HC Deb 04 April 1928 vol 215 cc2112-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Sir G. Hennessy.]


I hesitate to detain the House even for a few moments at this hour, but I feel constrained to do so in a matter which affects not only my constituency and Scotland generally, but, I think, the whole country. Yesterday I put a question to my hon. Friend the Member for Monmouth (Sir L. Forestier-Walker)dealing with a situation that has arisen in one of the most beautiful and fertile parts of the Highlands. In 1919, when there was a great cry in the country that men, particularly ex-service men, should be settled upon the land, in the Morvich district of Kintail nine small landowners were settled. As my hon. Friend himself described them, they were registered as smallholders; that is to say, so far as it is possible to give it them, they had security of tenure so long as they paid a fair rent and tilled their land properly. There has been no complaint of any sort against these men, who are men of a very fine stock, which has been for generations on the land there.

For some reason or other, another Department of the State came in and disturbed their tenancy, or threatened to do so. My hon. Friend replied to me, openly and frankly, that it was not the present intention of the Department of Afforestation to apply to the Land Court for resumption of 1,400 acres of their land, hut my hon. Friend does not appear to realise that the introduction of those two words "at present" strikes a blow at the sacred right of security of tenure. If these men are to be expected to remain and till their land, and produce a fine stock of sheep, with the threat that at any moment the Department is to come down upon them and drive them off their holdings, he is making a great mistake. The House of Commons time and again has asserted the right of these men to security of tenure, and I am convinced of this—though I am certain these men will not defy the law—that the House of Commons will not tolerate a situation of that kind. They have given their pledged word to these men that they will, so long as they pay rent, have security of tenure. Is this House to understand that the Forestry Commissioners are to have the power at any moment to evict them, if the Department think it necessary to plant trees on their land? My hon. Friend belongs to the Principality, and not to Scotland, but he knows sufficient of Scottish agriculture to know that, in that particular part of Scotland, there are thousands of acres in deer forests as suitable as if not more suitable than these outruns, which the crofters have, for afforestation; and when that fact faces the Forestry Commission, surely they are not futile enough at this stage of public life in this country to attempt to oust these crofters from the outruns and the holdings which the State has guaranteed. This speech of mine will be shortened if my hon. Friend will tell me now if it is really the intention of the Forestry Commission to hold the threat of insecurity of tenure over these men.

Sir LEOLIN FORESTIER-WALKER (Forestry Commissioner)

I shall be glad to answer the right hon. Gentleman. I can give him this pledge, that we have not the slightest intention of disturbing the tenants, unless on their own application.


I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that statement of the Department's policy. I am now assured, in the presence of the House, that there is no intention on the part of the Commission, during any time of its existence, to disturb the tenancy of the men unless they themselves wish that their tenure should be disturbed. I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and I think I can express the gratitude of the Members for Scotland because the Forestry Commission take that wise and sane view. There is only one other point, which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Govan (Mr. Maclean), in regard to the Lubencorn sheer farm. I believe that there were sheep there on the land which has now been taken over by the Forestry Commission, and that there was a guarantee, either by the Forestry Commission or somebody else, that the holder should be entitled to graze his sheep on that park. I understand that these sheep have been driven off, and I would like to be assured by my hon. Friend that the Forestry Commission will do whatever is possible to settle that question also. I am entitled to assume that, seeing that he took such a sensible view of the other question, he will take an equally sensible view on this, which may be a smaller question, but is part of the whole.


That point is a rather more complicated one, and really one with which the Forestry Commission have little or nothing to do. The quarrel really is between the owner of these sheep and the original owner of the land. The Forestry Commission obtained the land from the owner free of all encumbrances or tenancies, and, therefore, if there is any error or misunderstanding, it is really a question between the tenant and the original owner. I think I can go as far as this, and say that if, by any means, the Forestry Commission can give the gentlemen to whom the right hon. Gentleman refers a bit of grazing land at rent, we will do our best to try and settle it. As far as the quarrel between the two is concerned, I think it must be clearly understood that we must not in any way interfere in something which has nothing to do with us at all.


As one who, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Macpherson), was not quite satisfied with the reply given yesterday to the questions and supplementary questions, I should like to say that the reply we have just received is eminently satisfactory, and I am certain that the smallholders and the crofters in the constituency of my right hon. Friend, when they read the statement in their own papers, will he quite satisfied and will feel a little bit more secure in their minds as to their future upon their own native land. There is one point on which I should like the hon. Member to give me some information. I am afraid that the reply he made yesterday to a supplementary question I put has led him into a false position, and it is only fair to him, as well as to the Department he represents, to give him an opportunity of making the matter clear. Otherwise, there is the possibility of what he has said to-night being considered in other parts of Scotland as not applying to them; because the reply to which I am referring was made in general terms and was not a reply on a specific point or a definite place. In my supplementary question I asked the hon. Member: Are you not turning off sheep farmers in order to afforest land which is at present being used for the purpose of sheep grazing? To that the hon. Member replied: Some of the land may be used and turned off for grazing, but we"— I take it he means the Forestry Commission— rather believe that growing trees is more profitable than growing sheep." [OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd April, 1928; col. 1768, Vol. 215.] I am certain the hon. Member really was saying something on the spur of the moment which he would not say on reflection, and that such a reply would not have been given by him had the question appeared on the Paper. In that case a more considered reply would have been given, and certainly there would not have been any such sweeping language as he used yesterday. Therefore, I think it only fair that the hon. Member, who has been so decent to-night, should be given an opportunity of making his position clear in order that the people who are grazing sheep on land adjacent to these places which are being taken over by the Forestry Commission may know what their position is. If this reply goes broadcast into those places they will have the fear hovering over their minds that while security of tenure has been granted to people in one part of Scotland it will not embrace them as well. While the afforestation of land is going on around them, these people will have the fear in their minds that one day the Forestry Commission will give them notice to quit and take the sheep land away in order to plant trees there.

It is only right that the hon. Gentleman should have an opportunity to make a statement of a more definite character, giving a more considered reply, and stating in some more definite terms the actual policy of the Forestry Commission with regard to the planting of trees or the grazing of sheep. I think I am voicing the opinion of Scottish Members, no matter in what part of the House they sit, in saying that where land is capable of grazing sheep they would rather see sheep reared there and shepherds tending them and sheep farmers earning what they can by the rearing of sheep, than see the sheep turned off and the land given over to the Forestry Commission for planting trees. There is plenty of land lying bare all over Scotland which formerly was covered with huge forests. That land is now standing bare with nothing but the ground there, and it is not sufficiently fertile to grow any large number of sheep. That land could very well be taken, and land capable of grazing sheep could be left alone. In order to relieve the sheep grazers and farmers in this part of Scotland and to satisfy Scottish Members who want more people settled on the land of Scotland rather than see them emigrate to Australia and to other parts of the world, I think we should colonise our own land before adopting that policy.

The central and northern parts of Scotland seem to be looked upon as a great pleasure ground for wealthy Americans, Englishmen and Indians, who come and stay there for about six weeks or two months. While Scotland is a beautiful place, and we are proud to show its beauties to these people, we are prouder still to live in our own land, and we do not want people to be taken off the land which they are able to cultivate. I hope the hon. Member for Monmouth (Sir L. Forestier-Walker) will tell us that the policy of clearance is not going to be carried out in a new form, but that security of tenure will be given to these people in the future.


The hon. Member for Govan (Mr. Maclean) seems to have misunderstood the answer that I gave the other day. I was not looking at the matter from the purely Scottish point of view but from the national point of view. I still consider that timber is more valuable than sheep, because for one man employed on a sheep farm we could employ 10 men in the production of timber, and that would also save in many instances nine men from going abroad and would keep 10 men in this country instead of sending them to our Colonies. We have 60 centres in Scotland, a large number of which have been acquired for settlement for the provision of small holdings. We have not disturbed one single living soul in any one of these centres, and to suggest that we are turning anybody off the land is quite wrong. On the contrary I think we have been great benefactors and I am not quite sure that the House has given the Forestry Commissioners the credit which is due to them. We have afforded much employment. We have settled 115 smallholders and we have 50 more being established. Really we have rehabilitated the countryside in Scotland.

There has been a good deal of discussion of deer forests, but in actual fact we have acquired 12, of an area of over 88,000 acres; and we have acquired seven more, partly grazed, the area of which is 53,000 acres. I hope, therefore, that it will not be thought that we are turning out the men who graze on the mountain and are not dealing with the sporting gentlemen who have, as the hon. Member for Govan (Mr. Maclean) said, the pleasure of occupying the land for a few weeks. We really are public benefactors, although this is probably the first time that any member of the Forestry Commission has had the courage to say so.

I readily repeat that we have not the slightest intention of turning off people. When there is any grazing, we leave that till the very last. Some day, of course, we shall have to disturb somebody. You cannot ask the Forestry Commission to build up a great forest throughout the country without disturbing somebody. Of course, it is quite natural that everyone should want us to plant on everyone else's land except their own. Some people do not want us because of the shooting, others because of the grazing, and others because they want to farm. Looking at it from a national point of view—and I need hardly point out that the position is so serious that we must look at it from that point of view—we shall have to attack all sorts of interests if we are going to carry out the programme on which, I presume, the Government will decide this month. When I use the word "attack," I do not mean that we desire actually to attack anyone, but we shall have to try to obtain land somewhere, and shall have to tread on the toes of some people, who will have to stand the racket of that if we are to make this great forestry scheme a success. We know that in front of us is a great danger of timber scarcity, and, unless we are prepared, we shall find that we shall have to pay for it in the end. When it is realised that we intend to tread as little as possible on people's toes, I feel sure we shall have the sympathy of the House.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-three Minutes after Eleven o'Clock.