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Mr. Calum Macdonald (Western Isles): I am very grateful for the opportunity to raise this topic, which is important not only to my constituency but to the whole of the highlands and islands. The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson), will know that, when I originally asked for the debate, the issue of most worry to the crofting communities was Government proposals to change a couple of major schemes that are important to crofting.

On Monday, in the Scottish Grand Committee, the Secretary of State for Scotland announced that he had decided not to go ahead with the proposed changes. The Government's change of heart has been widely welcomed throughout the crofting communities. I acknowledge the Secretary of State's decision, and pay tribute to the campaign of the Scottish Crofters Union, which proved so effective in changing the Government's mind.

Happily, that does not mean that there is nothing to talk about today. I should like to use this half hour to discuss a couple of issues of equal concern to the crofting communities. One is a relatively long-standing concern: the general question of financial support of crofting communities. The other is a growing concern that ought to concern the Government as well: the enormous increase in the paperwork and form-filling with which crofters have to cope as a result of new Government schemes and regulations.

Before addressing those topics, I should like to ask for clarification of the statement made on Monday in the Scottish Grand Committee, when the Secretary of State said that there would be no changes to either the housing scheme or the agricultural grants scheme. Will the Minister confirm that that means that there will be no changes whatever in the scope of the agricultural grants scheme, and that all the projects relevant to that scheme will continue to be relevant in future?

I turn to the social and environmental benefits of crofting, and the need for them to be better recognised in the Government's policy. Total support for agriculture in Britain amounts to £2.75 billion--a staggering figure. The support that goes to crofting, however, is obviously only a fraction of that. Under the common agricultural policy, as is well known, 80 per cent. of support goes to the 20 per cent. of farmers with the biggest farms. Unfortunately, the MacSharry reforms have had very little impact on correcting that imbalance. Far too much support continues to go to huge agricultural businesses that provide very little benefit either for the environment or for the communities in which they are situated.

There are 10,000 active crofters in the highlands today. The average croft is about five hectares. There is very little arable farming, obviously because of the nature of the land, and most crofters concentrate on livestock--predominantly sheep. A crofter's average flock is about 60 ewes. It is important to emphasise that that is not the minimum but the average, and is obviously very small. That is why the average amount received by each crofter in CAP support attached to livestock, which is the major proportion of the support that they receive, is about £1,500.

It is useful to compare the 10,000 crofters in the highlands, who receive on average £1,500 each, with the 4,000 biggest farmers in England, each of whom receives

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more than £50,000, and 13 of whom receive up to £500,000--some more than that--in Government subsidy. From that comparison, one realises that the image of featherbedded crofters is far removed from reality.

Government support is essential to sustain crofting. By definition, crofting is small-scale and part-time, takes place on land that is very difficult to work--it has among the most extreme climatic conditions in Europe--and by itself produces very little income. Government support will continue to be essential to its survival.

The benefits produced by crofting are enormous. The environment benefits greatly. It is no accident that the crofts in my constituency, for example, are the last refuge of the corncrake in Britain. The crofting counties in general are regarded as one of Europe's most important regions of environmental diversity.

Just as important as the environmental benefits is the fact that crofting sustains rural communities in marginal areas as no single Government policy possibly could, or as any other agricultural support system has managed in any other part of the United Kingdom. Crofting has been absolutely essential to the stabilisation of the population in remote island areas--and, indeed, to the revival of and increase in the population in the highlands and islands as a whole. Crofting manages to sustain rural communities, because it gives families a working stake in the land.

That case used to be difficult to make when the sole objective of Government agricultural policy was simply to produce the maximum amount of food. When production was the overriding goal, crofting was obviously regarded as pretty much marginal to it. Today, however, priorities are completely different. The concern is no longer about producing vast quantities of food but about producing high-quality, safe food. There are concerns about safeguarding and enhancing the environment, and about sustaining and nurturing viable rural communities. In all those aspects, crofting is clearly in line with the new social and environmental goals behind agricultural policy.

Unfortunately, crofting is still stuck with the financial support policies of the past. There is precious little recognition in the CAP--even after the latest set of reforms--of the social and environmental goals to which rural policy should be directed and which the public clearly demand as a return for the taxpayers' money that goes into agricultural support. There have been some changes in policy, but not nearly enough. The overwhelming bulk of the £2.75 billion that will be spent on agriculture this year is still not properly connected to the wider social and environmental goals.

It is important to remember that very few support schemes are specific to crofting. Most of the support for crofting is part of the general agricultural support schemes that apply throughout the United Kingdom and the European Union under the CAP. By far the most significant is the sheep payments, for which every sheep farmer in Europe is eligible. Some elements are targeted, but they are very small and not very well targeted.

The less-favoured area supplement provides an addition to the basic sheep payment paid to sheep farmers throughout Europe, but, since 94 per cent. of Scotland is classified as a less-favoured area, the supplement is a broad-brush approach that does not take any account of the particular circumstances of the crofting environment.

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There is, additionally, the hill livestock compensatory allowance, by which more than 90 per cent. of Scotland is covered. But that allowance is paid out on pretty much the same basis as the less-favoured area supplement, and again, no attention is paid to the specific difficulties faced by crofters.

The only livestock payment specific to crofters is the small payment of 64p extra per sheep, and the highlands and islands additional payment, which is a similar payment for cattle in the highlands and islands. The difference that those payments make is very marginal. Moreover, the average flock owned by crofters is only 60 ewes. The average specific payment to crofters is therefore less than £40, which makes hardly any difference.

What should the Government be doing? It is obvious that agricultural support needs to be better targeted, and an important way in which to accomplish that would be for the Government to respond to the frequent demands that they increase the highland and islands supplement to livestock payments.

I should like to suggest to the Minister another, new way forward, which I hope that he will pass on to Lord Lindsay for consideration. The European Community has introduced two other designations in its common agricultural policy and rural policy: the mountain area designation, and the sparsely populated area designation. Those complement its long-standing category of less-favoured area.

Mountain areas have been so designated in France, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Italy and across Europe, except in the British isles. As the highlands is one of the most remote, climatically hostile and famous mountain areas in Europe, that fact is bizarre. The Government should apply immediately to the European Commission to have the highlands designated as a mountain area, so that it can become eligible for the additional CAP supplements funded by the EC and available with such a designation.

The situation is the same in relation to the new sparsely populated area designation, which was introduced with the accession of the Nordic countries to the European Union. Most of Finland and much of Sweden are now designated as sparsely populated areas. The highlands and islands--particularly if one removes Inverness--should be so designated. I ask the Minister to push the case for that with the EC.

The need for better targeting in general goes to the heart of the CAP, which will be debated later today and tomorrow in the House. The Government could make an important start on that if they respond to those two suggestions.

The other big problem facing crofters is the rising tide of paperwork and bureaucracy, which has increased enormously over the past five years and now threatens to overwhelm many crofters. I have been receiving an increasing number of complaints about that issue from crofters. The Government should also be concerned about it because, if the crofters are facing an increasing tide of paperwork, civil servants must be doing more work in Government offices, which means costs to the Government that they should be trying to reduce.

I receive most complaints about the integrated administrative and control system forms that have to be filled in each year. That form is a full 18 pages long, and every crofter must fill it in to be eligible for any of the agricultural support schemes. It arrives at the crofter's door with a 37-page booklet explaining how to fill it in.

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Farmers across the country have to fill in the IACS form, but most of those work full-time on their farms and are therefore prepared to take on the extra administrative burden, even if they are not particularly happy about it. However, the motivation for a crofter--who is a part-time farmer receiving very little income from his croft--is quite different. The growing amount of paperwork is extremely discouraging for a part-time farmer, and many crofters are now wondering whether it is worth their while.

The IACS form is by far the biggest bureaucratic burden, but it is not the final one. Other forms have to be filled in to receive livestock subsidy for sheep or for cattle. Another form must be filled in if there are changes in reserve quota. New forms must now be filled in whenever sheep are moved between holdings that belong to different owners. That might be only a matter of wintering sheep. If a crofter moves a couple of dozen sheep from one holding to another, a form must be filled in.

Other certificates must be completed for animals travelling more than 31 miles, which is not far when one thinks of distances in the highland and islands. Moreover, there will inevitably be more form-filling as the Government pursue solutions to the BSE crisis. An endless ocean of forms and paperwork is drowning crofters and removing the incentive and commitment that they have and must have to continue crofting.

The fear is not only theoretical but has very real consequences, which is evident in the way in which environmentally sensitive areas have been designated in the Uists in my constituency. Every year the paperwork for qualifying for grant aid under the ESA schemes has become increasingly onerous. To be eligible, each crofter must first make his way through a 27-page booklet. He must then fill in an 11-page application form, and then produce a management plan for his croft that looks as far ahead as five years.

Such a burden is simply absurd when dealing with crofts that are only five to 10 hectares and receive payments of only a few hundred pounds under such schemes. It also contrasts vividly with the situation in such places as Eigg and Knoydart, where someone can come in and buy out entire estates without even telling anyone who they are, far less having to fill in a five-year development plan or produce an environmental prospectus.

Participation in the ESA scheme has collapsed from 280 crofters in the first year to only 30 this year because of the form-filling required. Paperwork is clearly strangling an excellent idea to provide payments for crofters to farm in ways that specifically benefit the environment.

What has happened in the ESA scheme will happen throughout crofting areas if the tide of paperwork is not halted and reversed. That is why I asked the Scottish Office to include in the review of the administrative costs of operating the scheme in relation to crofting, which was announced on Monday, the administrative costs of all the other programmes for which crofters are eligible. As I said, that is also a problem for the Government if they want to cut bureaucracy and administration.

I have made a couple of specific suggestions to the Minister. I do not expect him to give a detailed reply now. I should, indeed, hope that he will not give an off-the-cuff reply. I hope that he will take away the suggestions, discuss them with his colleagues and perhaps respond to me in writing, so that they can be pursued.

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1.48 pm

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