Restrictions on Disposal

Part of Clause 2 – in the House of Commons at 4:45 pm on 18th March 1997.

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Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South 4:45 pm, 18th March 1997

Although the issues have had a good airing at the Grand Committee in Montrose, on Second Reading, in Committee and tonight, it is only right that I should respond to some of the points that have been raised.

The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) talked of the success of the crofting trusts at Assynt and Borve. Their success, with that of Annishadder, has demonstrated that the time is right to offer tenants on the Secretary of State's estate the opportunity to benefit from land ownership.

The response to the Government's consultation paper last year showed that there was considerable potential interest. The Crofting Trusts Advisory Service has commissioned three pilot studies into the feasibility of three possible local trusts. It is too early to say whether that will translate into specific proposals, but there is a growing body of opinion that that is the way forward. We need to be in a position to respond.

The hon. Member for Cunningham, North (Mr. Wilson) said that the legislation might not be used. Perhaps he was thinking of the case of Skye and Raasay, when crofters responded to an earlier initiative in 1990 by deciding that they would prefer to remain tenants of the Secretary of State rather than setting up a crofting trust. He will agree that times have changed, and that there is more interest in the trust option. The setting up of trusts at Assynt and Borve, and at Annishadder in Skye, demonstrates that it is a feasible option for crofting communities.

The hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) wondered whether the Secretary of State's crofting tenants should have a right to buy their estates as a whole. Individual crofters already have a statutory right to buy their crofts. To give crofters a right to buy an estate as a whole would be feasible only if the Bill defined precisely which crofters would enjoy the right, and the sort of body that would have to be formed to take over ownership.

The Government believe that it is preferable for the Bill to allow flexibility, so that different approaches can be tried in different areas. The Bill must allow the Secretary of State the right to refuse proposals from crofting trusts, in order to safeguard crofters' interests—for example, if proposals are judged not to be properly representative of crofting interests.

The hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye also asked for trusts to be allowed to sell off their land and assets. That will be a matter for the trust. Trusts will no doubt consider carefully the effect of selling or leasing land. The loss of land will need to be weighed against the possible benefits, such as providing a source of money with which to undertake development projects in the interests of the local community.

Moreover, crofting legislation provides protection for the crofting interest, as the land remains in crofting tenure unless the landowner, in this case the trust itself, successfully applies to the Scottish land court to have it resumed. In considering applications for resumption, the court must be persuaded that the resumption is required for some reasonable purpose in relation to the good of a particular croft estate as a whole or of the public interest.

Some Opposition Members asked why the Bill was not being extended to cover privately owned estates.