HL Deb 20 July 1961 vol 233 cc800-14

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.

4.16 p.m.


My Lords, crofting in the Highlands faces difficult and long-standing problems, arising mainly from the small and uneconomic size of most of the crofts, and from the need for other occupations and employments to supplement the crofters' agricultural income. All this has led to the decline and decay of many of the crofting townships, the young and active crofters going off and leaving a high proportion of older and inactive people in occupation of the crofts.

The whole crofting situation was studied by a Commission of Inquiry, the Taylor Commission, which reported in 1954. The Crofters (Scotland) Act, 1955, which the present Bill is designed to amend, implemented the recommendations of the Taylor Commission generally, and in particular it established the Crofters Commission. The 1955 Act also effected a considerable measure of consolidation of the various Statutes dealing with crofting.

In their Annual Report for 1959, the Crofters Commission reviewed their experience of the operation of the 1955 Act provisions. While the provisions relating to the control of assignations, relettings, absentees and so on had worked satisfactorily, they felt bound to point out that practical experience had shown the need for changes and improvements in the 1955 Act. This Bill generally gives effect to these recommended changes.

First, the provisions of the 1955 Act relating to good husbandry had proved virtually unworkable. This was largely because of the extreme nature of the final sanction, namely, dispossession of the crofter, involving his eviction from the croft dwelling house. The relevant 1955 Act provisions are now to be repealed by Clause 10 of the Bill. There is no doubt, however, that a considerable number of crofts are not used or are inadequately used, and that there are younger and active crofters desperately needing more land to help them make a better living.

What we propose to do to meet this particular problem is to provide for the orderly development of sub-letting of crofts. We propose, under Clause 11 (1), to give crofters an opportunity, in agreement with their landlords, of continuing formal or informal and technically illegal sub-lets, by intimation to the Crofters Commission. For the future, crofters will be able to sub-let their crofts, subject to the approval of the Commission, who must first consult the landlord. In addition we are, in Clause 14, proposing to extend to sub-tenants of crofters the agricultural grants available to crofters. We hope that with these inducements there will be a wide use of sub-letting by crofters.

But we have included in the Bill (Clause 12) provision for the Commission themselves to arrange a sub-let of a croft where, after due notice and consultation, the crofter has failed to bring it into adequate use or even to arrange his own sub-let of it. Here the crofter's right to a fair deal is adequately protected. He will, in every case, be able to retain his dwelling house and other buildings which he may need for any non-agricultural occupations, and he will be able to retain some ground for his personal use. We are providing, in Clause 19, that Clause 12, to which I have just referred, with its compulsory subletting provisions, will not come into operation until such date as the Secretary of State may appoint by order, subject to Affirmative Resolution of both Houses.

The Commission found that the procedure relating to the formal reorganisation of crofting townships had not worked in the way originally intended; and so in dealing, in Clauses 8 and 9, with the reorganisation provisions, we have had three purposes in mind: first, to shorten and simplify the procedure; second, to secure a better method of ascertaining township opinion on a draft reorganisation scheme; and, third, to ensure that justice is done and seen to be done. We propose, therefore, to institute a public inquiry, where necessary, under the usual procedure, before the Secretary of State finally decides on the scheme.

I now turn to the question of compensation for permanent improvements on the croft. On the one hand, the present basis of valuation of such improvements by the Land Court has tended to discourage crofters from engaging in nonagricultural activities, such as tourism, since they were not assured of compensation for improvements made in connection with these non-agricultural activities. On the other hand, the fact that the valuation was not related to the realities of the local demand for crofts meant that landlords, in some cases, have had to pay, by way of compensation, far more than they could, in fact, expect to get from an incoming tenant. To replace the present basis of compensation for permanent improvements, we are providing, in Clause 6, that the permanent improvements of a crofter, on outgo, will be assessed at their market value. Under the new provisions, the value put on the improvements will be based on the realities of the local demand for crofts. This will be fairer to landlord and crofter alike.

To safeguard the position of the crofter in tenancy at the commencement of the Bill in an area where, for example, the demand for crofts may be low and the new assessment therefore less than what it would be on the present "hypothetical incoming tenant" basis, we have provided that any such difference between the two amounts—that is, between market value and the hypothetical incoming tenant—will in these circumstances be made up by the Secretary of State. To clarify the position regarding non-agricultural improvements—these include such things as weaving sheds, hard standings for caravans and so on—we have, in Clause 5, made clear the crofter's right to erect buildings and other structures reasonably required for a subsidiary or auxiliary occupation, provided, of course, they do not interfere substantially with the agricultural use of the croft.

These are the main provisions of the Bill. For the rest, we have in Clause 1 increased the membership of the Crofters Commission from six to nine; in Clause 2 (1) the limit on the size of a new croft from 50 to 75 acres, and in Clause 2 (2) to an even larger size if the Secretary of State approves; in Clause 3 improved provision is made for the maintenance of a register of crofts, and the registration of crofters as opposed to a registration of crofts is cancelled; under Clause 7 absentee crofters can retain their house and garden if they or their predecessors provided it or substantially provided it: this will make them more willing to give up the land to other crofters who wish to cultivate it; and Clause 15 makes minor amendments to the provisions of the 1955 Act about common grazings.

My Lords, the provisions of this Bill and those of the 1955 Act have to be regarded as a whole. With the improvements we have proposed in the Bill, the Crofters Commission should be enabled to make further progress. This Bill does not in any way detract from the various measures in hand to provide other employments in the crofting areas. As your Lordships know, the crofts in some parts of the Highlands are extremely small, and we cannot look in these cases to enlargement and consolidation as a means of development. In these areas particularly, other employments, such as forestry, are of special importance; but the extension of financial assistance to croft sub-tenants, their extension to small non-crofting occupiers, and the improved measures of control and development in the hands of the Commission, should serve to bring an increased measure of prosperity and social wellbeing to all the crofting areas. My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Craigton.)

4.26 p.m.


My Lords, I should wish to start off by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, for the very lucid explanation which he has given of the purposes of this Bill. In fact, in a comparatively short time he has said all the things which he advised me he was going to say, but one, and that was to describe it as a "useful little Bill". I am sorry he did not do that, because it would have given me the opportunity of at least saying that I agree with him in part. The expression "little Bill" is one which Ministers frequently use in praise of their efforts, and it is one to which the House never takes exception. Of course, it does not always give the same unanimous response to the other adjective. "Little" has a somewhat hallowed use in mitigation of offences. It has been used, I think, in justification of everything from illegitimate babies to the Crofters' Bill this afternoon.

I could do a lot of things at later stages if I were so inclined. I did a little looking up as to what had taken place on this Bill in another place, and I learned to my surprise—and it added to my admiration for the activities of my friends in another place—that they were able to have the debate in the Scottish Grand Committee last for 23 sittings. I am assured by the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, that during those 23 sittings the Government accepted some of the Amendments which my friends in another place proposed. There is a grave temptation for me to try at the Committee stage here to put forward once again all the Amendments which the Government did not accept in another place, to see whether I on my own could be more persuasive than all my colleagues put together in another place. There are a variety of reasons why I have decided not to do that. I think the first is that at such a late stage in the proceedings, and following on the announcement which was made about the expected time of rising for the Summer Recess, I do not think that would make me unduly popular with my colleagues here, even though we might succeed in temporarily disrupting the Government programme—a measure which I am sure has its attractions in another place more than it necessarily has here. The second reason why I do not propose to do that is that I am quite satisfied that all I should succeed in doing would be to prove to your Lordships that I was no more persuasive than the people elsewhere.

I have two even better reasons for not doing so. The third one is that I am quite certain that what I should succeed in demonstrating beyond any shadow of doubt is that the only Members of your Lordships House who know less about crofting in Scotland are those Members who rose hastily to leave when the noble Lord started to move the Second Reading of the Bill. My last reason for confining my remarks at this stage is that when the succeeding stages of the Bill take place next week, notwithstanding the announcement of the rising of the House, I expect to be in the island of Mull endeavouring to ensure that, when the right honourable gentleman the Home Secretary proceeds there a little later, nothing that the Government has meanwhile decided will detract from the welcome which Mull will give him.

For these reasons, I shall confine myself to congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, for the friendly way in which he has presented this Bill. And I express the hope that it will fulfil the Government's intention and that it will not be necessary for the Government to present a third Bill in 1967 to repair the omissions or anomalies created by the 1961 Act which is to amend the provisions of the 1955 Act.

4.31 p.m.


My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Craigton has pointed out, this Bill is primarily to amend some of the provisions of the Crofters Act, 1955. It is a Bill which should be beneficial to the crofters, and as such I am sure that all your Lordships will welcome it. Crofting, as most of us know, is in many cases a very lonely occupation, where families often eke out a somewhat precarious existence if conditions mitigate against them, and I believe that, within reason, anything we can do to improve crofting in the Highlands of Scotland, we should do. Above all, we do not want to see a further de-population in the crofting counties of Scotland.

The Bill seems to lay emphasis on the need for reorganisation of crofts, and I suppose we must recognise the modern tendency in agriculture towards larger units of production. We see it everywhere in the world, in business and in agriculture; and, of course, the same thing applies equally to crofting. It may well be that many amalgamations of crofts will have to take place under the new provisions of this Bill in order that land will not go out of production.

This is a crofting Bill, not a tourism Bill, but I feel that the two things, crofting and tourism, if they are more closely integrated, can be of.the greatest mutual benefit, crofting to the tourists and the tourists to crofting. Because I think that crofting belongs to-day with the economy of the Highlands as a whole, and I am a great believer in tourism to help the economy of the Highlands. We have the most incomparable scenery and wonderful monuments for people to see. I do not know if your Lordships know the Islands of Orkney, but I have just paid another visit up there, and I was tremendously impressed with all there was to see—not monuments just to interest the archeologists, but those of interest to the ordinary tourist. All sorts of things; 2,000 B.C. Stone Age monuments right through to the Viking Period and medieval times. Places such as St. Magnus Cathedral, in Kirkwall, one of the masterpieces of our country, and, indeed, of Great Britain.

All these things are there to be seen, but the Tourist Board is greatly hampered by lack of accommodation. So I am very glad to see that in Clause 5 of the Bill provision is made for erecting additional buildings which will rank as permanent improvements on the crofts. It seems to me that the provision of more accommodation on the crofts for tourists is an excellent way of supplementing the crofters' income during the holiday season. Many tourists do not require full-scale holiday accommodation—indeed, we know that hotels have enough problems of their own, with so many of their staff going away nowadays to work in industry.

The only thing I should like to know from the noble Lord is this: who is going to pay for this accommodation which landlords or crofters are entitled under Clause 5 to set up? There is financial provision, I think, in Clause 14, but is the Secretary of State liable to give financial assistance to landlords or crofters for putting up this holiday accommodation, or have they to do It at their own risk? I hope that this is included under this clause, because if it is not I believe that a golden opportunity has been missed to help the tourist trade.

My Lords, the only other thing I want to mention is the question of common grazing, under Clause 15. Many of us feel that it would have been of great benefit to crofting if there had been provision in the Bill whereby the landlord had the right, with the Land Court's consent, to resume the practice of common grazings for pastoral purposes. Many of these crofts are bleak and wind-swept places and we all know what sheltered cairns can do; how they can improve the amenity of the country, warm the land and bring more fertility to the crops. We all know how the land can benefit by keeping the wind off; how much it can benefit young grass in the early part of the season, and how the sheep breeders like to have that early grass for their sheep. It is not in the Bill, so it is too late. I wanted to mention these one or two points, but, of course, I do not intend to put down any Amendments. I want to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Craigton, on introducing this Bill, and I commend it to your Lordships and hope that you will give it a Second Reading.


My Lords, I do not wish to detain you for any length of time, but I should like to support what has fallen from both the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, and the noble Earl, Lord Haddington, in support of this Bill. There is still, in the Highlands, a great tradition of facing great difficulties, but one particular difficulty at the moment is that the young people are attracted away elsewhere. Therefore, anything which can be done to help bring more young life into the Highlands will be for the good; and for this reason I give my support to the Bill.

4.39 p.m.


My Lords, I have an interest to declare here as I have a few crofts on my own estate, in the Western Highlands. I heartily support this Bill. Anything that we can do to help the crofters, this sturdy race of independent people to whom this country owes so much, in men of letters and brains, is, I think, extremely important. Of course, crofting has been decaying as an industry ever since the end of the nineteenth century, but that has not been the fault of the crofters or of any of the the British Governments: it has rather been the fault of circumstances. The noble Lord, Lord Hughes, mentioned the Isle of Mull. It might interest him to know that in the nineteenth century the Isle of Mull had a population of over 12,000, who were nearly all crofters. Today the population is 2,400-odd; and you can count the crofters. I do not know the figure, but I should doubt if it is over 300 or 400.

There are other reasons, too. The rigidity of tenure, which is so beloved by crofters, has been, I think, rather a drawback. The whole answer is that crofts to-day will have to become small farms, because it would be entirely impossible for a crofter to live completely on his croft. I suppose the average income of a croft cannot be more than £3 a week. Of course, on the shore and in the islands, where there is fishing, especially lobster fishing, there is a great difference; but the crofters who used to do a great deal of lobster fishing in the Western Highlands and Islands have had to compete with these factory lobster ships. They have been into the sea lochs where I have my place. They put down about 400 or 500 pots, all on a line, and completely clear out all the lobsters. The crofters have therefore had no option but to stop fishing for lobsters. These factory ships are quite within the law, but it is a great pity the law cannot be altered to stop them.

Turning to the actual Bill, I am not quite happy about Clause 5, subsection (1) (a), where a crofter may make improvements reasonably required to enable him to make use of the croft for any subsidiary or auxiliary occupation in accordance with paragraph 3 of the Second Schedule to the Act of 1955. If, for instance, a crofter had a croft beside a road, and if he built a café, would that café be auxiliary to his occupation as a crofter? Would the landlord have to take it over? I am extremely pleased with Clause 6, which is fair to the crofter and to the landlord, but perhaps the Minister could say something on Clause 5 with regard to what is exactly an auxiliary occupation to crofting. With regard to the reorganisation schemes under Clause 8, I am not quite happy that a majority of crofters must agree to any reorganisation scheme. About a third of the crofters are absentees. In the past some schemes have been blocked by the absentee crofters and the older crofters, and that has been extremely frustrating for the younger go-ahead crofters. I would say that here this Bill is not really any improvement on the 1955 Act.

I agree with the repeal of Section 21 of the 1955 Act (which is done by Clause 10), so that the crofter can no longer be dispossessed for bad husbandry. After all, farmers have had that security granted to them under the Agriculture Act, 1947. As in everything, there are good crofters and bad crofters, and if the Government have not any say regarding bad husbandry I think it is going to be rather hard to make bad crofters till their crops properly.

I should also have liked to see in this Bill something about a crofter's needs. The Minister has just said that this Bill will increase crofts to 75 acres, and to a larger area if the Secretary of State agrees. If you have 75 acres of good land the croft can probably just pay; but I should have liked to see laid down some idea of the number of sheep and cattle that Her Majesty's Government think a crofter must have before he can exist on his croft without being also a postman, or driving a school bus, or being a gillie or having some other ancillary occupation. I personally should say that a crofter cannot exist on his croft with under 200 sheep and half a dozen cows and followers. You cannot keep 200 sheep on a 75-acres holding in the Highlands. I know that you have your common grazing in crofting townships; but rather than laying down the area, the Bill ought to have laid down the number of sheep and cattle.

Regarding the assignation clauses and the question of sub-letting to tenants, we have always had this rule, which brings us back to the rigidity of tenure: that a croft always has to go to a crofter's family. Under this Bill the position would appear to remain that way. But often I think it would be preferable to have new blood. It often happens that a crofter and his family may not be the best people to carry on a croft. I think that if the assignation, sub-letting, clauses could be more widely drawn the situation might be better.

Before I conclude, I should like to suggest that when an inquiry is held under this Bill the Tribunals and Inquiries Act, 1959, should apply. I have known bad feeling caused among crofters who resent that the result of the inquiries is not published completely. I suppose that it may sometimes be difficult, but if the report of an inquiry could be published it would probably do away with some bad blood. If you do not have things like inquiry reports published, people always feel that they have been badly treated, or that somebody has been better treated or something like that. On the whole, my Lords, I support this Bill heartily, and I hope that it will do something to encourage crofting. But, as I said before, if we want crofters to live on their crofts completely it is necessary to turn them into small farmers.

4.53 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hughes, for his generous speech. I think all your Lordships appreciate the four reasons that he gave us why he does not think it appropriate to move any Amendments. Perhaps there is a fifth reason—namely, that after so much consideration of this Bill in another place neither he nor I can think of any. I agree with my noble friend Lord Haddington that what must be uppermost in all our minds in all crofting legislation is the prevention of further depopulation. Everything else we do must be secondary to that. My right honourable friend and I have continuously in our minds the problem of depopulation, which sometimes in Scotland has taken second place to the more urgent problem of unemployment; but it is going on all the time.

In that context, the noble Earl said that this was a crofting and not a tourism Bill. Of course I must agree with him. A croft is an agricultural holding. But Clause 5, as he realises, does give a more specific encouragement to the crofter to engage in subsidiary occupations, and that, I am sure, will be of practical benefit to the crofters themselves, to tourism, and to the country as a whole. In some areas the sidelines available for a crofter can be most profitable, but in other areas they have no such opportunity. There is the provision for compensation for the market value of improvements as adjuncts to the croft.

The noble Earl, Lord Haddington, asked about financial assistance towards these tourist improvements. Section 22 of the 1955 Act enables my right honourable friend, with the approval of the Treasury—those words must be added—to give grants and loans towards the erection or improvement or rebuilding of dwelling-houses and other buildings for crofters. So my right honourable friend has the powers. Loans for other nonagricultural buildings have not so far been made. There are obvious difficulties here about security. But on the question of loans I can tell my noble friend that my right honourable friend will watch the position most closely. So far as grants are concerned, the present Building Grants (Scotland) Regulations, 1956, do not extend to non-agricultural buildings. So amending Regulations would here be required, and these would call for careful consideration.

My noble friend Lord Massereene and Ferrard asked about auxiliary occupations. If I do not give him the right answer perhaps he would come back at me. I will give him the answer as I have it. The primary occupation of a crofter is the agricultural cultivation of a croft. All the time the croft is an agricultural unit and everything else is subsidiary to that. He is committed by statutory conditions of tenure contained in the Second Schedule to the 1955 Act to pursue subsidiary or auxiliary occupations without detriment to such cultivation. These other occupations may take up most of the crofter's time. They include, I am advised, such things as weaving, road work, the Merchant Navy and tourism, but in each case the crofter must cultivate the croft himself or with his family, with or without hired labour. And in case of dispute about the occupation, it is for the Land Court to adjudicate. So in relation to non-agricultural improvements, with which I know your Lordships are greatly concerned, in Clause 6 of the Bill we deal with compensation—for instance, the method of calculating the value of the improvements, which is related to market value. All the time the agricultural interest must be dominant. But, apart from that, one wants to encourage the crofters to have a subsidiary interest, provided the croft remains an agricultural subject.

The noble Viscount also spoke about publishing the reports under the Tribunals and Inquiries Act. I can give him an unqualified assurance that the procedure laid down in the Tribunals and Inquiries Act will be fully implemented in connection with any such public inquiries. The noble Earl, Lord Haddington, also asked why we have not in the Bill given the landlord the right, with the Land Court's consent, to resume common grazings for forestry. I know he will be pleased to hear the answer. It is already open to the landlord under the 1955 Act to apply to the Land Court for authority to resume for planting purposes a croft or a part of a croft. Of course, the term "croft" includes the right to common grazings. So even if there were not unanimous consent about resuming a common grazing, for forestry or any other purpose, the landlord can go to the Land Court and put up his case. But if the application is with the consent of the majority of persons sharing in the common grazing, and the Crofters Commission approve, then of course the Land Court's approval is automatic. Further provision is not really necessary in this Bill.

There are undoubtedly aspects of the use and disposal of common grazings which merit most careful thought, and the subject is a very complicated one indeed which will require careful study. In Clause 15 we have made one or two important and urgent amendments, but I feel that we shall eventually have to bring in a small Bill dealing exclusively with the problems of common grazings. My noble friend Lord Massereene and Ferrard spoke about Clause 8 and re organisation schemes. I believe he thought that the absentee crofter could not vote. But the absentee crofter can vote under this Bill.


No, my Lords, I thought he could vote. I was trying to point out that I thought perhaps he ought not to be able to vote. My point is that if you have a reorganisation scheme and the younger crofters who are working on the land want that scheme, it is rather unfair that the absentee crofters with their vote can mar the scheme, as I understand they can, as it is effected by a majority vote.


My Lords, we are, of course, acting here under the recommendations of the 1959 Report of the Crofters Commission, who went into this matter very carefully because they had not been able to get their reorganisation schemes through. I think that the absentee crofter will not mind so much about the reorganisation scheme when he knows he can retain his croft house. There will not be the opposition that there was when he thought he Might get turned out altogether and lose his house. I do not think I can agree with my noble friend that it is not an improvement on the 1955 provisions. The very fact that the rent of the township is fixed for seven years means that there is no worry in the crofter's mind. There will be stability for seven years, which of course is to the interest of the landlord as well. The crofters will now see the final scheme before they vote; and there is now an inquiry procedure. The Crofters' Commission feel that this will enable them to get their schemes through more quickly, and I think they are quite right.

The noble Viscount asked about bad husbandry. I think we have replaced "bad husbandry" in Clause 12 by "failing to make adequate use". Again, the sub-letting provisions, whether voluntary or enforced—if they are enforced the man can retain his house—will, I think, overcome the problem he mentioned. I agree with my noble friend Lord Massereene and Ferrard that anything we can do to help the crofters should be done. The noble Lord, Lord Hughes, hoped there would not be another Bill—I think he referred to 1966—but we must always be prepared to do more if a new opportunity arises.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I thank him for answering all these questions so fully? I understood him to say that the only financial assistance that crofters or owners of crofts could get from the Government would be by way of loans, not by grants or in any other way. The noble Lord was not quite certain yet about that. Can he assure us that, if after consultations he finds that loans will be made available for the purpose of building additional holiday camps to the crofts, this fact will be most widely publicised for the benefit of the crofters; and particularly that the Tourist Board will know about it, because it is a matter they are very concerned about?


My Lords I am grateful to my noble friend. I was talking only about non-agricultural improvements. I chose my words very carefully So far as loans are concerned, my right honourable friend will watch the position very closely. We want to help the crofter to help himself. But I have to be very careful in saying more at this stage than that we will watch the position very closely. So far as grants for non-agricultural improvements are concerned, I said that any amendment to the Regulations would require very careful consideration.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.