HC Deb 20 July 1932 vol 156 cc2303-13

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a sum, not exceeding £155,953, be granted to His Majesty, to complete the sum necessary to defray the Charge which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1923, for the Salaries and Expenses of the Board of Agriculture for Scotland, including Grants for Agricultural Education and Training, certain Grants-in-Aid, and certain Services arising out of the War."—[NOTE: £120,000 has been voted on account.]

4.0 P.M.


The Committee will probably think that it is convenient, as on former occasions, that I should make a brief opening statement. if only for the reason that the Report of the Board deals with the period which ends on 31st December last year or seven months ago. The Committee, I think, will be chiefly concerned at this moment with the activities of the Board in regard to land settlement, and to that topic I propose to confine at any rate my opening statement. Consideration of the Board's tenth annual Report shows that their efforts on the land settlement side of their work have been attended with considerable success. The number of holders settled during the year 1921 was 722, and of these 438 'were ex-service men. That total of 722 was more than double the number settled in the preceding year, 1920, and, indeed, it considerably exceeded the number settled in any year since the establishment of the Board of Agriculture. The Committee may be interested to hear the figures relating to settlement from the year 1912—I will run over them quite rapidly, and I hope it will not bore the Committee—down to date. In 1912 the number of men settled was 37, 1913, 177: 1914, 459; 1915, 173; 1916, 87; 1917, 60; 1918, 36: 1919, 396; 1920, 317; 1921, 722; and, as I shall show to the Committee in a moment, the number settled in the first seven months of the present year is 527. Accordingly, I am right in saying that the number settled in 1921 was double the number settled during 1920, and exceeded by a considerable number any total in any year since the foundation of the Board of Agriculture. While that is so, I feel constrained to admit that the number settled during last year fell short of my expectations. That was largely because of the hesitation of applicants for small holdings to undertake the responsibilities of land owners. They had regard to the unsettled conditions of the market for stock and other produce. They feared the price of building would. involve them in prohibitive annual outlay in repayment of loans, and they anticipated a capital loss as the result of falling values. That was not unnatural.

There were, in truth, many difficulties which they had to face. There was, first of all, the difficulty with regard to sheep stocks. That is a subject which I have discussed with this Committee on more than one occasion. I am glad to say that that particular difficulty has been largely overcome. The Treasury, to whom the matter was fully explained, have consented to a considerable reduction in the price of stock to be charged to the holders, and in most cases the result has been that the holders have accepted those reduced prices. They have paid down one quarter of the cost of the stock, and they have undertaken to repay the balance, with interest, by instalments extending over a period of ten years. That particular concession, valuable though it is, involved a considerable additional drain on the Board's already limited funds: but there was really no alternative in the matter. Then, again, there is the building difficulty. That difficulty arises chiefly in the case of arable holdings. It is not surprising, with the prospect of a diminished return, owing to the fall in prices of agricultural produce, that some applicants were reluctant to undertake payment of rent in addition to building-loan annuity until a stabilised market allowed them to gauge the situation better. In a number of cases, where holdings have been already established. and buildings erected at the prices which have prevailed during the past two years, the holders have represented to me that their burdens for rent and annuity are excessive, in spite of the fact that the annuity is calculated at a nominal rate of interest, namely, l¼ per cent. The holders about whom my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Aberdeenshire (Major M. Wood) asked me this afternoon, numbering 178, whose rents have not yet been settled and who got possession at the peak of prices as it were, profess themselves to be unable to pay their rent and annuity charges. That is the reason why the rent has not been determined in these cases. I am at present in consultation with the Treasury on the matter, but I am not yet in a position to say whether it may be possible to offer any concession to that particular class of holders. I hope that it may be so.

Moreover, the call upon the Board, in common with all other Departments, to curtail its expenditure has also contributed to a reduction in the number of holders settled during 1921. The proposals had to be revised in order to meet the altered conditions. These changes, of course, can never be made without causing delay. The necessity for these changes could not always be impressed successfully upon the applicants, who in all cases had to be offered less desirable conditions than they had anticipated and than I should have desired to have afforded. Again, the limitation of the proposal to schemes for ex-service men—that is commented on on page 16 of the Board's report—undoubtedly has a certain effect in delaying progress. I do not need to elaborate it further at this stage than to say that, while it was necessary to adopt the policy under the financial conditions which prevailed and which rendered it necessary to apply the limited funds available to ex-service men in the first place, the consequences of the policy, as shown in the Report, must obviously he expected. In spite of these unavoidable difficulties which I have mentioned, I think I am justified in saying that land settlement has been speeded up and that the preliminary work of negotiation and of planning in previous years is now bearing fruit. For example, in the course of the present year 1922, as I indicated a few moments ago, 527 additional applicants have already been settled in the first seven months of the year in addition to 722 in the course of the year 1921. Schemes which are in stages of progress, will, if they mature, as most of them are fully expected to do, provide for over 1,100 more applicants. Of these 1,100 it is anticipated that over 500 will be settled by Martinmas next, 11th November, or, at any rate, in time for cultivation in 1923.

Of course, I cannot and do not claim that the small holdings question in Scotland is now in a fair way towards settlement. The problem is far too large and complicated to admit of easy solution. Will the Committee just for a moment consider, first of all, the funds which are available, and, secondly, the applicants who desire to participate in the funds. The Board's funds come, as the Committee know, from two sources. First of all, there is the annual grant to the Agriculture (Scotland) Department of £200,000. That fund, however, the Committee will remember, bears the charge of many other services which are performed by the Board, and is only in part, therefore, available for the purposes of land settlement. In addition to that fund, there are the moneys which are borrowed from the Public Works Loan Commissioners under the provisions of the Act, 1919, which made £2,750,000 available for this purpose, and under the Act of 1921, which added £750,000 to that sum. I must, however, add that, following the report of the Geddes Committee, the total funds available under the Acts of 1919 and 1921 were limited to £3,000,000. Schemes which are in being or contemplated in the near future will absorb £2,300,000 of that sum, leaving a balance of £700,000 which is still unearmarked.

Let me turn for a moment to the applicants. The unsettled applicants for whom no provision is made in schemes which are in course of development number approximately 10,000, including 3,000 ex-service men. These numbers probably do not afford a reliable index of the real effective demand as it exists to-day. That consideration was borne in upon my mind very forcibly in the course of the last year, and, accordingly, upon my instructions, a very careful survey of these applications has been made by the Board of Agriculture, and, apart from un-notified withdrawals, deaths, and so on, experience has shown that, while on the one hand the demand only becomes articulate in many districts when a scheme is projected in the locality, on the other hand a considerable proportion of the applicants already recorded must be described as ineffective, because the applicants have not fully realised the conditions attaching to small holdings tenure, and are not likely to undertake the obligations which fall upon them as holders, or because they insist on the provision of holdings in particular spots where it is impossible to provide for them. Keeping these considerations in mind, the Board reviewed the position as to unsettled ex-service men in the course of the year now gone by. They came to the conclusion, after a most meticulous survey, that from 25 per cent. to 30 per cent. of the applications might be written off as ineffective, leaving last year 2,000 ex-service applications, for which provision has yet to be made. Assume that there are these 2,000 ex-service men to settle. Assume that 1,000 more can be settled by the assistance of the fund at present at the disposal of the Board. Assume—I do not undertake it—that these 1,000 men can be settled in the course of 1923. The Committee will see that, apart from any new applications coming in—I do not anticipate that they will be numerous—ex-service men by the end of 1923 will, I hope, be settled upon the land in Scotland with the exception of about 1,000.

One is, therefore, coming within sight of a solution of this very pressing problem. You have to add, of course, the 7,000 unsettled applications from civilians. From these similar deductions must be made for ineffective applications. They will be 25 per cent. or 30 per cent. Keeping these applications in mind, there is a long road to travel, and much will be left to be done after the funds provided by the Act have been exhausted. The Board estimate that the unearmarked balance of £700,000 will provide for 1,000 or thereabouts. Of these some must, from the necessities of the case, be civilians, if only for the reason that in many parts of the Highlands the farms available and suitable are limited in number, and that permanent injury may be done by establishing new ex-service holders on a farm which offers the only natural outlet for the enlargement of holdings in adjacent and congested towns. The hon. Member for the Western Isles (Dr. Murray) will, no doubt, agree with that view. It is of interest to observe, and it is a tribute to the activities of the Board, that, while under the Act of 1911 the statutory limit below which the Board cannot take compulsory action was £80 rent for 150 acres, under that limitation there are to-day only four farms left in the outer islands which are available and suitable for land settlement. All other farms have been appropriated.

I can deal only generally with the large question on which I have touched. From the Board Report, and from the further information which I have had supplied to me, it is evident that there has been progress made. I am not saying that the rate of progress can be maintained next year. When the Committee remembers the recommendations of the Geddes Committee, which it has been decided to adopt—recommendations which involve a considerable reduction of staff and of funds—the Committee will see that they must of necessity have an effect on the hate of settlement in the coming year. I am aware of the criticism which abounds with regard to land settlement. Some of that criticism is directed against the policy of land settlement and some directed against the Board. So far as the policy is concerned, it has been affirmed, and re-affirmed, in this House. So far as the Board is concerned, I might remind the Committee that one is dealing now with a reconstituted Board. which was brought into being since the last occasion upon which this matter was discussed here. I am sure that the view of the Committee, and the view of the public outside, will he that the new Board ought to have a chance of asserting its authority and of carrying out its work. Criticism, of course, there will be, and ought to be. It is the inalienable right of the average British citizen to criticise the Government or the weather or any Board which operates in Scotland or anywhere else.

So far as the Board is concerned, I say that neither the Board nor I have the smallest objection to constructive and informed criticism. But I cannot help feeling that much of the criticism that has been directed against the Board is neither constructive nor based on adequate knowledge of the facts. It is often fretful and vociferous, and even malignant. I recognise, of course, that the Board's operations must give rise to differing opinions. I do not say that the interests of the parties with whom we have to deal, proprietors or farmers on the one hand and applicants on the other, are necessarily conflicting. But they often do not see eye to eye when directly affected by the Board's operations. The one insists that there is no need to disturb the existing condition of things and the other maintains that immediate change is essential. The Board's duty is to arbitrate on this question, and in arriving at their decision they have to take many considerations into account that cannot of necessity be present to the minds of the persons concerned in the operations. They must select the areas where their intervention can produce the best results, keeping in view the numbers that can be settled and the cost of the demands from applicants all over the country. It very often happens, on the one hand, that there is no reasonable alternative but to take a farm, although the proprietor and existing occupier would prefer to retain it. On the other hand, equally, no alternative but to refuse to deal with the demand from a particular area, because that area could be dealt with only by an expenditure of time, labour and money which would produce much better results elsewhere.

The Board have been repeatedly hampered in their operations by the failure of applicants in a particular locality to appreciate the wider aspect of the question. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect that they could do so. They are concerned only with their immediate circumstances, and they insist on the provision of holdings under threat of forcible seizure, which in some cases has taken place. The Hebrides have caused me considerable anxiety in this connection. The position at the end of the year is referred to on page 21 of the Board's Report. I am glad to say that since that date it has greatly improved. The concessions which have been made by Lord Leverhulme have relieved the situation in Lewis. Settlements on the farms of Coll, Gress and Tolsta have been allotted. In North Uist the Balranald estate has been settled. The Raasay situation, to which reference is made on page 22 of the Board's Report, has now been cleared. The raiders have removed from the ground. The Board has completed an arrangement for the acquisition of the whole estate. Part of it is now in occupation by holders, and the remainder will be settled at Martinmas, 11th November this year, and in the spring of next year. I am glad to say that the number of men now in unauthorised occupation of land in Scotland is very small indeed, and I am justified in saying that the situation has improved enormously since the end of last year.

The problem of land settlement is, in my view, one which palpitates with human interest. On it, I hope I may say without presumption, I have spent many hours of thought and work. The progress which has been made has been slow, but it has certainly been sure. One's aim has not yet been realised. What is the aim that one keeps in view? Surely to secure a large, contented and prosperous peasantry in Scotland; to secure for each man who desires to settle on the land that he should be enabled to do so; to secure that these men should neither be huddled in our great cities, nor hustled across the sea, unless such is their wish. We are not taking too parochial a view if we think of the impoverishment of our land as well as of the expansion of our Empire. It is a problem which cannot be assessed in pounds, shillings and pence. It is a debt which we owe to the ex-service men. We can never fully repay the debt which we owe to them, but we can at least make a payment on account, and in seeking to do so we shall also, I think, do a good day's work for our native land, for we shall erect a bulwark which will shelter us, should a new emergency arise. Therefore, I hope that this Committee and the public will not criticise the efforts of the Board loo harshly, but will rather co-operate with the Board and myself in compassing the end which, without distinction of party, we all have in mind.


I beg to move to reduce the Vote by £100.

The right hon. Gentleman made some reference to criticisms which from time to time have been directed to his Department, particularly with reference to the Vote now before the Committee. He said that some of it was vociferous, indeed malignant, and he added that the Government, like the weather, were subject to criticisms of various kinds. The real distinction is that the weather, unfortunately, is not subject to the will of the electorate. The Government is subject to the electorate, and therefore criticisms are rightly directed even if they may have a touch of the vociferous. I must say that I do not know where the touch of malignancy comes in. Certainly not on the Floor of this House or from any responsible critic I have heard of in connection with this particular Vote. The right hon. Gentleman dealt with the figures of what one might call land settlement in its wide sense. I mean settlement under the Small Holdings Act as well as under the Land Settlement Act. The Committee might do well to be reminded of the general figures, and then to deal with the hypothetical percentages which the right hon. Gentleman laid before the Committee. The general figures are these: The number of applications received was 18,162. Of these, 3,962 have been withdrawn, and 108 were rejected, making a total of 4,070. 2,464 were settled at the end of last year. That leaves a total not yet settled of 11,628. As I understood the Secretary for Scotland, after making various allowances he treated that total in round figures as 10,000.


So far as the ex-service applications were concerned, one had to write off 25 per cent. or 30 per cent. as non-effective applications, and the same applied to non-service applications.


I am dealing with the right hon. Gentleman's own figures from the Report, and I say there is a general total of 11,628. I will write off, if he likes, 2,000 odd and call it 9,500, and let it stand at that. At the most favourable rate of progress, how long will it take to settle these men on the land, not counting new applications, but those which have been in several years? At the rate indicated by the Secretary for Scotland, it will take at least 11 years from now to clear up these arrears, because that is what they are. I do not know how many came in last year, but let us say that it was 1,000, that leaves arrears to be dealt with falling very little short of 8,000 to 9,000 applications, assuming that the rate of progress which has been indicated is kept up, and in that I am assuming what the right hon. Gentleman himself does not claim to be probable, because the present rate of progress is very difficult to keep up owing to financial and other difficulties. The charge which the ex-service men are entitled to make, and which the civilians who put in their applications years ago are also entitled to make, is that these cases were dealt with far more rapidly in the years that are gone. I discount very much the percentages upon which my right hon. Friend bases his limited hopes and expectations. He whittles down the ex-service figures by a series of deductions, and what it all comes to is that these men do not believe there is any chance of a substantial grant of their claims and their rights—their rights by the declarations of the Prime Minister and other Ministers. They have given up hope of a fulfilment of the promises made to them in any reasonable time to come. There is complaint about unrest. I am not astonished that there should be unrest: I marvel at the patience which has been shown. It is amazing. Let me read what the right hon. Gentleman's own report says in regard to the very case of Raasay with which ho has just been dealing. What were the facts there? I am reading from page 22 of the Report which is now before the Committee: Descendants of crofters who were removed some generations ago from the Island of Raasay left Bona, erector houses on Raasay, and took possession of, and cultivated land there. What did the Scottish Land Court, in 1920, say in regard to the state of Rona? The Court have great difficulty in fixing fair rents for holdings such as are occupied by the applicants and which are situated on an island entirely unsuited for a settlement of smallholders. In the opinion of the Court the island is suitable for nothing else than as a grazing for a very limited number of sheep.


That case has been settled.


I am very glad to hear this case is now settled, but at the moment my right hon. Friend was dealing with it I had my attention diverted by other matters. What happened there was typical of the delays of the Department. The order of events was this. Negotiations were opened in 1919. Then the Board hesitated to press matters on account of the state of the finances. Subsequently there was an inability to agree with the owners as to the price. The next step was that the raid took place and a number of men were interdicted and imprisoned. Then the Board announced what they termed a general principle, and the general principle was that none of the raiders need look for any hope in view of their illegal action, and notice was given that those who took the law into their own hands should expect no consideration from the Board. What has been the result? The result of the raid is that the men are settled there.


indicated dissent.


I take leave to differ. It seems to me, that if the men had not taken those steps, they would still be agitating—

WHEREUPON THE GENTLEMAN USHER OF THE BLACK BOD being come with a Message, the Chairman left the Chair.

Mr. SPEAKER resumed the Chair.

Forward to