Section 20 — Duties relating to residency, misuse and neglect of crofts

Crofting Reform (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3 – in the Scottish Parliament at 10:00 am on 1st July 2010.

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Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour 10:00 am, 1st July 2010

We now move to group 8. Amendment 175, in the name of Liam McArthur, is grouped with amendment 178.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

The Government made a welcome concession at stage 2 to increase from 16km to 32km the maximum distance from his or her croft within which a tenant or owner-occupier crofter must ordinarily be resident before the matter is brought to the commission's attention. That limit is no more than a trigger for the commission, which can then consider the reasons for such an arrangement and whether further steps are required.

We all acknowledged that, although any figure was likely to be somewhat arbitrary, extending the distance was justified to reflect changing circumstances, not least the distances that people are now able and prepared to commute.

The idea of separate trigger distances for different parts of the crofting counties was briefly considered but rightly rejected as overly bureaucratic and unworkable. However, I remain concerned that an as-the-crow-flies judgment on the distance that might suggest that a crofter is technically absent is less easy to make in island communities, particularly in the absence of causeways or direct ferry links.

I acknowledge that Shetland and the Western Isles may be less affected by that than Orkney, but I invite the minister to offer what reassurances she can that the commission will be alive to the risks and will have mechanisms that might enable cases in my constituency to be picked up, even if the 32km trigger has not been activated.

I move amendment 175.

Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

Although I share Liam McArthur's concerns over the problem of distance in island situations and support his views, I suspect that his anxiety is unnecessary—I certainly hope so—in as much as the crofting commission will have discretion in all situations anyway.

The arbitrary 32km for which we have all plumped is only a trigger, and I certainly expect the commission to be understanding about crofters being ordinarily resident in island situations, such as those that Mr McArthur describes.

Photo of Roseanna Cunningham Roseanna Cunningham Scottish National Party

Amendments 175 and 178 propose that the Scottish ministers be able to specify by order islands for which the duty of tenant and owner-occupier crofters to reside on the croft or within 32km of it should be replaced by a reference to being ordinarily resident on the island.

The Government fully recognises the unique position of islands, and I fully expect the commission to take island situations into account when considering cases where crofters live more than 32km from their crofts. For example, if a crofter lives more than 50km away from the croft as the crow flies and 30km of that is across the sea, but he regularly goes by boat to work his croft, that would be something for the commission to take into account in considering whether to grant consent for the crofter to be absent.

However, Liam McArthur's amendments do not address that. They would simply allow ministers to exempt certain islands from the residency requirement. Therefore, I am not convinced that they would achieve what he might have intended; instead, the door might be opened to permitting absenteeism on large islands, where it should be tackled. The 32km residency requirement is a trigger for the commission to consider whether there are any issues relating to the absence that need to be addressed. The commission will retain the flexibility to consider each situation in which a person is outwith the residency distance.

I hope that that reassurance is sufficient for Liam McArthur to withdraw amendment 175.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

The minister is entirely wrong: the amendments have achieved a purpose. I welcome her reassurance that the commission will have the utmost flexibility in taking account of situations in island areas. I know that John Scott raised the issue at stage 2, and I welcome his comments. However, in light of what the minister had to say, I do not propose to press either amendment in the group.

Amendment 175, by agreement, withdrawn.

Photo of Trish Godman Trish Godman Labour

We move to group 9. Amendment 65, in the name of the minister, is grouped with amendments 176, 68 and 177.

Photo of Roseanna Cunningham Roseanna Cunningham Scottish National Party

Amendments 65 and 68 respond to an issue that Peter Peacock raised at stage 2. They replace the requirement for tenant and owner-occupier crofters to cultivate or put to another purposeful use every part of the croft with a requirement that every part of the croft that is capable of being cultivated or put to another purposeful use is put to such use. That means that areas that obviously cannot be put to such use—for example, there may be a large rock in the middle of the croft—may reasonably be excluded. Of course, any use that the croft is put to is always subject to any overriding statutory protections.

I am happy to add my name to the list of supporters of amendments 176 and 177, as I recognise that the intention is to safeguard suitable environments for corncrakes. I have no difficulties with that.

I move amendment 65.

Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

Amendments 176 and 177 seek to remove the control or eradication of irises from the measures considered in the context of the separate duty to keep the croft in a fit state of cultivation. I welcome the support of Peter Peacock and Liam McArthur on the matter. My aim is to help to preserve corncrake-friendly habitats. I also welcome the support of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Perhaps I should have gone further by seeking to preserve whins and rushes where appropriate, as they can also provide important habitats for other farmland birds as well as corncrakes.

I am also not certain whether the preservation of such bird and vegetation species will be regarded as putting crofts to purposeful use. Perhaps the minister could explain the position on that and how the proposals in the bill are to be reconciled with the Government's current conservation policy.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

I take the rare opportunity to thank the minister for lodging her amendments on the cultivation of crofts. I agree with her. The clarification is helpful. I also thank her for accepting John Scott's amendment on the cultivation of irises for the reasons that she has given. I welcome that acceptance.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat

A feature of the scrutiny process is that we get to stage 2 and then rattle through to stage 3. Some of us have had misgivings about that with respect to not just the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Bill, but the Flood Risk Management (Scotland) Bill and the Marine (Scotland) Bill. Such an approach has its risks, not least in limiting the scope for establishing in more detail the implications of amendments that are often perfectly well intentioned, but which would benefit from a more considered kicking of the tyres. I have had a hand in lodging around 70 stage 3 amendments to this bill, so I recognise that I am on rather shaky ground in that respect.

Shaky—not to mention aggressively strimmed—ground is what the yellow iris would have found itself on had not the beady eye of someone in the RSPB spotted its bracketing with vermin and harmful weeds as things to be summarily eradicated. I understand that the iris's guilt by association was inherited from previous legislation. I confirm my support for amendments 176 and 177, in John Scott's name, and seek reassurance from the minister that what the bill proposes will have no bearing on those who have been in receipt of grants over the years that were in part aimed at cultivating the growth of irises for biodiversity purposes.

Photo of Roseanna Cunningham Roseanna Cunningham Scottish National Party

I do not think that there is anything that I can usefully add at this point. I will come back to John Scott and Liam McArthur on the specific issues that they have raised.

Amendment 65 agreed to.

Amendment 176 moved—[John Scott]—and agreed to.

Amendments 66 and 67 moved—[Roseanna Cunningham]—and agreed to.