HC Deb 05 March 1883 vol 276 cc1559-63

Order for Second Reading read.


in moving that the Bill be now read a second time, said, he would be very much disinclined to trouble the House at that hour of the morning (1.35), were it not that the Bill related to a matter of extreme urgency. At the present moment a lamentable amount of destitution prevailed in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and that destitution had been brought about by an extraordinary concurrence of calamities. Last year, not only did the potato crop, on which the crofter population largely depended, fail, but a storm ravaged a number of districts and destroyed the oat crop. To add to that, many of the fishing boats were destroyed by storms, and, generally, fishing in the sea was a failure. Under these circumstances, a movement was set on foot for the relief of the people, particularly of the Island of Lewis. Subscriptions were collected, not only in the districts themselves, but an appeal was made to the Cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow and elsewhere. It was asserted, by a deputation from Lewis, that the amount of destitution there was much greater than could be met by charitable relief; and the Committee appointed to collect subscriptions in Glasgow at the beginning of the year, found from the applications made to it from all parts of the Highlands that it was so hopeless to cope with the distress by means of private charity, that it addressed a Memorial to the Government for extraordinary relief. In that Memorial the Glasgow Committee asserted what was corroborated by testimony from all parts of the destitute districts—that the distress was unequalled by anything which had occurred since 1846. There was great destitution, not merely in Lewis, in Skye, and other Islands, but, to a certain extent, on the mainland—in Inverness, Sutherland, and Ross-shire. The destitution had, up to the present, assumed an acute phase in certain places only; but from every place there came a great demand for seed. The potato crop last year was a total failure, or almost a total failure, and what potatoes the inhabitants had not been obliged to consume for food were of such a diseased character as to be of no use for seed. The oat crop was also a failure; and the object with which he introduced the Bill was to meet a very sad emergency—an emergency which had not been equalled in the history of the Highlands during the last 40 years. When, a few years ago, great destitution prevailed in Ireland, the Conservative Government of the day passed an Act enabling loans to be made to the destitute tenants, in order that they would be able to procure seed. They knew that the results of that Act had not been very encouraging; but this Bill, while based on the same general principle, was very different in detail. They proposed that under this Bill interest should be charged, while the loans in the case of Ireland were made without interest. In the present case the advance was limited in extent, and it was proposed that it should be made to the parish on security which was absolutely undoubted. He thought he was perfectly safe in saying that any loan made under this Bill would be absolutely certain of repayment. The assistance proposed to be given was in the shape of loan. It was to be given to the parish on the application of the Parochial Board, and with the sanction of the Board of Supervision. The Parochial Boards were to have the power of giving small loans not exceeding £5, and the loans were to be limited to the case of tenants under £15. There had been one or two hon. Members who took objection to this proposal—his hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk (Mr. Ramsay), for example, who apparently held that the assistance should be rather by way of gift. That was a proposal to which, however, he was afraid that Government would not agree. It might be said that the sum of money was so small that it might easily be borrowed from private Companies. He quite admitted that such machinery might be put in force if there were time. It was now the 6th of March, and seed-time was just upon them. It might be said that the landowners might make the necessary advances. It must be remembered that the proprietors were often life-renters, and that they could not safely make such advances without special legislation. It seemed to him that there could be no possible objection on principle to making advances to tenants for the purpose of enabling them to tide over an extraordinary crisis. It appeared to him there was no difference in principle between the advances he recommended and advances to a landowner for the purpose of enabling him to effect improvements, or to a municipality or school board for educational and sanitary purposes. The object was quite as laudable in the one case as in the other. ["Divide!"] He should not have trespassed upon the House where it not for the extreme urgency of the matter. There were but few days during which any relief could be given; and what he was afraid of was that unless relief be given immediately, unless these men be enabled to plant their ground, the same thing would happen as happened in 1846; they would find themselves, at the end of this season, drifting into a state of chronic pauperism, such as existed formerly for five years, and which would necessitate an expenditure of public money much more formidable in amount than that now asked for. The amount asked to be advanced was a mere bagatelle contrasted with the amount which that House wasted upon infinitely less important objects. He would repeat that his object was to prevent the Highlands drifting into the state into which they drifted in 1846, and he believed that might be done by making small advances promptly. He thought the principle upon which this proposal was based had been admitted on both sides of the House in 1880, and he therefore moved the second reading of the Bill.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read a second time."—(Dr. Cameron.)


said, he did not propose to enter into the merits of this Bill now, for it was one which it was quite impossible to discuss at that time of night (1.45). He entirely sympathized with the object of the hon. Member; but he felt bound to say, speaking from his knowledge of their character, that the Scotch people were quite able to take care of themselves. But, however that might be, the principle of the Bill would require very grave consideration, and he begged to move that the debate be adjourned.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Debate be now adjourned."—(Sir R. Assheton Cross.)


said, he hoped the hon. Member (Dr. Cameron) would consent to the Motion, as he thought the Bill could not be adequately discussed at that hour.


said, he was not so much concerned for the amount involved as for the principle of the Bill, for it proposed that money should be advanced without any security, and probably, in many cases, without any prospect of its being repaid. He regarded this as a very serious question, and he was anxious to have the debate adjourned in order that the Government might lay before the House any information they possessed which would justify a Bill of this kind. Such a measure ought to be a Ministerial measure, and should not be brought in by a private Member without any assurance from the Government that they would help the Bill through.


said, he thought this so important a matter—not as far as the amount of money involved was concerned as in regard to the principle—that if the Government favoured the proposal, as he understood they did, they ought to introduce a Bill themselves.


said, the Government were usually guided in such matters as this by precedent. The Seed Loans Bill for Ireland was not brought in by the Government, but by a private Member; and the present Bill was for a very much smaller amount, upon totally different security. He did not think it would be possible for the Government to adopt the hon. Member's suggestion; but the question should be considered in the light of experience.


said, that, in view of the appeal of the right hon. Gentleman, it would be absurd for him to attempt to press the Bill now; but he wished to urge the necessity for whatever was to be done being done at once. If nothing was to be done in the next few days, it would be better to reject the Bill at once, and so let the country know exactly how the matter stood.

Motion agreed to.

Debate adjourned till To-morrow.