§ 3.31 p.m.
§ Mr. Lennox-Boyd (Mid-Bedfordshire)
Once more we have a Debate in this Committee on what used to be called the groundnuts scheme, and once more it is a Minister of Food who replies. It is not the same Minister, and the Opposition are glad of that. The late Minister of Food, the present Secretary of State for War, invariably talked of the groundnut scheme in Army metaphors, using military illustrations. It was to be run, he said, as a military operation. I can only share the hope of one disillusioned person outside this House who said recently that if the Minister ran the groundnut scheme as a military operation, he hoped that the Secretary of State for War was now not running the British Army as he ran the groundnut scheme.
It is, as I have said, a new Minister, but it is the view of the Opposition that it should not be the Minister of Food who replies to Debates of this kind. We have always held the view that this and similar schemes should be administered by the Colonial Office, and it will eventually be to that solution that the Government themselves, we think, will be obliged to come. This is the largest Government colonial venture in the British Empire. Of 2043 course, it is not the largest economic investment in the Empire. For example, rubber in Malaya or groundnuts in West Africa represent larger capital investment, but this is the largest direct investment on the economic plane of the British Government anywhere in the Colonial Empire, and as such it raises a host of problems which we think cannot be impartially solved without the Colonial Office being responsible for that task.
For example, there are the large social services that, quite rightly, are beginning to spring up in Tanganyika because of this scheme. There is the large hospital which many hon. Members have visited, with beds for over 300 people in Kongwa, where we are now told clearing of the ground is actually being stopped. There is a health service almost as large as the whole health service for Tanganyika itself. There are many schools. There is a police force. The future of this scheme, whether it succeeds or whether it fails, carries with it immense consequences for the lives of the African people, and we believe that this scheme should be administered by a Department that for generations has tried to serve those parts of the British Empire which have not yet reached self-government within it.
Hon. Members will have read a recent book by the Information Officer, as he then was, of the Overseas Food Corporation, and no doubt it will be frequently quoted from in this Debate. Mr. Wood, in that book, says that the whole conception of the groundnut scheme means a complete reversal of the Colonial Office policy of preserving native ways of life as much as possible and building on existing foundations. If that is so, this scheme should certainly not be administered by a Department whose first duty it is to provide cheap raw materials and foodstuffs for the British home market. Last year in the Colonial Office Blue Book 12 lines alone were devoted to the groundnut scheme. This year the amount of space has doubled. Yet there are only 25 lines devoted to it, but only the most passing references, with no Ministerial responsibility in the Colonial Office for what is the largest economic interest of His Majesty's Government and the British people in the Colonies.
In welcoming the right hon. Gentleman to answer in this Debate, I should 2044 like to begin by suggesting to him that the best contribution he can make to the advancement of Africa, and incidentally to the good of this scheme, is to sever the responsibility of his own Department for it. We are convinced that if the general inquiry into this scheme for which we have long pressed is carried out in Tanganyika, it will be shown to have a considerable future as part of the general development of Tanganyika, and if it is linked up with the many other developments going on in that country—diamonds, sisal, lead, or whatever they may be. No Minister of Food could seriously suggest that he should have the responsibility for a scheme of that kind linked with mineral and other developments.
A few days ago I read an article by the late Colonial Secretary, Mr. Creech Jones, which is interesting because it is the first expression of opinion that he has made publicly since he no longer had to defend in the House, usually by his silence, the over-hasty actions of his then colleague at the Ministry of Food. Mr. Creech Jones said:I have always been sceptical about quick results and unplanned development in Africa and have never had time for loose talk about the great open spaces of Africa waiting to be cultivated.The right hon. Gentleman used words which certainly the late Minister of Food has not used—It does not pay to be contemptuous of experience in the Tropics.So much, at this stage anyhow, for the Ministerial change. There have been many changes in the last year, a number of them being along the lines that the Opposition have frequently suggested. The Minister has gone. Sir Leslie Plummer has gone. An inquiry, though very limited, is to be made into the working of one part of the scheme. And two reports have appeared recenty, written from different angles, but reaching the same conclusion about the working of the groundnut scheme.
The first is the Report of the Public Accounts Committee of the House, on which hon. Members from both sides sit. The second is the book written by Mr. Wood, which it was a little more difficult for him to get published than the Members of the Public Accounts Committee their recommendations. Members of the Committee will remember that Mr. Gollancz, 2045 whose books in the closing days of the war Coalition do not suggest that this was his usual custom, spoke of the hold-up in publishing this book as being due to his making every effort over several months to discover the truth. He ended by taking a lofty moral line and spoke of considering the public interest when he declined to publish this book. Well, the book has been published; the public interest has been considered, and very considerable good has resulted for everybody—for all of us, because we have all got a lot to learn from an objective account of that kind, and we are all in this together, both sides of the Committee. Our finances and, above all, the honour and prestige of Britain in Africa are permanently linked with the fortunes of this scheme.
As to finances, I do not think that there can be any doubt in this Committee as to the way things are going. Although the accounts are not yet out for the year ending 31st March, 1950, we have had by Question and answer in the House a certain amount of information. We were told recently that advances to the Overseas Food Corporation—of course, the vast proportion of that is for this particular scheme—now total £35–£36 million; and it looks as if this particular scheme, even cut down though it is in scale, is costing £1 million a month more than the income from it.
So far as the returns are concerned, we have done our best to make a calculation based on the harvest so far as it has been gathered in. Having spent £36 million, much of it in capital equipment in districts where the work may be cut down, like Kongwa, it looks as if the actual returns this year so far in groundnuts, sunflower, sorghum and maize, is £144,000. No one can seriously suggest that that represents a revolutionary increase in the oil and fat supplies of the world.
The most sinister feature of both the Report of the Public Accounts Committee of the House and Mr. Wood's book is the convincing evidence of the way in which the House and the country have been misled about the scheme over the last three years. Two years ago next week, from the Government side the then Minister of Food, after quite considerable experience of the difficulties and no longer in the first flush of enthusiasm for the scheme, used these words: 2046… the scheme, far from being less sound economically, or less profitable than the original estimate, was substantially more sound and profitable."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th July, 1948; Vol. 453, c. 871.]He talked in a way to suggest that a temporary rise in oil and fat prices in the world was going to be of permanent advantage, although our costs went up, in making our return go up also. But, of course, all who study these things know that for the last year, anyhow, the world price of oils and fats has been coming down as production elsewhere increases. That was a pretty bad illustration of misleading the House, and there are plenty of other opportunities to see the same pattern at work in the right hon. Gentleman's mind.
Last November the right hon. Gentleman spoke as if the cutting down of the target was deliberate planning, when all the evidence now published shows a series of hasty improvisations and that there was no conscious planning at all. As to the answers which he gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. R. S. Hudson), who asked for details of how much of the land which the right hon. Gentleman said had been cleared was land that scarcely needed any clearing, the publication of figures now shows how grossly Parliament was misled.
It is not only in the field of economic facts that the House was not taken into the confidence of the right hon. Gentleman. On the whole question of the staff relations in Africa, every effort was made to hide the real facts from Parliament. We never heard a word from the right hon. Gentleman of what is now appearing in the memoranda submitted by all the heads of departments in Africa to General Harrison, on one occasion by every single head of a department and on another by a large number of them, complaining of theLack of decision at all levels of our organisation,Lack of any policy on which to base a plan,andDiminishing faith in our leaders.Hon. Members will remember last November the panic flight of the then Minister of Food to Africa. He has said that there was the utmost confidence in Sir Leslie Plummer among the high executives, and when copies of HANSARD 2047 reach East Africa—the staff out there waited until they could read exactly what he had said—the indignation and incredulity were so widespread that the right hon. Gentleman had to make a special journey to try to still the troubles.
All this may in part be due to the mentality of the right hon. Gentleman—and I hope that it is; because with a change in the high command of the Ministry of Food, perhaps Parliament will be taken into the confidence of the Government. We want a scheme along these lines to succeed. It is not at all the mistakes that we condemn, but the fact that the Minister glossed over the mistakes, misled the House and, in the words of Mr. Wood, brought needless discredit on the Government and has almost jeopardised the whole future of the scheme. As he says, there was procrastination sliding into prevarication, evasion slipping into equivocation and so, step by step, the position arising in Africa when officialdom was not only failing to tell the whole story but anybody who did tell the truth was liable to be denounced as a scoundrel or a fool.
I do not want to speak too long about the past, because it is the future that we want to consider, but I remind the Minister of Food, and still more his predecessor, of the words quoted in one of the "yellow books" by Mr. Gollancz, that the use of recriminating about the past is to enforce effective action at the present; and it is the present about which we are concerned today.
We shall await the Minister's speech with the very greatest interest. One thing, however, has already emerged, that there is no indication of responding to the plea of the Opposition last November for sending out a high-powered inquiry to investigate the whole working of the scheme. This, I am afraid. does not augur well for the Minister's responsibility for it. Last November we on this side moved in the House that, in view of the most disquieting facts disclosed in the first Report of the Corporation, it was urgent that there should be a full inquiry into the present situation and the future prospects of the Corporation's work in East Africa. Nothing that we have heard or read since has altered that view. We were told at the election time—it is in one of the talking 2048 points of the Socialist Party and it was used no doubt by those candidates who were brave enough to mention the groundnut scheme at all—that an inquiry as asked for by the Tories would only hamper the future development of the scheme.
Now, we are to have an inquiry despite all that, and a mission is going out shortly if it has not already started. But it is an absurdly limited inquiry and cannot possibly fulfil the real purpose of an inquiry to see the picture as a whole. The inquiry incidentally is led by a man whom all who know him respect very much—Sir Charles Lockhart—but who, as a member of the Board himself, is not a suitable person to lead an inquiry of this kind. The inquiry is strictly limited to obtain further advice on the future long- and short-term agricultural policies to be pursued at Kongwa. It is perfectly true that the greatest difficulties and most of the misuse of public money have taken place at Kongwa, but the scheme must be seen as a whole and independent investigation is most urgently needed to embrace Kongwa and the other districts and indeed also the development of Tanganyika as a whole.
I hope that when the right hon. Gentleman replies he will direct his mind. to some of the points about which an inquiry should be charged to discover the truth, for example, whether the scheme should now be treated as part of colonial development as a whole and forthwith transferred to the Colonial Office; whether the time has not come for those who run the scheme to do so in East Africa and not from London; and whether there is still the same urgent necessity in the light of the world situation of oil seeds and fats to push on with the original plan for oil seeds even in this smaller form.
I wish to dwell for a moment on this. When the scheme was first bruited, there was general recognition of the crucial situation in regard to oils and fats, and much was forgiven the Government at the time because it was recognised that, with the recovery of the world, without the raw materials position improving, there might be great difficulties and widespread hardship here and throughout the world. But the recuperative power of mankind is enormous and quite unpredictable. Recent figures suggest that the Government ought to look again into the 2049 oils and fats position. I was reading, as no doubt other hon. Members read, the questions and answers directed to the Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Food by the Public Accounts Committee. He was asked:But there must have been a time when you realised that things were not going to be. ….—in the field of supplies of fats and oils—as bad as you anticipated?To which he answered:I think if you press me on that point, that must have been during the latter part of 1948.He was asked a few minutes later by the same hon. Member on the Government side:By the time you realised that the shortage was at any rate being mastered, to put it that way, if you like (as you say, there is still a shortage) you had advanced to the Corporation about one-half of your present advances, which are I think in the neighbourhood of £34 million?He replied:That is so.What I think would be of great assistance to the House would be if the Minister could give us some information on this subject. We see the present trend in prices and supplies, and so far the present trend in prices has been a steady decline, for the last year, anyway. All the calculations of the present Secretary of State for War on the returns are now falsified and in regard to the production figures there has been a steady expansion. We are now in the world almost back to the pre-war position in regard to oils and fats but, of course, it is quite true that, despite the world war, the population of the world has enormously increased.
If hon. Members will look at some tables which appeared in the "Economist" in April, they will see some extraordinarily interesting facts. They will see that we are in this country nearly back to the per capita consumption of fats of the pre-war level, despite the increase in population. In the pre-war period, up to 1938, the consumption of fats in England was 65.8 lb. per head, in 1948 it had fallen to 58.4 lb., and last year it rose to 64 lb. This year it is expected to be 65.1 lb., which is only.7 of a lb. off the pre-war figure. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear.") Hon. Members cannot have it both ways. [An HON. MEMBER: "Neither can the hon. Member opposite."] I am not attempting 2050 to. I should be very glad indeed of any increased consumption in this field most certainly we all would. I very much hope that some of the controls which prevent that increase from being enjoyed will be speedily removed.
But if these figures are correct, as I have no reason to doubt they are, it puts a rather different slant on the present position in regard to oils and fats. It is true that this must be looked at as a world problem, I quite agree, and many countries are a consuming more which used to export surpluses, but nonetheless the trend of these figures makes one a little concerned and makes one wonder whether the problem is as urgent as it was before, and whether we need to proceed with the same relentless speed on production of oils and fats.
Having made that sort of discovery, any commission would then turn, in the light of their conclusions, to try to produce a realistic target for future production. We are told that at the present moment the target is to be 600,000 acres cleared by 1954 and costing £48 million. I do not know anybody, unless it be Sir Leslie Plummer, who really believes that that production will be achieved and that acreage cleared and planted at that price. The Permanent Secretary to the Ministry of Food before the Public Accounts Committee spoke of Sir Leslie's figures, some of them, as being "unduly sanguine." So far, certainly, the experience of any estimates we have had before has led the House to share that attitude.
It is very hard to try to follow the various changes that there have been in the total acreage which was to have been cleared and planted. Originally it was to be 3 million acres and to cost £24 million. In 1947 it was estimated that 150,000 acres would be cleared by the end of 1947, but only 7,500 acres were cleared and planted. The Overseas Food Corporation asked permission to clear and plant 2⅓ million acres at a cost of £66 million, but the Government turned that down. Then they came back with another suggestion, to cut down the production at Kongwa from 450,000 acres to 90,000 acres and at Urambo from 300,000 to 90,000 acres. It has produced from the scheme as a whole products from 600,000 acres at a cost of £48 million and on that particular proposal I think 2051 we are now working and the Corporation is operating in Africa.
We are now budgeting for one-fifth of the original scheme costing twice as much and as I said, no one really believes that this is a realistic figure. Only a commission inquiring into Tanganyika as a whole and all the three centres of groundnut production could possibly produce worthwhile conclusions. We have had some harvest figures. Everyone must be glad that the Southern Province figures, both for groundnuts and sunflowers, was a very respectable yield and the Urambo figures for groundnuts are good, but it is no light thing that 1,258 acres at Kongwa have had to be written off, and it will be no consolation to have a small local inquiry into Kongwa which is not married up with the problem as a whole.
Any commission of inquiry which went to Africa should investigate whether it is not better in the future to drop the ambitious schemes of the past and have a series of small experimental plots, pilot units. I could never see any reason why this could not have happened before. The only reason was the great anxiety of the then Minister of Food to achieve quick results; but quick results attempted in Africa invariably bring bitter disappointment and bitter disillusion. No one can blame the men on the spot for the failure to have pilot schemes and to feel their way cautiously. Indeed, if anyone reads the evidence given by the Public Accounts Committee, this is quite plain.Instructions from the Ministry"—we are told—precluded the managing agent from changing over to an experimental policy and pilot schemes and the Chairman of the Corporation informed your Committee that after the Corporation took over any decision to make such a change would have had to be taken by the Government.I cannot see why the Government did not take that decision when disillusion must have been apparent, even to the most optimistic people. There is no reason at all why they did not take that decision, which could stand up to any economic test. The only reasons must have been political and, of the many unconvincing answers I have heard given in the various vexed discussions about this scheme, the least convincing were those of Sir Leslie Plummer to the Public Accounts Committee, when he denied that 2052 modest schemes of 500 acres in various parts of the country would have yielded any profitable results. The evidence is a clear indication that the Corporation, the scheme and the Government are more likely to prosper in future under a change of leader.
I have very little doubt that when an inquiry does take place, as it is bound to do—and the sooner the better—it will recognise that this scheme has ceased to be a groundnut scheme and should be treated as part of the general development of Tanganyika, with sisal, cattle, timber and oil seeds all playing their part. We hear very little of the other things which were to have happened. Nothing now is heard of the great timber possibilities, the large dollar exports in timber that the right hon. Gentleman who was then Minister of Food spoke about; of the very valuable and expensive sawmill erected at Noli before anybody had even counted the trees to see if there was any work for the sawmill to do. All these things are now coming into the daylight, and the public resentment is naturally very strong indeed.
Above all, any inquiry of this kind will help us to make up our minds how we are best to learn the lesson we have to learn, which is how in Africa can we prove whether mechanised farming on a large scale will pay. Not the least maddening feature of the groundnut scheme up till now has been that, because of the headlong speed with which it was started, we have learned nothing of any value as to the future of large-scale mechanised farming in Africa; or rather we have learned very little. We have learned nothing approaching what we might have done as to the future of mechanised farming in Africa because of the political surroundings in which this scheme has run since its conception.
Many of us who know and love that part of the world believe that there is a future in Africa, in Tanganyika, for both forms of cultivation, the peasant cultivation with modern science helping him, and large-scale mechanised farming. Such a commission could lay down the lines on which the two forms of agriculture can develop in the future. That would help to lift this scheme outside party politics and treat it as an Imperial economic conception. So long as it is run on the lines on which it is now only too clear it has 2053 been run, no Opposition could possibly refrain from its first duty of criticising publicly the people responsible for such abuses. Above all, if this is to be a part- nership between the African and the European, it must be made clear beyond all doubt that we are in Tanganyika to stay, and that we intend to use the lessons of the last few years to the mutual profit of the Africans and ourselves.
§ 4.3 p.m.
§ The Minister of Food (Mr. Maurice Webb)
My task today is to give the Committee an interim report. I welcome the opportunity to do so, but I should have preferred to have been in a position to give the Committee and the country—and not least the staff of the Corporation in the African front line, who matter enormously in this enterprise—a much more comprehensive long-term assessment of the future scope of this scheme. I cannot do that today. I have certain information to give to the Committee, but I must, at the outset, emphasise that it is purely interim, and purely of a tentative character.
Let me say at once, if only because I believe it to be necessary for us to get today's interim report in the right perspective, that what is needed now most of all is a clear-cut realistic modification of the long-term programme, based on a close estimate of the future scope and possibilities of this groundnut scheme. But I am not yet in a position to lay that plan before the Committee. I might have done so had I taken the view that everything else should be subordinated to speed. I could have spurred and goaded the officers of the Corporation to take rushed decisions, in order to have been able to say to the Committee today, "Here is the whole long-term scheme, revised, re-calculated and re-assessed." But I thought it would be imprudent to take that line.
As a matter of fact, the time chosen by the Opposition to debate this subject is not the ideal one. I say that without making any complaint. July is not a month in which we can really see how an agricultural scheme of this sort is going. A time after the harvest has been completed, when the current cropping year's results have been considered, would obviously have been better. But we have to face the situation today. After all, I 2054 think it is generally recognised that many of the errors of judgment and policy which afflicted the early phases of this scheme, were due to proceeding for probably quite laudable motives at a breakneck speed. In so far as I am responsible for the administration of this scheme, I want the future of this great enterprise—it is a great enterprise and will remain so—to be firmly grounded in reality and based on the most stringent and scrupulous measurement of what it can be expected to achieve. I have therefore agreed with the Corporation that they should have adequate time in which to work out and re-cast their long-term plans. I do not want any of us who carry responsibility for this scheme to be driven into errors of judgment, merely because we have not had enough time for reflection and objective weighing of all the factors.
As it now looks, I think I can promise the Committee that the revised long-term plan will be ready by late October. I also hope that the Corporation's conclusions, and the Government's conclusions after that, on the basis of that plan, will be ready shortly after late October. In that event, it would be my hope to publish then a White Paper, of the modified long-term plan, and our respective conclusions, those of the Corporation and the Government, with all the relevant factual information, in late autumn. That would give the Committee time to examine them before any further Debate. Pending the receipt of these proposals, it would be very little use for me, or the Committee, to speculate in any detail as to their nature and scope. But it might be useful today for me to do two things on this general question. First, to give my own very general and tentative view of the ultimate future of this scheme, and in doing so I will reply to some of the questions raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lennox-Boyd). Second, to set out for the information of the Committee the various questions and other considerations against which our long-term ideas are at this moment being actively prepared.
First, then, my own estimate. From my study of the situation since I took office, it is clear to me that this groundnut plan must go forward. To abandon it now, or even to retreat in any fundamental way, would be wholly wrong. But I am equally satisfied that ultimately, if it is to prosper and flourish, and bring security 2055 and well-being both to the territory and to our own people, it must be fashioned and shaped as a broad project of colonial development with a wide and varied agriculturist content, rather than the purely food producing ideas on which it was first established. It was originally devised to produce essential fats to meet estimated world shortages.
Quite apart from the fact of whether or not those estimated shortages are as valid as they were, which is open to argument, it now seems clear to any realist that it would be unwise to focus the project exclusively on this original purpose of producing fats. That purpose, in the short run, of course, still remains. But, as it now appears to me, in the long run we must use the vast capital resources, the immense and painfully-gained experience of tropical agriculture, and all the huge accumulation of men, materials, lands, townships, and ideas, all that we call broadly the "groundnut scheme," as the machinery for an imaginative scheme of colonial development in its widest sense. Having given that as my own general estimate, let me now give the question we must now carefully consider before we finally settle the shape of our plan. Each year, experience has compelled changes and adjustments in the original conception, and there may well be significant revision this year. But before it can be made, certain questions must be answered.
Before the Board of the Corporation can complete their study certain requirements must be met. First, they will wish to have last year's accounts analysed in detail. It will still be a few weeks before the accounts for the year ending 31st March, 1950, are in their final shape. The Board will wish to have these accounts analysed in detail so that they can base their financial plans on the right foundation. Second, they must have the detailed results of the current year's operations. As I have said, the harvest will not be completed until August and the actual results will need study by the scientists and the agricultural experts. Third, in the light of this year's experience, they will have to work out the cropping programme for next year. This cannot be done without detailed study. One thing which they will have to consider very carefully is the future of sunflower. In the light of two years' experience, 2056 is it worth growing sunflower? This is a most important question. This is a problem which will need close study and it would be wrong to press for a hurried judgment.
Fourth, what is the best use which can be made of Kongwa? Here, the Board must wait for the results of the Kongwa inquiry which I shall mention later. About half of the cleared land which will be available for planting at the end of this year will be at Kongwa. Obviously the Corporation will have to wait until they have the advice of the experts before deciding the next year's progress there. These are questions which must be considered before we settle our long-term plan. Fifth, 20,000 acres of land are expected to be available in the Southern Province at the end of this year. Because the clearing has been done on a much more selective basis there, it will require a different form of organisation to run the agricultural operations there.
§ Mr. Godfrey Nicholson (Farnham) rose—
§ Mr. Webb
I would rather not be diverted. If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I think all the points will be answered.
The Corporation are now studying how best this can be done. Sixth, the Corporation are now considering what other administrative reorganisation may be necessary. The decentralisation of the Kongwa headquarters and the concentration of the supplies and transport organisation and the new administrative layout in the Southern Province are already in hand, and other administrative problems are being most urgently considered. These decisions will vitally affect the costs of next year's operations. And finally, with the improvements in the accounts situation, it has been posible to put in hand some precise studies of the costs of the various agricultural operations. The outcome of these inquiries will enormously influence the future plans. I attach great importance to these matters. I think that they will prove the most useful ingredient in our efforts to get down to reality.
All these factors will have to be studied and weighed by the Board before bringing forward their recommendations for any changes in the long-term plan. 2057 They must have the time to do a thorough job, and I do not see how they can be expected to complete it until the autumn. In the light of their study of these vital questions, they will make their recommendations to me and, as soon as I have made my decision, I will inform the Committee, and we shall know where we are. Until I have their full report, I am not going to indulge in any speculation as to the pace or scale of development in the years ahead. I recognise quite frankly that the original hopes which we had have not been realised and that we shall have to view the scheme in a new light. We must go forward more steadily, testing our methods carefully at each stage, on a task which will take very many years. And the time spent on planning will not be wasted. As I have said, the Committee will have ample time to study our conclusions on all these matters when they are ready. The White Paper will be available. I trust there will be general approval of my desire to take adequate time over our future plans.
Now, I want to give the Committee an interim report on what has been taking place recently. In doing so, I hope to cover most of the major questions raised by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire. If I miss some of importance I will see that they are dealt with before the end of the Debate. In recent months, the Board have been concentrating on securing the degree of reconditioning—of the scheme's administration, particularly on the financial side—which it was clear was urgently needed. What have they managed to achieve? Their most important achievements have been in bringing the storekeeping and the accounting situation under control.
I must here warn the Committee that when the auditors' report on last year's accounts is published in the autumn, they may still find it necessary to give a qualified certificate. Every effort has been made to clean up those accounts—I speak of 1949-50—and I am sure that the auditors are appreciative of what has been done. But, of course, it remains for them to say whether they are fully satisfied, and, as I say, since I want to be quite frank on this matter, they may still not find it possible to give a completely clear bill—that is, on the 1949-50 accounts. But, so far as the accounts for the year beginning 1st April, 1950, are concerned, 2058 the Board is satisfied, and I am satisfied, that firm foundations have been laid to produce sound accounts, and to secure adequate budgetary control, with systematic costings.
The Committee may like to know how this has been done. The person primarily responsible is Sir Eric Coates who, of course, was recently appointed Chairman. When the Board was reconstituted in December, 1949, the accounts for that year—1949–50—were still in an unsatisfactory condition, in particular as regards accounting in detail for the receipt and issue of stores. The accounts were still being maintained centrally in Dar-es-Salaam by a staff still inadequate in numbers and quality, and heavy arrears in store accounting had developed. It soon became evident that not only would very special measures be necessary to clear these arrears, but also that the whole system of accounting and of budgetary and financial control required overhaul. The first step required was greatly to augment the staff at all levels in order to cope with both these tasks, and immediate emergency action was taken to do so. The next step was to prepare a detailed appraisement of the nature and extent of the arrears and to begin a new system for dealing with them under close supervision. An immense effort was put into this task from January onwards and it is still continuing. Great progress has been made. The accounts for the year will he closed in August, and although they will doubtless not be perfect, they will show a pronounced improvement over those of the previous year.
Simultaneously, steps were taken to revise the financial and accounting systems. A decision was taken in January, 1950, to decentralise the accounts to the regions, with effect from 1st April, 1950. A new system of accounts linked with a budget and a full system of financial control were devised. The accounting staff was reorganised and sent to the regions before 1st April, ready to start the new system. Monthly accounts, under the new system, were coming forward on due dates with reasonable initial success and are being closely nursed to completeness and accuracy. The staff have responded well, and the outlook, I think, is encouraging.
A budget for 1950-51 was prepared on the basis of the real resources likely to 2059 be available, and that budget was sanctioned by the Government in March, and the individual spending authorities in East Africa now know how much they have available to spend on each activity, and, from the new accounts, how much they are currently spending. These new systems, like all such new systems, will take time to reach full efficiency. They will be subjected to an exhaustive review, in consultation with the Corporation's auditors, in October. Equally drastic measures have been taken to improve the system and practice of storekeeping and stores control, and here again, on the evidence I have seen, steady progress is being achieved.
The effective way in which the accounts situation in East Africa has been reorganised is due principally to the splendid direction which Sir Eric Coates gave to the work, and I want to express my gratitude to him. His appointment as Chairman of the Corporation has left a vacancy on the Board. I am very pleased to be able to inform the Committee that Sir Cyril Jones has accepted my invitation to join the Board and to accept special responsibility for finance. I feel confident he will carry on the impressive work of his predecessor. May I explain that Sir Cyril has been Secretary to the Finance Department of the Government of Madras, and for eight years from 1939 was Secretary to the Finance Department of the Government of India. He made a high reputation as an administrator of great energy and ability, and he has since been engaged on German financial questions, and has recently been on special duties under the direction of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health. I have it in mind to appoint two other members to the Board, probably on a part-time basis, and these will be chosen particularly for their technical experience and ability in industry and commerce.
Continuing my interim report on what has happened recently, in addition to overhauling finance, the Board has made extensive changes in the general scheme of administration. Some of these are not yet complete, and others cannot be given their final form until we have made our decision in the autumn on the long-term plan; but I can give the Committee information of a number of changes which 2060 I am satisfied have greatly strengthened the machinery, and, at the same time, made it much more flexible.
The direction of the work in East Africa has been concentrated under a single chief general manager—Mr. Raby. Arrangements are also in hand to bring the administration of the Kongwa and Urambo regions under the direction of one regional general manager. By early 1952, it is expected that there will be only the two regions—the Southern region and the joint Kongwa-Urambo region. These regions will then be directly responsible to the Board. This administrative change will mean that in clue course it will be possible to diminish the scope of the central organisation in East Africa.
Now a word about the concentration of our activities in East Africa. It was inevitable that, in the early days of the scheme, when accommodation and control were particularly difficult, the Corporation's activities were developed over a wide area. That, obviously, was inescapable. In order to secure more efficient administration and to reduce unnecessary overhead expenses, the Board have carried through a process of quite drastic concentration. They have decided, for instance, to close down the offices which had been established at Dar-es-Salaam, offices to deal with some aspects of stores and accounting work, and any work which was continuing has been transferred to the regions. They have also decided that the training centre at Ifunda, which was set up to train native craftsmen for work on the scheme, could be transferred to the local Government. This was done on 1st May of this year. In the Southern Province, the regional headquarters which had been set up at Lindi have been transferred entirely to Nachingwea. All these measures, and other local adjustments which have been made, are making the progress in East Africa as we now see it more efficient and, which is much more important, more economical.
As I say, this is an interim report, but I can assure the Committee that many more equally important changes are now in progress on which I am not in a position to report today.
Now I will say a word about the cash advances to the Overseas Food Corporation. As normally happens with any 2061 large-scale development project, expenditure is heavier in the earlier years, when houses, buildings, communications and other capital works have to be constructed. Much of the capital work involved in this scheme has now been completed, and the Corporation are therefore emerging from this phase of heavy initial outlay, and this is reflected in their current rate of borrowing, which is approximately half what it was a year ago.
May I now turn to the experience of this year's harvest in East Africa, which is, of course, the touchstone of the whole picture? The Committee will want to know the results which have so far been obtained from this year's harvest in East Africa. The harvest is now in progress and is not yet complete, and final results may well modify the figures which I am now about to give.
But so far at Kongwa, 3,100 acres of groundnuts, out of a total of 9,500, have been harvested and the yield per acre is 214 lb. shelled; 32,000 acres of sunflower, out of a total of 56,000 acres, have been harvested and the yield is 90 lb. to the acre. A proportion of the smaller acreages sown to maize and sorghum has been harvested and the yields are 700 lb. and 780 lb. to the acre, respectively. At Urambo all the groundnuts, 2,700 acres, have been harvested and the yield is 540 lb. shelled to the acre. Nearly 8,000 acres of sunflower have been harvested and the yield is 140 lb. to the acre. More than half the maize has been harvested and the yield is 700 lb. to the acre. Only a relatively small acreage was sown in the Southern Province and the yield of groundnuts is 530 lb. shelled to the acre, and 400 lb. to the acre of sunflower.
§ Mr. Walter Fletcher (Bury and Redcliffe)
Will the right hon. Gentleman give the estimated figures?
§ Mr. Webb
We could give them later. I think they are well-known to the Committee, and there is no good reason for repeating them now. I am trying to give the exact figures, and I did not want to be diverted. The estimated figures are well-known, and we can give them later.
What conclusions are to be drawn from these figures? Obviously, the results are not as good as the Corporation expected, but, at both Urambo and the Southern Province, the groundnut yields are, I think, promising. At Urambo in the first 2062 year, they secured a yield of only 114 lb. shelled to the acre, although it must be remembered that this was a year of drought, and in the Southern Province the yield was 410 lb. shelled to the acre. I would remind the Committee that the figures I have given are preliminary figures. When gleaning is finished at Urambo and in the Southern Province, the figures may be improved upon.
The biggest disappointment is the low yields of sunflower at both Kongwa and Urambo. Quite frankly, it looks as if the high hopes which the Corporation's advisers had about the possible use of sunflower as a rotation crop will not be realised. I would, however, deprecate any speculation about the future of sunflower until we have our long-term plan. But I must say that this comparative failure of the sunflower crop, and also the low yields at Kongwa, are disappointing. It is one of the reasons why I welcomed the decision of the Corporation to send out a working party to East Africa to give advice on the future long-term and short-term agricultural policy to be pursued at Kongwa. They have secured the services of a number of eminent experts to work under the chairmanship of Sir Charles Lockhart. The hon. Member opposite rather deprecated Sir Charles Lockhart. May I say that I have the utmost confidence in his judgment and objectivity, bearing in mind that the whole purpose of this working party is to concern itself with the future and not with the past.
The Committee may be interested to know who are the people around Sir Charles Lockhart. They are all people of competent technical experience. There is Mr. G. F. Clay, the Agricultural Adviser to the Secretary of State for the Colonies; Profesor S. H. Frankel, Professor of Colonial Economic Affairs at Nuffield College, Oxford; Dr. H. H. Storey, Deputy Director of the East African Agricultural Research Organisation; Mr. A. M. B. Hutt, Member for Development, Tanganyika Government; Mr. J. C. Muir, Member for Agriculture, Tanganyika Government, and Professor J. F. V. Phillips, Agricultural Adviser to the Corporation. They are people not likely to be led astray by such a wild man as Sir Charles Lockhart; they are people of competent technical judgment whose report I and the Board await with great interest and anxiety.
2063 As can be seen from the membership of the working party, the inquiry is being carried out in the closest co-operation with the Colonial Office and the Tanganyika Government, to which I attach very great importance. The working party is now there and has, I believe, already commenced its duties. Its report is expected to be in the hands of the Corporation by about the middle of September, and the conclusion which the Board will reach on it will be vital for the whole future of the scheme. The suggestion was made that they might go further afield and look into the Southern Province and the Urambo region. I think that would delay matters, and I do not think it necessary. I would rather have the working party come back speedily from Kongwa, which is the heart of our problem, with such findings as it is possible to make so that we may have the report in front of us for the purpose of making our long-term plan.
I should like to give the Committee some details about the other two areas, Urambo and the Southern Province. At Urambo, work in 1950 started with a liability from the previous year when only 14,000 acres were cleared instead of the estimated 20,000. The plan was that by the end of 1950, 90,000 acres should be ready for agricultural use. This was the target announced during the Debate last November. But I am afraid it will not be achieved. Bush has now been felled on 65,000 acres, and the first piling of the timber is complete. But not all the 65,000 acres will be available for agricultural use. Some 13,000 acres may have to be used for soil conservation purposes, and there is a further area of some 8,000 acres which, because it is covered with anthills, will be difficult to prepare for agricultural use.
It is impossible as yet to assess how much of the 65,000 acres will be ready for planting by the end of the year, and the Corporation do not propose to continue any clearing work at Urambo after the end of the present season, that is, next November. They do not feel it worth while to keep a land-clearing organisation in Urambo for part of the next season in order to complete 90,000 acres. They have already decided that it is preferable to concentrate on the Southern Province, and I must say I entirely agree with their decision.
2064 In the Southern Province—continuing my interim report—we hope to achieve the target of clearing 20,000 acres by the end of 1950. Bush has been flattened on 24,000 acres. Piling is well advanced, and the subsequent operations have been begun. But the method of land clearing is rather different from that in Kongwa. The land in the Southern Province is undulating, and the soils vary considerably from one acre to the next. Instead of clearing all land, as was done at Kongwa, only those areas are being cleared which will be particularly suitable for agriculture. The resulting areas are scattered through the bush, and, as I have mentioned, will ultimately call for a different form of agricultural administration.
The clearing target in the Southern Province for 1951 was 100,000 acres. The Corporation have decided to revise this target after a close review of the resources likely to be available to maintain the land-clearing effort. They found it was possible to build up the necessary bases to support only two fully found land-clearing teams of 100 tractors each, as against the three which would have been required. The Board made the deliberate decision that it would have been unwise to strain these resources beyond reasonable limits in an effort to reach a bigger target. This is not the only instance of realistic planning on the part of the Board, and I welcome this sound approach. They are surely wise to plan their activities carefully within the limits of their resources, even if this means a reduction in their targets.
I had proposed to say a word about Queensland, but since that has not been raised, I will put it on one side. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Very well, I will say a word about Queensland. As the Committee well know, Queensland is the Overseas Food Corporation's subsidiary concern, and there, I think, we have some success to report. They succeeded in reaching their target of 70,000 acres under crop in their second year—66,500 acres under sorghum and 3,500 acres under sunflower. That harvest is now in full swing. About half the sorghum has been harvested and has produced 20,000 tons, the yield being about 1,460 lb. to the acre. This, of course, is a much better yield than last year. Most of the crop will be shipped to the United Kingdom, and it will make a modest, but I think, 2065 as Minister of Food, a very welcome, contribution to our supplies of animal feedingstuffs.
Progress is being made in the development of the pig-rearing side of the scheme. One pig unit is already set up and a second is nearing completion. Each unit consists of 200 breeding sows, and the anticipated production is 12 baconers of eight score deadweight per annum. Already there are nearly 1,300 pigs in the units. The baconers will be sold for export to Britain.
A development which was not anticipated in the original plan has been the move into livestock production in Queensland. Some of the land which was included in the estates purchased by the Corporation is not suitable for sorghum cultivation, but it is useful for grazing. In addition, the sorghum stubble offers a useful source of cattle feed at a time when natural grazing has fallen off, and this has enabled the Corporation to purchase numbers of mixed store cattle at a satisfactory price at a time when breeders have little keep. The cattle can be carried through the winter on the stubble, and finished on the new grass in the spring. This year, because of the large quantity of lodged grain, cattle were very quickly fattened on the stubble. Last season 13,000 cattle were purchased and grazed in this way, of which nearly 3,000 were sold. This development offers the prospect of increasing the supplies of meat to this country, and its future development is being watched with confidence.
Before I conclude, may I say a word about the Report of the Public Accounts Committee? Its report, in my view, was a balanced and understanding one. There can be no complaint about the nature of the Committee's criticisms, which, in accordance with its duty, it felt it proper to make. But, as the inquiry was concerned with the earlier phases of the Corporation's work, I do not think there is anything to be gained by my now going over the Report's findings in detail. I have shown that the Board has striven hard to put its finances in order, and I am fully confident that later scrutiny by the Committee will result in our current accounts being passed with little or no complaint.
There is one further point which I desire to report before I conclude. I realise that this groundnut scheme is one in which 2066 there is a most unusual degree of public interest. I have therefore been anxious that, in so far as it is possible, those in charge of the scheme should meet their obligations under the requirements of public accountability. The most obvious way, of course, to do this is to provide as much information as possible, whether it be good or bad, of the way things are going. I have suggested to the new Chairman, and he has readily agreed to my request, that the Board should regularly publish the clearing, acreage and yield figures to the House and to the country. A start has already been made. Last week, the Board issued the latest facts at its disposal about the harvest; and it is hoped to follow this up with regular information on the general aspects of the Corporation's progress, so that the House, the Press and the public, may be kept fully informed as to the way things are going.
So I conclude, as I began, by stressing the future of this great enterprise, rather than its past. I trust the Committee today, whilst doing its duty in weighing past errors, will try to take a creative, forward-looking view. This scheme has had more public scrutiny than most human institutions and its officers have not been helped, I think, to put it mildly, by the degree of political feeling which has surged constantly around their work. I want to send out to the officers in the front line in East Africa from this Committee—I hope with the united co-operation of all parties—a message of goodwill and confidence in their work and of gratitude for all they are doing. It is surely common ground that this venture should go forward. It is a great example of the questing, pioneering spirit of our race. Its early days have been clouded by frustration and grievous disappointment. Only in the end will it be possible to attribute blame and distribute praise in the right proportions. My concern—and I believe it should be that of the whole Committee—is to look to the past only in so far as it is necessary to learn from experience the answer to our future problems.
Many acute and intractable problems still await solution. But we shall solve them without doubt. Here is a project, whatever its ultimate advantages in food for these islands, with immense possibilities for good for the great native 2067 millions of Africa. What we are surely doing out there is not merely clearing a way to new sources of natural wealth, not just that, but something which is much more important, something on which we may finally be judged—we are surely beating down the tropical bush to bring the dignity and well-being of a new civilisation to the peoples whose interests we hold in trust in the African territories.
§ 4.44 p.m.
§ Mr. Hurd (Newbury)
We have listened closely to the Minister's interim report. He has spoken in clear terms that we all understand, and we are indeed grateful to him because, in the past, in our groundnut Debates sometimes words have had two meanings, and it has not always been quite clear to the Opposition what was really in the Minister's mind and what the facts were. The Minister has our sympathy in having inherited political responsibility for a scheme which was conceived in haste as a rapid margarine-producing project and for which, on political grounds, an impossible pace was set.
We know, now, how mistaken it was to believe that the tractors and the equipment and the men and the materials could be gathered in time to meet the early forecasted targets. The programme that the former Minister set himself, and this Committee accepted much too lightly, allowed no time for proper surveys of the soil, and proper assessments of the rainfall or the supplies of underground water. Indeed, when my plane circled over Kongwa in March, 1948, and I looked down and saw that red, stark naked, cleared landscape and the further traces cut through the bush I thought, "Whatever I do in these five days, I must try to discover why it was that the Africans and the Germans, who did settle parts of Tanganyika very closely, left this Kongwa plain so severely alone." Well, we have discovered some of these reasons at a cost of £35 million.
In previous groundnut Debates I tried to give the House my conclusions but they were, of course, rejected with disdain by the former Minister of Food. Expansion at all costs was the order of the day, and that has continued until now. Because the new Minister, for the first time, has 2068 given us a more realistic and practical assessment of what has been done so far, and how he thinks the scheme can best go ahead, we welcome the speech he made today. I think the country will welcome it, too.
There are other problems beyond those the Minister has touched upon. I hope he will carry them very much in mind in the next few months, while the future of this scheme is being decided. One major problem is surely the size of the project and the risk and disabilities of distant control from London. Those two problems did not dismay the former Minister. I hope the Minister will look at them, with the Board, very closely and critically because, in my view, they are vital to the future success of this scheme as a land development project.
Of course, the former Minister resented any hint that his old political friend, Mr. Plummer, might not be the most suitable man to have charge of a scheme with a blank cheque of £50 million that Parliament presented under the Overseas Resources Development Act; and the scheme swelled vastly with order and counter-order. No proper control was exercised in Tanganyika, where it ought to have been exercised, or in London. Now we have to learn from this bitter and frustrating experience.
If it is to serve a useful purpose, this Debate must show the Government plainly that Parliament is not willing to allow money to be put in at a rate which has been at £1 million a month, and which the Minister now says will be at half that rate, without anyone having any clear idea of the objective. We must discard, once and for all, the original idea of a mechanised scheme to grow groundnuts on three million, two million or even 600,000 acres. We have to take into account the disappointment in the cropping we have experienced, even since last November when we had this revised estimate of 600,000 acres. There have been disappointments at all three centres, Kongwa, Urambo and the Southern Province, as the Minister has told us this afternoon. The harvest tally of groundnuts is very poor. We remember the optimistic figures given in the Wakefield Report which have always been in the mind of the House—750 lb. an acre of shelled nuts. We have dropped very far 2069 below that in the figures which have so far been recorded.
This has not been a drought year. There have been quite adequate rains. I do not say that they have been timely rains, but they have been adequate and I do not think we must expect any greater rainfall, on an average of 10 years, in the Kongwa Plain than we have had this season. It makes it most necessary to take all the sound advice we can as to the best way of using this Kongwa Plain, which has disappointed us for groundnuts and sunflowers and which has not given us too good results with other crops. We must resist the easy idea of just carrying on hoping for the best. I am quite sure that we need a new assessment of the whole project.
Circumstances favour us. We have a new Minister and he is not compromised, as was his predecessor. I always felt that the real trouble with the former Minister of Food was that to him the groundnut scheme was like a mistress; she was always looking at her best and he would never hear any criticism of any kind about her or her behaviour. The present Minister has not that obsession. I do not suppose he would mind passing this darling on to the Colonial Office, and, through the Colonial Office, perhaps to the Tanganyika Government, to salvage what can be salvaged out of Kongwa, and try to make a success of it as a land development scheme.
There are problems, and major problems, which have to be faced in the Southern Province, which was always painted to us as the land of promise. The first clearings which have been made, as the Minister told us, have been selective clearings and if hon. Members look at a map of that area, marked with the patches which have been cleared, they will see that it is speckled; that is to say, we get a block of land here and it is another five miles before we find another block; and another 10 or 15 miles before we find a further block. That raises a very serious practical problem in mechanised farming. There will be a terrible amount of dead running for tractors and lorries and every other kind of equipment in the land likely to be suitable for cropping in the area which the Corporation now hold.
It may well be best—and I suggest that the Minister should keep this in mind— 2070 to determine, in the Southern Province that the right answer is to clear the land through the agency of the Corporation and then lease it to settlers for them to farm in the way they think best, against their own pockets and their own bank balances. It is bound to be in smaller units than the Corporation have so far contemplated as being economic for their organisation. It may be possible, too, to raise cattle in the Southern Province. That is another project which needs to be looked at very closely.
What uses are to be made of Kongwa? As the Minister said this afternoon, that is the heart of the problem. Kongwa is largely a red, sandy desert. It has some grey soil which is quite good. It has some very acid soil which is no good for growing anything at all. It has a chancy rainfall. The figures given in earlier Debates in this Committee about the rain which falls at the Kongwa hill mission station are now admitted, in evidence before the Public Accounts Committee, to bear no relation to the rainfall in the Kongwa Plain.
We have to accept the fact that rainfall there is very uncertain indeed, and we have not yet had any clear evidence that there is adequate underground water to be obtained from bore holes. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, if he is to reply, will be able to tell us that they have an adequate water supply for human beings and for cattle at Kongwa. That must be a major factor in deciding what use we can make of Kongwa. We cannot grow groundnuts and sunflowers. Is it possible, by grassing the land, to run cattle ranches in conjunction with mixed farming? That appears to me to be the most likely system if there is adequate water.
At Urambo, where the soil is rather better, the trouble is that the ground slopes a good deal and there has been serious wash of the surface soil. It is not clear how mechanisation can be economically applied there. If we have to grow crops on ridges to stop the wash-away on the top soil, we destroy the hope of economy through mechanised production of groundnuts, sunflowers or any other crops.
Who is to resolve these problems? They are vitally important for this House, which has to find the money, and they are vitally important to the taxpayers and 2071 the public of this country. The Overseas Food Corporation have set up a working party for Kongwa under Sir Charles Lockhart, who is a member of the Board. I do not doubt the qualifications of those serving on the working party, but I must say that the limited terms of reference and the fact that the chairman of the working party is a member of the Overseas Food Corporation Board gave me the impression that this is just a kind of make-do-and-mend party. I believe, personally, that the country wants more impartial and higher level advice than it will receive from a working party set up by the Board itself. The Overseas Food Corporation and the Ministry of Food have between them made so many mistakes about this scheme that they have forfeited the confidence of the public here and of the men in Tanganyika.
I was glad to hear from friends of mine who are working on the scheme that the changes which have been made in the Board's membership, and, in particular, the appointment of Sir Eric Coates as chairman, have had an excellent effect on the spirit of the men in Tanganyika and on that of their wives. Indeed, I may say that from all sides of the Committee we wish Sir Eric Coates all success in the task he has undertaken. He is to have an additional member of the Board, making five all told, if I am right, and the Minister mentioned that he was considering appointing more part-time members. He said he would select men with experience of industry and commerce. I hope that the Minister has not forgotten that this is to be an agricultural project. He should try to strengthen the Board with one or two members who have had the experience of making their living by the land and by farming. A good many of the mistakes which have been made in the last three years would have been avoided if that kind of experience had been present round the Board table.
It is my view that the country will require, and that Parliament should require, a higher powered inquiry about the future than we are likely to get in this Kongwa working party under Sir Charles Lockhart's chairmanship. I think we need the advice of men who are respected not only in this country but throughout the British Empire. This is a great Empire project, and I would venture to suggest some 2072 names to the Minister of men who, I believe, would make a sound contribution to the solution of this whole problem if they were appointed to sit on a Royal Commission.
I should like to see Sir William Ogg, Director of the Rothamsted Experimental Station appointed; he has done soil research work earlier in his career in East Africa. I should like to see men like Professor S. M. Wadham, of Melbourne University, who was responsible for an excellent report on land use in Australia. After all, we have to face in Tanganyika just the same kind of problems as those which they have been facing and trying to resolve in Australia. Another name I would mention is that of Sir William Gavin, Chief Agricultural Adviser to the Ministry of Agriculture here during the war, who has long experience with Imperial Chemical Industries. Another name is that of Professor Sanders, of Reading and, of course, Mr. Clay from the Colonial Agricultural Service, who, I am glad to see, has been appointed as a member of the working party which is now out at Kongwa.
I would not hesitate, either, to ask advice again of Mr. David Martin, who was the general manager of the scheme when the United Africa Company wore in charge of it at first for the Minister of Food. He saw all the early strivings; he knows what mistakes were made and why those mistakes were made, and. I believe that his experience would be of great value. I would add some local experience by inviting a leading Kenya farmer to give his advice, particularly on the cattle side. In my view, the best hope for Kongwa is to get mixed farming, with cattle ranching as part of the scheme, and that we need to have all the best local advice we can get. For chairman, the name which springs to my mind is that of Lord Bruce of Melbourne; I do not think we could have anybody better, but he might not be prepared to undertake the task. Alternatively, there is Lord De La Warr, who has shown a keen and dispassionate interest in the success of this project. I believe that the Minister could get together a team who would command the respect of the country as a whole, and whose advice we could follow, feeling that it was quite impartial, and inspired, not by political considerations but by a desire to bring success out 2073 of the bitter and costly experience that we have had so far.
This committee ought to give a warning to the Minister of Food tonight that we want to see a limit set to further expenditure in Tanganyika, even while he is making up his mind what to do. We should like to feel that not more than another £2 million, bringing the total bill up to £38 million, will be spent before we hear again from the Minister of a definite plan, after all these inquiries have been made, of how he means to proceed. I would feel happier, and I believe the taxpayers would feel happier—every man, woman and child in the country has 14s. 5d. invested in this scheme today—if we draw on the best possible advice, through a more widely drawn commission than the working party which the Minister and the Corporation are relying on today.
Finally, as a farmer in this country, I wish all success to the pioneers out in Tanganyika. They have had a grim job. Politicians have not always helped them, I know, but that fault is not all on one side of the House. If there has been misrepresentation, who started it? We want to clear this scheme of party politics, and that is why I welcome the Minister's speech this afternoon. I think he means to do that. We want to salvage what good we can from it for the men on the spot, for our own food supplies, and for the Africans in Tanganyika. I still believe that we can succeed. It will not be a margarine scheme; it will not be a groundnut scheme; but it can be a land development scheme which will redound eventually, after all our disappointments. to our credit, and particularly to the credit of those who have worked so hard and endured so much in Tanganyika.
§ 5.4 p.m.
§ Mr. Bowles (Nuneaton)
I was staying with my brother in Kenya about August or September of last year. He is a farmer there, and he suggested that he and I might fly down to see the groundnut scheme in Kongwa. Through the kindness of the Food Corporation office in Nairobi, we were able, at our own expense, to go down to Kongwa. I want to make it perfectly clear that I went there with my brother at our own expense, and not at the expense of the taxpayers of this country. I should like to 2074 try, if I can, to give the Committee some picture of what it is like at Kongwa.
I wonder how many hon. Members have any idea what 100,000 acres look like, because unless one has some picture in one's mind of 100,000 acres there is no point in thinking about two million acres, or 600,000 acres. My guess is that 100,000 acres—which is about what was cleared at Kongwa this time last year—is about as far as can be seen from an aircraft at 3,000 feet looking over level ground. I am not talking about on the mountain side, but on the level ground. It is a tremendous area. When this scheme was started, as hon. Members probably know from what they have read or have seen if they have been there, all that land was covered by bush. At the time of year I was there the dirty grey bush was about 15 to 20 feet high. All that had to he cleared before any work, planting or sowing could take place.
At Kongwa, all that bush had been cleared, and although the Minister—on whose speech I should like to congratulate him as being one of very great interest from someone who obviously knows what he is about—may say that 90,000 acres were planted, it is most important to bear in mind that a great many of those acres were used for roads alone. True, they are rather bad roads, but, as hon. Members who have seen them will know, they run perfectly straight for 30 or 40 miles. They are not particularly good roads, and it is amazing to me that the various English cars they have out there stand up as long as they do to the surface of those roads, which are very badly pot-holed.
All that bush had first to be cleared, and the East Africa Company were very badly served with machinery for clearing. I understand there was a good deal of unexpected abrasive in the soil which wore down the circular ploughshares much quicker than was expected, or than has happened anywhere else. I do not know how long it takes before the ordinary circular ploughshares, which are 18 or 24 inches in diameter, become too small to be of any use, but they were worn away much quicker than was anticipated.
Then, as hon. Members will realise, although the ground at Kongwa is fairly flat, there had to be contouring. Perhaps I might try to explain that by using as an illustration the curtain which is in use 2075 at the Plaza Cinema, which no doubt everybody will have seen, and which is hung down over the screen before the performance starts. There are at Kongwa these curious terraces right across the soil in order to prevent soil erosion, because even though they do not get very much rain there, when it does come, round about the winter months, there is a tendency for the top soil to be washed away and for the soil left behind to be of no use whatsoever.
Therefore, this area of 90,000 to 100,000 acres had to be contoured, which in itself was a big job. They had to bank up to a height of four or five feet some of the rubble from the burnt bush to make these barriers, terraces, or ridges, to prevent erosion of the top soil. Having done that, it was necessary to wait until the rains had come at least once in order to soften the soil; otherwise, the soil was so hard that planting was impossible. The first rain is usually expected about November. Then, as soon as the soil is sufficiently softened, planting takes place, and they then have to wait until the rain comes again to fertilise the seeds.
In the two years before my visit there had undoubtedly been unprecedented droughts. The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) referred to the Kongwa meteorological station as being rather unreliable. When I was there I was told that the only person who had any recollection of the weather in the Kongwa was an old missionary. He said that the two winters preceding my visit were the period of the worst drought that he could remember in the 50 years or so he had lived in that area. I dare say that there were no meteorological records apart from his recollection. At least so far as the first two years were concerned the Food Corporation and the men on the spot were faced with really bad luck.
The hon. Member for Newbury said something to the effect that we could not afford another £2 million. I hopeߞ—
§ Mr. Bowles
I apologise if I misunderstood the hon. Gentleman's observation. In a general kind of way these imaginative schemes must not be 2076 regarded as bringing forth returns in the first few years of their existence. I should very much doubt whether the Canadian Pacific Railway paid a dividend for years and years.
§ Mr. Bowles
The point I am trying to make that the great schemes which develop unknown country such as Canada was, and such as this part of Tanganyika is, cannot be expected to make a return within a number of years. A fair-minded man would say, "Do not worry too much about the expenditure so long as the organisation is proceeding along the right lines and is likely, in the end, to lead to the solution of our great troubles."
The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lennox-Boyd) said that the food situation is now so much better, that the motives behind the actions of the Minister of Food in those days were not really sufficiently impelling to justify his pessimism about the feeding of the population. While I was in Kenya I read in "The Times" a leading article in which it was said either that every two seconds there were three more mouths to fill or that every three seconds there were two more mouths to fill. There is a great difference between those figures, but the increasing number of mouths every two or three seconds is a factor to bear in mind.
I congratulate the Government, and the Corporation in particular, on their courage in embarking upon this scheme in the big and broad way they did. I would like to pay a special compliment to the inventiveness and ingenuity of the engineers on the spot. I remember having pointed out to me a large number of cylinder heads which had cracked because African drivers had allowed the radiators of their vehicles to boil dry in the middle of this bush so that the engines were really suffocated and the cylinders were not kept cool. These men, particularly those in the heavy repair section, could not wait until new cylinders could be sent from London. They were, therefore, experimenting with ways of repairing cracks in cylinder heads.
I gathered that welding is not quite a satisfactory process. Hon. Members who have been to Kongwa—I am sure the hon. Member for Newbury is one of them 2077 —must have been impressed by the real proof there of the old saying that necessity is the mother of invention. As I say, the engineers on the spot were experimenting with ways of repairing cracks in cylinder heads in order to be able to get on with the job, as they could not wait for new engines and cylinders to be sent from this country.
They were working under great difficulties. When I was there—I was there for less than a week—one knew that a car was moving along five or six miles away by dust rising into the air to a height of 200 or 300 feet. When I was there in August and September, it was swelteringly hot. I ask hon. Members to bear in mind what it is like living in that really tropical country in conditions in which a motor car raises dust in the way I have described, and where there is dust on everything. The soil itself varies between one length of five miles and the next five miles and I imagine that those variations increase the difficulty so far as planning and agriculture generally are concerned.
The hon. Member for Newbury mentioned the question of water. I remember how pleased they were to get some water, for which they had to dig down nearly 300 feet. When I was there one only had about two inches of water at the bottom of a basin in which to wash oneself. I was staying in what is called "Park Lane," which consists of about five or seven houses which really are houses. The rest of the people working on the estate live and work under canvas. The various officers and departmental heads whom I saw were working under canvas just as if they were taking part in the Abyssinian War. It reminded my brother, who took part in that war, of that kind of military operation.
I want hon. Members to realise the extreme heat and the great effort and enthusiasm required to work there at all, the great knowledge and inventiveness which those on the spot have shown, and to visualise the dust that seemed to be so prevalent. I do not know whether there was any anxiety at that time about silicosis; perhaps it is a matter which the medical people had in mind. This venture can quite properly be described as a colonial development scheme. I do not recollect the number of African natives who are working for the Food Corporation now but there are schools for 2078 the native children and hospitals. I went to the hospital in Kongwa. The natives had been provided with concrete bases for some of their tents when I was there, and the various food kitchens, or whatever they are called, had concrete bases.
The Food Corporation has spent a great deal of money, apart from clearing the sites, sowing groundnuts and sunflower seed and then reaping the crops. A great deal of money has been spent in what might be described as social amenities. Members who desire to connect in their minds the production of food together with the development of this undeveloped part of Africa would do well to bear in mind that a great deal of the money spent has been devoted to developing social services for the Africans.
When I was there there was doubt as to whether rain was coming. One could see clouds going over in the afternoon and evening but it never rained while I was there. It rained a little in November and, I think, in December and January. The hon. Member asked why we should not get some Kenya farmers to help. In Kenya, if they do not get two or three inches of rain every afternoon they become worried or appear to become worried. If the hon. Member knows anything about rainfall in Kenya, he will know that the farmer there looks forward to inches of rain every day.
§ Mr. Frederic Harris (Croydon, North)
Is the hon. Member aware that most farmers in Kenya often go as long as two months without rain, so how can they become worried if they do not see rain every afternoon?
§ Mr. Bowles
I have had the honour of passing the hon. Member's farm in Kenya and I could hardly use the roads because they were so slushy after about two or three inches of rain. It may have been the rainy season at about the time I was there but, nevertheless, Kenya gets a tremendous amount more rain, especially on the hills where the hon. Member has his farm, than is the case in the two or three weeks of rainy weather in the year in Kongwa. Whether Kenya farmers could help or not I do not know. I cannot express an opinion of any value on farming.
What I would emphasise to the Committee is this: let us pat on the back the 2079 men and women on the spot. I add the women because many of the men's wives are working out there, and there are women secretaries, and so on; and they are living and working under canvas. I congratulate the Government and the Overseas Food Corporation for the imagination of the scheme. I cannot be critical because I do not know enough about it, but I admire the spirit of its Colonial aspect. I hope that my right hon. Friend, when he has further time to examine the whole scheme, will come forward boldly, as I am sure he will, with plans which will make his predecessor's conception into a brilliant reality.
§ 5.21 p.m.
§ Mr. Wade (Huddersfield, West)
I heard an hon. Member interject a remark just now about the Canadian Pacific Railway, and I think the remark was to the effect that no dividend was paid prior to the war. I am sure that that is not so. For many years before the war the Canadian Pacific Railway paid a dividend.
This is not a time for recrimination, as I think we all agree. However, there are one or two lessons to be learned. I think it is clear that too much has been attempted too quickly, and that it would have been better if private enterprise methods had been followed in this groundnut scheme. It is not unnatural that critics—I am not referring to speakers in this Debate today—should point out how differently this would have been attempted by an independent concern with the profit motive at the back of its mind.
§ Mr. Osborne (Louth)
Is the hon. Member for Leith (Mr. Hoy) aware that if he had adopted that policy, he would have soon ended in the bankruptcy court?
I was only reminding the hon. Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Wade) of what was said before the Committee.
§ Mr. Wade
My point is that criticisms have been made—and, I think, quite rightly made—that an independent concern, which had regard to the need for making the project pay, would have adopted a slower method of trial and error and experimentation; and I think that that is a fair criticism. One of the lessons we have had to learn is that too much has been attempted too quickly. We cannot, however, follow that simile too far, because no one here suggests that the prime object of this development should be the satisfaction of the profit motive.
That leads me to the second point which I wish to make. I think we have been wrong in the past in the motive. I believe that the motive has been political. I am not speaking now of those out there who have done an excellent job in very difficult circumstances. I am speaking of those at a higher level. I believe that the motive has been political—a desire to produce something grandiose in a short time. So, I believe we have been wrong.
I believe there are two right motives. One is the desire to alleviate the world food shortage—and I am more concerned with the world situation as regards food than our own, which is definitely improving; but even the world situation is better than it was, and there is not the same need for a large scheme such as this for the purpose of producing fats. The other right motive is colonial development—the interests of the colonial peoples; and that is what I wish to stress.
This working party may do very good service. Its report may be of value. I doubt, however, whether, as several hon. Members have pointed out, its terms of reference are wide enough to include the whole question of the colonial peoples. I think it would have been much better if the inquiry, which has been demanded in previous Debates, had been carried out. I would quote on this matter some words of Mr. Wilfrid Roberts, who then was Member for North Cumberland, in the Debate in the House last year.What I fear may happen"—he said—I hope it will not—is that the Minister, who has made this his very personal enterprise, will obstinately refuse to accept any advice or criticism, will carry on with his plan with the 2081 personnel he has appointed, and that in another six months' or a year's time the position will be disastrous. That would gravely affect the political career of the Minister"—I do not know whether that forecast is correct, yet—but, what is much more serious, it would be a disaster for the whole idea of this mechanised development of food production in Africa. I hope that the Minister will not be so obstinate as to refuse this inquiry. I cannot see what harm could he done by such an inquiry; on the other hand, it could do an infinite amount of good."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 21st November, 1949; Vol. 470, c. 79.]I still think there is a case for an inquiry, but with a larger scope.
The other point is this: it has been suggested that the time has arrived when the Overseas Food Corporation should be merged in the Colonial Development Corporation. It is clearly becoming more and more—and I come back to my original point—a matter of colonial development, and I hope that whatever is done, whether that suggestion is carried out or not, the main theme and the main motive will be, in the words of the Minister, "Colonial development in its widest sense."
§ 5.27 p.m.
§ Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre (New Forest)
I think we all agree with one thing the hon. Gentleman the Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Wade) has said, and that is that if this Debate—and the speech of the Minister in particular—has shown anything it is that it is time that the Ministry of Food gave up responsibility for this project, and that it should be returned to the Colonial Office.
I myself have never been quite able to understand what prompted the Government to allocate the duties of the Overseas Food Corporation, in the first instance, to the Ministry of Food, because from the very nature of the initial reports it was clear that the problems, if we were to make one of these schemes a success, would be chiefly matters in which the Colonial Office would have far more experience than the Ministry of Food. The Ministry of Food was, naturally, responsible for looking after internal feeding and the purchase of foodstuffs; but when it came to any of these problems of tropical agriculture, mechanised agriculture, and so on, surely it would have been wise, in the first instance, to have let those people who knew how such schemes should be undertaken take them over; and those 2082 people were obviously the Colonial Office, and not the Ministry of Food.
There is a point I would take up in the speech of the hon. Member for Nuneaton (Mr. Bowles). I think we want to be careful not to overdo the question of providing social services for the Africans. I quite agree that it is something of which to be proud, but let us remember that at the moment there are only 30,000 Africans employed; and we do not want to play this up as though, in the groundnut scheme, we are doing something that will solve, on a large scale and in a very wide way, the whole of the social problems in East Africa. It is something useful; but it is something on a limited scale; and while we all appreciate it, and want to acknowledge its use, do not let us make too much out of it, for that may, perhaps, upset our judgment.
Before I come to the groundnut scheme, may I also pay my tribute to what has been done in Queensland, and say how glad we are on this side of the Committee to have the report of the excellent progress in Queensland? We do hope that in October the Minister will be able to give us ever better news on that score.
When we come to consider what the Minister said, he has, in fact, only told us that, once again, there is delay, that once again, there is a pause for consideration, and that, once again, the working parties are to go out there and reports are to be made. The unfortunate people on the spot are again faced with the knowledge that instead of having a settled plan they are to wait for some months before they are to have something upon which they can firmly establish their efforts.
I suppose that there never has been a scheme of such a large nature which has changed so often in so short a time. I do not suppose that there is anything like it in which order has followed order: one moment it is go ahead here and the next go ahead there, do this and do that; never has anyone been given a fair chance to do anything at all. I think that it is very unfortunate that, once again, all the Minister could tell us was that this is a tentative Report, something to be taken as an interim consideration, and all subject to revision in a few months time.
Let us remember, too, that he has told us that the whole of the cropping programme is to be subject to review, and he 2083 has told us, in the same breath, that he has established a realistic budget. How can a new budget be realistic unless we know what the cropping programme is for the coming year? We are told that in 1950–51 so much money is to be allocated for each area and so much for each purpose. How can that money be properly spent or allocated if people have no idea what is to be the cropping policy of the Corporation in that year and in the coming year? It does not seem to me to make sense at all.
If we are to have this great change in the cropping programme and in the whole outlook, are pilot schemes to be carried out this time before a great area is allocated and a great scheme is undertaken without proper thought? We have been told consistently that it was because of speed and urgency that the Government were never able to carry out pilot schemes. What has never been told by the Minister is that the Ministry experts themselves said that no scheme of this nature could be carried out unless pilot schemes were first started. That was their own experts' evidence. I would like to know why the Ministry overrode their own experts and did not allow this to happen, and, above all, why they only took tests, on which they founded so much of their forecast, from plots of land on the foothills at Kongwa, when they must have known that once one gets three or four miles away from the hills there is entirely different rainfall and entirely different conditions?
Apparently, they took samples of one or two small native plots on the sides of hills, and said, "This is what we are going to base our estimates on." I think that shows lack of preparation, and I hope that this time, when we have this chance of re-organisation of the cropping programme, we shall get proper test experiments done for each crop that it is proposed to grow in the future, and that not until these experiments have shown their worth will a further large-scale plan be undertaken.
Now we come to the question of stores. I still feel very doubtful about what types of stores are being used out there. I felt it even more from what the Minister said today. He started by assuming that he could have three teams of tractors in the southern region and now finds that he 2084 can only have two. Is this another admission that the types of stores which they have got there are not the correct ones; that the machinery, a great deal bought second-hand, is still constantly breaking down, and that they still have not sufficient spares, and all that sort of thing? There is nothing more heartbreaking for people working on a scheme than to know that they are given tools which will not meet the requirements of the job. Until that major matter is settled, I think there is little hope of being able to get this scheme going. After all, we have seen a situation where the initial lot of stores bought resulted in over 90 per cent. of the tractors breaking down in six months, and, from what the Minister said, it is apparent that quite a number of tractors are still breaking down in exactly the same way.
I would like to know a little more about the accounting system. The Minister indicated that possibly the accountants would have to qualify again their signature of the accounts for the last financial year. Evidence given to the Public Accounts Committee suggested that the figure of 57 Europeans and 115 non-Europeans was looked upon as being a satisfactory staff. From what the Minister said today, he now seems satisfied that even that figure is not large enough. Perhaps he would tell us what is the new target and how many, both Europeans and non-Europeans, have been recruited and are actually on the job.
Again, I think that it is most unsatisfactory that in the space of two years four different accounting systems have been used. Under the managing agency they were centralised. Directly the Overseas Food Corporation came into action they were decentralised. Six or seven months later they were centralised again, and now they are decentralised. That is four changes, each of which means a great deal of work and disturbance, and obviously a feeling, if one may say so, among the people there that their masters do not know what they are doing and, every time the bell strikes, change their minds and introduce something else. I feel that this comes very much into consideration when making a budget. It is no good talking about a budget being realistic until the accountancy on the spot is realistic, too. We have no evidence to show that the accountancy system out 2085 there is now sufficiently able to deal with this question.
Up to the present, we have spent £35 million on this groundnut scheme. I would like to hear a statement from the Government as to how much of that is to be written off. How much is lost and gone for ever? It is obvious from what the Minister said that Kongwa is now to be looked on, if not as a failure, as something the whole of the activities of which have to be re-orientated and, possibly, a lot of it abandoned. The same is true of a great deal of the activities taking place at Urambo, and, obviously, of that capital expenditure of £35 million a great deal will not now show any practical return. I think that it would be for the benefit of everyone in the Committee and in the country if this nominal capital was whittled down to something realistic, so that people could know what were the real assets on which to build for the future.
I want to ask one or two questions about the figures given for production. The Minister said that in Kongwa it was estimated that we would get 214 lbs. of shelled nuts per acre, 500 lbs. in Urambo and 530 lbs. in the Southern Provinces. I hope that he will realise that the estimate in the Wakefield Report was 750 lbs. Even this last year it is only 66 per cent. of the original target of the Wakefield Report. I would like to hear something from the Minister as to whether the increase, over the previous year, which we are all glad to see, is likely to be continued in the coming year, or whether he feels that he has now reached the maximum that can be achieved in these areas. If he has, he has now to be contented, so far as groundnuts are concerned, with only two-thirds of what the Wakefield Report estimated to be the cropping value of the land, and it is again, I think, evident to everyone here that the amount of money required will consequently be much greater, or, alternatively, that the return on the money spent will be much less than we had all hoped.
I should also like to know what is the final verdict about sunflowers, particularly at Kongwa. I was not at all clear about that from the Minister's speech. If it has been decided that sunflowers are not be part of the Kongwa experiment, I hope the Minister realises that this means that, once again, the 2086 whole plan is being upset. There was to be a 10-year rotation plan, under which eight of the 10 years were to be used for growing crops and four of those eight years for growing sunflowers. If sunflowers are now to be taken away, then, once again, these unfortunate people on the spot will not know what they have to perform.
We believe that there has never been such a case, in which so many mistakes have been made so quickly and with such monotonous ignorance of the facts and a refusal to admit them. I wish that the Minister had dwelt a little more on that, instead of concentrating upon the plans he has formulated for the future. I wish that he had acknowledged, at least, the mistakes of the past and assured us that they will not be repeated. Until we can get some statement in which a firm and known target is announced based upon pilot schemes, we shall never succeed in getting colonial development, not only to help the food situation, but also to benefit the people who live there. Until the Minister can give us this information, I believe that we stand no hope of achieving either of those objects.
§ 5.42 p.m.
§ Mr. J. P. W. Mallalieu (Huddersfield, East)
Despite the concluding sentences of the speech of the hon. and gallant Member for New Forest (Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre) there has been clear evidence in this Debate that at last this project for the development of parts of Africa is being lifted from the more extreme bitternesses of party warfare. It was rather significant that the Minister of Food spent a large part of his speech in dealing with the mistakes and the failures of the Overseas Food Corporation under the control of Sir Leslie Plummer in Africa, and that it was left to Members opposite to say some good things about the success of the Corporation under the ægis of Sir Leslie Plummer in Queensland. I was delighted to hear the generous tribute paid to the Overseas Food Corporation's work in Queensland by the hon. and gallant Member who has just spoken.
I hope very much that the suggestion of the hon. Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Wade) that the Corporation should be merged somehow with the Colonial Development Corporation, will not be followed up, because the Overseas 2087 Food Corporation has a serious job to do in the Dominions, and notably in Australia, a job which the Colonial Development Corporation cannot possibly do. Australia is not a Colony, and does not like being described as such.
We are agreed on both sides that the troubles into which this vast development project has run are due to the desire to do too much too quickly. But there was a sentence in the speech of the hon. and gallant Member which suggested that he still does not realise just how slow we have now to go. It seems to me that after three or four years of great expenditure, great trials and energy, we still know precious little about the possibilities of this area. We do not yet know whether we can really grow groundnuts, or soya beans, or sunflowers, in the Kongwa area. We have no evidence one way or the other, and such evidence as we may have indicates that we shall not be able to do so.
It may well be that we shall have to rely on the development of types of grass, which I understand can be grown with a rainfall of about six inches. If we can discover that something like that can be done, then the possibilities of Kongwa are re-opened. It would mean a chance for ordinary farming. At the present moment, we just do not know what the position is about that area, or any other area. The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) referred to the old rainfall stations in Kongwa, and told us, quite rightly, how worthless they are as guides to rainfall on the Kongwa site. Not only do we not know what is the position from previous experience, but it is extremely difficult to get any accurate information at the present time.
These rainfall gauges have a tremendous attraction to the Africans. They have a sort of ring round them, and these rings are regularly pinched and presented by Africans as bangles to their girl friends. It is one of the jokes there to ask an African native whether he is going to give his girl a rain gauge for Christmas. It is due to small reasons like this that it is extremely difficult to get any accurate knowledge about the rainfall in a given year.
§ Mr. W. Fletcher
Will not the hon. Member agree that the natives of West Africa produce hundreds of thousands of tons of groundnuts without the benefit of 2088 rainfall gauges, and seem to do it fairly well?
§ Mr. Mallalieu
I am afraid that I do not know anything about West Africa. I am talking about Tanganyika and the difficulties there of getting any accurate knowledge about the rainfall. I am afraid it is true that the knowledge so far gleaned does not justify us in saying that in any particular area we can grow a particular crop. Therefore, I say that we must go very slowly.
I quite agree with Members opposite who say that we must go in for pilot schemes, but pilot schemes on a very small scale. I do not see what good would be done by having a grandiose inquiry at the present time. What we really want are small groups of experts to be sent out to selected areas with the job of making tests over a period of many years to find out really what are the possibilities of the particular region they are investigating. Do not let my right hon. Friend be led into doing anything quickly, or on a large scale. Let him not think in the future in terms of a groundnut project, because he should not be concerned entirely with groundnuts but with all sorts of other things. There should not be just one project, but hundreds of small projects reasonably independent except for matters of finance. I do not want the same licence to be given to these small units in matters of finance as was given to the United Africa Company, or to the Overseas Food Corporation when it took over. They could be given a good deal of autonomy in other ways to go ahead as they think fit in finding out the best use to which the soil can be put.
I disagree with the hon. Member for Huddersfield, West, in what he seemed to suggest—that the original need which gave rise to this development project—the need for increasing the world's food supplies—was now less urgent. The fats position is certainly much easier, but the food position of the world as a whole is still very serious indeed. The population has been going up very sharply and the general level of consumption, thank goodness, has been going up just as sharply. The world demand for food now is far higher than before the war, and, therefore, it is every bit as urgent now as it was four years ago for us to set about trying improved production of food in any areas which we 2089 can. If we in this country are not prepared to take the risks and the losses, which are inevitable at times in the development of the countries over which we have control, then we have no right to retain that control for ourselves.
§ 5.50 p.m.
§ Mr. Baldwin (Leominster)
The hon. Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. J. P. W. Mallalieu) said he did not agree with the suggestion that the Overseas Food Corporation should be merged into the Colonial Office. Obviously it should, because the time is now ripe to recognise that Africa is neither a granary nor a food store for this country. The problem which faces Africa is to raise enough food and keep itself alive. I have said that on many occasions in this House and I repeat it again today, because it cannot be said too often. The problem of the African native is that he cannot do the work he ought to do, because he is not sufficiently well nourished. If the Corporation should be handed over to the Colonial Office, and that Department take in hand any of the schemes which are worthwhile in order to find food for the people living in Africa, it would be all to the good.
§ Mr. Mallalieu
Does not the hon. Gentleman realise that the Overseas Food Corporation is not only concerned with Africa but with schemes in the Dominions, which the Colonial Office could not control?
§ Mr. Baldwin
I did not refer to the Overseas Food Corporation in the Dominions, because I want to say a word about it later. I want to stress that in my opinion this scheme should be passed over to the Colonial Office without any hesitation.
The Minister of Food suggested today that the Opposition had not timed this Debate well. I disagree, because if the right hon. Gentleman casts his mind back to July of last year he will find that some very sound suggestions were made then as to what should be done with the groundnut scheme. Sir John Barlow, who was then a Member of the House, made a most constructive speech and hon. Members on this side who followed him, urged that a fact-finding commission, not a face saving commission, ought to be sent out at once to investigate the position. The Minister of Food said it would be unwise to beat a retreat. The successful business 2090 man is the one who recognises that he has made a mistake and is prepared to cut his losses. I hope that the commission now going out to East Africa to make this investigation will advise the Minister as to its future, and, if they find it necessary, will recommend that it should be abandoned. There is no reason why it should not be abandoned if we think it should be. The taxpayers of this country should not be asked to pay any more for a scheme which is not going to prove worthwhile.
I have the greatest respect for professors. They do a grand work when they are on a committee, provided there is a leavening of practical men who know their job and get a living at the particular problem which they are investigating. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) started off by suggesting that on this commission there should be some of these practical men. He then proceeded to name three or four professors in this country who should be added to the commission. He also suggested the names of three or four practical men. I am not going further than that. There should be on this commission some of the eminent agriculuralists in Africa, whether it be Kenya or Tanganyika, who have had experience of the job, who know its possibilities and importance, and they should assist this commission in coming to the right decision.
In the Debate 12 months ago we repeatedly suggested that there should be pilot schemes and small testing schemes. It was looked upon at that time as a political stunt. I am glad to think that the hon. Gentleman the Member for Huddersfield, East, approves now of the idea and that the political element will be kept out of it. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Why should it not be kept out of it? When politics enter into a Colonial Debate it frequently starts on the other side and I want to keep away from them: it is not necessary to introduce that element into Colonial Debates. We all wish this scheme well and we have said so and helped it so far as we can.
§ Mr. Baldwin
It was only when we found an obstinate refusal to recognise the facts, and when statements were made 2091 which were utterly contrary to the facts, that any heat entered into our Debates.
I do not want to rake over any of the troubles of the past. They are apparent. What is to be done for the future of these particular areas? I am glad that the commission which is going out is to be confined to one area, because it may come to a decision quickly and the Minister could act accordingly. The way to help the African native would be to come to a decision with regard to this particular area of Kongwa, and find out, first of all, what really is the rainfall. It is possible to do so, and we should also try to discover whether we can bring water for man and beast to that area. If it is not possible then we should not allow any more money to be wasted on the place.
Here would be a good opportunity of testing out the African native as a cultivator of the soil responsible only, shall we say, to the Minister of Agriculture in Tanganyika. I am one of those who feel that the future of Africa is of extreme importance not only to this country but to the world. The future of Africa depends on the white European and the native. If the European goes out of Africa, as is suggested sometimes, the future of the native will be rather terrible. We have to work together. At Kongwa we have had buildings erected which can be turned into an African colony supervised for, and started by the white specialists who know the job and who can hand over as quickly as may be to the African native himself.
At the colleges we have in Africa, and also at our universities, which Africans attend, we are spending too much money and too much time turning out lawyers. We should be turning out people who know their job in cultivating and we should give these people responsibilities not only in Kenya but at Kongwa. Let them have the responsibility of looking after their own native affairs and see what are their abilities. It is only by giving them authority and responsibility that we can get them away from their present conditions. If we did something of that sort in Africa we should see something really worth while.
I want to say a few words about the Queensland scheme. The hon. Member for Huddersfield, East, said that the 2092 Overseas Food Corporation could not be turned over to the Colonial Office because of the type of work we were doing in Queensland and that the Government there would not stand for any interference from the Colonial Office. I suggest that the Commonwealth of Australia should not stand any interference from the Overseas Food Corporation. I am certain that all that the Australian people want is the knowledge that there is a market in this country for the commodities which they can produce and then they will produce whatever it may be at a greatly lower cost than will some big corporation with a responsibility in both countries.
All that the Australian wants is the same as the British farmer wants—confidence in the long-term future. He would not have accepted the Food Corporation in Queensland except that he realised that we had put money into that scheme and would be bound to continue and develop transport, and so find a market for his produce. To suggest that we in this country, or the over-big Corporation in that country, can produce as efficiently or as economically as the Australian on the spot is just not true.
It is a long time since we had any information about the sorghum scheme. I want to warn the Minister of Food that the schemes which are running in Australia are being carried out on land which has suffered from severe, periodic drought. I would call attention to the fact that this is not the first time that attemps have been made to develop the areas which are now being developed and that there have been many projects in the past in that part of the world. They have failed. I suggest to the Minister that before we launch out into too extravagant a scheme in Australia we should see where we are going. I can speak with some little knowledge about that part of the world, as one of my forebears helped to develop it nearly a hundred years ago.
I would remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Queensland Socialist Government tried primary production themselves a few years ago. They purchased one of the stations of my ancestors in order to develop it. It was not many years before they realised that primary production was not a State enterprise. They cut out as soon as they saw it, 2093 and attempted to sell back to the original owners the station which they had made rather a mess of. Since the Australian has failed as a State primary producer, great temerity will be shown by this country if we attempt to do what they have found impossible. I suggest to the Minister that he goes steadily on that project before he gets carried away too far. The Development Corporation was a great idea but it miscarried in starting the idea that the Overseas Food Corporation or the Colonial Corporation could produce food. The money that we can spare in this country for the Empire or the Commonwealth should be spent on developing transport by road and rail, and on water supplies. If we do that, production will automatically follow. Before the Government embark on any more of these fantastic schemes, they should consider whether it is not worth while spending what money we can afford upon developing those countries in the way I have mentioned.
§ 6.4 p.m.
§ Mr. Mikardo (Reading, South)
I share very much the desire expressed by the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Baldwin) that this Debate should continue, as it has begun, on a relatively non- party and unheated basis. If one seeks to see first of all what damage can be caused by dealing with these matters on a biased and party basis, and secondly to see who are the people who like dealing with these matters in that way, one has only to look back at the behaviour of some of the organised Conservative hecklers during the General Election. They were obviously trained to go around the meetings singing merely the word "groundnuts."
§ Mr. Mikardo
I am sorry that I did not catch the hon. Member's interjection, but it must have been very funny because he is enjoying his own joke, as he generally does.
We have had a very good Debate, in which people have tried to make constructive suggestions and to get down to the truth of what has happened in the past in connection with the groundnut scheme. They have not sought to make, on one side or the other, cheap party political 2094 points. I am sorry that there has been an occasional divergence from that high standard in the direction of pursuing the vendetta which has gone on for a long time against the present Secretary of State for War and against Sir Leslie Plummer. I should like to give two examples to show the way in which some hon. Members have let down the rest of their case and their otherwise high standard of behaviour.
In the first place, the hon. Member for Huddersfield, West (Mr. Wade)—I see that he is not in his place and am sorry about that, because we had a good Debate until he got up and we have had a good Debate since he sat down—made a great point of saying that if this scheme had been carried out by a private firm for its own profit, it would have been done more prudently and in a different way. My hon. Friend the Member for Leith (Mr. Hoy) reminded the hon. Gentleman of the evidence given by the managing director of the managing agency to the Public Accounts Committee. He was asked directly: "If you had been running this scheme for your own company, in what different way would you have run it?" He replied: "In no different way at all. I should have run it precisely as I did on behalf of the Government."
§ Mr. Mikardo
The hon. Member for Louth (Mr. Osborne) cannot surmise what the policy of the United Africa Company would have been in sacking its directors. He must stop mistaking vehemence for knowledge. This managing director, who was a very good and balanced witness, spoke as the executive of one of the most successful large-scale, privately-owned enterprises in this country, knowing perhaps as much about business as even the hon. Member for Louth. He said bluntly that if he had been running this thing on behalf of his own employers and for their profit, he would not have run it at all differently. I cannot therefore imagine why the hon. Member for Huddersfield, West, or anybody else, should try to make the point that the thing would have been done differently or more prudently for a private agency.
The hon. Member for Huddersfield, West, went on to argue that the insistence 2095 upon doing this job in a large-scale way was not in pursuit of the technical correctness of the scheme, but only in furtherance of a political objective. I would remind the Committee that the size of the scheme was determined on the day when the House accepted without a Division, the report of the Wakefield Commission. By accepting it, the House gave the Government instructions to carry out the scheme in that way, at that speed and in that size. It is very easy for everybody to find scapegoats for anything that goes wrong. Some people have blamed the Wakefield Mission, some the United Africa Company, some the Government, some the Secretary of State for War and some Sir Leslie Plummer; but the one group of people which no hon. Member has so far blamed is the one which is most responsible, and that is hon. Members who were in the House in the last Parliament. I was one, and I accept my share of responsibility.
It is no use saying that it was political pressure by the Government which created the size, shape and speed of the scheme. Let us recapitulate for a moment. Mr. Frank Samuel, of Lever Bros., conceived the idea that we might have a smack at large-scale mechanised production of oil-bearing seeds in this part of Africa. Very properly, as a good citizen, he came to the Government to put forward his idea, which he had only in embryo. He said that someone more expert than he had better look at it.
As a result, the Government sent out a mission of three people who were experts. One of them has been described by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) as one of the great practical experts. Those three people were sent to Africa to advise, first, on whether there was anything in Mr. Samuel's idea at all, and secondly, if there was, what sort of scheme should be operated. They produced a report which was brought before the House and passed without a Division and without a note of criticism, but with the commendations and blessings of hon. Members of all parties. We said that it was a bit chancy and that there were a great many unanswered questions about the project, but the need was great—we all thought the need was great no matter that we may now have learnt more and 2096 have become wise after the event—and said that we ought to have a crack at it. Unanimously, we said to the Government, "Go and do what the Wakefield Mission recommends."
We cannot now shed the blame. I do not ask any new hon. Member to share the blame but only those who were with me in the last Parliament. We cannot now say that anyone but ourselves was responsible for the size, shape and speed of the scheme, and if the size, shape and speed were dictated only by political considerations, hon. Gentlemen opposite are as much in this political conspiracy as we are on this side, because they made exactly the same mistake as we did the day that Command Paper 7050, the Report of the Wakefield Mission, was debated.
§ Mr. Gammans (Hornsey)
I was present then. If the scheme had been the howling success that we were told it would be, would the hon. Gentleman have given credit in his General Election speeches to the Opposition for supporting it?
§ Mr. Mikardo
That is quite hypothetical. My case is that if it had been a howling success I should never have been asked a question about it during the whole of my election campaign, but I hope that if I had been, I should have answered such a question fairly. I cannot say ex hypothesi that I would have been so much of an archangel. As the hon. Gentleman knows, people are not at their best, their most objective and their most angelic, in the heat of an election campaign.
I have another unpleasant thing to say, and I am rather sorry to have to say it. The hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lennox-Boyd) made a speech which I enjoyed, for it was an objective one and set a high tone for the Debate, but he permitted himself a departure from his otherwise high standard in one respect. He said that we had before us two important documents on which we could base our judgment of the matter. One of these was the book written by Mr. Alan Wood and the other was the Report of the Public Accounts Committee. I am sure that he would agree with me that, whatever high regard one may have for Mr. Alan Wood as a journalist and as a 2097 reporter, hon. Members in this Committee cannot give as much weight to the observations of an ex-employee of the Corporation as we can to the findings of a Select Committee of this House, and I find it all the more surprising that, while the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire quoted in extenso from Mr. Alan Wood's book, he did not once quote from the Report of the Public Accounts Committee. He quoted some of the evidence.
§ Mr. Lennox-Boyd rose—
§ Mr. Mikardo
The hon. Gentleman is anxious to interrupt me. If he looks in HANSARD tomorrow, he will find that on two or three occasions he quoted some of the evidence which was given to the Committee, but I do not recall that he quoted the text of the Report on any occasion.
§ Mr. Lennox-Boyd
Indeed, I did. I quoted at some length from paragraph 27 on page 11 of the Report of the Committee on Public Accounts, and referred to it constantly. Nor did I say that the documents were to be taken as of equal value. I said that both the Public Accounts Committee and Mr. Wood's book approached the same problem from different angles, but, broadly, came to the same conclusions.
§ Mr. Mikardo
I do not think they did. I say that as a member of the Public Accounts Committee, and my feeling is that there is very little in the Report of the Public Accounts Committee which provides any consolation or any ammunition for those who want to make any severe criticism of the Ministry of Food or the Overseas Food Corporation. That is perhaps why the Report has not been so freely quoted. We shall look in HANSARD tomorrow and see whether I am right about that or whether the hon. Gentleman is. My memory of it—I listened to the whole of his speech with great interest—was that, while he quoted some of the evidence, he did not quote any of the Report. If I turn out to be wrong, I will apologise to the hon. Gentleman.
To give one example, he said with some vehemence that he thought that the evidence given by Sir Leslie Plummer in refutation of the suggestion that we would have learnt a great deal from a pilot-scheme was the weakest part of that 2098 gentleman's evidence. He thought that Sir Leslie's views on that subject and the argument that we should not have been better off with a pilot-scheme would not stand up and could not be accepted, but I must point out to the hon. Gentleman that the Public Accounts Committee did not dispute Sir Leslie's view. Neither the Public Accounts Committee nor a single member of it questioned for a moment Sir Leslie's view. It neither supported his view nor refuted it.
On the Public Accounts Committee there were one right hon. Gentleman and six hon. Gentlemen from the other side of the House. If I may pass such a judgment without being presumptuous. I should like to say that they devoted all their efforts, as we all did, to getting to the truth of the matter without generating any heat and without any party bias at all. No more than we did on our side did the right hon. Gentleman and the six hon. Gentlemen opposite find it within their competence to say, after listening to Sir Leslie Plummer, that they could not accept his view on the subject of pilot-schemes, and in that regard the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire is not supported by one colleague on his Front Bench and six of his hon. Friends.
§ Sir John Mellor (Sutton Coldfield)
Will the hon. Gentleman agree that the reason the Committee did not pursue any further the question of Sir Leslie Plummer's view upon the value or otherwise of pilot unit experiments, was that we had been told in evidence by all the witnesses concerned that the overriding instructions from the Ministry had precluded experiment, and, therefore, there was no great importance in pursuing the point at all? The Ministry of Food accepted responsibility for those instructions.
§ Mr. Mikardo
I do not accept that at all. It is perfectly true that we were told what the hon. Baronet says, but that is not the reason we did not pursue the question whether it is or is not true that one can learn something about large-scale mechanised agriculture from pilot schemes. We did not pursue that question because it would have involved a great deal more time than we could have afforded, and much more expertise than the whole 15 of us possessed. That is why I say that it is wrong for anybody to make a sweeping judgment that Sir Leslie Plummer was right or wrong about these things.
2099 I am well content to believe in these matters, on which I am certainly no expert, that whilst one can learn something about making an engineering product from constructing one or two prototypes, it may well be true that one can learn nothing very valuable about farming 100,000 acres from digging up a single cabbage patch.
§ Mr. W. Fletcher
The hon. Gentleman has made such a false impression with that last statement that it must be corrected. There was put at the disposal of the Corporation and of the Government all the experience in mechanisation of the sisal growers who had cleared tens of thousands of acres. That was totally disregarded.
§ Mr. Mikardo
That does not seem to me to be relevant to the question we are discussing as to whether there ought to have been a pilot scheme. What the sisal growers did does not seem to me to enter into the matter at all.
What were the main conclusions of the Report of the Public Accounts Committee? That Report was described by the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire as a balanced Report. I am glad to have that view of it from the hon. Member, which I share. I think it was quite a reasonably balanced Report. It did not try to whitewash anybody and it did not try to blacken anybody. It tried to hold a balance fairly, to seek where the truth lay in respect of the past operations in the groundnut field. However, anybody reading that Report would say that by and large the Ministry and the Overseas Corporation do not come badly out of it. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] Not nearly so badly as I had anticipated from all the uninformed comment that I heard before I began, as a member of the Public Accounts Committee, to hear the evidence.
There are three parties who do come out very badly. The first are the carping critics who have made it difficult throughout this scheme to recruit adequate personnel for it. The fact that this scheme was a shuttlecock of party politics inhibited from the very first both United Africa Company (Managing Agency) Limited and the Overseas Food Corporation from getting the personnel they required. There was one period during the interregnum of the changeover from the managing agency to the Corporation when it was absolutely vital, as 2100 those who read the Report and the evidence will see, to get more administrators as well as accountants out in East Africa. At that vital period it is clear that the task of getting good-class personnel was rendered virtually impossible because of the political warfare against the Corporation.
§ Mr. Lennox-Boyd rose—
§ Mr. Mikardo
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I have given way more times in my short speech than any of the other previous speakers put together. If I may be allowed to do so, I will finish my speech in my own way.
§ Mr. Cuthbert (Arundel and Shoreham) rose—
§ Mr. Braine (Billericay) rose—
§ Mr. Mikardo
Hon. Members opposite may not like the fact but it comes out quite clearly in the evidence. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where?"] Hon. Gentlemen can read it—
§ Mr. Braine rose—
§ Mr. Mikardo
It is no use the hon. Member for Billericay (Mr. Braine) bobbing up and down like a jack-in-the-box. It is all in the Report and he can read it. It comes out quite clearly in the evidence that there was a period when the existing staff were discouraged and when potential staff were warned off—
§ Mr. Cuthbert rose—
§ Mr. Mikardo
No, I am not going to give way. [HON. MEMBERS: "Withdraw."] I shall neither give way nor withdraw. I repeat, I have given way in this speech more times than all the previous speakers put together. Perhaps I can now go on and finish my speech in my own way without interruption from hon. Gentlemen, one of whom walked in three minutes ago, whereas the Debate began at 3.30.
2101 The second of the three parties who come badly out of this Report—and I am sorry to have to say this—is the Wakefield Mission. It is quite clear that it was that Mission, undoubtedly with complete inadvertence, which misled the Minister and the House when we accepted their Report as the basis of the scheme. Let us see what the Report says of the estimates of the Wakefield Mission. I quote from paragraph 26, which says that they proved to be extremely inaccurate:The Report of the Wakefield Mission … turned out to he seriously misleading. Your Committee are left with the impression that the basic fault in the scheme was the failure to realise the impracticability of the original plans in the conditions which existed immediately after the war.I repeat that that failure is a failure in which all the Members of the last House of Commons must share, because it was we who accepted that Report.
§ Mr. Lennox-Boyd
It is not in paragraph 26. Really the hon. Gentleman ought to give way and not persistently mislead the Committee.
§ Mr. Mikardo
Maybe I have it wrong. If the hon. Gentleman persists, and does not mind my delaying the Committee, I will read right through the Report to see whether it is in paragraph 26, 27, 28 or 29.
§ Mr. Mikardo
I beg the pardon of the Committee. It is in paragraph 34, not paragraph 26. I am very sorry. However, it does not alter the fact that the words I quoted are perfectly correct and the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire need not get so heated about it. Now that I have been corrected, I will read it as coming from paragraph 34:The Report of the Wakefield Mission … turned out to be seriously misleading. Your Committee are left with the impression that the basic fault in the scheme was the failure to realise the impracticability of the original plans in the conditions which existed immediately after the war.I repeat, we must all share that responsibility and I take my whack of it. It seems to me to be strange that we should not bear these facts in mind whilst we are discussing the matter here.
The third and last of the three parties who come out badly from this Report— 2102 and again I am sorry to have to say this—is the managing agency, the United Africa Company. [HON. MEMBERS: "Nonsense."] I shall do a bit more quoting since hon. Gentlemen opposite do not like it. In the Report there is a summing up of the bad situation which the Corporation took over from the managing agency and there is a list of four serious faults which were in the organisation at the moment of the take-over. In giving evidence the United Africa Company, with only one very minor reservation, accepted that statement of four serious defects in organisation as being substantially true. So much for what is said in the Report.
I want to say three things to the Minister. First, I am sure that the Committee were very pleased to hear how successful are the operations in Queensland, the details of the large-scale reorganisation which is at present being carried out, and the many improvements in organisation which are being made. But did all these improvements and this impressive record in Queensland happen only since yesterday or the day before? Some of them obviously were initiated a long time ago. They must have taken a long time to come to fruition and some of them, therefore, must have been initiated by Sir Leslie Plummer. In order to find a fair balance we might, therefore, have had some tribute to the good work which he has done and a less grudging tribute than has sometimes been paid, as well as less of the criticisms which have been made of his alleged shortcomings.
Secondly, I say to the Minister, for goodness sake do not be misled by a craze for over-careful book-keeping—[Laughter.] Hon. Members opposite laugh, but I will try to clarify that remark. Everybody who runs any organisation knows that while certain accountancy principles must be adhered to, it is possible to make a fetish out of being over-zealous in book-keeping.
§ Mr. W. Fletcher indicated assent.
§ Mr. Mikardo
I see the hon. Member for Bury and Radcliffe (Mr. W. Fletcher), who is an experienced businessman, nodding his head in agreement. and I am most grateful to him. He will know, as any businessman knows, that it is possible to have such involved systems of bookkeeping that one creates something which 2103 is equivalent to hiring a man at £3 a week to watch an open drain in case a £5 note blows down it once every 20 years, and then when it does blow down the man is fast asleep and does not see it. It is possible to be over-accurate in these matters. In all these things we have to weigh results against costs, to see whether the game is worth the candle, whether it is literally worth hundreds of thousands of entries a year in order to safeguard the overspending of a few shillings here and there. It is no use hon. Members opposite wagging their heads. This is a doctrine which is accepted, and rightly so, in every private enterprise business.
The objective of the Overseas Food Corporation is to produce food; the objective of the Colonial Development Corporation is to develop the Colonies. It is not the objective of either of them to produce books of account, which are not the final objective, but are merely means to an end. I beg of the Minister to beware of being led astray by Sir Eric Coates and Messrs. Cooper Bros. into a situation in which he will be able to produce to Parliament a wonderful set of books of accounts and nothing else. It is quite easy to do that.
Thirdly, I say to the Minister, although it scarcely needs saying, do not be frightened by past failures and miscalculations into being over-cautious. I was glad to hear my right hon. Friend say that the scheme must go on and that we must not draw back. In every large enterprise there are always miscalculations. I have already described how some were made by the Wakefield Mission. Even on a much tinier colonial development scheme of private enterprise by Mr. Billy Butlin in the Bahamas, on a little island with no houses or schools or social services for the natives, he miscalculated the cost by £1 million. There always are miscalculations on that sort of thing.
One has always to take risks, and it ill becomes hon. Members opposite, who are always talking about the need for go-getting, initiative, risk-bearing, and adventure in commerce—merchant adventurers and all the rest—to criticise a public body when it decides to take a risk on a very large venture. Miscalculations and mistakes there are bound to be and have been—the greatest of them made by the Members of the House of Commons 2104 unanimously in the last Parliament. Let us not be deterred, however, by these miscalculations and mistakes from proceeding with what has been one of the most imaginative, adventurous and beneficent schemes evolved by the mind of man within our lifetime.
§ 6.36 p.m.
§ Mr. Godfrey Nicholson (Farnham)
Before I reply to the speech of the hon. Member for Reading, South (Mr. Mikardo), there are one or two things I want to say to the Minister of Food. congratulate him upon the clear, frank way in which he addressed the Committee, and I agree with almost every word he said. The only passage in his speech which I regretted was his rather florid peroration. We have had enough of perorations and high-sounding phrases about the groundnut scheme. I feel sure that the right hon. Gentleman put it in because he felt that every speech ought to have a peroration, but it would have been better had he sat down after putting forward his statement of facts.
I am sure that I speak for my colleagues on this side in saying that the right hon. Gentleman will receive every support from us if he proceeds in such a frank, clear and fresh-air manner as he has begun. He said that he hoped the Debate, whatever its result, would at any rate result in a message of goodwill, encouragement and gratitude being sent out to those working in Africa. I certainly wish that that may be the case.
The best message of goodwill that the right hon. Gentleman could send out would be to assure the men working there that those who are deemed redundant shall have fair treatment. When the right hon. Gentleman spoke of "a clear-cut, realistic modification of the longterm programme," that is a polite way of saying that many men will be declared redundant. As I understand it, there is anxiety in East Africa. Many men have removed themselves, lock, stock and barrel, from this country with their wives and families, having sold their houses and so on, and they are getting dismissed with four months' salary as the only compensation. In drawing a comparison with Sir Leslie Plummer, I am not saying that he should not have been compensated, but comparisons are bound to be made, and I say to the Minister that 2105 if he wishes to encourage the staff in East Africa, the best way he can do so is in the way I have suggested.
I entirely agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the scheme should not be shut down. It must go on, and I hope that it will continue along the lines of the Colonial Development Corporation. Whatever the hon. Member for Reading, South, may say, most of the undertakings of the Colonial Development Corporation have produced results in terms of £ s. d., and I hope that that will be the way in which the East African scheme will continue.
Like the hon. Member for Reading, South, I am a Member of the Public Accounts Committee, only I have the advantage over him of attending 50 per cent. more of the sittings when evidence was taken on the groundnut scheme than he did.
§ Mr. Nicholson
If the hon. Member could not have attended, then of course I withdraw that. Unlike him, however, I do not accept the Report of the Public Accounts Committee as inspired Holy Writ. My impression after listening to all the evidence and taking, I confess, far more than my fair share of the cross-examination, is still one of almost complete mystery. I do not think that we did more than touch the fringes of this vast problem.
The function of the Public Accounts Committee is, after all, very limited. I am afraid, however, that we exceeded our duty, although for very good reasons, and I am very glad that we did. The functions of the Public Accounts Committee are really to see that money is spent in the way it is voted by Parliament and that there is no unnecessary extravagance. We were not a Royal Commission of inquiry into the history or future of the groundnut scheme. I can say this as a member of the Public Accounts Committee; I think a great deal too much importance can be attached to that Report. What is significant is that the Committee examined the scheme and reported. The Committee is famed for under-statements rather than over-statements. I agree with the hon. Member for Reading, South, that the Public Accounts Committee acted in a 2106 completely non-party spirit, and I pay tribute to him for the extremely fair way in which he acted, and I am glad he paid the same tribute to Members on this side of the Committee.
I feel that this air of mystery is very great, and I do not think it is altogether necessary or right that we should approach it in a completely non-party spirit. We should approach it in a completely non-party spirit to the extent that we should not try to score cheap party points, but any verdict which may be passed on the activity of a Government must have a political content, and I certainly approach the history of the groundnut scheme as one who is criticising the Government responsible for it and I make no apology for doing so. I do not think the House is always at its best when proclaiming its non-party approach to a question; it generally means a woolly approach. I get the impression of reading a modern edition of "Alice in Wonderland." I wonder what future historians will make of it. I wish to quote from Mr. Wood's book, although he was referring only to the Southern Province. He says:Long years hence those who saw it, sitting by their firesides in reminiscent mood, may wonder if it really happened or whether they merely dreamt, in some idle moment, that a timber mill was sited before anyone had really counted the trees for the wood; that a pipeline costing £500,000 or more was built to take fuel, at a huge operating expense, to tanks set miles from anywhere in the African bush; that a railway was begun without anyone knowing exactly where it was going to in the end; and that inspiring everything was a faith that you could grow groundnuts when you had not even bothered to inspect the ground.The future historian, whoever he may be, will feel similar emotions about Kongwa and, possibly, Urambo. Does the Committee realise that the conception of this scheme was that an area little short of the size of Yorkshire should be cleared and put down to groundnuts, and that it should be done, as far as Kongwa was concerned, without any adequate knowledge of the rainfall, or adequate testing of the soil, or any of those pilot plans of which we have heard so much, and with no knowledge of the diseases which would affect the crops? I do not accept for a moment as an adequate explanation for the refusal to adopt a pilot plot policy that large-scale mechanised agriculture could only be tried out on a 2107 large scale. I accept the explanation of Sir Leslie Plummer that those were the instructions he received from the Minister.
The more we go into the history of the groundnut affair, the deeper the mystery becomes. The greatest mystery of all was this. What was the scheme to be? Was it to be primarily an agricultural scheme? The answer is that it was not; it was primarily an engineering scheme. Yet the Wakefield Mission was allowed to go out without a single engineering expert. This vast project to clear by mechanised means an area nearly as large as Yorkshire was undertaken (a) without finding out whether there were machines to do it under prevailing local conditions, (b) whether those machines, or any, could be got, (c) whether those machines could be maintained, and (d) whether there were adequate spares for the machines. Even today the spares problem is most acute in the Kongwa region. It will really baffle the historian in the future. Many will write a thesis about it, but they will all end in question marks. It was a military operation undertaken by amateur strategists, by the sort of people who, in 1942, were crying out for "A Second Front now."
§ Mr. Thurtle (Shoreditch and Finsbury)
Is it not a fact, to put it shortly, that the scheme derived its inspiration from the great need of a great capitalist combine to get more fats?
§ Mr. Nicholson
I know the theory which the hon. Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury (Mr. Thurtle) single-handed constantly put forward in the Select Committee; it is there in the evidence. There is an element of truth in it, naturally, in that the great capitalist combine, as he calls it, which dealt largely in fats was anxious, as the Ministry of Food and all nutritional experts have been and are, over the future fat position of the world. It is a fact that the initial conception of the scheme came from Mr. Samuel, but if the hon. Member for Shoreditch and Finsbury is going so far as to deduce from that that it is a capitalist ramp forced on a Socialist Government, I cannot follow him. I have said enough about the air of mystery and I want to get down to what I consider 2108 to be the most important element in the problem.
§ Mr. William Ross (Kilmarnock)
Before the hon. Member leaves the point about amateur strategists dealing with a warlike operation, will he say whether he applies that to General Harrison who, as far as I know, was engineer-in-chief in South-East Asia during the war.
§ Mr. Nicholson
I apply the remark to all who gave advice on the scheme originally and to the Minister and the Government who accepted it. I am not seeking scapegoats, or trying to make a scapegoat of Sir Leslie Plummer, General Harrison, or anyone else. The fundamental mystery of the scheme is that it made a large number of clever, honest and experienced men act like lunatics. That is the real mystery. I am not accusing anyone of criminal or bad intentions. I am saying there never can be any adequate explanation of the sheer folly, the sheer absence of planning with which this scheme was entered into, unless we assume that those who took the top level political decisions are to blame.
What I am trying to impress on the Committee is the exceedingly great difficulty of accounting for the past. Three questions must be answered. First, why was the scheme undertaken in this way? The answer is quite simple, that the Minister and the Government and possibly some of the right hon. Gentleman's advisers were obsessed with the idea that the larger an undertaking the less important the errors and difficulties would become—and that is sheer folly. The second question is why did the Government not draw in their horns when they could have done? It was constantly considered. Why have we only today heard a commonsense statement by the Minister of Food? The Minister spoke wise words and my comment to my neighbour was, "Those words are three years too late."
I come to the main point of my speech; that is, who is to blame? This indeed has a political content. I ask the Committee to believe that I am not approaching it primarily as a party politician, but as one who believes it is the duty of an Opposition to criticise the Government when they consider them to blame. I do not want to have witch-hunting. I think we should thank Sir Leslie Plummer and the others for having 2109 done their best, as undoubtedly they have done. I believe the clue to the whole situation is in the personality of the former Minister. I do not mind if I am accused of pursuing a political vendetta, or not. All I know is that a man whose activities I criticise most strongly and condemn most emphatically is still one of His Majesty's Ministers, and I should not be doing my duty if I did not tell the Committee why I think that the right hon. Gentleman should no longer be a member of the Government, and above all, the holder of one of the most important offices at the present time.
I believe him to be a man of immense ability. I hear, and it is only hearsay, that someone in the Ministry of Food said that the right hon. Gentleman could argue with the head of any Department in the Ministry and defeat him on his own ground, if that man was wrong—and that is a tremendous tribute. I believe him to be a man of great personal charm. I believe him in private life to be a man of impeccable honour and honesty. But I believe that a certain part of his mind is permanently closed. I believe that his whole conduct of the groundnut scheme showed that his mind was impervious to reason as soon as he had adopted the scheme.
I go further, and I say that the main reason why so many millions of pounds of money have been wasted, so many hearts broken and so much disrepute cast upon the Government of this country and the country as a whole is that he did not treat the House with candour. I believe sincerely that he thought he was doing right. He thought that the end justified the means. The long and short of it is that those thoughts led him to tell untruths to the House—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I make that statement after careful thought. I will give my grounds for saying that, and I have the references here in HANSARD: On 14th March, 1949, he said to the House:… our scheme … will be far more needed and far more profitable than was estimated originally.—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th March, 1950; Vol. 462, c. 1761.]I believe he knew that to be untrue. I am not saying that he said those words with any unworthy motive. He believed that he was doing his duty, but a Minister who believes that by telling an untruth he is doing his duty to the House had better soon retire—
§ Mr. Thurtle
May I submit this point of order to you, Sir Charles? I was once told in the House, and not so long ago, that it was un-Parliamentary to call a man a liar. When one says that an hon. Member has said things which are untrue, is not that the same thing as calling him a liar?
§ The Deputy-Chairman (Colonel Sir Charles MacAndrew)
Certainly, but the word "liar" has not been used. If it had been used, I should have stopped the hon. Gentleman. I think that the hon. Gentleman is developing his argument, and I do not consider it my duty to stop him.
§ Mr. Nicholson
Even if it were not un-Parliamentary, I should not have used the word "liar." I use the word "lie" to describe something told deliberately with unworthy motives, and I have been particularly careful to say that I sincerely believe that the Minister thought he was doing his duty in misleading the House. If it is not in order in a great Parliamentary assembly to say that a man has misled the House, and told untruths to the House from whatever motive, then I say that that renders our debates a farce.
My second point is this. On 27th July last year, the right hon. Gentleman said that the expenditure was a million pounds a month and it was a rapidly falling figure. That was not the case. Thirdly, on 21st November last year he produced his new plan for 600,000 acres knowing, I am firmly convinced, that it was nonsense. I am not making imputations against the personal honour of the right hon. Gentleman, but his method of reasoning, his psychology, his conception of his duty—we may call it what we like—shows him to be a man who thinks it right to mislead the House of Commons on important matters of Government policy. I say that is wrong and that he must go.
§ 6.55 p.m.
§ Mr. John Hynd (Sheffield, Attercliffe)
We have had an interesting speech from the hon. Member for Farnham (Mr. Nicholson). A very peculiar argument has been advanced, which, I think, was the burden of his speech, that the whole of the difficulties which undoubtedly faced this scheme were due to the personality of the former Minister of Food.
2111 It would be a remarkable thing if all the arguments put up, not only from this side of the Committee but even more so from hon. Members on the other side, as to the failure to consult the appropriate authorities at the beginning—incidentally, before the previous Minister of Food took office—the failure to consult agriculturists, to test the rain fall, and so on, which have been regarded as the reason for the difficulties which have arisen, were all now to be dropped entirely for this fantastic charge that the whole of the difficulties have been due to the personality of one person.
§ Mr. Nicholson
I did not say, "the whole of the difficulties." What I have been trying to say to the Committee is that the depths of confusion into which we got, are explicable by the personality of the former Minister. I am not blaming him for the geographical structure of Africa, or anything else.
§ Mr. Hynd
But that was, in fact, what the hon. Member said and I would refer him to the OFFICIAL REPORT tomorrow. What is more important, or, rather, less important, is the remarkable charge that the Minister was responsible for telling deliberate untruths to the House, which the hon. Gentleman said he may have expressed believing them himself, but misleading the House and, therefore, being untruthful. The remarkable quotations given by the hon. Member hardly bear out that charge.
The first was that the Minister expressed the view that the scheme would be far more needed and far more profitable than was first anticipated. I am unable to see how it can be regarded as an untruth when the Minister responsible for such a scheme expresses that as his view of the scheme at that particular time. I suggest that the hon. Member should be very careful when he brings that kind of statement into the category of untruths, because in spite of all that has been said from hon. Members opposite today, and in previous Debates, about how the Government could have foreseen the difficulties of this scheme and not so easily accepted the original estimates of the Wakefield Report, and so on, it is interesting to note that in the Debate on 6th November, 1947, the right hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. 2112 Stanley), speaking on behalf of the Opposition, used these words:But it all the forecasts are achieved—I prefer to say 'when' because I think that they will be achieved…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th November, 1947; Vol. 443, c. 2039-40.]That, presumably, would come into the category of untruths as explained by the hon. Member—
§ Mr. Nicholson rose—
§ Mr. Hynd
No I shall not give way. It is a simple enough point. The point made by the hon. Member was that when the Minister expressed his view about the further development of the scheme it was untrue. I say that when the leading spokesman for the Opposition says he prefers to use the words "when the forecasts are achieved" because he thinks they will be, that would equally be an untruth. It is really nonsense to try to deal with an important subject in terms of that kind. I am rather surprised at the hon. Member introducing a note of that kind into the Debate.
Like most hon. Members on this side of the Committee, I am more than surprised at protestations from hon. Members opposite that this matter should not be made the subject of political controversy. I would have welcomed that in this Debate. Hon. Members opposite used that kind of argument but did not stick to it. It is precisely those who urge that we should keep this matter out of the political field, who have brought it into the political field. The hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) suggested that the whole scheme from the beginning was a political stunt. He said the scheme was launched on political grounds and that on political grounds an impossible pace was set. He was dealt with satisfactorily by my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, South (Mr. Mikardo).
I would remind hon. Members that the pace was set by the Wakefield Commission, which was inspired by the proposal of the United Africa Company. That Commission consisted not only of Mr. Wakefield himself, who, I understand, is not out of the good books of the Opposition and is regarded as a competent expert in these matters. The second party. making 66 per cent. of the Commission, was Mr. Martin, a man whom hon. Members opposite advocated should be brought back as one of the outstanding experts. Here we have the proposal of 2113 these two men, who made up two-thirds of the Commission, and now we find hon. Members opposite telling us it was a political stunt.
§ Mr. Braine
In the Report of the Overseas Food Corporation for 1948-49, it is specifically stated of the Wakefield proposals that:Ministers responsible examined them, discussed them with Colonial interests at home and overseas …"—
§ It being Seven o'Clock, The CHAIRMAN left the Chair, further Proceeding standing postponed until after the consideration of Private Business set down by direction of The CHAIRMAN OF WAYS AND MEANS under Standing Order No. 7 (Time for taking Private Business).
§ Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER resumed the Chair.