HC Deb 11 February 1932 vol 261 cc1122-36

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a Supplementary sum, not exceeding £34,750, be granted to His Majesty, to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1932, for sundry Colonial and Middle Eastern Services under His Majesty's Secretary of State for the Colonies, including certain Non-effective Services and Grants-in-Aid.


I suppose that the Secretary of State for the Colonies will explain what these Estimates are about?

The SECRETARY of STATE for the COLONIES (Sir Philip Cunliffe-Lister)

I thought the hon. Gentleman might wish to raise some points, and that I could then reply to him. The Estimates, with one exception, have already been before the House; they were discussed in principle when the House accepted the Colonial Office Vote. I can sum the Estimates up by saying that this is the balance of the Bill, to which the Chancellor of the Exchequer referred the other day for a number of the colonies which are, as it were, on the dole. With regard to the first of the items, it is accounted for by the revenue falling below the Estimate. The item relating to St. Lucia is not entirely a matter of this year. It will be seen that the original Estimate was only for a grant-in-aid of £5,000. This Estimate represents a series of accumulated deficits over previous years. For some reason it was thought wise, in earlier Estimates, to take a grant for only a proportion of these deficits.

There has recently been an inquiry by Sir Sydney Armitage-Smith into the whole of the finances of the Leeward Islands and St. Lucia, and certain recommendations were made and are in process of being carried out with a view to economy. In regard to St. Lucia, one of the recommendations was that this account should be closed and that we should write off the full amount of the deficit. That accounts for a larger figure than one would expect above the original estimate. I ought to explain that, because otherwise it would appear that the original Estimate was a bad Estimate. In the case of Antigua there has been a disastrous drought which has affected the crops and the revenue, and has made the deficit greater. In British Guiana, owing again to the fall in the price of sugar and so on affecting the revenue, the deficit has been increased from £180,000 to £220,000. With very careful consideration of the Estimate for future years the deficit is likely to be reduced to £120,000 in the course of the next Budget.

The case of British Honduras will be fresh in the minds of the Committee. A very unfortunate hurricane visited that Colony, and by an unhappy mischance just caught the one populous town and destroyed it. In this case the grant has actually been paid, and I am sure the whole Committee will agree that that was an occasion on which we could not wait for Parliamentary authority. The grant was made at once in order to come to the rescue of these people. I would like to pay a tribute to the extraordinarily brave way in which the people of that territory have faced the appalling, catastrophe and set to work to rebuild their Jerusalem. In the case of St. Kitts and Nevis we had not estimated for a deficit, but again the slump caused a reduction in revenue and brought a deficit into being.

The New Hebrides Condominium appeared previously on a different Vote. If hon. Members will look at page 11 of the White Paper they will see that it appeared under sub-head C. 4 of the original Vote. As is known, that is a Condominium which we administer with the French Government. There are joint services; there are also a separate French Service and a separate British Service. On the British Service there is no deficit. In fact I think we have managed our affairs so that we have come out slightly on the right side; but on the joint services, which of course we cannot control ourselves, there is a deficit. We have made representations that these joint services should be conducted as far as possible within the financial capacity of the islands, so that no call may be made upon the British taxpayer.

Those sums altogether come to £123,000. That is some measure of the need of coming to the assistance of these Colonies, not only in their interests but in our own. I am glad to say that we are able to present on the other side some savings of a fairly substantial character, which are set out in the Appropriations-in-Aid and which amount to £88,000, so reducing the net amount for which I am now asking to £34,750.


It is important, when Supplementary Estimates of this kind are brought forward, that the House should have an opportunity of discussing them. The discussion brings home to us our responsibility in various parts of t he Empire. We are trustees for these Colonies, and it is necessary that we should be careful of our trusteeship. The case of British Honduras has been mentioned. There we are certainly justified in what we have done. On each occasion when these Supplementary Estimates are brought forward it is seen that they are largely costs to the British taxpayer; they are Grants-in-Aid. They total here £122,000, and we know that it will be largely the British taxpayer who will have to pay that amount.

I would emphasise these points: It is important that the Secretary of State for the Colonies should have a careful watch kept of the expenditure of money of this kind. In most of these cases these are annual grants. Take the case of St. Helena. We ought to know what steps are being taken to see that the costs are kept at the lowest possible point. This is an age in which we talk about economy, and in all these cases the Colonial Secretary should see that the 'money is carefully spent, and that the expenditure is necessary. Take next the case of St. Lucia, Antigua and St. Kitts. There you have a Supplementary Estimate of £60,000 for cost of administration. Is there no way in which we could avoid such Estimates coming forward annually? Instead of running all these small places, each with a separate government, with a separate governor and all the paraphernalia of a Governorship, with overhead charges which are greater than the economic resources of the place warrant, would it not be possible for them to amalgamate with Trinidad, with only one Governor and small local administrations? I know that these places are dependent on each other, and that until the world crisis is over they will doubtless be needing money every year. I have no desire to attack the elective bodies, but I think it would be possible to have an even more democratic constitution for that part of the Empire and yet reduce the expense of administration.

8.0 p.m.

With regard to British Guiana, I did not notice that the Secretary of State explained for what purpose the money was required. Is it for unemployment? Is it to provide work for the construction of public works? What is the condition of the rice and sugar industries in British Guiana to-day? Is any alternative employment to be provided; and are the conditions of those who have been employed satisfactory It may be suggested that the change which was made not long ago when the ancient constitution of this Colony was smashed and its control transferred to Downing Street, has, at all events, not been a financial success as far as this country is concerned. The right hon. Gentleman has referred to the New Hebrides Condominium Government. Is it not time that something was done to deal with that anomaly? It is a costly and inefficient method of governing those islands, and surely we ought to try to come to some arrangement with France on the matter. What is the particular advantage to us of continuing the present arrangement? I feel that something should be done to stop the necessity for the continual grants which have to be made, in order to maintain a position which could, I think, be avoided by some negotiation whereby the islands would be placed either under this country or under France alone.

With regard to the savings which have been mentioned in connection with unemployment I should like to know what has been the actual saving on unemployment relief. Apparently on the grant of over £100,000 which was made some time ago with regard to unemployment in the West Indian Colonies, there is now returned a saving of £35,000. How has that saving been effected Has that sum been saved because we are not carrying out certain of the works which were not thought necessary some tithe ago, or has it been saved as we are saving in this country at the expense of the backs and the stomachs of the people—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] I have no hesita- tion in saying that in this country savings of this kind are coming off the people, and I have a right to ask whether we are making the same kind of savings in these Colonies. Are these savings being made, as in this country, at the expense of the working people?

I have no intention of raising any discussion upon economic conditions in these Colonies. That question is largely connected with the subject of the sugar industry, and as the Government propose to deal with our fiscal system generally I hope that before long we may hear more about this particular industry in these Colonies. Then, we may have an opportunity of discussing it fully. That would be the proper time to deal with the whole subject when we might not only discuss the effect upon the Colonies but also the effect upon the British taxpayer. I have not any particular criticism to offer in connection with these Estimates. I have been for a few months in the Colonial Office as Under-Secretary and I realise our responsibility and have no desire to get away from that responsibility. At the same time, I am anxious to see that these Colonies are developed, and I hope that we shall help them as far as we possibly can to a position in which they may be able to manage their own affairs and have a democratic constitution which will allow their people to take full advantage of ruling themselves in their own way and with their own money.


I think the Committee will appreciate the fact that the hon. Gentleman who has just spoken does not wish unduly to criticise these Estimates, because everybody knows his great interest in Colonial matters and the excellent work which he has done in that connection over a series of years. It will also be agreed generally that Supplementary Estimates are undesirable. Everybody would like to see an end of the system, but I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman opposite has no right to ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to stand in a white sheet on this occasion. The hon. Gentleman himself has been in the fortunate or unfortunate position—whichever way he cares to describe it—of bringing in Estimates of the same character himself, and it is because I have previously criticised a certain matter on an Estimate which was under his jurisdiction that I now wish to raise a point concerning the terms on which these loans are granted.

It is very unfortunate that there has been the falling-off in economic resources and returns which has made necessary the provision of this further amount of money, and I agree entirely that that fact clearly shows that the time has come when we have to consider our whole attitude on the trade relations between the mother country and the Colonies. I am thankful that that time has now come. But as there is a lack of money and the assistance has to be given I now wish to raise again a point which was raised in connection with the Mauritius Loan. A sum of £25,000 for Antigua, or of £40,000 for British Guiana, does not seem very large in comparison with the large sums which we have to vote from time to time.


I do not see any reference to the Mauritius Loan in this Vote.


I merely mentioned it M passing because the point which I am now raising was also raised in the discussion on that loan. I am referring to the terms on which loans are made to the Colonies mentioned in the Estimate. It is said that the loans are granted on terms prescribed by the Treasury. I wish to ask my right hon. Friend if he will see that the terms laid down by the Treasury for these loans are not too onerous on the Colonies concerned and are not such as would interfere in any way with the future development of the trade of those Colonies. At first sight it would not seem possible that any terms of repayment of sums like these could be a serious hardship on the resources of a Colony, but, on the other hand, it has been shown in the past that if the terms of these loans are too onerous, the Colonies may have great difficulty in raising the money and this may interfere with the extension of their trade.

If it is a question of providing £25,000 in respect of loss of revenue caused by world conditions of trade I think, with every desire to save the taxpayers' money, that it might be better in the long run to give the money at once than to give it by way of a loan which imposes onerous conditions on a small Colony. The question of unemployment relief in the West Indian Colonies to which I also wished to refer has already been mentioned. As the hon. Gentleman opposite has said, it would be interesting to know the cause of the saving under that head. I hope it does not mean that we are cutting down what we were giving to these people. There is also an item about the maintenance of the Iraq levies. Under this head there is a saving of £19,000. Has that saving been made in connection with the transfer of any levies to the administration of Iraq or is it due to economies in ordinary expenditure?


This Estimate is an indication of the far-flung character of our Empire. Here we have St. Helena, which is off the coast of Africa, British Guiana which is in Southern America, British Honduras in the Caribbean Sea, and then we take a bound of 12,000 miles to the New Hebrides in the Pacific. I am delighted at the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Wardlaw-Milne), a fellow-countryman of mine who is recognised as a great authority on Colonial affairs. We here have made the same suggestion on behalf of the poor of our native land and we have always been turned down—the suggestion of money free of interest. The hon. Member has made that suggestion in regard to people who are 12,000 miles away but when we suggest it for the folk at home to enable them to build houses it is regarded as a mad idea. But it suits those who have vested interests away in these islands to get money as cheaply as possible and if possible to get it for nothing.


I hope the hon. Member does not suggest that I have any such interests?


Of course the hon. Member has no interests anywhere but, my word, he is more than an ordinary Member of Parliament. He can live far better than those who have to depend on their salaries and he must have it somewhere. But I wish to ask the Secretary of State if it is not the case that in many of these islands the natives are living in abject poverty and under the most meagre possible conditions of life. Is it the case that little or no improvement has been made in the lot of many of the natives of these islands since we took possession of them? I have information here on the matter and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be careful in his reply because on it will depend whether we divide the Committee or not on this Estimate. I should like to know about those vast sums, because I look at it from the point of view of a member of the working class, which is quite different from that of the last speaker, who said that these are very paltry sums. To my class, £5,000 would be a. fortune, a huge sum of money, and therefore I want to know if this money that we are granting to these far-flung outposts of the British Empire is going to be spent in order to relieve the poverty of the people.

You are asking this House for a subscription in Antigua. We have come to this House time and again asking for assistance for the working class in our own country, and every time we are turned down. When we ask money for Britain, we can get nothing, but there is money for every place else. Here is an instance. In Antigua they are going to get £25,000 extra, and the reason given is because of drought, which caused a bad harvest with the sugar cane. I want to know if this £25,000 is to go to the capitalists in this country who made the sugar machinery and put it out there and have not yet got paid the entire amount of the money due to them, because of a bad harvest of sugar. That is one side that I know exists, because I have made the sugar plant; I have supervised it being made. I know where it goes, and I know their interests in this House, the engineering interests in this House and in another place, people who have interests in those islands in the West Indies.

I want to know if this money is to go into their pockets, or is some of it going into the pockets of the sugar planters, the employers of the natives and of the negroes that they have imported there? Who is getting the cream? Are we really stretching out the hand of fellowship? Are we really acting as the big brother to a more unfortunate member of the family, or are we just looking after the interests of those of our own race who have gone out to those places, not for the benefit of the races that they find there, but to exploit those races? I am one of those who do not believe that my fellow-countrymen ever left their country for the uttermost parts of the earth for the good of the uttermost parts of the earth. They went there to exploit them, to make money at the expense of the natives.

Take British Guiana. They are getting £40,000 extra, which is not very much when you say it quickly. It is called: Additional provision for loan, on terms to be prescribed by the Treasury, in aid of expenses of administration, etc. Who are the administrators? Is it the natives? No fear! It is men from this country, or the lawyer fraternity, judges, sheriffs, etc. I find throughout these Estimates that it is this class, not my class, that benefits, because in the very last Estimate that we passed, with the Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade in charge, it was my class that was affected, but it was affected by reductions. There was no grant-in-aid there. It was savings that had been effected from members of the working class, but you find increases on the Diplomatic Corps; and my working-class outlook on life naturally makes me suspicious when I read over this paper and find, "Expenses of administration, etc." I know ever so many individuals, some of them in this House, who have been administrators in different parts of the Empire, and they are very comfortable.


I do not think the hon. Member has been entitled to discuss so thoroughly the administration of British Guiana as he is doing, but he must not discuss the administration of affairs in this country.


I am not discussing the administration of affairs in this country. I am telling you, Sir Dennis, what I know is the fact, that those individuals are not requiring any assistance, because I see them here.


The hon. Member must seek some other opportunity of telling me what he wants to tell me about individuals in this country and their doings over here.


Yes, Sir Dennis, but I want to be sure that this money is being properly spent. You know quite well that I do not wish to argue with you at all, but we are here representing the working class, and the working class have been told that before they get any money they have to go through a means test. I am going to see to it, therefore, as far as lies in my power, that the better-off sections of the community will not get away any softer than they have dealt with my class. You may be quite sure that if it was left to us, we would deal more generously with them than they have dealt with my class through this means test. Who is to get this money, and what is the reason for it being required at all? Not one of these colonies asked us to go there, but we fought them in order to get them. We call them possessions, and they are essential as long as we have the British Empire as it is constituted—


The hon. Member is now in a difficulty in continuing his remarks on the Supplementary Estimate. If he has finished dealing with that matter, I am afraid that he must finish his speech. He must not go into these other matters.


I do not desire to fall foul of you in any way, and I have finished. I have put the points to which I wish a reply from the Secretary of State. They are far-reaching questions. The natives of these islands are up against it, and we know that in many of them the conditions are appalling. Therefore, we do not object to these individuals being assisted, but if it is a case of helping the landowner, the planter, the moneylender, the exploiter, and the administrator of our laws which we enforce on these people, we shall divide against this Estimate. That, however, will depend on the reply which the right hon. Gentleman gives.


I should like to ask in what direction the saving of £15,000 in the defence of Palestine and Trans-Jordan has been effected. Is it because the trouble in Palestine has passed and that we do not require such a big force as we had before? I should like to know the terms to be prescribed for the loan of £40,000 to British Guiana. With regard to Honduras, everybody will be grateful for what the Government have done, because some relief was certainly required. I hope, however, that if there is this feeling on the part of the Government for our people overseas, the same feeling will be extended to the people of this country.

8.30 p.m.


I was rather pleased to find the hon. Member for Dumbarton Burghs (Mr. Kirkwood) appear in his speech in a new guise. I thought that he had become a great Imperialist when I heard him describe the far-flung Empire and the great distances under the shelter of the Mother country. At the end of his speech, however, he disappointed the Committee by making serious reflections on the way in which the Empire is conducted. He said that it is not to the benefit of the inhabitants. As one who has travelled considerably in the Empire, I should like to refute that suggestion. There is no comparison between the condition of the colonies and mandated territories to-day and the condition in which they would have been if the British Empire had not stepped in and helped them. I would like to ask a question in reference to the Iraq levies. This country is going through very bad times, and we regret to see a Supplementary Estimate of any kind, and I am wondering whether it would be possible to save a larger amount in Iraq than this £19,000 in order that the net amount required can be reduced. There is no doubt that considerable expenditure has been involved by this country in the far-flung mandated territories in the maintenance of troops and aerial service—


The hon. Member is now going into the original Vote, which is not before the House. No part of the Supplementary Estimate is for the Iraq levies and the hon. Member cannot, because there is a saving, discuss the whole question which only arises on the original Estimate.


I was suggesting that if an Estimate is produced, it is not out of order to make a submission in regard to the actual saving that has been arrived at in order to reduce the net amount, but if you say that I am not in order on that—


That will have to be on the original Estimate and not on the Supplementary Estimate.


I have raised the point, and I do not wish to detain the Committee.


The hon. Member for Rothwell (Mr. Lunn) began by saying how important it was that one should estimate with accuracy. I agree. These Supplementary Estimates are presented because his Government did not estimate quite accurately enough when they produced the original Estimate some 10 months ago. However, I am not going to blame him for that. When we are dealing with such things as the disaster in Honduras and with Colonies which are hit by great trade depression, it is extraordinarily difficult to estimate with absolute accuracy the amount which you will require. Certainly, I am not going to criticise the hon. Gentleman because the Estimates that he presented have necessitated me presenting a Supplementary Estimate to-day. I agree with him when he said that when we come to the Grants-in-Aid being paid out of the Exchequer, it is very important that we should review them with great care in order to see not only that we get value for our money, but that we do not spend any more money than we need. Many weary days were spent in going through the detailed Estimates of a very large number of Colonies, which is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do, because it is always difficult to criticise Estimates which must depend very largely upon the knowledge and the efficiency of the man on the spot. But the Colonial Office and the Treasury here do exercise very great care in the review of the Estimates. What we are trying to do is not only to review their Estimates in watertight compartments, but to compare one Estimate with another to see if the allocations of money are in the same proportions in one place as in another. In the West Indian Colonies a special inquiry has recently been held, and has resulted in an extremely valuable report on the possibility of future economies.

A question of possible amalgamations in the West Indies has been raised, and though I am not sure that I should be entitled to deal with it at any length, because it is rather outside this Supplementary Estimate, perhaps I may say a single sentence on it. It is a matter that one has to keep under consideration, and I agree with the hon. Member in principle that if we can get cheaper and more efficient administration by—if I may use that horrible word—rationalisation, no doubt it is a sound thing to do. Possibly there is a field for it there on a limited scale, but there are difficulties when it is a case of six or seven islands which are a long way from each other being administered together, with a representative from each of them, because it not infrequently happens that the representative of one of the outside islands is someone living in the capital island of the group. Also, previous experiments in amalgamation in the West Indies were not very popular. Still, we must always have these matters under review. Then the Condominium was criticised. The hon. Member knows the difficulties as well as I do. Any condominium is apt to give rise to difficulties. No doubt the financial position of the territory is difficult, but we have to consider the interests of our own people there in any action we may take. Then the hon. Member raised the question of the saving on the original grant of £150,000 in respect of unemployment relief. I think when the hon. Gentleman produced his Estimates the best he could do—and I quite appreciate the situation he was in—was to get a rough estimate from the various Colonies of the amount likely to be expended on relief work, and I can assure him that any money expended has gone largely into the pockets of the natives, as for example, on road works, sea defences and drainage works. When we came to a closer estimate of the money to be spent we found that a saving of £35,000 was likely to be effected.

An hon. Member behind me and another hon. Member opposite raised the question of the loan to Antigua and hoped the terms would not be excessive. I can assure him that they will not be. [Interruption.] The policy is to treat the money as a loan where there is a reasonable chance that the colony may be able to pay it back, and to make it a direct grant in aid where there is no reasonable prospect of repayment.


I am anxious that the right hon. Gentleman should bear in mind that on a previous occasion the point was raised that the terms made it impossible for the colony to raise any money at all until the particular loan was paid off. It was made the first charge—put ahead of everything else.


There is no question of that here. It is treated as a loan because we think that ultimately the colony may be able to pay it back, but there is no question of attaching any such onerous conditions.


Is any interest to be paid?


The terms are not settled, and I could not say definitely, although I think that certainly in the early years there will not be any question of interest.


They will get it free of interest?


In the earlier years. Sometimes one has to be satisfied with getting the loan itself repaid apart from the question of interest; but I have a very great respect for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and I am not sure that I ought to say more on that point. A question was also asked about a saving on the Iraq levies. That had nothing to do with any change of authority. A direct saving has been made on personnel, stores and so on. Those forces exist only as ground forces to our Air Force there. It is much cheaper for us than having British troops there. The same considerations apply to the question raised by the hon. Member for Leigh (Mr. Tinker) respecting the expenditure on the Transjordan forces. There, again they are direct savings on stores and equipment and things of that kind. In the case of Irak, where the Air Force are responsible for expenditure we pay the bill. I think that answers the question of the hon. Member for Denbigh (Dr. Morris-Jones) as well.

Two or three questions were raised by the hon. Member for Dumbarton Burghs (Mr. Kirkwood). First of all he took a general exception to the Estimates as a whole. This is only a Supplementary Estimate, a correction of the original Estimate, and if he quarrels with the Estimate itself he ought to have cast his vote against our predecessors in office when the Estimate first came up for discussion. I dare say he did. I think I can assure him on the point he raised as to the natives. In the example I quoted I showed that the natives had certainly benefited. With regard to the workers on the Clyde, I hope I shall hereafter have the sup- port of the hon. Member for Dumbarton Burghs, because I know that he represents a district where there is not only sugar-refining, but where a large amount of sugar machinery which is sent abroad is manufactured. With regard to the medical health services, British administration has done an enormous amount of good for the natives, and on that I agree with all that was said by the hon. Member for Denbigh. I can give an assurance to the hon. Member opposite that the grant of money to Antigua is not for sugar machinery, and none of it will find its way into the pockets of the gentlemen who make sugar machinery and send it to that Colony.

Resolutions to be reported upon Monday next; Committee to sit again Tomorrow.