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Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

Part of the debate – in the Scottish Parliament on 6th June 2013.

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Photo of Jayne Baxter Jayne Baxter Labour

When I became an MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife I did not imagine that I would spend some of my first few months considering the complexities of crofting legislation. There was a lot that I did not anticipate doing as an MSP, but that issue was certainly well down the list of possibilities, because in much of my region it does not come up much in conversation when I speak to voters on the doorsteps.

I did not imagine that we would also have to spend a considerable portion of committee and parliamentary time in my short time in Parliament revisiting legislation that has only recently been passed, but which has in recent months been unravelling. As someone who respects and honours the role of Parliament’s committees in scrutinising legislation, that has made me reflect on that process and on whether we can ever be sure that we know enough about a given topic to invite the right witnesses or to ask the right questions.

I suppose that the answer to that is that nothing is guaranteed, and all that we can ever do is work with the available advice, information and evidence. That is how we have found ourselves dealing with the unintended consequences of the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2010.

I have said that the 2010 act unravelled, but it is probably more appropriate to say that it has found itself tangled in a complex knot. That legislative knot—and how we unpick it—has been the cause of considerable debate in the legal opinions that were given to the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee during its consideration of the bill. I am well aware that it is not uncommon for lawyers to come up with several different interpretations of the law, but it is perhaps uncommon for witnesses giving evidence to a parliamentary committee to describe the law as “a mess”.

I am pleased that the committee puts that point at the front of its stage 1 report on the bill. I was also pleased that during the committee’s evidence taking it appeared that it was not just me who finds crofting law opaque and confusing. Indeed, the report highlights “significant frustration” and is

“concerned with the increasing complexities of crofting law.”

I was not a member of the Parliament when the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Bill was passed in 2010. Colleagues who were here may recall the debates at that time. In going back over the history of the legislation, I came across a speech by Peter Peacock, who made what has turned out to be an extremely prescient contribution to the stage 3 debate on the bill. Unfortunately, the opinion of Peter and other members that we would not see another crofting bill for some time proved to be too optimistic. His closing comments are worth recalling. He said in the debate:

“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.”—[Official Report, 1 July 2010; c 28193.]

I hope that we can keep in mind those “deep and enduring ... challenges” to people and crofting communities as the bill progresses.

The Scottish Government responded to the report of the committee of inquiry on crofting in 2008 by laying out the five key principles for securing the future of crofting. Those relate to maintaining and increasing the amount of crofting land in tenure, ensuring that it is used productively, considering the role of housing and its contribution to the local economy, encouraging new entrants into crofting and—perhaps most important—empowering people to make decisions about their future and the future of their communities. Those are laudable aims with which it is hard to disagree. Unfortunately, it seems that although the steps that the Crofting Commission is taking are an attempt to achieve those goals, the legislation surrounding crofting is dense. As I have noted, it has been described by some witnesses in less than flattering terms.

I hope that the Scottish Government will note the Rural Affairs, Environment and Climate Change Committee’s recommendation that it pay close attention to witnesses’ concerns about the current crofting legislation. Having listened to the witnesses’ evidence, I fully support the point that is made in the report that consideration should be given to the possibility of not just consolidating crofting legislation but making sure that crofting policy, based on the law, is stated in “revised, simplified terms.”

The minister will recall concerns that were raised about a bill that the committee considered previously—the Aquaculture and Fisheries (Scotland) Bill. Many members rightly highlighted their concerns about the Government lodging unscrutinised amendments at stage 3. I therefore look forward to the minister heeding the committee’s recommendation to not just write to the committee to indicate how the Government will respond to the points that are made in the report and the debate, but to give thought to what amendments should be lodged at stage 2 to allow thorough consideration of a complex and very technical area of legislation.