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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Raymond S. Robertson): I congratulate the hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) on securing the Adjournment debate. As he said, when he did so he was not to know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State intended to make a series of announcements about crofting at the sitting of the Scottish Grand Committee at Dundee on Monday. I hope that he accepts that it is therefore inevitable that my reply on behalf of the Government must cover much of the same ground as Monday's debate.

As the hon. Gentleman said, both debates were stimulated by the concerns of crofting interests that our proposals for merging the long-standing crofting counties agricultural grants scheme--CCAGS--into the new proposed Scottish countryside premium scheme would work to the disadvantage of crofters. As my right hon. Friend made clear on Monday, that was certainly never our intention.

Indeed, as my noble Friend Lord Lindsay, the Minister responsible for agriculture in Scotland, explained at the launch of the consultation paper in early March, our aim was to

by proposing that crofters would be able to apply for assistance towards a wide range of capital works, plus a range of conservation management payments not available outside of designated environmentally sensitive areas. Nevertheless, we have listened carefully to what has been said, and I am pleased to note that the hon. Member for Western Isles accepts the reassurances that my right hon. Friend gave in Dundee.

I remind hon. Members that my right hon. Friend has decided to continue to offer CCAGS separately from the new scheme which, as a result, will no longer provide assistance for crofters towards a range of capital items not available to other applicants. Instead, assistance for those items of work will continue to be provided through CCAGS, as at present. I can give the hon. Gentleman the reassurance he sought, that we are planning no changes to the scope of the scheme. Like all Government schemes, however, it will be under constant review.

Eligible crofters will be able to take advantage of other aspects of the proposed countryside premium scheme. For example, they will be able to apply for the various environmental management payments, which will now be available on a much wider basis than hitherto. I know that crofting interests, particularly the Scottish Crofters Union, which has published various joint documents with the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, have been pressing for that for some time.

Fears had also been expressed that we were planning to make changes to the crofters' building grants and loans scheme--CBGLS--and, in particular, that we might discontinue loan assistance. We certainly discussed a proposal along those lines with crofting interests earlier this year, and it would have had the very substantial advantage that we could use the resources to increase the rates of grant assistance paid through the scheme. However, again, we listened to the concerns expressed, and we have decided not to progress that proposal further at the present time.

I should also like to emphasise that we have no specific plans for a means test. Although there is no doubt that linking assistance to income in some way might help to

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improve the targeting of the scheme, we are not persuaded, and at the present time the benefits would be outweighed by the extra administrative cost for the Department and the burden on the applicant.

I can only repeat again that we are in no doubt that the schemes provide an important contribution to the support of crofting communities. For example, the best estimates we have suggest that some 75 per cent. of the 8,000 or so crofters working crofts, plus a further 1,500 occupiers of non-croft holdings in the crofting counties, have used the CCAGS in the past five years or so.

Similarly, in relation to the crofter housing scheme, CBGLS, an evaluation we commissioned in 1993 from Pieda, a firm of economic consultants, estimated that more than 3,200 households received assistance in the 10 years between 1981 and 1991, and that it had played a significant role in retaining households in crofting.

There has never been any question of discontinuing assistance for crofting agriculture or crofter housing. Our aim was simply to ensure that crofting communities and the taxpayer, who foots the bill at the end of the day, secure the best possible value for money for each £1 of public money spent. We therefore have a duty to consider possible changes that might lead to improvements, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will respect that. He has come up with some ideas, and I assure him that they will be properly considered by Lord Lindsay, who will write to him about the specific matters he mentioned.

The topic for today's debate, however, is Government support for crofting communities, and that goes well beyond the two specific schemes to which I have already referred. The reality is that the list of types and forms of support is extremely long. That is right and proper, because crofting communities are found in the remotest corners of Britain, and the natural resources available to those communities are often limited.

However, it is not all a question of economic and social disadvantage. Crofting communities have many strengths including a strong sense of community, a distinctive culture--Gaelic in the Western Isles and Nordic in Orkney and Shetland--and an outstanding natural heritage. It is important that Government support for crofting helps to build upon those strengths.

The Crofters Commission plays a key role in relation to crofting tenure, and the Government support it to the tune of approximately £1.5 million per year. Much of its work is very much out of the public eye, but it nevertheless provides the cornerstone for crofting.

The Crofters Commission is to be congratulated on the way in which it has sought, in recent years, to use its powers positively to support crofting communities--for example, by seeking to tackle the problems of absenteeism, and by developing effective channels of communication with crofting areas.

The commission has also co-operated closely with other agencies to develop new and innovative initiatives such as the croft entrant schemes and the recent crofting township development scheme. In co-operation with the Forestry Authority, it has also helped to promote crofter forestry--a development which I know is close to the heart of the hon. Gentleman, who successfully piloted through the House the Crofter Forestry (Scotland) Act 1991.

It goes without saying that progress on those initiatives has been possible only with Government financial support. Beyond the work of the Crofters Commission and

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the specific crofting schemes administered by the Department or the commission, there are many other forms of support.

As my right hon. Friend, who has joined us, pointed out on Monday, all crofters with agricultural businesses are potentially eligible for the normal range of agricultural subsidies. For crofters, the most relevant are the various livestock subsidies for hill sheep and cattle--the hill livestock compensatory allowances, including the highlands and islands supplement, and the sheep and suckler cow premiums. Within the less-favoured areas in Scotland, those subsidies amounted to some £220 million in 1995, and crofters will have benefited from an important share of that money.

Under the Government, crofters and crofting communities have also benefited from a wide range of area-specific development programmes designed to help to strengthen agriculture in some of our most fragile areas, and also to encourage the development of alternative sources of employment.

Those programmes have included the integrated development programme for the Western Isles, which spent some £25 million between 1982 and 1987; the agriculture development programme for the Scottish islands, excluding the Western Isles, which spent just over £30 million between 1988 and 1993; the rural enterprise programme, with expenditure of almost £13 million; and, most recently, the objective 1 programme, which will result in public expenditure of about £500 million in the highlands and islands from 1994 to 1999.

Expenditure under the objective 1 programme is intended to help develop all sectors of the highlands and islands economy, including some of particular importance to crofters, such as aquaculture, tourism and the service industry. Furthermore, the selection process for individual projects is designed to ensure that priority is given to those that will benefit the most remote and fragile parts of the highlands and islands--some of the areas where the crofting tradition is strongest.

Crofting communities also benefit indirectly from a range of other programmes, extending from the substantial funding provided for Gaelic organisations,

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Gaelic broadcasting and Gaelic education, to the subsidies provided for ferry services to the various islands of Scotland on which so many of our crofters live.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray): The hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Macdonald) mentioned land ownership, and referred in particular to Eigg and Knoydart. What is the Government's view of those absentee landlords, who have treated people with contempt? One may talk about hill livestock compensatory allowances, but what happens when the cattle are sold from people's islands?

Mr. Robertson: I am sure that the hon. Lady will agree that crofting is limited on Knoydart. Perhaps she is trying to take me down a road along which I would rather not go during a debate on crofting.

I reiterate that the Government are fully committed to supporting crofting, and they stand on their record. The steady regeneration of the highlands and islands in the 1980s and 1990s has been one of the unsung success stories of the Government's policies, and it has been reflected in increased population and economic activity. That has helped to give increased confidence to crofting communities, which is manifest in recent developments such as the crofting trusts at Assynt, and at Borve and Annishadder on Skye.

It would be quite wrong, however, simply to allow policies and programmes to fossilise. The Government are willing to introduce changes if and when they are required, and to explore new ways of providing support. But we are also willing to listen to what the crofters have to say. In relation to crofting, our commitment and our approach is amply demonstrated in my right hon Friend's initiative on crofting trusts.

We want crofters to be increasingly responsible for shaping their own destinies, rather than have their affairs managed for them by others. Our aim is to give them the necessary support to achieve that.

It being two minutes to Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.

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