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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Meeting of the Parliament 20 June 2017

Agenda: Time for Reflection, Business Motions, Oaths, Topical Question Time, Policing 2026, Crofting Commission, Air Departure Tax (Scotland) Bill: Stage 3, Air Departure Tax (Scotland) Bill, Seat Belts on School Transport (Scotland) Bill: Financial Resolution, Decision Time, Scottish Civic Trust (50th Anniversary)


Contents


Crofting Commission

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Christine Grahame)

The next item of business is a statement by Fergus Ewing on the next steps for the Crofting Commission. The cabinet secretary will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.

15:01  

The Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity (Fergus Ewing)

Crofting occupies a unique place in the cultural heritage of Scotland. It is woven into our history—our story of who we are—with a powerful and often poignant resonance. However, we must not allow crofting to be simply a relic of our past: crofting must have a purpose and a role in our present and our future.

That purpose, in the Government’s view, is to support people to remain on the land and to bring people back to the land. The Government’s role is to enable and support people so to do, and also to remain there, which will create a sustainable and productive environment in which they can live and work. We must therefore invest in crofting as we traditionally understand it, which means providing crofting with an effective regulatory and statutory framework.

For some crofting communities—and, indeed, the Crofting Commission itself—this past year has been particularly challenging and time will be required to heal the wounds that the communities feel from recent experiences. However, I am pleased to advise Parliament that the commission is now moving on from those testing times and working hard to re-establish its role as an effective regulatory body.

We had a successful set of elections for the Crofting Commission board in March, with 16 candidates coming forward for six commissioner posts. Together with the three commissioners appointed by me, the new board members have spent the past few months learning about and settling into their new roles. Those roles are key to enabling the commission to fulfil its statutory functions and to develop a stable and supportive framework for crofting activity.

I can also announce today the appointment of Mr Rod Mackenzie, the elected commissioner from East Highlands, as the new chair of the Crofting Commission board. He is an active crofter who brings with him great experience and knowledge, not just from crofting but from his business background. Collectively, the commissioners bring a wealth of crofting talent to the Crofting Commission. I wish them well in their new roles and I look forward to engaging with them.

In January of this year, Bill Barron was appointed chief executive of the Crofting Commission. Since then, the chief executive has rightly focused on the need to renew trust in the commission, particularly on the part of stakeholders, and on the functionality of the commission.

In February, I published a review of governance at the commission. I asked for the review to consider specific weaknesses that had become apparent over the past year. The review provided a welcome and timely opportunity to take stock, learn from experiences and examine positives as well as opportunities for improvement.

I can advise Parliament that the commission will today publish its action plan to implement the review findings. That work, which will address three key areas for improvement, is already under way.

First, revised governance arrangements are being developed for the board, to build capacity and confidence among commissioners on the extent and limits of their duties. Secondly, action is being taken internally to improve the systems, procedures and support mechanisms to underpin effective board decision making and collective adherence to those decisions. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the commission has engaged with stakeholders by consulting on the procedures for managing common grazings. That engagement is contributing to improving relationships between the commission and crofters.

Significant though its role is, the Crofting Commission is not the sole barometer of health in our crofting communities. The Government is committed to investing in and supporting crofting and crofting activities now and in the future. Key to that is enabling more people to live and work on their land. Since 2007 we have approved more than £16 million in grants for croft housing, which has helped to build or improve more than 800 homes for crofters and their families. That demonstrates the importance of access to affordable housing in remote areas. It is vital for the croft house grant to continue to fulfil its intended purpose of enabling people to stay and encouraging others to settle in our island and rural communities. I have therefore increased the budget for that scheme by a further £600,000 in 2017-18, which took the total allocation to £2 million in May this year.

We also provide funding and practical support for crofting. The crofting agricultural grant scheme, known as CAGS, has had more than 3,550 applications since 2010, with a value of £10 million.

We are providing support for new and young crofters through the £2 million new entrant start-up grant for farming and crofting and the £6 million young farmer start-up grant. Crofters can also access a bespoke subscription service provided by the farm advisory service. Furthermore, we have established the crofting cattle improvement scheme, including a £3 million bull stud, which offers subsidised rates for crofters. Each year, more than 100 bulls are hired to more than 80 townships, with approximately 400 beneficiaries.

If we are to encourage and enable more people to enter crofting, we need to offer them a modern statutory framework. We have committed to review crofting law during this parliamentary session to make the legislation more transparent, understandable and workable in practice.

I welcomed the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee’s findings from its crofting inquiry, as discussed in the debate in May. I have not yet formally responded to that report in full. It provides us with much to consider and to explore further with stakeholders regarding how to proceed with a new crofting bill. The issues are complex, and opinions on them, as the committee’s report demonstrated, are diverse. There are no straightforward answers, and there may be no quick solution. Compromise may well be required from us all to reach consensus. I will therefore update the committee regularly as we make progress and reach conclusions on its key findings. I believe that such an iterative process will enable us to get the new bill right.

Traditional crofting has a role to play in our ambition for more people to be able to live and work in the Highlands and Islands—our ambition to repeople the Highlands and Islands—but we must maximise the opportunity and potential from a modern approach to crofting. That means enabling different ways of working the land and creating sustainable crofting communities.

Connectivity, especially digital connectivity, is crucial. It enables people in the most remote parts of Scotland to do the same as people in towns and cities. Our investment since 2012 has made a huge difference. In 2012 only a quarter of premises had access to fibre broadband in the Highlands; now, more than three quarters have such access. In Orkney, Shetland and the Western Isles, not a single premises had access; the figures now are 62 per cent, 65 per cent and 50 per cent respectively.

That connectivity enables people to make lives on the land, to diversify to create sustainable livelihoods and to collaborate with neighbours and communities to find common solutions. That approach is as important to supporting crofting more generally as it is to reforming its statutory frameworks.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

The cabinet secretary will take questions on the issues raised in his statement. I will allow around 20 minutes for questions.

Peter Chapman (North East Scotland) (Con)

I am grateful to the cabinet secretary for advance sight of his statement. I join him in his welcome to the newly elected commission and I wish the commissioners and their teams all the best as they take forward a programme to improve legislation and governance on crofting and to secure the future of that important part of Scotland’s heritage.

Like many rural communities, the crofting community is fragile and needs support and help to move forward with confidence. It is important that the new commission has the confidence of the crofting community and that it works to understand and resolve the many issues, in particular around common grazings, that were an on-going source of concern during the last commission’s term.

The cabinet secretary will be as aware as I am of the issues that have recently affected the commission. I believe that it became too hands on in dealing with disputes. To prevent that, does the cabinet secretary agree that the commission should now look to take a more executive function in shaping and leading policy?

Fergus Ewing

I welcome Mr Chapman’s remarks and I suspect that they will be echoed across the chamber. It is right and proper that we express our support for the commission in moving away from the difficult times last year. Without going into details, we all recognise that there was a series of unfortunate episodes—not to say confrontations—that existed between the commission and certain townships with regard to common grazings, their regulation and issues there anent. It is up to the commission to take forward those matters.

We must allow the commission to do its job, particularly given the review of its governance that has just been completed and the action plan that it formed today, but I am sure that the chief executive and the new convener will take a close interest in what is said today and the messages conveyed. I support Mr Chapman’s view that we all need to move away from the somewhat confrontational and unfortunate episodes that caused huge ructions and personal concern among many individual crofters and communities. That is the right course ahead and, in the newly elected commission and the new convener, we have the right people to take forward that work.

Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

I thank the cabinet secretary for prior sight of his statement and I congratulate Rod Mackenzie on his appointment as chair. I also welcome the change in governance arrangements, but I am concerned about the lack of detail about them in the statement. The problems arose from the 2010 act that changed the commission from the Crofters Commission to the Crofting Commission and moved from a culture of assistance to a culture of regulation. Practice on the ground, and indeed today’s statement, show that that has not worked. Will the cabinet secretary now reverse those changes and delegate further powers to grazings committees to enable them to develop their own townships?

Fergus Ewing

I hope that I made it clear that, of the three issues that I highlighted in the governance review, one was to clarify the scope and extent of the duties of individual commissioners. There was an element of dubiety about that, which has now been taken forward following the review and the action plan that was published, I think, today.

Secondly, Rhoda Grant referred to the previous legislation in 2010, and she was right to do so. However, law is words on a page. My view is that the difficulties that arose were not, perhaps, about the law but about various personal issues that I do not want to go into. Now that those are behind us, we have the opportunity in future to let the commission get on with its job, which we all respect and appreciate and want to support in the chamber. I am sure that that is the approach that Rhoda Grant and her colleagues will take.

The Deputy Presiding Officer

I have 10 members who wish to ask questions. I hope to fit them all in, so I ask for questions, rather than statements.

Kate Forbes (Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch) (SNP)

How can the Crofting Commission better support active crofting and ensure that crofts are used productively so that, in the words of the cabinet secretary, crofting supports people to remain on the land and brings people back to the land?

Fergus Ewing

That is one of the missions of the Crofting Commission. It wants to work in collaboration with the Scottish Government, with the local authorities in the islands and on the mainland and with Highlands and Islands Enterprise. I absolutely agree that helping people to work actively on crofts, to have access to crofts and to have access to housing on crofts are objectives that we all share.

As I mentioned, our aim is to repeople the Highlands and Islands, and crofting has a key role to play in that regard.

Edward Mountain (Highlands and Islands) (Con)

I welcome the cabinet secretary’s commitment to a review of crofting law and to a new bill. The Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee was clear about the fact that a legislative platform that fits the reality of modern crofting practices is needed. Will the cabinet secretary undertake to ensure that there is time to allow new legislation to be scrutinised and enacted before the end of this parliamentary session?

Fergus Ewing

We are committed to legislating within this parliamentary session, so I am happy to provide the member with the assurance that he seeks. That is a commitment to which we are bound. Having said that, as I think that I mentioned in my statement, I am certainly of the view that we need to get this right, and that will take a lot of time and discussion. We have a lot of valuable information, such as the recent report from the committee, the Shucksmith report and what is called the sump report, which is an aggregate collection of the wisdom of some of our expert crofting lawyers about changes that need to be made. However, we also need to consider which route we need to go down. Do we want to go for a fundamental reform, for implementation of the recommendations in the sump, for a consolidation act or for an approach that contains a variety of those options?

It is right that we take time to listen to views, which I think is what Mr Mountain is correctly advocating. Further, I will personally seek to maintain the broad consensual approach that has been brought to this issue in this Parliament, which will help us to get on the right track to complete the task before the end of this parliamentary session.

Stewart Stevenson (Banffshire and Buchan Coast) (SNP)

I welcome the news that 4,000 crofts are now registered. How will we help communities to ensure that the remaining 14,000 crofts are appropriately registered?

Fergus Ewing

A lot of work has been done and a lot more needs to be done. Since the crofting register commenced, the Government has been working with Registers of Scotland and the Crofting Commission to help crofting communities complete registration of their crofts. Registers of Scotland has engaged with 346 townships in the past year, and continues to promote the benefits of registry. To date, it has held meetings with 18 townships and has supported a further 38 communities. In crofting terms, Registers of Scotland is an activist, although it might not term itself thus.

From my own work in overseeing Registers of Scotland in the previous five years, I know that it brings huge professionalism and enormous commitment to that task. There is a lot of work to be done, but the staff of Registers of Scotland are the right people to be in charge of leading it.

David Stewart (Highlands and Islands) (Lab)

Can the cabinet secretary provide more detail on the proposed support mechanisms that are being put in place to underpin effective board decision making and collective adherence to those decisions?

Fergus Ewing

The primary way in which we sought to provide assistance was by collaboratively agreeing that there should be a review of governance. That review was carried out independently of the Scottish Government and the Crofting Commission. In its report, the review recognised ways in which the decision-making mechanism needs to be improved. I outlined that in general terms and highlighted three particular areas that I think have been recognised as being causative of concern.

Just today, the Crofting Commission has published an action plan that I am sure that Mr Stewart will want to study. I am happy to engage with him and other members about how we take issues forward. However, it is, of course, the prime responsibility of the Crofting Commission to do its job. Under the new leadership, I believe that we can have great confidence that that is exactly what it will do.

John Mason (Glasgow Shettleston) (SNP)

It is very encouraging to hear the cabinet secretary express that confidence about the commission. What does he feel are the main challenges that crofting faces in the coming year or so? How does he feel that this chamber, the Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee and he can help them?

Fergus Ewing

Crofters, those who actively work crofts and those who live in crofts are fairly resilient people. They are used to making their own way, making their own lives and taking responsibility for their actions, but they need some support.

The key area that I highlight in response to Mr Mason’s question is the LFAS—less favoured area support—scheme. As we know, the LFAS scheme has seen changes under the European Union that we did not support but which will cause a reduction of the overall payment by 20 per cent unless the European Parliament postpones that, which I hope that it does.

We also need to ensure that that support is maintained over the years to come. That is because I am absolutely certain that hill farming in Scotland provides enormous benefit, and farming and crofting counties are recipients of LFA support. Continuance of that support by one means or another and, in the event of Brexit, post-Brexit is absolutely essential to the continuance of active crofting and looking after livestock. To answer Mr Mason’s question, that is perhaps the key challenge that active crofters face now.

John Finnie (Highlands and Islands) (Green)

I thank the cabinet secretary for his comments on housing and for the cash for housing. Homelessness and fuel poverty are two issues that blight communities, including crofting communities. Can you encourage the Crofting Commission to maximise opportunities to work with local authorities, registered social landlords and Highlands and Islands Enterprise to improve the number and energy efficiency of houses?

Fergus Ewing

Yes, I think that that is something that I would urge it to do, although I know that lately a lot of work is being done on those matters.

I am quite proud of the fact that under this Government, my predecessors, and now I, have been able to see 800 cases where young people and their families receive a grant—a relatively modest grant in the scheme of things—from the Scottish Government. That is 800 people in the crofting counties. That is repeopling the Highlands and Islands. I think that that resonates with the kind of message that Mr Finnie and I support and, I suspect, have always supported. “Land for the people” was the cry, I think. We have, for 800 people, turned that cry into a reality.

That is why I have added to the funding to bring it to £2 million this year, thanks to the generosity of my colleague Derek Mackay, who is present in the chamber because of the close interest that he takes in crofting.

Tavish Scott (Shetland Islands) (LD)

The cabinet secretary discussed policy earlier. Would he look at two areas? First, the one-size-fits-all crofting regulation needs to change to an approach that is based on the needs of individual crofting counties. Secondly, will he accept the need for whole-croft decrofting? He will understand the importance of that issue across the Highlands and Islands.

Finally, on his point about connections, will he accept that Community Broadband Scotland has failed, after three years, to make a broadband scheme happen in Fair Isle? Will he undertake to look into that matter, as it is of deep concern to the crofters who are affected?

Fergus Ewing

On the last point, I will be happy to get more information from Mr Scott. Certainly I will look into it, and I undertake to do so.

On the first two points, yes, I am absolutely aware that in Shetland there is an approach that is different from the rest of the communities that are covered by the Crofting Commission. The commission should respect that in the work that it does.

I am also acutely aware of the importance of the decrofting process and that it is carried out speedily and efficiently in order to prevent delays in transactions and to speed up the process of what I have termed today the repeopling of the Highlands and Islands.

Gail Ross (Caithness, Sutherland and Ross) (SNP)

I, too, welcome Mr Rod Mackenzie to his new post.

Is the Crofting Commission accepting applications to decroft from owner-occupiers? What will its position on the issue be?

Fergus Ewing

That is one of the hot topics on which I hope to engage fairly directly with the Crofting Commission in due course. Gail Ross takes a close interest in the matter for her constituents. It is a very important topic. I do not want to prejudge the commission’s approach, but we all want to achieve the same objective of bringing people back on to the land. Therefore, I will be happy to continue to engage with Gail Ross and to pursue that important issue with the commission.

Finlay Carson (Galloway and West Dumfries) (Con)

We welcome the cabinet secretary’s aims of enabling different ways of working the land and creating sustainable crofting. Can he shed any light on or provide an example of how he intends to achieve those aims?

Fergus Ewing

We will use a variety of methods to do so. Plainly, the crofting agricultural grant scheme provides very practical support for crofters—in fact, some non-crofters are quite envious of elements of it, as I am sure that Mr Carson is aware. That is one example.

Secondly, I have alluded to the investment that has been made in connectivity in the Highlands and Islands through the contract with BT, which has provided access to many people in island communities who did not hitherto have access. That is a good thing.

Thirdly, I have alluded to the croft house grant scheme, which we have revised to increase quite significantly the level of grants that are provided. It is providing direct benefit to individuals, couples and families to establish a home. I visited some of those people, and I think that the scheme is a very cost-effective way of helping to sustain the crofting communities in general.

Finally, we aim to produce a crofting development plan. Mr Carson’s point about the sustainability of crofting is quite right. As a farming activity, crofting is very marginal. There are very few, if any, crofters whose livelihood—by which I mean their overall earnings—is derived solely from crofting. For most crofters, crofting is a way of life, not a means of ensuring a financial income each year. The crofting development plan will address all those matters.

Maree Todd (Highlands and Islands) (SNP)

Does the cabinet secretary agree that it is essential for the future of crofting in Scotland that any new bill that reforms crofting is a success? Will he provide an assurance that we will take our time to consider what is best for crofting and that we will work closely with the stakeholders, crofters and communities affected as openly as possible throughout the process?

Fergus Ewing

As someone who has been a minister for 10 years, I could observe that it is never particularly difficult for Government to take some time to do things.

That aberrant reflection aside, in this case I think that it is the right approach, precisely because some of the previous legislation on crofting that the Parliament has passed has been criticised on the ground that we have not spent enough time thinking, listening and discussing in an area in which there are diverse views, which in many cases are extremely strongly held. I hope that the view is shared by members across the chamber that the fact that we take our time is not the result of a desire to delay things but comes from a desire to get it right and to introduce a piece of legislation that will take crofting forward for the many decades to come in this century.