Skip to main content

Seamen's Strike (Scottish Islands Supplies)

Volume 728: debated on Wednesday 18 May 1966

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

(by Private Notice) asked the Secretary of State for Scotland what arrangements he has made for emergency supplies to the Scottish Islands, and if he will make a statement.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it clear when he spoke to the country on Monday evening that the Royal Navy stood ready to ensure the delivery of essential supplies to isolated parts of the country dependent on shipping services. Accordingly, three naval vessels are sailing this afternoon for various destinations in the Inner and Outer Hebrides.

I thank the Secretary of State for that information. May I ask him four short questions?

Is he aware, first, that all the islands in the Inner Hebrides are short of bread and flour, and that, on my information, Barra has had none since the weekend; secondly, that North Uist, Tiree and Coll are extremely short of meat and Colonsay and others of vegetables; thirdly, that when supplies are flown in by B.E.A. the very much greater cost of the airlift is being added to the cost of the product, causing some hardship? Fourthly, will the right hon. Gentleman appeal to the seamen's union and all the others concerned to do everything in their power to maintain the essential services and at a reasonable cost because most of the inhabitants of these islands are crofters who cannot afford very high freight rates?

It is because we are aware of these difficulties that we have taken the action which he mentioned. Our concern at the moment is with providing the necessary and essential supplies. Talks with the National Union of Seamen were held yesterday. We have had discussions today to clarify all doubt as to the possibility of its being able to come to an agreement with MacBraynes shipping line in order to provide these services. There has been no change of the union's attitude today compared with its attitude yesterday. But I am sure that it is concerned that no emergency should arise which would leave people who are isolated short of essential foodstuffs.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the National Union of Seamen has made it abundantly clear that if any emergency arises in the remote islands off the coast of Scotland it would not ban ships going there or prevent them from being manned?

Yes. But I think that the questions arises whether we wait for an emergency when we are aware of a shortage of essential supplies. I think that we have the responsibility to meet it.

Is the Secretary of State aware that we would welcome more information about what the National Union of Seamen has said, especially as many of its members come from families which are resident in these islands? Will he bear in mind that, apart from difficulties caused to human beings—I am glad to say that in my islands we provide some of our own milk and bread and, therefore, are not so far in this acute difficulty—there is the question of agricultural produce, both animal feedingstuffs and exports?

Also, tourist traffic is being most seriously affected, and anything that the right hon. Gentleman can say about that will be most welcome. Would he give a reassurance on the question raised by the right hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. Noble) as to who is to bear the extra cost of feedingstuffs which may have to be imported by air or other means?

I think that before we consider what may have to be imported we had better wait to see what happens. The attitude of the National Union of Seamen was made perfectly clear yesterday, when it was given the opportunity to come to some agreement with MacBraynes and stated that in its judgment no emergency yet existed. The question of the shipment of necessary supplies to Orkney and Shetland has not yet arisen.

In view of the fact that the right hon. Gentleman must have known of the likelihood of this strike taking place, is it not indefensible that some action should not have been already taken to safeguard supplies to the Outer Islands, as has been mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Argyll (Mr. Noble)?

I think that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that in a situation like this premature action could be very inflammatory.

Is the Minister keeping a careful eye on the situation, to see that there will be no profiteering as a result of food shortages?

I am very glad that my hon. Friend asked this question. I hope that people will appreciate the difficulties of the situation, and play the game. I hope that they will accept the situation, and not take advantage by exploiting it.

As acute shortages may occur, particularly on some of the smaller islands, will the Minister give a firm assurance that the Government will not feel inhibited from using any means necessary to prevent or relieve hardship on these islands?

The hon. Gentleman should appreciate that we have faced up to our obligations in respect of these particular shortages, and that we shall continue to do so.