HC Deb 26 March 1914 vol 60 cc699-704

I beg to move, "That this House do now adjourn."


On a point of Order. It was announced this afternoon that the Prime Minister would make a statement on the Adjournment of the House, and I would ask if it is his intention to do so? [HON. MEMBERS: "Order!"]


That is not a point of Order. [HON. MEMBERS: "A point of honour."] I call upon Mr. Macpherson.


This afternoon I put a question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary for Scotland with regard to the imprisonment of eleven cottars, and, in view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply, I stated I would raise the matter on the Adjournment. In the course of the right hon. Gentleman's reply, he informed us of the fact, which I have no doubt he told tile House in order to show that he had in some way in any case mitigated the severity of the sentence which the High Court of Judiciary in Edinburgh passed upon these men, that these men might wear their own clothes whenever they wished. As a matter of fact, these men, when they were taken to prison, were compelled to divest themselves of their clothes and to wear prison garb. I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend may think that he is justified in saying that this is a mitigation of the severity of the sentence, and that I and my colleagues from Scotland, who have raised this question, and who made a special point of the fact, are rather befooled, when these men have resisted the temptation to divest themselves of prison garb in order to don their Sunday clothes. Coming from the Highlands, as I do, and knowing the sanctity with which the Sunday clothes of the poor crofter and cottar are regarded, I can well imagine that these poor people who are too poor to have more than one Sunday suit, would regard with horror the fact that they should worship on Sunday in clothes which they were compelled, or allowed, to wear in a house of shame like Calton gaol.

The right hon. Gentleman must be aware that the indignation which now exists in Scotland in regard to the imprisonment of these men is an indignation which is felt from John o' Groats to the Mull of Galloway. In Scotland not to touch land is not to touch life, and these men have been imprisoned, as pointed out before, in theory because they have not obeyed an Order of the Court. But that is not why they think themselves punished. They think themselves punished because they have attempted, some of them for the last twenty-eight years, to acquire land which was held out to them and promised, and which they thought they were entitled to get, especially under the Small Landholders Act, 1911. There is no doubt at all of the poverty of these people. They are at the present time in Calton Gaol. They have about eighty people dependent upon them. Any person who has visited the Island of Lewis knows the poverty of the people, and knows perfectly well that if the wage-earner and breadwinner is taken away it leaves a family destitute. These men have been kept from their work and from their families for the last six weeks, not because they have committed any crime, but because, out of ignorance of the law of the land, they have been considered to disobey an interdict served upon them from the High Court of Justice. I make bold to say that these men did not understand, and do not understand now, what it is they are punished for. My right hon. Friend, in his reply to me this afternoon, told me that as a lawyer I ought to know all about contempt of Court. My practice is in England. I have no special knowledge of the law concerning contempt of Court in Scotland, but nothing that my right hon. Friend has said in his reply to me has convinced men that it is not within his power, as head of the Scottish Department in London and the medium which conveys the prerogative of mercy to any person sentenced in a Court of Justice, to release these men. It may be that I am wrong, and that my right hon. Friend has had the advantage of the assistance of the Lord-Advocate and the Law Officers of the Crown. If that be so, I cannot argue the point any further.

But there is one point that I should like to press upon my right hon. Friend's notice, and that is that you cannot get men of the type of the men in Calton Gaol, who have not had the advantage of education, and who were sentenced in surroundings to which they were alien, and who do not understand the law of the land, to understand that if they gave an undertaking they will be immediately released. If they are willing to endure their sentence it is for a purpose. They are fighting for a cause they believe to be just, and you cannot expect men of that kind, without the assistance of the Board of Agriculture, to give an undertaking such as is demanded by the High Court of Justice. My right hon. Friend can assist these men to purge this contempt of Court, and without his assistance I do not think it will be possible for them to purge themselves. They have suffered much, they have waited long, and if my right hon. Friend had enjoined the Board of Agriculture three years ago, or even before the trial, or even at the trial, to do everything in their power to guarantee to these men that they could attach themselves to the soil of the Isle of Lewis, I am perfectly certain not a single hour would elapse before my right hon. Friend or the High Court of Judiciary would get an undertaking that these men would not again trespass upon the land. But my right hon. Friend has been adamant. I have no doubt that he may have reasons for being adamant, but I would impress upon him that this is a problem which he has got to face. I ask him to consider whether he cannot now give me a promise that he will do all in his power to see that the administration over which he has complete control, namely, the Board of Agriculture, can make this machinery effective and give this people a right to live upon the land they have wished to live upon for so long?

The SECRETARY for SCOTLAND (Mr. McKinnon Wood)

I am afraid I cannot give an adequate answer to my hon. Friend in five minutes. I am rather sorry, because there are some important points raised by my hon. and learned Friend which, I think, should be more adequately dealt with. This question of the unhappy conditions of the Island of Lewis is one which he and I have discussed together on several occasions during the past two years, and I received letters and communications from him on the subject to which he will do me the justice of saying I have always lent a sympathetic ear. Two years ago I visited the Island of Lewis, and I drove along the road from Stornoway, a distance of eighteen miles, and I know the condition of things there. We all know that there is not land enough in the Island of Lewis to give the most miserable portion to all the crofters who want land on that island. One of our greatest difficulties is that we cannot get these men to move from their own precise districts. We have made attempts recently to obtain land in other places in order to remove some of the Lewis squatters. We had one scheme to which we devoted a great deal of time, but at the last moment the landlord gave the land to local men, or, at any rate, it was not available for the Lewis men. I was much disappointed at that course being taken. With regard to this business I am afraid that I shall not be able to say all I want to-night. I am extremely anxious to do all we can to settle the Lewis men upon the land as far as the land will go, and from the very beginning the Board of Agriculture has done its best to grapple with that problem. I am sorry to say that we have had very great difficulty—I do not want to blame the landlord, because he himself is in a very unfortunate position for various reasons—in getting progress made with any kind of expedition, and we shall have difficulties until we amend the Small Landholders Act. There is one thing I must speak about, and that is the point of my right to release these men. I have no such right. I have satisfied myself on this subject clearly. No one can point to anything where the judgment of the Court for contempt of Court—the sentence given because men had refused to obey the order of the Court—has been set aside by the Crown on the advice of the Scottish Secretary, or, for the matter of that, the Home Secretary. I have seen opinions by most distinguished men, men like Lord Herschell, Mr. Justice A. L. Smith, and Sir Henry James, and they all agree that it would be a very improper thing for the Executive Government to interfere with the judgment of the Court in a case of this kind. I think it will be perfectly obvious why that should be so. The only power the Court has of enforcing its decrees is this power, and, if the Executive Government interfered with the Court in protecting itself against disobedience and enforcing its decrees, it would be making the Court a mere nullity, and it would be a case of unwarranted interference with the Court. The Minister of the Crown would be taking upon himself duties which would render the Court ridiculous. I am sure the Court would be perfectly willing to take a very lenient view if these men would only make the necessary submission. [An HON. MEMBER: "I hope they never will."] My hon. Friend says he hopes not. That confirms my suspicion—

It being Half-past Eleven of the clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half after Eleven o'clock.