HL Deb 25 July 1986 vol 479 cc495-9

11.31 p.m.

Baroness Young

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on the Turks and Caicos Islands being made in another place by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Mr. Tim Eggar. The Statement is as follows: "On 27th March, the House was informed that a commission of inquiry had been set up by the Governor of the Turks and Caicos Islands, one of our remaining Caribbean dependencies. The commission was asked to investigate allegations of arson of government offices, corruption in the public works department and related issues. The commissioner, Mr. Louis Blom-Cooper QC, submitted his report to the Governor in London on 4th July. Mr. Blom-Cooper has found arson of a public building by persons unknown. He has also found the Chief Minister and two of his ministerial colleagues unfit to hold ministerial office. The report states that ministers have indulged in unconstitutional behaviour, political discrimination and administrative malpractices. The commission also finds that the leader of the opposition party and a senior opposition figure have been involved in a conspiracy to commit public order offences in order to overthrow the present government. The commission observes that such is the corrupting effect of patronage throughout the system that this was the only means of protest available to them.

"We have agreed with the Governor that we must treat these findings extremely seriously. It is essential that we put right what has gone wrong. Many islanders would like to see an end to present abuses. We have accordingly decided that, in the interests of the islanders themselves, the administrative structure of the islands must be changed to prevent ministerial abuses. This is partly because the present constitution, dating from 1976, was drafted on the assumption, which was not borne out, that local ministers should be given wide responsibilities in preparation for eventual independence. The Chief Minister and his colleagues resigned yesterday morning. The Governor then announced in the TCI that we have amended the constitution by means of an Order in Council. This replaces the existing executive council with an advisory council consisting of members nominated by the Governor from among the most respected and responsible islanders. It will include members of the elected Legislative Council which will remain in existence. The Governor has already received assurances of support from a number of respected islanders.

"This is an interim measure. We are not suspending the constitution and substituting direct administration through the Governor. We are not taking away the franchise. We will appoint a constitutional commission to review the constitution and make recommendations for the future. It will aim to conclude its review by the end of the year and will be followed by fresh elections.

"These decisions offer the opportunity for active co-operation by the islanders themselves. Reports we have received so far indicate that the essential interim measures we are taking to restore good government will receive the islanders' full co-operation and understanding. We and they have a common interest in ensuring stability. We are keeping Commonwealth Caribbean governments and others closely informed."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement. It reveals, as indeed does the report of the commission of inquiry which I have before me, a most disturbing and serious state of affairs in these islands. We are grateful to Mr. Blom-Cooper and his colleagues for the work that they have done and the evidence that they have produced. Charges are made of a failure of political morality at the top; of arson as a political weapon; of corrupt practices in the public works department; and of political patronage of an unsavoury character. These islands, with their small population of less than 9,000 peple, deserve better than that. Her Majesty's Government have a clear right and responsibility to take all necessary steps to put matters right. We therefore support the Government's interim proposals and hope that a competent administration committed to serving the public and observing the law will be established in due course.

I should like to ask the noble Baroness three short questions. Can she say whether criminal charges are being preferred against those mentioned in the findings as being guilty of malpractice? Does the malpractice amount in any way to a possible criminal charge? Secondly, is it the case that one of the great problems here is that these small islands are being used as a staging post for transferring or smuggling drugs from Colombia to the United States and to Canada? If there is any evidence of that, can the noble Baroness say whether Her Majesty's Government are making representations to the Government of Colombia?

Lastly, in the light of the constitutional conference that Her Majesty's Government are proposing to establish, would she not agree that islands with such a small population are really not suited for complete independence?

Lord McNair

My Lords, we, too, thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement. We regard the action of the Government and of the Governor as a regrettable necessity. We support it and find it correct. It seems to us that the only hope for this archipelago must lie in two spheres—tourism, for which it is eminently suitable, and the establishment of a financial centre. But clearly, for both those activities, it is essential that the outside world should have confidence in the administration, in its stability and relative probity.

May I ask whether the report has been published or is to be published, and, if not, why not? I refer, of course, to the report of Mr. Blom-Cooper. Does the noble Baroness agree with me that this regrettable position in Turks and Caicos perhaps draws our attention to a wider problem; that is, our policy towards our remaining Crown dependencies in general? Would I be wrong in suspecting that the Foreign Office does not spend a tremendous lot of time in thinking about these scattered communities? Lastly, is the noble Baroness in a position to tell us who will be the chairman of the constitutional commission?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I should like to thank both noble Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, and the noble Lord, Lord McNair, for their very helpful and positive responses to what is a very serious constitutional situation. It is most helpful that the Statement should receive this support from all parts of your Lordships' House.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, asked me about three specific points. On the first point about criminal charges, following the recommendation of the commissioner proposing an amendment to the relevant ordinance to convey immunity from prosecution, the Attorney-General in Turks and Caicos has decided to grant such immunity to all who appeared before the commission. All those Ministers and officals named in the report as having been involved in abuses and maladministration will, however, be barred from holding public office in future.

On the second point raised by the noble Lord, drugs are one of the very worrying aspects in this part of the world. As the House will be aware, sadly the former Chief Minister has been convicted of drug offences and is currently serving a term of imprisonment in Florida. We believe that one of the only ways to tackle this very serious evil trade is by the closest international co-operation, quite apart from the specific steps which we as a government are taking in this country. This matter has been discussed with leaders in the Caribbean as well as with governments in Latin America.

On the final point that the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, raised, on the whole question of independence, our view on that remains the same. The Turks and Caicos Islands have not expressed a wish to be independent, but that would be a matter, if they should express such a wish, that we would wish to consider. The noble Lord, Lord McNair, also mentioned a problem which is of concern to all your Lordships; that is, the future for the smaller dependencies, of which Turks and Caicos is one, in the Caribbean. There are of course others. That is quite properly a matter to which we need to give very serious consideration in the long term. I know that your Lordships' House in particular is concerned about the smaller dependent territories. I remind myself" of the very interesting debate we had not so very long ago on the subject of St. Helena, which is also another island with a small population and is a dependent territory.

With regard to the chairmanship of the constitutional commission, we have not yet taken a decision on that matter. However, it is our hope that the chairman will be a distinguished figure from the Caribbean. We think that in the circumstances that would be a very helpful and constructive move.

Lord Auckland

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minster tell the House how much aid is given through either the CDFC or whatever else to these islands? Is she aware that those like myself who have met some of their Ministers—admittedly several years ago—will be very upset by what is going? Are there any further measures which Her Majesty's Government can take, in particular possibly to aid tourism, to counteract some of these unfortunate happenings?

Baroness Young

My Lords, the money that we give to Turks and Caicos is £5 million annually, and of that, £1.5 million is in budgetary aid. It is our intention to provide immediate additional support in certain key positions of the present administration. We estimate that those will cost between £100,000 and £0.25 million in the present financial year. For the longer term, we are appointing a manpower commission to review the requirement both in education and in health for the islands.

I take the point that my noble friend Lord Auckland made about tourism. The point was also raised by the noble Lord, Lord McNair. I am sure that they will be aware that one of the principal developments in the islands has been the development of the new airport at Providenciales. There is every indication that that project is successful and is helping to attract potential investors into the Turks and Caicos.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, in thinking of the future, will the Government bear in mind the possibility of drawing together two threads of policy; namely, aid to the islands, which has just been mentioned, and the development of future political collaboration in the Caribbean in such a way as to make a natural network to receive these micro-states—Turks and Caicos, the Virgin Islands, Montserrat, and the others—into something which is native to the Caribbean? Will they bear in mind also that the links between ordinary people of all the islands in the Caribbean are close because they are prepared to visit each other cheaply by slow boat; that the links between the governments are very poor because Ministers are supposed to go by expensive aeroplanes; and that the quickest way to achieve a democratic Caribbean administration would be an immense subsidy—90 per cent.—on air fares between the islands? That would indeed be an enlight-ened course for a future British Government to consider perhaps jointly with the United States.

Baroness Young

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, will be aware, we give a substantial amount of aid to the Caribbean. One of the ways in which we feel it is most important for us to help them is by keeping a very high level of diplomatic representation through- out the Caribbean in recognition of the importance which we attach to that part of the world.

I noted what the noble Lord said about the political developments and his proposals for linking the islands. This is probably not the time to go into the past history of the federation of the Caribbean and the reasons for its break-up. However, I certainly take note of what he has said, and, as I have already indicated, the long-term future of these small dependencies is an important matter to be addressed.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that the proposals the Government make concerning the evil of the drug situation are very encouraging and absolutely the correct kind of action that this country and the Foreign Office ought to take in this situation? Can the noble Baroness tell the House whether or not, in addition to the South American sources involved in the drugs issue and the excellent action that the Government propose, America and Canada ought to be approached for contributions that they might be able to make to the Government's endeavours?

Baroness Young

My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Molloy, that the American Government already put very considerable resources into trying to stop the drugs trade which transits the Caribbean—trying to intercept the boats, aeroplanes and so on, as I understand it, as do the Canadian Government. We are all working together because, as I am sure everyone will appreciate, the only hope of stopping this terrible trade is by close international co-operation.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, can the noble Baroness clear up one question which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord McNair; that is, on the publication of this report? It is not clear whether this report is to be published, though I gather that the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, has a copy—published or unpublished. Certainly the Printed Paper Office does not have any copies of the report at this time.

Baroness Young

My Lords, we shall be putting a copy of the report in the Library.

11.48 a.m.