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Clause 14—(Amendment Of Powers Of Secretary Of State With Respect To Giving Of Financial Assistance In Crofting Counties)

Volume 643: debated on Wednesday 5 July 1961

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Amendments made: In page 18, line 3, leave out "fifty" and insert "seventy-five".

In line 12, leave out from "subleases" to second "or" in line 14 and insert intimated".—[ Mr. Maclay.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Clause, as amended, stand part of the Bill.

We have not had an explanation of the last Amendment from the hon. Gentleman, and I want to ask a question concerning the crofter who occupies a croft and who owns it. I want to know whether he is not already a crofter. If he is already a crofter, is he not already entitled to the benefit of the financial assistance mentioned in this Clause under the 1955 Act? In other words, I return to the point raised by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond). We have never yet had any satisfactory definition of this.

According to the definition given by the hon. Gentleman during the Committee stage, it would appear that a crofter is a man who occupies a croft under certain conditions of tenure. It seems to me, therefore, that a croft is a holding which is let under certain conditions of tenure. I should have thought that that was right, because otherwise it would cease to be a croft. If the man ceases to be a crofter, it would cease to be a croft, and if it ceases to be a croft it is a smallholding under paragraph (b) of the new subsection. If it does not cease to be a croft, it is already covered by the 1955 Act.

Surely that is the position, and I should be glad if the hon. Gentleman would try to explain this, at least to me, being a simple sort of person who does not understand these legal technicalities. Quite frankly, I do not understand this sub-section. I certainly think that if the hon. Gentleman cannot give us a satisfactory explanation he should look at it again.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's difficulty, because I am in the same difficulty myself. I can only tell him that I am advised by the highest legal authority at my disposal—

—and to work it—land which was a croft, but he has now bought that piece of land and become the owner thereof, having been encouraged to buy it—but, notwithstanding that fact, technically or legally, until application is made to the Secretary of State to take it out of crofting, it is still a croft. If that owner who has then bought it should, by any strange mischance, let it, the person who then gets it would become a crofter.

If I own a croft and work that croft, I am a crofter. Surely, if I buy a fruit shop and sell fruit, I am a fruiterer. If I buy a bookshop and sell books, I am a bookseller, if I buy a farm and farm it, I am a farmer. But here we have the curious situation in which a man, because he bought the croft and works it, ceases to be a crofter and becomes something else.

Perhaps it would help the hon. Gentleman if he refers to Section 3 (2) of the 1955 Act, where he will see that the expression "crofter" means the tenant of the croft. A crofter is the tenant of a croft, and what we are trying to cover in Clause 14 (1, a) are the occupiers of crofts who are also the owners thereof.

We had a short debate on this matter in the Standing Commit tee, but by the time we reached Clause 14 we were rushing through the Bill. [An HON. MEMBER "No."] Yes, of course, we were. We did not discuss it at any great length. We called attention, as my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) has just done, and as the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) did on an earlier Amendment this evening, to the confusion that arises as a result of the provisions of Clause 14.

May I make this suggestion to the Joint Under-Secretary and the Lord Advocate? If paragraph (a) were taken out altogether and the words "other than crofts" were deleted from paragraph (b), we should then be dealing with
"occupiers of holdings situated in the crofting counties which are either holdings of which the area does not exceed"
75 acres, as it now is
"…or holding the annual rent of which, if they were crofts let to crofters under the Act of 1955 and this Act, would not, in the opinion of the Secretary of State, exceed fifty pounds, being occupiers, who in the opinion of the Secretary of State are of substantially the same economic status as a crofter".
All these things would then apply. If we deleted "other than crofts", we should be dealing with occupiers of all these holdings. The occupier can be either the owner or the tenant. That is the advantage of using a word like "occupier". If the words "other than crofts", in the first line of paragraph (b), were deleted, the whole of paragraph (a) would be quite unnecessary. I do not want an "off-the-cuff" answer. We discussed the question in Committee up- stairs. I merely ask that consideration be given to my proposal, with a view to seeing whether this adjustment can be made when the Bill reaches another place.

I have no objection to the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser), because, like my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis), I am a simple person. I am guided by letters I have received from owner- occupiers. This was one of the things in the Bill which they welcomed. They had been encouraged to invest what savings they had in taking over what they thought were crofts.

I do not think that my hon. Friend has followed me. I am not speaking against the owner-occupier. I am entirely in favour of the owner- occupier being brought into this. My difficulty is that all over the crofting counties a croft is assumed to be a piece of land which is occupied by a tenant on a peculiar form of tenancy. It was so described by the Joint Under-Secretary in Committee.

I am sorry if I did not make myself quite clear. I appreciate what my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton has just said. I still want to be absolutely certain that the position of those whom we call owner-occupiers will not be in any way endangered. They gave a welcome to this part of the Bill when many of us on this side of the Committee were very critical of the Bill. It is generally agreed that they had a 0 per cent. case. That was recognised, although we did not bother about the technicalities of the matter. If certain technical aspects have been brought to light and they can be resolved in the way suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton without prejudicing the rights of owner-occupiers, I should welcome his suggestion.

8.15 p.m.

I do not think that anyone in any part of the Committee ever desired to cut owner-occupiers out of the Bill. We all welcome their inclusion. Most of us have worked for this for years. As has been explained on many occasions, they should be included in subsection (1, a). I have no doubt that the Joint Under-Secretary of State and the Lord Advocate by this time understand the point at issue. It is the old point that we do not want further to complicate the definition of "croft" or "crofter". I have brought cases to the notice of the Joint Under-Secretary in which this has led to genuine hardship, because people who thought they were entitled to get compensation as crofters have been told eventually that they are not entitled to get it and they have been put in difficulties.

I add my plea to that of other hon. Members that the Government should look again at Clause 14 (1, b) with a view to seeing whether perhaps by an Amendment to the subsection, possibly by omitting the words "other than crofts", they can get us out of this small dilemma. It is not a dilemma of substance on the Clause. It is merely a dilemma of drafting and possible confusion which the drafting may cause amongst simple-minded people like myself and many others owing to further confusion about the definition of "croft".

If the Government do not like the Amendment suggested by the hon. Member for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser), I will suggest another possibility. We should make Clause 14 (1, b) read: "for occupiers of holdings who are not crofters". There is a slight difference between a crofter and a croft. As has been already pointed out by the Joint Under-Secretary, in Section 3 (2) of the 1955 Act a crofter is quite definitely described as a tenant. I do not think that we can pursue it further now, but perhaps the Lord Advocate can do something about it at a future stage. My suggestion may not be right, but that of the hon. Member for Hamilton may be.

I will certainly look into this matter, but the difficulty is this. A crofter is by definition in Section 3 of the 1955 Act a tenant. As soon as he ceases to be a tenant of a croft he ceases to be a crofter. The holding of which he was tenant remains a croft, even if he buys it and remains working it. The hon. Members for Hamilton (Mr. T. Fraser) and Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) suggested deleting paragraph (a) and amending paragraph (b). I will certainly look at that suggestion, but the difficulty I see at the moment is that there are a number of crofts, the occupiers of which would came under subsection (1, a), which are above the statutory limits. The statutory limit is written into subsection (1, b).

How would they come above the statutory limit? The more we probe this the more alarming the situation becomes. Is the Lord Advocate now saying that there are holdings in the Highlands which are crofts but are both in excess of 50 acres and £50 rent?

My information is that there are, but I will certainly have a look at it.

The Government are being very cautious? What are they afraid of? I have been looking at the Agricultural Report. If my calculations are right, on average the Government give £60 a year assistance to crofters. Are they terrified that somebody will get away with £60 a year? I hope that the Government will not be unduly gloomy about this but will take a few risks for the sake of doing the thing properly. I hope that they will adjust these paragraphs.

I am sorry if I did not make myself clear. The right hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Woodburn) has got it the wrong way round. If I accepted the suggestion which has been made, we should cut out people who would receive grants under the Bill as it stands. We do not want to cut them out.

The learned Lord Advocate has said that some crofts which come under subsection (1, a) exceed the limits stated in subsection (1, b). The occupiers of crofts who come under subsection (1, a) do not now receive the subsidies payable to crofters. I think the right hon. and learned Gentleman is saying that, if paragraph (a) were deleted and the words "other than crofts were deleted from paragraph (b), some would fall in between. At the moment they do not come under paragraph (b) but come under paragraph (a).

The right hon. and learned Gentleman will certainly correct me if I am wrong, but I suggest that that would apply only to those owner-occupiers who are quite unaware that they are owner-occupiers of crofts—and there are apparently many of them in the Shetlands—and who thought that when they became owner-occupiers many years ago they ceased to be crofters and that their holdings ceased to be crofts. They are the people whom the Lord Advocate fears will know that they really are the owners of crofts and, notwithstanding that their holdings exceed the limits set down in paragraph (b), will be able to come in under paragraph (a), and they will be the people who will have a grievance if we delete paragraph (a) and bring them in under paragraph (b).

I should have thought that a very sensible thing for the Government to do would be to define the word "croft". This is an appropriate Bill in which to do so. The Joint Under-Secretary thought that it was land held on a peculiar type of tenure and occupied by a tenant. In fact, he gave us a definition at dictation speed so that we could write it down. All that I would say to him, to 'the Secretary of State and to the Lord Advocate is that this would be an appropriate Bill in which to define what a croft is. We have been told that a crofter is the tenant of a croft, and up to now we have thought that a croft was a small farm or agricultural unit held under a peculiar form of tenancy. I cannot see why we should not so define the word that there will be no need for the owner of a croft which ceases to be occupied as a croft writing to the Secretary of State and saying, "Please delete this from the land recognised as crofting land."

Furthermore, much of the land which became crofting land after the passing of the 1886 Act is no longer occupied by crofters. Some of this land is now let by landlords to sporting tenants, and those poor tenants are quite unaware that, according to the Lord Advocate, they have become crofters because they happen to be tenants of crofts.

I hope that some thought will be given to this matter before the Bill becomes an Act. If tidying-up Amendments are made in another place we shall not hold up proceedings when the Bill comes back here, provided that we do not find that, although paragraph (a) is dropped, new paragraphs (a) and (b) have been inserted in its place which have not been drawn to our attention.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Bill reported, with Amendments; as amended (in the Standing Committee and on recommittal), considered.