HL Deb 09 July 1979 vol 401 cc692-702

4.37 p.m.

Lord TREFGARNE rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 27th June 1979 be approved. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move that the draft Saint Vincent Termination of Asssociation Order 1979 which was laid before this House on 27th June be approved. The order will be made under Section 10(2) of the West Indies Act (1967). The West Indies Act requires that any order made under this Section must be laid in draft before Parliament and approved by resolution of both Houses. The effect of the order is to terminate the status of association between the United Kingdom and Saint Vincent. It is proposed that it should come into effect on 27th October 1979. Saint Vincent will then be a fully independent sovereign State.

The link between the United Kingdom and Saint Vincent dates back to 1627 when Saint Vincent was included in a patent given by Charles I to the Earl of Carlisle. During the remainder of the 17th century, and most of the 18th, ownership of the island was the subject of dispute between the British and the French. After the French declared war on Britain during the American War of Independence, Saint Vincent fell into French hands but was restored to Britain by the Treaty of Versailles in 1783. Saint Vincent remained, for most of the time as part of the Windward Islands, a British colony until 1969 when it became one of the six West Indies Associated States. This status gave Saint Vincent full internal self-government while Britain retained responsibility for external affairs and defence. Associated statehood, intended as an interim stage on the path to full independence, has generally worked well. During the past few years there has been a general desire on the part of the States involved to complete the move to independence and three of the six have done so: Grenada in 1974 was followed by Dominica in November 1978, and Saint Lucia in February of this year.

Section 10(1) of the West Indies Act 1967 provides for Associated States to terminate the status of association themselves, by resolution at the House of Assembly endorsed by a two-thirds majority in a popular referendum. Each State has, however, preferred to use the procedure under Section 10(2) of the Act, whereby the British Government grants independence by Order in Council. This is also Saint Vincent's request. The House will recall that the British Government have sought in previous cases to satisfy themselves on two main counts before deciding to proceed by Order in Council: first, that the people of the State in question wish to become independent and, secondly, that a satisfactory constitution has been drawn up which safeguards fundamental rights and freedoms. We believe that both criteria have been met for Saint Vincent and that we should therefore accede to their request.

The Saint Vincent Government have an overwhelming parliamentary and popular mandate to ask for independence: at the December 1974 election, on a platform which included independence, they defeated the Government of Mr. Mitchell, securing 10 of the 13 elected seats in the House of Assembly and over 69 per cent. of the popular vote. The Opposition People's Political Party, with two representatives in the Assembly, had previously entered into an electoral pact with the Government, and although the PPP's own Manifesto did not refer to independence they can reasonably be assumed to have supported the Government's policy in this respect. Their party newspaper The Voice in fact declared in an editorial in February, 1975, that, this was the very reason why the major parties got together to clear the way for independence ". The other Opposition member, Mr. Mitchell, (who campaigned at the election as an independent, but who now leads the New Democratic Party) made independence an objective within the lifetime of the present Parliament, although he hoped it could come about through Caribbean unification.

The Premier of Saint Vincent, Mr. Milton Cato, did not seek talks on independence with the British Government immediately after the Saint Vincent 1974 election, because he wished to concentrate first on restoring Saint Vincent's economy. Preliminary talks were held in April, 1978, at which he asked the then Minister of State, Mr. Rowlands, to convene a constitutional conference. His action was endorsed by a resolution of the House of Assembly, which was however opposed by the three Opposition Members. A period of public discussion on independence and an independence constitution followed. The public were invited to submit proposals and a privately inspired National Independence Committee was formed which submitted a wide range of suggestions. I should mention that the National Independence Committee included members of a radical party, the Youlou National Liberation Movement, who are as yet unrepresented in Parliament but who support the principle of independence.

Mr. Rowlands invited the Saint Vincent Government and Opposition leaders to a constitutional conference which was held in London in September 1978. Despite their initial acceptance of this invitation, the Opposition leaders did not in the event attend. At the conference, which had therefore to be held without an Opposition presence, the draft independence constitution was considered. This included proposals put forward by the National Independence Committee. Following the conference, a report with proposed amendments to the constitution was published in Saint Vincent and a further period of time was allowed for public discussion of the issues. For virtually all this period, the Opposition Members made no suggestions for constitution changes and on 8th February the House of Assembly held a debate. A few days before the debate, the People's Political Party had published some proposed amendments to the constitution in the party newspaper and during the debate Mr. Mitchell made further suggestions; but the Opposition parties did not take part in the Committee stage where the constitution was considered in detail and were absent when the vote was taken. It was therefore passed by 10 votes with none against. The Opposition parties wrote to the British Government asking for the constitutional conference to be reconvened so that their own proposals could be considered.

While rejecting the request for a second constitutional conference, Mr. Rowlands suggested to Mr. Cato that a compromise between Government and Opposition in Saint Vincent could be achieved if he would accept some of the Opposition's proposed amendments to the constitution. Mr. Cato at first took the view that the Opposition should have submitted their proposals at the proper time. My honourable friend Mr. Ridley visited Saint Vincent in May and had talks with Mr. Cato and all the Opposition Leaders (Mr. and Mrs. Joshua and Mr. Mitchell). After these meetings, Mr. Ridley proposed that Mr. Cato should accept three important constitutional amendments and I am glad to say that he agreed to do so. The resulting constitution, based as it is on the 1969 Associated Statehood constitution, which was itself designed for adaptation to the needs of an independent state, is a good one and provides the necessary safeguards for the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms.

There may perhaps be some concern that Saint Vincent should be thinking of independence at a time when it has just experienced an emergency resulting from the volcanic eruption on the island on 13th April. Saint Vincent has indeed been through a difficult period. Twenty thousand people had to be evacuated to the southern part of the island and housed and fed for almost two months. Saint Vincent received generous help from its neighbours and from the Americans and the Canadians. The British Government provided immediate medical supplies, food and financial assistance up to £100,000. In addition, we have sent two ambulances at a cost of £17,000, the Royal Navy frigate HMS " Gurkha " visited the island, to give assistance and British seismologists have been helping local experts to assess the prospects of volcanic activity in the future. I am glad to say that the activity has decreased sufficiently for it to be considered safe for the vast majority of the evacuees to return to their homes.

We have been considering with the Saint Vincent Government the longer-term problems of rehabilitation and have agreed to provide £250,000 rehabilitation aid for the small banana growers on the island. This is being spent on fertilisers and pesticides. Discussions about the levels of British aid to Saint Vincent after independence were held in November, 1978. The British Government offered aid of £10 million, half on grant and half on interest-free loan terms, for projects agreed between the two Governments. This is the same development aid package as was agreed for Dominica and St. Lucia when they became independent. In addition, the existing Technical Co-operation Programme will continue, and an offer was made of budgetary aid totalling up to 2.07 million Eastern Caribbean dollars (about £370,000) to be spread over the next two years.

The fact that the eruption did not result in loss of life, injury or outbreak of disease is a tribute to the highly efficient way in which the evacuation of the stricken area was organised under the personal supervision of Premier Cato. The emergency interrupted Saint Vincent's progress to independence, but it also showed dramatically that the people of that island, with the help of their friends, are well able to look after themselves in times of crisis.

I should perhaps say something about the wider aspects of Saint Vincent's independence in the light of the recent events in the Eastern Caribbean, particularly in Grenada. It is understandable that other Island States in the area are concerned about their own vulnerability. They have themselves been considering ways in which regional security can be strengthened and we are ready, together with our friends and allies, to help. However, even before the coup in Grenada, other Commonwealth countries in the Eastern Caribbean had been discussing ways of developing their political and economic co-operation, and have now agreed in principle to establish an organisation of Eastern Caribbean States which would act for the States on a regional and international basis. The organisation will be able to become truly effective only when the present Associated States become independent and the British Government relinquish responsibility for their external affairs. The grant of independence to the Associated States is a way of encouraging further co-operation among the Eastern Caribbean States generally, and thereby contributing towards the overall stability of the area. It is therefore fully in accord with the spirit of one of the objectives of Opposition Member Mr. Mitchell, who is striving for a unified Caribbean.

It is a pity that there is not complete consensus in the island for Saint Vincent's passage to full independence. However, the British Government are satisfied that the great majority of the people of Saint Vincent support independence and we consider that there is no justification for delay. I began my remarks by referring to the historical connection between Saint Vincent and the United Kingdom. I wish to stress that this connection can never be erased. But time cannot stand still, and after 10 years as an Associated State it is now right that Saint Vincent should move forward to independent statehood. A constitutional relationship which has become anomalous will then be replaced by a new one more appropriate to their new circumstances. I have no doubt that it will be as close and fruitful a relationship as we have enjoyed since 1627. I am sure the House will join me in wishing the people of Saint Vincent well.

I now ask your Lordships to agree to terminate the association between Saint Vincent and the United Kingdom. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft Saint Vincent Termination of Association Order 1979 be approved.—(Lord Trefgarne.)

4.50 p.m.


My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord for so clearly explaining the purpose of this order, the latest in a series of similar orders in which an outmoded system of association has been replaced by a more modern and effective system. As the noble Lord said, we are conferring independence on Saint Vincent wholly at their request and in the way in which they want it to be conferred upon them; namely, under Section 10(2) of the 1967 Act. This is what they have asked for and this is what we are doing. Their democratically-elected Government has acted throughout on behalf of the people of Saint Vincent and we have responded to that democratic will. Before matters developed to their present position, the relationship between Saint Vincent and, indeed, other islands and this country was hardly colonial, was it? It was described by the Chief Minister of Saint Vincent as one of " amicable dependence ", and it was in that spirit that the necessary movement towards a more modern arrangement with the United Kingdom proceeded.

Naturally, as is our practice in these matters, we have been concerned to ensure that independence should include the continuation of democracy in the new State. Sometimes Oppositions in such territories—in particular, perhaps, in small islands—wonder whether the democracy that they enjoyed under imperialism will survive into independence. And it has not so survived in some parts of the world. But the Caribbean experience is, I think, generally reassuring. One could point to the recent very encouraging example of Saint Lucia, whose people effected a peaceful democratic change of government in the last few weeks or so—as we did in this country—and we have every confidence that Saint Vincent will follow the same path.

The noble Lord reminded us that the Opposition decided, I think at the very last moment, not to attend the constitutional conference where they could certainly have had a full discussion regarding their points of reservation and the amendment of the new constitution. Nevertheless, it is most encouraging—I think to them as well as to us, as partners in that constitutional conference—that Premier Cato, under the influence of the noble Lord's right honourable friend the Minister of State, has conceded a number of the points, although not all of them, that the Opposition had been anxious about. However, this concession from the Premier, backed as he is by about 70 per cent. of the electorate of the island, should serve to strengthen the confidence of the Opposition that their role in the new, independent Saint Vincent will be fully assured.

Nevertheless, the friends of Saint Vincent and of the Caribbean, both in this country and in that area, must be concerned about recent events in the Caribbean. The takeover in Grenada, followed by the political turmoil in Dominica and reports of mercenery military activity in the area, has undoubtedly unsettled the Caribbeans, because small States—especially, perhaps, islands—are peculiarly vulnerable to coups, internally or externally instigated. So while the future of democracy in the Caribbean is reasonably assured, it must he qualified by concern about certain recent events.

I am sure that the United Kingdom, as it ends one method of association with Saint Vincent and other islands in the area, wishes to build up another kind of co-operation with Saint Vincent so that they can feel that they are not being left to cope with these very difficult political as well as economic questions, affecting not only their prosperity but their very security, without a firm friend in the country with which they have been amicably associated for something like three centuries.

There is all the more reason, therefore, for the United Kingdom to regard independence not as the end of our connection with Saint Vincent and the Caribbean but as the beginning of a new period of fruitful co-operation. This policy can be as helpful to the peoples of the Caribbean as undoubtedly it has been to the peoples of the Pacific. Indeed, this is the view of many Caribbean leaders. The fact that association did not prove to be workable need not foreclose the option of very close co-operation between the States within the area.

The noble Lord indicated possible fruitful ways of advance in the future, in the direction of closer regional co-operation. For instance, the Council of Ministers in the Eastern Caribbean can, if they choose—it is not for us to tell them what to do but we shall always be there to advise or to discuss, if they want us to do so as good friends of theirs—develop that arrangement so as to create structurally an ever-stronger regional system.

Analogies can be misleading, of course, but it is a fact that in many parts of the world regional co-operation is being developed and is proving steadily to be more and more successful. An obvious example of this kind of coming together for common purposes in a region is, of course, the European Community. But there are others as well. Technically, Comecon and Eastern Europe are pursuing the same regionalist approach. Then there is the very encouraging progress of ASEAN, the Association of South-East Asian Nations.

So the Caribbeans, in developing regional policies, are, as the noble Lord reminded us, in a mainstream of world tendency, and a very benificent one. How they do this is their own concern. I repeat that they can always turn to their friends—they have no better friends than this country—to seek advice. Indeed, they have done so already, and we have offered them advice. We shall continue to give them advice, technical assistance and financial aid—financial aid generally for their development as well as specifically in order to help them to cope with very difficult circumstances, such as those which arose after the eruption of the Soufrière volcano.

So in thanking the noble Lord I am sure I speak for the Opposition when I say that we very warmly support this order, one of a number which is part of the pattern of the British approach to the independent Government of the Caribbean. In supporting the order, we wish to join with the noble Lord and his friends on that side of the House in wishing the Government and the people of Saint Vincent every prosperity in the future, with our added wish that they will remember that they have here in this country consistent and steadfast friends.

5 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friend said that the Opposition gave a warm welcome to this order. I share it, with some hesitation, however. I still believe that Section 10(2) of the West Indies Act was not the proper vehicle for sending associated States to independence. But, my Lords, let us forget it: three have already gone that way; but I felt that I should remind my noble friend that I took the Labour Peers into the Division Lobby on the first order. When I look at the circumstances of Grenada I cannot help but feel that perhaps we might have been right. However, it is not a real issue now.

I was involved with Saint Vincent, bringing it to statehood; and it was not easy to bring it to statehood, despite the fact that the West Indies Act was passed and five other of the territories had already gone, because of the conflict that existed then between the Government and the Opposition and the personalities who, I may say to my noble friend Lord Goronwy-Roberts, are still there, Mr. Milton Cato and Mr. Joshua. Saint Vincent is a most wonderful island; it has great potential and it has great problems, despite the present circumstances. But I hope that they will take from all of us in this House and from Parliament as a whole a genuine good wish for happiness and I believe above all else, security within their territory.

I welcome very much what the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, said in regard to regional developments. I have to say to the noble Lord, however, that there is no way in which the British can bring that about. One reads the history of the Caribbean, the history of the West Indies, the history of the Leewards and the Windwards, and there is no way in which the British can bring it about. I believe it can only be brought about by the will of those who live in those particularly wonderful but rather distant isles. One of the greatest difficulties of those islands is that although they are close together in terms of miles they are distant in terms of communication. They are very different from each other, but the leaders of all six associated States, with leadership, I hope, from the bigger of the Caribbean countries (perhaps Barbados could play a major role if it was so willing) could bring about an association of them with one of the bigger of the Caribbean Islands.

We must, however, look to them to bring about their own sense of security. I spoke with hesitation only because of Section 10(2); I have nothing but the best of goodwill towards the people of Saint Vincent, and while Mr. Milton Cato and Mr. and Mrs. Joshua may long decide to be in political conflict, I hope that, in the end, it will be only with the deepest affection between them.

5.4 p.m.


My Lords, I am obliged to both noble Lords. Perhaps in winding up I could respond to the first point made by the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, when he said that he would have preferred that we should proceed by using the procedure under Section 10(1) of the Act. One of the important differences of the procedure under that subsection of course is that there is a referendum in the islands upon the issue of independence and that is not the case if we follow, as we have decided to do, the procedure in the order before your Lordships today. The referendum procedure is in the West Indies Act for use if an associated State desires to move to independence unilaterally against the wishes of the British Government. So far independence has always come about by agreement. It is not the Government's policy to insist on a referendum on the issue of independence in dependent territories. We could hardly insist therefore on a referendum in the case of an associated State which enjoys a more advanced and entirely voluntary form of constitutional relationship with Britain. In practice we think that a referendum on the small island of Saint Vincent might have proved even more divisive than the politics of that island. All noble Lords have wished Saint Vincent well and I hope your Lordships will now agree this Motion.

On Question, Motion agreed to.