Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Bill

– in the Scottish Parliament at 4:00 pm on 12 March 2003.

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Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative 4:00, 12 March 2003

The next item of business is a debate on motion S1M-3867, in the name of Ross Finnie, that the Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Bill be passed.

Photo of Ross Finnie Ross Finnie Liberal Democrat 4:04, 12 March 2003

I am very pleased to open the stage 3 debate on the passage of the Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Bill. The bill was launched for consultation a long time ago and has been subject to a very inclusive process during its passage.

I congratulate particularly the Rural Development Committee on the amount of detailed work that it undertook to get us to where we are today. That work included the record-breaking session on the final day of stage 2 consideration of the bill, which members of the Rural Development Committee will treasure among their memories of the first parliamentary session.

The bill benefited hugely throughout its development from the substantial input and involvement of several bodies. The National Farmers Union of Scotland and the Scottish Landowners Federation were particularly closely involved in the development of the bill from the start. It was, of course, their historic and groundbreaking agreement that provided the basis for the provisions on the new tenancy options within part 1 of the bill, but their involvement encompassed all aspects of the bill.

Part 7 of the bill contains far-reaching provisions that will fundamentally change procedures for resolving disputes between landlord and tenant. Those provisions were hatched from a much-applauded report that the Scottish Law Commission produced at the request of ministers. In his earlier remarks, Fergus Ewing said that he had not given as much time as he might have to the law on agricultural holdings. He might be interested to know that Lord Gill, who was the author of the highly applauded Scottish Law Commission report, has moved on to be the Lord Justice Clerk. Fergus Ewing might have missed an opportunity there.

The efforts of ministers and my officials to ensure that the bill would be workable benefited from the professional advice of several organisations on developing the bill and underpinning policy. Bodies such as the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors in Scotland, the Scottish Agricultural Arbiters and Valuers Association, the Valuation Office Agency, the Scottish Land Court and the Registers of Scotland provided valuable advice and input. More recently, as the bill progressed, groups emerged that offered a distinctive and valuable perspective on the debate. We were particularly pleased to work with the Scottish Tenant Farmers Action Group and the Scottish estates business group since those bodies were established in 2002. Our white paper in 2000 attracted almost 100 responses and about 250 people and organisations responded to the draft bill last summer. I am also aware that the Rural Development Committee received many statements.

Overall, I believe that the bill is an excellent example of industry-wide working. Since NFU Scotland and the SLF commenced discussions about new tenancy models, all parties have worked hard to bring the new measures into effect. We are convinced that the industry as a whole, and landowners and tenants separately, will see real gains from the bill.

It is clear that the passing of the bill will bring major benefits. The bill introduces new, modern tenancy arrangements that will help Scottish farming to adapt to the challenges facing it in the 21st century. The new limited duration tenancies and short limited duration tenancies will offer tenants and landowners alike opportunities for increased flexibility to invest in land. The bill will also correct many anomalies and inequities that have crept into existing 1991 secure tenancies. The position of tenants will be improved through measures that will stop landlords imposing unfair off-lease conditions on tenants, provide for better compensation for tenants' improvements at waygo, introduce more scope for tenants to diversify, remove one-sided avoidance measures such as limited partnerships and offer cheaper access for all to dispute resolution. I believe that those measures will redress an historic imbalance in power between landlord and tenant. However, the measures will, over time, work to the benefit of both parties by improving business relationships and fostering genuine business partnerships.

The fact that existing legislation continued virtually untouched for over half a century against a backdrop of fundamental change in Scottish agriculture shows the importance of the work that we are doing. Further, the fact that we have been able to attend to the issue is an important tribute to the real benefits of having the Scottish Parliament.

The amendment that the Conservative party lodged is slightly carping and, I genuinely believe, unworthy of the constructive contribution that Alex Fergusson and others in the Conservative party made to the debate. To end on such a sour tone, if I might say so, is a most unfortunate line to take.

The bill is a much-needed reform of a piece of legislation that was being badly abused and was rapidly becoming disused. In the thrust of the legislation, contrary to what has been said and has been implied by the lodging of the amendment, we have sought to redress the balance. However, we have not sought to ignore one party or the other. We have worked extraordinarily hard to be inclusive in the development and formation of this important bill. That is why I believe that it will command wide support from all sectors once it is approved today.

For the purposes of rule 9.11 of the standing orders, I have to advise Parliament that Her Majesty, having been informed of the purport of the Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Bill, has consented to place her prerogative and interests, so far as they are affected by the bill, at the disposal of the Parliament for the purposes of the bill.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Bill be passed.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative 4:10, 12 March 2003

Before I address my amendment, I thank the clerks to the Rural Development Committee and my colleagues on the committee. Everyone worked long and hard to progress the bill at stages 1 and 2. The clerks did a magnificent job and I am happy to place on the record my thanks to them. I am sure that I speak for all my colleagues on the committee when I say that.

I lodged my amendment in order to place on record something that I want to make absolutely clear to the Parliament: the Scottish Conservatives take no pleasure in voting against the bill, as we will, as we share the view that the tenanted sector of Scottish agriculture is in great need of reinvigoration and would have greatly benefited from the type of reforms that were originally envisaged when the bill was first mooted. We were promised a bill that would introduce two new types of tenancy that had been agreed by both the Scottish Landowners Federation and the NFUS. That was a revolutionary breakthrough in itself and greatly welcome. The way looked set for a progressive bill that would genuinely address the reform and relaunch of a sector, a move that almost everyone agreed was overdue and badly needed. That legitimate and welcome debate then became hijacked by another debate on the right to buy, which was not intended in the original proposal and was even denounced by the minister in Glasgow in May 2000. His complete about-turn on this issue is the sole cause of the tension that has built up around the limited partnerships that have become the focus of the on-going debate.

I have never denied that there have existed examples in which the relationship between landlord and tenant is far from perfect, although I notice that no one ever refers to the far greater number of examples in which the relationship is perfectly acceptable. Nor have I ever pretended that limited partnerships were anything but, as I said earlier, a perfectly legal dodge to circumvent the absolute security that the 1991 act confers.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

I am interested in the explanation of why the Conservatives will vote against the bill. It appears to relate to the debate on the absolute right to buy. However, that is not in the bill at all. Could the member clarify why the Conservatives will vote against this progressive piece of legislation?

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative

I am about to do that. I have not yet given any reasons why we will vote against the bill. If Mr Rumbles bears with me, he will hear our reasons.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative

Mr Rumbles will not have to wait long.

We have taken our eyes off the fact that all limited partnerships were entered into voluntarily and that most have continued beyond their initial period on an entirely agreed and mutually acceptable basis.

However, the provisions of the bill, which the minister originally denied would impact on limited partnerships, have done so in a way that has set partner against partner and—worse—friend against friend. Even when offered a sensible and innovative way out by the SLF, the minister has opted instead for a confused and confusing approach that will do little to lessen the tensions that now exist in almost all such partnerships.

I admire the Scottish Tenant Farmers Action Group for the way in which it has seized the moment and run with it. I also admire the industry stakeholders, some of whom were mentioned by the minister, for the way in which they have sought and—on almost all the contentious issues—achieved consensus. I suspect that members of the Scottish Tenant Farmers Action Group would, at the outset, happily have settled for the concessions that they have gained, and I believe that those concessions greatly improve the lot of the secure tenant. I welcome that now, as I do in my amendment.

However, the mixed messages that have been sent out by the minister overshadow all the benefits that have been brought by the bill. The pre-emptive right to buy talks of a willing buyer and a willing seller. That is fine but, given that willingness, who on earth needs legislation? The minister has left the door to further change—by subordinate legislation, at that—wide open. Moreover, some members have made it plain that they intend to raise the absolute right to buy in future years.

I simply put one question to members: who in their right mind would risk the future of something of which they are in perfectly legal possession—that is, their land—to any form of meaningful tenancy, either new or old, under circumstances as vague as those that I have just described?

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative

No, I am in my last five seconds.

I genuinely hope that I am proved completely wrong, but I believe that practically no one will take such a risk. In other words, a bill that set out to reinvigorate the tenanted sector is in great danger of killing it stone dead. I cannot and will not vote for that.

I move amendment S1M-3867.1, to insert at end:

"but, in doing so, regrets that, despite the worthwhile provisions in the Bill, the pre-emptive right to buy has undermined them; notes that there are indications that land to let is already becoming unavailable; believes that the present arrangement of allowing greater flexibility in the detail of leases between landlord and tenant is imperative for the tenanted sector, and considers certain provisions within the Bill are contrary to the interests of that sector and fail to provide opportunities for the next generation of farming tenants, thus failing to reinvigorate the tenanted sector of agriculture in accordance with the Bill's stated intention."

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party 4:15, 12 March 2003

I add my appreciation of the Rural Development Committee clerks, who were led on the bill by Mark Brough, whose work was of outstanding quality. I also say how much I enjoyed taking the evidence and meeting all those involved, particularly the farmers, and learning about the experiences and difficulties that they have had in the past.

The late Donald Dewar remarked on the plight of tenant farmers. He was impressed that action was needed and I am proud that action has been taken.

The bill has undergone more change in its passage through the Parliament than any other bill that I can think of—at least, more than any other Executive bill that I can think of. To a large extent, that has been because of the campaigning efforts of people who are watching the debate today and—dare I say it—some members, who have pursued some of the issues doggedly. Those issues include securing a share of terminal value for tenants, which was not in the bill as introduced. They include improvements in the rent review to take account of the economic potential of a farm, which was not quite in the bill as introduced. They also include the ability to assign which, although it is too narrow for my liking, is a step forward in creating an opportunity for tenants who wish to retire to do so. They also include the setting aside of post-lease agreements and write-down agreements and the establishment of anti-avoidance measures. Those issues were all developed by hard work in the committee and I congratulate all who played a part in undertaking that work on the committee.

There will need to be a period in which we find out whether the bill delivers the improvements that I would like and whether the bill will end the economic stagnation about which the Scottish Tenant Farmers Action Group talked in its excellent initial submission to the Parliament. One of the spokesmen of that group said about the bill in today's newspapers:

"What started life as an insipid bill creating new-style farm tenancies ... has evolved into a meaningful bill laying the foundation block for real reform in the future."

It seems no more than common sense that, as the Parliament has carried out a piece of work through which the lot of the secure tenant farmer will be significantly improved, there should now be a period of calm in which we can assess the effectiveness of the measures that we will pass today. It is up to all parties—but most notably the landowners—to use the new vehicles in the way in which we have intended, not to seek to circumvent them or pervert their purposes. If all parties use those vehicles as intended, many of those who wanted to go further and along the route that Alex Fergusson mentioned may not be as determined or keen to do so if they feel that the mischief that has caused the difficulty in their cases has been resolved. That is why we need a period—the next year or so—over which to see the bill's effect before it would be correct to go further.

That is a commonsense statement. I hope that all those who have played a major part in the debate will welcome it.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative

By "go further", does Fergus Ewing mean the imposition of an absolute right to buy?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I mean going further in the way that I have described today in relation to a variety of the issues on which I have spoken, such as the ability to have a general right to assign or ensuring that no tenants may face eviction because we refuse to take steps that allow that to be avoided. I hope that the use of subordinate legislation powers could be considered in order to protect any tenants who may face eviction, such as the 60 tenants referred to during our consideration of amendments earlier this afternoon.

I take it that Mr Fergusson is referring to the absolute right to buy. I was pleased to take part in the debates on that subject at stage 2. We put the argument strongly and, when I spoke, it was, I think, the longest recorded speech of the Parliament—I am not saying that it was necessarily the most enthralling. One must recognise that when we cannot succeed in obtaining a majority to support us following a debate, it is pointless merely to have a rerun of the same debate at stage 3. We did not do that, because we wished to devote more time today to other arguments. I think that that was a wise decision.

In the period ahead we will want to reflect on the work that has been done now, and I am delighted that the SNP has played a fairly major role in winning for tenants in Scotland a better deal than they have enjoyed in the past. Parliament can be proud of itself in passing the Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Bill today.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour 4:21, 12 March 2003

Like others, I thank everybody who worked so hard on the bill, especially the clerks to the Rural Development Committee. A special mention has to go to Mark Brough, who did so much work and who showed incredible patience throughout the process.

The Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Bill brings about huge changes for tenants and gives them a lot more protection and security than they had at the start of this process. It gives them easy access to the Scottish Land Court, which avoids the costly arbitration that we heard about in committee. That involved farmers having to spend huge amounts of money to reach the stage of arbitration, sometimes on spurious grounds. The bill will save them money and will give them more security.

Write-down agreements will also come to an end. Those agreements have been made by landowners to avoid liabilities under the Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Act 1991, and we came across cases of people investing huge amounts of money in their farms but not getting the benefit when leaving them. The committee noted the benefits that people derived from handing their land on to their successors before their death, and from being able to see their farms passed to future generations and to retire comfortably and play a part in that.

One of the new sections introduced earlier today allows the Scottish Land Court to withhold rent. That is highly important for tenants of absentee landlords, who will perhaps not carry out Land Court directives. The Land Court may take the rent and use it to put right things right that the landowner has not put right.

I am pleased that the bill has laid down the principle of the value of a secure tenancy. Most of the bill was uncontentious, which is why we have settled on some of the more contentious issues. We need to allow the bill to bed down and see how it works and the extent to which it opens up the tenanted sector.

There is a particular group of people to whom I wish to pay tribute: the Scottish Tenant Farmers Action Group. The group was set up in light of the bill's introduction in order to push forward the needs and wishes of tenants. The group had a steep learning curve, but it took on the challenge and worked well with committee members, ministers and all those involved. Its involvement shows how people who are not members of existing organisations can influence the Parliament. They can either join together or influence the Parliament as individuals, and they can play a huge part in shaping legislation. Much of the shape of the bill can be attributed to that group, which put forward evidence that has gone towards some of the changes that have been made. I hope that the group will remain and will be among the stakeholders in the agriculture industry—people who will be consulted as changes take place in the industry. I look forward to representatives of the group becoming part of the Rural Development Committee's usual suspects, as we call them.

I hope that the bill will open up the tenanted sector and that the protections that it affords will make farming an awful lot more secure for those who work in it. We all know that farmers have had rough times in the past, and I hope that the bill will go some way towards mitigating what has happened in the sector. We must continue to monitor the situation and give it time to bed in before we take further steps.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

We have time in hand, so I propose to call to speak the six members who are listed on the screen in front of me.

Photo of Stewart Stevenson Stewart Stevenson Scottish National Party 4:25, 12 March 2003

The lodging of the Tory amendment is quite the most deeply disappointing parliamentary manoeuvre. In the Tory world, nothing changes and nothing should change. That is the attitude that we have seen displayed. The Tory party's inability to recognise worthwhile change defines their position in the political spectrum and will define their political future in the weeks to come.

We have heard members of the Tory party discuss voluntary agreements in relation to the Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Act 1991. Of course one volunteers to sign an agreement when a big powerful laddie is holding a loaded shotgun to one's head. The power and the weakness of landlords and tenants have always been the issue in their relationship. The bill, which we welcome, redresses that imbalance. It does not do so as much as we would wish, but it does so to an extent that is more than adequate to justify our support.

We have introduced in statute a provision so that, in some circumstances, tenants can divert their rent from the landlord to the court. Tenants will not stop paying rent—they have to keep shelling out the money—but the provision will allow the landlord's shortcomings to be put right. That is worth while.

I am disappointed that new statutory requirements for equipment such as slurry tanks—of which I am deeply enamoured—will remain a matter for tenants rather than landlords. So be it—let us see how that plays.

I still have concerns that, because of the precipitate and unreasonable actions of a number of landlords, some tenants are at risk because, in the middle of last year, they were given notice to quit both their partnerships and their tenancies. However, the Executive will probably find ways of bringing considerable pressure to bear on the Scottish Landowners Federation so that it lives up to its promise that the issuing of notices was simply a tactic to put pressure on the Parliament during the debate on the bill.

On the positive side, the bill process has been very unusual. Like many who have been involved in it, I have often felt that, in this instance, the real Parliament was made up of—and the real debate was being conducted by—people outside this building. We often waited to hear what progress had been made by the organisations that were party to the discussions: the Scottish Landowners Federation, the NFU and the Scottish Tenant Farmers Action Group. All those organisations have played a significant part in delivering a worthwhile move forward for tenant farmers and landowners throughout Scotland.

Tonight, SNP members will vote for the bill with a glad heart.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat 4:28, 12 March 2003

This is another historic day for the coalition parties, which believe passionately in land reform. We believe passionately in empowering the many ordinary men and women who live and work on Scotland's land by stripping away the power of the few. Fundamentally, that is what the bill is about.

Fundamentally, the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 was about the same key objective.

For too long, tenant farmers have played the game with the deck stacked against them. Until now, the landlords have held all the aces in negotiations. The bill waters down dramatically the powers of landowners and their factors. Those powers must be watered down, because landowners have seriously abused the provisions of the Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Act 1991. The partnership tenancies created by that act were nothing more than a legal device that left tenants with no security and at the mercy of landlords, who could kick them out at any point during the partnership agreement.

Write-down agreements robbed tenants of the value of their investments and, to rub salt into the wound, the tenants usually ended up paying rent on their own investments. Post-lease agreements were designed to allow landlords to dump their responsibility for repairs, renewals and provision of fixed equipment on tenants.

The use of Queen's counsel and expert witnesses in rent arbitration meant that the cost of arbitration for tenants was prohibitive. The most recent rent arbitration that was carried out on Arran, of which the minister might be aware, cost £12,000. If a landlord has to balance that cost over 60 farms, because the precedent is set when the rent goes up, the cost is affordable, but if an individual tenant on a three-year rent review has to spread the cost of £12,000 over three years, it is a no-brainer—they do not do it.

I believe that the actions by landlords and factors that I have described drove a coach and horses through the 1991 act and left tenants powerless to fight for a fair and just deal. I hope that the bill will end that abuse. It will shift the balance of power back to tenant farmers and will be fundamental in ensuring the future of the tenant farm sector. The creation of two new tenancy vehicles and the provisions allowing diversification should reinvigorate the tenanted sector and act as a further spur to rural development.

I do not accept Alex Fergusson's portrayal of the great fear that landlords will not let land. In years gone by we have seen that landlords cannot make money out of farming the land themselves; they need tenants, and the new vehicles will give them the opportunity to let land on the basis set out in the bill.

Photo of Alex Fergusson Alex Fergusson Conservative

I share George Lyon's hope that the new vehicles will be used. However, several members have said that we need a little settling-in time before we move on and make further changes. Does he agree that that will affect the way in which people look on how they use their available land?

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat

All the disquiet out there has been fuelled by the claims of Mugabe-style land-grab tactics, which the Conservative party used day after day to try to frighten people. It is the Conservatives' responsibility that there is concern among landowners about what the bill means. I hope that the Conservatives will accept responsibility for the fact that it is fundamentally down to their party that there is disquiet.

I believe that the inclusion of the right to buy—albeit pre-emptive—is another major step forward in securing the coalition parties' objective of a wider pattern of land ownership in Scotland. I am sure that many members believe that we should continue to fight for that objective.

I pay tribute to the Scottish Tenant Farmers Action Group members, including Angus McCall, Malcolm McCall, Stuart Jamieson, Duncan McAlistair and Evelyn McCall, the secretary to the group. It is only through the group's efforts that the bill has been toughened up and the balance of power has shifted so dramatically to the tenants. Every tenant farmer in Scotland tonight should thank their lucky stars for STAG. When it came to the bit, it was the only representative organisation strong enough to stand up and fight the tenants' cause.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party 4:33, 12 March 2003

I welcome the bill. We are making history today by giving new rights to tenant farmers the length and breadth of Scotland by dragging the appropriate laws into the 21 st century. That vindicates all of us who supported the establishment of the Parliament and believed that it would deliver not just for urban communities but for rural communities. I believe that we are seeing that today.

I pay tribute to the SNP's lead spokesperson, Fergus Ewing, who has been a passionate advocate on behalf of tenant farmers in his constituency and throughout Scotland. We have all benefited from Fergus Ewing's passionate input at the Rural Development Committee. It was handy to have a lawyer on the committee dealing with this complex issue. I pay tribute to the Rural Development Committee, of which I am a member, because its 11 members made a huge difference to the bill. We are debating a bill that is very different from the bill that the Executive introduced many months ago, because of the work of the committee. The ministers also have to be given credit where it is due, because they listened to a lot of what the committee had to say and introduced stage 3 amendments, which have been passed today. That is thanks to the members of the committee raising issues on behalf of tenant farmers.

Like other members, I save my biggest tribute for the Scottish Tenant Farmers Action Group and the other farmers who articulated strongly their views and many of the grievances that have been experienced not only by their generation but by many generations over the past few centuries.

It was brave of many of the people who are involved in the action group to put their heads above the parapet, especially when they have their landlords breathing down their necks and standing over their shoulders. We know from some of the horrific stories that we have heard how much pressure many of them were under when they came forward and gave their evidence to the Parliament. We congratulate them on doing that.

MSPs feel strongly about some of the issues that we have been debating today and over the past few months because of the many cases that have been brought to our attention by tenant farmers and other constituents. We have heard stories about absentee landlords who have never visited the tenanted farms. I have spoken to tenant farmers in the north-east of Scotland who say that the owner of the estate has never spoken to them—they may have visited the estate, but they have never spoken to tenant farmers on the estate. The only people whom the tenant farmers see are the factors, who turn up to tell them about the latest rent rise and collect the rent.

Many landlords and owners throughout Scotland have left the tenant farms to rot down the years. We have heard about many generations of the same family having invested in their farm and their land, knowing that there is no chance of them seeing the long-term benefit of all that investment. Down the decades, many landlords have taken the gain without sharing the pain.

The bill is also about delivering justice to tenant farmers in Scotland. It intends to ensure that they get a return for the investment that they put in. Compensation at waygo is one of the key features of the bill. How demoralising can it be for farmers to invest in their property and their land when they know that they will not get any compensation? I am thankful that that will change.

The bill is also about democratising rural communities and the ownership of our farms and our land. It is about giving tenant farmers equal status with the landlords in the tenant-landlord relationship; it is about changing the imbalance of power. That is why it is so important that the bill gives redress to our tenant farmers by addressing write-down agreements and post-lease agreements, and by giving them, for the first time, the ability in law to withhold their rent. That is an extremely important tool for tenant farmers in addressing the imbalance of power.

Finally, the bill is also about the economics of our rural communities. Setting rent in line with the current economic climate in farming is important, and I am pleased that we have addressed that. That was one of the main concerns expressed by tenant farmers throughout Scotland.

The bill is about rejuvenating our rural communities by allowing diversification on farms. In some areas of Scotland, on one side of the road there is diversified land and land use as well as diversified land ownership, and on the other side of the road, there is no diversification and perhaps one estate owner. One can see the difference: on one side of the street, there is a vibrant economy, and on the other side of the street, nothing is happening. That is why we must promote diversification.

In conclusion, I say that I welcome the bill, but I must say a few words about the Tory party's amendment. The Tory party is stuck in the 19th century and at 10 per cent in the opinion polls in Scotland.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

I ask Mr Lochhead to conclude quickly, please.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party

It is amazing to think that the Tory party is the only party that got a majority of support among the electorate in Scotland in the previous century, yet today it is at 10 per cent in the opinion polls and it opposes every progressive bit of legislation that is brought to the chamber. The Tories will pay the price for that in May.

I conclude by saying that this is a proud moment for Parliament and for our tenant farming community. I urge Parliament to reject the Tory amendment and to support the bill.

Photo of Murray Tosh Murray Tosh Conservative

If members are going to conclude three times, I would be grateful if they would start to do so after their second minute.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat 4:39, 12 March 2003

The bill is designed to stimulate a vibrant market in land, which is vital to the health of the agricultural industry in Scotland.

The bill is a progressive and radical piece of legislation. It is designed, among other things, to promote farm diversification throughout Scotland. I know that it will be welcomed specifically by our tenant farmers. In addition, the bill gives secure tenant farmers a pre-emptive right to buy, which they can exercise when their landlord wants to sell—in other words, they have a right of first refusal. I am particularly pleased about that because it was in the Liberal Democrat manifesto in 1999, on which I and all the Liberal Democrat MSPs were elected.

The debate—rather than the bill itself—has been somewhat disfigured by the red herring of the so-called absolute right to buy. I am sorry to hear the Tories continue to go on about that. In my view, it could never be right for one private individual to be forced to sell his or her property to another private individual when no public interest is at stake. The important thing was to address the great many problems that tenant farmers encountered because of the way in which they were treated under existing legislation, much of which was introduced by the Tories.

The bill will make many changes to that legislation, but let me highlight a few of them. Post-lease agreements, under which tenants took on the landlord's responsibilities for repairs and maintenance, will be ended. Write-down agreements, under which the tenant had to write down the value of the improvements that he had made so that the landlord need not compensate him for them, will be ended. The basis for calculating rents has been clarified, so that equal weight is to be given to comparable farm rents and to economic conditions in agriculture.

At a time when income from non-farming sources is almost more important than traditional farming income, the bill will give tenant farmers freedom to diversify, while providing due safeguards for landowners. That is a radical, reforming and progressive step. The bill will remove the barriers to farm diversification that are faced by many tenant farmers. It will be good for our tenant farmers and for our rural economy in general.

On that point, I must mention amendment 64, which we passed this afternoon. Amendment 64 will mean that, at the start of the tenancy, the landlord must ensure that the fixed equipment on the farm is in a thorough state of repair and must provide such buildings and other fixed equipment as will enable the tenant farmer to maintain efficient production on the farm. As on many other issues, the amendment was secured after agreement was reached across the industry in the stakeholders group.

Amendment 64 will provide real benefits, so I was astounded to hear the Conservative party oppose that progressive reform. How disappointing, but how predictable. That is typical of the Tories, who seem to be the "No, no" party. Not only are they determined to vote against this progressive bill, but they seem to vote against every measure that seeks to drag us, not simply from the 20th century into the 21st century, but from the 19th century into the 21st century.

Before I conclude, I put on record my criticism of the stage 3 process in which we are engaged. Earlier this afternoon, the Deputy Presiding Officer curtailed debate on an extremely important and controversial issue concerning retrospective legislation. When we were debating when the provisions in the bill should take effect—whether that should be from February of this year or from September, or even April, of last year—we had 15 minutes in hand when the guillotine fell. To compound matters, we also find that we finished the entire stage 3 consideration of amendments some 20 minutes before scheduled. I make no criticism of the Presiding Officers, but I am certain that the stage 3 procedure for scrutinising amendments is flawed. That issue must be addressed in the new session of Parliament.

The bill is progressive, radical and much needed. It is good news for our tenant farmers, for our farming industry and for Scotland.

Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 4:43, 12 March 2003

I start by echoing the last point that Mike Rumbles made. We have a problem with the timetabling of the various groupings at stage 3 that needs to be looked at. Perhaps all parties—in which I include my own—might help matters if we did not insist on voting on every amendment once it has been made obvious whether the Parliament accepts the principle in each group of amendments.

We have come a long way since Ross Finnie introduced his first white paper—or glossy document—on agricultural tenancies when we were on holiday in Glasgow in May 2000. However, the time has been worth while spending.

I will make only a few brief points. In his introductory remarks, Ross Finnie referred to the anomalies that have crept into the 1991 act and talked about redressing the historic inequities. Particularly given the defeat of Fergus Ewing's amendment 42, which would have rendered null and void any attempt to make new agreements that would deprive tenants of their right under the bill that we are about to pass, we will need in future to be vigilant that people do not come up with avoidance measures to get round the provisions of the bill in the same way as they have got round the provisions of the 1991 act.

Even now, highly paid lawyers will be sitting down and examining the bill to find a way to help their landlord clients to get round the provisions that we are about to enact. I hope that the existence of the Parliament means that we will be able to address such problems more quickly than we have been able to address them in the past.

I was surprised to hear Alex Fergusson say that the Tories will vote against the bill, because the logic of their amendment is that they would have to agree to the motion that the bill be passed and then tag on their amendment, which says that it is unfortunate that we have wasted so much time on other matters. Alex Fergusson certainly seemed to say that they would vote against the bill, and I am surprised at that. If that is the case, it indicates that the Tories are stuck in the past and have nothing to say to the people of Scotland.

In his initial speech, Alex Fergusson admitted that dodges have been used to get round the provisions of the 1991 act. He then said that that was okay, because those dodges were between willing partners. The fact that he believes that the two parties to such transactions are willing partners exemplifies the difference between his party and the rest of us. They refuse to see any of the structural inequalities that exist in the landlord-tenant relationship as well as in society. Earlier in the debate, George Lyon rightly said that the relationship is hardly equal. Indeed, it cannot be, because land is not a commodity—there is only a fixed supply of land.

Several members have rightly paid tribute to the tenant farmers' representatives. The bill has been significantly improved as a result of their input and that of some of the more enlightened landlord representatives. The fact that the two sectors have been able to get together is one of the good things to come out of the bill.

We will have to wait and see whether what we have produced is sufficient, and keep an eye on the issues.

Photo of Sylvia Jackson Sylvia Jackson Labour 4:47, 12 March 2003

The bill is very important, particularly for tenant farmers. Their concerns have at last been heard and I am sure that that will continue to happen. For a long time, tenant farmers have been too silent, which gave rise to many of the issues that have been discussed during the passage of the bill.

Tenant farmers now have a truly representative body. The Scottish Tenant Farmers Action Group, members of which have been in the gallery all day, has done a valiant job. My constituent Duncan McEwen has kept me constantly in touch with what is happening. The group has started discussions with more established bodies such as the NFUS and the SLF. It is also now in discussions with the Executive. That shows how the Scottish Parliament is working today. I hope that the minister will continue to talk to all the various groups and that some of the issues that Fergus Ewing and Alasdair Morgan raised will be kept under review and attended to.

The new-style tenancies have already been mentioned. George Lyon talked about the difficulties with the limited partnership tenancies and how the new style of tenancy will invigorate the tenanted sector. Mike Rumbles spoke about amendment 64 and the importance of making it the landlord's duty to ensure that fixed equipment is in a good state of repair and that buildings are replaced and renewed throughout the duration of a tenancy.

As Richard Lochhead said, the proposals to allow tenants to diversify and the measures on compensation rights are particularly important, because they brought the tenants' representatives into discussions with other groups. That helped to start the negotiations and we have come a long way in that respect. Alex Fergusson is not here, but I hope that the Tories will stop making fear-rousing statements about the bill.

Amendment 111 related to limited partnership tenancies and the notices that were served prior to 16 September 2002. I am pleased that the minister is moving towards industry-wide agreement on that issue. From the discussions that I have had with the various organisations involved, it appears that the matter will progress quickly. I hope that the new system will include an arbitration procedure, which will mean that tenants will not feel threatened, but will feel that the system is a good one.

I believe that the bill, in its totality, is worth while and I am sure that we will pass it today. The bill is good news for tenant farmers and for sustainable development in Scottish agriculture and it will provide justice for everyone involved. It is a pleasure that all the bodies in the industry are so much in agreement.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

I call Allan Wilson to reply to the debate—he can have up to nine minutes.

Photo of Allan Wilson Allan Wilson Labour 4:51, 12 March 2003

I am grateful to everyone who has contributed to the parliamentary debate on the Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Bill, but I must tell you, Presiding Officer, that I do not intend to detain Parliament by speaking for nine minutes. I know that that will disappoint some members, but we have had a fair crack of the whip.

Like other members, I thank the clerks to the Rural Development Committee, who have, as always, put in a sterling effort in helping with the passage of the bill. I am not sure that I was wholly enamoured with, or appreciative of, the six-hour session that the committee had in the chamber while debating the minutiae at stage 2. That session included the longest speech in the history of the Parliament—I say to Fergus Ewing that, although it was not quite up to Fidel Castro's standard, it was certainly long enough for me. If it is any consolation to members, it is my heartfelt and sincere wish that that record-breaking session should remain just that—a record.

I also thank the members of the Rural Development Committee. In particular, I pay tribute to Rhoda Grant, who worked hard behind the scenes—by her standards, she has been comparatively quiet today. She made effective contributions throughout the passage of the bill, as did other members, including those from the Opposition. I demonstrated my willingness to come and go with the Opposition members today when I accepted Fergus Ewing's amendment on the assignation of interests to family members. That was the shortest political honeymoon in history, to go with the longest speech.

I also thank the Executive staff who were involved, who are sitting at the back of the chamber. They put a tremendous amount of work into preparing policy advice and into the extensive consultation with all sides of the industry that was involved in every meeting. That consultation has been referred to constantly during the passage of the bill. Without the Executive staff's effort, we would not now have industry-wide agreement on all the major issues that have been discussed. The one sour note that was struck in the morning, which went with Alex Fergusson's sour note in the afternoon, was Fergus Ewing's suggestion that the Executive amendments had been deliberately withheld for some perceived short-term political purpose. That was not the case. The Executive staff worked extremely hard to ensure that the amendments were produced timeously.

The bill is a result of the work of all those people and of others whom I have not mentioned. The fact that the bill has been improved since its earlier stages reflects the strength of the consultative procedures and the Parliament's process of scrutiny.

The bill establishes significant new rights. It will give secure tenant farmers a pre-emptive right to buy their holding at market value when their landlord sells the land, on the basis of a willing seller and a willing buyer. Like George Lyon, I am not about to accept the strictures of Alex Fergusson on that issue.

My one disappointment about the day's debate has been the absence of Jamie McGrigor, an erstwhile Conservative spokesman. He likened the pre-emptive right to buy to another communist land grab, if members can believe that. That is based on the usual Conservative approach—if it is Wednesday, it must be another Mugabe-style land grab. The bill does not represent such a land grab. Bill Aitken and his fellow Conservatives should be honest and admit that they oppose it because it seeks to redress the imbalance in the relationship between the landlord and the tenant in favour of the tenant. The Tories created that imbalance in 1991; that is why they oppose the bill.

Sylvia Jackson made an important point about the erstwhile silence of the tenant farmers. The bill will end that silence. We now know that their voice can be heard in the Parliament of the land. They will no longer be cowed into accepting unfair and unreasonable tenancy conditions. That is as it should be and it is a tribute to all those in the Parliament who have stood up to defend the tenants' rights. We in the Executive are proud to have been in the vanguard of that movement.

When it is passed, the bill will revitalise the tenanted sector in Scotland. It will introduce new tenancy options that are attractive both to landlords and to tenants and will offer more scope for tenants to diversify into non-agricultural activities. As George Lyon has mentioned, the quicker and cheaper dispute resolution arrangements that will apply in Arran and elsewhere will make it easier for tenants to enforce their rights. The bill includes a range of other measures that will strengthen the position of tenants, including measures that relate to several issues that the NFUS and the celebrated Scottish Tenant Farmers Action Group raised only recently.

I assure Sylvia Jackson and others that industry discussions will continue to address some of the issues that have been raised and that require not legislative change, but industry-wide agreement to ensure that the stimulation to the tenanted sector that we seek and desire will come to fruition. I say to Alasdair Morgan that we will monitor the progress of the bill in the months and years to come to ensure that those objectives are met.

The changes that I have outlined, as well as other measures, will widen the choices that are available to tenants and landowners. I assure members that, over time, they will lead to greater diversity of tenure and a rejuvenated tenanted sector in Scotland. It gives me great pleasure to recommend that the Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Bill be passed by the Parliament.

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament

The minister was very good. He promised me that he would not take nine minutes and he took only eight and a half, which is very helpful indeed.