HL Deb 13 March 1979 vol 399 cc496-504

2.51 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask Her Majesty's Government a Question, of which I have given Private Notice. The Question is as follows:

"To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will make a Statement on the recent visit of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs to the Pacific in connection with the Kiribati Bill."


My Lords, my honourable friend Mr. Luard, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, returned yesterday from his visit to the Pacific, where he had discussions on Rabi Island with the chairman of the Rabi Council of Leaders, before an audience of some 500 members of the Banaban Community; with the vice-chairman of the Rabi Council in Tarawa; with the Prime Minister of Fiji, the right honourable Ratu Sir Kamesese Mara, in Suva; and with Ministers of the Gilbert Islands Government in Tarawa. I should like to pay a tribute to my honourable friend for undertaking this arduous engagement at short notice.

On Rabi Island, the chairman of the Rabi Council read out to him a letter underlining the strength of Banaban feelings that they should be separated from the Gilbert Islands before the latter became independent. My honourable friend replied to the points raised in his letter, and made three specific proposals: first, suggesting wider powers for the Banaba Island Council; secondly, to establish an independent commission to review the safeguards for the Banabans, and, thirdly, a treaty with another Power or Powers concerning the rights of the Banaban people. He emphasised that Banaban rights would be protected irrespective of where sovereignty lay. He also expressed the hope that the 150 Banabans who were shortly to leave for Banaba would conduct themselves on the island in an orderly way. The chairman of the council replied that the council was not prepared to discuss anything but separation.

In his discussions with the Prime Minister of Fiji, the latter made clear that his Government did not wish to accept a role which would involve having to choose between their Gilbertese and Banaban friends, by participating in international arrangements to safeguard the interests of the Banabans within a unitary Gilbert Islands State.

Finally, my honourable friend saw Gilbert's Government Ministers in Tarawa. They reaffirmed that their people could not agree to the separation of Banaba; but they were ready to enter into a treaty with another Commonwealth Government concerning the rights of the Banaban people. In particular, they stated that they were willing to make arrangements whereby another Commonwealth Government should act on behalf of the Rabi Council so that claims or complaints concerning their rights should be resolved amicably or by independent mediation or by judicial process. Furthermore, the Gilbert Islands Government confirmed they were ready to agree to an independent tribunal reviewing the special Banaban constitutional provisions three years after independence. The Ministers also agreed to examine the Fiji Ordinance which sets out the powers of the Rabi Island Council as a possible model for the Banaba Island Council.

My honourable friend's visit demonstrated once again Her Majesty's Government's determination to explore all possible avenues of agreement. The Gilbert Islands Government have demonstrated their willingness to consider any proposals to protect Banaban interests. If the Banabans will only give it a chance, I am sure that they will not find any of their fears for their future on Banaba are justified.

2.56 p.m.


My Lords, in thanking the noble Lord for that reply, may I ask whether he is aware that we are also grateful to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs for undertaking this journey and very sensibly going to look at this very difficult problem on the spot? Is the noble Lord aware that we also appreciate the intense difficulty in resolving this problem in which the only acceptable solution to one party involves fragmentation of a small part of a small community and its dependence on another community no less than 1,400 miles away? Does he agree that the nub of the problem is the unwillingness of the Banabans to accept that any guarantees can be relied upon, and will he accept our willingness to try to demonstrate that this is not necessarily the case, possibly in one of the ways which have already been outlined by the Minister in the Statement? If the noble Lord will forgive me a fourth supplementary question, may I ask him whether those three proposals were made before or after the Banabans stated that they would consider nothing but independence? As it is written in the Statement, it would appear that it was made after that Statement. One would imagine it might better have been made before.


My Lords, may I say—


This is a Question, not a Statement!


We on these Benches are sorry that the visit of the Under-Secretary was unproductive. Am I right in understanding that we are not to have another Statement before we take the Committee stage of this Bill on Thursday? If there is anything more to be said by the Government, it would be enormously helpful if we could hear it before Thursday. May I ask the noble Lord, in conclusion, whether he has considered the possibility in this increasingly explosive situation, which seems to be deteriorating rapidly, of a cooling off period and postponement of independence, which might enable the two sides to get closer together, which is the wish of us all?


My Lords, I am most appreciative of the tone and content of the two supplementary questions put by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, and the Liberal spokesman. If I may address myself to what the Opposition spokesman said, he has put the essence of this difficult problem very fairly indeed. I greatly appreciate the measured and temperate terms in which he has put it to the House. As to guarantees, within the accepted position of transferring this territory as it is to independence, which is common form in the practice of Her Majesty's Government, whatever Government are in power, there is no limit to the length to which Her Majesty's Government themselves will go to reassure this community on the right of access and landholding, which is not in question at all. In my fairly lengthy experience these reassurances are really without precedent as they now stand. But we are most receptive to anything which is suggested which may gild the lily (if I may put it that way) and so are the Gilbert Islands Government. They have proved to be most forthcoming to my honourable friend in the conference. So on the question of guarantees, I cannot imagine what further guarantees he or I could invent but, if anybody can invent them, I am wide open to any suggestion.

As to the present situation, I cannot substitute one explosive situation for another. What we have now is admittedly a small community with very strong feelings, whose demands are entirely at variance with the equally deeply-held convictions of a much larger community; and it is poor practice to seek a solution in the face of threats of violence. One must examine the facts, do one's best and try to achieve a solution of battles which gives something to everybody even though it is quite impossible to give everything to anybody.

I hope that the House, which, if I may say so without presumption, has a reputation for looking at these very difficult constitutional questions, will join me in Committee stage on Thursday and hear us out. Let us give this excellent Bill a fair wind, because there are other stages here and in another place where the continuing negotiations, as I see them, following what my honourable friend has been able to achieve, can proceed without prejudice to the final outcome of the Bill. I think we shall have rendered a service to Parliament and to this country if we send this Bill in due course to the other place, because there are elongated stages in both Houses when all these questions can be minutely discussed. I will do my best to meet the views of the House in this matter and, indeed, in response to the Statement I have given, a number of noble Lords have referred to the possible involvement of this country beyond independence in assisting the implementation of these assurances. I think noble Lords will realise that, without being able to be quite specific, I have indeed listened to what was said on Second Reading.


My Lords, while appreciating that Her Majesty's Government have taken almost unprecedented steps to try to resolve these problems within the association of Ocean Island with the Gilbert Islands, is not the result of this visit quite clear—the Banaban people will not accept anything except their independence from the Gilbert Islands? Would not Her Majesty's Government therefore do better now to pursue the search for a method by which that might be satisfied without leaving the terrible problems of Ocean Island unrelieved?


My Lords, as the House knows, I have very great respect for my noble friend's record and judgment in these matters; but when he says to me that the outcome of my honourable friend's visit to the area was to re-emphasise the strength of feeling of the Banaban community, I must say to him that the visit also emphasised once more the overwhelming rejection by the Gilbertese community of fragmentation. Here we have an excellent Chief Minister who regards this country with affection and respect, and his fellow Ministers, anxious to move without further postponement to independence within the Commonwealth, and enthusiastic for it. It is a question for my honourable friend and for me: do we substitute for the satisfaction of a profoundly concerned minority the dissatisfaction of an equally profoundly concerned majority? I am sure that my noble friend, who has taken part in Africa and Asia in similar discussions and who has contributed notably to constructive compromises, will look again at his own Amendment. It is not for me to advise him—he has always advised me and continues to do so—but between now and the Committee stage I hope that my noble friend and others will look at the Amendment standing in his name, and ponder in fact whether this is the way to do the maximum possible good for the Pacific area as a whole.


My Lords, while recognising that every possible safeguard has been offered, can the Minister spell out how in practice it would be possible for another Commonwealth country to intervene in the Gilbert Islands should the worst fears of the Islanders—however unlikely they are to happen, and they are unlikely—be realised? What could they do?


My Lords, the Gilbert Islands Government—that is the self-governing authority in the present dependent State of the Gilbert Islands—have themselves said to my honourable friend that they would accept the appointment of a Commonwealth country; and, bearing in mind what was said in the course of the Second Reading debate in this House, may I remind your Lordships that the United Kingdom also is a Commonwealth country. They have said that they will accept a Commonwealth country which, as a friend of the Banabans, could supervise the implementation of these very massive and intricate guarantees as to access, land holding and all the rest of it. They, a prospective independent sovereign Government, have said this. It is an example to many more developed countries, because they are prepared in the interests of amity to accept an outside friendly intrusion to supervise how this works for three years, say, and at the end of that to agree to a special review body, perhaps nominated by two Commonwealth countries and probably with a chairman—I do not know—nominated by the Commonwealth Secretariat, to make an assessment on how this has worked and at the end of the day to say, "It has worked pretty well" or, "It is not good here and there but it can be improved" or, "It has not worked".

There is the way to bring together the deeply-felt convictions of the Gilbert Islanders, who number 56,000, and the Banabans, who number about 2,500. Let them proceed together, possibly under the supervision of a friendly Commonwealth State, and then at the end of, say, three years they could have an independent assessment of how it has worked. This may well be a good example from the Pacific to the Atlantic and other parts of the world on how to do these things. I profoundly hope that the Banaban community and their leaders—sincere and deeply religious men—will ponder very carefully before they return to Ocean Island and try to promote their case, however deeply felt, by violent action. My honourable friend has given very good advice to them. Their interests and their future will be very carefully considered by this House, by this Government and by any successive Government, but I profoundly believe it is within the confines of this Bill—an excellent Bill for all these Islands—that this can best be done.


My Lords, can my noble friend take this a little further? I am not trying to press him on controversial matters; I am seeking an explanation. We are to have a debate in two days' time about which we ought to know something. Is the proposal that this Bill should be passed in this Session substantially in its present form? If it is, how can a review take place after three years without the consent of all the parties, which does not seem probable? In relation to the question of some semi-fiduciary interest by a Commonwealth State, was any particular State discussed as appropriate—for example, Nauru?—or was it left just at large that the many nations of the Commonwealth, now very many, could furnish some suitable State?


Yes, indeed, my Lords. My honourable friend, who had a wide-ranging discussion with all concerned mentioned, and his partners in the discussion mentioned, from time to time a number of possible countries, including this one, such as Fiji and Nauru; and, of course, as we heard last night, there are 40 members of the Commonwealth. So we are not in any way nominating anybody—we should not want to do that from this House—into another independent country. All I can say is that I certainly will not rule out the United Kingdom. We do not want to intrude, but we are ready and willing to do anything. I do not think there will be any lack of nominations. Perhaps there might be a little difficulty in persuading the nominators to act. It is one thing to argue a case; it is quite another to come forward afterwards and say, "We will lend a hand". We have argued a case in this country, as so often we do. We also say that we will come forward and act and help. I can speak for the United Kingdom. But other countries were suggested.

As to the constitutional and legal point which my noble friend, quite rightly, raised, the Bill does indeed go forward. If there were to be this arrangement about a supervisory friendly Power coming in, then I imagine that it would be by agreement or treaty, with a separate document. I also imagine that there would be a separate document for setting up the review body at the end of, say, three years. I do not think there is any difficulty about the modalities of this. I hope that there is no difficulty about everybody concerned agreeing to this course. I can answer for this country. I believe that I can answer for the Gilbert Islands Government. I very much hope that the friends of the Banabans, and I count myself as one, can in due course answer for the Banaban community to join in on this. It will be well worth their while to do so.


My Lords, as we are bound by the procedure of a Question, and as a number of solutions put forward obviously require discussion in detail, may I ask the noble Lord whether it would not be to the convenience of the House to conduct this discussion at a clause stand part stage in the Bill, when we eventually get to it?

The LORD PRIVY SEAL (Lord Peart)

Yes, my Lords; I think that that is a constructive suggestion. My noble friend has fully answered many questions, and we are to discuss this at Committee stage. I hope that we can now proceed.


My Lords, will the noble Lord opposite—

Several noble Lords



My Lords, may I say to my noble friend, whom I admire so much, that I hope he will appreciate that we have had quite a long discussion on this subject. Let us proceed, as we have a lot of business.