HC Deb 30 March 1961 vol 637 cc1559-80

1.22 p.m.

Mr. H. A. Marquand (Middlesbrough, East)

Last week the House welcomed and passed through all its stages the Bill giving independence to Sierra Leone on 27th April. There now remains only one British Colony in West Africa—the Gambia. I welcome the opportunity today for a short discussion about the present situation and the future prospects of that extremely small Colony, whose affairs are very rarely discussed in the House.

I had the pleasure of visiting the Gambia for a few days in December last, in company with the hon. and gallant Member for Nottingham, Central (Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux) and the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. McLaren). I am sure that they will join me in saying how warm was the welcome we received from all sections of the people of the Gambia, both in the Colony and in the Protectorate, and how grateful we were for the gracious hospitality of Sir Edward and Lady Windley—and what a relief it was to be able to bathe in the waters of the Atlantic and to refresh ourselves after our more strenuous journey in Sierra Leone. It may be that one of my colleagues—if I may call them that—will refer later to the potentialities of the Gambia as a tourist resort.

We were delighted with the busy activity of the market in Bathurst and we admired the layout of the town, for which, I believe, the Admiralty was responsible in the past. We also admired the keenness of its town council to improve the housing conditions, and sympathised deeply with it at the fact that it had to conduct its municipal affairs from a miserable, dark, wretched-looking Nissen hut. On that occasion we undertook to say something about it when we got back to Britain, and here it is: we thought that the town hall was a disgrace to such a well laid out city, and hoped that if Her Majesty's Government were approached for help in providing a more satisfactory building from which to conduct the affairs of the town council they would respond sympathetically.

As well as visiting the Colony, consisting of Bathurst and its environs, we made journeys by river and jeep into the Protectorate, and had everywhere a very friendly if perhaps less exuberant reception than in Bathurst. Like Sierra Leone, this territory is divided into two parts—the Colony of Bathurst and its environs, with a population of between 35,000 and 40,000, and the Protectorate, with about 250,000 people. Today, the whole territory probably has a population of about 300,000. Accurate recent figures are not available. In other words, the total population of the Colony is less than that of a great many of our cities, excluding London.

Small though its population is, the Colony's area stretches for 300 miles along the vast Gambia River. On the whole, the Protectorate of the Gambia extends for not more than seven or ten miles on each side of that gigantic river. Such a formation, for a separate territory, is one of the great anomalies of history. As soon as one sees it it strikes one very forcibly as rather absurd that both banks of a huge river like that should consist of one territory, and that the huge river should be separated from its own natural hinterland.

There is no geographical virtue in the boundaries; they are an accident of the history of war and trade, and they correspond to no natural division of the people. People living on either side of the Gambia River, whether in the Gambia territory or in Senegal territory, are of the same stock and very often the same tribes.

Like many of our small Colonies, the Gambia has suffered from the past policy—which ended in 1940 or thereabouts—of requiring every colonial territory to live from its own resources and to meet from those resources the expenses of British administration. It is necessarily a very poor country, consisting as it does of this narrow strip of land, with no mines and no great natural resources of minerals or any other product. It is thinly populated, by people living mostly in a tribal state. Clearly, it is not rich enough to undertake any sort of development.

Even in recent years—since the Colonial Development and Welfare Acts have come into operation—it has not had from this country the necessary measure of support, and has not been able to sustain the degree of economic growth which would be necessary if it were to be regarded as being treated fairly as compared with the rest of West Africa. It is a territory in West Africa, and people living there must, naturally, look with envy and some misunderstanding at the comparative prosperity of their neighbours.

It is a poor country, depending mainly on agriculture, and for its export almost wholly on groundnuts. Like many countries in the tropical belt of the world in recent years it has benefited more from improvements in human health than from improvements in capacity to produce. The birthrate for the territory as a whole was 40 per 1,000 in 1951, and it rose to 43 per 1,000 in 1957—a remarkable increase from what was already a very high level.

Infant mortality, which was 117 per 1,000, has dropped to 80 per 1,000. It is still a very high figure compared with the figure in this country, but it represents a most substantial drop and we should all rejoice to think that babies have survived in that way. The crude death rate has declined from 18 to 16 per 1,000. This means that the length of life is greater and that the number of babies surviving the hazards of a tropical existence is very much greater. Naturally, in consequence, the population increase is formidable, and it is much greater than the ability to produce additional foodstuffs has been in so short a time.

Not merely was the Gambia confronted with this difficulty of a population rising more rapidly than its resources but, in addition, it had to suffer, from 1950 to 1959, from a steady and sometimes sharp fall in the price of the staple product, groundnuts. This is the only substantial export of the people and their main means of buying from abroad the clothing, housing materials, vehicles and other things which they can obtain only from more industrialised countries.

Since then they have been bedevilled by the curse of the tropical countries everywhere, fluctuations in the price of groundnuts, which form their main crop. The ups and downs of the groundnuts market have made it extremely difficult for the territory to be self-sustaining. In all those circumstances it is not surprising that the schools are few and very crude. I suggest that it is deplorable that recently the fees in the schools have been raised. Living in our advanced society, the people in this country are able to send their children to school according to their needs, and those parents who do not want to pay for the education of their children need not pay for it. The vast majority of us do not pay for it.

In Bathurst, on the other hand, we were told while we were there—no doubt the hon. Gentleman will correct me if I have the figures wrong—that the school fees were being raised from 1s. a week to 5s. a week. That is a substantial increase and a substantial sum of money for parents to find for their children's education.

The roads are deplorable and, generally speaking, there has been no major growth in the economy to compensate for the rapid growth in population, to say nothing of the low level in which the Colony found itself in any case back in 1950, before these remarkable changes in the survival and death rates began to have to be affected after the use of penicillin, D.D.T., and the other discoveries of the war.

The total revenue of the Colony, which was £1,993,000 in 1957, was only £1,457,000 in 1959. This fall is a result of the decline in the value of groundnuts and the fluctuations in the groundnut price. The Gambia has always had a narrow margin between its revenue and its expenditure, except for a year or two when the price of groundnuts mounted temporarily to a peak. Now the Colony suffers from a deficit.

In a despatch of 17th May, 1960, sent by the Secretary of State to the Governor of the Gambia it was stated that in those circumstances—the circumstances of a deficit— Her Majesty's Government are ready to assist the Gambia Government by providing a general grant-in-aid of administration. As, however, I am sure you will appreciate, they cannot contemplate meeting an ever-increasing deficit. It will, therefore, be necessary, so long as United Kingdom assistance is required, for the finances of the Colony to be brought under the formal control of Her Majesty's Government. … In addition, I request you to seek my prior approval before authorising additional expenditure under any head that would cause the total expenditure under the head to exceed the approved provision by more than 10 per cent. These are the very severe conditions of grant-aided colonial administration.

That was in May, 1960. Not surprisingly, there was further correspondence and some protest on behalf of the Gambia at that decision that they were to become a grant-aided Colony with all their expenditure subject to detailed consideration and scrutiny by the Treasury in this country.

We come to the despatch of 30th September, 1960, again from the Secretary of State, in which he said: Naturally, in scrutinising the draft estimates of a territory that will require a grant-in-aid in order to balance its budget Her Majesty's Government will wish to be satisfied that proposed expenditure is limited to your essential requirements for the administration of the territory and that all due economies are being observed He went on: I believe that the view is also held that it would be more acceptable to the Gambia if any financial assistance that Her Majesty's Government might be willing to give were to take the form of a subsidy for groundnuts rather than a grant in aid of the colony's budget. This moved away a little from strict grant-aided requirements and made an offer which was naturally acceptable—that some support for the price of groundnuts might be a better way. That was given. As a result, it was possible while we were there for His Excellency the Governor to announce that the marketing board would be able to pay the farmers £27 a ton instead of the previous £24 a ton; but that price of £27 a ton, which they received with some gratitude, is, nevertheless, well below what they had been receiving in past years and it is still below the French price.

The short conclusion from the recital of these events is that without question development has been retarded—and it has been retarded because the price of groundnuts has fallen. That is why the revenue of the Colony has diminished. The fall in that price is in no way the fault of the territory. There is little wonder, then, that the Secretary of State, answering Questions here on 7th February, said: The Gambia is a peculiarly difficult problem to solve. He added: … economic help, of course, does not remove the fundamental difficulty of what in a sense—looking at it geographically—is an anomaly on the West coast of Africa, and it is a very difficult problem to solve."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th February, 1961; Vol. 633, c. 196–7.] This is true, and it is only natural, in those circumstances, that lately there has been a good deal of talk in the Gambia—some of it reached our ears—about the possibility of a closer association with Senegal. Opinion is very much divided. There is a very strong feeling of affection for the British way of life among many people, especially in the Colony, and I should be the last to say that it ought to be lightly dismissed.

On the other hand, Senegal is obviously more prosperous. The figures published recently by the Organisation for European Co-operation and Development, which I quoted in respect of Sierra Leone, apply even more forcibly to the Gambia. The French have helped Senegal more from their resources than Britain has helped the Gambia. The contrast is remarkable. Gambia people living in the midst of Senegal are well aware of it.

The country has just embarked on a new constitutional development which does not represent a very rapid advance towards self-government. It has a Legislative Council, a Speaker, elected members, and an Executive Council, over which the Governor presides and in which there are still four nominated members but six Ministers chosen from the Legislative Council. It is not a big constitutional advance, and I know from what I have heard that it has been very disappointing to some people.

I have not the time to go into these political questions. Obviously, in the Executive Council now constituted, debate on the possible future of the territory must go on. This is an opportunity for the elected representatives of the people in the future to discuss the possible future of their country, suffering as it is from the heavy handicap of having a one-crop economy.

In my view, there should be a further development towards a full ministerial system and, if possible, party government before very long. While that process is going on, it gives an opportunity for the people at elections, or for the legislators in debate, to express their opinion as to the possible future of the Gambia in this new situation in Africa, where every other territory is advancing to full self-government so rapidly. They must have listened with some envy to the announcement recently made about Tanganyika. While all this is going on, there should be, in my judgment, a much more rapid effort to help this country in every way possible. I know that this is difficult, but there must be ways of giving a greater volume of aid and a more rapid acceleration of development than has happened hitherto.

It is an accident that that small country has become dependent on this House for its living. It has not been through any fault whatever of the people themselves. It would be wrong to allow this little country to appear to be, or to feel that it was being, neglected in these circumstances when other African countries are advancing so fast and becoming completely independent.

I say to the hon. Gentleman: do not fully impose the rigours of Treasury control on the Gambia; but rather see whether we cannot find, through international agencies or colonial development and welfare funds, or in other ways, some outside aid which can be given urgently, so that the country may be built into as strong and viable an economy as it can have in the present situation. In this way, if, at some time in the future, it has to take a decision whether it wishes to be completely independent, or whether it wishes to join with Senegal in a new kind of association, it will be able to do so from a firm basis of as near economic independence as can possibly take place in these circumstances. It will be able to do so then from a basis of democracy and the choice made will be the choice of the people, perhaps after a referendum.

I do not advocate that happening tomorrow, because I do not believe that the people of the Gambia are on a strong enough economic foundation to undertake such a choice. I want to see more and more aid pushed in and particularly help to the co-operative societies, which have only just got going there but which, it seemed to me, were under extremely good leadership. Some of this aid would, perhaps, be in the form of technical assistance not only from Britain, the United States, France and other countries who will provide aid, but also perhaps from our African partners in the Commonwealth.

Nigeria, for example, which is large and rich, might be able to supply some technical assistance to the Gambia so that its people felt they were not cut off from the rest of Africa but were joining in the march, albeit a little behind the others, through no fault of their own, towards ultimate self-determination.

1.44 p.m.

Lieut.-Colonel J. K. Cordeaux (Nottingham, Central)

As the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough, East (Mr. Marquand) said at the beginning of his speech, we had the opportunity a week ago, on the Second Reading of the Sierra Leone Independence Bill, of welcoming a new country into the Commonwealth. I had on that occasion the opportunity of saying how much I and my colleague, the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. McLaren), enjoyed our trip to Sierra Leone and the Gambia under the leadership of the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough, East (Mr. Marquand).

Perhaps I may again take this opportunity of saying how much we enjoyed the second half of our trip which took us to the Gambia and how much we appreciated there, as we did in Sierra Leone, the very great ability and charm of manner with which the right hon. Gentleman led the delegation.

I agree with every word that the right hon. Gentleman has said in the debate today. That rather suggests that I shall be saying the same thing in different words, but I shall try not to be too repetitive.

We know that the present position in the Gambia is that as a result of its increasingly unfavourable financial position and rising trend of deficits for the future, for so long as we can see ahead, the Gambia is now in the position of being a grant-in-aid Colony. That grant-in-aid was decided upon in May, 1960, and it means a somewhat closer control of expenditure by Whitehall.

The right hon. Member for Middlesbrough, East has already quoted from despatches on the subject. He quoted one which I intended to quote and as it is comparatively short, and in order that the arguments which I want to put forward may follow suitably one after the other I hope that I shall be excused for quoting part of it again. It is from the letter of the Colonial Secretary, dated 17th May, in which he says: … Her Majesty's Government are ready to assist the Gambia Government by providing a general grant-in-aid of administration. As however I am sure you will appreciate, they cannot contemplate meeting an ever-increasing deficit. It will therefore be necessary, so long as United Kingdom assistance is required, for the finances of the Colony to be brought under the formal control of Her Majesty's Government. In addition—and the right hon. Member did not quote this in his speech—the Colonial Secretary's letter goes on to say: Finally, in regard to your capital budget, I note that this year provision has been made for over £1 million to be spent on development. In my despatch No. 110 of the 30th November, 1959, I accepted the development programme as reasonably conceived in the light of the physical capacity of the Gambia to undertake the capital works proposed and the financial resources on which at that time it was understood you could rely to meet expenditure. In view, however, of the marked deterioration in the overall financial position in recent months, I hope you will agree that your capital programme should be urgently reviewed. … In the reply which was sent by Sir Edward Windley, the Governor, shortly after that, he said, and I quote from his despatch of 31st May, 1960: Efforts for economy in this sense will be maintained. I must, however, record that neither I nor the Executive Council believe that there exist worthwhile 'economies' in the sense that there are extravagant 'frills' to be excised or services which can be retrenched. On the contrary, I am certain that there will be some inevitable increases in expenditure. You refer in your despatch to the cost of implementing the possible recommendations of a Salaries Commission: in addition I must anticipate that there will be increases in the Police establishment, following the advice of your Inspector-General and new provision for the labour services following the report of the recent Commission. In general I believe that the main administrative functions of government have been sustained with the utmost economy—an enonomy which present-day, and growing, political tempo makes imprudent and even dangerous. As regards the social services, I believe that equal restraint has been shown. I particularly want to emphasise that part of Sir Edward Windley's despatch in which he says that the economies which have been made in the main administrative functions of Government are imprudent and even dangerous. I gained the impression from what I saw on my visit that the economies which had been exercised in some departments were very extreme.

I had the pleasure of being invited out to the police headquarters. I saw the dress rehearsal of the review of the police which the Governor was to make on the following day. I noticed that the new recruits to the police force and those undergoing refresher courses were dressed in what I can only describe as the most disreputable clothes. On the day of the review they would wear proper uniforms, no doubt, but I formed the impression that while undergoing training they had been wearing uniforms which did not give them the pride in their profession which a better dress might have given them. That was one of the forms of economy that had to be practised.

The barracks consist of various blocks on one side of a large field, with other blocks on the other side of the field. I discovered that for financial reasons the electricity supply had not been taken to the far side of the barracks. I was told that the result is that none of the recruits is able to carry out the evening studies which are so necessary if he is to pass his examinations. That may seem to be a small point, but it is symptomatic of the extreme and very undesirable economy which apparently had to be carried out at the time in this very essential service.

There was undoubtedly alarm on the part of many Gambians, and, indeed, on the part of our own people out there, that to try to achieve this budgetary balance the expansion of really vital services might be checked. I very much hope that that does not happen. The right hon. Gentleman has spoken about one vital service, namely, education. It seemed to us to be a very tragic thing that only about 13 per cent. of all the children in the Gambia were receiving a primary education. That is one of the worst records of all the Crown Colonies.

Another most essential service which very badly needs expansion is communications. The Gambia until very recently has suffered from shocking communications. There is no doubt about that, although it has one of the most marvellous forms of water communication anywhere in the world. The superb river which runs through the length of Gambia for over 300 miles is navigable by ocean-going vessels for 150 miles, that is to say half way. The whole 300 miles are navigable for vessels of 6 ft. draught. However, there are no railways. As the right hon. Gentleman said, the hinterland is only about 10 miles on either side of the river.

Until comparatively recently roads, except for bush roads, were almost non-existent. I admit that a great deal of road making has been done in recent years, particularly on the north side of the river. Present developments in road making on the south bank of the river are equally impressive. I had the opportunity of seeing what is being done. At present a metal trunk road, which is practically the only one in the south of the Protectorate, is being constructed on the south bank from Brikama, which is already linked by a metal road to Bathurst, to Mansa Konko which is 150 miles from Bathurst and half way across the Colony. The first 35 miles of the road from Brikama will be completed this May, in the remarkably short time of one year since the contract was placed. Although I am open to correction on this, I rather think that the contract for the remaining part of the road has not yet been given.

I hope very much that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary can assure us, when he replies, that there will be no question of that work being slowed up for financial reasons. When the road is completed it will open up the Colony on the south bank of the river as fully as it has already been opened up on the north bank. The contract for the first part of the road was given to a French firm. I have no doubt that the same firm will get the contract for the remaining part of the road. It is natural that the French got the contract, because they had all their road making equipment nearby.

Anyone visiting the Gambia notices with a shock that the moment he crosses the border from the Gambia into Senegal he goes from a fairly bad road system to a thoroughly good road system. Few differences between the two territories—French and British—impress one more than when one crosses the frontier and notices that the poor type of laterite road gives way to a good metal road. We noticed that very particularly when we were there. It is symptomatic of the fact that the French have been able to produce a far higher standard of social and economic development in Senegal than we have been able to do in Gambia. There are of course obvious geographical and other reasons for that.

The question raised constantly in the despatches between Sir Edward Windley and the Colonial Secretary is whether the revenue of the Gambia can be increased in any way. It is extremely difficult to see how it can be, because the estimated population of the Gambia seems to be about the same as my own City of Nottingham, namely, about 320,000. It is impossible to see how there is sufficient market for a reasonable secondary industry to be started in Bathurst.

However, I want to make one suggestion. I believe that there is scope in the Gambia for a very thriving tourist industry. When I was there I met a representative of a fairly high-powered tourist firm who had gone to Bathurst with the object of seeing whether the Gambia could be included in the holiday tours his firm was arranging, which had previously been confined to the Canaries and Madeira. He was enthusiastic about the tourist potentialities of the Gambia. He was fascinated by the river. He wanted to include the Gambia in his firm's tour so that the trip up the Gambia River could be included. Indeed, I think it obvious that it would be an attraction.

We had an opportunity to make a comparatively short trip up the river. It is very beautiful. The bird life is magnificent and crocodiles can nearly always be relied upon to show themselves on the banks, although I suppose that some tourists might possibly miss this. I am sure that the friendly villagers living on the river banks would be only too pleased to co-operate. Unfortunately, although otherwise he would have included Gambia in the tours arranged by his firm, its representative found there were no river craft in existence which would accommodate passengers, and which apparently he expected to find. That is a way in which, with a little help, and by the provision of such craft, we might be able to encourage some sort of tourist industry.

In considering the future of Gambia, the right hon. Member for Middlesborough, East has already referred to the possibility of some economic tie-ups with Senegal as being desirable. His Excellency the Governor referred to that in his speech at the opening of the Legislative Assembly when we were there. I feel sure that if the people of the Gambia—it is for the people to make the choice—would like some sort of economic tie-up with Senegal, there are many degrees of such a tie-up which might be considered. It might be anything from a loose economic tie-up to something amounting almost to federation. Nevertheless, there could be no reason why the Gambia should leave the Commonwealth. We have proved ourselves more than adept at keeping people in the Commonwealth. It would have been logical had India left the Commonwealth, for example, but we always seem to manage to retain these countries and I am sure we shall be able to do the same in respect of Gambia.

Naturally, no pressure of any sort should be brought by us to loosen our ties with the Gambia in any way whatever. I think that we owe her a great debt and we must do everything possible to assist her. I understand from a wireless programme I listened to this morning that the Economic Secretary to the Treasury has said that last year we spent £300 million on the underdeveloped countries, and if we can do that I am sure that we can spare a little more for the Gambia. It seems to me that the more troublesome—if I may use that word—are our Colonies, the more money we pay out to help them, and in that connection I am thinking particularly of Cyprus. Surely, therefore, we can do a little more to help one of the oldest and the most friendly of our Colonies.

The position is well summed-up by His Excellency the Governor, Sir Edward Windley, in a despatch of 12th January, 1960, from which I should like to quote: The Gambian members of the Executive Council wish me to express their confidence that Her Majesty's Government will consider with understanding and sympathy the special limitations which have been imposed on Gambia's ability to support herself. These limitations are historic and geographic, but in neither case are they of Gambia's making.

2.4 p.m.

Mr. Martin McLaren (Bristol, North-West)

I warmly support and confirm what has fallen from the lips of my hon. Friends. Perhaps my task is harder in that I must not be repetitive. It seems to me that today, in respect of West Africa, the British are rather like a man with four daughters. Their names are Nigeria, Ghana, Sierra and Gambia. Three of these children are settled in the world and on their own, and now we have to think of what should be done for the remaining child and what its destiny should be.

The Gambia has a special problem owing to its peculiar geography, this long narrow strip of land on either side of a large river with a population of nearly 300,000 people. The soil is light, even sandy, and groundnuts are the predominant crop. Therefore there is the inherent disadvantage of an economy dependent on a single product and upon the world price of that product. I read in a report dating back to 1870 the following sentence: The revenue, depending as it does mainly on the export of groundnuts, must be always precarious and fluctuating. Those words are as true now, nearly a hundred years later, as when they were written.

I am glad to note that some other crops are being attempted, such as citrus fruits, and I fully support what my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Nottingham, Central (Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux) said about the eventual possibilities of a tourist industry in a country where, for most of the year, the climate is very pleasant. It comes back to the fact that the whole economy of the country is too small to be successful in the modern world. There is evidence of that from the fact that it has not been worth while for anybody to set up any kind of secondary industry even in Bathurst, the capital. A market based on a population of only 300,000 people is not large enough.

Bathurst is really a large village. It does not, for instance, contain a book shop, and the local newspapers carry on only with the greatest difficulty. As was said by the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough, East (Mr. Marquand), the town council is housed in a miserable Nissen hut and does not know where to raise funds to provide itself with more suitable accommodation. The social services in the country are still very backward. We have heard mention of the deplorable figure of only about 13 per cent. of children able to receive education in primary schools. The road system is still most primitive, except in the neighbourhood of Bathurst. Agriculture is still carried on by hand. Ploughing, sowing, weeding and harvesting are all done according to the Biblical system, though slowly farmers are being encouraged to use mechanical implements drawn by oxen.

Valiant efforts are being made by the local government to remedy these admitted deficiencies, and I should like to pay a warm tribute to the work and devotion of the Governor, Sir Edward Windley, Mr. Kenneth Smith, the Civil Secretary, and others concerned in the Government of Gambia[...] both African and European. They are pressing forward as fast as possible. New schools are being built; a teachers' training college is in full operation and new roads are being constructed. I should like to give an honourable mention to the tropical research station of the Medical Research Council under the direction of Dr. MacGregor. It is doing very good work on various aspects of tropical medicine, and particularly on trachoma, the eye disease which is such a scourge in the tropics. The only limit to its activities is the amount of money available.

When one looks back on the past, one realises how little the Mother Country has spent on the Gambia, at any rate up to 1939. Treasury control in those days was very strict, and it was the theory that each Colony must be self-supporting. If the public revenue was small it followed that public expenditure must also be small, irrespective of the public need. The salaries of the Governor and of the judges all had to fall on the local revenue. Since 1939 things have been much better and I feel that we have been somewhat more generous. I cannot think of any series of Acts which have been passed here at Westminster which have had a more benevolent effect than the Colonial Development and Welfare Acts which have made possible useful projects in the Gambia, such as the modernisation of the hospital in Bathurst.

There is, however, still much leeway to be made up. I feel sure that the airport should be modernised and a new concrete runway installed there so that the large jet airliners can use the airport. The Gambia suffers from relatively poor communications. Many of the ships do not call there on their way to the West African Coast, and the place is perhaps isolated. If it had a major airport and was used by the airliners on their way to South America, it would be placed more firmly on the map of the world. I agree that it is very noticeable how much more the French have been willing to spend on neighbouring Senegal than we have spent on the Gambia, and I felt rather a sense of shame when I noticed the difference in the standard of the roads, near the border of the two countries.

When we ask ourselves what should be the destiny of the Gambia, I think of two things. First, Her Majesty's Government should be generous and help the country to modernise herself. Secondly, we have to consider the facts of economic geography. The Gambia is surrounded on three sides by the Senegal, previously a French Colony and now an independent State, and I feel that the political leaders of the Gambia might be well advised to consider whether some form of association might be to the mutual advantage of both countries. The Gambia would get the benefit of the larger markets and Senegal would get the advantage of the use of the river.

It may be of historic interest to remember that in the eighteenth century, when parts of Senegal were under the British Crown, the two possessions were linked together for some years under the name of Senegambia. There was another time when the Gambia was linked administratively with Sierra Leone. This tends to show that it is really difficult for the Gambia to be on a limb of her own. One can think of an economic association with Senegal, in the form of a Customs union, or one can think of an even closer political union. I agree so much with what my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Nottingham, Central said, that the important principle is that the Gambians themselves should choose what their destiny should be. They should not be made to feel in any way that the least pressure is being put upon them from London. Those two points combine together, because the more we can modernise and enrich the country the easier it will be for there to be a happy arrangement between her and her neighbours.

The Gambia is a delightful place. The people are of a happy and sunny disposition. Strangers greet each other in the street. There is a splendid absence of any racial prejudice. For instance, there is a dining club in Bathurst, with equal membership from among the Africans and the Europeans, who hold very pleasant monthly meetings, one of which we all attended. The country has been a British possession since 1664—the oldest in West Africa. It is a place which has been dealt with in the great European treaties, such as the Treaty of Utrecht and the Treaty of Versailles. Ships from my own constituency of Bristol have sailed there for hundreds of years. We are very proud of the Gambians, and I believe they are proud of their British connection and are much looking forward to the visit to be paid later this year by Her Majesty the Queen.

It is right that the House should consider sympathetically the situation in the Gambia. I know that the Colonial Office has been treating her with understanding. I only hope that this debate will encourage the Colonial Office to do even more and that it will also hearten the people of the Gambia themselves.

2.16 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. Hugh Fraser)

I should like to congratulate the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough, East (Mr. Marquand), my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Nottingham, Central (Lieut.-Col. Cordeaux) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. McLaren) on having taken this opportunity of bringing to the attention of the House this matter of the Gambia and, if I may say so, on having dealt with it so well.

The speeches which we have heard were well-informed and constructive and they may be said to fall into three main sections: first, the economic assistance that we in this country can give; secondly, the political advance in the territory; and, thirdly, the wide question of where the Gambia's future destinies should lie.

Therefore, I begin my speech by referring to the amount of colonial development and welfare allocations which have been made by the home Government to the Gambia under the various Acts. Those total £2,700,000. I am glad that my hon. and gallant Friend and the right hon. Gentleman pinpointed the main problem of the Gambia economically, which is its dependence on a monoculture, namely, groundnuts. I was also glad that they pointed out the advances that have been made in other directions, although only of a tentative sort, and, in addition, I was interested in my hon. and gallant Friend's reference to the possibility of encouraging tourism in the area, which is a matter into which I shall inquire.

The right hon. Gentleman dealt at some length, and rightly so, with the question of the grant-in-aid, the problems of the economy and the budgetary situation. This also was touched on by my hon. and gallant Friend. I think that I should say something on this specific point and give some reassurances on the questions of road building and of education. The Gambia, in 1959 and 1960, as hon. Members will know, ran a Budget deficit, and during the course of 1960 it became clear that the low world price of groundnuts and the gradual rise in the cost level of Government services would cause expenditure considerably to outstrip revenue. Therefore, Her Majesty's Government accepted that it was no longer possible for the Gambia to meet her current expenditure, that that position might remain for some time, and that the best action this Government could take was to assist the Gambia by way of grant-in-aid.

Various projects were put to my right hon. Friend by the Governor, Sir Edward Windley, who is a splendidly outspoken Governor both in his despatches and in his private conversations. I am sure that all who know him hold him in great respect. Nevertheless, the decision taken by my right hon. Friend was the correct one, not to agree to a system of block grant or the other proposals put forward.

The system of grant-in-aid has been designed and developed to give the proper balance between the interests of the receiving territories and the interests of the home taxpayer. Experience of the system has, I believe, shown that it works well. We are, therefore, following this method. We have to observe the normal practices, of course, of controlling to some extent the expenditure in the Gambia, but I assure the House that any suggestion made by the new Government in Gambia will be looked at favourably.

Mr. Marquand

Have any extravagances been found anywhere? Is there any point at which it is reasonable to demand retrenchment?

Mr. Fraser

No, Sir. Up to the present there has not been any. We did have some cause for alarm about the capital budget, not so much for the money expended but for the possibility of the territory spending the money in the time allocated. Of course, as the right hon. Member knows, it is a very common occurrence in some of the Colonial Territories that capital budgets cannot be fully spent in the year for which they are drawn up.

It has been suggested that the level of United Kingdom assistance to the Gambia is very small and hardly worth the trouble of these new arrangements. It is true that the grant this year is expected to be only about £150,000 in a recurrent budget of £2.1 million. However, a further £450,000 of the Budget will have to be covered by a final running down of certain reserves, and the long- term dependence on Her Majesty's Government is at present estimated to be about 30 per cent. of the Budget.

In addition, the Gambia this year expects to draw about £600,000 from colonial development and welfare funds as part of a capital budget of £800,000. It will be one of the tasks of the new Gambia Government to draw up a development programme, and when the plan has been drawn up, the Gambia will, I am sure, find Her Majesty's Government ready to consider their needs fairly, bearing in mind the resources available and other demands upon them.

The right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friends have referred to some of the urgent needs. I am glad to say that the programme of road building is going ahead. It will, at last, soon be possible to drive by the all-weather road from Bathurst along the south of the river to the Trans-Gambia road. A go-ahead programme of educational building is now being started. This will progressively provide a full primary education for all who seek it and, over the next ten years, will raise the enrolment of children in the Protectorate from about 10 per cent. or 13 per cent. to 50 per cent. I assure the House that in these matters Her Majesty's Government will do everything possible to assist.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the possibility of help coming from other African territories of the Commonwealth. I am glad to say that both the Nigerian and the Ghanaian Government have, in setting up a new labour organisation, been of considerable assistance to us and have lent us officers from Nigeria and from Ghana.

I turn now to the other two matters which have rightly been raised in the debate. First, I shall say something—this is a good occasion to take the opportunity—about the important constitutional changes made in 1960. In fact, these have been taken even a stage further forward during the last few days. I believe that the right hon. Gentleman and my hon. Friends were present when Sir Edward Windley proposed the changes in December, but I will just recall to the House what has happened.

Since 1960, when the first elections under universal adult suffrage were carried out throughout the country, including the Protectorate, we have seen the House of Representatives composed entirely of elected members. The six Gambians who have been in the Executive Council, although they had no previous Ministerial experience, have worked with such industry and co-operation that the Governor was able in December, when the right hon. Member and others were present, to say that he hoped that there would this year be another step forward in the appointment of a Minister in whose hands the co-ordination of the whole field of ministerial responsibility could be placed.

I am happy to say that the Governor was able last month to begin talks and, a fortnight ago, was able to appoint Mr. P. S. N'Jie as the first Chief Minister of the Gambia. He was able also to appoint five Ministers with Portfolios. I am sure the House will join with me in wishing the Chief Minister and his team well in their new responsibilities. I believe that the new system will work well.

As the right hon. Member and my hon. Friends know, there are some important political elements in the Legislature who will not be directly represented in the Executive Council. This is, of course, perfectly proper, but I think that we must all hope that the Gambian leaders will find means of reaching agreement among themselves on the important issues which, as is well recognised on both sides of this House, face their small country and that division on purely party lines will not prevent unity on these major matters.

As the Gambia develops its own specific, proper and, if I may say so, complete democratic institutions, undoubtedly the Gambians will turn their minds to where there best destiny lies. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned that one possible future for the Gambia is to be found in economic or even political union with her chief neighbour, Senegal. One of the points he made was that, should there be a need for a decision to be taken on this, at least a referendum should be carried out among the people of the Gambia. My hon. and gallant Friend thought that there should be full consultation of the views of the Gambian people and that we should not in any way put pressure upon the Gambians to reach any such decision.

I assure the House that it would be impossible to envisage a situation in which Her Majesty's Government would consent to the merger of a territory with ties of friendship with Britain lasting more than 200 years in established political time—if one traces it further back into the wilder periods of history, lasting a further 200 years beyond that—with another country unless it was abundantly clear that this was the will of the Gambian people. Whatever the future of the Gambia may ultimately be, I am sure that we can give that pledge unreservedly.

Where Gambia's future does lie is not for me precisely to predict, but I am quite sure that all things should be done at an economic level to make contacts and ties across the border with Senegal, the country which entirely surrounds this strange and friendly island of British interest and British people. With the development of the two economies, it will be increasingly difficult to isolate one from the other, and I believe that this must be the main consideration of the Ministers who are now taking office. Co-operation has already been established. This is remarkably shown by the building of the trans-Gambia highway across the river to link the two parts of Senegal. I hope that these contacts, established by the last Government, will be followed by the present Government.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for raising this interesting topic. On behalf of the House, I am certain that I can assure the people of Gambia that we will bear their proper interests in mind.