HC Deb 15 May 1996 vol 277 cc923-31 1.29 pm
Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles)

I am very grateful for the opportunity to raise this topic, which is important not only to my constituency but to the whole of the highlands and islands. The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson), will know that, when I originally asked for the debate, the issue of most worry to the crofting communities was Government proposals to change a couple of major schemes that are important to crofting.

On Monday, in the Scottish Grand Committee, the Secretary of State for Scotland announced that he had decided not to go ahead with the proposed changes. The Government's change of heart has been widely welcomed throughout the crofting communities. I acknowledge the Secretary of State's decision, and pay tribute to the campaign of the Scottish Crofters Union, which proved so effective in changing the Government's mind.

Happily, that does not mean that there is nothing to talk about today. I should like to use this half hour to discuss a couple of issues of equal concern to the crofting communities. One is a relatively long-standing concern: the general question of financial support of crofting communities. The other is a growing concern that ought to concern the Government as well: the enormous increase in the paperwork and form-filling with which crofters have to cope as a result of new Government schemes and regulations.

Before addressing those topics, I should like to ask for clarification of the statement made on Monday in the Scottish Grand Committee, when the Secretary of State said that there would be no changes to either the housing scheme or the agricultural grants scheme. Will the Minister confirm that that means that there will be no changes whatever in the scope of the agricultural grants scheme, and that all the projects relevant to that scheme will continue to be relevant in future?

I turn to the social and environmental benefits of crofting, and the need for them to be better recognised in the Government's policy. Total support for agriculture in Britain amounts to £2.75 billion—a staggering figure. The support that goes to crofting, however, is obviously only a fraction of that. Under the common agricultural policy, as is well known, 80 per cent. of support goes to the 20 per cent. of farmers with the biggest farms. Unfortunately, the MacSharry reforms have had very little impact on correcting that imbalance. Far too much support continues to go to huge agricultural businesses that provide very little benefit either for the environment or for the communities in which they are situated.

There are 10,000 active crofters in the highlands today. The average croft is about five hectares. There is very little arable farming, obviously because of the nature of the land, and most crofters concentrate on livestock—predominantly sheep. A crofter's average flock is about 60 ewes. It is important to emphasise that that is not the minimum but the average, and is obviously very small. That is why the average amount received by each crofter in CAP support attached to livestock, which is the major proportion of the support that they receive, is about £1,500.

It is useful to compare the 10,000 crofters in the highlands, who receive on average £1,500 each, with the 4,000 biggest farmers in England, each of whom receives more than £50,000, and 13 of whom receive up to £500,000—some more than that—in Government subsidy. From that comparison, one realises that the image of featherbedded crofters is far removed from reality.

Government support is essential to sustain crofting. By definition, crofting is small-scale and part-time, takes place on land that is very difficult to work—it has among the most extreme climatic conditions in Europe—and by itself produces very little income. Government support will continue to be essential to its survival.

The benefits produced by crofting are enormous. The environment benefits greatly. It is no accident that the crofts in my constituency, for example, are the last refuge of the comcrake in Britain. The crofting counties in general are regarded as one of Europe's most important regions of environmental diversity.

Just as important as the environmental benefits is the fact that crofting sustains rural communities in marginal areas as no single Government policy possibly could, or as any other agricultural support system has managed in any other part of the United Kingdom. Crofting has been absolutely essential to the stabilisation of the population in remote island areas—and, indeed, to the revival of and increase in the population in the highlands and islands as a whole. Crofting manages to sustain rural communities, because it gives families a working stake in the land.

That case used to be difficult to make when the sole objective of Government agricultural policy was simply to produce the maximum amount of food. When production was the overriding goal, crofting was obviously regarded as pretty much marginal to it. Today, however, priorities are completely different. The concern is no longer about producing vast quantities of food but about producing high-quality, safe food. There are concerns about safeguarding and enhancing the environment, and about sustaining and nurturing viable rural communities. In all those aspects, crofting is clearly in line with the new social and environmental goals behind agricultural policy.

Unfortunately, crofting is still stuck with the financial support policies of the past. There is precious little recognition in the CAP—even after the latest set of reforms—of the social and environmental goals to which rural policy should be directed and which the public clearly demand as a return for the taxpayers' money that goes into agricultural support. There have been some changes in policy, but not nearly enough. The overwhelming bulk of the £2.75 billion that will be spent on agriculture this year is still not properly connected to the wider social and environmental goals.

It is important to remember that very few support schemes are specific to crofting. Most of the support for crofting is part of the general agricultural support schemes that apply throughout the United Kingdom and the European Union under the CAP. By far the most significant is the sheep payments, for which every sheep farmer in Europe is eligible. Some elements are targeted, but they are very small and not very well targeted.

The less-favoured area supplement provides an addition to the basic sheep payment paid to sheep farmers throughout Europe, but, since 94 per cent. of Scotland is classified as a less-favoured area, the supplement is a broad-brush approach that does not take any account of the particular circumstances of the crofting environment.

There is, additionally, the hill livestock compensatory allowance, by which more than 90 per cent. of Scotland is covered. But that allowance is paid out on pretty much the same basis as the less-favoured area supplement, and again, no attention is paid to the specific difficulties faced by crofters.

The only livestock payment specific to crofters is the small payment of 64p extra per sheep, and the highlands and islands additional payment, which is a similar payment for cattle in the highlands and islands. The difference that those payments make is very marginal. Moreover, the average flock owned by crofters is only 60 ewes. The average specific payment to crofters is therefore less than £40, which makes hardly any difference.

What should the Government be doing? It is obvious that agricultural support needs to be better targeted, and an important way in which to accomplish that would be for the Government to respond to the frequent demands that they increase the highland and islands supplement to livestock payments.

I should like to suggest to the Minister another, new way forward, which I hope that he will pass on to Lord Lindsay for consideration. The European Community has introduced two other designations in its common agricultural policy and rural policy: the mountain area designation, and the sparsely populated area designation. Those complement its long-standing category of less-favoured area.

Mountain areas have been so designated in France, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy and across Europe, except in the British isles. As the highlands is one of the most remote, climatically hostile and famous mountain areas in Europe, that fact is bizarre. The Government should apply immediately to the European Commission to have the highlands designated as a mountain area, so that it can become eligible for the additional CAP supplements funded by the EC and available with such a designation.

The situation is the same in relation to the new sparsely populated area designation, which was introduced with the accession of the Nordic countries to the European Union. Most of Finland and much of Sweden are now designated as sparsely populated areas. The highlands and islands—particularly if one removes Inverness—should be so designated. I ask the Minister to push the case for that with the EC.

The need for better targeting in general goes to the heart of the CAP, which will be debated later today and tomorrow in the House. The Government could make an important start on that if they respond to those two suggestions.

The other big problem facing crofters is the rising tide of paperwork and bureaucracy, which has increased enormously over the past five years and now threatens to overwhelm many crofters. I have been receiving an increasing number of complaints about that issue from crofters. The Government should also be concerned about it because, if the crofters are facing an increasing tide of paperwork, civil servants must be doing more work in Government offices, which means costs to the Government that they should be trying to reduce.

I receive most complaints about the integrated administrative and control system forms that have to be filled in each year. That form is a full 18 pages long, and every crofter must fill it in to be eligible for any of the agricultural support schemes. It arrives at the crofter's door with a 37-page booklet explaining how to fill it in.

Farmers across the country have to fill in the IACS form, but most of those work full-time on their farms and are therefore prepared to take on the extra administrative burden, even if they are not particularly happy about it. However, the motivation for a crofter—who is a part-time farmer receiving very little income from his croft—is quite different. The growing amount of paperwork is extremely discouraging for a part-time farmer, and many crofters are now wondering whether it is worth their while.

The IACS form is by far the biggest bureaucratic burden, but it is not the final one. Other forms have to be filled in to receive livestock subsidy for sheep or for cattle. Another form must be filled in if there are changes in reserve quota. New forms must now be filled in whenever sheep are moved between holdings that belong to different owners. That might be only a matter of wintering sheep. If a crofter moves a couple of dozen sheep from one holding to another, a form must be filled in.

Other certificates must be completed for animals travelling more than 31 miles, which is not far when one thinks of distances in the highland and islands. Moreover, there will inevitably be more form-filling as the Government pursue solutions to the BSE crisis. An endless ocean of forms and paperwork is drowning crofters and removing the incentive and commitment that they have and must have to continue crofting.

The fear is not only theoretical but has very real consequences, which is evident in the way in which environmentally sensitive areas have been designated in the Uists in my constituency. Every year the paperwork for qualifying for grant aid under the ESA schemes has become increasingly onerous. To be eligible, each crofter must first make his way through a 27-page booklet. He must then fill in an 11-page application form, and then produce a management plan for his croft that looks as far ahead as five years.

Such a burden is simply absurd when dealing with crofts that are only five to 10 hectares and receive payments of only a few hundred pounds under such schemes. It also contrasts vividly with the situation in such places as Eigg and Knoydart, where someone can come in and buy out entire estates without even telling anyone who they are, far less having to fill in a five-year development plan or produce an environmental prospectus.

Participation in the ESA scheme has collapsed from 280 crofters in the first year to only 30 this year because of the form-filling required. Paperwork is clearly strangling an excellent idea to provide payments for crofters to farm in ways that specifically benefit the environment.

What has happened in the ESA scheme will happen throughout crofting areas if the tide of paperwork is not halted and reversed. That is why I asked the Scottish Office to include in the review of the administrative costs of operating the scheme in relation to crofting, which was announced on Monday, the administrative costs of all the other programmes for which crofters are eligible. As I said, that is also a problem for the Government if they want to cut bureaucracy and administration.

I have made a couple of specific suggestions to the Minister. I do not expect him to give a detailed reply now. I should, indeed, hope that he will not give an off-the-cuff reply. I hope that he will take away the suggestions, discuss them with his colleagues and perhaps respond to me in writing, so that they can be pursued.

1.48 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Raymond S. Robertson)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) on securing the Adjournment debate. As he said, when he did so he was not to know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State intended to make a series of announcements about crofting at the sitting of the Scottish Grand Committee at Dundee on Monday. I hope that he accepts that it is therefore inevitable that my reply on behalf of the Government must cover much of the same ground as Monday's debate.

As the hon. Gentleman said, both debates were stimulated by the concerns of crofting interests that our proposals for merging the long-standing crofting counties agricultural grants scheme—CCAGS—into the new proposed Scottish countryside premium scheme would work to the disadvantage of crofters. As my right hon. Friend made clear on Monday, that was certainly never our intention.

Indeed, as my noble Friend Lord Lindsay, the Minister responsible for agriculture in Scotland, explained at the launch of the consultation paper in early March, our aim was to provide the best of all the old with the best of the new by proposing that crofters would be able to apply for assistance towards a wide range of capital works, plus a range of conservation management payments not available outside of designated environmentally sensitive areas. Nevertheless, we have listened carefully to what has been said, and I am pleased to note that the hon. Member for Western Isles accepts the reassurances that my right hon. Friend gave in Dundee.

I remind hon. Members that my right hon. Friend has decided to continue to offer CCAGS separately from the new scheme which, as a result, will no longer provide assistance for crofters towards a range of capital items not available to other applicants. Instead, assistance for those items of work will continue to be provided through CCAGS, as at present. I can give the hon. Gentleman the reassurance he sought, that we are planning no changes to the scope of the scheme. Like all Government schemes, however, it will be under constant review.

Eligible crofters will be able to take advantage of other aspects of the proposed countryside premium scheme. For example, they will be able to apply for the various environmental management payments, which will now be available on a much wider basis than hitherto. I know that crofting interests, particularly the Scottish Crofters Union, which has published various joint documents with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, have been pressing for that for some time.

Fears had also been expressed that we were planning to make changes to the crofters' building grants and loans scheme—CBGLS—and, in particular, that we might discontinue loan assistance. We certainly discussed a proposal along those lines with crofting interests earlier this year, and it would have had the very substantial advantage that we could use the resources to increase the rates of grant assistance paid through the scheme. However, again, we listened to the concerns expressed, and we have decided not to progress that proposal further at the present time.

I should also like to emphasise that we have no specific plans for a means test. Although there is no doubt that linking assistance to income in some way might help to improve the targeting of the scheme, we are not persuaded, and at the present time the benefits would be outweighed by the extra administrative cost for the Department and the burden on the applicant.

I can only repeat again that we are in no doubt that the schemes provide an important contribution to the support of crofting communities. For example, the best estimates we have suggest that some 75 per cent. of the 8,000 or so crofters working crofts, plus a further 1,500 occupiers of non-croft holdings in the crofting counties, have used the CCAGS in the past five years or so.

Similarly, in relation to the crofter housing scheme, CBGLS, an evaluation we commissioned in 1993 from Pieda, a firm of economic consultants, estimated that more than 3,200 households received assistance in the 10 years between 1981 and 1991, and that it had played a significant role in retaining households in crofting.

There has never been any question of discontinuing assistance for crofting agriculture or crofter housing. Our aim was simply to ensure that crofting communities and the taxpayer, who foots the bill at the end of the day, secure the best possible value for money for each £1 of public money spent. We therefore have a duty to consider possible changes that might lead to improvements, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will respect that. He has come up with some ideas, and I assure him that they will be properly considered by Lord Lindsay, who will write to him about the specific matters he mentioned.

The topic for today's debate, however, is Government support for crofting communities, and that goes well beyond the two specific schemes to which I have already referred. The reality is that the list of types and forms of support is extremely long. That is right and proper, because crofting communities are found in the remotest corners of Britain, and the natural resources available to those communities are often limited.

However, it is not all a question of economic and social disadvantage. Crofting communities have many strengths including a strong sense of community, a distinctive culture—Gaelic in the Western Isles and Nordic in Orkney and Shetland—and an outstanding natural heritage. It is important that Government support for crofting helps to build upon those strengths.

The Crofters Commission plays a key role in relation to crofting tenure, and the Government support it to the tune of approximately £1.5 million per year. Much of its work is very much out of the public eye, but it nevertheless provides the cornerstone for crofting.

The Crofters Commission is to be congratulated on the way in which it has sought, in recent years, to use its powers positively to support crofting communities—for example, by seeking to tackle the problems of absenteeism, and by developing effective channels of communication with crofting areas.

The commission has also co-operated closely with other agencies to develop new and innovative initiatives such as the croft entrant schemes and the recent crofting township development scheme. In co-operation with the Forestry Authority, it has also helped to promote crofter forestry—a development which I know is close to the heart of the hon. Gentleman, who successfully piloted through the House the Crofter Forestry (Scotland) Act 1991.

It goes without saying that progress on those initiatives has been possible only with Government financial support. Beyond the work of the Crofters Commission and the specific crofting schemes administered by the Department or the commission, there are many other forms of support.

As my right hon. Friend, who has joined us, pointed out on Monday, all crofters with agricultural businesses are potentially eligible for the normal range of agricultural subsidies. For crofters, the most relevant are the various livestock subsidies for hill sheep and cattle—the hill livestock compensatory allowances, including the highlands and islands supplement, and the sheep and suckler cow premiums. Within the less-favoured areas in Scotland, those subsidies amounted to some £220 million in 1995, and crofters will have benefited from an important share of that money.

Under the Government, crofters and crofting communities have also benefited from a wide range of area-specific development programmes designed to help to strengthen agriculture in some of our most fragile areas, and also to encourage the development of alternative sources of employment.

Those programmes have included the integrated development programme for the Western Isles, which spent some £25 million between 1982 and 1987; the agriculture development programme for the Scottish islands, excluding the Western Isles, which spent just over £30 million between 1988 and 1993; the rural enterprise programme, with expenditure of almost £13 million; and, most recently, the objective 1 programme, which will result in public expenditure of about £500 million in the highlands and islands from 1994 to 1999.

Expenditure under the objective 1 programme is intended to help develop all sectors of the highlands and islands economy, including some of particular importance to crofters, such as aquaculture, tourism and the service industry. Furthermore, the selection process for individual projects is designed to ensure that priority is given to those that will benefit the most remote and fragile parts of the highlands and islands—some of the areas where the crofting tradition is strongest.

Crofting communities also benefit indirectly from a range of other programmes, extending from the substantial funding provided for Gaelic organisations, Gaelic broadcasting and Gaelic education, to the subsidies provided for ferry services to the various islands of Scotland on which so many of our crofters live.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

The hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) mentioned land ownership, and referred in particular to Eigg and Knoydart. What is the Government's view of those absentee landlords, who have treated people with contempt? One may talk about hill livestock compensatory allowances, but what happens when the cattle are sold from people's islands?

Mr. Robertson

I am sure that the hon. Lady will agree that crofting is limited on Knoydart. Perhaps she is trying to take me down a road along which I would rather not go during a debate on crofting.

I reiterate that the Government are fully committed to supporting crofting, and they stand on their record. The steady regeneration of the highlands and islands in the 1980s and 1990s has been one of the unsung success stories of the Government's policies, and it has been reflected in increased population and economic activity. That has helped to give increased confidence to crofting communities, which is manifest in recent developments such as the crofting trusts at Assynt, and at Borve and Annishadder on Skye.

It would be quite wrong, however, simply to allow policies and programmes to fossilise. The Government are willing to introduce changes if and when they are required, and to explore new ways of providing support. But we are also willing to listen to what the crofters have to say. In relation to crofting, our commitment and our approach is amply demonstrated in my right hon Friend's initiative on crofting trusts.

We want crofters to be increasingly responsible for shaping their own destinies, rather than have their affairs managed for them by others. Our aim is to give them the necessary support to achieve that.

It being two minutes to Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.