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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 Claire Baker Claire Baker Labour

That is a good example of how long we have all been involved with the issue. If Jamie McGrigor was involved in politics in 1948, that perhaps shows the generational gap that exists between us.

In evidence to the committee, Derek Flyn said:

“More than a century ago, a textbook said that crofting law was more complicated than the tax laws. Every time there is a reform, it is always stated that crofting law is to be simplified but, every time, we get another layer on top of what has gone before.”—[Official Report, Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee, 15 May 2013; c 2198.]

We have intricate, complicated and historical legislation, in which it seems that proportionality has been completely lost. The committee asked the Government how that could be addressed and asked

“how it plans to ensure crofting law is as clear, competent, consistent and fit for the 21st century as possible.”

The committee took a sensible approach. It had to balance the need for speed with the need for accuracy, in recognition of the pressing need to rectify the anomaly that prevents owner-occupier crofters from applying to decroft. However, the committee acknowledged the need for full scrutiny at stage 2, to guard against the introduction of further complexity and the potential for unintended consequences.

Tavish Scott talked about a crofting couple who are involved in legal complexities when their time and effort would be better spent in getting on with doing what they do. Although we have focused on the bill today, the broader point is that no legislation will resolve the challenges that crofters face, which are economic and not regulatory.

Some 18,000 crofts in Scotland house more than 33,000 people, and a large proportion of Scotland’s natural heritage and designated sites—nearly 70 per cent of our national nature reserves and more than 60 per cent of our sites of special scientific interest—lies within the crofting counties.

Last night, I was at RSPB Scotland’s high nature value farming event, at which there was a discussion about how to support crofting and vulnerable farming. It was argued that there needs to be a clear link with productivity, which was interesting.

CAP reform and agricultural support are actively being discussed. In the context of the move from historic to area-based payments and the changes that we can make to the Scotland rural development programme, there might be opportunities to provide greater support to crofting communities.

There were interesting exchanges on Twitter last night—as there always are. The site @ScotVoices highlights a different Scot every week, and this week it was Donald Macsween, from the Western Isles, who is a crofter. Various issues have been discussed, such as absenteeism, which people said is now easier to detect and deal with.

During the passage of the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Bill in 2010, Peter Peacock made a perceptive comment about absenteeism. He said:

“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.”—[Official Report, 1 July 2010; c 28191.]

Dave Thompson talked about a proposal for a local abattoir. It is about having the modern infrastructure that can support crofting communities and ensure that they are sustainable.

Neglect was discussed on Twitter last night. Neglect blights land that has the potential to be worked and damages crofting communities, landscapes and biodiversity, but it is difficult to address. How is neglect monitored or judged? More action might be needed in that regard.

The increasing cost of crofting leases was also mentioned. The comment was:

“My 7 acre croft cost approx £5k nearly 10 years ago. 2.5 acre croft next door for sale just now, looking for £10-15k”.

How do we make crofting not just economically viable but accessible to people who want to croft? As Angus MacDonald said, crofting is a difficult life and it is not often that a crofter can sustain their way of life without having more than one job.

Crofting has been and remains a critical means of sustaining and retaining populations in some of our more remote communities. There needs to be a focus on legacy building. In the recent BBC programme “Hebrides: Islands on the Edge”, crofting was discussed. The programme did a good job of helping people to understand crofting. We saw how local schoolchildren are learning crofting skills in a scheme that is proving popular and is offering a means of legacy building and connecting the community with crofting.

We know the benefits that crofting can bring. Crofting communities are strong and work collectively to work the land and keep it for future generations. We must work together to ensure that crofting remains viable. This is an essential debate about how we solve a fairly technical problem, but the bigger question is how we support crofting and economic development in rural areas.

We need more targeted resources in the less favoured areas, through agricultural support, rural development mechanisms and support for housing—that relates to our debate on land reform yesterday. More joined-up rural development policy and greater decentralisation of jobs in the economy would do much to support rural communities and crofting. Those are the real challenges that we face.