I am just about to come on to that. If I do not address Mr Fergusson’s point, I will let him come back in later.
Some stakeholders have indeed suggested alternative drafting that would be shorter and might, perhaps, deliver the policy intention. However, with the greatest of respect to the eminent lawyers that Mr Fergusson mentioned, “perhaps” is not good enough. We have to be clear. The bill addresses a flaw in the legislation. That being the case, we have to be sure that what we do will address the key issue in respect of decrofting and provide the same treatment of owner-occupiers as is provided for tenants. That is why the Government’s bill is drafted in the way that it is.
Our view that the bill will resolve the issue is supported by others. During the committee’s stakeholder evidence session, Sir Crispin Agnew said:
“I think that the bill will solve the particular problem by making it clear that the Crofting Commission can decroft owner-occupier crofts.”
During the same session, Derek Flyn of the Scottish Crofting Federation said that legislation is needed and that the bill appears to answer that need. We heard the Crofting Commission’s view that
“the bill addresses and solves the problem”.
There was also support from others including Scottish Land & Estates and the National Farmers Union Scotland, which recognises the need for legislation to deal with the problem quickly. However, I recognise the point that Mr Fergusson makes. It is perhaps something that the committee will come back to.
On consultation, some have questioned whether there was sufficient time for proper consideration of the bill. In the circumstances that we faced, the Scottish Government had to strike a balance between dealing with the issue urgently while carefully considering the options and ensuring that key stakeholders had the opportunity to contribute. Our stakeholder consultation was very short indeed compared with normal procedures, but that was entirely due to the urgency of the issue.
We heard at stage 1 that NFU Scotland considers that it
“had ample opportunity to respond” and that
“the consultation with regard to the draft bill has been fine.”—[Official Report, Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee, 15 May 2013; c 2200, 2194, 2203.]
The Crofting Commission’s view was that the consultation had worked, as the problem itself is “very defined”. I therefore believe that the right level of consultation was applied to the bill under the circumstances and given the tight focus of the bill.
I note that the committee welcomed the Scottish Government’s attempts to seek stakeholders’ views once the problem had been identified and once the bill had been published. I also note the committee’s view on public consultation on any further changes to crofting law.
On the individual cases of crofters who are affected by the inability to decroft, I note the committee’s recommendation that the Crofting Commission should process the outstanding applications as swiftly as possible, and that should apply also to any applications that it has not been possible to submit in the interim. As I said to the committee on 22 May, section 6 provides for the legislation to be effective immediately following royal assent. That will enable the commission to process the 44 outstanding applications, and any newly submitted applications, as early as possible.
I recognise that a number of issues have been raised that are outwith the scope of the bill. I also recognise the need, as indicated by the committee in its stage 1 report, to address those other issues in the future, and I assure members that they will be addressed. I give an undertaking that, subject to the bill’s parliamentary passage, once it has been enacted, my officials will investigate, in consultation with stakeholders, what the best method might be for dealing with the outstanding issues. Depending on the outcome of those investigations, the Scottish Government will consider what further legislation might be required as we develop our future legislative programme.
However, I encourage members to focus on the issues that are relevant for this bill and to work towards a mutually agreeable way forward. That will ensure once and for all that owner-occupier crofters can apply to decroft their land. The scope of the bill is deliberately tightly focused on owner-occupier decrofting. Any deviation from that would fail to respect the expedited approach agreed for it.
As always, I will leave further scrutiny of the bill to the Scottish Parliament. I have no doubt that the committee and the Parliament as a whole will continue to apply the high standard of scrutiny of legislation to which we are accustomed, irrespective of the tight timescales that apply to the bill.
I am grateful to all who have contributed to bringing us this far. That includes stakeholders, who assisted in the early stages by providing information, those who gave evidence to the committee and, not least, the committee and its clerks. I thank my own officials for their hard work.
I look forward to continuing to work with all parties during the remaining stages of the bill. I hope that the committee will be reassured by my confirmation that appropriate consideration is being given to all views expressed on the bill in advance of stage 2 next week. That includes, of course, the committee’s stage 1 report.
The principles of the bill will deliver its intended purpose. I commend the bill and the committee’s report to the Parliament.
That the Parliament agrees to the general principles of the Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill.