HC Deb 04 February 1942 vol 377 cc1236-48

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Whiteley.]

Mr. Barr (Coatbridge)

I beg to bring before the House a subject to which I have addressed myself by Question in this House and in other ways for a considerable time. I refer to the permitted allowance of imports of geneva or gin into the Gold Coast, and to the Ordinances connected therewith. In the decade following the close of the Great War, there was a vast increase in the importations of liquor into West Africa generally. In particular, gin importations from 1919 to 1926, seven years, grew by no less an amount than 716 per cent. This general increase of gin imports was particularly large in the Gold Coast where, in 1926, the percentage of imports of gin to all other imports of spirits was no less than 91.34.

The resultant degradation and misery among the native population came to be generally admitted. When Lord Passfield was Secretary of State for the Colonies, an Ordinance came into operation, after long investigation, a special Commission having sat on the subject, in the beginning of 1931. Under that Ordinance there was to be a gradual decrease of the amount that could be imported, by 10 per cent. each year, until the quantity of geneva or gin was completely eliminated by 1940. While those who had at heart the interests of the natives in this regard were waiting for this promised time, an Ordinance was passed by the Governor of the Gold Coast entirely departing from the old Ordinance, and this was followed in December, 1939, by a Proclamation of the Governor permitting the importation of 150,000 Imperial gallons into the Gold Coast during 1940.

It was pointed out by deputations, and by other people interested in this matter, that this was a very large amount, especially when it had been expected that the traffic would come to an end. We are grateful to the Ministry and to the Under-Secretary of State, but it was represented to the Governor that he might reopen the question. At any rate, the Under-Secretary of State was able to announce on 5th February, 1941, a year ago, that the quota for 1941 for civilian requirements in the Gold Coast was being fixed at 73,500 gallons. In fixing the former figure of 150,000 gallons, regard had been had particularly to what had been allowed, and admitted in 1937, the highest year of the nine years, and the only year in which the amount consumed exceeded the amount allowed.

In fixing 73,500 gallons an average was taken over the previous nine years, although regard was not had to the fact that in the last of those nine years the amount imported and consumed had fallen as low as 22,332 gallons. If those responsible took the average importation for the nine years, why should they not now take the average of the two years of the new régime? That would give an allowance, as far as I have the figures, of 8,217 gallons, as the average imported for 1940 and 1941, the amount fixed being about nine times that amount. When the former figure of 150,000 gallons, which however has passed out of our view was fixed, the consumption for that year—1940—was 7,934, and the quota fixed was 19 times that amount. Why are they retaining these inflated figures? Why not take the average of what has been coming in, adding slightly to it perhaps for contingencies? I hope I am doing no injustice in suggesting it, but it seems almost as if a wide open door is being kept for the trade after the war in maintaining the figure at 73,500 gallons when the actual importation is 7,934 gallons in 1940, that for 1941 being some 8,000.

The Government give two reasons for departing from the former policy. The first reason is that if they carried out the policy of the prohibition of the import of gin, it would be likely to result in a further growth of illicit distillation. The fear of illicit distillation has been brought forward whenever there has been a demand for some drastic restriction on the liquor traffic whether at home or abroad, but we are still left without proof that this illicit distillation has grown on the Gold Coast, or would grow to any extent, as a result of such restriction. I attach considerable importance to the view of those on the spot, and particularly to the mission stations and to the governors of missions in those parts. The secretary of the Scottish Mission of the Church of Scotland in the Gold Coast Colony, writing to me from Accra on 28th May last said this: There has been illicit distillation, although actually, at the moment so far as is known to me, it is less prevalent than it was two or three years ago. The Government, however, bring out this bogy of illicit distillation as an excuse for increasing the quota of gin imported. It is even stated in the 'Gazette,' where the object of the new legislation is fully set down, that this was designed to prevent an increase in illicit distillation, but there is however no proof at all that there has been any such increase; and indeed one of the Governor's own publications states as much. The second reason is that the chiefs are now against prohibition and that the unofficial members of the Legislative Council, both European and African, are in favour of the new Ordinance. The latter are elected from provincial councils which, themselves, consist of chiefs representing various native states on the Gold Coast. I believe that is the case, and I am not going to question the representative character of those who have so determined; but I am of opinion that those bodies of chiefs, the legislative councils and others, are subject to changes of policy just as much as political leaders in this country; and that their doctrines, there as here, are often fashioned to the varying hour. At least some of those who support the new Ordinance have spoken strongly against the evils of this traffic, and have declared themselves as much opposed to gin as to geneva. I am not very well versed in these distinctions between geneva and gin, but I understand that geneva is gin manufactured in a pot-still instead of in a patent-still. But going back to the days of Lord Passfield, when the chiefs asked, in the first instance, for the exclusion of geneva, I think I am right in saying that Lord Passfield insisted that the same restrictions should, in fairness, be put upon gin as upon geneva. He also recognised at the time that it was the wish of the Government and of the people of the Gold Coast that gin as well as geneva should not be allowed to enter.

May I quote what was said by a paramount chief of the Gold Coast, Sir Oforio Atta, when addressing the West African section of the Liverpool Chamber of Commerce on 17th July, 1928. He said: Imports of gin had become a serious menace to the prosperity of his people; if the African was to become the right type of man and useful to the Empire, let the export of gin from this country be stopped. If this country stopped, Holland would stop too. I would like to ask whether these spirits, gin or geneva, have lost their potency in any way, that there should be such a Change of policy? I want to make it quite clear that I am making no general accusation of drunkenness amongst the natives of the Gold Coast, but there are great excesses in connection with certain customs of that country and particularly in connection with funeral Customs. On the 28th March, 1928, the Bishop of Accra wrote in the "Times" describing his observations of those funeral Customs in a village and he said: For a week at a time every man and woman and not a few children are drunk, some of them in a torpid and some in a raving condition. That is a good way back, but I wanted to give this testimony as near as I could get to the present time, and we have no testimony of the kind during these war years. But the Rev. Kenneth Horne, a Methodist minister in the Gold Coast, and now secretary of the Christian Council of the Gold Coast, speaking in London on 21st October, 1935, said: Drunkenness is not now so common but that at funerals a large amount of liquor is consumed, resulting in much demoralisation and debauchery. These funeral ceremonies sometimes go on to the eighth day after the decease and sometimes to the fourteenth or later days. The chiefs have sought, from time to time, to remedy matters, but, so far, with little result. One way in which they tried to remedy it was to prescribe that amounts spent on spirits should not be more than one-third of the total expenditure on the funeral. Another way was by drawing up schedules limiting expenditure according to the rank of the deceased.

Thus, for the death of a paramount chief, they were allowed to spend from £150 to £200; for the death of a divisional chief, £25; for the death of common persons, £5 to £10; and a labourer was rated from £2 10s. to £6. How much of this quota which the Minister allows is being devoted to the upkeep of these Customs? Would it not be possible for him, along with the chiefs, who have asked, time and again, for the restriction of these practices, to bring about a better state of things? The other occasion on which much liquor is consumed is in connection with the installation and deposition of chiefs. When a chief rises to what we would call Cabinet rank there are great rejoicings, accompanied by much drinking. Also at the deposition of a chief, when he loses his rank, there are similar jollifications and excesses. We can think of what jollifications there might be if some of our Cabinet were to lose their rank.

How is this matter related to the general policy of the Government? I would pay a tribute to the high ideals that have always inspired the Colonial Office of this country. I refer particularly to the Colonial Development Act of 1929, whereby the spending of up to £1,000,000 a year on colonial development is allowed.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. George Hall)

We can spend up to £5,000,000.

Mr. Barr

I thank my hon. Friend. It was £1,000,000 in the original Act. I am glad to know that, and what he says still further emphasises my point. In the eleventh and final report of the Colonial Development Advisory Committee, I find that £8,870,000 was spent in the years covered by the first eleven reports. The objects for which these advances were to be made were these: The aiding and development of agriculture and industry in their territories, and the promotion thereby of commerce with, and industry in, the United Kingdom. Traffic in gin is not really commerce, nor does it aid industry. The word "trade" is a misnomer, and has been a misnomer in the past in this regard. When the slave traffic existed in this country it proudly bore the name "the trade"; and it was justly said at the time that it was war and not trade. There is a trade in this country which we euphemistically or ironically sometimes call "the trade"; and we might say of it that oft-time it has been more war than trade. As regards policy, I was greatly interested in Lord Moyne's despatch on 5th June last on "Certain Aspects of Colonial Policy in War-time." He said this: The low standards of living of vast populations throughout the Colonial Empire was distressing. He further said: It is an imperative duty to do all that is practically possible to raise the standard of living of such people, even during the war period, alike for humanitarian, political, economic and administrative reasons. I would say that the quantity of gin imported is in inverse ratio to what you will do in the fulfilment of these high ideals. I would call the attention of this House to the high ideals it has always expressed on this subject. At the end of every war there has been a movement to bring to an end, or greatly restrict, this deluging of the natives of various countries with liquor, be it gin or geneva, or any other form. It is interesting to know that at the close of the Boer War Lord Milner, in promulgating an Ordinance prohibiting, under severe penalties, the supply of liquor to natives in the Transvaal and the Orange River Colonies said: There is no doubt that the new Administration has before it a severe struggle with one of the most powerful, as it is one of the most degraded, agencies for making money by the corruption of one's fellow-creatures. And again, after alluding to the great difficulty of making the law effective, he made use of the following striking words: The whole credit of this Administration is at stake in the matter, and I feel confident that His Majesty's Government will support us in the view that no effort and no expense should be spared in carrying out a policy which, if successful, will mean a tremendous triumph for civilisation in this part of the world. So, at the end of the last war the right hon. Walter Long, M.P.—whom no one could accuse of being over-prejudiced in favour of the temperance cause, or in favour of prohibition—as Secretary of State for the Colonies immediately after the Armistice, on 28th December, 1918, declared: It will be my duty to advise the representatives of the British Government at the Peace Conference to take steps on their own initiative for the abolition of the liquor traffic in West Africa. We ought to put an end to it, for it certainly has been conducive to great evil and great misfortune. Again, I ask, have these liquors lost their potency, that a much different attitude is now being taken up from the attitude taken by statesmen like the late Walter Long?

And we must never forget as entirely relevant, and still binding, the exacting doctrine of trusteeship. That doctrine was never better stated than by the Duke of Devonshire as Colonial Secretary, in his historic memorandum on "Indians in Kenya." He gave it as the considered and definite opinion of His Majesty's Government that: The interests of the African natives must be paramount and must prevail. He added these words: His Majesty's Government regard themselves as exercising a trust on behalf of the African population, and they are unable to delegate or share that trust, the object of which may be defined as the protection and advancement of the native races. I trust that the Noble Lord who is now Secretary of State for the Colonies, and the Under-Secretary will seek to give embodiment to these words, and that the interests of the natives will be paramount, and their advancement and protection the supreme consideration. Let us not forget this high doctrine of trusteeship. Let us not degrade, let us not exploit the natives, but purify and uplift them in all these matters in their forward march to self-government, and in their upward and onward march, as we trust, towards a higher, purer and better life.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. George Hall)

My hon. Friend has waited very patiently for this opportunity of raising a matter in which he is very interested. He has made a speech, as he usually does, of very great eloquence and force. I, like a number of my hon. Friends, have listened with a good deal of pleasure to the speeches of my hon. Friend in the past. There was one thing lacking in his speech to-day. We are always very pleased to hear his quotations from his national poet, but today he did not bring him in to support this request for the suppression of liquor in West Africa.

Mr. Barr

I should be very sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend or to hold him back in what he was about to say, but I am very jealous for the good name of my national poet. As a matter of fact, he tells about the good resolutions which he made and which, he says, were three times over upset by the savage hospitality of the tavern. There is a "savage hospitality" of importation as well as of the tavern. The other thing that he said, in his Commonplace Book was that he adjured: All who in after time shall ever light upon his pages, by a devil's dear-bought experience, to shun his example in this regard.

Mr. Hall

I am very pleased that I have drawn my hon. Friend into that quotation. I am glad that he made no charge of drunkenness against the people of the Gold Coast. When one discusses this question of the importation of liquor, the general public are inclined to think that there is a good deal of drunkenness or debauchery among the natives of West Africa. My hon. Friend has rightly said that there is no truth in that. When commenting on the recommendation of the local commission of inquiry regarding the consumption of spirits in the Gold Coast—which was referred to by my hon. Friend—the then Secretary of State, Lord Passfield, said that he felt greatly impressed by the diversity of views recorded by the various witnesses, more particularly as to the prevalence of drunkenness. It seems to be generally agreed that the natives of the Gold Coast are not drunkards, although on occasions which were described by my hon. Friend they are liable to drink spirits to excess. Lord Passfield called special attention to the evidence of some of the witnesses, especially Mr. McKay, a member on the Gold Coast Bar and of the Legislative Council. Mr. McKay said: I have always been strongly impressed with the general sobriety of the people of this country. There are occasions no doubt, when a considerable quantity of alcohol is consumed, but at those celebrations which I have attended I have not seen the wild orgies which are alleged to take place at them. There was much noise and excitement, which is natural to the people, and which might be mistaken for drunkenness. The commission themselves said: The general impression of the witnesses is that the people of this Colony are temperate, that there is very little drunkenness, and that the situation is better in this respect than before the war. That means, before 1914. If the evidence of these witnesses is to be trusted, a good deal of the agitation about the bad effect of the consumption of spirits loses its force. But one should point out that, as I have already mentioned, at these funeral Customs and other ceremonial occasions, a good deal of spirit has been drunk. It is difficult for the Government to deal with many of these native Customs. Ceremonial drinking includes libation, which, to many people, is worse than drinking, because instead of being drunk, the spirit is poured on the ground. The funeral Customs are a deep-rooted tradition on the Gold Coast, which appears to go back before ale importation of any spirit at all, when palm wine and other native drinks were used for the purpose. The idea seems to be the payment of honour to the dead.

Mr. Tinker (Leigh)

It would be very difficult for people to do that in this country at the present time.

Mr. Hall

I have never seen drink purposely poured on the ground in this country for any purpose at all. The basis of the speech of my hon. Friend deals with conditions which existed before 1930. I hope to show that there has been a considerable improvement since that date. I agree with my hon. Friend that in 1926–27 a good deal of spirits was drunk. The major portion of the spirits imported or drunk then consisted of gin. A Committee was appointed in 1928, and that Committee went fully into these customs, and made very strong recommendations as to how much of this excessive drinking at these customs could be reduced. They recommended an amendment of the Liquor Licence (Spirits) Ordinance, and this amendment came into effect in 1929. Until 1929, the licensing law of the Gold Coast was substantially the same as when the spirit licences were first introduced, except for the increase made from time to time in the rates of duties paid for licences. Clauses inserted in the amending Ordinance provided for the publication of applications for the issue of new licences and for the lodging of objections thereto. The further amendments which came into force on 1st January, 1929, were of a more drastic nature. The duty payable for the ordinary retail licence to sell spirits, which had hitherto been £40 per annum in towns to which the Town Councils Ordinance extended and £20 elsewhere, was in both cases substantially increased, and the hours of sale were reduced from 15 to eight per day, and confined to hours between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. As my hon. Friend knows, from reading the report of the Commission, the drink obtained for these ceremonials was obtained very largely by indebtedness. On the death of a member of a family, the family came together and decided how much money was to be spent on the celebration. Each member of the family pledged himself to regard it as a debt of the family, the debt being divided between the members. In almost every case, the drink was obtained on credit.

Mr. George Griffiths (Hemsworth)

Was the deceased insured?

Mr. Hall

That I cannot say. Anyhow, that did not account for the celebration at his passing. The right of obtaining drink on credit was abolished as a result of this Ordinance, and in one year, from 1929 to 1930, the number of licences was reduced from 3,245 to 1,547, a reduction almost entirely as the result of the legislation based upon the recommendation of the Newlands Committee. There was a reduction of 52 per cent. in the number of licences issued. It is interesting to note the reduction in the importation of spirits, including gin, into the Gold Coast. My hon. Friend rightly said that in 1927 the total imports of spirit was 1,312,000 gallons, which included 1,181,000 gallons of gin. In 1928 the import of spirit was 1,185,000 gallons, and there again the amount of gin was well over 1,000,000 gallons. Compare the change as a result of the improvement of the new Ordinance. In 1929 the import of spirits was reduced to 736,000 gallons and we could see the downward trend in imports of gin.

I do not want to weary the House with too many figures but it is very interesting to note that, from 1929 to 1936, the total import of spirits is down to 181,000 gallons. The percentage of gin at that time was 64.2. In 1938 the total import of all spirits amounted to 107,000 gallons, whereas the importation of gin was 49,000 gallons, or 46 per cent. of the total import. In 1939, the total import of spirit was 81,000 gallons and the total import of gin 22,000 gallons, or 27 per cent. In 1940, which are the latest figures, the total import of spirits was down to 45,000 gallons and the import of gin to 7,900 gallons, or 17.3 per cent. of the total import of spirits. From 1929, taking no account of the very bad years referred to by my hon. Friend of 1926–27, when the importation of spirits was up to 1,300,000 gallons, the proportion of gin to the total import of spirit had been reduced from 77.3 per cent. to 17.3 per cent. so that it cannot be said that there has not been any improvement as a result of the agitation which took place from 1927 to 1930.

My hon. Friend referred to a change of policy which had taken place as compared with 1930. It is true that there was a good deal of agitation against the importation of Geneva and not so much against the importation of, gin. As my hon. Friend rightly said, "geneva" is a term to denote gin manufactured in a pot still, and gin is manufactured in a patent still. What the difference in taste really is, I am not competent to judge, but it is very evident that the complaint and the cause of the difficulty prior to 1930 in the Gold Coast was the question of geneva. There was an agitation for a complete prohibition of geneva. The then Secretary of State said he could not distinguish as between geneva and gin, but there was a very strong recommendation from the Gold Coast by the Governor and by members of the Legislative Council that there should be a prohibition of the importation of gin and geneva by a reduction of 10 per cent. each year for 10 years, completely prohibiting the importation of gin and geneva by 1940–41.

It is surprising how those who advocated the total prohibition of gin and geneva in 10 years changed when they saw that there was the possibility of its prohibition coming into operation. My hon. Friend referred to Sir Ofori Atta, who was the leading protagonist in connection with the prohibition of the importation of geneva and who, as a result of his efforts, certainly stirred up a good deal of feeling in respect of this matter. But, in 1935 the Governor expressed his opinion that the policy embodied in the 1931 Ordinance should be reconsidered in a year's time. He himself sent questionnaires which were submitted to native councils, and as a result of these, it was disclosed that a large majority of the State Councils favoured the repeal of the Ordinance. One of the paramount chiefs, the one to whom I have already referred, himself supported a motion for a further investigation into liquor restriction. He with other provincial members of the Legislative Council and members of the Executive Council were fully consulted prior to the enactment of the new Ordinance in 1939, and, with one exception, favoured the continued importation of gin, and that one exception was a member who objected because he wanted legalisation of what is now illicit distillation. Not only the Legislative Council and the chiefs, but the Press of the Gold Coast, who are usually very vocal in voicing opposition to any legislation which the Government may enact if they feel that it is against the wishes and desires of the people of the Colony, in fact every newspaper in the Gold Coast, supported the change which was brought about as a result of this new Ordinance.

The present position is that the new Ordinance provides for the fixing of a quota by the Governor to be approved by the Secretary of State for a period of three years, and at the end of three years the whole question will be the subject of further review. As far as we can see as a result of the legislation based upon the recommendation of the New-lands Committee, there is a substantial reduction in the importation and in the consumption of liquor. This is so much so, that we are inclined to think that it is very much better to bring about the reduction in the consumption of liquor in the way that is being done in the Gold Coast at the present time, and that is, by an improvement in education. The inconsistency of the case of my hon. Friend is that he wants to prohibit the importation of gin only; he is prepared to allow all other spirits to be imported.

Mr. Barr


Mr. Hall

Well, the case which was submitted not only to my Noble Friend but to his predecessor, the late Lord Lloyd, was based entirely on what was regarded as a change of policy in relation to this question of gin. No suggestion has been made that there should be a total prohibition of spirits, even into the Gold Coast, and as far as other West African colonies are concerned, no suggestion has been made that the supply of gin should be interfered with in any way whatsoever.

Mr. Barr

I apologise for interrupting a second time, but the difficulty at home and abroad is that the white man insists upon having his liquor and, therefore, it becomes impossible, or a matter of great difficulty, in India or Africa to prohibit gin to the native while the white man insists that whisky, brandy and other drinks should go into these countries. It was not for lack of will but for lack of power that I did not ask for the prohibition of these liquors also.

Mr. Hall

I can assure my hon. Friend that if he studies the figures I have put before the House he will see that the percentage of gin imported into the Gold Coast has dropped from 77 per cent. to 17 per cent. I do not think the distribution of 70,000 gallons of gin among the total population of the Gold Coast will give rise to very much insobriety among those people. However, I want to assure him again that this matter will be reviewed at the end of the next three years, when the term of the Ordinance comes to its conclusion.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn" put, and agreed to.