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British Guiana

Volume 531: debated on Wednesday 28 July 1954

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7.21 p.m.

The Minister of State for Colonial Affairs has had a very gruelling day. From Question time onwards he has carried the main burden for his Department. His right hon. Friend has, to a certain extent, anticipated his retirement. Keeping that in mind, I would not trouble to raise a matter of minor importance.

But whatever our discomforts may sometimes be in this House, they are nothing compared with those about which I have given the right hon. Gentleman a little notice and which I now want to have discussed. I am greatly distressed at the reports that have been coming to me about prison conditions in British Guiana. It is part of the same story as that of our relations, previously debated, with Egypt, Cyprus and India. Apparently we have to go through phases when in our dealings with people who are weaker and poorer than ourselves we use our power not to help them, but to attempt to repress them.

I am particularly concerned to have whatever information the Minister can give me about the conditions in the prison in which Mr. Jagan has been held. I believe that the prison is known as Brickdam. It is in Georgetown. My information is that it is a very old building. I am told that the building was at one time condemned, but is now being used again. I am told that the standards of the building and the general conditions do not conform to our international obligations and do not conform even to the standards that have been laid down by the British Prison Commission. I have no desire to make any statement that exaggerates the problem. I am aware that whatever is said will be reported in British Guiana and may be reported in this country and that there are many people in both countries who are concerned to know the truth.

Will the Minister tell me whether this prison is as out of date as my information leads me to believe? Will he tell me the size of each of the cells and whether it is a fact that cells which were intended for single occupants are being used to house as many as three prisoners? I am also informed that the diet which is being supplied to the prisoners is below the standards that are laid down in our prison regulations. It may he that the calorific content of the food given to the prisoners is up to standard when it reaches the prison and that for some reason the full amount does not reach the individual prisoner. I am making no charge, but I should like to know the facts.

I appreciate that the Minister has had short notice of some of these questions, but I should like him to tell me as much as he can, and I should like his assurance that he will make investigations into conditions in this prison and in any other prisons in British Guiana. At least, we need not have it on our conscience that we have under our control people who are confined under substandard conditions and who are not given the amount of food which they are entitled to receive. I am particularly concerned since I have not been brought to interest myself in this prison issue because of the usual run of criminal offenders.

I do not mean to imply that criminals should not also be provided with proper standards in gaol, but in this gaol there are a good many political prisoners. It would appear that some political prisoners are being sentenced to hard labour and are housed in a building which in part is not even weatherproof, that the cells are overcrowded, that the diet goes below standard and that sometimes the people who are subjected to these conditions are people whose crime is simply in their agitation to obtain a free Government in British Guiana they have gone outside the area to which they were confined.

Another aspect of this subject makes it urgent that it be dealt with. There is a great deal of discontent in British Guiana, discontent which finds expression even in the Right-wing Press. It was believed that when we set aside their democratically elected Government that at least there would be rapid progress in dealing with the basic economic ills of British Guiana. Indeed, one of the charges brought against members of the People's Progressive Party was that in the four months during which they were in office they failed to do a real job of work in tackling the economic problems of the country. We have discussed that issue before in this House. But even the Right-wing Press of British Guiana is now protesting about the fact that we have had dozens of commissions and reports and that there is a dictatorship in British Guiana with all the power in the world: but no solid progress is being made.

I should like to give one illustration. Two weeks ago, on 14th July, I asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies what was being done about the Brown Report on "Land Settlement Problems, and the Economic Production of Sugar Cane by Individual Farmers in British Guiana." I have no reason to believe that there has been any radical change in the situation in British Guiana since I asked that Question.

The reply was:
"His report on the Economic Production of Sugar Cane by Individual Farmers has been discussed locally with the sugar producers"—
Note, merely discussed, little or nothing has been done—
"who are in the best position to take action upon it, and Bookers Sugar Estates, Ltd., are launching a pilot scheme under the direction of an agriculturist from the Sudan Gezira Scheme."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th July, 1954; Vol. 530, c. 39–40.]
Here we are, not four months but more than eight months after an elected Government of British Guiana has been set aside and we are told that recommendations which we understood had been accepted by the Government from the Brown Committee and from the Lacey Committee have not been carried out. It is a travesty to turn to Bookers Brothers, the great sugar interests in British Guiana for serious action. They are not concerned with promoting schemes to help individual farmers.

I did not give the Minister advance information of this question, but it is not unconnected with the issue of conditions in the gaols. First, we take away the leaders elected by the people, then we put them in gaol, then we mix them with the criminal population and then apply both to the criminal and political prisoners conditions which I should be delighted if the Minister could now tell me are not as bad as I am led to believe. Are they up to standard? It would be a good thing for all concerned to have that point cleared up. I hope that they are not as bad as I have been led to believe.

I hope that so far as there are faults in the prison system they will now be remedied. We must remember that we are a dictatorship in British Guiana. The best way to make enemies for this country, and the best way to make the problems of British Guiana permanently insoluble, is to continue to behave in the way that, according to my information, our prison authorities are behaving.

7.30 p.m.

I do not propose to make any more comments on the question of Cyprus because I think that when hon. and right hon. Members read tomorrow the statement I made earlier today, with the comments I made after that statement, in conjunction with the statement of my right hon. Friend, they will find that answers have been given to most of the points raised this afternoon, including those raised by the right hon. Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths).

I wish to deal briefly with the points raised by the hon. Lady the Member for Cannock (Miss Lee), of which she gave me notice earlier this afternoon—that is to say, the first points she made dealing with prison conditions in British Guiana, particularly concerning Dr. Jagan. Dr. Jagan was recently transferred from Georgetown Prison to the penal settlement at Mazaruni, 60 miles in the interior. This settlement is healthy and isolated and has the advantages of elevation and good drainage. We have no information to lead us to suppose that there is overcrowding in this penal settlement and we understand that the transfer was made because of the better accommodation in the settlement. Offhand, I cannot give any particulars about the prisons in Georgetown, but I will get information on that question and write to the hon. Lady about it. If conditions are bad there we shall see that they are improved.

The hon. Lady asked whether prisoners in general in British Guiana were getting a proper diet. The answer is that prisoners are fed in accordance with a statutory diet scale and the prison surgeons have power to vary the diet for medical reasons. At the Mazaruni settlement vegetable farming and animal husbandry are carried on by the prisoners and this ensures a supply of fresh vegetable produce and milk for the prison population. Miss Haglund visited the Colony and inspected the diet in the case of the Georgetown Prison and was apparently satisfied with it. I can only comment that the majority of prisoners have shown improvements in health and weight.

The third point concerned prison conditions in British Guiana with reference to hard labour. The hon. Lady asked whether political prisoners were sentenced to hard labour. At the moment, there are no political prisoners as such. There are a number of people who have been put into prison after being brought before the courts in the ordinary way for offences under the Emergency Orders. They have been sentenced to terms of imprisonment for actions against the law, not for political activities. In some of those cases the sentences have included hard labour, but I understand that Dr. Jagan was sentenced to six months' imprison-ment without hard labour. In any case, after an X-ray examination and a doctor's report Dr. Jagan has been excused strenuous exercise or any hard living while in prison. The hon. Lady asked about the state of the prison building in which Dr. Jagan is imprisoned, but perhaps she was not aware then that he had been transferred from Georgetown.

I was not making that point particularly in regard to Dr. Jagan. It is always a fact that the prisoner who is head of an organisation is liable to have a little better treatment than the other prisoners. What I was concerned about was the report which had come to me about other members of the People's Progressive Party jailed for political reasons and still in Georgetown Jail.

I have undertaken to look into the position of Georgetown Jail on which I have not any information. I am informed that the buildings in the Mazaruni penal settlement are in good order and are what they should be.

The hon. Lady also raised a question about sugar production, about which she said she had not given me notice, and I am not in a position to give a detailed reply. I do know from personal knowledge and contact, however, that the heads of Booker Brothers are in great sympathy with schemes for developing tenant farms and small freeholdings in British Guiana. They believe it is right to encourage the establishment—one might also say the creation—of this middle-class of responsible people who will pull their weight in political matters. I cannot believe that Booker Brothers are in any way hindering the development along the lines the hon. Lady had in mind.