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Creating a Sustainable Future for Crofting

– in the Scottish Parliament on 10th September 2019.

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Photo of Christine Grahame Christine Grahame Scottish National Party

The next item of business is a statement by Fergus Ewing on creating a sustainable future for crofting. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

Cabinet secretary—you have 10 minutes.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Crofting has a special place in the cultural heritage of Scotland, and it lies at the heart of many of Scotland’s rural communities. Without the crofting sector, much of rural Scotland would not be the place that we have all come to know and love.

I am pleased to say that crofting continues to contribute to the sustainability of remote and rural communities. That is partly as a result of the support and attention that the Scottish Government and its predecessors have provided in the past and are providing now.

Credit goes primarily to the crofters themselves. In October last year, I gave a speech at the Scottish Crofting Federation’s event called “Celebrating the spirit of crofting”, at which we celebrated the commitment, passion, determination and fortitude that is shown by a very special community of people that is unique to Scotland—the crofting community.

When last I addressed the chamber on crofting more than two years ago, I took heart from the fact that the Crofting Commission was moving on from some testing times that had been challenging for a number of crofting communities. Although the Crofting Commission has faced some challenges, I am pleased to report that work continues to be undertaken by the commission’s staff and board to improve the way in which it undertakes its regulatory business.

We are already seeing the fruit of that work. Since 2018-19, the commission’s residency and land use team has resolved 130 breaches of duty, 28 per cent of which resulted in the crofter taking up residency or assigning their croft. Since March this year, we have seen an increase in the number of common grazings committees that are in office.

The Crofting Commission and its board have set improvement of turnaround times as their top priority for the coming year. They are prioritising front-line regulatory staff and developing plans for how to achieve that. For example, on the commission’s website, comprehensive information has been provided to inform crofters, before they decide how to frame an application, of the kinds of issues that are likely to cause delay. The commission has simplified its handling of general enquiries, thereby reducing the typical response time from 10 weeks to less than two weeks.

The next phase of its plans includes providing more information online, reviewing the processes for contested cases, enhancing in-house information technology systems, and engaging with Scottish Government colleagues to identify further opportunities for streamlining processes. In addition, the commission has agreed to work with crofters, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the Scottish Land Commission on developing its thinking about the long-term reform of crofting legislation.

There have been a number of other positive developments in crofting, so I will take this opportunity to update members on some of the successes of the past two years and to set out how the Scottish Government plans to continue to improve prospects for crofters and crofting communities.

I also take this opportunity to update members on progress towards crofting legislation reform. Members will be aware of the work that has been done to date to assist in developing proposals for legislative change. I am committed to continuing preparations for a crofting bill that garners consensus and cross-party support. Members can be assured that my officials continue to work on reform of crofting legislation. As I have said before, such changes must be of benefit to crofters and crofting communities. It is important that the bill be focused. I have therefore asked officials to work with stakeholders to identify five to 10 priority changes that they would like to see in legislation.

Members and stakeholders alike can be reassured of my commitment to crofting legislative reform. I look forward to our continuing combined efforts to achieve that aim. Given the uncertainties around Brexit and the impact that it might have on resources and parliamentary time, I am not in a position to commit to the introduction of legislation during the current parliamentary session, but the approach that I have outlined will ensure that I will be in a position to do so if the opportunity arises.

The

Government is also committed to supporting people to remain on and to bringing people back to the land, thereby re-peopling our rural and remote rural populations and sustaining our fragile Highlands and Islands communities. Crofting contributes to the maintenance and enhancement of landscapes and habitats through low-impact, high-nature-value agricultural activity in areas that would otherwise be neglected.

What has the Government been doing to support crofting? In the past financial year alone, the Government approved and provided croft businesses with more than £46 million through a range of schemes, including the basic payment scheme and greening, the less favoured areas support scheme, the agri-environment climate scheme, the croft house grant, the crofting agricultural grant scheme, and the sheep and beef schemes. In addition to that £46 million, we have the bull stud farm at Knocknagael in Inverness, which offers subsidised rates for crofters to hire health status bulls.

We also provide crofters with subsidised veterinary support. In addition, crofters can access a bespoke subscription service that is offered by the farm advisory service, which provides discounted fees for consultancy services. More than 2,000 crofters benefit from that subscription, through which they access advice on animal husbandry, cropping, grassland production and much more.

There are also the forestry grant schemes, many of which are suitable for crofting businesses, and there is LEADER, which has helped to fund many croft-based projects.

Therefore, as members can see, the Scottish Government is committed to investing in and supporting crofting and crofting activities. Key to that is enabling more people to live on and work their land. Since 2007, we have approved £20 million in croft house grants for croft housing, which have helped to build and improve more than 960 homes for crofters and their families. Let us take the example of the active crofting family of George Reid and his partner Janice in the village of Taynuilt, who have a herd of 17 suckler cows at Brough croft. With the help of a croft house grant, that young family have managed to add two bedrooms and a utility room to their existing one-bedroom house. By continuing to support families who would not be able to live in the remote and rural parts of Scotland or to work their crofts without grant funding, we help to strengthen our crofting communities.

Allied to that, crofters can also access the Scotland self-build loan fund, which offers loans of up to £175,000 to help with construction fees for self-build projects. That scheme can be used in conjunction with the croft house grant scheme, which offers grants of up to £38,000.

However, I recognise that there is always more to be done to ensure that we create the conditions for our crofting and rural communities to grow and thrive. Attracting new entrants to crofting is critical to its future. With new entrants and youth come new practices, innovation and an enthusiasm that energises the sector. We all know that crofting is far more than just a form of land tenure. To class it as such would be to miss how and why it has endured. For many people, it is a way of life, and it needs a blend of experience and youth.

In 2018, there were more than 200 new entrants to crofting, more than a quarter of whom were aged 40 or younger. This year, we have already seen more than 90 new entrants. However, more can be done. My officials are currently working with stakeholders to develop a new entrants project that will provide the necessary guidance and support to create opportunities for new entrants. One of the issues that are to be tackled will be succession planning. The new entrants project will form but one element of the national development plan for crofting, which will be published in the coming 12 months.

Crofting needs to be underpinned with the right framework to address future needs. The national development plan will set the long-term strategic direction for crofting, and will highlight the core elements that are necessary to ensure that crofting remains at the heart of our rural and remote communities. The plan, which will be discussed further at the October crofting stakeholder forum, will contain the following outcomes and methods, which are a blend of what we want crofting to achieve and what is needed for crofting to reach its full potential: population retention and rural cohesion; the creation of opportunities for new entrants; co-ordinated public sector promotion of crofting; economic opportunity and growth; environment and habitats; and regulation.

While we continue through this period of uncharted business, the Scottish Government remains firmly committed to the future of crofting. The Government is proud of our heritage in crofting and is committed to working together with crofters in the shared desire to secure that future.

The key factor when it comes to the resilience and success of crofting is its people. We need to keep people on the land, and to support them to live productive and sustainable lives. Traditional crofting has a role to play in our ambition to re-people the Highlands and Islands, but it is also important to encourage modern approaches to crofting and diversification into such things as renewable energy projects, tourism, woodland and beekeeping. By enabling innovative methods of working the land and utilising our landscape and natural environment, we will create sustainable crofting communities for future generations.

Photo of Peter Chapman Peter Chapman Conservative

I declare an interest as a partner in a farming business.

I thank the cabinet secretary for prior sight of his statement. However, let us be clear: it was an extremely disappointing statement. Once again, a bill that has been promised on numerous occasions has been ditched. The crofting law sump that was set up by the crofting law group highlighted the need for legislative reform way back in 2013. The Scottish National Party promised to introduce new legislation on crofting in its 2016 manifesto and again in last year’s programme for Government.

In 2017, the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee undertook a comprehensive examination of all laws surrounding crofting, and recommended a move away from the piecemeal process of legislative development and towards introduction of a comprehensive bill.

The committee recommended that the passage of the bill should be comfortably completed before the end of the current parliamentary session. It is clear that that cannot now happen. This SNP Government is clearly not complying with the recommendations of the committee or the needs of the crofting community. Can the cabinet secretary explain that complete dereliction of duty?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I reject Peter Chapman’s approach and am disappointed by it because—as Mr Chapman knows—we undertook a consultation about what sort of crofting reform would receive support, and there was no clear majority for the comprehensive approach that he describes. Therefore, we elected to move forward with legislative reform that would improve everyday practical matters. We worked with stakeholders and across parties with that in mind.

The situation is stark and it is clear: the Brexit policy that is being pursued by the Conservative Government in the United Kingdom demands that we spend our parliamentary time on the agenda of the London Parliament against the wishes of Scotland. There are two pieces of primary legislation—the rural support bill and the UK Withdrawal from the European Union (Legal Continuity) (Scotland) Bill—that would not be required if the Tories were to drop their Brexit plans, which do not command support in Scotland.

In addition, 71 European Union exit statutory instruments have been or are expected to be notified to the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee by the end of this year, and 25 EU exit Scottish statutory instruments have been completed or are expected to be completed. In March this year, 500 full-time equivalent staff were involved with Brexit-related activity across the Scottish Government. If the Tory Government in London abandons its Brexit obsession, of course there will be time for us to proceed with Scotland’s agenda, including crofting reform.

Photo of Colin Smyth Colin Smyth Labour

I thank the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement.

Two years ago, the programme for Government stated:

“We will ... consult on and develop proposals to reform crofting law”.

A year ago, the programme for Government stated:

“We will take forward work on a Crofting Bill and publish a national development plan for crofting”.

Just six months ago, at the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, the cabinet secretary said:

“I committed to seeking to introduce a crofting bill in sufficient time for it to be passed before the end of the session. That commitment remains.”—[

Official Report, Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee

, 24 April 2019; c 7.]

Does the cabinet secretary accept that the failure to deliver on that commitment in the timescale that he pledged will be viewed as a broken promise by the crofting community?

In his statement, the cabinet secretary states that he has asked officials to work with stakeholders to identify five to 10 priority changes that they would like to see, but the crofting law sump report identified 57 crofting law issues that needed to be addressed—17 of which were identified as being high priority and nine of which were classed as urgent. Can the cabinet secretary confirm, at the very least, that the nine urgent issues will be dealt with in any crofting bill that he introduces? When will the Government address the many other issues that were identified in the report?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I point out that we implemented our pledge to consult on proposals for crofting legislative reform, and that that consultation indicated the lack of a clear majority for the comprehensive reform that some people have advocated. In the absence of a clear majority for that approach, and given that we are a profoundly democratic party and Government, we felt that we should not foist that approach on the crofting communities. Rather, we sought, and are proceeding with, an alternative approach, which is to identify practical and everyday measures that can improve crofting law. Indeed, working with key stakeholders, we have made some progress towards that on a number of fronts.

It is my desire that we proceed with a crofting bill in this session of Parliament. I am proceeding on the basis that, provided that we can secure the parliamentary time to do so, we will endeavour to introduce such a bill.

Crofters are among the hidden casualties of Brexit—especially a no-deal Brexit, which commands so much of our time. We have had no choice but to hope for the best but to prepare for the worst. The Conservatives—and others—have been the first to demand that we spend our time considering the plight of crofters. Now that we have granted their request and are doing precisely that, they are complaining, moaning and whining again, because they cannot accept the consequences of their own desperate no-deal Brexit plans, which have led to the resignation of an increasing number of their members at Westminster. I observe that none of their members in Scotland seems to have the gumption to resign from anything.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Eleven members wish to ask questions. I want short, key-word questions and succinct answers, please.

Photo of Gail Ross Gail Ross Scottish National Party

I agree that the Crofting Commission is working better than it was, but there remain some challenging issues to be addressed, not least of which is the weak diversity in the make-up of the commissioners. We need a commission board that is more representative of crofters themselves. What is the Scottish Government doing to address that ahead of the next elections to the board?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Gail Ross makes a valid point, and it is a point that we have raised with the Crofting Commission. The issue of whom to vote for in the election of commissioners is a matter for individuals. However, we are working hard with the commission to encourage more females and young people to become involved in its work.

Photo of Donald Cameron Donald Cameron Conservative

I refer to the entry on crofting in my register of interests.

I will ask the cabinet secretary about a serious day-to-day issue that crofters face—namely, the damage done by geese. I spoke to crofters on the Uists last week, who told me that the population of wild geese on the islands continues to swell, with severe consequences for crofters’ livelihoods. In the light of their desperation, what action is the Government taking to reduce the goose population?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

I fully accept that that is a serious, long-standing matter. I visited Islay with Mr Russell, who is the constituency MSP, a couple of years ago. The topic was raised with me then and has been raised subsequently. It is of serious concern to a number of farmers and crofters. I believe that Scottish Natural Heritage has had de facto responsibility for coming up with a scheme for the management of geese. Many crofters and farmers feel that the existing support is insufficient and would argue for more. I am not handling the matter, as Mr Cameron is aware, but I am happy to hear further, more detailed representations, should he wish to make them to me and to my colleague Roseanna Cunningham, who I believe has the portfolio responsibility for the matter.

Photo of Angus MacDonald Angus MacDonald Scottish National Party

I refer members to my register of interests. I own a non-domestic property in the Western Isles.

Hailing from the Isle of Lewis, I have seen at first hand over the decades the gradual decline in livestock numbers on the hills and common grazings in the Outer Hebrides. In his statement, the cabinet secretary mentioned the impact of Brexit on legislation. How else is the prospect of Brexit likely to be felt by crofters? With a view to seeing more livestock on the hills, is there any more clarity and certainty around future funding?

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I think that we are losing the definition of “short”. We will come back to that.

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Farmers and crofters are among those who are most likely to be impacted in a number of respects should the disaster of a no-deal Brexit take place, through, for example, the loss of market for lamb and the uncertainty about future funding. In fact, all assurances from the UK about future funding would come to an end upon a general election. That is in contrast to the seven-year programmes that we are used to in the EU.

I have made arrangements for a loan scheme to be administered. Ninety-five per cent of farmers and crofters will be entitled to receive 95 per cent of their money, and we have arranged the scheme so that, if they return the form quickly in the first week of October—or thereabouts—the payment should be in their hands prior to a no-deal Brexit taking place. That is a practical step that will be appreciated—it is about what we can do with our devolved powers. However, there are some things that we cannot mitigate, such as the loss of trade, tariffs and the availability of people in rural Scotland. Those issues are of serious concern to Mr MacDonald’s constituents.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

The statement is a blow for crofting. Legislation is required to put right the Scottish Government’s mistakes in previous legislation. Those mistakes were identified in the sump, and they make it difficult for crofters to sell houses and settle estates, which are problems that cause them distress and delay and do nothing to help with repopulation. When will the cabinet secretary correct those errors?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Those are matters to do with reforming the law, which was developed over a long period. I agree that that work needs to be done, which is why I am committed to bringing forward legislation if I can and if there is time to do so. I cannot magic up the time that is consumed by Brexit. I would have thought that Ms Grant would appreciate and accept that. With respect, I point out to her and all members that I am proud that—as I said in my statement—we are supporting crofters to the tune of £46 million a year, with crofting agricultural scheme grants, 960 grants for new housing, the bull hire scheme, advice of all sorts and support under the various common agricultural policy schemes. That is the real day-to-day, bread-and-butter, practical work that is being done throughout Scotland, every day, by this Government and our hard-working officials. I would have thought that most members would see that as a good thing.

Photo of John Finnie John Finnie Green

I thank the cabinet secretary for early sight of his statement. I agree with him on repeopling and population retention. A practical and everyday measure for that would be more support for the croft house grant scheme. I await a positive response from the cabinet secretary to a letter that I wrote on that issue.

On the question of diversity—beekeeping, for instance, is seeing very positive developments that offer opportunities—after declaring a climate emergency, the Scottish Government undertook to examine all its policies. Can the cabinet secretary say what the examination of crofting policy has shown so far?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

We have done substantial work and, as I set out in my statement, we will continue that work with the stakeholder committee and others. It is an on-going process.

I am pleased that the member believes that the croft house grant scheme is making a positive impact, and I am grateful for his positive approach. I have testimonials from individual couples throughout Scotland who have benefited from that great scheme. Nine hundred and sixty people or families have benefited since 2007, with £20 million in grants. I think that that is marvellous thing to do and, as cabinet secretary, I have been determined that we do as much as we can to help people—particularly young people—to have a croft, a stake, a place and a home in their own country.

Photo of Mike Rumbles Mike Rumbles Liberal Democrat

Why has the cabinet secretary taken two and a half years, since this Parliament’s cross-party Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee report to him, which said that we need a “comprehensive” bill in this session, to announce that only now has he asked officials to identify priorities for legislation?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Mr Rumbles and I may disagree about the general approach to be taken, but, after the committee’s work, we carried out a consultation, which took some time. We took views, which resulted in the conclusion that there was no majority for that comprehensive approach at that stage. Therefore, we determined to proceed in two phases.

Phase 1 involved a series of practical, everyday measures that can improve, and in some cases, amend law that is sub-optimal.

We agreed that, in phase 2, which will take place in the next session of Parliament, after the next election, consideration could be given to fundamental reform.

Officials have been working very hard with stakeholders and others on a series of issues, such as standard securities, extended powers for the keeper of the registers of Scotland, landlords with vacant crofts and deemed crofts. A lot of work has been done to advance issues, and we are fairly far down the road and not far off being able to instruct parliamentary draftsmen. The trouble is that the parliamentary draftsmen are wholly engaged in carrying out the work for Brexit and Brexit bills. We cannot expect people to do other work when the Tory Government’s Brexit agenda is taking up so much time. In fact, when Amber Rudd resigned from the Tory party, she said that 80 to 90 per cent of the UK Government’s time is being spent on Brexit.

I hope that Mr Rumbles agrees that we are in a situation in which it is extremely difficult for us to achieve what the people of Scotland and crofters wish and that that is certainly not of our making.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

I am disappointed to hear about the timetabling problems relating to a crofting bill, but the impact that Brexit will have on planning any legislation is pretty clear. It is good to hear that the cabinet secretary remains open to individual fixes to anomalies in crofting legislation, of which there remain no shortage. Will he say more about what those specific fixes might be?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

Yes. The areas that would be covered would include allowing the keeper of the registers of Scotland the means to correct the crofting register where an error is clear and straightforward without having to go through the current rectification process; providing the Crofting Commission with the power to grant owner-occupier status to landlords of vacant crofts; and common grazings shares and apportionments being deemed to be crofts to ensure that crofting legislation continues to apply to rights. There is a whole series of other issues that we and stakeholders, by and large, felt should be dealt with in phase 2. I can provide more information to any member who wishes me to provide it.

If we have the opportunity to do so in this parliamentary session, we remain determined to introduce a bill that will deal with a relatively small number of issues, as agreed with stakeholders, in order to achieve the reform that everybody wants.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I call Edward Mountain, to be followed by Rona Mackay. You must be brief.

Photo of Edward Mountain Edward Mountain Conservative

I refer members to my register of interests.

In the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee inquiry in 2017, the cabinet secretary undertook to look at making more areas of common grazings available for new crofts. What has he done to deliver on that?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

As I have said, the phase 1 bill issues that we are looking at include a proposal for a new common grazings company structure. However, any change to a new structure—to becoming companies limited by guarantee—would have to be addressed through UK legislation. That makes things difficult for the Scottish Parliament, because the matter is ultra vires. [

Interruption

.] I say to Mr Mountain that it does. It is a complex area in which—[

Interruption

.] As usual, Mr Mountain is carrying on a muttering fusillade. I assure him that the issues have received consideration, as is correct. The issue that I mentioned involves partly reserved areas that the Scottish Parliament cannot deal with.

I have described the main problem: we cannot proceed with crofting legislation unless we can identify sufficient time in our parliamentary timetable. The work that we require to do, which Mr Mountain wants us to do, in relation to Brexit is making that very difficult or impossible.

Photo of Rona Mackay Rona Mackay Scottish National Party

It has been suggested that the budget for croft house grants might be better utilised by being integrated into local housing strategies. Is that an approach for the future that the cabinet secretary would support?

Photo of Fergus Ewing Fergus Ewing Scottish National Party

It is an approach, but the current approach has served crofters well. We have a number of testimonials from individuals in that regard, and I have visited individuals who have received grants and have been able to set up home in the Western Isles or the Highlands. That is a good thing. It is a fairly simple, swift and effective system, but we are, of course, always ready to look at other approaches to see whether they offer potential for improvement.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

T hat concludes questions on the statement. I apologise to Claudia Beamish and Richard Lyle, whom I failed to call, but we have to move on to the next item of business.