HL Deb 04 February 1980 vol 404 cc1091-102

3.1 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that the New Hebrides Bill, now before the House, be now read a second time. The essential purpose of this Bill, in the words of the Long Title, is to: … make provision in connection with the attainment by the New Hebrides of independence within the Commonwealth". Before I describe the contents of the Bill, I should like to trace briefly the history of the New Hebrides and the developments leading up to its introduction. The New Hebrides is unique in its status as a condominium. It is administered jointly by Britain and France under a series of international agreements beginning with the protocol of 1914 which established the condominium. An archipelago of about 70 islands, the New Hebrides is situated in the South Pacific, roughly half-way between Australia and Fiji. The total population is about 120,000 of whom 115,000 are Melanesian in origin. There are long-standing political divisions between the Anglophone, mainly Protestant supporters of the Vanuaaku Party and the Francophone, mainly Roman Catholic supporters of a group of parties which have come to be known as the Moderates.

In July 1977, British and French Ministers announced a joint programme leading to independence for the New Hebrides in 1980. After a number of setbacks, the first major step in this direction was made in December 1978 with the formation of a Government of national unity upon which both sides of the political divide were equally represented. By the middle of last year, this new Government, assisted by a broadly based constitutional committee, had made considerable progress with the task of drawing up an independence constitution.

A constitutional conference was held in Vila, the capital, in September under the joint chairmanship of my honourable friend, Mr. Blaker, the Minister of State, and his French counterpart, M. Dijoud, the French Secretary of State for Overseas Departments and Territories. The conference agreed a constitution, and it was confirmed that the New Hebrides should achieve independence in 1980. The conference also fixed 14th November, 1979 as the date for fresh elections to the Representative Assembly.

The constitution was formally adopted, and the decision to grant independence in 1980 established by an exchange of Notes between the British and French Governments, to which the independence constitution was annexed. These were laid before Parliament on 29th January as Cmnd. 7808.

The victors in the November elections proved to be the Vanuaaku Pati, which formed a new Government led by Father Walter Lini. At the first meeting of the newly elected Assembly, Father Lini and his cabinet were empowered by the Assembly to propose a date for independence during the period May to July 1980. The date is expected to be announced shortly. The Council of Ministers has since decided to recommend to the Representative Assembly that the new republic should apply for Commonweath membership.

I now come to the provisions of the Bill itself. It is not what might be termed the usual independence Bill in that it does not provide for the grant of independence. This is because the present status of the New Hebrides was established by international agreement and must therefore be terminated in the same way. This will be achieved by the exchange of Notes to which I have referred. The exact date of independence, when agreed with the French and New Hebrides Governments, will be appointed by Order in Council, to be made under this Bill.

As the Long Title suggests, this Bill contains, in the main, provisions consequent upon the intention of the New Hebrides to attain independence within the Commonwealth. Clause 1 modifies the British Nationality Act 1948 so as to confer the status of British subject and Commonwealth citizen on the citizens of the New Hebrides, with effect from independence. Clause 2(1) and Schedule 2 provide for the modification of certain United Kingdom enactments consequential upon the attainment by the New Hebrides of independence within the Commonwealth. Clause 2(2) and Schedule 2 provide for the repeal of a number of measures relating to the New Hebrides as a consequence of the change in its status. Clause 3 enables Her Majesty, by Order in Council, to make provisions regarding any appeals from New Hebrides courts which may be pending before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council at independence. Clause 4 gives the Short Title, and provides that the modifications and repeals effected by the Bill will come into force at independence.

I should now like to turn to more general matters not covered by the Bill. The New Hebrides will, on independence, become a republic with an elected President as Head of State. The new republic will have a unicameral legislature, to be known as Parliament, and a Council of Ministers responsible to it, headed by a Prime Minister. The independence constitution provides, among other things, for the protection of fundamental rights and freedoms of the individual—citizenship, the judicature, and the public service.

The New Hebrides economy will depend for some time on external aid donors. The process of unifying the parallel British and French national administrations is now well advanced, but we and the French Government are aware of the heavy administrative burden which will be imposed upon the independent New Hebrides during the period when unification is taking place. We shall be sympathetic to their needs. A British aid mission is currently in the New Hebrides to discuss British aid after independence.

My Lords, in the past two years Parliament has granted independence to three British territories in the South Pacific—Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, formerly the Ellice Islands, and Kiribati, formerly the Gilbert Islands. When the New Hebrides becomes independent, the only remaining colonial responsibility we shall have in the Pacific will be Pitcairn, with its population of 65, so this Bill ushers in the end of an era. As with other parts of the Empire, our motives in acquiring territory were mixed: rivalry between European powers, the need to stop "blackbirding"—the raids on Pacific Islands for labour on plantations in Queensland and elsewhere—and the desire to propagate the Gospel, to mention a few. But Britain has never sought to make a profit from her Pacific dependencies. In the New Hebrides, in particular, we are providing aid at a level of about £6 million a year.

The condominium has posed unusual difficulties along the road to independence in the New Hebrides. I am sure your Lordships will wish to join me in congratulating the people and the Government of the New Hebrides on the considerable progress which has been made since the decision in 1977 that the territory should become independent this year. I am sure that our long association with the country will continue for many years to come.

I am pleased that it will be as fellow members of the Commonwealth that we shall have the prospect of continuing the close ties which already exist between ourselves and the people of the New Hebrides. I beg to move.

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

3.10 p.m.


My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord for explaining the contents of this Bill so fully. As he said, what makes this territory—and the Bill—unique is that for many years the New Hebrides have been a condominium administered by France and ourselves and, on the whole, very happily. The population of about 120,000, divided as it is linguistically and religiously as to about 55 per cent. Anglo-Protestant and about 45 per cent. French-speaking Roman Catholic, has on the whole proved amenable to compromise and co-operation. But, as the noble Lord said, the progress through the various stages of self-government and on to independence has not been easy. I was myself concerned with this for some years as Minister of State dealing with M. Dijoud and his predecessor M. Olivier. It is therefore the more interesting that this territory as a whole will on independence achieve that status within the Commonwealth.

I have one question to put to the Minister which perhaps he may be able to answer at the end of this short debate. Is it the intention of the new State to apply also for membership of the French Union? In that case, would consequential provisions relating to citizenship be enacted in France so that the citizens of the new New Hebrides become not only British subjects and citizens of the Commonwealth as provided for by this Bill but also French subjects and French citizens? Perhaps the noble Lord may be able to clarify the position. It all arises from the unique situation of the condominium administration which has, has it not?, been going on for more than 60 years.

I was delighted to hear the date of independence confirmed by the noble Lord as being some time this summer. That is an assumption. It is no more a matter of negotiation—this will happen at some time between May and July, and therefore it is of the utmost importance that nothing should be allowed to happen on those islands between now and then to inhibit the smooth passage of the New Hebrides from its present status of self-government with a Chief Minister to full independence under a Prime Minister.

That brings me to one or two questions that I should like to put to the noble Lord. First, he referred to the entrenchment in the constitution of fundamental rights. I remember those negotiations, which I am glad came to fruition late last year under the present Minister of State, Mr. Blaker. Is there any specific reference to the position of the French language in the entrenching clauses? I am not urging that there should be if it is not there already. It is simply a question of information as to whether it was asked for—and I am sure that, if it was asked for, it was granted—or whether it was not asked for because there is total confidence among the French-speaking community on the islands that their position linguistically as well as in every other humane particular is firmly protected.

I thought from the start that much of the reservations expressed by our French compatriots in the New Hebrides arose from the fact that there was, not an extensive minority but definitely a minority with a strong feeling about their language and permanent concern lest somehow it might be eroded, officially and otherwise, by the omniverous presence of the English language, as we would put it in Wales. So I have sympathy with them, and nothing is lost by reassuring people about the status and the future of their own language. Indeed, a language is so personal a thing that often in negotiations of this kind, it takes precedence over even economics. Perhaps the noble Lord will be able to reassure us on this point. I am sure he can.

I pass now at once to ask for a similar reassurance about the position in the islands at the present moment. These days one hears reports and rumours about disturbances on one or two islands. Let me hasten to say that, like everybody else who has been concerned with this question, I feel a deep admiration for the democratic sophistication with which all elements in the New Hebrides, despite their differences of language, religion and, it may be, social interest, play their part in fair and free elections. When the results were announced—results which gave a decisive victory to the Vanuaaku party, as we have heard—they were accepted loyally in the traditional democratic manner. No doubt the influence of France and of this country in the New Hebrides accounts for this, to some degree, but I also think that the natural tolerance of these attractive people fed that tradition even before the French and the British ever touched their soil.

So we admire the way in which the elections were held and the way in which those who lost the elections accepted the results and co-operated loyally with Father Lini, who of course is the Chief Minister. All, that is, with one exception and I wish that I did not have to mention this exception. I refer to an individual—a Mr. Jimmy Stevens—who for many years has agitated for the secession of the Isle of Santo. It would be inaccurate, to say the least, to describe Mr. Stevens as a high-minded dissident concerned about the rights of his people. He is in fact an agent—some might say a tool—of adventurers who derive more from San Francisco than from Santo and who want to separate Santo from the rest of the New Hebrides in order to exploit it for their own dubious purposes. I am not saying anything more than the responsible leaders of the New Hebridean peoples have been saying for years, but I am bound to refer to it in order to ask whether, since the election results were announced, Mr. Stevens has created disturbances in Santo.

One hears that there have been such disturbances, that over the past few days his followers have set upon a Minister in Father Lini's Government and have also taken over official buildings in Santo, and that indeed Mr. Stevens has announced on behalf of his minuscule party, Na Griamel, his intention to secede—to separate unilaterally the Isle of Santo from the rest of the New Hebrides if and when, as he puts it, independence comes about. Of course, this cannot be allowed to develop. One of the great problems and great threats to the stability of the Pacific is that the new States emerging are archipelagos: they are groups of islands.

It is fatally easy to work up any number of particular, localised secessive movements in such aggregations of islands. We saw it in the Gilberts, and we have seen it in other parts of the Pacific as well. All Governments of this country have set their faces against encouraging in any way fragmentation of these new emerging States. We owe it to them. So with our friends and allies the French, I hope that Mr. Stevens' activities will not be allowed to develop so as to create a situation of disturbance, still less of secession in the time between now and the actual date of independence, and that we will act closely and completely with the French Government in taking any steps necessary to assure to the newly and democratically elected Government of the New Hebrides their right of tenure and of operation, and to assist them effectively to make it impossible for secessive movements, such as those again threatened by this individual, to succeed.

3.25 p.m.


My Lords, we are talking this afternoon about a far-away country of which we know little, and that fact alone ought to put us on our guard. I am not playing the historical analogies game, which I believe to be more often than not misleading. I use those sadly unforgettable words quite literally. The New Hebrides are very far away from here and far removed from the present foci of international attention and tension, and if we are to judge only by the astonishing brevity of the speakers' list it does appear that we know very little about them. I hope we can show that however little we know we care more.

On 22nd November last year the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, in one of those protean performances that have won the sincere admiration of the House and I hope of the Government, found himself answering a Private Notice Question concerning some trouble on Santo island, trouble which I am informed is continuing to this day. In my brief contribution, I put this question to him: Does he agree that the granting of independence to the New Hebrides is a political process for which there are few, if any, precedents and that it will inevitably be a very difficult operation, much more difficult than the granting of independence to any of our own colonies?"—[Official Report, 22/11/79, Col. 296]. His answer to that question was: I can only say again that we really do not anticipate any great difficulty … because we shall be working in full co-operation and agreement with our French colleagues".—[Col. 297]. My first question to the noble Lord, therefore, is: Has that prophecy of full co-operation and agreement been fulfilled?

Before I come to my other questions, may I take a few moments to describe this condominium as I see it. I see it as a farce, and I read that a New Hebridean, accepting that definition, remarked, "This farce is our tragedy". My case for the word "farce" may seem to some of your Lordships exaggerated. Let us look at what we have given to the 120,000 Melanesians who happen to live in the New Hebrides, who in the first place, I imagine, did not ask us to give them anything and are not asking us to get out of the way and give them independence.

We have given them our two languages, English and French. We have given them as least two religions or denominations. We have given them two educational systems, Anglophone and Francophone, two legal systems, two police forces, two currencies. I may have misled the House in saying that we gave them two legal systems. It is in fact, I think, three; one for the French, one for the British and one for the indigenous population. Some of these divisive gifts should be examined in a slightly more detailed way. Our educationists and missionaries have seen to it that every little New Hebridean born into this world alive quickly learns that he is either a good little Catholic who speaks French or a bonny wee Presbyterian who speaks English, and, moreover, that those of his compatriots who have been denied the benefits bestowed on him are not altogether to be trusted.

The tensions arising from this cultural schism are very real, and, I believe, dangerous. They divide families, they divide the population, they distinguish the political parties one from the other. The two currencies are perhaps the least of their worries, perhaps no more than an irritant in daily life. As I understand it, goods are priced in the shops both in Australian dollars and in New Hebridean francs, and if you pay in one currency and are given your change in the other, you inevitably suspect that you have not been given enough, and you are very often right.

I have dealt, not I hope at undue length, with the linguistic, religious, educational and even financial legacies of the schism we are leaving behind. Even more potentially dangerous, it seems to me, is our failure to provide them before independence with either a unified administrative structure, a unified legal system or a unified police force owing clear allegiance to the Government of the New Hebrides and to no other. There are, I believe, two small armed and mobile police forces, one, of course, Francophone under French officers and one British. In the matter of the law, attempts have been made, as I am informed, to unify the legal codes. On the criminal side there is a document known as the Wallace-Mouredièn Report, which I only heard about too late to obtain a copy, but which I believe was not found acceptable by the New Hebridean Government. On the civil side, we have not even made that much progress.

Against this muddled and messy background, I now turn to the internal security situation, present and future. We heard about the rebellion of Mr. Jimmy Stevens in November, and I hope I can save some time of the House by bringing this affair up-to-date in the form of a series of questions. Is it a fact that Jimmy Stevens on the Island of Santo is still defying the Government of the New Hebrides? Am I right in thinking that he and his backers are seeking to further the interests of some large and non-indigenous landowners? Is it a fact—the noble Lord, Lord Goronwv-Roberts, referred to this—that his supporters are physically assaulting their opponents, driving them off the island, thereby altering the electoral role in Mr. Stevens' favour, while he pursues petitions for fresh elections, having lost the last one? Is it a fact that he is still operating an illegal radio transmitter? Am I right in suspecting that the reason why nothing has been done effectively about Mr. Stevens is that the two mobile police forces were unable to agree, and the British force was unwilling to act alone?

Highly relevant to that last question is my next. Is it the case that Mr. Stevens is a British citizen, subject to British jurisdiction and, if so, would not the British Resident have the power to deport him, after due process of law, if he felt that to be in the best interests of the territory?

I come to my last question on the distressing subject of Mr. Stevens. Is there really nothing that Her Majesty's Government can do—nothing more than what I am sure they have already done—to bring even greater powers of persuasion to bear on the people on the spot, to make a determined effort to bring this squalid bit of criminality to an end and so ensure that, when Mr. Lini assumes full responsibility, he will at least be spared this unnecessary problem?

I turn now to the future internal security of the territory. I fear that, even after the condominial settlement of Mr. Stevens' hash, for which I hope, it may happen that Mr. Lini and his Government may sooner or later find themselves in a situation in which they may need external help to preserve the peace and integrity of their country. I hope that that will not happen. but if it should it would clearly bedisastrous if such outside help were to be either British or French, as it would automatically alienate at least half of the population. I have been wondering whether Her Majesty's Government have considered, or would consider, the possibility of discreetly promoting some kind of understanding between the New Hebridean Government and our friends in Papua New Guinea. It may be that it would be reassuring for Mr. Lini if he could feel that, in an emergency, help would be on call from his fellow Melanesians in Papua New Guinea. I hope that the Government will give some thought to that suggestion, if—and, of course, only if—it commends itself first to Mr. Lini.

I should like to say a word or two about the territorial integrity of theNew Hebrides on which again the noble Lord, Lord Goronwy-Roberts, touched in his speech. The House will remember that in the Kiribati Bill there was, in Clause 7, a definition which said: 'Kiribati ' means the territories which immediately before Independence Day constitute the colony of the Gilbert Islands". Indeed, some noble Lords made extremely eloquent speeches in an attempt to have that definition altered. However, there is no such definition in the New Hebrides Bill. I appreciate, of course, that this is a very different type of Bill. Perhaps no similar definition is needed. However, I think that we should seek from Her Majesty's Government a clear and firm declaration that they will permit no fragmentation of the New Hebrides before independence. Whether that should be written into the Bill at the Committee stage is a matter of law and draftsmanship on which I would have to take advice. But, if it is necessary or desirable, I feel that it would come very much better from the Government.

My penultimate point concerns our financial and technical aid for the New Hebrides after independence. The noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, has referred to this matter, but not in any detail. I should like to put this point to him. Normally, when we grant independence to a colony, we have already, before independence, provided it with what one might call the infrastructure of autonomous viability. In this case, as I have been trying to indicate, throughout my speech we have been unable to do that. Therefore, may I beg the Government to recognise this fact, and when considering our future aid policy towards the New Hebrides, to be more generous than usual for that reason.

Your Lordships will be relieved to hear that I now come to my final point: that is. what do we do about this Bill? My first feelings were that we ought to try to postpone independence for a short time, to have one more attempt to do some of those things which we have left undone. But. on further reflection, I arrived at the sombre conclusion that we have made such a mess of it that no matter how long we take, we are unlikely—for various reasons, some of which are perhaps best left unstated—to do very much better. Therefore, I conclude that the best thing that we can do—a poor best, Heavens knows!—is to get out as quickly as they want us to, and leave the New Hebrideans to face the daunting task of creating a nation almost from scratch. It will be a daunting task, but I am sure that they will face it with courage and ingenuity. From these Benches we wish them well. But if I was right to come to that sad conclusion—and I fear that I was—then what a terrible confession of failure it is.