HL Deb 13 May 1991 vol 528 cc1415-8

7.7 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

I am glad to have the role of introducing into your Lordships' House this Bill which has passed through all its stages in another place. It was a Private Member's Bill in the other place, supported in all parts of that House. The private Member concerned is the honourable gentleman Mr. Calum MacDonald, the Member for the Western Isles, and he has earned warm congratulations, with which I am sure we join, for piloting the Bill through. In the annual Ballot in another place, he featured in the list of the first 20, but not in the first six who are guaranteed adequate time for a Private Member's Bill. Nonetheless, he steered the Bill through, obtaining enough time for debate for those who wished to comment. He has taken great personal trouble over it and I think that he will be rewarded by success when, as I hope, it is enacted and enters into force. He has acknowledged receiving help supplied in drafting by the Scottish Office and I do so too. The Government support the purposes of the Bill.

To avoid confusion, I must make clear that it is the same Bill as that presented in the last Session of Parliament by my honourable friend Sir Hector Monro. He knew that there was no time then for the Bill to make progress in Parliament, but he performed a useful service by enabling it to be studied and discussed by those who would be most closely affected by its consequences. As a result, the Bill has the approval of the Scottish Crofters Union, the Scottish Landowners' Confederation and the Crofters Commission. Work in preparing the Bill included consultations with local authorities and environmental organisations which, I understand, have given helpful, constructive advice.

Crofting tenure is the land system obtaining in the area known as the crofting counties. Nowadays, it is not easy to delineate that area. Local government reorganisation in 1975 removed the term "county" from Scotland. There have also been changes in local authority boundaries. The legislation governing crofting was considerably reformed by the 1976 Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act with the aim of meeting modern conditions. I was the Secretary of State for Scotland who introduced the Bill which led to that Act. Perhaps that is the reason why I have been asked to sponsor the Bill in this House. In 1974 my Bill had a Second Reading in the other place but could proceed no further and was lost because a general election was called. That Bill was reintroduced by the successor Labour Government, illustrating that on this subject there was in general a bipartisan view on the part of the main political parties.

The purpose of the Bill is to enable the grazing committee of a crofting township to engage in forestry on common grazings land without that land having to be withdrawn from crofting tenure. For crofters and landowners it adds an option to what is now possible. They can still take the land out of crofting tenure if they wish to on planting trees. The purpose of the Bill is consistent with changes taking place elsewhere in Britain's countryside. Farmers are being encouraged to incorporate woodlands on their land in their husbandry. In recent years shelter belts have been encouraged as well as timber planted on livestock farms. This policy is highly relevant in present conditions of over-production of cereals and other farm commodities in Western Europe. The United Kingdom has to import about 90 per cent. of its timber requirements. Growing more at home cannot fail to be helpful even though to start with the quantities will certainly be small.

Clause 1 enables the grazings committee of a township to use any part of the common grazings for planting woodlands. I must explain to those not familiar with crofting legislation that the word "township" is a technical term. It means a group of crofters (perhaps only a dozen) working together. As for the buildings, there may be only half a dozen—nothing remotely resembling a town. The approval of the Crofters Commission and the consent of the landlord are required. As stated by the Minister when the Bill was being considered in the other place: The terms of any agreement on planting are a matter for settlement between the landlord and the crofters undertaking the planting". Clause 2 makes changes in the existing legislation required as a consequence of the proposals in Clause 1. Clause 3 extends to crofting land grants now available for forestry and woodland elsewhere under forestry and agricultural legislation. Trees are a long-term business compared with agriculture. Several (sometimes many) years must pass before there is a return on investment. However, it has been estimated that over the full period of the forestry cycle the income from woodlands on crofting land is likely to be as good or better than that from staple crofting commodities such as sheep.

I should like to draw attention to a particular advantage to crofting land which the effects of the Bill should produce. The shelter which woodlands can provide will be beneficial to livestock. With careful planting the same quantity of livestock can be grazed efficiently even though the area for grazing has been reduced. Although much of the Highlands was covered with forest 300 years ago, a great deal was felled for use during the industrial revolution. Disinterest in replanting in those days and subsequent erosion have led to the present scarcity of trees in crofting areas. Some land will be unsuitable for forestry, but where trees are appropriately planted they can enhance the scenery and environment so improving amenity generally while becoming a welcome new crofting crop. The ability to plant and grow trees within crofting tenure will add a useful new activity for crofters in areas where more trees will improve the countryside, and home-grown timber is needed by the nation. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Campbell of Croy.)

7.15 p.m.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for his introduction of the Bill and the full account he gave of its purposes and the results of its becoming law. I am pleased that he paid tribute to my ionourablek friend in another place, Calum MacDonald, who, as he said, is from the crofting counties. It is rather nice to come to Westminster and get something through which directly and almost solely affects your own people. This Bill is particularly in tune with the times because, as we know, agriculture has been through a rather difficult period. Therefore, if crofting groups can agree and get the permission of the Forestry Commission and the landowner to use part of I he common land for forestry it will obviously be an immediate advantage to them because of the grants. In addition, as the noble Lord said, there will be an advantage ultimately because increased timber production in Scotland, however small it may be, will provide a welcome product. I very much welcome the Bill, as I hope the House will, and again thank the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for the way he introduced it.

7.18 p.m.

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I should like to say how strongly I endorse the outline of the Bill given by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy. It is heartening to find that there is at least one thing under discussion politically in Scotland, particularly in the Highlands, which reaches a conclusion to which we can all be party. I am delighted to hear Lord Carmichael say he gives his support and that of his party to the proposals outlined by my noble friend.

Anything which can encourage woodland in the Highlands must be good. So far as agriculture is concerned, shelter is of vital importance. Indeed, the regeneration of the habit of woodland growing—which I hope will include broadleaf—is something which w? must all applaud. My noble friend has done an excellent job of research in preparing his notes for tonight. I hope we shall give him every encouragement and that the Bill will have a quick passage.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, I should like to associate this Bench with what has been said. I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Croy, for the way in which he introduced the Bill and endorse the words of the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, in supporting it.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (Lord Strathclyde)

My Lords, I am very glad to have the opportunity to welcome this Bill which was so ably presented by my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy. Quite rightly he referred to Mr. Calum MacDonald in another place and to my honourable friend Sir Hector Monro, both of whom played an important part in creating the consensus mentioned by my noble friend Lord Gray of Contin. It is very important that we should have that consensus. It is a delight to be able to speak in this House on a Bill that has aroused so much support from all the Benches in this Chamber.

As my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy mentioned, the Government support the Bill. As has been explained, it enables grazings committees to plant trees on commons grazings. The Bill provides a crofter with an alternative use for crofting land subject to suitable safeguard and makes government assistance available through the relevant grant schemes.

The noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, was quite right to mention the challenges that are facing agriculture, particularly in fragile rural areas where because of climatic problems it is increasingly difficult to make a return. This Bill offers people an alternative. It gives them an option which I am sure will help them in the future. I am confident that this House will support the Bill. I willingly give my support to it.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I should like to take the opportunity to thank noble Lords who have taken part in this short debate. I thank them for the welcome that they have given from all sides of the House to these proposals. We all agree that the honourable gentleman Mr. Calum MacDonald has done a great service by obtaining agreement on proposals which we believe will be good for Scotland. I hope that the Bill will have a happy and quick passage through its later stages.

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

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until five minutes past eight o'clock.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.22 to 8.5 p.m.]

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