The hurried timetable and ever-present possibility of political posturing and knee-jerk reactions pose a threat to the wider aims of Scotland’s Land Reform Bill, NFU Scotland warned prior to yesterday’s Holyrood debate on the issue.
Union chief executive Scott Walker said that while the union had hoped that the agricultural holdings element would have been considered as a separate bill, the political will had been to tie it in with the bill for wider land reform.
He said that while there was much in the bill which represented the union’s views, the pace at which the legislation was going through Parliament meant that many important issues would now be left to be decided as secondary legislation.
He said: “We are urging the Scottish Government to engage with ourselves and all other stakeholders prior to secondary legislation being drafted to ensure there are no unintended consequences.”
His worries were echoed later during the debate when Tavish Scott MSP declared: “I believe we are rushing through an extremely complex bill. Bringing such a major piece of legislation at the tail end of parliament is not good.”
Referring to the continuing repercussions arising from the agricultural holdings legislation introduced in 2003, he said: “If we do not get this right we will once again be bogged down in the courts.”
Taking a similar line, Alex Fergusson MSP said there was a need for agricultural tenancy issues to be a stand-alone bill, saying he did not believe the bill as it was currently proposed would achieve its aims of re-energising the tenanted sector.
He also warned about the dangers of rushed complex legislation, saying: “The tenants bore the brunt of our mistakes in 2003.”
Later, Fergusson’s colleague, Murdo Fraser – who pointed out that there were only 12 weeks of Parliamentary time left before the May 2016 elections – led the Conservatives in voting against the bill proceeding. However, this was defeated by 100 votes to 15.
The parliamentary debate lasting more than two hours also underlined other concerns raised earlier by Walker, such as the absolute right to buy being given to farm tenants.
Rob Gibson MSP, who chairs the rural affairs committee, declared that the majority of its members supported the right of tenants to buy their properties, and this call was taken up by other speakers.
Sarah Boyack was one of several opposition MSPs who complained that the Scottish Government had not issued their response to the proposals in the legislation, leaving the SNP’s Dr Aileen McLeod to respond that there were still issues to be resolved and more information would come out over the holiday period.
Speaking prior to the debate, union president Allan Bowie expressed concern over the “substantial changes” revealed in the form of stage two amendments on the clause regarding the assignation of tenancies.
He said: “On detail, when we get to stage two in debating the bill, it is already widely known that a Scottish Government amendment to the legislation will be forthcoming that will effectively allow ‘secure tenants’ with a 1991 Act tenancy to assign their tenancy to a new entrant or to a progressing farmer, on the same terms as their existing tenancy.
“That is a substantial change to both what was recommended by the agricultural holdings review group and what was originally proposed in the draft legislation.”
He said that such issues required extensive discussion within the union’s membership to judge the effect such a change from the original proposal – that assignation would proceed through the conversion of secure tenancies to fixed-term tenancies – and to ensure that such alterations would not dent faith in the reforms.
Bowie said: “It is inherent on all stakeholders – including Scottish Government – that what emerges avoids knee-jerk policies but is a well-reasoned, well-thought-out piece of legislation that encourages longer-term letting.”
Bowie also highlighted fears on proposals to “lower the bar” for community right to buy, saying despite frequent verbal assurances that family farms were not the target, the current vague threshold for triggering community right to buy should not only be clearly defined but should also be written into the bill.
Later Finance Secretary John Swinney put £10 million into the pot for the coming year for communities to buy land as part of a Government drive to get one million acres into community ownership.