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Pending Appeals To Privy Council

Volume 981: debated on Wednesday 19 March 1980

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

11.15 pm

The main debate on this Bill will no doubt take place on Third Reading and a number of us will have something to say then.

Clause 3 enables Her Majesty, by Order in Council, to make provision regarding any appeals from the New Hebrides courts which may be pending before the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council at independence. I do not know whether there are any appeals pending and I shall shortly ask the Minister about that.

The role of the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in relation to the New Hebrides in the few weeks before independence is one which I would not have raised had it not been for the constitutional discussions which have taken place in the last two or three days.

As these serious discussions seem to have opened up the issue of the basis for the New Hebrides constitution since the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Blackpool, South (Mr. Blaker), attended the constitutional conference, I believe that clause 3 is an appropriate clause on which to probe the Minister about the present situation before we reach Third Reading.

It appears that the constitutional conference, which everybody thought had finalised matters in September and at which the hon. Member negotiated with great distinction, has been re-opened. If the settlement has not been properly defended by the Government, I think that that might give rise to litigation even in the short time before independence. That would be properly a matter for clause 3. I realise that it is a narrow point but I believe that it is right, during this short Committee stage, to attempt to get an answer from the Minister on whether, in his view, the constitutional conference still stands.

The basis for that constitutional conference was that the New Hebrides would become a unitary State but that there should be regional autonomy for certain of the islands within the group. That was agreed after massive concessions by the Vanuaaku Pati in order to create an atmosphere that would encourage agreement at the conference and pave the way for elections.

Everybody knows that the elections took place in an orderly fashion and that the Vanuaaku Pati won a clear majority. The British Government are rather good at supervising the holding of elections in an orderly fashion these days.

If it should appear now that the French Government are saying that any aid at all should be conditional on the reopening of those constitutional negotiations to include the whole issue of confederation—

Order. I have been listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman, but I cannot so far relate what he has been saying to appeals to the Privy Council dealt with in clause 3.

I have indeed been remiss in failing to relate my remarks to the clause, and I shall do so immediately, Mr. Godman Irvine.

If this reversal of the constitutional conference should give rise to litigation, it might go quickly to the Privy Council and simultaneously to the Conseil d'Etat in Paris. For appeals beyond the New Hebrides courts, of which you know so well, Mr. Godman Irvine, the constitution says that there is to be a British judge and a French judge and an independent chairman to be appointed by the King of Spain. Of course, for a long period there was no King of Spain and there was a problem in the New Hebrides. As a result, the British and French judges in the Supreme Court in the New Hebrides decided to form themselves into an entity for the purpose of hearing appeals and to do without the chairman to be appointed by the King of Spain.

If it should happen that, out of this appeals mechanism, a constitutional appeal should flow to the Privy Council, that is a proper matter to raise in Committee, and I raise that matter now. I agree that I do so on a somewhat narrow drawbridge in Committee, but when the Government choose to introduce Third Reading of a Bill in the middle of constitutional negotiations which took place for the past three days in Paris and are to take place for the next three days in London, it is incumbent upon them to tell us how they intend to prevent clause 3 from being invoked and to give some assurances of the utter finality of the constitutional conference that took place in September.

As we are in Committee and there is no inhibition on speaking a second time, I hold my remarks at this point and await the Minister's response, although I think that others may wish to speak.

I would tread part way along the same drawbridge that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) either raised or lowered—I am not certain which it was.

The general impression on Second Reading was that this was an almost totally agreed measure between ourselves and the French and all those concerned in the New Hebrides. The Under-Secretary of State rightly pointed out:
"but it is clear that progress in negotiations within the territory could be promoted by some outside stimulus".—[Official Report, 6 March 1980; Vol. 980, c. 680.]

On a point of order, Mr. Godman Irvine. With respect, and following your intervention a few minutes ago, what has been said by the hon. Members for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price) and Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) has not the slightest thing to do with appeals to the Privy Council. The clause is concerned with appeals which are pending. The hon. Member for Lewisham, West was dealing with the possibility of proceedings which might start. Such appeals cannot be pending. Therefore, this cannot be in order.

Further to that point of order, Mr. God-man Irvine. I should point out that this is an exceedingly important and delicate time in the negotiations. There is clear evidence that in some parts of the New Hebrides there is likely to be a breakdown of law and order which may lead to appeals to our legal system. It is not a subject that can be lightly passed over late at night because that happens to suit those who want the subject to pass without discussion.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The wording refers to appeals which are pending at independence, not appeals that are pending today. We do not know what litigation may arise in the New Hebrides as a result of what will happen between now and a date for independence, which it has been suggested for some time will be during May but has not yet been fixed and could well be postponed. I am sorry that I interrupted my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden), but appeals pending at independence are hypothetical appeals, and it is proper to raise the subject in the debate.

I was teetering on the edge of the drawbridge, but withdrew very quickly. I have not mentioned appeals. I am sorry that the hon and learned Member for Solihull (Mr. Grieve) disagrees with me more tonight than he did on Monday. We are not trying to create any tremors on the water. We are asking for information.

The Bill received an agreed Second Reading because it was brought to us as an agreed measure. The provisions, including clause 3, are hardly likely to be used. The Minister said that everything had not been tidied up, and to that end the New Hebrides leaders had been invited to discussions in London later this month. It was felt that that would help to continue the broad measure of agreement.

This may be a good opportunity for the Minister to give us more information. If that agreed settlement is not to happen, with the possibility of present appeals continuing, and further appeals to the Judicial Committee increasing, we are asking the Minister, if he so wishes, to provide us with more information. It is better to ask for that now than on, Third Reading, when we must agree to all the provisions or none of them.

If I am in order in doing so, I shall gladly respond to the questions raised.

In answer to the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price), may I say that there are no appeals pending. On his major point, the discussions that began today do not reopen the constitution that was agreed in September. That is understood by the French Government. I had talks today with my opposite number from the French Government who came to Britain for that purpose. They are not intended to reopen the constitutional basis on which it is intended that the New Hebrides should be granted independence.

As the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) rightly said, these discussions were foreseen when Second Reading was debated earlier this month. Both sides accepted the proposal for discussions some time ago and they have now begun. Efforts were made by the Chief Minister to start discussions in the New Hebrides. Unfortunately, his efforts did not succeed. The French and British Governments thought that it would be a good opportunity to start the discussions now because the New Hebrides Government were due to come to Europe at this time for talks about aid. The primary purpose of the visit of the Chief Minister and his colleagues to France a few days ago, and to this country now, was to deal with the question of aid from the French and British Governments.

Order. The hon. Gentleman should not pursue that point because we are dealing with clause 3 (1) (a) which refers to possible appeals which might be pending before the appointed day.

11.30 pm

I am grateful to the Minister for giving way on this issue dealing with possible appeals at independence, which might accrue for one reason or another. The point I want to deal with, pursuant to any possible litigation which might take place—

On a point of order, Mr. Godman Irvine. I realise that it might be in order on Third Reading, but this is a serious matter and it is open to hon. Members to try to use parliamentary procedures to get assurances at the right stage in our legislation so that we do not find ourselves blocked at further points. I realise that this matter will be pursued on Third Reading. Perhaps I could put this short point. The Minister said that the primary purpose of the visit was aid. What is the secondary purpose?

At the moment we are dealing with the question of appeals to the Privy Council which might be pending. I hardly think that that point could be defined as being within the scope of those words.

Further to that point of order, Mr. Godman Irvine. If the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council is the supreme judicial body in the country, almost anything could find its way to it. Unless there is general agreement, here and out there, any number of appeals can come up to it. We could talk of aid, trade, self-defence, civil affairs, air-raid shelters, the state of the harbours. Anything like that could fall within the ambit of the Privy Council, particularly in view of this condominium business. Almost anything could fall within this phrase about possible or pending appeals to the Privy Council.

The hon. Gentleman is trying to persuade me that we are having a Second Reading debate now.

I shall try to keep within the guidelines which you have laid down Mr. Godman Irvine. I shall, therefore, leave the question of aid.

Returning to the question asked by the hon. Member for Lewisham, West about the purposes of this visit, the leaders of the moderate parties and the customary chiefs came to Paris a little while ago—and also visited London—to ventilate their anxieties. It is those anxieties which are being discussed in the talks which began today. The opportunity of the presence of the customary chiefs and the leaders of the moderate parties and members of the Government of the New Hebrides in Europe was felt to be a good occasion to encourage them to get together.

The matters being discussed are the protection of the rights of the customary chiefs, the matter of decentralisation of Government powers, and in general, reassurance to the francophone minority in the New Hebrides. These are the sorts of thing which can be tackled within the constitution as it exists. The hon. Member will have looked at the constitution and will have seen that there are separate sections dealing with decentralisation and the role of the chiefs. I hope that I can reassure him about the nature of the talks which are taking place.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.