day and age, why rich people should be able to go from this country and from other countries to Bermuda, to get out of paying taxes here and in other countries, where they would have to pay heavily for social services and defence and other necessities. They do not pay a penny piece there, and the poor people in Bermuda are, in consequence, deprived of social services.

If I am wrong, the noble Lord will tell me. But I have over the years put Questions about Bermuda. I have spoken on Bermuda. The Bahamas are another example. I think that before we in this House pass this sort of legislation we should try to find out from the Government what the situation is going to be in circumstances which, to my mind, are not completely satisfactory. I wish the people of Bermuda well. I hope that they will exercise in a proper and responsible manner their duties and their privileges under the new Constitution, and I trust that Her Majesty's Government and the people of Britain will continue to enjoy as friendly an association with the good people of Bermuda as they have done for the last three centuries.

5.5 p.m.


My Lords, I would thank the noble Earl and the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, for the general welcome which they have given to this Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, qualified his welcome by, I thought, a tinge of jealousy when he compared the alleged discrimination against his own country of Wales with the degree of independence which is given to the people of Bermuda. I am not certain whether the noble Lord has thought through sufficiently deeply the implications of the criticism he made. If we are going to have a Bill for Wales similar to that which we are now considering for Bermuda, it may well mean that the noble Lord may be deprived of the right he has to come and order our affairs in England. I am not at all certain that the remainder of his fellow citizens would like to give up the dominating position which they now hold in English politics.

The noble Earl was good enough to say that Her Majesty's Government have been right in doing what they propose to do with Bermuda. I can only hope that his other playful and irrelevant remarks about certain members of the Labour Party made it easier for him to be so kind in his general welcome. The noble Earl indicated, quite fairly, the points of difference that remain so far as the' constitutional progress of Bermuda is concerned. Some progress has been made, even since the Constitutional Conference of last November, in closing the gap as between those who feel that we should be going a little faster and those who feel that we have not gone fast enough.

The Select Committee under the chairmanship of Sir Henry Tucker, whose recommendations had extended the franchise in the period between 1963 and 1966, have recently made further recommendations which have been under consideration. I understand, from information received by telephone this afternoon, that the House of Assembly in Bermuda have agreed recommendations made by this Select Committee which will have the effect of improving the situation so fax as the critics are concerned. For example, I gather that the House in Bermuda will be meeting one full day instead of three half-days a week, and that there will be a payment of £10 a sitting instead of 24s. as previously.

The acceptance of the recommendations also means that Government-employed teachers may stand for election and need resign only if elected, although they will then have no guarantee of reemployment. So far as Government industrial employees are concerned, they also may stand; but neither the Select Committee Report, nor the debate which took place on Friday last, has made it clear whether they will have to resign if elected. This is a point which the Colonial Secretary in Bermuda is endeavouring to clarify.


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord to ask, on that last point, whether they will have any guarantee of re-employment if they are not elected?


My Lords, if we have not yet established whether they are required to resign, then the further question probably does not arise. But I will certainly see that I get the information and pass it to the noble Earl. He made some reference to the complicated question of constituencies. I think that we all accept that it is possible, if one thinks hard enough, to make some criticism about alleged unfairnesses in the drawing of boundary lines. But I am sure everyone will agree that the changes that have taken place so far have had the effect, as the noble Earl rightly said, of reducing apparent unfairness; and, as I have already indicated, if there are requests for further reviews of constituency boundaries there is no reason why the requests should not be considered.

I was asked a number of detailed questions by the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore. I can assure him, as was indicated by the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe, that there are no loans or subsidies payable from this country to Bermuda, although there has been a minute amount of technical assistance. He asked me about the possibility of Bermuda being a tax haven. Certainly no income tax is payable there, although provisions have recently been introduced for the collection of a property tax. The noble Lord also asked me about defence commitments. The position is that there is no specific commitment in regard to Bermuda, except the general commitment which we have to protect all the dependencies of the United Kingdom. The position of the American base is not changed at all by this Bill, nor will it be changed by the proposed new Constitution. As the noble Lord will know, the base was leased for a period of 99 years as from 1941, and that tenancy remains unaffected.

The noble Lord made his usual very wide remarks about not putting too much harness on any particular horse. One of the criticisms which has been made of Bermuda is that too much of the work of Government in the past has been left to voluntary workers, and even now the possibility is that part-time service will be the order of the day. I do not believe that the noble Lord's doubts in this matter will be realised as regards Bermuda. The noble Lord also asked me about social services. I see that in recent years Bermuda has spent very considerable sums on education and health, and although State social security falls short of the standard in this country a Workmen's Compensation Act is now in force; a Social Insurance Bill providing for old age and widows' pensions is under consideration, and a comprehensive health insurance scheme is being studied.


My Lords, may one take it that at the moment there is virtually no Welfare State in Bermuda, and no social services as we know them? They have not even got to 1911—the date of Lloyd George's National Insurance Act.


My Lords, the absence of a great social reformer like Lloyd George has been marked in Bermuda. It is a fact that, by our standards, the social services are inadequate, but, as I have indicated, there is a growing realisation that this is so. I hope that the movement towards a better system of social services will be stimulated by the remarks which have been made by the noble Lord.

On the subject of education, one of the gratifying features of the educational system in Bermuda is that there is absolutely no discrimination on racial grounds in Government-aided schools. Compulsory schooling is to be extended this year until age 15, and the amount spent on education has gone up from £982,000 in 1965 to £1,183,000 in 1967. So it can be seen that in education, as well, things are moving. I hope that, with those probably inadequate answers to questions that have been raised, your Lordships will find it possible to give this Bill a Second Reading.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.