HL Deb 20 November 1984 vol 457 cc511-5

4.8 p.m.

Second Reading debate resumed.

Lord Alport

My Lords, it is for the House now to turn from the problems of a large island very close to the United Kingdom to welcoming to the Commonwealth islands that are very far away. In my case, as the noble Lord, Lord Fanshawe, has suggested, my main purpose in occupying your Lordships' time for a few minutes this afternoon is to welcome the Maldive Islands to membership of the Commonwealth; and it is perhaps inevitable on occasions such as this that there should be something reminiscent in the speeches that are made.

It happens that I have visited the Maldive Islands on a number of occasions. The first time was during the war, when it was a staging post for Catalina aircraft flying from East Africa Command to our division, which was at that time in what was then Ceylon. I remember the islands there that we stopped at—the blue lagoons, the palm trees and the wonderful white coral sands—and at that time I thought that perhaps one day I would visit them again.

It happened that I did. My noble friend Lord Stockton instructed me—in 1960, I think it was—to go to the Maldive Islands to sign with the government of the then Sultan the treaty which confirmed to the United Kingdom Government the use of Gan as a staging post for the reinforcement of our garrisons in the Far East. HMS "Gambia", which I think was a sister ship of the "Belfast", which is now in the Thames, was put at my disposal. It seemed to me at the time a rather big ship for a very small mission, but it was a very comfortable way of going from Colombo to Gan with a particular object in mind.

That object was to reassure Mr. Afif Didi—who was at that time in rebellion against the Sultan's government and in control of the island of Hittadu, which is the biggest atoll in the south of the great chain of islands stretching 400 miles—that the treaty between Her Majesty's Government and the government of the Sultan would not in any way affect his position, as we had no intention whatever of becoming involved in the internal problems of the Maldive Islands. I found him a very attractive man indeed and I enjoyed that visit.

We then went up to Mali, the capital, which is 400 miles away, and this great warship stood off about three miles from the harbour so as not to appear to be intimidating anyone, though, when one looked back and saw its silhouette against the horizon, it was to anyone—certainly to me—a very formidable affair. I was taken ashore in the Sultan's state barge, which had originally been the barge of one of the livery companies of the City of London, now found some distance away, plying between a warship in the middle of the Indian Ocean and a charming white town with a little white fort above the harbour. From this it had been the intention of the Sultan's government, because we were paying all the courtesies that we could, that he on his side should pay equal courtesies and that there should be a 16-gun salute.

There were 16 guns on the little fort. Unfortunately, owing to the corrosion of many years and the fact that they were at least 150 years old, only one gun went off. It seemed to me on that occasion that it put the Minister of State in the right perspective. But the fact of the matter was that when I inspected the guns I was able to assure the gunner in charge that the intention in our case was even more important than the execution.

Then came the signing of the treaty which gave the rights over Gan to the RAF for the period concerned. As I picked up a pen to sign the treaty, the RAF roared overhead. It was to me a miracle and even more of a miracle to the inhabitants of Mali. Then we had a football match in which a team from the crew of the "Gambia" played the national team of the Maldive Islands and lost, much to the satisfaction and contentment of the diplomatic representatives of the British Government; and I thought perhaps a tribute as well to the assistance to British diplomacy which the Royal Navy have rendered on so many occasions.

So one came away. A lot of things have changed since then. I think that the Sultan was deposed a few years later. Nasir, the Prime Minister at the time, was, the last time I heard of him, an exile in Colombo. Afif Didi was a British pensioner in the Seychelles and he wrote to me saying that as his family—because, as he put it, he had nothing much else to do—had grown to 13, he felt his pension was not entirely adequate and asked whether Her Majesty's Government would consider an increase. I must ask my noble friend the Minister whether she will look into this to ensure that there has been some escalation of the pension to meet the increased needs, for one reason or another, of Mr. Afif Didi, if he is still alive in the Seychelles.

There was always a problem with regard to our relations with the Maldive Islands, and that was of representation. I have to ask my noble friend whether the arrangements for representation between this new Commonwealth country and the United Kingdom and vice versa are satisfactory, because so long ago our representative was based upon an island with a solitary, isolated house about two or three miles from the harbour, which was not very satisfactory for a modern diplomatic representative. The man at the time was a very experienced ex-member of the ICS, who had been accustomed over many years to live a solitary life.

Things have changed, but I can assure your Lordships that this small addition to the Commonwealth—perhaps the last—is a very welcome one indeed to all those who have had any experience of that part of the world. There has been a development since then, which was brought to my attention quite recently and which is that the Maldive Islands are now one of the tourist centres. I shall read your Lordships the description, which goes like this: Today it is a hideaway for anybody who wants to get away from it all—leave jacket and tie at home for a week or two and quite simply enjoy the best palm-fringed beaches, perfect sea bathing, water sports, sunshine and very simple food and accommodation. If you look for entertainment and sophistication, then the Maldives are not to your taste—if you want total seclusion and relaxation, it might well be your Shangri La. The opinion quoted is that it is: unique—no shoes, no news, simple rooms, plain food, fabulous watersports and probably the best diving in the world. So if any of your Lordships—as December, January or February come along—feel that you want to get away from it all, there is no place where you may find greater relaxation, particularly if you are keen on diving, than the Maldive Islands. You will certainly find there a very hospitable, very delightful and very attractive people to meet, and you will find as well charming islands and a charming environment. So I would say, having wearied your Lordships with these reminiscences, that this is a very welcome addition to our Commonwealth and at the same time the change is, I hope, going to be of great advantage to the delightful people of that part of the Indian Ocean.

4.17 p.m.

Baroness Young

My Lords, I think that we have had a very useful short debate on the Brunei and Maldives Bill and I am grateful to those noble Lords who have taken part. I am particularly glad to hear of the warm and full support from the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, and the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw. I am sure that we all listened with great interest to the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, when he spoke of his close family links with Brunei; to my noble friend Lord Fanshawe, when he described going to Brunei to sign the treaty of independence when he was a Minister; and to my noble friend Lord Alport, who has spoken so extra-ordinarily interestingly about the history of the Maldives. There is one thing that seems to be quite sure. He will not be out of a job. He can be a tourist manager in the future for the Maldive Islands.

I have been asked a number of specific questions about the Bill, the first by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, about the Gurkhas, which was also raised by my noble friend Lord Fanshawe. I can confirm that the Gurkha battalion is being retained in Brunei at the request of the Sultan. He believes, as do the Government, that their presence contributes to the stability both of Brunei itself and of the surrounding area. Other members of ASEAN have indicated their understanding. The arrangement is beneficial to the United Kingdom as well. The battalion, which is found in rotation from the Hong Kong garrison, has in Brunei opportunities for training which are not available in Hong Kong. I can confirm that the battalion remains an integral part of the British Army and, as such, is under the operational control of the Minister of Defence. It is the intention that the battalion will normally remain in Brunei.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, also asked me about the position of the Crown Agents. I can confirm that the Brunei Government have not dispensed with the services of the Crown Agents. They have transferred from the Crown Agents the responsibility for managing part of Brunei's overseas investments to the newly-created Brunei Investment Agency. They continue to use the Crown Agents for certain other services, such as procurement.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, asked me about the constitution: whether there was any suggestion that some kind of representative institutions might be introduced into Brunei; and the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, asked me specifically about the protection of religious minorities. The answer to both those questions must be the same: that it would not be appropriate or right for me to comment now on the internal affairs of a fully independent country such as Brunei.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, also asked me about British involvement in trade and development. I can confirm that the Government attach importance to assisting the continued development of Brunei. We are a major trading partner. I understand that Shell produce all Brunei's oil. Britain is also contributing to Brunei's development by providing teachers and other experts. There are also some 2,000 Bruneian students studying in the United Kingdom.

Finally, my noble friend Lord Alport asked me about the representation of the Maldives in London. I can confirm that the Government of the Maldives is considering opening in London in the near future a trade representative's office of the Maldives. The representative's functions will be to collect trade information and to supply it to the concerned Government offices in the Maldives, and to look after the welfare of Maldivians studying in the United Kingdom. The suggestion that the Maldives might open a small high commission in London is welcome. It would add more substance to our bilateral relations. If the people of the Maldives are to make good use of their Commonwealth membership, regular contact with the secretariat is essential.

As I said at the beginning, this Bill puts the seal on the admission of Brunei and the Maldives into the Commonwealth. I know that all Members of your Lordships' House will wish to assist in this process. I feel sure that in the future we shall continue to build on our longstanding friendships in both countries.

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