Overseas Resources Development Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 6th November 1947.

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Photo of Mr Thomas Peart Mr Thomas Peart , Workington 12:00 am, 6th November 1947

I hope it always will be a free House, but some of the remarks made by the hon. Member in criticising some of the personnel who will function on these public corporations were most unfair, as they are not in a position to answer any criticism. I hope that if support for this Bill is to be given it will be generous support.

The right hon. Member for West Bristol (Mr. Stanley) raised some important constructive critical points which have already been dealt with from this side of the House. I, personally, would agree that from a psychological point of view it would be better if this matter came under the Secretary of State for the Colonies, and that it should be his entire responsibility. But there it is; the Bill is now before us, and we must try to work out its details, particularly in relation to the groundnut scheme. The right hon. Member for West Bristol paid a tribute to this Government, but I think he rather spoiled that tribute by the love of his own dialectical skill, which led him into other paths. He said that we were emphasising in this Bill the interests of the consumer. Surely, the interests of the consumer and of the primary producer in the Colonies coincide. If we can, through this Measure, improve productivity in the Colonies and mandated territories we shall not only enable ourselves to have a supply of products from those parts of the world, but we shall be able to improve the standard of living of the native peoples.

In this modern world we should regard the consumers' interests as complementary to the interests of the native primary producers, whether they work in mines or fields or as loyal servants in the operation of the new groundnut scheme. I thought the right hon. Gentleman's criticism was rather unfair. It is true that we must not raise too high hopes but, on the other hand, we must not damn the scheme before it has got under way. I am certain that all Members of the House, Conservative, and even Liberal, will, with members of the Government, wish the Secretary for the Colonies and the Minister of Food well in this new venture in the field of public enterprise.

This Bill is one of the most important Measures which this Government have initiated in this Parliament. I have not had the intimate connection with Colonial affairs that many Members of this House have had as members of the Colonial Service, or through official contacts in the field of commerce, or privileged visits from this House to parts of the Colonies. Nevertheless, I am a Member of this House, and I too, with others, have a responsibility to the Colonial peoples. For that reason, I welcome the establishment of the two corporations referred to in this Bill—the Colonial Development Corporation, under Clauses i and 2, and the Overseas Food Corporation, under Clauses 3 and 4. The Bill has undoubtedly a short-term value. We are faced with an economic crisis, and the general world dollar shortage, which reflects the disparity of production between the new and old world, strikingly emphasises the importance of the resources of the Colonial Empire. There within our reach, not in the old rapacious sense, are vast untapped resources of mineral and agricultural wealth, resources which, if efficiently and speedily exploited, would bring lasting benefits not only to this country but to the indigenous native populations. The East African groundnut scheme which has been described in detail by the Minister, and which is now the responsibility of the Overseas Food Corporation, indicates what we can do if we will it. This scheme, when it reaches maturity, will ensure to this country an important and valuable supply of protein feedingstuff.

This year most of our imported protein feedingstuff will come from Argentina. We need more supplies. The world is short of feedingstuffs, and as our old prewar sources of supply, India and the Near East, are now no longer available, it behoves us to do all we can to stimulate production in other areas under our direct control. Here, I agree with the hon.

Member for Eye that we must take notice of the recent words of Sir John Boyd Orr. Speaking before the World Food Council, at Washington, Sir John warned the world of the dangers of a complete breakdown in food production and distribution. As he eloquently stated, it may well lead to a complete breakdown of the structure of human society. So we must go full speed ahead with food production schemes as envisaged under this Bill. That is what the Government are doing. Then there is the long-term value. This Bill has an important long-term asset. Wise development of our Colonial resources in the various fields of productive activity will also make a contribution to that necessary social and economic revolution which must come to the Colonial peoples. We owe much to the territories in the Colonial Empire. They have made a particular contribution to Britain's industrial economy. By their exploitation we have enjoyed a comparatively high standard of living. Now we, in turn, have our obligations to fulfil.

So I regard this new venture, the use of public corporations in the field of Colonial development as an opportunity to fulfil some of those obligations which we owe to the native peoples. It must not be a repetition of that one-way traffic which took place at the end of the 19th century—a one-way traffic of goods, products, raw materials and valuable minerals, but rather now a stimulation of native productivity which, in turn, will improve the standard of living of the native worker and the native primary producer. As the standard of living of the native worker and primary producer increases, so will his-demands. With increased production in our Colonies there will be increased consumption of other goods which can be supplied by this country. The needs of the Colonial peoples are complementary to our own needs. I sincerely hope that the two new corporations will not be white bureaucracies superimposed upon backward peoples. I am certain that the Government will see that it does not occur, and I am glad that the Bill, in Clauses 7 and 8, makes detailed provision as to how the corporations should work. Local interests will have to be considered, and the native worker protected. Clauses 7 and 8 are important safeguards. I trust that they will be carried out to the letter.

May I deal briefly with one major problem in the field of Colonial affairs. The greatest enemy facing the Colonial territories is soil erosion. Today the Colonies face many problems but soil erosion is the most urgent and pressing. It must have the immediate attention of the Colonial Development Corporation. Soil erosion is now a major world problem. The Colonies are particularly affected and there is need for immediate and speedy action. Hugh Bennett, head of the United States Soil Conservation Service, has recently estimated that two-thirds to three-quarters of the world's available crop land are subject to damage, or have already been damaged in some degree by soil erosion. He has some interesting figures which partly cover the Colonial territories. The estimated percentage of productive land damaged or ruined for further practical cultivation by soil erosion includes the following: North America, 50 to 60 per cent.; South America, 28 to 35; Africa, 35 to 60. In South Africa, according to General Smuts: Erosion is the biggest problem confronting the country, bigger than any politics. His words are applicable to every British Colony. So I ask the Secretary of State for the Colonies—who is concerned with the Development Corporations—to try to deal effectively and quickly with this most important, pressing problem. If soil erosion persists, and we fail to take preventative measures, world food production will suffer irreparable damage. If one reads that authoritative work, "The Rape of the Earth," a world survey of soil erosion by G. V. Jacks and R. O. Whyte, we see how soil conservation in the past, particularly in the Colonies, has been handicapped through the failure of Governments to provide the necessary financial assistance and staff. Under Clause 9 the Minister can give directions to these new public corporations. I ask him to prepare his brief now. Soil erosion is priority No. 1. Let us remember that if we as a nation,. in any part of the world or the Colonies, neglect the soil, we do it at our peril.

I welcome this Bill. It is an ambitious scheme of public enterprise conducted in a field of activity which, if the right hon. Member for West Bristol will forgive me for saying so, was once the verbal prerogative of the Conservative Party. Despite what he said rather good humouredly in relation to the criticism of Lord Beaverbrook, and despite the gibes he made at Socialist propagandists, I still assert that this is the first Government that has really demonstrated to the Colonial peoples that it wishes to do something practical in the field of Colonial administration. [Interruption.] I know that hon. Members opposite will not accept that, but I believe that this important Bill is a great step forward, and an advance from that old Tory imperialism which was supported so much by hon. Members opposite in the past. We shall wipe the slate clean and start afresh. The first test of Colonial policy is: Will it help the native peoples to secure their social, economic and political emancipation? This Bill will do much in the economic field. That field is important. I remember some past words of the present Colonial Secretary: You cannot talk about political freedom until you end economic servitude. This Labour Government is making further steps towards world progress, because we believe that no nation can be free which enslaves another.