HL Deb 30 July 1919 vol 36 cc79-88

LORD LOVAT rose to call the attention of His Majesty's Government to the statements of the Secretary for Scotland on July 3 on the subject of the Government policy for crofter housing; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in rising to ask the Question which stands in my name on the subject of the policy of the Government towards crofter housing, I need not call your Lordships' attention to the importance of the matter. As far as one can read in the Bill which was published yesterday—the Scottish Housing and Town Planning Bill—and as far as one can gather from the statement of the Secretary for Scotland, the question of crofter housing has not been faced in any way in the Bill. Those of your Lordships who are interested in Scotland will ask, as Scotland, especially the Highlands, are asking to-day, "What is the reason for this omission?" We know that on the West Coast of the Highlands, especially in the Island of Lewis and some of the outer Islands, a condition of housing exists which is unparallelled in Western Europe. We also know that the number of crofters and small holders, according to the Parliamentary Return of four or five years ago, was something like 51,000 crofts, and as the crofters are a prolific race, putting the number at between four and five per house, and adding the squatters and cotters, we get since the Return was made something over a quarter of a million people who are affected by this omission.

The omission we believe is founded, firstly, on the alleged adherence of the Scottish Bill to the English Bill, and secondly because those members of Parliament who represent the crafting district have for the most part very slight connections with or interest in the Highlands, and are almost to a man amen with places in His Majesty's Government. There was only one individual representing the crafting districts who was able to speak his mind on the subject. Furthermore, and perhaps this is the most important of all, the crofters in being are a matter of no political interest. The small holder in England, I think, is in the same category. Once you have made your small holder you do not care anything about him. Likewise in Scotland it is only when the cry of landlordism and deer forests is raised that the crofter becomes of supreme interest to all Parties.

To-night I wish to confine attention to the housing of the existing crofters. Very cleverly as a rule, when these debates are raised, the interest is taken away from the question of the benefit of the existing crofter and centred on what crofters are going to be and are going to have. That is not the answer that I should like the Government to give me. This question of crofter housing is not included in the Bill which is going to be brought in on Monday, and unless it is brought up at the present time it cannot be debated with effect at that later date. I therefore make no excuse for taking up your Lordships' time, notwithstanding the fact of the pressing business you have got before you, as I think we owe something to these men who, after all, form the backbone of the 9th, 15th, and 51st Divisions who went to the front and who are at present left out of the benefits which are going to accrue to the rest of Scotland.

The question of crofter housing by the 1911 Act is purely a matter as between the Government and the people themselves. By the 1911 Act the responsibility of crofter housing was taken over by the Government, and under that Act a sufficient grant was made to enable aid to be given by the Government. Therefore it is not a question of any grant to landlords, or of bolstering up any estate; it is a question of the Government taking up a responsibility which, I submit—and I hope to prove—it has not yet fulfilled. And by their action in not facing the crofter housing question to-day they are taking a further step in not fulfilling the obligation which they definitely shouldered only eight years ago.

This question cannot be said to have been neglected owing to lack of interest on the part of those who have close connections with crofting and small holding portions of Scotland. As soon as a Bill was introduced this question was at once raised. It was, raised by the Highland Reconstruction Committee, which is a body that represents every interest, including crofters, returned soldiers, landowners, and manufacturers, such as there are in the northern parts of Scotland. It was raised also by the Land Federation, and was finally debated at a conference in Edinburgh which was summoned by the Secretary for Scotland, and which included the representatives of county councils, district councils, and all the agricultural and small holding bodies, as well as the crofters themselves, so that this question ruts been amply debated, and repeated notice has been given to His Majesty's Government that the crofters question has not been faced.

The Questions of which I have given private notice to His Majesty's Government, and which I now wish to ask, are—

(1) Are you going to bring crofter housing into this Bill which is to be read a second time on Monday, and, if so, what are the steps which you propose to take to make such introduction of the crofter housing question effective?

(2) If you are not going to bring crofter housing into this how are you going to tax the crofters for the housing of their rich neighbours?

(3) Is the £15,000 grant, promised by the Secretary for Scotland for departmental grants or loans from the Board of Agriculture for housing, to represent the last word of the Government in facing this very important question?

(4) Why are the highland crofters and the Scottish crofters and small-holders to be treated on lines entirely different from those on which the corresponding individuals have been treated in Ireland?

I want to bring out one or two points on those four questions in the briefest way possible. I want to point out that, if you bring those crofters and small-holders into the Bill, you will have to make considerable changes in the measure. I do not know whether the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, who I understand has charge of this measure, has knowledge of the various Small Holdings Acts, and so on, which will enable him between now and Monday to draft Amendments which will make this possible. I must point out to him, in case he has that intention, that he will have to face the question of giving triple tenure of land. We all know the difficulties of dual tenure, but the question of the triple tenure of land by which if the crofters are brought into the Bill they will hold their land from one person, and have fixity of tenure over a certain portion from one body, and hold the houses built for them under an entirely separate method of holding. There will lave to be an amendment of the methods of rating, and the whole questions of fixity of tenure, stocktaking, way-going, and so on, will have to be gone into within a very few days. I myself believe that drafting Amendments are possible to meet this, but I am certain it will be difficult; and the fact that His Majesty's Government have faced this matter in a half-hearted way does not look as if they really meant to put through this work.

I do not think that Mr. Munro's statement in the House of Commons on July 3 gives much hope for Amendments of this kind. In the remarks he made on the subject of crofter housing he talked of the possibility of this and that scheme, eventually without having any fixed line of policy which it is certain will have to be adopted in connection with housing under the Bill as it stands. If you do not face crofter housing under the Housing and Town Planning Bill, you will have to face it by means of Departmental grants or loans; and in that case the question will at once be raised of how you are going to tax the crofters—admittedly not the most opulent people but who are the most numerous in the rural districts of the North of Scotland—in order to pay for the houses of their richer neighbours? I would like the noble Lord who represents the Government to put himself in the position of the average local authority in a Northern district. How is he going to advocate that houses are to be built in the villages for the richer people, for farm servants, for employers, and for others—that this is going to be done by local taxation, admittedly at present only 1d. in the £—while the individuals who pay not a large amount it is true but a certain proportion of the rates, who are the most numerous, and who have the worst houses, are going to be entirely left out of the scheme? I hope the noble Lord will be able to answer exactly how this matter is to be faced.

Then I come to the third point—the question of the £15,000 grant. That sum is by way of grant or loan. To make it a grant you will have to alter the existing 1911 Act. This £15,000 is for something like 51,000 small holders—that is to say, at a rate of rather under 6s. 8d. per house. On the West Coast of Scotland, at the present moment, with the Government here the land owners, there exists a state of housing which can only be called appalling. In no less than 700 houses in Skye, on the Government's own property, cattle and men are housed under the same roof. It is five years since I saw it, but I have myself seen on the Government property crofter houses in which the cattle and men entered by the same door, and in which there was only a sheet or a bit of wood between where the cattle lived the whole year and where the men lived. That was on Government property for which we had paid and which was administered by our servants, the Board of Agriculture for Scotland.

In the Island of Lewis the conditions are even more appalling. There Dr. Murray, who represents the outer islands, was the only Crofter Member who seems to speak with directness and to the point on the terrible state of affairs. He stated there were not less than 5,000 houses in the long island which would require repair. Of those houses something like 1,000 are what they call the old black houses—that is to say, houses in which the cattle go in at the same door as time humans, and cattle dung remains in the cattle end of the shed or house until the spring of the year when it is cleared out. These are a state of things which certainly do not exist anywhere else in Western Europe, and these are a state of things which you have to face under the Bill, and for which you are giving a miserly loan or grant of £15,000. I hope that His Majesty's Government, having these things pointed out to them, will see fit to consider seriously this matter.

The fourth question that I am asking the noble Lord opposite is why the Scottish small-holders and crofters should be treated entirely differently from the Irish smallholders. I listened the other day to the debate (um the question of the Irish Housing Bill. I heard there again that statement which we continually heard on the Housing Commission on which I had the honour to sit for four years in Scotland. That statement was with regard to the 40,000 houses which were built in Ireland for agricultural labourers and those earning, I think, under 2s. 6d. per day. We have 50,000 crofters in Scotland, and the average rent of the crofter is £4 7s. I would like to ask the noble Lord opposite why these men should be treated on entirely different lines from what has happened in Ireland. Have they not volunteered in the Great War I think the battalions which came from those Northern parts certainly fulfilled their duty. I do not believe there is any body of men who volunteered in larger numbers. They were not exempted, or only exempted in rare cases for agricultural reasons, but they have an infinitely higher proportion of men who served than come from the farm servants or farmers of any part of the British Isles. For what reason is it that not only do they not have their houses built for them entirely, but that they are actually excluded from the Housing Bill and only a beggarly grant of £15,000 is offered for them?

In conclusion, I would like to say that this matter is a matter for which the Government is very seriously criticised in Scotland and especially in the northern portion of Scotland, and the criticism does not come from one side only; it comes, so far as one can see, universally. The criticism is that in this matter the Government have not faced what is their obvious duty to a body of men who deserve well of the country and who suffer from a state of housing which needs certain redress. I would ask the noble Lord to confine himself in his reply, if he will do me that honour, to the question of the existing crofter. We are very shortly, we hope, to have legislation over the question of extending the number of crofts and small holdings in the Highland, for which no doubt special grants and loans have already been made; but I wish to-day to consider the existing crofter and how he is to be affected by this, because I know from experience in the Highlands, as well as from four years on the Housing Commission, that the difficulty of crofter housing on the small crofts has led to greater rural depopulation than anything else for thirty years. This depopulation is going on from rural districts and among small holders owing to the fact that the cost of building materials has doubled and trebled in the last few years. I beg to move for Papers.


My Lords, in the absence of my noble friend Lord Stanmore, through indisposition, I will reply to Lord Lovat's Questions. I should like, in the first place, to point out that the Government are not animated, as Lord Lovat almost indicated, by any lack of regard for the splendid services rendered by those to whom he has referred during the recent war. I imagine that everybody realises the incalculable value of the military services rendered by crofters, and sons and nephews of crofters, and it is not necessary, I hope, in dealing with the housing question, to assess it according to their merits as compared with those of other sections of the population.

As to Lord Lovat's Question about the contrast between the effort made by the State on behalf of these men and that made for persons of corresponding position in Ireland, I can only say this that for five and twenty years it lids been the considered and deliberate policy of Parliament that larger subventions should be paid to Ireland than to Scotland. That has been the consistent and deliberate policy of successive Governments. The statement to which Lord Lovat refers—that made by the Secretary for Scotland on July 3—was to the effect that assistance to crofters should continue to be given through the Board of Agriculture rather than, under the Scottish Housing Bill, through the local authorities or the Local Government Board, now the Board of Health for Scotland.

The noble Lord asks what provision is going to be made for existing crofters and if they come under the Housing Bill. The answer to that question is that, while power and duties under the Bill are conferred upon local authorities in crofting districts just as in other districts; the framework of the Bill does not, so far as the power of acquiring land and erecting houses upon it is concerned, lend itself to the conditions of the crofting districts.

I will explain briefly to your Lordships the reasons which seem to me to make that view adequate. In the first place the local authority is not empowered to rebuild or improve a house except on a site which it has acquired. Therefore, to improve the houses to which Lord Lovat refers they would have to begin by buying the house and buying the site, a procedure which is manifestly inconsistent with the whole theory of crofting holdings. Then, in the case of an ordinary owner who has a house in bad condition, the local authority can step in and repair the house at the owner's expense if the owner fails to fulfil that duty himself.


May I ask who the owner is?


Any owner.


Is the owner the crofter, or the landlord?


I think the crofter would be the owner.


That is a point which no one knows.


Then my noble friend ought never to have asked me. It is a most improper question to put to me under those conditions. In the case of the Scottish Office, I gather that the procedure of making the crofter at any rate repair his holding, and recover from him the cost would be inapplicable, because the crofter has probably not got the means for doing so. The third method, available in the ordinary case, is for the local authority to make loans to an owner within the margin of one-half of the estimated property to be burdened with the hereditable security for the loan. That procedure again is, I think, inapplicable to the case of the crofter, who has no power to mortgage his house and croft. These are difficulties which every one roust acknowledge, and which could not he rectified, as Lord Lovat seemed to think possible, by drafting Amendments to the Housing Bill.

Lord Lovat laid stress upon this point, that if the crofter class is excluded from the Housing Bill they will, in effect, be forced to contribute by their taxation to provide houses for other people even more well-to-do than themselves. Generally speaking no general statute can deal completely, or perhaps always logically, with a special case, though crofters, it must be remembered, through special legislation do secure certain advantages from the State, certain subventions which roust be taken into account in striking a balance; but I think I can reassure Lord Lovat by saying that it is not intended by the Scottish Office to acquiesce in this position of things. Though it is not proposed to deal with the crofter problem in the Housing Bill, it is none the less hoped to deal with it in the Land Settlement (Scotland) Bill, which is now in a forward state of preparation. As my noble friend was informed by Lord Ernie in this House on May 28 last, it is hoped to allocate the sum of two and a half millions sterling to Scotland for the settlement of small-holders and cognate purposes in that country.


I am talking about the existing crofters.


I must ask the noble Lord to take special note of my next sentence. My noble friend will understand that it is impossible for me to announce in advance the contents of a Bill which is still in preparation, and which therefore has not yet been made public. I cannot consequently anticipate the provisions of this Bill, but the Government is doing its best to work out a scheme in connection with this Bill which will enable assistance to be given in the improvement of existing houses in the crofting areas; and in this endeavour the Government will keep in view the recommendations of the Royal Commission on housing in Scotland which are applicable to these crofting areas.


I intervene in a Scottish conversation with very great diffidence, but I should like to ask my noble friend the Chancellor of the Duchy, when he tells us that there is a Bill on Scottish small holdings yet in preparation, how long he intends the present Session to last. I presume he meant getting it in preparation with a view to dealing with it within the present Session. Is he going to ask us to remain here until that Bill has been developed, because otherwise I am afraid my noble friend Lord Lovat may feel that the realization of his hopes is rather remote. I should also like to ask the noble Earl this point. He told us just now that it was quite understood to be a settled matter of British legislation that Ireland should always receive a larger contribution than Scotland. It seems to be a rather unfair rule to make.


I did not say that.


If I have misquoted the noble Earl he will correct me. I understood him to say that, Ireland always received better treatment than Scotland. Does he mean per capita, or in what respect does he mean, that she always receives better treatment?


Lord Lovat referred to labourers' cottages in Ireland, and asked why nothing of the sort was done in Scotland. I did not say it was the settled policy of this country that Ireland always shall receive larger grants and subventions, but I said that in this respect for twenty years past all successive Governments have acquiesced in and indeed carried through that policy, and it is an undeniable fact. I made no estimate of what future Governments would do.


Perhaps I may just say that it may have been the practice in the past, but I think recent circumstances have led us to doubt whether the Irish population are so much more deserving than the Scotch population that they ought to continue to receive such preferential treatment. There are many Irishmen, of course, who are among the most loyal citizens of the Empire. There are a good many who are not. I think that will be admitted, and perhaps in the preparation of future legislation by the Government my noble friend might think it wise to advise his colleagues to vary the rule which has prevailed hitherto.


I am afraid that I cannot make an announcement of the Cabinet's future Irish policy at the present juncture. I hope that we shall be able to get the Scottish Land Settlement Bill through during the present Sitting?


Before the summer holidays?


I do not think the Government have given very close attention to this question of crofter housing, and the answer that I have received from the noble Lord is a most unsatisfactory one. It is unsatisfactory because we have had in the past our crofter housing attended by a Land Settlement. Bill, and I can assure your Lordships that the total sum disbursed out of the £200,000 which was specially voted for the improvement of crofter housing was rather less over a four-year period than is spent on many individual Scottish estates, and the £15,000 that the Secretary for Scotland talks about giving us an immediate grant of is not even enough to put these houses in order on a single Skye estate.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.