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Volume 531: debated on Thursday 28 October 1954

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With permission, I wish to make a statement on some aspects of affairs in Cyprus.

Since the statement in this House on 28th July, there has been a good deal of discussion about the affairs of the Colony both in this country and abroad. I should like to take this opportunity of making the position of Her Majesty's Government clear.

I will deal first with the Questions asked last week about the sedition laws in Cyprus as they relate to the Press. No new law relating to sedition or the Press was promulgated or announced in Cyprus at the beginning of August. All that the Attorney-General of Cyprus did was to issue a statement drawing attention to the existing laws, and to the penalties on conviction by the courts for violations of them. These included the sections of the criminal law relating to publications with seditious intentions which have not been amended since 1949, and have in broad outline been in effect for much longer than that; also the Press law, which was last amended in 1947.

Copies of these parts of the law of Cyprus and of the text of the Attorney-General's statements have been placed in the library. The Attorney-General of Cyprus, on whom alone rests the responsibility for deciding whether proceedings should be instituted, has made it plain that no prosecutions would take place for the reproduction of articles printed or speeches made in this country, unless the publication was being made a pretext to incite to sedition or violence in Cyprus.

As there has been some misunderstanding of the Attorney-General's statements of the law, I must recall that, in seeing the local Press, he emphasised that constructive criticism was welcomed, and he made it clear that he would approach each case in a broad-minded fashion. There have, in fact, been no prosecutions since his statement. With regard to the question why one issue of a British newspaper was withheld from sale in Cyprus, I understand that this decision was the responsibility of the local distributor.

I have carefully examined the law of Cyprus relating to seditious offences. There is a provision, over 20 years old, which makes seditious an intention to bring about a change in the sovereignty of the Colony. This was added to the pre-existing law shortly after the serious troubles which occurred in 1931. Apart from this, the law in Cyprus is similar to that in most other Colonial Territories, and I see no reason to take steps to have it repealed or amended.

I have, however, invited the Governor to consider repeal of a provision in the Press law of 1947, which empowers the courts to order the suspension of newspapers convicted by the courts of seditious libel. This would mean that a person found guilty in Cyprus of a seditious offence connected with the Press would only be liable to fine or imprisonment as is a person found guilty of sedition in this country. The effect of this would be to leave the Press in Cyprus liable only to penalties under the criminal law for seditious offences.

I turn now to some other questions. Hon. Members will know that the United Nations have acceded to a request by the Greek Government to inscribe the question of Cyprus on their agenda. I am not proposing to go into Her Majesty's Government's attitude towards this request, as this was described in a White Paper issued on Tuesday: but I must, however, repeat that British sovereignty over Cyprus was recognised by the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, to which the Greek Government was a party.

I must emphasise that Her Majesty's Government have to pay regard to the well-being and long-term interests of the whole population, and to the rights of minorities, as well as to strategic needs and the requirements of peace and stability in the Eastern Mediterranean. The agitation by certain Church leaders and by the Communists for Enosis must not be allowed to obscure the real achievements of British rule in Cyprus, especially since the war.

On a point of order. Is this not a further serious abuse of the rules? Instead of merely making an announcement of policy, the right hon. Gentleman is arguing his case. There is no Motion before the House on which it can be discussed. Is this not going too far in Ministerial statements, and ought not the right hon. Gentleman to confine himself to bare statements of policy and not to include arguments about policy?

I saw nothing but a statement of policy in the point in the statement at which the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) interrupted. I think the Minister was about to say what the policy of the Government was in relation to this matter.

Perhaps I had better go back to the sentence on which I was interrupted, because it deals with our achievements.

"The agitation by certain Church leaders and by the Communists for Enosis must not be allowed to obscure the real achievements of British rule in Cyprus, especially since the war."

On a point of order. In that sentence the right hon. Gentleman has not stated his policy, Sir. He is propounding an argument and, with all respect, I suggest that that is an abuse of the rules governing a statement made by a Minister.

I do not so regard it. I took it from what the Minister said that it was part of the policy of Her Majesty's Government not to allow the real achievements of British rule in Cyprus to be obscured. It would be straining language too tightly for our purposes in Parliament to say that that was not a statement of policy.

I am sorry that the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Bevan) should find so distasteful a sentence redounding to the honour of this country.

Further to that point of order. We have been told by the Leader of the House that there are no plans for an early debate on Cyprus. This matter is shortly to come before U.N.O. and it is surely evident that, by couching his purported policy statement in this very argumentative language, the right hon. Gentleman is trying to influence and prejudge the U.N.O. debate by having a purely one-sided argument in the House.

It is very difficult to separate by any hard and fast line a statement of policy from some mention of the facts and opinions—

—and opinions on which that policy is based. As for the debate, I heard that we were to have a debate on Tuesday on the Middle East, on a Motion for the Adjournment. Any matter of administration which does not involve legislation is in order on that.

Further to that point of order. While we are most grateful for your advice, Mr. Speaker, about Tuesday, is it not the case that it is always for the convenience of the House that a debate, even on the Adjournment, when it has been prearranged, should be confined to the subject announced and agreed, and although the question of Cyprus is, of course, relevant to the general question of the Middle East, would it not be much more for the convenience of the House if we could have a special, separate debate on Cyprus, on a Motion?

The hon. Member is asking me to give an opinion on what I really cannot decide. It is not for me to decide what days are given to debates. As he has rightly said, I think, I do not see myself, speaking at short notice, how the Middle East problem can be discussed without mention of Cyprus. I hope that the House will listen to this statement.

On a point of order. May I put a slightly different point arising out of this matter? Is it not an abuse of the custom by which Ministers are able to make statements to the House, when there is no Motion before the House, in order to explain their policy, to make a statement on policy when there is no new policy to be announced, no new development of policy, no new turn of policy, and all that the Minister is really doing is defending the Government's policy of which the House is already fully aware?

Ministers must be the judge of what is in the public interest and what is not. They must be the judge of whether they think a statement should be made or not; I cannot possibly judge it. It is for the House to comment on it when the proper time comes.

Conditions in Cyprus compare very favourably with those anywhere else in that part of the world. Constitutional progress has so far lagged behind economic, and the policy of Her Majesty's Government is to encourage political responsibility within the framework of the new constitution which we have proposed as the first step towards internal self-government.

Agitation for a change of sovereignty can only hamper these efforts. We are determined to persevere with this new constitution, and all responsible Cypriots should now co-operate in making a success of this important move towards self-government. The Governor is still engaged in working out the detailed proposals, and I shall lay them before the House at the first opportunity.

I repeat: these arrangements contemplate no change in the sovereignty of Cyprus. The question has been asked what is to be the ultimate goal of constitutional progress in Cyprus. Before an answer can be given the Cypriot people must first join with us in taking the first steps towards managing their own affairs.

The House has now had an opportunity to judge whether there is anything in this statement. There has been a clear statement by the Minister, first, that the only thing that is happening now is that the Government are continuing to think, and, secondly, that the people of Cyprus must not think, or certainly not think aloud. No information has been given about any alteration of principle at all; and I beg respectfully to suggest to you, Mr. Speaker, as the result of the Ruling that you gave a few minutes ago, that one cannot say anything because until the Minister says it one does not know what he is going to say, and, when he says it, it is too late to object.

I think that the hon. Member is putting his own gloss on what has been said. If he looks at it in another way, I think he will agree that the fair thing is to allow the statement to come to a conclusion.

Ministerial statements take up a considerable time of the House, and I think that Members should know what is the proper procedure. Unless I am mistaken, every Minister should have the courtesy to begin by saying, "With the permission of the House, I should like to make a statement." I should be grate-full to you, Mr. Speaker, if you would tell back benchers in what circumstance they can signify or not, whether, in fact, we wish a Minister to make a statement.

I think that that phrase of courtesy has been used on this occasion also in regard to this statement. [HON. MEMBERS "No."] My copy of the statement reads, "With permission, I wish to make a statement …" The hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) said that these Ministerial statements sometimes take a little time. I am very conscious of that, and I am anxious to get them over as soon as possible so that the House shall get on with its business. I would ask the House to cooperate with me to that end.

I repeat that these arrangements contemplate no change in the sovereignty of Cyprus. In the present troubled state of the world we cannot foresee a time when a relinquishment of our sovereignty over Cyprus would be compatible with our responsibilities for security in the Middle East. I have not attempted to prophesy where constitutional development may ultimately lead. I am not prepared to look into the distant future at a time when we still cannot see clearly the outcome of our fresh step towards constitutional advance.

Will the Secretary of State clarify something that seems rather obscure in the statement he has made about constitutional development? When we had a statement from the Minister some time ago, there was some discussion about the evolution of any constitution which began in Cyprus towards eventual Dominion status. Do I understand the Secretary of State to say now that that earlier statement does not stand, and that the future development can be discussed with the people in Cyprus?

Further, as he may know—and I think he does know—there has been an important change in the views expressed by the Archbishop and other leaders in Cyprus in recent weeks. Whereas, in the past, they have refused to discuss or to work a constitution at any stage on the around that all that they would consider would be Enosis, they have now stated publicly that they are prepared to consider a constitution. It is true that they say that they want this constitution to be of Dominion status in a very short time, but it is an important change that they are now prepared to consider a constitution.

In view of that, will the Secretary of State now reconsider a suggestion I made when the earlier statement was made in the House? Instead of putting forward again the constitution which has already been announced, which is less liberal than that of the 1948 Constitution, in view of the changed situation and the change of policy on behalf of those who advocate Enosis, would it not be wise for the Government now to invite the responsible leaders in Cyprus, including the leaders of the minorities as well as of the majorities of the people, to sit down and discuss with the right hon. Gentleman, or, alternatively, to authorise the Governor to convene a conference of representatives of the people to discuss, a possible new constitution, rather than again repeat the offer of this constitution?

If the Government are anxious, as I hope they are, for a settlement of this matter, is it not wise now to take advantage of the change which has taken place and the readiness to discuss a constitution? Will the right hon. Gentleman therefore consider whether it is desirable quickly to call a conference of the leaders of the people in Cyprus to discuss a constitution?

May I, first, welcome the right hon. Gentleman into these interchanges?

In reply to the questions asked by the right hon. Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths), I made it quite plain in my statement that what we are dealing with is the immediate future and the need for all Cypriots who want to see their country progress to cooperate in the making of a new constitution. If the right hon. Gentleman was able to hear my concluding paragraph, he would find there the answer to his first question.

Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman asked a question in regard to the change of policy by the Ethnarchy in Cyprus. Perhaps it would be only reasonable for him to understand, if he looks at the White Paper, that that change of view may well be due to the fact that the Greek claim has had no real support from those to whom it looked for support at the United Nations. I am not prepared to alter Her Majesty's Government's policy to fit in with the change to which the Ethnarchy has come for other considerations.

The answer to the third question is that the Governor has made it perfectly plain that he would welcome talks on the constitution with responsible leaders in Cyprus. I think it is better to leave it for the Governor to do it.

Does it really matter to what the change of policy is attributable? Is not the important point that there is a change and there is now a readiness to sit down and discuss a constitution? Since this is the first time in recent years that the Ethnarchy has indicated that it is prepared to sit down and consider a constitution, would it not be the wise course to accept this change of view and invite the leaders to discuss a constitution for the future?

I think that the invitation to the Ethnarchy or to any other responsible body in Cyprus to discuss a new constitution with the Governor has been made perfectly plain. That invitation still stands.

The most important part of the right hon. Gentleman's statement is that the Government do not contemplate any change whatever of sovereignty. How does the right hon. Gentleman reconcile that statement and attitude with the solemn pledge made in the Atlantic Charter by the Prime Minister on behalf on this country, in a time of peril, that people would be allowed to determine their own form of government?

I have repeatedly made it plain that we are anxious that there should be steps towards self-government in Cyprus. We are anxious that people in Cyprus should co-operate but, to use my own words:

" In the present troubled state of the world we cannot foresee a time when a relinquishment of our sovereignty over Cyprus would be compatible with our responsibilities …"

Is my right hon. Friend aware that several facets of his statement, particularly with regard to the goal of constitutional development and the easing of the Press laws, will be studied with care and interest by Greek opinion? Sober elements will welcome them. Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that among our strategic interests in the Middle East is the friendship of the Greek people, which has been proved in two wars with valour and glory?

I entirely agree that friendship with Greece is of very great importance, and so, also, is friendship with Turkey. The Turks are an important part of the population of Cyprus.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that some weeks ago the then Minister of State got into serious trouble for using the word "never" in connection with independence and was then repudiated by the Prime Minister? The right hon. Gentleman has now confirmed that the word "never" should come into consideration as far as he is concerned.

I refuse to regard as accurate the repetition of what my right hon. and learned Friend was supposed to have said but, in fact never said.

In view of the fact that the Secretary of State said that a change of sovereignty cannot be allowed in Cyprus, will he say what he means by our staying there for strategical reasons? As we have been informed that the hydrogen bomb was relevant to the Suez Canal Zone, is it not relevant to Cyprus?

May I press for an answer? The right hon. Gentleman said that we were staying in Cyprus for strategical reasons. What we want to know and what is being asked in various parts of the country is this. How does it come about that the Prime Minister states that the advent of the hydrogen bomb made the Canal Zone base untenable but, at the same time, apparently, the hydrogen bomb has no effectiveness in relation to Cyprus? How does the right hon. Gentleman explain this situation?

The hydrogen bomb may have all sorts of effects here and elsewhere, but that is certainly no reason for relinquishing sovereignty over a British possession.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the decision of Her Majesty's Government to bring the sedition laws of Cyprus more into accord with those which exist in this country will be considered as a sign of the confidence of Her Majesty's Government in the British position in Cyprus? In so far as that is the case, will my right hon. Friend now further consider how far it is possible to make any progress in bringing into effect the proposals for the constitutional changes which the Government have in respect of that island?

We shall press on with the constitutional talks with the utmost vigour.

Why did the Minister, in his statement, refer to agitation for Enosis by Church leaders and Communists but not mention that the whole body of Conservative political opinion in Cyprus, which still represents the majority party in that country, is in the leadership of the Enosis propaganda? Would it not be a little more accurate and fair, and a little less tendentious, to give the whole body of support for Enosis and not pick on simply two wings of the movement?

When the Secretary of State is looking into the sedition laws, will he look at the position regarding meetings in Cyprus? At present, it is impossible for the citizens of Cyprus to meet together even to discuss this constitution, in case somebody present wanted to say that he did not want it, which would be seditious. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it is necessary to get a permit before a meeting can be held in Cyprus and that a condition on which a permit is issued, when one is issued—I possess one—is that the police must be present and may disperse a meeting by force if the subject which is stated is departed from or if there is infringement of the conditions? Would it not help the discussions to take place if there could be honest public discussion without fear of police intervention?

From my reading during the summer, neither the hon. Lady nor some of her hon. Friends had any difficulty in attending or holding public meetings in Cyprus. Clearly, the Governor has a responsibility for law and order. If, in his view, it is desirable that the police should be present to prevent a breach of law and order, I am not prepared to intervene. It must be the hope of us all that after the first talks and the steady development of the constitution, any penal sanctions of that kind can be continuously lifted. The best contribution of the people of Cyprus would be for them to discuss the constitution with the Governor and to raise that point in any of their talks with him.

The hon. Lady questioned me about what she suggested was the overwhelming body of opinion in Cyprus. I ask her to look back to the answers given by her right hon. Friends the Members for West Bromwich (Mr. Dugdale) and Wakefield (Mr. Creech Jones) in regard to the rather "phoney" nature of the plebiscite, to which so much attention is constantly drawn.

If, as I gather from the Minister's further replies, invitations to discuss the constitution have gone out from the Governor, are they invitations to discuss, not only these proposals, but any other proposal that may emerge? Is it the right hon. Gentleman's intention shortly to issue a White Paper? If so, we shall want to debate it in the House.

I said nothing whatever about issuing a White Paper, but I am placing in the Library certain documents relating to the Press laws. I did not say that I would—and I do not intend to—issue a White Paper. As for the invitations, the Governor has not sent out any formal invitations, but he has made it known, both by talks and by broadcasting, and certainly by talks—and it has also been said in the House—that he will welcome discussions with the leaders of opinion in Cyprus about the constitution, but the talks, of course, must be about the constitution. There is no question of the talks being about the curtailment or abolition of Her Majesty's sovereignty.

From the point of view of the facts, which certain hon. Gentlemen opposite have been trying to suppress by their interruptions all the afternoon, does my right hon. Friend not agree that this step to loosen the force of these laws is a step showing the strength and confidence of the Government in Cyprus? Further, will my right hon. Friend confirm that the last time any person was imprisoned for sedition in Cyprus was in the period of office of the last Socialist Government, in 1947?

It is quite true that actual imprisonment took place for the last time under the Administration of the party opposite. I share with my hon. Friend the view that the move we are now making in regard to the Press laws is a move from strength.

If the last reply of the right hon. Gentleman shows that he has some confidence in the responsible conduct of the people of Cyprus, does he not think that they are responsible enough to discuss the constitution, and, at the same time, if they wish to do so, to discuss a possible future change of sovereignty? Does not the right hon. Gentleman realise that it is futile to say that "the invitation stands" so long as it is coupled with this bar on all discussion on a change of sovereignty? Does he realise, further, that it is really almost as unfortunate to use the word "must" as to use the word "never"? The right hon. Gentleman said this afternoon that the Cypriot people "must" co-operate. Does he not want their voluntary co-operation?

Of course I want voluntary co-operation. I posed the ideal at which we are aiming, and, in order to achieve it, there must be co-operation. [HON. MEMBERS: "Must?"] Of course. If the Cypriots do not want to achieve it, there need not be co-operation, but, to achieve it, there must be co-operation on both sides—on the side of Her Majesty's Government and that of the people of Cyprus.

As to what the talks should be about, I should have thought that, in a country where there has been no Legislative Council since 1931, there is plenty to discuss about the constitution without bringing in other subjects.