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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 Paul Wheelhouse Paul Wheelhouse Scottish National Party

I will do my best to use the time to full effect, because members have raised so many interesting points in the debate. The debate has been interesting and I am grateful to members for their contributions. I will respond to as many of the points that have been raised as possible.

It is very gratifying to note that broad agreement remains on the need to address the owner-occupier crofter decrofting issue and I am grateful indeed for the constructive and positive approach that all members have taken in the debate. There is general consensus on the need for action, irrespective of the detail, which we will go through at stage 2 and stage 3. It is also gratifying to note that there is broad agreement that the bill will deliver the necessary changes and ensure that owner-occupier crofters are treated equally to tenant crofters and crofting landlords.

I said earlier that crofting often inspires emotion in debate. Some may disagree on finer issues such as drafting, but I hope that that will not stand in the way of progress today. I am sure that all members will agree that it is important to deliver the focused intent of the bill and to remain committed to that common aim during its remaining stages.

Crofting plays a vital part in sustaining our rural communities and we can be thankful to our crofters for the wonderful sight and riches of the machair on our screens in the BBC’s “Hebrides: Islands on the Edge” programme, which Claire Baker referred to. It is therefore important that those involved in crofting know exactly where they stand.

The bill clarifies where owner-occupier crofters stand on decrofting. It removes the legal doubt on decrofting that a number of members mentioned. Irrespective of the merits of the cases that have been put forward by different lawyers—a number of whom we have seen in and outwith the committee—who have valid but differing views, the fact that there is that uncertainty and that so many eminent lawyers cannot agree, even on the need for the bill, shows the need to clarify and put to rest this issue, so that crofters can get on with their day-to-day lives.

I have listened with great interest to the points that members have made. It has been argued since February that new legislation to address the issue is unnecessary. That is not the view of the Scottish Government, nor, it would appear, of the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee. It has also been argued that the scope of the bill should be expanded to deal with matters other than owner-occupier decrofting, and I will try to use my time effectively to refer to as many of those matters as I can.

Other issues have been raised today and in the course of the evidence that was given to the committee. Brian Inkster has provided a shorter bill. However, length is not the only consideration, as I mentioned earlier. We need to ensure that the issue is fully addressed and in my and the Government’s opinion the bill will do that.

The form of drafting minimises the doubt about owner-occupiers having similar decrofting rights to tenants. I made the point in an intervention that, to my understanding, although the provisions for tenant crofters to decroft might not be perfect, they work reasonably effectively and there is a degree of clarity about how tenant crofters can decroft. That is being progressed administratively by the Crofting Commission in good order, to the best of my knowledge. Replicating those procedures for owner-occupiers might not be perfect—it might not be the neatest legislation in the world—but it gives a degree of clarity that both owner-occupiers and tenants will have the same rights.

The bill should address multiple owners of the same croft, as they cannot decroft. Many people have made the point and I have listened to that view. There is an issue relating to the definition of owner-occupier crofters, which is currently outwith the scope of the bill, although I am sure that we can look at it once the bill has been, I hope, enacted. As I said earlier, we intend to engage with stakeholders and take stock of the full range of problems. An 80:20 principle may be at play—probably 20 per cent of the issues that we could identify in existing legislation cause 80 per cent of the problems that we face daily. I hope that by prioritising we can work out which issues we need to take forward and then consider what the best approach to dealing with them is.

I heard members today mentioning issues such as codification and the need for consolidated legislation, or consolidated plus, to take amendments into account. We hope to engage with stakeholders, including the cross-party group on crofting, the Scottish Crofting Federation and the Crofting Commission, on those matters, to see what the most appropriate way of going forward is.

However, as I have made clear, the bill’s scope is deliberately narrow and focused to reflect the problem’s urgency. In my opening remarks, I committed to giving further consideration to other issues that have been raised during the committee’s consultation and will inform Parliament if any legislative steps are to be taken.

On specific points raised in the debate, Alex Fergusson highlighted the inability of multiple owners to decroft. The commission does issue decrofting directions in respect of crofts with multiple owners, but I am sure that the member is aware that, under the existing legislation, decrofting requires the unanimity of those on the croft to act collectively as a landlord. It might not be perfect but at least there is provision for people in that situation to decroft and, obviously, we can consider the issue in due course.