HL Deb 11 December 1975 vol 366 cc1057-60

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what further discussions they have had with the Government of Sri Lanka about compensation for the nationalisation of British-owned tea estates, and whether they will state the factors which they consider should be taken into account in deciding the sums payable to the former proprietors.


My Lords, we have sought and obtained assurances from the Government of Sri Lanka that they will pay compensation to the former British owners of nationalised estates in accordance with international law. It is for the Government of Sri Lanka to decide the basis on which the compensation will be assessed and the amount to be paid is a matter for agreement between them and the companies concerned.


My Lords, while thanking the noble Lord for that reply, may I ask whether in the opinion of the Government this compensation ought to be determined in accordance with the Charter of Economic Rights and Duties adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 12th December 1974? Does he agree that in assessing what that Charter calls appropriate compensation the circumstances which the State considered pertinent might include costs arising from the presence of large numbers of ex-patriate workers brought in by the British tea companies, the cost to Sri Lanka's economy of its dependence on one particular crop, aid the ecological damage caused by the destruction of forests in the tea-growing areas?


My Lords, those considerations are for the Government of Sri Lanka to take into account if they so decide. Certainly at this stage it is not for any other Government, including the Government of the United Kingdom, to indicate to Sri Lanka what it should do about the Charter adopted by the United Nations to which the noble Lord referred.


My Lords, can the noble Lord confirm whether the Sri Lanka Government have said that the compensation should be paid in rupees and that the British companies are going to be allowed to transmit only the interest from that compensation back to the United Kingdom? What is the Government's attitude to this arrangement?


My Lords, I could not anticipate the result of the negotiations between the companies and the Government of Sri Lanka. We believe that the negotiations will start in January, a few weeks from now. The question of the exchange position and the arrangements for the transfer of compensation will have to form part of those negotiations.


My Lords, will the noble Lord give an assurance that Her Majesty's Government will continue to do their best to protect British interests there in accordance with what is right and just?


My Lords, as I indicated in my substantive reply, we expect that the question of compensation will be settled according to international law. While not engaging directly in the negotiations, we shall be properly concerned that British interests affecting British nationals are observed by the Government of Sri Lanka; and I see no reason why this will not be the case.


My Lords, is this issue not complicated by the fact that the Government of Sri Lanka have been very bitter about the whole issue since the time when the Tamils were imported when we colonised Sri Lanka?


My Lords, there is no doubt that questions of this kind have always been complicated by historical factors. One hopes that in the negotiations which are pending both sides will get down to effecting a mutually agreeable and acceptable basis of compensation.


My Lords, might I ask the noble Lord whether Great Britain gives Sri Lanka any grants; and, if so, whether it would not be better to give some of those grants to the people concerned who have been dispossessed of their tea estates?


My Lords, the purpose of development aid is not to recoup expropriated companies; it is to assist the people of the receiving country.


My Lords, with regard to the British interests referred to by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, does not the Minister agree that, after taking into account the circumstances I mentioned and deducting those costs from the market value of the tea estates owned by the British, the amount of compensation so calculated might well be nil?


My Lords, I could not agree anything of the sort. I could neither agree nor disagree. It is for the Government of Sri Lanka to negotiate with the representatives of the Ceylon Association and come to an agreement on the basis and the fact of compensation. It is not for us to do so.


My Lords, will the Government keep their eyes on this problem of the imported labour, the Tamil labour, and see what they can do to safeguard their interests? They freely came to labour in the industry in Sri Lanka and, besides giving employment to themselves, contributed very largely to the economy of that country.


My Lords, I take note of what the noble Lord said. I repeat that this is an independent, sovereign country dealing with an issue of some importance to itself. This country is a member of the Commonwealth and we are in constant and friendly touch with Sri Lanka, as we are with every other member of the Commonwealth.

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