Restrictions on Disposal

Part of Clause 2 – in the House of Commons at 4:36 pm on 18th March 1997.

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Photo of Charles Kennedy Charles Kennedy Shadow Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 4:36 pm, 18th March 1997

I have been looking at the Hansard report of Second Reading, which took place at the Scottish Grand Committee meeting in Montrose on 17 February. Here we are today, on 18 March, which goes to show that, where there is a will, and a legislative opportunity, a way can be found to address matters relating to crofting and the crofting counties. Perhaps this sets a useful benchmark for the future in terms of the additional legislation of which many of us would be in favour. The generally supportive spirit in which the legislation has progressed has been notable and welcome.

The Bill itself, however, remains permissive rather than prescriptive, and while that may be the best way in which to structure the legislation, it leaves a lot unsaid, albeit deliberately so. We have had various clarifications—we had a few more this afternoon in response to questioning by my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan)—about intent and the meaning of words, but such intent and interpretation do not appear in the Bill.

I strongly underscore my hon. Friend's point, that it will be absolutely crucial, for the practical implementation of the Bill, when individual applications appear before the putative crofting trust, whatever shape that may take, that the quality of analysis carried out by the Crofters Commission, and the transparency of the advice given to the Secretary of State of the day, should carry the confidence of the local communities.

My hon. Friend referred to one obvious shortfall being the lack of detail on what constitutes a majority, and how it is to be weighed and recorded. A straight numerical majority, even if one could agree on what constitutes the electorate—does one count the absentee crofters, for example?—would not be a basis on which a crofting trust application could proceed. A 51 to 49 per cent. division of opinion would be absolutely disastrous, and in those circumstances I would be flabbergasted if the commission were to recommend approval.

Equally, in considering the division of opinion in any crofting trust community, it would be right to take into account the age profile of those for and against, because of the longer-term implications. One would also have to take cognisance of the fact that in the longer term, once trust status has been achieved, considerations may arise from the bit-by-bit disposal by the trust itself of some parts of the trust lands.

Assynt has been somewhat of a trail-blazer in that respect: it has disposed of some extremely small marginal bits that have not affected the nature or critical mass of its trust; but suppose some future trust got into financial difficulties because of some of the burdens that it had inherited, and started to realise commercially some of its property—assuming that that was allowable under the deeds drawn up when trust status was achieved—on the open market. Those factors could have far-reaching long-term effects.

In approving this permissive legislation, we are right to place it on record that the devil will be in the detail. It will be important for Members who represent highlands and islands constituencies and the crofting counties generally, as well as the commission, to keep a close eye on applications. We must remember the Scottish Crofters Union's original submission to the Government's consultation paper, which said that the one thing of which we can all be certain is that there is no simple or single solution. It is right that the legislation should be permissive in recognising that reality, but hon. Members must lay down markers for the future.

This legislative event is significant and must be seen in tandem with the discussions and decisions at the last meeting of the Highlands and Islands Convention in Stornoway. The Secretary of State has agreed to set up a working group to consider the wider issues of land reform in the highlands.

An important decision in the other place was reached as a result of a test case over feudal rights and pre-emption rights, involving representatives of the then district councils of Moray and of Ross and Cromarty. One of those events has already had a significant legal impact, which will in due course affect the Bill. The other, depending on future meetings of the convention, could have a significant impact on future legislation.

Now that the issue is up and running legislatively, and in terms of the national debate and of political and parliamentary discussion, I hope that there will be windows of opportunity for further legislation. However, such legislation would be more likely to receive an earlier and more open window, as well as a more sensitive and informed discussion, if it were conducted in a legislative body in Edinburgh rather than in Westminster. The matter would be an early candidate for legislative priority if, after the general election, we achieve a Scottish Parliament. I welcome the Bill as far as it goes, but we have much further to go.