§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Clelland.]9.34 am
§ Ms Roseanna Cunningham (Perth)
I am delighted to discuss what most people in Scotland regard as an important issue. It was last debated in detail during an Adjournment debate that was secured by my hon. Friend the Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) in November 1996—some 17 months ago—and which took place in different circumstances. The debate has moved on, and I hope that we shall reflect that movement today.
I wrote to the Secretary of State for Scotland on Monday to outline the key areas that I shall discuss, and I hope that that courtesy will enable the Minister to respond positively and constructively. I believe that there is a cross-party consensus: although that can be used in Scotland more as a battering ram than anything else, it is genuine on this issue, and not simply rhetoric. It is the duty of hon. Members of all parties to try to move that consensus forward. I shall make a central proposition in the debate. That will raise wry smiles, but I shall bear with them. I hope that party spokespeople, including the spokesperson for the Conservative party, will respond to the initiative.
The Scottish National party has a well-developed land policy based on two years of wide-ranging consultation by the Scottish Land Commission. The Government are consulting on land reform through their land reform policy unit, and I understand that they have discussed with members of the commission the detail of its report. The other parties have their own ideas, and may have taken their own initiatives.
Anyone who listened to the debate in 1996 will know, however, that there are common threads in the parties' approaches. We appear to agree about the abolition of feudal tenure, and there is consensus on issues ranging from access to the extension of crofting tenure, so there is the basis for agreement on the core of a far-reaching land reform Bill for the first Session of the Scottish Parliament.
I propose that the parties join civic bodies in Scotland and other identified land experts to create a land convention for Scotland, which would work with the Scottish Office in the review of evidence gathered in its consultation exercise and move that work forward by producing a draft land reform Bill—before the new Scottish Parliament meets—which all parties would be able to support, and which could be the Parliament's first Bill.
246 Land reform and home rule have long been intertwined in the Scottish psyche. Since the days of the Crofters party in the House in the 1880s and 1890s, the prospect of land reform through a Scottish Parliament has been a key motivation for millions of Scots, who have had little hope for action in Westminster. We are part of an historic process, and we should ensure that the goal of land reform is delivered as smoothly and as quickly as possible in the new Parliament.
In the past week or two, I have talked about the high expectations of the Scottish Parliament in respect of land reform. To fail to deliver in the face of those expectations would be seen as a failure of the Scottish Parliament. None of us here wants the Scottish people to feel that the Parliament is not delivering in the way that it should.
The details of the proposal can be worked out later, but if we use the Scottish Office's land reform policy unit as advisers, or as a secretariat, use its drafting expertise, and tie that in with the ideas and inventiveness of all parties and from outside the political parties, we can produce a Bill that would be in place by 2000. That would be a fitting Bill for Scotland for 2000.
I urge the Minister to agree to meet me and representatives of the Liberal Democrats and Conservatives in the near future, perhaps next week, to discuss the practicalities of such an initiative. I hope that he and the other spokespeople here today will respond positively to the idea.
I should tell the Government that there can be change by reaching a consensus with the Opposition … the Opposition would be quite happy to co-operate with their proposals—or with any Government's proposals—on the issue … The Opposition are ready, but we are waiting to hear whether the Government are ready."—[Official Report, 6 November 1996: Vol. 284, c. 1171.]Those are not my words, but those of the hon. Member for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) in the November 1996 Adjournment debate. I hope that his Front-Bench colleague will show today the same spirit of consensus and co-operation that was shown before the general election.
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)
The hon. Lady will have noticed that there are few Members present today with Scottish landowning interests; there would have been a few more in 1996. Some changes could take place before her grand reform Bill, such as access to our hills for walkers and others and access to waters, which should not be owned by riparian landowners.
§ Ms Cunningham
The hon. Gentleman is right. I shall comment later about what could move ahead now, and what will probably remain to be tackled after the Scottish Parliament meets. This Parliament has not in the past shown itself capable of reacting quickly to the land reform issues that are so important in Scotland. With some 12, 13 or 14 months to go before the elections to the Scottish Parliament, I guess that it is unlikely that time will be found, although I would be happy to be wrong.
My remarks take account of the fact that some things could be done now and that some things are better left. I should add that I have a lot to get through, so I shall restrict interventions to allow others who wish to make substantive comments to do so.
I have two key themes, as suggested by the intervention of the hon. Member for Greenock and Inverclyde (Dr. Godman). First, there is what the Scottish Parliament 247 can and should do; secondly, there is what we can do now to tackle some of the injustices of Scotland's landholding system. Of necessity, this cannot be an exhaustive tour of the entire land set-up in Scotland. I will no doubt miss some favoured points of other hon. Members. I look forward to hearing about them.
Earlier this week, I published a summary of the SNP's land reform agenda for the Scottish Parliament. It set out our key aims and ambitions for a wide-ranging reform that has access at its core: access to the land for work, for homes and for recreation. Work and homes are often forgotten, because people tend to think of access only in terms of recreation.
The SNP seeks a people's land reform for Scotland. That means information, management, development, access and ultimate ownership of the land by and for the people of Scotland. Land reform must go beyond mere technical tinkering with the basic land law in Scotland. Lawyers tend to get excited by technical changes, but I am one lawyer who does not get excited by the technicalities that so obsess many of my legal colleagues. There must be more than that to land reform in Scotland.
The SNP regards the abolition of the feudal system as the first priority in creating a new land agenda. That appears to enjoy wide agreement in Scotland. Our guiding principle will be to ensure that one group of individuals, the feudal superiors, cannot unjustly interfere in another's free enjoyment of his or her land or property. Ultimate title to the land will rest with the people of Scotland as a whole.
The Scottish Law Commission is working on the details and implications of such a move, but our guiding principle must be that a feudal relationship between superior and vassal is not the best way to ensure that the obligations and responsibilities incumbent on every landowner are enforced. Such a relationship is a singularly strange phenomenon with which to move into the 21st century.
On rural areas, the SNP envisages some of the responsibilities being regulated by communities. We propose that local communities should have a central role in the development of land use strategies for their areas, and that elected locality land councils, working in liaison with a rural affairs Ministry, should draw up local land plans as the basis for sustainable development in their areas.
The introduction of those bodies will be linked to an overhaul of the structure of agencies and grants in Scotland, so that the money available can be spent more effectively, and be targeted at community supported, sustainable projects. Such a far-reaching reform cannot be introduced overnight, and we imagine a phased introduction of such bodies and a gradual extension of their powers and responsibilities. Again, at the heart lies the guiding principle of involvement of communities in the land and in the areas where they live.
The locality land councils' work should be aided by the development of a comprehensive, locally accessible land information system for Scotland. The excessive secrecy surrounding the ownership of land and the financial support available to landed estates is a major concern that must be tackled in any reform package.
It cannot be right that estates in our country receive fiscal advantages as a result of access agreements while the nature of the packages and the scope of the access are 248 never made clear. Our land information system for Scotland will go beyond the existing land register, to provide Scots with a comprehensive land database, and easy, local access to information vital to the process of redeveloping and rejuvenating their local land resources.
There have been some extreme estimates of the cost of such a project. I have seen figures as high as £300 million from some Government sources. That may be the cost of starting such a database from scratch, but bodies such as the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors already have a framework for such a system. Much of the information is already held by university departments and bodies such as the Macauley Land Use Research Institute. The Government's role should be to co-ordinate the gathering of the information we already have, and to prime the pump with the limited additional resources that would be required.
The database would include details of the access rights and recreational restrictions in place in any part of the country. As part of its commitment to access for the people to the land of Scotland, the SNP will define in law a responsible right to roam, backed by a legally enforceable countryside code. I wish that we had not got to the state where legislation was required. but some years ago we reluctantly concluded that it was, and that we could no longer rely on the traditional attitude to access to the land in Scotland.
We intend that the local land councils should play a role in the promotion of responsible access. In especially popular areas, they would employ rangers to educate people about the land and the environment, and enforce the good behaviour rules that will be a central part of making such a policy work. That already happens in parts of the United States of America, and we should draw best practice from such models elsewhere in the world.
The councils would also have the power temporarily to close off certain routes or glens for reasons such as seasonal farming conditions such as lambing and planting of crops, or specific environmental concerns. Those are necessary protections that must be built into any right of access.
Those are some of the key elements of the SNP package, but behind them lie core principles. The Scottish Land Commission report highlights some of the home truths about land in Scotland, and identifies the key fact that who owns the land is less important than how they use it. The SNP proposals would encourage people back to the land, and, although it cannot be achieved overnight, reduce the concentration of land in the hands of so few estates in the longer term. That can be achieved without restrictions on land ownership based on nationality.
We shall require landowners, whether individual or corporate, to have a resident representative who can be held responsible for the management of the land. A variety of fiscal incentives and sanctions would be employed to promote best land practice among all land users. We do not believe that companies are inherently worse landowners than individuals, but, where difficulties arise, we might consider going further, by requiring the creation of an authorised company official to liaise with local communities on the use to which land is put.
The same mechanism would also deal with absenteeism, which is not precisely the same as ownership by foreign nationals. A legally and financially responsible representative in the area could facilitate the review and 249 regulation of the land's use, and remove some of the criticism and controversy surrounding absentee ownership.
Those are things that the Scottish Parliament can and should do, but it cannot achieve certain elements of our package. I shall speak only briefly about the position of the Crown Estate Commissioners, because the matter can be addressed in the debate on the Scotland Bill next Wednesday. However, it is clear that, under the Scotland Bill as it stands, the Parliament will not have even the powers over the Crown Estate Commissioners that the Secretary of State currently has.
In addition, although the Parliament can legislate generally for the land held by the Crown Estate, it will not be able to transfer to other bodies its rights over the foreshore, sea bed, mineral exploitation or even salmon. Such resources could and should be transferred to local communities, so that they can promote their own developments, but, unfortunately, that will not be possible.
In the debate on what became the Transfer of Crofting Estates (Scotland) Act 1997, the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson), now a Minister, made my point for me. Talking about crofters, he said:
Although they have grazing rights on the land, they do not hold sporting or mineral rights and they do not have the ownership of the rivers that flow through that land".[Official Report, 18 March 1997; Vol. 292, c. 732.]That is nonsense, and has always meant that the communities that were given security of tenure under the Crofters' Holdings (Scotland) Act 1886 were never given the potential wealth that went with that tenure. People have been allowed to remain on the land on a marginal basis, but have never had the opportunity to develop the full economic potential of their communities.
Under the Scotland Bill, such a reform will not be wholly possible with a Scottish Parliament, as salmon rights, gold rights and rights over the foreshore cannot be extended as the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North wished last year. I, too, want the people of Scotland to develop the full economic potential of their communities, and it is testament to the existence of cross-party consensus that I can find common ground with the hon. Gentleman on that matter.
Unfortunately, the Scotland Bill tightly restricts the Scottish Parliament's ability to deliver such a laudable aim.
Those are matters for the future, but there are certain steps that the Government could and should take today to begin the process of real land reform in Scotland. I have already spoken of the proposal for a Scottish land convention, and I look forward to hearing a positive response to that. However, as I pointed out in the November 1996 debate, there are measures that could be adopted tomorrow to tackle some of the loopholes that are manipulated to such effect by people like Mr. Brian Hamilton, the "raider of the lost titles", and prevent his activities from being so effective—effective, at least, as far as he is concerned—in Aberdeenshire and Lanarkshire, to name but two areas.
Hon. Members will remember the impact of casualty clauses on the villagers of Boghead, and, last year, various hon. Members pointed out a way forward that did not require the Scottish Law Commission report. It is my understanding that the Feudal Casualties (Scotland) Act 1914 abolished feudal casualties, but not the leasehold 250 casualties that were effective in the Boghead case. In the opinion of most experts, that was an oversight, which could now be corrected, given that the principle behind removing those casualties is not in questions.
An act of sederunt passed by the Lord President of the Court of Session amending the legislation could prevent the likes of Mr. Brian Hamilton from enforcing his right to payment of casualties. Last year, the Conservative Government and the Scottish Office said that the Lord President was concerned about the vires of adopting such a course of action, but I am sure that hon. Members would offer him support if he were to do it. I hope that the Minister will address that problem, which remains with us more than a year after coming so dramatically to light.
Those may be minor points, but we could act immediately to close a gap in the law that can be used to hurt constituents of any Scottish Member of Parliament. Taking such action would clearly establish our intention to grasp the thistle of land reform.
Similarly, the Government could today announce a review of the current structure of quangos in Scotland, which means that farmers and landowners seeking financial assistance or wanting to develop their land can be forced to deal with more than 20 public bodies or agencies. Development in rural Scotland is currently constrained by the presence and activities of a web of overlapping agencies; not only is that ridiculously inefficient—it is an unnecessary barrier to initiative.
If anyone seeks to question the cost of land reform, I would direct them to look at the cost of the current structure of bodies regulating rural Scotland. This is certainly one area in which we need a bonfire of the quangos, and I urge the Government to begin today a review of the role of quangos.
I conclude by repeating some of the questions that I put to the Secretary of State earlier this week. I hope that the Minister will give answers to at least some of them in his reply.
On finance, I understand that Lord Sewel has said that land reform will have to be a cost-neutral exercise. Does that mean that the Government have ruled out making available any additional resources for land reform; and would that rule out the redirection of resources from a reorganisation of the quango system, or from the Crown Estate Commissioners? On access, are the Government and the Labour party both in favour of a responsible right to roam in Scotland? I believe that the answer to that is yes, but I should like clarification of the position.
In written questions, I have asked the Government about the possibility of early completion of the computerisation of the land register. Has such a step been categorically ruled out? Do the Government envisage the land register eventually extending beyond land titles, to include the full range of information about the geography and agricultural and mineral uses of and access to the land?
There have been some interesting and useful initiatives by, among others, Highland council on the question of community ownership of land. Do the Government envisage community involvement extending beyond isolated estates, to include some community monitoring or regulation of land use, or the development of community land use strategies and management plans? Does the Minister envisage current crofting legislation being extended beyond the existing crofting counties, 251 and opened up to encourage new entrants to that environmentally friendly and sustainable form of landholding?
The Government have said little about the detail of their land reform proposals. From discussions with groups throughout Scotland, I am aware of a genuine fear that those proposals may not go much beyond tinkering with the feudal system, and shaking up conveyancing and property law. That would not be considered sufficient.
In 1996, the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald), now the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, called for
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."—[Official Report, 6 November 1996; Vol. 284, c. 1164.]
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)
I do not ask this in a hostile spirit, but it would be valuable to know with which groups the hon. Lady has discussed the matter. She referred to having discussed it with groups throughout Scotland; which groups did she have in mind?
§ Ms Cunningham
The land use commission, which was in operation for some 18 months, toured the length and breadth of Scotland, issued invitations, and took evidence from a huge number of organisations and individuals throughout Scotland—from members of the Scottish Landowners Federation to members of the various radical reform groups, and from notable individuals whose names the hon. Gentleman probably knows well, such as Andy Wightman, who are deeply involved in the issue of land reform in Scotland.
The commission spent 18 months or so in detailed discussion with a variety of groups. Over a number of years, I have frequently met individuals and representatives of many of those groups; I shall meet representatives of the Scottish Landowners Federation again soon. The hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) need not be afraid that these proposals have been dreamed up out of nowhere; they have appeared after a long process of wide consultation.
I was extensively quoting ideas that the current Under-Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Western Isles, has obviously had in his head for some time. His hon. Friend the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North, has said:
Once the principle is established that communities can buy their land on a communal basis from the landowner—presumably at 15 times the rental value—no legitimate argument separates publicly owned from privately owned crofting land."—[Official Report, 18 March 1997; Vol. 292, c. 740.]If the Under-Secretary still holds to the proposals that he advanced in November 1996, is he aware whether his hon. Friend still holds to the proposals that he advanced in March 1997? If so, when may we expect to see some of the details?
252 These ideas can and should be discussed fully and sensibly. A land convention is the ideal forum for such a debate, and would be the perfect vehicle for transferring all our hopes and ambitions for the land of Scotland into reality, in a first-class Bill for the new Scottish Parliament.
§ 10.1 am
§ Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)
First, I declare an interest as an owner of some land in the Borders. I congratulate the hon. Member for Perth (Ms Cunningham) on raising an important issue.
We should all take a greater interest in land policy in Scotland, not least because there is a lot of land in Scotland—30,000 square miles for a population of just 5 million people. Whereas in England there is just three quarters of an acre for every citizen, we have 4 acres for every Scot. Given the density of population in central Scotland, that means that vast tracts of the nation of Scotland are very sparsely populated—although I confess that, even on that calculation, I have more than my fair share.
With that sparsity of population on land with very special environmental and economic qualities, we might be expected to give a high priority to land policy, but I fear that the issue has been sidelined for decades. We must be the last nation on earth that still has a feudal system of land tenure—whereupon I must declare another interest, as an hereditary feudal superior. I hope to have an opportunity to vote myself and other feudal superiors out of that anachronistic office once and for all, and the sooner the better.
That is not the only antiquity that we have in Scotland, as the Register of Sasines, started in the 17th century, is still partially with us, being replaced only fairly slowly with a less impenetrable public register of who owns Scotland.
The use of land in Scotland is determined almost entirely by private owners and occupiers and various unaccountable bodies, such as the Crown Estate Commissioners, which the hon. Member for Perth mentioned, with only limited influence from local authorities, from the Forestry Commission and various public agencies. Meanwhile, the traditional principle of reasonable public access to the open countryside is being challenged by what I describe as new age landlords, both Scots and people from outside Scotland.
The Westminster Parliament, especially the House of Lords, has been a massive institutional barrier to land reform in Scotland. That must be an area where the new Scottish Parliament will have the power and motivation to grasp a deeply rooted establishment nettle. I whole-heartedly welcome the important initiative taken by the Labour Government in establishing the Scottish land reform policy group, and publishing a consultation document on the key issues that the hon. Member for Perth has mentioned.
I have mentioned the Scottish feudal system. That is a superficially quaint arrangement whereby people like me, who happen to be descended from landowning families, can exercise or sell the rights to collect feu duties. That is no big deal, because not much money is involved, and in any case there is a statutory right to redeem the duties.
A far bigger problem is that, in some cases, feudal superiors can still take decisions about changes of use or construction on people's property, which may have been 253 bought many years or generations ago. That system might have had some merit as a 19th-century version of planning controls, but now that we have elected local planning authorities to do the job, there is no need to leave any residual powers to the whim of obscure feudal superiors, be they eccentric aristocrats or even more eccentric Labour Members of Parliament.
That is not the whole story. Feudal documentation gives rise to much unnecessary and costly work for lawyers, which costs affected citizens quite dearly. Worse, it can be possible for unscrupulous operators, like Mr. Brian Hamilton, the notorious raider of lost titles whom the hon. Member for Perth mentioned, to exploit residual feudal powers at the expense of unsuspecting householders. I submit that the whole feudal system, including the associated real burdens on land, should be abolished as soon as possible.
The hon. Member for Perth also mentioned pedestrian access to the open countryside. It is worth pointing out that the Trespass (Scotland) Act 1865 is a limited statutory provision, which applies only to encampments and to the lighting of fires near public roads.
Until recently, there has been a generally accepted right to roam in open countryside in Scotland, subject to a clearly understood duty to respect the privacy of people's homes, and to respect property and agricultural and sporting activities on the land. That system has worked, and in many cases still works, because people exercising the right to roam are reasonable, and because most landowners probably still exercise similar common sense.
Sadly, however, we are witnessing an increasing number of examples of what I have described as new age landowners in Scotland, some of whom—but by no means all—come from outside Scotland, who are erecting obstructions, locking gates and putting up "keep out" signs. I understand that they have been advised by lawyers that ordinary walkers, be they tourists or local residents, would find it prohibitively complicated and expensive to challenge such obstructions in the courts, so legitimate access is being obstructed.
There is another side to the story, which must be acknowledged, because both parties have rights. In some areas, the right to access is being abused by people who leave litter or vandalise property, and people who take horses, mountain bikes or even four-wheel-drive vehicles on to unsuitable routes. I submit, therefore, that we need fresh legislation to restore a reasonable right to roam in open countryside and on traditional rights of way, subject to proper safeguards. There should be no need for public bodies such as Scottish Natural Heritage to pay landowners public funds for such rights, except perhaps to contribute to the costs of bridges, car parks and so on.
I should like to say a great deal more on issues such as the need for better protection of public access to angling on Scottish rivers. I welcome the announcement that Lord Sewel made earlier this week about the Tay and the Tweed protection orders. I should like to speak about other aspects of land reform, such as community-based land ownership, which the hon. Member for Perth mentioned, and about the Crown Estate Commissioners and the need for land for affordable rented housing, especially in rural areas. We might also speak about the excellent new controls that the Labour Government have instituted on opencast mining. However, this is a short debate, so I conclude with some brief comments on the tenure of agricultural land.
254 I am well aware that farmers are having a very difficult time at present—and that should not be taken as a criticism of the Minister of Agriculture by his parliamentary private secretary. The BSE crisis is costing the taxpayer dearly; and in various ways, including the ban on beef exports, it has had a disastrous effect on the market for red meat. At the same time, farming is facing the certainty of major changes to the common agricultural policy; so these are indeed difficult times for rural Scotland.
Beyond all that, Scottish agriculture has the potential for a great future; we can produce the best cattle, sheep, potatoes, cereals, vegetables, berries and many other products in the world. But if we are to take full advantage of our potential, we must reform our land tenure system, and create proper career opportunities for new entrants to farming. At present, the only ways into farming are by succession, by marriage or by winning the lottery. My wife is probably as good a farmer as any other in Scotland, but the only way she could get access to land was by marrying me. Many people would regard that as rather a drastic step to take.
I suggest that the new Scottish Parliament should consider amendments to the legislation governing land ownership and tenure, to create opportunities and security for people who want to enter farming. For that to work, it is necessary to find ways of encouraging people to move out of the industry at the end of their careers. I do not accept the Scottish Landowners Federation line that all is well—that we should trust the free market, controlled by today's vested interests, to secure a bright new future for rural Scotland. The empty glens of the highlands are an awful reminder of what can go wrong. There is a need for public policy in this area.
This is neither the time nor the place to provide answers to the Scottish land question, but the Labour party certainly understands that question. I look forward to the day, not long now, when the Scottish Parliament will have the power and the commitment to provide some radical answers.
§ Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Perth (Ms Cunningham) on securing a debate on a subject that has often generated more heat than light. I suspect that Scotland is unique in the western world in having inherited a system of feudal land ownership which owes its origins to political and social systems designed to exercise power way back in the 11th century. Those systems have survived for 900 years; for 300 of them, Scotland has had no legislature that would have enabled it to undertake, develop and implement programmes of land reform similar to those achieved in many European countries.
Andy Wightman, who wrote the excellent book "Who Owns Scotland?", puts it rather neatly:
Land ownership is a property system which in Scotland, under Scots law, ensures that every square inch of land and inland water, together with the surrounding coastal waters and sea bed, the ground down to the centre of the earth and up to the sky above, is legally owned by somebody.He includes an excellent little diagram in the shape of a pyramid: God is at the top, under God is the Crown, the paramount superior; under the Crown are the superiors; under the superiors are the vassals; and under the vassals 255 are the tenants—the very words are archaic and anachronistic. They suggest that we have been stuck in a time warp.
I welcome the Government's land reform policy group and the document identifying the problems. It is useful and long overdue. I am sure that today's debate will make its own contribution to the consultation process. It is right that the Scottish Parliament should regard land reform as a high priority.
I want to go over the history, so as to explain it to some who may not understand why so much bitterness, anger and sorrow surround the question of land ownership, particularly in the highlands and islands—and I speak as a highlander. Unfortunately, the anger remains today. The infamous clearances that took place between 1785 and 1850 are not forgotten—despite a deliberate policy not to teach Scottish history in our schools, and to stamp out the Gaelic language. The clearances are not forgotten, because their story has been passed down from generation to generation via the oral tradition, music, song and poetry.
My father writes in his book:
Returning home to the Strath of Kildonan with 12 grapeshot wounds in his body after the battle of Waterloo, my great-great-grandfather reached Glasgow. He was told he need go no further north. His people had been evicted and burned out of their crofts, along with the rest of the Bannermans of Kildonan.I welcome the efforts by the Scottish Landowners Federation to change its image—it is even discussing a change of name. I hope that that shows that the federation wants to co-operate in any land reform that takes place. I counsel it against offering apologies—apologies are becoming two a penny these days. It is more important that the body should co-operate and make reparation for what has been done in the past.
What is to be done? First, we need to find out who owns Scotland by completing the land register, so that we have a comprehensive, accurate and publicly available guide to the names of properties and the names of their owners—especially when the latter is a company registered in Liechtenstein or the Cayman islands. Then we need to find out the acreage and the exact boundaries of each property. The Minister will know that the latter are extremely difficult to establish.
The owners are not all private landlords: the Scottish Office, the Ministry of Defence, the Forestry Commission and the Crown Estates all own land in Scotland. Then there are the non-profit-making owners, such as the National Trust, and the conservation bodies. It is reckoned that, by 2010, the conservation bodies will own 10 per cent. of Scotland.
It is sometimes argued that it is not who owns the land that matters but how it is managed—a mantra oft repeated by those who do not want change. Of course management and land use matter, but so does ownership—because that is where the power lies. There is a great deal of land speculation in Scotland. In Norway and Denmark, a legal framework has developed to support an independent, owner—occupied pattern of land ownership, and land sales are regulated. In New Zealand, overseas interests are prohibited from purchasing certain categories of land.
We must abolish the feudal system, and try, as far as possible, to develop community ownership and trusts, with help from bodies such as Highlands and Islands 256 Enterprise. The Assynt Crofters Trust is the great modern example of what can be done. It has more than 100 members, so, at a stroke, 100 more people have a stake in the land.
Although greatly diminished, agriculture is still very important to Scotland. Tenants should be given the right to buy on the right terms; at the same time, we should introduce more flexible tenancy agreements. Crofting is a proven method of retaining populations in areas that would otherwise probably now be empty.
We need to look, too, at compulsory purchase powers. 1 am not talking about powers to take over great tracts of land, but these powers can and should be used—the Highlands and Islands development board never really used them—to assist local community development in cases of obstruction by landlords or conservation bodies.
The Scottish Parliament should set up a land commission to oversee ownership and use. It may also want to consider land value taxation or site value rating, but I would not be in favour of that if the money were to come down to the Treasury in London. If it went to the Scottish Parliament, we should certainly consider that. We need a well balanced mixture, with many more people involved. The subject is huge, but, with good will and co-operation, it can pull Scotland into the 21st century.
On the hon. Lady's invitation to join a land convention, she knows that, as Liberal Democrats, we are always willing to speak to anyone and everyone, if that helps to promote legislation in the Scottish Parliament. Our idea was that the Parliament should set up a powerful pre-legislative committee that would pull in people from all the land interests and base its work on the tremendous amount that has already been done. I welcome any suggestion that would support that.
The Labour party and the nationalists would have to stop their recent spats. I deplore the derogatory remarks that have been made. We may not like our fellow Scots, but we should not make derogatory remarks about them.
[Interruption.] The Liberals do not do so to the same extent, and they do not use the words that were reported in the newspapers recently. As a Scot, I do not like it.
It is good that the Scottish nationalists have seen the light, and saw how well the Scottish Constitutional Convention worked. Perhaps they are proposing something similar. We would be very interested in such a proposal.
§ Mr. David Stewart (Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber)
I thank the hon. Member for Perth (Ms Cunningham) for her initiative in getting the debate off the ground. She has a long track record in radical land use. I congratulate her again on initiating this Adjournment debate.
I represent the largest Labour constituency in the United Kingdom—a seat that goes from the Atlantic to the North sea. Looking back in history in my seat, I am well aware of the importance of land use. For example, more than 100 years ago, Fraser MacIntosh, a radical Highland Land League Member of Parliament, was elected for my constituency. He was instrumental in agitating for the Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act 1886, which gives security of tenure to crofters to this day.
Earlier speakers have commented on some excellent practices in community land use—for example, the Assynt crofters, the Stornoway trust and, in my 257 constituency, the islanders of Eigg, who recently conducted a community buy-out involving Highland council. I congratulate the islanders. I am going to Eigg in a couple of weeks with the Scottish Select Committee so that members of the Committee can see for themselves excellent examples of community land use.
Ownership of land in Scotland is the most concentrated in the whole of Europe: 60 per cent. of land in Scotland is owned by just 1,500 people. It is time that we had a major spring clean through land reform. I welcome the setting up of the land reform policy group by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. That wide-ranging consultation procedure finishes in the next few days, and has been widely welcomed.
Dr. Jim Hunter, a world-renowned historian who is acknowledged as one of the premier champions of land reform, wrote in The Scotsman yesterday:
Within weeks of Labour's election victory, Highlands and Islands Enterprise was asked to set up a community land unit to facilitate innovative approaches to the ownership and control of Scotland's most basic resource.Four months later, Skye and Lochalsh Enterprise bought the 4,500 acre Orbost estate to establish a new community where last century's landlords cleared the inhabitants.Land reform was never going to be easy, but the Labour Government is clearly committed to making it happen.There are four main aspects that we must touch on, which have been acknowledged by earlier speakers: the elimination of feudalism in land use—an end to feudal superiors and vassals; the creation of new crofting land, for which there is great demand; a provision for farm tenants who have security of tenure under the Agricultural Holdings Act 1949 to have an entitlement to buy the land; and conditional and legally enforceable land use codes where there is large-scale purchase of land, irrespective of the nationality of the purchaser,.
I shall cite an example from my constituency—the 17,000 acre Knoydart estate, which was purchased by two company directors a few months ago. The two directors are currently facing disqualification as directors, following referral by the Department of Trade and Industry after the collapse of not one, but two, major companies. One of them had debts of £100 million. Those are the sort of people who are running that estate, where 70 people live and work. I am extremely worried, especially as the Serious Fraud Office is also investigating the directors' behaviour.
The Knoydart foundation, which is made up of local people who are trying their best to promote sustainable development in that isolated peninsula, can no longer do that because of the ownership of the estate. That is an example of economic and social feudalism, which is outdated as we approach the new millennium.
I welcome the debate and the land reform policy group. Land reform must be seen as part of integrated rural development—rural revival. I would also welcome—my hon. Friend the Minister may wish to comment on this—a community land purchase fund by grant or loan, to mirror the 1945 Labour Government's land memorial fund. Few pieces of legislation would better mark the new Scottish Parliament. I look forward to the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2001.
§ Mr. Alan Clark (Kensington and Chelsea)
I declare a partial interest to the House, in that I am a trustee of the family trust settlements in Sutherland. I remind the House that we are not absentees. There are members of my family who are always there. As to my own credentials to speak on the topic within the Scottish nationalist ethic, every male forebear of mine has been born, and all—with the exception of my father—have been buried, in Scotland since 1725.
I caution the House against the received notion that all landowners are wicked and must be sent to the guillotine. That is entirely at variance with the broadly sensible view that feudalism is archaic and should be dispensed with, that crofting communities should be encouraged, and that, in cases where the rights of landowners are abused—exemplified, as the hon. Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Stewart) reminded the House, by what is going on at Knoydart—we must find some way of getting rid of such malpractice.
With reference to the feudal concepts of vassal and superior, the very language is provocative. In Andy Wightman's much-quoted book—which, incidentally, is full of detailed mistakes—there is a celebrated diagram that shows God at the top, next down the king, and so on. If we tamper with feudalism by confiscatory or redistributive means, all we are doing is vesting the land in the king. We may call the king the people, but there is still a monarchy, and the Government are still the legislative and administrative tool of the monarchy. It is not as easy as it seems. We cannot simply say, "We'll get rid of feudalism." Someone must own the land and be responsible for determining what finally happens to it.
The hon. Member for Perth (Ms Cunningham) referred to
ultimate ownership of the land by … the people of Scotland.What does that mean? Who are "the people of Scotland", and how will they exercise their will? How will they make decisions that affect the land? I suspect that, if that principle were applied across the board, we would vest those rights in some amorphous, probably unresponsive, bureaucracy. Will its ultimate master be the Parliament in Edinburgh or Parliament in London? In some respects, it would be the Westminster Parliament—which would be even more ridiculous.
The question of redistributing land in Scotland is fraught with problems because of the confiscatory element that attaches to it. It is easy to say that the community—whatever that means: I do not know whether it is the local councils, regional councils or the Crofters Commission—will have the right to make certain purchases at 15 times the rental value. That proposal is totally confiscatory. Most landowners charge barely any rent to the crofters and others who live on their land.
Through that device, we would break up the large estates—regardless of whether they are run well and responsibly—and revert to a penal and confiscatory regime. If that occurs, Scotland will be the only country in the western world—except probably north Vietnam—where the private ownership of land above a certain level is against the law.
Is that what the SNP wants? I hear sharp intakes of breath from SNP Members; I shall be glad to give way to any hon. Member who wishes to intervene. What does the 259 hon. Lady mean when she says that the ultimate ownership of land should be vested in the people of Scotland? What does that mean if not a transfer of land ownership to some bureaucracy or governmental organ? I am waiting to give way—although we are short of time.
§ Ms Roseanna Cunningham
The right hon. Gentleman has, in the past five or 10 minutes, so wildly misrepresented the views of hon. Members on both sides of the House that it would be pointless for me to begin a point-by-point rebuttal now. The idea of power being vested in the people of Scotland is integral to the Scottish psyche. The right hon. Gentleman may or may not have heard of the concept of popular sovereignty. The idea of vesting ownership of the land in the people of Scotland derives from that doctrine of popular sovereignty. I realise that it may be difficult for the right hon. Gentleman to grasp that, but it is not difficult for Scottish Members to do so.
§ Mr. Clark
That is complete waffle. I asked a specific question: what does vesting ultimate ownership of the land in the people of Scotland mean? Ultimate ownership must be vested in a body of some sort, yet the hon. Lady replies with benign waffle about the people. That ownership must be vested in some administrative organ to which the responsibilities of ownership are devolved, but we are not told what that will be. It would be highly confiscatory to remove land from private ownership at 15 times the rental value and vest it in someone else.
§ Ms Cunningham
The right hon. Gentleman keeps referring to purchases at 15 times the rental value. I remind him that that figure was cited in a previous debate by the Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office, the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson). I did not incorporate that specific proposal into my speech. If the right hon. Gentleman wishes to pursue that point, I suggest that he does so with the Minister who made it in the first place.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)
Order. I ask the right hon. Gentleman to move on. He has made his point, repeated it several times, and taken an intervention. He should now move on.
§ Mr. Clark
I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am glad that I have succeeded in drawing those statements from the hon. Lady.
I warn the House not to rush into implementing penal or confiscatory measures based on false or generalised premises that, in many cases, are unfounded. Land ownership in Scotland is a sensitive issue, and it must be addressed case by case. I caution the Scottish National party and the Government against approaching this issue with certain fixed ideas at the back of their minds. They must tackle it in detail and with the sympathy that this wonderful asset, which belongs to the whole of the United Kingdom, deserves.
§ Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Inverclyde)
I shall be brief, as I can see a certain hon. Friend scowling at me. We have just heard a spirited—and I think reasonable—defence of the interests of the landowning class in Scotland. However, I believe that, at long last, the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) is on the losing side in this campaign. He accused some of us of having a jaundiced view of the Scottish landowning class, and said that we would like to send its members to the guillotine. I would not do that to my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson). I think it is a fine thing that the Labour party has in its ranks representatives of the Scottish landowning class.
My hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber (Mr. Stewart) made several very important points—which the right hon. Gentleman acknowledged—about Knoydart. It is disgraceful that people can come in and use their ill-gotten gains to acquire land and people. If the day is dawning when those people will be booted out of Scotland, I say, thank heavens for that. We need radical land reform in Scotland. As a member of old Labour, I advocate taking the land back into public ownership, where it could be managed by local authorities and others.
My hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian raised a point, to which I shall refer in the next two minutes, about regulated access to land. I know that we shall not see in this Parliament the kind of legislation that the hon. Member for Perth (Ms Cunningham) and others desire. We shall have to wait—I think rightly and properly—until the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh is up and running.
However, I have a question concerning a disgraceful piece of legislation proposed by the previous Government—the odd job lot; the English rural party—that introduced the offence of aggravated trespass. That legislation was introduced into Scotland because of what I would call the English problem of new age settlers who suddenly descend upon farms and small villages in England. We do not have that problem in Scotland, but the offence was introduced by way of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994.
The legislation has angered many people in Scotland, including ramblers and Monro-bashers—there are some of them in this party—fishermen and fisherwomen, and others. There is no need for it. I want to know—the Minister obviously cannot give me an answer today—how many people, engaged in legitimate recreational activities, have been charged under that disgraceful law. I suspect that it has never been used, so perhaps it could be excised from the statute book.
I am delighted with the comments of the noble Lord Sewel in the other place about public angling. I think that it is insane, and utterly scandalous, that people must pay to fish. Not long ago, I was fishing for trout in upstate New York where I spoke to another fishermen, a retired doctor. He was amazed when I told him about the fees that people had to pay in Scotland in order to fish for trout and salmon.
That water does not belong to the riparian owners. My hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Clarke), who has just entered the Chamber, is, like me, a trout fisherman—I regret to acknowledge that he is a bit more successful than I am. Bona fide fishermen and 261 fisherwomen should have the right, if we behave properly, to fish wherever we choose. The Scottish Campaign for Public Angling and other protest bodies and lobby groups are arguing a good case.
I compliment my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Scottish Office for examining the case for protection orders for the Tweed and the Tay, for example. Progress is being made. In the past, whenever these issues came before Parliament, all the backwoodsmen came out of the woodwork, or whatever, to vote in the other place to support their ancient interests. I believe that they are now defending what is largely a lost cause, thank God.
§ Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring)
I begin by adding my congratulations to the hon. Member for Perth (Ms Cunningham) on obtaining this important debate. We are talking about the need to identify barriers to the development of thriving and sustainable rural communities. The necessary test of anything that the Government bring forward will be that any changes in land use must lead to the removal of such barriers expediently and efficiently.
Implicit in several of the speeches today is that there has been a positive contribution from private land ownership in Scotland. With few exceptions, the tone of the debate has not been anti-private land ownership. In many parts of rural Scotland, considerable amounts of private capital are invested in land, with little or no hope of any return, by private investors. That investment generates considerable economic activity in rural areas, and could not be replaced by the public sector. The Treasury, working within its current constraints and looking for the sort of return on investment that it now seeks, would, I am sure, not be contemplating taking public land back into the public sector.
It is interesting that, in this debate, the Liberal Democrats have been the most hostile to private ownership. It is a Liberal party that I no longer recognise. The hon. Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire) smiled when we were hearing that Liberal Democrats do not call people names. The hon. Lady has obviously been dealing on a local basis with the sort of Liberal Democrats that I come across. I find them unrecognisable from the description of Liberal Democrats offered by the hon. Member for Perth.
Any prohibition on ownership of land by non-United Kingdom individuals could be in breach of article 2 of the treaty of Rome, and would fly in the face of the basic rights to own property and peacefully to enjoy the use of that property. Overseas or absentee ownership is far less important than whether the owner has the ability to fund and manage his land in a sustainable manner. Any reform resulting in owners needing to reside on their property would result in the loss of external private investment into fragile rural economies.
As for public ownership, I believe that there will always be a case for certain areas to be owned by public bodies. However, where no case can be made for public ownership, public bodies should divest themselves of land, as investment is likely to keep public funds locked up in low-yielding or negative-yielding assets.
In looking ahead to the Scottish Parliament, there has been talk of taxation. As for the effects of taxation on the land market, any increase in the burden of taxation on 262 land ownership is likely adversely to affect what are already recognised as fragile economies, which in turn will damage local investment and employment opportunities. I am sure that those who take their places in the Scottish Parliament will be aware of that.
Tenancies in agriculture have been central to agriculture in Scotland for generations. They allow those who wish to engage in agriculture to do so without the requirement to invest a substantial amount of capital in the acquisition of farms. Not everyone is able to marry into the family of the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson). There needs to be a balance, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman will accept, between security of tenure and easy access to tenancies. Farmers in Scotland. especially those in marginal stock-rearing areas, are facing considerable financial hardship, for reasons that are not for this debate.
The prospect of lower product prices suggests that farmers generally will have to adopt policies that will lead to a reduction in their overhead costs. That in turn is likely to lead to an increase in the size of farm units, which will be brought about by farm amalgamations. There will be an increasing requirement for farmers to broaden the income base of their businesses through diversification of their activities.
A strong tenanted sector in Scottish agriculture is necessary, but we would like to see that greatly simplified to enable agriculture tenants, by agreement with landowners, to engage in non-farming activities on their holdings. I think that that is a genuine cross-party wish in the House.
The introduction of farm business tenancies in England and Wales, in effect allowing freedom of contract between the landowner and farm tenant, has led to the creation of many new tenancies. We recognise that, in the present economic climate, many of these new leases will have been taken up by neighbouring farmers in enlarging the size of their existing holdings. Similar arrangements in Scotland would allow present farm tenants to negotiate terms with their landlords to enable them to diversify and strengthen their businesses.
The hon. Member for Perth raised an interesting point when she talked about the necessity for a bonfire of quangos. There are many barriers to land use that we need to examine, including planning, consulting bodies, statutory bodies, local taxation and sporting rates, soon-to-be Scottish taxation, transport and access, and affordable housing. These are all obstacles to land use, and factors that we need to consider.
Voluntary agreements to regulate public access to private land is, I believe, the best way forward. Access is not only about the public's aspirations, because there is a need to control abuses, as the hon. Member for East Lothian said, such as litter, vandalism and the inappropriate use of dogs. All these matters need to be taken into account in arriving at a balance.
We would welcome a clarification of current rights of access. It is not clear whether the statement that there is no law of trespass in Scotland is legally or factually correct. A restatement of the law by the Law Officers would be welcome. Perhaps the Minister will be able to clarify the matter when he responds.
A codification of the current access regime would be particularly beneficial in relation to unenclosed land. Any right of access would need to be formulated so as to strike 263 a balance with any environmental conservation factors and any economic activity taking place on the land. Such factors will vary from location to location, and we believe that the emphasis should be on reaching access agreements at local levels, balancing the respective interests of land users, those seeking access to land, and environmental considerations.
There is a real problem, because large areas of the highlands and islands may look open, but in fact contain large and important environmental sites, some of which are covered by sites of special scientific interest, while others are owned by special interest groups such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Unrestricted access in these areas could be highly damaging, and the regulation of access becomes extremely important. I hope the Minister will deal with that.
Whether or not the Government proceed to legislate for access, effective measures must be put in place to ensure that access is exercised in a responsible manner. We do not believe that there should be a general right of access to enclosed land. However, we would welcome the opening up, along with clearer mapping and signing, of existing rights of way. We believe that new rights of way should be negotiated and formalised between landowners and local authorities, with landowners being encouraged by means of positive incentives. The various millennium projects that are now under way in Scotland show how these can be taken forward.
To encourage rights of way to be opened up over enclosed land, it is important that the burden of maintaining them does not fall solely on the landowner. There could be a continuing future role for Scottish Natural Heritage jointly with local authorities in relation to the maintenance of rights of way, and appropriate funding would need to be made available to them for this purpose.
I shall read the words of the invitation issued by the hon. Member for Perth with some care, and respond to her later. However, in our submission we shall make it clear that we accept the need for reform of the feudal system, not least in the language which is used.
May I make a few general points on our approach to the Government's consultation? We believe that Scotland's landscape has benefited from generations of private investment, which could not be matched by the public sector. The ownership of land is irrelevant; it is whether the owner is responsible for positive land management that matters. The relationship between land use in rural and urban Scotland needs to be much better understood.
Existing landlord-tenant legislation needs to be overhauled. The question of public access needs to be fully and frankly debated, and long-term voluntary solutions provided. Existing planning regulations and regulators need to be better streamlined, to cut lengthy consultation periods. Limited reform of land tenure is warranted, but wholesale abolition of the existing system is not.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Calum Macdonald)
This has been a constructive debate, and I shall try to answer all the points that were raised, although there were many, and some were quite complex.
264 I thank the hon. Member for Perth (Ms Cunningham) for her contribution to the current debate on land reform, and for creating this opportunity to discuss these important issues in the House. Her letter of 27 April to the Secretary of State was helpful, and I am grateful to her for sending it. I shall try to answer the specific points that she raised therein and in her speech today.
The amount of cross-party consensus that has been achieved this morning is remarkable. It even included Conservative Front and Back-Bench Members, who accepted the need for a radical look at land use and management. The right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark) seemed to accept the need for regulation and control of the market in large land sales, as we have seen operating in Knoydart.
We all seem to agree that the new Scottish legislature will be able to focus with fresh eyes on the particular circumstances and needs of the Scottish people. It is fitting that land reform legislation should be included in the new Scottish Parliament's earliest legislative programme. The way in which landholdings are owned and managed has a critical impact on the land's ability to sustain rural populations. At the end of the 20th century. archaic approaches to land management and ownership serve all too often to inhibit opportunities for local communities.
I shall cite two recent examples that come to my mind—other hon. Members would have many more that they could cite. In a well-known case in Skye, a landowner insisted on charging local fish farmers substantial sums simply for landing and transporting their fish on an area of foreshore to which he held the title. Another case reported recently, which is rather close to home for me, is that of a landlord who levies royalties on seaweed grown on rocks on the foreshore, which is harvested by local people.
§ Mr. Alan Clark
I agree that it is ridiculous to levy royalties on seaweed, but to charge fish farmers, who often make a substantial profit, something for the right to land their produce on territory under different ownership is a perfectly legitimate commercial device.
§ Mr. Macdonald
If the right hon. Gentleman were to look at that case, he might not come to that view. The foreshore in question was slap bang in between a croft belonging to the local fish farmers and a pier that was not built by the landowner, yet that piece of foreshore was used as an excuse to levy an extraordinary amount of rent from those fish farmers, who have since had to sell up.
We regard those practices as onerous and damaging to local economic initiative, and we are looking at ways in which they can be tackled. We certainly believe that land reform is needed to free land resources for the public good. That is why, last October, we set up the land reform policy group, chaired by my noble Friend the Minister responsible for agriculture, the environment and fisheries. Its task is to deliver a comprehensive agenda for early action by the Scottish Parliament on land reform.
Our overriding objective for that important work is to remove land-related barriers to the sustainable development of rural communities—a principle to which the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) referred. Such development must take an integrated approach to the key areas of economic, social and environmental policy, which underpin all the strategies in support of rural Scotland. 265 The land reform policy group intends to issue its final report by the end of 1998. Its recommendations must be available to inform the manifestos of the political parties contesting the first elections to the Scottish Parliament early next year, and I hope that they will prepare the way for early legislation on land reform by that Parliament.
The group started work last November, and issued its first consultation paper. Published in February, the paper set out to take the views of as wide as possible a range of people interested in the future of rural Scotland. Openness is the key. People who live in rural areas and are therefore affected by those issues should have a chance to contribute to the debate. We have taken steps to ensure that as many people as possible are aware of the group's work. Its approach to its task has been, first, to seek to identify the principal problems and opportunities to be addressed. We must be clear about exactly what the problems are before we begin to devise appropriate solutions.
The consultation period ends tomorrow, and I hope that the group can take on board the flavour and sentiments expressed in this debate. The group will consult again in the summer, to identify the best solutions to the problems that it has identified. The first consultation paper has generated considerable interest. My noble Friend welcomes the fact that more than 120 written responses have been received so far from individuals and organisations throughout the country.
The hon. Member for Perth suggested that a cross-party land convention be established, based closely on the Scottish Constitutional Convention. I am afraid that any parallel between her suggested body and the convention is badly drawn. I remind her that some political parties did not take part in the convention in the past—notably her own party. On the other hand, non-political groups and non-governmental organisations were heavily involved in it.
To replicate such a model in respect of land reform would require going beyond political parties, and would have to include bodies such as the Scottish Landowners Federation, the National Farmers Union, the Ramblers Association and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. That would not be a practical way to approach this matter at present.
§ Ms Roseanna Cunningham
I took care not to draw a parallel with the Scottish Constitutional Convention, 266 although I made a remark about wry smiles. Any convention that is set up would be best advised not to cut off from the debate central issues that might be of importance to a number of individuals. I agree with the Minister about the need for any solution to be widely drawn, but does he accept that we cannot continue fighting the battles of 10 years ago?
§ Mr. Macdonald
We can certainly build on the consensus that we have seen in this debate, and I hope that the group will be able to use this debate as a guide in its considerations. As I said, the group's findings will be publicly available in time for all political parties to draw on them in their plans for the first year of a Scottish Parliament. There may be a huge overlap in the plans put forward by political parties.
I shall not have time to cover all the points that the hon. Member for Perth raised, but I shall write to her about them. A number of hon. Members mentioned access. We are aware of the conflicts between various groups who use and own and in the countryside. The Government have asked Scottish National Heritage to consider the changes required to provide for equitable arrangements on access, and to clarify some aspects of the law on access. However, in view of the proposed time scale, changes to the law on access in Scotland will be dealt with by the Scottish Parliament.
I welcome the reception that was given to my noble Friend's announcement that he will set up task force to consider increasing opportunities for public angling over the coming year.
As for community involvement and ownership, the establishment of the community land unit last year by Highlands and Islands Enterprise, at the request of the Minister of State, has also been widely welcomed. In less than a year of operation, it has given technical advice and assistance to almost 20 communities, including assistance with the purchases at Orbost and Eigg for the benefit of the communities there.
I take particular pleasure in the fact that the once exceptional example of community ownership—the Stornoway trust—has now been joined by other communities elsewhere in Scotland, such as those in Assynt, Orbost and Eigg. That reflects the new priority and impetus given by the new Labour Government to land reform, and particularly to community ownership of land. There is no doubt that that is now high on the political agenda.