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Turks And Caicos Islands

Volume 113: debated on Tuesday 31 March 1987

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3.31 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs
(Mr. Tim Eggar)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the Turks and Caicos Islands.

Last July I informed the House of the decision to amend the constitution, and to suspend ministerial government in the Turks and Caicos. This was an interim measure pending the outcome of a review of the islands' constitution.

A constitutional commission was appointed under the chairmanship of Sir Roy Marshall. It consulted widely both in the territory and in the English-speaking Caribbean. We are grateful for the dedicated and painstaking way in which it carried out its task. We are also grateful to the leaders of Governments in the Caribbean for their wise contributions to our deliberations.

The commission's report has now been printed as a Command Paper. Copies have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses and will be available in the Vote Office shortly.

Our objectives have been to ensure: that past failures are rectified and the Turks and Caicos Islands receive a constitution which provides for responsible government; that we discharge our ultimate responsibility for good administration; and that the islands' future political, social and economic development is assured.

We have accepted the commission's central recommendation that there should be a return to ministerial government. This will be underpinned by a series of new constitutional provisions and other safeguards. It reflects our commitment to, and the islanders' desire for, democratic expression and responsible administration.

These safeguards, the implementation of which will he discussed with the legislature, are: larger multi-Member constituencies to prevent patronage; more regular Legislative Council sittings; the introduction of a committee system to provide greater ministerial accountability; administrative checks— including a public service commission, ombudsman and resident auditor to ensure an independent civil service and better financial discipline.

In addition, we propose to strengthen the commission's proposals in a number of ways. We agree with the commission's recommendations for a five-year disqualification period for convicted persons, but think that that may be too complex. We therefore propose a simpler alternative, which would apply to anyone convicted of a criminal offence carrying a sentence of 12 months or more by a court of law in any country.

We also propose that, after full consultation with the Chief Minister, the Governor should in future be able to decide whether certain ministerial responsibilities should be allocated to elected members of the Executive Council. Similarly, after consultation with the Chief Minister, he will be able to withdraw a responsibility from a Minister if he believes that that is necessary.

The commission was also concerned about the limitations of the present jury system. We agree that the right to trial by jury should be retained, while providing defendants with a right to opt for trial by judge alone. We propose that the majority of jurors in any particular case should not be drawn from the island of origin or residence of the accused. The judicial system will also be strengthened by the appointment of a resident chief justice.

It will take time to prepare the necessary constitutional amendments and establish the supporting electoral and administrative measures. New elections will therefore be held in April or May 1988, when they are due under the present constitution. Until that time the territory will continue to be administered by the present interim Government.

We are giving priority to the commission's recommendation for a national development plan, co-ordinated under a central planning unit. We shall ensure that capital aid is used effectively.

The constitutional commission made it clear that patronage and malpractice had existed under recent Governments in the Turks and Caicos Islands. We are now providing the framework for fair and effective administration and the proper use of taxpayers' money. We expect the new measures to receive the support of the islanders, who were extensively consulted. We are confident that they will welcome the return of representative and responsible government.

We are grateful to the Minister for making an oral statement on this matter. I wish to add the congratulations of the Opposition to Sir Roy Marshall and his colleagues on the painstaking work that they have done.

Will the Minister confirm that the report will also be published and made available to the islanders in the Turks and Caicos Islands as quickly as possible? Does he agree that it is necessary to get this matter right, not only to get the Turks and Caicos Islands back on the road to democracy, but because there are implications for all our dependent territories and for other small island states?

The Opposition welcome the bulk of Sir Roy Marshall's recommendations, and the Government's acceptance of them— on the increased role and responsibility for the elected legislature, on the appointment of an ombudsman and resident auditor, on the arrangements for disqualifying people from election if they have committed certain offences and on larger multi-Member constituencies. On jury selection, we recognise the need for some device to help to ensure a fair trial for all who are accused on the islands; given the problems that exist on small islands, the arrangement that has been proposed is certainly worth trying.

That brings me to the Opposition's reservations. Sir Roy Marshall and his commission recommended a return to ministerial government by the end of this year. I know that that is what is desired and what has been expected by the islanders. We recognise that there has been an understandable delay in the Government's consideration of the report since it was received at the end of December, but, on behalf of the Opposition, I strongly urge the Minister and the Government to examine again the practical problems of having elections this year. If that can be achieved, it would certainly be desirable. After all, in this country we receive only a few weeks' notice of an election. Surely elections could be held on the Turks and Caicos Islands by the end of December.

Our second reservation concerns the reserve powers of the Governor in relation to the appointment of Ministers— I understand that they were not among Sir Roy's recommendations. Given the recent history of the islands, we understand why they are considered necessary, but could the Minister say in what circumstances he would envisage such powers being used? Would he accept that we strongly urge that they should not be a permanent feature of the constitution but merely a transitional measure?

If the Minister cannot give a positive response to those two points today, I hope that he will give further thought to them over the next few weeks. I hope that he and all hon. Members will agree that our aim should be to find a scheme to allow the Turks and Caicos to move towards accepting full and total responsibility for their own affairs in a democratic system as quickly as possible.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his very constructive comments and for the support that he has given, not only today but throughout the process of evaluation by the commission. I will certainly pass on his thanks and those of Opposition Members to the commission.

The report will be made extensively available in the islands. I hope that at least one copy will be available for each family. That comes to some 2,500 copies. As regards juries, I should remind the hon. Gentleman that the islanders will have the option of trial by judge alone. We recognise that there are practical difficulties in making up juries of members from different islands, but we think it the best way to proceed.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether it would be possible to hold the election any earlier. I can assure him that we have looked at this in considerable detail. The administrative problems of getting the necessary back-up in place in time for an election by the end of this year are insuperable. We believe that we will be in tune with the present constitution, which requires an election in April or May next year, if we announce that elections will take place then.

Turning to the hon. Gentleman's comments on the use of the Governor's reserve powers, I am sure that he does not under-estimate the extent of the problem that has existed in the Turks and Caicos Islands, but the House might like to hear a quotation from the report prepared by Mr. Blom-Cooper:
"I cannot simulate deafness to the voices of responsible people in the Islands who complain that there is pervasive corruption in government".
Against that background, we really had to consider very carefully whether it was not appropriate for the Governor to have reserve powers of the kind that I have outlined. We believe, somewhat reluctantly, that it is essential. Of course, those powers will be used only if required, as a last resort and after consultation with the Chief Minister.

Does my hon. Friend agree that this announcement will, generally speaking, be very welcome in the islands? When I visited the islands, the majority opinion among the islanders was for a swift return to ministerial government. Does he accept, however, that in the light of the history of the Turks and Caicos Islands, and of small territories generally, it is necessary to build in checks and balances against the overwhelming executive power which a ministerial system confers on a Government in those islands—and even in this country?

Would my hon. Friend make it clear that he will support the administration of those islands so that a just and equitable system can he set up which will act to some extent as a check against misuse of executive power? Will he also make certain that he provides sufficient resources, not only for administration but for the economic development of the islands, so that we in this House can be proud of the job that we are doing for the Turks and Caicos islanders?

I thank my hon. Friend for his support for our proposals. I am particularly grateful to him because I am aware of his great knowledge of the Caribbean in general and the Turks and Caicos Islands in particular. Of course, we will take steps to strengthen administration in the islands. We will be appointing a resident auditor and a resident chief justice, and will strengthen the administration in other areas as well.

As for sufficient resources, I would remind my hon. Friend that the islands receive over £5 million a year in budgetary assistance from the British taxpayer. Our major priority is to ensure that that aid is well and effectively spent.

May I confirm from these Benches the welcome that was given earlier by the Official Opposition to the work of the constitutional commission? It has done a commendable job and has made a constructive contribution to the discussion. We agree with the proposal with minor qualifications. Certainly we agree with the proportional representation scheme that is being set up for the islands. I hope that it can be used as a pilot for other places.

The key thing, as has been said, is that we strengthen public administration, that we get politicians who will work within the new constitutional framework and that we have a new chief justice who will oversee the legal process. Will the Minister consider carefully the need to have a Caribbean judge—I agree that it has to be a high quality lawyer— but may we have an indigenous chief justice to look after the legal system? Can the Minister say whether the Government have had a chance to consider the second commission report on the North Creek development project? Will he undertake that when they get it, the Government will be prepared to publish it?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome to the statement on the commission's report. On his point about proportional representation, before he goes too far down that road may I suggest that he studies the report rather more carefully because I do not think that the parallel that he is trying to draw is brought out by its contents? The Government will bear in mind his comments on the background of a future chief justice. The most important thing is to get the right man for the job, whatever his background. I shall, of course, take into account the other points that the right hon. Gentleman made.

Does my hon. Friend agree that this report is one of the many contributions which Sir Roy Marshall has made to the welfare of the Commonwealth and the Caribbean? Presumably the ombudsman will have the same powers as he has here—to recommend but not to enforce. Will the Governor's reserve powers cover the latter point? Will he be able to insist that the ombudsman"s recommendations will be accepted?

On the latter point, the precise procedures for the role of the ombudsman still have to be worked out with the local legislature. The point clearly is that the ombudsman will have a major and constructive role in ensuring good and effective administration within the Turks and Caicos islands. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend about the tremendous role that Sir Roy Marshall has played, not only with this commission but with his contribution to the Commonwealth.

Right at the end of his statement, the Minister mentioned that he would like a Government that was representative and responsible. Is not that an excessively patronising statement considering that in this country we are satisfied with a representative Government and do not require them to be responsible, as we have seen over the last seven years?

The hon. Gentleman's parallel was not worthy even of him. Perhaps he should refer to the Blom-Cooper report, from which I shall quote directly:

"The three Ministers"—
and he names them—
"have been found by me to be guilty of unconstitutional behaviour and of ministerial malpractices. Such conduct renders them, in my view, unfit to exercise ministerial responsibilities … My finds of criminality against"—
and he names two people, the Opposition leaders—
"call for more severe consequences. They are, in my view, unfit to hold public office."
That is the extent of the position in the Turks and Caicos islands.

Before going overboard about welcoming these proposals, may I ask my hon. Friend where the Turks and Caicos islands are? Secondly, will he agree that the new voting system which is being imposed on these poor islanders will not find great favour in the House?

The Turks and Caicos islands, I am delighted to tell my hon. Friend, are in the Caribbean. I can recommend to him the Club Mediterranee, a development of one of the islands which, I believe, incorporates a health farm.

I have had the advantage of visiting the islands on a Commonwealth Parliamentary Association visit. Under the proposals, who will control the police, Customs and fire service? The Blom-Cooper report was uncertain about how the services had reacted to fire. Will the Minister accept that it is part of Her Majesty's Government's responsibility, in ensuring a real and clean democratic service, that the services of the Overseas Development Administration are available on such matters as hydrological surveys, the last one of which was in 1894? One of the major problems is the shortage of water, and that matter became politicised. Who will control the airports? They provide the route by which drugs move from southern America to Florida. Unless somebody in the House retains responsibility for preventing the drug trade, the matter will be a nonsense. The moneys involved are too great for local politicians to resist.

I recognise the hon. Gentleman's great knowledge of events in the Turks and Caicos islands. My hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development has listened carefully to the points that he made about the role of the ODA. I said that we would introduce a national development plan, and it will pick up many of the points that the hon. Gentleman made. It is not proposed to change that section of the constitution that deals with the position of the services. We are aiming, under the reserve powers and through other measures, through the public service commissioner and so on, to ensure that they are administered effectively.

Will my hon. Friend explain to the House, with the lack of ambiguity that is characteristic of the Foreign Office, the presumed advantages of the multi-Member constituency over the single-Member constituency, of which most Conservative Members warmly approve? Will the example of close consultation with those who are to be governed differently be followed in future in Northern Ireland?

I should not like to be drawn, even by my hon. Friend, down the latter path. One must remember that the number of electors in the average single-Member constituency in the Turks and Caicos islands varies between 120 and 630. Therefore, the commission felt that there was scope for corruption on behalf of Ministers and other elected representatives which would not be countenanced, and one way of getting around that was to move towards multi-Member constituencies.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the unfortunate experience of the Turks and Caicos islands illustrates the folly of the recent fashion of granting independence to any territory, no matter what its size, which is most certainly not in the interests of most small islands?

I note what my hon. Friend has said. I know that he takes great interest in the matter. As I told him, we are looking at the role of dependent territories and our future policy towards them. I should not like to go any further on that matter this afternoon.

Is my hon. Friend confident that a small island with a population of around 8,000 needs the extravagant Foreign Office solution consisting of a governor, an ombudsman, a chief justice, a full ministerial Government and civil service to go with it, and an auditor-general as well? In view of the Wild West lawlessness that has prevailed on the islands for some time, would they not be better off with a good sheriff?

If the Commission had known that my hon. Friend was volunteering, I am sure that it would have considered that option.

Bill Presented

Licensing (Retail Sales)

Mr. George Gardiner, supported by Mr. Michael Colvin and Mr. John Cartwright presented a Bill to amend the definition of 'sale by retail' in section 201 of the Licensing Act 1964; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 8 May and to be printed [Bill 127.]