HC Deb 25 January 1955 vol 536 cc34-8
Mr. J. Stuart

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall now make the statement in reply to Questions Nos. 30 and 34.

I should like, in the first place, to express the sincere sympathy of Her Majesty's Government to all those in the Highlands and Islands who have suffered hardship in the severe conditions of the past fortnight. I should like, also, to express to the local authorities and their staffs, to the police, to the doctors and nurses and the many others who have maintained essential services and, in particular, to the officers and men of the Royal Navy, the Royal Air Force and the Fishery Protection Service, our grateful thanks for the arduous and dangerous work they have done in maintaining life in the wide areas which were snowbound. Many individuals have given their services cheerfully to help in meeting the crisis, and to these also our thanks are due. I should like also to acknowledge the generosity of those, both in this country and overseas, who have sent gifts or offered help.

I have kept in continuous touch with the situation in these areas and my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State has been visiting them to obtain a first-hand impression of the work which has been going on and the lessons to be drawn from it. I know, therefore, how considerable is the effort which has been expended during the emergency. For example, from bases at Wick and Kinloss and from the aircraft carrier "Glory," in Loch Eriboll, 231 sorties were flown by helicopters and aircraft of the two Services; and 35½ tons of essential supplies, about half of which consisted of fodder, were dropped at 130 different points. Fishery cruisers of the Scottish Home Department's Fishery Protection Service operated in Orkney and Shetland and stood by elsewhere; they undertook five trips, calling at 12 places, in the course of which they delivered 22 tons of food and other supplies. These arrangements have only been possible because of the admirable co-operation between the various Services and the local authorities and central Departments concerned.

I am glad to say that the position is now returning to normal. All main roads are open, and conditions on others are improving rapidly. It cannot, however, be assumed that a similar storm will not recur, and I would strongly urge that all those who live in isolated areas where they are liable to be cut off from their normal sources of supply should consider what steps they can take to ensure that in a similar emergency they have adequate stocks in hand to maintain themselves and their livestock for a reasonable period. Outside help may, of course, again be necessary, and steps are, therefore, being taken to review the experience of the recent emergency and see what lessons it offers for the future.

Until the deep drifts of snow have disappeared it is impossible to estimate losses of livestock with any accuracy.

Mr. Woodburn

I am sure that the whole House recognises the splendid work done by the various Services that took part in this snowdrift rescue operation. There are one or two points that, I think, are not quite clear. First, could the Secretary of State tell us why fodder had to be dropped to farms? We had understood that those were the places where fodder originated. Certainly, this was not the first snowstorm in the North of Scotland, and it struck people as rather curious that aircraft should have been required to deliver fodder to farms. We should be interested to know how that could have occurred.

Secondly, I think we all recognise, and we especially hope the Secretary of State does, that this operation has proved the value of helicopters in the Highlands, and their use for purposes other than those for which they were used on this occasion. Without detracting from our gratitude for the promptness of the help given, perhaps the Secretary of State will explain why so much help was necessary for people accustomed to this sort of thing for so many years.

Mr. Stuart

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving me an opportunity of answering the points he has made. It is, of course, the case that hill farms and, in particular, crofts do not grow enough fodder for their own consumption always, and, moreover, where, owing to the snow, stock cannot move about, it is necessary to import additional fodder for winter feed. I fear that it may indeed be the case that in the recent mild winters the habit of laying in sufficient against an emergency has rather been lost sight of. Then, as regards the food situation generally, there is the effect of the recent war and food rationing, and of the fact that we became criminals if we hoarded anything—if we kept, say, more than half a pound of sugar in the house.

The points that the right hon. Gentleman has raised are important. In the past, shepherds, stalkers, and so on, always laid in enough in their houses to see them through a longish period of snow and storm, and now that rationing has been abolished by the present Unionist Government—

Mr. Callaghan

And imposed by them.

Mr. Stuart

—I hope they will learn from the lessons of these experiences, will re-read the story of the wise and foolish virgins and follow the example of the former rather than that of the latter.

Mr. G. M. Thomson

Is not the Secretary of State aware of the difficulty of hoarding essential foodstuffs, in view of the prices of them under the present Government? Will he tell us whether the Government will give any help in the matter of the livestock losses, and whether they intend to do anything about providing greater mechanical means of clearing the roads? Would it not have been better if he himself had gone to the North of Scotland?

Mr. Stuart

I took the view that it was better to drop some fodder and some bread rather than to drop me. In reply to certain criticisms which have appeared in the Press, I would say that I was in Scotland until Thursday of last week. I hope that some Sunday newspapers do not fool all the people all the time.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we appreciate immensely—all thinking people, that is—the work that he has done, and vehemently dissociate ourselves from the attacks on him by certain sections of the Press who ought to know better?

Mr. Grimond

Is the Secretary of State aware that, while we regret that we were denied the spectacle of seeing him descend by parachute, nevertheless we are very grateful for what was done to help those in need? Would he, in his thanks to those who helped, express our thanks also to the lifeboatmen and to the Commissioners of Northern Lights?

Will there be any further statement from the Joint Under-Secretary of State reviewing the whole situation in Scotland? If so, will that statement include a review of the serious implications for Civil Defence, for if stocks can be so short that will be a very serious matter in the event of a national emergency? I would add only this, that most people in the North did their utmost to help themselves and, in a great many cases, succeeded.

Mr. Stuart

I will consider the point about a further statement when my hon. Friend returns. I do not yet know, as I said, about the livestock losses. That is another important point that is, of course, to be considered. I associate myself with what the hon. Gentleman has said about expressing thanks, as I did, to all, including the lifeboat service, who helped in overcoming the very great difficulties.

Sir D. Robertson

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there was not the slightest need for intervention by the Scottish Office, and that the local authorities alerted the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy, who did such a magnificent job to help people to carry on? Nevertheless, the local authorities appreciated the visit that the Joint Under-Secretary of State made after the crisis was over, because there are many lessons to be learned from these hard experiences. My right hon. Friend generously gave thanks to those who helped, but I had difficulty in hearing him because of the noise that was going on, so I would ask him if it is not the case that the railwaymen and the road men did a magnificent job of work, when the blizzard was at its height, in getting the rails clear and the trains running again and the road vehicles moving?

Mr. Stuart

I did endeavour to express sincere thanks to all who assisted in this work, and I do not think that I need now add to them.