HC Deb 17 February 1955 vol 537 cc560-4

The following Questions stood upon the Order Paper:

97. Mr. J. Johnson

To ask the Secretary of State for the Colonies if he will make a statement upon the rioting and disturbances in Sierra Leone, where armed police and military forces opened fire and 20 people were killed and many injured.

98. Mr. John Hall

To ask the Secretary of State for the Colonies if he will make a statement about the recent riots in Sierra Leone.

The Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. Alan Lennox-Boyd)

I will, with permission, answer Questions Nos. 97 and 98.

For some time two unions in Sierra Leone have been negotiating, through a joint industrial council, for wage increases. A deadlock was reached on 4th February. The employees adhered to a demand for an increase of l0d. a day, while the employers offered an increase of 6d. with a promise to re-open negotiations as soon as new cost-of-living figures were available. The employers asked for arbitration if their offer were not accepted.

The employees' representatives refused both the offer and to go to arbitration. They invited all workers to a mass meeting at which it was decided to call a general strike on 9th February. The Railway Workers' Union publicly dissociated itself from this call, and on 9th of February there was only a partial response. During the next two days the strikers caused a series of disturbances at the railway workshops and the port installations, and a number of arrests was made.

On Friday the 11th, strike leaders and the leader of an opposition political party addressed a meeting of strikers. The strikers were promised the opposition party's support and the failure to get their demands was blamed on the political party in power. The meeting was orderly, but was followed by serious rioting.

The railway workshops, the dock areas and the Eastern Police Station were attacked by the strikers. Troops stood by to help the police, who were becoming exhausted after two days continual pressure, and in the afternoon began operations in support of them. One company relieved the Eastern Police Station, which was in danger of being burned down with men inside it. The police fired a number of rounds of rifle fire in defending the area of the police station. There were three casualties among the strikers and one European police officer was fatally injured by the crowd.

Rioting spread, and continued into the next day, Saturday. Attempts were made to dislocate essential service installations, road communications, water and electricity supplies, and the telephone system, at key points. The Governor states that these appeared to be carefully planned and executed.

Three companies of troops were fully engaged during this period. They and the Police had to open fire a number of times in their attempts to control the widespread rioting, and to prevent the looting, arson, and general destruction of property which was going on.

On Saturday afternoon, the strike leaders approached the Government. The Governor informed them that he would appoint a Commission of Inquiry to look into all circumstances of the dispute and the disturbances and that he would immediately set up a Conciliatory Committee to bring workers' and employers' sides together again.

On this the strike was called off. Rioting immediately died down. Patrols and a curfew were maintained over the weekend, and on Monday there was an almost complete return to work. Troops were withdrawn on Monday and the curfew is being lifted today.

Seventeen persons killed and 84 injured have been reported to date, but there may still be some casualties not yet reported. There were no serious casualties among the troops, but besides the police officer who was killed there were four others severely wounded and many suffered minor injuries.

The Conciliatory Committee has met several times, but I have not yet heard that it has reached a conclusion.

I would like to express the regret and the grave concern of Her Majesty's Government at these happenings. I think that I must await the report of the Commission of Inquiry before coming to any conclusions upon them.

Mr. Johnson

May I thank the Colonial Secretary for his statement, and ask him if he is aware that these 20 people who were killed included five schoolchildren and one woman? Is it not a fact that this is one of the worst incidents in the Colonies for some years? Public opinion, both here and in the Colony, is most disquieted about this state of affairs, and we hope that the Commission will have the widest terms of reference to deal with wages and the circumstances of the shooting and so on.

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

I can assure the hon. Member that there will be a most searching inquiry into what I recognise as a most serious state of affairs.

Mr. J. Griffiths

Will the Colonial Secretary take an early opportunity of either making a statement, or of making a statement and presenting copies to the House of the report of the investigation ordered by the Governor? We join with the Colonial Secretary in expressing sympathy to those bereaved and injured. Will he make particular inquiries into what I am told are two of the most important issues in this conflict, the recent steep increase in the cost of living and the position of rice, both as to availability and price? Would those be suitable subjects for inquiry?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

In addition to the inquiry, I will follow what the right hon. Member has said. An expert from the United Kingdom is shortly going out to recalculate the cost of living indices, which the Government recognise are probably not entirely reliable.

Mr. Hall

Is there any evidence that the riots were stimulated or planned as a result of the conflict of interests between the Colony and the Protectorate?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

It would be wiser to wait until I have the Commission's report before I attempt to estimate the cause.

Mr. Bing

Can the Minister tell the House what was the weekly wage over which a l0d. increase was sought?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

Of course, that will undoubtedly emerge and be given full publicity in the report of the inquiry. There is not a common wage. There are many varieties of wage, and any answer I gave would be misleading. We had better wait until these things have been sifted and they will be given full publicity.

Mr. Alport

What is to be the composition of the inquiry for which His Excellency the Governor has called?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

What he has in mind is that it should consist of a chairman from the United Kingdom, an expert on industrial relations from the United Kingdom and two judicial representatives from West Africa.

Mr. Rankin

Can the Minister say whether any other methods have been considered for dispersing a crowd? Time and again it is the bullet that is the method. Is there no alternative like the fire brigade, or tear gas, that might be used in cases such as this?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

The hon. Gentleman knows that it is when the bullet is used to disperse a crowd that, naturally and quite properly, much publicity attaches to it. Crowds are frequently dispersed by quite different means. The force that was used and the reasons for using it will be thoroughly thrashed out at the inquiry.

Mr. Dugdale

Is the Minister really telling the House that he does not know what the wages are? Can he give us no idea what they are?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

That is quite clearly a matter into which the Commission of Inquiry ought to go, and I am not prepared to add to the answer that I have already given.

Mr. J. Johnson

Is it not a fact that the meagre pittance of 6d. a day increase will be about a 10 per cent. increase in wages?

Mr. Lennox-Boyd

I have nothing to add to the statement I made that this will be thoroughly investigated by the Commission of Inquiry.