The importance of the Bill is not to be measured by its length or the fact that it is reaching its concluding stages at a time when the eyes of the public are diverted from the House to the political battle elsewhere. This is a significant little Bill. It was conceived in haste by the Secretary of State, notwithstanding the history—to which the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) referred—of the report by the Public Accounts Committee, when it was chaired by Mr. Edward du Cann.
The evidence for my belief that the Bill was conceived in haste is that the Secretary of State seemed to be unaware of the extent of the obligations contained in the Bill. The earlier debates on the Bill showed much uncertainty about whether the Government were prepared to contemplate the transfer of the sporting and mineral rights with the crofting rights. Today, we have heard a helpful defining statement from the Government on that issue, which marks a development in their thinking.
The Bill has also been given a considerable fillip by the success of the Assynt Crofters Trust, which took a private initiative to acquire the north Assynt estate near Lochinver in my constituency in the early years of this Parliament. That initiative showed how crofters, coming together in a community to acquire the ownership of an estate, could help to benefit their own interests and those of the wider community, economically and socially. That precedent may start a landslide in due course.
The benefits of common acquisition by crofters of a sporting estate have been seen in north Assynt and further north in Sutherland, where the Talmine estate is being similarly transferred to the crofters on the initiative of the proprietor. That estate is in the neighbourhood of Melness, one of the remaining Gaelic communities in Sutherland, and the transfer is a welcome development. Other inquiries and initiatives have followed the north Assynt acquisition, and the Bill will play a useful part in changing attitudes and improving the prospects of crofters in the highlands.
It is clear that many holdings have better prospects of viable development if they are managed by the crofters, in their interest. Most crofters believe that the Secretary of State has been a good landlord, but the appurtenances of ownership in today's world—with the possibility of raising further finances on the security of an estate, or coming together to develop assets that cannot be developed in isolation—offer real advantages in certain areas.
In discussions earlier in our proceedings on the Bill, I have been at pains to ensure, most importantly, that transfers of ownership from the Secretary of State would take place only when there was an absolutely clear view within the community that they would be in the interests of the crofters. There should be no question of this becoming simply a way of disembarrassing the Secretary of State of a loss-making concern. The Minister has made it clear that that is not the Government's intention.
It is also important that, when the Crofters Commission, under clause 2, carries out tests of opinion so as to advise the Secretary of State whether it is in the interests of the crofting community that the transaction should take place, the tests should be completely transparent, deliberate, open and well considered by all affected.
It is satisfactory that the Crofters Commission has said that that would be its intention, although it has not yet defined what it would regard as a significant majority, or said whether it would wish to establish opinion by means of a secret ballot, and whether absentee crofters should be consulted. All those are significant matters that could affect the judgment whether the Crofters Commission has properly discharged its function of determining the will of the people affected.
I would be happier if those details had been given before the Bill reached its concluding phases in the House. It seems to me that a secret ballot is a desirable mode of determining the view of the community. I distrust opinions expressed at a single public meeting, with hands either raised or not raised. There is no doubt that, in many communities, there are people who have a dominant influence on opinion, and that others with as much right to be heard may feel less able to be forthright in expressing their views.
I do not think that a decision of such importance should be arrived at without the kind of deliberative approach that I have recommended from the beginning. Such a step would bring the process of transfer into disrepute, which would not be in accordance with the wishes either of the Secretary of State or of Parliament.
A great trust is being given to the Crofters Commission—to act as the principal adviser. In the past, the commission has had a quasi-judicial role, often considering the interests of particular individuals and determining matters such as what to do about a particular crofter's rights in a common grazing, but I do not believe that any equivalent power has been given to it before.
Although the commission's role will be only advisory, it could turn out to be the critical role. It is hard to believe that its advice would be rejected by the Secretary of State. I therefore go firmly on the record as saying that I hope that the Crofters Commission will weigh its decisions in such matters with great care, and in no case rush to judgment.
I do not believe that the Bill need be the prelude to a rapid transfer of title. The initiative ought to come from the communities themselves. As the burdens of ownership are not to be ignored, they will approach the matter with great caution.
I conclude by expressing satisfaction that one of the last matters to come before this Parliament is the consideration of how best to assist the development of these estates, for they lie at the heart of the highland community. Their well-being remains key to the future of parts of our loved country, which is close to the hearts of all who represent it.