McGrigor supports Crofting Amendment Bill now but warns of serious problems

Highlands and Islands MSP, Jamie McGrigor, Scottish Conservative Environment Spokesman, has backed the Scottish Government’s Crofting Amendment Bill – while highlighting the imperative for the government  to work closely with crofting law experts to ensure the final Bill gives clarity and avoids further difficulties in legal interpretation.

Jamie McGrigor was speaking in the Stage 1 debate in Parliament on the Bill which the government had no choice but to introduce after it was discovered that an unintended consequence of the Crofting Reform [Scotland] Act 2010 meant the Crofting Commission had no authority to process applications by owner occupier crofters to decroft.

Speaking in the debate at Holyrood yesterday, 6th June, Jamie, who is also Convenor of the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Crofting, said:

‘Someone once memorably described crofting as being a small island surrounded by a sea of legislation. And so here we are adding another piece of legislation to that ocean, although I suppose it would be fair to call this particular Bill a wee burn rather than another river and a necessary one at that.

‘Like the Rural Affairs Committee, I regret that, due to a lack of clarity and omissions in existing legislation as it stands, the Crofting Commission decided there was no legal basis for it to make determinations on applications by owner-occupier crofters to decroft.

‘As we have heard from other members from the Highlands & Islands today, this has caused considerable difficulties for a number of my constituents across the crofting counties.

‘It is right therefore that the government determined to bring forward legislation to remedy this state of affairs as swiftly as possible and it is also appropriate and sensible that this legislation should apply retrospectively to all those who have previously made applications or who have applications which are pending but on hold due to the legal concerns.

‘However I share the concerns of other members and the Rural Affairs Committee that there is a considerable body of legal opinion that this current short Bill is itself too complex and might need possible amendment to avoid further difficulties in legal interpretation in the future.

‘I am not a lawyer or a legal expert, so, like the Committee, I can only urge Ministers to take on board and address the concerns that have been expressed by eminent figures such as Sir Crispin Agnew QC and Brian Inkster. And, therefore, if required, Ministers should amend the Bill at Stage 2 so that we do not find ourselves having to enact another Amendment Bill in a few months or years. This must be avoided at all costs.

‘I note also the Committee’s reference to the significant number of other outstanding issues relating to crofting which many believe require to be addressed, some of which are separate from the specific decrofting issue the government is seeking to address in the current Bill and some of which are more connected with it.

‘These include detailed concerns about what legally defines an owner-occupied crofter; and the legal position of decrofting a croft that has been divided and where there are multiple owners – an issue I raised with the Minister in the chamber at the end of March.  Again, I would agree with the Committee’s recommendation that Ministers should identify how they intend to address these and set out in what ways they will proceed.

‘More generally, the Committee’s report reflects the widespread concern that exists among crofters and their representatives about the complexity of crofting law – a concern I also share.

‘As members who attend the Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Crofting, which I convene, will know, consolidation of crofting legislation remains a constant agenda item at the request of CPG members.

‘The Minister told me earlier in the year, in a written question (S4W-12989), that: “The Scottish Government will consider the consolidation of crofting legislation after it is satisfied that all the provisions of the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 are working as intended.”

‘Is he able to confirm that this remains the case when the provisions of that Act – and of course what will be the Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Act 2013 – are working as intended?

‘The Scottish Conservatives will support this Bill as we recognise the need for the urgent legal clarity that will allow owner-occupier crofters to enjoy the same rights as croft tenants.

‘We look to the Scottish Government, working closely with the crofting law experts, to ensure that everything possible is done at subsequent stages of the Bill to ensure that there are no unintended consequences of this legislation.

‘And we want Ministers to address the other issues that the Committee has identified as in need of attention.

‘Crofters and the crofting communities, who have so many other challenges to overcome, deserve at the very least clarity from their legislators.’

The defective Crofting Act 2010 is generally agreed to be a legislative mess. Former Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament, Alex Fergusson MSP, himself a farmer, has called it ‘a monster’.

The Act is the product of the regimes of two Environment Ministers. We are now on the fourth since May 2007.

Work on the act was progressed under Michael Russell MS, who held the office from 21st May 2007 to 12th February 2009.

Mr Russell was then replaced by Roseanna Cunningham after a row that refused to go away over his plans to sell 25% of Scotland’s forest estate for a modest price and on a 75 year lease.

Roseanna Cunningham took office on 12th February and held it until, 11 December 2010, seeing the passage into law over 15 months after stepping into her role of the Crofting Reform [Scotland] Bill she had inherited.

The Crofting Reform [Scotland] Bill was passed by the Scottish Parliament on 1st July 2010 and received the Royal Assent to its becoming an Act on 6th August 2010.

Between the two of them, a piece of legislation was created that seems likely to deliver the ongoing series of amendments Jamie McGrigor reasonably fears.

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