HL Deb 14 June 1979 vol 400 cc781-800

6.33 p.m.


My Lords, my noble friend Lord Carrington much regrets that, because the previous debate went on longer than anticipated, and because of an inescapable engagement, he is not able to open this debate himself this afternoon.

Your Lordships will be aware that this Bill affects the Queen's Prerogative and that Her Majesty's Consent would, therefore, normally have been communicated to the House by a Privy Councillor who is a member of the Government. Unfortunately no Member of your Lordships' House who falls within this category is able to be present at this time and I, therefore, take this opportunity to say that I understand that one of my noble friends will signify the Queen's Consent at a later stage.

I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

The Bill before your Lordships, which was approved in another place on 11th June, is identical to the one already debated and approved by your Lordships' House in February and March in the last Parliament. The details will therefore be familiar to your Lordships, and I do not wish to take up the time of the House unnecessarily. The noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, set out the position admirably in the Second Reading debate on 10th February. We, on this side, then in Opposition, supported the Second Reading, and particularly because of an undertaking from him—and I quote from column 1603—as follows: I am prepared to accept the suggestion that a Minister should, before the Bill is read a second time in another place, visit the Pacific to discuss with the Gilbert Islands Government and the Rabi Council of Leaders, if they are willing, the special provisions to protect the interests of the Banabans". The visit was, in fact, made by Mr. Evan Luard, then Parliamentary Under-Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. I shall return to this later.

The fact that this Government have reintroduced the Bill as it stood does not imply that we accepted it uncritically. A Government have resources and information not available to an Opposition, and we have examined the whole complex of issues most carefully before taking the decision to reintroduce it.

The Bill makes provision for the independence of the Gilbert Islands as a republic within the Commonwealth under the name of Kiribati, on 12th July 1979. The Gilbert Islands number 33, nearly all coral atolls, scattered over two million square miles of the Pacific. They have democratic traditions, shared with other countries of the area, and enshrined in the Constitution, of which there is a copy in the Library of your Lordships' House. Under their custom, they reach decisions by consensus and these decisions are then binding on the people. It was thus that after a long process of consultation throughout the islands, the government of the territory asked the British Government for a constitutional conference leading up to independence. It was clear from these consultations—and this was reaffirmed at the constitutional conference in November and December last year—that they wanted their independence with all their territory intact. This is not a goal that we should criticise.

Earlier debates on this Bill, both in the previous Parliament in this House and the present Parliament in another place, have been dominated by the Banaban demand that Ocean Island, or Banaba, be separated before independence. Personally, I regret that this has drawn attention from the main purpose of this Bill, which is to end a long and happy constitutional relationship with a colony with which we look forward to having an equally warm relationship after independence. Ideally, we should this afternoon primarily be welcoming a new member to the family of nations and to the Commonwealth; and I would not wish the fact that I am devoting much of my speech to the Banaban issue to obscure or detract from this, the main purpose of the Bill.

The Bill before your Lordships is concerned exclusively with constitutional matters: with respect to Banaba, it is concerned with the future status of the island and the extent of the sovereignty of a future Kiribati State, together with safeguards for the Banaban rights of land ownership on, and access to, Banaba.

On the central question of the status of Banaba, it is common ground that Banaba is, and for more than 60 years has been, a part of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands colony, later the Gilbert Islands colony. To change this position, without the consent of the Gilbert Islands government and people would be a most exceptional act, which no government could take without compelling reasons. This Government, like its predecessors, have concluded that sufficient reasons for such a decision do not exist.

Your Lordships will be aware of the detailed provisions, both within and outside the Constitution, that have been provided to safeguard the rights and privileges of the Banabans in Banaba. They are set out in paragraphs 62 to 69 of the report on the Constitutional Conference; and they have been further reinforced as a result of discussions with the Gilbert Islands Government which have taken place since this Government came to power. I would here pay a tribute to Mr. Luard, who initiated these discussions during his Pacific visit to which I have already referred. His proposals were the subject of a Statement by the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, on 13th March. They included the maximum devolution of local government powers to the Banaba Island Council; the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry after three, rather than five, years to review the operation of the special constitutional safeguards for the Banabans; and a proposal for a treaty with an independent country concerning the Banabans' rights.

The Chief Minister has reaffirmed to us his Government's firm commitment to the establishment of the review commission and his desire that it should be truly independent. He has also given an undertaking that Kiribati will take advice from the Secretary General of the Commonwealth on the Chairman of the Commission, and from two other Commonwealth countries, one of which could be Britain, on the other two members.

Secondly, when the Kiribati Bill, to include Banaba, is enacted by the United Kingdom Parliament, the Kiribati Government will be ready, if the Banabans wish, to conclude a treaty with the United Kingdom or another Commonwealth country to secure the special rights of the Banabans within a united Kiribati republic. Such a treaty would refer to the special safeguards to be included in the Kiribati constitution and the other assurances given by the Gilbert Islands Government described in paragraphs 64 to 68 of the conference report. Any Banaban complaint which was not susceptible of resolution by the courts would be raised first in the Kiribati Assembly. If it was not resolved in this way, it could be raised with both Governments.

Every effort would be made to resolve the complaint amicably between the Council and the Kiribati Government, for which the good offices of Her Majesty's Government (or of another agreed Commonwealth Government) could be requested. If no agreement was reached within a specified period an independent mediator would be appointed, if needed by the Commonwealth Secretary General. I am sure that the House will agree that these undertakings represent further generous gestures by the Gilbert Islands Government to underline their good faith.

My Lords, our colonial record in the Pacific, originating, as it does, primarily from an endeavour in the last century to protect the islands in the region from raids by "black-birders" for labour to work in plantations in South America and Pacific territories, is one in which we can take great pride. Apart from phosphates, these territories have few resources, and the British Government have made no material gain from the colonial presence which is now coming to an end. All the proceeds from phosphate mining on Banaba, for example, have gone to the Gilbert Islands, including a high proportion to the Banabans. And our aid programme to the area, including the Gilbert Islands, has been, and will continue to be, among the largest per capita anywhere in the world.

The Banabans undoubtedly have some legitimate grievances arising from errors or omissions of the colonial past, but we cannot re-write history, and I am convinced we must now look to the future. In this spirit, I hope that your Lordships will join me in congratulating the Gilbert Islands Government in their forthcoming independence as a fellow member of the Commonwealth. I beg to move that this Bill now be read a second time.

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

6.43 p.m.


My Lords, may I first of all congratulate the noble Lord on the way in which he has moved the Second Reading of this Bill. As I said when I performed a similar duty on that side of the House a few weeks ago, this is a good Bill. No independence Bill is without difficulty, as many Members of this House are well aware. I have handled more than my fair share of them. I can assure the House that every one of them presents almost implacable differences of view, of opinion, of interest, and this is no exception. The heart and centre of the difficulty here was of course the varying attitudes of the Banabans and of the rest, of the Gilbertese, as to the future of Ocean Island—one of the 33 islands which will constitute the new state.

The efforts of the Government of which I was a member, and of myself as the Minister concerned, were part of a long series of attempts by successive Ministers and Governments to try somehow to bring together two quite irreconcilable attitudes towards the future of these islands, on the basis that no case had finally been made for detaching this one island from the 33 without in that way making a similar case for the detachment of every one of the other 32. It was found reasonable to put forward, after prolonged discussion and negotiation, a constitutional conference of a fortnight, half of which was devoted entirely to the Banaban question. Let nobody say that there has been any lack of attention to the Banaban case during the conference, or before the conference. The opposite is true.

After these prolonged discussions the accommodation which the noble Lord described to us once more, which has been described in the other place as well as here before now, was put forward. I think that it is a fair and perfectly workable compromise on which the people of the 33 islands can move forward, confidently and co-operatively. The accommodation included one constitutional provision which the noble Lord has described; namely, that there should be within the new State a special position for Ocean Island. This was not a universally popular proposal in the rest of the islands, or indeed in the rest of the Pacific. There is always the spectre of insular fragmentation in the Pacific as in the Caribbean. Simply to regard the desires of this attractive community, the Banaban community, in regard to this one island, to the exclusion of the anxieties of many other islands in that part of the world and in other parts of the world, would have constituted a derogation of duty by Ministers. But if there was a way of helping the Gilbert Islands, as we may still call them, to move forward as a body, but with a special provision to meet the feelings as well as the interests of the Banabans, then we wanted to find it, and we have found it.

Surely nothing could be more reasonable than to provide for the 33 islands moving into independence on their present territorial basis, because this is a basic principle of the processing of colonial independence. Nothing could be more reasonable than to do that but, at the same time, as the noble Lord reminded us, to provide for the fullest, in my experience the most unprecedented, guarantees for the interests and the wellbeing of the Banaban community in regard to Ocean Island, and in providing those guarantees, further to set up a Commission—I use the word not definitively, but some kind of commission—which would supervise the implementation of those guarantees and, at the end of three years, review the position.

Therefore, I suggest to the House that what the accommodation does is to give to the Gilbert Islands as a whole a feeling that we, in the United Kingdom, are not wrenching away one part of their territory as they move into independence; a feeling that that is not happening, but that they are moving as a group into independence as they ought to; and at the same time to provide for guarantees and the supervision of those guarantees for the interests of the Banabans, and a review of how that arrangement has worked at the end of three years. Indeed, the original proposal on these lines was made by the Gilbert Islands Government itself, and it was for a review at the end of five years. It was at my request that they generously said, "If it will help our friends and brothers the Banabans, we will reduce the period to three years That is only one example of the generous spirit in which the Gilbert Islands Government has met this problem.

I commend the Bill. I thank the noble Lord for the way in which he presented the Motion and I hope the House will join together in giving the Bill its Second Reading so that on 12th July the people of the Gilbert Islands, now to be called Kiribati, will move to independence as a united community ready to look at the position again in the light of experience at the end of three years.

I have a few questions to put before resuming my seat. Not now, but perhaps later in the Session, the House would like to know what the position is in regard to the ex gratia offer of 10 million Australian dollars which was made in May 1977 to the Banaban community. We have heard so much about how much the Banabans have lost in not having full control over the phosphates of Ocean Island and perhaps it is helpful to remind everybody that that ex gratia offer was made as far back as May 1977 by the British Government, after consultation with our partners in the British Phosphates Commission, the Australians and New Zealanders. Has that yet been taken up? Additionally, the accrued interest to that sum, which I believe is 1¼ million to 1½ million Australian dollars—what has happened to that offer?

If not now, perhaps later in the Session the noble Lord might confirm the provision of £1 million for the development of Rabi, where the vast majority of Banabans live and have lived since 1946; about 2,500 of them live there compared with perhaps 200 on Ocean Island, for reasons we all deplore but understand. There was that provision of £l million for the development of Rabi. I am sure that will be confirmed because it is important that we should recognise the generosity of the Fiji Government in what they did for the Banabans in making Rabi available for them in 1946–47 and the way in which the Fiji Government, and particularly that great statesman, Sir Ratu Mara, the Prime Minister of Fiji, have constantly helped this community since then.

I set great store by the offer that we—rather, the Overseas Development Ministry—should finance a thorough-going survey of Ocean Island. This island was ravaged—I am not here to apportion blame; the blame is history in these matters—in order to secure phosphates not for the benefit of this country and I support what the noble Lord said about that. There may be a way by which this island can be rehabilitated. There was a firm proposal that there should be a survey of the island with a view to doing everything possible to rehabilitate it.

I hope that when he replies to the debate the noble Lord may be able to give encouragement along those lines and may seek to comment on these points. In the meantime independence must proceed, and I join the noble Lord in wishing the people of the Gilbert Islands, now to be called Kiribati, every good wish in their venture into independent existence. They have long wanted it and no one in this House would wish to thwart them. We shall join them, always in spirit and maybe one or two in the flesh, in the celebrations on 12th July, thus welcoming the 40th—or is it the 41st?—independent member of the family of nations which we are proud to call a true Commonwealth.

As always at these constitutional conferences, the Minister concerned never suggests, let alone urges, the emerging independent State to join the Commonwealth; he waits, but he does not have to wait long. Every one of them asks, "May we join the Commonwealth?" and it is a proud and happy moment for any Minister of State at the end of a constitutional conference of that sort to be able to say, "Yes, of course you may, and we in Britain will be proud and happy to sponsor your application to the Commonwealth for membership." So, in the future as in the past, we look forward to close and warm co-operation between this country and its people and the people of the 33 islands of Kiribati.

6.57 p.m.


My Lords, I wish to join with the spokesman for the Government and for the Opposition Front Bench in my very best wishes to the 50,000 or 60,000 people of the Gilbertese and Ellice Islands on moving toward their independence. They will have a difficult and exciting task. They will represent 33 different islands over an area of 2 million square miles. I am confident they will prove equal to the task. They are among the most generous, kindly and unassuming people one could know. They believe intensely in democracy, not only in theory but in life.

I have a delightful picture of the Prime Minister on his bicycle moving through the streets in shirt and shorts. He belongs to the people and is of the people. I know only one other country where there is a similar democracy between those who govern and the people, and that is Tanzania, where the Prime Minister, instead of being accompanied by a cavalcade of police with all other traffic stopped, travels in a small car and even obeys the traffic signals. It is because of my understanding of that feeling by the leaders in the Gilbert and Ellice Islands that very sincerely I wish them well on their independence.

I regret very much that that independence is beginning with an area of controversy about the future of Ocean Island. It makes their task even more difficult, and I believe that even at this late hour we must do our best to bring about a solution of the problem. I believe that it is still possible, as I will indicate before I conclude my remarks.

I want incidentally to refer to one monetary matter. Monetary matters are incidental to the greater issue. The fundamental issue is the degree of self-determination which the Banabans are to have. However, I understand that the Government have now made an offer of a £1 million grant to enable construction to take place. I feel that that amount is most inadequate. I do not propose to refer to the past, to an island destroyed—from which this country, Australia, and New Zealand have benefited enormously—and with the majority of its population exiled. The grant of £1 million for all the restoration that has to be made seems to me deplorably inadequate.

In the past there has been some criticism of the Banabans because they have concentrated their attention on Ocean Island rather than on Rabi Island where most of them are now living. The Minister will be aware of the constructive proposals which the Banabans have put forward for the use of any grant that the Government make. First, they want roads constructed on Rabi Island where today there is almost a complete absence of roads. Secondly, they want some protection on their shores from the devastating, turbulent invasion of the sea. Thirdly, they want to devote the grant to rehousing, because many of them are still living in primitive shacks. Their fourth proposal is one to which I think we ought particularly to respond. They want to use the grant for a boat which will enable them to travel from Rabi Island to Ocean Island when they so desire.

However, these monetary issues are quite subordinate to the fundamental issue of the right to self-determination. I think that we should recognise that the Banabans neither desire nor seek to delay the independence of the Gilbertese and Ellice Islands. They recognise the right of those people to their own independence. But what has not been indicated in the speeches which have been delivered tonight is the fact that agreement between the Gilbertese and the Banabans representatives is now very near. I emphasise that. A meeting was called at Suva by the Prime Minister of Fiji, between representatives of the Gilbertese and the Banabans. To that meeting the Prime Minister of Fiji—to whom I wish to pay the highest tribute for his statesmanlike attitude during all these discussions—made the proposal that Banaba should not have full independence; that instead it should become an associate State, with free association with the Gilbertese. That is to say that foreign policy and defence would not have been in its hands. He even proposed that the association with Fiji should be ended.

No recognition has been given to the fact that the Banabans have accepted those proposals, and that at the end of the discussions the representatives of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands and the Council of Banabans from Ocean Island agreed that there should be further talks upon this subject. It was proposed that these further talks, which might so easily have resolved this problem, should be held before the committee stage in another place. I regret very much that they were not held. What I want to emphasise tonight as strongly as I can is that if we really desire that the independence of the Gilbertese and Ellice Islands shall begin in the most promising conditions, an effort should be made, even at this late hour, to renew the talks which have already begun and which are so promising. I would urge upon the Government that, late as it is, a solution of the problem is more important than the procedure of this House. If we really want independence for the Gilbertese and Ellice Islands to begin in promising conditions, we ought, even at this late hour, to call a renewal of the talks before the Bill is finally adopted.

If the present proposals are carried out, the Bill will pass and independence will be given to the Gilbertese and Ellice Islands. Ocean Islands and the Banabans will be integrated in it. If talks take place under those conditions, they will inevitably be prejudiced. They will be prejudiced because an imposed decision would have been reached by the British Parliament. Therefore I want to urge upon Her Majesty's Government that in order that independence may begin in a hopeful position, they agree even now to the resumption of the talks under conditions which are most likely to realise a satisfactory result. I and those associated with me do not propose to divide the House tonight on the Second Reading. With others—and not only members of the Opposition—I will put down an Amendment for the Committee stage. I will withdraw the Amendment if Her Majesty's Government will give me an assurance that, before the Bill is finally adopted, the talks which have been so promising shall be renewed and if, as a result of those talks, the compromise proposal made by the Prime Minister of Fiji shall he carried out. I am afraid that if I cannot have that assurance, when the Committee stage is reached those of us who are associated with the views that I have tried to express will have to press the Amendment.


My Lords, before my noble friend sits down, could he give the House an idea of what his Amendment at the Committee stage would be?


My Lords, the Amendment at Committee stage would be to exclude Ocean Island from the clauses of the Bill.

7.10 p.m.


My Lords, I think it is quite certain that very nearly everyone in this House and very nearly everyone in another place, and probably opinion throughout the world, welcomes independence for the Gilbert Islands. Neverthe less, I think we perhaps have to count ourselves lucky that in your Lordships' House we have a revising Chamber. I should like to ask the Government this evening: Why is this Bill being pushed through with such extreme haste? When the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, was in charge of the previous Bill, there seemed to be the smell of a time-table. I submit that, now, the haste is becoming quite indecent.

This present Bill had its Second Reading in another place on 24th May, and completed all its stages there on 12th June. It is being submitted to your Lordships for Second Reading today, 14th June, and an examination of the Notices and Orders of the Day shows that it is intended to take the remaining stages in this House on 19th June, without there being even a single sitting day between Second Reading and Committee. Taking the whole procedure, there will have been seven sitting days, I think, from Second Reading in another place to the intended date of Third Reading in this House. In the midst of those seven sitting days has come the Whitsun Recess. I hope the Government can throw some light on this, to my mind, excessive degree of haste. The degree of haste seems to be particularly excessive in view of the extremely constructive, moderate and responsible speech that we have just heard from the noble Lord, Lord Brockway.

When we deal with Ocean Island and the question of the Banaban people we have to remember that we are talking of a community of about 2,500 people in all, of whom probably some 350 may be on Ocean Island today. We have to remember the very considerable contribution made by these islanders to the war effort of Britain and the British Empire in two wars. I believe it is our duty to do everything we possibly can to make sure that the Banabans shall not be left with any sense of disillusion, let alone of betrayal by this country. I suggest it is of the greatest importance that the Banaban people should not feel they have been worse treated than the inhabitants of Tuválu, formerly known as the Ellice Islands. I think that we should reflect a little as to whether there is any reason at all why the Banaban community should put their trust in any of Her Majesty's Governments, of whatever political complexion. This is perhaps a lamentable state of affairs, but it is one to which we should address our minds.

We have to remember that Ocean Island has been exploited for its valuable deposits of mineral, not by wicked capitalist companies, not by multinational corporations out for profit, but by a consortium of three Governments, of which the British Government was one all along. I was very sorry when I heard both Front Benches today trying to pretend that this country had drawn no benefits from Ocean Island whatsoever. There is a very clear and obvious benefit which this country has enjoyed over a long period of years, and that is vastly cheaper meat from New Zealand and from Australia as a result of the Ocean Island phosphate deposits. There is a further benefit to the United Kingdom Exchequer in the very much reduced cost of administration of both the Gilbert Islands and the Ellice Islands as a result of royalties payable on those phosphates.

We have to remember that the niggardly offer of compensation of some £80,000 made in 1967 to the Banaban people was gradually increased until, when the court action was settled out of court in 1976 or 1977, the final amount of compensation came to no less than £6½ million. Why was it necessary, I ask, for the Banaban community to have to drag Her Majesty's Government through the courts? Why was it necessary for the Vice-Chancellor, Sir Robert Megarry, to deliver a judgment which I think took 24 or 25 hours to read out, occupying at least three and maybe more sitting days of his court? May I now suggest a practical act of goodwill to Her Majesty's Government, and ask them what their reaction is to this suggestion? Will the Government now pay over the agreed settlement of compensation money to a body of trustees to invest and later spend on behalf of the Banaban people? This would, I think, defuse the situation quite a lot, if it could be achieved.

The noble Lord, Lord Brockway, is somewhat closer, I think, to the situation than I am, and he has made extremely constructive suggestions this evening. I hope the Government will have a satisfactory answer to give him. There might, I suppose, be yet another alternative way of proceeding, which would he this: to grant independence as agreed and as drafted to the Gilbert Islands, but not to Ocean Island, so that once the issue of independence has been cleared out of the way the Banaban people can decide for themselves with whom they wish to be associated. Nobody is arguing that they should be totally free and independent, with a seat in the United Nations, either where they live in Rabi or where they have lived on Ocean Island. Various possibilities of association have been put forward. It might well be that it will end up being an association with Kiribati. The island of Nauru, which is no great distance away, has also been suggested as a possible candidate for association. There have been considerable suggestions of association with the Fiji group. Those are three possibilities. But why can we not clear away the question of Gilbertese independence first, before dealing with the eventual status and future of Ocean Island?

The stock answer is this business about territorial integrity of countries approaching independence. One is horribly suspicious that this really means that, however badly the frontiers were originally drawn, they are to remain fixed that way in perpetuity. Certainly there was no consent asked or given by anybody in 1916 when, by an administrative act for British administrative convenience, Ocean Island was annexed to the adjacent colony. It is said that secession is quite wrong. Nobody is asking for secession in this case, but I think that history indicates that if you are strong enough to succeed you get away with it. This is precisely what happened in the case of Pakistan in 1947 and 1948, at the very time when what the Banabans call the Covenant, the solemn and binding agreement on the British Government (in respect, I know, of access and of land ownership), was being prepared and agreed.

My Lords, I submit that it would be quite wrong to separate these rights of access and rights of land ownership from the wider rights of sovereignty. In conclusion, if we cannot get this question right, how do we hope to settle satisfactorily, properly and correctly the future of the Falkland Islands, with their population of 1,805, the question of Gibraltar, with its population of just under 30,000, or the question of Belize, with its population of 140,000?

7.21 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful for the manner in which this Bill has been discussed in your Lordships' House tonight. I hardly need say that the passage of this Bill through the previous and present Parliaments has aroused more than the usual public and parliamentary attention attracted by an Independence Bill. Much of this attention has been controversial arising from the difficult Banaban issue. It is a great tribute to our British system that the voice of a tiny community at the other end of the world is heard so strongly. As I have already said, the Government considered the matter very carefully before deciding that it was only right that this Bill should be reintroduced to enable the Gilbert Islands to proceed to their promised independence—and I emphasise "promised independence"—on 12th July, on the basis of the agreement reached at the constitutional conference last December.

Several noble Lords have raised points which perhaps I can now deal with. The noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, asked about the ex gratia payment of 10 million Australian dollars which was offered to the Banabans at the constitutional conference. As the noble Lord will recall, the Banabans withdrew from the conference without giving their answer to that offer. I am happy to say that the Banaban representatives are meeting my honourable friend Mr. Blaker tomorrow and will then perhaps give their answer to that offer. It remains open. The noble Lord also asked about the offer of £1 million towards the development of Rabi. That offer remains on the table and no doubt that matter, too, will be referred to at the meeting tomorrow.

Finally, the noble Lord asked about the promised survey of Ocean Island. We are still ready to go ahead with that survey, providing the Banabans still want it; and doubtless, they do.


My Lords, may I ask whether interest will be payable on those sums of 10 million Australian dollars and £1 million sterling?


My Lords, I should need to take advice as to whether interest is payable on the £1 million sterling. I should think not. But interest is payable on the 10 million Australian dollars.

The noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, also asked about a Government interest in securing the implementation of the constitution. I shall come to that later. The noble Lord, Lord Brockway, however, referred to the £1 million which we have offered. I would emphasise that the sum is intended for the development of Rabi and not Ocean Island. As the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, reminded us, they have been offered other sums from other sources that they could use for the development of Rabi if they so wished. The noble Lord, among the various items he listed as in need of funds, mentioned a boat for travel between Rabi and Ocean Island. It is 1,500 miles. It will need quite a big boat which will take up a lot of the £1 million. Does he think that a boat is desirable for that purpose, having regard to its cost and to the fact that there are presently just 90 Banabans on Ocean Island? It is an island of only three square miles. While I do not underestimate the importance to these people of their homeland, whether a special boat between Rabi and Ocean Island is justified at what must be public expense is a matter which might bear further consideration.

The noble Lord also referred to the recent discussions which took place under the chairmanship of the Fiji Prime Minister. These discussions took place in Suva in the middle of last month. At the conclusion, a communique was issued to the effect that the two sides recognised that the issues were complex and would need to be considered and examined at further meetings in future. They accepted in principle and without commitment a working paper circulated by the chairman as a possible basis for future consultations together with the relevant provisions of the Gilbert Islands constitution.

At the Committee stage of the Bill in another place an amendment was proposed that a possible compromise solution in the working paper—namely that Banaban should be linked with the Gilbert Islands in what was called a compact and free association—should be incorporated in the Bill. My honourable friend Mr. Blaker, the Minister of State, argued that such an amendment was unacceptable since it was inconsistent with the agreement last year at the constitutional conference and since it would pre-empt future discussions between the two sides which are envisaged in the statement to which I and the noble Lord referred. It is for an independent Government of Kiribati to decide how to carry forward these discussions.

The noble Lord also said (I think I noted it correctly) that the Banabans proposed that foreign policy and defence should remain with the Gilbert Islands. My information is that it was only defence that should remain with the Gilbert Islands and that the Banabans proposed to keep foreign policy to themselves.


My Lords, I did not suggest that the Banabans proposed that. I said that the Prime Minister of Fiji had proposed it and that they had accepted it. I have got, in detail, the proposals which the Prime Minister of Fiji made and they included foreign affairs. And the Banabans did accept those proposals.


My Lords, that confirms in my mind the view that this must be a matter for consideration after independence. I do not think that it is really considered that the Banabans on their Ocean Island should conduct a separate, independent foreign policy. Is it proposed that they should send representatives to the United Nations? I do not think that that is a sensible proposal.


My Lords, the noble Lord has misunderstood me. I said that the Prime Minister of Fiji had suggested that they should not control foreign affairs. As an associate State, that would be in the hands of the Gilbertese. It is that that the Banabans accepted.


My Lords, I think the noble Lord is mistaken. My information is that the proposals were that the Banabans should retain responsibility for foreign affairs. Be that as it may, nobody has suggested—and certainly the Government do not accept—that this should form the basis of some separate State to be agreed before the Kiribati State proceeds to independence. The noble Lord, Lord Brockway, asked for an assurance; and I am sorry that I am not able to give the assurance that he asked for. Therefore, if he sees fit and feels obliged to move an amendment, so be it. The sort of line that he is proposing is not at this stage acceptable to the Government.

My Lords, may I now refer to the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, who was, first, concerned about the haste with which we were proceeding to independence or, at least, the haste with which we were taking this Bill through Parliament. I would remind the noble Lord that this Bill, exactly as it is before us today, proceeded through this House in the last Session of Parliament. On that occasion, the Bill started in this House and then went to another place. It failed to become law because of the Dissolution. Therefore, it is not true to say that we are rushing this matter in order to keep to some predetermined timetable. The process of constitutional development has proceeded over the years, culminating in internal self-government in 1977 and now in full independence. There has been no last minute rush; on the contrary, had it not been for the Banaban problem, which we have tried to settle as amicably as possible, the Gilbert Islands might well have been independent before now. It is sometimes implied that negotiations with the Banabans have been rushed over the past few months. The truth is that they have been held on and off since discussions under Lord Shepherd's chairmanship in October 1968, 11 years ago. At that time the noble Lord concluded: It was not possible for Her Majesty's Government to consider the exclusion of Ocean Island from the Gilbert and Ellice Islands Colony. Since then, a number of attempts have been made to try to find an agreed solution, both by the parties themselves and by the Prime Minister of Fiji and successive British Governments. If they have not succeeded, it has not been for want of trying.

The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, asked me a number of other points, some of which were fairly detailed. He asked, for example, about an association possibly with Fiji. We reject the principle of association at this point, but Fiji, I would remind him, is, as I said just now, 1,500 miles from Ocean Island and it would be a strange association indeed. The noble Lord also asked about payment of certain monies into a trust fund to be held for the benefit of the Banabans. That is not an impossibility; it is very likely a matter which will be raised by the Banabans when they meet my right honourable friend tomorrow.

We all regret that the Gilbertese and Banabans could not reach a mutually acceptable solution to the future of the Banabans before independence. However, this Bill will not prevent them from pursuing further discussions in the Pacific as proposed by the Fiji Prime Minister at the meeting which he chaired in Suva last month.

The Gilbertese are among the most democratic people in the world; and, like their Pacific neighbours, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu, which became independent last year, they followed the democratic path towards independence. They themselves are now poised to take the final step from full internal self-government to full nationhood and complete control of their own affairs. Their constitution is a democratic one and provides firmly entrenched safeguards protecting the interests of the Banaban minority. The Bill has received a closer and more critical scrutiny by Parliament than any independence Bill of recent years. It was approved in February by your Lordships' House after comprehensive debate. I trust therefore that your Lordships will again give it a Second Reading on this occasion.


My Lords, in view of the absence of the assurance for which I asked, I shall be moving the amendment at Committee stage.

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