HL Deb 29 April 1920 vol 40 cc44-55

LORD LOVAT rose to ask His Majesty's Government whether the facts and figures set out in a Memorial addressed to His Majesty's Government on April 12, 1920, by the Highland Reconstruction Association on the subject of transport and telephones in the Highlands are correctly stated, and, if correctly stated, what is the policy of His Majesty's Government to improve the serious position of affairs described; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in asking this Question I would like to point out to His Majesty's Government that, as far as one can learn, the people in the large extent of country comprising the Highlands of Scotland are feeling great resentment at the way in which they have been left out of the schemes of development which have been adumbrated by Parliament in the time which has elapsed since the cessation of hostilities. I have already taken the liberty on more than one occasion, and I propose to do so again, of pointing out to your Lordships how the Housing Acts have not touched our difficulties in that district. We understand that certain further schemes are shortly to be brought in—such as water power schemes—by which, if one can draw any conclusions from the preliminary Report, what remaining assets we have in the Highlands are going to be taken from us for the benefit of the more highly industrialised country in the South; and, as far as we can gather from the different statements of Ministers, by the re-grouping of railways we shall lose any small amount of industry which is left in the Northern areas. This feeling is gradually producing a state of mind amounting to exasperation and ridicule—exasperation from the fact that although committees frequently visit the Highlands nothing is ever done; and ridicule from the fact that, although the Government is rightly committed to a policy of land settlement, by their own action they are making the position of the people, especially those in the outer islands and the other more inaccessible places, quite impossible as districts in which to live.

I have brought forward the matter of these two memoranda by the Highland Reconstruction Committee because I think they make a very reasonable statement of some of the hardships from which the Highlanders are suffering to-day. The Highland Reconstruction Association is a body upon which all shades of politics and all classes into which the population is divided are represented; and I believe that the memoranda here produced form part of a resolution which has been passed from time to time, I believe almost unanimously, by this body as to the importance of bringing this question of transport communication before His Majesty's Government. In the newspapers recently there have been what I think are exaggerated statements with regard to starvation in the outer Islands—the question of total lack of food for six weeks together which I personally do not believe to be founded upon fact; but I am of opinion that at the present moment there exists, and there has existed for a year now, a very unfortunate state of things which calls for redress on the part of the Government. I am not going to deal with all the various items which are mentioned in the two memoranda, but I would like to call attention to the question of transport facilities, and to one or two other things under the heading of telephone facilities. I am quite aware that in certain parts of Ross-shire there have been great hardships, especially in the Coigach districts, on account of the breakdown of road facilities. Facilities for transport are nothing like what obtained before the war. Yet it must be allowed, on the other hand, that admittedly the Departments concerned have had increased difficulties to contend with on account of the shortage of men, rates of wages, and the difficulty of getting material.

Two questions, however, require special attention. One of these is the shortage of transport facilities in the Island of Skye. There we have very definite evidence; I personally have it from three quite different sources—from the county council authorities, from one of the leaders of public opinion on the Conservative side and a leader of public opinion on the Radical side in that area— that for a considerable period of last winter, notably in the Staffin area and the Glendale area, there was such a shortage of meal and flour that children actually suffered in health through not getting enough food to eat. There is a complaint, which I think is absolutely well-founded, about the supply of potatoes. Communications are not only much worse than they were twenty-five years ago, but they are worse than they were during the war. There was an instance, which I think is important, which happened the other day, on April 6. It was an absolutely calm day, but in the words of the gentleman who writes on the subject— On Tuesday, 6th April last, the stea er 'Hebrides' called at Colbost, Glendale, having on board a large quantity of food stuffs and seed, embracing bread, flour, meal, seed oats and seed potatoes. She landed one boat load, then quietly steamed away to Glasgow, carrying, local people state, some of the food supplies and all the seed oats and seed potatoes with her. Now that day was particularly fine and calm, and there was absolutely no excuse for the ship's officers' action. I do not pretend to know whether that is a correct statement, but I give it for what it is worth. I give the date and the ship's name. I would point out that if there was this shortage of seed potatoes on April 6, the position is remarkably serious, if (as is stated in the memorandum and I think not denied by the Government) in sonic parts of the West Coast there is only a call on alternative weeks or one call in three weeks. I would point out, therefore, that if, as late as April 6, the supplies had not been forwarded from the south, it is obvious that a certain area of land will go without a crop this year.

I take two points, one on the East and one on the West, as examples. The second point to which I should like to call attention is the question of the light railway from Dingwall to Cromarty. This really opens up a very important agricultural district. A guarantee was actually given by the local users, farmers, landowners, merchants and crofters for the construction of the railway. During the war the whole of the railway was lifted in order to meet a growing necessity in France. It was perfectly legitimate that that should be done. As yet, however, there is not only no talk locally of replacement but, so far as one can gather, the Government have not the least intention of proceeding with the matter. I think that in a case like this, in which the work was actually done under guarantee and the railway taken away for a definite military purpose, it was the duty of His Majesty's Government to replace that railway at the very first opportunity. I give these two instances, but I think the others which are stated in the memorandum, if correct, are certainly matters which ought to be inquired into.

On the subject of telephones there are three points which I should like to raise. We understand that under the Budget the total revenue which is coming from telephones and telegraphs and the postal arrangements generally in the country is to be increased by something like £10,000,000 in order to make the service self-supporting once more. I would submit with regard to such an important line as the extension from Tain to Wick—Wick being the most important fishing district in the whole of Great Britain—that it would certainly be in the interest of consumers and local fishermen, and it ought to be done even at some definite loss to the public. I think if you are embarking, as we hope the Government are embarking, on a policy of resettlement of people in the Highlands, you should make it reasonably possible for people to live there. They must give assistance to the local industries, otherwise the folly of spending large sums of money for resettlement will be shown, and you will have an even greater migration of people who do not think it good enough to live in the country. In that way you will waste money which might otherwise be spent to advantage.

The second point in connection with telephones is that on the West Coast of Scotland, and, in certain cases, the centre of Scotland, certain lines are laid down by the Admiralty which serve districts which have previously not been served by the telephone. It is urged in the memorandum that these lines should be left. I understand that it is the intention of His Majesty's Government to remove a great many of these lines, and, in confirmation of that, I have in my hand a statement by one of the county councillors of the second district of Inverness-shire, which states that unless a guarantee of £370 a year can be given for the telephone which runs from Inverness to Fort William down the main Caledonian Canal it is proposed to remove the line. I submit that that is rather a short-sighted policy. If you have an actual line there, and if you are developing new industries and attracting a larger population, it is the height of folly to take it away because some wretched county council will not put up £370 guarantee to maintain it.

May I quote an example in that area which shows the way in which we are treated in the Highland district? In that particular area the local authority is already guaranteeing, to a great body like the North British Railway, a payment per annum in order that a particular line of railway should he kept open. I wonder if that exists anywhere else in Great Britain. It does not exist in Ireland where they are much more favoured than we are in Scotland. In one district the local authority had to guarantee a certain sum to induce a great railway like the North British Railway, whose returns in a sense are guaranteed by the Government, to keep a line open. You have a wretched local authority, where the rates are particularly high, having to guarantee a sum in order to get a train service, and now they are asked to give a sum in order to guarantee a telephone service. I think that if this sort of thing is insisted upon, we have the right in the Highlands to a central administration.

The third point refers to the question of telephones to farms. I can give one case. I do not know if it is true, but it is stated here and I have no doubt it is correct, that in a district of Easter Ross which is very famous for the production of food, the cost of installation to a farm and the annual rent would be £82 10s. That seems a fairly stiff sum to ask a farmer to pay. I remember listening some time ago to a debate in which it was suggested that farmers would have telephones put in for £2 10s. a year. That does not materialise in the North of Scotland, if it does anywhere else. If we want to develop agriculture and we want potatoes produced in that area, which produces the finest potatoes in Great Britain, I think the telephone authorities must deal more generously with farmers if telephones are to be installed.

I do not raise this question of transportation and telephones in criticism of any Department. It is a matter really of the policy of the Government. Departments can only do what they are instructed to do, and the Government should consider if they really mean to pursue, as we hope they do, a policy of land settlement in the Highlands the desirability of spending a few thousand pounds of the £2,000,000 in order to induce people who are at present living in the Highlands to stay there. I do not think there has been starvation actually in Skye, but I am quite satisfied that there have been grave losses among the cattle of the farmers and crofters in that district owing to the great shortage of hay and food stuffs during the winter on which the cattle have to be fed. If there are many more cases of occasional steamers, as on April 6, going there without being able to land supplies there is an absolute certainty that there will be no agriculture in those districts at all this year. The final word in the letters I quoted was that they were being penalised unjustifiably, and it was a serious waste of public money to make provision for extensive land settlements without adequate means of transport. That is a point on which everyone interested in the subject must agree. It is the height of folly to spend money if you are not going to see that the money is spent in such a way as will make it possible for people to live on the land. I beg to move.


My Lords. I should like to refer first to the Memorial dealing with the question of steamers Until the present financial year practically the whole of the payments made by the Government towards the cost of such services have fallen upon the Post Office Vote. From the beginning of the present financial year —that is, from the beginning of this month —the charge on public funds is to be divided between the Estimate for the Post Office and the Estimate for the Secretary for Scotland's Office. The sum provided on the Secretary for Scotland's Estimate for the current financial year is £30,000.

In dealing with the matter from the aspect of steamer services it may be convenient that I should also give information with regard to food supplies which has been furnished to me on the authority of the Ministry of Food. It is fully realised how important adequate means of communication are to the people of the Western Highlands and Islands. It might, however, appear from the Memorial referred to that nothing has been done to secure improvements in the steamer services which were in operation during the war. This is not the case. To take one instance. During the war, and until last summer, all the Islands in the Outer Hebrides from Barra to Harris were served by a vessel which started from Oban at the beginning of the week. reached Kyle of Lochalsh (after touching at the Islands) about the middle of the week, and then returned to Oban reversing her course with a slight modification. This meant that the places on the route had only two steamer calls per week and some places had the calls of successive days—an arrangement which, of course, was not so useful as calls at a greater interval of time.

In substitution for this service there were instituted last summer services by two steamers, one working between Oban and Mallaig and calling at some of the southern ports in the Outer Hebrides, the other working between Mallaig and Kyle of Lochalsh and calling at other ports in the Outer Hebrides. These arrangements gave effectively three calls a week to the places served. Moreover, the times spent on journeys between the Islands and the Mainland are, generally speaking, considerably reduced as compared with the former arrangement. In addition to the foregoing improvements, a daily service to Stornoway and to Portree was in operation from the middle of August of last year until the middle of November. In order to meet the requirements of a number of places in Skye, the Small Isles and on the Mainland a service by a steam drifter was instituted last spring at the cost of the Ministry of Food. This vessel unfortunately broke down and had to be withdrawn early in the present year. Steps are being taken to provide a substituted service of which the cost will be borne by the Secretary for Scotland's Vote. It is hoped that this service will be in operation within the next few weeks.

With regard to the food situation in Skye, about which some very alarming reports have appeared, it is not disputed that more adequate transport services than were in operation in the early months of this year are required. To meet this need it is expected that a drifter service will be in operation in the course of a few weeks. At the same time it is only right to point out that statements to the effect that the people were "without food, without money, without health, and without transport" do not accurately represent the facts. I am informed that during the period in question there was much dissatisfaction in Skye because steamers sometimes missed calls and at other times did not discharge a full cargo. No special complaints, however, of a shortage of commodities such as flour were made by the shopkeepers in Skye who might have been expected to make representations if their customers could not get any supplies. Frequent complaints were made to the Food Commissioner of irregularity in the supplies of sugar, and steps were taken to arrange that matter satisfactorily. It can scarcely be supposed that if the shortage of sugar was brought to the Food Commissioner's notice he should not have been made aware of the existence of any grave shortage in such a commodity as flour.

The statement made in the Memorial that in some places people have been without meal or flour for three months can scarcely be investigated in the absence of particulars as to the names of the places in question. No information or specific complaints to this effect have reached the Ministry of Food. I am glad that the noble Lord referred to the case of the steamer "Hebrides" as it is an allegation which emphatically requires investigation. I will see that inquiries are made, and let my noble friend know the result.

The question of the mail steamer service to Stornoway is at present under consideration. As stated in the Memorial the present mail steamer service only runs on alternate days. A service of six days a week will be restored for the summer months at the beginning of June, and the question whether any further improvement is justified is being further considered.

It will be readily understood that the aggregate of the demands for improved facilities is very great; that the cost of maintaining the steamer services and of constructing piers, harbours, and similar works is very high, and that therefore it is necessary to select for consideration those schemes which are of the greatest importance from among the total number. Subject to this consideration the Secretary for Scotland and the Departments under his control are making every effort to secure improvements in the means of communications with a view to the development of the districts in question.

In regard to the question of land transport raised in the Memorial, which includes that of the light railway from Dingwall to Cromarty, these matters are being dealt with in the Report of the Rural Transport (Scotland) Committee, which was made to the Secretary of Scotland and was issued last year. The Secretary for Scotland has reviewed the Report and forwarded his recommendations to the Ministry of Transport, who are investigating them in detail with the Scottish Office. At present the Ministry of Transport has no fund for development purposes, although a sum of £1,000,000 is included in the Estimates for 1920–21, and the portion available for Scottish schemes will be, so far as practicable, used for the most urgent requirements.

There remains the question of the telephones and the other Memorial. The first case alluded to by my noble friend was the demand for an extension of the trunk line from Tain to Wick. The position with regard to this extension was fully explained and the Postmaster-General's views expressed in the reply given by the Earl of Crawford in the House of Lords to a Question by the Duke of Sutherland on March 11 last. The view held by the Postmaster-General is that he cannot recommend the Government to undertake without guarantee costly extensions of the telephone system which are essentially unremunerative, especially at a time when the whole telephone system is being carried on at a considerable loss and when there are large arrears to make good in populous areas with the limited amount of capital available.

The second question asked was about the utilisation for public purposes of the lines erected by the Admiralty during the war. The Treasury have decided that where such lines are not now required by the Admiralty and would not in normal course be incorporated in the Post Office telegraph or telephone systems, they may be made available for use for public telegraph and telephone circuits or private wires on certain conditions as to the basis of cost and the guarantees required.


If the guarantees are not forthcoming, will the lines be removed?


I should explain that the circuits specially provided for the Admiralty during the war were in many cases of a temporary nature, the poles being constructed of light unereosoted timber. A few of these poles are already in a decayed condition, and it is anticipated that a very considerable number of others will last for not, more than about five years. An estimate of the period for which the line will probably remain in serviceable condition will be furnished to applicants in each individual case. The conditions mentioned represent a considerable concession in favour of outlying districts. An Inter-Departmental Conference was held in January last at which various Departments were represented.


Does the noble Lord mean that the lines are going to be left until the timber rots, or not?


I will let the noble Lord know. I am not quite certain about it. This Conference was to consider the use to which the various surrendered Admiralty war emergency circuits could best be put. As regards the cases cited in paragraph 2 of the Memorial of April 12, 1920, the Admiralty wires between Inverness and Corpach were erected in accordance with Post Office standard construction and they can be extended with little additional outlay to Fort William, but the circuit would be a long one and the annual expenses would be heavy. An offer has been made to provide an Inverness—Fort Augustus—Fort William trunk line under a guarantee of £390 a year, and if the guarantee is forthcoming the line could probably be completed without much delay. The possibility of utilising the other Admiralty lines mentioned in the Memorial is under consideration.

The third point mentioned by my noble friend was the provision and extension of telephones to farms and private houses at reasonable rates. The provision of exchange service in rural districts remote from any exchange is a difficult problem. In the case of an Exchange line for the exclusive use of one subscriber, it is necessary to charge at the rate of 25s. per furlong for mileage of circuit beyond the mile radius from the Exchange and, pending the introduction of revised tariffs, to collect an initial surcharge of £4. The installation of small Exchanges at rural Call Offices is not conducive to a good service, as in many cases it involves the introduction of nonstandard arrangements which do not always work satisfactorily in practice. Nevertheless a good deal has been done in the way of serving isolated subscribers from rural Call Offices or Telegraph Offices, where the traffic and electrical conditions admit.

In the Easter Ross case which was mentioned, the nearest Exchange to the applicants premises is at Tain, 8¾ miles distant, and £82 10s. is the correct annual rental for an exclusive Exchange line. There is a Call Office at Portmahomack, 1¼ miles from the applicant's premises, but the traffic on this Call Office circuit, which serves Geanies also, is too heavy to admit of a satisfactory Exchange service being given through Portmahomack.

Before the war a very low tariff was introduced for rural party lines under which an unlimited local service was offered for £3 or £3 10s. a year, provided that three or two subscribers per mile of circuit beyond a radius of half a mile from the Exchange were forthcoming. A considerable number of telephones were provided on these terms. The cost of all construction and maintenance work has, however, increased so much that it is necessary to revise these rural rates in connection with the general revision of telephone tariffs.


My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord will not expect me to say that he has given a very hopeful outlook as to the intentions of the Government. I think that his reply will tend to spread despondency and alarm in those areas to which he has referred, after the promises which were made during the time of the General Election. The Government ought to be quite clear in their minds that there is very considerable dissatisfaction in these districts. I am quite aware that the Highlands, being sparsely populated, do not return many Members, but as the Members who are returned draw some advantage from their position under the Crown it is to be hoped that they will look into these matters. I read in the newspaper the other day that the sale of drifters by the Admiralty amounted to seventy or eighty. Surely it is not too much to expect that one or two might be left in Skye for service, as I understand the drifter "Bessie" has been laid up for six or eight weeks, and possibly more. I very much regret to hear that the question of light railways is not to be considered at once. I am quite certain that if we merely have to wait our turn we shall not get any single one of these schemes of light railways, transport, or telephones. I think that the Government ought to be quite assured that the local people must look to the central authority for the carrying out of these matters. The country is now very nearly bankrupt, and I would remind the Government that under the Education Act, when many of the parishes refused to rate themselves, the Government had to climb down and resort to rating from the central funds. If nothing is to be done except what is going to be paid for locally, I am afraid that there will not be anything done.


My Lords, in regard to what my noble friend has said, they were always raiders in the North, and I am glad that my noble friend opposite did not give way on the matter of telephones. We have had to pay in guarantees and loans for our telephones under what I consider very oppressive circumstances. Evidently they get all the good things in the far North. They get grants for education and other things. Last year I put a Question to my noble friend opposite on the subject of education in the Lowlands, and pointed out then that they got grants in the Highlands for this and other matters. I am glad to think that the Government for once in a way have not given way to these raiders in the North.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.