HC Deb 26 January 1955 vol 536 cc383-94

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

3.20 a.m.

Mr. James Johnson (Rugby)

I am given to understand that the Minister of State for Colonial Affairs has left his bed to take part in this debate. I wish to tender him on behalf of half a million Mauritians my grateful thanks. In the last two months two West Indian Territories—British Guiana and Honduras—have been in the news, and the island of Mauritius, about which I wish to speak tonight, has much in common with those two West Indian Territories.

Mauritius is a beautiful island. It depends on sugar for about 97 per cent. of its income. Like British Guiana, it has masses of ill-paid semi-literate plantation workers, and like those two Territories it has a Left-wing Labour Party which won at least 13 of the 19 elected seats at the last Election. I want the Mauritius Labour Party to avoid the difficulties of British Guiana, and I should like it to follow the path of the P.U.P. in Honduras, and work out a basis for being a responsible Government within the British Commonwealth.

I first raised the matter of this island's difficulties in October, 1952, and had a most felicitous answer by the then Mr. Oliver Lyttelton, now Lord Chandos. Lord Munster visited the island last July, I believe, and saw all parties and sections of the people. Since then I have asked two, if not three, Questions about the proposed constitutional advance in the Colony but I have always drawn a blank. Things are moving to a critical stage in the island in a political sense.

Delay is dangerous and I hope that the Government are deciding about constitutional change, and that we may get an answer tonight. We have half a million people there, and as the French would say it is a carrefour des races—Creole, coloured, some Chinese, half the population Indian, Hindu and Muslim, and of course there are 8,000 French and some English-speaking people too.

At the last two Elections, the Labour Party beat the Conservative Party and it now has 13 of the 19 elected seats, with an additional 12 nominated members in the Legislative Assembly. I am given to understand that there were discussions with the Government in the autumn and that by mid-November proposals had been sent to the United Kingdom. The Government have been sitting on those proposals ever since. I am also given to understand by dependable sources that the following are the kind of conclusions that have been sent here and put forth by the island's Labour Party. I will put them before the Minister for comment.

The proposals are that the Legislative Assembly should consist of 25 members and still be on the same constitutional basis, with the same multi-member constituency system; 12 nominated members, of whom six will be nominated by the Governor, and the other six nominated by the Governor on the advice of the majority party. Of course, it will obviously be the Labour Party.

So far as the Executive Council is concerned, I am given to understand that the majority party will suggest seven members for it and that these seven will act as quasi-Ministers. I hope that they will have more power than under the "liaison system" that has been in operation in the last few years. I am told also that the Labour Party has asked for universal suffrage by at least 1963. It would like it before, but would be content if the Government were to consent to that date.

That is the constitutional position. What about the Labour Party out there? I have been making comparisons between the island and British Guiana, where we have had our difficulties, and British Honduras, where we have avoided difficulties. The Conservative Party does not like being beaten anywhere, no less in Mauritius. It has campaigned against the majority party in the House.

I gather from the paper "Le Cerneen" that its leading writer goes under the initials N.M.U. They can have what initials they like and write what articles they like, but I do not like the tendentious nature in which they are seeking to divide the population on a communal basis. It is a dangerous game to play off Hindus against coloured, or Chinese against Muslim, and so on. Incidentally, it is setting at nought or nullifying all the excellent work being done by the Educa- tion Department, for example with its multi-racial school camps. and by the British Council under the inspired guidance of Mr. John Sutherland.

This Conservative paper has a pathological attitude towards the Labour Party. This may sound a little fantastic, but it talks of the possible annexation of Mauritius by India. I could quote in French but my French is so bad that I think I had better give the details in English. It talks of the leader of the Labour Party Dr. Ramgoolam as being "the Jagan of Mauritius".

This is dangerous talk. The Indians favour the English language and English traditions, and they want English law as opposed to the Code Napoléon. They would like to have English judges, when they think that they might get a fairer deal than they have had in the past. They counter the charges of the French-speaking Conservative wing by saying that they on their part have designs upon Mauritius, and wish it to join a federation with Madagascar and Reunion. I should value the Minister's comment about this.

Having said that about the political scene, I wish to comment on the economic position of the island. It is now overpopulated. Here again one can compare it with the West Indies. It is an island very much like Barbados. It has about half a million people with a density of 700 per square mile in some parts, rising to 1,800 per square mile in the centre. This presents a baffling problem.

It will be difficult to solve the problems presented by this island, with its monocultures, like sugar, and with its increasing population. There may have to be some family planning in the future; I do not know. At the moment the sugar industry is booming and it will boom for some time to come. We have the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement, so that conditions do not seem too bad; but, as I see the position, we are now at the maximum and optimum of sugar cultivation.

We must diversify the economy. I should like to ask the Minister to comment upon any other possible source of employment. There is an unemployment figure of about 20 per cent. One in five of the working population is unemployed after the sugar-harvesting season. What about tea growing? At the present fantastic price per lb. in the United Kingdom there must be quite a good opening for tea cultivation in Mauritius. Perhaps tobacco growing could be developed, and it would be sensible to develop dairy farming, if possible. I suggest that the Government should give the labourers on the sugar plantations a plot of land and a dairy cow.

Of course we must have some secondary industry if possible. I wonder whether, with the swift-flowing rivers there are, we might make use of water to provide power for secondary industries. On page 14 of the last Annual Report, the official comment is: Unemployment is becoming a serious problem in this island for two main reasons—firstly, because the population is increasing steadily, and secondly because the principal industry is employing less labour, due to centralisation of sugar factories, the introduction of new machinery and the new varieties of sugar canes. The cost of living has gone up by about four times compared with 1939, and the position is not helped by the unfavourable rice agreement with Burma, which was criticised in the "Financial Times," or by the way in which the cost of flour has increased.

The question of overpopulation is a difficult matter, but what about emigration? When I last spoke on this subject, two and a half years ago, the former Colonial Secretary said that a committee would sit, and mentioned possible outlets in Tanganyika for artisans or white-collar workers. Borneo was also mentioned. I should like to know if the Committee has arrived at any findings and if so what they are.

Now let me say a word about education. I wonder if it is possible to have free compulsory education in these islands, or is such an attempt doomed because of limited finance? A few weeks ago I was shocked to hear that the Government have decreased the leaving age from 14 to 11 years. There have been bitter complaints about this from the poorer sections because they cannot afford to send their children to the independent schools if they cannot get into the Government schools.

There are 80,000 children in the islands who qualify for education between the ages of five and 14, and about 20,000 of them—one in four—are on the waiting lists. To leave one child in four without education is, to me, unthinkable. The explanation is shortage of schools, teachers, and the money to build new schools. A scheme of double-shifts was tried, but the youngsters ran about the schools and were a perfect nuisance to the staff and to other students.

The director of education has spoken of a difficult year ahead in 1955, and has appealed for help from teachers and parents and anyone else who can assist in these difficult conditions. I quote half a dozen lines from the Annual Report of the Education Department: Executive Council advised that in deciding the admission policy of the Education Department more weight should be given to the necessity of providing education for the maximum number of pupils possible than to approximation to ideal conditions for teaching. In making this recommendation it was aware that the 70,000 children in Government and aided primary schools at the end of 1953 were crowded into these schools at the rate of 5.8 square feet per pupil as compared with the statutory 10 square feet which the department has consistently aimed at and never yet been able to achieve. Here we have the Director of Education appealing for help from parents and others in this difficult year ahead. I suggest to the Minister that we have set our sights too high and built too few schools of Concrete instead of more wooden schools, which would have been cheaper, but which would have accommodated more children.

I wish to say something about secondary education. We have here the usual charge in regard to the Colonies that the syllabus is too academic. There is a demand for more technical education. Only one child in 10 gets to the secondary stage. There are only two Government secondary schools for boys, with 750 pupils, and one for girls, with just over 100 pupils.

Nine independent schools have been vetted by Government inspectors and we here pay 75 per cent. of the teachers' wages. I am wondering what are the qualifications of the teachers in the other schools which do not come up to the standard. As a teacher myself, I am staggered by the amount of language teaching. I am amazed by the fact that children from poor Chinese and Indian homes can be taught three languages in addition to their own vernacular, and leave school at the age of 11.

I think that I have said sufficient about the schools. I am also troubled about the teachers' training college and the output of teachers there. I was a little shocked that we are now content with a day college instead of what I thought a much better scheme—a residential college, as was originally planned. In a multi-racial society it would be a good thing to have the different peoples—Chinese, Indian, coloured, French-speaking—living together, training as teachers. At present the only combined activity in the college which they take together is the midday meal.

Mauritius has a most complex society and is one of the most difficult of our Colonial Territories. It is a linguistic Tower of Babel. I hope the Minister will be forthcoming, in his reply, particularly about constitutional advance. The Mauritians are a cheerful people, Mauritius is a beautiful island, but I understand that there is mounting discontent in the island at the moment, and it is time that some action was taken in these matters.

3.36 a.m.

The Minister of State for Colonial Affairs (Mr. Henry Hopkinson)

I feel sure that hon. Members in all parts of the House will be grateful, as I am, to the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. J. Johnson) for having raised this subject on the Adjournment. I hope to be able to answer his questions, but the debate is also valuable in that it will focus public attention in this country and elsewhere on the affairs of this small but very important Colony.

The hon. Member ranged over a very wide field of political, economic and social questions in Mauritius. I should like, first, to deal with the political aspect. As the House will remember, my noble Friend the Minister without Portfolio, who was then Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, visited Mauritius last June for the purpose of acquainting himself with conditions in the island. There had been no visit from a Minister for some time.

Mr. J. Johnson

Seventeen years.

Mr. Hopkinson

I know.

During the course of that visit he discussed with the Governor and other leading personalities the possibilities of certain changes in the Constitution. Since then the Governor has carried on discussions with leading political persons, and these discussions culminated in a meeting, not in November but on 15th December, when he saw the representatives of all the main political groups in the Territory. During the course of these conversations a number of possible changes were suggested and canvassed, including such matters as the composition of the Executive Council and of the Legislative Council, the franchise, the nature of the constituencies and, last but not least, the development of the role of the liaison officers, as they are called at the moment, who have certain responsibilities.

We have received at the Colonial Office a massive dispatch from the Governor, with his considered recommendations. It has not yet been seen by the Secretary of State, who, as the House knows, is at present in Nigeria, and in any event these are recommendations on a number of very important and complicated questions the consideration of which is bound to take time here, and may require further consultation with the Governor. I cannot comment on the details of the proposals mentioned by the hon. Member, and which I think he must have obtained from the Press, because the talks were confidential. Although I know that he will be disappointed by what I have just said, I can assure him that the Secretary of State is very much alive to the importance of this matter and to the need for a further statement of policy at an early date.

Mr. Johnson

Is it a mistake to suggest, as I suggested, that these recommendations reached the Minister as long ago as the middle of November?

Mr. Hopkinson

We received them only last week.

The difficulty of devising any satisfactory Constitution for Mauritius is much enhanced by the multi-racial and multi-religious character of the community.

The hon. Member asked me, in connection with the existing party set-up, the extent to which the present Labour Party is under Hindu domination. In particular, he inquired about certain allegations which have been made in the Press in Mauritius regarding the alleged aim of the party to secure some sort of closer association with India. Of course, the party is predominantly Hindu in spite of the fact that some of the leaders are Creoles, of mixed African-European descent. On the other hand, I think there is no real evidence to substantiate the other allegations, and I would prefer not to speculate on these matters, which are largely newspaper opinions. That applies also to the allegations which have been put forward from time to time about Communist influence in the Mauritius Labour Party.

In general, I see that the more extreme policies which in the past have been advocated by the leaders of the party have recently tended to become more moderate. They have, in fact, dropped their plans for the nationalisation of the sugar industry. These are all developments that we welcome.

As regards the so-called Conservative Party, I do not think that name has been used, except in this House. I have never seen the Ralliement Mauricien referred to before as such. Any suggestion of wider federation with Madagascar and Reunion is certainly something which we would entertain in about the same degree as any suggestion of a closer association of the island with India.

Mr. Johnson

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that it is dangerous nonsense for anyone to allege these views in relation to either of the main parties in Mauritius.

Mr. Hopkinson

I do not want to speculate in regard to these matters, but it is not in any way in line with the views or the intentions of Her Majesty's Government in these matters.

The hon. Gentleman raised the very important question of overpopulation. This is a great problem and will become more so as the years pass. The Government of Mauritius are fully aware of the dangers of the situation. They have examined the possibility of emigration to North Borneo, Tanganyika and Madagascar with, I am sorry to say, very little success. I have not time to go into the difficulties which have been discovered in regard to all these territories, but a Committee—perhaps this is a fresh committee from the one referred to by the hon. Gentleman—was set up in 1953 under the Chairmanship of the Director of Statistics to examine the whole problem, and it has submitted an interim Report. The full Report and recommendations are now awaited.

At the same time the Mauritius Government intend to do all they can to increase the productivity of the island to meet this problem of a larger population. As the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, there are possibilities, in addition to the great sugar crop, of increasing some of the alternative crops such as the use of bagasse—the remnants of the sugar cane after extraction, which might be used as pulp for paper—tea, tobacco, aloe fibre, and food crops.

The most promising results have so far been achieved with green tea on two Government experimental plantation stations in Mauritius and plans are now being considered for the building up of the tea industry for export. At present most of it is consumed locally. About 900,000 pounds were produced last year, most of it in the form of black tea, but now concentration is on green tea for export.

The hon. Member also referred to education. The Department of Education in Mauritius is faced with very serious problems, one of which is the improvement of the standard of education in a plural society which, as the hon. Gentleman said, consists of 67 per cent. Indo-Mauritians, in addition to the Creoles, and descendants of the original French inhabitants of the Territory. It was the French who first went there. In addition, there is the Chinese group. Some of the children have to learn three or even four languages.

Then there is the problem of the rapid increase in the number of children of school age, which has risen in the period 1950–53 from 55,000 to 72,000. At present 80 per cent. of the children of schoolgoing age are receiving full-time education. There is a five-year development plan, both for primary and secondary school buildings, which was approved in 1952 and which aims at almost doubling the classroom space in the schools during this period. During 1953, eight new Government primary schools were finished, as well as extensions to a number of others. Three new secondary schools, of which two are for girls, are included in the present programme.

As regards the reorganisation of the primary educational system, what occurred was that as from 1st January this year a six-year primary school course was introduced. It does not mean that a child will necessarily leave at eleven years plus; it means that the primary course will end there. Those for whom there are places in secondary schools will go on till the age of 14, or even after. But there is this shortage of secondary schools, so we cannot take on all the pupils from the primary schools.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned technical education. Plans have been drawn up for a trade and technical institute which will provide technical education, and in March this year we are sending out to Mauritius our adviser on technical education.

Mr. Johnson

Can the right hon. Gentleman assure us on one question? Is it a fact that there were built too few schools—concrete, luxurious ones—instead of more wooden ones, mass produced?

Mr. Hopkinson

That point has not been brought to my attention before, but I will look into it.

Steps are being taken to increase the number of teachers. The number of primary school teachers rose from 1,866 in 1951 to 2,123 in 1953. There is no shortage of would-be teachers, but there are shortages of teachers with the right qualifications. We are trying to make it possible in various ways, by increasing the number of courses for teachers as a temporary measure and providing these relief teachers, who have part-time courses, to bring the teacher force up to strength.

I hope I have covered the main points. When the hon. Gentleman discussed this matter on the Adjournment in October, 1952, he talked of the island as having been swept and plantations beaten down by cyclones, and he also spoke of the sugar industry not being as efficient as it might be. Fortunately the island has not been visited by cyclones for eight years, but that, in the words of Lord Chandos, is in the hands of God, and is not a matter on which Her Majesty's Government or the Mauritius Government can help.

As far as sugar is concerned, I believe the present industry is efficient, and I think this is reflected in the enormous rise in the production and the general rise in the wealth of the population, as reflected in the national income which, in the last two years for which figures are available, rose by 25 per cent.

I do not believe the hon. Gentleman is right in saying that there is anxiety about the future of the island. I hope and believe that, given continuous prosperity in the sugar industry and the possibility of finding an alternative basic crop, and, on the political side, given the necessary spirit of tolerance and good will on the part of all communities, we can look forward to a happy and prosperous future for this ancient Colony, with an increasing share in the conduct of its own affairs.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Wednesday evening and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at ten minutes to Four o'clock a.m.