Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill: A Sledge Hammer to Crack a Nut

Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill in Marrakech

A Surface, Cloud Technology and Mint Tea enable submissions on the Bill from Marrakech to Edinburgh

The Scottish Government decided to publish the Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill, and have a one week consultation period on it, all to coincide exactly with my one week holiday in Marrakech. I reluctantly packed the Bill as holiday reading. My wife, understandably, was not too amused by this turn of events. Crofting Law Bills don’t come along very often I assured her. Whereas, we can always have another holiday. Although, there may well be a spate of Crofting Law Bills to come in the wake of this latest one. Anyway, a good part of my ‘holiday’ was taken up considering the Bill albeit in warmer climes than the Crofting Counties. This resulted in three sets of submissions by me to the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee. The first of these is as follows:-

Submissions (Part 1) by Brian Inkster on the Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill

I would initially point out that I have, from the outset, been somewhat sceptical as to the need for the Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill (“the Bill”) as I believe that the existing law can be interpreted in such a way to allow owner-occupier croft decrofting (Vacant and ready, Journal of the Law Society of Scotland, March 2013).

I have also been vocal in expressing the opinion that the legal advice sought and obtained by the Crofting Commission on this subject should be made public (Top Secret Crofting Law, Crofting Law Blog).

To date crofting lawyers have had to operate in a vacuum over this issue as in the absence of sight of the legal opinion on what exactly the ‘flaw’ is in the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 (“the 2010 Act”) it is difficult to know what is being amended by the Bill and why.

On 28 March 2013, when Paul Wheelhouse MSP, Minister for Environment and Climate Change, announced in the Scottish Parliament that the Bill would be introduced after the Easter recess, Rhoda Grant MSP asked whether the Government would “publish its legal advice, so that solicitors can properly advise clients”. Paul Wheelhouse responded:-

 As far as legal advice is concerned, I am sure that Rhoda Grant knows the constraints that exist in that regard. In progressing the Bill, we will try to make it as clear as possible why we think that the legislation is flawed and what we need to do to rectify that. We will try to give as much clarity as possible on the rationale for the action that we propose to take.

I had hoped that such clarity and the rationale would appear in the Explanatory Notes to the Bill. Unfortunately, not a lot on this area is actually there to add to the scant information that was previously made available. In particular no mention is made of the interaction between section 23(12A) of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 (“the 1993 Act”) and section 23(1) of the 1993 Act and their relationship with section 23(10) and/or section 24(3) of the 1993 Act. This is something I have specifically asked the Crofting Commission to address in correspondence but they have simply ignored me and not responded on this point. I can only assume that they do not actually know what the position is.

With section 23(12A) of the 1993 Act being amended but not removed by the Bill some explanation as to the purpose and intent of that section, as it now stands, would be useful. If the purpose of that section (as I saw it) was to deem an owner-occupied croft to be vacant but it did not in fact do so (if the legal advice sought and obtained by the Crofting Commission, which has not been disclosed, actually covers this point) then what is the continuing purpose of the said section 23(12A) when the Bill becomes an Act?

Paragraph 5 of the Explanatory Notes to the Bill acknowledge that prior to the introduction of the 2010 Act “owner-occupiers” could apply to decroft under section 24(3) of the 1993 Act and we are told to “see section 23(12) of that Act”. Section 23(12A) was introduced by the 2010 Act to the 1993 Act to extend the same provisions to “owner-occupier crofters”. However, no mention of this or the reason why the said section 23(12A) does not actually do this is given.

Paragraph 6 of the Explanatory Notes to the Bill states that:-

For the purposes of the decrofting provisions of the 1993 Act, section 23(10) was amended by the 2010 Act to provide that a croft is not vacant if it is occupied by the owner-occupier crofter.

That statement is not quite correct and is possibly misleading. The clause in question says that:-

…a croft shall be taken to be vacant notwithstanding that it is occupied, if it is occupied otherwise than by… the owner-occupier crofter of the croft

That does not mean (in my opinion) that an owner-occupied croft can never be vacant and that other provisions of the 1993 Act cannot make such a croft vacant for the purposes of decrofting.

If, however, that interpretation can be put on the said section 23(10) and this is the ‘flaw’ that Paul Whellhouse has been referring to then is there not a simpler way to amend the legislation rather than the rather convoluted way it has been presented in the Bill? Would it not be the case of simply having one clause (say a new section 23(10A) to the 1993 Act) along the following lines:-

Notwithstanding the terms of subsection (10) above an owner-occupied croft will always be vacant for the purposes of decrofting under section 24(3).

This one sentence could in effect replace the proposed new sections 24A, 24B, 24C and 24D to the 1993 Act (section 1(2) of the Bill) and make the reading and understanding of it so much easier.

Paragraph 6 of the Explanatory Notes to the Bill goes on to state:-

Other owner-occupiers of crofts, who were not owner-occupier crofters were unaffected and they could still, and still can, apply to decroft as if they were landlords of vacant crofts.

This is another potentially incorrect and misleading statement. The Crofting Commission issued on 18 February 2013 the following statement:-

Decrofting and Letting applications where a croft is owned by more than one person

There was uncertainty in situations where the owners hold separate title to distinct parts of a croft, whether an application to decroft or let could be:

  • Made separately by an individual owner in respect of the distinct part of the croft they own, or
  • If such an application has to be made by all the owners of the croft in their capacity as, collectively, the ‘landlord’ of that croft.

The Crofting Commission took the view that it was essential to have clear policy on this issue. The Commission therefore, in order to clarify the situation, sought and obtained legal opinion on the practice of accepting applications submitted by only one of the croft owners where the croft is held in multiple separate ownership ‘parcels’.

The matter was discussed at their Board meeting on 14 December 2012 and Commissioners agreed to adopt a policy that all decrofting and letting applications in respect of crofts with multiple owners, must be submitted by all the owners, in their capacity collectively as the ‘landlord’ of the croft, even in those cases where the application related to a part of the croft held in title by only one of their number.

Any application received in future from one of the owners, where a croft is held in multiple ownership, will be considered invalid and returned on the basis that the application was not submitted by the landlord of the croft.

It is submitted that this was not the intention of the 2010 Act (i.e. to change the position of owner-occupiers as opposed to owner-occupier crofters in respect of the right of an owner-occupier to decroft land belonging to them). In effect if there are several owner-occupiers of distinct parts of what was originally one croft why should one of those owner-occupiers require the consent of the other owner-occupiers to decroft land that only they own. The policy introduced by the Crofting Commission means that one neighbouring owner-occupier can in effect prevent another from decrofting. Thus, contrary to what the Explanatory Notes to the Bill state, owner-occupiers of crofts, who are not owner-occupier crofters, are affected and cannot (in certain circumstances) apply to decroft as if they were landlords of vacant crofts.

My own view is that the Crofting Commission may have got it wrong again and that decrofting by owner-occupiers is, as it always has been, fully covered by section 23(12) of the 1993 Act. This was not altered in any way by the 2010 Act. However, if the Crofting Commission are correct then the Scottish Government needs to do something about it at the same time as fixing the ‘flaw’ for owner-occupier crofters. It would be inequitable to treat the two differently. Furthermore, if the Crofting Commission are correct then it follows that decrofting directions granted by them to owner-occupiers after 1 October 2011 (possibly arguably before that date) and 18 February 2013 could be invalid. The Scottish Government would need to seek to remedy that situation retrospectively as it has done in the Bill in respect of owner-occupier crofters. Not doing so leaves owner-occupiers and their lenders exposed in a similar way as owner-occupier crofters and their lenders currently find themselves pending the Bill becoming an Act.

Jamie McGrigor MSP asked, in the Scottish Parliament, on 28 March 2013:-

Will the legislation clarify the legal position on decrofting a croft that has been divided? The Crofting Commission say that people who own part of a croft cannot decroft in that part without the concurrence of the neighbours who own the remainder of what was the original croft.

Paul Wheelhouse MSP did not have an immediate answer to this question but the Minister promised to write a letter to Mr McGrigor to provide clarity on this point and undertook “to address the matter”. This letter was not written until 10 May 2013 (the day after the Bill was introduced). It reads:-

Dear Jamie

Thank you for your e-mail of 9 May 2013 seeking the clarification that I undertook to write, after my statement to Parliament on 28 March 2013 on decrofting by owner-occupier crofters, on the issue of “divided” crofts. I am extremely sorry that it has not been possible to provide a much earlier response.

The issue you raised relates to situations where a croft has a number of owners, rather than where a croft has been divided through regulatory application to the Crofting Commission. In that latter situation, a croft would have essentially become two, or more, crofts with a separate identifiable tenant or owner-occupier for each. In such a situation, a tenant would be able to apply to decroft and the Bill to be introduced is designed to empower an owner-occupier crofter to also be able to apply to decroft.

In instances of joint ownership of a croft that has not been formally divided, the Crofting Commission decided, at its Board meeting on 14 December 2012, that in order to regulate crofting properly and ensure the integrity of the crofting unit, an application to decroft should be from the landlord of a croft. As it has been relayed to me the Crofting Commission took legal advice, and based upon that advice has concluded that where a number of individuals own different parts of a croft, which has not been formally divided by the Commission, they together constitute the “landlord” of the croft for regulatory purposes.

As such, an application in respect of an undivided croft affects a number of persons who, taken together, are the “landlord”. In order to properly consider an application relating to such an undivided croft, the Commission feels it necessary, on legal advice it received, to seek the views of all the joint owners of the croft.

I hope this is helpful.

PAUL WHEELHOUSE

Unfortunately, Paul Whelhouse avoids the actual question asked by Jamie McGrigor and simply sets out the Crofting Commission’s policy which was already known. Reference by Paul Wheelhouse to “divided” crofts requires some greater understanding and explanation. It was only by the 2010 Act (section 34 which introduced inter alia a new section 19D to the 1993 Act) that an owner-occupier crofter was, for the first time, compelled to seek the consent of the Commission to divide their croft. Prior to this new provision coming into force no such consent was required.

I do not believe that it could have been the intention of the Scottish Parliament to create two separate types of divided crofts with different rules applying to each. There is no good reason why pre-2010 Act ‘divided’ crofts should be treated differently from post-2010 Act ‘divided’ crofts.

As a result of the Crofting Commission’s legal interpretation of the position, and as already stated previously by me above, decrofting directions already granted by the Crofting Commission to owner-occupiers (as opposed to the newly defined owner-occupier crofters) could be invalid. Furthermore, the Crofting Commission are now effectively preventing owner-occupier decrofting  in circumstances where they believe a neighbour’s consent may be required (something that the 2010 Act and previous crofting legislation certainly does not spell out).

The focus of the Bill is resolving ambiguities created by the 2010 Act in connection with decrofting but this has been specifically limited by the Scottish Government to ‘owner-occupier crofters’. It is completely inequitable not to include ‘owner-occupiers’ in this focus as they are, in certain circumstances, also being prevented from decrofting land that they own. The tweaks required to the Bill (especially if a simplified drafting approach was taken) to resolve this anomaly would be minor and I would urge the Scottish Government to actually consider the potential problem at hand and the consequences of doing nothing about it.

I have already stated that the Bill could be condensed dramatically in size and complexity by a more straightforward and simple approach to the drafting of it. Arguably, what has been created is a sledge hammer to crack a nut. Crofting Law is complex at the best of times. The Scottish Government should be seeking where possible to make it easier to understand and thus avoid the need for amending legislation due to the different interpretations that can be given to complexly drafted provisions.

If, however, the will of the Scottish Parliament is to stick with the unnecessarily complex approach I would comment on the clauses in the Bill, as currently drafted, as follows:-

Clause 1(2) – inserting 24A

There is no definition of “decrofting direction” in section 61 of the 1993 Act. Should we have a definition distinctly for owner-occupier crofters and not one for others who can legitimately seek a ‘decrofting direction’? Again good reason for linking owner-occupied croft decrofting with the existing  decrofting provisions rather than creating new ones.

Clause 1(2) – inserting 24B

Reference is made in the new section 24B(2) to section 26J of the 1993 Act. However, I believe there to be a possible flaw in the 2010 Act (yes another one) in that there is no link between section 26J and section 19C of the 1993 Act. This could cause general problems for the Crofting Commission in any event and specific ones with regard to the Bill now linking a further clause to a section in the 1993 Act that possibly makes no sense in the first place.

Clause 1(2) – inserting 24C

The proposed new section 24C to the 1993 Act is a very contrived provision. The simplified approach to drafting already suggested would dispense with the need for this. The alternative is to set out in full the provisions that apply rather than chopping and changing the existing section 25 of the 1993 Act.

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.

With regard to the proposed new section 24C(3) to the 1993 Act there should be nothing to prevent the legislation declaring the croft to be vacant notwithstanding the terms of section 23(10) of the 1993 Act. Why create two classes of possible outcome i.e. vacancy or revocation rather than just the one?

Clause 1(2) – inserting 24D

A simplified drafting approach to the Bill would avoid the need for the proposed section 24D to the 1993 Act with reliance being given to the existing section 24(3) of the 1993 Act.

I am unsure whether the proposed new section 24D(3) to the 1993 Act reflects existing legislation in the 2010 Act in respect of existing decrofting procedures. I have been unable to readily locate such provisions and there is no indication of the position in the Explanatory Notes to the Bill. If it does, then fair enough, although again linking the new legislation to the existing provisions would be preferable to stand alone clauses. If it does not then the Bill is no place for new law for reasons already given above in respect of the proposed new section 24C(2) to the 1993 Act.

Clause 2

A simplified approach to the drafting would avoid the need for most, perhaps even all, of the proposed consequential modifications in the Schedule to the Bill as referred to in clause 2 of the Bill.

Clause 3

It is good to see retrospective effect and application in the Bill given that the Crofting Commission’s staff were telling potentially affected parties that they had nothing to worry about because previously granted decrofting directions were granted in good faith and so would be valid. However, as one commentator on the Crofting Law Blog has pointed out the drafting of clause 3 could be clearer:-

That’s the sort of Sir Humphrey Appleby nonsense that gives the law and legislative process a bad name. Go ahead with this short bill in these terms now to correct the problem in the short term (so long as they’re SURE that gobbledygook actually does correct it) but only on the strict understanding a comprehensible bill to consolidate crofting legislation will be introduced asap.

[Neil King commenting on Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill Published at the Crofting Law Blog]

I would tend to agree and would have thought that a simple statement along the following lines would have sufficed:-

All decrofting directions granted by and applications made to the Commission in respect of applications to decroft made by owner-occupier crofters from 1 October 2011 until the coming into force of this Act are valid and enforceable.

Clauses 4, 5, 6 and 7

I have no particular comments to make on clauses 4, 5, 6 and 7 of the Bill.

Other Problems with the 2010 Act

There are other problems created by the 2010 Act which I will not go into in any great detail here but merely highlight:-

  • The 2010 Act did not provide for the purchase of a tenanted croft being a trigger that induces first registration in the Crofting Register.
  • Many issues and conflicts were created regarding owner-occupier crofters when compared with owner-occupiers (some have been referred to in these submissions but others exist that also      require a resolution).
  • No equivalent of sections 5(3)-(6) of the 1993 Act was provided for owner-occupier crofters creating difficulties for developments proposed on owner-occupied crofts and in particular wind farm developments.

There is a need for legislation to resolve these issues. It is appreciated that the Bill may not be the place to do so given the need for that particular legislation to be progressed with all due haste. However, the Scottish Government should give a commitment to introduce a further bill dealing with all of the other anomalies created by the 2010 Act as soon as possible following the Summer Recess.

Summary

My views on the Bill can be summarised as follows:-

  • The Bill as drafted is a sledge hammer to crack a nut and could be simplified in its drafting to a huge extent.
  • There appears to be attempts to introduce new law via the Bill. That should not be the purpose of the Bill which is to fix ‘flaws’ in the existing legislation created by the 2010 Act.
  • The problems associated with decrofting by owner-occupiers (as opposed to owner-occupier crofters) should also be addressed in the Bill.
  • A commitment should be given by the Scottish Government to introduce a Bill following the Summer Recess to deal with the various other anomalies in crofting law created by the 2010 Act.

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