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10.46 am

Mr. Bill Walker (North Tayside): I shall be brief, because hon. Members on the Front Bench want to speak. Some years ago, I moved an amendment that I thought dealt with the problems in Blairgowrie relating to ownership, feus and so on. To my horror, I discovered that it had not, although the Law Society of Scotland and I thought that we had addressed the matter.

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I welcome the opportunity to speak on this issue. I also welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) has raised the matter. I hope that never again in Scotland will we fight one another for our land.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North): I shall be extremely brief. Feudal power and law are nothing more nor less than an up-market protection racket. Until we recognise that, we will not confront the problem with the seriousness it deserves.

I want to draw a distinction between the activities of the newcomers to this field, such as Mr. Brian Hamilton, and the traditional exercisers of those powers. It is a racket waiting to be exploited. It is just as bad for the people who live under the Seafield, Lovat and Arran estates of this world, which have silently and perniciously exploited these powers for many years. The first part of the reform--the redemption of feudity--was put through by the previous Labour Government. It is essential that the job is finished, and that the whole business of feudal power is swept away, because it has no place in the last decade of the 20th century.

10.47 am

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton): I congratulate the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) on securing this debate, and on bringing some important, fundamental and serious issues to the attention of the House. We empathise with individuals, such as Mr. and Mrs. Gauld, on their heartache and concern. As the hon. Gentleman said, they are at a stage in their lives when they should have some contentment and peace of mind. Instead, they are far from content, and are living on a day-to-day basis. Something must be done about that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) mentioned the Scottish Law Commission's draft Bill on feudal reform. I suggest to the Minister that we could implement that straight away. The Opposition would be happy to co-operate with him on that. My hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) referred to land management.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Raymond S. Robertson): There is no draft Bill; nor is there a report.

Mr. McFall: I think that there is a draft Bill. I should also remind the Minister that, in 1993, I introduced the Carrying of Knives (Scotland) Bill and that, within 24 hours, the Government introduced a similar draft Bill. If the Government could show the same concern and attention to the land issue as they did to the knife issue after I introduced my Bill, the Opposition would be very happy to co-operate with them.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Strathkelvin and Bearsden (Mr. Galbraith) said, the issue of land reform is extremely important. I am very concerned about Loch Lomond. There is much history on the issue--going back to 1945, when the Ramsay committee recommended establishing national parks. In 1965, Prof. Robert Grieve made the same recommendation. In fact, the Minister of State, Scottish Office commissioned the Countryside Commission to look at Loch Lomond--and, in July 1990, it recommended national parks, although nothing has yet

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happened. The fact on which the House should focus--whether we are talking about the Cairngorms or Loch Lomond--is that voluntary solutions do not work.

In the Local Government etc. (Scotland) Act 1994, the village of Luss, in my constituency, was taken out of the former district of Dumbarton and put into Argyll and Bute. No concern was shown about the feelings of local people when making that change, and it was made in the most back-door manner. Today, I received a letter from one of my constituents about a planning application for a coffee house in Luss, which will despoil the village's amenity. The former Dumbarton district council worked on the issue with local residents, and, with section 50 planning, it ensured that the local environment would be treated properly.

The planning application was passed by three votes to two by the new Argyll and Bute council--despite the desire of the local representative, Councillor William Petrie, that it not be approved--and the approval will despoil the local amenity. In her letter, my constituent states that local residents are fighting the decision to approve the application, and that they have engaged a Queen's counsel to fight the injustice. The QC thinks that there is a good case, because

That letter goes to the heart of the issue of planning and land management in Loch Lomond. The Government paid no attention to the issue in the 1994 Act, and, as a result, we are faced with the current situation.

I should tell the Government that there can be change by reaching a consensus with the Opposition. Even in the Government's dying days, the Opposition would be quite happy to co-operate with their proposals--or with any Government's proposals--on the issue. Yes, we have used the Scottish Grand Committee in the past, and why cannot we use it again? The Opposition are ready, but we are waiting hear whether the Government are ready.

10.51 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Raymond S. Robertson): I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) on securing this debate, and I have listened with great interest to the wide-ranging points that have been raised in it. I fully agree with the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan that land tenure and land ownership are vital issues. A sound system of land tenure and reliable and accessible information on it is an essential cornerstone of any economic system.

I acknowledge many of the criticisms of the current system that have made during the debate. Indeed, the Government are publicly committed to reform and, in particular, to abolition of all remaining aspects of the feudal system. I can assure the House that our aim is to provide Scotland with a system of land tenure that will meet the needs of the 21st century and beyond.

Mr. Salmond: We all welcome that declaration, although I hope that the Minister is not about to say "but", and then tell us that it will be delayed for some time. There is pending legislation, and he has heard about

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pre-emption and casualty clauses. Will the Minister at least tell us that he will widen the scope of that legislation to deal with those two matters, which are causing such misery and were the subject of previous legislative attempts that failed? Will he answer that precise point--that we can take action now--instead of waiting, as he is about to tell us?

Mr. Robertson: Perhaps if the hon. Gentleman will allow me to speak--he spoke for half an hour, and I have seven minutes to respond to a debate that lasted one and a half hours--some of his questions might be answered.

To make progress with that aim, in 1990 we asked the independent Scottish Law Commission to begin a major and wide-ranging review of property law to provide advice on the way ahead. In 1991, the Commission issued a discussion paper on abolition of the feudal system, and it is now working towards producing a report. As hon. Members will appreciate, it is an extremely complex area of the law. The Commission is wrestling with considerable technical difficulties, and with the often conflicting views obtained during consultation on how those should be resolved.

In October 1995, the then Lord Advocate appointed Professor Kenneth Reid, a respected expert in property law, to be a member of the Commission, with the specific remit of completing the property law projects as soon as possible. We have made it clear to the Commission that that work is a priority, and I would like to see it completed before work on any new areas of law reform is begun.

I understand that the Commission is making progress towards finalising its proposals, and I await its report with considerable interest. In such a complex area, we would not wish to move forward without the benefit of the Commission's advice. We would, of course, also wish to obtain the views of all interested parties on what the Commission proposes. However, I can assure the House that, once the most appropriate approach is established, we are committed to completing the reform of the feudal system and will give priority to any required legislation.

We have heard in today's debate of the problems that owners of some leasehold properties--for example, those in Boghead in Lanarkshire--are facing over unexpected demands for casualty payments. I have the greatest sympathy for those who find themselves in that unfortunate position. The Government do not, however, have any powers to intervene in what are essentially private individual cases of dispute.

I should emphasise that the casualty payments that are being levied by landlords, and the conditions in leases which provide for them, are entirely legal. They are set out in the title deeds of the relevant properties. It is for solicitors acting on behalf of clients intending to purchase leasehold properties to check the conditions of the lease and to make clear those conditions and their implications for their clients. If that is not done, it is open to individual owners to make negligence claims against solicitors who advised them when they acquired their properties.

There are no quick legislative fixes for the problems. Existing leasehold casualties could not be abolished without provision to compensate the landlords for loss of future income. Leasehold casualties that are already due would not be affected, and would remain payable by the tenant. Therefore, in the short term, no legislative solution would benefit the affected residents in Boghead.

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The law on long leases is one of the subjects to be tackled by the Scottish Law Commission as part of its review of property law, and progress will be made once the work on the abolition of the feudal system is completed.

After listening to today's debate, it is clear that land ownership in Scotland is an issue that rouses very strong passions, and it is understandable that hon. Members should wish to debate the issue. It was in that context that, as much as he tried to be measured in his speech, the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan could not quite stop the dark side of nationalism from appearing--the dark side that, under his leadership, has been the hallmark of the Scottish National Party.

The SNP's hallmark is characterised by xenophobia, and by the ugly face of nationalism. What he did not mention, however, are the sinister--indeed, odious--forces that drive him to xenophobia. Those forces are perhaps best displayed in his party by its youth wing, which has produced a leaflet. Mr. Deputy Speaker, if I quoted from the leaflet, you would stop me after I read the 11th word, because it is nothing short of obscene filth, based on the obscene xenophobia that the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan peddles as his political creed in Scotland.

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