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Lord Chesham: The Statute of Westminster 1931 is established law. Although it may require interpretation in the current Commonwealth situation, I find it unbelievable that this Government have not had the courtesy to consult Commonwealth Governments on the rights of Commonwealth citizens. May I remind the Committee that a Commonwealth citizen is entitled to sit and vote in this House without necessarily being a British citizen.
In my correspondence--this is in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, if he would listen--with Commonwealth High Commissioners, it is absolutely clear that there has been no consultation whatsoever with the Commonwealth and that there is considerable disquiet as to the discourtesy of the Government.
The least this Government should do is to start a process of consultation immediately. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, agreed in a debate on the succession of the Monarchy that the Government could not act unilaterally in respect of any Commonwealth country which has Her Majesty the Queen as Head of State. He has not explained why that should not be pertinent to this Bill.
Lord Selsdon: However, there is something in my sense of humour and my background that says that it is a good idea in any piece of legislation to look a little to the past and to bring an international aspect to bear on this. I did not know what the Statute of Westminster was until it was explained to me, but I do know what Westminster Abbey is about. If your Lordships walk round Westminster Abbey, you will see British, colonial, imperial and Commonwealth history. We have an international role in the world; I do not think that we have a future without some form of international role. I am one of those people who believe strongly and firmly in the Commonwealth.
I should disclose an interest in that in my banking days we were often appointed as economic advisers to Commonwealth countries. Over the past few years, I have taken the liberty of inviting all sorts of countries to join the Commonwealth, where appropriate, including our Portuguese allies. I have also discussed with them our political situation over here. Why do they have an Attorney General? Why do they have a Speaker? How much do they value their relationship with us? Is it of any value at all? I do not know. I raised this point at Second Reading: 25 per cent of the population of the world live in Commonwealth countries. It represents a fairly significant economic bloc. It is important that we should have good and close relationships with it.
We know full well that in post-imperial years all sorts of local tribal difficulties occurred, often resulting in strife, arrest and imprisonment, and the involvement of British troops. Then in due course democratic or semi-democratic elections took place. There are some who would say, like the noble Baroness the Leader of the House, that some countries in Africa still have tribal systems, and do we want to be like that?
The countries of the Commonwealth are very different countries. Her Majesty, I know, values that relationship, and I value that relationship very deeply. Questions were raised earlier about asking Her Majesty's Government whether they had consulted officially with the Commonwealth. I do not know, but surely they must have spoken to people, because it has been in the press and the information is known.
Does the Statute of Westminster have any validity at all? Is there any reason why we should consult the Commonwealth other than out of courtesy? If it is a question of courtesy, I suppose we could be courteous even after the event. I suppose we would say that British imperialism was at its height 100 years ago. The Commonwealth has been around for 50 years. The noble Baroness the Leader of the House, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, the two noblesse obliges who have been assisting in this affair, and the Government Chief Whip or chief coachman, have a total of 30 years' service which is six fewer than myself.
Some aspects of the past still have a relevance today. I do not like the intemperate language and the arguments that have taken place with my noble friends. Although I may be on the same side of the House, I do not necessarily agree with them. But surely the Commonwealth issue is something which should be discussed and considered with good will. Are there any good reasons why we should consult the Commonwealth countries? If not, so be it. I am not a Commonwealth citizen.
Lord Northbrook: Like my noble friend Lord Selsdon, I would say that the Statute of Westminster creates a statutory obligation to consult. Such consultation is not just something that has to be done informally: it is still valid under the statute.
I come from an island. We in the McEacharn family are Australians and New Zealanders. We shipped more people to Australia than anybody else. My great-great-grandfather was the first Lord Mayor of Melbourne. We have an interesting thought in all of this. Our relationships are where we have been brought up; in the countries we know. I have worked in many and have an affection for them. As Members of the Committee may be aware, in a debate that was not well attended, like all international debates, I declared an interest in that I was actually conceived on the beach at Ocho Rios in Jamaica. The Jamaicans declared that I was therefore an honorary citizen. That may carry no weight.
My point is a simple one. This country is not an island in international terms. We have historic relationships; we value those relationships. It has been pointed out to me again and again that the strength of our relationships is represented by the votes of the Commonwealth in the United Nations; by the fact that they fought for and with us in the past. I would not like them to read Hansard today and find that heat was engendered with a word; that my command of the English language was not good enough to understand the difference between white lies, no lies and no truth.
I know that this Bill was not well thought out; there was not wide consultation beforehand. That is a pity and we are to some extent consulting after the event. My Commonwealth friends--I do not say I have many but I have a few and my period of consultation is not weeks but several years--have always had respect for the Speaker of the House of Commons and all that goes with that great office. One of them said to me, "Is it normal in your second Chamber that when you introduce a Bill, the Government announce at Second Reading that they will accept an amendment that has not been tabled and they do not know what it is, or is that the right of a former Speaker?".
Attention at the moment is on this Chamber, partly because of the Internet. I congratulate the Information Office and others on the CD-ROM. I find today, working abroad as I do mainly, that it is easier and quicker for me to tap in the name of a noble Lord and read what he said on a subject through the Internet; it comes through in a few seconds.
I conclude by saying that, if the Commonwealth has been consulted, perhaps the noble Baroness will say it has been consulted and how. If it has not formally been consulted, never mind. Is it interested? Or are we interested in it? On this side of the Chamber we are interested in the Commonwealth and I do not want the Government to feel that we were expressing lack of interest in that great institution.
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: Perhaps I can say a brief word. We seem to have come a long way down the years since the Treaty of Union in 1707--dare I say to my noble friend, a slightly more important statute than the Statute of Westminster? Nonetheless, my noble friends raise an interesting point; lawyers call it a "nice" point. I am not sure whether or not one of the lawyers is to reply. The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, is looking at me rather steely-eyed. I can assure the noble Lord that I do not consider Wales to be in the Commonwealth, so his title is probably safe. Wales is part of this country. Perhaps I am trying to shorthand my remarks.
The problem is that a number of Members of this Chamber are not British citizens but are citizens of Commonwealth countries. I understand that there are Peers from Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Indeed, one visited us recently from New Zealand having just taken his title. There may be others. I do not know the figures and did not bother the Librarians of the House to check them. But there are some and therefore the issue is a simple one.
In legislating in this Bill, are we removing the inherited rights of citizens of certain Commonwealth countries without consulting the Commonwealth countries involved? The rights and privileges of sitting here must pass not only through our law, but also through the laws of other Commonwealth countries. The question is whether we are abrogating those rights when we legislate here without actually consulting those countries.
I have no doubt that I am about to be given a good opinion on the subject. With respect to my noble friends, it is not the most serious point in the Bill, but it is a point that should be properly covered. No doubt the Government would not like it if, after the Bill were passed, they found themselves in a difficult position in a court because they had not taken into account that they had deprived citizens of Commonwealth countries of their rights without actually consulting the Commonwealth countries. So my questions are simple: do the Government need to consult Commonwealth countries? If they do, can the Minister say whether those countries have been consulted?
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