HC Deb 23 February 1955 vol 537 cc1289-92
The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Henderson Stewart)

It may be for the convenience of the House, Mr. Speaker, if I make a brief statement about the position in the northern counties of Scotland.

Heavy falls of snow, high winds and exceptionally severe frost have created a situation of some difficulty over much of the Highlands and Islands area. In particular, the poor harvest and the exhaustion of supplies in the earlier blizzard have caused a serious shortage of fodder; and as the sheep are weak after a long period of hard weather there is a danger of serious loss.

The local authorities, their staffs, and the police are doing their utmost to restore communications and organise relief where it is needed; and the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force and ships of the Fishery Protection Service are again co-operating in the delivery of supplies—particularly fodder—and in dealing with cases of illness and casualties.

Mr. Elliot

On a point of order. A statement of great importance to Scotland is being made and it is very difficult to follow it, Sir. May I ask you whether it would be possible to secure silence?

Mr. Stewart

Between them the two Services—the Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force—up to midnight on 22nd-23rd have carried out 34 general and six special reconnaissances and 18 medical sorties with a total flying time of 87 hours.

The fishery cruiser "Minna" was sent to Shetland and was able on 20th February to deliver five tons of stores and mails to Foula, which had been cut off for 48 days; and on 21st February she took mails and provisions to places on the west coast of Shetland. The fishery cruiser "Norna" was sent to Orkney and the fishery cruiser "Vaila" to Stornoway, but no calls on the services of these cruisers have so far been made, although they will continue to stand by.

There has on this occasion been considerable interruption of telephone services and electricity supplies, but I am glad to say that, as a result of the admirable work of the staffs of the Post Office and the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board the situation has largely been restored. By this morning only five telephone exchanges (four in Orkney and one in Shetland) remain isolated, although many subscribers' lines are still out of order. Except for an area between Dunnett and John O'Groats all main electricity lines are now functioning.

We shall, of course, continue to keep in the closest touch with the situation. In the meantime, I know that the House would wish me to express, on behalf not only of Her Majesty's Government but of this House, our sympathy with the people of the areas concerned and our appreciation of the work of all who are helping to restore communications and maintain essential services there.

Mr. Woodburn

I should like to associate my right hon. and hon. Friends with this expression of sympathy and appreciation of the splendid work that is being done. My information is that the situation in the North is quite unprecedented and that the disaster to sheep is likely to be as bad as, if not worse, than that in 1947. It may cause trouble and a diminution of the sheep population for many years to come. Are the Government contemplating that the people who have suffered in this storm, and the farmers who have been thrown back in the development of the stock population in the North of Scotland, should get special assistance? It will be extremely difficult for them to carry on if they are left to bear the burden of these unprecedented natural phenomena.

Mr. Stewart

It is because we thought the situation was more serious that this statement was made today. As to possible loss, it is not easy to decide on policy until we are able to determine what is the loss. We shall have to wait a little time, I am afraid, because as yet we do not know.

Mr. Ross

While congratulating the Government on the action taken, may I ask the hon. Gentleman whether he does not think it would have been far better if some other Minister had made this statement, bearing in mind that he took it upon himself last time we had bad weather to go to the North of Scotland and lecture the people for improvidence in not stocking up with supplies?

Mr. Stewart

The hon. Member should read what I said.

Mr. Ross

I did.

Mr. Grimond

I should like to join in hoping that some assistance will be given over sheep losses. Will the hon. Gentleman bear in mind that local authorities have been badly strained by the heavy expenditure involved in clearing snow from the roads and also the need for alternative communication to some of the remote districts and islands, as telephone wires are not available?

Mr. John MacLeod

Can my hon. Friend give a figure for the cost of clearing the snow and the heavy burden of keeping communications open in the North at the present time? My hon. Friend will realise that a tremendous burden is imposed upon the people in the area. Is modern equipment being sent there to clear the important roads?

Mr. Stewart

I am not able at present to state the cost. With regard to the provision of modern equipment, other parts of the country, unfortunately, are also troubled by snow.

Mr. Manuel

With regard to the dropping from helicopters of feeding stuffs for sheep and cattle, can the Under-Secretary say what will be the cost to crofters and farmers compared with the ordinary cost of transport if there had been no snow?

Mr. Stewart

The cost will be just the same.