§ The SECRETARY OF STATE for SCOTLAND (Sir John Gilmour)
I beg to move,That the Contract, dated the 2nd and 11th days of April, 1928, between the Postmaster-General and David MacBrayne, Limited, for the maintenance of certain cargo and passenger sea services in tae Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and for the conveyance of mails by certain of the vessels so employed, be approved.
§ Mr. T. KENNEDY
Before the right hon. Gentleman proceeds with this Motion, may I ask you, Mr. Speaker, to consider the desirability, after the right hon. Gentleman has finished his speech, of allowing a discussion on the general terms of this contract before the Amendments on the Paper are moved? I think that, if you could see your way to allow that, it would suit the convenience of Members in all quarters of the House if a certain part of our time today could be devoted to such a general discussion.
§ Mr. MACPHERSON
I should like to support that suggestion, because I think it would be in the interest of the Debate as a whole that we should have a general discussion immediately after the Motion has been moved.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
I think that that will probably meet the convenience of the House, and will be the best order of Debate. The first Amendment on the Paper standing in the names of the hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Johnston) and other hon. Members—in line 1, after the word "That," to insert the wordssubject to the right of the State at any time to carry out the proposal of the Rural Transport (Scotland) Committee that Messrs. MacBrayne's undertaking should be taken over by the State on reasonable terms and be reorganised as part of the public system of ways and communications"—is not in order in the form in which it is put down. What I should propose to do, after the Motion has been put before the House, would be to allow a general Debate, running for some time, and then, if it be desired to discuss the subsequent Amendments, that can be done 1414 at a later stage in the proceedings. If that is agreeable to the House, we will follow that course.
§ Sir J. GILMOUR
In moving this Motion, I should like to say that I think the arrangement which you, Sir, have indicated, that there should be a period during which this subject may be generally discussed, will meet with acceptance from all quarters of the House. I am aware that this problem of transport in the Western Highlands, and the contract referred to in the Motion, have a very great interest for hon. Members, particularly those from Scotland. On a day like the present, when the weather carries us in many respects to the climate of the Western Highlands —[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"]—on certain occasions—to which many of us are accustomed, it is, perhaps, possible for us to picture some of the circumstances in which these services are run. The House will, of course, understand that the major part of the financial responsibility for this contract rests with my right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General as regards the carriage of mails, but that there are in addition other services which are covered by this contract and which concern the Scottish Office. My right hon. Friend the Postmaster-General and myself, with our advisers, have had from time to time to consider most carefully how we could procure, for the purpose of the carriage of mails and for the general convenience of the community, the most satisfactory service in the circumstances, due regard being paid to the necessary call upon the finances of the Government. I hope the House will believe me when I say that, in placing this contract before them and asking for their acceptance of it, we do so in the belief that it is the form in which we are likely to get at the earliest possible moment an improvement of the present conditions and the carrying on of the necessary services without a break.
The House will, of course, realise that, for a period dating back many years before the War, these services have been carried out in the Western Highlands by the firm of Messrs. MacBrayne, and were carried out on a great variety of contracts in varying circumstances and under conditions which did not involve the bringing of the matter to Parliament, because the contracts were short contracts; and it was not until a much later period, when 1415 the circumstances which had arisen during the War had brought this service, and, indeed, many other services of a similar kind, practically to a, standstill, that the Government had to intervene and assist to a much larger extent during that period; and after the War it was essential that the Government of the day should take steps to see that, under the very difficult post-War conditions, these services were put upon such a footing as to give to the community in the West of Scotland some certainty of continuity of service. Therefore, after the War, a contract was entered into for a period of years, and it is the expiry of that contract which brings us to the consideration of the fresh one which I am now submitting to the House.
Everyone who has lived and moved about in the Western Highlands must know the circumstances and conditions under which these services have been carried on, and I would like to say at once that, whatever criticisms there may be as to failure in this or that respect in regard to the carrying out of these services, I think that one thing will be admitted by all concerned, and that is that the staffs and the seamanship of these services have a record which we who arc reviewing this problem must always keep in our minds; and it must also, I think, be agreed that, in such a case as this, the fleet must be specially constructed, to meet the peculiar circumstances in which it has to serve. Everyone knows that, if you are to have boats which can go in to some of the smaller piers, and through the difficult and tortuous waters which they have to navigate, they must be built in order to meet those circumstances. It is quite certain that, since the War, there has been a desire, not only, as I think it is fair to say, on the part of Messrs. MacBrayne, who have been carrying on the services, but undoubtedly among the general public, that an improvement should he brought about in the service, and particularly in the class and comfort of the vessels. The Government, realising that it was essential that there should be such an improvement., set up an inter-departmental Committee which went very carefully into the whole subject. They came to the general conclusion, with which I think we should probably all agree, that the main thing 1416 to be aimed at was to improve the ships and if possible to achieve greater speed, size and comfort, and that something should be done to bring about a reduction in the freights, and in general to improve the service.
§ Sir J. GILMOUR
I am not one of those who think that to take it out of private enterprise would be of general advantage to the community and if, as the House has already admitted, the actual service and the seamanship concerned under private enterprise has been beyond reproach, that is a thing we should not lightly throw away. Therefore, I had to set my mind, in conjunction with my right hon. Friend, on what was possible. The history of the competition, if one looks at it from that point of view, with the various services to the Western Islands has, of course, been a history in which, while there has been a measure of competition, while there are more firms than Messrs. MacBrayne actually serving on some parts of the West coast, it is clear that the long tradition and the long service they have built up, from the fact that they had achieved a remarkable state of skill and efficiency in the work they had to do, gave Messrs. MacBrayne a position which no other firm has had on the West coast in our time.
That being so, and the fact being clear that one has to make provision for the carrying of the mails, and that there should be no risk of a lapse, and above all no chance of the Government being faced with the possibility of having themselves to carry on the service, the conclusion to which I came with my advisers was that the proper course was to endeavour to procure in the existing service such improvements as we could and to get such freight reductions as were in our opinion fair and reasonable under the circumstances. The negotiations have covered a long period and I think we have achieved, first of all, an undertaking, subject to the approval of the House, of the immediate laying down of two new boats to carry out what is perhaps the most important of these services, the outer service in the rougher waters. These boats will be of larger dimensions and 1417 greater speed than those on the service to-day and will, no doubt, cover the service satisfactorily in the future. There is a question as to whether there should be a third boat. I was anxious that that should be included with the other two but in view of the fact that there was, owing to criticisms in various quarters, a measure of uncertainty in the mind of the firm as to the continuance of this contract, it has been found possible to come to an arrangement by which a third boat will be built subject to certain conditions. It is clear that there must be, in every form of business transaction, some certainty that the contract will be carried out and some reasonable hope of the expenditure the firm has to make upon the building being a reasonable thing for them to do.
§ Sir J. GILMOUR
As soon as the House approves of this contract, the necessary steps will be taken to lay down these ships at once. I cannot say definitely how long it may take to build them, but 1 understand from the moment the order is given, it will probably take something like 12 months. It will depend upon the rapidity with which the firms can build the ships. I understand the preliminary arrangements have been made by the firm and all that is required now is the sanction of this House for this contract, when the orders will be placed immediately. Under these circumstances we may hope these two new boats will be in commission in a year. It may be a shorter period. The third boat will be laid down in the fourth year if there is any certainty at that period that there will be a continuance of the contract for the future. That, of course, leaves it open to the Government of the day to review the position. There are some Members who think this matter should have been transferred to the railway companies, but there has been no indication that they would be prepared to undertake the work at present. In any case, if they were to undertake it, they would require to obtain Parliamentary powers. If Parliament was satisfied that that was the best way to complete the service, Parliament would give its consent, but considerable delay would have to take place. This contract for five 1418 years leaves open to future discussion what will happen at the end of that period. The advantages on the one side are that from the moment the House approves of the contract, there will be laid down two new ships, which will probably be completed within the year and placed upon the outer service.
§ Sir J. GILMOUR
I cannot say, because the contracts have not yet been placed, but I understand they might be somewhere about £35,000.
§ Sir J. GILMOUR
It may be. That is somewhere about the price of each ship, but it will depend, of course, on the building costs and the circumstances of each contract. You have on the one side the advantage of this contract being for five years and you enter into a contract which will give you immediately two new ships and leave it open for discussion at a later period whether a third ship will be built, and you would get a reduction of freights from the islands to the mainland of 121 per cent. I think, too, that that arrangement would leave quite open to the House, and to the Government, the further discussion as to whether the railway companies, under certain circumstances, might come into this matter. In regard to that point, I would remind the House that a question on road traffic was asked by the Leader of the Opposition on the 28th February. He asked the Prime Minister:If he can state whether it is the intention of the Government to pass the Road Traffic Bill into law during the lifetime of the present Parliament and whether he proposes in the near future to institute a full inquiry into the whole question of the need for better regulation and control of transport and of the possibility of its coordination?The answer to that question was:Subject to the exigencies of public business, it is the intention of the Government to ask the present Parliament to pass into law the Road Traffic Bill. As to a general Inquiry into the need for better regulation of road traffic and the possibility of greater co-ordination of our internal means of transport, the Government have it in contemplation to institute without undue delay an investigation into this subject, but the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the matter is of such importance that the consideration of the scope of such investigation and of the appropriate channel 1419 through which it should be undertaken must occupy some little time."[OFFICIAL REPORT, 28th February, 1928; cols. 225–6, Vol. 214.]I have discussed this matter with the Prime Minister, and he authorises me to say that he hopes that an announcement as to the form of the inquiry on the general question referred to in this answer will be made to the House at a date which I cannot indicate, but which will not be long deferred. I am also authorised to say that the form of reference will be such as to include within that inquiry not only the question of road transport, but the coast-wise traffic, and such questions as the sea traffic to the islands on the coast of this country. Here is a form of inquiry which will take into account the co-ordination and linking up of all the forms of transport as we see them to-day and as we see them developing for the future, and there will be included in that inquiry this problem which peculiarly interests this part of the country covered by the contract which I have submitted to the House. Obviously, the only alternative to the contract which I place before the House is the uncertainty of the present day-to-day arrangements which we carry on, and it is certainly obvious that if the railways are to be considered it will be a matter for long negotiation and cover a considerable period. Therefore, in the circumstances, I say to the House, and I say to those who are interested outside this House, that the contract covering this period of five years with the certainty of improved services and better ships is far more in their interests than delay. I ask the House to accept the contract which I have submitted.
§ Mr. JOHNSTON
I at once very gladly endorse everything that the right hon. Gentleman said regarding the personnel in Messrs. MacBrayne's employment. We never had any complaint to make against the seamanship, against the crew, or against the masters of these vessels, and I gladly endorse everything that he has said in that regard. I was amazed to hear the concluding portion of the right hon. Gentleman's speech. He said that at a very early date an inquiry was going to be set up, the terms of which he could not yet announce to the House, but an inquiry into the whale question of rural transport in Scotland. Surely it is within the knowledge of the House that a full 1420 and an impartial inquiry has already been instituted. A committee on rural transport sat and reported in 1919. I have the report here before me, and a very exhaustive document it is. All the right hon. Gentleman proposes to-day is to initiate another inquiry when he has already the fruits of the past inquiry before him. I may add that we have nothing much to go upon in the right hon. Gentleman's statement if he only proposes to apply and to act upon the decisions of his new inquiry to the same extent as this Government and past Governments have acted upon the previous inquiry. If he only acts upon the new inquiry as they acted upon the old, their the inquiry will be so much waste of public money. I will further point out that the very fact that he is going to have this inquiry opens the whole question of this contract. If the results of the inquiry are to be applied within a period of five years, a new opportunity arises for breaking this proposed contract.
The right hon. Gentleman did not give the House the justifications for his proposed inquiry. I propose to give the House some. For a century and a half, long before Messrs. MacBrayne were on the water, there had been a steady and a remorseless depopulation of these Western counties. I am not going to supply the House with figures—they are well known to all Scottish Members—but I will simply say that in the 30 years ending 1921 the population of Inverness-shire fell by over 7 per cent., Ross-shire by 9 per cent., Sutherland by over 18 per cent., and the population of Argyllshire only remains stationary by virtue of the fact that there was a great added population in the seaside resort. I do not argue, for I suppose no hon. Member will deny that this depopulation is due to only one cause, and that cause is what we call the MacBrayne monopoly. We recognise the difficulties under which Messrs. MacBrayne work. They are not a philanthropic firm. They are a commercial firm out to make profit, and they can only give the service that the traffic will bear. As the traffic declines and as the population decreases the freights must obviously go up, and as the freights increase there is further depopulation and higher freights, again causing a further lessening of traffic.
The steamer service to the western isles is worse than it was 40 years ago.
1421 There is universal dissatisfaction, not confined to any party or to any class. I have here a press report of an inquiry of the Argyllshire County Council Committee into their sea transport. facilities. The right hon. Gentleman has, no doubt, received that report and studied it. It was under the chairmanship of Colonel Lloyd. As far as I know, there is not a single Socialist on the Argyllshire County Council, and as far as I know there is not one Liberal Member. Here is a County Council composed of representatives of the Government Party, unanimously denouncing the continuance of the MacBrayne monoply and stating that it is causing further depopulation and the economic and physical ruin of their County. They declare that the transport services are inadequate, that the exorbitant charges exacted on some of the services that already exist are crippling their economic development and making it increasingly difficult to arrest the drift of the population to the industrial centres. They describe the situation as a grave menace, and make proposals for the Government to take over the piers immediately—they say that some of the piers are becoming derelict. The denunciation of the steamer traffic in the language of this Conservative Committee is such that I would hesitate to employ in this House if I desired to secure votes for my Amendment. [HON. MEMBERS: "Read it!"] No. The hon. and learned Member for Argyllshire (Mr. Macquisten) is prepared with a dossier, and I am sure he will fill in any lapses there may be on my part.
May I give one or two specific instances. Is it not amazing that it takes actually more by a MacBrayne steamer to transport cattle to the Kyles of Bute from Glasgow than it does to transport cattle a very considerable distance further on through the Kyles of Bute into the ports of Loch Fyne? What justification is there for charging more for the short distance than for the long distance on the same boat'? Is there any justification for a farcical situation like that. Cattle are taken from Glasgow to the Kyles of Bute ports at eleven shillings per head, but for a journey of an hour or an hour and a half further on, to the ports of Loch Fyne, the charge is 9s. 6d. per head, on the same boat, on the same day. The same thing applies to horses. Let me given an illustration 1422 supplied by a merchant in regard to the transport of fruit to Loch Goil. I will give the right hon. Gentleman the name, if he desires it. The merchant bought this year four cases of oranges from a Glasgow merchant, which were transported by Clyde cargo steamer from Glasgow to Grennock, which is the larger part of the journey to Loch Goil, and the freight charge was only 2s. 3d. At Grennock the cases were transferred to the MacBrayne steamer "Comet" and were taken from Grennock to Loch Goil not at a charge of 2s. 6d. but at 10s. 2d., nearly five times the amount. That meant a total charge of 12s. 5d. for conveying four cases of oranges from Glasgow to Loch Goil. What kind of economic policy can justify that '? What must be the cost of living in these Highland and Island districts in such circumstances?
I have figures which have been supplied to me by the Tiree Association giving resolutions passed at public meetings by various public bodies, parish councils and so on. From Coll to Tiree, an hour's sail, the cost of conveying a cow is 7s. 6d. A passenger to Tiree is charged 30s. 6d. if he goes cabin. If he goes steerage he will find that there are no seats on the steamer, and he either stands or lies about among the cattle. If he does lie about among the cattle and it is a stormy day he gets mixed up with cattle excrement, and so on, before he has finished. The charge is 15s. for a steerage passage, for transport facilities that do not exist anywhere else in Europe. From Time to Glasgow the transport cost of a cow is 20s. and of a horse 25s. From Glasgow to Tiree the cost of transporting a barrel of paraffin is 10s., and we hear about the Chancellor of the Exchequer's tax of 4d. a gallon ! Paraffin is the only means of lighting in these districts. Resolutions have been passed unanimously by public meetings at Tiree making extraordinary accusations about the steamers, the delays, that the vessels are totally inadequate, that the space available in the present mail boat for the carrying of horses is inadequate, that petitions appear to be useless and that the economic life of the people of Tiree is disappearing. One of my hon. Friends had a remarkable experience of Messrs. MacBrayne's Tiree service. He was standing as a Parliamentary candidate at an election in Argyllshire and he went to 1423 address a meeting in Tiree. Will it be believed that the Tiree boat did not come in for ten days, and while the Labour candidate was marooned in Tiree for ten days his opponent was being freely transported about the constituency Let me go further north; Oban to the outer islands, a journey often exceeding 15 hours. In the steerage there is no seating accommodation at all for passengers. You have to herd with the cattle for a period of 15 hours, and most of this journey is open to the wild Atlantic sea.
The right hon. Gentleman, in his speech, did not say a word about the age of these vessels. I turn up Lloyd's List, and I find that the "Glengarry" was built in 1844, the "Glencoe" in 1846— that is in the Chartist times—and the old "Sheila," praise be, is now at the bottom of the Minch, although I am told that her rudder has been carefully lifted and very appropriately presented to the museum of antiquities, where it lies to-day along with the relics of Bonnie Prince Charlie. I cannot tell you when the "Sheila" was built. Let me read a letter which I have received from a public man in Portree. It deals with the passage from Stornoway to Kyle-of-Lochalsh. This is what he says:The cabin freight is 38s. 2d., and this does not entitle one to a bed. If you have a bed you must pay 5s. extra; and it is a bed.An hon. Friend behind me knows something of the kind of bed which is provided.I understand this is the only service where one has to pay over and above the cabin fare for the privilege of having a bed.Some time ago one of the Portree merchants ordered a crate of dishes from a firm in Staffordshire. The crate was shipped from Liverpool to Stornoway on one of the coast line boats and forwarded from Stornoway to Portree by Messrs. MacBravne's steamers. The freight from Stornoway to Portree was actually more than the freight from Liverpool to Stornoway. I understand that the freight from Glasgow to Stornoway is less than that from Glasgow to Portree, although Stornoway is 50 miles further north.This is due to the fact that there has been competition for the Stornoway traffic between the coastline steamers, the Antrim line steamers and the MacBrayne steamers. It is a common thing during the period when the sheep are being sent to the market for the passengers to be crowded in the corner of the Portree boats. I had an experience of this kind recently.1424The "Glencoe" was crowded with sheep so that passengers could not get from one part of the ship to the other. I happened to be near the saloon when the boat left the pier and had to remain there. When the purser came along he demanded cabin fare.This man properly refused.The freights charged on the fish trade between Portree and Malaig are far too high. The present rates are 2s. a box or Ss. a cran. Most of the fresh herrings caught at Portree are sent to Malaig by MacBrayne's steamers.But I want to get on to the proposition we should put before the House if Mr. Speaker had ruled it in order. All these facts have been well known all over the West of Scotland for years to everybody who has any interest in the Western Islands. The depopulation is known to everybody. The right hon. Gentleman has been spending public money on building houses and setting up smallholders, and in other ways, but that public money is being crabbed and partly wasted owing to the fact that we permit an essential part of our communications to be retained in the hands of a private monopoly operating for profit. This is the only part of our transport communications which is still in the hands of private ownership, which is still a private monopoly. The roads are public property; and these are the roads of the islands. It is the essential method of communication, and unless we are prepared to say that the isles are to be permitted to go derelict, that the population, the fishing population, is to be taken away entirely and removed to some other part of the country; unless we are prepared to say that the Western Islands of Scotland are to be abandoned there is no justification whatever for allowing this private company, subsidised by the Government, to retain control over these essential means of communication.
A Committee was appointed in the days of the Coalition Government to consider the question of rural transport in Scotland. Again there was not a single Labour Member on it. It was presided over by Sir I Carlaw Martin, and it went very exhaustively into the subject, with maps and diagrams. So far as the MacBrayne monopoly is concerned, the conclusion to which this Committee came after examining all the evidence and hearing a.11 the witnesses is this:The other point is connected with the so-called monopoly of Messrs. MacBrayne, by whose steamers all the mail and passenger 1425 services are maintained to the islands in this district, and also to the Argyllshire islands. The whole range of Messrs. MacBrayne's operations is almost as great as that of a fair-sized railway system, but unlike a railway undertaking this company is under no parliamentary control. The position seems to account largely for the complaints heard constantly of high freights, inferior steamers and inadequate service.We do not suggest that on the traffic borne Messrs. MacBrayne could necessarily provide better services, and we are satisfied that there is not room for competition and that the group of services must be maintained as a monopoly. Further, Messrs. MacBrayne are rendering direct services to the State by carrying the mails for considerable payments from the post office, who have to make such terms as they can as they are dealing with the proprietors of a monopoly. This state of things, however, cannot be prolonged if any improvement is to be secured in communications, including the transport of goods for the inhabitants of the Western Highlands and Islands.It seems to be a direct and inevitable corollary of the assumption of State control over moans of transport that Messrs MaeBrayne's undertaking should be taken over by the State on reasonable terms and he reorganised and maintained as part of the public system of ways and communications.In other words, nationalise it; take it over. That is the only conclusion to which this non-party Committee comes—that it must be taken over by the State as the ways and communications in other parts of the country are taken over. I could detain the House for a considerable time with quotations from this Committee's Report, but I shall not do so, as other hon. Members want to speak. It is a fact—the right hon. Gentleman said nothing about it—that for many essential commodities freights are now three times what they were in 1914. Is there any other part of our system of ways and communications of which that can be said? A ton of coal gets to Lairg in Sutherlandshire for 30s.; that is the selling price per ton. But to transport a ton of coal from Lairg to Lochinver costs another £5, which means £6 10s. a ton for coal at Lonchinver. Of course, in this case the changes are not MacBrayne's. The Committee say that it is quite impossible for the people to make economic progress under these circumstances.
The right hon. Gentleman to-day comes forward with his proposals, by which he hopes to regulate the state of affairs. What are his proposals? There is to be a reduction in freights, and I beg the 1426 House to note what it is. There is to be a reduction in freights, not on all commodities—not on cattle and not on whisky (though I have no interest in that) from the Islands to the mainland—but there is to be a reduction on all other commodities to the extent of 12i per cent. from the Islands to the mainland, and no reduction whatever on commodities from the mainland to the Islands. What an extraordinary proposal! How amazing ! Not a penny of reduction on the freights, no reduction in passenger rates, not a penny of reduction in freights on goods transported from the mainland to the Islands; not a penny of reduction on anything transported from one port in the mainland to another port in the mainland. The right hon. Gentleman is dumb and silent about it.
These are the best proposals that His Majesty's Government can produce to begin the restoration of the economic life in the Islands. I think it is a farce. I go further and say that it is a crime, if this House or this Government perpetuates the existing arrangement for another five years, with the implied possibility of a continuance for a further period of five years, because Messrs. MacBrayne propose to build a third boat on the understanding that towards the end of the next five years there is to be a continuation of their subsidy and contract. If there is to be a continuance of the contract for another five years, we shall witness a further depopulation in our rural areas and a further paralysis of economic life in what I consider to be one of the most useful occupations that our people can engage in, that is raising food from the soil and raising fish from the sea.
What opportunities are being offered even to provide a tourist traffic. We spend £100,000,000 or thereabouts abroad every year. We go to the highlands of Switzerland, to the Tyrol; people look for beauty and health in many foreign lands. Here we have both in our own country. Who could ever forget the view that is to be had in coming down from Carbost to Sligichan, with the Coolies in the setting sun? Where is there scenery to equal our island scenery? It is the only part of the beautiful highlands of Europe that is barred. People are kept away from them because of difficulty of access. That is one of the reasons 1427 why our people never see Calernish, the Scottish Stonehenge, the most impressive piece of ancient architecture that I know. Our people never see it and do not know it because it is barred to them. The Coolins are practically barred to them too; the beauties in the Highlands of the North are barred.
One of the principal reasons for that is the fact that the Government of this country not only permits a private monopoly to control an essential part of our ways and communications, but subsidises that monopoly in the doing of it. In the other highlands of Europe, in the Vosges and Cevennes and Savoy, the Black Forest and Switzerland, the Tyrol and Norway, the peasants have survived. From our highlands our folk are driven to till the plains of Canada or to clear the Australian bush or to herd in the stinking and poverty-ridden slums of our cities. These folks in the West Highlands are sometimes described as indolent or shiftless or as thriftless serfs. The Walpole Commission of 1890 so described them. Yet under other and happier economic conditions, in Nova Scotia or Ontario, the serf becomes almost miraculously a self-reliant and industrious producer and the race of which our Imperial statesmen boast.
To-day we had an opportunity of breaking one of the cords that are slowly strangling the race. This great steamship company owns many of the piers. That makes competition difficult or impossible, and compels sooner or later a Government to take over piers and ships. This MacBrayne Co., owning so many piers, having a monopoly, carrying the mails and subsidised by the Postmaster-General's Department and the Department of the Secretary of State for Scotland, provides antiquated steamers, irregular and intermittent services, and impossible freights—the last great relic of the toll-bar system which, one hundred years ago, crabbed the economic development of our land. I beg Scottish Members in all parts of the House to register, in whatever fashion is permitted to them to-day, their emphatic protest against the continuance of a system which no other part of Great Britain would tolerate for six months.
§ Mr. MACPHERSON
I think everybody in the House will appreciate the 1428 damning indictment to which we have just listened, by the hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Johnston) against a system of transport which has existed in the Highlands, to the detriment of the Highlands, for so long, and which we understand from the Secretary of State for Scotland is to continue for at least for another five years. There is no doubt that transport is the life-blood of the Highlands, but instead of Governments doing their level best to improve that transport and improve the means of livelihood of the people in the Highlands, it seems to be the fate of those people to have Government after Government doing their best to impede the provision of better transport facilities. I have been for nearly 18 years in the House of Commons, and time and again my Scottish colleagues of all parties and myself have tried to get a discussion on the MacBrayne contract. This is the fist time to my knowledge, in that long spell of time, that we have had such an opportunity and we are grateful to the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister and to the Parliamentary Secretary to the Treasury for giving us, at last, a day for the discussion of this important topic. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland gave as his main reason for supporting this contract that MacBrayne's was a company which had been running this transport service for many years, and that it had traditions and a certain record of service. As far as I can make out, no other justification of any sort or kind has been given to the House of Commons in support of this contract.
Nobody is more willing than I to agree with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and also with my hon. Friend who has just spoken, in the compliments they have paid to the personnel of the MacBrayne Company's staff. I do not believe there is a better type of fisherman or engineer in the world. I have been on many occasions with them on stormy seas, when I had part of the islands within my own constituency, and their experience, their solicitude, their gallantry, their kindness and thoughtfulness, won the respect of every single passenger on those boats. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State explained why the MacBrayne service had been taken over during the War. My hon. Friend who has just spoken seemed to 1429 think that because, for a certain time, the service had been taken over during the War—practically by the Shipping Control Committee—that that was a justification for the nationalisation of the service. We all remember why the MacBrayne service was taken over then. The country was in a peculiar position then as regards shipping. The MacBrayne private company could not possibly carry on, so the Shipping Control Committee came to the conclusion that in the interests of transport as a whole in the West of Scotland and the Highlands generally, something ought to be done to bolster up—that is what it amounted to—this private company. But that was due to the War emergency, and I, for one, will not support the Amendment in the name of my hon. Friend who has just spoken, in support of nationalisation. I believe myself that that would merely make the condition of things worse. The badness of the service in the West has been due to the fact that MacBrayne's have had a complete monopoly, and I can see no difference between that monopoly which is now to be bolstered up again by the Government, and the nationalisation of the service as proposed by the hon. Member for Dundee.
We all regard the MacBrayne service as an institution. Almost all the stories connected with the Highlands have been associated with the deck of a MacBrayne steamer; and from that point of view one would be sorry to get rid of such an institution. But what are the facts? My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has not attempted to explain the condition of the ships which he is asking us to support. The average age of these ships I understand is 68½ years, and one of them is 84½ years old. I believe there is one flapper among them of the age of 18. My right hon. Friend asks us to agree with him that the MacBrayne Company, with the aid of a subsidy of £37,000 a year, is going to build two new ships. Outside people think that this subsidy is for the term of five years, but it is not. Every year the taxpayer is asked to subsidise MacBraynes to the extent of £37,000, and if you capitalise that annual sum it represents an amount which would put many shipping companies on their feet. What are we getting in return? There is no guarantee that the services are to be improved. 1430 The only guarantee we get at the moment is that, in the course of time, these new ships will be built. My right hon. Friend has not pressed the company to state a certain date beyond which they will be penalised if they' do not produce the new ships. All we know is that after this contract has been sanctioned by the House—and I hope it will not be sanetioned—MacBraynes will put out to contract two ships. I hope if they do so, they will go to Glasgow firms, but has my right hon. Friend in the negotiations insisted on those ships being built quickly? My hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton Burghs (Mr. Kirkwood), who knows a great deal about these matters, tells me that it may take a long time, and surely there ought to be a guarantee that these ships will be built at once. There is no such guarantee.
Nor have we any guarantee that, in the course of their work, they are going to benefit the islands south of Tiree. These two ships are for the purpose of transport in the islands further North. I can imagine the hon. and learned Member for Argyllshire (Mr. Macquisten) having a great deal to say about that matter, and I can also imagine the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. H. Morrison) having a good deal to say about it. I can imagine any Member of the House who has the interests of the Western Islands at heart having a great deal to say about it. In the course of time we may have a third ship, in the dim distant future, but what is my right hon. Friend doing by this contract? He is practically committing Government after Government to the MacBrayne service. He said the railway companies would not be in a position to take over this contract at the present time, but to my certain knowledge, for the last two years, hon. Friends and myself in this House have been pressing for a revision of the MacBrayne contract. If he had gone to any other shipbuilding yard or shipping company in the world, he would have got an additional tender to that of MacBrayne, but what has happened? He has not put this out to tender. I know of shipping company after shipping company who could come forward and compete against MacBrayne to the betterment of the transport. I know that if any company was offered a subsidy of £37,000 a year by the Government, it would do its level best to come out in competition, but my right hon. 1431 Friend has told the House, quite frankly. that he has given MacBrayne's the contract because of their past service and because of their traditions. Surely it is not right in the public' interest, in the interests of the people concerned, that a contract of this kind should go on with a guarantee for five years without any outside competition coming in to interfere with it.
§ Mr. JOHNSTON
The right hon. Gentleman is advocating competition. How does he get over the fact that MacBraynes own a large number of the piers? Would they be likely to allow competitors to come in to use their piers?
§ Mr. MACPHERSON
I know that the pier question is a very difficult question in the Highlands. Public companies and landlords are doing their level best to get rid of their obligations so far as piers are concerned. I know at least two or three cases where the landlord who owns the pier refuses to improve it, with the result that he cannot get a boat to go near that pier. The question of piers is another proposition altogether. I am sure that this inquiry into the transport, which my right hon. Friend has adumbrated to-day, will have to consider that, because it is a vital point with regard to transport all round the coast of Scotland. I am glad my right hon Friend has told us that a general inquiry is to take place. My hon. Friend the Member for Dundee quite rightly poked fun at any inquiry. He produced the results of the rural transport inquiry in 1919—I was personally very interested in that inquiry—and he very rightly pointed out that nothing has been done to bring any of the recommendations of that Rural Transport Committee into effect; and he is afraid, and rightly afraid, that an inquiry of this kind may end in the same way.
But I would ask my right hon. Friend to consider, as he is bound to consider after the end of this Debate to-day, when he finds that every single Member in the House is determined to have a betterment of transport facilities in the Highlands, whether it would not be advisable for him, here and now, to appoint once again a public inquiry to consider the whole question of transport in the Highlands. That is the main point in the Amendment on the Paper in the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for 1432 West Swansea (Mr. Runciman) and others to-day. What we are asking for is not nationalisation, but a Select Committee to consider the whole question. It is all very well to say that if we appointed a Select Committee, it would mean delay. I doubt it. I am perfectly certain that we could get many shipping companies to carry on the transport facilities in the West pending the session of this Committee. My right hon. Friend may very well say there is nothing for this Committee to consider. I disagree with that. It could consider the whole question of the way in which the transport service has been conducted by this private company, it could consider the new methods to be employed, it could consider the freights, it could consider what I regard as the negligence of the Government in not putting out this transport to tender, it could consider many things of that kind, and I am quite convinced that, if there was a free vote given in this House to-day, it would mean a certain vote in favour of a revision of this contract, or in any case of postponement of this contract, and of referring the whole matter to a Select Committee of the House of Commons.
Let me just refer to one thing which has been referred to very adequately in many respects by the hon. Member who preceded me, namely, the question of freights. All that my right hon. Friend secured in the contract, all that he was able to explain in connection with freights was that there would be a reduction of 121 per cent. on the freights from the islands to the mainland—the 1927 freights. Was there ever anything as preposterous in a bargain? The whole thing is ridiculous. He asks us to believe that, after all the negotiations which we understand took place, the one thing that we get out of this private company is a reduction, a one-sided reduction, of only 12½ per cent. on the freights which they are at present charging.
§ Mr. MACPHERSON
Yes. In common with a great many other Members, I have had letters sent to me from various parts of the Highlands. The hon. Gentleman who has just spoken has had a good many, and I have had a good many, and let me just show you the way in which these people in the Western 1433 Highlands are treated. How can the Government expect to maintain the stock of men of that calibre on the West Coast when things like this take place? Here is a fisherman who, no doubt in stormy waters, got some fish, and from the West Coast of Ross-shire he sent them to a commission merchant in Manchester. The amount he got for those fish was 19s. 6d., but the freight and the commission and the expenses came to Li 2s. 8d., so that the fisherman was asked to send to Manchester, instead of receiving something from Manchester, the sum of 3s. 2d. which was due from him. Is that sort of thing to continue in the Highlands? Is a monopoly of this kind to be allowed to be left alone, untouched and untrammelled, except by a miserable 121 per cent. reduction on one side?
Let me take another example, which was supplied to me by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury. He gives me these figures, which are, of course, authentic. MacBrayne's freight for bran and thirds from Glasgow to Islay is 35s. a ton. MacBrayne's freight—let the right hon. Gentleman listen to this—for dried distillery grains of the same bulk as the bran and thirds is 14s. a ton. How can that be justified? It is a subsidy to the distillery industry. Let me take some other freights. In 1914, cement was 10s. a ton; this year it is 27s. a ton. Oilcake was 10s. a ton in 1914; this year it is 27s. a ton. Ironmongery in 1914 was 15s. a ton; this year it is £2 15s. Coke was 25s. in 1914; it is £2 5s. this year. How can that be justified? Can my right hon. Friend have had facts such as this put before him when he was negotiating with MacBrayne? Was he aware of these facts? I am certain that he was not, and if MacBrayne, or the negotiators of MacBrayne, withheld these facts from him, they were performing a dishonest service to the country. I would beg my right hon. Friend, before the close of to-day's Debate, to consider, with all the facts which I have given to him, and which my hon. Friend has given to him, the advisability of re-opening the whole of this affair. I am sure that he did not appreciate what really was happening on the West Coast of Scotland, and that he never knew any of these facts. If he had, he could never have been satisfied, as representing the Government and the 1434 people of this country, with a puny, miserable, one-sided reduction of 12A per cent. In the interest of the taxpayer, of the Highlands, and the people of the Highlands, and in the interest of the country as a whole, we ought to have this contract re-opened; and the right way to reopen it is to accede to the Amendment standing in the name of my Friends, to send the whole matter to a Select Committee, and thereby allay the disquietude in the minds of every man in this House and in the country.
§ Mr. MACQUISTEN
I must refer to the report of the Rural Transport (Scotland) Committee, which has been referred to so much. This very good Committee says at page 7 Section 22:We take the broad view that there is a national duty to provide every community with reasonably convenient means of communication. The fact that people have settled in isolated districts implies no fault on their part; with limited facilities they are endeavourng to utilise the resources of land and sea, and in this they are giving effect to national policy and are entitled to claim the utmost assistance the State can afford. In considering what assistance is possible, it would be too narrow a view to look merely for a direct pecuniary return on the capital expended. The indirect return is important—the increased production and better diffusion of wealth, and, more than those, the growth of intelligence, efficiency, and contentment in the population.That is the general principle which that body started with. There were similar statements by the Walpole Committee of 1890. Nothing whatever has been done, and all the money that has been spent by the Board of Agriculture on land' settlement and all that kind of thing without transport, is like life without charity; it amounts to nothing. The money is merely wasted unless transport is provided. One of the Secretary of State's statements was that you must have special boats. That only applies to the Tarbert-Islay route.
Nobody knows how old MacBrayne's boats are. The average age, after the loss of two younger boats, is 681- years; they have nearly reached the allotted' span of the life of man while the old "Glengary," by reason of strength, has reached four score and four.
I would point out in this agreement there is no control of charges. It is all very well to say that 121 per cent. reduction is one of the features, hut MacBrayne's 1435 do not publish bills of charges. Nobody knows when they go on board whether there is a reduction or not, or what their charges are. An English Member told me that he landed one day with his motor car, and he was told that he had to pay £5 and got a fisherman to ferry him back for as many shillings.
This is the result of unrestricted monopoly, and it is still unrestricted under this scheme. That monopoly is created by the postal subsidy. MacBrayne lives on that subsidy. He has had a subsidy of some kind or other for over two generations. The capital sum that must have been paid must be very great. It has been an annual contract, however, more or less up to now. Now it is to be stabilised for good. It is no use saying it is for five years; it continues in perpetuity unless six months' notice is given. It is a perpetual contract for £36,000 a year. I suppose the idea of fixing five years is probably that I, who have been insisting on this most strongly, may, in five years, have disappeared, or that possibly Argyllshire may have reverted to its pristine Liberalism, and be represented by such a Member as the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Livingstone), who has been a champion of MacBrayne; I hope his constituency will know of it. The only suggestion that he can make is to increase MacBrayne's subsidy, which will only aggravate the evil, and will put them in a much stronger position to oppress the people in the Highlands. The Secretary of State spoke with reverence of MacBrayne as one of the ancient monuments of Scotland, but the present MacBrayne is not the MacBrayne of past years. They have only a very slight connection. At the conclusion of the War they, with all other steamboat companies, were in a very destitute condition. They had been receiving an enormous subsidy of £70,000 a year, but nothing was left in the lockers, and the only assets they had were their captains, their men and their piers. If anything is to be done the transport would not be run without taking these men over. They had nothing, and what happened? Lord Maelay, Sir Kenneth Anderson and Sir Hector McNeal knew perfectly well the position, and they bought out the larger portion of MacBrayne's shares.
I wish to speak with the greatest possible respect of these gentlemen. Know- 1436 ing the facts, and knowing the state in which the company was, they would not pay very much for the shares. What they put in the company was £24,000 new capital or shares for cash. I have the extract from the register of joint stock companies: £24,000 was put in, and there were supposed to be 144,000 fully paid shares as representing the assets which were those ancient steamboats, even then of great antiquity, and these piers. My hon. Friend said," What about the piers? How could they get the piers away from MacBrayne if they lost the contract? "There is nothing in MacBrayne's except the subsidy; the rest is scrap iron; the moment the subsidy disappears from MacBrayne's, immediately the shares go back to practically nominal value, and the firm can be easily and equitably compensated. But if once the Secretary for Scotland and the Scottish Office get their way and present MacBrayne's with this enormous vested interest, this contract for five years with certainty of perpetual continuation, then MacBrayne's will be able to say, "We are on velvet. We are free of competition. Nobody can come on to our estate. The sea is ours and the Highlands. We can charge what we like and nobody can interfere." Why should we give this vested interest to these new corners who, after all, are not even the old MacBraynes They are the people who have come into it since the War, and have done very little for the under taking which they acquired. I have here a statement made by an old railway servant. He says:It would be a great mistake for the Government to perpetuate the existing monopoly. Every alternative scheme should he thoroughly explored before the new proposed contract with MacBrayne is ratified. I gather that you are in favour of approaching the two big railway companies concerned to ascertain whether they would he disposed to establish a joint steamer service.… While I have no inside knowledge of how this proposition would be received by the railway companies I feel sure it would he very carefully considered by them. In any case the big railway companies would he in the strong position of being able to develop the traffic enormously by the adoption of through rates, etc., to and from the chief west coast ports, and thus overcome the exorbitant local sea rates charged by the existing service between the railheads and Portree, Stornoway, etc. I could illustrate the great hardship of these local sea rates and charges as they affect and penalise the poor people in the Western Isles, and I 1437 could astonish you by concrete examples when I tell you that out of the through rate for oatmeal, the staple food of the Islanders, from Aberdeenshire to Portree or Stornoway MacBrayne's receive a big share of the through rate plus a surcharge for the sea journey which they exact in addition. The same thing goes on in regard to the fish traffic arising at the island ports booked through to the South. In short the fish traffic is more or less killed by excessive sea rates for conveying it to the railhead.I cannot understand why the railway companies have never been approached. They have been scouted. The Secretary for Scotland may know their mind, because he was once a railway director, though that was some time ago.
§ Mr. MACQUISTEN
The railway companies certainly ought to have been consulted in the matter. Take the case of another country which has been mentioned, Norway. In Norway every fiord has its steamers, subsidised by the State. There is a special department of the State which regulates the fares and charges and the ports of call. In this agreement with MacBrayne's there is nothing regulated but the ports of call. There is nothing about the charges. In Norway they regulate these things, and the people living there can travel up and down the fiords under the most comfortable conditions. I have travelled on those steamers. They afford the most comfortable quarters, even for comparatively short journeys. There is sleeping accommodation for all passengers, the food is splendid and the fares are extremely moderate, with large reductions for families. If a man travels with his better half, she is carried for half fare, and children go for quarter fare. The Norwegians would never dream of giving a subsidy to a single company and saying: "Now go away and make the best you can of it." This proposal of the Secretary of State for Scotland is like presenting a Chinese General with large stands of arms and machine guns and telling him to go and rule a province. He has got arms that can beat down everybody else coming into his province he can bleed it white, 'because nobody else can exist. This subsidy is simply a machine gun for MacBrayne's to shoot up the Highlands. That is practically what it is.
1438 I have here another statement from a learned sheriff which will show what has happened since the war. These new proprietors are to get a fixity of contract such as the old firm—the real MacBrayne firm—never had. Of course, there are one or two members of the family still in the firm and still with a seat on the Board. The sheriff states in his letter that the freight for stirks had risen from 2s. 6d. in 1912 to 12s. 6d, in 1925, heifers from 5s. to 17s. 6d., cows from 10s. to 25s., sheep to Oban from 1s. to 3s., meal from Is. 9d. to 3s. 6d. and then there was 6d. extra for ferry. He goes on:MacBrayne charges the same from Mallaig to Lochboisdale for hamper and bread as the other hoar charges from Glasgow. Bread costs 27s, 6d. per hamper so that the freight is 40 per cent. of the cost extra. Salt for pickled herrings cost 23 a ton, freight 28s.—46 per cent. A man bought 14 horses and it required two of them to pay the expenses of freight.[Laughter.] That may cause some laughter here but it is a desperately serious business for these people, and I hope the laughter is sympathetic laughter.
§ Mr. MACQUISTEN
The letter goes on:Two steamers, one from Mallaig and one from Oban, both arrive at Lochboisdale on Monday about 8. This arrangement is to connect with Barra; there is only one day in the week on which you can get from Barra to Lochboisdale or northwards.
The last charge is higher because the steamer calls at Dunvegan to make a connection with Skye and for the privilege of crossing the Minch three times you pay 43s. 9d. as MaeBrayne charges by mileage.
Fares: £ s. d. Oban to Lochboisdale, Monday 1 17 8 Mallaig to Lochboisdale, Monday 1 1 4 Mallaig to Lochboisdale, Wednesday 1 16 7 Mallaig to Lochboisdale, Friday 2 3 9
These charges are perfectly monstrous. No country, no community, could carry on under such conditions. In some places, I have been informed, it pays a man better to skin his rabbits, throw away the carcases and send the skins in bundles to Glasgow rather than to send the rabbits. There is a dreadful position! The food of the people is being destroyed! The result is that this system will be perpetuated for all time. It is a system which combines all the evils of private enterprise with all the evils of nationalisation, and with this continuous 1439 subsidy they are practically immune from all competition. It will not do for the Post Office to say: "We carry the mails and we have nothing to do with anything else." The Post Office is part of the Government as a whole and they must look at the problem as a whole. The present arrangements make it impossible for the people of these Islands to carry on their industry, and the Post Office must find some other way of dealing with the subsidy which will not have all these dire results. I know the Post Office authorities say that they cannot get anyone else to take on the job. As a matter of fact they have never tried to get anyone else, although they may have advertised for other tenders.
This policy has been pursued for years, and the reason why other firms do not care about tendering is that they think MacBrayne has got such a hold on this contract that it would be no use tendering against him. I have said that the piers are no use to MacBrayne if some other firm obtained the contract, and I think they ought to be reasonably compensated for what they are out of pocket. I think the time has come when the railway companies which are about to get further privileges should be encouraged to facilitate more of this traffic on the roads, and in that way they would be able to build up the Highlands. They might provide motor boats and develop industry in many other ways. It is no use taking the view that so many Lowland Scots take that. the Highlands and Islands is not a place where there is any profit to be made. In the report. from which I have quoted it is stated that the people there have a mine of wealth at their very door.
I wonder why the Government do not approach the Coast Lines. That is a huge concern which possesses plenty of good boats, and they are run by one of the greatest captains of the sea that we have ever known in this country, Lord Kylsant. I am aware that no dignified company would enter into a competition of that kind, but I think it is the duty of the Postmaster-General to approach the Coast Lines because you cannot expect them to take the initiative in this matter. The Coast Lines have never been approached on this question. We know that MacBrayne has got the boats, and 1440 probably a new company would want to take over his men as well as the piers. The Coast Lines have their arrangements at the present time with the railway companies, who, if they are not fond of sea work, could get that done for them by the Coast Lines, and they might arrange a system of motor transport in connection with the steamers.
§ Mr. SKELTON
Does the hon. and learned Member suggest that there is any reason to believe that the Coast Lines would be prepared to pay the compensation which would be necessary in case they took over the contract?
§ Mr. MACQUISTEN
They would not have very much to pay if this agreement was not confirmed, hut if it is confirmed then it would be a very costly business. I cannot understand the Scottish Office being under the delusion that they are in the hands of MacBrayne and must submit to dictation of terms. They are business men, and to give a contract of this kind in perpetuity for five years is something which I have never known to be done before. I am aware that to send representatives of the Scottish Office to negotiate with men like Lord Maclay is like sending a schoolboy to the horse fair to buy horses. There has been nothing like it since the Vicar of Wakefield's son bought the gross of green spectacles at the fair. This contract is the green spectacles. On some of the boats which are now provided there is shelter for one or two cattle but none for human beings. I know MacBrayne says that they cannot build ships for this service unlesse they have long-term contracts. That is a perfectly natural statement, but if they are to be given long-term contracts we should have some control over the business. I am not asking Englishman to spend more money on this business, but I would like to point out that for the last four generations we have not insisted upon our rights, and in view of the suffering created in the Highlands by the breaking up of our clan civilisation, I think we are entitled to ask Parliament to do something more for these people.
The people of the Highlands and Islands are in a peculiar position. They get no unemployment benefit. They have no roads, although they pay heavy rates. They have no health insurance, and yet they pay all the indirect taxes and 1441 rates. I know they have been given Land Courts but they are no use to them, and they only provide jobs for the lawyers. It is not true to say that the Highlanders are lazy and lack enterprise, but they are too intelligent to work for a steamboat company. Even if it did cost the Government a little more money to arrange a new service, we should have a great improvement and you would not be demoralising these poor people. Under the present system the Highlands will be paralysed in a few years time. I was speaking the other day to Sir Harry Lauder on this question, and he told me that he had talked with many of the farmers in Islay. He said that he suggested that they should go in for breeding cattle, but they replied that they were not going to grow cattle for MacBrayne. It is no good doing it now. In April, 1924, in Tiree, a beautiful little island, which, I might say for the benefit of some lion Members opposite, is a dry island, the air is so much like champagne, there were 700 head of cattle all of which could be disposed of if there were reasonable transport. The clerk to the Parish Council of Coll, writing about the hardship of the present system, said that when he went there in 1891 it was a flourishing agricultural community of 500. Now it was less than half, and this state of affairs was due to want of communication. I have a little experience myself. One day I sent a couple of small suit-cases from Melfort to Tarbert. I was charged 7s. 6d. for them by MacBrayne, but the Campeltown man only charged me 1s. 10d. for the same mileage froth Tarbert to Campbeltown.
There are 14,000 people in the Argyllshire islands, and I think there are 40,000 in the other islands. These islands could be, and ought to be, a summer playground and health resort for vast numbers of our population if there were proper transport facilities, instead of the present uncomfortable and dangerous means. One place has got transport, and that is the island of Soay. They have a motor boat, but they had appealed to me in vain, for I could do nothing, and they sent a striking and beautiful letter to His Gracious Majesty, who saw that they got a boat. The cost of it, I believe, shocked the Scottish Office, but these people can sell their fish and lobsters now, and are not starving. This ought to compel the 1442 Scottish Office to act. Let. us follow His Majesty. I appeal to all English Members to save the islands from disasters of this kind. English Members who know the history of the islands know that for generations they have always stood to the last man for England. Long ago Lord Chatham said:I have sought for merit wherever it could be found, and found it in the mountains of the North. I called it forth and drew into your Service a hardy and intrepid race of men who have served with fidelity as they fought with valour in every quarter of the globe.Who fought for your overseas possessions? We have been told that if they wanted people to settle in Canada, they always looked to the Highlander and the crofter. The scandal of the transport service in these parts is known throughout the whole of the Empire and wherever men of Highland blood are found.From the lone sheiling and the misty island,Mountains divide them and the world of seas.But still their hearts are true; their hearts are Highlands.For in their dreams they see the Hebrides.These men are watching to-day, and if you are going to pass this contract it will lead to the destruction of these fertile islands, and, instead of being populous with a splendid class of population, they will be left barren and deserted with nothing but the croak of the hoodie crow and the cry of the gull, instead of the homes of men.
As I happen to know a good deal more now about the Western coast of Scotland than I did 10 years ago, and as I am probably the only Member of this House who goes there frequently in the winter-time perhaps I may be allowed to say a few words about the traffic and the conditions under which it is conducted. It is quite clear that we are dealing with no ordinary mail traffic in dealing with this proposal to-day. It is not a mere matter of carrying the mails across the open seas as is the case with so many of the contracts which come up here for discussion. In those cases you take it upon a mercantile basis, and add to that certain requirements for punctuality and certain classes of traffic, and then you try to assess what is a fair subsidy to put on, and by haggling or by tender you 1443 ultimately reach what is considered to be a fair sum. In this case, however, you have something more than a mere mail contract. Everything that has been said to-day concerns the very life of the people in the Western Islands, and I can say from my own knowledge that it will be almost impossible for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland to embark on an ameliorative economic policy in the Western Islands if the advantage of improvements in their stock-breeding, crops and fisheries is going to be swallowed up by an inadequate service at far too high a cost.
I am sure that one thing must have been borne in upon my right hon. Friend, from the information that has been given to-day from every quarter of the House, and that is that some of the freight charges are really ludicrous. They are not scientific; they are not worked out on the ordinary commercial basis that is applied by other steamship companies; they are eccentric, and, what is more, they are not impartial. There are many instances that I could quote to the House from my own knowledge where, if the traffic is coming from one man, the rate in rather less than it is when it comes from another. This selection of persons and classes of traffic is very unfair. To give a single instance, my right hon. Friend's attempt to improve the breeding of live-stock in the Islands will be defeated, under a contract like this, by the inadequacy of the service and the highness of the rates.
His Agricultural Department has done good work in circulating high-class bulls, and the number of crofters who have improved their stock by the better blood that he has been the means of sending out to these distant quarters is remarkable. Recently I attended a sale of some steers bred by crofters, and I have no hesitation in saying, from my knowledge of Shorthorns bred in Northumberland, that they were just as good as any that we breed on the mainland. That is entirely due to the fact that my right hon. Friend and his Department have been circulating these better-class sires among the crofters. But what happens? They produce these excellent animals, which are a great credit to them, hut, when the sales come round, a large proportion of what 1444 would be their normal price on the mainland is knocked off because of the high rates which are charged for their carriage across a very narrow sea. Many of us have found this quite intolerable. I am not pleading for my own advantage here, because I had to deal with the matter as a man of means would—I had to get a boat of my own, because it was impossible for me to go on with the MacBrayne service, and now I give my people the chance of taking their cattle across in my boat, instead of paying the 25s. which is charged for each animal.
Many of these crofters produce two steers a year, and I do not think they have any other source of income; they certainly produce nothing else that they can sell outside; and, if you are going to knock 25s. each off the price of those two steers, that, out of £30, or it may be only is really an undue proportion. What has my right hon. Friend done to neutralise that? I have gone very carefully through the contract as a business man, and I cannot see that he has secured any sort of reduction in the outward charges, or any improvement of the service. The time table is no better than it was, while the freight list, as compared with the reduction in the general freight lists of the world, is out of all proportion high. Recently I have been looking at the index figures for freights collected by the Chamber of Shipping, where we have one of the best statisticians in this country, and he, in making his record, classifies them into various divisions—long distance, European and coastwise—and in every one of these directions the percentage drop during the same period which we find covered in this contract is far greater than my right hon. Friend has secured, one way only.
In these circumstances, with all the knowledge that he has acquired in the course of this Debate, and with all the other facts that will come to his mind, T do not think that my right hon. Friend would be unjustified in saying to Messrs. MacBrayne, "The feeling of the House is so strong that T cannot go through with this in its original form; we must have a full disclosure of all the facts before an impartial committee." I sympathise very much with Messrs MacBrayne, and I do not agree with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Argyllshire (Mr. Macquisten) that they 1445 have done nothing but blood-suck the West of Scotland. They have done very good service in the past, but they cannot go on in the future as they have in the past; it is impossible and intolerable. There are some gentlemen connected with Messrs. MacBrayne who thought they might save a service which would otherwise go to ruin. I know a good deal of Lord Maclay, Sir Kenneth Anderson, and Mr. Service, and I know that the two former, at any rate, have gone into this business with the idea that there was something sentimental attached to it, and that they would be able to make it a good service instead of a bad one. The results, considering their fleet, have% been wonderful—
No, and that is where I think they have made a mistake. If I might criticise such eminent shipowners, I would say that they have made a mistake in not developing the traffic. All of us, in any other part of the world where we set up a new service, try by every means in our power to develop traffic. We know that if we throttle it with high rates the whole thing will go down, and we shall destroy the very means by which we live. They have done very little to develop traffic. It has been carried on with old ships, and it is really extraordinary how good they are. They were built of iron, and not of steel, and some of them in their hulls are just as strong as ever, while their old engines are working as perfectly as when they were first built. The accommodation for passengers and staff, however, is at least 60 years out of date, and anyone who attempts to travel to the outer Islands, crossing the Minch, either North or South, knows perfectly well that he has to be a. man with a solid stomach and strong nerves to be able to go through with it without feeling that it is a grave ordeal in windy weather. My right hon. Friend has secured an undertaking that two new ships will be built. They are to serve the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for the Western Isles (Mr. Livingstone), who is up in his constituency to-day. I have received a telegram from him this morning, in which he says, "Do not for Heaven's sake do anything that will 1446 deprive us of our two new ships," and I heartily sympathise with him.
We cannot, however, allow the matter to rest there; it goes very much further, as has been pointed out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Macpherson) and by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Argyllshire, who speaks, not only for his own constituency, but for very many Highlanders all over the world. It is a question of the development or the extinction of the Western Islands; they will go steadily down unless an improvement is made. We who go backwards and forwards now can see that, unless great changes are made, fishermen will cease to fish round the Islands. Unless they can carry their fish to Mallaig and Oban, they will not continue to fish and it will mean the almost complete extermination of the inshore fishermen. The crofters, also, will be prevented from developing the breeding of their stock, which is their one great hope They can never make anything out of their crops, but they can out of their stock, and, if that be prevented, it will put an end to them. Moreover, there ought to be a very prosperous tourist traffic, because really there is no more delightful part of Europe than the Western Islands of Scotland. There ought to be an increasing number of people going up there. This might well be linked up with our great railway services, and there are other ways in which it might be developed.
I trust that my right hon. Friend will not regard this merely as a vote of confidence or no confidence. It is a much more serious thing than that. We should regard him as a real benefactor of Western Scotland if he would have an inquiry made, not delayed, as I fear it would be under the proposal that he made earlier this afternoon, but now—if the contract were held up and a short and rapid inquiry were made with power to send for persons and papers. Let it be upstairs by a special Committee. All the information would be obtained in that way without the expenditure of very much time, and, moreover, it would attract the attention—and this is a very important matter—of other tenderers to that part of the world, and would also inspire enterprise in the railways. If my right hon. Friend would do that, he would be a real benefactor to the West.
§ Mr. HUGH MORRISON
As one who only rarely addresses the House, I should like to say one or two words on this subject, my reason being that I live in the Western Islands, not only in fine weather, but during the winter months, like the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Swansea (Mr. Runciman). I am profoundly dissatisfied with the speech of the Secretary of State, and I should like to appeal to him very strongly indeed to reconsider the matter and to grant an immediate Select Committee, as proposed in our Amendment. This is a vital question for the Western Isles. The population is going dawn, and those who have the interests of the Highlands at heart view the position with very grave concern. A great many references have been made to Messrs. MacBrayne. It is common knowledge, and quotations have been given already of the views of the Argyllshire County Council showing that the present services are unsatisfactory and their charges are exorbitant. The Argyllshire County Council have also made representations recently to the Postmaster-General with regard to the way the "Fusilier" failed to carry out her services a number of times during last winter. I should like to pay a tribute to the way the Postmaster-General met those of us who saw him on the matter, but it is very unsatisfactory indeed that a boat of that sort should be allowed to continue during the whole of the winter. What adds to the difficulty is this. Those who live on the mainland have the alternative of motor omnibus communication. Owing to the unsatisfactory service of the "Fusilier," traffic is being diverted on to the roads, and that will enhance the difficulties in the future for the outer Isles.
The Secretary of State has referred to the Departmental Committee of 1925. As far as I am aware, this report has never been made public. I have been for many years chairman of the Islay Jura and Colonsay Agricultural Association, and, owing to representations I made to the right hon. Gentleman, he was good enough to allow evidence to be put before that inquiry. I know the crofters are a very important element in the Western Isles, and there are farmers and agriculturists in Islay second to none in any part of Scotland. We are very much 1448 handicapped at present by Messrs. MacBrayne's freights. I find you can send a bullock from Belfast to Glasgow for 14s. 6d., whereas the charge from Islay to Glasgow, round the Mull of Cantyre, is 22s. 6d. A very unsatisfactory steamer has also been on the route which carries agricultural produce from Islay Sound to the Mull of Cantyre, and I know from personal knowledge that seas come over the cattle during the winter months. A ton of groceries from Glasgow to Oban costs 27s. 6d. To Islay it costs 45s. That is because there is no railway competition. A 14 lb. parcel from Glasgow to Oban costs 6d., whereas if the steamer stops in the Sound of Islay it costs 1s. 6d.—another shilling. That shows the unfair and differential rates to those who have to earn their living in Islay. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Macpherson) pointed out that under the present system a direct subsidy is given to the distillers as compared with agricultural produce. MacBrayne's freight from Glasgow to Islay for bran and thirds is 35s. a ton, whereas on dried distillery grains, which are equal in bulk to bran, it is 14s. I can also quote the case of a-well-known agriculturist in Islay who sent a hamper of rabbits to Glasgow. They were sold for 13s. 8d., and the charge for freight was 7s. 2d. One could give many other instances.
There are several questions I should like to put to the Secretary of State, because this matter vitally affects the interests of the Western Islands and Highlands. Under the Budget, special rating relief is to be given to the railways at the expense of the general taxpayers and, as the Chancellor told us, one-fifth is specially allocated to the agricultural interests of the Mainland. I want to ask the Secretary of State what share of that relief is to go to the farmers in the Western Islands and Highlands, because it has always been acknowledged that Scotland should receive her share of any relief that is given to agriculture or any other interest. I am glad to see behind me one of the directors of the London, Midland and Scottish Railway. I am aware that he cannot commit himself, but I hope he may be able to indicate in some way that the great railway companies, which are now promoting Road Transport Bills, will consider whether 1449 or not they can do anything to help the development of the Western Islands and Highlands during the anxious and critical times they are going through.
I find under the Ministry of Transport Act, 1919, Section 17, subject to Treasury approval, power is given to promote and improve transport services by land and water and also to construct harbours, docks and piers. I find that the ferry boats at Woolwich receive a 50 per cent. grant from the Ministry of Transport, If a grant of that sort is given to the ferry boats of the London County Council why cannot something on similar lines be done for the services in the Western Highlands We had a discussion a few years ago on the Mersey Tunnel and we are going to be asked to spend large sums for a bridge at Charing Cross. If all these large sums are to come to a rich city like London, I cannot see why the Cabinet cannot exercise their power under the Ministry of Transport Act and allow some smaller benefit to go to the Western Islands and Highlands. I look on this as a vital question, because without cheap and efficient transport the future of the Western Islands is black indeed.
§ Sir MURDOCH MACDONALD
It was with very great regret that I saw the Secretary of State present this contract with Messrs. MacBrayne. I hope, as the result of the Debate, he will revise his decision to ask for approval and will withdraw the contract so that an inquiry may be made into the whole circumstances under which traffic in the Western Islands is carried on. The real question is: Had the Secretary of State for Scotland any possible alternatives? I think he had. I think that before presenting this contract he might have said to Messrs. MacBrayne: "You are being largely subsidised to carry the traffic to the Western Isles, not only to carry their mail traffic "—in respect to which the greater part of the subsidy is granted—"but also to enable the modern development of the Western Isles. You must turn yourselves into a public company, so that it may be seen what profit you are making from the traffic." At the present moment, as we have heard from various hon. Members, there is an extraordinary amount of complaint of the effects of the various traffic rates and of the irregularity in those rates, not a care 1450 less irregularity, but almost a biased irregularity. If the company conducting the traffic and receiving a subsidy were a public company, the public would be aware of what the company were really making out of it. At the present moment several things might be happening. Either the subsidy granted is far too small or is just enough or Messrs. MacBrayne are making inordinate profits. I realise that a public company could quite easily manipulate the figures so that it would be very difficult to ascertain what was really being made out of the traffic. But at least a balance-sheet could be asked for and given annually of the affairs of the company from which the public might get an idea as to how matters stood, and, in particular, men like myself be able to see whether or not the subsidy was of a proper amount for this purpose.
I believe that a great mistake was made by the Government a few years ago in dropping the extra £14,000 a year which was paid towards this service, and that if that £14,000 a year had been continued a much better and possibly adequate service could have been arranged with Messrs. MacBrayne to-day than has been possible. The Secretary of State for Scotland said in his opening remarks that the railway companies would probably, if they were to be brought in—and I think it would be a very reasonable thing if they were brought in to deal with the traffic in the Western Isles—require Parliamentary sanction. I do not think that that can quite be the case, because the Highland Railway Company, which is now part of the London Midland and Scottish Railway Company, did, in bygone years, run a service in the Western Isles. One of their boats was the subject of one of the last acts of piracy in those isles. It was taken away from Strome Ferry Pier and eventually found in South Australia. Therefore, when the Secretary of State for Scotland said that Parliamentary sanction would be required by the railway companies and that until they received power from Parliament it would be impossible to deal with them is not quite correct. It would be possible, I think, to ask the railway companies if they could not put on a steamer service. I hope that if he does find it possible to withdraw for the time being this particular contract he will ask the railway companies whether they have not already 1451 sufficient power to put on steamers to carry the traffic.
My right hon. Friend the Member for West Swansea (Mr. Runciman) referred to the matter entirely as a business one, and said that the subsidies were obtained by arrangement between the Post Office and were not necessarily paid on a strict basis of the weight or value of the traffic carried. There can be no other case, I imagine, in connection with the Postmaster-General's service like that of the Western Isles. It is possible, however, that in this particular case his predecessors had so squeezed the steamship company that the amount of the subsidy is not sufficient really to enable them to carry the mails and at the same time give such facilities as are necessary to the district served. There is also the question that the Western Isles are becoming depopulated. Depopulation, of course, is due to many causes, but the principal cause undoubtedly has been due to a change in modern life. A much higher standard of life is demanded and enjoyed in the Western Isles to-day than was the case in bygone years; otherwise, the people cannot be got to remain; but if a steamship service is not adequately maintained the depopulation will go on much beyond that point at which it would be reasonable to allow it to go, and the isles would carry far less population than they are capable of carrying even under modern standards of comfort.
I dislike intensely asking for money for the benefit of any particular part of the country. I rather prefer to see the expenditure of money for good all over the country. But here is a particular area where it is agreed upon all hands that it is desirable to keep an adequate population in existence. That cannot be done unless proper transport facilities are afforded, and those transport facilities can only be provided if a proper arrangement is made with a steamer company to carry on that traffic. The Secretary of State for Scotland can very well return to the Treasury and say, after a proper schedule of reasonable rates has been drawn up that the balance of money required to allow an adequate return to the steamship company is much greater than the sum which is now paid. I have no doubt whatever that if proper representation is made to the Treasury an addi- 1452 tional sum would be agreed upon. Indeed, the Prime Minister recognised the other day that the transport problems of the Western Isles and the North of Scotland in particular, must be very carefully gone into. I hope, therefore, that, in answer to the appeal of hon. Members who have spoken, the Secretary of State will not press this particular contract upon the House to-day, but will withdraw it so that a quick and efficient inquiry may be made into what is necessary in order to keep the present population in the Western Isles in the reasonable state of comfort and of life that we all would like them to have.
§ Mr. KIRKWOOD
I am delighted that the House has been given this opportunity of discussing this very vexed question regarding my fellow countrymen. We have pressed the Secretary of State for Scotland on many occasions about the dreadful state of the Western Highlands of Scotland, and every time we make an appeal we fail to obtain satisfaction. I have put questions in this House to the right hon. Gentleman and I have had private interviews with him and he has told me time after time that it is quite impossible for the Western Highlands of Scotland to maintain the population that is there now. This Debate has afforded proof of what is the matter with the Highlands, and, if the rhinoceros hide of the Secretary of State for Scotland is capable of being penetrated, sufficient arguments have been submitted to prove the cause of the present conditions. The MacBrayne Co. is one of them—the MacBrayne Co., having a monopoly. I was very glad that I was in my place when the right hon. Member for Swansea West (Mr. Runciman) made his speech. He spoke not as a clansman, but as a shipowner and a landowner, just as the Secretary of Scotland is. The right hon. Member for Swansea West told the House that the new company of MacBrayne that had been formed with Maclay at its head had done wonders, but I was able to make him withdraw that statement and he had to admit that they had done absolutely nothing. Maclay and Company, which is really MacBrayne now, have bled the Highlands of Scotland white. They have done nothing whatever to assist in the development of the Highlands of Scotland.
1453 What is behind all this? Private enterprise. If ever there was evidence of the failure of private enterprise, we have it in this case. Just as private enterprise has miserably failed to house the people in this country so has private enterprise miserably failed as far as transport is concerned in the Highlands of Scotland. The hon. Member for Bridgeton (Mr. Maxton) and myself will never forget the journey that we made to the Western Islands to see what was going on, to see if we could fathom what was behind the reason of burly men, physical giants, coming into the slums of Glasgow and being prepared to work for wages such as our people in Glasgow and the West of Scotland generally could not work for. Why were they prepared to live under the hellish conditions of the slums in Glasgow? Why were they going away across the wild Atlantic Ocean and leaving their native land that they loved so dearly?
We found men and women struggling to wrestle from nature a mere pittance of a livelihood. There is not a hardier race than the Highlanders of Scotland. They endure all manner of inclement weather, and when they come to dispose of their goods they are met by this firm of MacBrayne, who put on such a tariff that it is utterly impossible for the people to compete in the market. We have appealed to the Secretary of State for Scotland, and he has had proof submitted to him by his own officers that these people are getting as little as 4d. a dozen for eggs. A former Member of Parliament for Argyllshire (Sir W. Sutherland), who was private Secretary to the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George), stated before the Food Commission that the fishermen of Loch Fyne got 1d. per dozen for their herrings, and those herrings were sold in London at 3d. and 4d. each; the finest herrings in the world, nothing to equal them.
When the fisher lassies have to come across the seas they have to cross in MacBrayne's boats, which are subsidised by this stupid Government; a lot of stupids, the world's worst, particularly the Secretary of State for Scotland. He is as stupid as an ass. These Scotch fisher lassies, some of the finest looking women the sun ever shone on, are the 1454 daughters of the Highlanders, not the daughters of lords, not the daughters of landowners or dukes, or of the MacBraynes or the Maclays or the Runcimans, but the daughters of my class, they have to stand in all kinds of weather on deck. No passenger accommodation is provided for them, no sleeping accommodation; and they have to cross one of the stormiest seas in the world, the Minch. None but women drawn from the hardiest and most intelligent race could stand it. If they were the ruling classes of this country they would be snuffed out; and we should be delighted if that was the case.
I hope the House will not let this contract go through. It appealed to my countrymen during the War, particularly to this part of my country, and they stood by the country throughout the War, although I advised them to have nothing to do with it as the only enemies they have are the ruling classes of this country, Liberal and Tory. But they cherished, as they have always cherished right down the ages, it is implanted in their nature, it oozes from every pore of my body, a love of their native land. My Socialist Friends can smile if they like. It has been implanted in them as a result of the clan system. When they conquered and were well off, they were all well off, when they were poor they were all poor. After going into battle they shared the spoils. My fellow countrymen policed the North Sea or the German Ocean. The Island of Lewis, which is misrepresented in this House by a Liberal who is conspicuous by his absence to-day, with a population of 12,000, sent 3,000 volunteers to the War, men between the ages of 16 and 60 years. They believed they had a land to defend. When the War was over, what happened? Twelve hundred of them never returned, and 600 were wounded. Their little plots of land, their fishing smacks, were in wreck and ruin. Then you have Lord Leverhulme coming up and saying that he was going to organise the Islands of Scotland, that he was going to industrialise them; but neither Heaven nor anyone else, up to now, has been able to crush the independent spirit which is characteristic of that race. They refused to be commercialised, they preferred their freedom, such as it is, to being driven into industry.
§ Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER (Mr. James Hope)
I do not see the connection between Lord Leverhulme and the firm of MacBrayne.
§ Mr. KIRKWOOD
With all due respect to you, Mr. Hope, Mr. Speaker allowed other hon. Members to traverse the ground I am traversing now. It is most unfair, and I must register my protest. This is a very serious matter indeed; it is the lifeblood of my country. This question of MacBrayne's contract goes right down to the roots of the evil which besets the Islands of Scotland. My race are suffering through no fault of their own, but because they are the victims of a hellish system which places the working people of this country in the position that unless they are employed by private enterprise they have to starve. Thousands of them are being driven out of my native land to-day. Over and over again the Government have suggested that the only alternative to complete starvation is emigration; but I hold that this MacBrayne contract is one way in which we can change all this. That is the point I am making. When I speak to the Government as man to man, as I do sometimes, though some of my Friends think it is a mistake—I do not—all their sympathies are with my fellow countrymen, but when it comes to doing something which will be beneficial and eradicate the wrongs, then because of their outlook on life nothing is done. Unless they are going to get a profit out of it they will do nothing.
Last year we extracted—I think that is the right word to use when dealing with the Secretary of State for Scotland—the fact that there were 60,000 of my fellow countrymen waiting to leave Scotland for other lands, and the Government are prepared to subsidise the idea of their leaving their native land. They are prepared to subsidise this firm of MacBrayne, who run boats that are nearly 100 years old. I raised this question in the House three years ago, and because I then stated that one of this firm's ships was three-quarters of a century old, a leading shipper in Glasgow, who used to be a Member of this House and is now the Chairman of the Clyde Trust, Sir William Raeburn, wrote me a letter calling me far worse names than ever I called the Tory party, and they were bad enough. To-day, on every 1456 side of the House, the same statement has been made about the boats. Even the Glasgow newspapers yesterday made a statement similar to that which I made three years ago, and they are Tory newspapers at that. The Glasgow "Times" last night said that no defence could be put up for MacBrayne & Company.
Let me leave the sea and come to the land. I notice all the vultures in the air. Even here this morning I could see the interests of the railway companies coming in. They see that they may perhaps get a little haul here by further development of the railways in the Highlands. I do not believe that that is the way to tackle the development of the Highlands of Scotland. The railways are obsolete as at present run. We are going to have no more railways laid down. But there is motor transport. We could build motors and flood the Highlands of Scotland with them inside a year. Let them send their contracts to my constituency and Halley's will build motors sufficient to supply all Scotland, never mind the Highlands.
§ Mr. MACQUISTEN
What did the Glasgow Corporation do? Did they not pass over Halley's and go to Leylands, to their disgrace?
§ 2 p.m.
§ Mr. KIRKWOOD
That is another question. I am entirely with my hon. and learned Friend at the same time. But "let that flea stick to the wall." I will revert to the ships. Here you have a Secretary of State for Scotland, after all our experience of shipbuilding, taking it for granted—I do not want to call him any more names, for I am tired of calling him names—here you have a man who occupies a high post in the affairs of the country, coming down to the House and saying that if we give MacBrayne this contract, and if we subsidise the firm to the extent of £36,000 a year, they are going to build two new boats in two years' time. Let that be noted —in two years' time. I have several yards in my constituency, and any one of them could build the two boats inside six months. We could build half-a-dozen battleships in the two years. Yet here is the type of man who fills this highly paid job and accepts as if it were a fact this statement that it will take all that long time to build two new boats. It shows that he is away back in the Middle Ages 1457 and viewing the question from that standpoint—an old crusted Tory who has made no advance with the times. Just because he is the type of man who has been at the head of the Government of our country, the Highlands of Scotland are in their present deplorable condition. No consideration is given to the fact that man by his ingenuity has tapped the sources of nature and made nature do man's work; no advance is made along the lines that have been followed in great industrial centres; but this most important section of the community is left practically to starve and waste.
In the days of my grandfather the Clyde presented to the Highlander a great market in which he could sell his labour. The Highlanders come down to the Clyde and get work. The shipbuilding and engineering works, the chemical and dye works were booming at that period and the Tennants and others of that fraternity bled these people white. These people at that time could get work; but with the great development that is taking place now in regard to machinery and better equipment and the reorganisation of the shipbuilding and engineering industry and the dyes and chemicals industry, there are not the same demands for human labour. There are no longer the openings for these men from the Highlands. They have not that outlet now, and must either emigrate or live in the most miserable conditions possible. I was astonished to hear the hon. Member for Inverness (Sir M. Macdonald) saying that the standard of life in the Highlands to-day was so high that it was difficult to maintain it—that it was higher than it had ever been before. I disagree with him entirely.
The Secretary of State for Scotland has said that the Highlands of Scotland cannot maintain the people on the soil. But right down through the ages the Highlands of Scotland have maintained a hardy, virile and intelligent population—a population which, away back in old times, defied Imperial Rome. The Highland glens and straths formerly maintained a vast population. At one time those glens and straths were populated. To-day they are empty; many of them are wildernesses. In the Highlands today you can see heather and bracken growing where formerly the land maintained a population. We have to remember that this population was maintained 1458 in the days before we had the knowledge which we now possess of how to cultivate the soil. It was in the days before we had the means of transport that exist to-day. It was before we conquered the air and before we had motor boats or taxicabs. It was prior to all these improvements that the country maintained this population. The proof of my statement is to be found in the annals in the Library of this House. Take the Island of Skye alone. During the Napoleonic wars, which lasted for 21 years, that island gave to the British Army 10,000 soldiers who, on the field of Waterloo, stood like the rocks that encircle their island home. That island sent more officers to Wellington than it was able to send men to the Great War—because of the part that is being played by the ruling class. Here is an opportunity for this ruling class to-day to make some amends for the wrongs and injustices that have been done to the Highlands of Scotland.
I am not here appealing for charity. I do not want it. I am appealing for justice, for my race. I am here on behalf of the men and women of a race that has made this great British Empire possible. Go where you will in the Highlands, go even among what they call the "black houses" and what will you find I Members of this House would require to see those "black houses" in order to understand what the expression means. But if they go there, the people will point out to them where Doctor So-and-so was born and where Professor So-and-so was born. I am not here appealing on behalf of the riff-raff or the ragtag and bob-tail of the population. I am speaking on behalf of one of the best educated sections of the British community. They have no access to Employment Exchanges; they have none of the benefits enjoyed by the industrial centres of this country. We are not appealing for any grant for them, but we are asking for a proper transport system and that, I honestly believe, cannot be provided by private enterprise. The proof of that statement is that it has to be subsidised. The Secretary of State this morning tried to create an atmosphere and asked us to infer that it was well-nigh impossible for us to get out of the hands of MacBrayne and Company. He suggested that it would dislocate the whole of the transport of the Highlands if we did so. Again, 1459 the right hon. Gentleman displayed a lack of forethought—and that is as mildly as I can put it.
What would it matter supposing MacBrayne's Company went out of existence? Could not a destroyer or two be put on the service until the Government saw fit to build ships suitable for the job? Why leave this matter to this little petty firm on the Clyde which, as has been proved conclusively from all sides of the House and to the satisfaction of every intelligent man, is not fit for the job? They are ruining one of the most beautiful parts of the world, the Highlands of Scotland. I have roamed my country, I have been to the beauty spots, I have been where the millionaires go—English and American—and I want to say here that there are no more beautiful spots, no more healthy places, in Europe than in the Highlands of Scotland. What is to hinder the Government doing as Switzerland has done? Why do not they open up the Highlands of Scotland, not making it a playground for the rich, but making it—parts of it—a health resort for the working class of this country? That could be done if the Government intended to handle the transport of the Highlands of Scotland in a human fashion, but they are handling that transport from the point of view of profit, not from that of the guardians of those people's rights.
The Government's duty is to look after the interests of the people of the Highlands of Scotland, to look after their health, their education, and the transport of the goods which they require, but they have done nothing of the kind. The Highlands of Scotland could be opened up. We have the means of transport, if it was taken out of private enterprise. The Government of to-day, if they were willing, have a glorious opportunity. They could organise motor transport, and they could organise shipping. They talk about the piers. One of the great obstacles that is put forward as an argument against interfering with this contract is that MacBrayne's own several of the piers. Just think what that means. Here is an admission on the part of the Government that the only means, the landing place, for those folk on these islands getting their food and getting into contact with the outside world, 1460 belongs to an individual firm, does not belong to the country, does not belong to those men, whose forefathers' blood has bedewed the heather in defence of their native land. It belongs to somebody else, and here is an opportunity for the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland—I appeal to him as a fellow countryman —to give a lead here to-day, to let the world know that this House, at any rate, is no longer going to be part and parcel of this system of driving the natives from Scotland and sending them all over the world, when we have at hand our native land that can be utilised. Let the world know that we will put our people back to the soil.
We who have studied the question, including the Under-Secretary of State, know that there are thousands of our people, tens of thousands, in fact, in the mining industry and in the engineering industry who will never be employed in those industries again, and that all this talk about a boom in trade is a myth. But we can put those people back on to the soil, back on to our native land, to a healthy, decent job, a natural occupation for man, the tilling of the soil. It may be hard work, but it is healthy work, it is good work, and it is natural employment. They say the Highlands of Scotland cannot produce the food, but there is no denying the fact that even still the Highlands of Scotland are producing a wonderful type of both men and women; and we want to take advantage of this idea of transport service to put our people back on to the land. Here we have these folk who have been driven into our big industrial centres, who know nothing about the joys of nature.Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.Little we see in Nature that is our's.
We want to put them back so that they may enjoy the good things of life, so that they may be associated with nature and all that that implies, back to what their forefathers used to enjoy, back to the picture that was eternally before their eyes, the very opposite of what we have in our great industrial centres.
The midges dance abune the burn,
The dews begin to fa'.
The paitricks doon yon rushy holm
Set up their evenin' ca',
While loud and clear the blackbird's sang,
Rings through the briary shaw,
While flittin' gay, the swallows play
Aroon yen castle wa'.
It is back to that picture that I want to see the people of my native land.
§ Mr. SKELTON
After an extremely full Debate, in which no speaker has supported the proposition of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, and in which the whole of this important question has been fully and exhaustively dealt with, I do not propose to cover the same ground again. I merely rise for the purpose of urging upon my right hon. Friend that he should let the House know now that he is going to withdraw has Motion and give an inquiry, or some similar inquiry to that proposed by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Argyllshire (Mr. Macquisten). If my right hon. Friend is now in a position to tell the House that he proposes to withdraw his Motion, I will willingly sit down at once to let him say so. I must take it from the silence of my right hon. Friend, that he does not at present intend to give way to the very clearly expressed feeling of Members on all sides of the House. On that assumption, I am afraid that I must trouble the House for a minute or two.
I do not suppose that any hon. Member could fail to have been enormously impressed by the very weighty words uttered by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Swansea West (Mr. Runciman). Speaking with the knowledge of shipping which he possesses, and the intimate knowledge of the Highlands which he possesses, speaking, that is to say, with a knowledge of both ends of the problem, the right hon. Gentleman stated in the most categorical terms that in his view the problem was, in a nutshell, this: that the subsidy given to a steamship line, if that be the solution, should not be regarded merely as a subsidy for carrying mails, but that the whole need of the Western Islands should be taken into consideration, and that a subsidy suitable for bringing about, and for maintaining, an adequate transport service should be granted by the Government. That proposition is one which has my most complete sympathy, and it is one which will require some inquiry. I do not believe that that inquiry has been made by my right hon. Friend, or that he has ever put before the Cabinet the needs of the Scottish Highlands. I believe that he has restricted himself entirely to the formation of a new mail subsidy. That is far too limited a way 1462 to look at this question, and I urge him most strongly that, even now at the end of the third year of his term of office, he should take the opportunity of approaching this large national question in a way in which it should be approached, and not confine himself merely to framing and signing a new subsidy for the carrying of mails in the Western Islands.
If this Motion be pressed to a Division, I propose to vote against it. It will not be the first time that I have voted against my right hon. Friend in matters of Scottish affairs, much as I respect the character and the quality of his administration, and the day to day work of Scottish government. It has never been better done by a Secretary of State for Scotland. But I suggest that, in the wider question which undoubtedly arise, we want a little more constructive thought, and a wider range of vision. There is no topic where that is more necessary than in this question of the Highlands, and I urge him not to let this opportunity pass, but to allow the existing situation, which has gone on since November, 1927, to continue for the months necessary to have a full inquiry, and during this summer to have an inquiry and, what I think is still more important, to place before the Government the needs of the Western Islands. As I say, I shall vote against this proposal, but I urge him not to force other Scottish Members, who have supported him loyally through the whole of this Government—I am afraid that I have an unenviable reputation for voting against the Government on certain Scottish questions—I urge him not to force other Scottish Members to follow him into the Lobby on a proposition which is absolutely indefensible. I urge on another and a wider ground, what I fear he may not think is worth saying, that at the back of all this kind of question lies the question of whether the interest of Scotland can be properly maintained under the Union of Parliament.
There are three large questions in Scotland to-day. The first is the constant decrease of the rural population the second is the constant increase of Irish blood in Scotland; and the third is the whole position of life of a third of the Scottish soil, namely, the Western Islands. That is the particular question with which we are dealing this afternoon. If these three questions are not 1463 separately or together handled by the right hon. Gentleman, it will raise in the minds of a large number of Scottish people, who have no natural sympathy towards this solution of the problem, the question whether Scottish interests of the wider sort are being adequately dealt with by a Unionist Secretary of State, with a Unionist Scottish majority, in a Unionist Parliament, and under the Union of Parliaments. Though this afternoon we are only discussing the continuance of the mail contract to a single steamship company, much larger issues lay behind it. Without further dealing with them, I do urge upon my right hon. Friend the strong feeling that there is in this matter, and that the way out is clear. It is clear that you cannot deal adequately with Highland transport merely by the re-signing of a mail contract, and that what is needed is the formation of a transport system adequate to the economic and not merely the postal needs of the district. It is an economic, not a postal problem, and I believe in my heart and soul that it is playing with what, within the ambit of Scotland, is really of vital importance, to treat it as if we were merely discovering the best way to send postcards to Stornoway.
§ Sir R. HAMILTON
It must gradually be borne in on the mind of the Secretary of State for Scotland that this proposal is not altogether popular. I have never heard a Debate in which such universal condemnation of the Government has come from every quarter of the House, and has been supported with more solid argument. We all feel that a great opportunity is being thrown away. The question of transport is a vital one, and has been over and over again, throughout the whole of the West of Scotland; and as the hon. Member who has just spoken has said, it is not merely a matter of sending postcards to the Islands, but of getting goods in and out of the Islands; it is a question of the life of the people in the Islands, and it goes right to the fundamentals of the life of the Scottish people there. The Secretary of State has put before us a contract which he asks us to accept. What does he get, and what does he give? He is giving £36,000 a year for this contract, and what do we get for it? We get a promise of two new steamers—when we 1464 do not know. They are going to be begun after this contract, which cost not only £36,000 this year but for five years, is agreed to, and the third steamer is only to be laid down if the contract is extended for a further five years. The Secretary of State said it would cost something like £35,000 to build one steamer. I really think he must have been exaggerating. I telegraphed to my constituency to ascertain the price of an excellent steamer which has just been put on there. It is 250 feet long, and an 11-knot boat. There is excellent first-class accommodation, accommodation for ladies, accommodation for cattle—everything you can have on a steamer built to-day. I am sorry I have not been able to get a reply at the moment, but I am certain that steamer did not cost £35,000.
What else has the right hon. Gentleman got? A reduction of 12½ per cent. on the 1927 rates for one-way freights. Why 1927 Have the rates been reduced lately; are the 1927 rates down The test ought to be the pre-war rates. We know that costs have gone up since prewar times, but if we were to add 50 per cent, to the pre-war rates we should be a great deal further down the scale than is represented by 12½ per cent. off the 1927 rates. I urge upon the Secretary of State not to press this contract upon an unwilling Scotland. There is not a single word to be said for it, the whole of Scotland is against it, and he will only push it through by the help of English Members or Scottish Members under the lash of the Government Whip. That is not the way to placate feeling in Scotland. It is not a question only of placating feeling, but it concerns the whole future of the Western Highlands. Here we have an opportunity to deal with the great question of transport. It is not merely a question of mails. In the Public Accounts Committee I have raised this question myself of mail contracts given to those services which serve the Islands round our shores. To people there it is a question of transport. The steamer service takes the place of the road transport which such places would enjoy if they were on the mainland. I ask the Secretary of State not to press this proposal through the House now, but to give us a Select Committee, or a Committee which will go into this ques- 1465 tion thoroughly and deal with is as it ought to be dealt with, that is, as a vital question of transport affecting the lives of the people of Scotland.
Mr. WILLIAM ADAMSON
I wish to join in the appeals which have been made to the Secretary of State to withdraw this contract. I think he sees by now that its withdrawal is the unanimous wish of all representing Scotland who have taken part in this Debate, whether on his own side, the Liberal side, or our own side. Far more consideration is required before another contract is entered into with MacBraynes. In introducing this contract for our consideration the Secretary of State said the problem of transport was a very important one in the Western Islands. I should say it was a very grave problem. Improved transport is one of the things needed for the preservation of the remnants of a great race in that part of Scotland. The Secretary of Sate also said it was a problem in which both he and the Postmaster-General were involved; but I would remind him that the improvement of the economic life of the people there is the most important aspect of the problem. During the short period when I occupied the office which the Secretary of State holds to-day I was brought face to face with the numerous difficulties under which our people live in that part of the country, difficulties which at certain times bring them almost face to face with starvation. I had not been many weeks in office before we were faced with difficulties arising from a, bad season which had practically destroyed the previous harvest; the people were threatened with no seed time and no harvest for that year, and special precautions had to be taken to get them over that difficulty.
Transport was one of the most important problems I had to deal with. Other hon. Members have said other elements enter into the problem of the Highlands. I think the hon. Member for Argyllshire (Mr. Macquisten) said one of the greatest causes of the depopulation of the Highlands was the destruction of their ancient civilisation. I believe with him that that was one of the great causes, because the destruction of the system under which they lived made it possible for the evictions to take place which have gradually cleared the braes 1466 and glens of the Western Highlands until there remain only the remnants of that ancient race. The whole nation is responsible for what happened then. The rest of the nation stood calmly aside and allowed that process of depopulation to take place; surely, therefore, they have a responsibility to the remnant of that people and ought to do all they can to make things as tolerable for them as possible. That section of the nation which lives on the outposts live under greater difficulties than the remainder of the nation, and consequently have a claim on the remainder of the nation to reduce those difficulties to a minimum.
One of the difficulties is that of transport. From the statements which have been made and from the figures which have been given to-day, I think the House should have no difficulty in recognising the great part which this question of transport plays in the economic life of this particular section of our people. The Member for Dundee (Mr. Johnston) has given to the House a number of very convincing figures, and other hon. Members have done the same. I will not attempt to cover the same ground, and I will use very few figures. There was one figure used by the hon. Member for Dundee to which I would like to refer. The hon. Member for Dundee stated that the price charged for the cost of transport of coal from one particular colliery to Lairg was 30s. per ton.
That is so. Whereas the hon. Member stated that if the coal was taken to Lochinver it would cost £6 10s. per ton. Not only does that put a great hardship on the people in that part of the country, but it is acting injuriously on the industries in other parts of the country. It is impossible for the people in those districts to pay £6 10s. per ton for coal, and consequently less coal is being consumed, and this is reacting upon the trade of the country. I find that the cost of carrying cement in 1914 was 10s. per ton, whereas it is now 27s., and there has been a corresponding increase in many other articles. These heavy charges inflict an extreme hardship on the poorer section of the population, and they are having an injurious effect upon industry, because they simply mean that the poor people are unable to purchase the things they re- 1467 quire under proper economic conditions. I have here another example of the way in which these excessive transport charges are strangling our people. I have received a telegram from a friend of mine in which he says:Leith, Antrim Iron Ore Steamer regular service, Belfast Stornoway and diverting Scottish trade to Belfast.This is a vital question to the people living in that part of the country. One can readily understand the unanimous feeling which has been expressed in all parts of the House in the direction of urging the Secretary of State for Scotland to reconsider the whole matter before binding the Government for another five years to this particular company, which undoubtedly in the past has not done its duty to the people living in the distant parts of the Highlands and Islands. We have been wondering what to do with our surplus population, and we have had numerous, discussions on that subject. Many men and women have been forced to leave the remote parts of Scotland in order to get a living in our industrial areas, and today they are competing with the people in our towns and cities for a part of the small amount of employment which is available. We have been told again and again that these people would make splendid colonists and that they would make good citizens in Canada, Australia and other parts of our Empire. I am afraid the avenue of employment is gradually being closed.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for that compliment. I was reminding the House that the avenue of employment in our colonies is being gradually closed to our surplus population, and we shall have to consider some other plan. The Highlands and Islands of Scotland offer a splendid opportunity for improving the conditions of these poor people. We hear a good deal of talk about re-populating the Highlands and we are often told that the standard of living that could be obtained in The Highlands is so low that it fails to attract people to that district. I would like to remind those who use that general argument that the section of our people who lived in the Highlands a century ago were able 1468 to have a standard of life comparable to that which exists in the Lowland parts of Scotland. I strongly hold the opinion that if the nation stands up to its responsibility in this matter, the standard of life that could be obtained in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland would soon be comparable with the standard which they were able to obtain in the Lowland parts of Scotland and England.
In conclusion, I want again to impress on the Secretary of State for Scotland the great necessity for reconsidering this contract before it is entered into. I do not think that it is a contract that will very much improve the conditions of our highland and island population. It is a contract which, as the right hon. Gentleman has already heard for himself, has been seriously criticised by all sections of the House. It is true that in the various parts of the House it has been criticised from different angles. My hon. Friends believe that, instead of a contract of this kind being entered into, the State itself should undertake the duty of transport in the highlands and islands of Scotland. In my own personal view, I do not think that any method of dealing with the problem of transport there in all its aspects is possible except by the State undertaking the responsibility. I do not care whether it is MacBrayne and Company or any other shipping company or any railway company that undertakes the responsibility—they will not carry it on for long unless they can make a profit out of it. The difficulties with which these people are face to face are such that for some time ahead the making of a profit on transport or postal service will be an impossibility, hut, as I have already pointed out, the nation has a responsibility to that section of our people, and ought to undertake the responsibility for transport.
I was rather surprised that my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Macpherson) should have said that he was against our method of dealing with the question of transport in the highlands and islands. He said it would create a monopoly. What about the Department which is under the control of the Postmaster-General? A profit has been made there, and we do not hear any complaints about a monopoly. Everyone takes the Post Office for granted nowadays. All the complaint that we hear from time to time is that the Postmaster- 1469 General is not using the profit he makes in the widest manner possible, because if he were doing that he would make all postal charges as reasonable for the people in the highlands and islands as for the people in the more thickly populated districts where a handsome profit is made. If a profit is made on the whole transaction, we ought to make the price the same for the people living in one part of the country as in another. The people living in those parts of Scotland to-day are living under conditions very difficult indeed. Those difficulties could be diminished by the Postmaster-General using the profit he has made as a whole on his Department by giving the same advantages to the people in the highlands and islands as are given to the people in the more thickly populated parts of the country. I want to apply the same arguments to the Secretary of State for Scotland. He ought to undertake responsibility for transport in the highlands and islands, and to afford them transport at as moderate a cost as to the people in any other part of the country. I think it is a responsibility that should rest on the shoulders of the other people of this country, and I hope the right hon. Gentleman is going to give the matter more consideration, and let that section of our people have greater facilities and better conditions than have been possible up till now.
§ Sir J. GILMOUR
Perhaps I may, by leave of the House, say a few words in reply to this very interesting Debate. Let me say at once that I recognise the anxiety of all Scottish Members to see that when a contract of this nature so vitally affecting the interests of Scotland, and particularly the Western Islands and Highlands, is being entered into it should be a contract which will give reasonable conditions of service to the population. I have listened to this Debate, and I have made a careful note of the criticisms which have fallen from hon. Members on all sides of the House irrespective of party, and no Minister standing in my place in such circumstances could be other than conscious of the fact that there is a measure of criticism and a measure of feeling that, perhaps, the best is not being obtained. But I still wish to say to the House that I have taken careful stock of this posi- 1470 tion for some period of time. It has been my duty as the Minister responsible for Scotland to be in close consultation not only with the Postmaster-General and his Department, but with all the other activities and services within the highland area.
What are the facts? Everyone knows the difficulties under which a great part of the population of those districts have lived, but is it true to say that either this Government or Governments which have gone before have not recognised those difficult and peculiar positions? I hope to be able to show to the House in a very short sketch of the situation that neither Governments which have gone before nor the present Government have been neglectful of these peculiar and special conditions. In the first place, a great deal has been said about the problem of depopulation. This problem of depopulation is one which, no doubt, is of vast importance, and is of material interest to this House, but it is a problem which has existed, and which is separate from, and altogether outside even any influence for which the firm of MacBrayne may be responsible.
The general proposition of improved transport facilities in order to give opportunities for the output of the soil, or any manufactures which may arise in those districts, is, of course, of prime and vital importance. We have always recognised the peculiar conditions, and it may be mentioned that, on the question of education, special and peculiar grants to these districts ranging over a period of years have amounted to £425,000, while for medical services for this population, arising out of the same kind of conditions, there was a charge, in 1926, of about £43,000. On the question of freights and the furtherance of housing in these out-of-the-way areas the sums spent in cash benefit to the Islands under these heads in the form of free freights, or easy terms of purchase for building materials, in recognition of these difficulties, in the year 1927, may be estimated at at least £12,000. That is over and above any reduction of ordinary freights that may be obtained in dealing with this particular contract.
The right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Swansea (Mr. Runciman), sneaking of this matter of freights, said that the reduction which we had obtained was altogether out of proportion to any- 1471 thing which operated in similar circumstances. All I can say is that the comparison of freights must be judged, not in connection with open sea freights, but in connection with analogous freightage dealing with similar kinds of materials in coastwise services. The Committee which recently investigated this problem in Scotland came to the conclusion that, judging by the freights of the North of Ireland and the North of Scotland, where the conditions are similar though the locality is different, and where, possibly, there are circumstances, in some cases, of greater competition, these freights were not unduly high in comparison.
A good many cases have been adduced here to-day of particular instances of this or that anomaly. Of course, those are matters which ought to be, and must be, investigated, and there is nothing in this contract which precludes His Majesty's Government from dealing with those problems. Let me take one particular instance. The fact was brought to my attention that for a single bullock taken from, I think, Tiree to Glasgow 25s. was charged, but on investigation, instead of finding that the charge was 25s., if that bullock were conveyed by sea from Tiree to Glasgow, I find that the charge is 16s., and the only thing that I can deduce from the examination of that particular case is that the bullock must have been moved, in the first place, by boat, and then sent by rail, which is altogether a fallacious and improper comparison, and is not a fair accusation against the company with which we are dealing. I do not say that instances of the kind which hon. Members have adduced are incorrect; all that I would say is that they shall be investigated; but when a case of that kind which is brought to my notice is not substantiated on investigation, I am bound to say that these matters require careful investigation.
Let me return to the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for West Fife (Mr. W. Adamson). It is clear that the policy of the right hon. Gentleman and his friends is a policy of nationalisation. As far as His Majesty's Government are concerned, they do not accept the policy of nationalisation of this service, and I would ask my friends in the House to observe that the logical alternative, if the right hon. Gentleman had his way 1472 and forced the dropping of a contract of this nature, must be the running of the service by the State. I think that would be a foolish policy if you can have this carried out by private enterprise under reasonable and fair conditions. Reference has been made to the Report of the Committee on Transport. They say:We do not suggest that with the traffic borne by Messrs. MacBrayne they should provide a better service. We are satisfied that there is no room for competition and that the group of services must be maintained as a monopoly.Therefore, if you discard nationalisation it seems to me you are driven to an alternative between one form of private enterprise and another.
§ Sir J. GILMOUR
Even if it were a monopoly. It is clear that there is no room for a number of companies or lines.
§ Sir J. GILMOUR
That is the finding of the Committee after a careful investigation of all the circumstances. I accept that view. Reference has been made to the possibility of getting at the great railway companies to take this service over and run it as part of their great enterprise. I agree that that is a possibility and it is not ruled out by this contract.
§ Mr. MACPHERSON
Is it or is it not a fact that tenders were asked for before the contract was entered into with Messrs. MacBrayne?
§ Sir J. GILMOUR
No, tenders were not asked for, but unless there is a more reasonable movement on the part of other interests to come forward and lend a hand, what is the use of putting it out to tender?
§ Mr. MACPHERSON
Does not the right hon. Gentleman see that other interests have no chance in this case? It is quite a different thing when you offer a subsidy of £36,000 and allow a monopoly at the same time.
§ Mr. MACQUISTEN
Will not the right hon. Gentleman admit that he never approached anyone but went blindly into MacBrayne's hands?
§ Mr. T. KENNEDY
Has the right hon. Gentleman seriously considered the very definite recommendation of the Com- 1473 mission of 1919, that the steamer service of David MacBrayne & Co., Limited, should be taken over by the State upon equitable terms?
§ Sir J. GILMOUR
Yes, it has been considered and rejected. In answer to the hon. and learned Member for Argyllshire (Mr. Macquisten), when he raised the question of other parties coming in to deal with this problem I invited him publicly to put me in touch with any interest anywhere in the City, in Glasgow or elsewhere, of any kind or circumstance, and I have heard nothing from that day to this. It was a public announcement. It was open to the whole world. It was within the competence and knowledge of other interests if they liked to come to me and inquire. I have been in consultation with the heads of the railways concerned, and obviously the railways do not desire, as a commercial transaction, to deal with this problem. I would remind the House of the kind of problem that this is. It is quite plain that the amount of material which is carried upon this service, as the Committee found, was not a commercial proposition. When you add to that the fact that in comparison with freights carried into the Outer Islands there is something between 20 and 25 per cent. of freights brought back, you can see that to arrange for freights on a basis which may seem fair to the individuals concerned is a matter of no small difficulty.
I come back to this. Is the House going to reject this contract which will give the immediate building of two new ships, and which, if I judge the thing aright, is going to give the advantage of the new ships to the Outer Islands? If I may say so, it appears to have developed into some difference of opinion between the Outer and the Inner Islands. By that, I am not saying that this contract gives all the advantage to the Outer Islands. Far from it. The mere fact that you can take off the Outer Islands service vessels which are admitted by all parties not to be up to the standard we all desire to see, but which will be replaced by two new ships as soon as this House gives the authority to build them, will result in an improvement of the service on the inner route. This contract is for a period of five years.
The alternative, it seems to me, is to run the risk not only of losing the present 1474 service but of being forced to make some kind of temporary provision. As I have suggested, the House should accept the two new ships and the reduction of freights, and also what I. stated categorically at the beginning of this Debate. In view of the changes that are taking place in the proposals of His Majesty's Government in regard to the rates upon the railways, in view of the promise the Prime Minister has made to the House that he going to set up a body, the terms of reference to which I do not entirely know at the moment, to investigate the problem dealing with railway rates and freights and their connection with the sea freights, and that there is a distinct undertaking that this inquiry shall include the circumstances which we have been discussing to-day, and that the announcement of the composition of, and the reference to, that body will be made to the House at no very distant date, I ask hon. Members to believe that that gives them the opportunity of having this matter properly investigated under the best possible conditions. Under those circumstances, although I am conscious of the anxiety of many of my hon. Friends, I do ask the House to assent to this contract.
§ Brigadier-General CHARTERIS
Are we to understand that the railways definitely decline to consider the proposal to run the ships required for this service?
§ Mr. T. KENNEDY
On a point of Order. I understand that earlier in the day you ruled, Mr. Speaker, that the first Amendment on the Paper, in the name of the hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Johnston) and other hon. Members on this side, was not in order. Will you allow me at this stage to make a statement without, of course, questioning your Ruling. You will have gathered that on this side of the House there is unqualified opposition to this contract. In putting down our Amendment, our object was to table a protective Amendment so far as the public interests are concerned, and I beg to suggest that as there are embodied in this contract certain provisions enabling the Postmaster-General to determine the period of the contract, our Amendment is based on the same ground; 1475 that is to say, it simply varies or extends the grounds upon which the Postmaster-General claims the right to determine the contract between the State and Messrs. MacBrayne, and that in that sense our Amendment is in order. If you rule that our Amendment is not in order in the place in which it stands on the Order Paper, would it be competent for us at a later stage to move the Amendment?
§ Mr. SPEAKER
I ruled this morning that the Amendment was out of order, as it raised an entirely different issue. I think the course which is open to the hon. Member is to vote against the whole Question. I cannot see any way within the Rules of Order of dealing with this matter in the way suggested by the hon. Member.
§ Mr. KENNEDY
Can we be informed as to the difference between our Amendment and the provision in the contract which enables the Postmaster-General, on the part of the State, to determine on certain grounds the period of the contract?
§ Mr. KENNEDY
My point is, that in the event of the non-fulfilment of the terms of the contract by the company the Postmaster-General may determine the period of the contract. That is reserved in the terms of the contract. Our Amendment simply seeks on certain grounds to reserve the right of the State in certain circumstances during the currency of the contract to take over the service, on certain terms to be agreed upon between the parties.
§ The POSTMASTER-GENERAL (Sir William Mitchell-Thomson)
The Clause in the contract providing for the termination of it is one that, so far as I know, appears in every contract which I have seen. It simply says that in case of a breach of the contract by the contractors the Postmaster-General shall have power to determine the contract. I do not think that gives sufficient ground for the course which the hon. Member seeks to adopt.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
I think the matter raised by the hon. Member can only be brought forward by a separate substantive Motion.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
May I submit that if the Amendment standing in the name of the hon. Member for Stirling and Clackmannan, Western (Captain Fanshawe), is to be moved now, the subsequent discussion will be narrowed within the terms of that Amendment? In view of the desire of hon. Members to take part in a general discussion, are we to understand that they will be precluded horn doing so, under the general terms of the Amendment?
§ Mr. SPEAKER
I do not think the hon. Member was present at 11 o'clock this morning. I was then asked to allow a' general discussion to cover the whole field, after which certain Amendments that were in order were to be moved, quite briefly, and the House was to come to a decision upon them. If I did not call the hon. and gallant Member for Stirling and Clackmannan, Western (Captain Fanshawe), to move his Amendment now, we could take no vote except on the main Question at 4 o'clock.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
It was my desire to raise a special point, which I understand will be precluded if the Amendment is moved. The point arises on the general terms of the Motion made by the Secretary of State, and, if I am not permitted to refer to it on the general question, I presume that I should not be permitted to do so on this Amendment.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
I think the hon. Member will probably be able to bring it within the limits of the Debate.
§ Mr. MAXTON
On your ruling Mr. Speaker, that we must proceed with this Amendment now because a vote must be taken by 4 o'clock. Is there any reason why a vote should be taken at 4 o'clock? If there is one thing which is very obvious it is this, that the Debate on the subject is not exhausted, and, up to the present time the Government have not shown any reasons why the House should be prepared to place confidence in their view of the matter. I suggest that in the interests of the Debate—and I am putting this because Scottish Members are in a minority in this House and require the protection of the Chair—the proper course is not to have a vote on this matter to-day, but to adjourn the Debate to a later date.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
In all probability, I shall allow the House to decide whether it will conclude the Debate to-day or not.
§ Captain FANSHAWE
I beg to move, in line 5, to leave out the word "approved" and to add instead thereof the words "referred to a Select Committee for consideration prior to approval."
The Debate to-day was opened by a speech from the Secretary of State for Scotland in which he advanced reasons for placing this contract before the House of Commons for approval. Since then we have had most weighty speeches from Members on all sides of the House from Scottish Members. The first speech was that of the hon. Member for Dundee (Mr. Johnston). I am not always in agreement with the hon. Member politically, but leaving out the question of nationalisation, which has been stressed by some hon. Members opposite, I do agree with the speech made by the hon. Member. I think we should not allow anything to come before us except the desirability and the necessity of establishing a proper transport service for the Western Islands. Everything else is subsidiary to that. We have been told by hon. Members on all sides of the House, who know the question much more intimately than I do, of the absurdities in the freight charges, of the delays and the inadequacy of the accommodation in the vessels, and we have had no word from anybody except the Secretary of State himself in support of this new contract. For the life of me I cannot understand why the Secretary of State in his last speech should still try to get the House of Commons to accept this entirely inadequate proposition. He said that if we did not accept it the door would be open to nationalisation. I do not agree that nationalisation is the best thing in any hon. Members opposite agree that nationalisation is the best thing, but I think it would be far better for us to leave this question out altogether, and as the people responsible for these districts to press, before a new contract is made, for what we are asking in this Amendment. It is quite a reasonable proposal.
We ask for a Select Committee. Some of us do not believe that the Secretary of State has fully advertised the matter or asked for tenders to be submitted to him 1478 in the way in which it is customary when new contracts are being initiated. That is all we ask for, and surely it is reasonable? It is no good for the Secretary of State to take all the steps of which we are aware to improve the condition of the people in the Islands, if on the other hand he takes his pen and signs a contract of this sort, which will jeopardise the prosperity of the crofters of the Highlands and deny to them the advantages which my right hon. Friend is actually trying to give them. I cannot understand why the Secretary of State should not grant this inquiry. I very much hope that even at this late hour, on account of all the pressure and the reasoned and strong arguments put before him, he will relent and agree to the Amendment. In that event I am sure that a great wave of relief will pass over the benches of the House and on to the Western Highlands of Scotland.
§ Mr. COUPER
I beg to second the Amendment.
I approach this question from a rather different angle from that of previous speakers. As a representative of one of the largest cities in the country, and certainly of the most important city in the west of Scotland, I represent not only the citizens of my constituency, for a very large number of them are Highlanders and are drawn from the West Highlands. I have had repeated representations made to me as to the matter under discussion, namely, the very serious condition of transport, both for passengers and goods, between Glasgow and the Western Isles. Islanders have complained to me that though desirous of visiting their native places and of bringing home to their families the duties and the patriotic sentiments of their forefathers, they are deprived of that privilege by want of means of access to these places. There is arriving in Southampton to-day a party of 650 Australian Scots, who are to visit not only the southern part of the kingdom but with great speed are to fly to the North. What are we to show them there? The land of their fathers is there, and the conditions of transport are just the same as in their fathers' time.
§ Mr. COUPER
At any rate not better. As a Member for Glasgow I can speak with personal knowledge of the transport 1479 company that we have been discussing to-day. For the personnel of its management and the principal owners, we can speak only in the highest terms, both for their character and their commercial probity and ability. The crews responsible for working the boats are drawn principally from the West Highlands, and are a class of men with whom I have had personal and intimate connection throughout my career, and better men could not be found to work in that employment. We have been told to-day that this contract is to be made for five years. That period of five years started in November, 1927. I would draw the attention of the Secretary of State to the fact that the contract is a wonderful asset to the firm to which it is granted. A five years' contract is a very valuable asset, and if the company at a later stage were to be taken over by the Government, or otherwise taken over, it would be a particularly valuable thing to be able to hand on a five years' contract.
It is interesting to note, from the speech of the Secretary of State, that it is proposed to submit the whole question to an inquiry at some future time, but, is it not simpler to do so now? The present time is ours, but to-morrow may never come. I ask before this matter goes to a Vote that hon. Memers should consider the views expressed by Scottish Members. Whatever may be the result, the Scottish Members are agreed that this contract is not one which should be approved. If this Amendment be defeated, it will not be defeated by the voice of Scotland but by the misfortune that our representation in this House is less than the representation of the southern parts of the Kingdom. If this Amendment be defeated against the wishes of the Scottish Members, it is not the merits of the Amendment which will be defeated. This is not a question of Scotland versus England, or of the Highlands versus the Lowlands. It is not a question of one individual against another, it is a question of the right due to the Highlands of Scotland that we should provide them with the means of transport, for carrying on passenger and goods trade.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
We on this side have no desire to make party capital out of this matter. Our sole purpose is to provide, as far as that is possible, transport 1480 facilities for the Western Highlands and if it can be demonstrated that some method other than nationalisation will be effective for the purpose we shall gladly withdraw any proposal which has been made on those lines. So far as this Debate has gone, however, it has shown that private enterprise has been an utter failure in this matter and that some other means must be devised to meet the case. I do not propose, at this stage, to discuss the question of nationalisation. The proposal for the setting up of a Select Committee will in the circumstances suit Members on this side. It will, at least, provide the Secretary of State and his Friends with an opportunity of inquiring more closely into the grievances that have been elaborated during this Debate. I submit to the Secretary of State and to the Postmaster-General that no case has been made out against the proposal to set up a Select Committee. The right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State said that the grievances mentioned in the Debate were grossly exaggerated. Whether that be so or not, it must be admitted that there is a large measure of truth in the case which has been presented on behalf of the people of the Western Highlands.
Much has been said about the facilities for passengers on board these vessels, and something has been said about the facilities for cattle, but I have not heard a single word said about the facilities for the crews; and those who are acquainted with the crews' quarters on MacBrayne's vessels—I can think of hardly one exception, for all their vessels are alike in this respect—must admit that the accommodation provided for the crews is the worst to be found in the shipping services of this country. The crews' quarters are absolutely vile, and it is paying mere lip service to the qualities, the admitted qualities, of the crews on board MacBrayne's vessels to rate their seamanship highly and to say, as has been said, that without these seamen it would be impossible to carry on this service, if you do not at the same time provide for these crews the very best kind of accommodation. I hope that, if a Select Committee is set up—and hon. Members in all quarters are waiting for the Postmaster-General to give us an assurance that such a Committee will be established—
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON indicated dissent.
§ Mr. SHINWELL
I note that the right hon. Gentleman disapproves. Therefore, we may take it that the Government are adamant and do not propose to give way. This contract is to be proceeded with, and, if that be so, I make this plea, that at the very least the grievances that have been stated to-day should be carefully investigated by the Government. We should not be fobbed off by the promise of two vessels. The Government must be requested to inquire into these grievances, so that we may have an assurance that the transport facilities will be better than they have been, and that, in addition, the needs of the Western Highlanders in this regard will be fully met. I ask particularly that the Government should inquire into the conditions of the crews' quarters on MacBrayne's vessels, and I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that he would not care to know that on vessels which are subsidised by moneys provided by his Department the crews are being required to live in such lamentable conditions. If we are not to have that Select Committee, at the very least the Government should give a promise, before this Debate closes, that all these grievances that have been stated, including the one that I have so imperfectly put forward, will be carefully inquired into.
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
I should like to say a word on this Amendment. I am precluded from saying anything on the general question, but perhaps I may be allowed to make this one observation. It is a somewhat curious reflection that, on a contract which purports to deal with privately-carried mails, in the whole Debate nothing has been said about that aspect of the service. I take note of what the hon. Gentleman opposite has said about the accommodation of the crews, but all these vessels have a Board of Trade certificate. I would observe further that, if he is dissatisfied with the accommodation provided for the crew, and if he objects to the acceptance of this contract, he is taking the only effective step which is open to him to prevent at least two vessels with adequate accommodation for crews being constructed at once.
It has been urged that a further inquiry is necessary in order to look into 1482 the question of the securing of lower freights and more adequate accommodation. It is fair to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland and his Department, and also to my own Department, to say that prolonged and exhaustive inquiry has been made during the last two years. At the same time, my right hon. Friend is not at all anxious in this matter to run counter to the recommendations and the desire of the House, and, if it really be the general desire of the House that there should be further inquiry, the Government have certainly no desire to press the matter at this immediate stage. The only observation which I will make is that several months' delay means a still further delay in the laying down of these new ships. I would remind the House further, that it is rather unfortunate that the House, through no fault of its own, happens to be deprived of the views of the Member of this House who, after all, is most directly interested, namely, the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Livingstone). He is most directly interested—[Interruption.]
§ Mr. MACQUISTEN rose—
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
Let me make an amende at once, and say that one of the Members directly interested is unfortunately unable to be here, but, through the mouth of the right hon. Gentleman, the Member for Swansea, West (Mr. Runciman), he has conveyed to the House by telegram that he is extremely anxious that the House should do nothing to cause an instant's delay taking place in the laying down of these new boats.
§ Mr. MACQUISTEN
I can produce to the right hon. Gentleman a vast body of letters from the Western Isles constituency—[Interruption.]
§ Sir W. MITCHELL-THOMSON
It is no use pursuing the matter further, because I am doing my best to meet the evident desire of my hon. and learned Friend, and the other Members of the House, and I have only to say that, under the circumstances, the Government are quite prepared to agree to the immediate setting up of a Select Committee, expressing the hope that the Select Committee will find it possible not unduly to protract their labours, because we really are satisfied in our own minds that it is necessary and advisable that this new tonnage should 1483 be laid down at the very earliest possible moment. I hope the Committee will not unduly protract their labours and will find themselves in a position to report to the House at an early date.
§ Major MacANDREW
In the course of this Debate, one has heard a great deal about the high rates charged by these steamers, and it has been said many times that they have a monopoly. I think it is quite wrong to speak of it as a monopoly. The sea has been compared with the roads. The sea is free, and anyone who thinks he can run a steamer profitably up among the Western Highlands is entitled to go and try. The hon. and learned Member for Argyllshire (Mr. Macquisten) seemed to think it was one of the duties of the Secretary of State to go around asking shipping companies to come to inspect the waters there and see if they could run ships. Surely the shipping companies are well able to judge for themselves what is a profitable and a paying proposition, and if they thought it would pay them to run services there they would very soon send the ships. The only alternative to what is suggested is to nationalise shipping. If that were likely to prove a success there might be some argument in favour of trying it. The only recent example of nationalised shipping which comes to my mind is found in Australia, where they tried to run ships in the way in which some hon. Members have suggested we should run these ships in Scotland, and that proved to be a very costly experiment.
Those on this side of the House who suggest subsidies and the Secretary of State running the ships ought to go to sit on the opposite side and advocate Socialism, because that is what it means. I and many others are dead against what 1484 has proved to be a failure when tried elsewhere. Where there are freights and passengers the steamers will go. In the summer months we have a line of turbine steamers running on the West of Scotland, and doing very well, because in the summer they can obtain both freights and passengers. Those vessels are laid up in the winter for the simple reason that it does not pay to run them. If they had to run continually, as MacBrayne's have to run, because of the mail contract, they would have to charge enormous freights, as MacBrayne's have to do, in order to pay their way. It does not seem to me that there is any particular wickedness about high freight rates. We cannot expect people to run ships at a loss for any length of time; if they did, they would find themselves in the Bankruptcy Court. The point which has been missed in this Debate is that the lack of freights and the lack of passengers is at the root of the trouble. Unless the nation is going to run these services, the only way to carry on is to adopt the suggestion of the Secretary of State.
§ Amendment agreed to.
§ Main Question, as amended, put, and agreed to.
That the Contract, dated the 2nd and 11th days of April 1928, between the Postmaster General and David MacBrayne, Limited, for the maintenance of certain cargo and passenger sea services in the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and for the conveyance of mails by certain of the vessels so employed, be referred to a Select Committee for consideration prior to approval.