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Volume 387: debated on Tuesday 29 November 1977

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2.43 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether any representations have been made against the granting of independence to the island of Dominica, what form these have taken, and whether they have had any effect in modifying the attitude of Her Majesty's Government.

My Lords, a number of individuals have written expressing opposition to independence. Both major Parties in Dominica favour independence in principle; representations from the Opposition have concerned the constitutional details and the method and timing of a move to independence. We shall take all these views, and those of the Dominica Government, into account when making a decision.

My Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend Lord Goronwy-Roberts for that reply. In view of the unfortunate events that followed the granting of independence to Grenada, will my noble friend say how far there is a real desire for independence among the majority of the 70,000 inhabitants of this impoverished island, and whether this desire should not be put to the test by making it an issue at a General Election?

My Lords, that is a possible course. The attitude of Her Majesty's Government so far has been that both Parties—Government and Opposition—have expressed themselves perfectly clearly in favour of independence, and that was very apparent in the constitutional conference held earlier this year. However, we bear in mind how important it is that the consensus in that country should effectively be in favour of independence. Therefore, we await from the Premier of Dominica a statement on how the consultations through the public media have proceeded in that country. Additionally, we await a report on the state of public opinion on this issue from our own British Government representative in Dominica.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that when the issue of independence was raised, a general strike occurred in the island which lasted for more than 40 days? Is he also aware that, when the issue of independence was first put to the test recently in Antigua by the holding of a General Election, the Government Party was soundly defeated and Antigua still retains its associated status?

My Lords, the causes of the strike to which my noble friend has drawn attention and which, by the way, ended on the 17th October, were somewhat more varied than purely constitutional. As regards the indication of opinion in Dominica, I know that the House of Assembly debated and approved by 16 votes to 5 in a full House the Government's independence proposals. This was on 21st October. As I have said, we now await a report from the Premier on the outcome of the public debate on independence in that country. Equally, we await the report of the British Government representative.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the Government's overriding obligations are to recognise the wishes of the people in expressing their will for self-determination rather than a general policy of decolonisation against the wishes of the people concerned?

My Lords, the short and definite answer to that question is, yes.

My Lords, is this not a case where the issue ought to be resolved by a referendum?

My Lords, as I have said, that or the process of a General Election is perfectly possible. I do not think that, at present, we are in a position to decide how to proceed. We have engaged in seeking reports on the state of opinion in that country. When we receive the two reports to which I have referred, Her Majesty's Government will be in a position to decide, among other things, whether we follow one or other of the suggestions already made in this House.

My Lords, bearing in mind the very much higher standard of living prevailing in the neighbouring islands of Martinique and Guadeloupe, due in large measure to their close association with a European Power—in their case, France—is it not conceivable that the majority of the population of Dominica might prefer to remain associated with Britain, whatever the politicians might say? Would the noble Lord not agree, as the noble Baroness, Lady Wootton of Abinger, suggested, that a referendum is really the only fair means of ascertaining the wishes of the population of Dominica in this matter, particularly as the Government have already accepted the principle of a referendum in relation to the devolution proposals for Scotland and Wales?

My Lords, yes, I certainly do not rule out the procedures which, I think, are implicit in what the noble Lord, Lord Monson, has said. I stress to the House that it is wise on our part, as the paramount and also the dispensing Power, not to act too hastily in imposing certain procedures on these people, especially as they are now engaged in their own discussions. We have told them that we await a report on the course of those discussions as well as the report of our own representative.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm reports that there has been widespread intimidation by the Government ruling Party in Dominica against their opponents?

My Lords, I should like to apologise to the House for pursuing this matter, but, in view of the heavy extra costs that the granting of independence will entail, will my noble friend say how they would be met by increased revenue on this tiny island? Will be give the House an assurance that no extra burdens will fall upon the British taxpayer?

My Lords, I could not give details of the financial arrangements which will finally be approved. They will concern a number of Departments in this country, and, indeed, the authorities in Dominica. The details of our aid programme, for instance, after independence, will be determined in consultation with the Dominican Government. However, I can add that we would certainly not envisage any reduction in project aid and technical co-operation in the first few years of independence.