HL Deb 20 March 1929 vol 73 cc758-61

My Lords, I wish to call attention to the revocation, by Order in Council made by the Governor of Trinidad on July 30 last, of the disqualification for nominee membership of the Trinidad Legislative Council of persons holding contracts for the supply of stores to the Government, and to ask for an explanation of the grounds for this departure from an established principle; and to move for Papers.

In all the instructions or Standing Orders with regard to most of the Crown Colonies with which I am acquainted there has been established the very healthy principle that those members of the unofficial community whom the Governor selects to be nominee members of the Council shall not be in any financial relations with the Government, and shall not hold contracts for stores. That is a very simple and straightforward principle, and it is quite on all fours with the principle followed in the Imperial Parliament that Ministers shall not be directors of companies and shall not be pecuniarily interested in the holding of contracts from the Government by companies. It would require very strong arguments to convince me that it was useful or healthy to abrogate that principle in the Colonies. I was the more impressed by the matter because on the face of it when it first came up it appeared that this revocation had expressly been made in order to get a particular gentleman into the Council. When I placed my Question on the Paper that appeared to be the position. I had some communication with the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies and he said that was not so, but he would like further time for inquiry. He wrote to me again afterwards telling me that he thought there was more to be said for what had been done than appeared on the face of the matter.

I want to have a very clear statement from the noble Earl, Lord Plymouth, as to what are the reasons for abrogating this very healthy principle. It is perfectly obvious, especially in these small communities, that the suspicion of "graft" and ill-natured implications against supporters of the Government are more rife than they are in more developed communities. If there is a nominee member of the Legislative Council who is under contract with the Government the general public are not going to imagine that he exercises his vote or uses arguments entirely independently on every possible occasion. They say that he knows very well on which side his bread is buttered, and that if he does not support his Government and argue in favour of their measures he would lose his contract. I do not say that would happen—as a matter of fact these contracts are given by contract committees—but you cannot avoid having that implication made.

Further, it is very necessary, in my opinion, that the Governments of Colonies should be completely independent in their choice of where they get their stores, whether direct from England or the United States, or locally. There is a good deal to be said for getting a good many stores locally, because it exonerates you from the cost of keeping a stores department, and having your balances locked up in stores. Nevertheless there is always a great pressure in these local communities on the Government to buy their stores locally in order that the local tradesmen may have the profit of handling them. Although that is sometimes to the advantage of the Government, it is not by any means always so. Whenever you have members of the Council who are interested in local contracts I do not say you get graft, but you inevitably get a suspicion of graft. Even in minor matters of controversy the same question may arise. This gentleman who has been appointed under the revoked Order in Council happens to be the contractor of the Government for the supply of condensed milk. In the Colony with which I was connected there was a strong controversy at one time over the question whether the Government hospitals and institutions should be supplied with condensed milk, or whether the Government should develop its stockbreeding and dairy farm, and supply direct to its own institutions. Therefore, on such an innocent case as milk, you may get a Council question on which I presume this gentleman would not vote. But you may have a local question develop, and it is not in human nature either to feel or to believe that the fact that the man is a contractor of the Government may not influence his independence. In all these Colonies there has been the rule I mentioned, and I should like to know what are the very strong reasons why in Trinidad they have abrogated this very healthy principle. I beg to move.


My Lords, by the Trinidad and Tobago Order in Council of April 16, 1924, defining the constitution of the Legislative Council, nominated and elected members of council were disqualified from taking their seats, under Clause 12 and 20 respectively, if among other reasons they had any direct or indirect pecuniary interest in any contract with the Government of the Colony for or on account of the public service, otherwise than as a member and in common with the other members of an incorporated company consisting of more than 25 persons. As the result of repeated representations by the Governor it was decided to abolish these particular grounds of disqualification, and the two clauses were accordingly amended by the Trinidad and Tobago Order in Council of July 30, 1928. The reason for doing this was that the continuance of the disqualification clause would have operated as a distinct handicap in a place like Trinidad, where the selection of suitable candidates for nomination to the Legislative Council was necessarily very limited.

It has been suggested that the disqualification clause was abolished on considerations applying only to the case of Mr. Huggins, to which the noble Lord has referred, who happened to be interested in the supply of tinned milk. This is not the case at all. The particular instance which brought the matter to a head did not constitute the whole, nor indeed any large part, of the case for the reform. This instance had been immediately preceded by three other instances in which prominent business men, whose membership would have been an asset to the Legislative Council, had been ruled out by the clause in question. It has also been pointed out that under the provisions of the clause any member with commercial connections might find himself at any moment disqualified by a fortuitous, and to him an unknown, transfer of shares which might reduce the company to one of less than twenty-five members. This, I think, the noble Lord will admit is very anomalous and ridiculous. I think I may add that the Port of Spain Gazette, which is often very critical of the Government of Trinidad, congratulated the Government on the abolition of this clause, and expressed the view that this amendment was the only sensible and straightforward and logical way of meeting the situation. I do not know whether the noble Lord wishes me to go into the question of the supply of tinned milk. It does not have a direct bearing on his Motion on the Paper. I think I ought to add in conclusion that there is, of course, a Standing Order which precludes a member from voting on any matter in which he has a pecuniary interest. I hope my explanation will satisfy the noble Lord.


My Lords, I cannot say that I feel happy about the change. It seems to have been thought in Trinidad that they were very short of good men and true. In a Colony a good deal larger, like Jamaica, we did not have that difficulty. I cannot press for Papers, because I cannot expect to upset or alter the decision of the Colonial Office, but I am not at all impressed by the fact that the Port of Spain Gazette supported this. The Port of Spain Gazette is the principal newspaper there, and I rather suppose it has the Government advertising. I do not know whether the noble Earl is aware of it, but a newspaper in that position in most Colonies does possess a fairly lucrative business from the Government. I beg to withdraw my Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.