§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 11.21 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. Ormsby-Gore)
I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."
For some time past the people of the Island of Dominica have been anxious to be separated from the Federation of the Leeward Islands and to be associated in future with the Windward Islands. The Island of Dominica has very special characteristics. It lies between two French islands and has no British island near it. It lies between the French Colonies of Guadeloupe and Martinique. In the early days of the nineteenth century, when it became British at the end of the Napoleonic wars, it was more or less independently governed. It was associated for some purposes with the British islands to the South, the Islands of St. Lucia, St. Vincent, and Grenada. However, Parliament in its wisdom in 1871 passed a Statute which made the group of the Leeward Islands to the North of Guadeloupe into a federation, and included Dominica in that federation. Undoubtedly for some time past the people of the Island of Dominica have wished to be out of that federation, partly for cultural and partly for economic reasons, because the northern group is almost purely English-speaking, and the Island of Antigua and some of the other islands have been British from very early days. Also Dominica is a long way geographically—over 100 miles—past the French Island of Guadeloupe. Further the federation set up by the Act of 1871 is a more or less complete federation; that is to say, there is a federal legislature dealing with some subjects, and there are local legislatures dealing with other subjects, and Dominica feels that owing to difficulties of communication, differences of national traditions, language, and the like it would be well to get out of that federation.
The Leeward Islands are islands of low rainfall, but Dominica is far and away the wettest of all the islands. The average is over 120 inches a year. The consequence is that the whole economic life of the islands is different. In the northern group of islands the two main products are sea island cotton and sugar. Owing to the considerable stretches of flat land 180 there are sugar plantations and the like. That is out of the question in Dominica. There is no flat land of any importance; it is by far the most mountainous of the islands, and owing to its high rainfall and steep volcanic formation—because it is the most volcanic of the West Indian Islands—the economic products are inevitably tropical fruits and practically nothing else. The principal fruits are bananas and limes. In the main and almost entirely it is a peasant cultivation.
The two neighbouring islands being French with long French traditions, there was, in 1934, an important petition by all the leading people of the island asking to be taken out of the Federation. It was examined, and since then there has been an election, when all the elected members were pledged to use all their efforts to get out of the Leeward Islands. They wished to be associated with the Windward Islands. The latter have no federal legislature, but they consist of three separate colonies which have completely separate legislatures, organisations and staffs, with the single exception that they have one governor and pool the expenses of his office. It so happens that the most northern of the Windward Islands, though not so characteristically French as Dominica, is certainly more French than any of the Leeward Islands and there is a certain amount of communication and social intercourse between the people of Dominica and the Windward Islands. No doubt this change would have been made some time ago if it had not been for the necessity of Imperial legislation, because it was by an Act of Parliament in 1871 that Dominica was placed in this statutory Federation of the Leeward Islands. There is nothing to prevent the islands having separate governors, but there has been only one for the Federation for business convenience and in order to save money because the islands cannot afford an expensive staff with the little revenue they can get for public services. There are very few whites in Dominica, but almost entirely coloured people, and incidentaly it is the only West Indian island where there are still full blooded Caribs, by which I mean descendants of the inhabitants of the island before negroes were introduced in the sixteenth century. This island, with its separate and special character, wishes to be associated with the looser federation of the 181 Windward Islands, and in order to effect that change it is necessary that there should be passed this statute. In future the legislature of Dominica will enact all amendments in local laws. The future legislature of Dominica will cover the whole field of government. The sole object of the Bill is to meet the wishes of the people of Dominica and to take them out of one federation and associate them in future with the Windward Islands.
§ 11.32 p.m.
§ Colonel Wedgwood
For many years the great question in the West Indies was the amalgamation of all the islands in the West Indies into one West Indian Federation. I always thought that would be a deplorable step backwards, and this certainly is a step in another direction, and I would say at once that it is always good to decentralise as far as possible. On that point I feel that it might be noted that this Colony of Dominica, which we have occupied off and on for the best part of 160 years, is still talking French. Even in Ceylon, where we have been for a much shorter period, we have changed to English. But I do not quarrel with that position; it is not necessary to impress British culture in that way. We are told that we own one quarter of the earth, and therefore ought to hand over a lot to Germany and Italy, but I would ask the House to observe, how much it is that we really own in Dominica. Apparently we manage with one British administrator and get him paid. The whole of the land belongs to the natives of the island and we own nothing except the duty of balancing the accounts out of our pocket when they go wrong.
In view of the trouble there has been in Trinidad lately I think we might have from the Secretary of State a word or two on what this change will mean so far as the treatment of any native labour there may be there is concerned, and what change it will mean in education. I suppose there has been some sort of education in that part; will that education continue in future to be as good as it has been in the past? Is it possible that it might even be improved? I believe that there are 45,000 blacks and 200 whites—[Interruption]—I understand that there are only 100 whites and 47,000 blacks; in those circumstances, when you are making a self-governing country, will the whites approve of an uneducated black population? The best remedy for labour 182 troubles is an educated proletariat who will be able to state their case with arguments instead of brickbats.
A change is being made in the island of Dominica, and I want to be quite sure that it is not in the wrong direction, so far as native administration is concerned. How will the new authority differ from the old? Will it be elected in the same way, for the same constituencies? Will it be the same authority, with fuller power than it had?
§ Colonel Wedgwood
Will it cost any more? Will the cost of the new administration be the same as the cost of the old? A country where the annual wealth is only some £75,000 cannot afford much more taxation. Therefore I presume that the cost of administration will be the same. If the authority governing the country is the same and the cost of administration is the same, do not think we shall have any right to object to the transfer.
§ 11.37 p.m.
§ Mr. Mander
The Secretary of State for the Colonies has made out a very good and clear case for the transfer of Dominica from one group of islands to another, but I do not think you can quite consider this change without considering the situation as a whole and asking the Government how they view the situation out there. There have been a certain number of inquiries in recent years into the position. There is the report of the Closer Union Committee that went out in 1933 and which had, as its terms of reference, the unification, if possible, of the Leeward Islands, the Windward Islands, Trinidad and Tobago. That committee came to the conclusion that Trinidad was not interested, but it did make a definite recommendation that the Leeward and Windward Islands should be amalgamated. I should like to know what relation, if any, the proposed change bears to that recommendation. Perhaps I might quote from page 33 of that report, where the committee say:We desire to make it clear that our proposals do not pretend to be more than a first step, although an effective one, towards a real federation, not only of the islands with which we are dealing but of other units in the West Indies which may eventually be found willing to join.183 The last paragraph says:Our endeavour has been to lay a sound foundation for a structure designed eventually to grow, if the communities concerned desire, into a West Indian Federation, taking its proper place in that intricate mosaic which constitutes the British Empire.Such a federation, it adds, needs the formation of a clear conception of what is being aimed at and then the devising of successive steps by which the conception may become a reality. That is the point about which I want some more information. Is this one step in a succession of steps leading to some general change in that part of the world? I think we are entitled to know, before we give a Second Reading to this Bill, whether the Government have anything in mind beyond the proposals which have actually been made, and whether they propose to carry out the recommendations of the Committee of 1933. The right hon. Gentleman made reference to Sub-section (2) of Clause 1, which says:His Majesty may by Order in Council make such provision as His Majesty in Council thinks proper for the government of Dominica on and after the appointed day, and any such Order in Council may delegate to any authority constituted for Dominicaand so on. I gather that it is not proposed to make any change, but of course a future Government would have power under this instrument to make changes and introduce quite a different Constitution. I notice that, when the Committee were examining witnesses on the subject of the development of self-government, certain quite definite views were put before them. For instance, some witnesses expressed themselves as strongly opposed to any form of self-government, though in favour of increased control in local affairs. The Committee said, and I think this is significant:It is worth recording that many of the witnesses in this and other islands most strongly opposed to any form of self-government at this stage were coloured, or of direct African descent.It is clear that there is some apprehension among the coloured peoples that they might be dominated by the white section of the population. I notice in the Committee's report a very interesting passage which will certainly appeal to Members of this House, in which the arguments for nomination as against election are dealt with. The Committee say: 184The main arguments put forward in favour of the system of nomination pure and simple were that by it alone could the services of the best men be secured, since many would refuse to stand for election or face the hustings or the taunts and abuse of some unscrupulous opponent; that elections were usually controlled by some caucus through whose agency men were elected who worked only for their sectional or personal interests and wilfully obstructed the Government; and that in the present condition of the West Indies it is only by nomination that the interests of all sections of the community can be represented.As all of us here have fought our way in the face of outcries at the hustings, I do not know that we shall be much impressed by these arguments against election. The two questions I want to put to the Colonial Secretary are: What vista have the Government in front of them? and What do they propose to do with regard to the particular form of instrument of government in Dominica, either now or at some future date?
§ 11.44 p.m.
Mr. Creech Jones
I accept the view that Dominica, because of economic and other reasons, should be transferred to the Windward Islands—that it would be better that it should be a colony under the Windward Islands than a presidency under the Leeward Islands. I accept the view also that possibly the majority of the inhabitants of Dominica desire the change, and that probably such a transfer will tidy things up a bit in that part of the world and end a number of old disputes. I should like, however, to put to the Secretary of State a number of questions which have not been answered in the statement he has already made. In common with the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton' (Mr. Mander), I would like to know whether the Bill is a step towards what a number of commissions have recommended in the matter of greater unity. Are we to understand that it is now the accepted policy of the Government that no further steps should be taken towards greater unity in the West Indies? In the second place, I would like to know whether adequate provision will be made after the transfer in respect to those services which are surrendered as a result of the transfer? Some reference was made in another place to the fact that certain services, because of the association with the Leeward Islands, would be abandoned. Is adequate provision to be made under 185 the new conditions in respect to those services?
The hon. Member for East Wolverhampton referred to the problem of local government in the islands. The Secretary of State has said that precisely the same form of local government would exist under the new conditions as under the old, but I gather that a little while ago there were certain proposals for reform in the Constitution itself. It was suggested, I believe, that an unofficial majority should be established in the Legislative Council, and that there should be an increase in the number of elected unofficial members.
Mr. Creech Jones
I am very pleased to know that, because I am anxious to see a larger measure of self-government given to these islands. The proposals for wider election should result in the legislature having a wider power over the executive, and the island being less subject to Governor rule. I hope, further, that the change will result in more attention being given to the appalling social conditions in the island. It is true that, from time to time, grants have been made from the Colonial Development Fund and in other ways, but the health conditions of the island are very poor, housing conditions are bad, sanitary arrangements are about as bad as they can be, and the general standard of living is pretty low. With poor communications, both in the island itself and between it and other islands, there is a great deal of work to be done. I hope that, as a result of this change, and with an increase of enlightened opinion in the island, these economic and social problems will be tackled more vigorously, with the support of the home Government. I hope the support of the Government will be given increasingly to the idea of the development of a larger measure of self-government among the people in these islands, and that, perhaps, later on, some looser federation can be formed which will bring the West Indian people to the status of a Dominion inside the British Commonwealth of Nations.
§ 11.49 p.m.
§ Mr. Maxton
I am afraid I do not welcome this quite so whole-heartedly as 186 the other hon. Members who have spoken. The only arguments the Minister adduced in support of the Measure—geographical, political and economic-are arguments that have been good for 50 years. Why does he come for ward now after he has held office—
§ Mr. Ormsby-Gore
I thought I explained. It is the result of a petition by the people of the island. Every one of the elected members was returned on this issue. It is to give effect to the wishes of the people of Dominica.
§ Mr. Maxton
The right hon. Gentleman said that undoubtedly. He also said he had consulted a number of leading people. I am always dubious about things done after consulting leading people. I have not been to the Leeward or Windward Islands, but I remember many occasions when Governments have consulted leading people in Glasgow, and I have no doubt the leading people in the Windward and Leeward Islands are of the same type as the leading people in Glasgow, with the necessary changes for the different conditions.
§ Mr. Ormsby-Gore
There are no big towns and there is no industrial activity. There is nothing of that sort.
§ Mr. Maxton
I read the Debate in the other place and I did not find the Under-Secretary making the claim about the Members having won their election with this as one of the planks of their programme. At any rate, apart from these recent indications that the people of these islands wanted this change, the right hon. Gentleman has had indications of a variety of kinds practically all the time the island has been in the existing position, and yet he has ignored them until now. I do not think that in his Colonial administration the right hon. Gentleman has tended to operate according to the wishes of the people on the spot. Even when they were put strongly and generally expressed it has never been regarded by him as a reason for having things in other Crown Colonies that the people on the spot wanted there. The people of Mauritius have been pressing 187 him for a lot of things and there is a widespread general demand for changes, but he has not thought fit to do it. Why do they bring forward a Measure of this description on this occasion? It is a breach of the Prime Minister's pledge earlier in the day.
I want also to voice a matter that I mentioned in the Debate on the King's Speech. I think the House is far too casual in the way it treats the affairs of the Crown Colonies. It is quite inexcusable to bring this on at the end of a long programme when there is a long stretch from now to the Adjournment in August. Here is a thing that has been pressed for by the people of this island for nearly 70 years, and we are told that it is now urgent and it must be passed to-night, after the very indifferent type of discussion that the House gives at this hour of the evening and after what I do not think is an adequate explanation. I noticed that his Under-Secretary mentioned something that he did not mention. It is particularly necessary and desirable to secure a fuller consideration of these problems owing to the unfortunate and unsatisfactory state of the Presidency's finances at the present moment. If they were one of the reasons for pushing on with this Measure, then the Colonial Secretary ought to have told us something about the financial position of the island, and he ought to have given us some indications. I cannot see how the financial condition of the island, which is so purely peasant and has had such a very cheap form of administrative control, should have got into such a bad state that some urgent drastic action is needed here tonight. No doubt the right hon. Gentleman knows, and will perhaps tell us how the finances of these peasant people, living under the most miserable conditions, after 60 or 70 years of this kind of control and over a century of British rule, a people who are living in poverty, with a cheap administrative machine, have got into such a terrible condition in 1938? To whom is the money being owed? Is it to the leading people? Is it external debt? The right hon. Gentleman will perhaps explain it to me. I am not standing here trying to pose as an expert on this matter, but I am asking genuinely for information.
I am concerned very seriously about the condition of coloured workers in British 188 Crown Colonies. The Trinidad business has shown us all, I hope, that we have some reason to be concerned. It has shown the Dominions Secretary himself that he has some reason to be concerned in taking the actions he has taken. I would infinitely prefer that this House prevented situations like the Trinidad situation from arising than that we should take what is called powerful, strong action after an intolerable position has arisen. I want to know what the financial troubles of the island have been that have compelled the Colonial Secretary to rush this matter, because I can only call it rushing, when it comes on like this practically without warning, after years and years when it might have been dealt with. I want to know what the financial conditions are, and, further, how the financial conditions are to be improved by the separation of the islands? As far as I understand colonial administration, the Governor will still be the responsible and effective centre of government. Are we to understand that this removal is a vote of censure upon the Governor of the one lot of islands and a vote of confidence in the Governor of the other lot of islands? Are we to understand that the new Governor under whom they come is a financial expert, and that the one they are removing is not a financial expert? These things ought to be explained in extenso to this House by the right hon. Gentleman, and he did not do it in presenting the Measure.
§ 11.59 p.m.
§ Mr. Ormsby-Gore
I would like to reply to the criticisms to which the hon. Gentleman has just referred. Finance is not a prominent consideration in this Bill. I do not think this Bill affects Dominica financially very much one way or the other. I have asked my people and they say that it may cost them £500 a year less, or it may cost £500 a year more, but certainly not more than that one way or the other. Undoubtedly the island had a certain amount of capital enterprise in the days when it had a flourishing limes industry, when a certain number of European planters went there in connection with the development of that industry, but the inherent climatic conditions and the geographical situation did not make the attempt to establish large plantations possible or likely to be successful. The total debt of the island, I am glad to say, is about £6,000, roughly 2s. 6d. per 189 head of the population. The island has had help from time to time by assistance from this country, and I am afraid that its revenues cannot stand any increase in taxation or any increase in rates. The main road of the island is called Imperial Road, as it was built by a special grant from this House. The conditions are wholly and utterly different from those which obtain in Trinidad.
There is no question of federation in the West Indies, but I would gladly see all these communities co-operating and sharing in better technical and scientific research. I am sure that the happiness of the people of this small island is more likely to be promoted by decentralisation than by over-centralisation. Each island has its local conditions and local characteristics, indeed, nothing strikes one more than the difference between one island and another. The matter of education will be entirely under the control of the local legislature, which consists of three official members, one of whom is the administrator as President, or if the Governor is administering the island, he is a member when he is there; three nominated unofficial members and five elected unofficial members. There is, therefore, an unofficial majority of eight to three; and the care of education will in fact be determined by the people of the island themselves, and will not be imposed upon them by us.
Mr. Creech Jones
What proportion of the people of the island enjoy the vote; how many can exercise the vote?
§ Miss Wilkinson
The right hon. Gentlemon has experts and secretaries behind him. Cannot he find out?
§ Mr. Ormsby-Gore
I will try to find out before the Committee stage. Under the new Constitution I think the qualification was lowered; at any rate, the mass of the people are able through the elected members to have their say.
§ Mr. Mander
It is clear that the qualifications in Dominica are, according to the report:
- "(a) A net income of £30 a year.
- (b) Ownership of real property in the Presidency of the clear value of £100.
- (c) Payment of rent on real property in the Presidency of £12 a year.
- (d) Being resident in the district, payment of direct taxes in the previous year of at least 15s."
§ Miss Wilkinson
Ought we not to know what wages are paid in these places? I should imagine that the £30 income limit might cut out a vast mass of the people.
§ Mr. Ormsby-Gore
There is, I think, very little comparison to be drawn from the wages. The people have their small banana plantations and their bread-fruit and coconut plantations.
§ Mr. Ormsby-Gore
As I say, there is no industrial employment, and easily the largest employer there is the Government. The total net revenue is about £75,000 a year. Cost of police, education, roads, sanitation and health come out of the revenue, and I think the taxation has reached its maximum.
§ Mr. Ormsby-Gore
I have dealt with the question of a general federation. There is no intention of raising any of those wider questions in the Bill.
§ 12.9 a.m.
§ Miss Wilkinson
I interrupted the Minister while he was speaking because I feel that he has not been quite fair to the House. He has been asking us to pass this important Measure while nobody will give us information we want, despite the fact that the Minister has experts available, and that the information is apparently available to the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton (Mr. Mander). There is not merely a lack of conscientiousness on the part of the Minister, although that is important, but he tried to give an impression that the franchise is very wide. We are told that this Measure would make the Island of Dominica unique in these islands. I have taken some interest in the matter because, 191 from time to time, I have received public petitions and letters from various quite small organisations of women who are agitating in some areas—not in the case of Dominica. From lists of figures for these islands, I have been interested to see how few, compartively speaking, of the mass of the people were able to vote. From the information which was given by the hon. Member for East Wolverhampton I think it will turn out to be quite a high franchise. Therefore, I ask the Minister to give us, when we get to the Committee stage, some figures as to the percentage of people on the island who do in fact vote. The right hon. Gentleman may have been right in making the statement which he has made, and I do not contradict it, but it is important that we should know, in separating the people of Dominica from the others, to what extent they are being handed over to a comparatively small clique in the island, who will oppress them as they are doing in certain other of these islands.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Committee of the Whole House for Thursday.—[Captain Margesson.]