Crofting Reform (Scotland) Bill

– in the Scottish Parliament at 2:15 pm on 1st July 2010.

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Photo of Alasdair Morgan Alasdair Morgan Scottish National Party 2:15 pm, 1st July 2010

The next item of business is a debate on motion S3M-6605, in the name of Roseanna Cunningham, on the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Bill.

Photo of Roseanna Cunningham Roseanna Cunningham Scottish National Party 2:55 pm, 1st July 2010

I note that the excitement of this morning was not sufficient to encourage everybody to come flooding back into the chamber this afternoon to see what more excitement we could offer.

It has been a long and sometimes difficult journey to get to this point. The bill will not solve every single one of the challenges that crofting faces, because no piece of legislation could ever do that. Market forces and support mechanisms have a big impact on crofting, and we must continue to do what we can to ensure that crofting continues to provide opportunities for those who live in our remote and rural communities.

What the legislation will do is ensure that we have a governance structure for the crofting commission that reflects and responds to the people whom it regulates. It will ensure that we have a proper and comprehensive register of land held in crofting tenure, which will remove doubt over the boundaries of croft land and the interests in that land. It will require decisive action to be taken to address the blight of widespread absenteeism, neglect and misuse, and it will curb the speculation that threatens the very sustainability of crofting. The combination of those provisions sets a framework for crofting to prosper and to provide a model for sustainable rural development.

I pay tribute to some of those who have helped us to get to this point. First, I thank the committee of inquiry on crofting, which took on the challenge of developing a vision for the future of crofting following the passage of the Crofting Reform etc Act 2007.

I also thank the crofters who have engaged with the process all the way along, even if there was rarely a point at which their views were unanimous. The Crofters Commission, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, the Registers of Scotland and local authorities have also contributed to the development of the legislation, as have officials in the Parliament and the Government, who have worked tirelessly to give us a bill that reflects our aspirations. Finally, I thank the members of various committees, particularly the members of the Rural Affairs and Environment Committee, for their consideration.

I have been fortunate enough to see for myself the benefits that crofting delivers. Those include strong communities that are bound together by a collective effort to work the land and contribute to one another's welfare; the innovation of crofters and the contribution that they make to the economic vitality of the Highlands and Islands; the remarkable landscape, environment and hospitality in those parts of our nation that we can all enjoy as a consequence of their work; and the vibrant Gaelic culture in the west and the strong Nordic culture in the north that add to the cultural diversity of this great country.

Those are all consistent with the Government's purpose, and reflect the national outcomes that we seek to deliver. However, crofting has been under threat from those whose concern is not the welfare of those communities, and whose motives are sometimes driven purely by personal gain.

That is why we must act now to address speculation, to tackle absenteeism, neglect and misuse, and to ensure that crofts once again provide people with the opportunity to live on and work the land. There has been much debate on the issue of a crofting register, but I firmly believe that a clear, map-based and legal register of land held in crofting tenure is a must in order to safeguard crofting. Otherwise, the disputes that cause anguish to crofting communities will continue and possibly increase as knowledge of croft boundaries is lost. I will go so far as to say that in a few years' time, when the crofting register is up and running, people will look back and wonder what all the fuss was about.

I will take up some of the issues that were raised this morning. John Scott asked whether consideration had been given to removing whins and rushes, as well as iris, from the list of things to which the commission should have regard when it considers whether the crofter is keeping the land in a fit state for cultivation. Although I bow to his much greater knowledge of managing agricultural land, our view is that failure to manage whins and rushes in a balanced way will lead to their getting out of control and land becoming unfit for cultivation and positive species management. With regard to whins, a monoculture is not acceptable in relation to eligibility for the single farm payment.

Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

Is there not a conflict with the Scottish Government's conservation policy and European directives on maintaining habitats, in particular for specific species of birds?

Photo of Roseanna Cunningham Roseanna Cunningham Scottish National Party

We do not see any conflict with those. I indicated that we are talking about things getting out of control and said that there is an issue with the SFP as well. The matter may be more complicated than a minute or two in the chamber allows us to explore. If John Scott has continuing concerns, we can continue to have dialogue on them.

Elaine Murray asked this morning whether the Crofters Commission had ever invoked Crown immunity. We have no evidence that it has ever done so, and I am still not clear exactly what she thinks the commission might be seeking Crown immunity from.

Photo of Roseanna Cunningham Roseanna Cunningham Scottish National Party

I want to press on.

On the extension of the franchise to partners, it is notable that two of the three quotations that I read out this morning were from women, one of whom is a registered crofter.

The Crofters Commission faces a new dawn and a new opportunity as the crofting commission. I have started the process of setting its sights firmly on the business of regulation and on ensuring that crofts are occupied and used. The Crofters Commission has received much criticism over the years, but the truth is that, in some cases, it simply has not had the right tools. It has never been required to hold maps of crofts and has never had a duty to tackle absenteeism and neglect.

Today, we can change that. We can have a democratically accountable commission that has a duty, and the powers that it needs, to tackle speculation, absenteeism and neglect. We can establish a new and meaningful crofting register. Through that, we can grow crofting and make it the future and not the past.

I commend the bill to Parliament.

I move,

That the Parliament agrees that the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Bill be passed.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour 3:02 pm, 1st July 2010

In the previous parliamentary session, we debated crofting legislation but could not achieve consensus on key matters. However, we managed to make progress and legislate on new crofts. Today, three years into this parliamentary session, we are able to address some unfinished crofting business.

There has been extensive debate, not only in the committee but throughout the crofting counties. I add my thanks to the organisations that Roseanna Cunningham mentioned. They put in many hours of discussion and debate to help us to come to our conclusions.

In particular, I thank those witnesses who came to Edinburgh or made representations to us directly in their own communities. I offer particular thanks to the crofters who made us feel welcome in their communities for debating with us the principle and detail of the proposals, telling it like it really is on the ground and being prepared to take us round the boundaries that have been the subject of so much debate.

The Labour Party welcomes elements of the bill, such as the plans to democratise the commission, new minor powers for the commission and tweaks to planning for inby land. We appreciate that, on some details, the minister has been prepared to accept amendments when we have made a case for change. I thank her for that.

We agree that absenteeism and neglect are both major problems. We need to act on absenteeism, but I point out that not all absenteeism is a problem, and we need real sensitivity in relation to how the provisions are implemented. One size does not fit all crofting communities. We need the expertise and judgment of the assessors, who understand the crofting communities and the detail that will be crucial in implementing the bill.

We need action from the commission on neglect. Neglect blights land that has the potential to be worked, which is bad news for local crofting economies, landscapes and biodiversity. We are keen to support action on the neglect provisions.

However, the bill gets it wrong on some of the fundamentals. Because there are elements that we cannot support, we cannot support the bill as it has ended up before us today, although we will not vote it down.

I said that we supported the proposals to democratise the commission, but this morning, Labour members were appalled by the way in which the minister completely ignored the points that Karen Gillon made in speaking out against the unfairness of the representation mechanisms for electing the commission. Shame on the Scottish National Party and the Tories for voting down gender equality.

My committee colleagues have worked hard to persuade the minister to accept our views on the register, and we have worked hard to ensure that the crofters' voices were heard loud and clear. The problem is that although crofters have been given an audience, their concerns have not been acted on. We believe that the bill provides for an expensive and cumbersome system of double registration. Crofters understand the double tagging of sheep; now they find that they are to be double registered. The priority should have been to focus on community mapping so that all parties could sit around the table to ensure that common sense and common interest prevail. The process should be a community process that builds on the strengths of crofting and our crofting communities, rather than one that sends those communities down an even more litigious, expensive and time-consuming route.

I have seen the boundaries that will be contested. It is not just about where a line is drawn on a map; it is about how the land is used by crofters, the times of the year that they are allowed to access that land, and being in line with the principle that crofters need to be able to work the land.

A key principle of legislation is that it should not make things worse. Unfortunately, the double register will do precisely that. That is why I give a pledge that, if Labour is returned to government next year, we will carefully consider what can be done to sort out the mess that we believe the part of the bill that I am talking about will cause.

We are in a recession, and all members know that money will be incredibly tight across the public and private sectors. Let us not waste precious Scottish Government resources and crofter money and resources on a dangerous distraction. I give a pledge that Labour will focus on the fundamentals: the economics of crofting; its viability, which we have consistently campaigned for in opposition; and a more joined-up approach between Government agencies that helps crofters, not one that makes their lives harder. In government, we would have the chance to act to support crofting as a way of life in our most fragile rural communities. That is why we will today let through on to the statute book the very modest improvements in the parts of the bill that we have said that we are happy to support. However, I lay down a marker. We will come back to and reconsider the legislation. We will closely monitor the costly and cumbersome double registration scheme that the minister has put in the bill, and we will do whatever is necessary to stop it damaging crofting.

Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative 3:07 pm, 1st July 2010

I declare an interest as a farmer and a member of NFU Scotland.

I thank the committee clerks, the Scottish Parliament information centre and all those who gave evidence or helped in any other way with the creation and passage of the bill.

Today, we are considering a bill that will, I hope, secure the future of crofting in Scotland. Crofting is a way of life that I have admired and supported for many years. It keeps people living in communities in our most remote and fragile areas. In other circumstances, most families would have left those areas generations ago.

Until 10 years ago, I lived and worked on a remote hill farm. I admire the sheer tenacity of crofters in supplementing their living from their croft, and know that what they do is about cherishing family connections with the land, often for little or no financial gain. I understand the passion that runs in their blood. I understand their pride in what they do, in how they support their families and in how they preserve their communities in the face of remoteness and extreme weather conditions. I support what they do and hope that the bill that we pass today will secure the future of crofting for generations to come. I do not, I regret to say, share Sarah Boyack's downbeat assessment of the bill; nor do I welcome the threat of another crofting bill without allowing the provisions in the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Bill to bed in.

We have shaped the new crofting commission into a much more democratic regulatory body and have given it significant powers to address positively almost any situation that crofting faces now or in the future. We have given it as much discretion as possible, and have always borne in mind the need to modernise crofting and make the legislation fit for purpose in the 21st century. That approach was singularly lacking in the piece of legislation that the previous Government introduced.

Map-based registration will provide owner-occupiers with certainty about what they own and tenants with certainty about what they croft as tenants. The register will be held by the keeper of the registers of Scotland, and will, over time, provide accurate titles to all crofts in Scotland and bring crofting into line with property in every other property register in Scotland.

We have equalised the grant structure, which will encourage owner-occupation of crofts throughout Scotland and be in the best interests of crofters in the long term. We have sought to address the problem of absenteeism and neglect in what I hope is as fair a way as possible, doubling the distance criterion to 32km, with ultimate discretion on absenteeism resting with the commission. We have tried hard to address neglect in as fair a way as possible and I am optimistic that the self-certification process introduced by an amendment in my name today will encourage better maintenance of crofts in Scotland.

From my farming experience I know that making and signing an annual declaration that one is farming in a good agricultural and environmental condition scheme-compliant way certainly encourages one to do that. I hope that the annual declaration that crofters will be obliged to make in future—that they are putting their crofts to purposeful use—will also encourage other crofters to do that. The amendments lodged by Elaine Murray and Rob Gibson that were agreed to today will also encourage crofters to put their holdings to purposeful use. We have also closed the Whitbread v Macdonald loophole and extended from five to 10 years the period in which a consideration is payable in respect of a disposal of croft land.

Finally, and perhaps most dramatically of all, the new crofting commission will in large part have a democratically elected board, which will introduce accountability to an extent hitherto unknown for the commission. That democratic accountability will revitalise and reinvigorate the crofting commission in its newly defined role and I for one look forward to the outcome of the first election to the commission.

Given the time, commitment and passion that we have put into the bill, which we all hope will secure the future of crofting, all that remains is for it to be passed at decision time this afternoon. Thereafter, I hope that crofters will take up the opportunities offered to them in the new act and I look forward to seeing a positive transformation of the crofting communities over time.

Photo of Liam McArthur Liam McArthur Liberal Democrat 3:11 pm, 1st July 2010

As the minister wryly acknowledged, today has provided further evidence that even in the most innocuous of circumstances, crofting can throw up controversy. Perhaps the only surprise is that Roseanna Cunningham has forever cast herself in the role of the girl who cannot say no.

I offer the minister my genuine congratulations on steering the bill through Parliament. As she acknowledged, it has not always been an easy process to manage. When I referred earlier to the toxic legacy left to Ms Cunningham by her predecessor, Mike Russell, my remarks were met with a loud bellow of disapproval. On turning round, I realised that the loud bellow had been emitted by said Mr Russell, whose rough wooing of the crofting counties led to a draft bill that was roundly condemned by crofters in all parts.

To be fair, Roseanna Cunningham has adopted a far more pragmatic approach and agreed to jettison many of the most unworkable provisions—with one glaring exception, to which I will come shortly. First, like others, I acknowledge the contribution made by those who provided evidence during our scrutiny of the bill, particularly those whom we met during our visits, and I thank them for their invaluable insights and peerless hospitality. Thanks also go to the clerks and SPICe for their support, our adviser Derek Flyn, and my committee colleagues.

I suggested at stage 1 that we were all perhaps a little guilty of referring to crofters, crofting and the crofting counties in a way that did not reflect fully the differences between different crofters and the different crofting counties. The minister was absolutely right to acknowledge that regulation alone will not secure the future of crofting. In Caithness, for example, what happens after Dounreay is critical to whether many existing crofts can be sustained. Add to that the on-going debate about the future of the common agricultural policy and how support schemes are to be funded and directed in future, and one will find many crofters arguing strongly that those issues are more fundamental to the future viability of crofting. Nevertheless, regulation has a role to play and we must ensure that it is a positive one. As an amendment agreed to this morning made clear, crofting has been and remains a critical means of retaining and sustaining populations in some of our most remote communities.

I turn to some of the specifics of the bill. Although it was not difficult to find those critical of the commission, there was a general sense that the commission was key to safeguarding crofting in the future. A more democratically accountable commission is essential and I am pleased that that has been secured, with a greater likelihood that the commissioners will be left free to select their own chair. Anyone will be able to stand for election as long as they are nominated by a registered crofter and elections will sensibly be fought under a proportional system—all welcome provisions. By contrast, this morning saw a shoddy betrayal of an earlier commitment to extend the franchise for those elections. I can do no better than echo the outrage expressed by Karen Gillon about John Scott's decision to backtrack on his earlier support for such an extension.

The task facing whoever is elected or appointed to the commission by whatever means is not inconsiderable. Tackling issues of neglect and/or absenteeism will be key. Today, Parliament agreed to three amendments that will assist in ensuring not only that evidence and information are brought to the commission's attention but that the commission will be under a duty to act on that information.

The Government's insistence on pressing ahead with a map-based register is highly regrettable. Crofters think that that costly and burdensome exercise offers them no value. The Government has estimated the register's capital cost to be about £1.5 million, the set-up costs to be £250,000 and the on-going costs, which crofters will bear, to be about £100,000 a year.

The case for the proposal was never particularly strong. As I said this morning, in the current climate—in which the Government will be expected to make savings across the board—the pursuit of such a register verges on reckless. Many objectives that the Government seeks to achieve through its costly register would be secured by extending and expanding the scope of community-based mapping, which has the benefit of being less confrontational, more inclusive and more comprehensive. If disputes remained, the Scottish Land Court would continue to be an arbiter of last resort.

I again offer the minister my sincere congratulations on piloting the bill through Parliament, but I make it clear that my Liberal Democrat colleagues and I cannot support a bill that establishes the proposed register.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party 3:16 pm, 1st July 2010

It is a statement of the obvious but, as other members have said, legislation alone will not be sufficient to guarantee that crofting survives as a way of life. Legislation is a necessary condition, but it is not sufficient.

It seems a long time since the previous Scottish Executive appointed Professor Shucksmith's committee of inquiry into crofting. Much in the Shucksmith report was of value, but the report and the draft crofting reform (Scotland) bill that followed it contained some proposals that were unworkable. I am not alone in having spent much of the past year lobbying for many provisions in the draft bill to be changed. Forthright public meetings and conversations with innumerable individual crofters in my community reinforced to me the point that large sections of the draft bill were—if I may put it like this—of little use to man or beast.

The substantial response to the Government's consultation did not offer a unanimous view, but it is clear that it influenced the Government's decision to alter the bill substantially before it was introduced. The most contentious proposed sections—those on area committees, residency requirements and standard securities—were not in the bill as introduced. After much amendment, the bill as it stands concentrates on addressing speculation and dereliction, keeping inby land in crofting and ensuring that the crofting commission is more democratic and effective.

I take the opportunity to seek assurances from the minister on two points that constituents still raise with me. In the light of this morning's debate, what is the Government doing to bring down further any costs and fees that crofters might incur in relation to the register of crofts? Will the Government say more about its re-examination of the support that is provided for crofter housing?

Having an inadequate house continues to be a major obstacle to many crofters.

I am sure that, for my urban colleagues, the vast number of amendments to the bill today had all the appeal of a large cloud of midges, but they were important to my constituents and they all made substantial contributions to the debate. We might not agree with all the amendments that were made today but, after the marathon that the bill process has been, it should come as little surprise to hear the minister say that the chances of any Government legislating on crofting in the foreseeable future are slim.

Let us all be honest with ourselves as we approach decision time. Another crofting reform bill is not just around the next corner. If we do not pass the bill at 5 o'clock, no elections to the crofting commission will take place. Without the bill, no action will be taken to protect crofting land from the worst effects of speculation; no measures will be taken to reverse the infamous Taynuilt or Whitbread precedents, which have done much to take inby land out of crofting use; and the commission's role in dealing with absenteeism and neglect will not be clarified.

Of course the bill will not please everyone in every respect. I have mentioned issues on which the Government has still some way to go to reassure crofters. However, now that all the studies, the reports, the consultation and the amendments are over, the Parliament has a duty to act tonight. Some of our differences have been genuine; some have—no doubt—been manufactured. Regardless of that, we have a duty quietly to lay those differences aside and to get on with the task in hand. The task, which will require much more than legislation, is giving crofting a future.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour 3:19 pm, 1st July 2010

While crofting undoubtedly faces many challenges, I fear that the bill will do little to help it to meet them. At root, the challenges that face crofting are economic not regulatory. With the passage of every successive bill on crofting, it is almost inevitable that regulation becomes more complex. In part, and in this instance, the bill—for example, in being tougher on absenteeism and neglect—seeks a regulatory action to what is essentially an economic question. If crofting provided more of a living and there were more economic strength and diversity in our crofting areas, we would probably not need to debate absenteeism.

Neglect may be associated with absenteeism, but it may also have different roots. That said, crofting remains a remarkable feature of the life of the Highlands and Islands. Crofting demonstrates a deep attachment to the land. It is born of many historical reasons, including the investment of many generations in the improvement of the land and in making a real contribution to the local economy. If we really want to support crofting, we should spend less time legislating and more time addressing economic development. We need more resources targeted on the really less favoured areas, using agricultural support, rural development mechanisms and support for housing. We also need more joined-up rural development policy and the greater decentralisation of jobs in the economy. The bill will add little to that.

At one level, the bill will possibly be disruptive. I refer to the costly and bureaucratic new crofting register—a second register that will take over 40 years to complete. It will cause unnecessary dispute for the reasons that I have set out often enough before. It is unnecessary for the regulation of crofting, destined to change attitudes and takes an approach to crofting that encourages individualism and discourages a communitarian approach. John Scott amply demonstrated that in his speech.

The minister may argue that the changes are rooted in the changes of the 1970s that allowed owner occupation. She may be right about that. However, the new register, together with the changes to croft grant entitlement, will drive the change yet further. Indeed, the register looks designed to aid a vision of crofting that is rooted in title to land and a free market in crofts.

Photo of Peter Peacock Peter Peacock Labour

I am sorry, but I cannot.

The provisions in the bill will democratise the crofting commission, even if only partially. As a democrat, it is impossible for me to resist moves towards an element of democratic elections to the commission. That said, although democratically elected crofters may replace appointed crofters, they will implement the same law and operate under the same legal advice. The scope for discretion will be relatively small. If the democratically elected commission had been given a role in the development of crofting where wide discretion exists, a real difference may have been made. That would have allowed crofters to address the economic questions that I touched on earlier. Alas, they are not to be allowed that role. Beyond that, and although helpful, the toughening of the provisions for absenteeism and neglect will stand for very little if the commission does not have the resources to take action. As we heard in evidence, the commission is not being funded to add to what it does already.

There are, of course, provisions that will add to the commission's ability to act in certain circumstances. I refer to the provisions for its plan, to which the Scottish Land Court may have regard and which offers additional options. In addition, there are the provisions for the refusal of decrofting applications, even where planning consent exists, and the changes to planning and presumptions about inby land. All that has a contribution to make.

Like other members, I suspect that we will not see another crofting bill for some time. That will come as a great relief to future members of the Rural Affairs and Environment Committee. It is possibly also a blessing for crofters. Future Parliaments would do well to address the deep and enduring economic challenges that people in many parts of our crofting counties face. Until those challenges are met, there is little that legislation can do other than impose more complexity, regulation, bureaucracy and cost on crofters. The bill exemplifies all those features. If it passes on to the statute book, it could be held up as a warning, not an example.

Photo of Maureen Watt Maureen Watt Scottish National Party 3:23 pm, 1st July 2010

Although members may have thought that the stage 3 proceedings this morning were rushed, as convener of the Rural Affairs and Environment Committee, I assure the Parliament and all those with an interest in crofting that the committee scrutinised the bill thoroughly. Indeed, crofters have written to me to thank the committee for coming to see them in Shetland, Caithness and Sutherland and the Western Isles and for discussing the bill with them. That is also the case for all the stakeholders who have been totally involved throughout the process.

Members of the Labour party, against the advice of most respondents, did not agree to the need for a map-based register. The committee also saw robust debate in many other areas and reached broad agreement on many of them. I commend the minister for taking on board many of the committee's suggestions and for getting the bill to this stage.

I, too, put on record my thanks to the committee clerks and staff, and to the staff of SPICe, who put in so much work to assist the committee. My thanks also go to our very knowledgeable adviser, Derek Flyn, and to my committee colleagues for all their work.

The passage of the bill tonight will signal the Government's long-term commitment to crofting and its future. Although, as members have said, the bill alone will not secure the future of crofting, it provides a clear commitment that the crofting commission, with a partly elected board, will have a duty to get on with the job of tackling absenteeism and neglect, while allowing those who clearly wish to live in the area and work the land for their own and the community's benefit to do so.

The crofting commission will have to prioritise its work—the Crofters Commission has itself said so—but, under the bill, the commission will be given a clear steer to get on with that work, and it will be monitored closely by both the Parliament and the Government.

I look forward to seeing the Scottish statutory instruments relating to the elections. They, too, will be closely scrutinised, as the Government still has some work to do in that regard. It will also be interesting to watch how local planning applications on inby land and common grazings will be handled.

You will appreciate, Deputy Presiding Officer, that as the committee went round the country and held its meetings, I was struck by the great degree of optimism in the rural sector, as participants monitor their costs and consider new ways to use the land to maximise their income. The sheep and cattle that come off the crofts are key in getting food from the hill to the lowlands, and to the plates of our citizens.

The window for the community mapping of crofts provides a mechanism for crofters to come together on that and other matters that affect their communities, and that can only be for the long-term good.

Sarah Boyack is correct to say that assessors will have a more important role in the future, highlighting the uses and abuses of crofts in their area.

All aspects of the bill will provide crofting with a future, and I urge members to support the bill at 5 pm.

Photo of Jamie Stone Jamie Stone Liberal Democrat 3:27 pm, 1st July 2010

It has been an extremely long road. I am not a member of the Rural Affairs and Environment Committee, but I see that all the same. My thanks go to colleagues in all parties, who have worked extremely hard on this issue both this session and during the previous session. I extend my personal thanks to the many crofters, together with their families and other interested parties in my constituency in the far north of Scotland, who have taken the time and trouble to speak to me and write to me about the proposed legislation. I am keenly aware of the sheer detail that lies before me and everyone else. It is a very complex subject, as many other speakers have said.

I start from the first principle of the sheer fragility of crofting in areas such as my constituency. Liam McArthur mentioned the challenge that is posed post-Dounreay decommissioning. If we do not have economic back-up to underpin crofting, we can envisage a depopulation of the straths and the glens in the future.

I acknowledge the contribution that crofting makes to communities and to the local economy—including hauliers and the people who build fences, for example. Crucially, there is also the contribution of crofting to tourism, which I do not think other members have mentioned. Tourists will come to the straths to see working crofts, and it is a bonnie sight and a great sell to the rest of the world. I would be foolish to let the debate pass without mentioning, in due and ancient form, the very good-quality food that is produced on our crofts. There is nothing better than fine blackface lamb, I can tell you.

I turn now to members' contributions from both the earlier part of the day and this afternoon. The Minister for Environment, Roseanna Cunningham, referred to the structure of the Crofters Commission being reorganised, and that is one of the strong points of the bill. Although I regret the issue that Karen Gillon so eloquently highlighted, it is a flaw. It is a pity that John Scott decided to do what he did. A weakness remains there. Nevertheless, democracy is being introduced to the new crofting commission, and that must be a step in the right direction.

I acknowledge what Peter Peacock said about the commission's development function. I, too, regret that that function lies where it does today; that is a fundamental weakness. It is perhaps not a matter for crofting legislation, but I am certain that, in a future session of the Parliament—when I will not be a member—that will have to be examined.

It is crucial that Karen Gillon's amendment on population retention was agreed to, as its approach echoes what I have already said about communities such as those in my constituency.

The key thing that greatly troubles me and, indeed, others about the bill is that, although I have received many comments and letters from crofters, I have had not one representation about the map-based register. As Sarah Boyack said, it is not just about lines on maps; it is, as Liam McArthur was quite right to point out, about the cost of it all. The register is a huge problem. Two constituents of mine, Iain and Netta MacKenzie from Elphin in west Sutherland, have pointed out to me that one can already get the information on the maps; indeed, under a freedom of information request, they managed to get a 95 per cent accurate map from the Crofters Commission.

I regret, therefore, that the chamber was not able to muster enough votes to agree to the amendments lodged by Peter Peacock and Liam McArthur. I certainly believe that the issue will have to be revisited. Members might shrug at the thought of having to go back and revisit legislation, but the Parliament in the next session will at the very least have to carry out post-legislative scrutiny, which might or might not lead to further legislation. The register is a ticking time bomb and I fear for that reason, if for no other, my party can under no circumstances support the bill. The test is whether legislation will make things better or worse for crofters; my fear is that the land-based register and its associated costs will make things worse. I hope that I am proved wrong, but I fear that I will not be.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative 3:31 pm, 1st July 2010

I refer members to my farming interests in the register of members' interests and inform the chamber that I am a member and vice-convener of the cross-party group on crofting.

I am pleased to close for the Scottish Conservatives in this stage 3 debate. Like other members, I thank all those who provided briefings for today's debate and for previous debates, including SPICe's Tom Edwards, and the members and clerks of the Rural Affairs and Environment Committee for their efforts.

The crofting register has become perhaps the most contentious issue in the latter stages of the bill's passage. Both in the past and in recent weeks I have had numerous conversations on the subject with individual crofting constituents and representatives of the Scottish Crofting Federation—Eleanor Arthur, Norman Leask, Patrick Krause, Neil Macleod, Donald Linton, Murdo MacLennan, Drew Ratter and Becky Shaw, to name but a few—and I thank them all for their time and for giving me their expertise with regard to the ocean of crofting legislation.

As my colleague and friend John Scott has already indicated, the Rural Affairs and Environment Committee received conflicting advice on the development of a map-based crofting register but, on balance, the evidence suggested that such a register would be in the best long-term interests of crofters and crofting, so we have decided to proceed on that basis. We acknowledge that concerns remain and will continue to put pressure on ministers to engage fully with the issues and ensure that cost considerations are the utmost priority.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

I will come back to the member in a moment.

I also restate the fact that, from the Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Acts of 1886 and 1887 to the Transfer of Crofting Estates (Scotland) Act 1997, the Scottish Conservatives have a proud record of supporting our crofters, and the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 remains the principal statute in crofting law. I might add that that record stands in stark contrast to the efforts of the previous Labour and Liberal Democrat coalition Government in Scotland, whose Crofting Reform etc (Scotland) Act 2007 was passed only after chaotic scenes in the chamber. Of course it was the same Executive that initiated the Shucksmith inquiry that ultimately led to the bill being debated this afternoon.

I am glad that my friend John Scott's amendment 176 was agreed to, as it ensures that flag irises are not classed as weeds and recognises their value to corncrakes. The seilisdeir, as it is called in Gaelic, has a beautiful yellow flower and is glorified both in song and in poetry. Moreover, Mr Scott's amendment with regard to self-certification will improve crofting land.

I say to Karen Gillon that some of the finest crofters I have ever met are women. Many's the time I have visited Ena McNeill, the former president of the Scottish Crofters Union, at her North Uist home and have been spoiled by the delicious slow-matured Highland beef that she and her son Angus Macdonald rear on their crofts.

I could take an intervention from Karen Gillon now, if I am allowed.

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour

How many of the many crofters that Jamie McGrigor said he has spoken to asked for a land-based register such as the one that the bill creates?

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

They did not ask me specifically for a land-based register. I am rather surprised that you should ask me that question, since it was your party that initiated the consultation and the Shucksmith report in the first place. I beg your pardon, Presiding Officer. I should not say "you"; I should say "the member".

In conclusion, many of us hope that the bill will be the final piece of crofting legislation that is thought to be necessary for many years to come. Let us now move forward, working in partnership with crofters, to focus on the big, vital challenges of halting and reversing the decline in livestock numbers on our remote hills and especially the islands, and ensuring that crofting has a sustainable future in modern Scotland.

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour 3:35 pm, 1st July 2010

Consideration of the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Bill was a steep but thoroughly enjoyable learning curve for me and many other members of the committee. I think that many of my colleagues in the Parliament found this morning more enjoyable than they expected it to be.

I associate myself with the thanks that others have expressed, and I pay particular tribute to Peter McGrath and Tracey White, who have spent many hours in the past few weeks sending people final amendments. They have done a sterling job to ensure that we were able to have the debate that we had this morning. I also thank the crofters across Scotland who hosted our many visits, which we all found enjoyable and informative.

Crofting has shown itself to be a valuable part of Scottish culture. The minister mentioned in her speech the many and varied communities that make up our crofting counties and the new areas that will come in under the bill. Those communities face different challenges, as we found out during our visits. As Peter Peacock and Sarah Boyack said, there is much in the bill that is to be welcomed. It adds new tools to the toolbox that is available to the Crofters Commission, but they must be used wisely. Also, it remains to be seen whether the resources will match the expectations in the crofting communities, particularly on the tackling of absenteeism and neglect. The commission must be more proactive than it has been in the past in tackling those two issues and it must do that in the right way in each crofting community.

Good amendments have been made to the bill, but there are still difficulties with parts of it. Members will be aware of my particular difficulty with the inequality of the election franchise. Jamie McGrigor mentioned the previous crofting act. That legislation clearly demonstrates that back benchers in the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties have a spine—when their Executive is doing things that it should not be doing, they will stand up and be counted and their Executive will need to change its views. That is clearly not the case elsewhere, and it clearly showed when John Scott disgracefully changed his position from that which he expressed in the committee to how he voted this morning.

Photo of John Scott John Scott Conservative

Is Karen Gillon aware that I did not change my position? It is merely that, in committee, I mistakenly voted for her amendment, which did not deliver what I expected.

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour

I cannot be responsible for what John Scott does not understand. I was absolutely clear about what I was trying to achieve in committee. If he reads the Official Report, I am sure that that will be clear to him.

Even in her opening speech in this afternoon's debate, the minister failed to grasp the issue of extending the franchise. There are some women who do not see the need to extend the franchise. They say, "It's always been that way." That is their right, but the Parliament has a duty to look at the equal opportunities implications of any bill.

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour

I am sorry, but I have only five minutes.

By reinforcing the inequality in a franchise, we fail to live up to that responsibility. I will say no more on the role of the Tories other than to echo the words outside the Parliament that are oft quoted by the First Minister:

"Facts are chiels that winna ding."

The other issue on which we have a particular difficulty is registration. When I asked, Jamie McGrigor could not name crofters who had asked him for land-based registration. That is because he knows as well as I do—and if he were honest he would have voted against registration—that crofters on the ground do not want such a scheme.

Photo of Karen Gillon Karen Gillon Labour

Sorry, I am in my final minute.

The reality is that a costly, overbureaucratic process will be forced on crofters. That is not what crofting needs at this stage in its history.

Alasdair Allan made an impassioned plea for us all to support the bill and suggested that, if we did not, the world would end and things would be terrible. We will not stand in the way of the bill, but nor will we vote for a bill that does not do what it says on the tin and will not ultimately be in the best interests of crofting. I hope that members will consider that when we come to vote on the bill at 5 o'clock.

Photo of Roseanna Cunningham Roseanna Cunningham Scottish National Party 3:40 pm, 1st July 2010

I am grateful to members for their speeches and will respond to some of their comments. We agree on much. I sincerely hope that at decision time members will take the opportunity to usher in a new era for crofting, in which crofting again becomes the backbone of our remote, rural communities.

Crofting tenure requires both occupation and the land to be worked. In return, it provides security of tenure for tenants, the right of succession, the right to the value of improvements that are made to the land and the right to fair rent. Let no one ever forget those fundamental rights that crofters fought for and won 125 years ago. Equally, let no one forget the responsibilities that derive from those rights. I am certain that the men and women who struggled for those rights in the 19th century would echo that sentiment, because they did not undertake that struggle so that their communities would be half empty and the land neglected so many years later.

Crofting also opens the door to agricultural and housing grants that are available only to people who agree to live by the conditions of crofting tenure, whether they are tenants or owner-occupiers. That is right, because crofters deserve reward for the benefits to society that crofting delivers. We have taken steps today that at last recognise the changes that were made in 1976, and which equalise the responsibilities and the rewards that are open to tenant and owner-occupier crofters.

I turn to issues that were raised in the course of this short debate. Sarah Boyack and Karen Gillon are understandably exercised by the gender imbalance in crofting tenure. I do not disagree with them that there is a clear imbalance; I disagree with them only about whether the franchise is the place to fix it. I do not think that it is. I invite both members to talk to me, to ascertain whether we can come up with proposals that might have a practical impact in changing the gender imbalance.

A number of members, including Sarah Boyack and Liam McArthur, mentioned the crofting register, which was a key area of dissent. I remind members that the register triggers will not come in until 2013 at the earliest and that we have agreed that the date will be pushed back to 2014 if the community mapping proposals are successful. There is a considerable amount of time for crofters to prepare for registration.

I also need to point out that the minute that a crofter decrofts, as many do, he or she must immediately register their title with the land register of Scotland. Why not before? That is, in effect, what we are saying. I should say, too, that the land register, which was brought in all those years ago, is still by no means complete throughout the country. Title registers take time to implement.

John Scott was right to point out that the bill will allow us to tackle abuses more effectively and that democratic accountability will be introduced in relation to the commission. On his more general point about conservation, the bill allows crofters to refrain from using the croft if that is for the purpose of conservation, so we see no conflict between crofting policy and conservation policy.

I mentioned Liam McArthur's comments on the crofting register. I cannot allow his other comments to go by. I have never been accused of having difficulty saying no. I am worried that Liam McArthur might turn out to be one of those men who do not hear women who say no. His colleague Jamie Stone had no difficulty.

On Alasdair Allan's comments, we can now take forward the review of the croft house grant scheme in the context of the bill. That will include equalising access to the scheme.

Peter Peacock raised a number of issues, many of which are related to the challenges facing crofting. Of course there are challenges to be faced and we have said right from the outset that no single piece of legislation made by Government would ever be able to tackle every single one of those challenges. Among all that Peter Peacock said, he will know that the existing absentee initiative is already bearing fruit. It needed to be strengthened and it has been in the context of the bill. He talks about resources but, if he had succeeded in getting most of what he wanted, it would have meant piling on more duties, so his position is rather inconsistent.

He raised the issue of the market in crofting tenancies; a look at any estate agent in the crofting counties will reveal that they have crofting tenancies as well as owner-occupied crofts on the books. It is denying reality to think that crofting tenancies are not subject to the free market. There is no point in flying in the face of what we know is already happening.

The bill represents the culmination of almost 10 years of consultation on the future of crofting, especially if we include the legislation introduced by the previous Government. In all the consultation responses that we got, I did see some from individual crofters who were in favour of the map-based register. To pretend that there is unanimous opposition to any part of the bill is not to accept reality. I also agree with a number of other members when I say that I am not sure how soon the Parliament will want to return to the subject of crofting.

We must vote the bill through and begin the work on the ground to reverse the decline in crofting. It will require a monumental effort by a lot of people, but I am confident that we can achieve it because we can now put the right structures in place. We have clear duties for crofters, whether they are tenants or owner-occupiers, a democratically accountable commission, a proper legal register, and a way forward to take crofting through the 21st century and into the 22nd.