Colonial Development Corporation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th July 1960.

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Photo of Mr Edwin Leather Mr Edwin Leather , Somerset North 12:00 am, 7th July 1960

I admire my right hon. Friend's courage. That was a good ball, but, alas, I was not the person who gave the undertaking. It was somebody else. I do not feel, therefore, that I am I.b.w.

The argument which my right hon. Friend finally put forward concerning the emergent territories, and which was so strongly reinforced by my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate, carried great weight. My right hon. Friend will, I hope, forgive me when I say that at that moment he put me in mind of a venerable Member of the House in the last century of whom it was said that he came to his opinions instantaneously and thought up the arguments for them afterwards. One had the impression today that my right hon. Friend had been told, "This is what the Government think" and then somebody said, "Thank heaven, at long last they have found a chap clever enough to think of a good reason for it." The argument concerning the question of priorities of the great developments which are yet to be carried out and are vitally needed in the poorer territories which will remain dependent was, on balance, convincing on that specific point.

Then, however, we go on to the Government's Amendment, which says that we look forward "to future successes…" My right hon. Friend will agree that we cannot look forward to anything until we have got the questions of the financial structure and the Sinclair Report clearly established in our minds. My right hon. Friend at least took us some way tonight. At long last, we have succeeded in getting a member of the Government at least to acknowledge that the Sinclair Report has been considered. This is a great step forward and I am not one to look a gift horse in the mouth. We have been fighting this battle for a good many years. I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for getting us this little bit more forward.

With the great respect and regard which I and all of us have for my right hon. Friend and his predecessor, no one would ever accuse him or my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Lennox-Boyd) of slacking on the job and not working hard enough. They have successively spent their time and exhausted their energies in travelling the globe and dealing with one constitutional problem and crisis after another. Time after time the country and the House have had reason to be grateful to them. But I implore my right hon. Friend please to stay at home long enough to look at this economic problem. If this debate achieves nothing else except, for the first time in ten years, to persuade the Colonial Secretary to look at these economic matters himself it will have served a useful purpose.

We think of the continuous hamstringing of the C.D.C. and of the continuous efforts primarily by the Treasury to wreck it. We all know that the Treasury wants to wreck it. Then we look at what happens in the territories that emerge. They immediately go somewhere else for their economic aid—not here but to the United States, to an international organisation, or to Russia or China. We look at what is happening in Nigeria. I am told, and I believe that it is true, that almost the entire medical service there is quitting. I do not pretend to know much about Somaliland but I am told that there is a real risk that it may collapse completely.

These are economic problems of adjusting aid and of the means of giving it. Throughout this field, wherever we look, there is a story of continuous failure. If only the Colonial Secretary will himself take charge of this and look at the C.D.C. and questions of economic aid, I certainly have enough confidence to be able to sit back and say that at long last we shall get somewhere. We have certainly got nowhere up to now.

As for the Sinclair Report, the question of the financial structure has been dealt with at length in the debate and I am entirely with those on both sides of the House who have said that they hope that the Government will take the Report seriously. A further matter in the Sinclair Report which is vital to the domestic operation of the C.D.C. is the problem of accountability to Parliament. I cannot help feeling that someone is pulling an awfully fast one somewhere, somehow.

We have had consistent complaints over the years from successive chairmen of the C.D.C. that they have been constantly hamstrung by the Treasury. There have been complaints that we pass an Act of Parliament and give the Corporation a directive to do certain things and promptly it is told when it comes to do them that they can be done only with the permission of the Treasury, and time after time that permission has not been forthcoming until so many months and sometimes years of argument have elapsed that the project has become impossible anyhow.

Paragraph 68 of the Sinclair Report says: We also realise that there is probably no feasible alternative in principle to the present system, but there is no reason why it should not be operated sensibly. That is a strong phrase for a body like this to use. It adds: The Board of the Corporation is appointed by the Secretary of State as a responsible body of men with ability and experience It is almost axiomatic that its investments outside the 'finance-house' field are attended by some degree of risk. It cannot be to the interest of the Corporation, or the territories it is designed to assist, that it should embark on a project which has no prospect of success. In submitting a proposal it can state the degree of risk involved and why, despite that risk, it considers it worth doing. If it is not contrary to public policy and is within the Act, it would seem to be right that the Secretary of State should not, unless in very exceptional circumstances, question the wisdom of the Corporation's undertaking it. If we take out the phrase "Secretary of State", which the Committee uses politely, and put in "the Treasury", we in this House should know exactly where we stand.

We are told that the Corporation must always get permission for doing this, that and the other because of the vital importance of accountability to Parliament for the use of the taxpayers' money. There have been times when quite a number of us in this House in the last few months have wished that the Treasury would take such scrupulous care of the expenditure of the taxpayers' money in other directions, but it is extraordinary how in this one it seems to be so peculiarly immaculate in carrying out its duties.

When it comes to international bodies over which this House has no control at all, the Treasury Ministers and Departments can urge that we should vote vast sums of money, hundreds of millions of pounds, to the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Not so long ago, we voted a vast sum—I cannot remember how many million—to an international development authority—was it £50 million? They come here and urge us to vote millions to the United Nations Agencies. Is it suggested that these bodies are accountable to this House for the expenditure of the taxpayers' money? Why is it that, when we come to bodies over which we have complete control, on which our Ministers appoint every single director, this doctrine has to be applied to every single project down to the expenditure of only £100,000?—It must be put under a magnifying glass and torn to pieces before it can go ahead, in order to satisfy the doctrine of accountability to Parliament. Yet, in many other fields, including this particular kind of field, under international organisations, apparently, the doctrine is never put forward at all. This seems to me to be an extraordinary anomaly.

This is a problem we have been wrestling with for a long time. I am in favour of getting more aid for the underdeveloped territories in the Commonwealth. I am all in favour of helping the United Nations to deal with unfortunate starving children in Indonesia or anywhere we like, but I am much more interested in doing something ourselves for the people in the British Commonwealth. In heaven's name, if it means anything at all, charity—or business—ought to begin at home. We seem to take a very generous attitude on the foreign front, but when it comes to the home front we are extraordinarily stingy.

I implore my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Commonwealth Relations to try to give us some encouragement so that the debate will not end in a Division, because if he does not do that, we could be in a very odd and unpleasant position. Of course, the party Whips can muster a substantial majority of Members who did not listen to the debate to vote for the Government, while a large percentage of those who did listen to it might end up in the wrong Lobby.