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House of Commons

Wednesday 6 November 1996

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]

Land Ownership (Scotland)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Conway.]

9.34 am

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): I take this first parliamentary opportunity to congratulate President Clinton warmly on his re-election in the early hours of this morning. That has a connection with the debate, because, while I do not know whether President Clinton has any Scottish ancestry, several of his predecessors as President were cleared from Scottish land. The whole House will want to congratulate the re-elected President, and we believe that the high hopes that he has for his second term can be realised.

Land tenure and ownership in Scotland is a big subject--too big for an hour-and-a-half debate in this place. I believe that the matter is best suited to consideration, improvement and action in a Scottish Parliament. Westminster does not have a good record on debating land reform in Scotland, nor does it have a record of action in dealing with the many injustices and iniquities of the Scottish land position. The most appropriate description is too little, too late.

I shall range across examples from several constituencies across Scotland. I have tried to notify the hon. Members whose constituencies will be mentioned, and, of course, I shall take interventions as I cross from constituency to constituency.

One thing becomes clear as the subject is researched and ventilated. The idea that abuse and misuse of land in Scotland is confined to any one area of Scotland is wrong. This is a problem, a question and a scandal that affects every area of Scotland. The latest legislative scrap from the Westminster table on the broad issue of land is the Transfer of Crofting Estates Bill, which falls into the category of too little, too late. The response of successive London Governments to the pressing problems of Scotland's rural communities can be illustrated in the same way.

It was some 40 years after the famine, more than a century after the start of the clearances, and only years after the so-called crofters' war, that this place finally passed the Crofters' Holdings (Scotland) Act 1886. That measure was welcomed because of the security of tenure that was finally offered to crofting communities in the north-western counties, but it was a lost opportunity in its failure to tackle other problems, none more pressing than the desire for more land. It was too little, too late.

In the 1890s, London's response to the long-standing and pressing cries for more land was the feeble Congested Districts (Scotland) Act 1897, which created a body with

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some vision, but its hands were firmly tied by having too few powers and insufficient funding. That was too little, too late. The Act is redolent of an approach to the problem that said that there were too many people as opposed to the people having access to too little land.

In the 1970s, there was some tinkering with the feudal system and crofting legislation. More than two centuries after the first serious calls for land reform in Scotland, this place finally managed to squeeze in a Bill that cut a bit here and reformed a bit there, in the shape of the Freshwater and Salmon Fisheries (Scotland) Act 1976. That created more problems for people who sought recreational access to Scotland's rivers. The 1970s was a lost decade for Scotland, no better highlighted than by the lost opportunity for meaningful land reform.

I shall highlight some recent cases of land abuse and feudal speculation that not only illustrate the failings of the current system of land law but show the real pain that the application of these mediaeval laws causes to families and communities the length and breadth of Scotland. It will be for the people of Scotland to judge--and they will judge very shortly--whether the Government's response in any way matches the scale of the problem.

In the numerous examples of land abuse, the most shocking truth is that none of the perpetrators are breaking the law. The law is their justification, their cloak and shield. That feudal law desperately needs reform.

A number of the cases with which I shall deal today are reasonably well known, at least to some Members of the House, some of them are less so, but they all point to exactly the same conclusion. To end the fear and doubt experienced by families and communities across Scotland, to remove the dead hand of the land ownership lottery, the only solution is radical and real land reform.

The House heard details in a previous Adjournment debate secured by the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston) in May this year of the crisis facing the islanders of Eigg. From Schellenberg to Maruma, the people of Eigg have been badly served by the failings of land law.

In the earlier debate on Eigg, the Minister noted that the island's owner

Both Maruma and Schellenberg before him clearly neglected this responsibility.

The good ideas for progress on Eigg--there have been some substantial initiatives--have come from the people of the island, but barriers have been erected against them time after time by the laird and landowner. Concerned and frustrated by the lack of development and the insecure future that that presented for the island, the community came together to form the Isle of Eigg Trust five years ago, and began to work towards community ownership. The trust has now produced a business plan for the island, it has sought to develop sustainable woodlands and it is looking for avenues to create new employment, but, without community control, there may be more lost opportunities to come.

Like a petty laird in his castle, Keith Schellenberg, the previous owner of the Island, contemptuously announced that he would never sell the island to anyone who wanted to involve the islanders in the running of their own community. That is a mediaeval attitude, but one which perfectly fits in with our mediaeval feudal land law.

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Today, the islanders face an even worse situation. While Maruma paints himself into obscurity at home in Germany, he has found himself notorious in Scotland. In a scandalous asset-stripping exercise, Maruma has left the hills of Eigg bare of stock, is overseeing a continuing and rapid deterioration of the island, its land and buildings, and, in a throwback to darker days, has a third of the families without secure tenure, fearful even for the roofs over their heads.

What next for the islanders of Eigg? The public appeal is in its final month. The National Heritage Memorial Fund meets within a few weeks to make a decision on the trust's bid for lottery money--an award which would be more justified in the eyes of many Scots who buy lottery tickets than, say, the £13 million spent by the board on purchasing the Churchill papers.

Like many other hon. Members, my office has been in regular communication with the Isle of Eigg Trust. I support its campaign for community purchase of this estate, and I urge hon. Members to sign the early-day motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross (Ms Cunningham), which supports the campaign. I share their plea for greater community involvement in the development of its own and other landed estates.

The Scottish National party is currently examining the proposals made by the Scottish Land Commission. I am delighted that one of its proposals for community land councils, including the whole community in creating a management plan for their local area, has been given a broad welcome by many groups, including the following comment from the secretary of the Isle of Eigg Trust:

As it is not the policy of the Government to interfere in the private ownership of land, are we to understand that they support the ownership of large areas of Scotland by landowners such as Maruma? In view of the experience of the Eigg residents, how can the Government claim to be sensitive or committed to sustainable development of rural areas?

In a feeble response this May, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Kincardine and Deeside (Mr. Kynoch) said that the islanders should submit proposals to the rural challenge fund, but is it possible for the Eigg residents to take advantage of any part of the Scottish rural partnership scheme if they do not have secure access to land and buildings? The people of Eigg do not think so, and I think that we should hear today what the Minister has to say.

The Secretary of State for Scotland recently paid a visit to Eigg, and said that he had great sympathy with the predicament facing the islanders. In The Daily Telegraph on 26 September this year after his visit, he said:

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There we have it. The Secretary of State believes his powers to be almost superhuman across the range of activities and legislation in Scotland, yet he comes to Eigg, expresses sympathy, says that it is a scandal, and adds, "What can I do? I am only the Secretary of State for Scotland."

What I hope to do in this debate is suggest to the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson) some actions and initiatives that the Government could take, and say whether or not the current legislation programme offers the opportunities to take those initiatives.

I have focused thus far on the island of Eigg, and my hon. Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross hopes to have an opportunity to raise her concerns about the Blackford estate in her constituency, but Members will be aware that many other communities across Scotland depend on the whim of their landowner or feudal superior.

As the Scottish Land Commission confirmed--

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