23. February 2017 · Comments Off on Defamation · Categories: Announcements, Defamation, Legal affairs

In October 2016 I received a letter from a law firm alleging defamation in relation to two blogs written by me and published on this website.

I am publishing this blog in order to:-

  1. provide an update to a wide range of individuals and organisations who have been in touch since this case became public in early December 2016.
  2. draw to the attention of a wider public the issues around the current state of defamation law in Scotland

The Timeline

On 31 October 2016 I received a letter from Burness Paull LLP (BP) alleging that I had published two blogs that were “grossly defamatory” of its client. It alleged that the blogs were “littered with false and defamatory comments” and “for the sake of brevity”, the letter listed six examples.

That client is Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC (hereafter abbreviated to WHE).

WHE sought “a full and unequivocal retraction and apology” and was advised by BP that it is entitled to “substantial compensation from you for the damage caused directly by the blogs”. I was informed that WHE “estimates its losses to be in the region of £750,000” and that WHE would also require payment by myself of all of its legal costs.

The letter informed me that that, if I did not provide a “satisfactory reply” by 14 November 2016 our instructions are to issue a summons”

On 10 November 2016, I responded to this letter through my solicitor denying the claims of alleged defamation.

On 30 November 2016, BP replied and disputed my denials and intimated that its instructions were “now to proceed with a summons”.

My solicitor responded to this correspondence with further detail  on 14 December 2016.

On 15 December 2016, BP wrote to my solicitors to intimate that they had instructed a QC and were sending papers to him that day.

As of today, 24 February 2017, no Summons has been received by my solicitor.

Scottish Green Party Conjoined

Burns Paull LLP has also issued a legal letter on behalf of WHE to the Scottish Green Party intimating that it will also be conjoined in an action for allegedly communicating the defamation via a hyperlink on its website.

Defamation Law

The significance of today’s date is that, were these allegations to be made against me under English law, I would now be free since, a pursuer has one year in which to raise an action. The law in England and Wales was modernised by the Defamation Act 2013.

The law on defamation in Scotland is under review by the Scottish Law Commission and Scottish PEN are campaigning for reform. See also the UK wide Libel Reform Campaign.

Consequences for an MSP

In the event that an MSP becomes personally insolvent (through, for example, losing a £750,000 defamation case) and sequestration is awarded to the debtor, the MSP is disqualified from being a member of the Scottish Parliament under Sections 15 and 17 of the Scotland Act 1998 read with Section 427 of the Insolvency Act 1986. During a period of 6 months following sequestration, an MSP may not participate in proceedings of the Parliament. This disqualification ends in the event that that award of sequestration is recalled or reduced. If the award remains after 6 months (ie the MSP still owes the sum awarded but cannot pay and remains insolvent) then the MSP loses their seat and a vacancy arises.

My total assets are nowhere near £750,000.

I am saying nothing further on the matter for the moment and for legal reasons this blog is closed to comments.

Please also note that anyone repeating the alleged defamation through social media is liable to being pursued for the same alleged defamation.

 

lornestreet_citychambers_670

Lorne Street tenants protesting at City Chambers, Edinburgh November 2015

The American land and tax reformer, Henry George, observed in his book, Progress and Poverty, that “thirty thousand people have legal power to expel the whole population from five-sixths of the British Islands. The vast majority of the British people have no right whatsoever to their native land, except to walk the streets.”

The history of much of the world is a history of property, of the appropriation of territory and the framing of laws designed to protect the novel concept of private property. Those frozen out of this process – the poor and the landless – had to make do with belated concessions to protecting their rights – concessions that came too late for many as James Hunters’s new book on the Sutherland clearance, Set Adrift Upon the World, makes painfully clear. In the year of the Strathnaver Clearances in 1814, Sir John Sinclair, Caithness landowner and author of the first Statistical Account of Scotland ,observed that, “in no country in Europe are the rights or proprietors so well defined and so carefully protected.”

To be a landowner was to be endowed with economic, legal, social and economic power. On the basis that the primary responsibility of government was to defend the country, those who owned the country presumed to be best placed to monopolise the electoral franchise and undertake that task.

During the 18th and 19th century, fortunes were made through the ownership of urban land in particular. As cities expanded, demand for land enriched those fortunate enough to hold the title deeds to the fields and meadows that were acquired to build the houses, factories and infrastructure necessary to support a modern urban economy.

In Edinburgh, the street names reveal this history in Buccleuch Street, Hopetoun Crescent Roxburgh Terrace, and Moray Crescent. One of the beneficiaries of this legal dispensation was George Heriot, the Edinburgh jeweller, whose death in 1624 established the Heriot Trust which was run by the Provost, Baillies and Councillors of the City together with the Ministers of the town. It rapidly established a virtual monopoly on land around Edinburgh

An exclusion zone was imposed upon Edinburgh by the activities of the Heriot Trust’s acquisitions” wrote urban historian, Professor Richard Roger. “Scarcely an acre in the neighbourhood came into the market which they did not instantly acquire for the benefit in perpetuity of Heriot’s Hospital”. By the end of the 19th century, the Trust owned over 1700 acres of land around the City. Much of this comprised land between Edinburgh and Leith.

edinburgh_1852_670

Samuel Hunter’s timber yard in Leith, 1852. Lorne Street was built along the south.

One of those who held a feu from the Heriot Trust was Samuel Hunter, a stonemason and builder who owned a yard on Leith Walk at Smith Place. He ran a successful business as a property developer and builder and in 1879, was granted a further feu by the Heriot Trust to erect blocks of tenements at the western end of what is now Lorne Street.

When he died in 1893, his daughter Agnes Hunter inherited a substantial property portfolio including her own elegant house on Dalrymple Crescent in the Grange. Upon her death in 1954, her executors established the Agnes Hunter Trust which continues to own over 90 tenement flats in Lorne Street occupied by over 200 residents. The Trust is a charity and provides grants to health and social welfare projects.

The Trust established a reputation as a landlord that provided long-term secure tenancies. “We were promised a tenancy for life”, said one tenant. “Stay as long as you like”’, another was told. The Agnes Hunter tenants comprised a close-knit community of all ages. The oldest resident has lived there for 74 years, having moved in aged 2 years old. The younger children all attend Lorne Primary School adjacent to most of the tenement blocks.

But whilst tenants felt secure, their homes suffered from poor maintenance. Damp persisted for years in flats, waste water rose through bath and kitchen pipes, window frames rotted and repairs were ignored. Many tenants undertook work themselves, installing bathroom sinks and even a heating system. Some tenants began leaving and others were evicted. In July 2015 all 200 of the Trust’s tenants were informed by letter that “retention of The Agnes Hunter Trust’s property portfolio was no longer in the interests of the Trust” and all households were to be evicted by the end of the year.

A determined campaign by residents was launched and the Lorne Community Association secured a stay of execution until the end of January 2016. Following a petition to Edinburgh Council, this was extended to July 2016 in order to allow time to try and establish a housing co-operative or similar solution.

To the wider world, evictions on this scale came as something of a shock. Few knew anything about the Agnes Hunter Trust. I had some vague recollections of my own from 7 years spent living in a flat on Lorne Street but I forgot all about it until the story appeared in the newspapers.

At a time when the Scottish Parliament is, at long last, considering a Bill – the Private Sector (Tenancies) (Scotland) Bill – to modernise tenants rights and provide greater security of tenure, it is worth reflecting on what a shocking state of affairs these evictions represent. Most tenants are on Short assured tenancies. Despite the assurances of lifetime security, most tenants in law were never more than 2 months from eviction.

The short-assured tenancy was introduced in the 1988 Housing Act. The idea was that these tenancies would provide a landlord-friendly tenure for the private sector, allowing it to grow at the same time as Housing Associations were given the freedom to access private finance. The result has been the growth of one of the most unregulated, liberal and (from a tenant’s perspective) insecure rental markets in Europe. Britain’s obsession with homeownership has led to eye-watering levels of private debt, house prices outstripping earnings, a speculative volume housebuilding industry that profits from land value appreciation and consumers spending growing proportions of their income on housing costs.

Sometimes it takes a case like Lorne Street to focus minds on long-standing policy failures. The private rented sector has grown in a haphazard manner driven by buy-to-let landlords and little in the way of a strategic plan. A system where 200 tenants can be evicted on a whim reveals serious flaws in Scotland’s housing tenure. One of the most glaring question (which has, as yet, not been addressed) is quite simple.

Why should 100 families have to be evicted merely because the landlord wishes to sell their homes?

The short answer is, of course, because the law allows it. But this situation would never arise in, for example Germany. The fact that a pension fund might wish to sell its portfolio of flats in Hamburg to another investor does not mean that all the tenants have to be evicted. To the Germans such an idea would be ridiculous. Owning rental property is perfectly legitimate but if you sell it, tenants stay put in their homes. Tenants enjoy security of tenure and the landlord a regular return on their investment.

The complacency in addressing such fundamental questions was evident when the Chair of the Agnes Hunter Trust, Walter Thomson, spoke at the City of Edinburgh Council Petitions Committee on 5 November. In a statement that had tenants draw breath for its audacity and cold logic, he claimed that,

The Trust is not in existence to provide housing.The properties are an asset which enables the Trust to make funding available for charitable causes. Miss Hunter’s trust has never been a social landlord.”

In other words, we have no responsibility to families we have housed for over 60 years. They are merely an asset to generate a revenue stream – this from the Chair of a Scottish charity which, among other things, funds homelessness projects.

Such attitudes are an indictment of 15 years of devolution. The Scottish Government’s Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Bill will have its final reading next Thursday 17 March. It introduces welcome changes to the private rented sector including a new tenancy that affords greater security for tenants. But, crucially, the wish to sell a tenanted property remains a lawful reason to evict a tenant. Whilst such a provision has a role in a transitional period, it will do nothing to contribute to the kind of long term security enjoyed by tenants in Germany.

Whilst crofting tenants, agricultural tenants and commercial tenants are lawfully entitled to remain in occupation of their crofts, farms and offices when the property is sold, people whose tenancy is their home are rendered homeless on the arbitrary whim of the owner. It is an antiquated state of affairs that has no place in a modern democracy.

As Tony Cain, the Policy Manager for the Association of Local Authority Chief Housing Officers observed recently,

The unstated, and unquestioned, view that underlies these provisions is that eviction and homelessness are appropriate management tools to address business failure or change.

These provisions ensure that private landlords or lenders can remove tenants when thing go wrong with the business or they want to disinvest. And most importantly, the value of the asset is protected by ensuring that it is linked directly the property values in owner occupation.  It also means they can borrow more to invest and make bigger returns on capital values.

Equally importantly what they also do is transfer the cost (aside from the personal trauma and disruption to the tenant) on to the public sector.

By protecting the value of private rented houses in this way and transferring the risk and costs of business failure on to the tenant and local authorities, landlord and investors can be confident that they can sell out relatively quickly and at very little cost to them. 

The Lorne Street tenants have been given until July 2016 to see whether they can devise a solution whereby they form a co-operative to take over ownership of perhaps persuade a housing association to step in. They deserve all the support we can provide.

Meanwhile MSPs should question whether it is right that folk who have lived in their homes for decades deserve to be treated as little more than collateral damage in pursuit of the owner’s short term interests. In particular, they should examine critically Schedule 3, Part 1 1(1) of the Private Housing (Tenancies) (Scotland) Bill – namely, “It is an eviction ground that the landlord intends to sell the let property”. If tenants are to feel secure in their homes, this provision should be removed.

Patrick Harvie MSP has tabled an amendment to remove this ground for eviction.

Scotland needs investment in a sustainable, high-quality, affordable rented sector. It needs to learn from successful countries such as Sweden and Germany. Above all, it needs to ensure that never again is a community treated with the contempt and arrogance faced by the families of Lorne Street.

UPDATE 19 APRIL 2020

This blog, together with a previous one published on 29 September 2015 were the subject of defamation proceedings brought by Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC against myself in a citation from the Court of Session served on me on 21 March 2017. Since 30 March 2017, following legal advice, the blogs have been password protected. The case (Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC vs. Andy Wightman A111/17) was heard by Lord Clark at the Court of Session from 29 October 2019 – 8 November 2019. A Decision by Lord Clark was published on 11 March 2020 which rejected all of the pleas of the pursuer in what was a comprehensive victory for me. As a matter of law therefore neither of these two blogs are defamatory. The Pursuer issued a statement to the media on 11 March stating that “we will certainly appeal the decision”. However, the 28 day period in which to appeal has now expired and no appeal has been lodged. I am pleased therefore to now remove the password protection and enable them to be read as they were published subject to one caveat.

Lord Clark concluded that in the blogs (and a few tweets which were also complained of) I had made four untrue statements. Contrary to claims by my detractors, none of these was a lie. Indeed Lord Clark made clear that I was a “credible and reliable witness” who “gave his evidence in an honest, straightforward and coherent manner”. Lord Clark stated that “I accept his evidence about what he knew and did not know at the time of the various publications” and that “the suggestion he made statements that he knew were untrue simply has no proper basis.” [Lord Clark at 73]. I have thus edited the two blogs with a footnote marked in (red) to indicate the relevant untruths and why they arose.

Finally, what was revealed of this case in Lord Clark’s decision was a fraction of what was revealed in Court. What was revealed in Court was a fraction of the evidence assembled in the 1494 Productions (written documents lodged as evidence) lodged in the Court (59 by the Pursuer and 1435 by Defender). And what was revealed in the Productions was a fraction of what I have learned in the course of extensive preparatory research over the past 3 years about the activities of Highland Titles and Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC. I will be publishing a detailed blog revealing what really went on over the past three years. Given the litigous nature of both parties, I will, of course, have these blogs legalled before publication.

UPDATE ENDS

I intended to have published this blog on Highland Titles Day (10 February – see Malcolm Combe’s blog) ) Apologies to those who were expecting it then.

Last September, I blogged about the latest effort by Highland Titles Ltd. to raise lots of money from people who think they get to own some land in Scotland and help conservation at the same time (see a recent advert in BBC Wildlife magazine – 1.6Mb pdf – for a flavour of their business model).

Highland Titles Ltd. is a company registered in Alderney. It is owned by Highland Titles Charitable Trust which is registered in Guernsey. See my blog of 12 Feb 2015 for further background. The company makes its money from purporting to sell small plots of land as “souvenir plots”. The controversy over the affairs of this company has been generated because no-one who buying such plots can in law become the owner of the land and because the financial affairs of the company remain opaque, being registered in a secrecy jurisdiction.

In its latest efforts to garner greater respectability, Highland Titles has become involved with a conservation project called Wildcat Haven CIC. The fundraising arm of this organisation is a Community Interest Company called Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC with its registered office at Sage & Co Chartered Accountants in Denbighshire, North Wales. There are two Directors of the company, Emily O’Donoghue and Douglas Wilson. Mr Wilson is resident in Alderney and is also a a Director of Highland Titles Ltd (1) and a Trustee of Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland.(2)

One of the requirements of a Community Interest Company is the provision of an asset lock that restricts the disposal of assets of the CIC. Assets can be transferred to another CIC or charity and such a body must be designated in the Articles of the CIC. In the case of Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC, the designated body to become the potential recipient of the assets is Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland.

In response to my September blog, Emily O’Donoghue (who is a Director of both Wildcat Haven CIC and Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC) responded and I published the response as an update to the blog. In turn, I then posed a number of questions to Emily as follows.

  1. It may be a bit of fun but you are asking folk to help you by “actually buying part of the land we plan to conserve” You need to be much clearer that people who spend £100 do not become owners of the land.
  2. You say that part of the Loch Loyne site has been gifted to you. Can you tell me when this transaction took place and when it was submitted to the Registers of Scotland for recording? Can you advise the extent and location of this land?
  3. Are there any wildcats on the Loch Loyne land?
  4. Why is my IP address blocked from viewing your website?
  5. What is the role of Highland Titles in your fundraising? Do they receive any payment? Do they receive any commission on each plot sold?

I never received a reply but can provide an update on some of the questions.

  1. The Wildcat Haven website still contains the claim that “We are asking you to help us by actually buying part of the land we plan to conserve.”
  2. Following Emily’s claim that part of the land had been gifted “to us”, I checked the title and discovered that Highland Titles Ltd. remained the owner and had gifted no land to Wildcat Haven. Interestingly, on 9 December 2015, however, Highland Titles Ltd. made an application to the Registers of Scotland to transfer part of Paitna Wood/BumbleBee Haven/Wildcat Haven to Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC.
  3. No response.
  4. No response.
  5. No response.

It remains unclear what financial arrangements have been entered into and why Douglas Wilson is a Director and why Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland is the designated beneficiary of the assets of Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC.

As I pointed out in my September blog, if all of the 75 hectares of Paitna Wood/BumbleBee Haven/Wildcat Haven/Wildernesse Wood were sold even as 10 square foot plots, this would generate £40.35 million in sales revenue paid to a company in Alderney in the Channel Islands. In normal circumstances, a conservation project would be established as a charity and a trading body or fundraising enterprise would be established as a whole owned subsidiary of the charity. There’s a lot of money at stake.

Most recently, Wildcat Haven has been seeking to become involved in the community acquisition of a Forestry Commission forest by Loch Arkaig.

Finally, a very significant development took place in early June 2015.

Highland Title’s bankers and corporate service providers in Guernsey gave notice of the termination of their services.

Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC was incorporated in 30 June 2015.

UPDATE FOOTNOTE 19 APRIL 2020

(1) Douglas Wilson in fact was not a Director of WHE at the time of publication of this Blog. He was a Director of Wildcat Enterprises CIC from 6 June 2015 to 21 August 2015 (when he resigned) and again from 21 October 2015 until 17 February 2016 when he again resigned. Guernesy does not have a very transparent, publicly accessible registry of companies being one of the most secretive jurisdictions in the world. Thius, in order to obtain information about when a Director was appointed or resigned, one has to contact the Registry with a specific request. As with my research for Blog 1 in September 2015, I phoned the Registry to find out if Douglas Wilson was still a Director of WHE and was informed that he was. Critically, as noted in the first sentence of this Blog, I had intended to publish it on Highland Titles Day, 10 February and had by then completed all of my research including this call to the Registry. For reasons I cannot recall (although I was very busy with the forthcoming Holyrood election and my partner was abroad in India) I did not publish the Blog until 24 February 2020 by which time Douglas WIlson had resigned as a Director of Highland Titles Ltd. It was thus an oversight on my part not to have checked the whole Blog for any factual matters that might have changed between 10 February 2016 and the date of publication.

(2) Douglas Wilson was in fact not a Director of Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland at the time of the publication of this Blog. Unlike the Guernsey Registry of Companies (see footnote (1) above), the Registry of Charities is publicly available online. I checked the entry for HTCTS during research for the Blog and noted that Douglas Wilson was recorded as a Director of HTCTS. I therefore relied upon this official source in good faith in writing the Blog. In fact, Douglas WIlson had resigned as a Director of HTCTS on 6 July 2015. This was not reported in the Guernsey Registry of charities until an update was published on 20 June 2016.

In January, I blogged about the opaque ownership of Kildrummy Estate in Aberdeenshire. A gamekeeper, George Mutch, had been convicted of wildlife crime. Under Section 24 of the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011, an employer or agent of George Mutch can be charged with vicarious liability.

I asked a simple question – against whom would such a charge be brought? The estate is owned by Kildrummy (Jersey) Ltd. and, having outlined the complex ownership structure of Kildrummy (Jersey) Ltd. (see below and January blog for a full explanation), I speculated that the Crown Office might have a job on its hands to determine who (if anyone) could be prosecuted.

This week, thanks to the diligent and dogged investigative work undertaken by Raptor Persecution Scotland (RPS), we are now closer to answering that question. In  September 2015, the Crown Office told RPS that,

“Despite further investigations including investigations which focused on establishing vicarious liability, no-one else has been reported to COPFS in relation to the events which took place in Kildrummy Estate in 2012 and accordingly, no further prosecution, including any prosecution for a vicarious liability offence, has taken place

RPS followed this up by asking Police Scotland why they had been unable to report anyone to the Crown Office who might be considered to be vicariously liable for the crime carried out by George Mutch. Police Scotland’s response was published by RPS yesterday. The key part of Police Scotland’s reply is as follows

“Significant international investigations were undertaken……..it was established that due to insufficient evidence the additional charge of Vicarious Liability could not be libelled“.

This suggests that it was impossible, within the resources available to investigators, to identify with sufficient certainty who is actually behind Kildrummy (Jersey) Ltd. The Police may well know who could be libelled for the offence but had insufficient evidence to connect that person with Kildrummy (Jersey) Ltd. for the simple reason that is is virtually impossible to ascertain the answer to that question. If the Police, with the full range of investigatory powers available to them (including powers to force the Jersey authorities to divulge what information they hold), cannot find that answer, it is hard to see how anyone else might be able to.

Beyond the implications for wildlife crime legislation (and the Police note that “The experience of this case has, however, identified opportunities for refining future Vicarious Liability investigations….”), this raises questions about Scottish Government policy in relation to the offshore ownership provisions in the Land Reform Bill.

In a blog – Scottish Land and Secrecy Jurisdictions -from last month, I refuted the Scottish Government’s arguments as to why they could and would not implement the recommendation by the Land Reform Review Group and the proposal in their own consultation paper to restrict the registration of land by legal persons (companies etc) to those registered within the EU. The provisions currently set out in Sections 35 and 36 of the Bill merely allow authorised persons to ask the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland to, in turn, ask further questions about the true ownership of companies in secrecy jurisdictions. It is a meaningless provision since authorities in Jersey, British Virgin Islands and Grand Cayman are under no obligation to provide any answers. If even the Police cannot find such answers, what hope has the Keeper?

Included in the Scottish Government’s reasoning was a bullet point 3 that

There is no clear evidence base to establish that the fact that land is owned by a company or legal entity that is registered or incorporated outside the EU has caused detriment to an individual or community.”

The Kildrummy case is prima facie evidence of precisely the circumstances in which opaque ownership in a secrecy jurisdiction has caused detriment – specifically to the ability of the Police to gather the necessary evidence to pursue a prosecution under an important statute passed by the Scottish Parliament.

Had Kildrummy Estate been owned by a company registered in the EU, the Directors of that company would be easily identified and could have been charged with vicarious liability.

The Rural Affairs, Environment and Climate Change Committee is currently preparing its Stage One report into the Land Reform Bill due to be published in early December. It might like to reflect on the Kildrummy case

The Scottish Tenant Farmers Association issued the following media release today.

WITHOUT ACTION, FARM EVICTIONS WILL BECOME SCOTLAND’S SHAME

The Scottish Tenant Farmers Association has welcomed the focus given to land and tenancy reform at last week’s SNP conference and the clear signal from SNP grassroots support for strengthening the land reform proposals in the current bill.  The delegate’s call followed a powerful documentary on Channel 4 TV which highlighted what are seen as some of the worst areas of bad land and estate management in Scotland.

The conference also heard pleas to halt the impending eviction of tenant farmer Andrew Stoddart whose tenancy on Colstoun Mains in East Lothian is due to come to an end in a few short weeks.  Andrew Stoddart, who also spoke at a fringe event, is the first of the Salvesen Riddell tenants to be forced to quit their farms following the Remedial Order passed by the Scottish Parliament last year.

Commenting on the grassroots “rebellion” at the SNP conference, STFA Chairman Christopher Nicholson said: “STFA has been concerned that the government may have been wilting in the face of intense pressure from landed interests, intent on weakening what can only be seen as an already diluted bill.  We hope that this message from the conference will strengthen the government’s resolve to deliver more radical and much needed reforms to create fairer conditions for tenant farmers, stimulating investment on agriculture, greater access to land and encouraging opportunities for new entrants.”

STFA has also become appalled at the recent treatment of tenant farmers affected by the Salvesen Riddell Remedial Order, including Andrew Stoddart who faces imminent eviction without having had the opportunity to take part in the government’s mediation process or be considered for any recompense which should be due from the government following the implementation of the Remedial Order.

STFA Director, Angus McCall who has been involved in the Salvesen Riddell debacle for the last few years said: “This whole episode has become Scotland’s shame which has seen the victims of a legal error hung out to dry by uncaring government lawyers and an inflexible government process.

“This tragic episode stemmed from legislation passed in 2003 which was proved to be defective.  The UK Supreme Court then instructed the Scottish parliament to remedy the situation and, as a consequence, 8 families will lose their farms and livelihoods.  However, rather than seeking to fulfil commitments made by government to parliament and the industry,  government lawyers are abdicating all responsibility and liability and refusing point blank to consider any compensation package for the affected tenants.  These tenants are now faced with a lengthy and expensive court battle to exert their rights.

“STFA has already written, and is writing again to the First Minister, Cabinet Secretary, Richard Lochhead, the RACCE committee and MSPs to get the matter resolved and allow these tenants and their families to move their lives on, but all to no avail.  Ministers, MSPs and some officials have expressed a willingness to help, but seem to be held to ransom by lawyers.

“We all appreciate that this is a complex situation, but the rulers of this country must accept a moral responsibility for the damage done though the actions of a previous government to these families and move without further delay to find a way towards an equitable settlement rather than forcing them into a long drawn out, expensive and life sapping legal battle.  This has been devastating for all concerned and, after 18 months of prevarication, the tenants’ lives are still on hold and they are no further on in knowing their future.

“This affair has been a well-kept secret, but it must be time for the Scottish people to wake up and realise what is going on and allow common decency and a sense of fair play to prevail and put an end to this sorry affair before any lives are tragically lost as has happened in the past?”

UPDATE 19 APRIL 2020

This blog, together with a subsequent one published on 24 February 2016, were the subject of defamation proceedings brought by Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC against myself in a citation from the Court of Session served on me on 21 March 2017. Since 30 March 2017, following legal advice, the blogs have been password protected. The case (Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC vs. Andy Wightman A111/17) was heard by Lord Clark at the Court of Session from 29 October 2019 – 8 November 2019. A Decision by Lord Clark was published on 11 March 2020 which rejected all of the pleas of the pursuer in what was a comprehensive victory for me. As a matter of law therefore neither of these two blogs are defamatory. The Pursuer issued a statement to the media on 11 March stating that “we will certainly appeal the decision”. However, the 28 day period in which to appeal has now expired and no appeal has been lodged. I am pleased therefore to now remove the password protection and enable them to be read as they were published subject to one caveat.

Lord Clark concluded that in the blogs (and a few tweets which were also complained of) I had made four untrue statements. Contrary to claims by my detractors, none of these was a lie. Indeed Lord Clark made clear that I was a “credible and reliable witness” who “gave his evidence in an honest, straightforward and coherent manner”. Lord Clark stated that “I accept his evidence about what he knew and did not know at the time of the various publications” and that “the suggestion he made statements that he knew were untrue simply has no proper basis.” [Lord Clark at 73]. I have thus edited the two blogs with a footnote marked in red to indicate the relevant untruths and why they arose.

Finally, what was revealed of this case in Lord Clark’s decision was a fraction of what was revealed in Court. What was revealed in Court was a fraction of the evidence assembled in the 1494 Productions (written documents lodged as evidence) lodged in the Court (59 by the Pursuer and 1435 by Defender). And what was revealed in the Productions was a fraction of what I have learned in the course of extensive preparatory research over the past 3 years about the activities of Highland Titles and Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC. I will be publishing a detailed blog revealing what really went on over the past three years. Given the litigous nature of both parties, I will, of course, have these blogs legalled before publication.

UPDATE ENDS

If you plan to set up a fundraising campaign for an environmental project, it is a good idea to think carefully about who is involved and what techniques you plan to use.

Wildcat Haven is a project designed to protect the Scottish Wildcat by preventing hybridisation with feral cats and providing a network of reserves to manage as wildcat habitat. (1)

Yesterday, it launched its campaign. Sponsorship has been provided by Volkswagen, a company responsible for polluting the environment with nitrous oxide emissions that it attempted to conceal through one of the biggest corporate frauds of recent decades. The other sponsor is our old friend Highland Titles, a company based in Alderney that is wholly owned by a charitable trust (Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland) registered in Guernsey. See my blog of February for further information on their operations.

Some time ago, Highland Titles Ltd. blocked my IP address but it came as something of a surprise to discover that I have also been blocked from Wildcat Haven’s website despite only having just seen it. Despite this, I have access via a proxy IP in Germany.

Highland Titles appear to have established a very close relationship with Wildcat Haven which operates via Wildcat Haven CIC (Community Interest Company) and Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC. The Registered Address of both is in Cornwall. One of the defining features of a Community Interest Company is the asset lock – provision that in the event of winding up, the assets must transfer to a nominated body that is a community interest company, charity or Scottish charity; or a body established outside Great Britain that is equivalent to any of those persons.(2)

In the case of Wildcat Haven CIC, the nominated body is a community-based company, Sunart Community Company. The money, however, is being raised by Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC and the nominated body here is Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland. Thus, in the event of Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC being wound up, its assets will be taken over by Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland in Guernsey.

Wildcat Haven Enterprises CIC was incorporated on 30 June 2015 with two Directors, Mrs Emily O’Donoghue and Mr Douglas Wilson. Wilson is a Director of Highland Titles Ltd (1) and a Trustee of Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland. (2)

Wildcat Haven has adopted Highland Title’s dubious methods of selling small souvenir plots of land and claiming that the purchaser is the owner (see extensive faq to this effect). This claim was comprehensively debunked in February this year by legal blogger loveandgarbage. If there remains any doubt, here is the content of a letter written by Professor George Gretton, Lord President Reid Professor of Law at Edinburgh University to the Daily Record newspaper.

Dear Mr Ferguson,

Under Scots law, ownership of land passes from seller to buyer by registration in the Land Register of Scotland. No registration? Then no transfer. This is currently set out at section 50 of the Land Registration etc (Scotland) Act 2012. (The previous law was essentially the same.)

(“Souvenir plot” is a term defined in section 22 of the 2012 Act.)

Therefore, if a souvenir plot is sold, registration is required, if the buyer is to acquire ownership of the plot.

But the Land Register does not accept souvenir plots: this rule is set out at section 22 of the 2012 Act. (The previous law was essentially the same.)

So if a company sells a souvenir plot, the sale cannot be completed. The buyer of the plot does not become owner of the plot. Ownership of such plots remains with the company.

Whether buyers of souvenir plots are informed that the seller will retain ownership is something I have no information on.

Sincerely, George L Gretton

Lord President Reid Professor of Law University of Edinburgh
School of Law
Old College
South Bridge
Edinburgh 
EH8 9YL

Professor Gretton should know – he wrote the Land Registration (Scotland) Act 2012. See also, a recent academic paper by Jill Robbie and Malcolm Combe which reviews the law in this area.

The plots being offered for sale by Wildcat Haven cost from £30 to £250 for one square foot of land which purchasers are assured, gives them a “personal right to a souvenir plot of land in Wildernesse Wood and the opportunity to change their name to Lord or Lady Wildernesse. Wildernesse Wood is described as “part of the first Wildcat Haven”. “We are asking you to help us by actually buying part of the land we plan to conserve.”, the website claims.

So where is Wildernesse Wood? The Wildcat Haven website does not say, but from this promotional video, it is clear that it is a plot of land above Loch Loyne on the A87 between Invergarry and Glen Cluanie.

In the video, Dr Paul O’Donoghue is filmed standing in the wood. He claims that “Every square foot of land we buy has a direct positive impact on the Scottish wildcat. By supporting this project, you’re helping save the Scottish wildcat step by step.”

There are two problems with this claim.

First of all, this land is, in fact owned by Highland Titles Ltd. who are already selling souvenir plots in a “nature reserve” they have named Bumblebee Haven where you can purchase plots ranging from 10 square feet (£49.99) to 1000 square feet (£499.99) and call yourself Lord or Lady Glencoe (even though the land is 50 miles north of Glencoe).

The land was acquired in February 2014 and the title can be seen here and the plan here  The land is 75ha in extent which, if all sold in 10 square foot plots would generate £40.35 million in sales revenue paid to a company in Alderney in the Channel Islands.

But the more fundamental problem is that the Wildcat Haven project is in Ardnamurchan and Morven – see map below.

The land that supporters are being invited to acquire is not only already owned by a company in Alderney and being sold plot by plot for bumblebees, this “first wildcat haven” is 60 miles to the north of Ardnamurchan and Morven and well outside the area being promoted for wildcat conservation.

I offer this information in the spirit of consumer advice to anyone considering taking up the offer to become the owner of a square foot of land to create a Wildcat Haven.

AN ADDENDUM

As an addendum to the Highland Titles blog in February, I contacted the Chief Minister of Guernsey Jonathan Le Tocq to ask whether it would be possible to examine copies of Annual Returns and Accounts of both Highland Titles Ltd., registered in Alderney and Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland, registered in Guernsey. As I argued then,

Revenue is paid into a company registered in Alderney but as no accounts are published, it is impossible to be sure. The sole share is held by Wilson and McGregor as Trustees for the Guernsey charity. Under the law of Guernsey, no charity is obliged to provide accounts for public inspection and it need only file accounts under certain circumstances.

Thus nobody knows if in fact the charity is in receipt of any funds whatsoever. As the sole shareholder it is not entitled to have any of the revenues of Highland Titles Ltd. transferred to it. These revenues may well be paid out by the Alderney company as management fees or any manner of other payments to third parties.”

Mr Le Tocq informed me that under Guernsey law, the charity is not required to submit any financial returns and access to the Alderney company records would only be available to law enforcement agencies if there was evidence of criminal conduct.

Thus, because this land is owned in an offshore tax haven, we are unable to obtain any information about what happens to the money generated by selling off souvenir plots.

(1) There is some disagreement over the appropriate strategy to be adopted to save the Scottish wildcat. An official project, Scottish Wildcat Action is being run by 20 organisatiosn with the support of the Scottish Government and Forestry Commission among others. Those behind the Wildcat Haven project, however, have criticised the official programme.

(2) The Community Interest Company Regulations 2005

UPDATE 1500hrs 30 Sep 2015

The following response was emailed to me by Emily O’Donoghue and posted on the Wildcat Haven website here. The response is also contained in a comment below this post together with my follow up questions.

Dear Andy,

Just hoped to respond briefly to your primary concerns about the Wildcat Haven project.

Highland Titles Charitable Trust is currently listed as our nominated body, it is acting as a placeholder whilst we agree with a few local organisations in the West Highlands who would be best placed to become the ongoing nominated body. Of course, you’ll have to wait and see on this one, but we have already sent in paperwork replacing HT with another organisation, I’m sure records will be updated shortly.

Our website repeatedly states that the plots being sold are souvenir plots and “a bit of fun”, our own FAQ outlines that registration of souvenir plots is legally impossible so this seems little revelation.

In terms of location, the current Haven fieldwork area is in West Lochaber (Ardnamurchan, Morvern and Sunart).  We have been highly successful in neutering feral cats in this area (we have neutered 50 in the last 7 months alone, leaving close to 500 square miles free of intact feral or pet cats) and are now ready to expand. You are right to highlight that the land in Loch Loyne is north of the current Haven area, however that is the very point, we are expanding northwards and the the long term goal has always been to cover the entire Highlands west of the Great Glen. Loch Loyne is ideally situated being to the east of the Knoydart peninsula and near to a major land bridge to the rest of the Highlands, which needs to be protected from feral cat migration. Wildcat monitoring activities are already underway in the area, we are also looking to start operations in Sutherland which you will note is also well north of the current Haven zone, as well as looking to buy land within the current fieldwork area.

Part of the Loch Loyne site has been gifted to us by Highland Titles and no plots in the area provided to us have been previously sold, so it was free for them to pass on, allowing us to offer actual physical plots to customers immediately, rather than just a promise of buying land in future.

Wildcat Haven has been around protecting wildcats since 2008, our team comes with considerable scientific and conservation credibility, we are currently the only effort to protect wildcats in the wild rather than place them in captivity and our work has been commended and supported by organisations such as Humane Society International for its exceptional standards of animal welfare and delivery of humane feral cat control, as well as receiving considerable coverage across national media recording our work with feral cats, wildcats, local schools and communities for many years.

We’d also like to take this opportunity to thank you for providing us with reduced rate access to the Who Owns Scotland database around 2008/2009 when the project was starting up and needed to start communicating with landowners; you helped us get where we are today, thanks a lot for your support and promotion of the Wildcat Haven project.

Emily O’Donoghue,
Director,
Wildcat Haven

I replied as follows.

Emily, 

Thanks for your response. 

1. It may be a bit of fun but you are asking folk to help you by “actually buying part of the land we plan to conserve” You need to be much clearer that people who spend £100 do not become owners of the land.

2. You say that part of the Loch Loyne site has been gifted to you. Can you tell me when this transaction took place and when it was submitted to the Registers of Scotland for recording? Can you advise the extent and location of this land?

3. Are there any wildcats on the Loch Loyne land?

4. Why is my IP address blocked from viewing your website?

5. What is the role of Highland Titles in your fundraising? Do they receive any payment? Do they receive any commission on each plot sold?

Thank you.

UPDATE FOOTNOTE 19 APRIL 2020

(1) Douglas Wilson in fact was not a Director of WHE at the time of publication of this Blog. He was a Director of Wildcat Enterprises CIC from 6 June 2015 to 21 August 2015 (when he resigned) and again from 21 October 2015 until 17 February 2016 when he again resigned. Guernesy does not have a very transparent, publicly accessible registry of companies being one of the most secretive jurisdictions in the world. Thius, in order to obtain information about when a Director was appointed or resigned, one has to contact the Registry with a specific request. During my research for this blog, I thus phoned the Registry to find out if Douglas Wilson was still a Director of WHE and was informed that he was. I thus made the claim I did in good faith relying upon the only official source able to provide the information.

(2) Douglas Wilson was in fact not a Director of Highland Titles Charitable Trust for Scotland at the time of the publication of this Blog. Unlike the Guernsey Registry of Companies (see footnote (1) above), the Registry of Charities is publicly available online. I checked the entry for HTCTS during research for the Blog and noted that Douglas Wilson was recorded as a Director of HTCTS. I therefore relied upon this official source in good faith in writing the Blog. In fact, Douglas WIlson had resigned as a Director of HTCTS on 6 July 2015. This was not reported in the Guernsey Registry of charities until an update was published on 20 June 2016.

The provisions in the Scotland Bill for the devolution of the management of the Crown Estate in Scotland are complex and unclear (see previous blog for background).

Last week, the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee (RACCE) heard evidence from representatives of the Crown Estate Commissioners (CEC) and some significant points came up. (1) Here are my latest thoughts on why Clause 31 of the Scotland Bill fails to implement the Smith Agreement on this topic.

In 1999, Crown property rights were devolved under the Scotland Act 1998. However, the management and revenues were reserved and remained under the control of the CEC. The Smith Agreement is to devolve the management and the revenues. To achieve this is straightforward. The two reservations (of management and of revenues) in Schedule 5 of the 1998 Act need to be removed.

Once these removals take effect, the responsibility for the management and revenues of the Scottish Crown property, rights and interests that currently make up the Crown Estate in Scotland would fall by default to the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government. While Scottish Ministers would need to put in place the necessary administrative arrangements to deal with these new responsibilities, there is no need for any further legislation. Once this has happened, the Scottish Parliament can begin the process of decentralisation (to which all political parties are committed) and some of which will require legislation to put into effect.

In contrast with that approach, the Scotland Bill provides for a “transfer scheme” whereby functions of the CEC may be transferred to a transferee in Scotland and continue to be governed by a modified Crown Estate Act 1961, until such time as the Scottish Parliament determines otherwise. One of those giving evidence to RACCE was Rob Booth, the Head of Legal at the CEC. He said, in response to a question that,

The position after the transfer date will be that the Crown Estate Act 1961 will be applied as a fallback, to fill a potential vacuum. At the transfer date, if no Scottish legislation has been brought forward to set up the structure to take on the new role, a modified version of the 1961 act will be applied as an interim measure until Scotland has had an opportunity to pass that legislation. 

In my reading of the Scotland Bill, it is not anticipated that there will be an on-going application of those 1961 act principles to management in Scotland. After the transfer date, as things stand, the 1961 act will apply only to the Crown estate in the rest of the UK, so Scotland will have freedom as far that particular aspect is concerned.” (2)

In other words, the Scotland Bill would remove the Schedule 5 reservation on management (we will deal with revenues shortly) but rather than keeping things straightforward as outlined above, Clause 31 would put in place a Treasury transfer scheme which binds nominated transferees into a legal framework governed by the Crown Estate Act and which needs to be undone by the Scottish Parliament if and when it wishes to do so in relation to the various Crown property rights and interests involved.

It remains unclear why this added complexity is necessary. Four other aspects remain unclear.

The first is the question of the revenues. It is now clear that the Scotland Bill will not devolve the revenues. Instead, it amends the Civil List Act to the effect that all revenues will be paid to the Scottish Consolidated Fund. The reservation in Schedule 5 remains in place, however, and so it will be incompetent for the Scottish Parliament to make any change to this arrangement. This, in effect, makes decentralisation very problematic. The promise that the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon made in Orkney two weeks ago, that “coastal and island councils will benefit from 100 per cent of the net revenue generated in their area from activities within 12 miles of the shore” is made rather difficult if all of the revenue has, by law, to flow to the Scottish Consolidated Fund. (3)

The second matter relates to the idea that, after devolution, the CEC will continue to be able to acquire land in Scotland. This is legally incompetent. The CEC does not acquire land or property interest in its own behalf but does so on behalf of the Crown. Constitutionally and legally, the Crown is a distinct entity in Scotland from the rest of the UK. Were the CEC to acquire, say a shopping centre in Scotland in 5 years time, it would be owned by the Crown in Scots law but acquired from revenue derived from the English Crown. Constitutional experts will be better placed to address this question than I but I do not think this is constitutionally possible.

Thirdly, the Scotland Bill at Clause 31(10) stipulates that any management of Crown property in Scotland shall maintain the property, rights and interests as “an estate in land”. Rob Booth described this as “a fundamental founding principle of the Crown Estate”. (4) But after devolution there will be no Crown Estate in Scotland (the term will only apply outside Scotland). Crown property rights have been devolved since 1999 and this constraint represents a reversal of the current competence of the Scottish Parliament for no good reason.

Finally, the Fort Kinnaird retail park in the east of Edinburgh will not be included in the devolved settlement. Rob Booth explained this in the following terms.

As a lawyer reading the Smith proposals, I can see that Smith talked about Crown Estate economic assets in Scotland being devolved to Scottish ministers. There is a statutory definition in section 1(1) of the Crown Estate Act 1961 of what the Crown estate is, which is those assets that are managed by the Crown Estate Commissioners. Fort Kinnaird undoubtedly is an economic asset in Scotland, but we do not manage it. The underlying asset is not owned by the Crown; therefore, to my mind as a lawyer, it does not fit the definition of a Crown Estate economic asset in Scotland as described by the Smith report.” (5)

Fort Kinnaird is owned by a partnership – The Gibraltar Limited Partnership. In Scots law a partnership is a legal entity and may own property in its own right. The Gibraltar Partnership, however, is governed by English law, specifically the Limited Partnership Act of 1907. Such partnerships are not legal entities and it is the partners that are the legal owners of the property. There are two partners in the Partnership – the CEC on behalf of the Crown and the Hercules Unit Trust. Since Fort Kinnaird is in Scotland, the interest that the CEC has is an interest owned by the Scottish Crown. (6)

Rob Booth’s explanation is unconvincing, disingenuous and wrong. The underlying asset (the interest) is owned by the Crown, the CEC manages that interest, and it does therefore form part of the Crown Estate.

To conclude, the Scotland Bill does not implement the Smith Agreement. Instead it creates a complex and incoherent muddle where there should, instead, be clarity and simplicity. The Scotland Bill is about devolving further powers to the Scottish Parliament. That is achieved by removing the two key reservations. That’s all, in essence, that it needs to do (although there are minor consequential amendments) and it doesn’t even achieve that. In the Committee stage of the Bill on 29 June 2015, MPs should ensure that it does.

NOTES

(1) Official Report here
(2) Official Report Cols 12-13
(3) See Shetland Times, 21 June 2015
(4) Official Report Col 14
(5) Official Report Col 6
(6) See here for Companies House filing history on the Partnership

Introduction

One of the Smith Commission agreements was that responsibility for the management and revenues of the Crown Estate in Scotland should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. (1)

This Agreement reflected the widespread consensus in Scotland that the management of  the Crown Estate should be devolved. There have been several inquiries into this topic over the last ten years, from the Crown Estate Review Working Group (2007) to Westminster’s Scottish Affairs Committee (2012), which also recommended the devolution of the Crown Estate in Scotland. (2)

The Smith Commission also agreed, like the Scottish Affairs Committee before it, that devolution should be followed by further decentralisation to local authorities, communities and others, of responsibilities for the various Crown property, rights and interests that make up the Crown Estate in Scotland. Both the Scottish Affairs Committee and the Smith Commission were clear, however, that this decentralisation was to take place after the devolution of the management of the Crown Estate to the Scottish Parliament. (3)

The Scotland Bill was published on the 28th May by the UK Government and is now on its hurried passage through the UK Parliament. (4) It is intended to implement the Smith Commission agreements.  Clause 31 of the Bill that deals with the Crown Estate, however, completely fails to do this and needs to be re-drafted.

But, first, some background.

The Crown Estate

The Crown Estate is the name given in the Crown Estate Act 1961 to the various Crown property, rights and interests that are managed by the Crown Estate Commissioners (CEC).  The CEC is a statutory corporation first constituted by the Crown Estate Act 1956 and now operating under the 1961 Act.  The CEC transfers its net surplus revenue or ‘profit’ each year to the UK Government’s Consolidated Fund for use in public expenditure. (5)

The CEC is thus the manager of property rights that belong to the Crown. However, there can often be confusion between the manager and the property, because the CEC has branded itself for its corporate identity as ‘The Crown Estate’.  The Treasury Committee also felt it necessary to emphasise in its report on the Crown Estate, that “the CEC are a public body charged with managing public resources for public benefit”. (6)

The Crown property, rights and interests that make up the Crown Estate in Scotland are legally and constitutionally distinct from those in the rest of the UK, because they are owned by the Crown in Scotland and defined in Scots law.  Scotland’s Crown property rights are of ancient origin and continued to be administered with their revenues in Scotland following the Union of Crowns in 1603 and the Treaty of Union in 1707.  Some of these Crown rights continue to be managed in Scotland by the Scottish Government and Crown Office. However, the administration and revenues of many of Scotland’s Crown property rights were transferred from Edinburgh to a government department in London in the 1830s.  That department and its successors, were the predecessors of the current CEC.

The Crown property rights managed by the CEC in Scotland include Scotland’s territorial seabed and Crown rights over the Scotland’s continental shelf zone (see map above), around half of Scotland’s foreshore, the right to mine gold, salmon fishings, four rural estates and two urban properties.  The Crown Estate in Scotland only accounts for around 3-4% of the value attributed to the UK wide Crown Estate and revenue produced by it. The CEC’s annual ‘profit’ from its operations in Scotland, has been around £5m in recent years. (7)

The Scotland Act 1998 devolved legislative competence over Scots property law, including Crown property rights, to the Scottish Parliament.  The first Scottish Parliament, for example, used this legislative authority to abolish the Crown’s ultimate ownership of land in Scotland under feudal tenure.  However, the reservation of the management of the Crown Estate in the Scotland Act, precludes the Scottish Parliament from being able to legislate over the rights managed by the CEC and also means that the CEC is not accountable to either the Scottish Parliament and Government for its operations in Scotland. Implementing the Smith Agreement would complete the devolution process started in 1999 and bring the rights and the management together under the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament.

The Scotland Bill

The Smith Agreement to devolve the management and revenues of the Crown’s property rights should be straightforward to implement in legislation.

The two main requirements are to amend the Scotland Act 1998, Schedule 5 Part 1 by;

1. removing clause 2(3) that reserves the management of the Crown Estate in Scotland and,

2. removing clause 3(3)(a) that reserves the revenue from the Crown Estate in Scotland.

Removing these two reservations would mean that responsibility for managing the Crown property rights that currently make up the Crown Estate in Scotland, automatically falls to the Scottish Parliament.

Appropriate legislation also needs to cover some consequential amendments to other legislation, in particular to the Crown Estate Act 1961 to reflect that it would no longer apply in Scotland.  In addition, the legislation requires some procedural provisions dealing with the transfer date and process.

Unfortunately, clause 31 in the Scotland Bill manifestly does not implement the Smith Agreement.  The clause does not devolve the responsibility for the management of the Crown Estate in Scotland to the Scottish Parliament. Instead, the clause delegates existing functions of the CEC as a statutory corporation to Scottish Ministers or others transferees through a Treasury ‘scheme’.

The current clause 31 attempts to enable the CEC to continue to operate in Scotland and to bind those to whom functions are transferred to the restrictive terms of the Crown Estate Act 1961 under which the CEC operates.  The clause’s provisions to try to achieve this are, as others have commented, complex and unclear. (8) They are a recipe for confusion and legal anomalies.  They do not devolve legislative responsibility over the Crown property rights and revenues involved in Scotland to the Scottish Parliament and will frustrate the widespread consensus for the further decentralisation of these within Scotland. (9)

Re-framing Clause 31

The Smith Agreement to devolve responsibility over the Crown Estate in Scotland reflects the longstanding agreement in Scotland over this matter and it should be straightforward to implement through the Scotland Bill.  Why then does the existing clause 31 fail to do this?

This blog argues that this current state of affairs has arisen because of the degree of influence that the CEC has had on the nature of clause 31. The sequence of Committee inquiries and reports into the operations of the CEC show how CEC corporate policies have been aimed at maintaining it as a UK organisation.  IN 1998, the CEC declined to participate in the devolution process in the way that the Forestry Commissioners did (and have continued to do).  The starkest example, however, was in 2001/02 when, against the flow of devolution, the CEC ended its management of the Crown Estate in Scotland as a separate management unit with its own manager and financial accounts, so that the CEC could assimilate its operations in Scotland into those in the rest of the UK. (10) The current clause 31 with its stretching and twisting of the Crown Estate Act 1961, can be seen as the CEC’s latest move to try to retain the Crown Estate as a UK wide estate.

Furthermore, it is distressing to note the continuing mis-understanding of what exactly the Smith Commission agreed. For example, a briefing issued by the Scottish Parliament, claims that it is the “powers of the Crown Estate Commissioners [which are set out in the 1961 Act] which would be transferred to Scottish Ministers.” (11)

This is wrong.

The Smith Agreement patently does not say this. It says that responsibility for management will be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. That is an entirely different matter from a mere delegation of functions to be exercised within the framework of continuing reserved powers.

The Scottish Government’s initial response to the Scotland Bill recognises the need to re-frame clause 31, so that the clause removes the reservations in the Scotland Act 1998 over the management and revenues of the Crown property rights in Scotland forming part of the Crown Estate. (12) The terms of the Scottish Government’s proposed alternative clause 31 still suffers from some other weaknesses. However, it is to be hoped that all the parties involved in the Smith Commission will recognise that the issues over clause 31 are not party political.

Solving this problem is a simple matter of re-framing the clause in a competent was so as to implement the Smith Agreement in as straightforward a manner as possible.

  1. Smith Commission page 16
  2. See Crown Estate Review Working Group Report and Scottish Affairs Committee Report.
  3. See, for example, Lord Smith’s evidence to Scottish Affairs Committee 3 December 2014. Q137-Q140
  4. Scotland Bill
  5. Section 1(2) Civil List Act 1952
  6. House of Commons Treasury Committee Report, 2010 para 10
  7. Scottish Affairs Committee Report para 39
  8. See Devolution (Further Powers) Committee report
  9. For example, the Bill amends the Civil List Act 1952 to obligate the payment of all Crown revenues to the Scottish Consolidated Fund. Decentralisation to, for example, to harbour trusts will be constrained by a continuing legal constraint to hand over all revenues to the Scottish Government.
  10. Scottish Affairs Committee Report para 21
  11. See SPICE/Clerks/Legal Briefing page 15 “Provision has been made to amend the Crown Estate Act 1961 to reflect the new role for Scottish Ministers (SMs), but to retain the requirement to manage and improve etc the property, rights and interests being transferred subject to the remaining provisions of the Crown Estate Act 1961. This reflects the Smith Commission recommendation that it would be the powers of the Crown Estate Commissioners [which are set out in the 1961 Act] which would be transferred to Scottish Ministers.”
  12. See Scottish Government alternative clause, pages 12-13 and 43

OTHER DOCUMENTS

House of Commons Library Briefing on Scotland Bill

 

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.

To Conclude

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.

Scottish Land and Estates, the organisation that represents some landowners in Scotland, attracted a fair bit of press coverage last month for their claim that potential reforms to Scotland’s agricultural tenancy laws could leave the Scottish Government open to compensation claims of £600 million (see Telegraph, Press & Journal, Herald). (1)

The claim was made in written evidence to the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee on 25 March 2015. The £600 million figure was derived from a study undertaken for SLE by estate agents Smiths Gore which purports to calculate the potential loss faced by landowners were reforms to be enacted.

The heart of the matter, however, is not the quantum of any possible claim. Compensation would only be relevant if there is a breach of the rights to property enshrined in the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 1 of Protocol 1). Moreover, such rights are not the only human rights that come into play when the Scottish Parliament enacts legislation.

As Professor Alan Miller, Chair of the Scottish Human Rights Commission, noted in evidence to the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee on 3 December 2014,

I am struck by how narrowly framed the debate has been. I am a little embarrassed that the way in which human rights has been interpreted is contributing to there being quite narrow parameters around debate about land reform and community empowerment..” (2)

Professor Miller expanded on this point at a very well-attended Scottish Parliamentary meeting was last week hosted by Michael Russell MSP on the topic of land reform and human rights. In attendance were several MSPs, a Government Minister and more than six civil servants including one from the Crown Office.

The meeting was addressed by David Cameron from Community Land Scotland and Professor Miller. In their presentations and in the discussion that followed, it was evident that convention rights of the sort being deployed by SLE are only part of a much wider spectrum of human rights that Scottish Ministers and the Scottish Parliament have to balance in framing legislation. Section 7(2)(a) of the Scotland Act 1998 obliges the Parliament to observe and implement all international obligations including a wide range of human rights that are not covered by the ECHR such as the Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

This perspective is diligently and authoritatively explained in a paper by Dr Kirsteen Shields from Dundee University’s School of Law published in the current edition of the Scottish Human Rights Journal entitled “Tackling the Misuse of Rights Rhetoric in Land Reform Debate”. (download available here) All with an interest in the topic and, in particular, MSPs, would be well advised to read this carefully.

None of these arguments will be new to anyone with any experience of international development where, since 1997, the rights-based approach has been adopted not only by the UN but by Governments and NGOs around the world.

Indeed the UK Government is an enthusiastic advocate of such an approach in its overseas aid programme. The Scottish Government is also bound by the terms of the Scotland Act to do all in its power to further the realisation of international human rights obligations.

The claims by SLE that landowners could be entitled to £600m of compensation is predicated on there being a breach of ECHR. Crucially, SLE has not published the legal advice upon which the £600m claim is based. During the Parliamentary meeting, I called for the organisation to do so and share this with MSPs. I await developments with interest since only by understanding the legal basis upon which any claim rests, can we judge whether any financial consequences might flow. Moreover, as the above paper makes clear, there is more to human rights than the ECHR.

All of which led Cabinet Secretary, Richard Lochhead, to dismiss such claims at the Rural Affairs meeting on 1 April 2015. In response to suggestions that compensation claims might be as high as £1.78 billion, he said,

First, the cabinet secretary is too broke to afford £600 million, let alone £1.78 billion. It would be more constructive and helpful in moving the debate forward if we had fewer silly reports such as that. SLE’s intervention and the figures in its report – which came when we are supposed to be saying that there is unprecedented collaboration and understanding of some of the key issues facing tenant farming – were unconstructive and unhelpful. It escapes me how those figures were arrived at. Given that we have not even published the legislation yet, there is no way for those with a strong view on one side of the debate even remotely to begin to work out any potential figures.”

Now that Parliament has been made aware of the wider human rights context in which it is, by law, required to work, it is to be hoped that such speculative and outlandish claims can be put to rest.

NOTES

(1) SLE is the representative body of 1351 landowners in Scotland who own 29% of Scotland.

(2) A fuller extract of his evidence..

I am struck by how narrowly framed the debate has been. I am a little embarrassed that the way in which human rights has been interpreted is contributing to there being quite narrow parameters around debate about land reform and community empowerment. I will just make a couple of points about the perception of human rights and its relevance to the committee’s consideration of the bill, because I am sure that others have more value to add.

The language that is being used – I heard the term “absolute right to buy” being used again this morning –  is very unhelpful, although I understand why people are using it. The European convention on human rights is not understood as providing a framework in which the legitimate rights of landowners and the public interest are reconciled and a balance is struck, with compensation being paid to the landowner if necessary. The right to buy is a qualified right: there has to be a competing public interest to override the right to peaceful enjoyment by the person who owns the land. Therefore, language such as “right to buy” or “absolute right” polarises the debate in an unhelpful way and does not reflect a clear understanding of what the ECHR contributes to the debate.

The bigger frustration that I have with the policy framework is this: human rights does not begin and end at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg; there is a much broader framework of international human rights that are relevant to the Government and the Parliament, but which are largely invisible.

The Scotland Act 1998 calls on the Scottish ministers to observe and implement international obligations, of which one—but only one—is the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which places a duty on the Scottish ministers to use the maximum available resources to ensure progressive realisation of the right to housing, employment, food and so on—that is, it sees land as a national asset, which is to be used for the progressive realisation of what we might call sustainable development.

Therefore, what human rights provides is a broader impetus for land reform, rather than an inhibition, as is suggested in the way that the issue is currently couched—that is, in questions about whether a landowner has a red card that can be used with reference to the ECHR to stifle discussion about different use of the land. That is what is missing from the policy framework.”