HC Deb 30 June 1947 vol 439 cc1081-103

10.10 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Barnes)

I beg to move, That the Agreement, dated 3rd June, 1947, between His Majesty's Government and David MacBrayne, Limited, for the maintenance of certain transport services in the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and for the conveyance of mails in connection with the said services, be approved. I ask the House to approve an agreement made between the Ministry of Transport and the Postmaster-General, on behalf of His Majesty's Government, and Messrs. David MacBrayne, Ltd., for certain transport and mail services in the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland. This agreement is for a rather short period, namely, from 2nd March, 1946, to 31st December, 1947. It will provide an opportunity for Members of the House to express their views, if they so desire, on the terms and conditions of this agreement. As I have indicated, it is an interim Measure, following the interruption of the agreement as a result of the war. It will probably lead to a long-term contract in the near future. David MacBrayne's steamship services have to deal with a very difficult economic pro-blem in relation to the population of the Western Isles.

This affords an opportunity for me to pay a tribute to the value of the work done by the officers and men of our short-sea coastal services, which is not always appreciated. It is at times such as Dunkirk, and more recently during the fuel crisis in the early part of this war, that we are able to appreciate the courage and devotion to duty of services of this kind in our Island's economy. David MacBrayne's ships made their contribution during the war. I have already referred to the Dunkirk incident; they were also used for minelaying, and for conveying troops in and around the Western Isles. This appears to be a suitable opportunity to acknowledge the services of the masters and crews in the past and for the future.

Whenever these contracts appear before the House, they usually arouse a certain amount of criticism, and that will possibly be the case tonight. In view of the fact that this is a short-term agreement, I shall listen to any criticisms that are made with greater attention than would probably have been the case if I were already committed to a long-term contract. I wish later to indicate some of the difficulties and new circumstances arising, which influenced me to look with considerable care before any long-term arrangement was made in this direction. This is the only company carrying out services of this description which has enjoyed a permanent subsidy from the State. That, as I have said, is because of the peculiar circumstances of the area which they serve. The subsidy dates back to 1891—[HON. MEMBERS: "Shame"]—and in 1928 a long-term contract, of 10 years, was inaugurated at a round figure of £50,000 a year, which rose to £60,000 towards the end of that period. That contract was subjected to rather severe criticism in the House. Before it was completed Messrs. David MacBrayne ceased to exist, and their liabilities were taken over, as a result of the deliberations of a Select Committee of this House, by Coast Lines Ltd., and the L.M.S. Dividing the capital liabilities between them, 50 per cent. on either side, they took over the old company's services. That joint body represents the ownership of the lines today.

The war brought that arrangement to an end. In 1941, the Ministry of Transport requisitioned their ships and other coastal vessels under the liner requisitioning scheme and the subsidy disappeared, because, during the war, the Ministry paid the gross rate of hire for all the vessels that were requisitioned. In March, 1946, I was responsible for releasing MacBrayne's services, and at once the old problem of the necessity for a subsidy re-emerged. In view of the fact that at that time the nationalisation of road transport was in preparation, the difficulties arising from increased expenses and changed character of the traffic, the knowledge that I possessed that the L.M.S. held a 50 per cent. shareholding in this company, and that provided the Transport Bill become law, that shareholding would pass into the ownership of the Transport Commission, hon. Members will realise that new factors emerged which caused me to think carefully before entering into a further long-term contract. Those Members who served on the Standing Committee on the Transport Bill will be aware that Scottish Members on all sides expressed a very direct interest in these services, and that I gave an undertaking that I would examine thoroughly the problem of transport in these wide and scattered areas. That examination has influenced me to agree to a memorandum of agreement on a short-term basis before being committed to a long-term obligation.

Under this agreement, MacBrayne's would undertake certain general services —steamer, road, ferry and harbour services. I regret that it has not been possible for the company to restore their full steamer services at once, but I am satisfied that every effort is being made by the company to improve them as rapidly as circumstances permit. I would remind the House that they came out of the war with five fewer ships, owing to war losses, and, like every other transport service, their ships had been subjected to very heavy wear and tear during the war. While they are anxious and willing to re-engine, replace and reconvert ships, they are handicapped by the general difficulties that prevail in the shipbuilding industry. Nevertheless, they have under construction at the moment, and it is near completion, the "Loch Seaforth," a 16-knot ship, and when this is in operation, which I hope will not be very long now, it will cut off one hour from the run to Stornoway. The ex-hospital launch "Galen" commenced today a new twice daily service between the island of Lismore and Oban. Negotiations are going on between the company and the Admiralty, and if a suitable craft can be obtained a ferry service will start shortly between Tobermory and Mingary.

As to the terms of the agreement, I think that hon. Members will appreciate that wherever a subsidy is involved—and this is a very substantial subsidy—for the services that are performed, it behoves the Government to keep the balance between the needs of an area of this character and the needs of the Treasury. That brings me to the problem of increasing the rates and freights. If one takes the advance of the coastal shipping freights as a whole, throughout the industry, there has been an, advance of at least 75 per cent. above prewar rates, but although these services were operating on a lower rate than generally prevailed before the war owing to the advantage of the subsidy, nevertheless, the Ministry of Transport and the Scottish Office have agreed in consultation only to advance the average increase of rates and fares of this service by 33⅓ per cent. from the 1st of November, 1946. Hon. Members will be aware that the rates and freights of this particular service are substantially below those prevailing generally in similar services. I must make it clear that the adjustment from war conditions does not represent a permanent adjustment of rates and freights any more than in other transport services. With regard to the financial conditions of the agreement, before the war the contracts that determined the subsidies were in round figures, as I have indicated, £50,000 rising' to £60,000.

After very full examination of all the special and abnormal difficulties which surround these services, it was felt that we could not proceed under conditions as they prevail today on the old basis upon which the subsidy was framed. Therefore, in this contract, I must bring to the notice of the House the difference in the basis of the subsidy. This subsidy is based on the difference between expenditure and income plus a sum of £33,000 providing 3½ per cent. interest on the capital employed. Some hon Members may feel that that is rather a generous basis, but I ask them to keep in mind the practical difficulties that prevail in the shipping world today. The shortage of shipping, and the abnormal expenses that any one operating shipping services has to meet are well known, and if any shipping service were diverted from these particular routes, there would be no difficulty at all in earning figures such as I have given here in the subsidy figures. I want to assure the House that this has been thoroughly considered and we feel, taking the whole of the circumstances into consideration, that the House would be justified in approving this agreement.

I come to the safeguards which we consider to be necessary. The Government have always had the right of appointing a director on the board of MacBrayne's. That will be continued. Further, the com- pany must submit its ordinary accounts to my Department and to those of the Comptroller and Auditor-General. We will have full access whenever it is required to the company's books. Under Article 15 (2), the company will be required to keep the surplus funds which they have received from insurance in respect of war losses invested at reasonable rates of interest, and these investments will have to be brought into their revenue account. New capital expenditure will be excluded, and the Minister's consent for expenditure on repairs other than normal repairs will have to be obtained Under Article 15 (3, b) no expenditure will be included in the accounts unless the Minister is satisfied that it is reasonably and properly incurred.

The cost of the subsidy for this year, 1947, is estimated to be £163,000 made up as follows: Direct subsidy, £145,000; interest on capital at 3½ per cent. £18,000, making a total, as I indicated, of £163,000. The company has to undertake certain services for the Postmaster-General, and that, of course, is a normal trading operation. The Post Office will contribute £35,000 for their services, which brings the net subsidy down to £128,000. I think the House will appreciate, as I have indicated, that this is a very substantial sum to be paid from the Treasury for services of this character. It is reasons and factors of the sort which I have indicated that have influenced me to give this matter more serious consideration before adopting any long-term policy on this matter While matters of that description are being examined, the life and trade and economy of the Western Islands must be maintained. Hence the interim arrangement. The Fair Wages Resolution which the House of Commons passed on 14th October, 1946, is inserted in Article 12.

There is only one other point which I need to make and that is with regard to the Government director. Colonel McLeod has been the Government director since 1928. He has given very valuable service on the board of directors. His period of office ended on 31st March this year. I want to take this opportunity of thanking him for his interest and valuable services. If the contract is approved by the House, as I sincerely hope it will be, I propose, in agreement with the Secretary of State for Scotland, to appoint as Government director on this board Sir Hector McNeil, the Lord Provost of Glasgow. He has served the Ministry of Transport in very many important ways; he has a very wide and extensive knowledge of this type of undertaking, and I am satisfied that he will look after the full interests of the Government in this direction. I close by asking the House to approve this agreement, and I assure Scottish Members that the undertaking which I gave them in the Standing Committee is still having my close attention, and I am hoping that I may be able to discharge it in a somewhat different way.

10.32 p.m.

Major McCallum (Argyll)

As one of the Members of this House who more frequently uses the MacBrayne services than other hon. Members, I welcome the opportunity which the Minister has provided this evening to discuss this agreement which he has laid before the House. I feel that it is rather late in the day. because twelve months of the period over which the agreement holds force have passed, and, as the Minister himself said, the agreement comes to an end at the end of the year. But in view of the nationalisation of the transport industry, and the fact that the appointed day for that nationalisation is 1st January, 1948, one can realise the difficulties in which the Minister finds himself. He will not, therefore, find fault with us if those of us who have questions to raise confine ourselves to what I might call rather parochial items of interest; but, of course, it is a matter which concerns the Western Islands, and the Western Islands only. I would like to join with the Minister in what he said about the grand service rendered to the country, as well as to the company, by all the masters and men of MacBrayne's ships which sail the West Coast of Scotland. They have gone through wild weather and fair weather, war and peace, and have given, grand service. There is not a soul who criticises the courage and courtesy and hard work of the masters and men, even if they criticise some of the services.

There is one point which the Minister mentioned that does raise very serious misgivings and that is the question of the raising of the freight rates. I am sure his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland knows full well the feelings of the islanders and highlanders of Scotland on this point of the excessive freight rates for shipping produce to the mainland markets. For many years that has been one of the greatest difficulties with which the agricultural population of these islands and the mainland have had to contend, and I was hoping that even when this Government came into power they might follow the advice of one of their own one-time Ministers, the Right Hon. Thomas Johnston, who, I know, has enthusiastically for many years past, proposed a system of flat-rate freight charges to all parts of the Islands and Highlands of Scotland. We know that that time cannot come in the period covered by this agreement, but I beg the Minister and the Secretary of State for Scotland to consider very carefully, seriously and sympathetically the question of the raising of these freight rates to a community who have not got the wherewithal to pay high rates.

I would like to come to one or two details of the services which this agreement requires Messrs. MacBrayne to furnish. I take one point, which is in connection with the management of one of the services—Service No. 4 in the schedule to the agreement—to the Inner Islands. There is a boat called the "Loch Earn" which sails out of Oban every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and returns on succeeding days. There is some very bad weather to contend with very often during the year and so, inevitably, she is not able to keep to her timetable. No one can legislate for gales, and we have just had an excessively bad winter. But the difficulty that is arising is this In the agreement stress is laid on connections with railways. Now, the Minister did us the honour last summer, or the summer before, of paying a visit to Oban, so he will know what I am speaking about. Oban is the terminus of the railway for Stirling, Glasgow, London and the South, and on that boat coming in from the Inner Islands to Oban are generally a number of passengers who want to proceed by train. The boat is due in at 2.45 or 3 o'clock, and the train is due to leave normally at 5 p.m. Very often the railway authorities delay the departure of the train owing to the boat being delayed by bad weather, so that the passengers will be able to catch the connection and go South. The boat is furnished with wireless and wireless operators. Therefore, may I ask the Minister if he could instruct them that they really must try to study the interests of other people who are trying to work with them.

I have known of cases of this boat arriving at 5.30 or 5.45 and only five passengers wanting to go on to the train for the South. It is out of all proportion to hold up a crowded train for only three or four passengers. There have been cases where she arrived at 8 or 9 at night and when the train has gone, the railway company have put on a special train for half a dozen people. It is crazy and short-sighted. Surely, when it is known what time a ship is going to arrive, a wireless message can be sent, as from any other ocean-going vessel, stating the number of passengers who are due to catch the train. If it is found that there are four or five passengers, instead of holding up the train, or having a special train, could not a car be hired for these people to be sent to Stirling for the southbound train? If there were ten or twelve people, a 'bus could be hired. This matter has been spoken of by the railway companies, and I ask that it should be attended to.

The Minister has stated that one new boat is under construction, and that one or two of the present vessels are being re-engined. One situation is that there is a motor vessel on the Sound of Mull mail service called the "Lochinvar," which has a speed of eight or nine knots, but she can only do three or four if there is any contrary weather. It is time that another boat was put on that service. When complaints are made to the company, we are told that no other boats are available; and Questions I have asked in this House have indicated that. But during the summer months some quite fast, one might almost say, luxury, MacBrayne boats, sail with trippers and tourists from Oban daily round the Islands. Why should these boats only serve trippers during the summer months? Why could they not serve the Island inhabitants all the year round? Perhaps they can only sail in summer weather; but could they not be re-equipped, or made fit by having wireless and other equipment to make them serviceable for deep sea sailing? The company itself, and everybody else, knows that these old boats cannot last very much longer. The Minister mentioned that a service was starting today—I think he said today— between Oban and the Island of Lismore. Has that service started? I ask that because I understood that the wrong type of boat had been delivered—a vessel which was found to be unsuitable. I thought the Minister stated that the service had actually started, and if it has, could he tell the House whether the vessel is suitable for all weathers, or only for summer sailing? Is it covered? Can it carry livestock? We want something to carry passengers, mails and livestock from the Islands to the mainland.

A boat sailing from Tobermory to Mingary has been promised for months past. I was in the Mingary area the other day. I then understood that we are as far off as ever we were from seeing that boat. What is required is an all-the-year-round service—a service operating in all weathers to maintain communications— [Interruption.]—Hon. Members may think all this very amusing—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—but I know of the conditions for the people in the Western Islands and the Highlands. I have frequently to travel on these boats, and I know that, while these may be small communities, they are agricultural communities, doing a good job in producing agricultural products and livestock for their country. I suggest that they are matters which might be studied with a great deal more interest by the Government and by hon. Members.

There is another company which runs in competition with MacBrayne's and from whom MacBrayne's occasionally, on the Ministry of Transport's instructions, charter their boats. I am referring to the "Dunera Castle" and the "Hebrides." I hope and pray they will never again be chartered for passengers. They are really quite unfit for those services, and it is a scandal and a disgrace that such boats are used for passenger services round the coasts of Britain in the year 1947. I hope that if it is necessary to do so the Minister will instruct his Department to issue an order that when pa certain mail-boat has to be laid up, it should be replaced by one of the excellent boats which carry tourists round the coasts during the summer. That might very well prove to be a solution of many of the difficulties of these communications —if we were able to have a regular service all the year round.

10.46 p.m.

Mr. Alex. Anderson (Motherwell)

I should like to emphasise the points made by the hon. and gallant Member for Argyll (Major McCallum). Few people except those familiar with the terrain realise the importance to the Western Isles of a proper steamer service. The steamer line is the only continuous thing that connects these little islands with the South, and the only thing that brings the islanders into contact with the civilisation that is passing by. We who have served on the Highlands Advisory Panel have been given an opportunity of trying to do something to retain the highlanders in the Highlands and to rehabilitate the devastated areas of the Highlands. We have come, from contact with the problem, more and more to realise that the key to the Highlands problem lies in a proper system of transport.

It is equally true to say, quite definitely, that the present system is completely unsatisfactory. It is completely primitive; but the fault does not lie with MacBrayne's —it lies with this system of private enterprise inside which MacBrayne's work. The private railway companies pushed their rails further and further till they came to a head. They built steamers and ran steamer services reasonably well—as with the lines to France and the steamers on the Clyde, which serve the summer tourist traffic; but when we look around we find that when MacBrayne's ventured into the Western Islands, it was completely impossible to run services adequate to the needs of the isolated communities. The position was, therefore, that subsidies were sought and were given, but now they are becoming necessary in greater amounts as the demands of people for modern services develop. It is true to say that, in spite of the improvements that have been made, MacBrayne's service is still unsatisfactory. The cockroach-infested, flea-traps that I knew in my youth have given place to more modern ships, but the hon. and gallant Member for Argyll has drawn attention to the "Loch Earn" on which, when the whistle blows twice to turn to starboard, the propeller stops. We have many more boats of that kind.

It seems to me that the only solution of the problem of proper transport to the Western Highlands and Islands lies in the integration of the steamer system there with the national transport. I have never been able to understand fully why a person should travel speedily and comfortably and cheaply over the greater part of his journey, and then travel expensively and uncomfortably over a small piece of sea. Why cannot this service be taken over by the national road transport system? I am very glad tonight to see here the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Scotland, who must be thanking his stars that he has only a watching brief, I suggest to him that if there is no quick move in the coastal steamer service with regard to the national transport service, this would provide an excellent department in which he might exercise his Scottish originality by drawing up a Scottish ferry and passenger transport system for coastal purposes.

It is impossible to talk about a steamer service to the Western Isles and ignore the question of the piers, and the situation that arises when one travels from Portree to Raasay, from Raasay to Broadford, and from Broadford back to Kyle. We find that when the MacBrayne steamer leaves the railway pier, the first port of call will be at a privately-owned pier. I was charged twopence for getting on and twopence for getting off a privately-owned pier in the Western Isles the other day. The next call is at a county council pier; and the next pier after that is managed by local people. Then there is a pier that is neither managed nor maintained by anyone. What we ask the Secretary of State for Scotland to do is to set up a proper co-ordinating authority to see that there are piers provided for the steamers if the Ministry of Transport will give MacBrayne's a subsidy. I should very much regret it if the House did not pass this subsidy. In that event, the inhabitants of the Western Isles, especially, would have to become amphibious. In many cases it is literally a matter of life and death for the persons involved. On the success of their transport system depends their economic condition. If they cannot get their fresh lobsters away to market quickly and cheaply, they suffer in that way. If we are to achieve our aim of stopping the drift from the Highlands and Islands, we shall have to remove that feeling of remoteness of distance, which has been at the root of depopulation in the Islands and Highlands. That can be done only by the provision of a very much improved service compared with the service we have at present.

10.55 p.m.

Mr. MacLeod (Ross and Cromarty)

It gives me very great pleasure to follow the hon Member for Motherwell (Mr. A. Anderson) who has recently experienced conditions on the West Coast of Scotland. I rather welcome the opportunity of speaking on this agreement which affects communications in my own constitutency, although not so greatly as it does that of the hon. and gallant Member for Argyll (Maj. McCallum), who on many occasions, I am sure, has been the only passenger in a MacBrayne ship. I am certainly not going to defend MacBrayne's for the services they provide, and I was glad to hear the Minister say that the service is shortly to be improved. But I most certainly say that any company which runs these services is bound to receive sharp criticism, if only by reason of the difficulties with which they have to contend.

For instance, at the Kyle of Lochalsh heavy cargo, passengers, livestock, fish and everything else are landed at one pier. Here it is essential to have a new pier. But perhaps they are fortunate, because, as the hon. Member for Motherwell reminded us, in other areas the piers are in such a bad state of repair that one wonders how they stand. Perhaps many of them of which I am thinking now will not be there this time next year. There are districts which have no piers at all, and high praise must be given not only to the personnel who man the ships, but to those warriors such as one finds at Apple Cross where the steamer is met off the coast by a 50 year old boat, rowed by two men.

This brings me to the very vital question raised by the hon. and gallant Member for Argyll, the question of freight charges. It is unpleasant to hear from the Minister of Transport that they are to be raised 75 per cent., but as the hon and gallant Member, for Argyll hopes I also hope, these prices will no prevail, and that they will come down. It has been argued that these costs are unduly high owing to the unsuitable conditions and bad management of the company. It has been argued that it is due to lack of competition, but there must be a virtual monopoly in these services for the reason that the traffic is not sufficiently heavy at the moment to warrant cut-throat competition. But let me add that I do not agree with the hon. Member for Motherwell. When one considers the mass of undigested legislation the Government have accumulated in the Transport Bill, one must agree that remote control of services like these would be certainly disastrous.

The Government at the present time have a large responsibility in the activities of these services. This agreement provides that the rates charged by the company in respect of general services shall not be changed without the consent of the Minister of Transport. Provision is also made for the nomination of a Government representative to serve on the board of directors. I am glad to see that the Government representative is to be Sir Hector McNeill who knows the conditions in these areas. But to revert to freight charges, which are a virtual taxation upon the people in these isolated districts of the West Coast, where the cost of the very necessities of life is so greatly increased, I would ask the Government whether they have looked into the question of these charges? I understand that a report on transport will shortly be issued by the Scottish Council of Development and Industry, and I wonder whether they have dealt with this question.

I should like to see greater facilities provided by the MacBrayne services for agricultural requirements such as lime and fertilisers, which have to be transported by private cars in most areas of Western Ross. Take Dundonald, in Ross-shire, as an example. Farmers have to carry their goods from Dingwall, nearly 50 miles away, and the nearest lorry is 18 miles away in the opposite direction, so they have to pay a sum of 30s. for an empty lorry before their charges begin. It is quite possible for more of these goods to go by boat. With the further reduction of road grants, the roads in the West will not be developed as they ought to be, so that sea communications to isolated districts will be even more essential. One place in Western Ross had a better mail service at the end of the nineteenth century, since when, of course, the steamer has not called there. On page nine of the schedule it is stated— 6. Stornoway Service. Daily except Sunday between Kyle and Stornoway, calling inward and outward at Apple Cross—except from November to April when calls inward only to be made in cases of emergency. I should be grateful for some further information on this point. As it stands here Apple Cross will be placed in a very bad position. To take only one example, a person thinking of leaving for the South between 1st November and 30th April has to hire a car across to Strathcarron—if it is not snowed up—at a cost of £3, or else take a fishing boat for the same price. I will not attempt to explain what happens if he is trying to get to Stornoway. This is a hopeless position, and I hope the Minister will see that a service is provided both ways during the winter. One cannot isolate communities in this ghastly manner. Unfortunately, emergencies do not always coincide with the passing of the steamer.

The recent White Paper on the development of industry in Scotland says that steamer services between the mainland and the Western Isles have long provided a problem which is almost without parallel elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and without regular shipping services the standard of living of the islanders cannot be maintained. Like most of the questions arising in the Islands today, it is not a question of economies but a moral obligation on our country to keep alive this race of people on the West Coast of Scotland. Unless these communications are improved, and unless people in this country realise the desperate position some of these people are placed in, that race will cease to exist.

11.5 p.m.

Mrs. Jean Mann (Coatbridge)

It would appear that in this case private enterprise has never been able to carry the load. We now recognise that, and so do hon. Members opposite. One does not blame private enterprise in this respect, and I hope that Members opposite would take the same generous view of, and make generous gesture to, a failure in a balance sheet if Government services were in this position. But I do think that the amount of 3½ per cent. is too large at this time and, further, I notice that the Minister will pay the company a sum equal to the excess of the company's expenditure over revenue, but only if "appropriate"will the company pay the Minister the excess of the company's revenue over their expenditure. That seems rather like a onesided agreement.

What has been most perturbing tonight has been the Minister's remarks on the raising of freights, and particularly his view—because obviously he defends this —of comparing the rates to those prevailing generally. I wish I could persuade Ministers to look at the economy of the Western Isles as something entirely apart from anything prevailing generally. There is a very rich potential in the Western Isles. I am not speaking from the Scots' standpoint at all. Out of the very greatest interest for my English friends, I would like to say to them how much better fed they could be if they lent their assistance in fully developing the economy of the Western Isles, richly potential in sheep farming and hill farming— —

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Hubert Beaumont)

The hon. Lady is getting right away from the agreement under discussion.

Mrs. Mann

I just wanted to illustrate the difficulty of transport in getting sheep to market. It has prevented the whole development of the Western Isles. We have known in prewar days sheep to be brought to market and the freight charged was so high that they were sold time and again at auctions at ridiculous prices because the farmers could not afford to take them back again. So the whole development of the Western Isles was stultified and what might have been a great potential, a great contribution in fishing and agriculture—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Lady is wandering again from the agreement.

Mrs. Mann

—has been nullified because of transport charges, and therefore, I ask the Minister not to increase transport charges and to view this from the same point of view that Norway takes over Finnmark, which is absolutely uneconomic so far as transport is concerned, but highly desirable taking the view of the whole economy of the country. I hope the Minister will take that larger view and reconsider his decision. I hope he will not decide to make any increase in freight charges.

11.9 p.m.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan (Perth and Kinross, Perth)

I would like to associate myself with the hon. Lady the Member for Coatbridge (Mrs. Mann) on the necessity of supporting the development of the economy of the Western Highlands. The hon. Member' for Motherwell (Mr. A. Anderson) who, in spite of the constituency he represents, is a Highlander, I think in an unguarded moment once told me the Scots were a second-rate nation, a point with Which I entirely disagree.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The hon. Member should not reveal unguarded moments.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan

In a guarded moment I should say he is the best contradiction of that statement in the House today. I do feel that this question of transport in the Western Islands is one which has not been properly gone into for generations. I am not blaming this Government for this omission; I am blaming successive Governments, as I do in all Scottish matters. But I do say to the Minister that I cannot understand why an area like this, where it is perfectly obvious that private enterprise cannot maintain the economic service which should be maintained, is not included in the transport Measure, for it is, in my opinion, one of the places which should be covered by that Bill. The right hon. Gentleman may say that to do so would mean taking over coastwise shipping, and that he does not wish to do that. But he can take over an area of coastwise shipping quite well. Here is a case where he should be taking it over, to my mind; I say that 'without hesitation. Yet this is the one case which he excludes.

I see that the Secretary of State for Scotland is here tonight, and I am delighted to see him. I hope that he is going to speak, because there is a good deal which he might say. I hope he is going to support our pleas on behalf of the Western Islands of Scotland. Next to him is the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Civil Aviation, which admittedly—I am not speaking personally— is one of the most depressing things which the Secretary of State could have next to him. He knows that already civil aviation has been taken out of his hands, but I hope he is going to be certain that in this matter—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

There is nothing about civil aviation in the agreement under discussion. The hon. and gallant Member must keep to the terms of the agreement.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan

With the greatest respect, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, earlier today we had a little trouble about analogy, between much more distinguished hon. Members on both sides of the House than I am; I merely draw the attention of the Secretary of State for Scotland to the fact that civil aviation has not been very happy for Scotland, and I hope air transport—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

If I allow the hon. and gallant Member to draw the attention of the Secretary of State for Scotland to that, I shall not be able to allow the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Scotland to reply to it.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan

In that case I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State for Scotland, because I would not attempt to suggest anything to which he cannot reply. I hope he is going to speak tonight. I do suggest that if there is a real case for nationalisation, or part-nationalisation, it is the transport services of the Western Islands of Scotland. I hope that it will be given consideration after this particular contract is finished, because it is only to take us to the end of this year, after all. My point might well be considered then. There is one other point I would like to mention to the Secretary of State. I hope he will realise that hon. Members on this side are not trying to be in any way partisan in asking him to take up this question of transport in the Western Islands very seriously indeed. The hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. MacLeod) has put the case very well, as also did the hon. Member for Motherwell and the hon. Member for Coatbridge. I hope it may have consideration when this contract is finished, and while I am happy to support this as far as it goes, I hope this will be considered as the one definite case where there should be nationalisation of transport.

11.14 p.m.

Mr. Maclay (Montrose Burghs)

I must confess that I am not in complete agreement with my hon. and gallant Friend. I feel very strongly that the whole of these Western Island services need the closest investigation, but I am not completely convinced that State ownership is the necessary solution.

Mr. Tiffany (Peterborough)

On a point of Order, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, where does nationalisation arise in this agreement?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

I have not yet heard anything that would justify calling the hon. Member to Order.

Mr. Maclay

I realise what is in the hon. Member's mind, but I suggest that what I am trying to say is very essential to this particular service we are discussing. No matter who runs this service— be it a private company or the State— they are going to be faced with this inescapable problem of how one is to run ships for this traffic Somebody has to pay money into this, and if the State has to bear all the cost, then the State must own the thing. The State subsidises, or makes grants, or whatever one likes to call it, to see that the job is done, and only by some development of that kind will one get an efficient service. Put in a State director—and in the selection of Sir Hector McNeill the Government has made an admirable choice—where the State is paying money into the venture. One must have a State representative on the Board in such circumstances, but I hope that this representative of the Government will not confine himself to financial problems and matters simply concerned with book-keeping. I hope he will take an active part in the management of the system. I hope that the House of Commons, as distinct from the shareholders, will have its say in this matter. I think that if these points are noted, it will be found to be a very sensible way of tackling the problem.

Hon. Members who have never travelled on the Clyde on a crowded weekend may think that I am being frivolous when I say this, but I assure them that I am not. There is this quite deplorable business of paying twopence on the pier. It is a subject which has already been mentioned, and I do not know what is going to happen to the piers in the Western Islands. This is not the place to refer to them, and I should be out of Order if I did so, but in boarding the Mac-Brayne steamers—and the Minister of Transport will have an interest in this if the Transport Bill goes through—one has to stand perhaps with two suitcases and a wife and nephews and nieces trailing behind while one finds twopence. It very often happens that one stands in the pouring rain, trying to hold an umbrella over one's head, feeling in one's pocket for two-pence; and I would much rather pay another fourpence on my ticket than try to find two-pence on the pier while" struggling to keep my wife out of the rain, and looking after suitcases and nephews and nieces.

11.18 p.m.

Mr. Rankin (Glasgow, Tradeston)

This appears to me to be a rather lopsided business. We are discussing the payment of a very large subsidy to a particular company in order that they may carry passengers, cargo, and mails for the service of the people of the Western Islands in vessels which are sometimes unsuitable, sometimes of doubtful seaworthiness, and which are slow and uncertain in their frequency. At the same time as we are discussing this service in the interests of the islanders, absolutely no regard is being paid to the fact—and this is the reason the discussion appears to me to be lopsided—that we have already in existence a supplementary service which, to some extent could carry out that work. It may not be able to do it in very large measure at the moment, but that service, I believe, will expand and could carry some of this traffic very efficiently and more quickly than is at present being done by the MacBrayne steamers. I am referring, of course, to the air service between the mainland and the islands and I know that in doing so, I' am getting on to the circumference of this discussion.

Mr. Speaker

This agreement, I understand, ends on 31st December, 1947. Therefore the air service cannot very well come into operation before that date.

Mr. Rankin

Yes, I have the termination of the agreement in view and I was perhaps, taking a somewhat long-term view of the situation. I hope the right hon. Gentleman will keep that in mind because for the moment, while we are condemning the type of vessel which is carrying on the surface service, at the same time we maintain on the air service to the Islands a type of vessel which is equally worthy of condemnation at the present moment. I do not want to go any further into that point, because I know that if I do I may be ruled out of Order, but I wanted to get that in, because it is important from the point of view of the passengers and mail transport to the Islands.

I want to make this suggestion—and I do hope that it is within the terms of the agreement. There is £35,000 subsidy which my right hon. Friend is devoting to the mail service. That subsidy, according to the agreement, is to be devoted to the transport of mails, by sea and land. In view of the need of the frequent service of mails to the Islands, and in view of the fact that the mail service is constantly interrupted through the inefficiency of the surface service, I suggest that my right hon. Friend take that £35,000 subsidy from the surface service and devote it to the air transport of mails. Finally, I would like to put this point. We have been told in the agreement that we shall have to share the loses in the service. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us, when he replies, whether we shall also share the profits when they are made.

11.23 pm.

Commander Galbraith (Glasgow, Pollok)

I am certain that the whole House will agree that this short Debate has served a very useful purpose. In the first place, it has enabled my right hon. Friend to pay a very well-deserved tribute to those who are employed in the coastal shipping service, which this House endorses and appreciates very much indeed. I am not quite sure that all the hon. Members know exactly what the conditions are. I did hear, while the Minister was speaking, and was saying that the subsidy dates back to 1891, one hon. Gentleman say "Shame." If he actually understood the problem, he would never have used that word. The existing services cannot be carried on economically and, therefore, must on all occasions be subsidised in one way or another.

It seems that this subsidy or £128,000 is a very heavy sum to pay but it is a price which, as the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. MacLeod) said we have to pay if we are to keep the scattered communities in the Western Islands in being. When we remember what a fine breed of men and women come from these parts, and what they have done for our country in the last two wars, I think the price is worth while; but the subsidy is nothing like sufficient, from what I have heard to- night, to give the kind of service that is really called for. We have heard of the state of the ships employed in the service; we have heard of the state of the piers, and that in winter there is practically no service at all. I do not know, but I cannot see that we are going to be able to provide what is needed for anything like the price of £128,000 in the future. It is true that this has enabled freights to be reduced—or to be some 33⅓ per cent. below average. But even now the Islands are having great difficulty in paying those charges, and I hope the Minister will think very hard indeed before he raises the charges.

The Minister said that he proposes to examine the problem. I hope that he examines it quickly, because the people operating those services must know as soon as possible or else we shall never get any improvement; but if he proposes to do something else, the sooner the better. I hope, in the interests of those people in the Islands, he will give this matter his most urgent consideration.

11.26 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Westwood)

The submission of this contract for the approval of the House has provided a most valuable opportunity, particularly to those who are themselves affected and who are interested in the transport services to the Highlands and Islands. It has provided an opportunity for Members who themselves know what the problem is, to place before the House what is one of the most serious problems of an economic nature that faces the Highlands and Islands at the present time.

I also want to associate myself with what has been said by the hon. and gallant Member for Pollok (Commander Galbraith) and the hon. and gallant Member for Argyll (Major McCallum) about the splendid work done by both officers and men connected with the Highlands and Islands steamer service. They have done magnificent work under all kinds of conditions—stormy weather and good weather—and have splendidly carried through their job. If the ships had been as reliable as the men, there would have been very few problems so far as the Highlands and Islands are concerned. But the ships have not been as reliable. That is certainly not the fault of this company; it is the fault of the system, and that, I think, has been admitted by all sides of the House.

One of the points I want to make clear is that the Minister, in asking for support for the contract, has to take account of costs which have risen approximately 75 per cent. In any, plea that the Highlands and Islands be treated differently from other services, that is a factor without which we cannot assess this particular problem. I do not say that this contract makes sense so far as this problem is concerned; it is a matter which we must look at in connection with new conditions.

Major McCallum

Can we have an opportunity of discussing the new arrangement before it is embodied in the form of a contract?

Mr. Westwood

I sincerely hope that opportunity will be provided: it is not for me to determine. The rates were increased in accordance with the statement of the Minister by 33⅓ per cent. as compared with a 75 per cent. rise in costs. That was a reasonable method of meeting the problem with which we were faced. Another question raised by the hon. and gallant Member for Argyll was whether it would be possible, either in this contract or in some new contract, to have a system of flat rates in connection with particular classes of goods. All I want to say is that nothing will be ruled out when we come to give further consideration to this problem. I have always maintained that steamer services to the Highlands and the Islands ought to be as much a part of the road services as any of the roads on the mainland. After all. it is the method of transport. Apart from these services there was no communication until air service came in, but that cannot solve our problem, and only by efficient steamer services can we ultimately solve the economic problems of the Islands. At least, that is one of the steps towards solving the economic problems associated with the Islands.

The hon. Member for Motherwell (Mr. A. Anderson) made what appeared to be regarded by some hon. Members as a very humorous speech, though the substance of it was not humorous, and he did not intend it to be so regarded. After all, we can all laugh at our difficulties, but it was meant, I am sure, to draw very seriously the attention of the House to the problems facing us in this matter. Members not accustomed to personal ex- perience of these problems, Members who have not had to suffer what the Highlands and Islands have had to suffer, can afford to laugh at jokes; and we can all laugh at jokes against ourselves; yet we appreciate that it is a problem which has to be solved, and this Government, I am sure, will make a valuable contribution towards solving this problem. It is agreed that nationalisation should not be ruled out. I make this challenge. While the Opposition are always critical of nationalisation, I say that if we do come forward with a proposal for the nationalisation of transport services to the Highlands and Islands, there is not a Member on that side of the House, other than the small, limited, National Liberal Party, which, for once, spoke with a united voice tonight, who will oppose a scheme for bringing transport under national ownership and control with a view to an effective service for the Highlands and Islands.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan

The right hon. Gentleman realises that we must see what the scheme is, before we can give our unqualified approval.

Mr. West wood

Certainly. No Scotsman ever tried to buy a pig in a poke. I will certainly try to see that full discussion takes place if there is to be any new scheme on the lines suggested. Nothing will be ruled out of further consideration so far as these problems are concerned. There were one or two other points raised. Both the Minister of Transport and myself will look at them tomorrow, and though I have not an answer in detail to the points raised, I shall see to it that a reasoned answer is given to the instances that have been put by Members on both sides of the House. With this further explanation, I hope that we shall now get the approval of the contract.

Question put, and agreed to.

Resolved: That the Agreement, dated 3rd June, 1947, between His Majesty's Government and David MacBrayne, Limited, for the maintenance of certain transport services in the Western Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and for the conveyance of mails in connection with the said services, be approved.