Restrictions on Disposal

Part of Clause 2 – in the House of Commons at 4:14 pm on 18th March 1997.

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Photo of Mr Brian Wilson Mr Brian Wilson , Cunninghame North 4:14 pm, 18th March 1997

The best that can be said of the Bill is that it is harmless. That cannot be said of much of the legislation that goes through the House, so I regard it as something of an achievement. A few small victories have been won in the Government's lifetime against the onward march of privatisation. It is a cause of satisfaction to some of us that two such measures have been in the highlands and islands context. Caledonian MacBrayne remains firmly in the public sector, in spite of three efforts by the Tories to flog it off, as do the highlands and islands estates of the Scottish Office Agriculture, Environment and Fisheries Department.

I well remember that the initial ploy was to privatisation the estates, to sell them on the open market, and to leave it to the fate of that market to decide who ended up owning the estates that were held in trust by the Secretary of State for Scotland. That was repelled. The current Secretary of State returned with other proposals, which are embodied in the Bill.

The crucial element of the Bill is the lack of compulsion. The estates will be sold only if the people who live on them want them to be sold, and they can be sold only to the local community. Those two advances are vast, and they transform the nature of the legislation compared with the original concept in the 1980s. The first comfort is that there is no compulsion, and the second is that there will be no Tories to carry through the legislation. Even in its much muted form, this legislation would be dangerous in the wrong hands. It would be possible for the element of pressure, if not the element of compulsion, to return.

The general rule of thumb for land legislation in the highlands and islands is summed up in the old saying, "The law favours the landlords, because the landlords made the law." That has literally been true for most of Parliament's history, particularly in the other place. However, during one period in its history, that was not the dominant theme. From the 1880s to the 1920s, Governments of all persuasions were compelled to listen to the voices of the people instead of to the voices of the landlords, because of the pressure for land and the pressure from people who were without land.

When we hear rubbish such as that spouted by the Secretary of State in Stornoway a couple of weeks ago about the sacred rights of property, it is worth noting that the crofting system is probably the biggest incursion into the rights of private property for which the House has ever legislated. To an enormous extent, crofting law removed the rights of private landowners, removed the market-led approach to the ownership of land in the highlands, and certainly removed the right of landowners to act capriciously towards tenants whom they had previously evicted at free will and subjected to various other indignities.

The crofting laws changed all that, and did so in response to the pressures from the people who lived on the land. Crofting laws were by no means perfect, for some of the reasons to which I alluded earlier—for instance, they left sporting and mineral rights outside the rights of communities, and large areas of the highlands and islands are not subject to them.

We are dealing with estates owned by the Secretary of State on behalf of the nation and, in debating a Bill dealing specifically with these lands, it would be amiss not to recognise that the only reason the lands are in common ownership today is that landless ex-service men—many of whom were returning from the first world war—were prepared to struggle, to fight and to demand the right to remain on the land, and were not prepared to be driven off to the four winds at the whim of any landlord. It is because they took that stand that the state was obliged to intervene to acquire land in areas where there was great congestion and great demand, but where land was in the ownership of people whose sole interest was to clear as many people as possible from it and to use it for private economic and sporting interests.

It is because ordinary people in the communities stood up to be counted, often physically resisting the forces of landlordism, that the state was obliged to intervene and to bring the estates into public ownership. That is why we have Scottish Office-owned estates to discuss today—because, in the early part of this century, men and women alike were prepared to go to gaol, to physically resist and to say that the rights of common people were greater than the rights of any landowner or Government.

I salute today the people whose struggles created the publicly owned estates in the highlands and islands, and allowed succeeding generations to live on those lands. The only reason there are healthy and lively communities in the crofting areas of Scotland today is that that struggle was engaged in and those rights secured.

One of the problems was that the crofting laws did not cover the whole of the highlands and islands. One score that I would like to see settled while I am still in this House is the omission of the island of Arran from the crofting laws. It is a particular irony that today we have two Ministers on the Front Bench—one by the name of Robertson, and the other by the name of Douglas-Hamilton.

When the crofting laws were introduced in 1886, they included the county of Bute, which at that time included the island of Arran. The only reason why Arran was taken out of the protection of the crofting laws was that there was a Tory Member of Parliament for Bute at that time named Robertson and a landowner—who needs no introduction to the Minister of State—called the Duke of Hamilton. Each of them used his lobbying power in this Chamber and in another place to get Arran excluded from the crofting laws.

The result of that successful piece of vested interest was that, instead of coming within the crofting system—in which case, it would be a different community today—Arran was excluded. Right down to the present day, Arran is run on a feudal basis by some of the most unpleasant and interventionist landlords in Scotland, who constantly use the powers open to them to extract money and to implement feudal power against the people who live on the island.

What a wonderful thing it would be if at least those who are renting on the island of Arran under the smallholders legislation were to be given the status of crofters and the protection of crofting tenancy. The same argument applies in parts of the constituency of the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing), where people are rented under the legislation. They are crofters in all but name, but they do not have the protection of the crofting laws. That is one of the elements that will be contained in real crofting reform legislation in the future.

This is only the start. The Secretary of State thought he could pull a publicity stunt by saying that he was addressing the highland land question. What an unlikely thing for a Tory to do—giving crofters the right to buy their own land.

The legislation does not begin to nibble at the highland land question, because it deals only with the publicly owned estates, while the abuses in the highlands and islands take place in the privately owned estates. Once the principle is established that communities can buy their land on a communal basis from the landowner—presumably at 15 times the rental value—no legitimate argument separates publicly owned from privately owned crofting land.

The challenge is to introduce genuine crofting reform legislation as soon as possible, to bring all crofting land under a pan-highlands and islands crofting trust, to extend the area under crofting tenure, to give people the wonderful protection that was created under the Crofters Holdings Act 1886 and to give them all the resources of their own community. That is the way in which to transform the social and economic base of the remoter parts of the highlands and islands.