HC Deb 24 November 1959 vol 614 cc207-18
The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Macmillan)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will now make a statement about the Advisory Commission on Central Africa.

As the House knows, the Constitution of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland is to be reviewed at a conference to be held late in 1960. In preparation for that conference the Government, in consultation with the other Governments concerned, intend to establish an Advisory Commission. The Commission will, as already announced, comprise 26 members drawn equally from the area of the Federation, on the one hand, and from the United Kingdom and certain other Commonwealth countries, on the other, and will include independent members both African and European as well as United Kingdom parliamentary representation.

As I told the House on 21st July, we think that a comprehensive Commission of this kind will not only enable the Governments concerned to approach the conference with the best possible advice; it will also serve the imaginative and constructive purpose of helping to create a common approach among all concerned to these very difficult problems. The political wisdom of Parliament, the direct experience of Africans and Europeans living in Rhodesia and Nyasaland and the objective advice of distinguished independent minds will thus all be able to make their rightful contribution to this important end.

I come, first, to the terms of reference. I will read them: In the light of the information provided by the Committee of Officials and of any additional information the Commission may require, to advise the five Governments, in preparation for the 1960 review, on the constitutional programme and framework best suited to the achievement of the objects contained in the Constitution of 1953, including the Preamble. The House will note that these make special reference to the Constitution of 1953, including the Preamble, with all its safeguards.

At the same time, as I said on 21st July, I regard the Commission as free, in practice, to hear all points of view from whatever quarter and on whatever subject. It will, of course, be for the Commission to decide what use to make of the material which reaches them. I am sure that the House will have full confidence in my noble Friend Lord Monckton's ability to deal with this.

In these cases, I do not think that it is ever wise to be too specific or rigid in interpretation. But the House will see that these terms will permit the Commission to consider the whole field of the redistribution of powers in either direction between the Federation and the territories and to advise on the timing of any programme and the character of any changes in the framework that it may suggest.

I now come to the question of membership. As the House knows, Lord Monckton, despite his other heavy responsibilities, has agreed to give his services as chairman. This is an appointment that has, I feel sure, earned the warm approval of all shades of Parliamentary opinion. The remaining membership will be as follows:

Vice-Chairman—Sir Donald Mac-Gillivray, who will be remembered for his distinguished career in colonial administration and especially as High Commissioner in Malaya.

United Kingdom Independent Members

From the Commonwealth

From the Federation

From Southern Rhodesia

From Northern Rhodesia

From Nyasaland

A question on which much attention has been focused in Parliament and elsewhere is whether the Commission will command the confidence of the African peoples in the Federation. This is a point to which the Government, naturally, attach the greatest importance. Indeed, our object throughout has been to establish a body which would enjoy the confidence of all the people both in the Federation and in this country. I hope that the membership as now established, with its distinguished Chairman and its independent Commonwealth and African representation, will commend itself to people of good will everywhere. It has been suggested that representatives of African political parties should be included in the Commission. In our view, that would be a complete misconception of the purpose of the Commission, which is intended to bring to this task men of independent mind not committed to extreme views.

What really matters is that African opinion of all shades will be fully heard and objectively recorded. As I have said before, I regard the Commission as free, in practice, to hear all points of view from whatever quarter. As regards the question of receiving written or oral evidence from persons who may be under detention when the Commission is operating, I am sure that this can be arranged. Moreover, we are prepared, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Colonies said on 2nd November, to publish the statements submitted to the Commission and the evidence given before it, subject to the understanding that those witnesses, who do not wish their evidence to be published, may ask that it should not be made public and their wishes will be respected.

Before I finish, I would like to remind the House that this Commission is advisory. It expects to begin work early in February, when the Report of the Committee of Officials which is at present meeting will be available. And the Commission itself will be followed by a Governmental conference whose conclusions will, in turn, be subject to consideration by Parliament.

With regard to the association of Parliament with the Commission, I have had a number of discussions with the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition. These are not yet concluded. I hope very much that he will see his way to nominate three Privy Councillors to play their part in this work. A further statement on this point will be made as soon as possible. Meanwhile, I thought it right to announce without further delay the non-parliamentary membership and terms of reference of the Commission.

Mr. Gaitskell

The House will, naturally, wish to study with care the statement which the Prime Minister has made and the names of the members of the Commission so far announced. It is well known that we on this side of the House do not believe that this type of Commission is the right form in which to conduct the preliminary inquiry before the conference. We have always made it plain that we would have preferred a United Kingdom committee, probably of a Parliamentary kind, because we believe that this would produce a more objective report, and, also, that it would not run into the various difficulties inherent in trying to obtain representatives who can really represent the people of the various territories in the Federation.

If, however, as is clear, the Government are determined to proceed with this type of Commission, which is of a representative kind, we would still feel it unfortunate that in a Commission of 26 members, only five are African and that out of 13 from Africa itself only five are Africans, although clearly the people most concerned with the outcome of the report are the millions of Africans in these territories. May I also ask the Prime Minister whether he has observed that of the five African representatives no fewer than three are dependent upon the Governments of the territories for their income? Is not this somewhat unwise, if one is anxious to obtain a completely independent view?

There are three other points I must raise. First, is the Prime Minister still determined to limit any United Kingdom Parliamentary representation to Privy Councillors? If so, can he give us any significant reason why this should be so? Are there any important precedents for it? Would it not be wiser to leave ourselves in this matter a great deal more room than is possible if we limit representation in this way?

Secondly, does not the right hon. Gentleman feel that it is of the most vital importance, if the Advisory Commission is to have any hope of success, that it should be acceptable to the African people as a whole, including the African political movements? Is it not obvious that if, as unfortunately may happen, the African political movements were to boycott the Commission, a great deal of its value would be lost? In view of this fact, is it not extremely desirable that the Government should proceed at once to the release or bringing to trial of the detainees from Nyasaland, and can he not at least release Dr. Banda? This, I am sure, would make a very favourable impact upon African opinion.

Finally, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman this question on the terms of reference, to which we attach the utmost importance? It is well known that, rightly or wrongly, much African opinion is still opposed to federation. Much opinion in Nyasaland, indeed the overwhelming opinion there, according to the Devlin Report, is against federation. Is it not the fact that the Advisory Commission would be far more likely to win the support, or at least the tolerance, of the African people if it could be made perfectly plain that the Commission was completely free in its terms of reference to consider not only federation, but other forms of association as well?

Is the Prime Minister aware that if the Commission is bound to consider only federation, whatever the evidence submitted, it will seem to be of little use to some of those giving evidence to give it at all? In those circumstances, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider once again his interpretation of, or his opinion on, the specific terms of reference and to give us the assurance that the Commission will be able to consider any forms of association which seem to it appropriate in its deliberations?

The Prime Minister

First, the representation. We have, of course, discussed this together. I think that it is desirable that we make the representation of Privy Councillors [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] We have discussed that. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Because I think that it would be wise to do so and helpful to do so. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] However, in our discussions the right hon. Gentleman, as I understood, was chiefly concerned with the last point which he raised. As to the progressive releases and the return to general good government and order, I think that that is going on. My right hon. Friend made a statement the other day. In Nyasaland, the number of detainees is continually decreasing, and I have every hope that further progress will be made.

But I understood from our conversations—I do not wish to reveal them—that the third point was really the major point which the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues had in mind. I want to make it clear, as I tried to say, that the Commission can, of course, hear any evidence of any kind on any subject. The right hon. Gentleman says, "Can it consider other forms of association?" I would have thought that the phrase which I tried to interpret in the terms of reference— considered the whole field of the redistribution of powers in either direction"— is a pretty wide one and really covers the point at issue, other forms of association being covered by those "powers" whether greater, or changed, or smaller, which really do affect the answer.

I am bound to say that I would think it wiser not to add to the statement which I have made, and which I hope, on reflection, the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. and right hon. Friends will find acceptable. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to discuss it further with me, I am very ready to do so. I think, and I think that he feels, that it would be better today to let the House consider the situation, read the statement, consider the names, and then see whether it is possible to reach agreement, for I am persuaded, whatever the differences, that we—everybody in the House—would like to see a non-party approach to this problem if it can be achieved.

Mr. Gaitskell

We are prepared to continue discussions with the Prime Minister. We are anxious to make our contribution. We believe that this Commission cannot succeed unless the terms of reference are so interpreted as I have earlier described. Is the Prime Minister aware that our difficulty over the form of words which he used today is that it appears still to be limited by the reference to the framework which itself is taken from the terms of reference which specifically refer to federation? That is our difficulty. If we could get rid of that word and have alternative words—as I say, other forms of association would be possible—it would make a substantial difference.

The Prime Minister

The terms of reference have been agreed. [HON. MEMBERS: "By whom?"] By all the members who indicated their willingness to join. I tried to make as wide and generous an interpretation of the terms of reference as possible, and I think that when Members look at them they will see that they do include a very wide possibility for Lord Monckton and his colleagues to conduct their affairs in such a way as to bring about the result we all wish. I certainly would appeal to the right hon. Gentleman—knowing his views, I think that he will respond to that appeal—that we should today, perhaps, consider the implications of what he has said and of what I have said, in the hope of reaching agreement on this matter.

Mr. Grimond

Is the Prime Minister aware that the words to which he referred in his statement are among those which must cause some disquiet? The words are that the Commission will be free to consider the whole field of the redistribution of powers in either direction between the Federation and the territories and to advise on the timing of any programme and the character of any changes in the framework that they may suggest. I put it to the Prime Minister that this clearly supposes that the territories should remain inside the Federation. That is the whole supposition. Indeed, the Prime Minister has gone back, I think, on the words that he used on 21st July. I put it bluntly to the right hon. Gentleman: is it open to the Commission, if it so desires, to recommend that Nyasaland should secede from the Federation altogether?

The Prime Minister

This Commission is appointed to review an existing Constitution, to which its terms of reference naturally relate. I am sure that it is the wish of the House that a solution should emerge acceptable to all the races in the territories concerned. The terms of reference, in my opinion, give the Commission full scope to advise us on how best that object can be achieved, but, of course, if the Commission thinks that it could not fulfil its task to its satisfaction within the terms of reference no doubt it would say so. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I have every confidence in the chairman and the membership.

Mr. Hoy

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the announcement of the members of the Commission will bring great disappointment to Scotland? [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] Do not right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite know the close association between Scotland and Nyasaland? Would not the Prime Minister have thought that one ought to have had some direct representation from the Scottish Church other than the Moderator on the Commission?

The Prime Minister

I do not want to be unhelpful. I had thought that perhaps the inclusion in the membership of one of the United Kingdom members, Dr. Shepherd, who has been Moderator of the Church of Scotland—

Mr. Hoy

Not now.

The Prime Minister

—who is now completing, just finishing, his term as Moderator, would have been regarded as representative of the independence of the Scottish Church.

Mr. Ross

Will he be allowed in?

Mr. Foot

May I ask the Prime Minister, first, whether, if witnesses were to appear before the Commission advocating the union of Nyasaland with Tanganyika as an alternative to the present arrangement, that would be within the terms of reference of the Commission? Secondly, in relation to the detainees, will he bear in mind the precedent set in the Gold Coast, in 1948, when Dr. Nkrumah and other interned political leaders, interned without trial, were released before the Commission of inquiry began its sittings?

The Prime Minister

On the first question, I would just repeat what I said as to the character of the evidence anyone may wish to give. I said that I regarded the Commission as being free, in practice, to hear all points of view from whatever quarter and on whatever subject. I think that that would cover the first part of the hon. and learned Gentleman's question.

With regard to the second, I said that arrangements would be made for the purpose he has in mind, and I think that that can be arranged, will be arranged. I am hopeful that we shall have still further progress and that a smaller number of people will be detained.

Mr. Bevan

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we on this side of the House could serve no good purpose at all in joining the Commission if there were any ambiguity about what the terms of reference are, because that ambiguity would give rise to considerable misunderstanding in Africa itself and we would start work on the Commission under a cloud? Is it not insufficient to say that all kinds of evidence can be heard by the members of the Commission? We understand that quite clearly.

What we are concerned about is not in relation to what evidence the Commission can hear, but what recommendations the Commission can make. That is the important point in our minds. There appears to be, if not an inhibition upon the Commission, at least sufficient ambiguity to make it impossible for us to identify ourselves with it until that ambiguity is cleared up satisfactorily.

The Prime Minister

There is, first, the Commission, then there is the conference, and then there is Parliament. I think it is important to see this as a phase in a process which it is hoped will be helpful.

These are not very easy matters to deal with; they are very complicated and I know that we all want to try and get as near together as we can on this. I have tried to make a gloss on the terms of reference, which I might perhaps read once more. These terms will permit the Commission, first, to consider the whole field of the redistribution of powers in either direction between the Federation and the territories, secondly, to advise on the timing of any programme, and, lastly, on the character of any changes in the framework which it might suggest.

I should have thought, and I appeal to the House on this, that those are reasonably wide terms for the Commission to work on. As I have said in the last paragraph of my statement, I am anxious, and I believe that the House is, too, that we should, if possible, reach agreement. I hope that the House will forgive me if I do not attempt now, off the cuff, to make a gloss on a gloss.

Mrs. Castle

Is the Prime Minister aware that many ardent supporters of federation, including Sir Roy Welensky, are prepared to reconsider the redistribution of powers between the Federal and territorial Governments? This has always been on the agenda for the 1960 review, and presumably, therefore, it is on the agenda for this advance Commission. The real test with which we are concerned is whether the Commission can consider and pronounce on the need to redistribute powers outwards from the Federation if necessary.

The Prime Minister

We have to set about this task with the Constitution that exists. The Commission has been informed to advise the Governments who have to meet in conference.

I tried to answer fairly the question that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) raised. I can only add this. Of course, it may be—pray God it will not be—that the problems of Central Africa are insoluble, or it may be that within what we are trying to do they are insoluble. In that case, I have no doubt that a Commission of this kind will find a way of expressing its opinion. We are trying to see whether there is a way along what everybody believes to be the best lines. If it can be found, and if we can get the confidence of all concerned who seek to advise us how to do it along those lines, we will do it. We should not give up the job as hopeless from the start.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I do not think that we can debate this now.