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Sri Lanka Tea Estates

Volume 892: debated on Wednesday 14 May 1975

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The Secretary of State for Trade and President of the Board of Trade
(Mr. Peter Shore)

With permission, I should like to make a statement on the report by a group of hon. Members on conditions on the British-owned tea estates in Sri Lanka.

There has been considerable public concern about these conditions, particularly following the recent television programmes. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs therefore asked the British delegation to the Inter-Parliamentary Union Conference in Colombo to extend its stay in Sri Lanka to investigate the conditions of workers and their families on the British-owned tea estates. Between 29th March and 8th April it held discussions with representatives of the Government of Sri Lanka, of the tea companies and of the local unions, and interviewed workers, medical staff and managers on a number of estates. Its report is published this afternoon.

In the course of an extensive tour of rural areas, the group visited tea estates owned by the Government of Sri Lanka and by British companies. Its report places the problems of the tea estates in the context of Sri Lanka's very real economic problems. The group saw much to disturb it, including malnutrition among some workers on the estates it visited as well as among the urban poor. It has recommended a number of specific measures designed to improve the living and working conditions of the estate workers and their families.

The report proposes that I should discuss these recommendations with representatives of the British companies with tea estate interests in Sri Lanka. I have today invited the President of the Ceylon Association and his colleagues to an early meeting for this purpose. Until this meeting has taken place it would not be right for me to comment on the detailed recommendations in the report, except to express the Government's warm thanks to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warrington (Mr. Williams) and his team for producing what will, I believe, be recognised as practical and constructive proposals for improving conditions on the estates. I should also like to express my appreciation of the co-operation and assistance given to the Parliamentary Group by the Government of Sri Lanka and their officials.

All I would add at this stage is that a solution to the wider problems of the tea industry must be sought on an international basis. During the discussion on commodities at the recent Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gave special emphasis to the importance and value of an effective international agreement on tea. We shall continue to pay particular attention to this in our further consideration of commodity questions.

Hon. Members and their constituents are naturally and understandably concerned about this matter. May I ask the Secretary of State to clarify the precise status of the report to which he has referred? Is it to be published as a Government White Paper, because I understand that it is not a report from a Select Committee of this House and, obviously, the House at this stage has not had an opportunity of studying it, whereas the Minister apparently has? Could he tell us whether the report confirms or rebuts the allegations which were made on the television programme to which he has referred?

Finally, on the question of commodity agreements, for which I understand he has responsibility, could the Secretary of State tell us whether he envisages that these might be concerned with the stabilisation of tea prices or with the raising of tea prices in the context of the report?

The hon. Gentleman has expressed concern. I think that when all hon. Members read the report they will undoubtedly feel the same sentiment.

The report has been published by the Department of Trade. It contains the sub-title or explanation:
"An investigation into conditions on British-owned tea estates in Sri Lanka carried out by a group of British Members of Parliament."
There is no doubt about its status.

On the question about the particular incidents and interviews that formed part of the Granada Television programme, the team, as hon. Members will find for themselves, made detailed inquiries into these matters and its conclusions are different from those presented on the television programme. However, there is no difference between the general assessment of the real conditions of stress in Sri Lanka and on the tea estates as reported by the team and the conditions revealed in the television report.

On the hon. Gentleman's point about commodity arrangements and agreements, it is perhaps a little too early to say which of these two elements, the stabilisation of prices or the increase in prices, will receive the greater thrust of the discussion. However, I should have thought that both elements were important in a satisfactory international commodity agreement on tea.

May I express to the Secretary of State our thanks for the kind words that he has used about our work and our report? May I join him in expressing the thanks of the group to many people in Sri Lanka who went considerably out of their way to help us and give us information?

May I ask my right hon. Friend if he will do what he can, when he meets the tea plantation owners, to get them to organise some kind of agency to co-ordinate their activities with Sri Lanka trade unions, the Government of Sri Lanka and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Overseas Development in order to tackle the very sad conditions of poverty and hardship that we found in Sri Lanka?

I certainly share with my hon. and learned Friend the appreciation that he volunteered of the part played by the Sri Lanka Government in making this investigation possible.

Referring to the major recommendation that my hon. and learned Friend and his colleagues have made, namely, that over a wide range of matters that could have a considerable effect on the conditions and life of the people employed and living on tea estates—I shall certainly be very anxious to discuss this, in the first instance, with the tea companies' representatives and, following that opening conversation, in the second instance with all those in Sri Lanka and anyone else who can help us to arrive at solutions which will help to improve the conditions of life there.

Would the Minister not agree that the report provides one further confirmation of the fact that a large number of the people living in the Third World are living at subsistence levels, and that the only way in which this can be overcome is if the Western world as a whole is prepared to make a genuine effort to contribute towards that solution, which means, in the end, an acceptance of the lowering of our own standards?

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that the heart of the matter is the appalling poverty that exists in a large part of the Third World and, in particular, in a large part of Asia—the countries traditionally referred to as those of the Indian subcontinent. One of the most striking general conclusions that the team makes in its report is that today, leaving aside under-employment—which is a tremendous problem in Sri Lanka, as it is in other Asian countries—actual unemployment is running at a level of 18 per cent.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that at least one member of the Select Committee on Overseas Development is puzzled by the nature of this document to which he has referred? Will it be sent to the Select Committee?

That is not a matter for me. If the Select Committee wishes to see this document, I cannot see any reason at all why it should not receive it, as I have done.

I am sure that all hon. Members are grateful to the Minister for the speed with which he has made this report available to the House. He has only had it in his hands a week or so. He should be thanked for what he has done.

However, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the television programme "World in Action" has done vast damage to British interests not only in Sri Lanka but to a much wider audience? Is he aware that those of us who went on this mission found that the programme lacked balance, that it included a degree of distortion and that there are justifiable grounds for complaint? Will he take up with his colleagues on the Government Bench the possibility of examining whether some body, such as the Press Council, should not be set up to which British firms could appeal and which would apply to television programmes? This has been a scandalous misuse of the most important communication medium that we have.

A difficult balance has to be struck between being, as it were, fair to the reputation of particular companies in programmes of this kind and to the wide public interest there is in having the maximum freedom of comment, particularly when programmes are commenting on matters of such genuine human concern. I do not want to enter into this controversy. I hope very much that damage was not done to the reputation of British companies. The report shows that the problem is not just one of British companies but it is to be found in all the tea estates in Sri Lanka. The underlying theme of both the report and the Granada programme is the sheer problem of poverty and misery which so many countries, including Sri Lanka, its people and its Government, are having to face.

Will my right hon. Friend in his discussion with his colleagues take into account that hundreds of thousands of former British citizens who formerly had the franchise, who are now the Indian Tamil, so-called, and who make up the bulk of those who work on the tea estates are today stateless, without the vote, without social benefits and without health service or education assistance and that they are discriminated against in a shameless way? Surely we, as a civilised country, with a reputation for denunciation of what is happening in South Africa in the name of apartheid, should take the same attitude towards the Sri Lanka Government with regard to the Indian Tamil minority and call on that Government not to discriminate but to restore the Indian Tamil's right to vote and their right to citizenship.

Of course there is a particular problem with Tamils, who originally came from Southern India and are employed in large numbers on these estates. But there are agreements and continuing exchanges between the Government of India and the Government of Sri Lanka about this problem. Clearly, while I am sure that we would want to do our best to help in any way we could to ease this problem, I believe that we must think very carefully indeed about the fact that here are two sovereign countries whose general policies are in no sense ill disposed in terms of the conditions of life of their peoples. We therefore have to handle any such approach with very great delicacy.

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept my welcome for arranging an early meeting with the British interests in Sri Lanka? While recognising that the problem goes far wider than the British interests involved, may I ask whether he will convey to them the fact that many hon. Members believe that British concerns should set an example of decent remuneration and decent conditions and accept that tea prices must respond to that? Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman stop preaching the doctrine of cheap food now that we have yet another illustration that cheap food supplies have often been based on inadequate support for those who produce them?

I hope that British companies will set an example wherever that is possible and reasonable. However, we must accept the fact that of the total supply of tea in Sri Lanka about 16 per cent. is produced on British-owned estates. Therefore, we really have to see this matter in the general context of the total production of tea in that country, and, indeed, more broadly, as I mentioned earlier.

On the hon. Gentleman's last point, if tea was within the common agricultural policy and if, in fact, it was within the context of the kind of discussions we have been having about our food policy as a whole, I might come to rather different conclusions. However, my worry about tea has been the one serious reservation I have had about the Lomé Agreement. Unfortunately, within the Lomé Agreement there is some support for East African tea growers but no support at all for Asian tea growers.

Has the Minister got even the vaguest intention of introducing any kind of legislation to affect citizens of the United Kingdom who happen to be involved in British companies overseas in regard to the conditions of their workers and so on? Is there even the vaguest intention to legislate, which this House could do if it wanted to do so?

The hon. Lady will be aware that the legislation which is relevant to the operation of the tea companies is the legislation of the Sri Lanka Government, and there is very extensive legislation there.

That is, perhaps, the answer to the hon. Lady's question. However, whether we can, in different ways, ourselves help through our actions here, indirectly or directly, to promote the kind of policies which the hon. Lady would no doubt like to see is one of the matters I shall be discussing with the tea companies.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this House and the whole country owe a considerable debt to Granada Television for awakening our conscience to the price of a cup of tea in this country? Whatever discrepancies may exist between the evidence produced by that company and the report of my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warrington (Mr. Williams), they have done a singular service not only to the people of Britain but to mankind as a whole. Will my right hon. Friend try to see where the discrepancies exist so that they may be ironed out? Will he also bear in mind that the television programme considered not only Sri Lanka but the whole Indian subcontinent? Therefore, in terms of seeing the Ceylon Association, he ought also to see people from India, Bangladesh and the tea companies there involved, and the conditions on their estates, in order to try to improve the situation there?

The positive side of the Granada programme—there have been a number over the last 18 months—has been indeed to awaken the conscience of people in this country to the very unsatisfactory rewards and prices received by our major tea suppliers. To that extent, I am sure that no one would dispute that they had done a useful service. However, it is only fair to say that, while no one will deny that that is a very valuable service, some criticisms have been expressed about the particular allegations they have made affecting certain families and conditions on their estates. We must keep a balance in our minds between the service done, on the one hand, and whether the attack on particular companies was fair, on the other hand. People should withhold judgment until they have read the report.

On the second part of my hon. Friend's question, I should like to reflect on this matter. However, I should like first to have the conversation with the Ceylon Tea Company, about which I have informed the House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing (Mr. Higgins) asked a pertinent question about the status of the report. Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I was the chairman of a well attended all-party meeting over a month ago which expressed deep concern about this matter and requested the setting up of a Select Committee? Is he aware that, in the event, the Select Committee on Overseas Development was unable to look into the matter because of the absence of any knowledge of the content of the report, and that the Leader of the House was unable to set up any other Select Committee? Since when has the IPU, or the CPA for that matter, been a vehicle for Government inquiry and report to the Government and not directly and primarily to this House? Is not this matter most unfortunate, if not actually discourteous to hon. Members who have expressed concern to the Government about it and have had to wait until today? Even now most of us have not seen the report.

We must get this matter in proportion. Here was a very serious matter of public concern. As the House will well recall, it so happened that a number of hon. Members were in Colombo at the time, and my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs—I think very sensibly—invited those hon. Members who were on the spot to conduct an inquiry, as it were. I really cannot see why we should feel in any way that their report will cut across the work of the Select Committee on Overseas Development, which I am sure will carry on doing very useful work in its own right.