HC Deb 17 June 1965 vol 714 cc1034-46
Mr. Willis

I beg to move Amendment No. 38, in page 13, line 30, to leave out "a member or".

It might be for the convenience of the Committee, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, to take, at the same time, Amendment No. 39, to which Amendment No. 38 is a paving Amendment.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker indicated assent.

Mr. Willis

The two Amendments have been put down to meet a point raised in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for the Western Isles (Mr. Malcolm MacMillan), supported by other hon. Members, to ensure that the Highlands and Islands were represented on the Consultative Council and that if there was simply representation of local authorities it might be of a kind which did not ensure the proper representation of the Highlands and Islands. The right hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. Noble) also pointed this out.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: In page 13, line 32, at end insert: , and in appointing members representative of local authority interests the Secretary of State shall satisfy himself that there is appropriate representation of the different parts of the Highlands and Islands including, in particular, the Orkney Islands, the Shetland Islands, the Outer Hebrides and the Inner Hebrides."—[Mr. Willis.]

Order for the Third Reading read.

(Queen's Consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified.)

10.43 p.m.

Mr. Ross

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

When I moved the Second Reading of the Bill, I said that if there was bitterness in my voice, there was bitterness in Scotland, too, in the recollection of the sad history of the area with which the Bill deals. I can, however, assure the House, and I reassure hon. Members opposite, that my mood tonight is not one of bitterness but one rather of confidence and faith, confidence in the people of the Highlands and of Scotland and faith in their ability to use the new powers that are given in the Bill to do something to turn what may well be a black spot in our economic and social life into something very much brighter.

There has been noticeably a change of mood in relation to the Bill as we have examined it and as opinions have been expressed. I think there were fears expressed, which were certainly not justified, about the intentions of the Bill. They have been eased, and I have recognised in our discussions today a very considerable measure of good will in respect of the Bill's intentions; and, indeed, hopes that those intentions will be fulfilled by the Board when it is set up.

I do not doubt at all that everything will depend on the quality of the Board itself, and the way it interprets its remit. I say quite frankly to the House—and the newspapers have been rather anxious to know who is on the Board, and who is not—that it is not for me to anticipate the will of Parliament in respect of any Act of Parliament, and it will not be until after the Act is safely on the Statute Book that we will make any determinations in relation to the actual Board itself.

The second matter that has caused some controversy, and really should cause very considerable interest, is the nature of the powers in the Bill. I want to stress once again, that the natures of the powers—the comprehensive nature, the sweeping nature—are indeed related to the problem with which the Board will have to deal. Time and time again—and this happened in relation to the Crofters Commission—we have set up commissions and given them a problem with which to deal, and given them inadequate powers with which to deal with it, and by the time we came back with reforming legislation it may well be that the attitudes and the moods have changed and the opportunities lost.

We now have before us the actual powers, which to my mind are adequate to this task. I know that certain people were rather staggered when they saw them. I think some people spoke rather indirectly about Karl Marx being the author of the Bill. There were questions of tyranny; there was going to be no liberty left in the Highlands. Liberty exists only with life, and there are many hundreds of thousands of acres in the Highlands where today no life is found where there was life before. What we hope to be able to do by this Bill and the powers therein, with a Board armed with the necessary authority, given the necessary backing by the State and in finance, is to revive considerably the populations in those areas, and create prosperity where we have seen despair over centuries and a dwindling population. The hon. Gentleman opposite who is an Englishman, but who represents a Lowlands constituency, should not shake his head over this. We have had a dwindling population year after year, decade after decade.

If we are going to use properly the spaces resources, the land resources, and keep people prosperous in a part of the country where they would rather live and work, then we have got to resort to the kind of measure which we have here. This gives us an opportunity, and with the good will of all in the Highlands of Scotland and in Britain—and I am sure it is there—we can make the effort and we can win. But we must get away from the past, even in our attitudes, and look forward to the job. With the powers that are in the Bill we can do it.

10.48 p.m.

Mr. Noble

We have now had quite a considerable number of hours debate this afternoon, but I am sorry that inevitably, for reasons not due to any Scotsmen so far as I know, the debate has to be somewhat curtailed. I think it is fair to say—and I think my hon. Friends would agree—that there have been some improvements and some clarifications in the Bill as it was first presented to us. However, there are still, in my view, four major criticisms. Three of them relate to the Bill itself, and the fourth relates to the attitude of right hon. Gentlemen and hon. Gentlemen on the Front Bench opposite.

My first criticism of the Bill is that the Secretary of State has kept a great deal too much of the power in his own hands. This we have said over and over again through the course of these debates, but have made very little impression on the Government about it. The corollary of all this is that this Board, which we all hope will be a good, able and efficient one, has practically no initiative at all.

The second criticism I still have of the Bill is that, as far as one can tell by any realistic assessment, there is no chance at all of sufficient money being able to be available to achieve any seriously worthwhile results. My third criticism of the Bill is that by giving the Secretary of State, and through him the Board, the widest powers to promote and set up industries there is considerable risk that private enterprise may lack confidence in starting some of the rather risky ventures, as inevitably they are in the Highland area.

I should have liked to expand all these three points, but I do not think that I should in view of the fact that this debate must end rather earlier than some of us had hoped. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] If hon. Members really want to interrupt me there is no earthly reason why this debate should not go on for hours. There are a great many Scotsmen who would be pretty shocked at the way in which hon. Members opposite have been behaving.

My fourth criticism is not one of the Bill itself but of the attitude of the Secretary of State and the Minister of State towards it. The Bill enshrines what the Labour Party has been saying, on a number of occasions during the passage of the Bill, has been the policy of hon. and right hon. Members opposite for a great many years. They have said over and over again, "This is what we have wanted to do." The Liberal Party, not to be outdone—quite rightly—has said, "We have had this idea for many years also." What surprises me and a great many of my hon. Friends, and certainly would have surprised a good many people in the Highlands if they had sat through our debates, is that, in spite of this having been official Government policy for years and the policy of the Liberal Party for 50 or 60 years, we have had a remarkable dearth of any sort of constructive idea from either the Government benches or the Liberal benches.

During the whole of our 17 sittings in Committee—16 serious ones and one extra sitting because the Minister of State made an ass of himself—we listened and tried to get some constructive ideas of what the Government were thinking of suggesting to the Board that it should do. We got absolutely none. It may well be that the Secretary of State and the Minister of State have several ideas in their heads. Certainly in the past few months they have made expansive speeches in Scotland about the tremendous new plans they have for the Highlands. The Minister of State was in the Shetlands or Orkneys recently and he said that he had spoken to hundreds of people and that they were thrilled by some of his great ideas of plans for the Highlands. But has anyone had any idea of what these plans were?

It may well be that the Secretary of State and his Minister of State have these ideas in their minds but are refusing absolutely to divulge them. This may be because these ideas are so trifling that they would not inspire anybody if they did come out of their minds. These powers may have made us afraid; and we had every reason to be afraid, because they are quite unprecedented in their combination. It may be that the Government's ideas were so far-reaching that they did not dare tell the House or we should have seen just where these powers would have led to. I do not believe that. If that were so, it would mean that the Secretary of State and the Minister of State have been grossly dishonest in many debates.

I am certain that the truth of the matter is that there are absolutely no ideas in the minds of the Secretary of State or the Minister of State about how to deal with this problem. It is a difficult problem and people have been thinking about it for many years. The Highland Panels have made reports, as have a great many different bodies, but, in spite of it all, no clear-cut decisions on any particular line of country have yet been successfully put into effect. We have noticed—this is true not only in Scotland but outside—that the stock-in-trade of the Government at the moment is words, which very often go flat against the pledges they gave at the election.

I think that the people of the Highlands have the right to know and to judge for themselves what actions the Government have taken in this period for the Highlands. We have had debates in the House on the rise in the price of petrol. The Highlanders know that freight charges have gone up, in the case of MacBraynes' and on the railways. I have had letters in the past few days—which I have sent to the Secretary of State—showing that one of our fastest-growing industries in Scotland, the shellfish industry—the very sort of thing which this Highland Development Board would and should be developing—is running rapidly on the rocks because of the very steep rises in the price of freight and, even more important, because the trains which used to carry these goods have stopped carrying them.

This may be of no importance to hon. Gentlemen opposite who come from constituencies down here, but there are very few constituencies in the Highlands which are not seriously affected by this problem. Then there are things like the hydro-electricity board, which people in the Highlands have been waiting for impatiently. I know that this is a difficult decision, but no action has been taken. There are no signs of extra expenditure on schools, roads or any of the other things which the Highlanders were led to believe would happen. The Secretary of State is due to receive the regional plans—he may even have received them already—but he is hoping not to publish them. For the first time, last week we had something specific. Twelve thousand acres of trees are to be planted in five years in the Highlands. That is really nothing very significant.

I believe that we must accept this Bill and give it a Third Reading, but I believe that when we accept it we must face the fact that this in itself will solve nothing. It is just another collection of words. The House should realise that this problem will not be solved just by words. It will be solved by the hard work and thought of people working there. Having listened for a great many hours to the debates on this Bill, I am bound to admit that I cannot believe that the present administration in the Scottish Office is in the least likely to solve any of its problems. The Highlanders have had too many difficulties in the past. I do not believe that they deserve a failure now.

I hope that, in accepting the Third Reading of this Bill, the House will at the same time realise that it is up to hon. Members in all parts of the House to make certain that it works.

11.0 p.m.

Mr. Alasdair Mackenzie (Ross and Cromarty)

This is indeed a Measure to which Liberals throughout the Highlands will give a warm welcome. It has been Liberal policy for upwards of 40 years to set up the sort of Board which will be created by the Bill. Now that the Measure is in its final form, it will be admitted by all people of good will, irrespective of party allegiance, that given a Board composed of the right people and adequate financial backing, it can transform the fortunes of the Highlands in the next decade.

I stress the importance of the choice of the members of the Board because in certain quarters there is a fear that some of the compulsory powers conferred on the Board may be abused. I am convinced that, provided we have the right people on the Board, there is nothing to fear in this respect. There may be cases where certain people will fail to cooperate and it may be necessary to take compulsory powers but, from my knowledge of the Highlands, I am convinced that these cases will be few and far between.

The Highland Panel is not to be continued, among other bodies which may be discontinued. I say with respect that because of its lack of executive powers, few tears will be shed in the Highlands at the demise of that body. One is pleased to know that county councils and town councils in the Highlands are to continue their present functions. This is important.

It will be generally agreed that the Board must make full use of local resources. Since the land is our greatest asset, I hope that the Board will have a critical look at the pattern of land use in certain areas in the Highlands. The Secretary of State is the biggest landowner in the Highlands and Islands and this should help. Before tackling the private landowner who is not making the best use of his land, the Secretary of State must himself set a good example of land use.

In this connection, I refer to two large farms which the Secretary of State, and some of his predecessors, have been running for a number of years. I refer to Glenforsa in Mull and Dalchork in Sutherland. As these units are held with a view, as far as I can judge, to showing other people how to integrate agriculture and forestry, the results obtained should be made available to the public. If there is nothing worth while to show, the new Board should subdivide the farms among the many land-hungry young men in the Highlands and Islands. For the Government to be farming large units of land is, I suggest, a very bad form of nationalisation. We all agree that agriculture and forestry should be integrated and there are many ways of doing this.

The new Board must ensure that other bodies which have been set up in recent years have adequate powers to do their work properly. We have a Deer Commission, as is well known, yet we find the Forestry Commission having to finance the erection of deer fences at exorbitant costs to protect plantations. This is detrimental to the progress of planting shelter belts in many areas which are otherwise suited to planting blocks of a limited size.

I do not propose to suggest to the Board how to deal with this problem but it is one which it will find on its doorstep before very long. While we must concentrate on the traditional industries of agriculture, fishing, forestry and tourism, it is impossible to overstate the case for new light industries. This is the only way in which to maintain a viable community in many small towns and villages as well as the rural areas. The new Board will be judged in the Highlands largely by its success in bringing new industry to the area. Transport is basic to the whole problem, so the Board will have to provide—[Interruption.]

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

On the point of order, Mr. Speaker. I wish to ask that hon. Members should sit quietly and listen to the speech which is being made. We are all anxious to hear a further statement, which is to come later, but I ask hon. Members to listen to a very sincere speech so that we can get on with business in a proper way.

Mr. Speaker

I am sure that the House will appreciate the wisdom of what the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) has said.

Mr. Mackenzie

In 1960 I said that the Government should appoint an independent authority composed of men skilled in industry and commerce and with the necessary financial backing to bring work into the area. I still maintain that this is the greatest need. Here it is necessary to sound a note of warning against the pessimists who say that the bright lights of the cities are such a strong attraction that we shall not be able to hold our young people in the Highlands no matter what we do. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In the past the Highlander had to leave home, much against his will, in order to find employment elsewhere. He still has to leave home for the same reason, but today the average Highlander is very happy to stay at home provided he can earn a good living. We do not object to a certain number of our enterprising young people going south for a period, because we know that many of them are happy to come back if we can offer them good prospects. On their return to the Highlands they find that the skill and experience gained during their period in the South is invaluable. It is terribly important that the Board should present the sort of image that will make a favourable impression at the outset. To this end a number of things are necessary.

First, the composition of the Board itself is most important. While most of the members must be appointed because of their experience and their interest in the Highlands, it will be necessary to appoint some with a knowledge of industry from outside the Highland area. Some people seem to think that if we offer very large salaries we are bound to get suitable people to serve on the Board. This is a mistaken view. There are very few people available with the necessary qualifications, and some of those who have the qualifications are not applicants because they realise the uphill nature of the job. Their reputations are at stake. It would be morally wrong to pay big salaries unless the members of the Board are in a position to take big decisions and have the necessary finances to put those decisions into effect. Many today are serving and have served the Highlands faithfully and well on a voluntary basis.

It would be wrong to pay exorbitant sums to members of the Board unless there is something very definite that they can do. It must be made abundantly clear that this is an entirely new body with a new remit and a new outlook. It must have its own staff in every department of the work. There is a fear in certain quarters that the new Board may be just another department of St. Andrew's House. This idea would be fatal; but it is a fear which is very prevalent in many parts of the Highlands.

The Secretary of State can rest assured that the Board will have a good fund of good will behind it at the start. How long this good will will last will largely depend on how the new Board will shape. We are continually being told that the Highlands must help themselves. They have been doing just that for generations against terrible odds. Now they are looking for Government co-operation in a combined operation to arrest the depopulation of the Highlands.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on bringing the Bill to its final stages and I wish it a very speedy passage to the Statute Book.

11.10 p.m.

Mr. George Y. Mackie

I do not wish to detain the House—


Hear, hear.

Mr. Mackie

—but I could do so. I wish with great sincerity to welcome the Third Reading of the Bill and to say that it has been spoiled by a lack of any commonsense procedure in the House. Scottish Members would gladly have delayed or interrupted their business to allow an important statement to be made. The last word on the Bill is that its final stages have been spoiled. There were many individual Members who had much to say and who would have spent a long time here to say it. The final stages have been spoiled because the procedure of the House does not allow of important and commonsense decisions being taken.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.