§ Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER, pursuant to the Order of the House of the 3rd February, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."1273
§ Mr. HUGH LAW
I desire to draw the attention of the House to the question of certain Grants sanctioned by the Treasury, by arrangement with the county council of Donegal, for marine works in that county. The facts may be stated briefly: Almost as soon as the Development Commissioners were appointed—I think in 1910—application was made at once for Grants for the improvement of certain harbours on the Donegal coast, at Buncrana, Rathmullen, and Burtonport. After a great deal of negotiation, during which some of the Commissioners themselves visited those places, the Treasury sanctioned a Grant of £33,000 on condition that the county council of Donegal would contribute a sum of £11,500. Negotiations then went on between the county council and the Board of Works with reference to the rate of interest to be paid upon that loan. Finally the matter was arranged, and in the year 1913 a definite bargain was come to between the county council, the Congested Districts Board, who were interested in the matter, the Development Commissioners, and the Treasury for the issue of this money. The matter proceeded so far that last year tenders were actually invited by the Board of Works, and were sent in to them for the completion of these works, and had it not been for the intervention of the War there is no question but that the works would at this movement have been set on foot.
That is a simple statement of the facts. After everything had been arranged, after tenders had been invited and steps taken to raise the money—months before the War had broken out—the Treasury, in the month of December, suddenly stepped in and said that this work is not to be proceeded with. At that time the tenders were actually in the office of the Board of Works for the carrying out of the work. It had been a very difficult matter. We had moved all these public Departments and the county council; and in this council, which so largely represents inland consituencies, it was not an easy matter to bring business to the point which this had reached. What does the Treasury say? They are going back on what they had sanctioned, and they are breaking their promise. It is no new matter at all. They are going back on their plighted word. Their defence is twofold. They say their action is not pecular in our case, but that they are doing the same all round during 1274 the continuance of the War, and will make no exception at all, save where there is special distress arising out of the War. They make this double defence, first on the ground of the War, and secondly, that they ought to be satisfied that there is exceptional unemployment in the district due to the War. I will not stop to inquire into the advisability of the rule which the Treasury appears to have formed, nor will I ask whether they have been entirely consistent. I am informed that at least in two cases—in Waterford and Wexford—exceptions have been made, and the Treasury, "swearing it will ne'er consent," has in fact consented. It is perfectly intolerable, after an arrangement has been entered into between the Treasury and the Board of Works, the Development Commissioners and the county council, that it should be thrown aside without any reason or explanation whatsoever. I am not asking for any new Grant or loan; I am only asking that the Treasury should carry out their existing obligations. I do not admit that the Treasury has the right to place upon us any new conditions. We ask for nothing new, and they have no right to make a condition which they did not impose at the beginning, and say that we must prove exceptional distress due to the War.
I do not come here to ask for relief work; I come here to ask the Treasury to carry out their own promises and obligations. I do not know what degree of distress the Treasury require to be proved. I do not say that the people are starving or dying of hunger, but I can state that there is very serious unemployment directly arising out of the War. The districts concerned in this matter are not districts where the farmer grows wheat. I do not suppose that in the surrounding districts of Burtonport, Buncrana, and Rathmullen there is a single wheat field. Therefore, those people do not profit by the high prices, but quite the contrary. In the Buncrana district the average valuation of holdings is not more than £3 15s., and in Burtonport the value is certainly below 20s. It is, therefore, perfectly obvious to anyone who knows anything about small holdings that those holdings could not produce enough to support the occupiers and their families. Those people are doubly hit by the high prices as they have to pay most heavily for all that they consume, and they get absolutely nothing back in the way of 1275 increased prices. On the other hand, one of their two great sources of revenue has entirely dried up. Those two sources are first, the migratory labour to Scotland, and here let me tell the House that a great number of those men have enlisted in Scotland. In addition to the work of migratory labourers in Scotland, they depend practically entirely on the herring fishery, in which everybody is engaged. The men man the boats, and the girls are employed in curing the fish at local ports and also in Scotland.
According to the last reports of the Congested Districts Board, the value of the herring landed on the Donegal coast was £46,000. That was in a year which, according to the Congested Districts Board, was not by any means up to the average. That sum may not seem large when we are accustomed to talking in millions nowadays, but let the House note that the total valuation of the whole of the land and buildings of the Glenties Union, in which Burtonport is situated, is only £22,000, or less than half the value of the herring landed in the year to which I refer on the Donegal coast. Therefore it is obvious that although this may appear a very small and trivial matter to some, to the people of the districts affected it is of enormous importance. This year, owing to the interference in this fishing, both in Ireland and elsewhere, that source of revenue has almost completely dried up, and hitherto the boats have been nearly all laid up. I believe now, as I wish to be quite frank with the House, more of them are fishing, but even so, any fishing that is going on at Burtonport and Buncrana creates much less than the normal amount of employment, because I am informed there are very few curers, and the fish has to be sent away fresh, with the result that the people who formerly obtained employment, such as the girls who worked as curers, are no longer able to obtain anything whatever from that source of revenue.
I do not want to put the case too high, but if you take these two things together—on the one hand, the fact that these people are paying at least 20 per cent. more for all the necessaries of life, and on the other, that one of their two great sources of revenue has dried up altogether—while I am not raising the 1276 cry of famine or pretending that at the present moment the people are starving, I do say that there is very grave reason indeed to apprehend serious distress a little later on. I am told that already a great number of people are using up the seed potatoes which they ought to keep for their ground. Even on that score it would be very much better to carry out these works, which have been carefully planned and surveyed, approved by three Government Departments, and sanctioned by the Treasury itself, than to have at the last minute to carry out ill-considered, ill thought-out, and hastily-conceived relief works. But it is not on that that I base my claim. I do not recognise the right of the Treasury to impose these conditions at all. The money was promised, the tenders were out, and but for a perfectly accidental delay, with which the county council had nothing whatever to do, the work would have been begun before the War, and then it could not have been stopped. The county council has carried out its share of the bargain, and I have every right to ask that the Treasury should carry out its part. It was a very real pleasure to many of us to see the Secretary to the Treasury promoted to his present high and influential position; I hope that one of his first acts in his new office will be to perform a simple act of justice, and not treat a solemn obligation entered into by his own Department as a mere "scrap of paper."
§ Mr. KELLY
I desire to join in the appeal made by my hon. Friend to the Secretary to the Treasury. The hon. Gentleman may have been advised by the Irish Local Government Board or the constabulary officers that no distress exists in these districts. But how are the people to live when the fishing is taken from them? My hon. Friend has given the figures of the average valuation in one of the unions concerned. In two other unions in the district the average valuation is 5s. per acre; those are populous unions, and the farms are very small. In the course of this Debate I could not help thinking that the high prices of the necessaries of life prevailing in this country are rendered even higher in the remote parts of Ireland by the additional freight that is placed upon them. It is within the knowledge of the Secretary to the Treasury that people of districts like these are consumers and not producers, and therefore, equally with the people of the great industrial districts of this 1277 country, they suffer very severely from any rise in prices such as is prevailing now. One word more: that is to voice the sense of the injustice that the county council and the people of Donegal feel at the withholding of the Grant which was not only applied for but was sanctioned. There is a keen sense of injustice owing to the fact that at the moment the War broke out we had received notice that the work was to start. The contract was proceeded with. An offer was made to the county council which was accepted by the county council.
§ The FINANCIAL SECRETARY to the TREASURY (Mr. Acland)
Undoubtedly this scheme has been before the people of Donegal for a long time, and undoubtedly it has taken a great deal of time to come to an agreement, because, of course, on many grounds the interests of the inland people are not quite the same as the interests of the people on the coast. After very long consideration, and in the face of considerable difficulties, the scheme had been sanctioned by the Development Committees and the other authorities concerned, and the work would undoubtedly, under ordinary circumstances, have been begun with moneys provided out of the Estimates for the current year. It is a fact, as hon. Members have stated, that it is in consequence of the general decision affecting the United Kingdom as a whole that these works have not been commenced as they otherwise would have been. But it has been decided, on account of the War, and on that account only, that no schemes shall be started, except in cases of urgent unemployment. I do not use the word "distress." I purposely refrain from so doing. I do not think anybody desires that affairs should be allowed to get into that state before action is taken, and then improvised action. But we have said this—and these words represent exactly the policy which we have been obliged to adopt universally—that new schemes shall not be proceeded with unless there is really urgent unemployment.
§ Mr. ACLAND
Yes, a large scheme had been arranged, but had not been started—and need not be unless there was urgent unemployment. It is the policy that it has 1278 been necessary to adopt for two reasons: First of all, to conserve the capital of the country; and secondly, to render available labour in the places where it is most needed. I know that these Grants were not very large. I know the work would have been most useful. I should very much have liked to be able to allow the work to be begun in spite of the general principle applied to the United Kingdom. I know something of the people. They are very delightful. The place is one in which to spend a delightful holiday. I have spent some of the most glorious holidays I have ever had both on the North and West coasts of Donegal, and I know, after a night's Debate, my peace of mind in any of these places will not be worth much if I go there again. But these places have all got to stand together. It would be impossible for me with the best will in the world to make an exception in the case of Donegal without having hydra-headed monsters springing up all over the country, England, Wales, and Scotland. This is not a question, of course, of the abandonment of a scheme. That was alleged in some of the earlier letters that were received on this subject. It is a postponement undoubtedly, but it is not an abandonment. There is no question of the money being absorbed, particularly by other districts getting money which has been taken away from this district.
§ Mr. ACLAND
Yes, absolutely. There is no chance whatever, unless the world comes to an end, of the money being taken for any other purpose, or taken away. It is undoubtedly earmarked, and there is no question of abandonment but only of postponement.
§ Mr. ACLAND
Of course, if the work were proceeded with now the terms would be about as bad as you could imagine, and if the scheme were taken now the burden on the ratepayers of Donegal would be much heavier than waiting until the time when it is much easier to borrow money. You would hardly imagine a worse time for a county council to borrow money than in the middle of a great crisis.
§ Mr. ACLAND
But until you have borrowed your money you do not know how much you will get for every £100 of issue. The money had not been raised by the county council, and there could hardly be a worse time for money to be raised. But the main point is, is there or is there not at the present time exceptional unemployment owing to the War? I am advised by the department closely in touch with the matter that there is no unemployment of that kind at the present time. Assuming, and we are advised to the contrary, that the Treasury objection to this scheme falls to the ground, I do not think the hon. Member could succeed in justifying it on the ground of special unemployment at either of these two places. At Buncrana there are normally considerable profits from the Scottish fishermen and fisher girls who go to work there. That has undoubtedly been stopped altogether. What is going on instead? Between August and November every available carter and labourer was engaged by the military authorities at 1280 wages which were entirely unprecedented in that district, and I suppose that there never has been so much money coming into the district as in those months. Secondly, though fewer troops are through now, £800 a month is being spent by the War Office in wages to carters, labourers and the staff. Thirdly, local contracts are resulting in the payment of £2,000 a month and bringing in profit every day. Fourthly, there is a great deal of Army shirt-making going on in that district. Fifthly, even if the work was begun it could not really be carried out because it would interfere with Admiralty necessities which may continue for some time. As to Rathmullen, which is not usually a fishing port at all, farming is a good deal better, and those farmers have been having a first-class time.
§ It being Half after Eleven o'clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Order of the House of 3rd February.
§ Adjourned at Half after Eleven o'clock.