HC Deb 20 December 1967 vol 756 cc1278-80

4.3 p.m.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable the Highlands and Islands Development Board to acquire equity shareholdings in companies carrying on business in the Highlands and Islands; and for matters connected therewith. The creation of the Highlands and Islands Development Board is certainly one of the proudest achievements of the Government. Even during its short existence, the Board has demonstrated the wisdom of establishing such an agency to tackle the formidable economic problebs created by decades of neglect. The Board has made no secret of its ambition to transform the economy of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

For the vision to see that this transformation was not merely desirable, but also possible, the credit belongs chiefly to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. His energy in promoting the Act and supporting the Board in all its works has led to the entrenchment of the Board as the tool, recognise as necessary by all in the Highlands, save for a few albeit powerful vested interests, as vital for the regeneration of the Highlands.

Mr. Speaker

Order. It is difficult for an hon. Member to ask leave to bring in a Bill against a background of noise.

Mr. Maclennan

After almost two years of operation, we are now in a position to look not merely at the record of substantial achievement of the Board, but to consider, also, whether the tools which Parliament gave it for the task are adequate for the job. The prime task of the Board has been widely recognised to be the provision of jobs in manufacturing industries. The over-dependence of the Highlands upon the service industries is widely recognised and accepted.

The principal tools which have been given to the Board by the Act for its purposes are the powers to set up buildings and to provide services, contained in Section 5. It is also empowered to offer grants and loans to existing industries or incoming industries in the area, and this power it has operated most effectively. Indeed, during the first 18 months of its existence, about £1,600,00 has been expended upon this purpose. It is estimated that, in that time, about 1,600 jobs have been created.

A third power exists in Section 6. It is to set up and operate businesses. Section 6 was met with the most strenuous opposition from the Conservative Party and has never been invoked, to my knowledge. It has not been invoked because of an apparent obscurity and because it does not go far enough in its operation. It is obscure in that it appears not to empower the Board to set up on its own corporations, nor, indeed, to acquire equity interests in existing companies. Thus, far from threatening the nationalisation of the whole Highlands, as was suggested by hon. Members opposite, it appears to have been largely ineffectual in bringing about the purposes which all hon. Members on this side of the House would have wished to see.

My Bill would remedy this apparent defect in the Act. There are three main situations in which I hope that this Measure to enable the Board to acquire an equity interest in companies would be of assistance. The first is in the case of existing companies which are operating in the Highlands. The intention would be to finance their operations by the normal business means through the issuance of risk-bearing equity. It is well known that, within the Highlands, there is a great shortage of risk capital and it is through the public provision of this means that one would hope to make good the deficiency.

The second situation in which the Bill would be helpful would be by the creation of new businesses in the Highlands. Private enterprise companies would be much more likely and ready to establish themselves in the area if the Board it- self were prepared to take an equity interest in the ventures.

The third situation in which it would be hoped to be of value would be in assisting the process of organising and in some cases amalgamating small business enterprises, for example, to enable them to take advantage of marketing opportunities which would not be open to them otherwise. I have in mind fish processing and the knitting and hand loom weaving industries. A concomitant part of the scheme would be for further investment in the Highlands at the Board's discretion of its profits from participation in Highland industries. It is well to recognise that when the taxpayers' money is being spent on providing capital for Highland enterprises, the public has the right to expect some profit from the ventures.

The establishment of the Board marked the beginning of a new era of hope in the Highlands. The Board's record is already most worthy, but if it is to provide a springboard to prosperity it should be given the clear capacity to invest in Highland companies. For those reasons I ask the House for leave to bring in a Bill which will help to create new jobs and bring industrial vitality to the Highlands and Islands.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Maclennan, Mr. Dewar, Mr. Gregor Mackenzie, Mr. Mackintosh, and Mr. Malcolm MacMillan.