HL Deb 19 May 1992 vol 537 cc580-5

5.5 p.m.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The Bill is a technical measure required because of the change of status in Mauritius from that of a realm to a republic within the Commonwealth on 12th March 1992. It follows the same lines as well established precedents and seeks to ensure that the operation of our existing law in relation to Mauritius is not affected by the change of status. I trust that noble Lords will agree that the Bill is a noncontroversial one.

The decision to become a republic was of course one for the Government of Mauritius to take and did not in any way require the concurrence of Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom.

The new constitution of Mauritius makes provision for appeals to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. Hitherto appeals from Mauritius have lain to Her Majesty in Council, but this is no longer appropriate now that Mauritius is not part of Her Majesty's dominions. The Bill therefore makes provision to enable Her Majesty in Council to authorise the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council to exercise the jurisdiction conferred upon it by the new constitution of Mauritius to hear appeals direct from the courts of Mauritius.

I am happy to inform Members that the government of Mauritius have told the Commonwealth Secretary-General that they wish the country to remain a member of the Commonwealth now that it is a republic. The Secretary-General has consulted members of the Commonwealth, who all agree to that proposal.

I am sure that your Lordships will join me in wishing Mauritius and its people continuing peace and prosperity. I commend the Bill to your Lordships' House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Baroness Chalker of Wallasey.)

5.7 p.m.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, for explaining the Bill to the House. We warmly welcome the information that the Government of Mauritius have applied to become a member of the Commonwealth.

Britain has enjoyed a close and friendly association with Mauritius for nearly 200 years and, in discussing this Bill, it is proper that we should emphasise that our wish is that this good relationship should continue for future centuries.

As the noble Baroness said, the Bill will enable Mauritius to become a republic within the Commonwealth and, as a result, the Governor-General, Sir Veerasamy Ringadoo, will become its first President. Sir Veerasamy will remain President for three months after which Mr. Cassam Uteem, the present Industry Minister, will become President.

The scene is not without its complexities. Perhaps the noble Baroness will deal with a few questions which I believe are of some importance. First, with regard to the elections held in the island last September, there are persistent criticisms that they were "rigged". I understand that the Opposition party in Mauritius has now appealed on that matter to the Privy Council and that a hearing is expected fairly soon. I shall be grateful if the noble Baroness will confirm that the hearing is pending, and, more importantly, that it is in order to introduce this Bill when a number of the island's leading citizens are petitioning the Privy Council.

It would be helpful also if we could be given some information about the aid the Government give to Mauritius, an area for which the noble Baroness has a great responsibility. Can the noble Baroness say whether she has discussed the future aid programme with the Mauritian Government and, if so, with what result?

Finally, over the years the House has taken an interest in Diego Garcia. It is of course a military base currently in US hands. It would be interesting to know whether the profound political changes which have taken place in recent years have affected its defence status. It would be helpful if the Minister could elaborate upon that and tell us what are the current views of the United States and whether there is any prospect that Diego Garcia may be returned to Mauritius in the foreseeable future?

Our hope is that Mauritius will remain a stable and prosperous island with a democratic government. We wish the people of Mauritius a happy and peaceful future in a free society. We shall of course support the Bill in all its stages.

5.10 p.m.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, I would like to associate myself with the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, as regards the Second Reading of the Mauritius Republic Bill which is indeed a non-controversial measure. As the noble Baroness said, it makes provision for the new status of Mauritius as a republic within the Commonwealth. That of course is an option open to all members of the Commonwealth and an example of the flexibility with which that organisation responds to changing conditions, changing times and new realities.

In the past the Commonwealth has suffered both from too high an expectation at some moments and from some neglect in recent years on the part of this country. Perhaps there has been a failure on our part to make the most of the contribution which it can make to world affairs. It seems to me that the Commonwealth could never be a political entity in the sense that the European Community is such an entity. However, it provides a most important link and bridge between the developed and the developing world; between the North and South, and between the East and West. That is something of which we should make the most.

As the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, said, Mauritius has an established democratic tradition. The speech which I am making should really be made by my noble friend Lord Thomson of Monifieth who was Commonwealth Secretary in 1967 when Mauritius became independent. He told me that in many ways it was a Labour Party colony with very strong links with the British Labour Party. Its Prime Minister, Sir Seewoosagur Ramgoolam, had long and intimate connections with the Labour Party. The first Governor-General, who was then general secretary of the Labour Party, was Len Williams.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, raised the question of the recent election. It is indeed the case that there have been widespread complaints that it was rigged. As we know, that is a common belief of people who lose elections. It is particularly common and likely to have substance in developing countries, as we know when one considers the recent experience in the Philippines and elections in this country until 1832.

The use of observers seems a good, easy and relatively cheap way of meeting that charge. It is important that the use of observers should not be seen as a confession of weakness or humiliation, but as a sign of confidence that one is ready to see that the procedures are fairly carried out. The recent experience in Zambia seems a good example. I believe that the provision of observers cost only £150,000. Members of your Lordships' House took part and it worked very satisfactorily. I believe that observers will be used again in the coming elections in the Seychelles which is moving towards a party-party constitution.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, referred to aid to Mauritius which we would be interested to hear about. The Mauritian economy, given the part of the world where it exists, is a relatively prosperous one, with a per capita income of about 2,000 dollars a year. It is an economy which has shifted away from undue dependence on agriculture. It has successful industrialisation and exploitation of tourism. All these factors give ground for hope that its democratic traditions will continue. I join with the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, in wishing Mauritius every good wish in the future.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Bottomley

My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe who cannot be present, perhaps noble Lords will allow me to make a contribution, particularly as a result of my very long association with Mauritius. I first met the person who founded an independent Mauritius at the time of the India round table conference. We were taken together to meet Gandhi. He was a medical student and I was an aspiring young politician. The Ramgoolam family made wonderful contributions to Mauritius as we know it today. Those who are running the country will follow that example. I join with all noble Lords in wishing Mauritius a very happy and successful period in the Commonwealth.

5.17 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, as one who has also visited that lovely island and who greatly enjoyed his visit, I join in sending good wishes. The decision as to whether Mauritius should remain with a monarchical, or have a republican, system is of course a matter for it. We know the decision that has been taken and we wish the people well with it.

Mauritius is a very beautiful island and, as the noble Lord opposite said, it is one which has a fairly high standard of living and a very effective economy. Perhaps I may introduce a slightly more frivolous note: there is one relic of the fact that Mauritius was once a French colony—it has a most excellent cuisine.

5.18 p.m.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I should like briefly but warmly to thank the noble Lords, Lord Cledwyn, Lord Bonham-Carter, Lord Bottomley and my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter. This measure was bound to be welcomed by a nation which has won the hearts of so many British visitors. Everyone has a fondness for Mauritius and realises that time must move on. It is about 11 years since I made my first visit there and I have been back on occasions since then. I have watched Mauritius changing its ways as time has gone on.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, made three main points to which he wished me to respond. The question as regards elections was echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter. I remember my first visit in 1981. When talking with the then leaders of the Labour government in Mauritius, I said to them that things were happening there of which they should be aware. The government had been in power for a considerable time. Shortly after that the government were ousted from power. At that time we heard the very same criticisms which are being mentioned now.

Therefore, perhaps I may respond on that difficult question. Her Majesty's Government are aware of the rigging claim, but we have seen no evidence of it. If there is a case for the Privy Council to consider—the issue is indeed going to the Privy Council—then we should await the outcome of that consideration. In response to the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, I understand that it is in order for this Bill to proceed despite that happening.

Mauritius has a working parliamentary democracy. I am certain that there is no intention in Mauritius that minority rights shall be overridden. That is another comment which I have heard in the past and since the general election in September of last year. The noble Lords, Lord Cledwyn, and Lord Bonham-Carter, asked about aid to the republic of Mauritius. Naturally our aid programme is not going to be affected by the status change in Mauritius. It has had a successful economy, as the noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, said. It does not receive capital aid.

However, Mauritius benefits from a modest programme of technical co-operation, mainly in human resource development. In addition, the Commonwealth Development Corporation manages a substantial investment portfolio, which is projected to rise to some £50 million by 1994. We believe that that will be good for the sort of development that is regularly taking place in Mauritius itself.

The noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos, also asked me about Diego Garcia, an archipelago of the Indian Ocean which, for many years now, has been commented on by party after party. Since independence, Mauritius has maintained a claim to sovereignty. Since the election last September, the Government of Mauritius have been a little more vocal about the matter, but I can assure your Lordships that the maintenance of British sovereignty over the Chagos archipelago was made after full consultation with the pre-independence government of Mauritius. In fact, one of the first ex gratia payments, which was made in 1965, was made in recognition of their consent to the change. That amounted to £3 million. From 1981 onwards, I was involved in providing further help to the Ilois people about resettlement.

We have told the Mauritians that the islands will be ceded to Mauritius when they are no longer required for defence purposes. The initial phase of the defence agreement with the Government of the United States of America will end in 2016, with a continuation for a period of 20 years thereafter if both sides so agree. However, we have no doubt about our sovereignty. It has been continuous since 1814. We continue to be willing to talk to Mauritius to clarify any difficulties or misunderstandings. As the Foreign Office Minister responsible for Africa, I have been involved in these things in a sensible and friendly way with various members of the Government of Mauritius, including its Prime Minister.

The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, made some comments about neglecting the Commonwealth. I disagree with the noble Lord. Having spent the past six and a half years of my life trying to bring light and friendship to the Commonwealth and having made the most wonderful number of friends in the Commonwealth during that time, I can assure the noble Lord that there is no neglect of the Commonwealth. However, it is most important that we are sensible about what is expected within the Commonwealth. These days, the Commonwealth is a partnership—and no government exemplify that better than the Government of Mauritius who have sought to build up the economy of that island extremely well.

I am most grateful to your Lordships for your welcome of this Bill. In conclusion, perhaps I may congratulate Mauritius on its achievements since independence. It has sustained a working parliamentary democracy and established a prosperous and rapidly developing economy. The country has rightly been described as something of a model for other developing countries. We wish the Government of Mauritius a very bright future.

On Question, Bill read a second time; Committee negatived.

Then, Standing Order No. 44 having been dispensed with (pursuant to Resolution of 14th May), Bill read a third time, and passed, and sent to the Commons.