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Central African Territories (Conference)

Volume 480: debated on Wednesday 8 November 1950

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The following Question stood upon the Order Paper in the name of Mr. GRANVILLE WEST:

To ask the Secretary of State for the Colonies whether he is now in a position to make the statement he undertook to make on the subject of the relations between the Central African Territories.

Mr. Speaker, with your permission, and that of the House, I should like to answer this Question.

The question of the closer association of the Central African territories of Southern Rhodesia, Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland has been under discussion for many years. His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom have after careful consideration formed the conclusion that it is desirable that there should be a fresh examination of the problem, and they have accepted the suggestion of the Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia that a conference of officials of the three Central African Governments, of the Central African Council and of the Commonwealth Relations Office and Colonial Office shall be held in London for this purpose. It is intended that the conference shall meet early in 1951.

The officials will examine the problem in all its aspects and consider whether it is possible, in the light of this examination, for them to formulate proposals for a further advance to be made in the closer association of the three Central African territories which they could recommend to the Governments of these territories and to His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom. It should be emphasised that the work of the Conference will be purely exploratory and will in no way commit any of the participating Governments to the adoption of any proposals that may be formulated by the Conference. Full account will be taken of the special responsibilities of His Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom towards Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland; and adequate opportunity will be afforded for public discussion of any proposals that may be put forward. This will include consultation with African opinion in Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland in accordance with His Majesty's Government's statement made in the House of Commons that full account would be taken of it before any change affecting African interests could be considered.

In view of the fact that this conference is purely exploratory, would the right hon. Gentleman say whether it is proposed to invite South Africa to be represented on it?

While welcoming the proposed talks, and hoping that by patience and mutual understanding they will lead to the strengthening of all three territories, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman one question? When he talks, quite rightly, of consultation with African interests in Nyasaland and Northern Rhodesia, it is also his intention, I hope, to consult with unofficial European opinion in all three territories?

Yes. Sir, but I wanted to emphasise that we regard ourselves as having special responsibilities towards the Africans.

Could my right hon. Friend tell us what will be the native representation on this conference?

This is a conference of officials, and I regret that at this stage there are no African officials with the qualifications necessary to take part in the conference. That is one reason why I wanted to emphasise in my reply that we accept and, indeed, fully recognise our special responsibilities, and that places a special responsibility upon the officers of my Department to attend the conference.

May I ask the Minister, while appreciating as I am sure he does that the tendency today is towards bigger units, whether he is aware that there is great concern in this part of the world that at last we shall get concrete results out of this meeting?

Will the conference have the right to decline to hear evidence if it is offered? For instance, if the Rev. Michael Scott should offer to give evidence, could he be refused?

The conference will be one of officials and will not be receiving evidence. There will be officials drawn from those countries and organisations I have mentioned. It will be their duty to examine the problem and submit any proposals that may emerge from it to the respective Governments. They will, therefore, not receive any evidence.

Is not the South African Government an important Government in the British Commonwealth, and if they are not appropriately to be present at an official conference of Colonies, will they, at any rate, be consulted and their good will sought at a later stage?

There are, of course, several Governments in Africa. This is a conference of the officials of the officials of the Governments of the three territories concerned.

While no one will question the desirability of a close examination of this question, is the Minister fully aware of the very strong suspicions amongst African opinion as to what this might lead to? In these special circumstances, will my right hon. Friend consider, even if it is not possible to have official African representation at this stage, inviting African observers from responsible African organisations?

I would want notice of that question. As I have said, I regret that there are no African officers with the qualifications necessary for this conference. That is why I emphasise again that this places a special responsibility upon the officers of my Department.

Would it not be advantageous to have unofficial members on this body as well as officials?

No, it has been arranged that this should be an official conference. I want to emphasise again that none of the participating Governments are committed in advance to any proposals they may make.

In view of the answer given to the supplementary question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. J. Hynd) is not that a special reason for inviting some Africans who are not officials to take part in this conference, even if only as observers?

No. This has been carefully considered, and it is thought desirable that at this stage it should be a conference of officials only. If any proposals emerge, the next stage will be the stage at which we shall—and I give this undertaking—consult fully African opinion.

Did I understand the Minister to say that the delegates would report to their own governments? Does that mean there will be no published report of the conclusions of the conference, and if that be so, how is public opinion in these localities to know what has happened?

These are not delegates; these are officers called together to do what is in a sense a technical job, to find out whether they can collectively formulate any proposals which they think they might submit to their governments without any committal. Therefore, they are in no sense of the word, delegates.

Does the right hon. Gentleman know what time it will take—one month or two months?

Would it not be a good thing to have this information at our disposal before we deliberate the matter further?

I am sorry, but I did not catch the first part of that supplementary question.

While my right hon. Friend has suggested that he would like notice of the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. J. Hynd), would he not agree to give it favourable consideration?

I have stressed in my replies to supplementary questions that I regard myself, as Secretary of State for the Colonies, as having special responsibility to safeguard these people.

Can the right hon. Gentleman say what will be the terms of reference of this conference, and who will provide the chairman? Will the chairman be provided or appointed by the Colonial Office, or will the conference choose its own chairman?

By their terms of reference they have to consider the question whether they can formulate proposals for the closer association of these territories which they can jointly recommend to their respective governments.

If the people of, for example, Nyasaland, are not to be represented at the conference, and cannot give evidence, how will they make their views felt and how can they approach the conference and put their viewpoint?

The position will be that these officials will, if they can agree, submit proposals to their governments. When those proposals are submitted, if the governments feel they can be further considered, there will be at that stage adequate opportunity for public discussion. I give the undertaking that there will be the fullest consultation with African opinion.

As I understand the answer of the right hon. Gentleman, the object of this conference is to deal with these territories in Africa. It is to be a conference between Government officials. Will the governments give an undertaking that the result of that conference will be made known when it is known to the governments?

No, Sir. The position is that these officials will seek to draw up proposals if they can agree proposals. I want again to make it perfectly clear that none of the governments concerned is committed to any proposal it may put forward. All I say is that when proposals are put forward we shall consider them, and we shall have the fullest consultation, as I have indicated already.

As this will be solely a conference of officials, can the Minister say what provision is being made for it to be followed by another conference at which Africa opinion may be consulted?

We do not know yet whether any agreed proposals will emerge during this conference of officials. If agreed proposals emerge, it will be at that stage that we shall follow out what my hon. Friend suggests.

Since this is a conference between officials, why does the Minister announce it now before he knows the result?

I have announced that His Majesty's Government have accepted the invitation from the Prime Minister of Southern Rhodesia for a conference of officials. I have announced it because I thought it was my duty to announce that this conference will take place.

As there has been serious misgiving in central Africa amongst native opinion about this kind of development, will the Minister take adequate steps to see that the real purposes of the conference are fully explained to African opinion in advance? He will be aware that there will be serious misrepresentation of these purposes, which may be extremely dangerous.

I am fully conscious of that, and I will take every step possible to make the purposes of this conference known.

Will the Minister not appreciate that this suggestion is a serious one? If he is not going to bring into consultation unofficial views at the start, once again the Government will make a mistake.

If the Minister cannot allow Africans to take part in that conference, will he bring three or four representative Africans from those parts, to Great Britain to be constantly apprising those Colonial Office officials who will be representing their interests at the conference?

I want to get this perfectly clear. If proposals emerge from this conference which these governments will consider, may I repeat once more that there will be the fullest consultation with African opinion in these territories.