I am pleased to close the stage 1 debate for the Scottish Conservatives. I thank the members and the clerking team of the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee for producing a thorough and extremely useful stage 1 report in such a short timeframe. Thanks should also go to Tom Edwards of the Scottish Parliament information centre for his excellent briefing; he never lets us down.
Not long ago, I attended a meeting of crofting lawyers in the Signet library, at which an eminent lawyer assured the brethren there that there would be much work for them in crofting law for the foreseeable future. I am beginning to understand why he said that. Someone once memorably described crofting as a small island surrounded by a sea of legislation. Here we are adding another piece of legislation to the swell of that great ocean. I suppose that it would be fair to call the bill a wee burn rather than a big river; nonetheless, it is necessary.
Like the committee, I regret that, because of a lack of clarity and a number of omissions in the existing legislation, the Crofting Commission decided that there was no legal basis for it to make determinations on applications by owner-occupier crofters to decroft. As we have heard from other members from the Highlands and Islands, that has caused considerable difficulties for a number of our constituents across the crofting counties. Therefore, it is right that the Government determined to introduce legislation to remedy that state of affairs as swiftly as possible, and it is appropriate and sensible that that should apply retrospectively to all those who have previously made applications or who have applications that are pending but on hold as a result of the legal concerns.
We have had consensus in the debate that the bill, which is on the specific issue of decrofting, is definitely required. However, I share the concerns of other members and of the committee that there is a considerable body of legal opinion that this short bill is too complex and that it might need amendment to avoid further difficulties in legal interpretation in the future.
I am not a lawyer or a legal expert so, like the committee, I can only urge ministers to take on board and address the concerns that have been expressed by eminent figures such as Sir Crispin Agnew QC and Brian Inkster. Ministers should, if required, lodge amendments to the bill at stage 2 so that we do not find ourselves having to enact yet another amendment bill in a few months or years. We must try to avoid that at all costs.
I note the committee’s reference to the significant number of outstanding crofting issues that many people believe require to be addressed. Some of them are separate from the specific decrofting issue that the Government is addressing in the bill and some are more connected with it. They include detailed concerns about the legal definition of an owner-occupier crofter and about the legal position of decrofting when a croft has been divided and there are multiple owners—I raised that issue with the minister in the chamber at the end of March.
I agree with the committee’s recommendation that ministers should identify how they intend to address those issues and that they should set out how they will proceed. Like other members, I welcome the minister’s commitment to establish a group to consider how those issues might best be addressed.
More generally, the committee’s report reflects the widespread concern among crofters and their representatives about the complexity of crofting law. I share that concern, which has been brought up again and again at the cross-party group on crofting, which I convene.
The consolidation of crofting legislation remains a sore. It is a constant agenda item, at the request of CPG members. At each meeting, we raise the matter and talk about it.
The minister told me earlier this year in response to a written question:
“The Scottish Government will consider the consolidation of crofting legislation after it is satisfied that all the provisions of the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 are working as intended.”—[Official Report, Written Answers, 4 March 2013; S4W-12989.]
Can he confirm that that remains the case—that it means consideration of consolidation when the provisions of the 2010 act and those of what will shortly be the crofting (amendment) (Scotland) act 2013 are working as intended?
For that matter, when will we know whether those provisions are working as intended? Who will judge that? There could be considerable arguments between people in different townships over what is and is not working. The minister will have to consider that. His answer says that he will do something, but he might not be in a position to know what is and is not working.