Anguilla (Wooding Commission)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 6th November 1970.

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The following Question stood upon the Order Paper:

Photo of Mr Neil Marten Mr Neil Marten , Banbury

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the Wooding Report concerning St. Kitts, Nevis and Anguilla.

Photo of Mr Joseph Godber Mr Joseph Godber , Grantham

With your permission Mr. Speaker and that of the House I would like to answer Question No. 60 on the Order Paper and make a statement on the Wooding Commission's Report.

The report of the Anguilla Commission, under the Chairmanship of Sir Hugh Wooding is published today as a White Paper. Copies are being made available in the Vote Office.

The Commission was appointed on 18th December, 1969, jointly by the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary in the previous administration and the Premier of St. Christopher—Nevis—Anguilla, in pursuance of an agreement reached between them in May, 1969.

I should like to express the thanks of Her Majesty's Government to Sir Hugh Wooding and his colleagues for the time, care and hard work they have devoted to their enquiry and for the clarity with which they have set out the problem and its possible solutions. I should also like to thank the Commonwealth Secretary General, for providing the Commission's Secretariat.

A senior official from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is at present visiting St. Kitts and Anguilla, for a preliminary discussion with the State Government and the Anguillans. Her Majesty's Government will be considering the Report in the light of further discussion with the parties principally concerned.

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Order. It is normal, a statement having been made in answer to a Question, for the questioner to have the first supplementary question.

Photo of Mr Neil Marten Mr Neil Marten , Banbury

I am sure that the whole House will wish to express its gratitude to Sir Hugh Wooding and his colleagues—

Photo of Mr Neil Marten Mr Neil Marten , Banbury

—for all the work that they have put into this report. [Interruption.]

Photo of Mr Ronald Brown Mr Ronald Brown , Shoreditch and Finsbury

What report? We have not seen it?

Photo of Mr Neil Marten Mr Neil Marten , Banbury

I am speaking of the report which my right hon. Friend is making available in the Vote Office. [Interruption.] Have I misunderstood what is happening?

Hon. Members:

Yes.

Photo of Mr Ronald Brown Mr Ronald Brown , Shoreditch and Finsbury

We cannot get the document and we have not seen it. What is the hon. Gentleman talking about?

Photo of Mr Neil Marten Mr Neil Marten , Banbury

I have not read it and all I am saying is that the House will appreciate what Sir Hugh and his colleagues have done. They have obviously put in a lot of work to produce this report. They had a difficult brief.

In any event, in the light of this report, may I ask my right hon. Friend to assure the House that the Government stand by the statement made on 20th July that they will honour the undertaking given by the previous Government in that any settlement of this problem must be acceptable to the Anguillans?

Photo of Mr Joseph Godber Mr Joseph Godber , Grantham

Yes. I am happy to give that assurance. It is our intention to seek to get agreement for the solution of this problem and the undertaking I gave on 20th July, which confirmed an undertaking given by the previous Government, was that we would not seek to impose a solution in any way but would seek to get one by agreement.

Photo of Mr Denis Healey Mr Denis Healey , Leeds East

First, may I protest in the strongest terms against the disgraceful procedure being followed by the Government this morning. The Leader of the House will recall that yesterday he told the House: I accept that statements on Fridays are not convenient for the House and I will do my best in all circumstances to avoid them."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th November, 1970; Vol. 805, c. 1264.] We now have a statement which refers to a report which none of us has been able to read, although the Press was given it yesterday with instructions that it was to be embargoed until two o'clock today. I understand that one of my hon. Friends, a back bencher, received a copy of the report yesterday, but I myself have not yet seen it.

How is it possible for the House to discuss a statement—or an answer—which contains no information whatever of substance on a report which is not available in the Vote Office? I see that it has just arrived this very second, but there has been no time for anyone in the House to read it, apart from the right hon. Gentleman who has made his statement. Only six copies are available, and I see that the report has 130 pages. I suggest that this is an abuse of the procedures of the House.

I am sure that the Leader of the House was not aware of the shambles that has been made by his right hon. Friend, but I hope that he can assure us that this really will be the last time it happens. It happened last Friday also. It is intolerable that the House should be asked to consider a matter of such importance as this without having any of the information in front of it.

I understand from private sources—namely, the hon. Friend who told me just before 11 o'clock that he had received a copy of the report yesterday—that the report suggests not federation but devolution as the solution to the problems of Anguilla. Can the Minister of State tell the House what in practical terms is the difference between devolution and federation?

Photo of Mr Joseph Godber Mr Joseph Godber , Grantham

I am sorry if the right hon. Gentleman feels that there has been any discourtesy in this matter—[Interruption.] Perhaps hon. Members will allow me to state the position. The position in regard to making a statement on this matter on a Friday is that it had to be agreed. This is not merely a statement on the part of Her Majesty's Government. The report is not for Her Majesty's Government alone but for the Government and the Government of St. Kitt's, Nevis and Anguilla, and the timing of the release of the announcement had to be arranged jointly. It was for that reason that I had to ask—and I know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House would have wished to avoid a Friday—that the agreement with Mr. Bradshaw of St. Kitt's should be honoured, and a statement made today. The circumstances are exceptional, and I hope that the House will accept that position. I thought it only courteous to explain why the statement had to be made today, and I hope that my explanation will be accepted.

I now come to the question of the availability of the report. The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that it is normal for all Governments, including the Government of which he was a member, to issue embargoed copies of reports in advance. I hope that he will not claim that there is anything new in that. I thought it only courteous to send a copy 'of the report to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Fulham (Mr. Michael Stewart), who authorised the Wooding Commission. I thought it right that he should have a copy confidentially in advance, and I hope that the House will not think it discourteous, because it was sent specifically to the right hon. Gentleman who is referred to in a number of places in the report. That was the basis on which that copy was issued in advance.

It is never normally the case, nor was it with the previous Government, to issue copies to Opposition spokesmen in advance. I took this step of issuing a copy in advance to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Fulham because of the unique circumstances, and I am sorry if it is thought that that was discourteous. There is no change in practice, and the right hon. Gentleman knows it perfectly well. No report was ever issued to me in advance when I sat on the Opposition Front Bench. I therefore reject his complaint about that matter.

As to his substantive question regarding the problem, I have made it clear in my statement that I do not wish to make any comment on the substance until there has been ample opportunity for discussion, both with the inhabitants of Anguilla and the Government of St. Kitt's, and I think that on reflection the right hon. Gentleman will agree that that is the wisest course.

Photo of Mr Denis Healey Mr Denis Healey , Leeds East

With respect, that explanation, if that is what it is intended to be, is totally unsatisfactory. In the first place, whenever the previous Government made a statement on a document, a White Paper or a report, if the report concerned was not available at the time of the statement, the statement made summarised the conclusions in the report. To make a statement, without the report, giving no indication of the contents of the report, is a total breach of normal procedure.

In the second place, can the right hon. Gentleman explain why in the draft of his statement which he was kind enough to send me at 10.30, he said that copies of the report were available in the Vote Office when it was clear to the Vote Office, and to the Press, which received copies of the report embargoed until 2 o'clock this afternoon, that it would not be available? Will the Leader of the House be kind enough to give his views on the matter? Would he not agree that it is undesirable to proceed in this way in future, because it is an abuse of the procedures of the House to make a statement on such an important matter as this report without giving any indication of its contents, when the report is not available, and is not intended to be made available, until three hours after the statement is made?

Photo of Mr Joseph Godber Mr Joseph Godber , Grantham

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will be happy to respond to any points put to him. Copies are now being made available. As soon as I discovered that there was some delay I instructed that copies were to be issued at once. As the right hon. Gentleman is aware, copies are now being issued. It would be normal for them to be available at 11 o'clock but I accept that, even so, the right hon. Gentleman would not have had an opportunity to see a copy in advance. However, this is in accordance with normal practice.

Photo of Mr Frederic Bennett Mr Frederic Bennett , Torquay

Will my right hon. Friend accept that not all of us are so rough on him for what has taken place? Quite a lot of us have good memories of how statements were made and supplementary questions had to be asked when for long periods of time we did not have copies of the statement before us—[HON. MEMBERS: "When?"]—during the strikes, but I am not answering questions—[Interruption.]

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Order. We will have the supplementary question asked without an intervention.

Photo of Mr Frederic Bennett Mr Frederic Bennett , Torquay

As to the substance of the report, will my right hon. Friend accept that most of us are very happy that after all the alarms and excursions of the last few years serious consideration is to be given to a long-term solution rather than to a patched-up solution, whatever words may be used. It is better to take longer and get something acceptable than to have a framework which will break down within months.

Photo of Mr Joseph Godber Mr Joseph Godber , Grantham

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. We have inherited a difficult problem from the previous Government, and we intend to resolve it. I can understand the embarrassment on the opposite benches, but that is our intention.

Photo of Mr Robert Maclennan Mr Robert Maclennan Shadow Spokesperson (Scotland)

Will the Minister of State now answer my right hon. Friend's question—he departed with truculent disregard from the normal practice of the House—by giving even a brief outline of the conclusions of the report to enable some proper discussion to take place?

Photo of Mr Joseph Godber Mr Joseph Godber , Grantham

I should have thought it clear from my first reply that it is my deliberate intention not to give an indication of the Government's thinking on the matter until we have had full discussion with the other parties. I have said that it is not a document just for Her Majesty's Government but a joint document. In the circumstances I think it only courteous to reserve comment until we have discussed the matter with Mr. Bradshaw.

Photo of Mr William Whitlock Mr William Whitlock , Nottingham North

The right hon. Gentleman courteously sent me a copy of the report yesterday—hon. Members will recall that I was a little involved in events in Anguilla—and I assumed that a copy would be sent to my right hon. Friend. We have here a Commission consisting almost wholly of West Indians who have been convinced that this tiny, arid little island with a population of some 6,000 cannot support itself as a separate entity. What arrangements are being made to tell the Anguillans that that is the Commission's recommendation, which presumably they must accept?

Photo of Mr Joseph Godber Mr Joseph Godber , Grantham

The position over consultation with the Anguillans is that a senior official of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is there now, as I said in my statement. I have already been there and had preliminary discussions with the Anguillans before seeing the report, because I wanted to see the position for myself. We shall seek to get the fullest consultation both with the Anguillans and the Government of St. Kitts, but I prefer not to make any comments about the position of the island or its economic status now.

Photo of Mr Nigel Fisher Mr Nigel Fisher , Surbiton

I realise that my right hon. Friend has already met Mr. Bradshaw and Mr. Webster, but in the light of the recommendations of the report, whatever they are—

Photo of Mrs Barbara Castle Mrs Barbara Castle , Blackburn

What recommendations?

Photo of Mr Nigel Fisher Mr Nigel Fisher , Surbiton

There are bound to be recommendations. I said "whatever they are". Does my right hon. Friend intend to have further discussions with those two gentlemen in the light of the report to ascertain their reactions to it?

Photo of Mr Joseph Godber Mr Joseph Godber , Grantham

Yes, indeed. The essence of the matter is that we must have the fullest discussions with all those concerned. As I have said, I have already been out there for preliminary talks, but in the light of the report I hope to have further discussions both with the Prime Minister of St. Kitts and with the Anguillan people in the near future.

Photo of Mr Denis Healey Mr Denis Healey , Leeds East

Could the right hon. Gentleman explain why he chose to make an early statement on a report that he is not prepared to discuss and which the House has not got before it? Would it not have been far wiser to allow the report to be published and then at a later stage if necessary, when the right hon. Gentleman is prepared to say something, to make a statement or to answer questions in the normal way? I do not want to be too unkind to the right hon. Gentleman for what was clearly the most appalling shambles. He did not know when the report would be available, it is quite clear, when he made his statement. Can he assure the House that he will make opportunities to discuss the report when there has been time for the House to read it?

Photo of Mr Joseph Godber Mr Joseph Godber , Grantham

There has been no shambles or anything of the kind. I thought it merely courteous to the House to make a statement on a matter that concerned the House under the last Government when a report like this became available. I think that I should have been open to criticism if the statement had not been made, and that is the purpose of making the statement now. I have explained the reasons. As for a debate and discussion, that is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

Photo of Mr Leslie Spriggs Mr Leslie Spriggs , St Helens

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May we seek your guidance on a matter of great importance to the House? Here we have a statement being made on a very important matter on a Friday morning, on a report which none of us has been able to study. Would it be within your power to advise the House and the right hon. Gentlemen concerned to withhold statements until right hon. and hon. Members on both sides have had an opportunity to study any such report?

Photo of Dr Horace King Dr Horace King , Southampton, Itchen

Order. The point of order which the hon. Member for St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs) has put to me has been put as a point of argument between the two Front Benches. I have no power to instruct Ministers to withhold statements.

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

Perhaps it would be convenient to the House if I now say something about the questions which have been addressed to me on the handling of the statement. I hope that that will be in order.

Photo of Mr William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border

As the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) fairly said, I agreed yesterday to the request of his right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition that statements would not be made on Fridays if it was at all possible to avoid them. When I said that, I knew very well of the intention to make this statement today, which I was assured was unavoidable in the circumstances. As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs has said, it was with extreme reluctance that I agreed to have this statement at all. As he has said that, I think that I am entitled to confirm it. I did in fact question yesterday whether it would be possible for this to be done in some other way today. I was assured that because of the implications outside this country and the practice that had been followed in the past it was necessary to have the statement.

Therefore, I did the next thing I had promised, which was that whenever a statement was to be made on a Friday the maximum notice would be given. That was done both through the usual channels and, quite exceptionally and for the first time, I believe, a notice in the Lobby. So, on the question of statements on Friday and the notice, I think that I have followed out what I said yesterday. I hope in future, if I possibly can, to avoid statements on a Friday altogether. I quite agree that they are unsatisfactory, but there were implications, so my right hon. Friend informed me, outside this country which made this statement necessary.

Of course, I will look into the whole question of the availability of the report, and so will any right hon. Friend. We shall investigate what has happened and what has gone wrong with regard to the facilities for the House. I understand that it is something which has happened in the past and is in accordance with normal practice. If I am wrong, I will look into it. Even if it did happen in the past, I will not necessarily accept that as the reason why it will happen in the future. I will look into the matter and see whether more suitable arrangements can be made for the convenience of the House.

Photo of Mr Denis Healey Mr Denis Healey , Leeds East

I thank the Leader of the House for his very courteous explanation. We recognise, as he does, that something did go wrong. I accept his assurance that he will make certain that it does not go wrong another time.

On the question of the report itself, when we on this side have had a chance to read it, and perhaps when the Government are prepared to make a statement about either its contents or their views on its contents, we shall return to the matter in the normal way.