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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 Alan Lennox-Boyd Mr Alan Lennox-Boyd , Mid Bedfordshire 12:00 am, 6th November 1947

I do not say that we could have done it, but the waters might have been slightly more valuable when they arrived.

So much for my first objection. I very much hope that the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies will be able to give us some reassurances that the matter will be looked at again. I think I am right in saying that every hon. Member who has expressed any view at all about this is in favour of the Secretary of State for the Colonies being the responsible Minister.

My second criticism of these proposals is that they look like having far too much of Whitehall in them. I would have preferred the sort of corporations envisaged by the 1945 Act where the real authority would have been in the hands of the Colonial Government; but the Bill has taken the form that it has taken and obviously it is impossible to amend it drastically. Naturally, we will give it our full support, but we are most anxious that these corporations should not take a rigid or a bureaucratic form. Naturally, the right hon. Gentleman and the Secretary of State will get those whom they consider to be the best people to serve on the corporations. I do not want to revive memories of Question time today, by any reference to the methods in which some people feel that high nominations are made to corporations, but I would like to express the hope that these corporations will not be used as places of quiet retirement—in particular, this applies to the Colonial corporations—for Members of Parliament or other public servants whose period of active usefulness may be drawing to an end.

Also, I urge that there should be the fullest possible disclosure in this House of all information dealing with the work of the corporations, and that some of the attempts to hide the activities of the National Coal Board should not be reproduced in the case of these corporations. This applies especially because of the Colonial implications. There is one illustration I would like to mention in passing. I refer to the question of the actual amount paid in salaries. I do not altogether agree with what was said by one hon. Gentleman about the rate of remuneration. However, I think it extremely important that if people try to find out what the officials are paid we should not be told in this House of Commons that this is a confidential matter which cannot be disclosed here. The reaction in the Colonies among the native peoples might be that they would say, "Our efforts are going to pay large, secret, undisclosed salaries, to people who receive all that money because they are United Kingdom people and not native subjects of the Crown." It is most important that we should have the fullest possible disclosure of information.

Again, I very much hope that the hon. Gentleman the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies will be able to give us a renewed assurance that existing undertakings in the Colonies will be used to the fullest possible extent and that nothing will be done by these new corporations to drive old-established businesses, which have acquired technique over a number of generations, possibly even out of active work in the Colonies. It is by no means impossible that if the full force of Government subsidised competition confronts existing undertakings with impossible economic conditions, they may pack up in British Colonies and transfer their activities to the Colonies of some other European Power. This would be highly unfortunate, when one thinks of the accumulated experience of these old British companies. We believe that the corporations should concentrate their main direct-action work on these developments which private enterprise either cannot or will not undertake, in particular as a first consideration, on the improvement of communication on which everything else eventually depends.

I believe that there is danger ahead if the Government continue with these corporations in their policy of bulk purchase. I do not want to deal with that point in any detail, and I am not sure that I should be in order if I did, but, obviously, the products of the result of the activities of these corporations are going to be bought by the United Kingdom, and, presumably, bought in bulk, as the Government is wedded to the policy of bulk purchase. The Government will be buying the products of these great corporations, and there is a danger of endless friction and possibly a head-on collision between the Colonies and Whitehall, and it will require a great deal of skill and diplomacy to arrive at prices which will give a proper return to the cultivator and enable the corporation to carry on their work in an economic fashion.

So much for my criticisms. There is only one other thing I would like to say, and that deals with the actual human problem of the African native, or the native of any other part of the world where these corporations may carry on their activities, and the labour problem that will confront the corporations when they get seriously down to business. There is nothing whatever to be ashamed of in seeing that, along with our proper care for the natives, we look after our own consumers here in the United Kingdom, for, without the United Kingdom's money and enterprise, as the hon. Member for the Isle of Wight (Sir P. Macdonald) pointed out, these natural resources would have remained dormant and untapped. Yet our first duty is to the people who live in these territories, and we have to make it perfectly clear to the corporations that they must make this their first consideration.

How are we going to raise the standard of living of our Colonial fellow-citizens on the eve of this vast new undertaking? All the experience of this generation, with one or two exceptions, has gone to show that, as the wage-rate rises in certain Colonial territories, down goes production and there is very little improvement in the standard of living. The reason is obviously that very little money alters so completely the style of life of the African native that there is no incentive to earn a little more by increased production. Incentives can be provided by a larger export of consumable goods, and I think we should concentrate on this in a bigger way. Exports here are doubly valuable, and I hope the House as a whole will press the Board of Trade to see that the Colonies get cotton and other goods to the fullest possible measure of their requirements. We want also to encourage industries in the Colonies, gradually and slowly, but adapted to the people for whom we are trying to cater so that their purchasing power will increase.

I am told, and I think we have had the testimony of the late Governor of Nigeria, that the average Nigerian in 1945 was spending 5s. a year on imported goods, half of it, incidentally, from the United Kingdom. It was always his view that that figure could be increased to £5 given improved agricultural methods, smallish industries, and the patience and understanding which our Colonial Office people have always shown. I agree with the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) that one real difficulty is the problem of soil erosion and shifting cultivation, and all the evils which this brings in its train. We have to do all we can to support any scheme to cure these obvious evils. What we ask from the Government in return—though it does not seem likely at the moment—is that, later on—though I doubt if they will have the responsibility at that time—as the world food problem improves, we shall not leave these territories and their new agricultural production in the lurch. At the moment, I believe that 67 per cent. of our imported food comes from the Empire. We want to increase and maintain that figure, and, if we are going to do that, we must be allowed to maintain our system of Imperial Preference. Article 16 of the draft Charter appears to come perilously near to preventing our doing that.

I was interested to read in the "Manchester Guardian," when commenting some months ago on the groundnuts scheme, the following words applied to East and West Africa alike: In our purchases from these territories, we should be free to pay more than we would have done in buying from hard currency countries. I should like the hon. Gentleman, if he can, to give an assurance that we shall be free, if we think it desirable to do so, to pay more for those purchases than we would have paid had we bought them from the hard currency countries. I cannot see how these new industries of agriculture, or any other form of enterprise, can prosper unless we have freedom to protect them in their early years of growth. We are undoubtedly on the eve of a great expansion of agricultural production in the Colonial Empire, and also, let us hope, of an industrial production attuned to the temper of the people and to their present state of development.

I did not like the phrase nor the suggestion of the hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd) that we should "bulldoze" the Colonial Empire into civilisation. I have no wish to see some of the attributes of civilisation in Europe transplanted straightaway to the African Colonies, where some of the virtues of the age of innocence still survive. What we want to do is to get the best that they have got to give, and to give them the best that we have got, to give our experience in the social services and our belief that all men are equal, and that, eventually there should be full economic and political liberty.

In Africa, we have an immense opportunity. It is a pity, as one hon. Gentleman said, that there should be too much concentration in this Debate on the African problem. I hope that other Colonial territories will not think that they have been neglected, or that they do not equally matter; it is only that this scheme, applied as it is in its groundnuts aspect exclusively to Africa, has naturally concentrated this Debate on our African opportunities. But Africa is the touchstone by which our Imperial competence and our right to have an Empire, and to weld it and lead it up to self-government will be judged. Africa is a pretty big proposition. As far as size is concerned, Europe, India, China, and even the great Dominion of Australia as well, could be placed inside Africa. That is a pretty big heritage and a pretty big undertaking, and, though, naturally, it does not fall to us to develop the whole of that great continent, we have a great deal of work to do there, and it might well occupy some of the people who are spending all their time trying to set the world to rights, or, rather, to their own conception of what constitutes rights. They could join with those who want, first of all, to improve our own Imperial heritage.

East Africa in particular has an immense future, not least in that sphere of Empire, defence, to which no reference has been made tonight, but in which it will not be capable of playing a full and effective part if it is economically unsound. Because of Imperial defence on which all else depends; because of the chances here to improve the diet of our people who are entitled to better times and but for whom civilisation would certainly have collapsed; and because, above all, of the Colonial peoples themselves, we wish these corporations success, and, as my right hon. Friend said, we will give the Government every aid in seeing that their work is successfully accomplished.