HC Deb 05 November 1946 vol 428 cc1345-56

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Michael Stewart.]

10.1 p.m.

Mr. Rees-Williams (Croydon, South)

I beg to draw the attention of the House to the case of four motor vessels, "Empire Wharfe," "Empire Aide," "Empire Mowddach," and "Empire Mole." They were re-named by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport and I cannot say I care for his choice. But there is a more serious matter than names at issue and that is the disposal of these vessels which will have very serious repercussions in Jamaica. I regret the necessity of bringing this matter before the House. In fact, two Government Departments are concerned, and they have apparently had different policies all through. As Jamaica now knows she is not going to have these vessels, I feel sure there will be a certain loss of confidence in the British Government over this matter, and it is right that the House should know about it. My interest is that I am a member of the Jamaica Banana Producers Board in London. That is an advisory board, and not an office of profit. The other members are Sir Edward Stubbs, an ex-Governor of Jamaica, and Sir Austin Hudson, who was a well known Member of this House for 20 years. Lately we have had the assistance of the hon. Member for East Harrow (Mr. Skinnard), who has recently paid a visit to Jamaica. None of us has any pecuniary interest in the banana trade. We are simply there to advise the small men in Jamaica who are members of this Association, as to how they might best serve their interests in this country.

The history of the conflict is one of big business against the small men. A Jamaica Banana Producers Association was formed, largely by Sir Edward Stubbs, in order to break the monopoly of the big business company, the United Fruit Company of Boston, Massachussetts, of the island trade. It was formed in 1929, but in 1936 it was forced by the United Fruit Company to abandon the cooperative basis as a result of certain negotiations with the British Government. That was, of course, years before the recent Blackpool conference, and the interest shown there by the leaders of the Tory Party in the small man, a touching but somewhat belated interest, as their effect on Jamaica shows. The Association also had to cease marketing in the U.S.A. and in Canada, and their only alternative was to market here and in Europe. They had to agree to these most lamentable proposals because, otherwise, there was no alternative hurricane supply. They were also interested in the Cameroons, in the Afrikanische Company, whose bananas were marketed by the Jamaica producers and sold for them in this country. It was a very important source of supply, because it was the only free source in the off-season in Jamaica. At the outbreak of war, however, this source was taken away by the Tory Government, and henceforward contracts were made, and are still made, with the United Fruit Company of Boston and not with the Jamaica producers.

In, I think, 1942, but at any rate during the war, the United Fruit Company took advantage of the conditions to break their agreement as regards the alternative supply of bananas in South America. Therefore, the Jamaica producers are now in the lamentable position of having no alternative supply anywhere in the world. At the beginning of the war the Association had five ships, four of which were owned by them, the other one being on charter. They lost all but one on war service for the British Government. Thus, the British Government have a moral responsibility to these people who lost four ships during the war. Banana ships, as the House knows, are special vessels in that they are refrigerator ships, the idea being that the bananas, if they are not in a refrigerator ship, ripen on the voyage. Most people think, of course, that it is the other way about, that they are brought over in heated ships. In fact, the idea is to keep them in refrigerator ships so that they do not ripen too quickly on the voyage. There are no banana refrigerating ships in the world except those owned by the United Fruit Company and its subsidiary, Elder and Fyffe, and five ships which were lying at Hamburg.

Early in March this year I drew the attention of the Ministry of Transport to those five ships lying at Hamburg. I have no doubt they knew about them all the time, but I did not risk that; and I asked them to get the five ships, or a substantial proportion of those ships, for this Jamaican trade, pointing out the seriousness of the position at that moment in Jamaica. My letter was acknowledged, and, in fact, I received a letter from the Ministry of Transport, which said they would do their best to get these ships, or a substantial proportion of them, for the British flag. Then, on 21st March, I sent letters to the Ministry of Transport and to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, again pointing out the position, and I had a letter on 29th March from the Colonial Secretary, saying: With regard to the letter you have received from the Minister of War Transport, the ball at the moment lies with the British Delegation to the Inter-Allied Reparations Agency Conference in Brussels. They have been fully briefed about the Association's interests in the disposal of the ex-German boats, and I have written personally to the Minister of War Transport on the point. I want the House to watch that closely, because as the House will see, the Secretary of State then specially mentioned that the Association's interests were being used, or would be used, as an argument by the Minister to obtain the ships at the Inter-Allied Conference.

Finally, the Minister did obtain four of those ships, and I give him fall credit for that. It is only a pity that he is going to hand them to the Americans. But I give him full credit for obtaining four. I think one went to the Norwegians. We were asked to put quotations in for these ships, and we did, and it was understood, certainly by me, both from the Minister of Transport and the Secretary of State for the Colonies—the late Secretary of State, of course, not the present one—that there was no question but that we would have two of the ships. The only argument was about the other two. There is no doubt about that at all in my mind. It was quite clear that two ships were given to the Association definitely; the other two ships were a matter of argument; and we were to use the Colonial Secretary as a sort of friend at court to persuade the Minister of Transport to try to give us one, at least, of the other two ships.

Unfortunately, it did not work out that way. Tenders were put in, and we were then told, afterwards, that the tenders were far too low, and that the United Fruit Company's tender through Elder and Fyffe, their subsidiary—this company is owned entirely, except for directors' shares, by the United Fruit Company—was much greater than our tender, and that the United Fruit Company's tender was accepted. Well, this to me was a very great blow. In fact, I felt quite stunned by it, although, as I say, I have no personal financial interest in the matter at all. But I can quite understand what must be the feelings of the unfortunate people of Jamaica, whose very existence depends upon this banana trade; and, also, the feelings of the people in this country who have not had so many bananas up to the present that they can cheerfully afford to throw away an opportunity of getting more. That is the position. The ships are now, apparently, sold, and sold to the Americans, leaving the British company, the only British company really, handling bananas, without any ships, except one, a relic of the past, an old ship; the "Jamaica Producer," and no others at all.

I am asking the Secretary of State tonight what explanation he has to offer for this proceeding, and what suggestions he can make to get us out of the difficulty.

Dr. Morgan (Rochdale)

Was the tender too low?

Mr. Rees-Williams


Mr. Scollan (Renfrew, Western)

Could the hon. Gentleman say what the difference was per ton between his tender and the tender of Elder and Fyffe?

Mr. Rees-Williams

Quite frankly, I do not even know what the tenders were, because as I say this was a matter for the business side, and not for the Advisory Board, but the Secretary of State will be able to say what the tenders were. I was told by the Secretary of State that ours was a little less than half of theirs. But I am not arguing or resting my case on that at all. My point is that they should never have been put out to tender. They should have come to us, at any rate with regard to the two ships, and said, "We consider a fair value of these ships is so much. We know that you have so many pounds as a result of the insurance of those ships which were lost on British service, are you prepared to pay us the amount you have had in compensation for the ships that were lost?" That would have done, and I think it would have been a perfectly fair argument. Certain ships were lost on British service, a certain amount of money was obtained from Lloyds as a result of insurance—set that money off against these four ships and one has a fair bargain. It should be remembered that the ships did not cost the British Government anything; they were obtained from the Germans as reparations, and in my view therefore the right hon. Gentleman has a very strong case to answer. However, I am not merely concerned with trying to get explanations of the past; what I want the Minister to do is to make suggestions as to how he will overcome the difficulties which he has created in the future.

10.12 p.m.

Mr. Skinnard (Harrow, East)

I would like to reinforce very strongly the appeal made by the hon. Member for South Croydon (Mr. Rees-Williams). I have recently been in Jamaica, and I have noticed that in every village there are three sheds, one for the United Fruit Company, one for the Standard Company, and one for the Jamaica Banana Producers' Association. I investigated the structure by which those sheds were filled, and I found that, very largely, the Jamaica Banana Producers' Association was composed of literally thousands of small growers, peasants, whose only cash crop is the banana. There is a very intimate connection, which perhaps the hon. Member for South Croydon did not have time to bring out, between the Cameroons and Jamaica with respect to bananas. They are, generally speaking, the only sources of bananas within the Empire, and they are complementary in the sense that the major production period for Jamaica is between March and November and for the Cameroons is between November and March.

The Jamaica Banana Producers' Association was very largely the creation of the British and Jamaican Governments. We must remember that by 1919 the United Fruit Company of Boston had acquired a dominating position in the world's markets with respect to bananas; they were producers, buyers and distributors, and they included Jamaica in what has been rightly dubbed their "banana empire." According to the report of the Jamaica Banana Commission of 1936: The United Fruit Company, rightly or wrongly, has in the past had a reputation which goes beyond Jamaica for arbitrary behaviour when it finds itself in a position of mastery, and there is an almost universal fear of its domination. I found that myself in talking to citizens of practically every country in the Caribbean-Central American area. Early in the century, following the disastrous hurricane of 1903, the United Fruit Company acquired two businesses, the Direct Fruit Line, which ran between Jamaica and Britain, and the old-established fruit importing company of Elder and Fyffe, and combined the two into a European marketing company and shipping line to act as its agents in Britain and in Europe. There was dissatisfaction with the United Fruit Company's methods once it had established a practical monopoly, although as I have said there is the Standard Company, which is so closely linked with it as to be indistinguishable. Their refusal, for instance, to make firm contracts with small growers, their attempts to make such contracts only with those who grew more than 50 acres of bananas, which would have wiped out almost the whole of the peasantry who depended on the sale of bananas, their rejection of fruit which fell below an arbitrary standard fixed by themselves, caused considerable propaganda in favour of a co-operative association of growers. In 1926, the report of the Imperial Economic Com- mittee, here in London, recommended the establishment of such an organisation, and on a direct shipping line between Jamaica and Britain. As a result of that, as my hon. Friend has pointed out, the Jamaica banana producers established a co-operative organisation. Owing to the incidence of hurricanes in the Caribbean area, it became necessary for the association to establish an alternative source of supply. They had to turn to the United Fruit Company, which was the only company which could guarantee them shipments of bananas. What did the company do? It virtually refused to do business with the co-operative enterprise, and the Jamaica Banana Commission of 1936 had to make certain recommendations for structural alterations to the Jamaica Banana Producers Association, turning it into a marketing company instead of a cooperative company.

Now comes this blow. We do not know yet whether these ships have yet been sold outright, and we are asking whether they have been sold, and whether there is no possibility of getting a share of them for this small struggling Jamaican enterprise. The Jamaica Banana Producers' Association have had an intimate connection with the Cameroons, because of the complementary nature of the crops. They operated, as my hon. Friend has said, the marketing side as far as Europe was concerned until the outbreak of the war. The Cameroons were then the only source of supply which was not dominated by the United Fruit Company, just as the Jamaica Banana Producers' Association was the only United Fruit Company competitor to survive, and it survived very largely by the encouragement of the British and Jamaican Governments.

The British Conservative Government, in 1936, allowed the United Fruit Company to force the Jamaica Banana Producers' Association to abandon their cooperative structure. Is a British Socialist Government, in 1946, going to allocate these four ships to a subsidiary of the United Fruit Company, and thus strengthen the American monopoly in the Cameroons, which is a British trusteeship territory, which we are endeavouring to rehabilitate by a cooperative structure to deal not only with bananas, but with all the other products of the Colony? What will happen to the small people of Jamaica who have been encouraged to join an association on a communal basis? They cannot compete against Elder and Fyffe with the illimitable resources of the United Fruit Company behind that firm. I believe that the United Fruit Company have allocated 21 ships to the European trade, and the Jamaica Banana Producers are left with only one ship. It was understood in Jamaica, as my hon. Friend has told the House, that they would get a share of these refrigerator ships, which were the only free refrigerator ships. If this news goes out that, irrevocably, they are to get none, then I am afraid that a very worthy attempt to keep Jamaica out of monopoly domination is doomed to die, and to die almost immediately. Have the Jamaican Government been consulted, and what are their reactions? These are some of the things which we would like to know, and I plead with the Minister that this action should not be final, and that even at this late hour he will see that this small association of producers gets some ships to set itself on its feet again.

10.20 p.m.

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

I appreciate the moderation with which the case has been put by my hon. Friend the Member for South Croydon (Mr. Rees-Williams) and the hon. Member for East Harrow (Mr. Skinnard). I appreciate equally the importance to Jamaica of the banana industry and understand their apprehensions that shipping deficiencies might injure the basis of the Jamaican economy. The problem tonight is one for the Colonial Office no less than the Ministry of Transport, and our common interest is shown by the presence tonight of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport. Both of us regret, of course, the shipping difficulties connected with our Colonies and are determined to meet them to the best of our ability.

In the matter under consideration, my noble Friend who was my predecessor in this office felt that he had to have regard to the best interests not only of Jamaica but of the Cameroons. In the few minutes left to me tonight, I have no time to cover the whole of the ground, but I have, of course, considerable sympathy with the effort in Jamaica to safeguard the small producer and to protect the fruit trade and the small producer from mono- poly interests. I can only explain to the House the considerations which caused my noble Friend to agree that, in all the circumstances, the four ships in question should be made available to Messrs. Elder and Fyffe and the Cameroons trade. It is true that my noble Friend was anxious that at least two of the four boats should be considered for the Jamaican producers, but all along the producers were told that the Ministry of Transport could sell only at a reasonable price, and when the four ships became available, it was not tenders which were invited, but the two firms concerned were invited to make offers for the boats.

This arrangement left the Ministry of Transport to negotiate in regard to the disposal of the ships and to have regard, of course, to public interests in the decision which they took. The Jamaican producers' offers were out of account on most public considerations, and my predecessor, when he consulted the Ministry of Transport, felt that the figure which was offered by the producers was absurdly low. Secondly, he felt that these ships really belonged to the Cameroons trade, were derived from the Cameroons, and accounted as a reparations payment. Further, they had been designed for the Cameroons trade. They were shallow draught ships which could use the estuaries of that part of West Africa, and they were less suitable for the heavy Atlantic weather. But here there emerged the claims for consideration, in regard to the boats, of the Nigerian Government, owing to the creation by them of a public corporation for developing the Cameroons resources, and my noble Friend felt that there was specific need for this public corporation to have the ships for their fruit trade from the Cameroons, and that perhaps an alternative arrangement might prove possible for the Jamaican producers, either by extending control or meeting their requirements in other ways.

After all, Elder and Fyffe, who during the war lost no fewer than 14 of their 21 vessels in the service of Britain, did at least fly the Red Ensign. They were in a special position regarding the Cameroons trade, and, so far as the Cameroons banana industry was concerned under the new corporation, there was no other firm immediately available which could carry on the necessary trade. So the net advantage seemed to my predecessor to be with the Nigerian position, and, accordingly, he made known to the Ministry of Transport, even though the Jamaica producers had made another offer, that the public corporation of the Cameroons—as soon as they have concluded a satisfactory arrangement with Elder and Fyffe, to act as their agents for a limited period, to manage the banana estates until they were ready themselves to undertake the responsibility—should have these vessels. The Minister had not bound himself to accept any particular tender, and, in all the circumstances, Elder and Fyffe were notified of the position that the four boats could be made available to them to assist them in the Cameroons trade.

Mr. Scollan

Who are the owners?

Mr. Creech Jones

I know the struggle of the Jamaica producers, the difficulties through which they have gone, the difficulties which confront them, and the losses and sacrifices which they have incurred during the war.

I want to make it clear that the transfer of these ships to Elder & Fyffe will not affect the export of bananas from Jamaica to this country, so long as the control over shipping is maintained. My right hon. Friend has also asked me to say that the existing ships will continue to be employed, together with ships belonging to Elder and Fyffe, as long as may be necessary for meeting the pressure of the trade; and also that it is possible, with the insurance money which has become available, for Jamaica producers now to construct one or more vessels.

The Jamaica producers have an organisation in Jamaica for the purchase of fruit from the growers and a marketing company in this country, and, at the producer end, they can, through their selling agency, do a great work in building up a strong organisation among the growers; whereas, at this end, we can, I think, negotiate or give them some aid in regard to securing at least the continuance of the present arrangement, so that 20 per cent. of the banana shipping to this country may continue to be invoiced to the Association.

I believe that Elder & Fyffe are prepared to continue this arrangement, and I hope that with what help my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport and I can give, the difficulties can be overcome, the apprehensions removed, and the Jamaica producers can go forward, not only with their work in Jamaica in organising the small growers, but in finding shipment for the fruits and a ready market in this country.

Mr. Skinnard

Can the right hon. Gentleman explain why, since there is a limited period during which U.F.C. and Elder & Fyffe are rehabilitating the Cameroons plantation, these ships should not have been chartered to them for that period?

It being half-past Ten o'Clock. MR. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.