HL Deb 19 April 1955 vol 192 cc414-9

3.14 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I must do a quick change. This Bill is based on the Report of the Commission which sat under the Chairmanship of Sir Thomas Taylor, Principal of Aberdeen University, and which reported to the Secretary of State something over a year ago. The recommendations in that Report included recommendations that there should be some changes in the crofting law, and those are included in this Bill. The Secretary of State came to the conclusion, however, that the sensible course would be not to limit action merely to some changes of the law, but to bring in a comprehensive Bill dealing with the crofting counties and replacing the existing Acts dealing with those counties which have been in operation from 1886. The Crofting Commission under Sir Thomas Taylor made recommendations which do not need legislation—for instance, they drew attention to the part which forestry could play in rehabilitating some of the crofting communities of the Highlands. These recommendations naturally are not found in the Bill, but we hope to have the help of new Crofters Commission which is to be established in furthering and bringing to pass those recommendations of the Crofting Commission.

It is well to make clear at the beginning that the Bill does not set out to deal with the Highland problem as a whole, but with crofting conditions and with the development of the crofting communities, so that they may take a profitable place in the economy of the twentieth century. Crofting is the traditional way of farming in the Highlands of Scotland. But it is much more than that: it is a way of life, and the objective must be so to organise the crofting communities as to sustain a virile population on the land and to hold out a fair prospect for the sons and daughters of the crofters of today, so that they will want to live in the crofts and bring up their children in the Highland glens. The Commission expressed what I have tried to say in this way. They said that they thought that the provisions in this Bill should be brought in so that the crofting communities should be firmly based in respect of their social, economic and cultural conditions and be capable of growth as well as survival. So your Lordships will find that running through this Bill there is the theme of growth and development. Faced with de-population, particularly with the passing of the young in the last twenty years from the Highland glens into the towns, clearly this sort of dynamic approach is needed.

In the forefront of the Taylor Commission's Report—and therefore in the forefront of this Bill—your Lordships will find provision made for the creation of an administrative body charged with the functions of reorganising, developing and regulating crofting; and it will always have to keep prominently before it all matters relevant to crofting, and advise the Secretary of State upon them. This appointment of the new Crofters Commission is really the salient feature of this Bill. Clause 1 and the First Schedule will show your Lordships its constitution, and Clause 2 deals with its powers and duties, which are deliberately made pretty wide. But however carefully a Bill is drawn, it can never hope to capture and convey the human character of the problems with which the Crofters Commission will have to deal. The Crofters Commission's ability to reorganise the crofting communities with sympathy, tact and drive will be the most important part of their work, and on this much of the success of the Bill depends. The Secretary of State has given a good deal of thought to the composition of the Crofters Commission. It will consist of not more than six persons, who will be carefully selected by the Secretary of State to include persons who are qualified in every way for this delicate but vital work of social and economic reconstruction. One condition which the Secretary of State was able to concede in another place was that one of the members of the Commission will be a Gaelic speaker, which I am sure will commend itself to the noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor.

First of all, therefore, the emphasis is on crofting and the reorganisation of the crofting communities; but, as your Lordships will appreciate, it is important that there should be supplementary occupations available to the crofters, because most of the crofts are really too small to give a permanent livelihood. Therefore, in Clause 2 (1) a duty is laid upon the Crofters Commission to review the conditions of crofting and, where they think it necessary, to make recommendations to the Secretary of State on matters involving supplementary employment. One field which has proved to be a successful addition to crofting is the employment given by forestry, and there is a new provision, in Clause 12, that where part of the crofters' common grazing land is resumed for the purpose of planting trees, that resumption will be automatic where the majority of crofters has given consent and the Commission give their approval.

Sir Thomas Taylor's Commission revealed clearly the need for physical reorganisation in the crofting counties, as noble Lords who have visited them will realise. Many crofts are not worked to full capacity, for a number of reasons. There may be tenants who have been absentees for years; sometimes tenants have been abroad for as many as twenty-five years. There may be tenants who are too old to work. There may be tenants who can work, but whose producing unit is too small. There are persons who use the house for holidays, but neglect to cultivate the land. And there are many cases where tenants have died and no successor has followed; neither the landlord nor anyone else has taken any steps to find someone to work the croft, and it has become derelict. So the Bill provides that the Crofters Commission shall ensure that crofts are let to active crofters. Clause 16 secures that every croft that falls vacant shall be notified to the Commission and that the landowner must get the consent of the Commission to his re-letting arrangements, with the right to appeal to the Secretary of State. Where a croft remains unlet by the landowner, the Commission are given power to let it. We think that by providing that vacant crofts shall be notified to the Commission, that landowners must get the approval of the Commission to any tenants they may put in, and that, in the last resort, the Commission have power to let the crofts themselves, the object of ensuring that the crofts are let to active people who will get the most out of them will be achieved.

Clause 17 gives the Crofters Commission discretionary power to terminate the tenancies of absentees. Whether or not a man is an absentee in law will be a matter to be decided by the sheriff court, but there will be no automatic dispossession; every case will be considered on its merits. If, in the opinion of the Crofters Commission, a croft should be added to another in order to get the best productive capacity—and it is often the case that very small crofts, if allied to those next door to them, could be worked in combination to make a successful productive unit—then the Crofters Commission are empowered to make an arrangement. Where, for instance, a man who is not working his land wants to remain in his house, the Commission can allow him to retain the house under a feu charter, while giving up the land to somebody else to farm more productively. So far as old people are concerned, obviously there can be no question of compulsion; but here again the Commission can make arrangements so that old couples can retain their houses while renouncing the working of the land to others who will farm it more productively. Clauses 10 and 11 simplify and speed up the procedure of determining a successor when a crofter dies. All these provisions, taken together, are designed to carry out the intention of the Bill in a sympathetic and humane way.

So far I have dealt with the individual crofter and the individual croft which has fallen vacant, but noble Lords who have travelled in the crofting counties will know that there are crofting townships which, for a variety of reasons, are almost derelict. There may be a high percentage of persons resident in a crofting township who are very old people and incapable of working the land. The Crofters Commission drew the Secretary of State's attention to this, pointing out that there are crofting communities where "a gradual adjustment would come too late to save them." And I think that is true. Under this Bill, the Crofters Commission can frame complete reorganisation schemes for such townships, provided they get the assent of the majority of residents. It is hoped that by these new powers the Commission can rescue the crafting townships which are hard pressed now and renew their life.

Clause 21 transfers to the agricultural executive committees the functions of controlling husbandry on the crofts. As I said at the beginning, a dynamic approach to this problem is necessary if we are to make the crofting communities play their full part in the twentieth century. In Clauses 22 and 23, therefore, the emphasis is laid on development. Under these clauses the Secretary of State has power to make schemes which will provide grants and loans which will aid agricultural production of crops, and the schemes can be administered through the Commission as an agency. Clause 22, in particular, re-enacts the powers under which grants or loans can be given for improving buildings. A similar provision is made so that loans and grants can be given to owner-occupiers who are substantially of the same status as a crofter. Some of your Lordships will know the islands of Orkney. Anyone who goes there will be immensely struck by the way the Orkney farmers are reclaiming land and increasing the numbers of their stock, and will soon realise that their buildings are far too small for the stocks which they anticipate they can carry on this reclaimed land. Therefore, the provision of building loans and grants to the small owner-occupiers, of which there are many in Scotland, and particularly in the islands of Orkney, will be of great advantage to them.

No Parliamentary Bill, with its rather arid clauses, can possibly convey the atmosphere of the Highland glens and crofts: they have a character of their own which defies definition. But these communities have a distinct quality. They represent much of the human wealth of Scotland and, I dare to say, of the United Kingdom, too, and if we were to lose these sturdy, self-reliant people, brought up on the soil, in the hills, there would be a dire social and economic impoverishment. The object of this Bill is to allow them to play their full part in the national life; to reaffirm the status of the crofter in the national life; to help to inject capital into the land and into that kind of farming where it is badly needed; and to provide an administrative machine which win deal with the problems of the crofters.

I have used the word "machine," but to describe the new Crofters Commission as a machine would be to do something very different from what the Secretary of State has in mind. The relationship between the new Commission and the crofters, as we see it, will be almost personal. They will have to cultivate an understanding of the human problems in the crofting communities, and upon their sympathy and skill much of the success of the Bill, if not almost all of it, will depend. But, given all that, if the confidence of the crofters is won by the new Crofters Commission, and if this Bill is carried to its completion and the spirit of it is interpreted by the new Commission, then I trust we shall be able to justify the faith expressed by Sir Thomas Taylor's Committee, that the Highlands and the crofting counties may yet know a prosperity which they have never known in the past. I beg to move that the Bill be read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(The Earl of Home.)