HL Deb 13 June 1972 vol 331 cc773-83

7.15 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. Bills of a similar nature have been introduced from time to time, as noble Lords will know, when other Commonwealth countries have made a constitutional change of this nature. This Bill is short, and like the others is, I believe, uncontroversial. It is a necessary piece of legislation to take account of Ceylon's adoption of a new Constitution as the Repub- lic of Sri Lanka, within the Commonwealth, on May 22, 1972.

The purpose of this Bill is to make the necessary adjustments in our own law which such a constitutional change demands. It follows the same lines as previous legislation in parallel cases, and provides that the law of the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man existing on May 22 so far as it operated in relation to Ceylon, and to persons and things belonging to or connected with Ceylon, is not affected by the fact that Ceylon is now the Republic of Sri Lanka. The Bill will have the same effect on the law of dependent territories of the United Kingdom, in so far as their law consists of Acts of the United Kingdom Parliament extending to them, and of Orders in Council extending such Acts to them. The Bill also expressly provides for the substitution of the name "Sri Lanka" when existing Acts and instruments made under them refer to Ceylon by that name.

In accordance with the accepted convention, Ceylon has asked other Commonwealth Governments to agree that she should remain within the Commonwealth despite the change to republican status. All the Heads of Government of the Commonwealth have said that they would welcome her continuing membership of the Commonwealth. Ceylon has therefore joined the growing number of Commonwealth countries which have become Republics. These countries are now in the majority within the Commonwealth, but this does not imply any fundamental change in the nature of the Commonwealth or reduce the affection which the people of those countries have towards Her Majesty the Queen as Head of the Commonwealth.

The first President of the new Republic is the former Governor-General, Mr. William Gopallawa, and Mrs. Bandaranaike has continued in the office of Prime Minister. I am sure that all noble Lords will join me in extending to the President, the Government and the people of Sri Lanka our best wishes for the future peace, prosperity and success of the new Republic. My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Baroness Tweedsmair of Belhelvie.)

7.18 p.m.


My Lords, we on this side of the House wish to support this Bill. In deciding to become a Republic Ceylon has taken a step entirely within her prerogatives, and we are sure that in spite of the constitutional change in status the links between us will remain as close as ever. Indeed, we have had links with that country for two to three hundred years, and those of us in recent years who have had contact will remember such names as Kotelawala, Senanayake, and Bandaranaike with tremendous respect. We take particular pride that Mrs. Bandaranaike was the first woman in the world to become a Prime Minister—and that in the Commonwealth, which makes us specially proud.

Many generations of British people have the warmest possible memories of places like Nuwara Eliya, Kandy, Trincomalee, Colombo and so on. I myself have a very special reason for affection for and gratitude to Ceylon. About five years ago my husband was dangerously ill and was thought to be near to death with smallpox. I was sent for on Christmas Day and I have never in my life received such kindness, hospitality and real human goodness. Indeed, it was entirely owing to the devotion of his Sinhalese nurses and doctors in a remote hospital that he recovered. This is absolutely typical of the new Sri Lanka.

The noble Baroness referred to the new name, which is in Clause 4. We can congratulate Sri Lanka on the choice of that name, in that Sri is a word derived from the Sanskrit word "serend". In 1754, Horace Walpole coined a new word, which has since become rather fashionable, "serendipity", which means the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. Sri Lanka has had difficulties, both economic and political. We hope that her new name will have very happy auguries for the future. We on this side of the House are delighted that she has decided to remain in the Commonwealth, and we send her our warmest wishes.

7.21 p.m.


I join in supporting the Second Reading of this Bill and in the good wishes that have been expressed to Ceylon and her people for the future. But I wonder whether the Government do not think that they should say something about the breakdown in the rule of law in Ceylon and the debasement in the standard of justice. Some 2,000 people are now going on trial in respect of events which happened a year ago, and another 5,000 will come after them. They are being tried under the Criminal Justice Commissions Act, which received Parliamentary Assent after a controversially brief debate. The Guardian wrote in a leading article: The need for the Act is justified by the argument that the exceptional circumstances of rebellion require exceptional measures but the immediate effect is to curtail civil liberties sharply. The Act is valid for eight years. A fundamental criticism is that the Act is retrospective, fitting the law to suit the crime. But notable among its additional features are the wide powers granted to the Commission … hearings may take place in the absence of the press or the public or both (Section 6). The normal rights of legal aid do not in practice apply. The Commission can 'admit any evidence which might be inadmissible' in civil or criminal proceedings, including 'a confession or other incriminatory statement to whomsoever and in whatsoever circumstances made' (11). There are restrictions on the length of cross-examinations and pleas (3). A person found innocent may continue to be detained until release is ordered by the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Justice (14). There is no right to appeal (25). That is not all. An article in Justice of the Peace for May 27, 1972, summarises other laws or proposed laws, including one dealing with exchange control, which provides for detention for up to two months, and, the article states: Further detention is possible on an application made to the Supreme Court by the Attorney-General. … Suspects would be available to police for purpose of investigation during the period of detention and may be taken from place to place in furtherance of such investigation. The article states later: Another Bill to amend the Interpretation Ordinance seeks to withdraw from the law courts the power to grant an injunction against the Crown, a Minister, a Parliamentary Secretary, an Officer of the Crown, the Judicial Service Commission and the Public Service Commission in respect of actions taken by them in the lawful exercise of their authority. My Lords, I speak, I hope I can say, as a friend of Ceylon, and I do so in sorrow and certainly not in anger. Mr. Bandaranaike was the secretary of the Oxford Union when I was President of that body. We were all very fond of him and greatly lamented his death. I know Mrs. Bandaranaike; I have many friends in Ceylon and I am very fond of her people. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt, I am afraid, that at present the rule of law as we understand it is being infringed in very many directions and that the standards of justice are being reduced. While I wish well to all the people of Ceylon, it may be that a friendly word said by Her Majesty's Government on this occasion may have some effect—I hope it will—among our friends in Ceylon.

7.26 p.m.


My Lords, I, too, echo the wishes that have been expressed in all parts of the House for the future peace, happiness and prosperity of the people of Sri Lanka, a country which I had the pleasure of visiting in September of last year under the auspicies of Amnesty International. On that occasion I was asked to inquire into the circumstances in which nearly 16,000 people were held in detention and had been so held since the insurrection in April of that year, and also to inquire on behalf of Amnesty International into the nature of the emergency regulations that were then in force in that country, the possibility that they might be lifted and the prospects for bringing to trial any of the 16,000 persons who might ultimately be charged with criminal offences. As the noble Lord, Lord Gardiner said, we have reached the point when the first batch of detainees is being brought to trial, not under the ordinary processes of law which existed at the time of the troubles but under new legislation of a quite remarkable character, the most unusual of which is the Criminal Justice Commissions Act which, as the noble Lord said, was the subject of a leading article in the Guardian.

I wish to comment further on the provisions of this Act and to reinforce the plea made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, that Her Majesty's Government say a friendly word to Mrs. Bandaranaike and the Government of Sri Lanka about the feelings of people in this country, including lawyers and others concerned with the maintenance of civil liberties throughout the world. They are distressed to see that in a country in which democracy has prevailed for so long—perhaps longer than in many other Commonwealth countries—we have a parting of the ways in the bringing into force of new and draconian legislation.

The Criminal Justice Commissions which are being set up under the Act have wide and roving powers. They can carry out investigations and punish any person who comes before them, even though that person may not have been charged with a criminal offence. The noble Lord will agree that one of the most distressing features of the Criminal Justice Commissions Act is the fact that persons who are required to appear before the Commission have no knowledge in advance whether they are needed as witnesses against other persons or whether charges will be preferred against them, so that they may ultimately be found guilty without the opportunity of calling witnesses in their own behalf or of knowing what evidence may have been given before the Commission. They have no right to recall witnesses or re-examine them if their appearance before the Commission is the result of some evidence which has been given prior to the summons being served on them.

The noble Lord, Lord Gardiner, mentioned that these Commissions consist of a number of judges of the Supreme Court. The number can be up to five, but it could be only one. They have power to summon any person before them, but they can also summon a person without physically serving a notice on him. It can be sent to the last known address, and if he fails to appear, because the notice has not been forwarded, he can be tried and found guilty in his absence. The Commision has power to admit any evidence, whether written or oral, which might be inadmissible in civil or criminal proceedings, including confessions, as the noble Lord mentioned.

The reason why confessions have always been excluded from courts of law as evidence in Sri Lanka is that it is known that in certain circumstances statements can be extorted by the police, and it is a well known fact that in the circumstances of the insurrection of 1971, when a large number of people were taken into custody simultaneously, people confessed in order to avoid brutality and torture and that they subsequently retracted their confessions. But in the circumstances of these Commissions a subsequent retraction would have no effect and the Commission would still have power to admit them. And not only that: if the confession implicated a third person, that also could be used as valid evidence. The noble Lord has mentioned that the hearings may be in the absence of the Press, the public or both—a provision which I would have said is quite contrary to the principles of natural justice; that cross-examinations may be restricted in length; and that lawyers pleas may be required to be submitted in writing.

Finally, I do not wish to attempt to deal exhaustively with the provisions of this Act but even if the Commission finds a person innocent, if he had surrendered he can continue to be held in detention until an order for release is issued by the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Justice.

Of course, ordinarily one would not express an opinion about the domestic law of a friendly country, but I do suggest that this legislation is of such a wholly exceptional character, contravening, as it does in my belief the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, that we are entitled to say in the most friendly possible way to the Government of Sri Lanka that we are extremely anxious about this situation; that we do not like this legislation, and that we believe that normal processes of law should be restored and that those who are detained, if they are going to be brought before the courts, should be brought before the ordinary courts where they would face criminal charges and be convicted and sentenced, if that is the outcome of it in the normal process.

7.32 p.m.


My Lords, I want in a few words to associate myself with what the noble Baroness said, and with what the noble Baroness. Lady Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, has said in welcoming this Bill. I would just make the broad remark about it, that it is one of the most extraordinary features of the Commonwealth and its tolerance that it contains so many countries which are republican in constitution and it is to the credit of the Commonwealth that it should be so broad in that respect.

My Lords, like others I have a great love for the people of this beautiful Island. I was so interested in the remarks which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, made about Mr. Bandaranaike when he was a student at Oxford. I was his friend—not at Oxford, but we often used to meet. I remember very vividly showing him the Houses of Parliament. On that occasion he was speaking of his hopes and what he desired to achieve in Ceylon. He was brutally assassinated and Mrs. Bandaranaike very courageously, though deeply affected, took on the leadership of the country.

I need not say that I agree with the criticisms of law in Ceylon which have been voiced by the noble and learned Lord and by the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. I am one of those who has written to Mrs. Bandaranaike about it. I have been on deputations to the High Commissioner here. But we must be terribly careful in not adopting a "holier than thou" attitude on these issues. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, was reciting the terms of the Act I thought how much it resembled the Special Powers Act which has been in force in Northern Ireland. Honestly, those who drafted that Act in Sri Lanka must have based it upon that Special Powers Act. I would add that that revolt of a year ago was largely a revolt of youth. Fifteen thousand were arrested, and proceedings before the Criminal Justice Commission began yesterday with 5,000 youths to come before it. If 15,000 youths are in revolt in that way, something must be very wrong with that society. Undoubtedly there were also reactionary elements in it who sought to take advantage of that discontent, but I should like to speak in slightly different tones from those which have been expressed upon this matter.

Mrs. Bandaranaike is a woman of compassion and of vision. She has some very tough elements in that uneasy Coalition of which she is the head, and as one who has affection for her and for her late husband I would only express the hope that she may in this situation rise to the position of being a Prime Minister of that territory and rise to a position in the new Sri Lanka which has now been born where she will be able to administer a society which is tolerant, which is free and which does not have the provisions of which we have been hearing this afternoon.

The additional thing that I would say is this. Her Government had a terrible financial problem. They were eager to introduce reforms in that society but they were in a position of such financial stringency that they were unable to do it. It is possible that if they had not been in such a position of financial stringency there would have been changes in that society over recent years which might have avoided the insurrection of last year. I would say to Her Majesty's Government, if I may on this occasion, that I hope we shall not just be welcoming the new Republic in this Bill. I hope that Her Majesty's Government will try to find some means by which aid can be given to the new Sri Lanka which will enable an Administration to carry out the social changes which Mrs. Bandaranaike herself desired to do years ago but which, because of the conditions of extraordinary difficulty, she has been unable to do. The welcome of Her Majesty's Government to the Republic of Sri Lanka and to this Bill would be best expressed if Her Majesty's Government could give that aid to Sri Lanka to enable Mrs. Bandaranaike's Government to deal more effectively with the problems with which the people are faced.

7.39 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that when this debate is read overseas it will be very much appreciated that this Bill has had such a wide welcome from many quarters of this House. I should in particular like to say to the noble Baroness, Lady Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, that I felt that her personal experiences—and terrible they were indeed when her husband was so ill—were very impressive because they showed the real affection and understanding both from the Sinhalese to her and, if I may say so, from her to them.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, and the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, have all spoken about the Criminal Justice Commissions Act. They have done so, as they have all said in their own words, in as friendly a manner as they can, while at the same time wishing well to the new Republic. The manner in which their views have been expressed will, I hope, mean that what has been said will be studied with care in Sri Lanka itself—because, of course, this particular Criminal Justice Commissions Act is an Act of an independent country which has its own domestic law. What they have chosen to do is very different from the legal system as we know it over here. The purpose of the Act was to make it possible to deal with a large number (I think it was 14,000, not 15,000) of detainees who were taken into custody after the insurgency. It has been claimed that it would not have been possible to deal with this number by ordinary processes of law.

The noble and learned Lord—and who would know better, as a former Lord Chancellor?—quite rightly pointed out to us that the Act provides for the setting up of panels of judges, sitting, if necessary, in camera, and not subject to the normal procedures and safeguards, to inquire into past and also future offences related to insurrection, foreign exchange malpractices, or indeed widespread destruction of installations, and to bring forward convictions in the manner so clearly described. I should like to say in as friendly a way as I can, to a new Republic starting on its way, that I hope the experience of those like a former Lord Chancellor and others, who speak with personal knowledge, will be taken into account when they are thinking of how to become a great Republic within the Commonwealth system.

The noble Lord, Lord Brockway, in giving his good wishes to the new Republic, spoke also of her economic difficulties; and without doubt they are very great. He asked whether Her Majesty's Government were in fact giving aid to Sri Lanka, as she will shortly become. I have some figures here which may be of interest to your Lordships. I will not give them all; I will give them for 1964, when they were £0.684 million, and for 1971–72, when British aid to Ceylon amounted to £5.773 million. In the intervening years this aid increased. There are certain practices that Ceylon, now shortly to become Sri Lanka, has been following in her domestic economy which make it difficult for her to overcome the problems of inflation, of unemployment, and promoting a sense of confidence in investment in the country. Like the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, I am sure that the first woman ever to become a Prime Minister within the Commonwealth will rise to the position of being a great Prime Minister, and I welcome the good wishes expressed by all who have spoken in this House.

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


My Lords, I beg to move that the House do adjourn during pleasure until 8.0 o'clock.

[The sitting was suspended at a quarter before eight o'clock and resumed at eight o'clock.]