HC Deb 21 December 1927 vol 212 cc540-56

Whereupon, Mr. Speaker, pursuant to the Order of the House of 8th November, proposed the Question, "That this House do now adjourn."

10.0 p.m.


I wish to raise one or two matters in regard to two questions which I put to the Secretary for Scotland to-day. The first one has reference to my own division, but deals with the question of Glasgow generally. For some considerable time, in fact over a period of years, the Glasgow Education Authority and the Scottish Education Department have been considering school accommodation in Glasgow. The city has been extending, new houses have been built, and both the Education Department and the local authority have had to consider new school accommodation for the new area; but alongside that has been the other problem of Glasgow school accommodation, because for the whole of the War period no new school was provided for the thickly populated areas, and certain schools have become insanitary and unsuitable, and not schools that ought to be maintained by a local authority. The consequence has been that I have questioned the Secretary for Scotland on many occasions with regard to school accommodation. I agree with the Secretary of State that we are up against one problem, but I do not agree that that problem is anything like so acute as the Secretary for Scotland would admit. In the past, the excuse has been that building trade labour has not been available, but that cannot hold good now, seeing that the Education Department and the local authority have agreed to go on with a school building programme. In answer to a question I put to him, the right hon. Gentleman gave me a list of 20 schools which it is proposed to build in Glasgow. To-day, I asked him why my division, the Gorbals Parliamentary area of Glasgow, was to be the only division where not a single school was to be built; and in reply he said that I was mistaken in thinking that Gorbals was the only area, and he said that Calton and Camlachie were two other places. I first of all deny that, but it is rather peculiar that he should give Calton and Camlachie because both of these places are similar to Gorbals, and are thickly populated areas. It is a shocking scandal that the well-to-do areas, even if his statements are correct, are to get all the new school accommodation and that none of the thickly populated, congested districts are to get any new schools at all. I have been over his list, and I find that every Parliamentary Division in Glasgow is in the new building programme, with the one exception of Gorbals, and I want to put it to him that it is not good enough. I am not denying the right of Pollok and Govanhill to new schools, or the right of the other divisions. All I ask is that my division, in relation to the general Glasgow problem, ought to be considered at least equal with them.

I want to raise another point with regard to school accommodation. There is one school in my Division, and I would forgive him the others if he would try to tackle it. I have raised the question of Greenside School many times. For a long period this school has been, for educational purposes, a condemned school. It is situated against the railway main line between Glasgow and London. In addition, it has got practically no playground. I do not criticise the right hon. Gentleman for being associated with the movement for open spaces and playing fields, and yet at this school there is practically no playground. Other schools have side streets where the children can play. This school is right adjacent to the main street. There used to be lanes and alleys adjoining, then there were stables. It was bad enough when stables were near the school, but the position of the children has become 50 times worse because motor garages have taken the place of the stables, and the children cannot play even in the street because of the motor traffic. When I hold election meetings in the Division, we only go to the school when we can go to no other place. It is totally unsuitable even for a Gorbals election meeting, and there can be no greater condemnation than that. My electors are as good as the electors of any other Division. The Secretary of State cannot deny that the new districts are all going to get subsidised houses and national money, and in addition to having the best of houses, they are going to have the best of schools. Our people in a way need the best schools more than the others do, because we are confined to narrow cribbed homes, and the children get little or no air.

The first consideration in regard to schools should not be the well-to-do areas, not the areas with good houses, but the areas where housing is bad and the need for school accommodation is greater. If we can do nothing else, at least Green-side School can claim the right hon. Gentleman's attention. It is a shocking school, and indefensible from the educational point of view, from the sanitary point of view, and from the children's point of view. It is a crime and a disgrace that it should be tolerated any longer, and I hope the Secretary for Scotland will at least take action with the Glasgow education authority to see that even the poor districts should get something like equality of treatment with the others.

I turn to another question. In my Division, unfortunately, I have sometimes to raise questions in reference to people who appear before the Courts. I shall not criticise the judgment of any Courts; but I would like to refer to what is a serious question in Glasgow. A boy living in my Division has committed three or four offences. They are not crimes in the real sense of the word; he has done nothing that would make anyone poorer; he seems to be always associated with the taking of pigeons. I am not defending the boy; but I distinguish between his offences and what I may call "sneaking" crimes. It is true that on two or three occasions he has broken into stables and stolen pigeons, and I am not defending that, but he has perhaps a little more waywardness than other boys. Some time ago, he lost his leg through an accident. He appears before the Sheriff charged with the terrible offence of breaking into a place, and he pleads guilty, and the Court turns round and inflicts on this one-legged boy, this comparatively poor boy, this boy who has had this rough time of it, a sentence of six stripes with the birch rod. It is duly carried out, and within two months of the sentence being carried out, the boy has had to be removed to the Rushill Institution.

I understand that the Secretary of State for Scotland, in his reply, said that this boy's removal to the Rushill Institution had nothing to do with the punishment meted out to the boy. I deny that; and while I have no doubt that certain medical people will back the Secretary for Scotland. I, nevertheless, within my mind, think it is unchallengable and beyond question that these six stripes of the birch rod on a one-legged boy have had a serious effect on his general physical make-up. The Secretary for Scotland may try to say that it may not be the direct consequence of his removal to Rushill, but there is no denying that the boy's physical standard is deteriorating, and the effect on his future has been considerably diminished by this carrying out of the sentence of six stripes. I understand that it is laid down by Statute that, wherever the Sheriff decides that this is to be done, before the sentence can be carried out, it is the duty of the authorities to see that this boy is properly examined and medically fit. I want the Secretary for Scotland to say whether this boy was medically examined, who was the medical authority, and at what time did he pass this one-legged boy after receiving this term of imprisonment? To treat such a boy in that way appears to me to be shocking, and I hope the House of Commons will ask the Secretary for Scotland whether he intends to take any future action in this matter.


I want to take a few minutes in raising another case. Some time ago, I wrote about a young man named David Walker, who was sentenced at the Dumbarton Sheriff Court in February last to 15 days' hard labour for house-breaking. I was informed by the Secretary for Scotland that there were three previous convictions against this young man. In those cases, I sometimes consult a friend of mine who is a solicitor, and when I told him that the parents of the young man denied that there were three previous convictions, he said to me that he did not think that that was possible. He thought there was a very great accuracy with regard to the labelling of a prisoner. Afterwards, the parents sent to me certificates to show that, while this young man was said to be guilty of these convictions, he was actually on the "Empress" training ship at the time. I took the matter up further with the Secretary for Scotland, and he informed me there was a mistake made in connection with this case in the method of previous convictions against this young man when he was tried in connection with this offence. Really there was only one previous conviction. It was said in the Court that it was up to the agent or the prisoner concerned to have given notice beforehand that they contested the statement about three previous convictions. Evidently a mistake was made, and after the case was heard and the prisoner was found guilty it was stated that that was the time to have challenged the three convictions. I know it was said that the fact that the boy had had three previous convictions against him was not taken into account at the trial.

It has been stated that this young man had embarked upon a sea of crime. If a young man is before a Court for a second offence how can it be said that he has embarked upon a sea of crime? I am aware that the Sheriff substitute stated, in a communication to the Secretary of State for Scotland, that the convictions were not taken into account, but we all know that it is part of the criminal procedure that previous convictions must be taken into account, and that fact must have been before the Sheriff substitute when the sentence of 18 months was passed. I know that the sentence has been reduced by three months. We have to be thankful for small mercies, and I suppose we ought to be thankful that there has been a reduction of the sentence in this case. I suggest that there should be a fuller consideration of this case. There was also an older person concerned in this case who was sentenced to six months imprisonment, whereas in the case of the young boy the sentence was 18 months. I suggest that there should be a reconsideration of this case with a view to a further remission of the sentence.

After all, at this season of the year, seeing that there has been a serious mistake in connection with this case it would only be fair, now that six months of this sentence has been served, if the Secretary of State for Scotland ordered the release of this young man. This would give assurance to people that in connection with the administration of the law, when a mistake has been proved to have taken place, the most generous view would be taken in dealing with the circumstances. After this young man had been released from the training ship evidently he got a bit wild and had a conviction registered against him. On the other hand I would like to point out that he got an excellent certificate for good conduct from the authorities connected with the training ship, dated the 8th December, 1916, in which it was stated that his character was very good, and that he was a willing and a hard working lad.

Some of the agents in these cases have so many of them to deal with, all the persons are so poor, and the time is so limited, that a mistake may be made on their part, just as a mistake has been made by the authorities. The mistake originally was made by the authorities, and, if a mistake was then made by the defence in rebutting the mistake made by the authorities, I hope that the Secretary of State is going to take a generous view. That would mean that one would have the assurance that, when mistakes are made, the persons who are finally responsible are very anxious to do what they can. I think it cannot be contested that, when a prisoner conies before a Judge, and it is stated that he has had three previous convictions, the Judge is bound to consider that. It would come into his mind, and would affect his judgment in the case. I hope that, as a result of my raising this matter here tonight, I shall be able to get some concession. The parents of this young man have approached me in regard to the matter. They are very greatly concerned, and I am sure that, if this young man is given another chance, the influence of his parents and the experience through which he has passed will have such a result that the Secretary of State, myself and everyone else will be pleased, and that a better attempt will be made by this young man to order his life aright. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will be able to make some concession.

The SECRETARY of STATE for SCOTLAND (Sir John Gilmour)

The hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan) raised the question of school accommodation in Glasgow, and more particularly the problem as it concerns his own constituency and the particular school of Greenside. I should like the hon. Member to believe that this problem of the school accommodation in Glasgow is one which has received, and continues to receive, the very careful consideration of the education authority in Glasgow. That authority is a representative body, and it has, of course, to look at this question, not so much from the point of view of this or that political constituency, but from the broad outlook of the general educational facilities of the City. The hon. Member was perfectly fair and just when, in putting his case, he said that he agreed that that had been done, and that the problem of the shifting population and the changing circumstances of the City were matters which had to be taken into consideration.

With regard to this particular school, the Greenside School, everyone who has had to deal with this problem has admitted that this school is not up to the standard which is demanded in really modern schools. I am the first to agree with the hon. Member that, in particular, the amount of space available for playing fields is not sufficient. That, of course, is unfortunately the case. On the other hand, I think that we may exaggerate the evil conditions of this particular instance. One thing is quite clear, that the school population in that district has been falling, and while one recognises that the size of some of the classes in some of the schools in Glasgow exceeds the numbers that are desirable, it is a fact that in this case the numbers are not excessive in any one of the classes. Accommodation in the school is more than sufficient to meet the circumstances and needs of the population. That it is in a noisy district I admit at once, but at least two of the noisiest rooms in the school have, I understand, been disused for educational purposes and are only used for temporary and recreative purposes or for feeding.

I should like to be able to say that all bad schools that do not come up to the modern standard are going to be abolished immediately, but the hon. Member knows, and the House knows, and the ratepayers know very well that that is not a thing possible of attainment at once. Both I and my Department are anxious to see the improvement and the development of the schools in the city, but it is obvious that the primary duty of the education authority must be to provide schools in those districts where schools do not exist and to meet the growing requirements of the expanding city. I am also assured that they have improved the internal condition of this school. From every point of view, while I sympathise with the hon. Member in his desire to see this improvement made, I am forced to the conclusion that there are things of greater urgency from the broad educational view and that the actual conditions that exist in this school as to numbers and accommodation are better than in many other schools, which may be in more favourable surroundings, I agree, but in so far as the actual size of the classrooms and the number of children is concerned, the conditions are in this case satisfactory. If we can do anything to improve the conditions of the playground I will undertake to have that investigated and see whether anything can be done in that way.


Will you come down and see the school in the Recess?


Certainly I will take an early opportunity of seeing for myself.


You had better take a bottle of perfume with you.


No; I know Glasgow well enough. Then I was asked with regard to the case of Thomas Lennie. This youth was convicted of theft. It was a case in which a good deal of damage had been done in making an entry to the premises where the theft took place, and I find myself in this difficulty. The hon. Member says this was not a case of what he calls a sneak thief. I perhaps might have a certain element of agreement with a statement of that kind, but, if that is so, what alternative would there be to the Court in dealing with a case like this? He could not be given the benefit of the First Offenders Act. The Court, therefore, would have been obliged, as an alternative to what they did, to send him to some institution. As I understand it, one of the things which moved the Court was that this boy's mother particularly asked that that course should not be taken. Six strokes of the birch may appear a very serious thing. I suppose there are not many of us who have not in our public school career received punishment, and I myself admit to having received certainly that and possibly more.


You know that the birch is a different thing altogether.


I have the fullest recollection of the circumstances. I am bound to say I think that in all the circumstances no harm was done. Let me come to the point. Of course, it is true that this youth had only one leg. He bad lost a leg, so I am informed, I think, at the age of something like four years. He is now 13. At any rate, he lost a leg some time ago. It is not a recent loss.


It is within a couple of years.


The exact date I do not know. At any rate, quite clearly in all these cases the Court is required to provide for a medical examination, and I am assured by the sheriff, whose report I asked for, that this boy was medically examined. The punishment was inflicted, and it was not until a considerable time afterwards that he came under observation from a health point of view. It was first of all assumed, on the primary examination, that this boy might be suffering from something like tuberculosis. He was carefully examined, and it was found that there was nothing of the sort, and that beyond the fact that he had a slight enlargement of the heart there was really nothing wrong with the boy at all. I believe, having ascertained that the proper inspection and medical examination were carried out, that there was no real harm inflicted upon him and that, indeed, it was to his advantage that that kind of method should be adopted rather than that he should be sent at this period into a home of detention. I think that, on consideration, it will be found that no great injury has been done to him. I hope quite the reverse.

The hon. Gentleman the Member for Camlachlie (Mr. Stephen) raised the case of David Walker. This case is one upon which inquiry was made, and, as I was approached on the first occasion, I came to the conclusion that there was no reason why I should interfere. As the hon. Gentleman has said, I have had further representations from him and I made further inquiries. It is certain that an accused has the fullest opportunity of objecting to any count made against him at the time. The proper procedure, no doubt, is for anyone charged to inform the person he is employing to defend him and enter a written notice to the Court. That was not, in fact, done, and while this man had a legal adviser carrying out his defence, he did not so inform that legal adviser, but subsequently, having been convicted by the jury, when he was asked whether he had any objection to make to the charges which were made against him, he did so object.

He was then told by the sheriff that in any case he was not taking these previous convictions into account, but that he was dealing with the case on the cir- cumstances as they were before him. Hon. Members may say, as has been said, that it is beyond the Judge's power not to take these things into account and that he must take all the circumstances into consideration. While the sheriff did say, and I am bound to take his word for it, when he gave sentence that he did so without taking into consideration these previous convictions which, as the sheriff, I think, clearly indicated, had taken place some time previously, he was justified in taking into consideration the conviction for housebreaking, I think in this very same calendar year, and, in dealing with the prisoner, to take that and the existing circumstances into the fullest consideration. That, I believe, he did.

I was perfectly willing, anxious indeed, to see that there should be not the slightest idea of injustice. Therefore I consulted with my office and I came to the conclusion that I could recommend a reduction of the sentence by three months. The hon. Member for Camlachie (Mr. Stephen), no doubt, would desire that I should have made the reduction more, but I, on the other hand, have to consider most carefully all the circumstances of the case. I have not found myself able to make any greater reduction, but I do think that I have met in no small measure any question which might have arisen. I would say in regard to the errors which were committed, that those who know the circumstances of our Courts in Scotland know well that while it is possible for these things to occur they very seldom do occur, and that the safeguards against them are not only the constant supervision of the trained staffs but the fact that the circumstances are open to challenge by the persons concerned. The fact remains that that challenge was allowed to the individual, and while it was not taken advantage of in the first instance under the rules of the Court, it was taken advantage of, and, in fact, no real disability fell upon the person so dealt with.


From the right hon. Gentleman's recital of the facts, do I understand him to say that the previous convictions were read out in the Court to the jury before the jury decided whether the prisoner was guilty or not guilty? I took that to be the right hon. Gentleman's statement.


I cannot say what exactly passed in the Court. Undoubtedly, a list of previous convictions of the prisoner was placed before the sheriff, but I do not think it was placed before the jury, because the jury had to consider only the circumstances of the actual charge. The actual charge-sheet goes, I understand, before the sheriff and not before the jury, but, as was clear, the sheriff asserted in dealing with the case that he was not taking into consideration the previous convictions. As a matter of fact the sentence was not a question for the jury but for the sheriff, after the jury had considered whether on the particular count on which the individual was brought before the Court he was guilty or not guilty. Therefore, the jury had nothing to do with that problem. The only thing that arose was that the records of previous convictions put in by the State were before the sheriff.


My point is this: the jury found the prisoner guilty and at that stage the prosecutor on behalf of the Crown read out the previous convictions. That would be the procedure I take it, and then the sheriff, having the convictions before him, gives sentence.


No, pardon me. He is found guilty, and then the sheriff asked if the individual had any objection to raise, and it was then that objection was raised. The sheriff was well aware of the previous convictions, but he pointed out that while the objection could not be then considered under the rules of the Court, he was not taking them into consideration in giving his sentence.


The story I want to raise for a moment or two, of which I have given the right hon. Gentleman notice, is another story of the alleged justice which is operating in Scotland to-day. It is a story almost without compare for the last 10 or 15 years in the annals of sheer oppression and wanton cruelty. The only offence of which three men and one boy can be alleged to be guilty is the offence of attempting to produce food; attempting to earn their living on the soil. They offered to pay rent for the land, and are willing now to pay rent. The only offence that can be alleged against them is the offence of producing food on the soil of the land of Harris without having permission. For over nine years these three ex-service men have waited for land. They were definitely promised land. A representative from the Board of Agriculture has been to this particular farm and measured out the plots, discussed the thing with them, and said to them, "That is what you will get, and that is what you will get; but it requires confirmation, and I cannot give it." They firmly believed after all these years that a promise made on behalf of the Government was going to be carried out.

The farm was a suitable one. It had been in the ownership of the late Lord Leverhulme's trustees, but when it was sold the Board of Agriculture did not purchase and allowed it to go into the hands of a man who had been in the employ of the late Lord Leverhulme. After the Board of Agriculture's representative had measured the farm—I ought to mention that the boy represented his mother and a large family—these three men and the boy went on to this farm at Scaristaveg, in the Parish of Harris, on the 1st of March, 1926, and began to plough and make preparations for earning a living. They put up houses; they offered rent, and they offer rent now. The proprietor was not there on the 1st of March, the day on which the farm was raided. He lives merely across the road from the farm and knows what is going on. When the ex-Secretary of State for Scotland and I visited this farm last Whitsuntide we saw the proprietor, and also these men, so that we know something of the subject about which we are talking. The men started to plough the land and to prepare for occupancy. Finally, I believe, negotiations between the proprietor and the Board of Agriculture broke down. I believe the Board of Agriculture declined to pay the price that the proprietor asked. I believe he asked for considerably more than he had paid for the farm to Lord Leverhulme's trustees. After the negotiations had broken down, the four men were interdicted. That was after they had begun to rear stock, after they had been nine months on the farm. The village constable had not troubled them before then and no one had interfered with them. They were interdicted and sentenced to two months' imprisonment in Inverness gaol. I was so impressed with their story that I could hardly believe it. I know of many things that the Secretary of State has done in agricultural and rural affairs in Scotland, but I never heard of anything like this. I was so impressed that I went at my own expense to Inverness gaol, got a permit, and interviewed the men in the presence of the Governor. They struck me as being an honest, decent and respectable type of individuals. No one has ever said a word against their characters before.

In the presence of the Governor they said that if they got their release they could do nothing else but go back to the land; the only alternative was sheer starvation. They expressed the intention of going on with the sentence, and, after serving it, to go back to the land and endeavour by that means to draw public attention to the wrongs they were suffering. By what exact methods I do not know, but suddenly these four men were released. The statement was made in this House that they had given a pledge that they would not go back to this land. I had a telegram from them denying that they had given any such pledge, and I do not believe they had given any such pledge. They certainly gave no pledge in writing. At any rate, the Secretary of State has never been able to produce such a pledge or any representative of the Government who could honestly say that such a pledge was given.


I also went to see these men in gaol, and I say now in the presence of every Member who is here that these men gave me a pledge and gave the prison governor a pledge that they would not break the law when they got back to Harris.


Of course one accepts the hon. Member's statement, but I can only say that his recollection of what happened is in violent contradiction of the recollection of the four men. At any rate the four men went back from Inverness gaol to the farm of Scaristaveg. They went on the land again, and when my right hon. Friend, the late Secretary for Scotland, and I visited them, they were still offering rent. Nothing happened from last April until the month of November last. They were on good terms with the local police and all the rest of them, and no one interfered with them. They think they have a free pardon and they are merely waiting until the Board of Agriculture or some higher authority will settle the matter of the land. They are cultivating the soil. In November, the four of them were cited to appear at a neighbouring Sheriff Court for breach of the original interdict. I asked a question of the right hon. Gentleman on the 15th December. His answer must have been given under a misapprehension for I am quite certain that he did not intend to mislead me or the House or the country. I specifically asked him three times that day whether these proceedings were being taken with the concurrence of his Department. He first dissented and then, when I asked again, said that this action was being taken by the proprietors without any part being taken by the Government. I hold in my hand a copy of the original Citation and from its contents I do not think there is the slightest doubt that the machinery of the Lord Advocate's Department is particeps criminis in this and is actively pursuing these men. The right hon. Gentleman ought to make a full statement as to how far his Department is responsible, actively or passively, for these proceedings.

What happened? These four men were summoned for the 15th of December. Two of them, who had already got accommodation at a neighbouring farm, an uncle and a nephew, appeared in Court. They said they had no longer any necessity to stay on this farm at Scaristaveg; they had now got accommodation elsewhere. They expressed contrition and said they would never do it again and were prepared to take their stock and appurtenances off the farm. Under the circumstances one would have thought that they would at least have been told to get away clear from the Court, but no. Despite the fact that there is no raiding and that they have settled on a neighbouring farm, these two poor devils, after their apology, got two months' imprisonment which they are now serving.

The two men who have not got accommodation, who are still at Scaristaveg, were arrested and taken to the Sheriff Court. There the Sheriff asked them if they bad issued written answers. What did they know about the law? "No," they said, "we have not issued written answers and when we sent them before they were refused." The Sheriff said, "Very well, on this occasion I cannot try your case to-day. Go back to Scaristaveg and I will try your case on the 5th of January." They are now waiting for that date and what happens then remains to be seen. Some of my hon. Friends have advised me to speak softly to the right hon. Gentleman, saying that if I do so I will succeed. I have tried everything, I have spoken softly to him, interviewed him, begged him, written to him. I do not know what it is to be done. The right hon. Gentleman stands for a policy which means the steady depopulation of Scotland. My race is disappearing, the people I stand for in this House are being driven from the soil. He supplies me with figures showing that our outdoor rate of pauperism is almost double that in England. With powers in the hands of his Department he does nothing effective for nine years. Ex-Service men were promised land but, as regards these particular men, two are in gaol and two are harassed with the prospect of what may happen to them when they go back to the Sheriff Court. I have not the remotest idea of what is to be done. Possibly something might be done if English Members would take a hand in bringing pressure to bear on the Scottish Office which is the most reactionary Department in this Government. I, for one, would cheerfully "swop" the present Secretary of State for Scotland for any member of the Government. I would take the Home Secretary or any other—

It being one hour after the conclusion of Government business, Mr. SPEAKER, adjourned the House, without Question put.

Adjourned at Four Minutes before Eleven o'Clock.