I am very pleased to contribute to today’s debate. One would be forgiven for thinking that, hailing from the Isle of Lewis, I would be clued up on all things crofting. However, it has become increasingly apparent to me that very few people fully understand the complexities of crofting law and that that must be remedied in the not-too-distant future by simplifying current crofting legislation.
A number of submissions to the committee’s short evidence taking on the bill have described the legislation as a “mess” and a “shambles”—or, more appropriately, a “boorach”, which is a good Gaelic word that was used by my colleague Rob Gibson and which describes the situation well. The layer upon layer of legislation, from the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1955 to the 1993 act and the 2010 act, have created a complex system that need not have been complex in the first place.
Although the Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill is needed—and needed quickly—some have described it as
“yet another layer of incomprehensible extra sections and consequential amendments to an Act which was consolidated 20 years ago, and which has been ... amended numerous times.”
I do not agree with that assertion, but I can understand why someone would come to that conclusion.
As we have already heard, we are where we are because earlier this year, a flaw in the 2010 act was flagged up by the Crofting Commission, which stated that the new legislation did not give it the power to issue a decrofting direction for croft owner-occupiers. A decrofting mechanism is necessary to enable tenants and owner-occupiers to release a site for the building of a house; otherwise there can be complications with securing a mortgage. However, the commission flagged up that the act removed the power to decroft owner-occupied land. The bill therefore amends the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 and the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2010, with the single purpose of providing for owner-occupiers to be able to decroft all or part of their crofts.
The bill also makes retrospective provision in relation to the currently suspended applications that have been made by owner-occupiers to decroft. I believe that there are around 50 of those applications, although the figure 44 was mentioned earlier, with 159 decrofting directions going through before the problem was identified.
During the bill’s progress to date, there has been considerable talk of consolidating current crofting law, which would go some way towards simplifying matters. There has also been talk of starting again with a blank sheet of paper but, having put that idea to a number of crofters in general conversation, I know that it has not been met with any particular enthusiasm.
Consolidation or codification would seem to be the preferred way forward, although some in the legal profession are of the view that the 1993 act should be deconstructed and then redrafted in a simple, user-friendly way. It is therefore imperative that the Government takes steps to deal with the wider problems in the 1993 act to ensure that that act is fit for purpose.
There have been conflicting views. The original problem was flagged up by an expert in crofting law, but the point was subsequently questioned by a solicitor specialising in crofting law, who wrote an article in the Journal of the Law Society of Scotland arguing that there was no problem and that legislation was not needed. It is no wonder that the vast majority of people are confused.
In the short timescale that was given for evidence gathering, the RACCE committee received some evidence that suggested that
“a commitment should be given by the Scottish Government to introduce a bill” to deal with
“the various other anomalies in crofting law ... created by the 2010 Act.”
It was further suggested that
“an act that is a readable document and can be easily understood is essential and a simplification of the 1993 Act should be considered by Parliament. The present Act is a rehash of older Acts, amendments to Acts and does not address the true issues of modern crofting.”
Another valid point that was raised was that a single approach does not suit the different characteristics of the different areas and that the same criteria should not be applied to all situations. For example, there are more owner-occupied crofts in Orkney, Caithness and Shetland than there are in the Western Isles, and the characteristics of crofting in those areas are quite different. The crofts in Orkney, Caithness and Shetland are larger units, with a crofter in Orkney, for example, being able to make a living from his croft, whereas, nine times out of 10, a crofter on my home island of Lewis will require a second job to earn a half-decent living.
It is worth highlighting the committee’s view that it strongly recommends that the Scottish Government carefully considers any amendments that may be required to the bill at stage 2 to allow for full scrutiny and to ensure that the bill is clear and competent. We need to ensure that the bill is clear and competent—quite frankly, the last thing we need is the addition of further complexity to an already complex body of legislation or the creation of further unintended consequences.
Let us get this right, and then look at getting the rest of the complex crofting legislation right in the not-too-distant future. I welcome the minister’s commitment to include crofting legislation in future legislative programmes.
I am afraid that I have not quite used up my time, which must be a first.