HC Deb 21 June 1897 vol 50 cc472-6

Order for Second Reading read.

*MR. J. G. WEIR (Ross and Cromarty)

remarked that he congratulated the Government on the introduction of this Bill, and now, having had an opportunity of reading it, he again desired to express his thanks to the Government for this attempt to do something for the Highlands. He would, however, warn the Government that it would not settle the Highland question. The people wanted to be reinstated on the lands which were occupied by their forefathers, and which were now used for deer and sheep. According to the Report of the Deer Forests Commission, there were nearly 2,000,000 acres of land in the Highland crofting counties suitable for the occupation of crofters, cottars, and fishermen. He had no objection to deer, but let them go to the crags and mountain tops, and let the fertile valleys be occupied by men. Large as the scope of this Bill was, it required powers the absence of which would tend to make it unworkable so far as the extension of holdings was concerned. It contained no compulsory powers for the acquisition of land, but it introduced the cumbrous and costly machinery of the Lands Clauses Acts. The want of compulsory powers in the Irish Act had seriously affected the usefulness of the Irish Congested Districts Board. He referred to the Irish Board because this Bill was founded on the Irish Congested Districts Act. The Commissioners under this Bill would have their hands tied in the case of an unwilling seller. Take, for example, the island of Lewis, with its population of nearly 30,000 living, under the most difficult conditions under one proprietor who might be unwilling to sell. Only last autumn, when in Lewis, the hon. Member introduced to the proprietor a deputation of County Councillors and other leading inhabitants of the island who were desirous that land should be provided for the creation of fishing villages in the neighbourhood of the bays where fish abounded, as well its for sites for cottars, and the extension of crofters' holdings. The proprietor of the island declined, however, to meet the difficulty. The result was that while under the Piddle Health (Scotland) Bill, which would shortly become law, numerous Black houses in the island would be condemned, no land would be available for the erection of new dwellings, or for the accommodation of cottars, who were crowded on to the parent croft. Were they, asked the hon. Member, going to migrate these fishermen to the mainland, and away front the rich fishing grounds around the island where they earned their livelihood? For want of compulsory powers to obtain land, the Congested Districts Board would be foiled on the very threshold of their work. Would the Lord Advocate consider the advisability of providing a remedy to meet this glaring defect in the Bill? Another point which he concluded to be an oversight was that the Bill did not provide for telegraph guarantees as in the Irish Congested Districts Act. The Scottish Fishery Board Reports urged the need of telegraph extensions to aid the development of the fishing industry. Seeing that the Bill provided for the development of the fishing, industry, it was essential that it should give the Commissioners of the Board power to guarantee telegraph extensions, since the Post Office and Treasury absolutely refused to provide telegraph extensions without guarantee. It was true that under the postal reforms, for which they were indebted to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Postmaster General, these guarantees were reduced by one half. Poor fishermen could to it, even under these improved conditions, provide the necessary guarantees. Clause 6 said that repayments were to be made by half-yearly instalments of loan and interest. He frankly told the Lord Advocate this would he simply an impossibility. Time must be given to the crofter, cotter, and fisherman to obtain the natural increase of his stock and crops, and he would suggest that no payment be demanded until the expiration of, say, the first two or three years. With regard to the constitution of the Board, two of the proposed members, the Chairman of the Local Government Board and the Chairman of the Fishery Board, were located in Edinburgh. These gentlemen could not spend, say, eight or ten days in travelling to and front remote parts of Lewis, Harris, the Uists, or Barra—the very districts where congestion was most keenly felt. He suggested that all the three crofter Commissioners should be members of the Board, and he did so because these gentlemen had a thorough practical knowledge of the grievances of the Highland people, every acre of land in all the crofting counties, and the value of land in the respective districts. The two unknown men to be nominated by the Secretary for Scotland—where were they to be found? Where would you find a practical man who would give his time to travel, say through the island of Lewis, with purely disinterested motives? The practical work could not be done in either an Edinburgh or London office. The Chairman of both the Local Government Board and Fishery Board might be appointed as advisory members, but if these gentlemen were to be members of the Board, he thought the other two crofter Commissioners should also be added. The Board would thus consist of nine members, as in the case of the Irish Board. That Board had to deal with 3,608,569 acres, whereas the Congested Districts (Scotland) Board would have to deal with 9,005,038 acres. One more point he would ask—that provision be made in the Bill for the unexpended balance in each year not to be returned to the Treasury, but to be retained for the use of the Board. He had pointed out these defects in the Bill, which he hoped would be considered and remedied by the Lord Advocate, so that this effort on the part of the Government might be workable, and tend to make the lot of the Hildander somewhat brighter, better, and happier than it had been during many years.

MR. T. SHAW (Hawick Burghs)

gave the Bill his cordial commendation and support. The objects of the Measure were praiseworthy in the highest degree. He congratulated the Lord Advocate upon making a composite Commission of much experience in Scotland. As he understood the objects of the Measure, they were to have the experience and wisdom of three large Boards—the Local Government Board, the Fishery Board, and the Crofters Commission—and he thought the result would be satisfactory. He viewed, however, with some apprehension Section 5, which contained the provision for the acquisition of land. The substantial taking of land would form the key to the success or failure of the Bill as a whole. But Section 5 was practically an optional and not a compulsory taking of land. If a proprietor in the Highlands was willing to sell, all that Section 5 did was to give a means by which the arbitration should proceed under the Lands. Clauses Act. Upon that point he hoped the Government would listen to an appeal which he now ventured to make. He asked them to produce some clause or clauses that would give compulsory power for taking land for the purposes of this Bill. The safety of such taking was well assured. The taking of land would be in the present case at the instance of a composite and. great public Board for the great public weal of a large part of Scotland, and in these circumstances he thought the Government should take a stronger line than they had taken, and affirm by statutory enactment that such Board, finding themselves in a position to de- clare that the land was required, should have the power to put down its foot and say to a recalcitrant proprietor that he must concede to what was for the public weal in regard to this matter of land. He approved the purposes of the Bill and of the constitution of the Board it was proposed to set up, but he would beseech the Government to consider whether they could not strengthen and tighten up Section 5 of the Bill, so as to make the aspirations of the Highlanders for more land operative by statute.


agreed that the weak point of the Bill was that it contained no provision for the compulsory acquisition of land. It provided for the migration of crofters from one point to another, but it did not provide for the compulsory purchase of land. It was perfectly well known that in the districts affected by the Measure, the land was owned by one or two proprietors. They had thus power to prevent any migration of crofters, because, the Bill being of a voluntary and not of a compulsory character, they might decline to sell their land. He quite admitted that the present Government. had done a. deal to alleviate the condition of the Highlands, and he perfectly approved of what they had done to open up the means of communication by light railways in the Highlands. It had given the people an opportunity of earning a livelihood by developing their own districts. That was not charity, but, it was a policy which enabled all classes of the community to participate in the benefit of money that was coming out of the Imperial purse. It appeared to him that the present Bill departed from that policy, and that it was too much of the nature of a charity or dole. It gave money for the purchase of seed and for the erection of fishermen's houses and other purposes. But how could they build fishermen's houses if they had no compulsory powers to enable them to acquire land?. He considered the Government ought to make the power of acquiring land compulsory and not voluntary.


hoped the House would now let the Bill be Read a Second time. The points raised by hon. Members would be met.

Read a Second time, and committed for Thursday.