HC Deb 08 December 1919 vol 122 cc1021-30

Order for Third Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the third time."—[Mr Munro.]


Since this Bill last appeared on the Order Paper for Third Reading certain developments have taken place. When the Bill was considered by a Commission of both Houses there still remained two objections, one of a practical and the other of a sentimental character. The practical objection was really not involved in the Bill itself. It was that the Harbour Trust, who in a sense were parties to the Bill, had closed up a right of way which was not upon any particular ground covered by the Bill, but which has been used in the past by the public, and from which the public are now excluded. That has caused great indignation in Greenock. An indignation meeting was held, I think, last week, but, happily, according to my information, the Harbour Trustees have agreed to open a right of way which will serve the same purpose of giving easy access to the Princes Pier. If that is so, that objection, which is really not an objection to the Bill, and has nothing to do with the terms of the Bill, is disposed of. The second objection was of a sentimental character, but none the less important for that reason. It arose from the fact that the improvement in the Bill was associated with an extension of the shipyard owned by Messrs. Caird, but now owned by Messrs. Harland and Wolff. Unfortunately, the proposed extension involves the carrying of the shipyards over the ground now covered by the North Parish Church of Greenock and the graveyard of that church. I believe that the objections of the church authorities and of the lair holders were met, and I am not concerned with that. In the churchyard there is the grave of one who is popular in Scottish song, and her grave is associated with some of Burns' most touching lyrics. Of her Burns wrote those famous lines beginning:— Thou lingering star, with lessening ray, That lov'st to greet the early morn. Naturally, the Burns lovers in Scotland and elsewhere feel about this matter much as the people South of the Tweed would feel if a great commercial enterprise were to start an attack upon some spot sacred to the memory of Shakespeare. I do not think that the Burns Federation, which is a great body representing nearly 300 Burns clubs, in every country in the world, took up an unreasonable attitude. The problem really was to reconcile in Greenock the advance of civic and industrial improvement with respect to spots which are held sacred by tradition. It was, in fact, the old problem of the irresistible force and the immovable mass. In this case, fortunately or unfortunately, the great personality of a Noble Lord (Lord Pirric) was associated with the irresistible force, and before the Commission of both Houses the irresistible force came out on top. We have passed that stage now. Those who were exponents of the Burns position, unfortunately, did not take the technical steps necessary to make good their case when this Bill was in the other House. Seriously, considering all the points, after reading the Bill very carefully I am convinced that this Bill embodies a vast public improvement in Greenock. It sweeps away a bad slum area. It improves in many respects the amenities of the town. It involves the creation of new houses. It involves the straightening of streets, and in every way it is probably the greatest improvement in the town of Greenock for a century. Those of us who have been objecting to this Bill on behalf of the Burns Federation do not wish to stand in the way of the citizens of Greenock enjoying all these public advantages, and I beg to say, after going into the matter very carefully, that I am satisfied that the promoters have done all in their power to meet the reasonable sentiments of the Burns Federation. I am authorised to state that, in addition to leaving the grave of Highland Mary undisturbed, and turning the monument round so as to face the road, they now offer to put up another suitable monument on some site more readily accessible to the public, and are willing to discuss the details of that monument and its position with the Burns Federation. In these circumstances I do not feel that those of us who are associated with the Burns position are justified in further opposition.


Can the hon. Member tell the House in what Parliamentary way he proposes that that undertaking should be given and how it can be made good?


This undertaking emanates from a firm of the great probity and eminence of Messrs. Harland and Wolff, and anybody who knows anything about their record end their work will believe that the undertaking will be honoured not only in the letter but in the spirit, and that the monument to be erected will be adequate in every way to the requirements of the situation. In these cir- cumstances those of us who have been opposing this Bill do not feel that we would be justified in pressing our opposition any further.


I regret that there should be the necessity of a single word being said against this Bill. So far as I can ascertain there is no section of the community at Greenock but are of the opinion that the Bill would confer a benefit upon the town and citizens of Greenock; but before the Bill is read the third time they feel that they should have some assurance upon the question of the right of way which has been in dispute between the Greenock Harbour Trust on the one hand and the citizens of Greenock on the other. I understand that the Provost of Greenock has intimated to-day that the Greenock Harbour Trust are prepared to open the barricade on the disputed right of way as a privilege for a certain number of hours in the day. A certain section of the people of Greenock are not satisfied with that compromise offered by the Provost on behalf of the Harbour Trust, and they have sent word that the Third Reading should be opposed until a satisfactory arrangement is come to with regard to this right of way. I understand that the right of way has been used by the people of Greenock for a long series of years and that there can be no question of its continued use up to the time when it was closed for a few years as a war measure. The inhabitants of Greenock readily acquiesced in the road being closed as a war measure. Like every section of the people of the Kingdom they were quite prepared for any step being taken that would enable this country to get over its difficulties during the War, but now that the War is ended they have been putting in their claim for this right of way being reopened, and the Harbour Trust has been opposing the reopening of this right of way. This question has been discussed by the Provost of the town on behalf of the citizens and the representatives of the Harbour Trust, and a compromise has been offered, by which the right of way is to be opened as a privilege during certain hours of the day. I do not know whether the Secretary for Scotland is in a position to give us a satisfactory assurance that this question can be settled satisfactorily without the necessity of costly litigation. He may tell us that the question of a right of way has no con- nection with this matter, and there may be a certain amount of truth in that statement, but the people of Greenock—

Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Mr. Whitley)

Do I understand that what is contained in this Bill bas nothing to do with the right of way?


That is so.


If that is the case, it is not competent for the hon. Member to discuss the subject


The question which my right hon. Friend desires to raise is entirely foreign to this measure. The right of way is not dealt with in any part of the Bill, and my right hon. Friend desires to exercise what I regard as an abuse of Parliamentary procedure in order to bring indirect pressure to bear upon the promoters of this measure to secure their way. Whereas if he is right in his content on the Law Courts are open to him, and he will succeed and get costs against the unsuccessful party.


Then, clearly, this falls within the ruling of several Speakers, which I have in my mind, that whereas on the Second Reading of private Bills, matters may be dealt with that affect the way in which others have used their previous powers, that does not apply to the Third Reading of the Bill. On the Third Reading you may deal only with matters absolutely contained in the Bill.


The only aspect of this question with which I wanted to deal was the point of view that the Bill confers upon the Greenock Harbour Trust certain substantial advantages which they have had through the agreement come to between them and the people of Greenock, and a large section of the community of Greenock are very anxious that before the House parts with this Bill they should at least be willing to do what is asked, namely, to make satisfactory arrangements so far as this right of way is concerned. The hon. Member for Kilmarnock Burghs has dealt fully with the sentimental objection offered in the earlier stages of the Bill, as to which I am quite satisfied, and I only raise this point for the purpose of discovering whether the Secretary for Scotland can give us an assurance on behalf of the interested parties that a satisfactory arrangement can be arrived at -without costly litigation.


I must make it quite clear that so far as the right of way is concerned it is too late to raise that question on the Third Reading of the Bill. On the Second Reading it might possibly have been done—I do not express any opinion as to that—but not on the Third Reading.


I desire only to refer briefly to what has fallen from the hon. Member for Kilmarnock Burghs. Of course, his constituency is the moving and living centre of Burns' lore—or one of the centres—and what I wish to make clear is the Parliamentary position in connection with the undertaking which he has given. We have arrived at the final stage of the Bill. The proper course would have been to bring this matter before the Committee which sat in Glasgow, when the Bill was discussed there, and there was even after that another opportunity, by way of petitioning either House of Parliament. But that step was not taken from lack of knowledge of the methods of procedure in Parliament. Therefore, we are left with the undertaking given on the floor of this House on the Third Reading of the Bill. Undertakings of that kind have always been honoured, and in consonance with Parliamentary procedure, and the traditions linked with the very high standard of the Noble Lord to whom my hon. Friend referred, there can be no doubt that the undertaking which he has given will be honoured fully, not only in the letter, but in the spirit.


As one of those who had the honour to sit on the Committee inquiring into this particular question of the graveyard in Greenock, in regard to the question raised by my hon. Friend opposite, it is perfectly clear that no Scotsman in this House or anywhere else would ever wish to do anything in any degree disrespectful to the memory of Robert Burns. But I do feel that it is a little late in the day to raise objection to this Bill on the score that it is going to disturb Highland Mary's grave. One of the most conclusive arguments in favour of this Bill was brought forward, not by the Noble Lord to whom allusion was made, but another Noble Lord, and the evidence that was given by those two peers who came into Court in the matter was emphatically in favour of the immediate development of the shipyard which happens to entrench upon the ancient graveyard. As regards what has been said in reference to safeguarding the honour of Highland Mary, it is true that Lord Pirrie made what I consider a most ample promise in reference to doing all that could possibly be done, not only to safeguard the actual grave, but also to alter the gravestone, so that no section of Scottish feeling could possibly be outraged. We went into the evidence very fully. We had a vast amount of evidence offered in favour of this new industrial development, and the most impressive evidence came from a public-spirited citizen of Greenock who is the chairman or president of the local Burghs Federation. Any man or woman who knows the local circumstances would never for a moment admit that there was any damage being done to any memory associated with Burns, or that, even if it were true that sentiment was being to some degree disturbed, the question of the industrial development of Greenock could be allowed to be hampered by any such association. I think we ought to realise that the taking of the old graveyard is essential to the industrial welfare of Greenock, is demanded by the great bulk of the people of Greenock, and by its most responsible citizens, and is objected to, if I may say so with respect, only by a few cranks and faddists who do not understand how much they are allowing a perfectly sincere fanaticism to stand in the way of the best interests of the town. As regards the right of way, to which my right hon. Friend (Mr. Adamson) referred, I cannot recall that there was a single word mentioned on that point during the sittings of the Commission.


There have been two objections taken to this Bill. The hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. A. Shaw) has very accurately described them as sentimental and practical. I do not say that the sentimental objection was not a very important one. It received full consideration from the tribunal which sat in Glasgow. It has been said that the matter could have been raised in two ways—in Committee and by petition to the House of Lords—but the hon. Member may not be aware that this matter was very pointedly raised during the inquiry in Glasgow, that the Burns interests were represented on that occasion by counsel, and that an arrangement was come to between counsel who represented the objectors and counsel who represented the promoters. In fact it was the chief sub- ject discussed during the four days' inquiry. Counsel for the objectors declared themselves perfectly satisfied. Accordingly, that undertaking, supplemented as it now is by an undertaking in the House, which my right hon. Friend has rightly said must be regarded as entirely satisfactory, I think disposes of the first objection. All parties, I take it, are now satisfied that no detriment will be done to this sacred site, and that the arrangements agreed to will amply protect any feeling that may have been raised. The other objection was the practical objection. I am not quite sure I am entitled to deal with it, seeing that you have ruled that it is not in order on Third Reading to take such an objection. May I say, however, that it seems to me indefensible that anyone should endeavour to block an important scheme of housing reform—a scheme, moreover, which must involve a large extension of the trade and employment of Greenock—on a side issue of this kind. It is a scheme which will obviously mean thousands of pounds of additional wages, possibly millions, as the years go on.


I have already said that.


The right hon. Gentleman is taking a very exceptional and unwarranted course in endeavouring to destroy a scheme. so fraught with benefit to the community at large, and to those in particular in whom he is interested, and therefore I appeal to him to withdraw any opposition. For the Harbour Trust I am unable to give any sort of undertaking. The Harbour Trust are acting under an Act of Parliament under which they conceive they have no right to give any such undertaking as is asked for. The remedy is in the law. If there is a right of way, that right can be established in the Law Courts, and every penny of expense the right hon. Gentleman is put to will be disgorged by his unsuccessful opponent. I submit that one objection to the Bill has been removed by agreement, and that, as the other objection is really out of order, the House might be disposed now to give a Third Reading to this Bill.


I know Greenock well. It is a very congested town, although the west end is one of the most beautiful to be found in the West of Scotland. In the centre of the town, where the shipbuilding yard is situated, it is most congested. I should like to point out that this proposal to extend the shipbuilding yard will produce one of the greatest improvements from which any town could benefit. It will clear away slums of the worst possible description. A new housing scheme is being promoted which will be of enormous advantage to the working classes of Greenock. Some of the roads in Greenock are very narrow. This scheme will mean a great improvement of roads. There is another argument which should appeal to my right hon. Friend. At present this yard is able to build ships up to only 500 feet in length. With the extension of the yard it will be possible to build ships up to 750 feet in length, and I am advised that the popular standard ship for cargo carrying is about 700 feet in length. At present there are about 2,000 men employed in this yard. When the yard is extended there will be no fewer than 9,000 employed. It is proposed to lay down six new launching berths, at great cost. At the same time the shipyard authorities are going to contribute to the Greenock municipal authorities a sum of, I believe, £10,000 to improve the transport facilities of the town, either by trains or motor 'buses, so that working men living at a distance may be brought into the town. I think all that goes to show that those who are promoting this measure and the shipbuilding firm are doing their utmost for the benefit of the town, for the working classes, and for the amenities of the town. I yield to no one in my love and admiration of the poet Burns, and now that the promoters of the Bill are making arrangements for the preservation of Highland Mary's grave, I think, considering all the benefits that will accrue to the town, that my right hon. Friend opposite should withdraw his objection to the Third Reading.

Colonel GREIG

I should not have intervened in this Debate but I stand in a peculiar position with regard to Greenock owing to the regrettable illness of our colleague, the Member for that City (Sir G. Collins). In his absence I have been authorised to act for him in any matter affecting the interests of Greenock. It is only right that I should say that I knew that everything would be covered by those who spoke in favour of the scheme. I approach it from an entirely impartial point of view, and I have come to the conclusion as I found the facts, and having regard to the sentimental considerations which have been fairly and honourably met, and having regard to the fact that this great public improvement will get rid of slum areas in the town, and that adequate arrangements are being made elsewhere by the great building schemes which are proceeding, that I am perfectly right in saying, on behalf of the corporation and trustees of the Harbour, for whom at the moment I am in the position of being spokesman, that they hope that the House give a Third Reading to the Bill.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the third time, and passed.