19 December 2002

S1M-3396 Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Bill: Stage 1

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Mr Murray Tosh): The next item of business is a debate on motion S1M-3396, in the name of Ross Finnie, on the Agricultural Holdings (Scotland) Bill, and on one amendment to that motion.
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Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I draw to members' attention that I have recently acquired a 3-acre field from which I derive no revenue, but upon which another farmer has some sheep.
We must commend the Executive and all those who participated in the consultation process because they have formed a partnership of what we expected to be diverse interests, coming together in the SLF and the NFUS to agree proposals.
Unanimity was not achieved at the outset and the Scottish tenant farmers action group strongly believed that there was a case for an absolute right to buy. We welcome the discussions that have been taking place between that group and the NFUS with the aim of broadening the consensus and extending the provisions of the bill to meet many of the legitimate concerns that the tenant farmers action group brought to the committee and to the wider public.
To address Mike Rumbles' point, the paragraph that the SNP was happy to support, along with Labour members and John Farquhar Munro, is essentially a warning that if we cannot address those concerns in an adequate way, we simply must consider other options. I am relatively confident, however, that the minister has heard many of the arguments—I see him nodding—and we await with interest the amendment that he will lodge.
Alex Fergusson: If that paragraph in the report is just a warning, why has the SNP rural affairs spokesman gone public with the fact that he will lodge an amendment at stage 2 to introduce an absolute right to buy?
Stewart Stevenson: It is interesting to note from listening to John Farquhar Munro, Rhoda Grant and John Home Robertson that the members on those benches do not have anything to do. The Tories are, as usual, isolated from the core of the argument and from the real needs of tenant farmers and farm owners throughout Scotland.
In his opening remarks, Fergus Ewing highlighted the point made on page 2 of the report—that the long-term reduction in the number of tenant farmers across Scotland is at the absolute core of the argument. The 1991 act, which was introduced by the Tories—without safeguards, so that its purpose could be avoided by a series of manoeuvres—is the problem that we are addressing today. That is perhaps one of the reasons why the Tories find themselves uncomfortable with the measure—it is addressing their previous failure. Paragraph 14 in the committee report highlights that matter.
On avoidance, we must look at what the committee has said in paragraph 17. I hope that the Executive has listened carefully to the arguments and evidence that have been brought forward and that amendments will be lodged to ensure that we have a robust way of dealing with any emerging avoidance tactics that may follow.
On diversification, the committee pointed in paragraphs 26 and 29 to the difficulties that there might be in limited partners and general partners having to agree jointly on certain matters. I hope that that matter will be addressed.
I remain somewhat unclear as to why Mike Rumbles could not support the report. However, I welcome his support for what is actually proposed in the bill. As paragraph 53 says, it is important that we consider an amendment to allow tenants in all tenancies a statutory right to notification of an intention to sell land, even if they do not have a pre-emptive right to buy. That would be of value, and it would be vindictive to oppose such a proposal, were it to be brought forward.
We must consider the Tories' amendment and recognise that they remain—on this issue as on so many others—out of touch with mainstream Scottish opinion. They are even cleaved, for the first time, from the SLF. We need a strong tenanted sector. The bill can, and must, help us to achieve that. I particularly look forward to John Farquhar Munro's amendments on an absolute right to buy. They will make interesting reading.

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