Disposal of Crofting Property

Clause 1 – in the House of Commons at 3:43 pm on 18th March 1997.

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

I beg to move amendment No. 1, in page 1, line 27, leave out 'may' and insert 'shall'.

Amendment No. 1 ensures that all the mineral, sporting and other rights will be transferred with the property. As mentioned previously, the Scottish Office runs the crofts at a net annual loss of more than £200,000. It is considered that those rights offer many crofts the only potential route to profitability. Without the transfer of those rights, the transfer of many crofts would not be viable.

I am aware that the Government want flexibility in that regard, but reassurance is required by the crofters, and we want it to be given in the Bill. The amendment goes some way towards assisting that process.

The Bill is still less than clear on the approach that the Secretary of State would take on the financial basis of transfer. There still exists a lack of clarity with respect to the land itself and, more importantly, with respect to the sporting, mineral and other rights. There is an apparent lack of balance with regard to the rights that the Secretary of State may transfer, and the burdens that would automatically transfer with the land. We seek to reassure those who would take part in the scheme that their crofts and trusts will be viable.

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

One of the least satisfactory aspects of crofting tenure in the highlands is the separation of sporting rights, mineral rights and certain other normal rights of ownership from the landholding enjoyed by crofters, which for many years has deprived them of the greatest potential of the land for earning a living.

The difficulty has been compounded by the absence of an authoritative register showing where such rights lie in respect of all crofting territory. That is particularly surprising in respect of crofts owned by the Secretary of State. The position seems to vary considerably. In respect of some, there are pre-emptive rights which might re-arise in the event of the Secretary of State deciding to dispose of property.

Most crofters, I believe, would regard it as desirable for the trust to have the full rights of ownership, including those valuable rights. That was certainly the consideration in the minds of the Assynt crofters when they acquired the North Assynt estate. The sporting rights are a considerable part of that asset, offering perhaps the greatest prospect of development in that estate, which has a considerable number of trout lochs.

It is slightly odd that the Secretary of State did not make it clearer when drafting the Bill that it was his intention to dispose of those rights to such crofting trusts. If he says that he cannot give that assurance because the rights may belong elsewhere, I would have to accept that, but, in respect of interests that the Secretary of State holds, there is no good reason why he should retain sporting, mineral or any other rights if he proposes to dispose of a crofting estate. I hope that the Secretary of State's representative in the House this afternoon may say that it is the firm intention of the present Secretary of State to dispose of mineral, sporting and other rights where they are in the Secretary of State's ownership, but it would be of interest also to know how the Secretary of State would propose to deal with those cases where such rights may be held elsewhere.

Photo of Mr Brian Wilson Mr Brian Wilson , Cunninghame North

I will make a brief contribution.

This is an essential amendment in relation to the viability of crofting estates that will be transferred under the Bill. Frankly, I am much less interested in the Bill than in the precedent that it sets for future legislation, which will allow the same right of purchase on a communal basis of privately owned crofting estates. However, the whole history of crofting and estates and the weakness of crofting legislation is that it permits the divorce of crofting communities from the assets that should sustain those communities and make them viable.

In many parts of the highlands and islands of Scotland, we have an absurdity and the reinforcement of a historic wrong, where crofting communities were driven to the edges of the land, living on small areas of land, but were cut off from the vast acreages that lay behind and by that land. Although they have grazing rights on that land, they do not hold sporting or mineral rights and they do not have the ownership of the rivers that flow through that land.

That is nonsense. It has always meant that the communities, which were given security of tenure under the Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act 1886, were never given the potential wealth that went with that tenure, so people have been allowed to remain on the land on a marginal basis, but have never had the opportunity to develop the full economic potential of their communities.

All that will happen here is that, unless the main assets of these communities are transferred with the estates, that marginality will be perpetuated. It would be absurd and no one would take it seriously in any other context if the Government, in all their munificence, who have been trying—let us be honest about this; there is nothing generous about the Bill—to get these estates off their hands since the early 1980s, after Mr. Edward du Cann's Public Accounts Committee reported on the DAFSDepartment of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland—estates, did not accept the amendment. Nothing would be achieved if the estates transferred without their primary assets.

Therefore, the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) is essential, even as a gesture of good will on the part of the Minister, but, as I have said, this is only the appetiser. It has got the subject up and running. The problem for the Secretary of State and the Minister is the assertion that communities have the right to own their own land on a communal basis if, by historical accident, the land happens to be owned by the Secretary of State. However, the equivalent community next door has no such right to own its own land and manage its own affairs if another form of historical accident has visited on it the most vicious and rapacious landowner in the highlands and islands. That anomaly cannot and will not be sustained, but let us get the precedent right.

These are the dying days of this Parliament. I have no idea to what extent the Bill will be used. If it is used, crofting communities that buy their land must have the right to own all the assets of that land. We should end once and for all the ludicrous separation between the right of tenure and the ownership by others of all economically worthwhile aspects of the land.

4 pm

On many occasions, the Secretary of State, as crofting landlord, has been prepared to sell to the highest bidder the sporting rights on a crofting estate. That has not been a sign of good will towards crofting communities. If the Bill goes through in its present form, there will be nothing to stop the Secretary of State continuing to let off the salmon fishing and shooting rights and to sub-let the mineral rights to parties other than the communities that have nominally taken over the estates. If that anomaly is not ended by the Bill, it will be done by a future Bill covering not only publicly owned crofting estates, but privately owned ones.

Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South

As the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) said, the Bill gives the Government the flexibility to address the circumstances of each proposal for a trust on a case-by-case basis. Surely that is right. Ownership of sporting rights runs with the land, although it may be let to other parties. Sporting rights will therefore be transferred automatically.

The Bill would not prevent the Secretary of State from transferring mineral rights at the outset or in future. We would welcome trusts wishing to acquire mineral rights. When a trust wished to acquire the rights, the public interest would normally require that a valuation be agreed and a charge negotiated.

The Secretary of State holds mineral rights over 27 of his 53 crofting estates. The total annual income from those rights is currently in the region of only £17,000. In many cases, therefore, the appropriate charge for the freehold transfer of mineral rights would be modest.

Our presumption is that mineral rights would, when possible, be included in a transfer of assets to a new crofting trust. If a prospective trust is not initially able or willing to assume the relevant mineral rights, we propose that it should be able to benefit from the income while the Scottish Office retains the mineral rights. Such an arrangement offers flexibility to address each case and the aspirations of each crofting trust. Whatever arrangements are agreed must be fair to the trust and the public purse, from where the money to acquire the estates and support them over the past decades came.

With that assurance, I ask the hon. Member for Dumbarton to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of John McFall John McFall , Dumbarton

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.