Scottish Parliament Wednesday 1 October 2008
[The Deputy Presiding Officer opened the meeting at 14:15]
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Alasdair Morgan): The next item of business is a statement by Michael Russell on the Scottish Government's response to the report of the committee of inquiry on crofting. The minister will take questions at the end of his statement, so there should be no interventions or interruptions.
The Minister for Environment (Michael Russell): When we last met to debate crofting, on 15 May, there was a near unanimous welcome for the final report of the committee of inquiry on crofting. Following a period of reflection on the committee's recommendations, I am pleased to announce today the publication of the Government's response to the report.
Crofting is a distinctly Scottish phenomenon that the Government is determined to nurture and sustain. Consequently, we will support those who choose to croft. We do so not because crofting is unique, but because of its outcomes. Crofting is an engine of sustainable economic growth, which is the Government's central purpose, and is needed more than ever in the present difficult times.
Crofting brings social, economic, environmental and agricultural benefit to remote parts of Scotland. It contributes to the provision of local food, helps to retain livestock on the hills and underpins many fragile and remote communities. Without crofting and the hard work of individual crofters, the whole of Scotland would be poorer. We should, as a Parliament, say that loud and often. Of course, we must also match words with deeds.
The purpose of the Shucksmith inquiry was to modernise crofting in order that it might continue to provide those benefits in the 21st century. Since the publication of the committee's report, there has been considerable debate about its recommendations' merits, with opinion ranging from outright rejection to ringing endorsement.
Let me make it clear that I believe that Mark Shucksmith and his colleagues did exactly what they were asked to do, and I remain grateful to them. The committee of inquiry consulted extensively and reached its conclusions after hearing the views of around 2,500 people in written evidence and at a series of public meetings. I remain very positive about the committee's recommendations.
Since the report's publication, the Government has carefully reviewed the recommendations and listened to the comments that have been made. I spoke to many crofters during the summer and attended a range of formal and informal meetings, but crofting is about more than reports and structures, so I was keen at those meetings—and I am keen now—to discuss a range of positive measures that will help individual crofters to continue with their work and attract new people into crofting.
It would be fair to say that we support the main thrust of the committee of inquiry's recommendations, which promote localism and community. However, we have not accepted all the recommendations. I start with governance. We have not agreed to the abolition of the Crofters Commission and its replacement with a federation of locally elected crofting boards. I agree with my friend John Farquhar Munro that the commission has a wealth of experience and knowledge that needs to be preserved. It will be. However, the commission could do much better. In particular, I want it to be more democratic and accountable. We therefore propose to reconstitute the commission as a small and focused central body working through a limited number of area committees that will have an elected component, which should ensure that policies and decisions better reflect regional circumstances.
We have agreed to separate the functions of the Crofters Commission as recommended, and to the Registers of Scotland being responsible for creating and maintaining a new register of crofts. Lead responsibility for the development of crofting communities will go to Highlands and Islands Enterprise, and the management of crofting agricultural grant schemes will go to the rural payments and inspections directorate of the Scottish Government. That is because we strongly believe that the proper role for a regulator is regulation, and that more effective regulation is needed for crofting.
The equally important task of developing crofting communities, as opposed to focusing on individuals, should be the responsibility of the body that has been charged with a strategic development function in the Highlands and Islands, and that body is HIE. It is developing the exciting new growth at the edge approach, which will provide crofting communities with the assistance that they need to develop their futures. We will streamline resources to put more effort into fragile areas to accelerate growth. HIE will achieve that by engaging with crofting communities and local authorities, so that it can better understand the communities' ambitions, develop plans and work with the communities to grow their populations, their economies and the many opportunities that are needed. Grazings committees will also have a part in that. Those that are inclusive and imaginative will encourage the development of new life, and we will encourage them.
I turn to the bull hire scheme. On support for livestock improvement, the Government accepts the committee's view that there are better ways than the centralised bull stud facility to maintain cattle operations in the crofting counties. The fact is that last year, from approximately 13,000 crofters, the bull hire scheme was used by just over 100 groups, involving approximately 430 individuals. Accordingly, the cost to crofters—£500 at present—would have to rise to around £1,250, which clearly is unrealistic, so the Government proposes to close the central state-owned stud facility by the summer of 2009.
Nonetheless, we will continue to support livestock quality and numbers in remote areas. We propose to put in place new arrangements through the Scotland rural development programme to mitigate the costs of private bull hire. As a transitional measure, we plan to offer stud farm bulls for acquisition at modest cost to the crofting communities that have used the hire scheme in recent years.
Many members have made representations to me about a range of matters in the Shucksmith report, and many went out of their way to consult their local crofters during the summer. I am grateful to them. One recommendation above all others has caused substantial concern. Most people can see the reason for the committee recommending that an occupancy burden should be placed on housing on land in crofting tenure. For many years, there has been real worry about speculation in land and housing, and the insidious effects of perpetual absenteeism. However, as my colleagues Alasdair Allan and Rob Gibson have rightly pointed out, the recommendation ran the risk of creating a two-tier housing market within the Highlands and Islands, and it might have weighed unfairly and too heavily on some individuals. Accordingly, after a great deal of thought, I have rejected it.
We still need to take action to dampen croft land speculation for the purpose of building houses that will be used as second homes, not least because the effect of such speculation puts the price of crofts beyond what local and young people can afford, thus preventing new entrants and the infusion of new blood. We do not wish to prevent decrofting per se, because it is important that new houses continue to be built in order to meet local community housing demand. Often, the only available land for housing development in remote communities is a small part of croft land. However, croft land should be used only to meet demand from people who are willing to live in those fragile communities permanently. We therefore propose to consult further, with local authorities in particular, on the utility of applying some form of occupancy condition at the point of decrofting, and only at that point, and on the best way to implement such a condition. [Interruption.]
Michael Russell: I am unaware of that. My pacemaker is working perfectly at present.
On land in crofting tenure, better enforcement of existing legislation that requires crofts to be put to purposeful use and crofters to live within 10 miles of their crofts will address absenteeism and the neglect of crofts. We will review the existing legislation to enable the regulator to take more effective action and we will consider the provision of renewed direction to the Crofters Commission—even in the short term—to achieve that aim.
The Government's response accepts the committee's recommendations for creating stronger rural economies and agrees to review the support for croft housing. Many of the recommendations that the committee made in the land and environment section of its report on support for crofting agriculture and rural development are already the subject of reviews and consultation, and we will provide a fuller response to those recommendations once the outcome of the consultations is known. However, as we have said before, the committee's concerns about and desire for positive action in such areas mirror our concerns and views as a Government.
The key principles that underpin our response need to be set out. First, the Government will endeavour to maintain the amount of land that is held in crofting tenure, because it is important to continue to secure the economic, social and environmental benefits that crofting delivers. I am sure that all members were pleased to note the Crofters Commission's recent approval of six new crofts on the island of Jura. That is just the type of innovation that we should seek. I am also encouraging public bodies that own land in the crofting areas to review their holdings to establish what land could be freed up for crofting, particularly for new entrants, and I am pressing Forestry Commission Scotland for early implementation of its mechanism for creating forest crofts.
Secondly, we believe that land in crofting tenure must be put to productive use. Land is our most basic natural resource, and it must always be used, whether for producing food, for delivering environmental benefits, for creating business premises or for providing housing. Of course, the definition of land in productive use should be drawn widely to allow croft land to be used for a variety of purposes but, overall, we must make it clear that Government and crofters need to stimulate the creative and productive use of land.
Our third guiding principle compels us to ensure that housing in crofting communities makes a full contribution to the local economy. The fact that an adequate supply of housing is vital to maintaining and increasing the population of any area makes it central to securing economic growth in the remote rural areas of Scotland. Moreover, occupation of such housing is essential to providing a resident population. We must try to ensure that more housing in the crofting counties is lived in and contributes fully to the economic and social life of those communities.
We must also give more power to local people to determine their own futures. A key component of successful rural development is the local mobilisation of individuals and communities, with the support of appropriate agencies, to take control of their futures. By devolving power, we enable communities to plan their own futures and take decisions that are appropriate to their needs and circumstances. However, with power comes responsibility, and it is important to ensure that the people who take decisions are representative and accountable.
Our final principle is that we must look to the future and find a way to help young people and older new entrants into crofting, because without them crofting will not survive. I am sure that the debate on the future of crofting will continue, and I look forward to hearing the views of individuals and communities on what I have said and what is being published today.
It is obvious that the status quo is not an option, but it is equally obvious that only consensus will drive us forward. The Government will now proceed to draw up a draft bill for consultation on the legislative changes that are needed, and we hope thereafter to be in a position to introduce a crofting bill in the Parliament. I should also tell members that the Government has accepted the Shucksmith committee's recommendation on the simplification of crofting law, and that a separate crofting consolidation bill will be drawn up for introduction at some future date, perhaps in the next parliamentary session. However, there are things that we can do without legislation. For example, we can reform support for croft housing, reform the crofting development function and modernise support for crofting livestock quality improvement. We will continue to work on those areas with vigour.
Crofting provides people with the opportunity to be part of strong communities, to enjoy a rich culture and to live in one of the most spectacular environments in the world. In other words, crofting has everything going for it. That is why people choose to croft and will continue to croft, and it is why many people want to remain crofters. Crofters must work together and with other people in the community to build a strong and secure future. Government must do what we can to support them. Through that partnership between crofters and Government, I believe that crofting can be, and will continue to be, an activity that more and more people want to do. It will also be a model for effective rural, social, economic and agricultural development.
The Deputy Presiding Officer: The minister will now take questions on issues raised in his statement. I intend to allow around 30 minutes for questions, after which we will move to the next item of business.
Sarah Boyack (Edinburgh Central) (Lab): I thank the Minister for Environment for the courtesy of advance sight of his statement. Labour members very much welcome the minister's change of heart on the abolition of the Crofters Commission, and we welcome his statement about the release of land for more crofting. We welcome, too, the direction to the commission to deal with the worst cases of dereliction. Finally, I welcome the minister's commitment on the completion of a register, although I would be keen to know the completion date.
The statement raises many issues. In particular, how will making the Crofters Commission more cumbersome, bureaucratic and time consuming, with lengthier decision making, help crofters? Will the minister confirm that he is pushing the most difficult decisions to new sub-committees, meaning that individual crofters will be required to regulate their neighbours? Will he provide details of how his proposed 80-odd commissioners will be funded, how the appointments will be made and how they will operate in practice? That is not clear in the statement or in the accompanying documentation. Does the minister not recognise that crofters are worried about how they will survive economically, not how many people are in the pie of individual decision making?
I ask the minister to think again about his suggestion that we centralise the crofting counties agricultural grant scheme in Edinburgh. Is there not a better argument for integrated practical financial support for crofters? Finally, we want to study the minister's detailed response before we come to a view, particularly on the issue of burdens, and we will want to consult crofters further.
I hope that the minister takes on board our request for full consultation before he introduces his proposals in a draft bill. The devil is in the detail, and it is vital that we get the detail right. While we welcome elements of the minister's statement, many big questions remain that need proper discussion and debate before we get to the stage of a draft bill.
Michael Russell: Let me try to accentuate the positive. I am glad that Sarah Boyack welcomes some of our proposals. There has been no change of heart. We never responded to Shucksmith's committee to start with. What we did, properly, was listen to the committee and, over the summer, listen to the vast range of opinion. However, I am disappointed that Ms Boyack does not see the virtue of accountability and the involvement in decision making of elected individuals within communities.
At the end of my statement, I stressed the importance of empowerment. Unfortunately, if Sarah Boyack is still on the side of the unelected, the disenfranchised and those who want decisions to be made distantly, she does not understand what rural development is about in general, and she certainly does not understand the importance of ensuring that crofters are enabled to make decisions about crofting. That was the solid theme of Mark Shucksmith's recommendations, and it should be the solid theme of all our rural activity. We have to put power into the hands of communities. Indeed, that was a solid theme of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's review of Scottish rural policy, which commented favourably on the previous Government's work on decentralisation. Far from reconsidering, we will pursue the issues in consultation with communities, which will help communities to make decisions about themselves.
On consultation and timescales, the Shucksmith committee consulted 2,500 people. There was considerable debate in the summer. I have been more than willing to attend meetings, to listen at events, to receive correspondence and to talk to people. I will remain open in every way to the discussion, but we have to move on. We will draft a bill and it will be put out for consultation. We will have another opportunity to debate the issues and then, I hope, we will have legislation. If we continue to delay, crofting will continue to decline. That may be what Sarah Boyack wants, but I am not on the side of a continued decline in crofting.
John Scott (Ayr) (Con): I, too, thank the minister for the advance copy of his statement, which the Conservatives cautiously welcome.
We support the need to keep vibrant and dynamic communities in our crofting counties and the release of more land for crofting. I welcome the fact that the rural payments division will take responsibility for the CCAGS.
The minister proposed two new bills, one of which will not be delivered until after the next election. Does he accept that crofters have been waiting for years for successive Administrations here to introduce legislation to address their concerns? To say the least, it is regrettable that crofters will still not have adequate legislation until at least 12 years after the creation of this Parliament.
Finally, what level of funding will be available to encourage new entrants into crofting? Will the funding be adequate, bearing in mind the legitimate concerns over the lack of funding for the Government's new entrants scheme for farming?
Michael Russell: I am caught between two opposing forces: one thinks that I am going too fast, and the other thinks that I am going too slow. Perhaps that means that the speed at which we are going is just about right.
I agree that priority should have been given to pushing crofting legislation. We are moving as fast as we can. Mr Scott should not be too worried about the second bill, which will codify and consolidate all the existing crofting legislation. What we are trying to do—
Michael Russell: From a sedentary position, Ms Boyack says that it will never happen. It will happen if this Administration is re-elected in 2011, so clearly there is no commitment from Ms Boyack's side. We therefore already know whom to vote for in 2011.
We have two steps to take. One is to make the necessary immediate changes. In my statement, I said repeatedly that it is not all about legislation, and that there are other actions that we can take. We are going to do so.
The second step is to consolidate the entire—I was going to say mess, but I should say mass of crofting legislation. We have to make it understandable so that people can work their way through it. That is the right thing to do. As Mr Peacock said at an early stage, it would have been virtually impossible to take on the consolidation task with the other proposals. I think that we are doing things in the right order, and we are making progress.
Liam McArthur (Orkney) (LD): I offer my apologies to the chamber for my slightly delayed arrival. I was at a meeting with constituents and the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment. I add my gratitude to the minister for the advance copy of his statement.
In July, I attended a meeting in my constituency, hosted by the Scottish Crofting Foundation, to consider the Shucksmith report. The feeling that was expressed was very much that the report offered some excellent recommendations, but that some recommendations would not command support among crofters in the northern isles or, indeed, in the other crofting counties.
Given the complex issues involved, I am not surprised that the minister has taken rather longer than expected to prepare his response. However, like Shucksmith himself, the minister has offered elements that are welcome. I certainly have little problem with the principles that he articulated towards the end of his statement.
Will the minister comment on the aspects that did not feature in his statement? Why, for example, has he chosen to ignore Shucksmith's recommendations on the various crofting grant schemes? The report aroused its fair share of controversy, so why has the minister decided to do nothing about the elements of the report that were welcomed across the crofting counties and across the political spectrum?
I encourage Mr Russell to read the evidence that was provided by Hughie Donaldson of the SCF to the Rural Affairs and Environment Committee on 24 September. House building across Scotland is in crisis, and Mr Donaldson showed how the crofters building grants and loans scheme and the croft house grant scheme had delivered significant returns for relatively limited investment. Will the minister agree to consider that evidence and to consider what scope there would be for reintroducing a system of loans to support and stimulate house building in the crofting counties—especially in light of the planned reduction in crofting assistance from £6.4 million to £5.6 million?
Finally, does the minister accept that the decision to hand responsibility for the "strategic development" of crofting to HIE will be greeted at best with suspicion by many crofters? Given last year's decision by the Government to slash HIE's budget, that suspicion may yet give way to incredulity.
Michael Russell: I am glad that Mr McArthur welcomes some aspects of the report—although he did not actually mention any of the aspects that he welcomes, which was a pity. Let me make it clear to him that I have not ignored any of the issues. The Presiding Officer would not have allowed me to read out the Government's complete and detailed response, but I have it here. In that response, which was published today at the same time as my statement and is available in the chamber, we have responded to every recommendation. None has been ignored.
I mentioned in passing that we are taking forward an immediate review of the croft house grant scheme and two other rural house grant schemes—the rural home ownership grant and the rural empty properties grant. The review will specifically consider the detailed recommendations that were made by the Shucksmith committee of inquiry, which I take very seriously.
Liam McArthur knows the great importance of the croft house grant scheme, as does anybody with experience of the crofting areas. We entirely accept that we must continue to emphasise its importance.
With regard to HIE, I ask Mr McArthur to undertake a Coleridgean willing suspension of disbelief. We have to make progress on this issue. If it is accepted—and the report makes cogent arguments for it—that the proper role of a regulator is regulation, it follows that development is the proper role of the body that is charged with strategic development in the Highlands and Islands, which is HIE. We must ensure that HIE attracts and develops the confidence of the crofting communities in undertaking that task. I indicated in outline—although I had only a brief time in which to do so—some of the ways in which that will happen, and I am happy to sit down with Mr McArthur and any other member to discuss the ways in which we can ensure that HIE fulfils those functions. I am sure that Mr Mather, as the minister with responsibility, will also take part in those discussions.
Alasdair Allan (Western Isles) (SNP): I welcome the attention that the minister has given to two issues that have been raised by me and by many others—burdens, and the structure of the Crofters Commission.
What will the minister do to reassure crofters who have used the bull hire scheme in the past, especially in areas where commercial alternatives are not readily available? Will the money for that be kept inside the crofting system? Will the Government be able to direct crofters to any source of assistance towards the high costs of wintering a bull?
Michael Russell: I know that there will be concern about that. However, last year, at the Scottish Crofting Foundation conference, I made it clear that I was asking Mark Shucksmith and his colleagues specifically to consider the issue. They have come back with some clear information. I repeat the information that I used in my statement.
Last year, the bull hire scheme was used by just over 100 groups involving 430 individuals out of some 13,000 crofters. However, we recognise that some people will be disadvantaged by our decision. So, yes, the resources will remain within crofting—I made that clear last year. Secondly, we have structures that will support commercial bull hire, including applications to the Scottish rural development programme. Those are immediately available and will continue to be available.
In addition, as a transitional measure, we plan to offer stud farm bulls for acquisition at modest cost to crofting communities who used the hire scheme in recent years. It would be an unconventional Christmas present, but perhaps not an unwelcome one, were someone to give a community a bull. Those bulls will be available. I suspect that there will also be grant aid available under the SRDP for the costs arising from the creation of wintering quarters for bulls.
In all regards, we are covering the demand that exists within the available resources and in a way that will continue our concern with maintaining the quality of cattle in the crofting areas.
Elaine Murray (Dumfries) (Lab): I note, from the minister's statement, that the responsibility for developing crofting communities will be transferred from the Crofters Commission to Highlands and Islands Enterprise at a time when HIE's funding and staffing are being substantially reduced. Will additional resource be transferred to HIE along with that responsibility? How will the growth at the edge initiative contribute to crofting as a whole? GATE is targeted on fragile and remote areas—that definition would exclude some crofting areas in Scotland.
Michael Russell: I welcome Elaine Murray to her new post. I think that it is the first time that we have crossed swords, so to speak, and I am sure that it will not be the last. I look forward to those exchanges.
I will not enter into a debate about resources in the context of the work of HIE. I disagree profoundly with what Dr Murray says, but I will not enter into debate about it. Of course, the resources that are presently applied to crofting development will be transferred from the Crofters Commission to HIE. What resources are being used will be transferred—that is absolutely clear.
The GATE initiative is a little narrow and may exclude some of the crofting areas, especially if there is an expansion of the crofting areas—we may discuss that matter later. In such circumstances, we will consider the ways in which HIE can operate in those other areas. I repeat the offer that I have just made to Liam McArthur. We have work to do to ensure that the policy operates properly and I want to do that work; therefore, I will sit down with representatives of the crofting communities, with individual crofters, with party spokespersons and with members who have a constituency interest in the matter, so that we can work things out properly.
I have a strong commitment to the development of crofting. It is very important that new people are allowed to enter crofting, and—I did not mention this in my response to John Scott—we have specific schemes for new entrants. I want to ensure that the work is done effectively, and HIE will take on the task of doing it effectively.
Roseanna Cunningham (Perth) (SNP): The minister has agreed to review the support for croft housing. I want to pick up on an issue that was referred to by Liam McArthur, which is of interest to the Rural Affairs and Environment Committee because of our inquiry into rural housing.
As the minister is aware, 20 years ago Government support covered 82 per cent of house building cost, but now it covers only 14 per cent. He is also aware that the loan element of support was removed in 2004, on the grounds that ordinary mortgages were easily and cheaply available. Now that we know that that is not likely to be the case in the foreseeable future, will restoration of the loan element be specifically included in any review that the minister undertakes? As far as I can see, that is not mentioned specifically in the Government response document.
Michael Russell: I would not rule out the inclusion of all and every consideration, although I think that it would be difficult to overcome the worldwide difficulty in the obtaining of loan finance specifically for the crofting community and in relation to only one small area of concern.
Roseanna Cunningham is right to say that the proportion of Government support changed in the way that she describes. One of the reasons for that is that commercial finance became available more easily and more cheaply. It would have been wrong to continue with a scheme that was more expensive to crofters. Those circumstances might be changing, and we might need to reconsider the position. I give Roseanna Cunningham the commitment that the review will be thorough and comprehensive and will, I hope, be informed by the work that her committee is doing on rural housing. I would welcome the committee's assistance in our thinking on those matters.
Peter Peacock (Highlands and Islands) (Lab): The minister talked about seeking to consult local authorities about what he has called an occupancy condition. Is he still seeking a real occupancy burden, as Shucksmith described it? The minister also talked about area committees, which will comprise 72 members overall. Will those committees displace the much-respected assessors network that exists at present?
Michael Russell: I would not wish to be misrepresented and I am sure that Mr Peacock would not wish to misrepresent me. Therefore, let me make it absolutely clear that there is no intention to impose a burden. We have not accepted that recommendation. I would not like reporting of this matter to be accompanied—even inadvertently—by quotations from people who say that the situation involves something that is a burden by any other name. The burden will not be imposed.
We are consulting on whether there should be an occupancy condition at the point of decrofting. That would have the effect, were it necessary, of retaining occupancy in houses. It would not be a title burden. We have rejected the title burden. I am happy to express that in as many different languages as the member wishes, just to make it absolutely and utterly clear.
On the area committees and the assessors, I am surprised that, once again, a Labour member opposes democracy. Labour has suffered rather badly because of democracy in the past 18 months, but I would have thought that Labour would want to see a democratic element in the decision making on crofting matters. It strikes me as axiomatic that those who know about something and are engaged in it through the sweat of their labour—in this case, crofters—should be involved in the decisions that govern that activity. If the Labour Party wishes to resist that type of progressive thought, I think that it will pay the price.
Jamie McGrigor (Highlands and Islands) (Con): I welcome the Scottish Government's plans to improve the Crofters Commission and make it more democratic. Can the minister give more details on how big that democratic element will be and on how the elections will be held?
The minister will have anticipated that I would be unhappy about the decision to abolish the bull hire scheme. I believe that that is a retrograde step that will be opposed by many crofters. What guarantees can the minister give us that crofters will be able to utilise private bull hire through the SRDP? What will happen to the Government farms where those bulls have been bred? Could they be used, for example, to help fatten crofters' lambs?
The minister talked about the importance of housing to the future of crofting. I agree with him, but he did not give many details. Does he plan to introduce an enhanced croft house grant and loan scheme and, if so, when will it be introduced?
Michael Russell: I feel like referring the member to the answers that I gave a moment ago, as I have answered all his questions. However, I will address two of them.
I regret the fact that some people will be adversely affected by our decision on the bull hire scheme. However, the number of people is not nearly as great as Jamie McGrigor has indicated—last year, the scheme was used by about 430 people. Further, the inevitable increase from this year's cost of £500 to almost £1,250 would create state-aid issues. The SRDP alternative is a good one. In addition, I repeat my earlier offer—I have never previously been in the position of being able to say twice in one day, "I'd be happy to give you a bull"—and say that crofting communities that have the potential to acquire one of the bulls from the stud have the opportunity to get one. There is a great deal of potential in that course of action.
The member asked about the elected element. We are trying to ensure that crofters are involved in making decisions about crofting. That principle is made clear in Mark Shucksmith's report, and I endorse it, as most members have done. Worries have been expressed that such a system would work on too narrow or too small a level. It was feared at one stage—Peter Peacock and I addressed a meeting in Skye at which this fear was mentioned—that grazings committees would, like some sort of small-district soviets, make decisions about every regulatory issue in their area. That was never proposed. However, there is an optimum size and an area structure within the existing Crofters Commission. We have examined that and tried to work out the optimum size for locally based decision making within a much more focused commission structure.
That principle is important and it will work; in addition, it will appeal to crofting communities in which decisions are made by people who know what they are talking about in all the relevant circumstances. We can then consider the right method of election—I have mentioned one or two methods in the document—and the way in which we can make the system work. I ask the member not to try to exclude decision making by people who know what they are talking about.
John Farquhar Munro (Ross, Skye and Inverness West) (LD): The minister said that the last time that crofting was debated in the Parliament, there was almost unanimous approval. I question that statement very much indeed. However, we have moved on, and months later we are having another debate on the issue. If there had been unanimous approval during the previous debate, we would not be having the debate today, but that is another story.
John Farquhar Munro: I am just coming to the point.
I welcome the decision on the Crofters Commission—I campaigned for that, and the minister has responded—but I find much that is in the document that has been presented to us today difficult to accept in its current form.
John Farquhar Munro: I hope that we will have a debate in the months ahead. However, will the minister end the uncertainty and decide that—aside from the statements that he has made in the chamber today—we will forget the rest of Shucksmith's proposals and put the report in the bin?
Michael Russell: I am sure that very few people have ever described John Farquhar Munro as an extremist, but he is taking an extremist position on this matter. It is contrary to the position that he has previously taken in the chamber and which he took at the meeting that we addressed in Skye. At that meeting, John Farquhar Munro said twice that his main objective was to ensure that the Crofters Commission was not abolished. I would have thought that he would be skipping with delight today—a concept that I am sure we can all imagine—as he was content with the issue, and that he would work with the rest of us to ensure that the best recommendations were taken forward as legislation.
I do not think that John Farquhar Munro believes that everything must remain the same—indeed, he made the opposite point at the meeting in Skye. He should not find himself stuck behind the debate; he should be within it to welcome the real potential for change that will produce real benefits for his crofting constituents. I have listened to him—I hope that he will now listen to me.
Kenneth Gibson (Cunninghame North) (SNP): I welcome whole-heartedly the minister's statement and the two visits that he has made to my constituency to discuss the inquiry with local people. Does he agree that the exclusion of Arran and the Cumbraes in my constituency when the crofting counties were established has brought about an unfortunate anomaly? When will the Scottish Government right that historic wrong?
Michael Russell: As the member says, I have twice addressed meetings on the island of Arran to speak about the issue. There has been a consultation process, the results of which I intend to announce next week. I hope that the member will not be disappointed by them.
Rhoda Grant (Highlands and Islands) (Lab): Does the minister agree that crofting will not survive unless it is economically viable? As other members have said, the statement does not deal with Shucksmith's recommendation on financial support. The minister says in his response to the inquiry that he does not propose to introduce a loan element to the croft house grant scheme. Given that it was difficult to get mortgages prior to the credit crunch, how will he now ensure that crofting will survive?
Michael Russell: To hold me responsible for the credit crunch would be taking things a little far.
Rhoda Grant is a member of a party that was in government and made a bùrach—if I may use a Gaelic word, Presiding Officer—of the Crofting Reform etc Act 2007 and now proceeds to lecture us on how to legislate for crofting. We have reacted strongly and positively to a range of recommendations and we have taken principled positions on others. We have indicated where we want to continue consultations and to look at the recommendations to provide more help to the crofting counties.
We should all be involved in that process and we should all be focused on the benefit of crofting. I would greatly regret it if a narrow partisan view were to develop in this debate instead of a view that benefits crofting. The party that takes such a position will have to answer not only to the chamber, but to the crofters who want consensual change and who want real debate about change. It is regrettable that I have not as yet heard such an approach from the Labour Party.
Dave Thompson (Highlands and Islands) (SNP): I welcome the minister's statement, which outlined a positive approach. I, too, was at the meeting on Skye. Some criticism was made of the consultation process up until that point, which I think was unjustified.
I welcome the minister's announcement that there will be two bills to deal with crofting. What will the timetable be for the consultation process on the first bill? Will the minister elaborate on the process in general?
Michael Russell: Often, people who say that they were not consulted just do not like the outcome of the consultation. I am determined that we should continue to debate and discuss all the issues. Until now we have had 18 months of consultation. The Shucksmith committee was very detailed in its work: it went right round the country, took a great deal of evidence and listened to many people. When its report was published, there was strong unanimity of support for it; members will see that if they read the Official Report. We continued to have debate and discussion during the summer. I attended a variety of meetings and listened to a range of people—that included sitting on the games field at Durness listening to a group of people who have a website called "Bin Shucksmith".
I have had those discussions and we now have a response that indicates how we can take the matter forward. There will be a formal consultation period when we publish a draft bill in the spring. Between now and then, I am happy to have creative and constructive debate—not negative debate along the lines that we should throw away the whole thing and start again. We will publish a draft bill, on which we will have a formal consultation, and we will then move to legislation. We cannot go on talking for ever. We should accept that there are problems in crofting and that we need to set them right; some of those problems can be solved by administrative action, but the rest must be addressed by legislation. I want the legislation to be debated and passed in the Parliament and to see crofting benefit from it.
Jamie Stone (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): I acknowledge the dialogue that the minister and I had on the games field in Durness during the summer. I also acknowledge the significant gives that he has offered us today, on the Crofters Commission and on burdens.
I acknowledge the minister's position on HIE having a development function. Will he at least undertake to look at and audit what is happening as the policy rolls out? There is concern that HIE's budget has been reduced and that, because it has to tackle issues such as Dounreay and Nigg, the development of crofting may be lost in the process. Will the minister give me that assurance?
Michael Russell: Yes. I am happy to give that assurance. The spirit of those comments is exactly the spirit that I would like to see. I commend Jamie Stone for that. We can work together to ensure that this works. We will put in place a means of assessing the situation and we will ensure that some of the developmental work that we want to see being started starts well before the legislative process. As I said in my statement, there is much that we can get on with now.
Parliamentary Bureau Motions