Crofting Members’ Business Debate Transcript

Crofting

The Deputy Presiding Officer (John Scott):

The final item of business is a members’ business debate on motion S4M-04411, in the name of Jean Urquhart, on the role of crofting in the Highlands and Islands. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament understands that there are 18,027 crofts in the Highlands and Islands and across Scotland, housing over 33,000 people; considers that crofters play a key role through the production of store animals for the agricultural supply chain and in maintaining land in remote areas; believes that crofts are a valuable source of high health status animals for larger agricultural food producers; considers the work of crofters to be vital to Scotland’s national food and drink policy and to the continuing success of the sector; understands that most crofters rely on common agricultural policy subsidies to earn a marginal income and that they have to take on second jobs; believes that, by bringing in new inhabitants and because of the economic links that crofters have with the rest of the agricultural sector, crofting has helped maintain population levels in remote communities, considers crofting to be of paramount importance to the environment, food and drink sector and economy, and would welcome the interests of crofters and their communities being championed.

17:06

Jean Urquhart (Highlands and Islands) (Ind):

It is with great pleasure that I open the debate on the role of crofting in the Highlands and Islands. It is timely that members have the chance to put on record their appreciation and support for crofting and the vital link that it forms in Scottish agricultural and rural communities. Around 8.4 per cent of the Highlands and Islands population live in crofting households, which is the same as Scotland’s percentage of the United Kingdom population. Crofting and crofters are fundamental to the viability of some of our remotest communities. Crofting not only supports local business but is responsible for the production of high-health breeding and store stock, which are valued by farms throughout Scotland and are an incredibly important part of our food supply chain.

A large part of Scotland’s natural heritage and designated sites lie within the crofting counties. For example, almost 70 per cent of the land designated as national nature reserves and more than 60 per cent of the land designated as sites of special scientific interest in Scotland are in the crofting counties. That compares with an overall proportion of Scotland’s area that is designated as NNR of 2 per cent and as SSSI of 13 per cent. Although those areas of national importance are correctly designated and protected by Government bodies, we must not forget that the management of them is, to a great extent, carried out by crofters. We must ensure that crofters continue in that vital role and that they are encouraged and justly rewarded for doing so.

The most immediate issue facing crofters is the legislative morass surrounding decrofting. An unintended consequence of the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 is that there is no provision for owner-occupier crofters to decroft their land. That has led to the Crofting Commission suspending such applications. Inksters, the solicitors firm, has suggested that until emergency legislation is introduced to fix that, the Government could, under section 1(3) of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993, compel the commission to process decrofting applications, as has been done in the past. I urge the Government to consider that measure while it works with the commission to fix the anomaly.

Another practical change that would help crofters would be to change the rate of grants for the crofting counties agricultural grant scheme. Grants through the Scotland rural development programme are paid at a rate of 50 per cent to all land managers, regardless of their location. However, crofters in the Western Isles, Shetland and other remote locations naturally face, as a result of their geography, higher costs than do those in mainland Scotland. The Government recognises that fact when it awards funding for infrastructure projects, such as schools. CCAGS has been underspent for many years, and raising the rate of grants to 75 per cent would help to increase uptake and encourage some much needed investment in croft holdings.

Positive community development and regulation are fundamental to crofting’s future. Highlands and Islands Enterprise is working on a new resilient rural communities policy that will require partner organisations to agree to shared outcomes and activities. I welcome its focus on residency and social and economic development to allow communities to become resilient. The goal is to assist communities with developments that will ultimately generate revenue. It is clear that the Crofting Commission and HIE need to work together closely for mutual benefit. It would be useful for progress and development to be included in the Crofting Commission’s annual report.

Of course, crofting is both a collective venture and an individual one. However, under the current common agricultural policy regime, crofters who work collectively and still use common grazings have found it difficult to access support for the whole area of land that they manage. There has been a significant decline in the use of common grazings and I seek assurance from the minister that the Scottish Government will examine closely the difficulties that grazings committees face in accessing the support that they need.

I also highlight the work that the crofting connections project is doing to encourage young folk to think about a future in crofting. It has had great success in reaching huge numbers of schoolchildren throughout the region. It is a positive, proactive project that the Scottish Government is to be commended for encouraging and co-funding. I reiterate the point that crofting is important to sustaining the viability of remote communities throughout Scotland and I urge the Government to continue to listen to, and engage with, the financial and legislative concerns of the crofting community.

At a recent event by the enough food for everyone if campaign, we were informed by a representative of a farmers organisation from Malawi—I do not know where the quotation originated from—that agriculture is the mother of cultures. In the crofting communities, we are talking not only about the culture of husbanding animals or land but much more than that; we are talking about rural communities not only surviving but working well.

Two recent reports have shown a huge sense of wellbeing and happiness in the Highlands and Islands. I ask that the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Government acknowledge that and try to understand some of the source of it.I suggest that crofting, which is often considered the bottom of the food chain in Scottish agriculture, is the key to much that we respect, admire and regard as the future of life in the Highlands and Islands. I also suggest that, for little money, we could make a huge impact on many livelihoods. I look forward to hearing the rest of the debate.

17:13

Rob Gibson (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP):  I thank Jean Urquhart for securing the debate on the role of crofting in the Highlands and Islands. First, I will comment on decrofting of owner-occupied crofts. I believe that the issue can be solved in a short while and I look forward to the minister helping us to understand it.

Some decrofting is good—for building houses for local needs, for example—but some can be bad. Part of the regulatory purpose of the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 was to try to ensure that croft land is used and that absenteeism and neglect are reduced. The Crofting Commission is embarked on that process just now. The co-operation that existed in the past in crofting is being re-established. Common grazing committees used to work together and people helped each other with their harvests and so on, and the more formal aspects of co-operation are necessary in the context of producing basic foods and getting them processed and marketed.

Highlands and Islands Enterprise needs to focus on that with its new resilience policy. I commend to members the activities of Community Land Scotland, which has helped a huge number of people to make a success of crofting in communities where there are also people who are not crofters. They have taken over some crofting communities that were privately owned and some that were owned by the Scottish Government. I hope that other communities will look to follow their example, although it is notable that many of those communities are in the Western Isles and far fewer are on the mainland—in my constituency or elsewhere.

One issue that crofting needs to focus on is the ability to process cattle for beef. Austria has more than 4,000 abattoir facilities that are accepted by the European Union, while the Highlands and Islands have only about half a dozen. That must be redressed. I, too, was at the launch of phase 2 of the crofting connections project in Plockton. It is welcome that the project has been extended to many more schools, because it will bring young people into the area. I finish by commenting on two factors that the crofting commissioners are grappling with. The first is mapping. Mapping is required by the 2010 act in order that we know what resources are available. Where communities have undertaken the exercise, they have a better idea of what their resources are.

The second factor is the duty to report. I had a hand in the amendment to the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Bill on that. The matter has been taken up by “The Crofter” in the form of a report from the grazings committee about the health of the community. The assessors have looked at the matter, and what has come out is an approach that should not be threatening and with which people should feel comfortable. Susan Walker, the convener of the Crofting Commission, said: “With this approach, there is an opportunity for us to work together to gather the information we need to enable us to raise the profile of crofting with ministers and the Scottish Parliament and to present a clear picture of the state of crofting—its value and contribution to life in Scotland and the threats and problems it faces. “I fully back that approach and I believe that crofters around the country see the positive message in it. I hope that the attempts by other people to describe the duty as “snooping on neighbours” will end and that that positive attitude to crofting will be reflected by many more people.

17:18

Claire Baker (Mid Scotland and Fife) (Lab): I congratulate Jean Urquhart on bringing the debate to the chamber. Her speech revealed a real understanding of not just the challenges that crofting communities face, but of their resilience and their reason for being. This is an opportune week for the debate, given that we had a debate on food policy this afternoon and will debate CAP reform tomorrow afternoon. Crofters play a vital role in the rural economy. As the motion highlights, they maintain land in remote areas, contribute to securing population levels in remote communities, support the larger agricultural sector and make a significant contribution to Scotland’s environment. I want to cover three areas in this short debate.

First, the motion identifies CAP subsidy as a means of support for crofting communities. The process of CAP reform is on-going; we need genuine reform, and there will inevitably be winners and losers, but reform provides an opportunity to direct support to where it can achieve greater multiple gains. Crofting, given the contribution that it makes to sustainable communities and Scotland’s environment, has much to be championed. Crofting agriculture is generally agreed to be uneconomic, but it delivers much more. CAP reform and the move from historic to area payments in Scotland could give us an opportunity to ensure that appropriate support measures are put in place to protect and enhance crofting agriculture. We need to decide what the best use of the funds is to deliver the greatest benefits to vulnerable rural communities by contributing to their vitality and securing them even where the benefits are not easy to measure.

Secondly, I want to refer to Raasay, which Jean Urquhart has lodged another motion about. Although the fact that the lease has been returned to the Raasay community is welcome, it is for only one year and has cost the Government three times what it accepted as a bid for the rights, so questions remain about how the decision was made. As land reform legislation passed through the Scottish Parliament, the then Scottish Executive introduced the “Estate Charter”, which set out a series of principles that acknowledged the Scottish  Government’s role as landowner, and the impact that poor decisions could have on the viability of communities. The recent decision on Raasay shooting rights has highlighted the charter. The Scottish Government has claimed that ministers were not involved in the decision. Even if that were to be accepted, the question remains, why not?

This evening’s debate is perhaps not the appropriate parliamentary forum for the unanswered questions to be answered, but there needs to be parliamentary scrutiny of the decision and the status of the charter. The minister will be aware of growing concerns, which have been raised by other members, about interpretation of the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2010. Guidance from the Crofting Commission has informed owner-occupier crofters that they do not have a legal mechanism through which to decroft, and that is creating uncertainty. If the problems are being caused by the 2010 act, steps must be taken to resolve the issue and the Government must provide clarity on how the situation will be resolved. I thank Jean Urquhart for bringing the debate and for recognising the importance of crofting to the Highlands and Islands.

17:21

Jamie McGrigor (Highlands and Islands) (Con):  As convener of our Parliament’s cross-party group on crofting—a job that I inherited from the true crofters’ champion, John Farquhar Munro—I am delighted that the deputy convener, Jean Urquhart, has secured today’s debate, and I am happy to participate in it.It is important that we all continue to highlight the importance of crofting at every possible opportunity. The Scottish Crofting Federation does an excellent job of that, and I also pay tribute to Pam Rodway and her crofting connections team for the good work that it does with young people to educate them about country ways in an enjoyable and informative way.

Jean Urquhart’s motion is to be commended. She is entirely right to highlight the importance of crofters producing high quality, high health status animals for farmers elsewhere in Scotland. That was one of the main reasons why I was proud to stand 100 per cent behind our crofters in the two successful campaigns that we have fought since 1999 to preserve the bull hire scheme.

Earlier this afternoon, we debated food policy, and it is clear that the crofting sector has a key role to play in the provision of high quality food in this country, and that it can benefit from what will be an increased demand for local food and traceable produce. Although there is genuine political support for crofting across the political parties, crofters want Government to do more to assist them through practical common sense measures, including support for crofting housing and new entrants. The croft house grants scheme was not kept up with, but should be recognised as an efficient way of providing affordable housing in rural Scotland, as it was in the past.

The current reform of the CAP is crucial to the future of the sector and we need to ensure that the specific needs of crofters are protected in the reform. I remain concerned and alarmed at the decline of crofting as demonstrated through continuing reductions in livestock, cropping and the communal management of common grazings. Securing a much better Scotland rural development programme including—of course—the successor to the less-favoured areas support scheme element, is vital to halting and reversing decline.

The Minister for Environment and Climate Change (Paul Wheelhouse):  Does Jamie McGrigor agree that the UK Government’s decision not to seek additional funding on pillar 2 in the CAP reform negotiations might have long-term consequences for the availability of funds?

Jamie McGrigor:  I do not really have time to talk about that this evening, but it is something that we must investigate. We have to get the best possible deal for our crofters and farmers. Pillar 1 payments offer our marginal areas appropriate levels of support, which is important. It is vital that the SRDP successor offers user-friendly options that crofters—including commongrazings managers and small-unit managers—are able to apply for and that offer practical benefits. There is consensus that the current SRDP simply has not provided those for small producers. I have written to the Government a great deal on the matter.

The very small total of approved application cases since the start of the SRDP, land managers options and rural priorities compared with the potential number of smallholding applicants demonstrates that clearly. Too many people are put off applying by the complexity of the forms and the labour or anticipated time that is required, or they believe that the options are not appropriate for smaller-scale producers. We are therefore not making the most of the European funds that can be drawn down for crofting. A shortage of time prevents me, I think—

The Deputy Presiding Officer: It does.

Jamie McGrigor: —from covering many of the other issues, but I wish to mention the recent controversy over the Raasay crofters’ traditional shooting and fishing rights.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:  Be brief, please.

Jamie McGrigor:  It is absolutely disgraceful that the crofters who held the let were not offered it in front of anyone else. Why was it taken from them in the first place? As I am not allowed to go any further, I will stop—other than to congratulate Jean Urquhart on securing the debate.

17:26

Tavish Scott (Shetland Islands) (LD):  I, too, thank Jean Urquhart for giving us the opportunity to debate crofting this evening. Some of my colleagues might have seen crofters on the BBC’s “Shetland” programme last night, but it turned out that they were from Glasgow, rather than from home, but there we are—we must remember that it is a drama, not a documentary.

Rob Gibson: That is the BBC for you.

Tavish Scott:  Do not blame the BBC, Mr Gibson. That is a cheap shot.

The most pressing issue, certainly for owner-occupiers, is the shambles that was created by the Crofting Commission and the Scottish Government over decrofting, and I wish to address that directly. Across the crofting counties, 3,000 crofters are now denied the right to remove crofting regulation from their land by an interpretation of the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2010.

I presume that, last year sometime, some bright spark in either the Government or the commission decided to question the decrofting provisions in the act. I cannot find out where else this interpretation has come from. Legal experts have now pored over the act, and they have created a legal opening that has allowed the Government and the Crofting Commission—which are joined at the hip on this issue—to stop any further owner-occupier decrofting. Worse, there is now legal uncertainty over title to land that has been decrofted since the 2010 act was passed. I have had crofters, solicitors, house builders and others constantly on the phone since this utter shambles emerged via the Crofting Commission website. The other day, I asked the First Minister to sort it out.

When the nationalists were in a self-inflicted hole over the removal of the fishing and shooting rights of Raasay’s crofters, Alex Salmond read the internal riot act, and the policy changed within a week. The decrofting fiasco affects far more crofters across the crofting counties. It is a mess that needs to be resolved immediately, as Jean Urquhart, Claire Baker and Jamie McGrigor have rightly said. It is unacceptable for the Government and the commission to state, as they did jointly last Thursday—interestingly, the statement was issued after Parliament had finished for the day—that it is now up to crofters to take their own legal advice. That is what the Government said last Thursday night.

Paul Wheelhouse:  Would the member like to correct the record? When he stood up at First Minister’s questions and asked whether ministers had responded to him, I had actually sent him a letter at half past 10 that morning.

Tavish Scott: Mr Wheelhouse may have sent a letter, but he sent it by email. I had not been in my office, because I had been in a committee, serving the Parliament. If he had wanted to have the First Minister briefed on the matter, he could have done so. If he chooses not to send me a letter and actually let me know about it, but instead to do it by email, I do not think much of that at all. More to the point, I do not think much of the way in which the Scottish Government is handling this issue on behalf the crofters I represent in Parliament. It is about time that, instead of casting blame on others, he stood up and did his ministerial job and got the matter sorted out. That is his job as a minister. Ministers are there to take decisions, not to blame everyone else for the mistakes of the 2010 act.

This is a hole of the Government’s making. I expect the minister to use today’s opportunity, instead of prevaricating and blaming everyone else, to say how he will sort the matter out. Will there be emergency legislation or will the minister, as Jean Urquhart said, use the measures that Brian Inkster has highlighted? It is his choice to do that. He can wave his pen at me as much as he likes, but it is his job to do that. The Government need not expect to turn up in Shetland on 25 March for the Highlands and Islands convention and lecture us about how good it is if it does not have this matter sorted out. The situation is entirely of its own making. The minister can tell Parliament how long he has known about it—how long the Government has been sitting on it. Is it four months, five months or six months? How are crofters to get the money back that is now due to solicitors because of the legal uncertainty that has been created?

The minister will also need to tell Parliament and lawyers—the Law Society phoned me about this yesterday—what they are to do with their insurance premiums, which will now go up. The minister is shaking his head. He should speak to the Law Society instead of shaking his head about these things. The Law Society says that the insurance premiums that lawyers face in small legal practices will now go up because of this uncertainty. Those practices will have to deal with the outcomes of this Government’s mistakes on the legislation. There are many crofters across the counties who doubt this Government’s commitment to crofting—no wonder after this fiasco and the changes that Jean Urquhart rightly referred to around CCAGS grants, agri-environmental schemes and the hideous penalties applied to crofters over minor mapping changes. Here is an opportunity to improve that record—no more waffle from the First Minister or anyone else. Crofters want this mess sorted out and they want it sorted out now.

17:30

Dave Thompson (Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch) (SNP):  I congratulate Jean Urquhart on securing the debate. Crofting is of particular importance in my constituency where it is the way of life for many and a vital source of food for a great deal more. The motion highlights the fact that there are more than 18,000 crofts occupied by an estimated 10,000 to 12,000 crofting households, which support a total population of around 33,000. Indeed, crofting households account for around 30 per cent of all households in rural areas in the Highlands and Islands and as much as 65 per cent in parts of my constituency, such as Skye. I believe that there are more than 3,000 crofts supporting around 9,000 people in my constituency of Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, which of course also takes in parts of Easter Ross, such as Dingwall and the Black Isle, and both sides of Loch Ness.

It is difficult to get accurate figures because the information is not held in a way that easily identifies crofts within Scottish constituency boundaries, but it is clear that around 17 per cent of Scotland’s crofts are in my constituency, so crofting is an extremely important issue for me.There is never a shortage of issues to deal with in crofting, as the matters just discussed about decrofting and Raasay indicate. I believe that the minister handled the Raasay situation—a very difficult situation—well and I am quite sure that there is a bright future for the crofters and the other residents of Raasay.

Jamie McGrigor:  I do not wish to be discourteous, but if the member thinks that the minister handled the situation well, what would have happened if he had handled it badly?

Dave Thompson:  Mr McGrigor knows that when legal contracts have been signed, it is never easy to get out of them. I think that, given the circumstances, the minister dealt with the matter and with South Ayrshire Stalking well. There is a resolution. There was a mistake, which the Government admitted and put right. It takes a big Government to admit its mistakes and put things right. I recently had the opportunity to speak at a crofting connections event in Plockton. Crofting connections, which is ably run by Pam Rodway, clearly recognises crofting’s value, one part of which is described as follows: “set against major environmental and social challenges, crofting has a unique role to play in inspiring young people to think global and act local.”

I heartily endorse that. Crofting Connections is a vital programme that facilitates links between crofting and the next generation. Through workshops that it runs, children get first-hand experience of working with the land, which is vital if we are to help the next generation understand the fundamental importance of land, including its ownership and use. In the modern world, with many people living in towns and cities, it is often taken for granted that there will be food on our tables. Little consideration is given to the production of food or, crucially, the security of supply. If the market was left to dictate that only the most productive areas should produce our food, that would be a disaster for crofting and for Scotland.

One of the difficulties that we have with the common agricultural policy at the moment is that Richard Lochhead, the cabinet secretary, is arguing a case against the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. DEFRA wants to have an unfettered market approach—that is where it wants to get to. If that happened, it would be an absolute disaster, not just for crofting in Scotland but for a lot of other agriculture in Scotland, too. The minister must ensure in his negotiations that the CAP negotiations really do favour the real less-favoured areas such as the crofting areas, as other members have said. We must give special attention to the crofting areas, with a view to ensuring that payment for those areas accurately reflects their disadvantage, so that they can continue to contribute positively to Scotland’s environment, economy and food security.

17:35

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab): I, too, congratulate Jean Urquhart on securing this important debate. Crofting is essential for the Highlands and Islands, not merely because it has a cultural tradition—it has a culture of its own that involves communal working and sharing resources—but because of its foremost role as an economic driver. The motion draws attention to crofting’s contribution to food production and the provision of affordable housing. Crofting’s ability to fulfil those roles depends on the right social and political climate, given the natural disadvantage of the area in which it operates—a natural disadvantage that makes crofting an essential part of the area’s economic mix. I will speak about a couple of issues.

Others have spoken about them, but they require emphasis. The first is the fiasco in Raasay, which should never have happened. We were told that the decision was taken without ministerial knowledge, but the Government sets the parameters in which officials operate. The action was along the lines of the worst excesses of absentee landowners, which Raasay had its fill of in the past. People there thought that they were in safe hands with Government ownership. That an official thought that the action would be fine tells us about the lack of appreciation in the Government of crofting and of the wider needs of the Highlands and Islands.

Dave Thompson: Is Rhoda Grant pleased that the Government admitted that it made a mistake and rectified the situation in Raasay?

Rhoda Grant:  I am very pleased that the Government admitted to the mistake, but I take issue with the suggestion that it has rectified the situation in Raasay. It has given the crofters a year-long reprieve. I hope that when that period ends, the minister will decide that the shooting and fishing rights should remain in local hands.

Paul Wheelhouse:  I know that Rhoda Grant cares greatly about the issue. She assumes that the period is just a year. We have given the temporary measure a year, with a view to reaching a longer-term, community-led solution for the sporting rights on Raasay. I assure her that the year is not a fixed period; if we have to change it to allow more time for negotiations, we will do so.

Rhoda Grant:  I appreciate the minister’s intervention and the reassurance that the year is only a period to produce a long-term solution that will put the rights back in community hands, where they should be at all times. The second issue is the ability to decroft land on owner-occupied crofts, which many have raised. One benefit of crofting that we have talked about is the availability of land on which to build affordable housing. However, people cannot secure a mortgage on a house that is built on croft land, so the land must be decrofted. One stated aim of the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 was to ensure that crofters had the same benefits, whether they were owner-occupiers or tenants. However, it appears that shoddy drafting has created the opposite effect.

As many other speakers have said, Brian Inkster has said that the minister has powers of direction over the Crofting Commission. The minister needs to exercise those powers immediately to deal with the anomaly. Failure to do so will mean that crofters will have to go through the courts to protect their rights, which will be difficult for those who can least afford to do that. The problem is of the Government’s making. If it had not pushed the legislation through so quickly, it would not have made the mistakes. Government back benchers on committees have a role in scrutinising Government legislation and not simply pushing through what the Government tells them to. Committees should lead the charge in ensuring that the Government is held to account and that the legislation that goes through committees is right. That also applies to the Raasay decision—the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee should look at that and ensure that steps are taken to ensure that such a situation does not happen again and that communities have the right to their own land. The Government must learn from its mistakes, not only for crofting but for the rest of Scotland.

17:39

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Ind):  I thank my colleague Jean Urquhart for securing this debate. I want to talk about the connection between people and the land, which is difficult to put down on paper the world over, whether we are talking about Native Americans or aboriginal Australians. It is incumbent on legislators to shape policies that recognise that connection, whether with regard to the older people of north-west Sutherland not wishing to be institutionalised and coming up with models that will retain them in their own area, linked to the land, or with regard to crofting.

Legislation on land reform has helped, but parliamentary draftspeople are not always capable of capturing the very essence of that relationship. As a native Highlander and former police officer, I give the poaching laws as an example. Highlanders have great difficulty recognising that someone who is resident in London for 50 weeks of the year, or a multinational from the Netherlands, can own wild fish or wild deer, so it is important to remember that things have to be relevant.

The Highlands have a troubled history connected with land, and women have played a significant role in that history, for example Màiri Mhòr with her song “The Battle of the Braes”. The crofting legislation and land reform have helped, but as recent events in Harris have shown, we are not quite there yet. Attitudes of greed and ownership need to be resolved. Crofting has a distinguished past and it has to have a distinguished future. The motion talks about crofts being “a valuable source of high-health status animals for larger agricultural food producers”.

For me, the link to the local butcher is more important than that. Our earlier debate on food policy covered a lot of issues that affect crofters. Some of the things that were mentioned included the modern globalised food supply chain, an unsustainable food culture, the domination of multinational corporations, and community-driven initiatives. I think that we all recognise that the community around crofters is the one that we want to see promoted. The motion also talks about the key role of crofters “through the production of store animals for the agricultural supply chain”. It is about quality and it is about staying local—it is vital for the planet that food production and consumption take place as close to each other as possible.

The Scottish Government’s food policy recognises that. The Scottish Crofting Federation produced a report in 2008 that prompted some discussion about the indigenous people of the Highlands and Islands. It contains a lot of pleasing radical language. It says that sustainable local agricultural systems such as crofting must be supported ahead of unsustainable agri-industry, which teak Government would export, along with the environmental consequences for places overseas. It goes on to say that crofts have a vital role to play and that there is a fear in some quarters that the very idea of crofting is the subject of official hostility.

Other members have alluded to the fact that most crofters rely on common agricultural policy subsidies to earn a marginal income. In 2008, there was talk about the less favoured area support scheme, a policy that saw areas such as East Lothian and the Black Isle, with fine agricultural land, being treated the same as the rocky slopes of Harris, as the report mentions. Of course, the farmers in East Lothian and the Black Isle did not have second jobs—most crofters do. In Lochaber, I well remember neighbours who worked for the Forestry Commission having crofts and having time off to work on them. We have moved on in some areas. There has been talk of efforts to remove the bull hire scheme, but that scheme will be retained. I hope that community use can be made of Knocknagael, where land is being freed, and ideally there will be a combination with what is in the existing plan.

Recent events on Raasay have led to a high level of interest in crofting. I ask people to act with good grace, in the terms that Dave Thomson outlined, in relation to those events. The situation was not ideal, but I think that the best has been made of it. There is a future for crofting.

17:44

The Minister for Environment and Climate Change (Paul Wheelhouse):  I, too, congratulate Jean Urquhart on securing this debate on a wide range of issues that are relevant to crofting. It comes as no surprise to hear the strong support for crofting and for the benefits that crofting delivers for Scotland. The Scottish Government fully appreciates the difficulties that are faced by crofters in rural and remote rural areas; remoteness from markets, the higher costs of foodstuffs, fuel, goods and services, and the extra time that it takes to access such things are all important. I will come on to some of the substantive points that members have raised, but first I will highlight a few points of my own.

My recent visit to Barra highlighted the appreciation that crofters have of the natural environment and their role as stewards of it—I think that Jean Urquhart made that point in her opening speech. The key for the Scottish Government is to build confidence within the communities that we trust them to protect the environments in which they live. We also fully appreciate the social and environmental value-added benefits that high nature-value farming brings. Because of that, we will do all that lies within our power to create and maintain an environment in which the crofting way of life has a sustainable future.

It is regrettable that the sustainability of crofting is being put at risk by the current UK Government’s position on CAP reform negotiations, especially given that crofters currently depend on €11.6 million of single farm payments each year. Crofting tenures predominate in the 85 per cent of Scotland’s land that is in agricultural production that is designated as LFA, and which will in the future be covered by the new designation of “areas of natural constraint”. While it is represented at EU negotiations by the UK Government, Scotland receives the fourth lowest single farm payment per hectare of member states, and the lowest in the UK by far. Pillar 2, in which Scotland already receives the lowest payment in the EU—again from within the UK—is also key to many crofters who are involved in conservation farming and is vital for agrienvironment projects. I was therefore extremely disappointed on behalf of our crofters that the UK Government chose not to argue, as 16 other member states did, for additional pillar 2 funding.

Maintenance of coupled payments for those who are engaged in livestock farming is also essential. To date, the UK Government has taken a different view—despite clear advice to UK ministers from our own Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment on their importance to Scottish agriculture. Rob Gibson raised a point about abattoirs, about which he was absolutely correct. The future of our smaller rural abattoirs will be vital to our crofters; the review of the food policy that was outlined by the cabinet secretary earlier this afternoon offers an opportunity to address that issue. However, a key part of the future of crofting is tied in with effective regulation and compliance with the duties that are placed on all crofters, whether they are tenants or owner-occupiers.

Jamie McGrigor: Does the minister agree that the land that he is talking about—the poor land on which crofters farm—is greatly disadvantaged by the fact that it is entirely measured by past productivity, and that some of the things that the land can now produce, such as public good, should also be taken into consideration when looking at the value of the land for the purpose of drawing down payments for areas of natural constraint and other European awards?

Paul Wheelhouse: I will take Jamie McGrigor’s points on board. Perhaps we can discuss them at a future date. I am conscious that time is pressing, so I apologise for having to rush on with my speech. Parliament agreed to set up the crofting register under the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2010. My recent visit to Barra highlighted the fact that there would be value in local meetings to explain the mechanism for registering crofts in order to ensure that crofters can, under the new register, for the first time have legal certainty on the extent of, and interests in, their croft.

I have asked my officials to ensure that local meetings be arranged to assist crofters in understanding the process of, and the requirements for, registration. Those meetings will take place in sufficient time for groups of crofters to access the 24 per cent reduction in voluntary registration costs that the Government offered in the first year of registration, at a cost of up to £100,000.

The newly constituted board of the Crofting Commission, with a budget of £2.5 million per annum, is mainly made up of people who croft. That is important because it means that the commissioners are ideally placed to understand crofting issues. It is worth noting also that the franchise for the elections to the commission included 16 and 17-year-olds, which is relevant today. Scottish ministers will look at how we can support the commission’s vision on how crofting can be effectively regulated for the benefit of all.

I turn to some specific points in the motion. The Scottish Government is committed to providing ongoing support to crofting. The crofting cattle improvement scheme, which is situated on the outskirts of Inverness, provides good quality high health-status bulls to groups of crofters at an annual cost to Government of £400,000. That is vital in areas where no alternative hiring facility exists and where it is neither practicable nor cost effective to keep bulls and overwinter them. The scheme has dual benefits for participants and knock-on benefits for the rest of their communities. The hire cost is heavily subsidised and the progeny of the bulls that are used in the scheme are invariably healthy, heavy and attract premium prices at market.

As well as providing an affordable means to hire bulls, the Government has proved its on-going commitment to the scheme by modernising the facility to make it safe and future-proofed. As well as the higher livestock prices that will be achieved by crofters, other social and environmental benefits also accrue from the scheme. Also in relation to food production, earlier this year we were delighted to support with £112,000 for the period to 2015, as part of the food education programme, phase 2 of the crofting connections project, which has been mentioned by a number of members.

The Scottish Government recognises the role that active crofting plays in maintaining population, which ties in to Jean Urquhart’s point about the health of crofting affecting the culture and health of communities. The Government has continued to support that role through provision of grants for construction and improvement of croft housing through the croft house grant scheme, which has a budget of £2.6 million per annum. However, the nature of crofting has changed and, although some 8,000 crofters are agriculturally active, we should recognise that comparatively few crofts are large enough for sufficient family income to be generated from agriculture alone.

The “Committee of Inquiry on Crofting—Final Report” of 2008 recorded that “on average crofters derive about 20% of their net income from agriculture”—that relates to the point that John Finnie made about how crofters need more than one job. However, the link to agricultural activities is of great importance to the crofting way of life, and the Scottish Government offers our support for that. In the time that remains,

I want to respond to some of the substantial points that have been raised. On owner-occupier decrofting, we recognise that the fact that owner-occupiers are unable to decroft their land is a matter of great concern to many members and, in particular, to many crofters. I have already asked my officials to investigate the issue as a matter of urgency. We are taking legal advice, and I can assure Parliament that we are prepared to take any necessary steps to ensure that owner-occupier crofters can apply to decroft their land in the same way as tenant crofters and landlords. If legislative change is required, I will look to Parliament for support to encourage smooth passage of that legislation.

Regarding Jean Urquhart’s point about Brian Inkster’s suggestion that ministers could use section 1(3) of the 1993 act, I am told that the commission’s legal advice is that legislation does not provide for owner-occupiers to decroft. Instructing the commission to accept such an application would amount to instructing the commission to act unlawfully. Therefore, if ministers were to issue guidance to the commission that it should resume the approval of such decrofting applications, we would in effect be asking the commission to act unlawfully.

On Tavish Scott’s suggestion that crofters have been told to take their own legal advice, the Scottish Government has never given advice that crofters should take independent legal advice. The commission published legal advice on its website recently. Rhoda Grant said that crofters cannot build on croft land because it needs to be decrofted in order for them to secure a loan. The Scottish Government proposed legislation on standard securities over tenanted crofts in the draft bill in 2009, but crofters did not accept that. The Committee of Scottish Clearing Bankers had accepted safeguards in the draft legislation for crofters to provide standard security over tenanted land.

I would like to ask Tavish Scott to clarify where his 3,000 figure came from. Not all owner-occupiers have applied to decroft. The Crofting Commission has indicated that 179 decrofting directions have been issued and 59 applications are held in abeyance; the figure of 3,000 is not one that I recognise. Since the Crofting Commission published its legal advice in February, we have been working very hard to address the issue, which should give Tavish Scott an idea of the timescales involved.

I am grateful to the member for raising the issue with me, and I can assure him that we take the matter extremely seriously and will address it in due course. Regarding Raasay, I recognise that a degree of concern has been expressed in the chamber. I acknowledge to Rhoda Grant and to others that we made a mistake. Unfortunately, that mistake was made without ministerial involvement, and we have taken steps to rectify it, as Dave Thompson indicated. I can assure members that that process should not happen again.

Claire Baker:  Can I ask whether the Scottish Government still adheres to the principles in the estates charter that the then Scottish Executive established in 2002?

Paul Wheelhouse:  Clearly, the Scottish Government believes very strongly in community ownership of assets and community management of land. I want to put that on the record today. The Scottish Government will take all steps that we can to ensure that the community in Raasay has a full consultation on the future of the sporting rights on the island. We want to ensure that the whole community has an input into that decision—hence the decision, as I explained to Rhoda Grant, to allow at least a year for the community to arrive at a solution. We hope that the matter will be carried by consensus in the community. I hope that I have reassured members including Claire Baker that we take very seriously communities’ interest in management of our estates in this country. I assure members that I will personally take a great interest in that in the future.

Meeting closed at 17:54.

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements