Amendment 1 would oblige crofters to make an annual declaration that they are complying with the duties set out in part 3 of the bill. My hope is that that will encourage crofters to carry out their duties and thereby reduce neglect. Further, it would provide intelligence on cases that might require investigation and failure to return a completed and signed form might trigger such an investigation. In addition to ensuring that a croft is being put to purposeful use by an owner-occupier, amendment 1 would also oblige short or long-term tenants to use their croft purposefully. Failure to return the form annually and to abide by the declaration made therein might also attract a range of penalties, such as a fine not exceeding level 1 on the standard scale—that is to say, up to £200—which is a similar sanction to that in the Agriculture Act 1947 for the non-return of the agricultural census form.
I will support Rob Gibson's and Elaine Murray's amendments, which further seek to encourage purposeful use of crofts.
I move amendment 1.
The committee was concerned about how suspected breaches of duty in respect of absenteeism and neglect might be progressed. For example, when we were in Sutherland we heard about a crofter who was aware of neglected crofts in her township
"a private detective agency ... inspecting 18,000 crofts at regular intervals".—[Official Report, Rural Affairs and Environment Committee, 23 February 2010; c 2459.]
There were three amendments on the issue at stage 2—from me, John Scott and Rob Gibson—none of which was mutually exclusive. Indeed, our amendments today are not mutually exclusive either. The minister was sympathetic to the intentions of all three amendments but had reservations about the wording, so they were withdrawn to allow the members to discuss with the bill team how they might be progressed. I am grateful to the bill team for revised amendments 74 and 75, which I hope will now receive the minister's support.
Amendment 74 would place a duty on the commission to investigate a suspected breach of duty reported in writing by a grazings committee, grazings constable, assessor or member of the crofting community in which the croft is situated, unless it considers that the complaint is frivolous or vexatious. Amendment 75 is a consequential technical amendment.
John Scott's amendment 1 would require crofters to provide the commission annually with information. At stage 2, John Scott suggested that that could be tied in with the agricultural census. That was a neat solution, but it has not survived into his stage 3 amendment. Nevertheless, I am happy to support amendments 1 and 87 as well as my amendments 74 and 75.
The belief that at the heart of the bill is the need to tackle neglect and absenteeism has led Elaine Murray, John Scott and me to try to provide an opportunity for people who live in the crofting communities to take responsibility for ensuring that the Crofters Commission is left in no doubt about the problems.
In evidence to the committee, the commission said that it saw the potential for substantial misuse and neglect, because about 14,000 of the 18,000 crofts are occupied and between 8,000 and 10,000 are worked. About 5,000 apply for integrated administration and control system agricultural support. The problem of neglect may be widespread.
We have mentioned the extremely detailed report from Camuscross, which was not agreed to by every member of the community there. It is important to find a way to trigger the production of such reports in a simple form on
"the condition of the common grazing ... the condition of every croft of a crofter sharing in the grazing ... the condition of every owner-occupied croft of an owner-occupier crofter sharing in the grazing" and
"any other matter the Commission may require."
My amendment 87 would trigger such a report every five years—that differs from the previous approach. It is important to add the proposed mechanism to allow people to discuss locally the way forward to avoid neglect in the future.
The cherished view of the land leaguers of the 19th century was to ensure that every productive piece of land was put to good use and placed at the disposal of those who were able and willing to till the land, as Alexander Mackenzie said in the 1880s.
Today, our aim is to have active crofting. The active crofters to whom I have talked believe that such reports will help with that process. I urge members to support amendment 87 and the other three amendments in the group.
I echo the comments of Rob Gibson, Elaine Murray and John Scott. The amendments go to the heart of what we have sought to do throughout the bill. With few exceptions, people take the view that the commission should be empowered and properly resourced to deal more proactively with issues of absenteeism and neglect.
At stage 2, all three amendments on the subject suffered from shortcomings, all of which have been addressed at stage 3, so we will support all the amendments in the group. I encourage the minister to keep the measures under review. They go to the heart of what we seek to achieve.
I congratulate the three members on their wise and well-drafted amendments, with which I agree totally. Each member has explained the intent and purpose of their amendments clearly. I take on board Liam McArthur's comments, and I urge Parliament to support all the amendments in the group.
Amendment 1 agreed to.