East and Central Africa (Political and Economic Problems)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 1st August 1958.

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Photo of Mr Fenner Brockway Mr Fenner Brockway , Eton and Slough 12:00 am, 1st August 1958

We have been discussing the most important issue in the whole sphere of the British Commonwealth and Empire. What happens now in Northern Rhodesia will largely determine what happens in Central Africa, and what happens in Central Africa will determine whether there is to be racial co-operation or racial conflict in the Continent.

I am a little reluctant to turn to other subjects, but I do so because there are three issues within the Commonwealth which are of very great importance, and because the team of speakers that we have had, comprising my hon. Friend the Member for Wednesbury (Mr. Stonehouse), my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Mrs. Castle), my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mr. J. Johnson) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Ipswich (Mr. Foot) have put the case so convincingly this afternoon. Nothing has made me prouder of belonging to the Labour Party than the effective way in which the voice of Africa is being represented from these benches today.

The three critical issues to which I wish to refer are all economic. The first is the situation in Sierra Leone. I am going to ask questions rather than make a case. A year ago the Financial Secretary in Sierra Leone said that the financial situation in that Colony had never been better in all its history. Yet today, very hurriedly, the Governor and five members of the Legislature came to see the Minister about a financial crisis. Apparently, there is even a shortage of liquid cash with which to meet the costs of the public services.

I hope that when he replies the Secretary of State for the Colonies will be able to give some explanation of that situation, because we are hoping that Sierra Leone will advance as Ghana has advanced and as Nigeria is advancing towards self-government. It will be unable to do so if it remains in these economic difficulties.

The two other areas to which I want to refer are Malta and British Guiana. I think we generally welcomed the statement which the Secretary of State gave to the House yesterday regarding Malta. But there are certain points arising from that statement which I wish to put to the right hon. Gentleman. The proposals can be divided, broadly, into two sections, one economic and the other political.

Malta has become the victim of our changed defence policy. It was almost entirely dependent upon the naval dockyard, upon airstrips, upon troops in transit and, more recently, the Mediterranean headquarters of N.A.T.O. The indication that the naval dockyard is not to be fully utilised after 1960—indeed, that it may be closed down altogether—brought the widespread fear of unemployment.

We welcome the fact that arrangements are now being made for the dockyard to be used for civilian purposes. I was very sincere yesterday when I paid my tribute to the Governor for the negotiations on this matter in which he has been engaged over recent weeks. I very much hope that no one in Malta will have thought that because the Governor has spent this period in London he has not been contributing to the future happiness and welfare of Malta.

The particular questions which I want to put to the Secretary of State are these. How far will the civil dockyards provide employment in comparison with the employment hitherto provided in the naval dockyard? When the right hon. Gentleman spoke in his statement yesterday of efforts to establish varied industries to supplement the dockyards, of what was he thinking? Was he thinking that Malta should be approached in a way similar to that in which we have approached the depressed areas of this country, as Development Areas?

I was in Malta three weeks ago, and it occurred to me that it might be an admirable site for a trading estate such as have been established in our depressed areas here. When the right hon. Gentleman is thinking of those new and varied industries, could the matter be approached in that big and imaginative way?

I want to make one proposal which goes beyond the statement of the Secretary of State. This island fortress in the Mediterranean has been of great service not only to Britain, a service which was uniquely recognised at the end of the war by the presentation of the George Cross to the whole population. It has been of service to the entire Commonwealth, and, indeed, it has been of service to all the Western allies.

When we are turning the activities of Malta from the naval and military spheres to civilian spheres, it would surely be a very happy recognition of that service if not only Great Britain, but the countries of the Commonwealth, and, indeed, if the United States made some contribution towards the transformation of the island. I very much hope that some voice will be raised asking Australia, Canada, New Zealand and countries in Western Europe and the United States, all to make their contribution in recognition of the great service that Malta has rendered to them and to liberty in the past.

I turn from those economic aspects to the political aspects. I plead with the right hon. Gentleman not to allow the talks with the representatives of the Maltese parties to hang over until November. I appreciate that the right hon. Gentleman will be engaged during September in important conversations with Nigerian representatives, but I would suggest to him that he has very able colleagues at the Colonial Office. He has Lord Perth as his Minister of State. Sitting beside him now is the Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies.

I beg the right hon. Gentleman not to have an exaggerated sense of the importance of his own attendance when these discussions are taking place. Even if he himself is heavily engaged in September in the Nigerian discussions, there is no reason why colleagues of his at the Colonial Office should not be in consultation with the representatives of Malta so that the discussions need not be so long delayed.

The second point I want to put to the right hon. Gentleman on the political side is in relation to the emergency regulations. I put the question to him in the House yesterday, and he replied that the Governor had gone back to Malta and would consider immediately whether these emergency regulations should be withdrawn. Three months have now passed without any disturbances in Malta, and yet regulations still continue under which ten persons are not permitted to meet together in public.

I visited the prison in Malta where over 50 men and women were serving sentences. The only crime when they had committed was that they had been in a meeting of ten persons. If the right hon. Gentleman is to create in Malta an atmosphere which will enable a solution to be reached, he should immediately end these regulations.

My third point is this. During my visit to Malta I was disturbed by what I saw of the judicial system and of the police administration. I visited in prison a man who four months ago was the Minister of Health and a woman who four months ago, was Minister of Education. Everyone in Malta, including political opponents—one can say the Governor, the Deputy-Governor and the Archbishop—all paid tribute to the work which those two Ministers did in the spheres of health and education. One had only to see the organisation of the health and education services, the schools and the technical college, the college for industrial training, arising as a result of their work, to understand the constructive contribution they made. Yet there they were in prison. Their offence was that during the strike they had been guilty of intimidation.

In what other country in the world outside those with Communist totalitarian Governments would two people on their first offence have been sentenced to imprisonment without even the option of a fine, particularly when they had rendered such service to the country as those two ex-Ministers have done?

I was also concerned about the administration of the police. It is important to realise that the conflict which arose between the Colonial Office and the Labour Prime Minister of Malta turned as much upon the issue of police administration as it did on the economic side.