HC Deb 11 February 1913 vol 48 cc750-4

I beg to move that leave be given to introduce a Bill to "Amend the Local Government (Scotland) Act, 1894."

It is not too much to say that the Report of the Committee on the social conditions of the Highlands and Islands has come as a shock to every Member who has made himself acquainted with the contents. I do not propose to allude further to the Report, except with reference to one matter on which the Committee lay special stress, and which cannot be met by any amount of Treasury Grant, and as it is the particular grievance from which many of my Constituents have suffered for many years, and can get no redress, that induces me to bring forward this Bill, which I trust will command the unanimous approval of the House. I allude to the difficulty experienced in the Highlands and Islands, and indeed in other districts in Scotland, with reference to the difficulty of obtaining suitable housing accommodation for doctors. The minister of the parish is provided with a good manse, the schoolmaster and mistress are invariably provided with comfortable houses, but the doctor has got to camp where and how he can, and the parish council, who know well the urgent necessity of having a doctor in their midst, are powerless to assist.

Hon. Members who have perused the Report will have noticed a special reference to the Island of Eday, Orkney; there the rent asked for a house which was erected by a former tenant and cost the landlord nothing, and which is the only house in the island available for a doctor's house, is absolutely extortionate, compared with the rent of other houses in the island. An adjoining case is much worse, and I regret very much that it is not made public in the Report of the Committee.

This case, for sheer disregard for the safety of the lives of the islanders, is difficult to match. The estate is managed by a factor, and the mortgagee has no connection with the island or the people beyond that created by his mortgage. The islanders have for a long period, over twelve years, been striving to get a decent house for a doctor in their midst, and some ten years ago raised, by subscription, a considerable suns of money for the building. They were at first met in an uncompromising spirit of hostility, and the mortgagee or his advisers definitely refused to either sell, lease, or grant us a site for the house. We were powerless, but always hoped for a better spirit of Christian charity, and a little later we thought we were home, as the lawyer represent ing the mortgagee professed sympathy, and the islanders thereupon appointed him treasurer of the building fund, and the money was deposited in his bank.

We now thought we were home, and were thankful; and the House will judge of our surprise when we found renewed hostility greater than ever, and that the money we had raised, and which had been placed in his agent's bank, was likely to remain there. The islanders have struggled to keep a doctor in their midst, and from time to time have been able to find a lodging somewhere for him or for her in a crofter's house, or such like place. They formed a medical committee and voluntarily subscribed annually to pay the medical officer of the parish council an additional sum to encourage him to come to and stay in the island. Hon. Members will hardly believe that the mortgagee in possession strained every effort to prevent them having a doctor in their midst, mid even appealed to the Scottish Local Government Board to find that it was illegal for the parish council to keep a medical officer and rate for his salary, but I rejoice to say he was unsuccessful in his efforts to take away that little crumb of comfort enjoyed by the people. Thanks to the intervention of the Scottish Secretary, some further light was last year thrown on the matter in a letter, from which it appeared that the mortgagee had always professed his willingness to give or grant a site and the best title in his power. This offer was never made known to the committee charged with the conduct of the matter, and directly it appeared was immediately accepted and immediately withdrawn.

We then tried to find out what reason there could be for this determined refusal, and imagined it might be that the landlord feared some small extra liability for rates. In order to get over this difficulty, I offered to enter into a bond to relieve the landlord of any possible liability under this head, and was assured that the offer would be transmitted to their client and a reply sent me. From that day, over six months ago, we have had no reply. There the matter rests. The awakening of the public conscience by the publication of the Report seems to afford a suitable opportunity for bringing this disgraceful state of matters before His Majesty's Government and the House of Commons. The island is separated from any other by a dangerous sea, where high tides render communication additionally difficult, sometimes impossible; and those of us who have seen our near and dear ones suffer from want of a little timely aid will appreciate the anxiety of the islanders to have a doctor in their midst. The Bill is merely for the purpose of slightly enlarging the powers of the parish councils in Scotland, and to enable them to acquire land for the purpose of obtaining a site for a house for a doctor and nurse, and to make a grant from the rates for that purpose, as the councils are already empowered to do in respect of other matters.

Captain CRAIG

In rising to oppose the introduction of this Bill, needless to say I do not do so on the general principle of the Bill outlined by the hon. Member, but I do think it is reducing this House to an absolute farce when an hon. Member sitting on the Government side brings in a Bill within three or four days of the conclusion of the Session. The Bill outlined by the hon. Member would, from the sentimental point of view, appeal to all classes and sections of political opinion in the House and in the country, but that is a very different thing from taking sensible action in a matter of this kind. Why could not the hon. Member wait until next Session, which, I understand, is to begin on the 10th March, to bring in his Bill? That would give all hon. Members an opportunity of examining it from the point of view of seeing how it conforms to the principle which the Government have already announced in granting something like £10,000 for the removal of the very state of affairs which the hon. Member complains of. One effect of allowing this Bill to go through would be that the hon. Member would get ahead of his Scottish colleagues in this way, that his Bill would be in print, and the Government, having announced their intention of making a Grant at an early date to the isolated parts of Scotland where the doctors have not proper facilities, and not only giving a Grant but of making inquiries to see what further is necessary in these widely-scattered areas, the hon. Member's Bill would be looked upon as a sort of guide in the matter, and therefore would prejudice the scheme which the Government intend to introduce as a whole. Without any desire of criticising the kindly spirit of the hon. Member who has presented this Bill, although tainted I am afraid by a little of the spirit of vote-catching in his own Division, and without impugning the sentimental character of the object of the hon. Member, I appeal to him not to press this Bill at this late stage of the Session, unless he intends it to take the same rank as the other large measures put forward by the Government under the Parliament Act. I do not know whether the hon. Member has sufficient support amongst the various log-rolling groups to get his measure starred by the Government, but I say that it is reducing the whole thing to absolute ridicule for such a staunch supporter of the Government to introduce a Bill like this, three days from the end of the Session, and in a Session, so far as length is concerned, which is without parallel within the memory of most of us. I think the hon. Member must feel that this Session we have carried more than enough legislation. For those reasons I oppose this Bill.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Cathcart Wason, Mr. Ainsworth, Mr. Barnes, Sir John Dewar, Mr. Leicester Harmsworth, Mr. Hogg, Mr. Lyell, Mr. Murray Macdonald, Mr. Macpherson, Mr. Morton, Mr. Munro, and Mr. Eugene Wason. Presented accordingly, and read the first time; to be read a second time to-morrow, and to be printed. [Bill 365.]