HL Deb 05 March 1930 vol 76 cc789-802

VISCOUNT ELIBANK rose to call attention to the delay in the publication of the West Indian Sugar Report, and to ask His Majesty's Government the reason for this delay; and to move for Papers. The noble Viscount said: My Lords, it will be within the recollection of your Lordships that on February 6 I asked a Question of His Majesty's Government and pressed for the early publication of the Report of the West Indian Sugar Commission. I pointed out at that time that a telegram had been received by the Colonial Office on December 31, in which were contained the most essential parts of that Report, and I also informed your Lordships that on January 31 this Report was in its entirety in the hands of the noble Lord the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs and the Colonies. In the course of the debate which took place on that occasion, and in which the noble Lord, Lord Olivier, took a very important and, if I may venture to say so, a very dramatic part, Lord Olivier stated that the whole of the Report relative to his inquiry was in the Minister's hands four days before the date of the debate. He went on to say: "It is now in the printers' hands, and I have here a proof."

In reply to that the noble Lord, Lord Passfield, agreed that the important part of the Report had been in his hands "for five days or something like that"; and he went on to say that the first thing to do was to print it and that it was nearly all printed at that time. The noble Lord then proceeded to say: Of course, this Report will be published, and I hope it will be published without any undue delay, but my noble friend behind me is well aware of the necessary organisation not only of one Government Office but of the machinery of Government, and I am not in a position to say when this Report will be published, but it will be published, I hope, long before the ruin of the West Indies. I also venture to hope that this Report will be published long before the ruin of the West Indies, but I am beginning to wonder if it will be published before that ruin occurs. Every day there come from these Colonies to the West India Committee and to other organisations in this country connected with these Colonies and with the sugar industry, the most heart-rending telegrams and communications regarding the state of the industry. As I said on the occasion of the former debate the position was growing worse then. I venture to say to your Lordships to-day that it is growing even worse now and growing worse every day.

I want, if your Lordships will permit me, to read an Address to the Secretary of State for the Colonies which was passed by the House of Assembly and Legislative Council of Barbados on February 25. That is only nine days ago. It is somewhat lengthy, but it contains the thesis of the whole question. The Address is as follows:— The Legislature desires to lay before your Lordship the following statement regarding the sugar industry in this Island. Following a Resolution of the West Indian Standing Conference in January, 1929, representations were made by all the British West Indian Governments concerned to His Majesty's Government drawing attention to the fact that large production made possible the admission into England of foreign sugar at a cost lower than that at which it could be produced in British Colonies and thus imperilled the existence of the sugar industry in the West Indies and British Guiana, and asking that assistance be given by increasing the amount of preference in Import Duty now allowed on entry into England. These representations were renewed when in July, 1929, official pronouncement was made of the intention of His Majesty's Government to abolish the system of Preferential Duties, and attention was called to the necessity for urgent action if serious loss in the forthcoming season was to be avoided. His Majesty's Government, apparently impressed by the facts laid before them by the West Indian Governments, decided to send out to investigate these facts a special Commission the cost of which the West Indian Governments were called upon to defray. From reports in the English Press it appears that the Report of this Commission has been presented and that it confirms the facts as represented a year ago by the Colonial Governments concerned. The situation described then as possible has now actually arisen. Sugar production has survived, though with most serious loss, a year of low prices; a second year's harvest has commenced but, as the market price of dark crystal sugar has sunk to a level as low as any known in the history of the industry, sales are impossible except at a figure so much below the cost of production as to threaten the total extinction of the industry in the British West Indies and British Guiana. The Legislature asks that this statement may be communicated without delay to His Majesty's Government and also begs that His Majesty's Government be asked to intimate at once whether there is a prospect of assistance being given either in the form already suggested or in any other way. With such an assurance efforts might be forthcoming to tide over present crisis. Without it the producers will be forced to sell at a price even more disastrous than that of last year. Cultivation would thus necessarily be further curtailed and it is unnecessary to point out the hardship to the labouring population which would follow.

There is one other short extract which I should like to read from a communication received from the Trinidad Chamber of Commerce. It says: Reaping in full swing and factories in the absence of adequate storage are forced to market their crops at present values, being at least £2 10s. per ton below the actual cost of production even with existing preference. The continued uncertainty re fate of Sugar Duties precludes buying interest in United Kingdom. I explained on the last occasion that the refiners in this country had issued a notice to the cane sugar producers that they would not buy their sugar from them except on the understanding that if the preference were taken off the amount of that preference should be refunded to them. I said on that occasion that it was not possible to conduct business on those lines. That was over a month ago, and the same condition exists in the sugar market in this country to-day. Since that debate the Chancellor of the Exchequer, in another place, has gone so far upon persistent interrogation as to tell us that so long as the Sugar Duty was maintained the preference would be maintained. But in the same breath he has told us that he will not say at present whether the Sugar Duty will be taken off or whether it will be kept on. As we all know, in July last he informed the House of Commons that it was his intention to sweep away all duties, such as Sugar Duties, if it were in his power to do so.

The industry is therefore left in the same state of uncertainty as if he had not made his statement with regard to the sugar preference itself. This is cold comfort and no help to the West Indian sugar industry which is still kept in the same state of cruel suspense as before that statement was made. The industry is left writhing in the agony of the gravest anxiety for its future. I wonder if the Chancellor of the Exchequer is really astonished at being taunted with the hard words and the rude expressions that are being directed against him to-day. Does he wonder that Parliamentary methods and wiles should be used to induce him to disclose to this country his policy upon the question of duties, when the well-being of thousands of men and women is hanging upon the result of that pronouncement?

To-day I ask His Majesty's Government, as represented by the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs and the Colonies, to tell us what is going to be done with regard to the Sugar Duty and to publish to the world as quickly as possible the Report of the Sugar Commission, in order at least that your Lordships' House, the House of Commons, the sugar industry in the West Indies and the public in this country may know what is contained in that Report and whether it will meet the terribly serious case with which it is intended to deal. I venture to hope that the Secretary of State will tell us to-day that this Report is going to be published forthwith. I hope that he will be able to tell us also of some remedy that he has been able to devise, in consultation with His Majesty's Government, to meet the plight of the sugar industry in the West Indies. I beg to move.


My Lords, I want to support in a very few words the plea put forward by my noble friend behind me. Your Lordships debated this question at some length just a month ago, and the noble Lord opposite, the Secretary of State, spoke with great sympathy regarding the Colonies in the West Indies and the situation, which he said was equally bad, in Mauritius. Obviously that situation is one of extreme gravity. That is admitted on all sides. It is not denied by the Government and it is confirmed by every tittle of evidence that trickles through to this country. What is going to be done? The Government sent out a Commission. We understand that the Commission's Report is in the hands of the Government. Surely this is a time when the Government should press on to produce that Report at the earliest possible moment. The noble Lord opposite told us on the last occasion that he had just received that Report. We all know that it takes some considerable time to consider a Report when it has been received, in order to come to conclusions; but at any rate I imagine that this Report will be produced as it is written, that it will be published in full, and therefore, except for the actual time that it takes to put it into print and to see that the printing is correct, the time should not be long. I venture to submit that by now the Government should be able to produce that Report.

I should like to go a little further. The Secretary of State remarked on the last occasion that apparently the only proposal was that a tax should be put on the poor people's sugar and jam. The noble Lord seemed to forget—although he stated it in an earlier part of his speech—that sugar is produced in Java and Cuba at a price of £9 a ton, but that everywhere else it is produced at a price very much higher than the price at which it is sold in this country at the present time. Accordingly it is not a question of raising the price of an article throughout the world, but of safeguarding our Colonies from the elects of a production that is supported by subsidies in other countries. I have a much higher opinion of the working man than that of the noble Lord opposite, if he takes the view—I really do not think he can—that the working man in this country is prepared to take a thing at any price, whatever the conditions under which it is produced and whatever may be the effects on his fellow subjects, whether in this country or overseas.

We are told on the authority of Mr. Lloyd George that this has nothing to do with Protection or Free Trade and that where an article is dumped in this country below the cast of production by means of subsidies, he would impose a complete embargo. That is not what anybody is asking here. What we are asking is that this article should be sold at a price which gives a fair return when it is produced under normal conditions. It is hopeless to expect that the world price can be legitimately kept at the price at which sugar is produced in Java and Cuba, because those countries produce less than one-third of the world's supply, and it is hopeless to expect that their whole production will come to this country. The rest comes from elsewhere, at a price of £10, or £10 13s. The sugar that is produced just to be dumped here by the aid of subsidies is produced under conditions of labour and at profits which are such that no working man in this country would wish to support them for one moment.

The Government are faced with the very serious question of unemployment in this country. They have discovered how difficult, in fact how impossible, it is, under the conditions which they are prepared to accept, to reduce that figure. Surely this is not the moment to add many thousands of our fellow-subjects in the West Indies and in Mauritius to the number of unemployed by saying that the sugar industry, the sole industry in which they can be engaged, is to be allowed to crash in such a way that it may possibly never recover? We have to remember that in those countries there is less chance of supporting those who are unemployed, either with the assistance of a Ministry of Health or by boards of guardians, and therefore, when they fall out of work and lose their wages, the conditions are extremely serious and such as none of us can face with equanimity. For all these reasons I hope that the Secretary of State will be able to assure us that the Report will be in the hands of the public at a very early date and that he will be able to say that, whether it be by an increase of the preference, or by retaining the present preference or even possibly by giving a subsidy, he can hold out some hope both to the growers and the workers in this industry, which is suffering, as everybody admits, a severe crisis at this time.


My Lords, I am sorry to say that in all essentials I am afraid I have to disappoint the hopes, if they were hopes, with which this Question has been put by the noble Viscount and supported by the noble Earl opposite. I am not, in a position, for reasons which will readily occur to your Lordships, to state what the Chancellor of the Exchequer is going to reveal when he opens his Budget. That is an elementary principle of procedure. I am not merely not permitted to reveal, but of course, as you will understand, I am as ignorant in the matter as any one in this place. I simply do not know what will be the intentions of the Chancellor of the Exchequer and of the Government when the time comes to open the Budget, and I cannot, therefore, say anything with regard to the retention of the Sugar Duties or the preference, except to repeat what the Chancellor of the Exchequer has abundantly made clear and very definite, that so long as the tax on sugar remains there will be no abolition of the preference. Your Lordships have the same opportunity that other people have of forming an opinion as to the likelihood of the retention of the tax on sugar, and I think your Lordships may be quite sure that if the tax is retained there will be no abolition of the preference. Beyond that, as the Chancellor of the Exchequer himself has said, I am for obvious practical reasons simply unable to say anything about that point.

With regard to the Report, and the publication of the Report, and the steps which the Government may be able to propose with regard to this very grave question, I yield to no one in the estimate of the gravity of the situation with regard to the sugar-producing Colonies, and I may include also the gravity of the situation caused by the fall in the price of sugar to those countries, and they are numerous, which have assisted, by subsidies or other means, in fostering the production of beet sugar. Among those countries, I would remind your Lordships, this country is included. This over-production of sugar—it is between one and two millions tons more than the world, even at the low price, is prepared to consume—has been partly caused by the growth of cultivation in the sugar-cane Colonies, but it has also been brought about by the desire and attempt of almost every European country to produce its own sugar from sugar beet. The production from sugar beet has increased in this country, as your Lordships are aware, beyond anybody's expectation. It does not amount to a very large quantity in the aggregate production of Sugar, yet for the over-production of the past five years this country must bear its share of blame, along with other European countries, in having by their desire to produce sugar beet—for which there are other very good reasons—contributed to the aggregate over-production. In that connection we have erred, if it be an error, with other countries, and the visible surplus of sugar, of over five million tons, is weighing like an incubus upon the wholesale sugar market. I think the deadness of the market is not altogether due to apprehensions that the British preference will be withdrawn on April 14. It is partly due to this huge surplus of sugar, which is constantly being offered at any price whatsoever.

When I am asked with regard to the remedies, I am in a great difficulty. The position is such that I think it will be extremely difficult to find a remedy. I know that we are accustomed to regard the Government as required to find a remedy for every ill and every evil. I am not going to complain of that tendency; but at the same time it may not be within the power of the Government to find a remedy. Let me divide the possible action of the Government into two parts. One, and by far the more important, is the question of what you may call a permanent remedy, or at any rate a remedy which would meet the necessities of the West Indian and Mauritius sugar planters. We are told, and I have no doubt rightly, that the cost of production of sugar in those places is £13 and £14 per ton. It must necessarily vary between one factory and another, but taking the average cost at as low as £13 per ton, there is a very wide difference between £13 and £9 or even £8 per ton, to which sugar has now gone. In so far as it is suggested that the Government can come to the rescue by closing that gap, by somehow or another finding £4 or £5 per ton on the entire sugar consumption in this Island, or on the amount of sugar which we draw from the British Empire, that is a matter which runs into millions of pounds a year, which in one way or another would have to be taken out of the pockets of the people of this country in taxation or otherwise. If anybody thinks that it is an easy matter, or a rapid matter, to get this Chancellor of the Exchequer, or any Chancellor of the Exchequer, to listen to the requests of the Secretary of State for the Colonies, I can only assure your Lordships that it is a mistake. I do not suppose that any Chancellor of the Exchequer can quickly and decidedly come to a judgment and a decision to submit to his colleagues with regard to a matter of that magnitude.

I can only say that the Government have not wasted any time. They have had this matter under consideration continuously and without delay, and I should be wrong if I held out hopes that we were able in any way to solve such a problem as that in any completeness. I do not know what we can discover in that respect, and I am not prepared to say that an immediate decision is going to be come to. As to what can be done in a lesser way to meet the actual emergencies of the present time on the one hand, and to see what can be done, by public assistance of one sort or another, to enable us to put the West Indian and Mauritius sugar producers in a position to reduce their cost of production, in so far as that can be done, I can only say that His Majesty's Government will be not only ready but eager to come to their assistance in any way which we can discover to be practicable and suitable. Of course, I must admit that there seems to me very little possibility of being able to bring about such an improvement in the cost of production in the West Indies or Mauritius as would enable them to produce at the world price at the present time. I hope I am not taken as thinking that that is practicable; but I can only assure your Lordships that with regard to any assistance that can be given to tide over the actual planting emergency, and to secure that the crop will be planted, and can be planted, if those concerned are willing to plant it, I hope that it will 'be possible in a very short time to describe something which can be done. It will, however, take a little longer to discover how the planters can be helped to improve their production in those cases in which they have not already taken all possible means to improve their production. But that is being considered, and the Government will not be wanting either in time or in sympathy in that respect.

Now with regard to the publication of the Report. It is, I think, a little un-reasonable to ask the Government to publish the Report until they have come to a conclusion and a decision as to what, if anything, they can do on that Report. As a matter of fact, there has not been very much delay. The planters are not waiting for the publication of the Report in order to know whether they can afford to plant or not. The Report is not a cheque; the Report is not a law; the Report is not even an Estimate in Supply. The Report will not give them any assurance or tell them anything that they do not know already. What they want is the decision of the Government; and the publication of the Report, without the decision of the Government, will not relieve their anxieties by one little bit. Consequently I propose that the publication of the Report should not be delayed, and, as soon as the Government can find any proposal which they can ask the House of Commons and Parliament to accept, the Report shall be published.

I may observe that Part I and Part II of the Report were received on January 28. Part III of the Report was received on February 1. No doubt those are the most important Parts of the Report, hut, after all, we like to publish these Reports completely; and Part IV of the Report which, I admit, is not of such immediate importance, but still is an integral part of the Report, has not actually been received yet. So we have not got the Report in its completeness even now, though the Commission very properly supplied the Government with the first Parts of the Report at the earliest possible date, without waiting for the latter Parts, because the matter was so important that they wanted the Government to have the earliest possible opportunity of considering the substantial part of the Report. The Government have been considering it, and the Report shall be published as soon as the Government are in a position to come to a decision upon the very weighty matters which it contains.

I am sure my reply will not satisfy the noble Viscount who asked the Question, but I am not in a position, as your Lordships will understand, to go any further than that at the moment; and, whilst I do not think I am wanting in appreciation of the extreme gravity of the economic position into which the sugar industry has got, and incidentally into which therefore the sugar planters in the West Indies, and the whole population of the West Indies, and the Governments of the West Indies and Mauritius have got, yet, serious as that is, and proper as it may be for the Government to be called upon in that emergency to come to the aid of this industry in the trouble into which it has got, I am afraid Governments—any Government—must ask that they should be given time in such a serious matter as this. In fact, it would be wrong to hold out any hopes that there is any way in which these millions can be provided which would be necessary to put the West Indies in the position that they would like to be in, of being able to sell their crop at a price at any rate higher than the cost of production. It would be misleading to hold out any hopes that that can be done for this one industry at the expense of the British Government, the British taxpayer, and the British consumer. I do not think that is possible.

I would remind your Lordships that sugar is not the only industry in this country in which the price is below the average cost of production, and I do not think any Chancellor of the Exchequer could stand the drain of meeting the position of industry after industry in which, owing to over-production throughout the world, you had got into such a position that the world price had fallen below the cost of production. It is beyond the means of any Chancellor of the Exchequer. Whether anything else can be done is a matter for consideration, but I am afraid I shall not be able to persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer in any way whatsoever to bridge this enormous gap between the world price and the cost of the production of sugar, which has come about because of the enormous over-production which has gone on in the world, and the piling up of a visible stock of sugar to the extent of over 5,000,000 tons.

In conclusion, I will undertake that the Report shall be published with the least possible delay, and I contemplate that it will not be long delayed. I will also promise that the Government will not long delay to do what can be done with regard to the emergency. Whether any steps can be taken to bridge the gap between the world price and the cost of production I am not at present in a position to say, because, quite frankly, I have not discovered any way in which that can be done without a perfectly impossible drain upon the resources of this country.


I must confess that the reply given by the noble Lord, as he anticipated, is not in my judgment a satisfactory one, and I do not think it will be found to be satisfactory to the West Indian Governments or to those who are interested in the sugar industry in this country. During the debate on February 6 the noble Lord who has just replied used exactly the same words when referring to the time of publication of this Report as he has done to-day a month afterwards. He said on that occasion that the Report "shall certainly be published with the least possible delay." Those are the same words as he has used to-day. How can he expect that those words will give us on this side of the House any hope that the Report will be published within a reasonable period? The noble Lord took up a great part of his speech in discussing the question of aver-production of sugar and other matters connected with the sugar industry, which are obviously matters which have been dealt with at great length, and probably with close analysis, in the Report which the House wishes to have placed before it; and I suggest that it is not fair to come to this House and discuss these matters without enabling members of this House to have the same facts in their possession as the noble Lord has in his.

I would remind the noble Lord that he is creating an entirely new precedent in not publishing a Report of this nature as soon as he had it in his hands. The noble Lord shakes his head, but let me refer back to the Royal Commission on Ceylon. The Report was published almost immediately after that Commission had returned to this country, or, at any rate, as soon as it could be printed; and the whole country had the opportunity of considering that Report and digesting it—not merely His Majesty's Government and those who are in consultation with it. That was done, too, in the case of the Report of the Royal Commission on East Africa, which was published last year. The whole country had the opportunity of consider- ing that Report. Everyone interested in it had the same opportunity as His Majesty's Government. To-day we are asked to sit here and to wait until the Report is published, not for consideration, not that we may all be able to form our judgment during the period of weeks or months which are elapsing while His Majesty's Government are forming their judgment, but so that it shall be presented, with the hard and fast decision of His Majesty's Government, without our having been able to consider it at all. I venture to suggest to your Lordships' House that this is a new precedent which is being created, and I once more press upon the noble Lord the importance of publishing the Report as soon as possible. I beg leave, however, to withdraw my Motion for Papers.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

House adjourned at ten minutes before five o'clock.