HC Deb 25 April 1961 vol 639 cc385-90

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

10.39 p.m.

Mr. Llywelyn Williams (Abertillery)

It might be helpful if I made clear at the very beginning why I have chosen to speak tonight on the question of the employment of coloured persons by the House of Commons. My belief in the Commonwealth is tremendously powerful and my desire to strengthen it is very sincere. Coloured people are very sensitive to insult—and who can blame them if they are? Some of the recent speeches which have been delivered in this Chamber have been very unfortunate. On the other hand, I have found coloured people to be touchingly grateful for and responsive to friendly and imaginative gestures.

We are always proud to claim this to be the Mother of Parliaments, and London to be the greatest city in the world. This Palace of Westminster, and Big Ben, in particular, evoke very great admiration throughout the world, not least among the coloured people. After all, millions of coloured people in Africa and the West Indies have reaped great social and economic benefits, guidance and education culminating in political freedom as a result of what has been done here under the watchful shadow of Big Ben.

This place is also the mecca of hundreds of thousands of people each year. It am sure that no legislative chamber attracts as many visitors as do the Houses of Parliament. Compared with this legislative assembly, the House of Representatives in Washington, the Chamber of Deputies in Paris, the Bundestag in Bonn, and its counterpart in Moscow, are not nearly so popular with visitors.

That is why I respectfully ask the Minister of Works to extend, as far as it lies in his power, the right hand of fellowship to coloured people from Africa and the West Indies. I believe that there is a fellowship here, not only between hon. Members but between hon. Members, members of the public and the various staffs represented here—messengers, police officers, post office officials, waiters, waitresses, and so on.

I know that the responsibility of the Minister of Works for employing personnel here is very limited. The Serjeant at Arms, the Commissioner of Police and the Lord Great Chamberlain, among others, also come into the picture. That is why I appeal to you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, and, through you, to Mr. Speaker himself, as my representative in these matters, to come to my aid, so that if I offend procedurally or in allocating responsibility you will appreciate that I seek only to establish a principle.

In the very nature of things, the Minister of Works must have quite a deal of power of persuasion and influence in the making of appointments. Could I therefore enlist his good will in future appointments to various posts in this Palace, in either a direct or an indirect fashion, so that a few coloured Commonwealth persons may be appointed? I feel certain, and this is the gist of my case, that such a gesture, imaginative and generous, would bring an added sense of pride and affection to those who regard the House of Commons as the embodiment of everything that is best in the democratic way of life. Who knows but that that type of gesture might not also be emulated in other Royal Palaces?

I beg the House not to believe that this matter is much ado about nothing. These gestures speak more eloquently than any words about our belief in the equality of man and the qualities of harmonious, multi-racial relationships. By and large, both sides of the House have a genuine concern and respect for our coloured friends from Africa and the West Indies. If this were visibly revealed to us, as Members of the House, and to the public when they visited us, by the presence amongst us of a coloured police officer, or messenger, or clerk, then our moral authority in these matters would be considerably enhanced.

Justice to our fellow members of the Commonwealth in the Palace of Westminster would not only be done but would be seen to be done. Action on these lines would pay handsome dividends. More important, it would give great satisfaction in Africa and the West Indies, and a sense of real pride to the occupants of such future appointments. What I am asking for does not need a lengthy and elaborate presentation as a case. I only know that I feel instinctively that this step would be practical and progressive and morally right.

10.46 p.m.

Mr. Nigel Fisher (Surbiton)

I fear that it is a little anti-social to seek to catch the eye of the Chair for the second time in one Parliamentary day, and also on a Commonwealth matter, but I would like to support wholeheartedly the suggestion put by the hon. Member for Abertillery (Mr. Ll. Williams). We in this House, on both sides, support the concept of the multi-racial States, of multi-racial societies in our multi-racial Commonwealth. That is the whole basis of our Commonwealth policy under successive and different party Governments.

All of us claim that we are totally devoid of any colour prejudice. If we are really sincere in that claim, then we cannot possibly object to this plea. Indeed, we should welcome it. Every year, every month, almost every day, as the hon. Member has pointed out, coloured visitors, whether they be visiting ministers, or members of Commonwealth or Colonial Parliaments, or whether they be students here, or immigrants from the West Indies or elsewhere, make their pilgrimage to the House of Commons.

We entertain them to meals here; they attend Commonwealth Parliamentary Association courses here—one such course is now taking place; we see them in the Visitors' Gallery—though there is none here tonight, which is an exception rather than the rule, for almost every day there are coloured visitors listening to our debates, absorbing our democratic traditions and learning our Parliamentary procedures so that they can practise them in their own countries.

Thus, this Palace of Westminster is the heart of the Commonwealth. How little difference it would make to us if one or two policemen, or perhaps badge messengers, or a few members of the catering staff, were British citizens from Africa or the West Indies.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Sir William Anstruther-Gray)

Order. The hon. Gentleman is in danger of going further than he is entitled to, because the Minister of Works is not responsible for the people whom he is now mentioning.

Mr. Fisher

In that case, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, I should, perhaps, not have gone into so much detail. Indeed, it is irrelevant to do so.

The main object which the hon. Member for Abertillery and I have in mind is to give these many visitors who come here what I believe would be a splendid and encouraging sign of the unifying spirit of the Commonwealth—the sight of some of their compatriots taking their place as part of our parliamentary life. That is our purpose in raising this matter tonight. So far as I can see, it would do not possible harm, but it would do an immense amount of good throughout the Commonwealth when it became known that we accepted this very imaginative innovation.

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works has himself been Under-Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations, so he fully understands the arguments we are putting forward and I do not think that we need elaborate them. I hope that he will seize the opportunity of the hon. Member's suggestion and thus show the Commonwealth, and, indeed, the world, that by our example, in this Palace of Westminster, we really practise what we preach when we say there is no colour bar and no colour prejudice in the daily life of the United Kingdom Parliament.

10.52 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works (Mr. Richard Thompson)

The hon. Member for Abertillery (Mr. Ll. Williams), in his concluding remarks, said very properly that there was no need for lengthy and elaborate presentation of the case he had to make. By the same token, I believe that he will not think me discourteous or in any way unmindful of the importance of the case he has argued, so well supported by my hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton (Mr. N. Fisher), if I reply quite briefly, because, of course, some of the things which have been raised tonight do not fall within the precise ambit of my Department. I think, however, that I can give the hon. Member certain general assurances which, I hope, will be very satisfactory to him.

First, as I think he well knows, we operate no colour bar of any sort. Provided that applicants for the jobs available are British subjects, they are all considered on an equal footing without discrimination of any kind. Naturally, of course, they have to meet necessary educational requirements, but that is only to be expected. I would want the hon. Member to be quite sure that there is no question of a colour bar here at all. He might like to know that we already have on our staff four West Africans.

I can quite see the point he made that it might be helpful if some of these employees were employed more in the kind of posts where perhaps the public would see more of them. I see what he means, but I can speak only of the employees for whom my department has responsibility and the nature of our responsibility is such that most of our people work relatively unseen, behind the scenes. They do a very good job, sometimes at times when the general public, indeed, when hon. Members, are not about.

They are not very much in evidence and there is not very much that I can do about that, because the Ministry of Works employs only a small fraction of the people who work here. It is not for me to speak for any other department, but, as the hon. Member readily agreed, the Serjeant at Arms, the Lord Great Chamberlain and all the others are ones for which I could not give him any reply.

Mr. Ll. Williams

I appreciate that the sphere of the Ministry of Works is limited, but I particularly stressed the possibility of persuasion and influence. I thought that that would be in order.

Mr. Thompson

I have no doubt that those concerned will take note of what has been said in the debate. I can say once again that in the matters which fall within my responsibility we operate a completely non-colour bar policy.

Indeed, if one considers the Ministry of Works in a wider context it will be seen that we have a number of coloured people spread over a variety of grades. It is not our usual practice to recruit people for employment specifically here, and very often they have come here after acquiring experience elsewhere. In so far as these matters affect my Department, we pursue a policy which is in entire harmony with the views expressed this evening and with what the two hon. Members would wish.

As for the other authorities involved, as I have already said, no doubt they will take note of what has been said so well in this short debate and, I hope, will be as broadminded as we are in our relations with our own people.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes to Eleven o'clock.