HC Deb 10 March 1942 vol 378 cc1011-9

Second Resolution read a Second time.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution."

Mr. Creech Jones (Shipley)

Before this Vote is disposed of, there are one or two matters to which I should like to draw attention. It would be unfortunate if this further grant of £500,000 towards local expenses in Malta went by without this House expressing its great sense of appreciation of, and paying its tribute to the Maltese and to our military forces there for, the splendid and gallant stand they have made during the past few years. They have had to endure something like 2,000 air raids, sometimes as many as 17 in the course of 24 hours. During the last 18 months there have been only three nights I think, on which they have had freedom from air raids. They have stood up to this ordeal with magnificent spirit and the gratitude of the House ought to be expressed to them for the fine courage they have displayed. In the circumstances I hope that we shall begrudge our gallant defenders there and the Maltese people nothing which would help them in the difficulties which now confront them. I understand that certain social changes which they had hoped for and which had been anticipated by them have had to be postponed, but I hope that as regards comforts, medical supplies and housing arrangements as much as possible will be done to help them.

I also want to refer to the grant which for the first time is being made on behalf of Welfare. The Colonial Office are to be congratulated on establishing a Welfare Department in London. We are a very great Empire, but it has been one of the curious features of our relations with our Colonial peoples that those who have from time to time visited us have had to rely largely on voluntary services and voluntary organisations to help them in their special difficulties or to arrange for their welfare in cases of need. At last, the Colonial Office has assumed directly this responsibility. Personally, I am gratified to see the type of civil servant and official appointed to do this work. Their services will be very much appreciated by the Colonial peoples here, particularly at the present time, when there are large numbers of technicians and tradesmen in this country playing their part in the war effort, together with many students who in wartime require assistance during their stay. I am sure that the new Department in dealing with the day-to-day problems will not be too official and too paternal in its attitude, and I hope, further, that this is only the beginning of a great development. I should like to see assistance given in the establishment of hostels for our colonial friends in various parts of the country, places to which they may go feeling that it is a home or centre where they can get reasonable recreation and refreshment. Perhaps also here, in the very heart of the capital, some great Colonial House might be established which would serve the needs of all types of colonial peoples, irrespective of colour, race or creed, providing not only recreation and club rooms but also restaurants and hotel accommodation. Students and others often experience great difficulty in finding suitable accommodation in the great capital city of the Empire, and too often have to put up with conditions which, to say the least, reflect no great credit upon us as an imperial people. I hope, therefore, that this new welfare department which the Colonial Office is now building up, will greatly develop and in time bring a great deal of happiness to the colonial peoples who come here from time to time.

The Vote also includes a grant to Nyasaland in respect of the Trans-Zambesi railway. I do not pretend that I can unravel the very long and tangled story of Trans-Zambesi railway finance. I tried for some hours to master the famous report by Mr. Bell on Nyasaland finance, but I confess that at the end of my reading I was still almost as baffled as ever. We have been making grants which seem almost endless in respect of this railway. It has been like pouring money into the bottomless pit. We have extinguished £1,250,000,000 under the 1940 Colonial Development and Welfare Act. We gave £800,000 from the Colonial Development Fund and we made a further grant last year of £143,000. This year we are asked to make a grant of £185,000.

I would like to know whether the recommendations of the Bell Committee which inquired into the finances of the Trans-Zambesi Railway have been adopted and further, whether the Colonial Office are taking any action, in view of the fact that the State guarantee comes to an end in 1945. Is it proposed, even now, to make certain changes which ultimately will have the effect of relieving the British Exchequer of a great part of the payment now being made to keep things afloat and to keep the local treasury accounts balanced? I believe that the Government have a representative on the board of directors of the railway company; to what degree is he exercising authority upon the policy of the company and in securing effective economies in management and general working? Who really controls policy? Is it possible to readjust or reconvert certain of these loans in order that the charges might be a little less? May I put the point also that I am not clear about the effect of railway finance on the general finances of the local government? What is being done to secure some kind of general economic reconstruction in Nyasaland so as to make the railway more worth while? Are any steps being taken now to co-ordinate the whole of transport and to bring roads and road services in with the railways, so as to get something like a unified transport service in the Protectorate.

A further grant relates to the local forces in Nigeria and Gambia. Appar- ently, this is little more than a book-keeping item. We made a loan, and now we are making a grant to wipe it out—a free grant of £43,000, for the refitment of the African local forces. A great deal of criticism has been urged in the last few months, as a result of the events in the Far East, that sufficient attention has not been paid by the Colonial Office to the matter of civil and local defence arrangements. I suggest that in the first place this payment ought never to have fallen on the local government at all. I feel that at present, we are largely responsible for the protection of the Colonial peoples. Accordingly, it becomes all the more necessary that, if defence works are to be at all efficient and effective, the charges for them should not fall on impoverished or poor local treasuries, but fall on the Treasury of this country. Now that it is recognised that this loan should be wiped out and a free grant made I hope we are going to pay more attention, not only in Gambia and Nigeria, but over the whole Colonial Empire, to making certain that mistakes which have been happening in the Far East will not recur in other parts of the Empire.

I want to stress the vital importance of securing the whole-hearted co-operation of the colonial peoples themselves in the civil and local defence services which are being put in hand. It is the job, not only of the local administration but of the Colonial Office, to harness the colonial people in this great effort and largely under their own leadership. I therefore hope that, in addition to what we are doing to-day, we take this matter of defence and local co-operation very seriously. We should see that there is a broad recognition of the fact that the war is in truth a war of the colonial peoples in the sense that they lose everything if Britain goes down. At the same time, it is important that we should hold out very definite guarantees in regard to the social, political and economic development of the peoples in the days to come.

I intended to say a word about the additional grant to Trans-jordan, but I will not detain the House on the point, except to say that I sincerely hope that if these very substantial grants are made in the Near East, definite guarantees should be received in respect to them of a sound social and economic policy in the areas in which the grants are being paid.

Mr. Edmund Harvey (Combined English Universities)

I should like to say a word in reference to the grant for the welfare of Colonial people in the United Kingdom. I am exceedingly glad that this grant is being proposed. My only regret is that, even at a time when the utmost economy is needed, a larger grant than £4,300 is not available for this purpose. In past years, we have had reason to be ashamed at the way in which fellow subjects of the British Crown who have come to this country from Africa have had to live, and the very difficult conditions which they have sometimes had to face. The establishment of hostels and the provision of assistance for students will be of the utmost value, not only to individuals, but, through them, in the promoting of good feeling and understanding in Africa when they return to their own people. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary may be able to hold out the prospect of an increase in the future of this most valuable Vote, which is not just the giving of assistance, charity or personal help to a limited number, but is of importance in, promoting a better spirit of fellowship and a healthier relationship between all peoples of the Empire.

Dr. Morgan (Rochdale)

There are two points in this limited Vote on which I should like to speak. The first is in regard to the welfare grant for Colonial people resident for the time being in Great Britain. I should like to pay a tribute to the work done at Aggrey House, which is being very well run. It is a pity that the Colonial Office, instead of asking a representative committee some years ago to do this work, did not start doing it "on their own." Even now, there is still scope for improvement. Aggrey House is very small; surely more expenditure could be made on the welfare work for the Colonial peoples, not only in London, but in the various seaports where they are. It, is a pity that the directorate of the hostels in this country could not be more democratic. The selection by the Colonial Office tends to be rather towards the unrepresentative and undemocratic type of man.

I suggest to the Colonial Office, while admitting that they are doing very good work from the point of view of the welfare of Colonial people, that not only should this arrangement be kept up in peace time but that it should be looked at again and constantly reviewed with a view to making these institutions more representative and more democratic. I have often queried some of the appointments inside the Colonial Office, as the hon. Member knows, but that is a matter for the Colonial Office itself. There is only one other point on this Vote on which I should like to make a few remarks. It is a question of savings effected in some Colonies like St. Lucia and Antigua. I hope that the saving will not be at the expense—

Mr. Speaker

The hon. Member must not suggest that there should not be so much saving, as he would thereby be making a charge.

Dr. Morgan

I want the money to be saved and I would like more to be saved if possible, but not at the expense of certain things which ought to be encouraged. I think the money could have been saved in Antigua and St. Lucia in a hundred different ways, and more wisely expended in different directions. For example, there could be alternative employment for the women engaged in coal bunkering, a question which I have already raised with the Colonial Office and which the Colonial Office have never attempted to answer except to say that the women themselves, who are not organised in any trade union, might object. But as I have pointed out in the House, this particular type of work for women, carrying loads of coal three feet by two feet upon their heads for five or six hours at a rate of Id. per basket, is work which should not be encouraged in our Colonies. I think an alternative scheme could be introduced by which money could be saved to the Colony and revenue brought into the Colony by providing alternative employment for these women and by making a saving in other directions. I only wanted to make these two points, but I wish the discussion on the Vote could have been wider, so that we might have spoken of some of the very discreditable things which are avoidable but which are happening now in certain of our Colonies. I am, however, satisfied with having made my points, and I hope I have not made them in any ungenerous way.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

I thank the House for the way in which this Estimate has been received and for the very friendly comments which hon. Members have made. May I deal with some of them in detail? The hon. Member for Rochdale (Dr. Morgan) referred to a question of savings, but Mr. Speaker I am sure would not allow me to go into the very interesting subject of the various ways in which we might spend more money. The reason for this appropriation is that because of an improvement in revenue, it is not necessary to ask for this sum, and it is therefore our duty to put it under the heading of returns. It would be out of order on this occasion to go into any question except that of the savings to be effected, and it would also be out of order to describe alternative methods of spending the money.

With regard to welfare, I am grateful indeed for the observations made by the hon. Members for Shipley (Mr. Creech Jones), the Combined English Universities (Mr. Harvey) and Rochdale. I am sure their remarks on the character of the work which the civil servants who are in charge of this new Department are doing will be very gratifying and encouraging to them. It is a new and important departure, and we hope it may be an earnest of things to come and that it will be taken in that spirit. At the same time, I know that my hon. Friends would agree that it in no way depreciates what must always run parallel to the official efforts of the Government, the work of voluntary associations and of those who are interested in these problems, because their voluntary work, service and support is of equal value with the more official methods which Governments must themselves use.

On the question of the finances of the Trans-Zambesia Railway, the hon. Member for Shipley is an ardent student of colonial affairs and I am afraid I cannot yet claim to have grasped the peculiar financial problems of this particular undertaking. I will not, therefore, go very deeply into the matter, but this I will say. There are certain considerations which must be borne in mind. First, there must be a railway and somebody had to build it. It might have been built by Government money or by privately raised loans. Secondly, we are under an obligation, and a bond has been entered into to pay the interest on the debentures up to the year 1945. Thirdly, part of the debentures belong to the Nyasaland Government itself, and therefore, to that extent, the payment is from one pocket to the other. Lastly, the negotiations with regard to what is the most hopeful method of making some saving, the reduction of interest charges, have yet to take place and their success, like that of many other business negotiations, depends upon not disclosing too easily or too readily the cards which are in the Government's hands, as well as those which are in the hands of the owners o the debentures. It is important that arrangements should be made before the date of expiry of the guarantee, which will be more satisfactory to the finances of the Protectorate.

Then a point was raised as to the Vote for the defence of Nigeria and Gambia. This is a little more than a book-keeping entry. What really happened was this. In the period before the war arrangements were made for defence equipment to be provided by the Colonies on loans. By the end of the financial year, which ended in March, 1940, very few had, in fact, been able to make expenditure on any substantial scale. These two Colonies were able to do so, and the purpose of this Vote is to see that, because they were more rapid, they should not be put in a worse position than the others. In the case of all the others, since they were not able to spend the loans, they come under the new system by which all this expenditure is paid for out of Imperial sources, without, of course, prejudice as to the final settlement to be arranged after the war. As these two Colonies had been able to spend part of their loans, it was thought to be unfair to leave them in that position and therefore they are to be brought into the same position as the rest, and this item has to be put into the accounts in order to ensure that their expenditure will now be paid for out of grants and not out of interest-bearing loans. They, therefore, are put in the same position as all the other Colonies, and are not penalised because they made a more rapid development. Perhaps on the further questions my hon. Friend will forgive me for not entering into details, although I think he can rest assured that the problem of defences, both physical and moral, has not escaped my Noble Friend. It is one to which he has given his early attention, and it may be that a moment is approaching when it will be appropriate for him to give some account of his work.

Lastly, there is this Vote to the island colony of Malta, which offers an oppor- tunity to the House to express, as my hon. Friend expressed very eloquently, our sense of gratitude and pride in the magnificent defence which its people have put up against the attacks made upon them. Under the leadership of Lieut.-General Sir William Dobbie, one of the most gallant officers who have ever held the position of Governor and Commander-in-Chief, there has been an inspiring defence. To that His Majesty has paid his own personal tribute in a series of messages much appreciated by the people of the Colony. Successive Secretaries of State have paid their tribute, and it is a happy opportunity on this Vote to have the privilege of adding for myself, and for the House as a whole, a tribute to the defence which has been put up in one of the most gallant pieces of our military history.

Question "That this House doth agree with the Committee in the said Resolution," put, and agreed to.