§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Conway.]9.34 am
§ Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)
I take this first parliamentary opportunity to congratulate President Clinton warmly on his re-election in the early hours of this morning. That has a connection with the debate, because, while I do not know whether President Clinton has any Scottish ancestry, several of his predecessors as President were cleared from Scottish land. The whole House will want to congratulate the re-elected President, and we believe that the high hopes that he has for his second term can be realised.
Land tenure and ownership in Scotland is a. big subject—too big for an hour-and-a-half debate in this place. I believe that the matter is best suited to consideration, improvement and action in a Scottish Parliament. Westminster does not have a good record on debating land reform in Scotland, nor does it have a record of action in dealing with the many injustices and iniquities of the Scottish land position. The most appropriate description is too little, too late.
I shall range across examples from several constituencies across Scotland. I have tried to notify the hon. Members whose constituencies will be mentioned, and, of course, I shall take interventions as I cross from constituency to constituency.
One thing becomes clear as the subject is researched and ventilated. The idea that abuse and misuse of land in Scotland is confined to any one area of Scotland is wrong. This is a problem, a question and a scandal that affects every area of Scotland. The latest legislative scrap from the Westminster table on the broad issue of land is the Transfer of Crofting Estates Bill, which falls into the category of too little, too late. The response of successive London Governments to the pressing problems of Scotland's rural communities can be illustrated in the same way.
It was some 40 years after the famine, more than a century after the start of the clearances, and only years after the so-called crofters' war, that this place finally passed the Crofters' Holdings (Scotland) Act 1886. That measure was welcomed because of the security of tenure that was finally offered to crofting communities in the north-western counties, but it was a lost opportunity in its failure to tackle other problems, none more pressing than the desire for more land. It was too little, too late.
In the 1890s, London's response to the long-standing and pressing cries for more land was the feeble Congested Districts (Scotland) Act 1897, which created a body with 1152 some vision, but its hands were firmly tied by having too few powers and insufficient funding. That was too little, too late. The Act is redolent of an approach to the problem that said that there were too many people as opposed to the people having access to too little land.
In the 1970s, there was some tinkering with the feudal system and crofting legislation. More than two centuries after the first serious calls for land reform in Scotland, this place finally managed to squeeze in a Bill that cut a bit here and reformed a bit there, in the shape of the Freshwater and Salmon Fisheries (Scotland) Act 1976. That created more problems for people who sought recreational access to Scotland's rivers. The 1970s was a lost decade for Scotland, no better highlighted than by the lost opportunity for meaningful land reform.
I shall highlight some recent cases of land abuse and feudal speculation that not only illustrate the failings of the current system of land law but show the real pain that the application of these mediaeval laws causes to families and communities the length and breadth of Scotland. It will be for the people of Scotland to judge—and they will judge very shortly—whether the Government's response in any way matches the scale of the problem.
In the numerous examples of land abuse, the most shocking truth is that none of the perpetrators are breaking the law. The law is their justification, their cloak and shield. That feudal law desperately needs reform.
A number of the cases with which I shall deal today are reasonably well known, at least to some Members of the House, some of them are less so, but they all point to exactly the same conclusion. To end the fear and doubt experienced by families and communities across Scotland, to remove the dead hand of the land ownership lottery, the only solution is radical and real land reform.
The House heard details in a previous Adjournment debate secured by the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston) in May this year of the crisis facing the islanders of Eigg. From Schellenberg to Mamma, the people of Eigg have been badly served by the failings of land law.
In the earlier debate on Eigg, the Minister noted that the island's ownerhas a responsibility not only for the environment, hut for looking after his asset"—[Official Report, 1 May 1996; Vol. 276. c. 1113.]Both Maruma and Schellenberg before him clearly neglected this responsibility.
The good ideas for progress on Eigg—there have been some substantial initiatives—have come from the people of the island, but barriers have been erected against them time after time by the laird and landowner. Concerned and frustrated by the lack of development and the insecure future that that presented for the island, the community came together to form the Isle of Eigg Trust five years ago, and began to work towards community ownership. The trust has now produced a business plan for the island, it has sought to develop sustainable woodlands and it is looking for avenues to create new employment, but, without community control, there may be more lost opportunities to come.
Like a petty laird in his castle, Keith Schellenberg, the previous owner of the Island, contemptuously announced that he would never sell the island to anyone who wanted to involve the islanders in the running of their own community. That is a mediaeval attitude, but one which perfectly fits in with our mediaeval feudal land law.
1153 Today, the islanders face an even worse situation. While Maruma paints himself into obscurity at home in Germany, he has found himself notorious in Scotland. In a scandalous asset-stripping exercise, Maruma has left the hills of Eigg bare of stock, is overseeing a continuing and rapid deterioration of the island, its land and buildings, and, in a throwback to darker days, has a third of the families without secure tenure, fearful even for the roofs over their heads.
What next for the islanders of Eigg? The public appeal is in its final month. The National Heritage Memorial Fund meets within a few weeks to make a decision on the trust's bid for lottery money—an award which would be more justified in the eyes of many Scots who buy lottery tickets than, say, the £13 million spent by the board on purchasing the Churchill papers.
Like many other hon. Members, my office has been in regular communication with the Isle of Eigg Trust. I support its campaign for community purchase of this estate, and I urge hon. Members to sign the early-day motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross (Ms Cunningham), which supports the campaign. I share their plea for greater community involvement in the development of its own and other landed estates.
The Scottish National party is currently examining the proposals made by the Scottish Land Commission. I am delighted that one of its proposals for community land councils, including the whole community in creating a management plan for their local area, has been given a broad welcome by many groups, including the following comment from the secretary of the Isle of Eigg Trust:There should be some measure of protection for fragile rural communities so that their homes and livelihoods cannot be bought and sold at the whim of individuals with little or no understanding. Islands seem to be at particular risk due to romantic notions. The safeguards set out in the Scottish Land Commission report would seem appropriate.As it is not the policy of the Government to interfere in the private ownership of land, are we to understand that they support the ownership of large areas of Scotland by landowners such as Maruma? In view of the experience of the Eigg residents, how can the Government claim to be sensitive or committed to sustainable development of rural areas?
In a feeble response this May, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch) said that the islanders should submit proposals to the rural challenge fund, but is it possible for the Eigg residents to take advantage of any part of the Scottish rural partnership scheme if they do not have secure access to land and buildings? The people of Eigg do not think so, and I think that we should hear today what the Minister has to say.
The Secretary of State for Scotland recently paid a visit to Eigg, and said that he had great sympathy with the predicament facing the islanders. In The Daily Telegraph on 26 September this year after his visit, he said:They explained the real difficulties facing the island. I was rather appalled by the description they presented to me of an island whose infrastructure is crumbling and suffering from serious neglect. The present situation is shocking and is not sustainable. However it is difficult to see that I can do anything directly, but I will make sure that my officials at the Scottish Office are fully aware".1154 There we have it. The Secretary of State believes his powers to be almost superhuman across the range of activities and legislation in Scotland, yet he comes to Eigg, expresses sympathy, says that it is a scandal, and adds, "What can I do? I am only the Secretary of State for Scotland."
What I hope to do in this debate is suggest to the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson) some actions and initiatives that the Government could take, and say whether or not the current legislation programme offers the opportunities to take those initiatives.
I have focused thus far on the island of Eigg, and my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross hopes to have an opportunity to raise her concerns about the Blackford estate in her constituency, but Members will be aware that many other communities across Scotland depend on the whim of their landowner or feudal superior.
As the Scottish Land Commission confirmed—
§ Mr. Salmond
I see that I have provoked a response from one of the feudal superiors in this very Chamber. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman wants to give us some first-hand experience.
§ Mr. Home Robertson
I have been goaded. Madam Speaker. I hope that it will not come as too much of a shock to my hon. Friends to learn that I happen to be the feudal superior of the Barony of Eyemouth, which may sound rather a quaint title. It involves me in minor chores every now and then, such as signing legal documents for people. They are minor chores to me, but represent considerable legal expenses and all the rest of it for the people involved. It is a ludicrous anomaly. I do not like to sound too radical, but perhaps, before we get into the second millennium, it might be appropriate to abolish once and for all the feudal system in Scotland.
§ Mr. Salmond
I thank the hon. Gentleman. He will be delighted that his wish not to sound too radical will certainly he taken on board by his Front-Bench spokesman. The hon. Gentleman can now stand for new feudal superiority in Scotland.
He will also be pleased to know that the Scottish Land Commission has confirmed that most landowners are responsible, display an acceptable level of management and effect their duties as feudal superiors, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that one of the great difficulties is not just the inconvenience and expense that his own feudal estates and obligations can place on people, but the fact that an industry has now grown up on land speculation.
People buy up feudal superiorities not to cause some administrative inconvenience, not even to have the title, but to exact substantial sums and penalties on the people who are unfortunate enough to come within their maw. Many landowners are responsible, as the Scottish Land Commission confirmed, but that is to some extent a happy accident. The case I am making today is that there should be no lottery in Scottish land.
There are fears and doubts just now in Knoydart. The land market across Scotland is fluid. With perhaps the exception of the right hon. Member for Edinburgh, West 1155 (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) and the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson), who knows who their superior or landlord actually is? No sane person can dispute the words of the hon. Gentleman or deny the need for real reform, some control and greater community involvement.
Landowners make a difference to people's lives, and I shall be detailing to the House the ways in which people from Lanarkshire to Aberdeenshire have had their lives blighted by landowners and land law.
I want to deal first with the problem of pre-emption. This aspect of feudal law is designed to give first claim of purchase to the feudal superior when a property is sold on, or if there has been a breach of a feu condition. I shall focus on one serious example which highlights the inherent problems caused by this remnant of the feudal era. It is a case which will impact either on thousands of former council house tenants who took advantage of the right-to-buy legislation to purchase their council home, or, alternatively, on every council tax payer in Scotland.
The former Ross and Cromarty district council became embroiled in a dispute with Broadland Properties, which, in 1991, became feudal superior for a number of council estates in Ross-shire. As superior, Broadlands sought to take advantage of the powers it retained in the feu, and is now claiming thousands of pounds to grant a waiver for the properties sold to the council tenants. I understand that the Court of Session has found in favour of feudal law and the rights of the superior. That legal principle will shortly be tested further in the House of Lords.
If the current position stands, I am advised that its impact might be felt by other councils, from Glasgow to the Borders, to Moray and right through the highlands. There is potential for vast sums to be paid from council funds to feudal superiors for rights which exist in law but which surely have no place in a decent society.
Hon. Members may be aware that the Government are proposing to abolish pre-emption for their own properties transferred under the forthcoming Transfer of Crofting Estates (Scotland) Bill. I ask a simple question: if that is good enough for the Government in a narrow piece of legislation, why not sweep away pre-emption across Scotland?
Pre-emption allows a remote landowner, or a feudal speculator, to interfere in the day-to-day life of ordinary people, and there is no possible justification for the exercise and abuse of those private property rights.
The unjustifiable aspects of feudal law are numerous, as I am about to demonstrate. I am grateful to my lion. Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross for passing on a letter that she received from Mr. Brian Hamilton—a man currently dubbed in Scotland "the raider of the lost titles". Mr. Hamilton enclosed a letter he wrote in August to the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside, in which he went into some detail concerning the current law on prescription.
As things stand, after the registration of a deed, and followed by 10 years of possession of the property, that deed becomes unchallengeable. Mr. Hamilton pointed out that that allows those who register a deed for property that is not theirs to gain an unchallengeable title to it after 10 years. He failed, however, to point out to the Minister how that law has protected many people from the predatory investigations of companies like his own.
1156 I want to bring some examples of Mr. Hamilton's activities to the House's attention. The first concerns two of my own constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Gauld, from King Edward in Banffshire. They were tenants of Grampian region in the Old Schoolhouse in King Edward. In 1984, they purchased their house from the regional council. One day before the exact 10th anniversary of their purchase, when they would have become the unchallenged owners, they were contacted by Cairnglen—a company specialising in feudal investigations, and were told that, in fact, they were not the real owners of their house.
Before I explain the Gaulds' case, I want to let the House know how Cairnglen operates. It seems to be run by an individual called Gordon Kerr, although there are various dummy directors and others involved in the operation. Mr. Kerr used to work for Grampian region, and I am told that, in that position, he had access to records regarding Grampian region's schools and educational properties. Mr. Kerr knew that, in the 19th century, across Grampian and the country, landowners gifted land and buildings to communities for use as schools. Those properties were rarely transferred, so, when the building ceased to be used for educational purposes, the ownership was open to question.
As I have already said, I have been told that Mr. Kerr is acting upon the knowledge he gained while an employee of Grampian region. He further investigates the properties that he has identified, locates the feudal superior, and then approaches him to offer a mutually beneficial agreement in return for that valuable information. The profits from that grubby exercise can be considerable.
Ordinary individuals are, of course, terrorised by the impact of Cairnglen's investigations. In the Gaulds' case, Mr. Kerr or his representative contacted their feudal superior, Captain Alexander Ramsay of Mar, who duly signed over a disposition in Cairnglen's favour, which was registered in the Register of Sasines on 22 March last year.
Mr. and Mrs. Gauld were fortunate in one respect—when they purchased the property, their solicitor had been far-seeing, because he took out an indemnity for £50,000 from the regional council. It has been reported, however, that the claim, which may be tested in court soon, is not for £50,000 but for as much as double that. Mr. and Mrs. Gauld now face a battle to stay in their own house, or the prospect of paying thousands of pounds on top of that indemnity to "re-purchase" it.
I blame the law for the Gaulds' predicament, but I also question the motives of those who search through old titles and take advantage of obscure clauses and ancient laws to cause such misery for ordinary people. I hope that those who are responsible for the action about to be raised against the Gaulds in the Court of Session now examine their actions and, if possible, their conscience. If they proceed with that claim, they will deserve the contempt and condemnation of society, and, I hope, every Member of the House.
Whether one considers the law of prescription from Mr. Hamilton's angle, or from that of the Gaulds, there is no doubt that change is required. Mr. Gauld was head teacher at King Edward's school for 25 years, and I believe that his wife taught at Turriff academy for the same length of time. They are pillars of the local community.
1157 The defence offered by Mr. Hamilton, Mr. Kerr and others of their activities is that they are proceeding against incompetent lawyers or insurance companies, that the only individuals who suffer are regional councils, and that no one will notice the difference. I met the Gaulds earlier this year, and they have had two years of anxiety since the letter came through their door one day before they had the unquestioned title to their property. That retired couple have suffered such anxiety when they should be looking forward to a secure and safe retirement.
People like Mr. and Mrs. Gauld are the pawns in a game played by people like Mr. Kerr and Mr. Hamilton. Those who indulge in such activities and those who sign over their feudal entitlement to them bear a heavy burden of responsibility for the anxiety caused to hundreds of people—it is possible that it could become thousands of people—the length and breadth of Scotland.
Brian Hamilton has profited by many hundreds of thousands of pounds from his feudal speculation, and left lives and nerves shattered in his wake. The law is a mess, but the Government have done nothing to tackle the problem.
In Aberdeenshire, Mr. Hamilton purchased the remnants of the Huntly estate for a mere £2,500. In Kinnoir, he made £125,000 from Grampian region, which sold the property of redundant school buildings to a private bidder. Near Huntly, he proceeded with eviction action against teachers in two properties, and pocketed £150,000. By purchasing feudal superiorities from Aberdeen university, Mr. Hamilton has gained access to a claim for £750,000 of land in Portlethen.
Mr. Hamilton's purchases have not been limited to the Aberdeen area—he has properties in Dundee, Glencoe and Lanarkshire. He has blazed a trail which others are now following, and which poses a threat to many currently unaware and innocent home owners across the country.
Mr. Hamilton's most recent activities, in the village of Boghead in Lanarkshire, highlight yet another flaw in our land law. One case, involving a couple, the Reids, who face eviction and a bill for £30,000, has its roots in an issue already raised in a dispute over ownership, but Mr. Hamilton purchased the right to pursue that couple, and will legally profit from it.
The other cases involved casualty clauses in the ancient leasehold for a number of houses in the village. Again Mr. Hamilton has purchased a right to pursue individuals on the basis of obscure and mediaeval feudal clause. Efforts have already been made to clear those outdated mechanisms from our law, but, as the Boghead example shows, those previous attempts have failed. It is now surely time to clear up that section of feudal law, and I urge the Government to come forward with serious proposals to save others from experiencing the fear and doubts that Mr. Hamilton has created in Boghead.
The solicitor who represents the action group in Boghead, Mr. Cameron S. Fyfe, wrote recently to the Secretary of State for Scotland. He proposed two possible solutions that had been suggested by Professor Sinclair of Strathclyde university, who is an expert on land law. He received a letter from the Scottish Office on 23 October, and without going into detail, it basically stated that 1158 nothing immediate is proposed to be done. That must be dismal news for the people of Boghead and frightening news for other people in Scotland who will be caught up in the legal tangles arising from Mr. Hamilton's profiteering from bad laws.
I have condemned Mr. Hamilton, but I would take as genuine his desire for land reform. Now, however, I shall further criticise him for taking his newly purchased feudal superiorities too seriously, and stepping into the character of a remote and arrogant 19th-century laird.
In Boghead, he sought settlement of casualty payments from Mr. George Malone. Mr. Malone is 82 and, according to press reports, faced a substantial bill to settle his casualty debt to Mr. Hamilton. Mr. Hamilton commented on the case to the Sunday Mail, saying:I'm clearing up the casualty position, and offering the tenants the chance to buy me out. Mr. Malone is a special case. He's old and probably does not have much money. I'll do him a special deal. But if he is making any complaints, then the offer is withdrawn.Those words sum up Mr. Brian Hamilton.
I have had the opportunity to examine in some detail the recommendations and evidence of the Scottish Land Commission. In the course of 10 public hearings, the commissioners spoke to almost 200 individuals representing groups as diverse as the Scottish Landowners Federation, tenants, crofters and farmers. The examples of land abuse that the commission uncovered are instructive. They included the case of an individual who could not get a grant for a development because the owner of the land in question could not be traced—an example of the incredible secrecy surrounding land ownership in Scotland.
From questions tabled last Session by me and my colleagues on this Bench, it is quite clear that the Government are among the most ignorant—at least, they say they are—when it comes to the question of who owns Scotland. Reform is needed to open up information relating to every aspect of land and the grants given to large estates to develop their land.
Such issues highlight another example from my constituency. The Gardenstown Harbour Trust had to fight for 40 years and trace and translate an obscure mediaeval document before it could prove to the Crown Estate Commissioners that it did not owe mooring fees in its own harbour to the Crown. The Crown Estate Commissioners' actions throughout much of Scotland are disgraceful—chasing vassals with the fervour of Mr. Hamilton, they are obsessively secretive and inadequately accountable, and change and reform are long overdue.
The Scottish Land Commission highlighted the abuse of feudal laws by councils and organisations such as Scottish Homes. It received evidence pointing to the activities of some local authorities and housing agencies that insert feudal conditions into deeds for those purchasing their council houses. The council then sits in judgment on what our constituents do in their own homes, just as it did when it was the real landlord. To add insult to injury, it then charges a fee for doing so.
The land and property law of our country should not be a mechanism that allows some people to make a fast buck. It should not allow one group of individuals to interfere in the property rights of the majority. For all those reasons, it is surely clear to even this Government that Scotland's law is in urgent need of reform.
1159 What is the Government's legislative response in the coming Session? It is the Transfer of Crofting Estates (Scotland) Bill—too little, too late. The Government's proposals fail not only to meet the challenge of land reform, but to give the wider crofting community what it desperately wants and needs—more land, bigger holdings and opportunities for new entrants into crofting.
The Government's proposals nevertheless open up the opportunity for genuine debate on land reform in this House. Perhaps, acting together, the Opposition parties could extend the clauses on pre-emption in that Bill to all people in Scotland. There may be a chance to talk about the real needs of crofters and other communities throughout Scotland. The Secretary of State has a cherished public relations touch, which matches his Thatcherite zeal to sell everything whether it moves or not, but his zeal in this cause might well result in land hitting the top of the political agenda. I look forward to the debate on the subject, because the Secretary of State will lose and the people of Scotland will win.
I am grateful to Mr. Andrew Wightman, who recently published "Who Owns Scotland?"—an update of the pioneering work done some 20 years ago by the late Mr. John McEwan. He relates a possibly apocryphal story about a Fife miner, who is walking home one night with a brace of pheasants in his pocket. He meets a landowner who informs him that that land is his, so he had better hand over the pheasants, double quick. "Your land?" says the miner. "Yes," replies the laird, "my land and my pheasants." "And who did you get your land from?" inquires the miner. "Well, I inherited it from my father." "Who did he get it from?" the miner continues; the laird splutters, "His father, of course. The land has been in my family for over 400 years." "Okay, so how did your family come to own the land 400 years ago?" "They fought for it." "Fine," says the miner, "Take your jacket off and we'll fight for the pheasants." The story is apocryphal and humorous.
§ Mr. Salmond
The right hon. Gentleman says that it is not funny, but it illustrates the fact that we are debating an historic question and an historic injustice. My speech is meant to show that that historic injustice is still being visited the length and breadth of Scotland.
The challenge facing the Government is whether the legislative programme that they have announced—a limited and insubstantial crofting measure—can be extended to gather a cross-party consensus on radical change to at least some aspects of land law in Scotland. No sane or decent person can support the abuses that I have described this morning. Surely, within that piece of legislation, we can take action on casualty clauses and pre-emption rights, and so do something substantial to meet the real needs of the people of Scotland.
The hon. Member on Labour's Front Bench does not seem to think that this issue deserves a high priority—[Interruption.]
§ Mr. Salmond
The hon. Member on Labour's Front Bench does not seem to feel that the issue deserves a high priority.
§ Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I rise to express my dismay at the 1160 hon. Gentleman's purely negative remarks. I have made no comment whatsoever, and I ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw his remarks. I am here to listen to the debate, because Labour realises that land is an important issue in Scotland. I want that scurrilous remark to be withdrawn.
§ Mr. Salmond
I was referring not to the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall), but to his colleague the hon. Member for Glasgow, Rutherglen (Mr. McAvoy).
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. If the hon. Gentleman refers to another hon. Member, he should be specific, especially when making allegations. I heard the hon. Gentleman refer to the hon. Member on the Labour party Front Bench, who is the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall). The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) should make it clear that he was not referring to the Labour Front-Bench spokesman. The hon. Gentleman was, in any case, treading on tricky ground, so I suggest that he hurriedly withdraws his remarks.
§ Mr. Salmond
I will gladly take your advice, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was referring to the hon. Member for Rutherglen, who interjected from a sedentary position a few seconds ago.
§ Mr. Salmond
He did—I heard it and I am sure that other hon. Members and Mr. Deputy Speaker heard it. I made a fair comment.
My point is that land issues in Scotland have not been treated as a high priority in this House. It is time they were.
§ Mr. Sam Galbraith (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I cannot let the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Rutherglen be besmirched in this manner. I made a sedentary intervention—I did not think that the remarks of the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) were particularly funny.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. Now that we have had it clarified, first, that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan was not referring to the hon. Member for Dumbarton and, secondly, that the sedentary statement was not made by the hon. Member for Rutherglen, perhaps the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan will do the House the courtesy of withdrawing his allegations against both those hon. Gentlemen.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
Order. I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Perhaps he will now continue with his ordinary speech.
§ Mr. Salmond
In the tradition of collective responsibility, I am sure that the Labour Members will share the responsibility in that matter.
My substantial point is a simple one—that the issue of land in Scotland has not been awarded high priority in this House, and it is time it was. It is time for substantive 1161 change. Before us, we have a part of the legislative programme that addresses a single narrow issue in the Scottish land debate and was chosen by the Secretary of State for his own purposes.
§ Mr. Bill Walker (North Tayside)
The hon. Gentleman has raised an important—indeed, fundamental—matter, and I agree that the House should address it. I am sorry to say that the unfortunate way in which he has presented it sometimes gives offence, but the matter is serious and must be addressed, so I welcome the fact that he has brought it up.
§ Mr. Salmond
I exercised substantial restraint this morning when I dealt with the cases. The feelings that I expressed are as nothing to the feelings being expressed by many people the length and breadth of Scotland who are experiencing real difficulties caused by those ancient feudal overhangs.
The challenge, whether for Conservative Members or for Opposition Members, is whether we shall rise to that issue—whether the current legislative programme will give an opportunity to deal with at least some of those abuses. I ask a fundamental question: will the Minister and his colleagues at least consider whether the scope of the narrow measure on crofting that has been laid out in the legislative programme can be extended to tackle some of the substantive issues that I have discussed this morning?
I regret that the hon. Member for North Tayside (Mr. Walker) does not always appreciate the tone in which I speak. I would not expect us always to agree, but I expect the issues to stand on their merits. Something requires to be done about the state of land in Scotland, and any hon. Member who does not rise to that challenge and support that cause will have to face his or her constituents with some humility in less than six months' time.
§ Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)
I am glad that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) has raised the important issue of land tenure in Scotland. As he said, and as we all know, it is an extremely complicated issue, which cannot be rushed into willy-nilly at short notice. It is impossible to make progress between now and the general election, so I believe that the next Government should consider giving the matter careful thought in a major inquiry.
I am not deprecating the land commission instituted by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond), but I wish to place on the record the fact that it is not a statutory body but an ad hoc committee set up by the Scottish National party for its investigation into land tenure in Scotland.
I was glad that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan said that there are many highly responsible landowners in Scotland, who do good work and look after tenants and add greatly to the community. Perhaps he tends to overlook the difference between land tenure and land management. It is very important to ensure that land is managed properly, irrespective of who owns it. He should bear that thought in mind in future discussions.
1162 I understand that, this weekend, the Scottish Landowners Federation, of which I am a member—although I do not speak on its behalf—will give a response to the Scottish National party's land commission inquiry. Unfortunately, this debate was a few days premature, so the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan did not have the benefit of advice from the federation.
I cannot accept what the hon. Member said about the operations of Cairnglen and others. It is reprehensible to purchase feus with the objective of buying out the current owner of the property, and we all want that problem to be sorted out in the not too distant future.
Such behaviour is very different from that of those who happen to have owned feu titles for very many years; when a building changes use, by law it must fall back into the ownership of the person who gave the original feu. That is different from the position, which the hon. Gentleman rightly outlined, of a company or individual searching out feus and buying them up, and putting the current owner of a house in an impossible position. I agree that that is very unfortunate, and it should be cleared up by legislation in the foreseeable future.
§ Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)
First, does the hon. Gentleman accept that, in my constituency, such as on the island of Arran, long-standing owners of the land exercise the powers of feudal ownership ruthlessly, so the distinction between people does not apply? He does not appreciate the fact that people suffer from that. Secondly, does the hon. Gentleman accept that the Scottish Law Commission has prepared a draft Bill, which is lying unused? It could be made law very quickly, in this Session of Parliament, if there were any political will to do so.
§ Sir Hector Monro
I note what the hon. Gentleman says. I am not aware of either point in detail.
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan said that the debate was about land tenancy in Scotland. When I was responsible for agriculture in Scotland, I felt that we should seek a way of modernising—if that is the right word—land tenancy in Scotland. However, the subject is complicated, and I believed that it was necessary to take everyone with us, both the landowners, who were quite keen to go ahead with changes, and the National Farmers Union of Scotland, representing many tenant farmers who were very reluctant to alter the present arrangements.
I believe that we could have proceeded on the basis that the legislation was not retrospective, and that we should be allowed in future, as was agreed in England in legislation two years ago, to let land on an agreed term of five, 10 or 15 years, or whatever was wanted, with repossession at the end of the term. That seems to be working quite well south of the border.
One aspect of the feu system is worth considering in terms not of ownership but of planning. Often, especially some years ago, that additional hurdle to take in terms of planning has been beneficial in retaining a great deal of the beauty of the countryside. We do not want to throw that away without careful thought.
I shall make only one more point, because others want to speak, and the subject needs more detailed discussion than can be conducted in this short debate.
We must reach a result that is universal for the whole of Scotland—rural and urban. It would be wrong to change laws affecting one area rather than another. We 1163 must aim to create a simplified system. I agree that the issue is highly complicated and technical, especially where the feudal system is concerned. Many people forget that, in many cases, it is possible to buy out fens at relatively modest cost.
I am glad that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan raised this matter, and I am glad that the my hon. Friend the Minister will respond. The subject deserves further discussion. We shall have to hold a full inquiry for legislation some time in the more distant future.
§ Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles)
The House is indebted to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) for securing a debate on the very important topic of land tenure and land ownership in Scotland. I shall make two or three quick points in the short time that I have.
My first point—an important one—is that, as the hon. Member emphasised, land tenure and ownership has risen to the top of the political agenda in Scotland during recent years. He knows that many of the issues of land ownership and land use were mentioned in a debate that I secured last year on wilderness areas. The hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston) secured a similar debate earlier this year.
Those debates, the spate of articles that have appeared in the Scottish national press in recent months, and the two excellent books—one by Andy Whightman and the other by Auslan Cramb—show that the issue of land tenure and land ownership is climbing the political agenda in Scotland. It is doing so because people realise that the feudal pattern of land ownership in Scotland is not a harmless relic but has real implications for people's lives, especially in the highlands; and I shall speak about the highlands.
One good example has already been mentioned: the legislation proposed by the Government on crofting trusts. It is not merely an irony that the Transfer of Crofting Estates (Scotland) Bill was launched in the House of Lords. It is a well-worn pattern under this Government that legislation affecting land management and land use issues originates in the other place. That was the case with the Deer (Scotland) Bill in the previous Session, and we saw how it was mauled in the other place. I am afraid that the pattern will be repeated with the crofting trusts Bill.
That is a clear illustration of the continuing power given to a small class or caste of people by their ownership of vast tracts of land in Scotland. That could have immediate financial consequences for the Government, because the crofting trusts Bill creates the possible right of pre-emption, which may be exercised by former landowners over estates now owned by the Secretary of State, and might result in their receiving a small—or even a large—financial windfall. That is a clear example of the continuing effect of land ownership on public policy in Scotland.
My second example is more local but still relevant to the debate. It shows that the impact of land ownership is manifested not only in what landowners can do, but in what they can prevent.
I refer to the activities of the Uig and Hamnaway estate in my constituency, which recently objected to proposals by local business people to set up a mussel farm near one 1164 of the lochs on the estate. Many people have grounds for objecting to economic developments, but the stark fact is that such an objection from a large estate carries more weight with the Crown Estate Commissioners who finally decide those matters than would an objection from an ordinary crofter. That is a further example of the continuing power and influence of landowners in the highlands.
I shall not reiterate the arguments that I advanced in the debate last year, except for one point that is particularly relevant. I proposed the introduction of new and strict controls over the sale of large estates in the highlands. There is currently a controversy over Eigg, but each year large tracts of land are sold off to the highest bidder, regardless of community interests or environmental need. That is a continuing abuse, which must be halted.
I suggested last year that we pursue the proposals by the Highlands and Islands development board almost 20 years ago, when, in a report in 1978, it called for mechanisms to control the sale of land. It is about time we legislated for such mechanisms. That will be an early task of the Scottish Parliament that will be set up by the next Labour Government.
My proposal is that there should be a specialised land commission or land use council covering the whole of the highlands and islands, which would have powers to veto the proposed purchase of any estate which did not conform to the environmental and economic criteria set down by the land commission. Every prospective purchaser of a large highland estate should be obliged to carry out an environmental and a developmental audit, and the purchase should be allowed to proceed only if those audits were passed. Any subsequent failure to conform to the terms of those audits should result in the purchaser having to relinquish the title and sell it on to another person or body able to fulfil the terms of the audit.
My proposal would involve no compulsory purchase, no nationalisation, no state ownership and no cost to the public purse, but it would soon have a dramatic effect, as it would weed out the most unsuitable speculators and purchasers of large estates in the highlands. It would deflate the speculative value of those estates and thereby put land ownership within the reach of ordinary communities, which, as we see, are aspiring to take over ownership and control of their own estates.
Scotland's feudal pattern of land ownership is not just a quaint relic from another era; it still represents a serious distortion of the social and economic life of the highlands and islands, and it is about time it was reformed.
§ Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye)
I shall contribute briefly to the debate, to enable other hon. Members to make their contributions.
The only part of the speech by the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) with which I would take issue was his description of the crofting legislation that will shortly come before us as "too little, too late". It is certainly too late, but my anxiety is that it is too much, in terms of its blank permissiveness. It grants a blank cheque, financially and legislatively, to the Secretary of State. I agree with the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) that, in the coming weeks, we shall see the extent to which it is gutted in the other place.
1165 It is 20 years since the last Government-proposed crofting legislation went through the House. It is not satisfactory for a matter so complex and convoluted to be considered only once in a generation. In a Scottish Parliament, we could do better.
In a throwaway phrase, the right hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) highlighted the problem when he spoke about the many good estate owners and landowners who "look after" their tenants. Some of us find such paternalism offensive. It has no place in the last few years of the 20th century, as we head into the 21st. It should be a matter not of tenants being looked after, but of people having their own rights.
The hon. Gentleman rightly raised the Ross and Cromarty district issue. Let me probe the Minister on that. The matter is before the courts and has arisen with a right of pre-emption which has been exercised locally. It could have considerable knock-on effects. The basic problem, which arose from the Black Isle originally and has gone all the way to the House of Lords, is that the Government thought that they had attended to the issue of the rights of pre-emption in 1982, and that council house sales overrode those rights. Of course, that was not the case. Although we would very much wish their Lordships to overturn the situation, that is clearly taking some time.
The Government seem to be contradicting what they said in the mid-1980s. As long ago as 1985, the Scottish Office expressed the view that, if litigation highlighted the problem, which it now has, the Government would immediately contemplate amending legislation. They have been immediately contemplating it for more than 10 years now.
The Government could have addressed the issue with what would probably have been a one-clause Bill. They themselves acknowledged that there had been an oversight when they passed the right-to-buy legislation. They should have addressed the issue rather than causing cost to the public purse—the local authorities, the Government and the Law Lords—and distress, frustration and anxiety for the individuals concerned. I make a plea to the Minister: why have the Government waited so long, and why have they not acted in the way they said they would act 10 years ago?
Two recent examples from my constituency underscore the growing sense of anger about the issue. Two rural primary schools are being closed on the Lovat estate. One is at Knockbain near Beauly, and the other is at Kirkton five miles away. Despite the fact that both schools were built and maintained with public money, Highland council has no option but to give them back to the Lovat estate, which owns the ground on which they were built in the 19th century. There is no question of the legality of that; the Lovat estate is on all fours and is quite right.
Councillor Jimmy Munro, who represents the Beauly and Strathglass ward, sums up the problem well. He says:I don't agree with the system, but we're stuck with it. If we had been able to sell the two redundant schools, we could have put the money towards the new Kirkhill school, which would have meant that the council would not have had to borrow so much money to build it.When one considers that a community asset, which has been in community use and community upkeep for more than a century, is reverting to an estate, one can understand why people feel so strongly, especially as the money could have been better applied elsewhere.
1166 Another example concerns a constituent who came to me recently, who wanted to build a small workshop and back porch on his house. He is not a well-off constituent, but a small business person who is operating at the margins. The estate on which he lives demanded a fee of £500 to give approval for him to carry out the work. It advised him that that was standard practice. The fee is £500 a throw, and there are many such approvals every month of the year. That is pernicious activity by estate owners in this day and age.
The Scottish Law Commission has been mentioned. I was not filled with enthusiasm by the response from the Minister of State when I asked him when he intended to take up the gauntlet thrown down by the commission, and to embark on a degree of reform. He replied that the matter was one to which the Government would give due priority. The letter was signed by the Minister of State, who is the younger brother of the Duke of Hamilton. He contested the succession to the earldom of Selkirk in the heraldic court. That does not fill one with enthusiasm or a belief that the Minister of State will give as high a priority to dealing with feudal issues as many of our constituents would wish.
§ Mr. Sam Galbraith (Strathkelvin and Bearsden)
All of us are grateful to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) for introducing this debate on a very important topic. He was more restrained than usual, and rightly so, because the feudal system and laws about which we are talking are a relic of the Scottish Parliament. In other words, they are laws enacted by Scots to the detriment of Scots.
Although he may contend that a Scottish Parliament might have removed those laws, fortunately for his case, the matter has never been put to the test. The hon. Gentleman was also correct to be restrained, because the last Labour Government started to do something about the feudal system, with the redemption of feu duties. They did not abolish feudal rights, but they might have done so if the hon. Gentleman's party had not brought down the Government and sided with Margaret Thatcher.
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan had another reason to be constrained. From the cases he described, he seemed to be making the point that has dogged all land ownership questions in the country for some years. It is not a question of who owns the land and whether it is in foreign ownership or Scottish ownership. The people the hon. Gentleman described were Scots abusing the Scots. I hope that we shall hear no more of the argument that, if only all the land was owned by the Scots, everything would be fine, and that the only problem is the foreign owners.
As the right hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) rightly pointed out, there are two issues here. One is the ownership of land, which is important, but the other is how the land is managed, the point on which I shall concentrate. A good owner can manage the land well, and a bad owner can manage it extremely badly. That is true of management of the grouse moors, the lochs and the deer forests. That point also affects the area in which I am particularly interested, which is access to land. The approach to access is variable; the Minister and I have discussed this on other occasions.
As the Minister knows, a concordat has been established by Scottish Natural Heritage which is a major step forward in agreement and co-operation between 1167 landowners and those who use the mountains about access to the land. This is probably the last chance the landowners have before legislation giving the right to roam is introduced, and they have a duty to make it work. The great problem with the concordat is not that it is voluntary, but that, although it was negotiated with the Scottish Landowners Federation, about one third of landowners are not members, and the federation cannot enforce the concordat anyway.
Despite the concordat, there is still a persistent hassle factor in the Scottish mountains. By that I mean trying to gain access to the mountains and finding notices that say, "Because of Government restrictions, no access". We know that there are no Government restrictions and that the notices are misleading, but the signs hassle individuals and restrict their access.
There are locks and gates throughout the highlands, but not because there are picture house queues waiting to gain access to the mountains. I am not talking about areas like Snowdonia or Sca Fell. I am talking about places like Arkle and Foinavon, where, at almost any time of year, one can walk for a week and never see anyone. I hope that the Minister will keep an eye on access, especially in the particular area that we discussed when we considered the Deer (Scotland) Bill.
Since that Bill was passed, I have done a quick check on notices saying, "Stalking in progress, no access to the hills". Again, those notices are not legally binding, but people adhere to them, partly because they do not want to be shot when they are moving around the mountains. As the Minister will know, stalking is not permitted on a Sunday, yet my recent check has shown that such notices are still up on Sundays. I have asked the Deer Commission and Scottish Natural Heritage to consider the matter, and I hope that the Minister will ask them what they are doing about the problem. If we are to get access, there has to be a two-way process.
I now return to my hobby horse—the national parks, an important form of land management. They have been around since just after the second world war. The Minister of State was responsible for setting up the Countryside Commission study into the matter in 1988, and it reported in 1990. We are still no further forward with national parks. The pressure on Loch Lomond is getting unbearable, and the pressure on the Cairngorms is ripping the area apart. There is bad land management there, and scars such as the Cairngorm funicular are being proposed.
It is proposed that the Cairngorms should become a world heritage site. That, however, will not happen under the current arrangements. The Cairngorms are important not just to this nation's heritage, but to the world. Will the Minister please once again consider national park status, if not for all the areas proposed, at least for the two I have mentioned?
The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan was right to say that land is an important political issue, and it will become more important. As people get more time and as cities expand, we need the lungs of the mountains, the wilderness and the countryside. It is wrong that those areas are exclusively in the hands of individuals, be they Scots or foreigners. We all have an interest in those lands. They should be held in trusts. We must give this issue more importance; otherwise, we are in peril of reneging on our responsibilities.
§ Ms Roseanna Cunningham (Perth and Kinross)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) on securing this debate, and on his speech. Before I come to the specific issues he raised, I want to mention briefly a matter that has been a constant source concern and complaints in my constituency: the management of Blackford estate. It is not a highland estate, so it shows that these problems are not confined to the highlands and islands.
The problem of the Blackford estate is often raised by farmers, local residents and local ministers of religion, who are concerned by the issues that are brought to the fore when they consider the management of the estate. The estate contains many farmhouses—they are in double figures—some of which are visible from the A9, which is one of the main roads through Scotland. Those farmhouses have been allowed to fall into rack and ruin over a period of years. Many people living in the area were raised in those houses, and they must stand by and watch what was a perfectly adequate family home being allowed to fall into dereliction. The estate is in absentee ownership. The owner appears to have little concern for the local community, especially in Blackford.
Those houses could have been used as homes in a part of Scotland that has a housing shortage. As recently as last week, the estate owner was trying to obtain planning permission to demolish some of those houses.
Ian Thomson occupied one of the bothie cottages to highlight the fact that it is nonsense for houses to be allowed to fall into dereliction and for land not to be used, yet when someone tries to do something about one of the houses or one of the fields, attempts are made to remove him. Those attempts failed in court at the first hurdle. The sheriff felt that it was hard to see how it could be argued that Ian Thomson was doing damage to property, given that he was repairing property that the owner was allowing to fall into dereliction. It is an astonishing case, but unfortunately it highlights what is happening.
Land ownership seems to be an area in which vandalism is legal, which is exactly what is happening on the Blackford estate. Even the Scottish Landowners Federation, which is hardly a radical body, does not defend the management practices of Blackford estate. That estate is 30 to 45 minutes from Glasgow—a centre of population in Scotland. This issue is not confined to the far north-west or to the islands.
The Minister will try to convince us that matters are not as bad as they seem. I dare say that he will boldly state that the Government's support for private ownership rights is paramount, and he will condemn any outside interference in those rights or in the land market. Perhaps he will even call such attempts bolshevik, which was the Government's considered response to the 17,000-word Land Commission report.
If he does so, he will have failed to grasp the central arguments of our case. It is precisely the interference of a handful of occasionally unpredictable feudal superiors and landowners in the private rights of the majority that concerns us and the people of Scotland. We urge the Government to undertake land reform to protect the rights of the majority.
I am sure that the Government will ask us to wait for the report of the Scottish Law Commission before they take any action. That head-in-the-sand attitude is not good 1169 enough. Why should the House accept that nothing can be done to remove the threat to the majority posed by pre-emption rights, when the Government blithely propose to remove such rights as they affect their own property in the forthcoming Transfer of Crofting Estates (Scotland) Bill?
My hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan raised the issue of casualty clauses and their impact on the villagers of Boghead. Letters from the Boghead residents' solicitor, to which he referred, have been copied to me. They offer a way forward, with or without the Law Commission report.
They point out that the Feudal Casualties (Scotland) Act 1914 abolished feudal casualties, but not the leasehold casualties that have had an impact in the Boghead case. In the opinion of most experts, that was an oversight. The principle of removing those casualties is not in question. From what I have heard today, it is not called into question by Conservative Members. Those letters offer a solution: an Act of sederunt passed by the Lord President of the Court of Session amending the legislation to prevent the likes of Mr. Hamilton from enforcing his right to payment of casualties.
The Scottish Office reply says that the Lord President is concerned about the vires of such an action. I am sure that hon. Members would offer him full support if he took such a course of action. I hope that the Minister will deal with that point.
That is a short-term solution, but it would have an impact on Boghead residents. In the longer term, it has been suggested that the Long Leases (Scotland) Act 1954, which contained a provision for the transfer of such leases into feus—but only for a period of five years-be reinstated. That is a simple measure, following on from an accepted principle, but it has been rejected by the Government in favour of a wait-and-see approach.
Those are two possible solutions to the problems outlined during the debate. I hope that the Minister will take them as constructive suggestions. I think that there would be consensus in the House on reform, but I fear that it is a challenge that the Government do not want to take up.
With the Transfer of Crofting Estates (Scotland) Bill, the Secretary of State has given us a purely cosmetic Bill that will make little difference to the lives of crofters affected, and absolutely no difference to more than 90 per cent. of crofters. That is not good enough, and the Government will be judged on their failure. I hope that they will accept that we can have consensus on the changes that can be made, which will make a difference to many people in Scotland and which will be welcomed by the people of Scotland as a whole.
§ Mr. Bill Walker (North Tayside)
I shall be brief, because hon. Members on the Front Bench want to speak. Some years ago, I moved an amendment that I thought dealt with the problems in Blairgowrie relating to ownership, feus and so on. To my horror, I discovered that it had not, although the Law Society of Scotland and I thought that we had addressed the matter.
1170 I welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue. I also welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) has raised the matter. I hope that never again in Scotland will we fight one another for our land.
§ Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame. North)
I shall be extremely brief. Feudal power and law are nothing more nor less than an up-market protection racket. Until we recognise that, we will not confront the problem with the seriousness it deserves.
I want to draw a distinction between the activities of the newcomers to this field, such as Mr. Brian Hamilton, and the traditional exercisers of those powers. It is a racket waiting to be exploited. It is just as bad for the people who live under the Seafield, Lovat and Arran estates of this world, which have silently and perniciously exploited these powers for many years. The first part of the reform—the redemption of feudity—was put through by the previous Labour Government. It is essential that the job is finished, and that the whole business of feudal power is swept away, because it has no place in the last decade of the 20th century.
§ Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) on securing this debate, and on bringing some important, fundamental and serious issues to the attention of the House. We empathise with individuals, such as Mr. and Mrs. Gauld, on their heartache and concern. As the hon. Gentleman said, they are at a stage in their lives when they should have some contentment and peace of mind. Instead, they are far from content, and are living on a day-to-day basis. Something must be done about that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) mentioned the Scottish Law Commission's draft Bill on feudal reform. I suggest to the Minister that we could implement that straight away. The Opposition would be happy to co-operate with him on that. My hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) referred to land management.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Raymond S. Robertson)
There is no draft Bill; nor is there a report.
§ Mr. McFall
I think that there is a draft Bill. I should also remind the Minister that, in 1993, I introduced the Carrying of Knives (Scotland) Bill and that, within 24 hours, the Government introduced a similar draft Bill. If the Government could show the same concern and attention to the land issue as they did to the knife issue after I introduced my Bill, the Opposition would be very happy to co-operate with them.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) said, the issue of land reform is extremely important. I am very concerned about Loch Lomond. There is much history on the issue—going back to 1945, when the Ramsay committee recommended establishing national parks. In 1965, Prof. Robert Grieve made the same recommendation. In fact, the Minister of State, Scottish Office commissioned the Countryside Commission to look at Loch Lomond—and, in July 1990, it recommended national parks, although nothing has yet 1171 happened. The fact on which the House should focus—whether we are talking about the Cairngorms or Loch Lomond—is that voluntary solutions do not work.
In the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994, the village of Luss, in my constituency, was taken out of the former district of Dumbarton and put into Argyll and Bute. No concern was shown about the feelings of local people when making that change, and it was made in the most back-door manner. Today, I received a letter from one of my constituents about a planning application for a coffee house in Luss, which will despoil the village's amenity. The former Dumbarton district council worked on the issue with local residents, and, with section 50 planning, it ensured that the local environment would be treated properly.
The planning application was passed by three votes to two by the new Argyll and Bute council-despite the desire of the local representative, Councillor William Petrie, that it not be approved-and the approval will despoil the local amenity. In her letter, my constituent states that local residents are fighting the decision to approve the application, and that they have engaged a Queen's counsel to fight the injustice. The QC thinks that there is a good case, becauseArgyll and Bute Council should not have gone ahead with the second application before the Scottish Office had dealt with the appeal on the first. We have almost raised the Q.C.'s fee of £6,500 and as none of us are well off, you will know how strongly we feel about this issue!That letter goes to the heart of the issue of planning and land management in Loch Lomond. The Government paid no attention to the issue in the 1994 Act, and, as a result, we are faced with the current situation.
I should tell the Government that there can be change by reaching a consensus with the Opposition. Even in the Government's dying days, the Opposition would be quite happy to co-operate with their proposals—or with any Government's proposals—on the issue. Yes, we have used the Scottish Grand Committee in the past, and why cannot we use it again? The Opposition are ready, but we are waiting hear whether the Government are ready.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Raymond S. Robertson)
I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) on securing this debate, and I have listened with great interest to the wide-ranging points that have been raised in it. I fully agree with the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan that land tenure and land ownership are vital issues. A sound system of land tenure and reliable and accessible information on it is an essential cornerstone of any economic system.
I acknowledge many of the criticisms of the current system that have made during the debate. Indeed, the Government are publicly committed to reform and, in particular, to abolition of all remaining aspects of the feudal system. I can assure the House that our aim ns to provide Scotland with a system of land tenure that will meet the needs of the 21st century and beyond.
§ Mr. Salmond
We all welcome that declaration, although I hope that the Minister is not about to say "but", and then tell us that it will be delayed for some time. There is pending legislation, and he has heard about 1172 pre-emption and casualty clauses. Will the Minister at least tell us that he will widen the scope of that legislation to deal with those two matters, which are causing such misery and were the subject of previous legislative attempts that failed? Will he answer that precise point—that we can take action now—instead of waiting, as he is about to tell us?
§ Mr. Robertson
Perhaps if the hon. Gentleman will allow me to speak—he spoke for half an hour, and I have seven minutes to respond to a debate that lasted one and a half hours—some of his questions might be answered.
To make progress with that aim, in 1990 we asked the independent Scottish Law Commission to begin a major and wide-ranging review of property law to provide advice on the way ahead. In 1991, the Commission issued a discussion paper on abolition of the feudal system, and it is now working towards producing a report. As hon. Members will appreciate, it is an extremely complex area of the law. The Commission is wrestling with considerable technical difficulties, and with the often conflicting views obtained during consultation on how those should be resolved.
In October 1995, the then Lord Advocate appointed Professor Kenneth Reid, a respected expert in property law, to be a member of the Commission, with the specific remit of completing the property law projects as soon as possible. We have made it clear to the Commission that that work is a priority, and I would like to see it completed before work on any new areas of law reform is begun.
I understand that the Commission is making progress towards finalising its proposals, and I await its report with considerable interest. In such a complex area, we would not wish to move forward without the benefit of the Commission's advice. We would, of course, also wish to obtain the views of all interested parties on what the Commission proposes. However, I can assure the House that, once the most appropriate approach is established, we are committed to completing the reform of the feudal system and will give priority to any required legislation.
We have heard in today's debate of the problems that owners of some leasehold properties—for example, those in Boghead in Lanarkshire—are facing over unexpected demands for casualty payments. I have the greatest sympathy for those who find themselves in that unfortunate position. The Government do not, however, have any powers to intervene in what are essentially private individual cases of dispute.
I should emphasise that the casualty payments that are being levied by landlords, and the conditions in leases which provide for them, are entirely legal. They are set out in the title deeds of the relevant properties. It is for solicitors acting on behalf of clients intending to purchase leasehold properties to check the conditions of the lease and to make clear those conditions and their implications for their clients. If that is not done, it is open to individual owners to make negligence claims against solicitors who advised them when they acquired their properties.
There are no quick legislative fixes for the problems. Existing leasehold casualties could not be abolished without provision to compensate the landlords for loss of future income. Leasehold casualties that are already due would not be affected, and would remain payable by the tenant. Therefore, in the short term, no legislative solution' would benefit the affected residents in Boghead.
1173 The law on long leases is one of the subjects to be tackled by the Scottish Law Commission as part of its review of property law, and progress will be made once the work on the abolition of the feudal system is completed.
After listening to today's debate, it is clear that land ownership in Scotland is an issue that rouses very strong passions, and it is understandable that hon. Members should wish to debate the issue. It was in that context that, as much as he tried to be measured in his speech, the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan could not quite stop the dark side of nationalism from appearing—the dark side that, under his leadership, has been the hallmark of the Scottish National Party.
The SNP's hallmark is characterised by xenophobia, and by the ugly face of nationalism. What he did not mention, however, are the sinister—indeed, odious—forces that drive him to xenophobia. Those forces are perhaps best displayed in his party by its youth wing, which has produced a leaflet. Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I quoted from the leaflet, you would stop me after I read the 11th word, because it is nothing short of obscene filth, based on the obscene xenophobia that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan peddles as his political creed in Scotland.
§ Mr. Salmond
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is this travesty in order? It has absolutely nothing to do with the debate.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
It is such a wide-ranging debate that, at the moment, the Minister's speech is in order.
§ Mr. Robertson
Therefore—if the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan is serious about the issues that he raised today, and serious in bringing them to the attention of the House and the Government—he will take this opportunity 1174 to disown the obscene and xenophobic filth produced by his party's youth wing. My right hon. Friend Secretary of State has challenged him on two occasions to dissociate himself from the remarks. I now give him a third opportunity, in the House, to dissociate himself from his party's youth wing and from that leaflet.
§ Mr. Salmond
I will give the Minister the opportunity to tell us what he will do about the 900-year history of feudal obligation in Scotland. What measure will be in the Government's legislative programme, and when will the Minister start addressing the issue instead of delivering his mindless abuse?
§ Mr. Robertson
It is now on the record, for the third time, that the hon. Gentleman will not dissociate himself from that leaflet, which, as I said, is nothing short of obscene, xenophobic and anti-English filth.
A great deal of nonsense has been talked about land ownership and management in Scotland. A landowner who does not live on his estate is not necessarily a bad manager of the land. There are those who enjoy harmonious relationships with their tenants and the local communities. Their estates are well-managed and are they able and willing to maintain and develop their estates and consequently continue to support or even expand local employment. Conversely, there are those who reside on their estates who may be less satisfactory landlords.
I repeat my belief that Scotland's system of land tenure and land ownership is flexible, resilient and capable of being adapted to meet the needs of the next century. The Government are committed to doing just that on the basis of advice from the Scottish Law Commission. We are also prepared to take direct action, where appropriate, to ensure that general policy on land ownership is adapted to meet the needs of particular areas of Scotland where the normal mechanism of the market is unlikely to work effectively. We have had a good debate, and I am confident that the Government have found the best way forward.