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

I understand where the hon. Gentleman is coming from, but, as he says, it is difficult to legislate for something that may or may not happen. It is unlikely that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would allow any trust to go forward that had not proved itself financially viable not only in the short and medium term but in the long term. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is reassured by that.

The Bill extends to privately owned estates. Its purpose is to enable my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to dispose of his estates. There is no legal impediment to prevent any private landowner from selling his large crofting trusts if he wishes to do so. It would be wrong for the Government to seek to compel landowners to sell.

There is also the question of land under the control of the Forestry Commission. There is no legal barrier to prevent the commission from disposing of land acquired under the Forestry Acts to a crofting or community trust. Where the land is in crofting tenure and has not been planted, the Government will positively encourage the Forestry Commission to look sympathetically at disposing of the land to a suitable crofting trust.

In the case of existing or newly planted woodland, a number of options could be considered under the Forestry Commission's recent disposal programme and its recently announced extension to the sponsorship arrangements for preferred sales to communities for social and economic development.

The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland spoke about the mechanism for ensuring that transfer took place only where there was demonstrable local support. I assume that the hon. Gentleman had it in mind that there should be a ballot, and that a transfer should take place only if there was more than a specified percentage of support.

It is clearly right that there should be substantial support for any crofting trust proposal before it goes ahead. It would be a mistake to write any specific figure into the Bill. Should the figure be a simple majority, say, two thirds, or should 90 per cent. or 99 per cent support be required? Who should vote—those with crofting rights, or all adults? Then there is the problem of absentees. Should crofters who live in Canada or Glasgow, or whose employment takes them away from the croft for most of the year, have a vote? Should the percentage be calculated as a proportion of those who vote or of the electorate as a whole?

Before agreeing to transfer any estate to a crofting trust, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State must consult the Crofters Commission, which in turn must have regard both to the general interests of the crofting community in the district and to the views of the crofters. That will ensure that these matters are addressed, but it gives more flexibility to take account of local circumstances.

As my noble Friend the Earl of Lindsay made clear in another place, we have no set views on whether a minimum or maximum size of trust will have to be prescribed. A trust must clearly involve more than one croft holding, and, ideally, at least 10 holdings might be desirable, but we will consider each proposal on its merits. Similarly, we have no upper limit in mind. In our view, trusts are particularly suited to local communities, but a trust for larger areas, such as Skye or the Western Isles, could certainly be considered.

The Bill does not prescribe the size or structure of a crofting trust. It is important, as I and my noble Friend have stressed, that any proposal meets the needs of local communities. The Bill offers sufficient flexibility to deal with a variety of local solutions. It would be open to communities to propose trusts which consisted of a whole estate, part of an estate or an aggregation of several estates. The Secretary of State would listen to representations from any crofter on an estate, any part of which was the subject of a proposal to establish a crofting trust.

As for whether all crofters will have to become members of the trust, if, after consultation with the Crofters Commission and due consideration, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State decides to transfer an estate to a crofting trust, all the land owned by him in that estate will become the property of the trust. However, it will always be possible for an individual crofter to use his statutory right to buy his own croft land from the trust. In addition, depending on the precise type of body established, it might be for individual crofters themselves to decide whether they wish to become members of the trust, although they should all have the opportunity to join.

As for whether trusts will need to be based on townships with common grazings, the idea of common ownership through a trust certainly makes most sense where there are one or more townships with common grazings, and most of the land in my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State's estate would fall into that category. However, we will not rule out a trust based on a series of separate crofts without any township common land if that is what the local crofters want.

On Second Reading, the question of a pan-highlands and islands trust was raised. It is intended that a pan-highlands and islands trust will be a possibility under the provisions of the Bill. Whether such a trust would make sense in practice will depend very much on the nature of the proposal and the extent to which it enjoys sufficient support from the crofters themselves.

The primary purpose of our initiative is to give ownership and control of the crofting estates to the crofters who live on them, and we would have to be satisfied that any pan-highland and islands trust achieved that objective. We would not be interested in a pan-highlands and islands trust if it meant imposing a remote bureaucracy on reluctant crofters.

My noble Friend the Earl of Lindsay met the crofting land trust steering group on 7 February to discuss the consultants' report. The meeting was useful, but it would be premature for the Government to offer a view on the feasibility of a crofting land trust. We are talking here about a report by the consultants to those bodies which commissioned the work, and there is no actual proposal as yet.

Hon. Members asked why the Government should not interfere with the rights of pre-emption, which have been raised throughout our proceedings. If the Government took no action, the transfer of land to a proposed trust could be delayed while the question of any rights of pre-emption was sorted out, or even frustrated, if the inheritors to title decided to exercise their right.

That would create uncertainty, and would be contrary to Government policy, so the Bill abolishes any rights of pre-emption that might exist over the land in the public interest. However, to be fair to the persons who may enjoy such rights, the Government will consider claims for compensation, and the Bill provides a right of appeal to the Scottish Land Court.

Where a particular individual can demonstrate that he or she has a legitimate right of pre-emption, stemming either from the 1919 Act or from the title deeds for the land in question, it is only right and proper for the Government to consider compensation. In considering the amount that might be appropriate, the Government will take account of the circumstances of the case.

Our understanding is that such rights as do exist are simply a right to have first refusal to buy, usually at market value, and it may be that, in the context of crofting land, such a right would have little value. At the end of the day, however, if the person is dissatisfied, it will be for the Scottish Land Court to decide whether a right exists, and the level of compensation that should be paid.

Tracing persons who have a statutory right of pre-emption can be a very lengthy and expensive process, and it will often be simply impossible. That is why the Bill puts a duty on the Government to publicise the transfer, so that any persons who consider that they have a right of pre-emption can lodge a claim for compensation. However, the Government are prepared to give an assurance that they will, in practice, notify any persons whom they think, on the basis of the information available, have a right of pre-emption.

The Bill allows four months for a claim to be lodged. Since all that will be required at this stage is the simple initial notification of a claim, four months would seem to be adequate. Any subsequent discussions between the Government and the parties concerned—for example, to obtain more information in support of their claim—would not be affected by this four-month period.

The Bill places a duty on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to advertise the disposal in such a manner as appears to him appropriate. Flexibility is necessary, as the precise arrangement for advertisements will need to be according to the nature of the estate. For example, rather different arrangements may be necessary when a whole estate is purchased than when part of an estate that is still in the same family ownership is involved. Each case will have to be looked at separately in order to identify the best means of advertising for the estate in question.

Unfortunately, there are no established principles for valuing rights of pre-emption that could easily be incorporated into legislation. My right hon. Friend will consider all evidence submitted by claimants in respect of compensation for loss of rights of pre-emption. When agreement cannot be reached between the Government and the person concerned, provision has been made for appeal to the Scottish Land Court, which has considerable experience in dealing with crofting matters. We believe that the court is best placed to consider the facts of the case, and decide on an appropriate sum.

The Bill requires the Secretary of State to consult the Crofters Commission before disposing of any of his crofting property to a particular crofting trust. In giving its advice, the commission is required to have regard to the general interests of the crofting community in the district in question, the views of crofters in that district, and any other matters it considers to be relevant.

That gives the commission an important role, which is entirely right, given its position as statutory adviser to the Secretary of State on crofting matters and its knowledge and expertise. My right hon. Friend will therefore wish to give careful consideration to the views of the commission, but, at the end of the day, the Secretary of State must have the discretion to make the decision that he thinks is right.

During the debate, it was asked whether the Crofters Commission would be required to hold a ballot of those crofters who are affected before giving its advice on their views. That will be entirely a matter for the commission, which has a great deal of experience of consulting crofting communities in the course of its day-to-day work.

The Crofting Trusts Advisory Service was set up to provide advice to crofting communities interested in establishing trusts on public or private estates. It is doing valuable work in providing that assistance. Advice of the sort it offers will be vital to those who wish to take advantage of the provisions of the Bill to establish trusts on former Scottish Office estates. The longer-term future of CTAS will be decided in the light of developments following the successful passage of the Bill.

Iain MacAskill, chairman of the Crofters Commission, has made it clear that the commission has taken no position on the relative merits of different trusts. The commission has provided advice to successive Secretaries of State for four decades, and is well-placed to ensure that the interests of the crofting community and the views of crofters are properly represented in advice given to the Secretary of State. We see no need, therefore, for any additional body with the inevitable additional bureaucracy and resources that it would require.

The Bill will provide the necessary powers to put into effect my right hon. Friend's crofting trusts initiative. The initiative has received widespread support from all parties in the House, which support was shown on Second Reading in the sitting of the Scottish Grand Committee in Montrose, in Committee, and today on Third Reading and Report.

The Bill will allow my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, following consultation with the Crofters Commission, to transfer his crofting estates to bodies that are representative of the crofting interests in the property. It will allow my right hon. Friend to provide financial assistance towards the costs involved in establishing such a body. The Bill also ensures that any rights of pre-emption over the property are extinguished and makes provision for compensation to be paid in appropriate cases. This is a sound measure, which will devolve real responsibility to local communities to take decisions on the future of the land on which they live and work.