§ 3.35 p.m.
§ The MINISTER of STATE, SCOTTISH OFFICE (Lord Kirkhill)
My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This Bill introduces measures for the reform of crofting tenure which are long overdue. They stem from original recommendations made by the Crofters Commission as long ago as 1968 and 1969 and which have been the subject of considerable public discussion in Highland circles ever since. The previous Government introduced measures in another place in December 1973 but these were overtaken by the Election of March 1974.
The object of the Bill is to remove the constraints which prevent a crofter from developing his croft to its full potential, both agriculturally and non-agriculturally. During the past 90 years the crofting legislation has served the crofter well, but in some respects the very measures which were devised for his protection are now proving too restrictive. Though he has virtual security of tenure, a crofter does not own the land upon which he himself has erected his house and other buildings, and thus has no heritable title to his property. This prevents him from being in a position to realise the full market value of his buildings or from using them as security for a loan which he may require for some desirable development on his croft. His statutory entitlement is restricted to compensation for his improvements at their agricultural value should he give up his tenancy or be removed from his croft. Similarly, should the landlord resume any of the crofter's land for development or should an authority take possession of it in pursuance of a compulsory purchase order, the crofter's compensation is related to his losses in agricultural terms.
With the historical background of crofting and in the knowledge that his forebears have in many cases created crofts out of bare and inhospitable land, the crofter's feeling for his land goes far beyond that of an ordinary tenant and is more akin to that of an owner. The Bill recognises this in the three basic rights which are being conferred on the crofter. These are an incontestable right 369 to acquire his house site and a reasonable amount of garden ground, a qualified right to acquire his inbye croft land at its crofting value and a right to share in the value of any of his land taken for development. The rights of purchase, however, are to be entirely optional; it will be for the crofter himself to decide whether he wishes to exercise them. If, however, he decides to remain as a tenant, he will now have the added benefit of being entitled to a share in the value of any land taken from him. The Bill also provides for the planning blight provisions to apply to crofters, thus giving further recognition to their interests as quasi owners, and contains measures for improving the management of common grazings. The important function of the control over the removal of land from crofting is to be transferred to the Crofters Commission.
One of the most important features of the Bill is the price formula for croft land. By means of this formula, which should put all crofters in the position of being able to buy their crofts if they so desire, the Government are providing that the price to the crofter will be based on the crofting value of his land. If, however, the crofter sells his land within five years of purchase he will become liable to pay a further sum to the landlord based on its market value. This will encourage those crofters who wish to buy and continue to work and develop their crofts, but should prove a disincentive to those whose only reason for purchase is to sell again for immediate gain. It would be unfair also to landlords to be under compulsion to sell, at a low price, land which was to be resold shortly afterwards at considerable profit to the purchaser.
I turn now to the Government's proposals for control over the removal of land from crofting. Our concern has been to devise a system which is sufficiently flexible to achieve a proper balance between the need to allow land to be released from crofting to facilitate development (which will in many cases benefit the crofting community) and to retain land in crofting where that is necessary to preserve the traditional crofting way of life. Under our proposals, the responsibility for this function is to be given to the Crofters Commission and we have provided guidelines for that body in the operation of the control.
370 The responsibility for granting directions removing land from crofting control rests at present with the Secretary of State for Scotland. The Conservatives would have transferred this function to the Land Court but when we came to consider it we concluded that this was essentially an administrative rather than a judicial function. It was felt also that the responsibility should rest with someone closer in touch with crofting opinion than the Secretary of State for Scotland could possibly be. The natural choice, therefore, was the Crofters Commission. The Commission, with its field organisation, is probably better equipped than the Land Court to make a thorough investigation of the circumstances of a township as well as to deal with a possible significant increase in decrofting applications following the enactment of the Bill. I may say that the Commission is fully satisfied that the provisions will give them adequate control.
I should now like to give your Lordships some brief details about the clauses themselves. Clause 1 is the mainstay of the Bill and gives the crofter the right, failing agreement with his landlord, to apply to the Land Court for authority to purchase his house site or croft land. A cottar is given a similar right in respect of his house site. Clause 2 lays down the conditions under which the Land Court may authorise acquisition of croft land and Clause 3 provides the formulae for the calculation of the initial price of the land and any subsequent payment which may be necessary if resale takes place within five years. Clause 4 relates to the conditions and price under which the Land Court will authorise the acquisition of the house site. Clauses 5, 6, 7 and 8 contain various supplementary and consequential measures arising from the rights of purchase. Clauses 9 and 10 provide for the sharing of the value with the crofter where land is taken from his croft for development, and Clause 11 extends to crofters the protection from planning blight that applies to owners of property. Clause 12 extends the existing provisions relating to housing assistance for crofters to those crofters who purchase their house sites. This assistance, which is not available under existing legislation to owner-occupiers, will apply for a period of seven years after purchase. Clause 13 covers the control procedures which I dealt with earlier in 371 some detail. Clauses 14, 15 and 16 amend the law relating to common grazings and assignations and Clause 17 makes certain changes in the procedures of the Land Court. Clause 18 provides for the payment of pensions to members of the Crofters Commission and the remaining clauses make provision in the usual form for Crown application, financial provision, and so on.
The Bill was very fully discussed in another place and the reports of the debates help to clarify what is necessarily a highly technical subject involving complex legal issues. The changes we have made as a consequence of these debates will, I hope, have made it easier for this House, and of course the people whose lives it will affect, to understand its provisions. My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord kirkhill.)
§ 3.42 p.m.
Lord CAMPBELL of CROY
My Lords, I should like first to thank the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhill, for having explained so concisely and clearly the background to this Bill. I have a certain advantage over other noble Lords in this House, in that I have already taken part in a Second Reading debate upon this Bill. As some noble Lords from Scotland may know, on that occasion it was I who started the debate, because I introduced an almost identical Bill in another place in a debate shortly before the General Election of February 1974. I should warn the Front Bench opposite that there is a phenomenon which I have observed: whenever a crofting Bill appears a General Election seems to be not far behind. Much as I should like to see a change of Government, I hope we can get this Bill through first on this occasion. That last version of the Bill expired as uncompleted legislation in 1974. The present Government, with their own priorities, have not found time to introduce the Bill before now, but from this Bench we welcome the fact that they have introduced it in this Session.
The crofting system and the associated law are restricted to a defined area of the Highlands and Islands. I am sure noble Lords will expect me, as well as 372 the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhill, to explain some of the background to the Bill, having myself been responsible for it. I regard the Bill as of considerable importance—although restricted in area—because it contains a generally agreed scheme for modernising the whole system and providing crofters with new options, including the option of becoming an owner-occupier and, with safeguards, choosing to leave the crofting system should they wish to do so. The general agreement reached was as a result of many meetings and consultations. Those that were held from 1970 until the introduction of the first version of the Bill at the end of 1973 were carried out, I can tell your Lordships, as a continuous operation. I had several meetings with the Crofters Commission and with the chairman, Mr. Shaw Grant, and the Commission in turn had many discussions with the representatives of crofters in different parts of the crofting counties. Much of the credit for the Bill should go to the Crofters Commission for the work which it did during that period.
The Crofters Commission took the first initiative, because in 1968 it published proposals which demonstrated the need to make a dramatic change in the whole system, and also the way in which this might be carried out. Its suggestion was a change to owner occupation for all crofters, but it also suggested that it should be compulsory that on a certain date every crofter should become an owner-occupier. We found that some crofters would like the option but did not necessarily want to change their existing status. Some of them were definitely against being compelled to become owner-occupiers. Therefore, before arriving in office in 1970 my colleagues and I had worked out a possible adaptation of the Commission's scheme and a scheme whereby owner occupation would be a free choice. That was the basis of the scheme eventually agreed, together with other provisions. The right to purchase the house and garden ground was one of the other provisions; another was the right to acquire inbye land for non-agricultural development, and the third was giving the crofter a share in the development value of the land on his croft.
These agreed proposals were published by me on 4th August 1972 in the form of a long Parliamentary Written Answer 373 in another place. I suggest to anyone, who has not already obtained copies and who wishes to see the background to this Bill, that that Parliamentary Answer, which is easily available, sets out the origin and the principal purposes of this Bill. There was a criticism at the time that the statement should have been made by way of a White Paper and not a Written Answer, but I did not think it necessary or appropriate for a very abstruse subject—which this is, and which, although important, affects only a part of Scotland—to be dealt with in a White Paper. That view appears to have been vindicated, because the present Government have followed the same course; that is, they first indicated by Written Answer what they proposed to do before producing this Bill.
Changes in the crofting system are needed because desirable development for non-agricultural purposes was and is still, discouraged by the way the system operates. In particular, projects connected with tourism, projects connected with services to the new communities which have been growing as a result of developments related to North Sea oil and other developments, have been deterred because of the procedures of the crofting system. The crofter is unlikely to benefit from his own enterprise and effort under the existing system. That was one of the chief reasons for the provisions in this Bill.
The two alterations of any significance which constitute the difference between this version of the Bill and the first version introduced by me, are these: first, a price formula has been included in Clause 3. No doubt we shall examine that in detail in Committee. At this stage, I would tell your Lordships that I see no reason to advise you to dissent from this formula. It is related to 15 years' current rent. but the rent can he up-dated by the Land Court. This is important, because where a landowner has not raised rents for many years, a benevolent landowner who has kept down his rents might have been penalised if the last 15 years' actual rent were taken as the basis for a payment. Therefore, I am glad to see that he can apply to the Land Court in order to get an updated market rent considered, and would not be penalised for keeping rents low.
374 My Lords, the second change was that, where land is being considered for removal from crofting control in Clause 13, the Crofters Commission is to be responsible for the decision and not the Secretary of State or the Land Court. There is an appeal to the Land Court which I think is important. This therefore gives to the Crofters Commission a form of planning permission power. Again, I see no objection to this, and trust that the Crofters Commission will use that power with care and wisdom.
It is interesting to compare the speech made by the present Secretary of State, the right honourable gentleman Mr. William Ross, on 16th December 1975 on the Second Reading of the Bill in another place, with my speech of the 22nd January 1974, in particular when we gave our descriptions of the clauses towards the end of our speeches. They are very similar, identical in places. I am not sure that the Scottish Office may not have used the same brief with some slight variations. I described Clause 1 as a "cornerstone"; the Secretary of State described it as the "mainstay". Again today, I noticed that the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhill, used the word "mainstay", and did not use a further version.
When the right honourable gentleman Mr. William Ross was summing up, he said:The Bill introduces a new era in crofting and offers the crofter a new freedom".I said in my summing-up:It is a valuable and wide-ranging reform, and a charter for crofting freedom.I cannot do otherwise than commend this Bill to the House, having myself been more responsible than anyone, I suppose, for originating it. But there is some irony to be found in the comments made by some others in the Second Reading debate in another place in 1974. For example, the present Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, then an Opposition Front Bench spokesman, in that debate said:To us the Bill represents a travesty of justice",and,What is so outrageous is that it is a prescription for the decay of the crofting communities".The present Parliamentary Under-Secretary for the Department of Prices and 375 Consumer Protection condemned the Bill asa measure which virtually destroys the crofting system and the security of tenure of crofting communities".I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhill, whether the Secretary of State for Scotland has received representations from these two junior Ministers, Dr. Strang and Mr. Maclennan, expressing the same feelings towards the Bill? Have they offered their resignations if the Bill is not withdrawn?—because no one can pretend that the small changes I referred to could possibly have altered the Bill to make it cease to be a "travesty of justice", or a "prescription for the decay" or the virtual destruction of the crofting system if it were so characterised in its earlier version. Have the two junior Ministers changed their minds? Or were those hysterically exaggerated words uttered in order to cause alarm among crofters, or to attract the attention of the Scottish Press? If these statements were put forward for either of the second two purposes I have mentioned, then I think that that was thoroughly irresponsible.
After the announcement in August 1972, I made clear that the way was open for volunary transactions and agreements, on the basis proposed, to proceed forthwith without having to wait for legislation to be passed. If transactions were entered into willingly by landowners and crofters, then the benefits could immediately be gained—for example, going ahead with a non-agricultural development, and those concerned would know that those transactions were in conformity with what would later be prescribed by legislation. I am glad to say that a number of transactions took place, which set a satisfactory pattern of agreement and prices. They demonstrated that the procedure could work voluntarily before the legislation had even come into effect.
The Secretary of State for Scotland is the owner of a large number of crofts. In 1972, when that statement of mine was made, he was the owner of about 2,000 crofts; that is, one-eighth of all the crofts. The Secretary of State for Scotland, incidentally, is the largest landowner in the United Kingdom—I do not know whether your Lordships realise that—and the croft ownership is a large part of it. In the same way, as Secretary of State, 376 I started the process of enabling crofters who were tenants of the Secretary of State to become owner-occupiers if they wished. I am glad to tell your Lordships that according to my information, about 100 crofters did decide to become owner-occupiers, and so their land left the ownership of the Secretary of State for Scotland. That was a result of the initiative which I took at that time. I understand that the present Secretary of State is now adopting the same attitude, and allowing his crofters, if they wish, to opt for owner-occupation, whatever this Bill brings into effect. But I shall be glad of any comments on that matter that the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhill, may care to make at the end of the debate.
The Secretary of State in this Government has had difficulties with the Left Wing of his Party, because one-eight of the crofts—I do not know precisely the area of land which is owned by the Secretary of State—could be regarded as nationalised land, and allowing this land to move into a state of owner-occupation appeared to be going in the opposite direction to nationalisation. I recognise that the Secretary of State for Scotland has had to deal with criticism from his own Party because nationalised land appeared to be being denationalised under this scheme.
My Lords, before I sit down, I should like to put two points to the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhill, to see whether he can reply to them today, or at a later stage of the Bill. The first point concerns the housing assistance offered in the Bill. The provision is that there will be continuing housing assistance for crofters for a period of seven years after they have become owner-occupiers. Among some of those concerned with crofting, the opinion has been expressed that this provision might be more flexible, and that in certain circumstances and in certain cases the housing assistance might appropriately be continued beyond seven years. I do not know whether the Minister can tell us anything about this today.
My second point concerns the question of eligibility to be treated as a crofter. It has been generally understood that the units to be treated under the crofting laws are those registered with the Crofters Commission or with the Department, as such. Does the noble Lord 377 the Minister think there is likely to be any dispute in the future as to what constitutes a croft within the Acts? One aspect of this is, of course, the changes in local government boundaries that have taken place. Previously, the crofting system applied only in the seven crofting counties. With the new boundaries, that area has been somewhat extended. But my understanding is that the crofting system is still limited to the present boundaries. Can the noble Lord the Minister also tell us whether he thinks there will be any difficulty in deciding the nature of a unit or an estate which would qualify to be treated as a croft under this Bill?
My Lords, I should like to end by congratulating the right honourable gentleman, Mr. William Ross, if it does not embarrass him for me to do so. He and I opposed each other in a Parliamentary and, therefore, an amicable way, over a period of many years at Dispatch Boxes in another place. I recognise his difficulties with those in his Party and elsewhere who opposed these proposals when they were first put forward. They have been opposed for various reasons. I think Mr. Ross should be applauded for reintroducing these proposals despite that opposition. If he had not done so, the results of a great deal of work would have been lost. Furthermore, the period when there was general agreement on these proposals, as there now is, would have passed and any future attempt to reform the crofting system would have meant starting again from the beginning. Your Lordships will therefore understand why, subject to any minor changes that may be made at a later stage, I think your Lordships' House should support this Bill.
§ 4.1 p.m.
§ Viscount THURSO
My Lords, I find it charming to see the broad and happy measure of agreement between Her Majesty's Government and Her Majesty's Opposition over the matter of the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Bill. The only areas of disagreement that they have so far been able to find are the choice of the mot juste wherewith to applaud the individual clauses of the Bill. I must confess that I have to add my happy felicitations on the fact that this Bill is finally coming before your Lordships' House. In fact I would go further than 378 either the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhill, who has introduced this Bill to us, or the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, who has so ably, one might say, seconded it, by supporting the Crofters Commission itself and saying that really the whole system of crofting is an anachronism; it is a purely feudal system of tenure very long overdue to be brought into the 20th century.
One or two points worry me. The noble Lord, Lord Kirkhill, for instance, said that he thought it might be necessary to preserve the traditional crofting way of life. I do not honestly think that you will ever preserve the so-called traditional crofting way of life. This is being changed for us at Kishorn and at Nigg and we are not going to see people living a peasant form of existence trying to scratch a living out of a small open boat combined with a few rough acres of ground. I think that in superseding the system of crofting tenure it must be the objective of Government and administration to see that we substitute for the old crofting form of tenure a good form of agricultural structure where the smaller farm is able to form part of the farming ladder and is able to contribute to the agricultural life and the agricultural industry of the country, at the same time preserving the only thing that really matters to the crofter, his home. This is what this Bill does, and that is why I support it. It gives the crofter the right to acquire his home irrevocably and without fear of legal peradventure, and in such a way that he can borrow upon it and develop it and use it as any other people use their home or their property.
One or two points were raised in another place during the debate of the First Scottish Standing Committee on this Bill, which I think we should still bear in mind, particularly those raised by my right honourable friend Mr. Grimond. The first of these points is the importance, in any decisions which are made by the Crofters Commission or the Land Court, of the welfare of the community being considered. The welfare of the community and the maintenance of the traditional crofting way of life are two different things altogether. It may very well be that there are considerations which relate to the welfare of the community which do not in fact preserve the traditional crofting way of life, and the 379 preservation of the traditional crofting way of life is not necessarily to the welfare of the community. I think that it is perhaps a pity that we have not seen more emphasis upon the importance of the welfare of the community, perhaps through the Amendment which my right honourable friend moved in another place:that the making of such an order would be detrimental to the future of the crofting community affected by it,as an inhibition on the making of an order under Clause 2.
Among the other points which he raised was the question of the right of access to the foreshore. This is particularly a point which relates to some of the crofts in the islands and round the shore. It obviously does not relate to a croft inland. It was perhaps unkindly dealt with in the Scottish Standing Committee. We must see that we are satisfied, as this Bill passes through your Lordships' House, that in fact the rights of access for crofters who have rights of access to the foreshore are properly maintained.
Another point which was raised was the question of objection on behalf of others. This is an important point. In law you cannot raise objections to certain things unless you have a locus in the matter, and very often it is necessary for (shall we say?) the community to ask a landlord to object to something happening so that an inquiry can take place. I have been placed in this kind of position myself on more than one occasion by local authorities, where I have had a legal locus in a matter. I have been approached to give a ruling from the point of view of my locus in order to get the whole matter clarified. The suggestion that it might he possible for somebody to make an objection on behalf of others is not a bad suggestion to bear in mind as the Bill passes through your Lordships' House.
Finally, on the suggestions and Amendments which were put by my right honourable friend in another place, one Amendment I feel it was a pity not to have accepted read as follows:In all cases involving a change of use for land designated as croft land before the passing of this Act, whether by a landlord, crofter, owner or tenant, there should be a right of 380 appeal to the Land Court by any interested body. The Land Court if it considers that the change will be detrimental to the long-term social and economic interests of the district shall have power to overrule any decision by the local planning authority.This was really a drawing together of all the points I have just mentioned, putting the matter into the hands of the Land Court to deal with. I share this faith in the operation of the Land Court. I share the regard for the way in which the Land Court deals with matters affecting tenure of all kinds, and I would have faith if matters of decision were placed in its hands. I think it is a pity that this Amendment was not accepted and did not eventually form part of the Bill. Nevertheless, having said these things, in general I must welcome this Bill and wish it a fair passage unhindered, as was suggested, by the threat of General Elections or any other such disasters. We, on these Benches, will certainly hope to give it a fair wind and see it gets safely on to the Statute Book.
§ 4.10 p.m.
§ Lord BALFOUR of INCHRYE
My Lords, at the outset of my few remarks I must declare an interest, having no less than 105 crofts on a property in Sutherland, so your Lordships will appreciate that I have some small knowledge of the crofter and his life. I think that this is a good and a fair Bill. By the time my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy and the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhill, had spoken, I was not sure to whom one should give the credit for this Bill being good and fair. It struck me that we were getting something like a Party workers' co-operative between the two sides who finally have produced this satisfactory Bill.
I take issue with the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, who rather deprecated the way of life of the crofter. Crofting is undoubtedly a way of life, and the crofters are proud of that. On my property we have broadly two classes of crofter: the crofter who can just make a living—and a not unreasonable one—and the crofter who is a part-time crofter. Four postmen in my area of East Sutherland are crofters; my gardener is a crofter and the railwaymen are crofters. That is all to the good. They contribute to the countryside, they contribute to their own and their family's earnings; and 381 when people condemn crofting I think of the depleted Highlands population. In Sutherland some years ago, we had some 16,000 people. I think the last figure I saw was between 11,000 and 12,000—a pathetically small number—and if we did not have the crofting, supported as it is in various forms by Government grants, population depletion of the Highlands would be even more severe.
A crofter gets Government aid for his cattle, his sheep, his fencing, his land drainage and his general improvements, and it is easy for critics to say that the crofter lives on subsidies. He has that measure of support, but I should far prefer to see the continuation of that support at the expense of the general taxpayers rather than see the land go out of crofts. The social problem, as I see it, is what to do with the young people. I hope this Bill will assist the crofting industry, the crofting occupation, to a degree which will give some encouragement to the young people not to leave, as I am afraid they are rather tempted to do at the present time.
I have only three points to make on the Bill, and I shall make them briefly. The first is really a Committee point, but if the Minister can wipe it away in a sentence it will shorten proceedings later on. The Bill's proposals will entail a lot of conveyancing following applications by crofters to the Land Court, but there is nothing in the Bill to say who is to bear the legal costs of that conveyancing. I do not think that the landlord should have to bear those costs. The second point concerns Clause 2(3). There is given to the landlord the right to have a lease of sporting rights for shooting and fishing on land which is taken over by a crofter. Shooting and fishing are great fun, but they are not just fun. For a landlord they are a way of earning revenue for his estate which helps to enable him to keep it in good order and run it properly. I should like the Government to tell me whether they would agree that the lease should be a long-term lease, because this clause virtually takes away one of the earning assets of a landlord. Therefore, it is only right that the landlord should have security by way of revenue from the assets of which he is being deprived.
My third point concerns Clause 3 subsections (1) and (2). My noble friend 382 Lord Campbell of Croy spoke about the 15 years' purchase. The Government have thrown a lifebelt to landlords who have tried to do their best by their crofters. I know one property where the rents have not been raised for many years: most of them were fixed in 1888. Perhaps they have not been raised because the landlord has some sympathy with the crofters' difficulties and struggles, but I would disagree with the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, when he paints a picture of crofters living a sort of peasant life. He has built up the picture of a hovel, and of digging in rather barren ground. I am delighted to say that on most of the crofts on my property can be seen televison masts and motor cars. Whether that is because of Government help or whether it is entirely due to their industry I do not know, but it delights me to see them. I disagree profoundly with the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, in his criticism of the standards of life and the prospects of crofters. One of these points can be dealt with in Committee, and no doubt the Minister will be able to reassure me on the question of the lease for sporting rights. Apart from these three points, I think that the Bill is a good one. As an owner of crofts, I welcome it and think that it is fair to both landlord and crofter.
§ 4.17 p.m.
§ The Earl of CROMARTIE
My Lords, I too have to declare an interest in this matter, as apart from coming from one of the main crofter counties I have a number of good crofts and good friends on what remains of the Cromartie Estate. Recently I read a letter in the West Highland Free Press suggesting that no crofters had been consulted about the Bill, but so far as Ross and Cromarty was concerned this was quite untrue as when, during the good old days of the county council the prospect of crofting reform arose, the first thing that my county council and I did was to convene a meeting of mainland crofters as well as representatives from the Island of Lewis who, in those days, were part of our county.
This Bill varies but little from the original one, and I may say here and now that I am in favour of it, although there may be a few queries in my mind. In my very early youth I was at school with crofters and I have lived in close and happy proximity with them for most 383 of my life both at my own home and on the West Coast when we still owned property on that side of the county. I might also add that I have served with them in both peace and war. As many of your Lordships may be aware, there is a considerable difference between the primarily arable crofts in the Eastern area to the crofts on the West Coast where the arable land is so often minimal, and they depend on a large and good common grazing for stock, especially where they do not combine fishing with agricultural work. Here I should perhaps commiserate with my kinsman, the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso; if his crofting land is so bad in Caithness, I could show him some very good land in Ross and Cromarty.
I do not intend to go back in history to the terrible conditions under which, in certain areas, crofters suffered. We all know what happened, which was quite inexcusable, even though one realises that much emotive exaggeration has been recorded, usually by people who know nothing whatever about Lice Highlands or the Highlanders or about their history. In my view, when the Highlands are having to take an influx of people from an entirely different environment and with little in common with the Highlanders, it is of vital importance that every effort should be made to maintain and improve the position of the crofting communities, both from the point of view of agriculture and for the maintenance of a valuable heritage.
I have spoken to many crofters about the Bill and I think that it is acceptable to them. The only fear I have is that as the Bill stands it could open the door to the developer and we could find, especially in places of scenic beauty, high-rise flats or some such horror sprouting up on crofting land, no doubt financed by people from outwith the British Isles. Perhaps the Minister will consider this point and make sure that the Crofters Commission and or the Land Court has not only the power but the duty to prevent anything like this from happening. For those of us who live and work in the Highlands, like the crofters themselves whose forbears have been in these areas from time immemorial, this is a very important point but it might be less so for 384 the many absentee landlords who have, for the past half century or more, taken over so much of the country.
There are a few small points I wish to put to the Minister. First, with the appalling cost of imported fertilisers it might well happen that we shall have to go back to using our own resources, and one of the most important substances is seaweed. Any croft situated by the seashore should have the exclusive right to seaweed lying adjacent to the croft. Secondly, some have said that the rather indefinite title to the croft would make it difficult for a crofter to borrow from a bank or anywhere else for such improvements as he might wish to make if he wished to buy his croft. Thirdly, there has been criticism of the sporting rights being left with the landlord, but he also, I hope, has a right to live, and in many cases the loss of these rights might seriously interfere with his ability to let his shootings, and perhaps an even more valid reason is that if the adjacent crofts have the sporting rights it would not be long before there was nothing left for anybody to shoot. This, of course, does not imply that raiding deer should be allowed to come in and cause damage. I wish this Bill well and hope that it will be of advantage to the crofting community as a whole who make up such an important feature of our Highlands of Scotland.
§ 4.24 p.m.
§ Lord BALERNO
My Lords, this long delayed but much required Bill has had a chequered career, but perhaps the delay has done no harm; it has given time for it to be well polished up and brought up to date and the improvements that have been added to it have been substantial and welcome. Especially welcome is the recognition of the great variety of conditions between the various crofting areas and consequently a very flexible approach, much more flexible than had originally been envisaged, has been adopted in the Bill, which makes it extremely sensible and realistic.
My noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy has covered the ground very fully and I have little to add to his lucid and comprehensive statement; but there is one question I wish to ask in regard to common grazings. It appears to me that 385 the existing common grazing committees are in fact, though not in name, cooperative societies. I wonder, therefore, whether it would be possible to treat them as such for the purpose of grants under the EEC Common Agricultural Policy. Although the conversion of crofts to owner-occupation cannot be regarded as quite the final solution of the crofting problem, it goes a very long way towards it. Perhaps, therefore, we can envisage the phasing out of the Crofters Commission with its remaining responsibilities being taken over by the Scottish Land Court. The noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, has spoken of the good work that this Court has done. It was established in 1912 and has, despite certain vicissitudes, won the confidence of the Highland and agricultural communities. Under its present chairman, Lord Birsay, one could almost add that it has also won their affection.
I can remember at the turn of the century when in certain parts of the Highlands and Islands the "Black House" was the rule rather than the exception. The houses of which we are speaking today, however, are their successors and it is opportune to speak about the good work done by those civil servants responsible for administering the various land, housing, livestock and other agricultural grants down the years. Especially we should on this occasion remember the late Sir Robert Grey, who presided over the old Board of Agriculture and then was Permanent Secretary to the Department of Agriculture. He was in that position for over 15 years and was served by some men of remarkable ability and very great humanity. It was due to those men at all levels of the Service that the worst of the distresses of the last century were overcome. Their work and that of the Crofters Commission has paved the way for this Bill. It is only right, therefore, that we should pay tribute to those men. Most of them were Lowlanders who, by a combination of humanity and a considerable amount of good humour, greatly improved the conditions of life in the crofting communities.
§ 4.28 p.m.
§ Lord BURTON
My Lords, I must declare an interest, for I am still the landlord of about a dozen crofts, though I used to own far more, and I have been involved in the management of a large number of crofts for 25 years. I think 386 that I am, therefore, one of the few people in either House who has had extensive practical experience in trying to manage crofts. There are many misconceptions about crofting and I suspect that few of your Lordships have been either crofters or crofting landowners and have had to grapple with the crofting problem. There arc, of course, one or two notable exceptions—the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, with 100 crofts; the noble Earl, Lord Cromartie, and others—and to a large extent the same applies in the other House. However, on reading through their discussions one cannot but realise that few have had an appreciation of the complexities and unsatisfactory nature of this form of tenure.
This experience compels me to introduce a note of discord into your Lordships' debate. Confusion is multiplied by the fact that there are so many different types of croft and crofter in such widely different localities. A croft may be as small as one acre or less, and I know of one of 4,500 acres. The fact remains that there are just over 14,000 crofters. Along with their families, they number probably 30,000 to 50,000 people. The various political Parties vie for their votes, totally disregarding good land management or the handful of landowners involved. Further confusion is added by Ministers of all Parties receiving a totally one-sided account of matters from the Crofters Commission. It is the belief that all or most crofters or their ancestors have carved out their croft from the barren hill. The number of crofters in that position is steadily decreasing and they must now be in a considerable minority. The Commission has become the State-paid representative of the crofters instead of fulfilling its functions as laid down in Section 2 of the 1955 Act.
I have no doubt that the Minister will disagree with me, but I speak from practical experience. Take the instance of absentee crofters. How often has the Commission taken any action on Section 17 of the 1955 Act? Act after Act has been enacted, one altering the other, making crofting legislation probably the most complicated form of land tenure in the world. Now, on top of an already over-complicated situation, it is proposed to pass a further muddling Act. I feel that I should hasten to dispel the belief that crofting is merely a form of agricultural tenure. Frequently, virtually no 387 agriculture at all is involved. I recently had a cottage, which happened to have a big enough garden, made into a croft by an astute lawyer acting for a tenant. I hesitate to publicise the fact as I believe that a great many more crofts could be created to the detriment of all except possibly the occupier.
The crofter has been painted as the poor, struggling occupier of ground, whereas in fact he is the most subsidised and fortunate individual in the country. The Conservative Government in 1955 made a great mistake in permitting any piece of ground of rental value under £50 or under 50 acres to be registered as croft ground, provided it was within the seven crofting counties. This brought a considerable amount of extra ground into crofting—a form of tenure which, it should have been clear to everyone, was a bad one. Since then, the situation has been aggravated by improved communications and changed social structures, with the result that certain crofters—very often those who came in newly under the 1955 Act—have been put in a quite unreasonably privileged position. For instance, why should crofters just outside Inverness or Dingwall, a great many of whom sublet their ground and at least one of whom I know lets his croft house as well, be given enormous privileges over their neighbours? They get special rating alleviation on their houses; they pay tiny rents; and in many cases they sublet their holdings to neighbouring farmers for rents of five or more times what they are paying to the landlord. In addition, they receive grants and subsidies which are not available to other sections of the community. I therefore ask the Government to consider an Amendment to the Bill which would prevent any more land being brought into crofting tenure. I do not know whether this has been considered in any way, but I believe that it should be given serious study.
Having lodged this criticism, I must say that there is a great deal of justification for subsidising the Islands and possibly some of the remoter areas of the West coast. But make no mistake, crofting is not an agricultural matter: it is a social matter. Where there is a social need, it is fair enough for something to be done about it. But, in the East coast areas, there is no reason why a small section 388 of the community should be specially pampered at the expense of others. There is no reason why one householder should pay a fraction of the rates which his neighbour pays for his house. There is no reason why someone owning one piece of ground should receive grants and subsidies which are denied to his neighbour who owns another piece of ground. Indeed, there is no reason why someone on the Inverness-shire side of the boundary should get grants and subsidies which are denied to those in like circumstances in the counties of Moray and Nairn. The time has come—indeed is well past—when the crofting boundaries should certainly be moved West and probably North as well. There is no reason why a crofter who, through amalgamations implemented since 1955, is now working over 100 acres of arable, should receive crofting grants, and no reason why a crofter with 4,000 acres of hill land should receive these special privileges.
I would ask the Government to look very carefully at this situation to see whether they consider these injustices should be allowed to continue. As I stated before, there are special social reasons for subsidising Island communities. There, it is very different from crofting in Easter Ross, the Black Isle and the Inverness area. Though crofting tenure covers almost 45 per cent. of the land area of the crofting counties and a much higher proportion of the coastal areas, two-thirds of the total number of crofts are in the Islands and a great many more are in the West coastal areas. The Secretary of State owns 1,850 crofts and the Stornaway Trust owns 1,350. Those two landowners between them therefore own one-sixth of all the crofts in Scotland.
The Minister will no doubt tell us what an enormous agricultural production is derived from the crofting areas. However, he does not realise that this production is only a fraction of the capability of this land. Of over 18,000 crofts, only 2,000 drew production grants in 1974. I understand that that figure dropped to 1,500 in 1975, though there are of course about 4,000 who have been drawing livestock headage grants. Thus, only 5,500 crofts out of 18,000 claimed grants. That shows what an enormous number of occupiers are not really working their crofts. There is some doubt as to whether all those drawing production grants ever harvest 389 their crops but, even so, your Lordships will see that only about one-third claim grants.
The Crofters Commission which, after all, does not produce a single cow, a single sheep or a single grain of corn, but which is purely an administrative machine, costs the country nearly a quarter of a million pounds a year. Remember that a largely similar production came out of the Highlands prior to 1955, when the Crofters Commission came into being. I strongly submit that we are not getting value for that quarter of a million pounds a year.
On top of this bureaucratic machine, there is the Department of Agriculture administering both grants and the Secretary of State's crofts. In addition, various estate staff administer the other crofts, so that there is a huge further unqualified annual expenditure on administration. The total rent accruing to the Secretary of State for his 1,850 crofts is £50,000, which gives an average rental for the Secretary of State's crofts of approximately £27 per croft—perhaps £2 or £3 per acre of arable, and less for the hill. Rentals probably fall well below the cost of administration.
Where land can be taken out of crofting tenure without creating social hardship this should be done, therefore. However, successive Governments have made this harder and harder. I am pleased to say that on the estates which are being administered by me well over half the crofts and crofting land have come out of crofting since 1955, without, I hope, any social upsets. Most of this ground is now very much better worked in more economic units and in most cases by ordinary agricultural tenants. The Bill will only make the situation more complicated and will make the estate units more uneconomical and merely give preferential treatment to a selected few.
On Monday night, I attended a local branch meeting of the NFU. It was a very well attended meeting and—quite unsolicited by me, I may say—a resolution was unanimously passed that this was a most unfair Bill and asking union headquarters why no action had been taken about it. The members could not understand why one private individual should be allowed compulsorily to acquire land at any time which suited him, from 390 another private individual. They said that it was a totally different matter when the public required a piece of ground, and that compulsory acquisition was a public matter. They could not understand why a private individual should be allowed to do it. The Conservative Government thought that it made a nice political gimmick to talk about a "property-owning democracy" and the Labour Government merely do it, it appears to me, to injure the landowner. In the process, they cause damage to good land use and agricultural production and, consequent upon that, there is a reduction in rateable values.
Landowners will have their sporting rights—fishing or shooting—compulsorily taken from them and the extraordinary situation will be that the crofters will be able to lease back the rights which they have been able to take compulsorily. Take as an example trout fishing which, at present, is not a separate heritable right but goes with the riparian owner of the land. The result is that, regardless of whether there are any brown trout in the stretch of water which may well be a good sea trout or salmon river, if the Bill goes through in its present form the crofter will receive the right of fishing, ostensibly for trout, in the waters in question. It may well be that he will set up a caravan park in the area and that the salmon fishery owner will then find a whole queue of people spinning in his river and be powerless to do anything about it. Bear in mind that he will be powerless to stop the sale of that piece of ground. The Bill really runs in contradiction to another Government Bill which is at present before us—that is, the Freshwater and Salmon Fisheries Bill.
Mention has been made of marauding deer, and I should like to emphasise that nothing in the transfer of shooting rights will make any difference to the question of marauding deer. Under the 1959 Act the crofter has the right to kill marauding deer at the present time and nothing in this Bill will change that. Sport is an attraction for tourists and provides employment, often among the crofters themselves. It produces rates, too. To destroy this, one of the too few assets in the Highlands, seems to be madness.
Much of the Bill is a shamefully bad piece of legislation. If we cannot reject it altogether, certainly on the fishing 391 aspect, and on a few other matters, we ought so to amend it that at least it would do less harm than it would as at present worded. The Bill might not be so bad if both the landlord and the crofter got equal justice from the Land Court, but this body is so biased that it is really an anachronism to call it a "court". Successive Labour Governments have packed this court with people of their persuasion over the years, so that the landlord has little hope of justice from them. Look, my Lords, at the ridiculously low rents awarded by the Land Court which has kept down the whole level of croft rents, and indeed of agricultural rents in the whole of the Highlands.
The Conservatives have congratulated the Government on adopting their Bill. But there have been major changes in taxation in the past two years. The Bill is now a big "con" trick on crofters. If one takes into account capital gains tax, capital transfer tax and—I am not sure about this, but probably development tax as well, any occupier of ground is almost certain to be in a better position as a tenant than as landlord. We have never been told the value the district valuer will place on crofting ground for taxation purposes. I suspect that it will not be 15 years purchase of the rent, in which case it means that on every transfer the crofter will have to pay a considerable amount of tax. Having said that, I must say that there are absolutely no objections to the proposals for house and garden to be taken over by the crofter, nor for the sharing in development. But the remainder of the Bill needs much careful surveillance.
The Minister in another place referred to the crofters' suspicion of the man from St. Andrew's House, so perhaps I can end on a lighter vein with a short account of an experience of mine. I happened to be out in the islands on county council work, when the weather become too stormy to cross from one island to another. So I thought I would go down to the harbour and see a crofter fisherman and find out what effects the rocket range was having on the lobster fishing.
On the pier I came across a chap who looked like a lobster fisherman and asked whether he could help me on this matter. He said that I had better talk to the skipper. So he duly shouted 392 down into the bowels of a small boat, "Donald". A red beret appeared from beneath. The wearer of the beret came up and talked to me, but he was very cagey, giving "yes" and "no" answers. Eventually he said: "By the way, who are you?" I explained who I was, and said that I was there for the county council. He replied: "Och, thats' all right, then. I thought you might be from the income tax."
§ 4.44 p.m.
§ Lord DOUGLAS of BARLOCH
My Lords, there is one point on which I should like to have some explanation. I confess that I am not very familiar with how the law regarding crofters now stands, although I well remember the passage of the Act of 1912. At that time, and, I think, for a considerable time afterwards, the position was that a crofter did not pay any rates upon his improvements. This was a very great advantage which arose out of the peculiar nature of the crofting tenure, because the improvements did not belong to the landlord, and consequently were not part of the rateable hereditament. I do not know whether that position still obtains, but if it does, then it appears to me that the crofter who takes advantage of the powers given to him under the Bill to purchase a freehold of his land will then automatically be in a disadvantageous position in respect of liability for rates. I should be grateful if my noble friend Lord Kirkhill would explain whether or not that is so.
§ 4.45 p.m.
§ Lord KIRKHILL
My Lords, I am gratified by the wide-ranging and informed debate which we have had on the principle of this Bill and by the acceptance on all sides, with the exception of the noble Lord, Lord Burton, that our approach to crofting reform is on the right lines. It is perhaps not widely recognised that only some 4 per cent. of the 14,000 crofters are able to earn a full-time living from their crofts, and that many are spare-time, rather than part-time, agriculturalists. Amalgamation and restructuring is rarely an effective answer to the crofter's difficulties, since it aggravates the problems attendant on a dwindling population with an imbalanced age structure. Reinvigoration of the crofting system must, to a large extent, 393 depend on exploitation of non-agricultural forms of enterprise that can be based on the croft. If we are to provide a proper incentive to crofters to participate more fully in the opportunities which tourism and craft industries are increasingly offering in many parts of the Highlands, we must remove the constraints which are inherent in the present crofting code. That is our objective in giving crofters the right to acquire their house site and their croft land. At this point the Government stand in complete opposition to the views which the noble Lord, Lord Burton, has just expressed. If such a right is to be of any real value the price must be pitched at a realistic level which crofters can afford, and that is why we have adopted a price formula based on crofting value.
Not all crofters will, of course, want to become owner-occupiers, and every crofter will have the freedom of choice to remain as a tenant if he wishes. If he does, he will retain all his present rights, but gain a valuable new right to a share in the value of any land taken from his croft for development. For the first time the crofter's moral and historical rights in his land will be recognised and he will have an incentive to co-operate with his landlord in releasing land for developments which could lead to benefits for the local community.
There must, of course, be a proper balance between the release of land for development and the retention of land which is needed by active crofters. The previous Bill gave development absolute priority, even where the release of land from crofting would, in the Government's view, have been damaging to the local community. I am glad to say that the new Bill has benefited materially from our criticism in the other place, when my Party was in Opposition. This Bill not only puts responsibility for crofting control in the hands of the Crofters Commission, where it properly belongs, but also provides the Commission with an effective control mechanism which requires it to take into consideration both the community interest and any demand for land.
I now wish to answer as many of the points raised with me as I can properly do. I welcome the very general, though comprehensive, analysis of the Bill which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, 394 elucidated in his earlier remarks. I am pleased that, broadly, he welcomed the Bill. I can confirm the point which the noble Lord made when he talked about consultation during the period of time when he was Secretary of State for Scotland. I confirm that these consultations with many widely and broadly based organisations have continued. I could not really disagree with the noble Lord's historic assessment of an earlier period of introduction of this Bill, although I consider that Ministers, whether of junior or senior rank, are usually flexible, and I could not think that my honourable friends in another place had displayed other than their usual flair for political flexibility.
Perhaps I could explain, for the benefit of all your Lordships, a particular point which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, raised—and I think the noble Lord, Lord Burton, also referred to this point—when he referred to the question of purchase on a 15-year basis. I would explain that the yardstick we have adopted for crofting value—and there was considerable discussion about this point in another place, I might add—was based upon a standard practice in the valuation of agricultural land, which is to use a rent capitalisation multiplier. This multiplier reflects the rate of interest sought by an investor: the higher the risk the greater the interest demanded on an investment and, of course, the lower the multiplier. In recent years farm land values with vacant possession have been high. Land worth £600 an acre could be expected to provide a 2½ per cent. return on an investment, involving a 40-year capitalisation multiplier.
Tenanted land is not such a good investment as land with vacant possession, and therefore its value is much lower and the expected rate of return on an investment in it is much higher. Recent precedents indicate values for tenanted farmland of 50 per cent. of vacant possession value, representing a 5 per cent. return on investment or a 20-year capitalisation multiplier. Extending the analysis, croft land is even less attractive as an investment. The crofting tenant has almost complete security of tenure, pays only a fair rent (which is generally about one-third of open market rents) and is entitled to compensation for permanent improvements. The landlord, however, is 395 freed from providing fixed equipment, and has a right to periodic revaluation of rents. It is reasonable to assume, therefore, taking all these factors into account, that an investment rate of 6.6 per cent., or a 15-year capitalisation multiplyer, fairly reflects a crofting value for sale purposes and strikes a correct balance in land valuation comparing agricultural land values with crofting land values.
This formula should produce a price which is reasonable for the crofter but which is not unfair to the landlord, taking into account the landlord's right—and the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, mentioned this right specifically—to apply to the Land Court to have a fair rent fixed for the purpose of calculating the purchase price and the crofter's liability to make a second payment to the landlord on resale or disposal of the land within five years of acquisition.
§ Lord BURTON
My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord one question on that? He mentioned that a fair rent—I am not sure who it is fair to—should be one-third of the open market value of a croft. Could the noble Lord explain how that is a fair rent—one-third of what you can get on the open market?
§ Lord KIRKHILL
No, my Lords, I cannot explain that definition. I am professionally advised that it is, however, a fact. It is a fact which I assume valuers use as part of the formula. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, also asked of me whether I could give him some indication as to the present position relative to the Secretary of State's crofting holdings. These actually number now approximately 1,950, including 200 tenants of fishermen's holdings. I can also tell the noble Lord that part of the ongoing process to which he himself earlier referred, and which still continues up until this time, is that we have received inquiries: 81, in fact, from crofts, 31 for part-crofts and 56 for house sites and gardens. Active purchases which are not yet completed number 57 in the case of crofts, 22 in the case of part-crofts and 20 in the case of house sites and gardens. Completed purchases at the moment number 5 as regards crofts; 4, part-crofts and 33, house sites and gardens. So this is an on-going process, as the noble Lord very rightly said, and these 396 are the figures which I have at this time. They may be of interest to him.
§ Viscount AMORY
My Lords, will the noble Lord forgive me for intervening for one moment? I think he left the question which my noble friend Lord Burton asked in a rather unsatisfactory position. If I remember rightly, my noble friend asked how it could be that a value of one-third of the current market price could be regarded as a fair value. I think many of us would like to have an answer to that, if the noble Lord could give us some further explanation, because at first sight it looks a very odd thing indeed.
§ Lord KIRKHILL
My Lords, I can only reiterate that the facts as I understand them are that the usual amount is about one-third. Of course, to use the term "fair rent" is, I think, to use one of those euphemisms which are in common use today in the professional world. I cannot add in any way to the points I made earlier in that regard.
§ Lord KIRKHILL
My Lords, I doubt whether I shall be able to give your Lordships a comprehensive answer, but certainly noble Lords are always free to return to a point at Committee stage.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, also asked if I could give some further explanation in general terms as to the question of housing assistance. I should like to say to your Lordships that it was quite clear that if the existing statutory provisions remained unchanged and crofters and cottars ceased to be eligible for housing assistance on becoming owners of their crofts or house sites, this would seriously jeopardise the success of the Bill. We therefore make provision in Clause 12 for a concession allowing crofters and their family nominees and successors and cottars who acquired the site of their dwelling-house to retain their entitlement for housing assistance for a period of seven years after the date of acquisition. There could of course be arguments for a different 397 period, and indeed it is the case that when in Opposition my right honourable friend the Secretary of State canvassed the thought of extending the period to 21 years.
Lord CAMPBELL of CROY
My Lords, would the noble Lord give way for a moment? I should like to make it clear, because I think otherwise he may give the House a misunderstanding of the situation on this point—and I am referring to my own words when introducing the Bill in 1974—that we also, in our Bill, had this same period of seven years.
§ Lord KIRKHILL
My Lords, I was aware of that fact, but I wanted to point out that when in Opposition my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland canvassed the thought of extending it to 21 years, and I was going on to say that upon reflection we have returned to the seven-year period, which we regard as being just about right. I know that some people have argued that the right to assistance for housing should continue, not only for seven years but indefinitely. Indeed, there are those who have argued that the kind of assistance for housing given to crofters should be extended generally to owner-occupiers of houses in the crofting counties. I should make it clear that the primary responsibility for housing in these areas rests on housing authorities, and the new policy of designating housing action areas is now being extended to the Islands. As I have said it is for the housing authorities to determine their policy for housing in general in their areas.
As regards the indefinite extension of the right to housing assistance for crofters who become owner-occupiers, I must make the point that such an extension would be manifestly unfair to other owner-occupiers who are denied eligibility to the standards of assistance provided for crofters. Where a crofter purchases his house site and assigns the remainder of the croft, there can be no expectation of automatic entitlement to assistance to provide a house on the croft land. The Department will consider each case on its merits, but applications in cases of assignation to a member of the crofter's family in anticipation of bequest, or to an individual where the crofter is 398 aged or infirm and unable to work the croft, will be sympathetically considered. Because of pressure on the available funds it is more doubtful whether housing assistance will be available in other circumstances, in particular the situation where the crofter or his successors have purchased the house site, sold the house and then sought assistance for the erection of a new house on the remainder of the croft.
I should like to add at this point a specific reference to the position of the Glendale holders. Their position will now change in that the availability of I housing assistance for the owners of holdings in Glendale Estate, Skye, who are deemed to be crofters by virtue of Section 22(6) of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1955 for the purpose of housing assistance, will alter. Under the terms of the Reform Bill, crofters who purchase their house sites will continue to be eligible for housing assistance for a period of seven years from the date of acquisition of the site. To maintain the owner-occupiers of Glendale holdings on the same footing as crofters it is fair that future entitlement to housing assistance should be limited to holders as at today's date, or a family successor to the title, for a period of sewn years from the date of Royal Assent to the Bill. This will bring the Glendale holders into line with crofters who purchase their house sites after the passage of the Bill.
§ Lord BURTON
My Lords, on that point of the Glendale crofters, there are a number of other crofters, particularly in Skye, who are in the same position. I think that the Department have sold a number of their crofts there recently. Why particularly are the Glendale crofters, as opposed to others, put in a privileged position?
§ Lord KIRKHILL
My Lords, I am not aware whether there are other crofters in Skye in a similar position to those who are part of the Glendale holdings; but the noble Lord has raised a point of substance and I give him the assurance that I will look into the matter.
I should like merely to touch on two further points which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, raised. I think that I should make some reference to the changes made from the previous Bill concerning the de-crofting of land. Not 399 only will the Crofters Commission have fully within their power the responsibility for giving de-crofting directions, but the Bill includes specific guidelines. These guidelines were not written into the previous Bill. The guidelines will indicate the circumstances in which de-crofting may take place. In the Government view, these new provisions provide a more effective control in the interests of preserving the crofting communities.
The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, also asked about the definition of "croft" and whether the reorganisation of local government will create any difficulties in identifying the area of crofting. The Bill makes no change in the definition of a croft, which definition is already enshrined in existing crofting legislation. This is the legal definition. In practice, crofts may be identified as those holdings included in the Register of Crofts maintained by the Crofters Commission. The reorganisation of local government has made no change to the area of crofting which in future will continue to be identifiable geographically as the former crofting counties.
The noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, also gave a general welcome to the Bill, and from the Government's point of view I express pleasure at the overall welcome that he gave to it. I am aware of the Amendment that his noble friend put down in another place. I am aware that the Amendment did not carry. I can only say that the Government view has been clearly expressed by me in my opening remarks and whether the noble Viscount feels that the Amendment should be re-submitted, of course, he will judge within the discretion of his own assessment of today's debate.
The noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, as did other noble Lords, gave a general welcome. On his specific question as to who will or will not bear the legal costs, I can tell him that in the case of conveyance of a house site the Land Court may determine that all the expenses, including those of the landlord, shall be borne by the crofter or cottar. This is to avoid the landlord being put out of pocket in a transaction he is being compelled to undertake under Statute. In the case of the purchase of croft land, the Bill makes no provision 400 regarding the legal costs, leaving the matter to be settled in the case of an agreed sale as part of the agreement or in a case referred to the Land Court under the terms and conditions laid down by the court.
The noble Lord also raised the question as to the position of those who are owners of sporting rights. This point was also touched on by the noble Earl, Lord Cromartie. The position regarding those who have an interest in sporting rights is that on many crofting estates there are established shooting and fishing rights which the Government recognise are valuable assets, and I can appreciate the legitimate concern of the landlord that his shooting and fishing rights should not be damaged by the crofters' acquisition of his land. However, on most crofting estates sporting rights are usually exercised extensively over the common grazings and only to a limited extent over inbye land.
§ Lord BURTON
My Lords, this is quite inaccurate. On the East coast the acquisition of crofts would cause considerable damage to low ground shooting; for instance, in Easter Ross, the Black Isle and Inverness areas. It is a complete fallacy to say that these rights are exercised mostly on common grazings.
§ Lord KIRKHILL
My Lords, I express the Government's view. It is at variance with the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Burton. I must say that we are at variance and I will proceed. In general, the ownership of the common grazings will remain in the hands of the landlords, and the crofter's rights to purchase will affect the common grazings only where he has an individual apportionment which is adjacent or contiguous to his croft. In the Government's view, in the majority of cases, the landlords' sporting interests will be unaffected by the sale of land to crofters. However, provision is made in Clause 2(3) for reasonable safeguards for the landlords' sporting interests where these could be damaged by such sales of land. The Land Court is empowered to make it a condition of its order authorising the conveyance of croft land that the crofter grants a lease to the landlord of the shooting or fishing rights relating to the land. This protection is reinforced by the provision that it will be obligatory 401 for the Land Court to impose a leaseback condition in any case where the court are satisfied that if such a lease were not granted the landlords' sporting interests would be materially affected. The Government think that these provisions provide an adequate degree of protection for the landlords' interests.
§ Lord BALFOUR of INCHRYE
My Lords, on the granting of a lease has the Government any views as to whether the lease is for perpetuity or for a limited number of years?
§ Lord KIRKHILL
My Lords, I cannot reply to that specifically at this time. I will take it on board and undertake to let the noble Lord have the official Government view.
§ Lord BURTON
My Lords, would the lease be enforceable on a crofter's successors if he sells the croft or if he dies?
§ Lord KIRKHILL
My Lords, the lease is one which is certainly enforceable through succession. The noble Lord, Lord Balerno, kindly gave me advance notice that he was to raise a specific question with me, and proceeded thereupon to do so. He will now certainly get the very official reply which I have before me, which is to the effect that the Crofters Acts lay down the criteria for the appointment of grazing committees and give them specific duties and powers. However, this does not necessarily preclude them from benefiting from EEC funds. It is open to any body of agriculturalists to form themselves into an agricultural producer or marketing group, and if they ensure that their constitution satisfies the conditions laid down for any particular form of national or EEC assistance available for joint activity, they will be in a position to apply for such aid. There is thus no need to amend the crofting legislation to that end.
The noble Lord, Lord Burton, has expressed his own personal crofting credo before your Lordships' House. His view is at variance with the Government's view. By his interventions he clearly shows that although the Government's general intention seems to have some consensus, its acceptance is not one which appeals to him. Undoubtedly we shall hear yet again from the noble Lord on many other points as he continues to study the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Douglas of Barloch, raised a specific 402 question with me. I regret that I am not able to reply specifically to him this afternoon, but I undertake to write to him in detail about the very fine point of legal complexity that he raised.
Finally, let me remind noble Lords that some people have opposed these proposals on grounds of principle; namely, that croft land should be brought within public ownership in some way instead of being held by crofters as owner/occupiers: others because they fear that the crofters, with their newfound freedom to own their land, will be a prey to rapacious "carpetbaggers" from elsewhere. The noble Earl, Lord Cromartie, touched upon that. I do not share this view. I think the crofters are hard-headed enough to protect their interests; they have had hard schooling in a harsh environment among landlords who have not always been as enlightened as they might. But this Bill gives the crofter equality at last with the landlords. He can now own his land. My Lords, I look forward to the new springs of energy and enterprise which this will release as a source of real benefit to the crofting communities and the Highlands as a whole.
§ On Question, Bill read 2a, and cornmitted to a Committee of the Whole House.