HL Deb 12 March 1941 vol 118 cc659-61

My Lords, I beg to ask His Majesty's Government if they can make a statement about Jamaica.


My Lords, I have recently addressed a Despatch to the Governor of Jamaica setting out proposals for certain constitutional changes in the island. I am placing a copy of this Despatch in the Library of the House. In recent years, there has been in Jamaica a demand for a reform of the Constitution to enable the people to take a greater part in the business of government. The West India Royal Commission heard a good deal of evidence on constitutional questions, and recommended that the object of policy should be the introduction of universal adult suffrage in the West Indies, though they were not able to generalise as to the speed at which the change should be carried out. In Jamaica, there is a Legislative Council consisting of the Governor as President, five ex-officio members, nominated members not exceeding ten, and fourteen elected members. Property qualifications are required, both for membership of the Council and for the right to vote.

Proposals for reform based on the recommendations of the West India Royal Commission have been discussed with the Governor of Jamaica, who was recently in this country, and as a result, the following changes are recommended: (1) Universal adult suffrage; (2) an enlarged Legislative Council to comprise approximately double the present number of elected members, with nominated members, and three (instead of five) ex-officio members, the total number to be not less than forty. Two difficulties in carrying out these changes are the absence of trustworthy statistics of population and the standard of local government which has resulted in unsatisfactory social services. The Governor is, therefore, being requested to consider the carrying out of a census as early as possible and to reorganise local government. Until this is done, and elections are held on the new franchise, the reconstitution of the Legislative Council proposed above cannot take place.

There are, however, changes that can be made forthwith: Official representation in the Legislative Council to be confined to the Colonial Secretary, the Treasurer and the Attorney-General. Resulting vacancies to be filled by nominations in which care is taken to ensure that all important sections and interests of the community receive adequate representation. Concurrently with the reduction of the official representation the Governor's powers to be in some degree enlarged, but the special powers of veto at present held by the elected members to be retained. The Governor's overriding powers would be sufficient to carry any measure considered expedient in the interest of public order, public faith, or good government. If these changes are accepted by the Legislative Council of Jamaica, it is proposed that the Governor should withdraw from the Presidency of the Council and be replaced by a Speaker, who would be appointed by the Governor in the first instance and later be elected by the Council, subject to presentation to the Governor for approval. These proposals are being placed before the Legislative Council for discussion.

This statement which I have read has to-day been made in another place, and I only want to add one or two words of comment from a rather wider aspect than that of Jamaica only. I would specially stress the point which is mentioned in the statement—namely the opportunity which these reforms should provide for the improvement of local government. The Colonial Empire is very remarkable for the contrasts which it offers in constitutional expedients, and nowhere, as we realised from the hearings of the West India Royal Commission, is there a greater diversity than in the West Indies, where the constitutions are almost as varied as the physical conditions of the Island Colonics. Whatever may be the ultimate future of the West Indies as a whole, we cannot look for any uniform system of government in the component parts. Reforms will inevitably be called for in all these governments, but they will need very careful examination and inquiry which we did not feel it possible to undertake during the hearings of the Royal Commission, although we felt that in their bearing on social questions we were bound to admit evidence as to constitutional methods. In Jamaica we found an exception. The defects and the advantages of the Jamaican Constitution have been the subject of very considerable controversy for many years past, and while we were in Jamaica the Governor was able to outline to us proposals closely related to those I have read to the House to-day, which were generally agreed as a sound basis for reform.

I would only again stress this one point of local government. Elsewhere in the West Indies we found local government institutions much better developed than they have so far been in Jamaica, and we hope that the reforms which I have just outlined will enable this deficiency in local government administration to be remedied, not only for the social advantage of Jamaica, but also as a training ground in administration for the members of the Legislative Council in the new responsibilities with which they will be faced.