Category Archives: Decrofting

How many owner-occupier crofters?

How many owner-occupier crofters?Several posts on the Crofting Law Blog in recent times have concerned the number of owner-occupiers who are not owner occupier crofters:-

But what about the number of owner-occupier crofters? The Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill, after all, affects them and has nothing whatsoever to do with owner-occupiers who are not owner-occupier crofters. The Scottish Parliament seems keen to get to the bottom of exactly how many owner-occupiers exist but, on the face of it, they are happy to accept a fairly wild estimate as to the number of owner-occupier crofters in existence. The two are surely linked. Increase one and you decrease the other and vice versa as we saw in ‘What happened to the six non owner-occupier crofters?‘. So if the Scottish Government is able to refine and clarify the number of owner-occupiers (even if it is taking them some time to do so) can they not also do the same with owner-occupier crofters?

Throughout the progress of the Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill the best estimate we seem to have, in the evidence given to the Scottish Parliament, is 3,000 to 4,000 owner-occupier crofters. So we have a possible margin of error of 1,000 or 25%.

If the actual number is say 3,000 does this add 1,000 to the number of owner-occupiers who are not owner-occupier crofters? Thus could that figure be 1,808 rather than 808?

I hope this point can be clarified before we have a Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Act 2013 so that we know how many crofters are actually affected by that Act.

Brian Inkster

808 not 700 owner-occupiers who are not owner-occupier crofters

808 owner-occupiers who are not owner-occupier croftersAt the stage 1 debate on the Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill on 6 June 2013 the following exchange took place between Rob Gibson MSP and Paul Wheelhouse MSP, Minister for Environment and Climate Change (with responsibility for crofting):-

Rob Gibson asked:-

How many people are in this multiple owner situation and how many are caught up in these decrofting problems? Does that, too, conform to the 80:20 principle?

Paul Wheelhouse responded:-

Estimates of the numbers involved vary. To pick up Alex Fergusson’s earlier point, I believe that there are between 3,000 and 4,000 owner-occupier crofter crofts and know that the figure of 700 has been bandied about for crofts in multiple ownership. We believe that the actual figure might be slightly higher, at 808, but if it will assist, we can clarify the exact number for the committee and members as we move towards stage 2. The issue is another that falls outwith the scope of the bill but which we recognise needs to be addressed, and I hope that members whose constituents are affected will note that. The bill deliberately has a tight focus to address a key issue and our view is that, unfortunately, any deviation to cover such a substantive issue would not necessarily respect the expedited procedure that is being applied to the bill, on which there is clearly a consensus to address the existing decrofting issue.

The figure of 700 was not really bandied about as such. It was an unknown figure when the question was first asked of the Scottish Government on 15th May and one that was supplied at a later date (22nd May) by an official from the Crofting Commission. One would have thought, at the time, that this would therefore have been a fairly accurate and reliable figure. However, as we have seen it is a moving target as the Crofting Commission check and reduce the number of owner-occupier crofters thus increasing the number of owner-occupiers who are not owner-occupier crofters. Paul Wheelhouse recognises that 808 may not be the exact number and this has still to be clarified. It is amazing that we are now so many weeks down the line and such clarity has still to be given.

Paul Wheelhouse did not answer the second part of Rob Gibson’s question, i.e how many owner-occupiers (who are not owner-occupier crofters) are caught up in decrofting problems. Rob Gibson had asked the same question on 22nd May and at that time Paul Wheelhouse said:-

I am happy to try and establish, after the meeting, whether there are any statistics that would give us an idea about how many crofters might be affected. I apologise that I do not have the numbers in front of me now.

This, I would suggest, is a more important figure to be clarified than the total number of owner-occupiers in existence. Perhaps MSPs need to press for an answer on this question at the final debate on the Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill on Tuesday 25th June. It has been dodged by the Minister at least twice now during the passage of the Bill. It may not be directly relevant to the Bill as the Bill does not deal with those decrofting problems. But it might highlight the real need for a swift Crofting (Amendment No. 2) (Scotland) Bill to resolve the plight of the owner-occupiers, not to mention the ‘aliens‘, who still will not be able to decroft once the first of those two Bills becomes an Act.

There was also an implication by Paul Wheelhouse that this is a new decrofting issue. It should be remembered that the decrofting problem faced by owner-occupiers actually pre-dates the one faced by owner-occupier crofters albeit by 7 days.

Brian Inkster

What happened to the six non owner-occupier crofters?

The six who are not owner-occupier croftersAt the stage 1 debate on the Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill on 6 June 2013 Paul Wheelhouse MSP, Minister for Environment and Climate Change (with responsibility for crofting), stated:-

“There was of course a question over what to do with… the 44 applications that are currently held in abeyance. The observant will have noticed that the figures have changed slightly from the earlier announcement in Parliament on 28 March—the number of outstanding applications has reduced from 50 to 44 as a result of checks undertaken by the Crofting Commission at our request, which have verified that six of the outstanding applications did not in fact relate to owner-occupier crofters.”

What pray did those applications relate to if not owner-occupier crofters? Aliens perhaps 😉 There is no explanation that I can find in the Stage 1 debate and no MSP enquired as to the fate of the six involved. So I made my own enquiries of the Scottish Government and was advised that these were, as I suspected, owner-occupiers who were not owner-occupier crofters.

Thus, whilst on the face of it, Paul Wheelhouse’s announcement looks like the decrofting problems of some have been reduced the fact of the matter is it may only be beginning. Those owner occupiers are likely to be owners of part of what is technically classed by the Crofting Commission as one croft unit. Thus, given the Crofting Commission’s recent policy (apparently based on legal advice which as usual remains top secret), decrofting applications will only be considered by the Crofting Commission if all the distinct owners of that croft unit concur in the application. That could happen in all six cases but it may only happen in some or indeed none. If the latter you then have six people who simply cannot decroft land that they own. The six are therefore potentially in a worse position than they would have been if classed as owner-occupier crofters with a resolution in sight, by virtue of the Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill, possibly as soon as the end of this month.

Thus this latest spin actually hides a problem that the Scottish Government is at the moment continually sidestepping. Whilst they have indicated an intention to tackle the numerous other problems that exist in crofting legislation this is one that certainly needs to be addressed sooner rather than later. Remember… crofting is not a perfect world.

Brian Inkster

[Photo Credit: Nature’s number 6 by David M. Goehring]

A very simple but effective amendment

Crofting Law amendments could be Simples

Simples!

I have already posted about the Crofting Law Group AGM (20 crofting lawyers in a room together) where the Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill was discussed.

Sir Crispin Agnew QC observed at that meeting that a simple amendment to the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 to correct the owner-occupier decrofting problem might be to insert in section 24(3): “Where a croft is vacant, or occupied by an owner-occupier crofter, the Commission may …”.

Very simple and effective. I would be more than happy for clause 1(2) of my Alternative Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill to be amended to substitute Sir Crispin’s proposed method of dealing with the problem.

Crofting Lawyers are finding simple and effective ways to resolve the issue. So far the Scottish Government seems intent on a very unecessary and complex layer of legislation in their attempt to resolve it. Many fear that this will just cause problems for the future. I share those fears.

[Picture Credit: Alexandre the Meerkat from CompareTheMarket.com advert © VCCP]

20 Crofting Lawyers in a room together

20 crofting lawyers in a room together

Not sure if any of these lawyers know anything about crofting law!

At the evidence gathering session on the Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill by the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee on 15th May the following exchange took place concerning 20 lawyers in a room together.

Richard Lyle MSP introduced the concept:-

I am not a lawyer or a crofter. However, I know that in 1993, 2007 and 2010, and now in 2013, we have had to try to deal with this problem. I am sure that it is a very important issue for many crofters. With the greatest respect to Sir Crispin Agnew, however, I am sure we can agree that if we put 20 lawyers in a room, they will come up with 20 different answers. In relation to the interpretation of the law, the point was made earlier that between an “owner-occupier” and an “owner-occupier crofter” there can be a world of difference as to whether those people fit into the bill.  As was mentioned earlier, Brian Inkster suggests that we can deal with the problem elsewhere, and Sir Crispin Agnew said earlier that he has other items to present to the committee. Can you really tell me that the proposals in the bill will solve the problem? Do you agree with me that there will be other problems that need to be addressed but which may have to be addressed at a later date because people have not even thought of them yet?

Sir Crispin Agnew’s view on this was:-

Yes. Where there are two lawyers, they can give different opinions. If something is well drafted, generally speaking— although not always—lawyers will give the same advice.

Derek Flyn gave his thoughts:-

On getting 20 lawyers in a room, I do not think that you would find 20 crofting lawyers who were prepared to sit and talk knowledgeably about crofting—although, as we know, there might well be more than 20 lawyers wanting to listen.

Well, on 31 May the Crofting Law Group held its AGM in Edinburgh and almost managed to get 20 lawyers in a room together to discuss the Bill. There were in fact 17 plus two non-lawyer members who probably know more about crofting law as most lawyers do.

Many, as Derek Flyn identified, were happy to listen but others talked knowledgeably about the Bill and the problems associated with it. One thing that was striking was that there was no disagreement amongst the 19 members of the Crofting Law Group in attendance as to the problems raised. There was not the 19 different answers that Richard Lyle might have suspected there to have been.

There could have been as many as 19 issues raised about the Bill. These were all of the issues already raised by myself, Sir Crispin Agnew QC, Derek Flyn (all three of us being in attendance at the AGM) and others in evidence given to the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee. There was general agreement that these issues were all problems that required to be addressed in the necessary re-drafting of the Bill. Let’s hope that the Scottish Government pay attention to the ’20 lawyers in a room’ who all held the same opinion.

[Picture Credit: Ally McBeal © 20th Century Fox Television]

6 out of 10 to the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee

Strictly Come Dancing 2012The Summary by the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee on their Stage 1 Report formed the last post on this blog. I will now give my views on that Report.

10 Points

The Committee get 10 points out of 10 from me for acknowledging “the considerable body of opinion, particularly from the legal profession, expressing the view that the Bill as drafted is unnecessarily complex and, in places, requires amendment in order to avoid further difficulties in legal interpretation in the future.” This is something that Paul Wheelhouse MSP has, so far, failed to recognise. In the evidence gathering session by the Committee on 22 May he said:-

…the legal team has worked extremely hard to ensure that the bill is consistent with the measures in respect of tenant crofters. There are different ways to draft a bill, but we are not aware of any defects at this stage.

Many potential defects had, by that stage, been identified in the submissions made by myself, Sir Crispin Agnew QC, Derek Flyn and others. Paul Wheelhouse MSP may be turning a blind eye to these but it is good to see that the Committee is not. Indeed, the Committee went as far as to state that:-

…it strongly recommends that the Scottish Government carefully considers any amendments which may be required to the Bill at Stage 2 to allow for full scrutiny (seeking information, evidence and advice on any legal issues as appropriate) to ensure that the Bill is clear and competent and does not add further complexity to an already complex body of legislation, or have the potential to give rise to further unintended consequences.

Let’s hope that the amendments that do need to be made are indeed made at Stage 2.

Another 10 points for the Committee for highlighting that other problems exist with crofting law that need to be fixed. As they said:-

The Committee notes the significant number of other outstanding issues relating to crofting many believe require to be addressed by the Scottish Government following the conclusion of consideration of this Bill by Parliament.

With the Committee going on to ask:-

… the Scottish Government to identify how it intends to address the other issues within crofting law which were brought to the Committee’s attention during its scrutiny of the Bill and to inform the Committee of how it intends to proceed. The Committee recommends that the Scottish Government indicates how it intends to address the wider criticisms that have been made, particularly by the legal profession, of the current state of crofting law as a whole.

I, as I am sure other crofting lawyers do, look forward to hearing what the Scottish Government will be doing about the general crofting law mess.

5 out of 10

The Committee, to give them their due, highlight my point about there being no place for new law in the Bill by quoting a section of my submissions on this point:-

The proposed new section 24C(2) to the 1993 Act appears to be new law in that I cannot see why the existing section 25(1)(b) cannot equally apply as it stands to owner-occupied crofts. There should be no place for new law in the Bill rather than a necessary fix of existing legislation. Any new law requires careful consideration and should not be rushed through as part of this particular legislative process. Thus I would submit that the proposed new section 24C(2) should be removed from the Bill.

They go on to state:-

…the Committee notes that a number of issues have been raised regarding the drafting of this section of the Bill, particularly with regard to the definition of a “decrofting direction”; the new section 24(C) which the Bill would insert into the 1993 Act; and the protecting of access to crofting land. The Committee recommends that the Scottish Government gives careful consideration to these specific issues ahead of Stage 2.

This is good. But a general declaration that the Scottish Government should not be creating new crofting law by virtue of the Bill but simply fixing the perceived ‘flaw’ created by the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 would have been better. Furthermore, I made the same point in my submissions about the proposed new section 24D(3) to the 1993 Act. However, that seems to have been overlooked by the Committee.

Nul Points

Nul points for RACCE CommitteeThe Committee fell down, in my eyes, in certain areas where they achieve ‘nul points’. A number of submissions had raised the spectre of problems with decrofting by owner-occupiers who are not “owner-occupier crofters”. The Committee, to give them their due, did highlight the issue but unfortunately did not recognise the real significance of it. They said:-

The definition of what legally constitutes an owner-occupier crofter, and issues facing multiple owners of distinct parts of the same croft, seem, from the evidence submitted, to be the most pressing. However, the Committee is of the view that this Bill is not the appropriate place to seek to address such issues, given the urgency of the current problem, and the expedited process that is being sought to try and rectify the situation as soon as possible.

I would suggest, as I have previously, that leaving 700 owner-occupiers who are not “owner-occupier crofters” in decrofting limbo is a significant issue and one that could and should have been dealt with in the current Bill. There is also the ‘alien owner-occupier‘ issue that came to light after the date for receipt of submissions had closed. Notwithstanding that fact it was still brought to the attention of Committee members but unfortunately they did not consider it in their Stage 1 Report.

The impact of putting off dealing with these issues may only become fully apparent when the current Bill is enacted and it becomes clear that decrofting is still being prevented in situations where it simply should not be. Will we see, sooner rather than later, a Crofting (Amendment No. 2) (Scotland) Bill to resolve the plight of the 700 owner-occupiers who are being discriminated against by virtue of the Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill?

Overall Score

So with some 10 points, 5 points and ‘nul points’ I would, on balance, give the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee 6 out of 10 for their Stage 1 Report. They could have done better. However, no doubt they could have done worse.

Brian Inkster

[Picture Credits: Strictly Come Dancing © BBC (Photographer: Guy Levy) and Engelbert Humperdinck – Eurovision Song Contest 2012 © BBC]

Stage 1 Report on the Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill

Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee

Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee

The Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee published their Stage 1 Report on the Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill on 31 May 2013. They summarised their findings as follows:-

1. The Committee regrets that an unintended consequence of omissions, and/or a lack of clarity in existing crofting legislation has led to the Crofting Commission suspending decisions on applications by owner-occupier crofters to decroft all or part of their land, as the Crofting Commission considered there was no legal basis on which to make such decisions. Such applications had been made, and decided upon, since October 2011, until the problem came to light earlier this year, and the suspending of consideration of such applications has prevented some owner-occupier crofters enjoying equal rights to tenant crofters, which was the policy intention of the existing legislation.

2. The Committee agrees that the legislation needs to be corrected and therefore welcomes the Scottish Government’s swift bringing forward of amending legislation which should not only remedy this issue for those making such applications to decroft in the future, but will also retrospectively apply to all those who previously made applications, or who currently have applications on hold as a result of the issue being identified.

3. However, whilst acknowledging that amending legislation is required, and that the Bill as drafted should address the identified problem, the Committee notes the considerable body of opinion, particularly from the legal profession, expressing the view that the Bill as drafted is unnecessarily complex and, in places, requires amendment in order to avoid further difficulties in legal interpretation in the future.

4. The Committee notes the significant number of other outstanding issues relating to crofting many believe require to be addressed by the Scottish Government following the conclusion of consideration of this Bill by Parliament.

5. The Committee was struck by the evidence it received from those knowledgeable in this area of the law, which demonstrated significant frustration and concern with the increasing complexity and layers of crofting law. Crofting law as it stands was described as “a mess” by more than one respondent to the Committee’s call for views.

6. The Committee makes specific comment on the provisions in the Bill in the main body of this report below. However, the Committee welcomes the policy intention of the Bill to rectify the anomaly which has been identified that currently prevents owner-occupier crofters from applying to decroft all or part of their land. The Committee therefore recommends that the Scottish Parliament support the general principles of the Bill at Stage 1, to allow the Bill to pass to Stage 2.

7. However, in doing so, it strongly recommends that the Scottish Government carefully considers any amendments which may be required to the Bill at Stage 2 to allow for full scrutiny (seeking information, evidence and advice on any legal issues as appropriate) to ensure that the Bill is clear and competent and does not add further complexity to an already complex body of legislation, or have the potential to give rise to further unintended consequences.

8. The Committee asks the Scottish Government to identify how it intends to address the other issues within crofting law which were brought to the Committee’s attention during its scrutiny of the Bill and to inform the Committee of how it intends to proceed. The Committee recommends that the Scottish Government indicates how it intends to address the wider criticisms that have been made, particularly by the legal profession, of the current state of crofting law as a whole.

Read the full Stage 1 Report on the Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill.

I will give my views on the Stage 1 Report in the next post on the Crofting Law Blog.

Brian Inkster

Decrofting Spin

Decrofting SpinPoliticians are good at spinning. No exception when it comes to crofting law.

At the evidence gathering session on the Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill by the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee on 22 May, Paul Wheelhouse MSP stated:-

The existing legislation clearly does not work as it was intended to do. Although some crofting lawyers, such as Brian Inkster, disagree, the concern that I have expressed is shared by others including Sir Crispin Agnew and Derek Flyn. The Commission’s legal advice appears to have drawn the same conclusion.

Not quite correct. As blogged about previously on this blog at the evidence gathering session by the same Committee on 15 May, Sir Crispin Agnew QC said:-

I think that the Bill will solve the particular problem by making it clear that the Crofting Commission can decroft owner-occupier crofts. Brian Inkster might well be right but Derek Flyn might well be right that he is wrong. Until a case has gone to the Land Court and it has made a determination, it is sensible to clarify the situation for the avoidance of doubt.

Sir Crispin did not therefore pass any opinion on whether the existing legislation worked as it was intended to do. He remained neutral on that point but was of the view that given the confusion surrounding the issue it was sensible to clarify it by way of amending legislation. On that point Sir Crispin, Derek Flyn and I are all in agreement. The challenge for Paul Wheelhouse is to deliver such amending legislation that does indeed work without leaving any further confusion. Let’s hope he concentrates on that and not on the spin.

Brian Inkster

[Picture Credit: Rainbow Humming Spinning Top from PoshTotty Designs]

700 owner-occupiers of croft land to be left in limbo

700 owner-occupiers who own croft land left in limboAt the evidence gathering session for the Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill of the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee on 22 May the Convenor, Rob Gibson MSP, asked:-

I have a small point about Richard Frew’s answer to my question at last week’s meeting about the number of multiple owners of crofts. When I asked whether he had a ballpark figure, he said: “I am not aware of the exact figures, but I am sure that the Commission has a list of the different types of crofter.”

Can we take that answer any further just now?

I have already given my views on that response by Richard Frew at Crofting is not a perfect world

Paul Wheelhouse MSP said:-

I will ask Joe Kerr to comment on that. He is on secondment from the Commission, so he may be more closely involved with the issue.

Joseph Kerr gave the answer we have all been waiting for:-

An exercise was undertaken that looked at the different status of people in the crofting elections. In terms of multiple ownership, I understand that the figure was around 700, and that the ballpark figure for owner-occupier crofters was between 3,000 and 4,000.

So there we have it. There are 700 owner-occupiers compared to say 3,500 owner-occupier crofters. Thus, due to the interpretation put on the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 by the Crofting Commission, one sixth of owner-occupiers (if for present purposes we take it that owner-occupier crofters are a sub-set of owner-occupiers) potentially cannot decroft land they own. Furthermore, they still will not be able to following the enactment of the Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill which, as currently drafted, addresses only decrofting by owner-occupier crofters and not decrofting by owner-occupiers who are not owner-occupier crofters. One-sixth is surely a fairly significant proportion to simply ignore? There is, of course, an argument that if only one person could not decroft due to a flaw in the existing legislation that flaw should be fixed so that one person was not discriminated against compared with the other 4,199 people who could decroft.

Inksters’ submissions on the Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill

Crofting Law - Brian Inkster and Eilidh Ross

Brian Inkster and Eilidh Ross

Solicitors at Inksters have lodged submissions on the Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill with the Scottish Parliament.

Brian Inkster has submitted his views on the Bill in three parts. These have been published on this blog as five separate blog posts:-

Submissions (Part 1): A sledge hammer to crack a nut

Submissions (Part 2): An alternative Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill

Submissions (Part 3): Crofting is not a perfect word + The Crofting Law Hydra + Are owner-occupier crofters a sub-set of owner-occupiers?

Eilidh Ross has also submitted her views on the Bill: The Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 is a mess

Since the deadline for providing submissions expired another decrofting problem has reared its head. Brian Inkster has blogged about it: Owners of croft land who are aliens to the Crofting Commission.

The Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee are due to produce their Report on the Bill this forthcoming week. It is to be hoped that they take on board the Inksters’ submissions and the latest decrofting problem when compiling that Report.