If you were to travel back in time 10 years ago to the day you would find a headline in The Scotsman that read ‘MSPs heap pressure on Crofters’ Commission with criticism of bill‘.
It was 5 July 2006 and on that day the Scottish Parliament’s Environment and Rural Affairs Committee released its findings on the Crofting Reform Bill after taking evidence at five meetings that year.
Some salient points from The Scotsman’s report from then:-
Critics of the commission during the evidence-gathering sessions included the National Trust for Scotland, which said the commission’s work is regarded as “inconsistent and ineffective”. The Scottish Crofting Foundation also gave an example of the “long-term regulatory failure” in one township where 11 out of 19 croft holders are absentees despite demand from prospective new entrants.
The report adds: “The committee was struck by the range of negative comments and the depth of frustration and long-standing dissatisfaction expressed by witnesses about the commission’s practice.”
It also said it was “astonished” a proper register of crofts has not been produced despite it being a statutory obligation on the commission for over 50 years.
Rob Gibson, the SNP’s land reform spokesman, said the bill offers no vision for the future of crofting and said successive governments had failed to ensure the commission does it job.
The report in The Scotsman also mentioned Brian Wilson, the former Government Minister, saying of the report:-
The whole thing has turned into an indictment of the Crofters’ Commission and its failure to implement its regulatory role. I think they [the commission board] should now consider their positions.
Fast forward 10 years and not much has changed. It is now called the Crofting Commission as opposed to the Crofters Commission. Similar but perhaps more acute criticism is being laid at its door. Indeed, I was speaking to a crofter just today who said that the Crofting Commission of 2016 is much worse than its predecessor, the Crofters Commission, was 10 years ago.
Headlines in the news over the past few weeks have included:-
Crofting Comission branded as ‘dictatorial, vindictive and unjustified’ by Upper Coll crofters
Row between national body and local crofters on Lewis deepens
Crofting Commission ‘flouting the will’ of Parliament
Crofting commissioner resigns in Lewis grazings row
Pressure grows on Crofting Commission as row over committees continues
Demands intensify for inquiry into operations of Crofting Commission
Crofting Commission “cover-up” blasted
Sleat storm surrounds Crofting Commission
Crofting Commission’s Mangersta U-turn welcomed, but calls for government investigation continue
It was in the wake of the near collapse of the Crofting Reform Bill in 2006 that pressure from the Scottish Crofting Federation led to Scottish Ministers commissioning a Committee of Inquiry on Crofting. This was chaired by Professor Mark Shucksmith. The Committee of Inquiry on Crofting undertook many community meetings throughout 2007 and delivered their final report in 2008.
The Shucksmith Report commented on the Governance of Crofting as follows:-
Crucial issues for the governance of crofting are transparency, source of legitimacy, accountability and the balance of central and local interests. Centralised arrangements,
together with a lack of clear functional boundaries between the key institutions, particularly
between the Crofters Commission and the Scottish Government, cloud the lines of public
accountability for the effective governance of crofting. Recurring themes in the evidence
were that the Commission should be more accountable; have greater area representation;
should enforce regulations more effectively; should be better aligned with other relevant partners; and should have closer communication with local people and Grazings Committees.
All issues that appear to remain today. Perhaps that is because in introducing the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 the then Scottish Parliament ignored many of the recommendations actually contained in the Shucksmith Report.
There is currently a major crisis in crofting. The consensus of opinion appears to be that the problems are caused by the Crofting Commission and the decisions taken by them and manner in which they execute those decisions.
A recent online poll conducted by The Scottish Farmer indicated that 96% of readers who took part considered that the Scottish Government should enact an independent inquiry into the workings of the Crofting Commission.
The Scottish Farmer in conducting this poll stated:-
The level of criticism has mounted so quickly that it is now incumbent on the Scottish Government to institute an independent external audit of the commission.
And, if the Crofting Commissioners feel the criticism to be unjust, they too should welcome independent scrutiny of their actions.
One thing is for sure, Scottish ministers cannot continue to sit on their hands on this one. Action must be taken swiftly and decisively!
I sincerely hope that in 10 years from now we don’t look back and say that nothing has really changed and indeed the situation at the Crofting Commission has got worse not better. The Scottish Government has the opportunity to change the future and must now do so.
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Fresh approach required from grassroots crofters and interested parties to create a modern and effective legislation. All parties involved in previous legislation mess should be excluded, including so called ‘crofting lawyers/consultants’. Inksters intentions are sound but please don’t get sucked into the usual approach of listening to ‘croft experts’ and not reaching out for those of the crofters. Eg working parties of crofters, grazing committees and not fees for lawyers/consultants.
I don’t think there were many, if any, “crofting lawyers/consultants” involved in the “previous legislation mess”. That was very much down to the MSPs of the time and the civil servants involved. Little, if any, attention was paid or input sought from crofting lawyers/consultants. The “mess” you refer to might have been mitigated had that been the case.
I fully agree though that the crofters should be reached out to. That is what the Napier Commission did resulting in the first Crofters Act of 1886. That is what, more recently, the Shucksmith Report did but much of that Report was ignored by the Scottish Government of the time. The Shucksmith Report is still fairly fresh and the current Scottish Government could do worse than to revisit that Report and take cognisance of the recommendations it made.
If they craft policy and legislative change around the desires of grassroots crofters, working parties of crofters, grazings committees and the like they would then do well to involve lawyers/consultants who understand crofting law intimately to comment on the draft bill proposed before it is enacted.