HC Deb 08 December 1958 vol 597 cc167-78

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

10.33 p.m.

Mr. Cledwyn Hughes (Anglesey)

Tonight I wish to speak about what is, paradoxically, both the best-known and the least-known of British Colonial Territories, the island of St. Helena. In the popular mind, this island is assocated with the name of a great figure in history. It deserves to be better known for its beauty and the charm of its inhabitants, who are remarkable for their loyalty to this country.

St. Helena is a remote island of about 47 square miles, 1,000 miles south of the Equator, in the South Atlantic Ocean. It is also the oldest British Colony and it has a population of 4,600 people. I give these facts advisedly, because I have encountered some ignorance about St. Helena. When he learnt that I was going there last summer, one usually well-informed friend of mine said how pleasant it would be for me to spend a few weeks in the Mediterranean. Another friend of mine, who is also generally well instructed in these matters, asked me what I was going to do in a French colony.

Tonight, however, I am concerned primarily with the ignorance that prevails regarding the conditions of the loyal people of St. Helena, who are going through a critical time of privation and hardship.

Before I come to the main causes of grievance and complaint, I want to say this about the island's economic position. It is not a self-supporting community, and so far as can be seen it will not be self-supporting in the foreseeable future. The financial assistance which we give the inhabitants of the island is, firstly, by way of an annual grant in aid and, secondly, by way of a grant under the Colonial Development and Welfare Act. The grant in aid amounts to about £80,000 a year, and during the current period the island has been allocated £160,000 under the Colonial Development and Welfare Act. That is for the period 1955–60.

I hope to prove to the House this evening that both these grants are wholly inadequate and should be increased forthwith. I cannot hope to do justice to all the island's problems in the time at my disposal, and I propose, therefore, to deal briefly with its main industries, its social services and its constitutional position.

Flax growing and agriculture are two main industries of the island and both are at present in a serious condition. The hemp produced there is not of the best quality, and both its price and the demand for it have fallen progressively since 1951. The price of hemp was at its peak in May, 1951, when it sold at £180 a ton. In June of this year the price had fallen to as low as £55 a ton.

Four out of the five flax mills on the island are closed, which means that about 230 men and women have been thrown out of work. There are no alternative sources of employment on the island, and these people cannot, therefore, be absorbed in any other sort of work. In addition to that, the work is arduous and ill-paid. The basic wage is £1 13s. 0d. a week. I should like it borne in mind by the House that the cost of living on the island is relatively high. This is what the Social Welfare Officer for St. Helena has to say in his report for 1957. In paragraph 62 of the report he says: I have found a strong feeling of resentment tempered only by the fear of unemployment among flax workers who regard their basic wage of £1 13s. 6d. a week as totally inadequate. The Minister will probably know that the future of the flax industry in St. Helena is obscure. One of the obvious tragedies of the island at present is that its staple industry should be in this condition. I have suggested to the Colonial Secretary one way in which the industry might be assisted and bolstered at this time, and I hope that he will investigate the suggestion as a matter of urgency.

I must mention that the Government of St. Helena have on their Statute Book a minimum wage ordinance. They have had it on the Statute Book for many years, but I was amazed to find that it had never been implemented. One must bear in mind that fortunes have been made out of the island's flax industry in the past, but wages have been kept as low as possible.

I found that the workers in the industry—I spoke to many of them when I was there—have been afraid to complain about their conditions of work and wages because of the fear of victimisation and unemployment. The basic wage paid by the Government of St. Helena to their own workers is only £2 5s. a week. Such a wage does not enable people to attain anything approaching a decent standard of living in this British Colony.

As I have said, the cost of living in the island is high. If we take 1939 as representing 100, the St. Helena cost of living index gives the figure for 1950 as 190 and for 1957 as 224, which shows that there has been a great rise in the cost of living there. Prices are comparable with United Kingdom prices. I would ask the House to mark that the requirements of the people of St. Helena are similar to our requirements. Here we have a British people—their only language is English—who have an attitude to life similar in general to ours. and their demands are similar to our demands.

How can Her Majesty's Government or the St. Helena Government justify this gross neglect of their own employees? In simple terms it means that the ordinary people of St. Helena—by that I mean about 95 per cent. of the population—do not know what it is from one year's end to another to eat meat, butter, eggs and cheese or to have milk. None of the basic requirements of life is available to them, and that is a shame and disgrace. Why are these facts not given in the official Report published by the Colonial Office about this island so that the House and the people of this country may know the true position there?

There is another fundamental weakness for which the Colonial Office must take some responsibility. That is that the existing resources of the island are not being used to the fullest extent. When I was in St. Helena there was an acute shortage of meat and green vegetables. The people are poor, and two-thirds of the island is barren waste-land. Surely, therefore, the maximum use should be made of all the available land for the production of food.

But the land is not being used to anything like its full capacity. There seemed to me to be a lack of imagination and drive in the Government's agricultural policy. There is also a shortage of vegetable and other seeds and of suitable machinery for the cultivation of the land. Smallholders are not encouraged on the island, and there is almost a complete lack of adequate public relations between the Government's agricultural department and the rural community. It is within my experience that this caused real resentment among the islanders. It seems to me that what is needed is a planned land settlement scheme under sympathetic Government supervision and guidance. There are plenty of young men on the island who would go on the land if they were given the opportunity and the encouragement.

Another way in which the island could be helped is by fishing. There is plenty of fishing around the island. Fish has a high nutritional quality, and organised fishing could bring cheap food to the islanders. Here again there is a lack of organisation and Government initiative. I suggest that the Government of St. Helena might assist the fishermen who are available there, and have boats, to fish on an organised basis and perhaps form a fishermen's co-operative so that the islanders, who at present exist on a diet of bread, margarine and tea without milk, might have an adequate supply of fish throughout the week, which would certainly improve their standard of living.

If those who are working are poor, what of those who are unemployed, ill or too old to work? What provision is there for them in this British Colony'? Here we come to the saddest and darkest chapter of all. There is no unemployment benefit, no sickness benefit and no pension of any kind for them. 'There is a Poor Relief Board, but I do not envy it its task, because it works on a shoestring. It has about £21 a week at its disposal to distribute among all the old, sick and unemployed. When I was there in July it was dividing £21 between the 88 most deserving cases, and 81 people were getting 5s. per week or less. I came across many old people who were living on 5s. a week. There are many more who live on the kindness of relatives and neighbours little better off than themselves.

I was permitted to attend a meeting of the Poor Relief Board at St. Helena and I heard details of the cases put before the Board. I felt thoroughly ashamed and sick that this state of affairs could exist in a British Colony. Let me read an extract from the report of the Board in July: It is not in the nature of the people of St. Helena to complain of their lot, but during the past year the reports of the social welfare officer have caused the Board grave disquiet. He has drawn attention to the pitiful circumstances of those whose only source of income is in many cases the outdoor relief received from the Board. Members of the Board have been distressed to learn at first hand of the miserable existence, it could be called no more, of those living on outdoor relief who, but for the generosity of neighbours often little better off than themselves, would hardly exist at all. I have asked the Colonial Secretary to make more money available to the Board and I now make that plea most earnestly again. I cannot say any more about it. I have seen it, and it is beyond words.

I would like to have spoken of other things, of the lack of education because there are no trained teachers; of the inadequate medical services, and the gross shortage of drugs and of the appalling housing conditions. Those are matters on which the House will hear more when opportunity arises.

Lastly, there is the archaic constitution which leaves all power in the hands of the Governor, so that these intelligent and literate people are neither allowed nor encouraged to participate in their own affairs. Those who are members of the Executive and the Advisory Council do not represent the people, nor do they have their confidence. Must there be riots and bloodshed before men are given their elementary rights?

I hope that the Colonial Secretary will authorise elections for the Advisory Council at once as a first step towards a much overdue reform. Had I not been there, I would not have believed that such a state of affairs was possible in a British Colony in 1958. This is a case of "out of sight, out of mind".

The people of St. Helena are courteous, law-abiding and intelligent. They have faith in this country and in this House. They have been callously neglected up to now. They are cheerful in adversity and I formed a great affection for them. So it is that they are on my conscience and from now on, until their position and their conditions are improved, they will be on the conscience of the House.

10.47 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. Julian Amery)

The affairs of St. Helena are all too seldom discussed in the House and we are very grateful to the hon. Member for Anglesey (Mr. C. Hughes) for the interest he has taken in the island. My right hon. Friend has read his report personally and has asked me to say how much he appreciates the trouble the hon. Member took both in going to St. Helena and in informing himself and others about its problems. Representing an island as he does, the islanders of St. Helena are fortunate in having found in him a spokesman in the House. We cannot endorse all the conclusion in his report, or indeed in his speech tonight, and I am sure that the hon. Member would scarcely expect that. However, it is a stimulating and valuable document and a number of its recommendations may well bear fruit.

St. Helena, as the hon. Member explained, is one of our oldest Colonies. It is important in studying its economic difficulties today to get its economic problems into perspective. The island played a great part in days gone by in the development of our commercial empire in the East. It served in those days as a main victualling station for ships sailing round the Cape on the India and China trade. This gave it, by the standard of the day, considerable prosperity. Then came the steamship and the opening of the Suez Canal. Ships called less frequently, their requirements were fewer, and the whole foundation of the old St. Helena economy crumbled away.

Since the turn of the last century our problem has been how to put the economy of the island and of its nearly 5,000 people on to a new foundation. As the hon. Member said, St. Helena has few resources for which there is any world demand. One crop alone, phormium tenax, a flax indigenous to New Zealand, has proved itself as a serious export. But the world market for this and similar fibres is, and has for some time been, seriously depressed. The industry which until recently employed 200 people is at present employing only 120.

The hon. Member spoke of the fear of unemployment and of the grievance felt by some working in the flax industry at the level of their wages. I understand that; but there is always a danger that any further depression in prices or any rise in production costs would lead to the flax mills closing down completely. This would cause very serious hardship to the island, and more especially to the employees and their families in the industry.

Mr. George Thomas (Cardiff, West)

The Government ought to subsidise it.

Mr. Amery

I am coming to that point. We are at present considering subsidising the industry. I am not in a position to say what the outcome will be, but this is something to which thought is being given.

Apart from the export of flax there may also be some prospects of small exports of coffee. The quality of St. Helena coffee has proved to be extremely good, but in the foreseeable future the main way of improving living standards will not lie so much in the export trade as in increased food production.

Here we are up against considerable difficulties. For many years the island was seriously over-grazed. The depradations, particularly of the goat, have made barren large tracts of what was formerly fertile land. To bring this land back into cultivation the Government of St. Helena have had to impose restrictions on grazing. This policy is proving successful; but in the short term it has meant that meat and dairy produce have been correspondingly curtailed.

One of the main flax producers has intimated that he intends to dispose of a sizeable farm. The St. Helena Government are considering buying the land in question, and, if they do so, the farm will be run by the Government with the specific object of producing more meat for local consumption.

Work is also going on in one of the valleys—I do not know if the hon. Member saw it when he was there—to construct a dam to bring more land under cultivation. The land would be well suited to the growing of vegetables which were once a staple industry and which are now in short supply.

Another possible source of increased food production is fish. The waters around the island are not well stocked but they could yield a bigger catch than they do now. The Colonial Development and Welfare Corporation did provide outboard motors to stimulate the fishing industry and more particularly to encourage fishing on the leeward shore, I believe; but the local fishermen preferred their traditional methods, and the outboard motors have remained unused.

The distribution of fish also presents a good deal of difficulty. The island's roads are good, but transport is rather short and the local fishermen have shown little initiative in disposing of their catch outside Jamestown. However there is, I believe, a cold-store in Jamestown, and the Governor is considering whether more could be done to ensure the wider distribution of fish in the island. The hon. Member's suggestion of co-operative development will be given careful consideration, and it may be that in connection with the cold-store something could be done on those lines.

In all these matters—flax production, food production and fishing—Her Majesty's Government can help and have helped with money. Since the war Colonial Development and Welfare allocations have totalled nearly £500,000. Every year an annual grant is also made to balance the island's budget and maintain an adequate administration. But money alone and advisory staff alone are not enough. The people of St. Helena must also play their part—as I am sure that increasingly they willin adapting themselves to the new measures and methods which are most likely to ensure improvement in their living standards whether in fishing, agriculture or flax production.

I should like to say a word or two on two other aspects of the economy which deserve special mention, namely shipping and emigration. Shipping and the tourism which goes with it make a substantial contribution to the island's income. The Union Castle Line calls regularly at St. Helena and its ships receive a subsidy made up of contributions from the Post Office here, from Cable and Wirelessmainly in connection with Ascension Island, but St. Helena benefits—and from St. Helena itself. It is estimated that the shipping calls and tourism which comes from them—visitors going to Longwood and so on—provide about £20,000 a year to the island. It may be that the restoration of Longwood and things of that sort will encourage rather more tourism in future, or at any rate more heavy expenditure from those who call at the island.

Mr. C. Hughes

The hon. Gentleman is aware that the Union Castle Line is now calling less frequently, with a corresponding fall in income to the island.

Mr. Amery

I understand it is calling once a month.

Mr. C. Hughes

Not passenger vessels.

Mr. Amery

I stand open to correction. As the hon. Member knows, I am rather new to the Department and, if the facts are wrong, he will excuse me on those grounds.

There is already a certain amount of emigration from St. Helena to this country. It is mostly of young women who come to this country for domestic service. In collaboration with the Ministry of Labour, arrangements have also been made to place some St. Helenian men as hotel staff in this country. These arrangements include assisted passages from St. Helena. Altogether some eighty St. Helenians a year have been coming to the United Kingdom over the last few years. Their remittances to the island and to their families probably total something over £20,000 a year. That is a substantial help, not so much in reducing the population on the island, but in the young people who have been coming here and sending remittances to their families.

I come now to the remarks of the hon. Member on social welfare. Here I should like to express my strong sympathy with what he said, but I am sure he will also understand that the conditions he described prevail in a great many parts of the world at present. The Colony's Budget, I fear, could not stand the strain of a Welfare State organised on modern lines. That is not to say, however, that some provision for the aged or needy is not made. There is unemployment relief in the form of useful work on schemes of importance to the island's development. There is a modest provision for the elderly and disabled, and in next year's budget that provision will be increased.

The hon. Member himself paid tribute in his report to the new and, I understand, rather pleasant home for old people provided out of Colonial Develop- ment and Welfare funds. A private fund has also been started, I understand under the auspices of one of the flax producers, to provide old age pensions.

The basic social problem of the island, as I see it, is lack of purchasing power in the hands of the islanders. It would be attractive to think that this could be cured simply by raising wages. To do so, however, might well lead to the closing of the flax mills and to a general inflation of prices. That would bear particularly hard on the aged and disabled.

In the circumstances, it seems to us that the best way forward may lie in the direction of food subsidies. As the hon. Member knows, bread is already subsidised. We are now considering whether it would be practicable to subsidise certain meats and cheeses as a temporary measure. Such a scheme would have to be safeguarded against abuse, and it presents a number of difficulties which I do not want to go into this evening. It might, however, if it proves practicable, tide the islanders over the interval until more meat is produced locally and until the fishing industry has been reorganised.

I now come to what the hon. Member said about political representation, although it was not perhaps as serious a charge as I understood he was to make. It has to be remembered that we are dealing with a very small population—some 5,000 in all, including children. Everyone in the island knows almost everyone else and consultation is not a very difficult matter.

In 1956 the previous Governor, Sir James Harford, introduced a change in the constitutional system by bringing into his Advisory Council representatives of the country districts and of other island interests. The hon. Member described the system. At present there are nine members of the Advisory Council, which gives it a majority of non-official members.

I am bound to say that our investigations do not confirm the hon. Member's view that there is any widespread demand for constitutional reform. The best advice that I have received suggests that it is very difficult, and understandably so, to persuade people to serve on local bodies or indeed on the Advisory Council. I do not say this as a criticism of the inhabitants of St Helena. We are, after all, speaking of a very small community where the first concern of the great majority is to earn their daily bread. There is not much margin for voluntary public service or much money to remunerate it.

We are very conscious in the Colonial Office of our responsibilities towards St. Helena and its people. I hope, indeed, that I have said enough to show the interest which we take in the island and its problems. If I have not succeeded in this, I ask the hon. Member to attribute it to the short time I have been in the Department, which has not enabled me to master all the facts, but to some extent the facts speak for themselves. There is the dark side of the picture, which the hon. Member explained in his speech and in his report. Many problems still need solution. There is the fact of what we have done. We have invested £500,000 of Colonial Development and Welfare funds in St. Helena and we are spending about £130,000 a year both on the administration and on development. This is no small sum per head of the population—about £26 per year per head.

There is no room for complacency in saying this. Our task is to find further ways and means of constructive development both to help the islanders and to see that they can help themselves. I can assure the House that we shall not neglect this task and that the hon. Member's report and his speech will contribute towards enlightening opinion here and elsewhere of the importance of the problems of St. Helena.

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

Adjourned at three minutes past Eleven o'clock.