HC Deb 24 February 1949 vol 461 cc2158-66

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

10.3 p.m.

Mr. Dumpleton (St. Albans)

I wish to refer to the overseas territory of the Gambia. Earlier this afternoon we have been discussing in some detail Estimates connected with the Colonial Territories, and I wish to concentrate attention upon one particular territory. The Gambia is a comparatively small, but not unimportant territory, comprising some 4,000 square miles and a quarter of a million people. Because of its comparative smallness the people of that territory sometimes have the feeling that they are overlooked and not given the amount of attention by this House that the territory warrants.

Under the Colonial Development and Welfare Act, in connection with the 10 years' development plan for the Gambia £1,300,000 has been set aside for development, of which half a million is earmarked for drainage and rehousing and slum clearance in the town of Bathurst. There is no time for me to give the whole of the items included in that development plan, but I would mention one or two which I hope will give the Parliamentary Secretary an opportunity for telling the House what progress has been made so far in these particular items.

I would refer first of all to the sphere of education, of which there is in the Gambia very great need for considerable development. When I was there a year or two ago there were no schools in the protectorate part of the territory. There was some prospect of teacher training being commenced in the protectorate area. That was dependent upon the recruitment of additional education officers from this country. I should like to know whether those additional officers have been obtained so that the important work of teacher training can be proceeded with as a prelude to the extension of education. There is also a great need in the Gambia as elsewhere in Colonial territories, for emphasis upon technical educational training so that the requisite number of artisans and trained people can be provided to carry out the work involved in the development schemes.

With that brief reference to education upon which the successful completion of many of the development schemes will depend, I pass to the subject of nutrition. This in the Gambia and elsewhere is of great importance to the people themselves, many of whom are living in a state of malnutrition suffering from deficiency diseases because of the lack of nutrition which they have suffered for generations. I should like to pay tribute to the valuable work done in the field of nutritional work and development by Dr. Platt and his team of helpers. In Command Paper 7433, the last agricultural annual report, reference is made to a field station at Fajara and a field working party in the Gambia in addition to the experimental demonstration area for the mechanised production of groundnuts and cereals. I wonder whether the Under-Secretary can give an indication of what progress has been made with that research station and experimental pilot scheme since the last agricultural annual report was published.

Another important subject is that of hospitals, for which there is a very great need. When I was last there, there was a proposal for the rebuilding of the hospital in Bathurst and the building of a new hospital in the Protectorate. They are very badly needed. The total number of hospital beds available for a population of 250,000 people was only 156, or one bed to each 1,660 people. There was a most urgent need. One realises that in a country like the Gambia, as in so many others in Africa and other parts of the Colonial Empire, the whole basis for this development depends upon agriculture. In bygone years this fact does not appear to have been realised sufficiently. The annual expenditure on agricultural development for the ten years ending in 1945 amounted to only 2.25 per cent. of the total expenditure.

But research, experiments and plans have been made during the past few years. For instance, experiments have been carried out which have proved that the Gambian groundnut is as good as any. Schemes are in being, or in contemplation, for the production of rice. There is the Development Corporation's scheme for the production of poultry and eggs about which perhaps the Under-Secretary could tell us something. There is in my view a need for considerably improved research and development to be carried on to see if it is possible to exploit the resources of the Gambia River in freshwater fisheries as well as sea fisheries. These fisheries, if developed, could make a greater contribution to solving the nutritional problem of the people of those territories, as well as providing extra economic health.

A very important part of the development programme of the Gambia is in the rebuilding, the laying-out, town planning and slum clearance of the capital town of Bathurst. We have inherited from the past a tremendous problem. The town is terribly overcrowded and is built on a low sandbank where there is no room for expansion. The population has been drifting in over the years from the protectorate area, and there is a great deal of overcrowding in the town. The only practicable solution is to build a new town elsewhere, and that has been provided for by the laying-out of an area at Kombo St. Mary. A report published in 1946 by the Gambian Government suggests that various schemes have been discussed, put forward, revised and put forward again for the drainage and lay-out of the Kombo St. Mary area. It is a story of frustration, and one hopes that we are now going to make an advance and some concrete progress with that scheme.

One of the greatest disappointments which those concerned about the development of Gambia have suffered in the past few years has been in connection with the airport. It was hoped that the airport there would provide an important station on the air routes to West Africa and across to South America, and it has taken a long time to reach a decision on the future of that airport. If it could be fitted into the scheme of the overseas airways, it would be of considerable economic advantage to the territory. I wonder if the Under-Secretary is in a position tonight to tell us anything about its future.

There is one comparatively small matter on which I should like to close. We have in the last two years instituted a new constitution in the Gambia, and they are now in the second year of that new constitution, by means of which they are moving further along the road towards democratic self-government with a greater voice in their own affairs. They have now become eligible for admission to the Empire Parliamentary Association, and there is a Legislative Council upon which Africans are taking their part. In his last speech to the Legislative Council, the Governor mentioned the need for a Mace as a symbol of their political advancement. In connection with a new Dominion which recently took steps towards gaining self-government, we made a demonstration which I feel should be extended to these other territories which are now moving along the road towards responsible self-government.

Finally, anyone who is acquainted with affairs in territories like the Gambia and other Colonies could hardly speak on this subject without paying tribute to the members of the Colonial Service, both the administrative officers and specialist-officers whom I found working together as teams—not in their own watertight compartments, but medical officers and other officers getting together to see how the problems of the territory overlap, how they could be worked out and how the development programme could be pushed forward. I hope the Under-Secretary will be able to tell us how they are getting on.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. Vane (Westmorland)

I do not wish to take up more than two minutes, but I should like to press the Parliamentary Secretary to let us have some more information about the poultry scheme. Stories are beginning to reach this country that all is far from well. We hear stories of friction between the staff of this venture and the Colonial servants responsible for the territory. We hear that all is not happy under the manager of this scheme who, I believe, is an American. Without wishing to say anything against Americans, I think it is a pity that someone British has not been found to head that venture.

We are told that eggs are being brought over from America at a dollar a time, and the cost of heavy air freight in addition. Considering that America has been riddled with fowl pest for a long time, I want to know what is wrong with British eggs at a few pence each. There are too many stories dealing with inadequate planning of the plant, for this matter to be overlooked. We hear of such things as the wrong tractors, the wrong tools, and also complaints about the method of jungle clearance which is said by many people of experience to be likely to lead to erosion, since no felt of greenery is being left across the area which is cleared.

10.17 p.m.

Squadron-Leader Kinghorn (Great Yarmouth)

There are now only two or three minutes at my disposal, so I confine myself to asking a number of questions. The Gambia appears to me an almost classic example of one of our small Colonies. As we survey the field as we are trying to do now, and as we have done in previous Debates, there are one or two characteristics which seem to be general and are perhaps dangerous. One is the tendency for indigenous native folk, who at one time must have fed themselves, to rely upon importing feedingstuffs in the last few years. The Gambia, like other small Colonies, is helping us very much indeed with exports of groundnuts from which we process oil. That leads me to one or two questions which I would like to put.

First, rice is obviously the indigenous food of the inhabitants, and there is evidence latterly of rice having to be imported for them. Is rice still regarded, to use their expression, as "women's work," or are the men being persuaded to cultivate their own rice? Next, what hopes are there for the people in the Gambia providing themselves with enough fat in the form of butter? Has any progress been made with the provision for refrigeration? Another very important question is: are those "strange farmers," as they are called, still coming in to carry on the economy of the country in the provision of groundnuts? Is there any hope of settled mixed farming being carried on?

Lastly, during the war the Gambia, which is at the narrowest point of the Atlantic, was very important as a strategical point for the Navy, Army and Air Force. My information is that the B.O.A.C. airport has now been closed down. That airport certainly helped the people there to have a visible balance of trade in their favour. Is there any hope of it being reopened?

10.20 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. Rees-Williams)

I am sure we are all grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Mr. Dumpleton) for raising this matter, for it is not often that these small Colonies such as Gambia are discussed in this House. Gambia is a very old Colony, and a very vital one in many respects, for strategic reasons and other reasons. Therefore, I personally welcome the consideration which this House is giving to this Colony tonight. Hon. Members have touched upon various problems arising from life in the Gambia, but the main problem, the ones that are always present, are twofold—first the backwardness of the social services, and second, the dangerous economic dependence on one export crop, namely groundnuts.

As to the first problem. The Protectorate is probably educationally the least advanced of any territory in British West Africa. It is certainly about the most disease ridden. There are in the small population of less than 250,000 about 6,000 lepers; there are also 10,000 people suffering from trypanosomiasis. The malaria parasitic rate is somewhere about 55 per cent., and this disease has a definite effect upon the manpower position of the Colony—upon the number of trained and healthy people. We have heard tonight about the overcrowding of the island of St. Mary, site of the capital, Bathurst. That is another factor which has to be taken into consideration. The island is five feet below high water mark and flanked by malarial swamps. The population has risen from 9,000 in 1921 to 21,000 in 1944. We see that, small though the Gambia is, and awkardly placed along 10 kilometres on each side of the River Gambia for 200 miles, it is not short of problems.

As to the second main problem, dependence upon one export crop, this dependence upon groundnuts results in inadequacy of food supplies and a badly balanced diet. Furthermore, it exposes the Gambian economy to the vagaries of world prices over a series of years. It happens now that the price of groundnuts is high. Our policy, therefore, is aimed at resolving those main problems, when we think that the minor ones will lessen in consequence. We aim first to diversify the diet of the Colony by growing rice and other foodstuffs for home consumption, and, perhaps, later for export. We aim to encourage an interest in the Gambia in the development of other enterprises of different types, either through the Colonial Development Corporation or otherwise. We hope to develop education and health services, especially in the Protectorate, and we aim to improve conditions in Bathurst by town drainage and resettlement of part of its population.

In dealing with the specific points put to me I should like to say that, as regards rice, the West African Rice Mission recommended the mechanised rice scheme in the Middle Gambia and thought there would be 36,000 acres suitable. We are now examining this question. The Governor, who is showing tremendous interest in the development of his territory, is going into it as a matter of the utmost urgency. There are problems to be worked out before Gambian rice can be obtained, but they are being worked out as a matter of urgency. Another recommendation was the growing of dry season crops in the valleys and tributaries of the upper reaches of the Gambia River. That is also being investigated. There is one bright spot here. Usually the transportation of cheap crops like rice is a big problem and expensive, but in this case, of course, the River Gambia provides the method of transport. I am glad to say that rice production has increased already from 14,000 tons in 1939 to 20,000 tons in 1947, and Gambia is now practically self-supporting. As for groundnuts, last year was the best year since 1934, which was the peak year, and the crop was 70,500 tons.

In reply to the hon. Member for St. Albans I can say that we are hoping to introduce mixed farming, possibly through the assistance of the Co-operative societies, and there is a co-operative officer now investigating that project. The hon. Member also asked me about the fisheries. The Governor is hoping to develop the fisheries industry. The hon. Member for Westmorland (Mr. Vane) asked me a question regarding the poultry scheme, and gave what I thought was a rather gloomy picture of the matter. The Colonial Development Corporation have commenced the project and 10,000 acres of bush are being cleared to grow coarse grains and sorghum. The poultry establishment is erected and will be run on modern commercial and scientific lines to produce dressed poultry and eggs.

Mr. Vane

Can the hon. Gentleman say where the stock is coming from?

Mr. Rees-Williams

I understand that a certain number of the eggs have arrived from the United States, but I have no details as to that matter. We believe that this scheme can contribute to the raising of the standard of living and widen the scope of employment. Mr. Phillips, the gentleman in charge, has been criticised on the rather odd grounds that he is an American. As a matter of fact, Mr. Phillips was recruited by Lord Trefgarne in the Bahamas. He is an expert on this particular type of work and was brought over to start the scheme off and get it running. I am glad to say that 35 others from the Bahamas have joined him there and are training the Africans in this very specialised type of work. There is no question of exploitation. This is one of the first projects of the Colonial Development Corporation in this direction. I am glad that it has been started in probably one of the smallest Colonies and I hope that it will provide an enormous enhancement to their economic strength.

Mr. Vane

Can the hon. Gentleman tell us about the tenure of the land?

Mr. Rees-Williams

The hon. Gentleman had better put down a Question, as I have not much time now. On the question of education, about which I was asked by the hon. Member for St. Albans, there has been an increase in the number of education officers from two to five, and three of these officers will train the staff of the teachers training school which it is planned to open next year in the Protectorate, when it is hoped to have 30 teachers under training. This will be the first teachers training institution in Gambia, and it is primarily intended for the people of the Protectorate. Technical education is also being looked after by the Public Utilities Department. The hon. Member also asked about health. Gambia has been allocated £264,000 from the Colonial Development Fund of which £80,000 has been allocated to the Victoria Hospital, thereby increasing its bed capacity to 178. The field working party of which the hon. Member spoke which is supported by the Nutritional Research Unit in London, has started work on the Gambia River and is making a detailed inquiry into the agricultural, nutritional, medical and economic conditions of the people in the surrounding areas.

The hon. Member for Great Yarmouth (Squadron-Leader Kinghorn) asked me about the Yundum Airport. This is at present served by "Dove" aircraft of the West African Airways Corporation which operates a coastal service from Lagos-Accra-Freetown to Bathurst. It takes about two days' flight. The airport used to be used by the international airlines, including the British South American Airways Corporation, but these aircraft now use Dakar and retain Yundum as an alternative. Such liability as His Majesty's Government have in respect of Yundum may shortly come to an end, but we are now in consultation with the Ministry of Civil Aviation with regard to the future of the airport. The Ministry is not entirely convinced that its importance is sufficient to justify the considerable expense in capital equipment and maintenance that is involved. However, there is now a technical mission from the Ministry of Civil Aviation in the Gambia surveying the British South American flying boat route—at least they recently visited the Gambia—and it is possible that it will be used if a flying boat service goes that particular way. I cannot say definitely whether it will be or not until we know the results of their survey.

Finally, may I say that for the development of the Gambia £500,000 has been set aside from the Colonial Development and Welfare Fund to develop the Bathurst town area and for the resettlement of the population; £150,000 is being spent on three drainage schemes, and there is a further scheme to reclaim 32 square miles of malarial marshes. That scheme is being examined by consulting engineers who will advise us on its implementation. I think the House will see that in spite of its problems, Bathurst with our assistance, has every intention of making strenuous efforts to be a happy and prosperous community.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-eight Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.