HC Deb 09 March 1910 vol 14 cc1483-7

asked leave to introduce a Bill to establish a Scottish land authority to extend and amend the Acts relating to Crofters' Holdings in Scotland, 1886 to 1891, and The Congested Districts (Scotland) Act, 1897; and for other purposes?

In the few minutes at my disposal, I desire to point out the principal features of the Bill which I ask leave to introduce. We establish a Central Scottish Land Authority or Agricultural Department with full powers to set in active operation the provisions of the Small Holdings and Allotments Act, 1892. These Acts are practically forgotten, and have hardly ever been taken advantage of, partly because of the apathy and partly because of the hostility of the county councils, and partly on account of the ludicrous provision in the Allotments Act preventing a person having more than a toolshed on his allotment. Our fishing and cottar population suffer extremely from want of land for homes. Near Lerwick, when a fisherman wants to get a piece of land to provide a home, he has to pay 1s. 6d. per foot for it, and that runs up the rent to £2 or £3 a year. He is compelled to have his hut without sanitary arrangements. He cannot make adequate provision for water supply and drainage. That is one of the reasons why people are crying out for land reform. The cottages provided throughout the whole of Scotland for farm servants are, I have no hesitation in saying, an entire disgrace to the country. It has often been said that farm servants will not stay long in one place; but, looking to the kind of housing which is available for them, I think they have very little reason to do so. Generally there will be found a small hut on the side of the road, a few yards off there is a kailyard, and nothing else for children to play about in. That open space is destroyed by motor cars and motor dust. The position of farm servants might be greatly remedied with advantage to everyone in the community.

It will be elementary knowledge to land reformers that if we are to have land reform of any sort it must start from the population in our villages. There are dwellings in our villages in Scotland which, instead of being fit to live in, are really slums. The slums in our villages are often quite as great as in our towns, and they are attended by the same deep-seated evils. If hon. Members knew the conditions under which the people live in villages they would be a little more sympathetic in the attitude taken towards these questions. If villagers could get land on which they could have proper homes, you would in a very short time see a great reform over the whole of Scotland. The machinery by which we propose to set these Acts in force would be by a central authority for the whole of Scotland. We have endeavoured to meet the sentiment universal in Scotland, but at the same time the crofting districts have demanded, and do demand, that they must have special consideration at the hands of any Government.

We cannot alter the facts of nature. We had legislation many years ago for the crofting districts, and during the last fifteen years we have constantly had crafting Bills brought in here for the improvement and amendment of these Acts. Crofters' Members and candidates, to whatever side of the House they belong, are practically unanimous now on this question. There is no difference between Liberal and Conservative as to the improvements we desire to see in these matters. What we know is that in many districts the landlords have done their utmost since the Act was passed in order to drive crofters out of the Act and compel them to take leaseholds again, and thus become landlords' men. We had the Prime Minister at Inverness in 1903 when he gave distinct pledges in regard to crofting and general land legislation, which, if carried out, would have amply and fully met all our wants; but to-day, after all these years, we are not a step nearer our goal. By the aid of the law courts the landlords have succeeded in preventing a person on a small croft carrying on any trade or business other than that of agriculture. A landlord whose right to the land is only limited can do as he pleases, but a crofter is threatened with courts of law at every step. If his house is in a tumbledown state and if he wishes to rebuild it, he is compelled to do so on the same old lines, notwithstanding any improvements he might desire to have. If his house is in disrepair, he cannot take stones from what is practically his own land to repair it. Worst of all, perhaps, a man or woman when too old or feeble to work the croft is debarred the privilege of assigning the croft to anyone else, subject, of course, to the Crofting Commission. It is felt that that is a grievous hardship to the whole of the crofting population, and in view of the attitude of certain landlords it becomes more and more pressing that the Government should deal with the question. As regards the question of leaseholds and assignments, every crofters' Member is pledged up to the hilt to deal with this.

As to the necessity for the measure, I have heard the Secretary for Scotland and the hon. Member for Inverness often say how desirable it was that the people should work hand in hand with the landlords in this matter. I have all honour for those who speak in this way. We need not argue with the Leader of the Opposition whether those who hold that land is different from every other class of property are "muddle-headed Socialists" or not, but here are one or two cases which must give the landlord advocates "reason to think," Rackwick is a beautiful little village on the Pentland Firth, and has for road to church, burial ground and market, a track which is always impassable for vehicles and often for foot passengers. Over this road for five miles produce has to be exchanged, the dead have to be carried, and the doctor and minister have to travel. The landlord appeared to encourage the natural wish of the residents for a road, and the Congested Districts Board came to the rescue of the people with a handsome grant. We hoped that with the assistance of the landlord we would receive the road. But no; the landlord refused the road altogether, although it would have been a great comfort to the people of the neighbourhood. He was away somewhere else, possibly enjoying himself in the South of Europe. I will mention one more case with respect to an island in the Orkneys. This is a striking case which I commend to the attention of the landlord party, for it shows the length to which some people will go. On Papawestray there are about 300 inhabitants, and one little ambition which they have had has been to get a doctor's house on the Island. They have been unable to get medical assistance of any sort owing to there being no house. For years the landlord refused even the smallest site for any house whatever. A year or so ago a change came over him, as we thought, and he not only subscribed liberally to the fund raised for the erection of a house, but we understood that he was going to help us in regard to land. We thought everything was settled, having got all the money necessary for building a house. But the only terms on which we could get a small piece of land was that we should have a lease of ten years and that we should remove the building at the end of that time. That was not the worst, for he afterwards refused to give us any site whatever for a doctor's house, although it would have been an advantage to him and his estate. It is because of these little petty cases of tyranny from which we are suffering, not only in the north of Scotland, but over the whole of Scotland, that I ask leave to present this Bill to the House.

Leave given; Bill brought in and read the first time.