HC Deb 30 November 1945 vol 416 cc1864-72

4.4 p.m.

Dr. Jeger (St. Pancras, South-East)

I am sorry that it is impossible for me in the time at my disposal to attempt to make the case I had hoped to make, but I plunge straight into it by saying that I consider the apparent prosperity of the cocoa industry is based upon the misery and exploitation of a great mass of workers at the bottom. They live in very poor houses, they live under slum conditions, they are very overcrowded, and they have very little money with which to pay the extremely high rents which they are called upon to find. Their wages are both inadequate and intermittent. They are very inadequate because the amount of money they receive is so small, and inadequate, also, because very often they are not even paid in money but paid by a percentage of the produce, cocoa which they help to grow. The wages are inadequate also because they do not avail to meet the prices of the very high cost-of-living in the country in which they exist. The diet of the workers is inadequate too. It is lacking in all those essentials which make it possible for a man to do a hard day's work. Many of them are only able to work two or three days a week, not out of natural laziness, but because their diet does not give them sufficient stamina to enable them to work a full week.

A little higher up the scale you get the farmer. The West African cocoa industry is based upon 300,000 small farms. The average size of a farm is from one to five acres. They are worked by peasant occupiers who employ these labourers about whom I have been talking, and the price they receive for their produce is extremely small. One may ask, why do these people need money at all? They have to buy their farms. Very often they have to borrow the money to buy them. They have to pay their labour, and they need to spend money upon imports. They import cloth, they import tobacco; they import various articles of diet such as sardines. They go in for a great deal of litigation because the boundaries of their farms are not very well placed. Also there is a great deal of native ceremony with which the local people have to purchase their entry into the hereafter.

The produce of the farm is very often divided into three parts. One part goes to the farmer, the producer; one part to the labourer; the third part usually goes to the sort of person whom we call a moneylender, who advances the money to pay for the farm, who advances the money which is needed for the current expenses of the farmer. The next stage in the transfer of the raw cocoa product to the coast is when it passes through the hands of the middlemen. There are various kinds—brokers, factors, sub-brokers—and it is estimated there are about 40,000 people who act as intermediaries in the transfer of cocoa from the farms to the coast.

When it gets to the coast, we meet the real villain of the piece—the United Africa Company, which exports from West Africa something like 40 per cent. of the cocoa which leaves West Africa, which acts as the collector, which acts as the shipper, and which also, in this country, does a lot of processing. It does a lot of manufacture and, at the same time, does a lot of retailing. In addition, the United Africa Company ships back manufactured goods which the natives of West Africa buy—cloth, sardines, nails and the various other items which they need for their particular type of civilisation. These monopolies do not develop the country in the interests of the people who live there, or here. Nor do they seek an all-round development of the country; they only seek to extract cheaply the raw materials from which they them-selves make large profits in processing, in manufacturing, and in selling. These profits are taken out of West Africa and they are not put back into the development of local resources.

I can give the House two quotations in regard to the United Africa Company. The Foreign Secretary said at Blackpool that he was not prepared to leave the whole of Africa to the tender mercies of the United Africa Company, and the right hon. and gallant Gentleman who was formerly Secretary of State for the Colonies once indicated in this House that he was leally frightened at the extent of the power which these monopolistic companies had; that they had even more power than certain Governments. The history of this cocoa industry and the bad relationship which exists between various elements in the industry goes back several years. We had, in 1937, a hold-up. The producers in West Africa did not want to go on producing their cocoa and there was a hold-up of supply. We then sent out a commission to investigate what was wrong. After the commission, we had a White Paper, and based on the result of that White Paper is presumably the present policy of the Government.

The natives of West Africa put forward certain objections to what was then going on, and they objected to the present situation as well. They say that the price they get for their cocoa is too low, that it is only a very small percentage of what was given to them before the war, and that it is far lower than the world price for cocoa. They also say that they are paying tar too much for the imported manufactured goods of which they have to make use and on which they have to live. They say that there is far too big a disproportion between the selling price of their cocoa compared with prewar, and the price which they have to pay for goods which they import. Apart from these material objections, they also have certain psychological objections. They criticise the report of the Nowell Commission and the findings of the White Paper. They claim that in the recommendations of the White Paper the Gold Coast section of the report promises, in the administration of the industry, an eventual majority for the producers, and they say that the co-operative societies under which some of them had attempted to organise themselves, are very weak. That is on the Gold Coast; whereas in Nigeria, where they have got themselves fairly well organised, they are told that the administration of the industry is to be in the hands of the Supply Branch of the Nigerian administration, and the producers are only to be used in an advisory capacity, with no prospect of becoming an ultimate majority.

In those circumstances, they have no belief in the impartiality of the Government. They say that there was a profit of about £3,500,000 made out of this industry, which is now in this country, and was made only because of the low prices which the cocoa producers received. They go on to say that they do not like the use of the monopolistic companies, the United Africa Company and others, as agents, that shipping is too scarce, that a large amount of produce was destroyed because it was not marketed, that production is not encouraged, and that the cocoa controller, in the years of trouble, was a member of a firm which was operating the notorious buying agreement of 1937, between the United Africa Company, Cadbury's, and one or two smaller companies. It is notable that the Co-operative Wholesale Societies of England and Scotland stood out of the agreement and would have nothing whatever to do with it.

There is a delegation of West Africans in this country, who have put to me some of these things which I have been attempting to put before the House, and who have asked to see the Minister. They claim to represent the cocoa producers —the farmers—of West Africa. I have had several opportunities of talking to them and I see no reason to doubt their word. They claimed to have been democratically elected, and they produced their credentials, and to my untutored eye in this matter there was nothing wrong with their credentials I have seen, too, a number of newspaper cuttings from Nigeria, the Gold Coast and Ashanti, all of which support their claim to be representative.

While I do not endorse all their demands, I feel that they have at least a case to be heard. I do not feel that we ought to adopt this paternal attitude of "We will decide what is good for you, and you will have no voice in the matter." They ought to be heard, their case ought to be listened to, and they ought to be argued with. They ought, perhaps, to be convinced that certain aspects of their policy are wrong. I have exceeded the time I intended to occupy. I wished to talk a great deal about what I thought Government policy in this matter ought to be, but having put my case, having indicated the trouble in the industry, and where I think the Government have gone wrong, having indicated something of what I think Government policy ought to be, I will sit down and ask the Minister if he will deal with some of the main points which I have raised.

4.16 p.m.

Mr. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)

I wish to put two points to the Minister following up what has been said by the hon. Member for South-East St. Pancras (Dr. Jeger). First, I hope that the Minister will bear in mind that my right hon. and gallant Friend the Member for West Bristol (Colonel Stanley), in October, 1943, when he was in West Africa, saw the cocoa farmers both in the Gold Coast and Nigeria, and gave them an invitation to send representatives to this country who would sit round a round table and discuss these matters. How far the present delegation is fully representative does not seem to me to be very material. They have travelled a long way. I am told that they represent, in the Gold Coast, 95 per cent. of the farmers. As a farmer, I know how very hard it is to get complete representation of all farmers, even in England, and I beg the Minister and the Under-Secretary to reconsider the decision not to receive this delegation. No harm can be done by the courtesy of receiving the delegation.

My other point is this: Last month, I asked the Minister whether the delegation was satisfied with the price of 15s. per load of 60 lbs. The Minister explained that he had not met the delegation. I asked him if he was aware of the dissatisfaction in Nigeria with the price. He then replied that the price was fixed as the result of consultation, not only with the Governor of Nigeria, but with the chiefs in the area where the farmers who grow the cocoa reside. That is a statement that before the price was fixed the African chiefs in Nigeria were consulted. Only a fortnight ago, in Nigeria, the Nigerian Secretariat issued a statement denying that the African chiefs had ever been consulted. That was a statement from the Governor of Nigeria. I know how easy it is, in answering a supplementary question, to make in good faith a statement that is not entirely accurate. I have no wish to make any party capital out of the fact, but I invite the Under-Secretary to clear this matter up. It does a great deal of harm when a statement is made here in Parliament which has to be contradicted by the Governor of Nigeria. It does great harm to our prestige in the Colonies, and I hope that the Under-Secretary will take this opportunity of clearing the matter up.

4.19 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. Creech Jones)

It will be appreciated by the House that in the space of a few minutes it is impossible to reply to the many questions which have been opened out by the previous speakers. The problems of conditions of employment in the industry, on the farms, the difficulties in regard to labour employment, the whole mechanism of trade, from production to shipping and shipping to home, are matters which I cannot enter into at the present time. I can only say that we are pursuing, I hope, a social and economic policy in West Africa which is calculated to deal with some of the fundamental difficulties which have been mentioned to-day.

I think it will interest the House if I come right away to the main point in the two speeches which have been made, and that is the decision of the Secretary of State for the Colonies not to receive the deputation which has asked for an audience with him. I think everyone who knows the Secretary of State for the Colonies, will agree that he is always prepared to discuss any problem, particularly a problem of this kind, when those who come can claim to speak in a representative way. In this particular case he was not persuaded that the Members of the delegation here were competent to discuss the problems on which they sought a conference. The request was made by a body styled the Delegation of the Gold Coast and Nigerian Farmers. They made a request last September that they should come and discuss the White Paper policy, the marketing of cocoa, the economic problems of the Gold Coast and Nigeria and the suspension of operations of the West African Produce Board. Of the three members of the delegation, none of them was a worker in cocoa, in- deed one of them was a law student in this country since 1939 and the other two members were not persons who had any direct acquaintance with cocoa farms.

Dr. Morgan (Rochdale)

Is the Parliamentary Secretary maintaining that a representative is a person actually doing the work? Surely it is a principle of public life here, and in the Colonies, that a representative need not be a person actually doing the work he is going to represent. That is a trade union principle.

Mr. Creech Jones

I am not making that claim at all. I am merely indicating at this moment the nature of the delegation.

Dr. Jeger

I am informed that one of the members of this delegation is an actual farmer, that he has a farm in Nigeria, and that his family are at the present time engaged in working it.

Mr. Turton

The Gold Coast, not Nigeria.

Mr. Creech Jones

My information does not confirm that, but although two are certainly residents of the Gold Coast, normally, I say normally, they are not farmers. One has been employed for a long period as a clerk in Accra in the offices of the United States Consul. I believe, and the other has had a much more venturesome career than that. In the case of the third person, he happens to be a law student in this country.

I am not at this moment, of course, arguing whether these people are cocoa farmers or not; I am merely trying to describe to the House the nature of the delegation which was here. They asked, as I have said, to discuss with the Secretary of State better prices, the alteration of the control system, and that the co-operative organisations should be drastically reformed. They allege that they derive their authority from the Farmers Committee of the Gold Coast and Nigeria. That happens to be a body which is registered in this country as a limited company which claims to be made up of constitutionally elected farmer chiefs. Its personnel is mainly composed of middle men and traders.

A prominent leader of this organisation in the Gold Coast is one who has been associated in opposition to the control system of the cocoa trade during the war years, and against whom, I think—well, perhaps one had better draw a cloak over this person. The original idea for this delegation, so far as we are able to understand, did not come from the former Secretary of State but from an American citizen who is a cocoa broker and who happened to be in the Gold Coast and made certain lavish promises about the price levels and what could happen if the controls were to be removed. That is the immediate inspiration behind the delegation. But further, let me say this, that the bona fides of the delegation have been tested by events during the past couple of months. Some reference has been made to certain meetings which have been held in Accra and Lagos. The delegation were put to the test when they threatened to stage a hold-up if the Secretary of State did not receive them. Their supporters in Accra, however, were gravely discredited by a clash which they had with the chiefs on the Joint Provincial Council of Chiefs. They were obliged to apologise to the chiefs on behalf of the delegation for the false statements they made in their telegram from London, and the chiefs in the Gold Coast refused to give them the authority which they sought.

The hon. Member who spoke before me referred to a particular statement which had been made in this House by the Secretary of State. I think the second part of his reply ought not to be connected with the first part. He was under the misapprehension that when he was replying, he was dealing both with Nigeria and the Gold Coast, and when he spoke of the chiefs withholding their authority he had in mind the chiefs resident in the Gold Coast, although my hon. Friend in putting his supplementary question had clearly in mind the natural chiefs of Nigeria. Let me say about the Lagos meeting that because of the views of this London delegation and their not being received a suggestion was made that there should be a hold-up in the trade, and this meeting was described as a mass meeting. We are informed that the attendance was mainly composed of elderly Mohammedans not connected with farming at all, and the main reason for which the meeting was called was not to protest about cocoa but to protest against a municipal by-law on the keeping of goats in the Lagos town-ship.

I do not wish to pursue this matter further so far as the authority of the delegation is concerned, but I do assure the House that it was only after the most searching inquiries made by the Secretary of State himself, that he reached the conclusion that this body here could not speak on behalf of the workers on the farms, or on behalf of the farmers directly involved. It may be that the delegation could speak on behalf of some of the middlemen; indeed, there may be some truth in it that they could speak on behalf of certain elements of big business. It may be, too that they could speak as a result of certain representations made to them by certain American brokers, but they certainly had so far as my right hon. Friend could ascertain, no authority and no power to speak on behalf of the vast number of people whose hopeless condition has been described by the hon. Member who initiated the Debate.

I would like, of course, if I had time to deal with the question of price levels, and also of the distribution of the profits which are made as a result of the Cocoa Control Board. In regard to price levels, it should be appreciated that, as a result of the operation of the control scheme, the price now paid is higher than the average price paid during the period of the five years before the war. Then, the average price per load was 11s., but in 1938–39 it was as low as 8s. 6d. The price for this season is 15s. None of us would agree that that price is good enough, but certain reasons for the price must be considered. I regret, however, that time forbids me to pursue the matter any further.

It being Half-past Four o'Clock, Mr. Deputy-Speaker adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.