Colonial Affairs.

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons on 4th August 1942.

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Photo of Mr David Adams Mr David Adams , Consett

We are all very grateful to the Government for having arranged this Colonial Debate, particularly as it is so short a time since we were similarly favoured. I hope that this may be taken as a precedent, and that Colonial matters will receive greater attention in future than they have ever done in the past. It is true that at no period in the history of the country has there been a greater interest in Colonial matters. Whether that statement is true with regard to this House or not, the House itself must determine, but I must testify that if the repeated appeals which have been made to the Government for the setting-up of a Colonial Committee under the aegis, control and direction of members of all parties in the House were achieved, we would indeed be brought more directly into the position of being interested and concerned as a House upon whom the liability of much that is happening in the Colonial Empire really depends, and it would be possible materially to advance our sense of responsibilities. The hon. Member for Shipley (Mr. Creech Jones) has given us an admirable account of the present situation and of -the hopeful prospects for the future.

It is true that we are all grateful for, and I am particularly glad of this second opportunity for the Under-Secretary of State to repeat to us, no doubt in different language, some of those ambitions which I believe he sincerely holds about the development in the future of our great Colonial Empire, with a population 50 per cent. greater than our own. It is true that up to quite recently our interest in Colonial matters was largely utilitarian; our own material interests were our first consideration, and I think it can be said with truth that the conditions of the populations of the Empire were a secondary concern. It may be true to say that the first dawning of our sense of responsibility came when the right hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Malcolm MacDonald) was Colonial Secretary, when certain conditions were revealed to us that stimulated public interest, particularly in the West Indian Colonies. But I believe that the public indifference that then prevailed is passing rapidly away and that the material advancement of the native populations is now undoubtedly taking a large place in this House. We see it in the statements that have been submitted to show that in the fields of education, of health, of housing, and in the relief of extreme distress, there are evident and very specific departures.

There is, in my judgment, however, one field, that which is controlled and embraced by private enterprise, which has, relatively speaking, remained outside the ambit of reform. It is true that we have appointed labour advisers, and have set up labour advisory boards. Yet decisions in certain parts of the Colonial Empire of such boards as these have been overridden by the Colonial Governors, in my judgment highly improperly, and the Governor has awarded to the workers concerned lower rates of remuneration than the board itself has recommended, and perhaps amended conditions. The matter has been mentioned in Questions in the House that to-day Government employees are being defrauded, which I believe is the correct word to use, of their legitimate advances in wages in harmony with the officially stated rise in the cost of living since the war began. We have a specific illustration in one of our oldest Colonies, that of Jamaica, in which a rise of no less than 31 per cent. in the cost of living has received no response from the powers-that-be. In this country there is very little doubt that if such a situation as that were to prevail, it would be resisted by the withdrawal of their labour by the workers. But our Colonial coloured subjects have no such oppor- tunity, and they would have rapidly been brought to book for daring to consider striking to-day. Even if trade union leaders were to make strong representations, these would be resisted by the Governors, and it might be that deportation would result. Certain it is that the trade union movement in parts of the Empire has, in my judgment, been seriously impeded by the imprisonment and long terms of deportation of trade union leaders. We hope that that may be remedied at no too distant date.

In my judgment also the Essential Work Defence Order is being used as an engine of oppression of the workers. When we reflect, taking the case of Sierra Leone, that if any workman is absent for two days in succession, or two days in the month, or is even late for employment, he is liable to prosecution and to punishment by imprisonment or by fine, it is a grievous story that there is an abundance of evidence that the new courts which have been set up under this Order are extremely busy in committing these natives to various degrees of punishment. This is highly improper, -in my judgment, under the Colonial Office. One must consider the conditions under which these natives are called upon to give their labour. We are told that in Sierra Leone many hundreds, probably thousands, have to rise before sunrise to catch the trains or other vehicles that they use for reaching their, employment, and that, after very arduous toil, they do not return home until hours after sunset. That means that most of the time in which they are capable of labouring is consumed in work. It is highly unjust that people should, under the Essential Work Order, be expected to work, under a broiling sun, in conditions to which many of them are unaccustomed, for periods—