HL Deb 25 April 1956 vol 196 cc1213-6

3.57 p.m.


My Lords. with your Lordships' permission I should like to make a statement about British Guiana. Following discussions which my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Colonies recently had with the Governor of British Guiana about the present political situation in the Colony, Her Majesty's Government have decided that the time has come when some progress can safely be made in the direction of the return to democratic institutions. It is proposed therefore to take steps to introduce an elected clement into the Legislature and the Executive. Briefly, there will be a Legislative Council of 12 elected members, 4 officials and not more than 8 nominated members. The Executive Council, under the Governor, will normally consist of 4 officials, I nominated and 5 elected members of the Legislative Council. Preparations will be put in hand forthwith for the necessary amendments to the Constitution and for setting up election machinery. The Governor will settle a suitable date for the elections. This will probably be some time next year but may have to be even later.

Her Majesty's Government hope that this substantial step forward will encourage healthy political development and enable experience to be gained upon which further progress can be based. Until more of the people understand the dangers of Communist leadership, which could only bring a second collapse like that of 1953, Her Majesty's Government cannot run the risk of restoring the type of Constitution which was suspended. Meanwhile, the development programme will be pushed ahead, and whatever is necessary will be done to prevent or counter activities promoted by a handful of Communist-trained executives who are causing interruption to constitutional progress.


My Lords, we are obliged to the Government for making in your Lordships' House this statement with regard to British Guiana. We should have liked it to be made rather nearer the time that it is made in another place, but we are glad to have it. I would say at once that we welcome the fact that some progress is to be made in returning to some form of democratic, and even parliamentary, government, so far as a Legislative Council is parliamentary. We on this side of the House regret that circumstances ever arose which led to the necessary steps to restore something like proper conditions in that important Colony. We should like to feel that the steps suggested in this statement will not be too long delayed. They seem to be rather tentative. The statement talks about, "some time next year" or "may … be even later." That is rather a long time. If we are to make some real gesture towards the path we want to see developed in the Colony, perhaps it ought not to he too long delayed. On the other hand, we welcome the statement, and we should like the people of British Guiana to k now that this country really does want progress made. We regret the circumstances which led to the suspension, and we hope that, when this plan is now put into operation, the people of British Guiana will do all they can to make it a success.


My Lords, I should like to endorse from these Benches the words which have fallen from the noble Viscount the Leader of the Opposition and to say that we, too, welcome this reimposition of freedom, if one may so put it, and to know that events in another part of the world have not caused Her Majesty's Government to drag their feet too much in this particular aspect. Like the noble Viscount, we hope that things may proceed rather more quickly than is adumbrated in the statement of the Minister who gave us the information.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord one question, arising out of what my noble friend and Leader has just said? Can he explain rather more fully the reason why he states that it may not be possible to hold a General Election in British Guiana until after next year? Is the difficulty merely administrative and technical? Would it not be possible to prepare an electoral roll and make the other necessary administrative arrangements in time to hold an Election next year? Or is there also a political difficulty which he has not mentioned in his statement?


My Lords, I always try to be as open with the House as I can. The reason for the delay is really purely an administrative matter. The noble Earl, who is familiar with colonial matters, will know that there was an electoral roll in British Guiana in 1953. But there was no procedure for revising that roll, and therefore the Governor has recently taken steps to have it revised. The noble Earl will be the first to appreciate that that takes quite a time. It takes more time in colonial territories than perhaps it does in this country. There is the question of drafting and the presentation to Parliament of amendments to the Constitutional Instruments. Then there is the question of the actual administrative arrangements for the elections. Finally, when all that is done, it is desirable to hold the elections at a time when weather conditions and crop seasons are most suitable. All I said in my statement was, I think, that it might be a year before all this could take place; I did not say longer than that. It must be a matter for the Governor to decide. Having made this statement, we wish the elections to take place as soon as possible, but I am not going to commit myself and say that we can do it more quickly than it can, in fact, be done.