HC Deb 25 April 1950 vol 474 cc916-26

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

10.40 p.m.

Sir David Robertson (Caithness and Sutherland)

In the course of his brilliant speech yesterday my right hon. Friend the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill) said: I must confess I cannot get these 50 millions out of my head. They keep recurring in one's mind-50 millions crowded in this small island, growing only half of their food." [OFFICIAL REPORT, 24th April, 1950; Vol. 474, c. 625] I have felt for a very long time that one of the greatest problems facing any Government was how we were to feed 50 million people in this island. I said so repeatedly during the recent election. Like every other hon. Member, I applaud and admire the courageous export drive which has been carried on with increasing vigour and success, and the increased productivity achieved since the end of the war.

But while I am far from being a pessimist, I do view the future with some apprehension. I realise that the sellers' market is rapidly passing; that the postwar demand created by the hunger of the war period and the devastation of the war is being met, that Japan and Germany are rapidly coming back into the world markets, and that the world generally is becoming more and more self-supporting. A few moments ago, the hon. Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams), in the previous Debate, said that in a few years' time Canada might not want to import anything. I think there was a great deal of truth in that.

I want to draw the attention of the House to a matter which I regard as of supreme importance in regard to the feeding of the 50 million people in this island. That is the vast Highland area which comprises more than one half of Scotland. In my opinion, it is capable of making the greatest possible contribution to the nation's food by way of cattle, sheep, poultry, pigs and, to a lesser extent, white fish and herrings, and shell fish. But there is a great deal of work which will have to be done before that can come about.

In the days of unrestricted free trade the Highland agriculturist did not have much of a chance. It was difficult enough for the farmer on the good, rich land in the south, close to the big consuming areas, to pay his way. Many failed to do so. But in the Highlands, of course, our people had no chance. Far removed from the markets, on poorer land, they had high transport costs to meet. Many thousands of acres have gone out of cultivation. It is a sad commentary after two world wars, with their intensive food production campaigns, that in my constituency in the County of Sutherland, something like 25 per cent. of the arable land, and of the permanent pasture land, cleared by our fathers by the sweat of their brow, and with primitive tools. have gone back to desert and jungle.

In this age of mechanisation, this age of bulldozers, prairie busters, drainage machines and the like, we could, with the will to do the job, bring these acres back into production; and we could bring into production many more acres than were reclaimed by our fathers. If hon. Members are interested, they ought to look up the evidence given before the Crofters' Commission in the 'eighties. One witness, whose testimony has never been challenged, stated that in the County of Sutherland alone, reclamation would provide 320 large crofts, each of 40 acres, in those days. I think we could do better still.

I hold out to the House the great wealth of the Highlands, and I hope that it will commend itself to hon. Members. Although agriculture will always remain the greatest single industry in the Highlands, as it is elsewhere, full recovery will never be achieved in agriculture unless alternative employment is available for those who do not desire to go on to the land. All the sons and daughters of crofters do not want to work on the land, even if there are jobs for them. For that reason alternative employment is essential. The history of the world proves that to be true. The United States, the greatest agricultural country in the world, is the greatest industrial country, its production today being 80 per cent. in advance of that of 1939.

I have already referred to Canada, whose contribution to our war effort was second only to that of the United States and ourselves. South Africa, a sleepy Dutch republic at the time of the Boer War, is now rapidly becoming an industrial country of some importance. She has a great coal industry, and exports coal, an important steel industry, and she has also a great electric power industry and many secondary industries. The same is true of Australia. There are one million people living in Sydney tonight who are engaged not in agriculture but in other vocations. The same is true of the South American republics and of all the European countries.

For lack of such alternative employment, Highlanders throughout the ages have been forced to migrate all over the world, and depopulation has been our greatest affliction. It has been freely admitted in this House that the most depressed area in Great Britain has been the Highland area. It has been said that the unemployment figures for the Highland area never revealed the true position, for one had to go to Glasgow and the other big cities before one got at the true extent of the unemployment in the beautiful but deserted and depopulated Highlands.

It will give the House some impression of the magnitude of the problem when I say that the population of the great county of Sutherland, one of the largest counties in Great Britain, is now 13,900, which is less than the average population of a decent-sized English village. It is for that reason that development areas, which the party opposite have denied to the Highlands, except in one place, are so essential. Twelve months ago the Distribution of Industry Act was applied to 36 Highland parishes, beginning at a point north of Inverness and extending to Cromarty, among the finest and most fertile land of Scotland, or anywhere else for that matter; but, I think happily, nothing has been done. It has only been talked about. Legislative powers have been taken, but not one sod has been cut and not one factory has been created. I am open to correction, but I know only of one little enterprise, consisting of two or three people. which has come in.

Mr. Woodburn (Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire)

I do not quite know what the hon. Member is suggesting. A Development Area provides for encouragement to private enterprise to start up in or to come to these places. I am not quite clear whether or not he is suggesting that the Government itself should start up in business in these places if private enterprise fails to do so.

Sir D. Robertson

No, Sir. I am afraid that the hon. Member is talking with his tongue in his cheek. He must remember very well a Debate last year in which he and I took part when I covered much the same ground that I am covering tonight. I did not vote against the proposal then because I could not vote against anything which is for the good of Scotland, but I resented that one area in Cromarty should be picked as a focal point for relieving unemployment in the great area which begins at Kintyre and finishes somewhere on the north of Shetland. I suggested then, and I do so now, that that dream could never be fulfilled. The men in Shetland, Kintyre, Skye, Inverness-shire and Caithness will do as they have always done—go to Glasgow as the first step, and then the bulk of them will probably move to Canada or another Dominion.

The Government have acknowledged the problem by taking powers to create this Development Area. My quarrel with them is about the way in which they intend to do it. I submit that it would be much better to put a few factories and a little development area into the towns and villages where people have lived for centuries, such as Wick. Half a dozen small factories would transform the economy of those places. I had a telegram this afternoon in response to one I sent to the labour exchange at Thurso and Wick arising out of an answer I received at Question time today from the Secretary of State for Scotland. In these little places there are almost 200 able-bodied building operatives, civil engineering labourers, and general labourers out of work tonight. These are arresting figures which I hope the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland will notice in regard to the dreadful housing situation which prevails in this county as elsewhere.

I submit that in these ancient centres of civilisation, towns and villages, with hydro-electric power on the way. the way to solve this tragic affliction of depopulation and at the same time to maintain agriculture in full blast, so that we can become a great cattle and sheep country again, is the introduction of development areas. Less than a century ago in the northern areas, no fewer than 150,000 head of cattle a year walked to Falkirk Tryst and were sold to buyers and later moved on to the south. That can come again but it will not come again if the children in those areas are not able to stay there. If children have to go, the farmers and their wives will go too. In the great Dominions their cattle and sheep industries have been largely created by Highland exiles and unless we create these development areas that will happen again.

I do urge the Government seriously to consider the case I am putting so reasonably to them tonight. I urge the Government to pay great attention to the plea I am presenting. The day is past so far as agriculture is concerned for anyone to plead the case of the Highlands. The people of Britain need the Highlands. They need the food the Highlands can produce, but the cause I am pleading is to abandon this dream of a kind of "Black Country" to Cromarty and to go into these old-established towns and villages and give them these development areas.

Highlanders deserve well of any British Government. Their sons have laid down their lives for Britain in wars throughout the ages, their economy was destroyed by the hideous policy of unrestricted free trade and large numbers have been forced into exile. The wheel of fate has completed a full circle; the Highlands which once carried one-third of the people of Scotland can come into their own again, and the children can remain in the places of their birth, provided foresight, energy and warm human sympathy are applied to the problem.

10.53 p.m.

Mr. Malcolm MacMillan (Western Isles)

I do not think the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Sir D. Robertson) has been quite as generous as he might be either tonight or on other occasions, in relation to the present Government for what they have tried to do since 1945. When they set up the Highlands Panel, to which he has referred, it was at least a token of their intention to try and do something for the Highlands. I am sure that in his generosity of heart he will acknowledge that fact. The nearest attempt at anything of this kind in this century was the sub-committee of the economic committee of the unofficial Council for Industry in Scotland and it presented certain proposals. Its main one was the appointment of a "gauleiter." I am sure the hon. Member will agree that even his patron, the Duke of Westminster, could hardly fulfil that office.

The Highlands Panel was appointed with a much wider authority as a Government committee reporting directly to the Secretary of State for Scotland. The members of the various groups of the Panel have personally visited and investigated the problems of even the remotest parts of the hon. Member's own constituency, as well as the various groups of the Outer Islands. and have gone into every creek and hay to take up-to-date evidence of those problems. The report and recommendations have been presented to the Secretary of State. None of us are happy that these recommendations have not all been carried out, but we have to make some allowances for the difficult times in which the Secretary of State has to try to implement the recommendations. There must be a little more regard for the background of difficulty, not created by this Government.

Hon. Members opposite should remember that we are still paying tonight for Tory rule in the Highlands and Islands— [An HON. MEMBER: "And Liberal."] Who depopulated Caithness and Sutherland? An hon. Member says the Liberals are to blame, but I do not make these academic distinctions. What did the Duke of Sutherland do toward depopulating the Highlands?

Sir D. Robertson

The Duke of Sutherland was not a Conservative.

Mr. MacMillan

The hon. Member can insult him by calling him what he likes, but the fact is that the Tories had control, and the Liberals then took over, and for all the difference that we found, we might as well have been walking into a desert to try to create the paradise which the hon. Member wants, and which he so flatteringly expects of us in five years after a hundred years of neglect. I have never seen less unemployment in the Highlands and Islands as a whole than there is today; and I am no "yes-man" of the Government. I have pestered them on this question of Highland problems;

I have had many squabbles with my own colleagues when I have thought that they have not gone as far as I would have wished. Let hon. Members opposite remember and clear their consciences. They left this neglect, and out of it they expect us in so short a time to create the conditions which the hon. Member and, indeed, all of us desire. One cannot, in so short a time, remedy all the effects of a major world war and generations of neglect.

There is now a better standard of life in the Highlands and Islands even for the poorest of our people. We see the development of water supplies and the electrification of the Highlands and Islands. There is not a Liberal or a Tory who would truthfully say there is not a better time, for instance, for the herring industry than there was in the pre-war years. Let us take 1938 when, at Stornoway, in the autumn of that year, the only buyer offering was Adolf Hitler at 8s. a cran for herring. Even after this last bad season, we have come through better than in many of the pre-war years which we have experienced. Look at the flourishing lobster fishing industry now. At the same time as they are clamouring for the further heavy cutting of Government expenditure, hon. Members opposite are asking us to pay for the many things for the Highlands which this very cutting would render impossible.

10.58 p.m.

The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Miss Herbison)

The hon. Member who has raised this subject tonight has made a plea for the extension of the development area to cover the whole of the Highlands. In April, 1949, a part of the Highlands was scheduled as a development area. He suggested that we had done something merely on paper and that the Government had taken no steps since 1949 to do anything for this development area. That is not true. I could give the hon. Member information on many things. There is not the time left after what has been said this evening, but I will send to him information about those steps which have already been taken since 1949. The sites for development have been chosen, and firms have expanded; new firms have taken up work, and there have been improvements in the basic services.

Mr. John MacLeod (Ross and Cromarty)


Miss Herbison

No, I am sorry I cannot give way; I have so little time. All this information I will send to the hon. Member.

To come back to the point he is really concerned with, I can tell him that, when the extension scheme was made, the whole problem of the Highlands was seriously reviewed by the Government. It was considered inappropriate at that time to schedule the whole of the Highlands as a development area, and there are reasons for that. Under the terms of the Distribution of Industry Act, 1945, Section 7. an area may be added to the Schedule of the development areas where the President of the Board of Trade and the Secretary of State for Scotland think—and I quote the Act—" there is a special danger of unemployment." It could not be said of great parts of the Highlands, where population is very sparse indeed, that there is that danger.

If we look at other parts of the Highlands—Fort William for example—we find a shortage of labour, and so, applying the terms of the 1945 Act, it would be quite wrong to take the whole of the Highlands and schedule it as a development area, particularly if we want to carry out the important measures under that Act. Let us take the areas which are causing the hon. Gentleman great trouble. In Wick we find that in July, 1949, the unemployment figure was 501, which is 6.5 per cent. of the insured population. In March, 1950, the figure was 939, or 12.8 per cent. of the insured population. In Stornoway we find the same thing—a certain figure in 1949 and a much higher figure in March this year. The same applies to Campbeltown, and the figure for Wick does not just apply to the town itself but to a wide area around it.

The Government came to the conclusion, when in 1948 they were reviewing the boundaries of development areas, that there were objections in principle to scheduling such remote pockets of unemployment, and the reasons for that decision are given in paragraph 9 of the White Paper on the Distribution of Industry. I meant to read that paragraph, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will read it for himself and find out the reasons. In considering this question, be- sides the reasons in this paragraph, there are other points which must be kept in mind. The figures I quoted for Wick—and the same applies to the other two towns—show wide seasonal variations in employment, and we find that it is very difficult, although not impossible, to deal with unemployment. There is another point, that the unemployed are scattered over wide areas, and the number available for factory employment in any one place is smaller even than those figures suggest. For those two reasons it is very difficult—and I put it no higher—to do what we should like to do.

The fact that the whole area is not scheduled does not mean that no encouragement will be given to industrial development. Wherever possible it will be given. Projects for factories by private firms will be sympathetically considered by the President of the Board of Trade and the Secretary of State for Scotland, but of course, in the present situation we have always to bear in mind the limitation of capital investment, and also the important point that we need to concentrate on projects that will either earn or save dollars, and I am sure no one could have any quarrel with those reasons. If we take Wick, besides the herring development, we find a knit-wear factory from Leicester was established. Although there would appear to be in that town women unemployed, that factory has been finding difficulty in getting the labour needed. This is a small illustration of the difficulties we are experiencing in these areas.

The hon. Gentleman has raised the question, and it is an important one, of the need to grow more food. To do that we must take some steps that are industrial. We have brought a great deal of help to Wick, not only for its own development but also for that of the big hinterland of farming. I can give a number of things that have been done there. Reconditioning and improvements have been carried out to Wick harbour, at an estimated cost of £44,280, by the harbour trustees, and assistance from the Development Fund of this complete sum was sanctioned in 1946, and this work was going on—

Sir D. Robertson

I can assure the hon. Lady that there is no harbour development going on, nor has there been since 1946.

Miss Herbison

What I have said is quite clear. If the hon. Gentleman has further points to raise he can do so later, but I would remind him that he took a good time on this Adjournment Motion. A further grant has been given from the Development Fund of £12,430 to the Scottish Home Department to purchase plant used in connection with the work being done at the harbour, in addition to the £44,000 odd. Another grant of £2,500 has been offered to the trustees for repairs to the dry dock gates. The trustees have applied for a further increase, up to £11,000, to meet the cost of gear and the electrification of a pump and winch. This application is being considered at the present time. They also wanted a slipway where fishing vessels could be repaired. The cost of this would be between £40,000 and £50,000, and when we consider the great amount of money that has come from the Development Fund for Wick Harbour alone, we feel that at present we cannot sanction that added amount.

The hon. Gentleman also said that unemployment in the Highlands was much worse than anywhere else, and that you cannot take the figures obtained from the employment exchanges but must go to Glasgow to get the real figures. But you can apply that to any place in Scotland. If you wanted to get the real figures of unemployment in the Lowlands you would have to go to Canada, America, Australia, and many other places. For the part that is scheduled as a development area in the Highlands the figure is 2.8 per cent. of the insured population. In Merseyside it is 4.7 per cent. In the centre of Scotland development area it is 4 per cent. Although we cannot, for the reasons that have been given, schedule the whole of the Highland area as a development area, if any private enterprise or any local authority feels that an industry can be started, every help will be given—within the limitations I have suggested—to ensure that this development will be carried through. There is nothing further that I can add to that except this—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock and the Debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Ten Minutes past Eleven o'Clock.