Orders of the Day — New clause 1

– in the House of Commons at 3:35 pm on 18th March 1997.

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'.—Before any disposal under section 1(1) above, the Secretary of State shall publish in respect of each such crofting property a list of those burdens that shall remain with the Secretary of State after such disposal.'.—[Mr. McFall.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of John McFall John McFall , Dumbarton 3:43 pm, 18th March 1997

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

It is gratifying to see that the same applies to the Government's 10-minute rule Bills as applies to their manifesto: not many Members of Parliament want to sign up to it.

The new clause would ensure that the Secretary of State would publish, in respect of each crofting property to be transferred, a list of burdens that would remain with the Secretary of State after disposal.

We have had a good debate, both in Scotland and in Committee, on various issues associated with the Bill. At this stage, little differentiates us from the Government in terms of the principle of the Bill, but there remains a difference in approach, especially with regard to properties transferred to crofters. Crofters feel that they could be burdened by responsibilities that may not be evident at the time of the transfer. With that in mind, we wish to push the Minister on crofting property burdens.

We are also aware that publicly owned crofts cost the public purse some £205,000 a year to maintain. A cynical view is that the Government are disposing of those crofts to save the Treasury money, so individuals may find themselves in a vulnerable position at a later date. Personally, I do not take that view, but it is important to place such issues on the face of the Bill so that crofters feel that they can take the Government at their word and can undertake the transfer of responsibilities with a clear conscience, without feeling that they may be burdened financially.

I have mentioned to the Minister in the past the type of burdens for which crofters would feel responsible—for example, a flood or landslip. Although a crofting trust has been established in all good will on the basis of viability at that time, it could find itself faced with an intolerable burden that would drive it out of viability. No one wants that to happen. Hon. Members on both sides of the House want the crofters to take responsibility, and personal choice is extremely important in that respect.

It would be helpful if the matter could be debated a little more and if the Minister could give further reassurance about the Secretary of State's responsibility now and in the future.

Photo of Mr Robert Maclennan Mr Robert Maclennan Party Chair, Liberal Democrats

I rise briefly to support the new clause. Considerable concern has been expressed, principally by the Scottish Crofters Union, about the burdens that are currently discharged in respect of the infrastructural underpinning of crofting estates owned by the Secretary of State, which may, both inadvertently and in some cases even deliberately, adhere to the trust if it acquires the property.

Any transaction should be transparent, and the crofting community should be fully aware of it before embarking on such a development. The new clause seems to achieve that purpose admirably.

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South

It is a sign of the times that the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) cannot even speak on a Bill that has all-party support without an hon. Member from his leader's office sitting by his side reminding him what to say.

The new clause is unnecessary. Both I and my noble Friend in another place have made it clear that the Secretary of State would transfer those maintenance and repair responsibilities that go with the normal management of a crofting property transferred to a crofting trust. As I said in Committee, there would be no question of transferring responsibility for what have been termed "community assets". We explained that the best way to identify those assets that provide a broader community benefit is in individual discussion between crofting trusts and the Secretary of State. Once agreement was reached, we would be happy to make known publicly those burdens for which responsibility would remain with the Secretary of State for Scotland. We see no benefit in publishing such a list before agreement had been reached with the crofting trust, as that might give the trust the impression that my noble Friend's Department had already made its final decision on what it would and would not transfer.

The purpose of discussions would be to ensure that both parties were content. If a trust was not content with the burdens that the Department proposed to transfer, there would be no obligation on it to agree to the transfer of property

Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

I apologise to the Minister for missing his opening remarks. Will he confirm that, in the event of a trust proposal being considered, the crofting trust advisory service would call in consultants to provide an independent assessment of the pros and cons? Presumably, therefore, there could be a degree of reassurance that potential burdens would be part of the analysis that the consultants would carry out.

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South

That assurance was given to the Committee, but I recognise that the hon. Gentleman was not a member of it. I reiterate the other reassurances that the Government have given: there is no intention to transfer the responsibility for community assets to crofting trusts, nor is there any intention to burden trusts in such a way as to jeopardise their financial viability. I have made it clear that the Secretary of State would be content to publish details of the burdens that will remain the responsibility of the Scottish Office after agreement had been reached with the relevant trust.

In the light of that undertaking and the assurances that my noble Friend and I have given elsewhere, I invite the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) to withdraw the motion.

Photo of John McFall John McFall , Dumbarton

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.