HC Deb 10 December 1948 vol 459 cc797-806

3.59 p.m.

Mr. Skinnard (Harrow, East)

I wish to draw the attention of the House for a short time to a document of very great importance and far-reaching consequence. Three million people are directly involved, but—

It being Four o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed without Question put.

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

Mr. Skinnard

The document is not only of great importance to the 3 million British subjects directly involved, but to the Commonwealth and Empire as a whole. Indeed, since the successful application of the proposals made in this document would result in the development of hitherto untapped and, indeed, ungauged resources in two neglected territories, it is of concern to the world at large, and it has already received critical notice in the newspapers and among politicians in the neighbouring countries of South and Central America. I refer to the report of the British Guiana and British Honduras Settlement Commission set up in February, 1947.

This Report was not published until 3rd November of this year, although, as I shall hope to show, some knowledge of what it contained had already leaked out in some circles prior to its official publication. It is appropriate that this whole matter should be referred to at the close of this two days' Debate on foreign affairs, because Guatemala has already preferred a claim to the larger part of British Honduras, and the future of the three remaining European Colonies on the South American mainland has been canvassed by the Governments of the various South American countries at a recent conference.

The disparity between the growth of world population and the available present resources for the maintenance of that population is so marked that it must be accepted as a principle that if any Power does not fully develop the potential resources of any country under its control, it will have its rights to such countries challenged and, indeed, they would be justly challenged. That it was high time that a thorough investigation should be made into the potentialities of British Guiana and British Honduras can be shown by a few simple figures which tell their own story. The figures relate to the British West Indies as a whole.

The total population of the Islands and the two mainland Colonies of British Guiana and British Honduras is about 2¾ million of which 2¼ million live on the islands, which have a total area just about equal to that of Wales. The conditions in these islands are appalling because of the overcrowding which results. The actual density of population varies from 1,200 per square mile in Barbadoes to just under 300 per square mile in Jamaica and in Trinidad. British Guiana, on the other hand, is a country about the same size as Great Britain, and yet it has a population of only about 376,000 people, or 4½ people to every square mile; while British Honduras which is slightly larger than Wales has a population of under 70,000 people, which, of course, is equivalent to about seven people per square mile. It must be remembered that even 300 people to the square mile is really gross overcrowding in the islands because of the fact that the economy is agrarian and also because much of these islands is mountainous and in such regions there is no possibility of farming.

Just before the war, a Royal Commission on the West Indies went out, which reported in 1939. It is commonly known as the Moyne Commission. This Report, which I have studied very carefully, appears to me to be one of the most pessimistic documents ever presented to Parliament. It was careful enough and detailed, but nevertheless it was pessimistic, seeing no very certain future for our fellow citizens in the British West Indies. It was, however, a challenge to Britain, as a trustee, and I feel sure, that but for the outbreak of war, this challenge would have been taken up and at least part of the problems, so clearly set out, would have been on the way to solution. However, the position has deteriorated in the intervening 10 years. and it was with general welcome that we saw that the Secretary of State had appointed a recent Commission on resettlement in British Guiana and British Honduras. That is commonly known as the Evans Commission, from the name of the Chairman. The terms of reference were admirably concise. 1. Having regard to the recommendations made by the West Indian Conference in 1944 and 1946 regarding the need for study of the Guianas and British Honduras as an aid to the solution of the problem of over-population in the West Indian island territories, and further to the need to assist in solving the problem of persons displaced as a result of the World War, to investigate and report to the Secretary of State for the Colonies upon the possibilities of resettlement in British Guiana and British Honduras, with the following considerations in mind:—

  1. (a) the future needs of the population of those territories,
  2. (b) the need to provide outlets for the surplus populations in the British West Indies,
  3. (c) the needs of surplus populations in other West Indian islands,
  4. (d) the need to provide for the resettlement and rehabilitation of persons displaced from their homes in European countries as a result of the war."
In reference to the fourth paragraph, the Commission do not appear to have been able to do much about this. They recommend that a limited number of displaced persons could be used primarily as technicians, particularly in British Honduras, but otherwise the Report says that there is no great possibility of alleviating the difficulties of these unhappy people. The Commission were made aware by the Secretary of State for the Colonies of the urgency of reducing the population of the West Indian Islands by one quarter of a million, especially since all the former avenues of emigration have been gradually closed to our own citizens, who used, for instance, to go to parts of Central America and to go for seasonal labour to the Southern States of the United States.

The task was admirably accomplished, and the Report, while not making light of the difficulties and of the vast expense the schemes of development and planned emigration will incur, is a most encouraging. hopeful and practical document. As such, it is in striking contrast to the Moyne Report, to which I have just referred. Some of the research done has added considerably to our knowledge of the territories. This report was eagerly awaited no less in the West Indian Islands themselves. In my view, its publication was unduly delayed. I am aware that when the Commission returned to England, early in the year, it thought it necessary to borrow from Messrs. Steel Brothers Mr. Ednes, a forestry expert, to undertake a survey of extraction costs for forestry work. This was a wise move, and time was well spent, but it is a fact that he reported by 15th April this year.

Later, I made inquiries as to when the report was to be issued, and the House was informed that the illness of one of the members of the Commission was delaying the report. Time went by, and the next excuse we had was that there was some difficulty with His Majesty's Stationery Office about printing. Despite delay in the publication of the report, I was naturally interested in ascertaining whether any of its proposals might be known, and I believe that I am right in saying that draft copies were sent to the Governors of various West Indian Islands, and that parts of the report in draft reached various commercial enterprises in connection with preliminary discussions about some of the development possibilities for which capital was needed.

The difficulty, however, in that method of approach was that when members of the Legislatures, especially in the two Colonies principally concerned, were themselves asking to be told what was the fate in store for their territories, were asking to have a look at the document, or to be given a synopsis of what it contained, they were unable to obtain any inkling of it while, at the same time, other people in commercial enterprises seemed to have the knowledge which those in official positions had been denied.

This is a very unhappy state of affairs. While it may be true that only small parts of the suggested scheme were laid before the appropriate firms, it is unfortunate that when we are trying to build up confidence in our work in the Colonies, representatives of the people there should not know what use is proposed to be made of the basic wealth of their territories, their potential resources which, presumably, should be partially, at any rate, under their control. It is significant that I myself obtained my first knowledge of the schemes which were being thought of in connection with the Evans Report from last month's "Crown Colonist." It is obvious that these must have been printed or prepared before actual publication because, on page 648, the "Crown Colonist" said: Development Areas. Announcement of the Governor's projected visit came two days after the disclosure that the Colonal Development Corporation intended to participate in forestry development in the Colonies. Again: New Settlement Areas in British Guiana. According to reports the Evans Settlement Commission has recommended for suitable settlement three areas of British Guiana. Again, under the heading: Forestry Development in Guiana there was this information: The Colonial Development Corporation announces its intention to participate in forestry development in British Guiana, and to set up an investigatory body, in association with Steel Bros. & Co., Ltd., Booker Bros., McConnell & Co., Ltd., with Sir John Tait as Chairman. I maintain that we ought to bring everybody into consultation. There should be the fullest information about what is proposed for the development of British Guiana and British Honduras. That includes, of course, the principal personalities in the West Indian Islands. I do not wish to complain too much about this, because I believe this is a new method of approach. The work of the Colonial Development Corporation has to proceed largely by trial and error, but I ask my right hon. Friend to answer some questions when he replies to the Debate.

First, in future will legislatures be allowed to see very early on any proposals which affect the real work and the natural resources of their countries. Secondly, on the Evans Report itself, which of the projects for British Honduras and British Guiana are receiving priority and is the Secretary of State prepared to agree to the setting up of two separate corporations for this development under the general control of the Colonial Development Corporation. Thirdly, will the number of selected emigrants—that is to say, certain types of emigrants suitable for certain types of work—be held to, and will the Secretary of State set his face against any wholesale clearance of population without any reference to the needs of the area to which they are to be sent? I do not think there is any doubt that he will do so, but I should like to have his positive assurance.

Fourthly, does he recognise that the position of West Indian shipping needs very urgent attention, and particularly in view of the recent report of the Commonwealth Shipping Committee. I invite his attention particularly, since shipping is going to be a very important factor in the success of any of these developments, to paragraphs 54 to 63 of that Report. Paragraph 54 states that passenger facilities are urgently required. Nobody will quarrel with that, but the remedy proposed by the Committee allows for accommodation for about 2,700 persons annually each way between this country and the West Indies. Unfortunately, if one looks at the appendix in the same report on page 40 there is shown that in 1937 3,316 passengers travelled outwards and 2,975 homewards. So at the very best the remedies proposed by the Committee, aimed to operate in 1951, will have the result that the accommodation will be actually under 90 per cent. of that available in 1937.

Fifthly, is the Secretary of State prepared to tell the House whether he has considered the suggestion made by Mr. Adams of Barbados, who was one of the United Kingdom representatives at the United Nations Assembly, on the position of the legislatures with reference to the proposals? Mr. Adams has suggested that consultations should be held with as little delay as possible in London between the Colonial Office and the representatives of the seven West Indian Colonies to determine the extent to which the Colonies should contribute to the share capital of the Corporation recommended. That is a reasonable and sound proposal to put forward, and I hope the Secretary of State will give his earnest consideration to it.

4.20 p.m.

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

In the few minutes at my disposal I cannot hope to cover the whole of the ground with regard to the Evans Report. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for East Harrow (Mr. Skinnard) for drawing public attention to the importance of this Report, and while we are determined to carry through its recommendations to the utmost practical extent, we hope that there will be some reticence, because some of the recommendations have been stated in the public Press in rather too optimistic terms. I take it that the main purpose of the discussion this afternoon is to ascertain what is being done in regard to the Report.

I ought to express the very sincere thanks of His Majesty's Government to Sir Geoffrey Evans and his colleagues for the inquiries they undertook and for the very workmanlike Report which they have produced. It will be the basis for action for a long time to come. The Commission was appointed, as my hon. Friend has said, because too little progress has been made in these two mainland territories. Great areas had not been developed, there were dire social problems, and it was possible that with proper development these territories might afford some opportunities for absorbing the surplus populations in the other West Indian colonial territories.

I admit that it took some time for the House to be in possession of the Report, but there were factors which accounted for the delay, over which neither the Government nor the Commission had control. We felt, nevertheless, that because certain of the recommendations were likely to be of major importance for the development of British Honduras and British Guiana, parts of the draft Report should be made available to the Governor in order that urgent consideration should be given to some of the projects contemplated, and also to the Colonial Development Corporation so that preliminary studies could be put in hand. So far as I know, however, there were no leakages. There was no distribution of chapters of this Report, and if information fell into the hands of individuals, it was completely unauthorised.

The problem, I admit, is important, but the question of social and economic development is important to the territories concerned, and there is no desire on the part of His Majesty's Government that the Legislative Councils should not have the fullest opportunity of studying the Report and making recommendations in respect of the projects contemplated. Indeed, so far as I know, there has been the fullest consultation between the Governors and the Executive Councils in the respective territories, and a great deal of publicity has been embarked on in the territories in order that the people concerned should know precisely what is recommended and gather their reactions to the projects suggested.

There are two main purposes to be kept in view, in regard to these proposals. The first objective must be the proper development of these two mainland territories. As regards the past, I think it is possible to accuse previous Governments of neglect in respect of these areas which form the mainland of the American Continent and consequently have great political significance. Therefore it is imperative that we should do everything in our power to develop these territories as rapidly as possible to avoid international criticism, and also to do justice to the people who are administering them.

The second objective is the population problem in the West Indies. As my hon. Friend has stated, the density of population is so great and the figures are rising to such an alarming extent that some openings must be found if economic and other standards are to be maintained at a tolerable level in our West Indian Colonies.

With these two main purposes in view, the Commission set about its work. At the same time local governments have had under consideration the possibility of planning over the next ten years, with the assistance of funds under the Colonial Development and Welfare Act. Certain sums were allocated to both territories in order that they might bring into review the public works which they required, the way in which industries could be extended and the building up of social services. The Evans Report, therefore, must be taken in conjunction with the programmes worked out by the two territories for their social and economic needs.

I can assure my hon. Friend that in our approach to the problems of each territory we shall not give preference to one territory over another as regards encouragement and financial support. We are concerned with them equally, and everything possible will be done. It is hoped, in order to proceed with certain of the projects proposed in the Report, that monies will be made available in addition to those already allocated under the Colonial Development and Welfare Act and that a further £2 million will be made available to enable the necessary preliminary investigations to proceed.

I had better mention what is actually happening with regard to the various projects. The Evans Committee suggested that, in the case of rice, there should be an immediate examination into the expansion of production and more efficient planning with milling and mechanisation. The Evans Report adds very little to our knowledge of the coastal belt. That area is fairly crowded and, therefore, development of British Guiana must come more into the hinterland, with which region the projects of the Report are primarily concerned. At the request of the British Guiana Government the Commission examined the rice industry in the coastal area. There are as yet no opportunities for a decision regarding expansion of production. After discussions with the Governor, it was decided to seek the assistance of two experts, one on organisation and one on mechanisation and milling. They are to visit the Colony early next year, together with an irrigation engineer, to report on the future organisation of the industry.

The second main project concerns bananas and proposes a ten-thousandacre plantation on the right bank of the lower Essequibo River, which affords the only outlet to the coast. Marketing prospects seem to be satisfactory but preliminary investigations are required before the work can be proceeded with. This matter has been referred to the Colonial Development Corporation and the Director of Agriculture in the Colony has been able to obtain quantities of disease-resisting plants from Dutch Guiana. Discussions and inquiries are being made regarding shipping facilities if these crops can be produced.

At the same time it is necessary that the bar at the mouth of the Essequibo River should be dredged, and an engineer is being sent to the Colony right away to investigate the possibilities of such operations. If development is to take place in the hinterland, and bananas, cocoa, tobacco, bauxite and so on are to be marketed, and as the lines of communication will mainly follow the river, the bar must be released in order to facilitate traffic and commerce.

The Question having been proposed at Four o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Half-past Four o'Clock.