HC Deb 21 October 1952 vol 505 cc955-64

8.15 p.m.

Mr. James Johnson (Rugby)

I wish to speak this evening about a small island, far away in the centre of the Indian Ocean. Although we have quite a long time before us I do not intend to detain the House unduly. Still less do I intend to copy a famous Member of this House in the 18th century, Chatham, the Elder Pitt, who once spoke on a similar theme and mentioned the word "sugar" five times consecutively.

The Island of Mauritius is often quoted as the classic example of a colonial economy. Here we have an island of something like 700 square miles with a population of a little over 500,000 dependent upon one industry—sugar. I think that I am safe in saying that sugar accounts for something like 97 per cent. of its exports in value. The island was uninhabited before Europeans came to it and now there are a little over half a million. The density of the population is something like 620 per square mile, with a population in parts of the sugar plantation belt in the centre, of something like 1,500 per square mile, barely existing on agriculture.

It is a beautiful island and, like the Seychelles nearby, has a beautiful climate. Most of its liabilities are manmade and they are many. This is monoculture with a vengeance and that is a thing which we wish to avoid in our Colonial Dependencies. Much of the food and all the clothing and all consumer goods are imported. In the past the sugar prices have been incalculable. The island has been swept and the plantations beaten down by cyclones and the sugar industry therefore is not as efficient as it might be. I am almost tempted to quote a lengthy article from the 1947 Report of the Mauritius Economic Commission, but out of mercy for the Minister I shall not do so. I think that the proceeds of the industry have been unfairly divided as between employers and workers.

Summing up, what type of balance sheet do we have? We see a people with widespread malnutrition, a people that are riddled with anaemia, malaria and enteritis, people who are badly housed and badly educated. In fact, quoting the Report, one can say that something like 60 per cent. of the houses are dark, low and unhygienic, but I hasten to add that the people themselves keep their homes scrupulously clean.

It is easy to point an accusing finger at all this and to say that this ought not to be. What is to be done about it? To give authority to what I am saying I should like to quote out of the Report for 1945–51, entitled "British Islands in the Southern Hemisphere," the comment of Sir Donald MacKenzie Kennedy, who was Governor of the island between 1942 and 1949. He said: The root causes of discontent in this insulated community are economic and not political …. Good crops, good prices and cheap food would go far to assuage the present discontents. If we are to help these debilitated people we need to spend a great deal on social services—health and education, for example. We have to find the money. The whole revenue of the island is little more than £.4¼ million. I have studied very carefully the economic report for 1947 and I have also looked at the 10-year development plan. They are admirable as far as they go, but I should like to put some questions to the Minister and make one or two suggestions.

First, there is the question—which we meet with in the West Indies, who have a somewhat similar economy—of the excess of population. One hears reports of schemes of emigration to North Borneo and Tanganyika. Both Tanganyika and Madagascar are adjacent. They have many parts which are uncultivated and I surmise that they are both possibilities for emigration in regard to this excess of population on Mauritius.

Secondly, there is the question of unemployment. I am told that the labour position is deteriorating, and I quote from a letter which I have received from a dependable source in the island. It says: During the deader periods of intercrop, unemployment of unskilled labourers will be sharply felt owing to the recent introduction of weed-killing spraying solutions which will reduce the major weeding field works. The skilled workers are already being squeezed out and dozens of them are venturing out to African colonies in search of employment. The black-coated classes are the worst and while the whites of this class have protection in the firms and industries owned by the French-whites, the coloured are in a pitiable situation and loudly crying for redress. Thirdly, there is the question of sugar. I understand that the Ministry of Food have allocated a quota of a little over 350,000 tons. The producing capacity of the island is in the neighbourhood of 600,000 tons and they have actually produced a little over half a million tons in the past year. We want sugar badly. Mauritius is in the sterling area and I would ask the Minister why we cannot allocate to Mauritius a larger quota. Another aspect, which is just as important, is that there is great dissatisfaction in this industry as between millers and planters. Lest anyone should think that I be guilty of making biased statements, let me give a short quotation from the Mauritius Economic Commission Report of 1948. I would add that things are no better four or five years after.

The Report says: … that is little doubt that, in view of the relative risks involved, the millers' proportion of the earnings of the industry is too high. In the opinion of some members of the Commission, the lesson to be learned … is that millers occupy a dominating position in the industry out of proportion to the function which they perform. The production of sugar, at least in the circumstances to be found in Mauritius, is primarily an agricultural operation. It is the growers who carry most of the risks and who should receive most of the profits. In fact, it is found that millers retain a substantial profit not only in good years but in bad years as well, when the whole loss (or more than the net loss) falls on the growers. This is not good enough. In saying that I am backed up by the official "Blue Book"—if I may so call it—of the Commission which was sent out some four years ago.

Today, the balance is still always in favour of the miller. I am told that something like 94 per cent. of the money in the rehabilitation fund went to the millers. I would ask the Minister if it is a fact that the key post of accountant to the Central Board needs to be filled. This is the Board which assesses the respective amounts to be given to the millers and the planters. I ask the Minister to consider sending an independent economist to assess the share as between these planters and millers. I am told that there is a great deal of friction. I think I am safe in saying that there is an appeal which is coming before the Privy Council in this connection.

Fourthly, in this economic field, what about an outlet in the Commonwealth for the tea and tobacco of Mauritius? Earlier, I talked of monoculture with a vengeance. This island needs a much more diversified economy. Is it possible to give them some outlet for their tea and tobacco in other parts of the Commonwealth?

There are many other things about which one could talk. There is the need for a planters' laboratory on the island, to assess the sucrose content of the sugar. There is need for a co-operative distillery, because many of the planters feel that, like Barbados and Jamaica, in the West Indies, they could have a market for rum here when they have distilled their molasses. They would need the latest equipment and an up-to-date distillery; but that is a financial matter.

Mauritius is on the eve of general elections. If one looks at the past history of the island—and even today this is the case, in my opinion—there is no doubt that the Government have been over-centralised and are much too distant from the people as a whole. This is quite a common experience in many other countries. I do not believe that they will ever control wages, profits and employment effectively until they have their responsible government under—and I stress this—a party system which will cut across the evils of communalism.

They have perhaps one of the most obvious examples of a plural society. They have French, they have coloureds, they have both Hindus and Mohammedans, and they also have Chinese. There is, therefore, the need of a party system to cut across these communal difficulties which have existed for so long. Not until there is a party system and responsible government will these people of the island, who up to now have been debilitated both physically and politically, get out of the hold of the reactionary elements which in the past have dominated, and at the moment still dominate, the industrial life of the island.

8.29 p.m.

The Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. Oliver Lyttelton)

I am sure that the House is indebted to the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. J. Johnson) for raising the economic and, indeed, other problems which face Mauritius today, and I welcome the opportunity of spending a little time in reply. I hope he will not mind if my answers are staccato, for I will try to cover as much ground as possible.

The hon. Gentleman began by describing the many economic liabilities of Mauritius as man-made, and in general terms one could not cavil at that description, because many of the liabilities from which we all suffer are man-made, and some of them are even Government-made, although, of course, not during the life of the present Government. But he spoke of the cyclones on the island almost in the same breath as he talked about the liabilities of Mauritius being man-made; and the cyclone is an instance of something which is natural or divine—the hand of God—which certainly has had a great effect upon the economy of the island.

The hon. Member also said that the health of Mauritius was very bad, and here I might give one figure in which the House will be interested: the incidence of malaria has been reduced to one per cent. of what it was, which is a great tribute to the advance of medical science. At the same time, I agree with him in deploring some of the housing accommodation in which the population live and in wishing that we could overcome that problem quickly. It is not at all easy.

Next, the hon. Gentleman went on to analyse the revenue, which is quite considerable for an island the size of Surrey. It is about £6,000,000. I think the schemes of development which the Government of Mauritius have laid out are admirable, but of course, as the hon. Gentleman said, there remains much the same problem in Mauritius as that which faces, and I quite frankly admit baffles, the West Indies.

Dr. H. Morgan (Warrington)

It is worse in the West Indies.

Mr. Lyttelton

This is of the same order and is a very baffling problem. We must, therefore, pay careful attention to the question of emigration, and again I am grateful that the hon. Member for Rugby has raised this question, because it is something which we must examine and in which we must try to achieve an improvement. He spoke of emigration to Tanganyika and North Borneo. I can tell him that, in connection with North Borneo, the two Governments are reexamining the subject and are in close correspondence at this very moment.

There is a trickle of emigration to Tanganyika, but it is no more than that. I have some hopes that, with the projected trade school which will seek to train more artisans, we can make that trickle into a noticeable flow. That is possibly the right direction in which to tackle the problem of emigration—to get the artisans who are needed in Tanganyika. That project, I am sure, will have the hon. Gentleman's support, and we shall try to push on with it.

The hon. Gentleman will not expect me to go too deeply into the reasons, but I am not optimistic about Madagascar as an outlet. Indeed, I think the reasons are quite understandable. I am sure that the committee which is being appointed on emigration will do good work, for it is one of the problems which no survey of the economic situation in Mauritius could possibly omit; and that, no doubt, was the reason why the hon. Member for Rugby put it first among the problems in his review.

He made some comments about unemployment and quoted a letter, which he had received from a responsible source and which contained rather gloomy predictions of what will happen in the future. So far, I have no information at the Colonial Office that unemployment is at all serious, other than the seasonal fluctuation in employment which is inevitable in an agricultural economy of this nature. On the contrary, the information which I have received—and this is perhaps not quite a fair answer to the hon. Gentleman—is that during the cropping season employers are sometimes alarmed about the lack of labour.

The hon. Member mentioned earlier in his speech that he thought that the sugar industry was inefficient. At the same time, this letter rather complained of the effect of modern methods of growing sugar upon employment in the island. Those two things are not exactly contradictory, but we do find that during a transitional period particularly, labour is displaced by the use of new methods as part of continuing research which has made Mauritius one of the most efficient sugar producing countries.

The hon. Member asked some questions which are very often asked about the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement and also the International Sugar Agreement. Why could not Mauritius get a bigger quota? Under the Commonwealth Agreement those quotas will come up for review in 1953, and Mauritius has a very good case to get her quota revised. But under the International Agreement those countries which are short of their quota can transfer their quota to the countries that are capable of growing more, and I think, as far as my memory and information carry me, that the production of sugar in Mauritius is not held back by any Agreement.

Nor has there been any difficulty in marketing up to date at a satisfactory price all she can grow. I may express the hope that, since the total sugar quotas of the British Empire and Commonwealth are much higher than the present production, there will be still left a large gap which Mauritian production will be able to fill.

The hon. Gentleman touched upon the rather vexed question—I think this is really the particular point he wanted me to answer—of the share of the small planters and millers in the rehabilitation fund. The percentages he quoted, I think, were only approximately correct, but I am informed that a representative committee has now recommended legislation, which is under review, and which is designed to divide the rehabilitation fund by agreement. I am also told that at the present moment there is a difference about those proportions. I have never seen any share of a central fund about which there was not disagreement. It is a very healthy sign that there is. My present information is much more optimistic than that of the hon. Member, but I feel that if a satisfactory arrangement cannot be reached we shall have to take—or rather the Mauritian Government will have to take—other lines to get a settlement; but, so far, I am told, it is likely to be settled.

The hon. Member asked me a question, to which I do not know the answer, about a vacancy for an accountant on the Central Board; and whether I would consider sending an economist out there. As a general rule the sending of an economist to a far distant part of the world is not a policy I find particularly agreeable, but since the suggestion has emanated from the hon. Gentleman, to whom I am very grateful for raising the matter of Mauritius, let me assure him that I will give it careful consideration—especially if an economist can be found from the quadrangles of the university I used to grace so long ago.

Mr. J. Johnson

Is it not a fact that this key post of the accountant who advises the Central Board in this matter of assessment is empty at the moment? That was my point, and if it needs filling, could the right hon. Gentleman send out some independent economist—or accountant for that matter—who could adjudicate?

Mr. Lyttelton

I will certainly look into that matter. I think the post is vacant. I cavil only at the suggestion that an accountant's is a key post—but that may be no more than the opinion of an industrialist who is more keen on the man on the shop floor than the man in the office. But we will let that pass by today. I mention this only because of the constituency from which the hon. Member comes—which is sometimes described not only as Rugby.

Next, the hon. Member touched, I think, upon the outlets in the Empire for tea and tobacco. Tobacco does represent a rather difficult problem, since at present the yield of amerillo is so high compared with that of exportable tobacco that the cultivator is impelled to grow it by economic facts; he likes to grow the crop he can sell in Mauritius itself, and is not paying full attention to the export of tobacco, which would be a very valuable advantage to our total supplies in the Empire and Commonwealth.

We can be more optimistic about tea because the high quality of Mauritian tea has been commanding a good market at a little under 4s. a lb. Since tea is, speaking agriculturally, a complementary crop to sugar, and since sugar is to many of us consumers a complementary commodity to tea, it would seem to be a highly felicitous combination and one which we ought to encourage. Measures are being taken to try to damp down—if that is the right term—the local consumption, which appears to be very high, in order that more of this tea, which finds a market abroad, should be exported for the general good of Mauritius.

I am sure that this is a useful line—and this is by no means the only part of the Commonwealth territories having what the hon. Gentleman described as a mono-culture, depending almost on one crop—because it must be a matter of prime economic importance to try to diversify the crops, just as in our big industrial areas we try to diversify the industries in order that the incidence of economic blizzards upon a particular commodity may not ruin the whole economy.

The hon. Member also said that there was need for a co-operative distillery. Looking at it from this end of the world one would be inclined to agree with him, but we have a very energetic officer in charge of the co-operative department in Mauritius, and I feel sure that this should be a matter for local initiative. This officer is very unlikely to let a chance of getting a co-operative distillery go. It is not a matter which I think we can initiate from here.

Lastly, the hon. Gentleman said that the Mauritian Government was over-centralised. That may perhaps be a slight over-emphasis, considering that Mauritius is only about the size of Surrey—and I am sorry that the right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), who is so much an expert on local government in Surrey, is no longer on the Opposition Front Bench tonight. I think that what the hon. Gentleman said was perhaps a little exaggerated.

The hon. Member for Rugby went on to sing the praises of the party system in relation to Mauritian affairs, and looked rather menacingly at me across the Floor of the House as if it was my duty to create a couple of parties in Mauritius, or any other Colony, in order that the party system might arrive by my genesis rather than by the parthenogenesis, which is the only way in which I think parties can be begun.

Among the many other duties which have been laid upon the Secretary of State for the Colonies—such is the contradicting or confirming information which appears in the newspapers—this is indeed a new one which rather frightens me, that I should be asked to be responsible for creating a party system. I might perhaps meet the hon. Gentleman by saying that I should be glad to see Mauritius so far along the path of progress that it could enjoy a party system, when we might see debates upon the Adjournment in the Mauritian House in very much the same way as we are witnessing this one this evening.

In conclusion, let me again thank the hon. Gentleman for raising these matters. We will take up any of the suggestions which I have not covered. I am sure the whole House is grateful to him for raising the subject.