HL Deb 06 May 1908 vol 188 cc215-7

rose to ask the Secretary of State for the Colonies whether he would lay on the Table of the House any correspondence that might have passed recently concerning the Municipal Corporations Act and the Dealers' Licences Act of the Colony of Natal. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I do not propose to ask the noble Earl the Secretary of State for the Colonies to discuss, or to make any statement upon, the very important subject referred to in the correspondence for which I ask. In the first place I do not think it would be fair to do so immediately on the accession of the noble Earl to the supremely important office in which, if I may say so without presumption, we are all glad to see him. Secondly, I do not think it advisable that a question of this kind should be discussed in this House without full official information. I would merely, therefore, put my Question to the noble Earl and ask him to allow me to do so on the understanding that if the Papers, by any unfortunate chance, cannot be presented, or cannot be presented within reasonable time, say a fortnight, I may consider myself at liberty to raise the question either with or without the official information I hope to obtain.


My Lords, I am very much obliged to the noble Lord opposite for his consideration, but I think I may be allowed to state how the matter stands at this moment, because it will be a guide to him if he wishes to refer to it on some future occasion. The two laws referred to are the Municipal Corporations Act of Natal and the Dealers' Licences Act, and I can quite understand that the noble Lord, having held the high position he did in India, takes a keen interest in the lot of Indians who have migrated, for trade or other purposes, to Natal. So far as regards the Municipal Corporations Act, that Act, as I daresay the noble Lord knows, is not in operation. It was reserved, and therefore it does not affect any Indians in Natal at this moment. There has been no recent correspondence on either of the Acts. Lord Elgin addressed the last communication to the Natal Government at the beginning of September, and so far no reply has been received. Two objections were taken by my noble friend and the Government to the Municipal Corporations Act. The first was that the definition of a coolie included persons to whom the term was never intended to apply—namely, persons outside the classes of labourers and domestic servants; and, therefore, strong objection was taken to it. On that point the Natal Government were willing to meet my noble friend Lord Elgin. They were prepared to alter the wording of the Act in terms which would make it clear that only actual labourers and domestic servants would be included. But there was the further point that the Indians, who, as the noble Lord knows, are already excluded from the Parliamentary franchise in Natal, would also have been excluded from the municipal franchise. The latter is, in the opinion of the Colonial Office, a more domestic matter than the Parliamentary franchise, and therefore, there is a sort of a fortiori reason for not pressing the Natal Government to change their mind on this question of excluding Indians from the municipal franchise. But on one condition. If the Indians are to be excluded from the municipal franchise—and my noble friend did not stand out on that point—it could only be on the understanding that the ratepayers, who would not include the Indians, were prepared to treat the Indians fairly in every way. At the present time Indian traders can be deprived of their licences by the Licensing Board, on which they, of course, have no representation. That is provided for under Section 6 of the Dealers' Licences Act, and there is no appeal from the Licensing Board. My noble friend Lord Elgin intimated that the Secretary of State for India regarded it as essential that if the Indians are to be deprived of the municipal franchise, they ought, in return for that deprivation to have an appeal to the Supreme Court on this question of licences, the matter where they think their interests are likely to be most seriously affected. The noble Lord sees how the matter stands. That alternative was offered to the Natal Government, and so far they have made no reply. The question is, therefore, in so incomplete a stage at the present moment that there would be no advantage in laying Papers on the Table. But if the noble Lord will not press for Papers now, I will take care that he is informed when anything further occurs; and meanwhile the Municipal Corporations Act is not in operation.