HL Deb 04 June 1957 vol 204 cc217-26

3.42 p.m.

Debate resumed.


My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, replies, I should like to say that I hope it will not go cut on the authority of your Lordships that Gaelic is not a Celtic language. Celtic is divided into two groups—namely, the "P" group, which includes Welsh, Cornish and Breton, and the "Q" group, which comprises Erse, Manx and Gaelic.


My Lords, fortunately one does not require dollars in order to journey to the Outer Hebrides, to which delightful islands I would now ask your Lordships momentarily to return. I am most grateful to the noble Viscount, Lord Elibank, for giving me the opportunity of offering to your Lordships a progress report on this matter. I emphasise the words "progress report" because I do not propose to weary your Lordships by again going over ground with which I think the House is now tolerably familiar. Your Lordships have been given an accurate outline by the noble Lord, Lord Elibank, and will still have in mind the background description offered: to the House by my noble friend Lord Carrington, in the debate which we had in October, 1955. There has also been a recent explanation of the Government's point of view put forward by my honourable friend, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Air Ministry, Mr. Orr-Ewing, in the Air Estimates debate of a few weeks ago.

I should, however, like, to emphasise three salient points. I think they must be borne in mind the whole time one is considering this controversy—though I hope, indeed, that it is no longer a controversy. The three points which I should like to reiterate are these. If we must have these dreadful, complicated and expensive weapons, then there must be training in their use: training must be given to the men and the regiments who may—though we hope never will—have to use them. The deterrent value of these weapons would be notably reduced if they had never been tactically deployed, or if they had never been fired in realistic-conditions. That is the first point.

The second point is this. This site in the Outer Hebrides was not chosen at random. The Ministry of Defence did not put their hands into the hat and bring out the Hebridean site and say, "Right; that is the site for cur weapon range". To find a suitable site we searched far and wide over the territory which could possibly be used; and after most complicated examinations we came to the conclusion that this was the only, indeed the best, site possible for our purposes. It is the only suitable site there is. The third point that I should like your Lordships particularly to bear in mind is this. The Government are determined to trespass as little as possible upon the rights, privileges, pre-eminences, immunities, and advantages (to use an expression which I think will be familiar to your Lordships) of the people of the Hebrides. But some trespass is inevitable. I think this has been now loyally and fairly and fully recognised by most Hebrideans, and the consequences, not all of which are bad, are accepted.

My right honourable friend, the Secretary of State for Air and I discussed all these matters fully last week when we went up to the Hebrides. We discussed all these problems with the officials concerned. We also discussed them with the people whose lives and livelihood will probably be affected by the arrival of the Forces in their Island. We were struck by the extremely friendly and warm welcome which was accorded to us. As your Lordships know, the precise affect of these proposals upon the lives and livelihood of the people is at the moment sub judice while the Land Court is discussing the actual details of the claims, the compensation for the land which will have to be taken, and many other details. This is the established procedure, and whatever our critics may say, I maintain—and I will fight this if challenged—that Her Majesty's Government have most scrupulously observed the whole properly established procedure; in fact, they have been at great pains to observe it. We have all along followed very closely and carefully the correct procedure. I am happy to tell your Lordships that the opposition, which at one time was strong, has now, if my judgment is right, almost subsided. I think that probably about 90 per cent. of the people at least accept the scheme; and many who have an eye to the realities of the economics of the Outer Hebrides actually welcome it.

That leaves 10 per cent. I hope that in due course the natural fears of the 10 per cent. of the people will prove unjustified. But I should not like your Lordships to think that the 10 per cent. of the people of the Outer Hebrides who still oppose the erection of this range are "cranks" and "hot-heads". The opposite is the truth. A lot of men of good feeling and good faith feel strongly about it, and we accept and thoroughly understand their feelings. The opposition, however, has been reduced as explanations have become more definite. The root of the trouble has been that until now, for obvious reasons, it has been impossible to be more specific. There are still a few details to be settled, but most of what we are seeking to do is now understood and appreciated.

I should like to dilate a little on this aspect, because we have been accused of keeping the folk in the dark and not telling them what we wanted. We have been told that if we had taken them more into our confidence this trouble would never have arisen. Naturally, if you suddenly find a lot of group captains, with theodolites, ready-reckoners and notebooks, in your back garden, you want to know what goes on. But the trouble is the overriding burden of security and the need for making up one's mind as to what is wanted. It makes it difficult to take folk fully into your confidence as soon as you would like to do so. I hope that it is now clear to these folk that the areas which will be entirely lost to cultivation will be comparatively small.

Let me give to your Lordships as much information as I possibly can; I welcome this debate because it enables me now to do so. In South Uist, no more than 250 acres of crofting land will be lost, and altogether on the three major islands (of course, I speak subject to the decision of the Land Courts) no more than 750 acres will be lost. Therefore the nuisance is going to be a great deal less than was originally imagined. I am not for a moment saying that there will not be a nuisance—of course there will be. The loss of 750 acres in an area where rich pasture land is not over-plentiful is undoubtedly a nuisance—and more than a nuisance.

I should like to emphasise also, as this point has caused doubt in the past, that we are not building an operational base here. I stress that because in conversation with one crofter I was horrified to discover that he was firmly under the impression that we were likely to explode an H-bomb on the Hebrides practically every other day. That is nothing like what we intend to do. We are building a range to train Service men in the use of the weapons of the future. I have taken the liberty of putting on the Table in your Lordships' House a map, which I hope may be of some slight assistance to those not wholly familiar with the complicated geography of the outer Hebrides. I hope, also with your Lordships' permission, to put in the Royal Gallery or in your Lordships' Library in the near future a scale model of the whole range.

Let me describe the essential elements of the range, in addition to the areas at sea over which missiles will be fired. I should like to deal with this question because it has been the cause of trouble and doubt in the past. There will be a headquarters and main airfield on the island of Benbecula, which will be an extension of the existing airfield, which was an R.A.F. Coastal Command airfield during the war and which is now a British European Airways operational airfield. We intend to extend that considerably for our use as the headquarters airfield of the whole range. There will also be on the island of Benbecula permanent accommodation for about 1,000 people. There will be a subsidiary airfield at Sollas, in North Uist, for the operation of pilotless aircraft. There will be a range head from which weapons will actually be fired, at West Geirnish, on the west side of the island of South Uist. That will have two purposes. The first is for the firing of surface-to-air and surface-to-surface guided weapons; and, secondly, to provide an instrumentation centre for the control of operation over the sea "danger areas".

There will be outlying radar surveillance and instrumentation sites, chiefly at St. Kilda, Barra, South Clettreval, in North Uist, and also on the island of Benbecula. There will be a new harbour and jetty at Loch Carnan. I have made a thorough inspection of that site, and it may interest your Lordships to know that construction has been undertaken in conjunction with the advice and wishes of the local shipping people—MacBrayne's—so that, if needs be, the harbour can be used as a subsidiary mercantile harbour, as well as for our purposes of unloading all heavy stores for the range. That is what we contemplate. The work is in progress. It has been slow to start because of the necessity of going through the procedure of a fair hearing, on which we were determined, to ensure that it was right and proper to do so. We are now forging ahead, and I can tell your Lordships that the Army hope to fire their first missile, the "Corporal", by the autumn of next year, 1958. After that, the use and employment of the range will be progressively expanded.

Now a word as to the number of people to be employed. I readily appreciate that this is a most important point, for here we have a population of only a few thousand, and the impact of bringing in suddenly a large number of (to them) alien Service men, with their wives and children—quite apart from their weapons—is obviously something which has to be very carefully considered, The number of people to be employed, including permanent staff and visiting Service units, will be about 2,500. There will be about 800 permanent staff on the range head at South Uist: they will be housed at Ardnamonie. There will be 1,000 on Benbecula; 300 at Sollas; 25 on the island of Barra, and 30 on St. Kilda. To those numbers we have to add about 700 wives and families, so that the total (and I do not want to be tied down to this figure: it is difficult to fix the number accurately) will obviously be well below the 4,000 figure which has already been given to the House.

I readily realise—and here I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun—that the sudden arrival of something under 4,000 people is bound to have very serious impact on the rather rarified economy and culture of the Western Isles, and on its religion, education and language. One island—North Uist—is strongly Protestant, while another—South Uist—is Catholic; and the Gaelic language has to be considered. Are the English-speaking children of Service men to be put into schools with Gaelic-speaking islanders? What will be the effect on their culture and religion? I mention these problems only to emphasise the fact that Her Majesty's Government are fully alive to them and are taking them most seriously. I have no facile solution to offer your Lordships to-day. All I can say is that the Ministry of Education, the Scottish Office and everyone concerned—particularly the Service Ministries—are fully aware of all these problems and, I repeat, are determined to trespass as little as possible on the Gaelic culture, education and history of the islands.

A great deal of preparatory work on the range has been done. Planning clearances have been obtained. Labour camps are going up in Benbecula and North Uist. Domestic accommodation and technical installations are being planned. Road improvements in South Uist and Benbecula are well under way. Loch Carnan harbour is pretty well completed. Water and electricity supplies are being expanded. All these works will be of great benefit to the islands, as well as serving the purposes of the range. Radar and instrumentation equipment siting has been planned. Here I should like to pay a tribute, not only to the co-operation of the people in the islands but also to the co-operation and help given by the authoriies, and particularly by the Inverness County Council.

There is a task force now on the isolated and remote island of St. Kilda who are preparing the way. My right honourable friend and I flew over St. Kilda and talked by wireless to the men on the island. It happened to be one of the finest days that the Islands have ever known—and, personally, I should not like to see it in very rough weather. A great tribute is due to the R.A.F. personnel manning that remote, isolated spot in the greatest of possible good tempers. I hesitate to tell the noble Viscount, Lord Elibank, at what height we flew, but I may say, knowing him to be a bird fancier, that we flew at the right height to keep on good terms with bird-watchers, who do not like planes flying too low. I mention that point because we are most anxious not to run foul of those people in the area who naturally pay so much attention to its magnificent bird life. Some fool had shot a golden eagle on its nest on the day we arrived, which fact, fortunately, drew far more attention than the arrival in the island of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State and myself.

Doubt has been expressed whether rare birds and bird life generally will survive this "invasion". All I can say to those who feel doubt is that perhaps they underrate the toughness of Scottish birds, for the place is alive with plovers who walk over one's boots without as much as a "by your leave". Clearly, someone has given the plovers of South Uist full details of the provisions of the Third Schedule of the Protection of Birds Act, 1954. I also had the great privilege of seeing not only gannets diving but also two species of the red-necked phalarope, which is more than many of your Lordships will have done. I emphasise this to show how much attention we intend to pay to this question of wild life in the Hebrides, as we do to its archæology.

I am sorry that the noble Earl, Lord Haddington, is not present this afternoon because he particularly raised the question of wheelhouses. My noble friend Lord Saltoun also touched on that. I made a special journey to the one wheel-house which has been excavated—in fact, that was known as "operation Haddington". I, for my part, satisfied myself that everything was being done in a way which I am certain would have your Lordships' approval and that of the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun. The wheelhouses are all being marked, and either uncovered or covered and preserved in such a way that no serious loss can possibly take place. Moreover, the officials are in constant touch with the archæological authorities. So that I feel I can set the mind of the noble Lord, Lord Saltoun, at rest on that point. I cannot go as far as the noble Lord in his remarks wished me to go, but I can assure him that the basis of what he said and the ideas are well appreciated. We shall certainly do everything we can to preserve the natural resources and the archæological wealth of the Western Hebrides.

My Lords, in my remarks I have again and again emphasised that it is our desire to do as little damage as possible, not only to the culture but to the delicate economy of the islands. I realise, of course, that the advent of these Service men is going to have a marked effect on the industries there, particularly the seaweed industry and the weaving industry—the "tweed and weed" as it is called there. These problems have not as yet been solved. Account must be taken of the possible effect upon wages of the people working in these two industries. It is felt that the contractors may, perhaps, pay much greater wages for a year or two, thus causing many people to leave the industries and work on the contract. Obviously, that might have a serious effect on these two industries. With my right honourable friend the Minister of Labour and his Parliamentary Secretary, I have given long and careful thought to this matter. We propose to set up on the spot a committee representative of the local industries, the contractors, the Ministry of Labour and the Air Ministry. I do not think that there is any ready or easy solution to this problem, but if there is a solution to be found, or a halfway house, we shall most certainly do our best to find it.

Other social problems will certainly have to be solved—particularly during the construction period. A number of "foreigners" will be employed on the construction work in the islands, and there are also the questions of Sunday work, wages and so on to be considered. It is the Government's job to deal with these matters and I pledge my word that we will do our level best to find a satisfactory solution of what, I am afraid, are bound to be difficult problems. We owe it to the people of the Hebrides, and we owe it also to the Service men who are going to live and work amonst them. It is the Government's job to see that when these Service men are finally posted to the Hebrides they will settle down happily and will find themselves among friends—not among hostile people who feel that they have been ill-treated, that justice has not been done to them, or that their culture has been ridden over and that an alien, non-Celtic and non-Gaelic Government has disregarded their rightful prejudices and ambitions. We are doing all that we can, by forethought and planning, to make certain that the people of the islands accept these Service men and that when the Service men get there they will be given the friendly reception which they deserve. And, my Lords, from what I have seen of the Hebrides, I am sure that they will get it.

4.3 p.m.


My Lords, before I refer to the speech which has just been made by the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, may I just say this with regard to what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Raglan. We were, I believe, at cross purposes. I think he will find that that is so if he reads Hansard to-morrow morning. I do not wish to cover any of the ground that I covered before. I wish to say only that I feel sure that the House is deeply indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, for the adequate and comprehensive survey that he has given of his visit to these Hebridean Islands. So far as I am concerned, I am deeply grateful for the great interest which the noble Lord has shown in the many problems, social, cultural and otherwise, that he has found in the Islands. Perhaps it is not inappropriate to mention in that connection that he was credibly reported to have said—and I think this is the case also with the noble Earl, Lord Selkirk—that he does his best work when he is listening to a recording of the pipes. So perhaps, that being so—


I really said that I never heard the skirl of the pipes during the whole of the time I was in the Hebrides—much to my grief.


—the report I spoke of did not refer to the pipes on the Island but to a recording of the pipes played in the noble Lord's own home.

So I would say that I feel sure that not only we in this House but these Hebridean Islanders, who, of course, have been, if I may use a colloquialism, "in a dither" over much that has happened, will be really grateful to feel that their interests are in the hands of one who has as much sympathy as has been shown today by the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, and by his colleague the Secretary of State for Air. I thank the noble Lord again for that interest which I know is a continuing interest and which will solve many of the problems which still exist and also the problems which are bound to arise in greater number in the future. I now ask leave to withdraw my Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.