HC Deb 29 March 1955 vol 539 cc235-43

Amendment proposed: In page 15, line 32, after " shall " insert: take into consideration all the circumstances of the case, including the extent, if any, to which the croft is being worked and, where the croft is being worked by a member of the crofter's family, the nature of the arrangements under which it is being so worked, and shall." —[Mr. Snadden.]

5.15 p.m.

Mr. T. Fraser

The Joint Under-Secretary of State has shown that the Amendment covers most of the contingencies which my hon. Friend had in mind when another Amendment was discussed during the Committee stage. The difference between that Amendment and this one is that the present Amendment gives direction to the Commission but leaves the Commission free to exercise its discretion as to whether it will terminate a tenancy; whereas the Amendment which my hon. Friends argued rather strongly during the Committee stage was calculated to provide that the Commission could not terminate the tenancy in certain circumstances.

For instance, it would not be free to terminate the tenancy if the croft was being reasonably well run by a member of the crofter's family who was living in the house, or if it was being well worked even by hired labour. My hon. Friends take the view that the tenancy ought not to be terminated unless the tenant of the croft is found to be guilty of bad husbandry; in short, that the main criterion should be whether the croft land was being worked properly.

I am sure my hon. Friends will agree that this Amendment, as explained by the Under-Secretary of State, will cover most of the contingencies we foresaw during the Committee stage. I suggest, however, that there might still be contingencies which will not be covered. I know that after I have mentioned these the hon. Gentleman may be able to say that they will be so rare that we need not provide for them. Yet the Government have provided by Amendments this afternoon for a contingency which they think will not arise, namely, that after a tenancy has been terminated under this Clause to make way for another person, the croft will still be vacant. They have provided, therefore, for a most exceptional contingency.

Dealing with the position of the members of the crofter's family, I myself argued during the Committee stage for the protection of the crofter who was necessarily absent from his croft house for a period in pursuit of his employment. I gave the example of an employee of the Forestry Commission. In this Bill we are asking Parliament to desire that afforestation in the crofting areas should be extended. The Forestry Commission may take a crofter into its employment because of this extension of activity in the crofting areas, and the crofter may go to another area, leaving his house perhaps for a period of years. If he leaves a member of the family in the house-his son or daughter, brother or sister, father or mother-whilst he is away in employment with the Forestry Commission, and if that person is securing that the land is properly cultivated, we think that the new Commission should not terminate the tenancy of that man.

As the Amendment is drawn, I believe that the Commission would take into account the arrangement made between the tenant crofter and the member of his family. It may well be that it is better that the Commission should have discretionary power in this matter and should be free to take into account the arrangement under which a member of the family is cultivating a croft.

It may well be, as the Under-Secretary has said, that it would be better to terminate the tenancy of the now absent crofter and transfer it to the relative who is cultivating the croft, but I have in mind the contingency under which, having taken those things into account, the Commission would terminate the tenancy of a crofter, when a member of his family is cultivating the croft and living in the croft house under a most amicable arrangement with the tenant, and then the croft might be given to another less deserving application.

If we follow the contingency of the exceptional circumstances advocated during the discussion of an earlier Amendment, the croft may well be left vacant and the Secretary of State may be required by the landlord to purchase the buildings and the croft when all the time the tenant did not want to give up the tenancy at all and the croft land was being properly cultivated by a member of his family. It may be that that is a far-fetched contingency, but it is only a slight advance on the contingency mentioned by the Under-Secretary of State on an earlier Amendment.

I feel sure that the Government have gone a considerable way to meet us in the Amendment, although I am not altogether certain that they have gone far enough. Subject to what my hon. Friends say, I do not propose to oppose the Amendment.

Mr. M. MacMillan

I am somewhat in the same difficulty, in that I am not sure how far the Amendment has gone to meet the purposes of the Amendment which we moved in Committee. The Joint Under-Secretary quoted me not so much against myself as against one part of an argument, for I think I was fair enough to put the two sides of the argument very carefully. The hon. Gentleman has taken a slight liberty in quoting one part against another with rather more force than that which I used myself in trying to be as impartial as I could. I forgive him for that, however, and I will not attempt to use the other part too forcefully against the part which he quoted, because to some extent I should be arguing against myself.

I visualise that a number of difficulties will still remain under the Amendment. I believe that in any case of dispossession, where a local sense of injustice exists, it is the most difficult place in the world to re-let the croft; and I am thinking of places like the Western Isles, in particular. There are loyalties even to the smalltime wrong-doer, if I may put it that way. The man who has been away but who is still regarded as a genuine crofter and who regards the croft as his home base will be forgiven many things if he genuinely wants to come home. Dispossession is regarded as a pretty rough thing, and it is still very difficult to find in the same village anybody who will take on the croft when someone else has been dispossessed and where a sense of injustice has been left behind.

That is the sort of thing, I know, which has to be left largely to the discretion of the Crofters Commission and we can only hope that it will have sufficient knowledge of the local conditions to deal with these cases, which I think the Joint Under-Secretary understands as well as I do, and a knowledge of what makes up the local feeling and public opinion in relation to crofting and the crofting way of life.

Where the difficulty arose, I think, for hon. Members who spoke critically from both sides of the House were the provisions of subsection (1, a). Where we have difficulties as Highland Members is particularly in trying to justify the distinction which was made, the apparent discrimination, against the crofter-absentee as compared with the farmer-absentee or the landlord absentee. That has still to be justified. If it is a case of bad husbandry, provision is made for it in the Bill, just as provision is made in the case of farmers, but this is not simply a case of bad husbandry but also a case of absenteeism.

I know that the intention is to cover blatant absenteeism and neglect of the croft and of responsibility for the croft and its maintenance, but since cultivation and good husbandry are both covered elsewhere in the Bill in several ways, and since penalties are available under the good husbandry provision, it is difficult to justify the penal action here of virtual eviction and dispossession purely on the ground that a person has been away from what he or she still regards genuinely as the home base, especially as a crofter has to be away at times for the reasonable earning of his livelihood.

My right hon. Friend the Member for East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn) made the point very well indeed in Committee when he explained that many crofters leave the croft to earn a living for a year or two, and perhaps longer, and that they are the very people to whom we owe a great deal, because they bring fresh capital into the crofting community which otherwise they could not provide from their own resources. My right hon. Friend made an extremely good point there.

As long as the crofter's family is resident on the croft and he is coming to and fro, provision is made for him. To that extent there is no change. It may be that he is a forestry worker, and again provision is made for him, even if he is away for a long period. But the moment he takes his family away with him, knowing that he is to be away for a fairly long period, the difficulty arises. Surely it is desirable in many cases that he should take his family with him. None of us could object to that. But the moment he does so his claim to residence and security of tenure as a crofter may well disappear. That, I think, worried hon. Members on both sides of the House when we were discussing the matter in another part of the building.

From that point of view, we are not yet covered. I know that a lot is left to the discretion of the Commission, and I argued elsewhere that we do not want to tie down the Commission in the greatest detail on every point. We have to give it considerable freedom, considerable elbow room. We have to assume that the members will be intelligent people who will be able and anxious to work with local people and to some extent will fit into local conditions while trying to usurp local conditions for the greater purpose of improving crofting and the crofting way of life and making it generally more remunerative.

But we have these doubts, and there remains in the Bill the provision that a crofter must ordinarily be resident on, or within two miles of, the croft. We have not got away from that and it still remains a condition, subject to the discretion of the Commission, as one of the points which are mentioned in the Amendment.

We stressed that more attention should be given to good husbandry and cultivation—that is all that is asked of every other cultivator, every farmer—rather than to a man's physical presence on the croft or within two miles of it. On this side of the House, at least, we still feel that the important things are that the land should be kept in good heart and proper cultivation, not necessarily that the man should be resident on, or within two miles of, the croft. The Amendment is an excellent piece of draftsmanship, but I do not admit for a minute that it covers the point which we had in mind in our Amendment. I am sorry that it is not a good deal stronger, but I recognise that the Government can bring sufficient pressure to bear upon us in the counting of heads if we carry the matter into the Lobby. We will therefore not vote against the Amendment. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary and the Secretary of State for coming part of the way to meet us. The rest can only be left, and I hope and believe that ultimately it can safely be left, to the good sense and discretion of the Crofters Commission.

5.30 p.m.

Mr. McNeil

I hope that I will not abuse your patience, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, if I leave that topic and deal with another. This is a demand by the Government that the Commission must take account of an arrangement which a crofter may make by which a member or members of his family takes care of the croft. That is very reasonable, and anyone who understands that situation understands it to be reasonable. Our complaint is that it does not take account of the whole length of the practice. An interesting point arises. If the crofter is entitled to do that, surely the crofter should be equally entitled to make arrangements about the habitation of his own house by members of his family.

That was the point I raised with the Lord Advocate during the Committee stage. He was kind enough to write to me, but it was not a very kind letter, saying: …I undertook…. to look into the question of sub-letting of crofts, which you had raised. There is nothing to prevent a crofter from making arrangements to have members of his family staying with him, but, of course, he can only sub-let in accordance with the provisions of Paragraph 5 of the Second Schedule. That was very decent of the Lord Advocate, but that was precisely the point about which we had been arguing. We have been trying to make the point that it was normal practice—and in many cases a necessity—that the crofter should have the right, without recourse to the landlord, to make such sub-letting arrangements in relation to his house on the croft for his family. I thought that the Lord Advocate would have admitted that necessity. Plainly, he is now in a peculiar position. Of course, the Government will tell the Commission to take account of the fact that it may be perfectly appropriate for a crofter to undertake that the care of the croft shall reside with a member of his family. But that same crofter will not have the right to say to that member of the family, " In taking care of my croft and maintaining the necessary standard of husbandry, you nevertheless cannot enjoy any part of my home."

It is obviously a non sequitur, and perhaps the Lord Advocate will undertake —I shall be puzzled if he does not—squarely to face my point, which is that if the crofter has the right to decide which member of his family will cultivate the croft, he must also have a right to see his house is sub-let in certain circumstances—I hope in all circumstances—to members of his family. We raised the point at some length in Committee of how in the case of bereavement, illness, domestic accidents, or of an ageing crofter, the best arrangement would be for the crofter to sub-let part of his house. I hope that the Lord Advocate will find it appropriate to reply to this point before we leave the Amendment.

The Lord Advocate

May I add to the somewhat brief letter I wrote to the right hon. Gentleman? The position is that a crofter is entitled to sub-let to anybody with the leave of his landlord. That is one of the statutory conditions. I am not for the moment referring to summer visitors and the like. The condition of which we were thinking in the Amendment is the case where a member of the family has not got a sub-let from the crofter but has been acting on behalf of the crofter. The title to the croft is still in the crofter and there is a family arrangement between them which does not mean to sublet. A sub-let is different from a family arrangement, because in a sub-let the person with the sub-lease has certain legal rights as between the landlord and the tenant, and it is only right that the landlord should have an opportunity of having to consent to that. Any domestic arrangement between the crofter and any of his relations is certainly permissible, provided it stops short of sub-letting.

Mr. McNeil

Why should a crofter's daughter, for example, forgo the right to which every other citizen has a claim, for example, rent in respect of National Assistance? Under this strange exclusion she cannot make an arrangement with her father no matter how aged or poor he may be. The Lord Advocate has taken us back to the point that there are certain conditions attached to a statutory tenancy. We are again arguing that these attachments are unjust and are a visitation upon the crofter. That is precisely what I am arguing, and I do not think it is an answer to speak of the conditions.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker

The right hon. Member for Greenock cannot make another speech.

Mr. McNeil

I am sorry. I wish that the Lord Advocate would deal with my argument before he deserts the Amendment.

Mr. Manuel

When dealing with this topic, which is important, in the Scottish Grand Committee, I posed a question about a crofter who was keenly concerned to increase his stock and make a good job of his crofting activities. In order to get more winter feed he managed to secure a croft which was more than two miles away from the croft in which he resided. Can I have an assurance that in those circumstances, with two crofts or even three, two or more miles away from the croft in which he resides, he would be allowed to continue using the other croft to increase his store of winter feed and thus be able to keep a larger head of stock?

Mr. Snadden

The Commission would, of course, take that into account. That is not the kind of person we are out to prevent. The Commission would take into account the fact that he was more than two miles away, but we only mentioned two miles to give them some sort of yardstick. There would be no fear of what the hon. Member has mentioned arising in the case he mentioned.

Amendment agreed to.