HC Deb 23 March 1891 vol 351 cc1734-44
(9.54.) MR. CALDWELL (Glasgow, St. Rollox)

I desire to call the attention of the House to the Report of the West Highland Commissioners, although I shall not be in order in moving as I had intended— That, in the opinion of this House, the Government ought to proceed without delay to carry out the schemes recommended for the devolopment of the material resources of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. No apology is required for bringing this matter forward. The Report of the Commissioners was issued in July last, and the Government were asked what they were prepared to do to carry out the recommendations it contained. The reply given was to the effect that the subject would be considered by the Government, and that they hoped to be able to announce their policy on the re-assembling of Parliament for the Autumn Session. When Parliament re-assembled, however, the Government stated that the matter had been under their consideration, and that they were then only waiting for the arrival of Lord Lothian, who was detained in Scotland through illness, to announce what they intended to do. Two months have elapsed since then; but the Government have not yet made any declaration, and I think it is time they should do so. I approach the subject in no censorious spirit so far as the present Government are concerned, for I admit that they have shown some desire to deal with the subject. Lord Lothian has personally visited the localities, and in that respect he was, I think, the pioneer of the Chief Secretary for Ireland in respect to his action on Irish distress. The condition of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland has long been the subject of Commissions; but no practical good having yet followed from them, it is not surprising that the inhabitants have lost confidence in them, and are sceptical as to any good results. The fact has been fully admitted on all hands that extreme poverty prevails in those parts of the country that came within the sphere of the Commissioners' Report; indeed, I venture to say that the distress there is not less than that in those districts in Ireland for the relief of which so much money has lately been raised. Since 1889 as much as £1,500,000 has been voted for the purpose of constructing light railways, drainage works, and other improvements in the distressed parts of Ireland, and surely it is not unfair to expect, if the need exists, and it does exist, that Scotland shall be treated in an equally liberal manner. I claim from this Unionist Government that the United Kingdom shall be treated as one indivisible whole, and that in whatever part of it great distress exists, whether in England, Ireland, or Scotland, it shall be relieved. Each part of the United Kingdom ought in this respect to be treated by the Imperial Government equally with the others. I must give the present Government credit for having voted more than their predecessors for the relief of distress in the Highlands. The Local Government (Scotland) Act set aside £10,000 for the benefit of the crofting counties, where the distress was more clamant, but that £10,000 came out of the pockets of the people of Scotland as a whole. We, therefore, have this result: that we have exceptional distress in the Highlands, for which Scotland, as a portion of the United Kingdom, is called upon to pay, yet the Lowlands of Scotland have nothing to do with that distress; and, on the other hand, Scotland, as a part of the United Kingdom, is called upon to bear its share of the relief of distress in Ireland. What I contend is, that if we have exceptional distress in any portion of Scotland it ought to be treated in the same way as exceptional distress in any portion of Ireland or England. The £10,000, which has really been expended locally, is being spent in discharge of what is properly an Imperial obligation resting upon the Government. The next point is, what is the amount we have to claim on behalf of the Highlands to develop the material resources of Scotland in the same way as the material resources of Ireland are being developed? The sum needed would represent a capital of £1,000,000 sterling, and that, at 2¾ per cent., would be about £27,500, or, say, in round figures, £30,000. If £30,000 a year were devoted to grapple with a distress which is an Imperial distress, the amount would not be excessive for us to ask the Imperial Government to bear. I find that the recommendations of the Commissioners involve an outlay of £280,000, in addition to £30,000 for beacons, lighthouses, &c.

(10.2.) Notice taken, that 40 Members were not present; House counted, and 40 Members being found present,


The count that has just taken place has had this good effect: that it has brought in the First Lord of the Treasury and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, both of whom have undertaken to consider the question of the grants to the Highlands. I hope they will take the opportunity of declaring the policy of the Government. Some remarks were made on the Report of the Commission by the late Lord Advocate, which would probably tend to cast a reflection on the men of the West Coast. It was pointed out that men on the East Coast can come round to the West and fish, while the boats of the West Coast fishermen are lying on the shore. But in the case of the East Coast fishermen, the boats are necessarily large. The men live in localities intersected by railways, and in which there is a large population, and the result is that the East Coast fisherman is a man of more wealth, and necessarily has a larger boat, which can come round to the West Coast. The West Coast fishermen are very poor, and it is impossible for them to own large boats. There is also a lack of harbours such as exist on the East Coast, and what is wanted is better harbour facilities and a ready communication with the markets of the South. Three lines of railway are recommended by the Commissioners. The first is a line to Mallaig, and the Commissioners recommend that a sum of 2½ per cent. should be guaranteed for four years on an estimated cost of £285,000. It is impossible that any Railway Company would construct a railway on any such terms. I think in such a case, considering what is being done in the congested districts of Ireland, the Government should bear a third of the cost. The Commissioners also recommend the construction of a harbour at Mallaig at a cost of £15,000. The second line proposed is to Kyleakin. If a line were made to Mallaig we would have the North British competing with the Highland Railway, who would be compelled to bring their line from Strome Ferry to Kyleakin, and also to Ullapool, if they wished to secure any of the Lewis or Skye traffic. The proposals of the Commissioners for the improvement of harbour accommodation in the Lewis amount to about £53,000 I do not suppose the Government will dispute the necessity of spending £11,000 to improve the harbour of Ness, or of the £12,000 on Carloway. So far as the proposed expenditure of £20,000 on piers and coal slips is concerned, I am not at one with the Commissioners, as I think they ought to encourage the use of large rather than small boats. But to be of any real use to the fishermen, the harbours of Ness and Carloway must be connected with Stornoway by means of light railways, so that the fish can be sent to the southern markets in a fresh condition. The Commissioners recommend as an experiment that a steamer should go round, but a steamer would occupy a day or two to going round, with the result that much of the fish would lose the market. The only reason why I can suppose the Commissioners recommended a steamer is that they travelled in the summer in one of Her Majesty's yachts, and they found it in fine weather very agreeable. But in winter it is quite impossible for a steamer to go round, and it would be quite impossible to keep up the connection with different points of the coast, or serve the many parts whence produce should be sent to market. With a railway of some 23 miles a great catch of fish at any point could be run into Stornoway in about an hour, besides which the line would convey farm produce, butter, eggs, and other things requiring quick transit to market. The expense of maintaining the line would not be greater than that of keeping up a steamer. The Government have said that in the case of Lewis they are willing to give £15,000 for the purpose of improving roads, and I suppose the idea is that these might in some future time be used for a tramway. The District Councils will have nothing to do with this proposal, and rightly so. Anyone who knows the district will understand that this expenditure is useless. The road is not fenced now. Is it right it should be? In the first place, the expense of it would be comparatively enormous, and besides which cattle passing along the road browse on either side, resting as they go. The District Councils say they are willing to maintain a railway if it is made, and naturally they will do this, because a railway would enhance the value of the property, and the inhabitants could afford to pay the tax that might be necessary to meet expenses after the original outlay has been met by the State. In Lewis there are a great many crofters who are practically owners of their holdings, and quite apart from the fishing industry a light railway would make those crofts more valuable. This is what the people want, but the Government objection is that it will involve a large expenditure. Now, in the case of Lewis, a railway connecting certain points with Stornoway would cost about £3,000 a mile, and the capital sum required for, say, 46 miles would be about £138,000, and in Skye the distance would be about 45 miles, amounting to £135,000, so that the total cost would be £273,000, or £7,000 a year, as against the £7,000 or £10,000 which the recommendation of the Commissioners for a steamer would cost. Let the House bear in mind an outlay of this kind is not in the nature of a charitable grant. The fishermen have declared they would be quite willing to pay for the use of harbours for their boats, just as fishermen on the east coast of Scotland do; but it is obvious that with the number of boats they have a reasonable tax would not be sufficient to pay the cost of harbours. Though the Government would be spending a large sum of money in such works, it could not be said that individuals received any charitable assistance there from. They would pay for the use, just as the east coast fishermen pay. In the same way, in the Postal Service a letter is carried for 1d., but it may cost the Post Office 6d. to carry it. There is a loss to the Exchequer, but there is no charity towards the individual whose correspondence is carried; he simply enjoys the advantage of a system in common with the rest of the country. So will the people pay for the use of harbours and light railways as they do in other parts of Scotland. What the Government would do in this direction would be for the benefit of the district and the development of its resources for future generations. I am entitled to say that the West of Scotland requires that speedy access to markets which is possessed by the East at the present time. This involves the question on the mainland of subsidising one or more railways, making harbours which would be accessible to large boats, and connecting these with the capital of the islands where mail steamers would call. The distress in the West of Scotland is nothing more or less than the similar distress in the West of Ireland, due to the mountainous nature of the country, the sparse population, and the want of communication; and I contend that I am entitled to call upon a Unionist Government to treat the distress in Scotland in the same way as they have treated that in Ireland. Scotland pays £10,000 out of the Probate Duty towards what is really an Imperial matter, and it is not unreasonable that they should ask the Government to devote £30,000 a year towards the remedying of the present state of things and meeting an obligation on the Imperial Exchequer.

(10.40.) DR. McDONALD (Ross and Cromarty)

In seconding the proposals of my hon. Friend it is not necessary that I should again go over the ground he has traversed to such advantage. The hon. Member, in the earlier part of his speech alluded to the number of Commissions which have sat upon questions relating to the Highlands. We have had a great many Commissions which have dealt with the Highlands, some beneficial and some useless; but I think that nothing has approached the slovenly way in which this Commission did its work. The Commissioners scuttled from place to place; they went to Ullapool; they saw nobody, they went away, and express an opinion as to what should be done, and so on in other districts. I should go beyond the terms of the Motion were I to say much upon this, but I may say that great dissatisfaction exists in the Highlands as to the way in which the Commissioners performed their duties. There are some wise recommendations in the Report, but there are some that are very unwise. As to this recommendation of a steamer for the West Coast of Lewis, everybody knows, who has any knowledge of the Island, that it is stupid to talk about such a thing. I marvel that, even with their summer experience, they could recommend such a thing. It has on all sides been repudiated as ridiculous in the extreme. There are but three or four months in the year that a steamer could go there; it is one of the wildest places on the whole coast of Scotland. This one recommendation shows that the Commission did not go very fully into matters they were appointed to look into in the Islands. I quite agree with the remarks of my hon. Friend as to the necessity of doing something for the Western Islands. I do not say the need is greater this year, for want is chronic there. I do not think we are asking the Government to do very much if we ask them to consider these half-hearted recommendations of the Commission. Indeed, it is difficult to know when the Commissioners are in earnest, their recommendations are so qualified with "ifs" and "buts." But the Government have certainly been chary in accepting the recommendations, it is difficult to know what they intend to do; they have not shown their hand. We know that £10,000 a year is given to the Highlands; but who gets the benefit of it? It goes in support of the rates, that is, half to the landlords. Quite two-thirds goes to large farmers and owners, and about a-tenth goes to the crofter, and these have very little to be thankful for with £1,000 spread over the whole number. My hon. Friend talks of getting £30,000 from the Government and I shall be delighted if he succeeds. We see in the public prints that the Government are expected to do so much. Is it going to be an annual sum? If we are going to get it only while they are in office it may not be for a long series of years. My hon. Friend has spoken of the means of land transit in Lewis, and he has put the position wisely and lucidly. There is no use in landing the fish unless there is the means of conveying the fish away, and the only quick means of transit is by light railways. With regard to piers and harbours, I have over and over again been told by the people that they would be only too pleased to pay dues in any reasonable manner. They pointed out that really there would be little or no extra expense in this. Possibly it would be cheaper to pay harbour dues than to suffer the loss of ropes and chains, which on the coast of Lewis is considerable in the course of the year. I hope we shall have some information to-night as to what is going to be done. The people are anxiously looking forward to the Government proposals.

(10.49.) MR. A. SUTHERLAND (Sutherland)

I think the hon. Member for St. Rollox Division is justified in his Motion, and I hope it may be successful in inducing the Government to deal with this matter in a liberal manner. We have had a statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, that they are going to deal with it this Session, carrying out some of the recommendations of the Commission. For my own part I should have been satisfied to have accepted the statement of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. But the hon. Member has shown a knowledge of the district, especially of Lewis, which is entitled to respect, and it may be that he has claims upon the Government that we cannot urge. He has talked of the duty of a Unionist Government, and, of course, it is not for me to say what the duty of the Party particularly is; but if they acknowledge the particular duty of giving heed to recommendations when backed by a supporter of their policy, then we are perfectly willing to accept his assistance. I can well understand the Government are entitled to take precautions that the money is really spent to carry out the objects desired. The hon. Member has said a great deal about piers and harbours, but I did not quite gather his views as to guarantees, whether they should be given locally as to construction and maintenance. This is an important matter, and I think the Lord Advocate will give me credit for saying that when the Local Government Bill was passed I foresaw the whole of this matter, and suggested that it would be a good thing if County Councils were given power to construct and maintain piers and harbours in Scotland. He did not see his way to accept the suggestion, but I think, in view of the grants that are going to be given, it would be a good thing if Representative Bodies like County Councils had the power of getting Provisional Orders passed by the aid of the Board of Trade, to construct and maintain these harbours. As to railways, I will not go over what has already been said, but I trust the Government will, in dealing with this branch of the subject, have regard to meeting the requirements of the West Coast. The people are scattered at irregular intervals along the western coast. It is not necessary to enter into the causes of this distribution; there they are, and I am content to accept the position, and I hope I may not be considered selfish if I press the claims of Sutherland in this respect. I do not quite know how much is comprised in the words of the Resolution—"the development of the material resources of the Highlands"—and whether the land, which is a material resource, is excluded. I do not want to embarrass the Government. I have my desire to be reasonable, and if they show us plans for developing the other material resources of the Highlands and Islands, I am willing to accept anything they may give pro tanto, but expecting more. The question has been gone into so fully that I should not be justified in detaining the House further, only I would impress upon the Government that they should not consider this question in a niggardly way. I know perfectly well the considerations that weigh with the Government in matters of this kind. I see the difficulty of dealing out money without a sufficient local guarantee that the money shall be spent in the best manner possible. I do not take the view that there is exceptional distress to be met in the Highlands. I do not put the claim on that ground. It is an attempt on the part of the Government to do a duty which should have been done years ago. It is a complement of the policy we have over and over again heard stated in the House and which was meant to be carried out in 1880. This is not to be considered in the sense of an eleemosynary grant. I hope the Government will try and be as liberal as possible in carrying out the recommendations of the Commission.

*(10.58.) THE FIRST LORD OF THE TREASURY (Mr. W. H. SMITH,) Strand, Westminster

I have listened with a great deal of attention to the remarks which have been made by various hon. Members as to the state of Lewis and and the other Islands on the West Coast of Scotland. The Government have taken steps to inform themselves as to the condition of that part of Her Majesty's Dominions. It is not now proposed that they should do anything on the ground of distress, but that, as there is a portion of the country which remains undeveloped, assistance may be given to enable the inhabitants to maintain themselves in a condition of perfect independence. It was with that purpose the Government thought it right to appoint a Commission. The labours of the Commission have been spoken of in a very disparaging manner, but I think if hon. Members will look at the result, it will be found that the Commissioners devoted a large amount of time to their duty, and brought a great deal of knowledge to bear upon the subject. The hon. Gentleman asks us to state what the plans of the Government are. I think he will see that it would be exceedingly improper for us to do so. We are not now stating what we propose to do—as we shall state when we have very carefully considered the matter. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, my noble Friend the Secretary for Scotland, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary to the Treasury have been engaged for many weeks carefully considering what measure will best promote the interests we all have at heart. The Government desire not so much to relieve exceptional distress, but, if they can, to raise the condition of that part of the country to a higher level than it has attained in the past. Undoubtedly means of communication are necessary, and so is the improvement of harbours, lights, piers, and landing - stages. Those are questions which have received the careful consideration of the Government; but, as hon. Member a must be aware, they are not matters to be arranged off hand, or by a simple decision on the part of the Government that it is desirable such works should be undertaken. Communications have to be made with the Local Authorities and with all persons who are locally interested, and I may say that I, for one, am exceedingly loth to undertake on the part of the Government the whole cost of the work to be done. I do not lay it down as an absolute rule, but I think that, if possible, it is most desirable that the locality itself should undertake to bear a portion of the expense, even if it is only a small portion of the work which is intended to be permanently beneficial to the district. I only indicate in a general way the views of the Government, and I say this much in order to show hon. Gentlemen that the matter has engaged our attention most seriously, and that, if we have made no proposal to Parliament as yet, time has not been lost. When the Government come to the House and ask for a Vote, I think that we shall be able to justify the course we have taken. I deprecate the view that any portion of the community should rely on the Imperial Parliament for everything that is necessary to it. I am aware, from my own personal knowledge and observation, that many parts of the West of Scotland, and, certainly, many parts of the Highlands and the coasts, are in a very bad condition indeed; that the means of the population are very small; and that we should, therefore, be justified in going further in affording assistance than we should in many parts of Her Majesty's Dominions. But, still, the principle is the same, and we have a right to expect the landowners and all interested in the districts to afford assistance and to help in carrying out the improvements we desire to effect. We know that the people are unable to help in carrying out the improvements; but their interest is so great that we think they will be able to find the means necessary to maintain the improvements when they are effected. Reference has been made to railways. They are no doubt valuable as means of communication, but care must be taken to see that the traffic which is likely to arise will be sufficient to maintain the lines, and to justify the Government in holding the belief that a railway will contribute to the resources of the country. It cannot be said that in some parts of Scotland this will be the case. It is only natural that a Member representing a county in Scotland should desire to see a railway not only pass through his county, but through a considerable portion of it. We are conscious of the condition of these districts, but we are also conscious of the duty that belongs to us of endeavouring as far as we possibly can to raise districts which have difficulties to contend with, from a position of distress to one in which they will be able to stand, and take their part in the struggle for life which every inhabitant of the British Empire desires to maintain.