02 May 2017

S5M-05245 Crofting Law Reform

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame): The next item of business is a debate on motion S5M-05245, in the name of Edward Mountain on behalf of the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, on its report on a review of priorities for crofting law reform.

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Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP):

Bu mhath leam taing a thoirt dha na clàrcan agus a h-uile duine eile airson dèanamh cinnteach gu bheil na pàirtean as cudromaiche den aithisg anns a’ Ghàidhlig, cànan a’ mhòr chuid de na sgìrean croitearachd.

For the Anglophones and those who cannot interpret my mispronounced Gaelic, I have just thanked our clerks and others for ensuring that key parts of the report have been rendered in the native language of most of our crofting areas—in Gaelic, in other words.

We should remember that the first act—the Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act 1886—required that one of the three commissioners could speak Gaelic and, recognising the legal complexities, that one of the commissioners be a Scottish advocate of at least 10 years’ standing.

Crofting law is, indeed, a complex area of law that draws on rural agricultural tradition, court cases, and many generations of parliamentary consideration and legislation. It is, to be frank, a pretty substantial guddle. We must not let the complexity and contentious nature of many of the issues in crofting be another reason for moving forward only by limiting the Government’s response to cherry-picking some of the easy bits. The sump report to which Jamie Greene and Rhoda Grant referred at least gives an opportunity for action in areas in which agreement is as complete as it is likely to be.

However, we also need some big-picture stuff. I will start with governance and oversight. My personal hand sits on the matter to an extent, because I was the minister who signed the Crofting Commission (Elections) (Scotland) Regulations 2011. Paragraph 7(5)(a) of schedule 1 to the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 proves that we can be radical. It provides for the election to the Crofting Commission of people who are aged 16 or over, and follows a similar provision in the Health Boards (Membership and Elections) (Scotland) Act 2009. We broke new ground in empowering 16 and 17-year-olds in that way. I do not believe that similar has been done in legislation anywhere else in the UK.

The fundamental question is this: what are members of the commission for? They are not there to manage the work of officials but are, absolutely, there to hold them to account and to set policy. In doing so, they are there to represent the collective interests of all crofters and people in crofting communities. It should not be a surprise that responsibility must extend beyond crofters; in fact, one does not even have to be a crofter to stand for election to the commission—albeit that a non-crofter must be nominated by a crofter.

Elected members are there because of votes in the six crofting constituencies, but it is vital that members of the commission reach collective decisions and then take them forward unanimously. It is not useful if members of the commission think that they are there simply to represent the area that elects them. That is a substantial challenge, but I hope that members of the commission will rise to it.

As other members have said, we must complete proper and accurate mapping of crofts and shared grazings. As Minister for Transport, Infrastructure and Climate Change, I was party to a dispute about the boundary between crofting land and Benbecula airport. The diagram in the register of sasines was pretty small and the boundary line was marked with a Chinagraph pencil. When it was scaled up, the line was 100m wide, so we can begin to understand where the dispute came from. It was a recipe for argument.

We have also heard that we must simplify the administration of common grazings and create a better structure, and I support that.

The 1886 act recognised the rights of crofters—it opens on security of tenure—and brought to an end forced ejection of people from land that they had occupied for generations. It ended the clearances, but life on the croft remains somewhat precarious. I look forward to the Government’s planned legislation, and trust that the committee’s work will helpfully augment the Government’s and others’ research.


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