HC Deb 08 May 1968 vol 764 cc571-8
Mr. Buchan

I beg to move Amendment No. 7, in page 10, line 18, leave out from 'tribunal' to 'and' in line 20 and insert: 'except proceedings in relation to which the strict rules of evidence do not apply,'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

It would be convenient, I think, to discuss at the same time Amendment No. 8, in page 10, leave out lines 22 and 23.

Mr. Buchan

I am obliged, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Hon. Members opposite, and particularly the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Wylie), will remember our short discussion of these words in Committee. This is a purely drafting Amendment to deal with a point which was raised by the hon. and learned Member. In Part III of the Bill we are making changes in the law of evidence as regards civil proceedings, and abolishing the requirement of corroboration. We are also making criminal convictions admissible thereafter. The provisions, therefore, are drafted in terms of evidence before the ordinary civil courts, but if we change the basic law of evidence in the court proper, clearly it should have its effect throughout all civil proceedings.

It is less easy to put into effect in Statutes, because outside the courts proper the laws of evidence are applied and departed from to a greater or lesser extent depending on the precise nature of the tribunal. We do not want to alter the basic situation. These procedures have been built up as a result of experience to meet the need for which the tribunals were established.

In so far as they have been bound by the law, we want them to take account of the law as we have amended it. In so far as they have not been, we wish to leave them free and not to bind them by the amended law. This is precisely what the subsection did as originally drafted and what it does as we propose to amend it. The drafting improvement merely simplifies that provision. As originally drafted, the subsection was quite correct in substance, but was unduly repetitive, and the two provisions can be combined in the interests of brevity and clarity.

By applying Part III to civil proceedings before tribunals in which the strict rules of evidence are applied, that is to say the rules applied in the courts proper, we make sure that we take account of changes in the rules enacted in that Part by applying the provisions to other tribunals. We are ensuring that they remain there.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: No. 8, in page 10, leave out lines 22 and 23.—[Mr. Buchan.]

Order for Third Reading read.—[Queen's Consent, on behalf of the Crown, signified]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Bill be now read the Third time.—[Mr. Buchan.]

11.12 p.m.

Mr. Wylie

I do not wish to detain the House for many moments but I feel obliged to say something on the Bill. We on this side welcome Measures of law reform and no one welcomes them more than I. The last Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill was accepted by this side of the House. The Legitimation Bill which is now in another place was welcomed in principle as a measure of law reform. I welcome the principle of proposals for law reform coming from the Scottish Law Commission, for which I have a high regard, although it could be strengthened in certain ways.

What worries me about the Bill is that it contains a number of far-reaching changes in the law, mostly disconnected, all bound up in one Measure, which will make it very difficult for the practitioner to keep abreast of those changes.

The burden of my criticism is this. The proposals in Clause 9 amend the law of evidence. Radical changes of that nature in the law should take place only after the widest and most careful discussion with those bodies most directly concerned, in this instance Her Majesty's judges in Scotland, the Faculty of Advocates, the Law Society and so forth.

This Clause proceeds on the basis of recommendations simply of the Scottish Law Commission. I do not wish to argue on the proposals contained in the Clause, which would be out of order. The Clause has caused much concern in legal circles in Scotland, and it contains the kind of change which should have been embodied in an evidence Bill.

Likewise, Clause 5 makes radical changes in the rules of construction of deeds. The representations I have had recently on Clause 8 are very worrying. Clause 8 applies the Succession (Scotland) Act to the tenancies of crofts. I have had strong representations against the Clause, which unfortunately it is now too late to take up. One feels that there has not been adequate discussion by the Government, particularly with the Crofters' Union, which is an extremely interested body; and I have no doubt that the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Alasdair Mackenzie) will endorse these remarks.

There are other provisions in the Bill which I do not like. I hope that the next time we have a Law Reform (Miscellaneous Provisions) (Scotland) Bill it will not contain such a hotchpotch of radical changes, most of which appear to have proceeded with entirely inadequate consideration and discussion.

11.15 p.m.

Mr. Alasdair Mackenzie (Ross and Cromarty)

I am not competent to comment on any part of the Bill save Clause 8, which is entitled: Application of Succession (Scotland) Act 1964 to tenancies of crofts. The Measure introduces major changes in the system of crofting tenure. The Minister may wonder why he has heard so little from the crofters, particularly since the Bill has almost completed its passage through the House. There are two reasons for this; first, because the crofters knew little or nothing about these changes until the Second Reading had been completed, and, secondly, because the Crofters Commission, which was set up to look after the interests of the crofters, was established with the idea of not recommending major changes in crofting legislation without first consulting crofter opinion on the widest possible front. This has not happened.

The crofters' rigid form of tenure has often been blamed for the lack of progress in crofting areas, but, from my long experience of crofting, I have not found this to be the case, except on rare occasions. The peculiarities of the system have been a measure of its success and it is interesting to note that the Highlands and Islands Development Board commented on the system in its first Report published in 1967: Bearing in mind all that has been said about the system and its admittedly stultifying form of land tenure, it is apparently paradoxical, but we believe true, that if one had to look now for a way of life which would keep that number of people in such relatively intractable territory, it would be difficult to contrive a better system. That was an important statement, coming from a body that was set up to look after the interests of the Highlands and Islands and after examining the situation afresh.

Some crofting families can claim family ties to their crofts going back many centuries. This has been mainly due to the fact that the male heir has always succeeded to the tenancy. But under the Bill if a crofter survives his wife and dies intestate, the estate may have to be divided among all the members of the family, with the result that it will be unlikely that one of them will be able to carry on the tenancy.

Perhaps some changes are necessary and perhaps the changes proposed by the Government are designed to secure better conditions for crofters' widows. If so, this is a high motive, but I suggest that there are other ways in which widows could be helped. Anyone who has studied the crofting system and crofting laws will agree that security of tenure has been the cornerstone of the system in the past. When it has been proved that it has saved crofting from complete extinction, major changes should not be undertaken lightly. I put down an Amendment to exclude this Clause, but it was not called. That, I understand, was for technical reasons. It is late in the day to call for the exclusion of the Clause now, but, in fairness to the crofters, we should keep up the reputation of bodies looking after their interests and more consideration should be given to them. Crofters should have been given an opportunity to express their views before these changes were made.

11.21 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Stodart (Edinburgh, West)

It has been extremely useful to hear what the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Alasdair Mackenzie) said because probably no one in the House knows more than he about crofting conditions. We missed him from the Committee when that Clause was discussed. It is an important Clause, as I made clear in Committee.

What the hon. Member said has fortified what my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Wylie) said about the Bill. One thing which has characterised all its Clauses has been the complete lack of consultation with interested parties concerned with its legal provisions and those closely involved with crofting, who could have considerably helped with Clause 8. I hope that the Under-Secretary will take a lesson from this and that when other Bills of this kind are presented we shall have consultations with those who, if these matters were put to them, would be willing to help to make a better Bill.

11.23 p.m.

Mr. Buchan

I welcome the opportunity of a very short Third Reading debate. This is a useful Bill. I accept the point made by the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Wylie) that it contains a variety of topics, but that is of the nature of a miscellaneous provisions Bill. Most hon. Members in the Committee, although they disagreed with various aspects of the Bill and felt deeply about the earlier parts, nevertheless recognised the importance and the validity of the matters brought forward.

On the arguments deployed by the hon. and learned Member against a miscellaneous law reform Bill, I accept that there may be difficulty for the practitioner, but we must keep in mind that there are also difficulties for people suffering injustice if we do not have miscellaneous law reform Bills of this kind. I accept that we might have waited for a Bill on evidence, but in the meantime the kind of person we have sought to protect would have been suffering. My hon. Friend the Member for Paisley (Mr. John Robertson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Scotstoun (Mr. Small) emphasised that each year there are many cases involving industrial injury and people whom they concern would have suffered if we had waited for another Bill on evidence.

We are told that the main objections are that we failed to consult on relevant parts of the Bill and failed to recognise the concern expressed in areas where we failed to, consult. Let it be clear that the major section of the Bill on the question of dealing with illegitimate children was the result of a high-powered Committee which met and heard high-powered evidence. Therefore, any argument to the contrary is not tenable.

On the other point in regard to a change in the law of evidence, it is true that there has been criticism about lack of consultation. But it is not true to draw the corollary that overwhelming sections of the legal profession in Scotland are opposed to this. The Faculty of Advocates in a letter to me have said that they were opposed to the provision only by a narrow majority. This is hardly an overwhelming section. Secondly, an important legal body, the Society of Writers to the Signet, have approved of it. Therefore, one cannot draw the conclusion that there is a great majority against this Bill.

It is reasonable that there should be concern when one changes a centuries old legal practice in Scotland. But merely because a thing is centuries old, it is not necessarily correct. We should be pleased that this is being brought into operation. This is an amendment to our law which makes it comparable in this regard with any other civilised country of Europe, with the exception of Portugal. I am glad that we have brought it in as quickly as this without awaiting future legislation on evidence.

Then we come to the third element, the matter of consultation. I accept the wisdom, knowledge and awareness which the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Alasdair Mackenzie) brings into a debate when he deals with crofting. I, too, very much regret that he was not present during the Committee proceedings. I am not sure that he was right in his strictures about failure to consult. The measure which we have brought in is correct, not least because of the security which it gives to the widow. To have left the position on the male primogeniture with the new change which we have brought into the law in other respects would have created a difficult situation in the Highlands. Most people with whom I have discussed the matter have approved of it as bringing in a necessary improvement. Far from its bringing in any dereliction of security, it provides an additional security to many people in the crofting community.

I know that one section of the Crofters' Union is opposed to it. I have seen their memorandum on this matter, and I will not go into it in detail. I have not had very much other evidence of widespread opposition. It is not a correct accusation that we have not consulted the crofters, since the provisions were approved by the Crofters Commission—a body which statutorily we are bound to consult and which we have consulted. I have seen no evidence that in 1964 when a change was made the party opposite consulted any more than we have. We consulted them in the first place, but, more important, now that we have reappointed the Panels of Assessors to the Crofters Commission it contains a group of people who reflect the crofters' point of view at the Grazings Committee level.

There has been little, if any, opposition at assessors' meetings on this matter. The House will be pleased to know that when the Federation of Crofters' Unions recently met in Inverness they welcomed the new proposals as they affect crofters. Therefore, we have consulted, and I believe that our measures have been accepted and welcomed by most sections of the crofting community.

I have spoken at rather great length on Third Reading. It seems to me that the three main elements in the Bill are necessary and valuable. We are indebted, on the one hand, to the Russell Committee, and, on the other, to Lord Kilbrandon and the Law Commission for preparing the material on which the Bill has been based. I am sure that it will bring a greater sense of justice to significant sections of the people of Scotland.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.