HL Deb 07 June 1973 vol 343 cc214-38

4.32 p.m.


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 Bahamas Independence 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. Its purpose, as described in the Long Title, is to make provision for the attainment by the Bahamas of fully responsible status within the Commonwealth… The House will recall that in September last year a general election was fought in the Bahamas on the question of early independence. The ruling Government Party, the Progressive Liberal Party under Mr. Lynden Pindling, won the election, securing 29 of the 38 seats in the House of Assembly and some 60 per cent. of the total votes cast. Following that election, the Bahamas Government published a White Paper outlining its proposals for independence, and a resolution was passed in both Houses of the Legislature requesting independence. I think it is important to note that the resolution was passed without a dissenting vote. At the same time another resolution was passed which made clear the wish of the Bahamas that they should, after independence, remain a monarchy within the Commonwealth. The resolution requested Her Majesty's Government to sponsor their application for Commonwealth membership. The Commonwealth Secretary-General has consulted all Commonwealth Heads of Government, and on April 3 he announced in Wellington that all had agreed to the Bahamas' becoming a member of the Commonwealth on independence.

The present Legislature of the Bahamas is the fourth oldest of the British Commonwealth, dating back to the 18th century. The House will recall that a Ministerial system of Government was first introduced into the Bahamas in 1964, following the Constitutional Conference in the previous year. The Governor was required to act on the Cabinet's advice on all matters, except defence, external affairs, internal security and the public service. A general election was held in 1968, and this was won by the Progressive Liberal Party, under Mr. Pindling the present Prime Minister. This was followed, of course, by a further Constitutional Conference at which the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, as Minister of State for Commonwealth Affairs, presided. As a result of this Conference, the Bahamas was granted the most advanced form of Constitution possible short of independence. Following the general election in 1972, to which I referred earlier, which was fought on the basis of early independence, a conference on this subject was held in London last December, in which delegates from both the Government and the Opposition took part. Its purpose was to establish the principles on which the Independence Constitution should be based. The report of that Conference was presented in a White Paper (Cmnd. 5196). The Bill now before your Lordships follows the lines of previous independence Bills. As is customary, the future Constitution of the Bahamas will be laid down in an Order in Council to be submitted to Her Majesty the Queen in Council after the Bill becomes law. The terms of the Constitution have been discussed and agreed with the Bahamas Government and the Opposition.

To turn to the Bill itself, Clause 1, with Schedule 1, provides that after July 10. 1973, the United Kingdom will have no further responsibility for the Government of the Bahamas. Clauses 2 and 3 relate to citizenship. These provisions reflect the arrangements which were agreed between Her Majesty's Government and the Bahamas representatives at the Independence Conference last December. It then decided that citizenship of the Bahamas should be automatically acquired at the time of independence by, first, every person who, having been born in the Bahamas before independence, is a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies; secondly, every person having been born outside the Bahamas before independence who on the day of independence is a citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies, if his father having been born in the Bahamas becomes, or but for his death would have become, a citizen of the Bahamas. After independence citizenship should automatically be acquired by, thirdly, every person born in the Bahamas after independence of a Bahamian parent; fourthly, every person born outside the Bahamas after independence whose father was born in, and is a citizen of, the Bahamas. It was further decided that at the time of independence Bahamas citizenship should also be extended automatically to all citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies who acquired that status by naturalisation or registration in the Bahamas, with four exceptions: first, persons who have dual nationality; secondly, those registered persons who were not ordinarily resident in the Bahamas at the end of 1972; thirdly, persons registering after the end of 1972; and, fourthly, naturalised persons who indicate that they do not wish to accept Bahamas citizenship.

With some very limited exceptions, only those persons with a close ancestral connection with the United Kingdom will retain their citizenship of the United Kingdom and Colonies after Bahamian independence. I have just referred to the exceptions, and they are in number very small. There is therefore no danger of this Bill creating large numbers of United Kingdom passport holders with a right to come here at some time in the future; nor will the Bill make anyone stateless.

Clause 4, with Schedule 2, modifies various Acts of the United Kingdom Parliament as a consequence of granting independence to the Bahamas. Clause 5 concerns the transfer to the Bahamas Government, on independence, of the Imperial Lighthouse Service lights in the Bahamas. There are at present nine lights operated by the Department of Trade and Industry which will be transferred on independence to the Bahamas Government, who will then assume responsibility for their operation and administration. It was agreed that the Bahamas Government should control these lighthouses after independence, because the Bahamas' heavy reliance on the tourist industry for their prosperity makes it essential to them that these navigational aids should be maintained around their coast as a protection against shipwrecks and consequential pollution of their beaches. Although the Bahamas Government has agreed to accept full responsibility for operating the lighthouse service, we realise that it will need some financial help. The general lighthouse fund, which is at present responsible for the cost of maintaining this service, is financed by dues paid by ships. This fund will meet certain terminal expenses and will also accept responsibility for meeting the cost of some automation work which had previously been agreed. The fund will also continue to meet the cost of pensions of existing pensioners.

Your Lordships will be aware from Questions asked in this House, and from the proceedings in another place, that inhabitants of Greater and Little Abaco have expressed a wish that these islands should be allowed to secede from the Bahamas on independence and to remain a Colony under the Crown. A petition was submitted to Her Majesty the Queen in 1971, and further representations to this effect were made to Her Majesty's Government at the time of the Independence Conference in December. A delegation of representatives from Abaco and a delegation of Members from another place called on my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.

As your Lordships know, Her Majesty's Government have not felt able to accede to this request for separate Crown Colony status for Abaco, for these reasons. These islands, some of whose inhabitants wish to assume a separate identity, have always been an integral part of the Bahamas and for more than 200 years have been administered as such. The general election in September, 1972, showed that there was a substantial majority of the population of the Bahamas as a whole in favour of independence. The Abaco Islands contain about 6,500 persons of the total population of the Bahamas of 190,000— that is, about 3 to 4 per cent. of the total. Abaco has two constituencies, one represented by a P.L.P. Member and one by an Opposition F.N.M. Member. Lastly, neither of the main political Parties in the Bahamas has ever expressed any support or any encouragement for a separate status for the Abaco Islands. Both have agreed on ultimate independent status for the Bahamas. It is for these reasons, my Lords, that we believe that the future lies in a united commonwealth of the Bahamas.

In the Report of the Independence Conference to which I have referred it was stated that the Government of the United Kingdom and the Bahamas would have further discussions before independence concerning defence and financial matters. On defence, I am glad to be able to inform your Lordships that two rounds of talks, involving officials from my Department and from the Ministry of Defence, from the Bahamas Government and from the Government of the United States, have taken place, and considerable progress has been made over the future use of the defence facilities in the Islands.

On finance, I am sure noble Lords who have visited the Bahamas realise that the present prosperity of these Islands depends very largely on the development and expansion of the tourist industry. In fact, it accounts for 60 per cent. of the Government's revenue and for half the country's foreign exchange earnings. However, the absence of any direct taxation, coupled with economic and political stability, has given the necessary encouragement to foreign investment and the development of an international banking industry, and these also make substantial contributions to the prosperity of the Bahamas. This comparative wealth has meant that the Territory has not in the past been a regular recipient of development aid funds from this country, although Her Majesty's Government have, and have in the past two years, made a substantial contribution to the cost of building a police training college. With a high gross national product the Bahamas would not come within our normal criteria for a programme of development aid and technical assistance. Nevertheless, it may become necessary in the months ahead to re-examine the Territory's needs, especially after taking into account the future of the defence installations.

My Lords, this country has had a long association with the Bahamas stretching back more than 300 years, and the passage of this Bill ends our constitutional responsibility by July 10 this year if Parliament agrees this measure. In commending this Bill to your Lordships, I wish the people of the Bahamas every good fortune in the years which lie ahead. My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

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

4.43 p.m.


My Lords, the House will be very grateful to the noble Baroness for the way in which she has introduced this bill, and we on this side of the House give it a particularly warm welcome. I have a personal sense of satisfaction in the passage of this Bill because, as the noble Baroness said, I was chairman of the Constitutional Conference in 1968, and I can confirm to the House that the noble Baroness was, as usual, correct in saying that this was a very advanced Constitution. In fact, there was some criticism, I know, among my officials that we were perhaps going far too far for a Colonial Territory. But, my Lords, the fact that very little difficulty arose between the Government of the Bahamas and the British Government, as it could well have arisen, is, I think, not only a credit to the Prime Minister, Mr. Pindling, but also to the Late Governor. the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, who I see is going to take a part in this afternoon's debate. If I had any criticism of Mr. Pindling, it is that he took so long in reaching a decision on independence. Having said that, I think I can assure the House that there is no question of the Bahamas rushing into independence.

My Lords, prior to that Conference I went to the Bahamas and I saw all the political Parties; not only their leaders, but their Members of Parliament and, on some occasions, those who were actually workers within the Party political machine. There was no doubt at all in my mind that all the political Parties had independence as their objective. The only question, which again was common to all three Parties, was the question of timing. So, my Lords, we can feel satisfied that, since that Conference in 1968, that advanced Constitution has been worked and the political Parties have come back to London and have negotiated an Independence Constitution. One can always appreciate, particularly in the case of a place like the Bahamas, that one does not always get unanimity at such a Conference, but the reports I have had are that where there have been objections, those objections were not pushed to the extent at which Her Majesty's Government had to intervene and make a ruling, which is never very palatable. So I think we can safely say that the political Parties are content and can work the present Constitution.

I was particularly pleased that the noble Baroness said something about possible aid to the Bahamas. She is quite right that the present gross national product is such that the Bahamas have not in the past received direct economic aid. But, my Lords, one of the ironies of the beautiful islands that one finds around the world with their bright sunshine and glorious beaches, is that you find the anomaly of dire poverty and extreme wealth. If ever one was to see this, and all the dangers and the risks that could follow, then one sees it in the Bahamas. The noble Baroness says that the people of the Bahamas have had long ties with us. That is true to a certain extent, but the very proximity of the Bahamas to the United States has meant that the people of the Bahamas have perhaps looked more towards the United States in recent years than they have looked to this country. There are many Bahamian men and women who have gone to the United States and have set up their homes and created their families, but all, somehow, have retained a great affection, which is quite understandable, for their homeland.

It seems to me, looking at the number of Dependent Territories, that we are not likely to see a Bill of this nature for some time. Having said that, I now remember that there was a question about Grenada, but that will not be dealt with by a Bill, but by an Order in Council. I am not quite certain whether such an Order in Council will have to come before your Lordships. If it does not, we shall have to devise ways and means of pursuing with the noble Baroness whether the Government are correct in the interpretation of the Associated State Act; but that is another matter. But we now have few dependencies. Many of them are in great difficulty and have grave economic, social and educational problems, particularly those in the South Sea. I should have thought that, with so few now left to us, we ought to make a greater effort than we have done up to now (I refer not only to the period of office of the noble Baroness but also my own period) to see that these countries are given a standard of living which compares fairly with the standards in other countries. I must say —and I think it is a matter of regret—that in recent years we have not treated our remaining Colonial Territories in the same favourable way as our Dutch and even our French friends within the E.E.C. have treated theirs. I hope the noble Baroness, recognising now the small number involved, will feel that this is a real opportunity to make this nation proud of its dependencies.

The noble Baroness referred to Abaco. I would confirm that to the best of my knowledge no political Party has ever raised it; and during my period of responsibility to the Bahamas it was never suggested that there should be secession. The noble Baroness set out the reasons why secession had to be refused. I think there is another which is perhaps worthy of mention. There is a real risk of fragmentation. Anyone who knows the Caribbean knows that no island is the same, even though it is only a few miles away from another. I might suggest to the noble Baroness that she should go to a little island called Montserrat in the Caribbean. I am told that if you have a good ear, you can hear the Irish brogue behind a black face and you will see the green shamrock emblem on the Administrator's House. I inquired why, as no doubt she will. It is simply that the white settlers had a lot of trouble in St. Kitts—a name familiar to us— and some of them were put on a boat and ended un on Montserrat, leaving the Methodists in St. Kitts, the Chapel people in Anquilla and the Catholics in Montserrat. But the separate identities of these people remain.

Fragmentation could easily follow if one were to permit it in any particular area. Fragmentation could be a tremendous disaster to the whole of the Caribbeans and the West Indies, with all their problems of agriculture and life. They need to get closer together and not to fragment; they need particularly some better shipping lines in order to move their own goods and manufactures easily around. I should not like to say anything more on this subject. I think in the end there will be no difficulty and that the people of Abaco will settle in with the rest of their friends within the Commonwealth.

One likes to end a speech with a peroration. I was looking through the Report of the Committee of which I was Chairman. I think of the short paragraph of Mr. Randolph Ffoulkes, who was the Leader of the Labour Party, a small minority party in the Bahamas— although labels had not much real relation to the British position. He says of the Bahamas: Our history has been involved in piracy, buccaneering shipwrecking and blockade running. In the future we hope we will continue to be something of pirates, something of buccaneers, something of blockade runners. We must learn how to pirate every good idea to a safe harbour of freedom; we must learn how to shipwreck every prejudice that spells out the breaking of any link in our chain of democracies, and we seek to buccaneer every lofty idea included in the human rights provisions of our Constitution which will enable every individual to develop himself to the fullest of his capacities. I believe these are very much the sentiments of the people of the Bahamas. If it comes true, if they remain buccaneers and pirates in this sense, they have a very great future. Like the noble Baroness I, personally, and on behalf of my colleagues on these Benches, wish the people of the Bahamas all good fortune in the difficult days of freedom that lie ahead.

4.55 p.m.


My Lords, may I endorse from these Benches the good wishes expressed by the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, to the new member of the Commonwealth to which this Bill looks forward. The note to strike to-day is one of congratulation and a wish of good fortune for the future. That is the only possible message from this House. It is surely fitting that any minor point of controversy should be now put behind us and all the emphasis should be placed on congratulation, on the fulfilment of an entirely natural process of constitutional advance. The difference between the political Parties, as has been pointed out, has been not on the substance of independence but purely on the refinements of timing. The electorate of the Bahamas has now settled the time.

I recollect the reported comment of an elderly, puzzled, black Bahamian lady at a political meeting called to explain the issue of independence: "What all dis jabber about independence?", she said. "Ah've been independent all my life." This typifies the Bahamian character, to whose qualities I pay tribute from my years of happy experience with the warm-hearted and welcoming people of the Bahamas. I can say that they are the most warm-hearted and independent minded folk I have ever met in a life spent mainly in travel around different countries.

This does not make the work of their elected Government any easier. The same is true of the Government of any country; and the Bahamas Government is, like other democratic Governments, subject to extreme pressure from behind. There is a story that in pirate days a British Government representative was roasted alive. Latterly relations between Britain, as the metropolitan Power, and the Government and people of the self-governing Bahamas have been exceptionally happy. This is a strong foundation on which to build our association of the future within the Commonwealth. The closest links of the newly-independent State will inevitably be with the neighbouring Colossus across the Florida Straits and her sister Commonwealth Caribbean Islands in the West indies to the South, but Britain will, I hope—and I am encouraged by what the noble Baroness has said—be able to continue in various ways (especially in the field of education through supplying teachers) to give such support as she possibly can.

At this stage, I venture to suggest that matters of controversy are best left behind, but as such prominence has been given in another place to what I regard as the very minor issue of the wishes of some of the people of Abaco, I should like to state flatly that in my view there has never been any conceivable prospect of Britain on the eve of independence starting to dismember the Bahamas against the wishes of the Bahamian Government and responsible Bahamas Parliamentary Opposition. Islands in many parts of the world are occasionally attracted by the romantic notion of "going it alone". Even Lundy, with a handful of inhabitants, once claimed to be a separate kingdom, though now I am glad to say it has been given to the National Trust through the generosity of a Bahamian resident. Where there is solidarity of view in an island, as in the glaring case of Anguilla, no doubt there may be grounds for special action; but, as the noble Baroness, Lady Tweedsmuir of Belhelvie, observed, there never has been such united solidarity in Abaco. I was therefore glad to hear of the very correct and responsible attitude of the Abaco Council, from whom I received the first Petition for separation for transmission to the Crown. I was glad to hear that this Council has now accepted "No" for an answer to their representations, made through the proper constitutional channels, and acknowledged that their duty now is to work for the success of an independent and prosperous Bahamas. That is the voice of the most responsible former advocates of separation.

My Lords, the inhabitants of the Bahama Islands have a long and chequered history. Throughout their dramatic ups and downs and usually, until comparatively recently, hard times —though punctuated by periods of immense prosperity—they have been dependent on their own exertions. They have had little material help from outside. They have stood on their own feet and now they have created their own administrative structure which is ready for independence. They face a potential future that can be, and I hope will be, a remarkable success story, for they have an altogether exceptional opportunity for continued development of a high standard of living. A few years ago the rate of external capital investment into the Bahamas was unhealthily high. If it had persisted the hotting up would have been such that development would have outstripped infrastructure, and tensions probably would have arisen by imbalance between the indigenous population and immigrants. The scales have recently tilted the other way, but it is entirely within the capacity of an independent Bahamas to create conditions of great prosperity marked by a relaxed and human relationship between the communities of different racial extractions and a strong Parliamentary tradition. Should a healthy rate of progress be achieved, the Bahamas can become an example of a mainly black, little nation, enjoying a standard of living comparable with that of the affluent, developed countries of the West. If this is achieved, what a beacon of hope to less fortunate islands in the West Indies and elsewhere! I am sure, my Lords, that the message from your Lordships' House today will be, "Good luck!"

5.5 p.m.


My Lords, this, I suppose, is one of the last, if not the last, Bill of its kind which will come before your Lordships. We have seen almost all these Bills in the last 25 years, and it might be worth while noting the somewhat changing emphasis with regard to them. In the early period of decolonisation and before the war the question was, "Are they ready for it?" It was generally assumed before the war that none of the Colonies was, and after the war there was a general agreement that the more backward Colonies in Africa and other parts of the world were not ready. Then, quite suddenly, we had the "Wind of change "speech, followed by a rapid, one might say hasty, withdrawal from nearly all our large Colonies. And the question became, not "Are they ready?", but, "Do they want it"? To-day one might venture to think that the question is" If they do not want it, why not?". Sometimes it is almost rammed down their throats.

In the matter of the Bill before us to-day, Her Majesty's Government have been asked by a properly constituted and elected Parliament to grant independence. The fact that a large proportion of the population is illiterate, and there is suspicion that there has been intimidation, does not, I think, alter the facts with which Her Majesty's Government have to deal. I would, however, put to your Lordships that it alters the emphasis which one should place on these facts. I do not intend to speak much about the Bahamas in general. One must hope that after independence things there will go well. I think, also, that in a free country, and Great Britain is a free country, one is free to doubt it. We have had too many of these experiences. None the less, we must hope and wish good fortune for the people of the Bahamas in their future. One might almost repeat the prayer said at the Anglican Communion, and pray that they will be "godly and quietly governed".

My main concern in speaking during the Second Reading debate on this Bill is with the position of the Island of Abaco. I have spoken recently in your Lordships' House on this matter and I will try not to weary noble Lords by being repetitious. However, this is a question which is becoming urgent, though it never need have become urgent had proper and reasonable steps been taken in time. The facts are simple and have been repeated by the noble Baroness, Lady Tweedsmuir of Belhelvie. As long ago as 1971 a Petition was addressed to the Prime Minister asking that in the event of the Bahamas becoming independent Abaco should remain British and become a Crown Colony. I am not sure what happened to that Petition. Allegations have been made, in another place and elsewhere, that some of the signatures were questionable. Allegations of this sort have been made about every petition I have ever heard of. When worthy people present these Petitions they need to be prepared for the fact that that is the sort of stock answer they may be met with. Other representations have since been made to Her Majesty's Government with no result but dismissal.

Last December a deputation from Abaco was met with the answer that Abaco had been loyal to Britain for 200 years and could be loyal to the Bahamas for the next 200 years. We have had speculation with the voting figures; 62 per cent. of the electors in Abaco supported the Opposition Party in the last General Election. Mr. Watkins, the Member for Marsh Harbour, told me that in his opinion—which is only his opinion-80 per cent. of the population of Abaco would support him on wishing to remain British, if not on other matters. Her Majesty's Government says that Abaco is an integral part of the Bahamas. Your Lordships will remember things being, said about Algeria being an integral part of Metropolitan France. All this is mere speculation. Her Majesty's Government are performing a ritual dance around the subject, and one thing that they do not appear to realise is that here there is a problem. There is enough of a problem to bear investigation. But, as in the case of Anguilla, it appears that Her Majesty's Government just do not want to know. This is not the same Government, but they are performing the same ritual dance over Abaco as did their predecessors over Anguilla. I support this Government, I opposed the last one, but I do not think that the attitude which the Government have taken over this matter is good enough.

I am not speaking now with the intention of rubbing salt into anyone's political wounds, but I feel that members of Her Majesty's Government might remember some of the things they said, when in Opposition, about the Anguilla affair. I would seek to make this a non-Party issue in your Lordships' House, because we are dealing here with British subjects who are being driven to desperation because the British Government will not even listen to their case. I am asking, as were others who have made representations, only one thing: that the matter should be thoroughly and impartially gone into and that the real wishes of the people of Abaco should be ascertained in a legal and democratic way. Should the answer prove to be that the people of the Islands do not want to go along with the rest of the Bahamas, well and good. That is up to them to decide. At present they are being given no choice. They are being denied any hearing and, at the same time, are being subjected to the biggest and most revolutionary changes to which any people can be subjected.

They are admittedly a very small population—only 6,500 of them; but they are an island people. We sometimes make jokes about Lundy Island; we are rather less likely now to be making jokes about Iceland. The fact is that islanders are what the Scots like to call "thrawn" and tiresome. They like to be independent and to have their own way. The predicament of the people of Abaco has precedents all over the world, and not only in islands. If size of population alone were an argument against self-determination, there would he no question about what we should do with Gibraltar. The people of Abaco have been British for at least as long as have those of Gibraltar, yet we calmly give self-determination to the one and deny it to the other. We speak of fragmentation. Abaco is being fragmented from Britain. Are we to carry out this process without listening to what the people themselves want and without giving them the chance to decide for themselves what they want to do? Quite recently we gave the people of Ulster the chance to vote and decide on their own future by means of a referendum. Until then, referenda were said to be without precedent in British constitutional procedure. The question I would put to your Lordships is this: are we to wait until people start to throw bombs before we can consult them?

I would not lightly raise such a grave and serious matter in your Lordships' House, but I believe that your Lordships should be aware that this is what is what is being said in Abaco. It is being said by people whose only wish is that their desires should be taken into consideration and that they should be given a chance to voice their own views, which should be listened to. I hope that, even at this late hour, Her Majesty's Government will come up with some proposal whereby the wishes of the people of Abaco may be properly and democratically ascertained. If this is not to be, then I shall have to move Amendments in Committee which will be designed to ensure that in one way or another this will be done. The Amendments will be designed, as were those in another place, to set up Abaco as a Crown Colony on July 10. This would not be an irrevocable step as independence would be; and should the people of Abaco later decide, by means of a vote or a referendum, that they wish to be reunited with the Bahamas, I can see no difficulty in this.

Certain of Her Majesty's subjects feel that this country has let them down in this matter and is selling them short. They look to your Lordships as a last resort to do for them what Her Majesy's Government have so far refused to do. They are simple people and they have an abiding trust in the British Crown and the British Parliament. I believe it is the duty and privilege of your Lordships' House to act as a last court of appeal, not only in its judicial capacity but in its capacity as a House of Parliament. As my noble friend Lord Carrington said, we should not fear to send Amendments back to another place when we feel that a great issue is at stake. I believe that this is a great issue and that it is one which has not so far been given sufficient consideration.

Finally, my Lords, I understand that the Committee stage of this Bill is being put down for next Tuesday. As I have, I think, three Amendments, it seems to me that this is rather rushing things. I cannot understand how your Lordships will have sufficient time to read and study my Amendments between now and next Tuesday. I understand that the remaining stages of the Bill are also to be taken next Tuesday. This is contrary to Standing Orders. I should like to ask: are we having a vote on that, or are we not? It seems to me this Bill is being rushed through your Lordships' House with unseemly haste, and I should like to ask Her Majesty's Government and those who arrange our Order Paper to postpone the Committee stage of this Bill in order that your Lordships may have time to consider what I believe to be very important Amendments.

5.16 p.m.


My Lords, we in this House have the advantage of knowing that we shall be on the list of speakers. The one disadvantage of that is that a spontaneous debate may not take place. If I can, I always try to contribute something to the debate by making reference to the speaker immediately preceding myself. If the noble Lord, Lord Belhaven and Stenton, will forgive me, I do not propose to discuss what he said at the beginning, in his review of the advance of anti-Colonialism since the last war; but I shall be making reference to the plea he has made on behalf of some of the people of Abaco.

I am one of those who welcome this Bill. I also welcome the speech which was made by the noble Baroness, not merely because she indicated that independence is to be given to the Bahamas but also because she indicated that, if necessary, continued British economic and financial assistance would be given to those Islands. I want to pay tribute to my noble friend Lord Shepherd for having initiated action to bring about the result we have to-day, and I should like especially to express appreciation for the contribution made to this debate so authoritatively by the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow. I speak with some reservations because, although I have been to other Caribbean countries I have not been to the Bahamas. However, over the years I have met and had many discussions with the leaders of the parties in those territories and I have tried as best I could, by study, to understand the situation there.


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord, just to say that I am not surprised to hear that he has never been to the Bahamas? They are the biggest tax haven in the world—and he has just asked for additional financial assistance for the Bahamas from this country. They are rolling in money!


My Lords, I shall be making some reference to that later. I can assure the noble Lord that was not the reason why I have refrained from visiting the Bahamas.

I think we ought first to recognise that we do not leave the happiest situation there. The noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, has referred to the contrast between luxury, on the one hand, and the dire poverty, on the other, of so many of the people. My particular regret is that we have not done more in respect of health and education in those territories during the time that Britain has been responsible for them. I hope very much that the wealth of which my noble friend from the Cross-Benches has spoken may be used under independence for those purposes.

When we are thinking of the Bahamas we are thinking of something rather different from most of the Colonies to which we have given independence. It is a great archipelago, comprising hundreds of islands—I think they number 700. There are great contrasting conditions. Nassau, the sunshine resort of rich Americans, is almost owned by rich Americans. There are the real estates of the seaside resorts, the hotels, the restaurants, the casinos, the brothels and everything that accompanies rich tourist occupations, American owned. The contrast between that rich class which uses the Bahamas as a tourist playground and the life of the masses of black peoples is almost indescribable. I admit that in the circumstances of the Bahamas, only a few miles from Florida, the tourist industry is an important factor in the employment of the African population. But the African population are the servants of the rich tourist occupation in Nassau. If now we at last have a black Government in that country I hope that their first attention will be paid to the wretched conditions of the African people who are there.

One leaves Nassau and goes to the many other islands and the primitive living conditions of the peoples. One exception is the island of Abaco to which the noble Lord, Lord Belhaven and Stenton, has referred. I want to say at once to him that this House should have some feeling for the many Europeans who are in that island because of the history of their coming to it. Their forefathers were English troops left behind in the War of Independence which America fought against Britain. They took refuge in Abaco with other English loyalists. While the sympathy of many of us in that war would have been with the Americans fighting for their independence rather than with the British seeking to deny it, historically we should have some sympathy with the descendants of those who were then fighting in what was the British cause. But we should recognise that that considerable English population on the island of Abaco has perhaps from their own historical experience an extreme racial consciousness, an extreme colour consciousness, and that they fear the return of a black Government for the Bahamas as a whole. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Belhaven and Stenton, that I am trying to approach this issue in an unprejudiced way. I believe tremendously in self-determination. I believe that in the world of greatly centralised power one must be thinking in terms of participating devolution to the grass roots.


My Lords, I apologise to the noble Lord. He has been very fair on this subject but I should like to say that in my plea for the Government to recognise the situation in Abaco I did not raise the point of race or black and white; I was asking that the opinions of the people, whether black, white or multicoloured, should be taken into account.


Yes, I apprecite that; I did not mean to suggest anything else. My Lords, I think nevertheless that racialism is the attitude of mind of many of the whites who are there. In view of the noble Lord's intervention, let me quote from Mr. Errington Watkins, one of the two representatives in the Legislature. He has spoken on the proposal that Abaco should secede from the Bahamas as an "escape route for non-blacks" and as "a haven for investors seeking to avoid taxes that the Pindling Government is levying".


My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord again: but Mr. Watkins, whom I have met, is himself more black than white.


Not more, my Lords; say half and half. The very fact that you had these English refugees from the American War of Independence, mostly men, meant that despite their colour prejudice a considerably mixed population has arisen and Mr. Errington Watkins happens to be the descendant of one of those. It is an extraordinary fact not only of Abaco but other territories that those who are of mixed race become more English and European than the English and Europeans themselves. But that is an aside.

I have tried to look at this question of Abaco in an unprejudiced way. I have come to this conclusion: the resistance to an association with the rest of the Bahamas is exaggerated. It is supported by a smaller number than the speech which the noble Lord delivered would indicate. One has first to face the fact that in the whole population of the Bahamas of 190,000, Abaco has less than 70,000—


Seven thousand.


My Lords, 7,000. I have the feeling that part of the explanation is alarm in the United States of America, fear of a Black Power which should be so near to them. I have quotations of a rather extravagant character from representatives in Abaco. I refrain from reading them because I believe a new situation is arising. I believe now it is becoming clear that even the majority of the white population in Abaco are prepared to accept association with the independent Bahamas. I believe it to be true—and perhaps the noble Baroness will be able to confirm this when she speaks—that the Abaco Council has informed the Government that it has agreed to work within independence and has rejected the extreme assertions that the whites and Abacos have been recruiting mercenaries for their purposes. For those reasons, and trying to look at the issue in the broadest possible way, I reject the suggestion that the island of Abaco should secede from the Bahamas as a whole.

My Lords, I want to say this in conclusion. The Bahamas themselves must be about the most disarmed Government in the world. Their total forces are 900 policemen, and only half trained. The noble Baroness has indicated that some training establishment is to be set up. They have only four patrol boats. I do not believe the threats which have been made from Abaco of physical resistance will be carried out, but quite clearly if any violence occurs it will be the duty of Her Majesty's Government to support the Bahamas Government. The only other thing I would say to Her Majesty's Government is this. In the very unlikely circumstances of difficulties arising between Abaco and the Bahamas Government, perhaps the Government might consider whether it might not be desirable to ask Canada (whose inhabitants, after all, are similar to those of Abaco in being loyalists who did not fight with the U.S.A. for independence) and perhaps some representatives of West Indian countries to offer their services for a solution of the problem.

My Lords, there has been an appeal that we should not engage in controversy. I have tried to reply in a reasonable way to what the noble Lord has said, but finally I want to express my deep hope that Bahamas, under independence, will be able to meet all the difficulties which they will have to face.

5.34 p.m.


My Lords, I do not want to make a speech, but our duty to-night—and we have done it on all sides of the House—is to wish the Bahamians well in their new independence. Various speakers have rightly made reference to the contrast between the poverty and great wealth of these sunny islands, but nobody has made reference to the Free Port in Grand Bahamas. Successive Governors, from Lord Ranfurly's time, 1952 and thereafter, have considered—and I know they are right—that the whole future prosperity of the Bahamas lies in the Free Port. While we wish them well, I hope that the noble Baroness may possibly make some reference to the Free Port in her final remarks—whether we should encourage the Bahamians to go on with that development or perhaps provide them with some assistance, as the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, has suggested. I personally think that they have a lot of money, as the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, has said from the Cross-Benches. But the Free Port is the key to the prosperity of the Caribbean, and I hope we can do something to encourage the Bahamians to make full use of it.

5.35 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure that, when all in the Bahamas read this debate, they will be grateful to every noble Lord who has spoken for the good wishes which have been conveyed to them on the achievement of their independence. I would thank all those noble Lords who have taken part. First, I would reply to the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, who had such a special responsibility towards these Islands at one point and who asked me about the Order in Council. The Order in Council, when it is made, is laid before Parliament for information only and is not subject to any Parliamentary procedure. This is of course because we have an Independence Bill before us—


My Lords, I think the noble Baroness has me rather mixed up. I was referring to the Order in Council in terms of Grenada and not the Bahamas. I went off at a tangent there; I apologise to her.


My Lords, perhaps I should also say to the noble Lord that even if it is at a tangent the Order in Council which is laid for Grenada will be subject to the Affirmative approval of both Houses of Parliament.

On the question of procedure, perhaps I should at the same time refer to the point made by my noble friend Lord Belhaven and Stenton. He thought that it was rather soon to have the Committee stage next Tuesday and he wished to put down three Amendments. It is quite common, in fact, to have but a week's interval between the Second Reading of a Bill and the Committee stage. I think what he was perhaps more concerned about was whether we should take not only the Committee stage but also all the remaining stages of the Bill on the same day. I think I should tell my noble friend and the House that it is proposed to move a Motion to-morrow to suspend Standing Orders for the Bahamas Independence Bill. This is because, as is laid down in the Bill, it is hoped to have the Independence Day on July 10 and of course these matters have to be arranged some time ahead; celebrations are going to take place and His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales is going to be there. We have therefore just the remaining stages of the Bill here which, so far as I can see from the debate in the House to-day, has been entirely uncontroversial except for the one question of Abaco to which I should like to return. And we also have the Order in Council. It is for this reason, I suggest to my noble friend, that this is a perfectly reasonable procedure.

On the question of Abaco, I should like to support the argument put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd. He said that he thought that there would be a real risk of fragmentation in the Caribbean, and I am sure this is true. I was myself lucky enough to be a member of a delegation many years ago considering the Federation of the West Indies, but I have never gone as far as the Bahamas except just to land in an aeroplane en route somewhere else. But I know something of the problem of fragmentation, and I am sure that he is right.

To the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, who spoke with such affection and such intimate knowledge of the problems of Abaco, I would repeat the words he used. He said there has never been any question that this country would dismember the Bahamas against the wishes of its Government and Opposition. This really is the point, because there has been no request from either the duly democratically elected Government or the Opposition that there should be this fragmentation. My noble friend Lord Belhaven said that he thought that the British Government had not in fact taken due note of the feelings of some of the people in Abaco. I must thoroughly repudiate this suggestion. When a delegation came here on this question, despite the protest from the Bahamas Government, they were received at the F.C.O. by a Minister of State and there was a very lengthy interview with them.

I should like to put certain points to my noble friend, and he might perhaps on consideration question whether in fact it is wise to pursue this matter again, even by Amendment. If I may say so, he gave the impression in his speech that the inhabitants of Abaco unanimously desire the continuation of colonial status. I suggest to him that that is highly misleading. There are two Members of Parliament; one certainly represents a large number of the people of Abaco who want to remain as part of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, and in the 1972 Election more than a third of the Abaco voters voted for the present governing Party which campaigned for early independence-845 out of 2,286 votes.


My Lords, if my noble friend will forgive me, I should like to interrupt for one moment. I am sorry if I gave that impression. I did not intend to give the impression that 100 per cent. of the people of Abaco thought in one way or another. If 100 per cent. of the people of any country thought in one particular way they would probably be incapable of thought anyway. What I sought to put to my noble friend was that I thought the Government should make an inquiry of the inhabitants of the island and cease to speculate about what delegations said, how many people voted this way and how many people voted that way. There is a problem here that should have been investigated and I think it should now he investigated. If I may take up one more minute, I do not agree with my noble friend that having the Committee stage of the Bill next Tuesday is reasonable. It is not a week; it is only five days. I suggest that it would be reasonable if we had it on Thursday, but on Tuesday it will not give me very long to have Amendments printed and for your Lordships to read them.


My Lords, having often drafted and moved Amendments myself, I must say that when a Bill comes before the House one has an opportunity to look t it before Second Reading and to have one's Amendments ready to be tabled the moment the Second Reading is over. I feel sure the noble Lord is so well advanced that in fact he could table them tonight for us all to see.

I would agree with the noble Lord, Lord Brockway, who said that the numbers in the island of Abaco who are apparently expressing a desire to remain a Crown Colony are not very large. I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Thurlow, who has an immense experience of this matter, when he said that the Greater Abaco Council, who sent a delegation to London last year, have now changed their policy. That is perfectly true. In a meeting with the Bahamas Prime Minister on March 19 they said that they, on behalf of a majority of people in Abaco, now wished to be actively associated with the changes which were about to take place in the Bahamas. On April 26 the Council issued a Press Statement to the effect that, having failed—and I quote— in this legitimate exploration of the possibility of separation, they are now persuaded that their duty is to work for the success of an independent and a prosperous Bahamas. The Council have said that they do not wish to be identified with a small number of Abaconians who are trying to keep the issue alive. Therefore I would suggest to my noble friend that we should remember the delegations received here, the inquiries which have taken place in the Bahamas and the change of view of those who are taking a leading part in the decisions. I would also suggest to him that in this House we should not try to encourage what is obviously a minority opinion to bring disaffection among islands which we hone will start their independence in the happiest and most united way possible.

My noble friend Lord Lovat asked about the Free Port. I understand that this was established about 10 to 15 years ago by some developers who had several agreements which are usually known as the Hawksbill Agreements. These granted widespread privileges to the developers. As a result, a Royal Commission was appointed, I think either in 1969 or 1970, to examine the working of those agreements, and they proposed amendments to remove some undesirable features. As they were entitled to do, the Bahamas Government reviewed the special immigration privileges that the developing companies enjoyed. This has now reduced the opportunities open to expatriates, but I am glad to say that it has provided new opportunities for the Bahamians.

In conclusion I think this has been a useful and interesting debate, but I hope that next Tuesday, in the Committee stage, we shall not give any impression of disunity where really only a small element of disunity exists. I hope that these very beautiful islands and the people within them will have a prosperous and enjoyable future.

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