Congratulations on your nomination for an Academy Awards 2022. According to media reports, I understand that as a nominee you have received a gift pack that contains, among other things, a purported gift of a plot of land (perhaps just a square foot) in Scotland from a company called Highland Titles and the right to be styled Lord or Lady of Glencoe.
You may be wondering what this is all about. Let me explain.
First and foremost, you are not the owner of any land in Scotland despite what this company might have led you to believe. See Section 22 of the Land Registration (Scotland) Act 2012. (1)
You have also not been given any right to style yourself Lord or Lady of Glencoe. Highland Titles has no authority or power to bestow such a title on you.
You have a piece of paper (several probably) with impressive sounding claims and illustrations. They remain just pieces of paper, however and provide you with nothing more than that.
Highland Titles Ltd. is not a conservation organisation. It owns some land including part of a National Nature Reserve and it plants some trees and puts up some bird boxes. The company’s purpose, however, is to enrich those involved with it. Highland Titles put up in excess of £100,000 for a company it then supported (Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC) to sue me for defamation claiming £750,000 in damages. I won and in the process learnt quite a bit about Highland Titles business model. Believe me, they appear to be making very substantial sums of money and spending very little of it on any meaningful conservation work.
The plot you purportedly own is not in Glencoe. It is 20 miles away in Duror.
Highland Titles Ltd. is not a Scottish conservation organisation. It is a company based in the secrecy jurisdiction of Guernsey.
The office of Highland Titles in Scotland is located in Lochaber and is part of a larger property owned by Quexus Ltd. a company registered in the British Virgin Islands.
Highland Titles was a registered trademark to another company called Highland Titles Ltd registered in the British Virgin Islands but transferred in 2019 to Highland Titles Ltd. (Guernsey)
Beware that “Lord of Glencoe” and “Lady of Glencoe” were registered trademarks to a company called Highland Titles Ltd. registered in the British Virgin Islands but transferred in 2020 to Highland Titles OU registered in Estonia.
Highland Titles Ltd., being registered in a secrecy jurisdiction and despite owning land in Scotland is not obliged to publish annual reports or accounts and thus its affairs cannot be scrutinised or challenged.
You can read some more about Highland Titles in a blog I published in 2015 (2)
If you wish to help the conservation of Scottish habitats and species there are a range of organisations that would welcome support. The vast majority of them are members of Scottish Environment Link and you can see them all here.
It is an odd state of affairs that it is easier to find out the ownership of land in 1915 than it is in 2018. The Finance Act of 1910 (Lloyd George’s famous People’s Budget”) proposed an increment levy on the increase in value of land. To establish a base-line of values, surveyors mapped out in intricate detail, the ownership, occupation, value and use of virtually all of Great Britain and Ireland, covering 99.7% of the land area of Scotland.
The map above shows the results for the west of Edinburgh around Charlotte Square.
In 2018, with modern technology such as digital mapping, satellite imagery, online technology and smartphones, we have yet to come close to what the Edwardians achieved with paper maps and ink.
Across the world, modern technology and integrated data management has delivered land informations systems that provide comprehensive data on land to citizens. From Scotland, for example, you can find out a wide range of information about land parcels anywhere in the US State of Montana. If you want the same data for Scotland, you will be frustrated at every turn, expend an inordinate amount of time and have to pay for it.
The question of Who Owns Scotland has been perennial one for decades. John McEwen had a go at answering it in 1979 and it was the focus of my first book published in 1996. In the early years of devolution, I tried to persuade the then Scottish Executive to open up land information to the public but there was little appetite. Since then, I made representations to Fergus Ewing and Parliament during the course of the Land Registration (Scotland) Act 2012 to persuade them to increase transparency and access to land information.
In a meeting with Fergus Ewing and the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland in December 2011, I made the case for this but the Minister could barely disguise his contempt for my suggestions and later, in the course of the passage of the Bill flatly rejected the idea that the public should have free access to land information (See col 962 8 Feb 2012 Official Report).
He also rejected proposals to reveal the beneficial owners of companies that own land although the Government were eventually persuaded to do so in the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016, the provisions of which are yet to come into force.
But this blog is not about beneficial ownership. It is about access to information that already exists but is difficult and costly to access. The recent history of attempts to open up access is dismal as the following examples make clear.
Over the decades I have spent researching landownership, I have developed a range of methods and sources. Although the Register of Sasines and Land Register are the definitive sources, they can be impossible to use in certain circumstances, For example, if you want to know who owns a field at a junction of a country road in Fife, you won’t be able to do so from official sources since you need an address or a name of a person and even the map-based Land Register will often be unhelpful in such circumstances.
Key to success in such cases is to find out some information from other sources to enable interrogation of the Registers. One such source is a very helpful online map called Pastmap [http://pastmap.org.uk] which provides information on various elements of the historic environment. If there is a Scheduled Monument located on or near land whose ownership you wish to establish, then a link is provided to the legal documents that are registered in the Register of Sasines. These provide details of the ownership of the land at the time of scheduling.
In 2012, however, I noticed that Historic Scotland had redacted the ownership information. See the example (second page) of the Bonawe Iron Furnace Schedule before redaction and after redaction.
I wrote to Historic Scotland and asked them why the schedules were now being redacted. They replied that,
“Since the publication of the online schedule we have begun to redact the names and the addresses of legal owners from the scheduling documents given the perceived additional risks and sensitivities associated with publication of this information in such a readily and widely accessible format online.”
We are also considering removing legal ownership details from our scheduling certificates completely as part of an overall review of our scheduling documentation.”
These documents are recorded and made available to the public in the Register of Sasines (and made available for public inspection in the National Records of Scotland) with no redactions, so why conceal this information on Pastmap? What exactly are the “sensitivities” over this information? And why is Historic Scotland considering removing these details completely in future? Above all, if the Scottish Government is committed (as it claims it is) to transparency, why is it seeking to conceal this information from the one freely available source to the public?
Such questions remain unanswered.
Following a report in July 2015, John Swinney announced in October 2015 the establishment of SCOTLIS (Scottish Land Information Service), an online portal that would enable “citizens, communities, professionals and business to access comprehensive information about any piece of land or property in Scotland” The service was developed by Registers of Scotland and launched in November 2017. Here it is.
It is useless.
There is no map-search facility, there is no comprehensive information (solely landownership) and, as always, any information you do find, you will have to pay for. Contrast it with the online Montana service above. If you are a business, you can sign up as a business user and get access to an enhanced service. But by no stretch of the imagination is this a system allowing easy access to comprehensive information by the citizen. No wonder John Swinney’s successor issued no media release on the day of its launch.
On 1 March 2018, the Registers of Scotland published an Overseas Company Report and a Statistical Report on the overseas ownership of land in Scotland. Against growing demands for greater transparency in who owns land and property across the world, this is presumably Scotland’s contribution.
The report reveals the companies registered overseas that own land in Scotland. But this is the tip of the iceberg because it only takes account of land in the modern land register and not the older Sasines register. It doesn’t include any information on how much land is owned overseas (my own research shows that 750,000 acres of Scotland is owned in tax havens posing problems for law enforcement and tax authorities).
And yet, the public are denied access to this data underlying the Overseas Company report because to obtain the report (see Information Sheet) will cost you an astonishing £1560 (the Statistical report is free to download). Even if you could afford this sum of money, if you wished further details of each of the records, you will need to buy this from Registers of Scotland. It will cost you £30 each and if you wish details of all 1700 companies, that comes to a cool £51,000.
Registers of Scotland claim that the data is being charged out on a cost-recovery basis (i.e. RoS only plans to recoup its costs from sale proceeds). But this merely emphasises why all of this data should be freely available. Were it to have been so over the past decade or so, all sorts of people would have been able to compile all sorts of reports and analysis within their own resources at no cost to the public purse and to the wider public good.
OPEN UP THE REGISTERS
The public deserve access to information about who owns Scotland. It’s time to end the secrecy and the costs and open up all information (environmental, planning, valuation, tenure, ownership) in an accessible manner which is free and easy to use by the citizen.
Over the coming months, I invite those with an interest to join me in campaigning for greater transparency and openness in land information. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
This blog is a brief update on where we are with the one provision that has been the subject of much debate and where the RACCE themselves want the bill strengthened – namely the Part 3 provisions on transparency over who controls corporate entities that own land.
– The Land Reform Bill consultation in December 2014 sought views on the proposal and it was widely endorsed by consultees.
– The Land Reform Bill was published in June 2015 but did not contain provision for such a bar. Instead, it contained a mechanism whereby questions could be asked about the beneficial ownership of companies in tax havens and elsewhere but there is no obligation on such jurisdictions to co-operate.
– The RACCE Committee took evidence on the Bill and, in its Stage One report, recommended that the original proposal be introduced to the Bill.
– Scottish Ministers responded to the Stage One report by, once again, rejecting the non-EU proposal on the grounds (they argue) that it is outwith the competence of the Scottish Parliament.
– Scottish Ministers then last week announced that they would be tabling an amendment at Stage 3 [link to letter] that would create a public register of person who exert control of companies that one land. The amendment would merely be a regulation making power with the details of how such a register would operate being left to the next Parliament to draft and enact.
We now have three distinct proposals for the way ahead with regard to transparency – two amendments to be considered this Wednesday (see full text here) and one amendment to be tabled at Stage 3.
Graeme Dey (SNP) Amendments 29, 30 and 36
The first is a series of amendments in the name of Graeme Dey MSP (numbers. 29, 30 and 36) to the Bill that would require the beneficial owner or “controlling interest” in any corporate entity (not just non-EU ones) to declare their identity in a new section of the Land Register (Amendments 29 and 36 merely remove existing Sections 35 and 36. Amendment 30 is the substantive amendment). This is not a bar to non-EU entities but is a disclosure provision to be incorporated in the Land Register. Verification of the identity of the beneficial owner will still be tricky but appropriate penalties can act as a deterrent. This amendment has ben developed following considerable effort by Megan McInnes of Global Witness and Peter Peacock of Community land Scotland.
Patrick Harvie MSP (Scottish Green Party) Amendments 105 and 106
Patrick Harvie has tabled an amendment (Nos. 105 & 106) that reinstate the bar to non-EU corporate entities and fulfils the original recommendations of the Land Reform Review Group, the December 2014 consultation paper and the RACCE Stage one Report. Whilst some EU disclosure requirements are not fully transparent, bringing corporate entities “onshore” exposes them to the ongoing work across the EU to improve transparency through a variety of processes such as the requirements of the Fourth Anti-Money Laundering Directive that requires member states to establish registers of beneficial ownership of companies.
The Scottish Government Amendment
The Scottish Ministers will table an amendment at Stage 3 to replace Sections 35 and 36 and introduce a new regulation making power for Ministers to establish a “Register of Controlling Interests in Land”. The details of this register, what it would contain, how it would operate and how compliance would be enforced would then be the subject of secondary legislation to be introduced in the next Parliament. It is thus hard to know what is involved with this proposal and there will be no time for any debate as it will be introduced at Stage 3. Critically, it is not clear whether Ministers are proposing yet another Register or whether they are open to the idea within Graeme Dey’s amendments to make such disclosure part of the Land Register and thus visible on the title to ownership of the land.
I hope that RACCE will support both Graeme Dey and Patrick Harvie’s amendments. They provide a “double lock” arrangement whereby tax havens are outlawed as jurisdictions within which land and property in Scotland can be owned AND those entities registered within the EU are obliged to publish details of the controlling interests on the face of Land Register titles.
If you wish to support these amendments, contact any member(s) of RACCE and tell them you support amendments 29, 30, 30, 105 and 106. Contact details are here.
Yesterday the Scottish Government announced that their solution to the problem of not knowing who is behind the opaque corporate structures owning Scotland’s land was to create a public register of those who control land, (media release here and letter to RACCE here) as part of the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill currently passing through parliament. This step should be broadly welcomed and is a significant step forward from the previous proposals in the Bill to improve transparency of Scottish land ownership.
On paper this announcement appears close to the improvements to transparency of land ownership which I blogged about two weeks ago, but is it really as good as it sounds?
No-one disputes that not knowing who is really behind major swathes of land in Scotland is a problem. It prevents local communities living on or affected by land from contacting the true owner if they have a problem (rather than an anonymous shell company), it prevents law enforcement agencies from investigating crimes and it’s ironic that having won the right to roam, Scotland’s citizens don’t have the right to know who truly controls and makes decisions about the land they are walking on.
In a letter accompanying the Government’s announcement, Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Aileen McLeod MSP, describes their intention to “requir[e] the public disclosure of information about persons who make decisions about the use of land in Scotland and have a controlling interest in land”.
However, the devil is certainly in the detail and there are many ways in which this commitment may not provide us with what we really need to know about who truly owns Scotland’s land. The potential for loopholes and exemptions which would render this register meaningless are substantial.
Most importantly (and let’s get the boring technical stuff out of the way first) this register needs to consist of the “person(s) of significant control” of the legal entities owning land in Scotland. This term is the technical definition of what’s more commonly known as “beneficial ownership” and means that what is registered are the names of the individual people who either own or control land in Scotland. This term already applies in Scotland through a UK-wide register of company beneficial ownership which was introduced in 2015. Adopting this technical definition is the only way to ensure the register will include what we need it to.
This register has the potential to finally shine a light on some of Scotland’s most shadowy corporate entities, for example Scottish Limited Partnerships and the shell company structures used to hide land ownership in Scotland in overseas tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions. Therefore, it’s essential that there are no loopholes or exemptions which these kinds of corporate vehicles can exploit.
The register should of course be free and fully publicly accessible.
We also have questions about process. What the Government’s proposal does is push the more difficult discussions into the next Parliament. So it’s important that the Bill describes the register in robust enough language that it cannot be later watered down, as well as introducing a firm duty and deadline by which the regulations providing for this register have to be adopted.
One major question remains however – why the Government has proposed this register to be separate from the Land Register? My earlier guest blog outlined the reasons why expanding the Land Register requirements to include beneficial ownership appears to be the simplest and most administratively straightforward route to achieving this goal.
But still – what a difference a week makes. This announcement has completely changed the terms of the debate about transparency in land ownership in Scotland and this can only be good. What we need now though are tough ideas and quick thinking to close potential loopholes and ensure this commitment once and for all brings Scottish land ownership out of the shadows.
The Inverness Courier today reported that the Qatari royal family has bought the 544 acre Eileen Aigas & Ruttle Wood estate in Inverness-shire. it was sold to a company called GoldenRod Ltd. registered in Jersey in September 2015 for £7 million.
Goldenrod Ltd. is owned by OH Securities Ltd. and R&H Investments Ltd. both registered in Jersey. Those companies are both owned by R&H Trust Co. (Jersey) Ltd. which itself is owned by OH Securities Ltd. and R&H Investments Ltd. plus a third – Woodbourne Nominees Ltd. which is also owned by the company (R&H Trust Co. (Jersey) Ltd.) which owns it.
This opaque ownership structure means that it is impossible to verify who the beneficial owner of the company is although the same opaque structure was used to acquire the Cluny Estate in Inverness-shire last year – see previous blog on topic.
Whether such secrecy is a satisfactory state of affairs is in sharp focus right now as the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill is scrutinised at Stage 2 in the Scottish Parliament and amendments will be tabled to either make such ownership structures illegal or to require that the beneficial ownership is revealed. Whether those amendments succeed or not will be down to MSPs to decide. See here and here for background.
The Scottish Government has responded to the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee’s Stage One Report on the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill and rejected its recommendation that companies that wish to own land in Scotland should be retired within an EU member state. I will be publishing a wider commentary on this in the next few days. In this Guest Blog, Megan MacInnes, Land Advisor with Global Witness, explores this issue and recommends an alternative solution.
As the new year brings us to the next stage in the debate over the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill, one issue continues to be controversial – whether we shall get to learn who really owns Scotland’s land?
This controversy relates to the fact that large areas of Scotland are owned by companies registered in secrecy jurisdictions known for providing anonymity from the prying eyes of the State and public scrutiny. The Government has made repeated commitments that this Bill will improve transparency of land ownership, but the measures proposed so far have been widely criticised. In their Stage 1 report on the Bill, the members of the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment (RACCE) Committee concluded that “people in Scotland have a right to know who owns, controls and benefits from the land” but that currently the relevant sections of the Bill would “not achieve the policy objectives of improving transparency of land ownership”.
So if the Bill’s current proposals are not enough, what more can be done? Most of the discussions so far have focused on the proposal (originally made by the Land Reform Review Group) to require anyone who wants to buy land in Scotland via a company, to have to have incorporated that company within the EU. But a simpler and more direct solution exists with the potential to be much for effective in letting us really know who owns Scotland’s land – the requirement that when you register a land title with the Land Register under the name of a company, you also have to provide the names of the human beings who own or control that company. Technically, this means the registration of the ‘beneficial owner(s)’ of the company.
The RACCE Committee recommended both requirements be introduced to the Bill. In its response the Government ruled out the EU company registration requirement entirely but with regard to the requirement to register the names of the people owning or controlling those companies, the Government stated that there are “many complex legal and practical issues” being considered and that they will respond in more detail in due course.
The Bill’s current provisions for transparency, under what it calls the “right of access to information on persons in control of land” in fact provide no ‘rights’ at all. Section 35 enables only those who can prove they are directly affected by a landowner to submit a request about who owns or controls that land to a so-far unidentified “request authority”, who would then attempt to obtain that information. Section 36 enables the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland to also make such requests. Applications for such information are first made to the landowner, but if there’s no response then it is expected (but not specified in the Bill) that the request will be passed on to the authorities of the jurisdiction where the company owning the land is registered.
Not only are these ‘rights’ to request such information limited, they will not even work in practice. Neither provision require the landowner to hand such details over, but more importantly, these powers are meaningless in the secrecy jurisdictions where many companies owning land in Scotland are registered. This is because the reputations and economies of these jurisdictions (including Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies of the UK) depend on providing safe haven and anonymity from prying eyes. These jurisdictions either are only able to share such information with tax authorities (for example, Jersey and the Cayman Islands, where the 71,000 acre Glanavon and Braulen Estate is registered), or are where the relevant authorities don’t maintain company ownership details in official records (for example, Panama, where the 56,000 acre Loch Ericht Estate is registered). Consequently any requests made by either the Keeper or request authority for information on who actually owns either estate will almost certainly be turned down.
The most comprehensive solution to knowing who owns Scotland’s land lies instead in publicly disclosing the names of those who ultimately own or benefit from the company which is buying the land, as the title is being registered. In doing so, the Scottish Government brings these transparency requirements directly within its own purview, rather than relying on the regulations of other countries. It also includes such requirements within existing administrative procedures, rather than burdening the Keeper and request authority with the task of trying to identify who is behind endless structures of shell companies expertly hidden away. If based on the model of the Crofting Register, then we’d not only learn about those behind newly owned parcels of land as they are registered, but this information would also be updated every time the smaller details of the title changed, so-called trigger or update events.
Ironically, despite the RACCE committee’s recognition of the right of people in Scotland to know who owns land in their Stage 1 report on the Bill, much greater consideration so far has been paid to how such transparency provisions would impact on the rights of landowners to privacy and property. Under the European Convention of Human Rights article eight protects an individual’s right to privacy and article one of protocol one protects the right to property. But, neither is absolute; States are allowed to interfere with both, as long as it is in the public interest and such action is proportionate – by which they mean that what is proposed will achieve the desired objective and is deemed to be reasonably necessary.
The public interest arguments for this disclosure are clear and supported widely across Scotland, including associations representing land owners. A number of existing laws and policies (not least the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and other sections of the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill) are likely to be compromised unless we have full knowledge of the ownership of land. But more broadly, land use and its management impacts on all of Scotland’s citizens and therefore there’s a legitimate reason for why everyone should have access to such information. For example, our participation in public consultations, such as the current one underway on Scotland’s 2016-2021 Land Use Strategy, are hindered by not knowing who owns land or the land-use decisions they are making.
Would such a change in the registration requirement also be proportionate? Asking those who ultimately own or benefit from land in Scotland to disclose their names to the Land Register is the most straight forward way to access that information. Critically, it is the only measure available which the Scottish Government can itself enforce.
So it appears that we shall not learn if we are ever to find out who owns Scotland’s land until the Government tables its amendments to the Bill on the 13th January. It’s hard to imagine how the continued anonymity behind such large areas of our land and heritage can continue to be justified. But until the human beings behind anonymous shell companies used to own land are required to disclose themselves, we may be left within nothing in this Bill but empty promises.
UPDATE 1 November 2015 I have submitted a version of this blog as further evidence to the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee. This evidence also contains my opposition to the hypothecation of non-domestic rates for the Scottish Land Fund.
After a fairly hectic summer, I now plan to publish more regular analysis of the Land Reform Bill as it makes it way through the Scottish Parliament. The Bill is currently at Stage One with the lead committee, the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee (RACCE) taking evidence. The Committee will produce a Stage One report before the end of the year which will then be debated in Parliament before going back to Committee for Stage Two for detailed scrutiny and consideration of amendments.
In this blog, I want to return to one of the contested areas of the Bill – the question of land registered in offshore tax havens.
In 2012, during the passage of the Land Registration (Scotland) Act 2015, I proposed that it be incompetent to register title to land in Scotland in the name of any legal person (company, trust etc.) that is not incorporated in member state of the EU (see written evidence).This was opposed by Fergus Ewing, the Minister responsible for the Land Registration Bill and was rejected by Scottish Ministers despite a recommendation by the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee that “the Scottish Government should reflect further on options for ensuring that the land registration system reduces the scope for tax evasion, tax avoidance and the use of tax havens…” See here for comment.
In May 2014, the Land Reform Review Group made a similar recommendation that it be incompetent for any legal entity not registered within the EU to register title to land in the Land Register.
In December 2014, the Scottish Government launched a consultation on the measures to be included in the forthcoming Land Reform Bill. A proposal to restrict land registration to EU entities was included as proposal 2. In responses to the consultation, 79% of respondents agreed that such a measure should be adopted.
In June 2015, the Scottish Government published the Land Reform Bill. No measure to restrict non-EU entities was included and the explanation offered was unconvincing. (1) Instead, Sections 35 and 36 contain provisions that persons with a reason to do so may ask the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland to seek information about the beneficial ownership of companies. It is a meaningless provision since authorities in Jersey, British Virgin Islands and Grand Cayman are under no obligation to provide any answers.
RACCE ASKS QUESTIONS
Following a RACCE evidence session on 2 September 2015 with the civil servants responsible for the Bill, the Committee Chair, Rob Gibson MSP, wrote to Trudi Sharp, Deputy Director for Agriculture, Rural Development and Land Reform at the Scottish Government. In his letter, he sought answers to a series of questions including two relating to the EU/offshore provisions. The answers provide further insight into Scottish Government reasoning on why they decided not to proceed with the proposals and are explored below.
Question 2 asked for
“clarification of why the proposal in the consultation to make it incompetent for non-EU registered entities to register title to land in Scotland is not in the Bill and any analysis that the Scottish Government conducted in this area”.
In its response the Scottish Government provided 6 pages of argument (pages 24-29 in Annex B) which raised a number of issues.
EU still poses problems
Its principal reasoning is that landowners may, instead of incorporating offshore, simple incorporate within the EU but with an opaque shareholding structure involving (possibly) offshore companies. In other words, instead of Hanky Panky properties Ltd. in Grand Cayman, you would have Hanky Panky Properties Ltd. registered in Berlin but, in turn, owned by shareholders in Panama or somewhere. Even taking into account the new registers of beneficial ownership being developed by EU member states, the Scottish Government argue that these will not be fully open to the public and, in any case, do not apply to trusts.
This argument, in essence, suggests that because there remain means of concealing the true ownership of companies, nothing should be done.
But this is not logical.
Currently, we can know nothing about companies registered in tax havens. They have refused to co-operate with efforts to improve transparency. Any company registered in places such as Grand Cayman or the British Virgin Islands is surrounded by an impenetrable veil of secrecy.
A ban may well mean that alternative means of concealment are deployed within the EU. Even so, we will be in a better position that we were before the non-EU ban.
Firstly all such companies will be subject to registers of beneficial ownership. even though the may not be public available in the first instance, the trend is to move steadily to greater transparency and not less. In Scotland and the UK, we have direct influence in the EU and can argue and vote to improve matters. We have no influence over the internal affairs of tax havens.
Secondly, bringing such companies onshore so to speak, means we have access to information on Directors and shareholders as well as annual accounts and returns. Again, such information may be subject to a variety of regimes in terms of openness across the EU but all are better than offshore tax havens.
In other words, if the price of barring of the worst of secrecy jurisdictions is that we may still have residual problems with EU rules and regulations, that is no argument for doing nothing when we are in a position to improve matters within the EU.
The second key argument deployed by the Scottish Government is that barring non-EU entities might increase the use of Trusts as vehicles for owning land. Trusts (the argument goes) can be opaque and thus there is no point in doing anything about offshore entities. Again, this is illogical. Trusts are governed by Scots law and are within the jurisdiction of the Scottish Parliament. If there is a problem with Trusts (and there is), we can do something about it. Indeed, the Scottish Law Commission drafted a bill as recently as August 2014. The Scottish Parliament has unfettered competence to legislate to make Trusts more transparent.
The response to the RACCE concludes on page 29 with three further reasons why the proposal will not increase transparency and accountability of landownership in Scotland (1st, 3rd and 4th bullet points). The 3rd and 4th bullet points relate to the claim that there is no evidence that non-EU incorporation has ever caused any detriment to any individual or community. By contrast (it is claimed), there is plenty evidence of instances where UK registered entries have caused concerns. But the rational for the bar on non-EU entities has nothing to do with any alleged detriment. It is a proposal to improve transparency and, thus, accountability. This blog has highlighted a number of instances where such concerns may have a bearing on potential criminal proceedings (Kildrummy Estate here and North Glenbuchat Estate here). Beyond that, there are widespread generic concerns about money-laundering taxation.
But it is first bullet point that highlights how little serious thought has been given to this area of policy. Here is what the Scottish Government has to say.
“There is no clear evidence to suggest that having land owned by a company or legal entity incorporated in a Member State will increase transparency and accountability of land ownership in Scotland. To illustrate, the Tax Justice Network began publishing in 2013 a Financial Secrecy Index that ranks jurisdictions according to their secrecy and scale of their activities. The results from 2013 show that Luxembourg ranks second on the index, Germany eighth and Austria 18th. It is also worth noting that the United Kingdom ranks 21st (just behind the British Virgin Islands (20th) and somewhat higher than some of countries that are sometime perceived to be tax havens; Liechtenstein 33, Isle of Man 34, Turks and Caicos Islands 63).”
The problem with this analysis (which seems to suggest that EU countries such as Germany and the UK are little different in terms of secrecy that the British Virgin Islands or the Turks and Caicos Islands) is that it relies on a composite index. As the Tax Justice Network explains,
“The Financial Secrecy Index is a ranking of jurisdictions based on combining a qualitative measure (a secrecy score, based on 15 secrecy indicators) with a quantitative measure (the global weighting to give a sense of how large the offshore financial centre is). The secrecy score and the weighting are arithmetically combined with a special formula – the cube of a jurisdiction’s secrecy score is multiplied by the cube root of its global scale weight – to create the final score, which is then used for the FSI ranking.”
The secrecy score is base purely on the level of secrecy. The FSI ranking is derived by talking this secrecy ranking and weighting it by the volume of financial transactions that flow through each country. In other words, the most secretive jurisdiction in the world is Samoa. But because it is so small and handles very little financial flows, it ranks 76th out of 82 on the main FSI index. Germany, on the other hand is 58th out of 82 on the secrecy ranking but jumps to 8th place on the FSI index due to the sheer volume of financial flows through Frankfurt and other financial centres in Germany.
For the purposes of assessing the secrecy of any jurisdiction (the rational for barring non-EU entities), it is the secrecy ranking which matters and it is listed here.
The highest ranking EU member state is (not surprisingly) Luxembourg in 52nd place out of 82. Austria is at 52, Germany at 58, Cyprus at 65 and Latvia and other EU member states at 67 onward. In other words, EU member states are considerably more open that the virtually all other jurisdictions on the secrecy index. It is only the volume of transactions that flow through London and Frankfurt that elevate Germany and the UK higher up in the FSI index.
The second question RACCE asked was,
“How much land the Scottish Government understands is held in tax havens, and whether it accepts the figure of 750,000 acres as reported by Private Eye magazine.”
The Scottish Government replied that it could not verify the accuracy of this figure because of the limited information available from the Register of Sasines and the fact that the term “tax haven” has no officially agreed definition. The latter statement is not strictly true as the OECD has identified a number of jurisdictions as tax havens
As for the limited information within the Register of Sasines, I have been interrogating this over the past 20 years. The jurisdiction within which any corporate entity is registered is always narrated in full on the title deed. This research led me to conclude in Table 15 in my book, “The Poor Had No Lawyers”, that 727,634 acres of land were owned by companies registered in offshore tax havens in 2012. Land sales since then has increased the total extent to over 740,000 acres.
THE WAY FORWARD
The rational for not having included any provision for the restriction of legal persons owning land to those registered within the EU remains unconvincing. I understand from informal discussions, however, that there is no technical impediment to doing so. Any such amendment would involve amending Section 22 of the Land Registration etc. (Scotland) Act 2012 such that no deed would be accepted where the applicant was a legal person registered in any jurisdiction that was no at the time of recording a member state of the EU. In order to maintain such a condition, there would have to be provision for future action to be taken in circumstances where membership of the EU changes.
A further question remains in relation to retrospective application. Such a condition would require landowners who currently own land held by offshore entities to transfer ownership to a compliant entity. This could be done by requiring all existing owners registered outside the EU to transfer title to a compliant entity within, say, 5 years of a date to be set. (2)
This blog is long overdue (as indeed are many) but I understand that the City of Edinburgh Council’s Audit Committee will shortly be considering a report into the Parliament House fiasco. It is therefore appropriate to publish this second update on the affair. The original story is here and Update 1 is here).
In summary, Parliament Hall forms part of the common good of the City of Edinburgh but, through a series of apparent blunders, title was granted to Scottish Ministers in 2005 (see the original story for full background). In 2010, Fergus Ewing, Minister for Business, Energy and Tourism signed the Transfer of Property etc. (Scottish Court Service) Order which vests the property in the hands of the Scottish Courts Service.
On 19 February 2015, four days after the story broke, Alison Johnstone MSP asked the First Minister whether the Scottish Government would co-operate in resolving the matter (see above video clip and Official report pg 16 here). Alison Johnstone then wrote to the Scottish Government and received a reply. At the same time a Freedom of Information request revealed other elements of the story. These are outlined in what follows.
Alex Neil Letter
On 9 March, Cabinet Secretary Alex Neil wrote to Alison Johnstone and outlined how, in the view of the Scottish Ministers, Parliament House (or Parliament Hall as it is called in the letter) came to be regarded as being in their ownership. It appears that Scottish Ministers are relying on the Commissioners of Works Act 1852 which, in Section 4, vested all the courts and buildings of the Courts of Session and Justiciary in the ownership of the Commissioners of Works. Since Scottish Ministers are the statutory successors to the Commissioners, the argument goes, so Scottish Ministers were entitled to seek to obtain a Land Register title from the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland.
I do not find this a credible explanation. Acts of this sort are passed by Parliament to transfer the ownership of property from one public body to another. The 2010 Order mentioned above is a contemporary example of such legislation. Such Acts cannot lawfully transfer land or property owned by third parties (which includes land owned by local authorities such as the Royal Burgh and Corporation of Edinburgh.
As noted in the original blog, Parliament House is a building about which much is known. The City accounts of 1875-76 place on record the Council’s ownership of the building. A comprehensive report of 1895 on the Municipal Buildings of the City does the same. And the comprehensive asset survey by the Town Clerk and City Chamberlain in 1905 (Report of the Common Good of the City of Edinburgh by Hunter & Paton) re-iterates the Council’s ownership.
It is inconceivable that theses officers of the Corporation could be recording the ownership of this building in 1875, 1905 and 1925 if, as argued by Scottish Ministers today, ownership of the property had been transferred by an Act of Parliament in 1852. Had the 1852 Act transferred ownership, the Council would know all about it. But the Act did not do this because such Acts cannot ( in the absence of a court order or other legal means of acquisition) transfer the ownership of property that is not already in the ownership of a public body accountable to Parliament.
Scottish Government Correspondence
In information released as part of a Freedom of Information request to Scottish Ministers (6,2Mb pdf here), it is evident that the Council had made contact with Scottish Ministers as far back as February 2014. Further internal correspondence relates to media enquiries made in February 2015 by Gina Davidson from the Evening News who worked on the story with me.
City of Edinburgh Council
The Council appears to have made contact with Scottish Ministers as far back as 6 June 2014 in a letter outlining its concerns (see here).
The fatal letter that was written on 9 May 2006 by the City of Edinburgh Council to the Scottish Government declaiming any interest in Parliament Hall has also come to light – extract below (full pdf here)
Faculty of Advocates
Finally, I have obtained a fax from the Faculty of Advocates dated 19 June 1997 that claims that the Laigh Hall (which used to store the Maiden, the gallows and the City lamps) had come into the ownership of the Faculty from the Town in exchange for properties to the north of the Signet Library. There is no evidence that this claim has any foundation in fact.
Whether the City of Edinburgh Council will be able to recover ownership of Parliament Hall is yet to be determined. The most interesting revelation from the above is the assertion by Scottish Ministers that the 1852 Act was the basis upon which they proceeded to assert their title. I think this view is flawed.
The City of Edinburgh Council’s Audit Committee meets on 18 June.
“The latest developments in the story of Parliament House (see previous blog) are as follows.
Scottish Green Party Councillor Gavin Corbett has had meetings with senior officials in the Council and shares his thoughts here.
The Leader and Deputy Leader of the Council (Andrew Burns and Steve Cardownie) have tabled an urgent motion for the Corporate Policy and Strategy Committee on 24 February 2015. It will require to be ruled urgent by the Convener if it is to be considered. The full text can be read here. it concludes by recommending that the Chief Executive of the COuncil writes to the Scottish Government Permanent Secretary to seek a voluntary resolution of the issue.
There is quite a bit of interest in this motion.
Under item 5, the Committee is invited to note that in June 2008 it was resolved that a review of common good would only be carried out if and when property was being sold. The motion omits to mention, however, that the question of Parliament House had already been raised in my report of April 2006 in which I asserted that Parliament House should have been included in a list of common good assets that had been supplied to me in 2005. The Council’s responded by preparing a Review of the Common Good for a meeting of the Resource Management and Audit Scrutiny Committee on 12 October 2006 in which, under the heading “Parliament House/The Old Royal High School”, it said nothing about Parliament House but narrated the history of the High School (click here for relevant extract).
I replied in a further paper here in which I argued that,
“It should be noted that Parliament House and the Old Royal High School, as listed on page 3 of my October Report are not the same. Parliament House is located off Parliament Square opposite the City Chambers. The Old Royal High School is on Regent Road.
Parliament House was ascertained by Hunter and Paton to form part of the Common Good in 1905 (p.31). I know of nothing that has happened since then that would have removed it from the Common Good but perhaps it has. If so, it would be useful to have the information.”
The 12 October 2006 Review, however, was withdrawn and never tabled. As I wrote at the time,
“Then I waited. I looked at the agenda for the 12 October meeting but there was no mention of the Common Good Review. Likewise, at the next meeting on 16 November, there was no mention of the issue. What had happened? Why had the Review of Common Good in Edinburgh not been tabled?
As of today (25 November 2006) I do not know the answer to this question. Hopefully I will know soon.”
I never did find out. But in December, a paper was tabled at the Executive of the Council which says nothing about the investigations reported in the October 2006 review. Then in January 2008, a further Review was published which this time contained exactly the same wording under the heading “Parliament House/The Old Royal High School” and said precisely nothing about Parliament House.
We now know from item 1 in the motion tabled today that the Council knew in April 2006 that Parliament House (in its mistaken view) did not form part of the common good and was not owned by the City. My report was tabled in April 2006 So why, in 2006 and 2008, did the Council not divulge that Parliament House was not (in its view) owned by the City and, instead, stay silent on the matter? DId they know and rather not admit it?
Given that Scottish Ministers had no prior title to Parliament House, it would have been normal practice for the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland to have withheld indemnity for that part. In other words, the Keeper would say, “maybe you (Scottish Ministers) do indeed own it but I am not satisfied that there is sufficient evidence“. The state guarantee granted in the Land Register would have been withheld and the title would have been open to challenge by the true owner (City of Edinburgh Council) for ten years i.e. until November 2015.
Why did the Keeper not withhold indemnity? I asked the Registers of Scotland this question today and they provided the following statement.
“When the first registration application was presented the Keeper undertook a detailed examination of the prior titles. As one might expect with such property the Sasine titles were mostly old and contained fairly vague common law descriptions. Notwithstanding the evidence of title that was presented in support of Scottish Ministers, we sought additional assurances in respect of a small number of other bodies who may also have been able to demonstrate an interest to the area in question – this enquiry reflected the historic nature of the evidence of title that was presented. That included Edinburgh City Council. We asked Scottish Ministers, as applicant, to confirm the position in relation to these other bodies. All of the bodies identified confirmed they had no right title or interest to the area in question. Accordingly, we considered an exclusion of indemnity was not required.”
Image: De Wit version of Gordon of Rothiemay’s original 1647 plan showing Parliament House seven years after construction. Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.
Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with the subject of common good land. This is land and property in the Burghs of Scotland that is the historic property of the burgh held on behalf of the citizens. (1) This blog has reported on many cases of maladministration of these assets where Councils have been sloppy in their record-keeping and where the interests of the citizen has been poorly served by the Councils that replaced the Town Councils in 1975.
But Scotland’s four ancient cities do not have any real excuse. Unlike Kirkcaldy or Hawick, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen have enjoyed continuity in having always had a council governing the affairs of the city. So one might expect them to have a good idea of what properties they hold as part of the common good. Which makes this tale of unmitigated incompetence just that little bit more shocking.
As revealed in the Evening News today, the City of Edinburgh Council has lost the ownership of one of the handful of the most historic properties in the City. It didn’t sell it by accident in some fearful and misguided property deal. It didn’t even know that it no longer owned it. It just realised one day that something had gone very horribly wrong. Quite why remains unclear since the history of the building is very well documented in the Council’s own records.
The building is Parliament House which sits largely hidden from view behind the High Kirk of St. Giles and can be glimpsed from George IV Bridge just north of the National Library of Scotland. The history of the building is recounted in great detail in “The Municipal Buildings of Edinburgh – A sketch of their history for seven hundred years written mainly from the original records”, a book commissioned by the Town Council in 1895 and written by Robert Miller, the Lord Dean of Guild. The actual construction is recounted over 79 pages in “The Book of the Old Edinburgh Club”, Volume 13, 1924. This is a building about which a great deal is known.
Image: Ordnance Survey 1852 Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland.
In the 16th century the Scots Parliament had no fixed abode and sat in Perth, Linlithgow, Stirling and Aberdeen as well as in Edinburgh. (2) In 1632 Charles I requested the Town Council build a new home for the Parliament and construction extended from 6 April 1632 to 11 November 1640. (Update – see comment from Alan MacDonald to effect that this is not so and that the Town Council took their own initiative. My source for this was Historical Monuments Commission). The land upon which Parliament House sits was part of the old churchyard of St Giles which was gifted to the Town Council in a Charter by Queen Mary in 1566.
The total cost of construction was £10,554,17s,7d. with 64% of the funds paid out of the common good fund and the remainder raised by public subscription from the citizens of Edinburgh. (3) The buildings were to be occupied rent free by the parliament of Scotland and the College of Justice. The Town Council paid for the upkeep of the building and for nearly two centuries Parliament House was the public hall of the city hosting civic receptions and even musical festivals. The Edinburgh Festival of 1815, 1819 and 1824 witnessed concerts of Haydn’s Creation and Handel’s Messiah.
In 1816, the Town Council handed over responsibility for the upkeep of the building to the Exchequer since the Courts of Law made almost exclusive use of it. The most recent known civic use of the building was for a reception on the occasion of the state visit of the King of Norway in 1962.
City of Edinburgh Council loses ownership
In 2004, work began on a plan to redevelop the Court of Session including Parliament House which was by now under the day-to-day administration of the Scottish Courts Service. The £60 million project was completed in 2013. In order to expedite the project, Scottish Ministers decided to record a title to the complex of buildings by way of a voluntary registration in the Land Register.
In 2005, Scottish Government solicitors appear to have been under the impression that, since the Scottish Courts Service had occupation of Parliament House, it was owned by Scottish Ministers. My understanding of what follows is derived from a source within the Scottish Government.
The Keeper of the Register of Scotland was not satisfied that Scottish Ministers had any evidence of ownership and so advised them to contact Edinburgh Council who, it was thought, was the true owner. The question was put to the Council who apparently confirmed to the Scottish Government that the it had no right, title or interest in Parliament House. The title was then registered in the name of Scottish Ministers.
Scottish Ministers’ Title – MID83631 title and plan (1.2Mb pdf)
Thus did the Council lose ownership of one of the most historic buildings in the City – a national Parliament in the capital city of an ancient European nation and a building constructed on common good land and funded by the common good fund and members of the public.
But stranger things were then to follow. The Faculty of Advocates has for centuries regarded Parliament House as theirs. They had almost exclusive use of it and so, by means as yet unclear, within a month of Scottish Ministers taking ownership, the Faculty persuaded Scottish Ministers to convey to its ownership for no consideration the room known as the Laigh Hall within Parliament House. The subjects are a bit odd comprising “the room on the lower floor shown edged red on the title plan (said subjects extending only to the inner surfaces of the walls, floor and ceiling thereof)”. The use is restricted to a library and study area for members of the Faculty of Advocates and for associated seminars and exhibitions. Scottish Ministers retain a right of pre-emption should the Faculty ever choose to sell this historic block of fresh air.
Faculty of Advocates Title – MID86039 title and plan
Why did this happen?
On what basis did the Council claim to have no interest?
The Council’s records demonstrate quite clearly that Parliament House belongs to the City.
The Council has good records of ownership
As noted by Miller in 1895, the accounts of the city 1875-76 puts on record the City’s ownership of Parliament House which had been built by the City on land owned by the City and formed part of the common good of the City. It noted that, despite the day-to-day management being in the hands of the Courts, “ownership had never been forgotten but there had not arisen any necessity to assert it.”
In the famous Report of the Common Good of the City of Edinburgh by Thomas Hunter (Town Clerk) and Robert Paton (City Chamberlain) published along with a beautiful map in 1905, it is recorded that “The large hall with certain portions around it, still belongs in property to the Corporation. The rooms underneath the large hall appear to have been handed over by the Corporation for the use of the Advocates’ Library”.
The Council responded in October 2006 with a Review of the Common Good in Edinburgh. It appeared to confuse Parliament House with the Old Royal High School and, uniquely among the properties being discussed, failed to address the question of Parliament House’s history. (4) I now suspect why it did this. – it was aware of the inadvertent ceding of ownership to Scottish Ministers.
What happens next?
The Council issued a terse statement to the Evening News in response to its enquiry.
“We are aware of this issue and have raised it with the Scottish Government and the Scottish Court Service.”
The owner of Parliament House is now, in law, Scottish Ministers and the Faculty of Advocates. Under the law as it was in 2006, the Council has no legal means of recovering ownership. The best that can be hoped is that Scottish Ministers and the Faculty agree to return the property to the Council’s ownership. The full council should then pass a resolution to the effect that the building is owned by the Council and forms part of the common good of the City.
This is a shocking display of incompetence by the Council. It begs the question whether anyone noticed it since 2006. Perhaps the author of the October 2006 Report did and chose to conceal the fact. The fiasco underlines the need for a proper register of common good properties and for an open and freely available land register so that the citizen can spot land transfers like this. (5)
I await developments with interest.
Blog Updated 1045hrs 16 February after realising that October 2006 report of Council referred exclusively to Old Royal High School.
(1) Read more here and under Blog Category/Common Good