HC Deb 11 September 1941 vol 374 cc423-30
Mr. Henderson Stewart (Fife, East)

I would like to refer to the very interesting statement made earlier in this Sitting by the Secretary of State for Scotland about the formation of a new body or Council to examine post-war Scottish problems. That body is to contain representatives of all political parties in the country, and I congratulate my right hon. Friend on a very ingenious scheme. I am very glad that he has confined himself to a political personnel and has not, as has been the case so often in the past, sought refuge in handing over the problem to outside or so-called economic experts or interests, even to such a body as the Scottish De- velopment Council. I am very glad, because this business of considering a post-war Scotland is a politician's job, or at least it will ultimately become a politician's responsibility. No matter what scheme is prepared by an outside body, however brilliantly thought out it may be, it will stand no ghost of a chance of being put into practical effect unless politicians accept it and It is approved by this House. My right hon. Friend has produced at the very origin of the scheme a group of political persons, and the assumption is that out of the work of that body will come a scheme—at least, I hope so—that will be generally acceptable to the politically-minded people of Scotland. I think in that respect he has done a sound piece of work. I have no complaint to make of the composition of this new body, nor of the proposal that they shall hand over the actual business of inquiry to outside ad hoc committees, but if this new body is to win the good-will and enthusiasm of Scotland, then I feel that he must tell us, if not to-day, at an early date, a good deal more than he did at Question Time. He should tell us what duties are to be given to this body, what kind of work it will have to do and how it will do it. He should tell us the tempo of its labours.

I would call his attention particularly to this question of tempo. Are the inquiries of this Council to be confined entirely to post-war problems? I rather gather from what he said that that will be so. Are the schemes which it will frame to be schemes to be put into effect only after the war? If that is so—and I am afraid it must be so—surely there is a very great danger that the existence of this Council, with its various committees of inquiry, will be seized upon by the Government, as other bodies have been seized upon by every Government I have ever heard of, to postpone what ought to be done immediately. I was not a Member of this House when the late Mr. Ramsay MacDonald was Prime Minister, but the House will remember, no doubt, that every problem which was put up to the Government was shelved—or so it seemed to us outside—by being handed over to a committee of inquiry. In 18 months there were more committees of inquiry appointed than at any other time. I make bold to say that two or three of us sitting together could very easily cull from the scores of reports of those committees of inquiry enough material to form a policy. I am afraid of the possibilities of postponement, inherent in the setting-up of this body, of things which are absolutely necessary now.

For example, yesterday we discussed a Bill containing a proposal for a new scheme of hydro-electric development in the Highlands of Scotland. I am not competent to say whether the Bill was entirely good or bad. Experts tell me that one or two Amendments relating to electrical matters would have had to be made. We turned down that Bill yesterday, principally on the ground put forward by the Secretary of State for Scotland that he proposed to make an inquiry into the matter. There were, of course, different grounds in the minds of some hon. Members, such as the objection to a private company carrying out such operations. I understood the Government's reason to be that they were to make an inquiry and they did not want difficulties to be put in the way of any ultimate scheme. In other words, the Government used the body which it was proposed to set up in order to postpone something which would have been of the greatest and almost immediate value to Scotland. I do not say the Bill was perfect, but if it had been passed, we had the assurance that, when the war finished, in a year or two say, at that very moment the electricity scheme would have been started. One fears that by turning down the Bill and the adoption of that method by the Government, it will be five years before a single unit of electricity is created in the Highlands. If the right hon. Gentleman can assure me that that is not likely to happen, nobody will be more pleased than I, but I have seen Governments seizing every excuse to put off good and necessary projects, and I cannot help feeling a little fearful in these matters.

What kind of subject is the new Council to examine? What is to be the relation between it and other bodies already set up by Parliament to examine post-war problems? I hope I am a good Scotsman. I have great sympathy with the Nationalists, but we cannot consider Scottish problems in vacuo. Scarcely one question affecting our native land is not at some point intimately connected with the organisation existing in England.

Mr. Sloan (South Ayrshire)


Mr. Henderson

Stewart: I am sure that if he will listen, my hon. Friend will agree with me. Take transport. Surely you cannot consider Scottish transport as if it was in a little corner cut off from the world. Transport in Scotland must be bound up with the transport system south of the Border. Take the question also of the location of industry. Surely no one is going to say that you can take Scotland in a little corner by herself and settle that problem, leaving England out of it altogether. It is impossible. You must consider the whole country in a problem of that kind. Even the problem of electrical development cannot be considered within the confines of the borders of Scotland. That is why I press my right hon. Friend to tell us what will be the relations between this new body and Lord Reith's Ministry and that of the Minister without Portfolio, to name only two, because those two Ministries have been authorised by Parliament to do much of the work which one conceives this Council may also be doing. I myself feel that before this new body in Scotland can start considering its work its relationship with these English Ministries ought to be made crystal clear.

I offer the House a further reason. One would regret it exceedingly, supposing one or two expert committees to be appointed which after much labour issued some excellent reports, if those reports had to be scrapped—as so many dozens of other reports in Scotland have had to be scrapped—because the solution offered did not ultimately fit in with the Great Britain solution which might be adopted by this House. That is a very practical point, and I would be grateful if the Secretary of State could advise us on that score. I do not want to take up the time of the House any longer, although there are many other questions I should have liked to ask. I know my right hon. Friend naturally cannot have had too much time in which to consider this, and I do not want to press it, but these are fundamental questions to which, either to-day or at some very early date, he ought to give full and specified answers.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. T. Johnston)

I am very grateful to the hon. Member for East Fife (Mr. Henderson Stewart) for the courteous way in which he has stated the difficulties he his desired to raise. May I again say to the House roughly what the position is? It is generally felt that the Government ought to prepare for the post-war years. Everybody is agreed that something in the nature of post-war planning should take place, but unfortunately very few people are agreed as to what form this post-war planning should take, and the Government have set up three separate organisations by which we hope the whole field will be covered. There is first the responsibility of the Minister without Portfolio, who has to consider all aspects of post-war problems, including the whole future of relationships outside this country which will have to be faced in the post-war years. He will deal, for example, with the import of foodstuffs. Then there is the Minister of Works and Buildings, Lord Reith, who is charged with responsibility for long-term planning in the sphere of physical reconstruction of this country after the war. Lord Reith's duties have been clearly stated in the House of Lords in a Debate which took place on 17th July.

Then there is a Council of Ministers presided over by Lord Reith, the members of which are the Minister of Health and the Secretary of State for Scotland. They were charged with a simple and rather limited duty. They were to ensure that the administration of the town and country planning Acts and any legislation implementing the recommendations made in the first Report of the Uthwatt Committee should proceed in conformity with long-term planning policy as it is progressively developed. That is to say, no reconstruction which takes place now, such as in Coventry, for example, shall be permitted by the Ministers who are responsible for town and country planning unless it is in conformity with what it is conceived to be with the long-term planning which Lord Reith and his Department are considering. That is the sole purpose of this Council of Ministers. I think I may say that measures will very shortly be brought into this House to implement the first Report of the Uthwatt Committee, and they will be brought in by the Minister of Health, so far as England and Wales are concerned, and by myself so far as Scotland is concerned.

I hope that is a picture of what is roughly the Government's present intention. But we in Scotland have a particular responsibility. It is quite true, as my hon. Friend said, that you cannot discuss problems in vacuo. You cannot discuss Scottish problems without con- sidering their impact on English problems. There are also specialist problems which we have in Scotland—herrings, argricultural problems, hill sheep problems, gas grid and so on—

Mr. McKinlay (Dumbartonshire)

Grey seals.

Mr. Johnston

That is a matter on which I hope we shall not be required to set up a specialist committee. We have specialist problems in Scotland, and it is our duty to make the necessary arrangements for inquiring into these problems with a view to preparing legislation to meet them. When I came to consider the setting-up the Advisory Committee the announcement of which was made by Lord Reith in another place, I had to face the fact that with the best will in the world, to set up a committee for which I alone was responsible for filling the personnel might weaken its authority in dealing with the important questions to which I have referred.

It being the hour appointed for the interruption of Business, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Major Dugdale.]

Mr. Johnston

If questions of that kind were to be investigated by committees of such a character, it is important that the committees should be impartial, and, more than that, that they should appear to be impartial—that they should not only be like Cæsar's wife, but something more. In my view that could be achieved only by associating with the present Secretary of State for Scotland, with his political background, ex-Secretaries of State for Scotland. Those right hon. Gentlemen have readily agreed to help. The first task is to select the immediate subjects for inquiry. We shall then settle the personnel. Then we hope to get the reports as quickly as possible. If we can secure the assent of these ex-Secretaries of State in general, with the reports of these expert committees, I think that we shall have a better chance than ever we have had before in history of getting any necessary legislation through, implementing these reports. I hope my hon. Friend will agree with me that once these reports are implemented and brought forward to this House, this, instead of being a method of delaying legislation, will be the finest method of ensuring urgent and speedy passage of legislation which we believe may be urgently necessary.

My hon. Friend asks what kind of subjects these committees will consider. It would obviously be improper for me to suggest what subjects would have priority until I am in a position to discuss the matter with these gentlemen themselves, but I can assure the House that I have given a great deal of thought to the matter, and I have proposed this scheme in the confident hope that, so far from meaning delay, it will mean expedition. I hope that, on reflection, my hon. Friend will agree. He asked, What about our relationships with other bodies? As I said this morning, the work of the Council over which I shall preside will be carried on in close touch with the organisation set up by the Government, for the purpose of examining all post-war problems as a whole. But there are particular problems we have to face, and we must meet them or we perish. My hon. Friend himself was in a deputation which came to me to-day about one of them. If we do not meet these problems, we may find that Scotia is deserted. There are industries in Scotland which in peacetime are perilously near decay, and it is our duty, with the aid of scientists, technicians, business men, trade unionists and everybody concerned, pulling together, to place these industries and the life of our people on a more secure and economic basis than they have been. I do not want to suggest in this House or anywhere else what kind of subjects we should deal with. It may be Highland development, which, as my hon. Friend knows, is a most important subject, or it may be hill sheep farming, electricity and gas.

Sir Percy Hurd (Devizes)

Will an opportunity be taken for members of the Saltire Society and the Scottish Development Council of Scotland, and others interested, who take a deep interest in these questions, to put their views before the Council?

Mr. Johnston

Certainly, but this Council cannot itself hear evidence. It can only appoint the personnel for the various commissions of inquiry, and I should think that these commissions will be most lacking in their duty if they do not take evidence from every possible source from which they could obtain competent evidence. The Council will not ad- minister anything or take away from the responsibilities of the Secretary of State for Scotland or the Government. It will only be a guarantee and assurance to the people of Scotland that all parties will weigh in in a co-operative manner to assist in making immediate post-war reconstruction in Scotland.

My hon. Friend sought with considerable ingenuity to raise again the question which was discussed yesterday—the hydro-electricity scheme. Well, the major difficulty I had about that scheme, was not the one which he adumbrated today. It was not that we should require to see the Grampian scheme fitted into Scotland as a whole, although that was one part of my difficulty. It was that we were asked yesterday to hand over natural assets and resources to a private corporation for 75 years, when there was no possible chance of these assets being operated in the meantime. Therefore, it was desirable that we should defer our decision on the gravity of the issue until such time as that part of our resources could be fitted into the scheme as a whole. I do not want to argue the rights or wrongs of that; I had my say on that matter yesterday. I only want to assure my hon. Friend and the House that what we are proposing to do may be novel and daring, but it is in conformity with the whole "spirit and purpose which are animating this nation now. The nation is united at this moment, and we seek only to carry into our postwar arrangements that spirit of national unity and collaboration upon which this Government is founded.