Graeme Dey’s Land Reform Bill amendment brings real hope of openness over ownership

Graeme Dey’s Land Reform Bill amendment brings real hope of openness over ownership
The National, by Lesley Riddoch


So what really happened in yesterday’s land reform debate? Patrick Harvie’s transparency amendment was defeated by seven votes to two at Holyrood’s rural affairs and climate change committee (RACCE) meeting, backed only by the two Labour members Sarah Boyack and Claudia Beamish. Within minutes some disappointed folk were tweeting they wouldn’t be giving the SNP their second vote in May as a result.


Patrick Harvie’s amendment required all landowning companies to register in an EU member state – effectively outlawing those based in secrecy designations such as Guernsey, the Seychelles and Panama. The defeat was disappointing for the Our Land campaigners who backed it, but the overall result was actually pretty good, because there were two amendments aiming to provide absolute openness about who owns land in Scotland and the Scottish Greens proposal (drafted by veteran land campaigner and Holyrood candidate Andy Wightman) was just one of them.


The other, proposed by SNP MSP Graeme Dey, surprisingly received unanimous backing from RACCE – even from the Conservatives. And that is good news.


Dey’s amendment – worked on by Community Land Scotland’s Peter Peacock (himself a former Labour Minister at Holyrood) and Megan MacInnes – requires landowners from anywhere in the world (both secrecy designations like the Seychelles AND European democracies like France) to declare their identity in a new section of the Land Register. It doesn’t just tackle companies based in offshore tax havens – though if you want to see how dodgy they can be, watch Panorama on operations in the secrecy designation of Panama tomorrow night at 9pm on BBC2. Dey’s amendment will make every landowning company come clean about what it really owns.


So as Meat Loaf never said, one out of two ain’t bad.


In fact, many supporters were astonished and chuffed that Graeme Dey’s amendment had survived. Some believed it was simply a “probing” mechanism – designed to tease out Government objections to full transparency in the hope that another amendment could be chucked in at the 11th hour, when the amended bill comes back for its full Stage Three debate in March. But, to their surprise and delight, Aileen McLeod said the Scottish Government wouldn’t oppose Dey’s amendment, giving SNP MSPs on the RACCE committee the green light to support it.


Many folk still want to see Patrick Harvie’s proposal resurrected because it would force landowning companies to get out of secrecy designations altogether – not just come clean about their identity – and fits in with an EU drive for more openness in international trade. A revised version stands a good chance of being discussed in March – even though it has just been rejected – because of the high level of public interest in this section of the Land Reform Bill.


So what happened? A Government climbdown? Or long overdue recognition by lawyers and policymakers that the current Bill really is unacceptably limp in certain key parts? Certainly, efforts by members of the public, campaigners and sympathetic MSPs over the last year finally seem to be bearing fruit. The Our Land campaign, backed by this paper, Common Weal, Women for Independence and several 38 Degrees petitions, turned land reform into a litmus test of the SNP’s capacity to deliver radical change.


SNP member Nicky Lowden MacCrimmon spoke for the majority of delegates in October when he led the fearless move to refer back the leadership’s motion on land reform saying: “When it’s truly radical, we’ll support it.” The shameful situation of East Lothian tenant farmer Andrew Stoddart and his family – faced with eviction without explanation or proper compensation for 22 years of improvement – highlighted the unfairness of the current system.


Andrew did finally get some compensation from the Coulston Estate, but now has just 10 days left to find a new home, quit his cottage and sell off his farm machinery. I’d guess the Stoddart case will inform debate on the next set of amendments tackling tenant farmers’ rights to be debated next Wednesday.


But returning to yesterday’s apparent volte face, there’s no doubt the fact-finding, lobbying approach of the Dey amendment backers reassured nervous Government lawyers and helped Ministers become more assertive with officials too fond of deploying that classic Yes Minister putdown for radical plans: “Yes Minister, that would be brave.”


Now it would be “braver” to oppose the growing and quite remarkable consensus demanding complete openness about land ownership. Every political party at Holyrood backed the Dey amendment – including the Conservatives. Even Scottish Government lawyers have got that message.


So everything’s alright then? Well mebbes aye, mebbes naw. The battle now is to make sure the Scottish Government’s promised “development” of the Dey amendment makes it more radical, not less, and to get the final measure written into the Bill, not approved in principle before being bumped into a future parliament for detailed drafting.


Transparency alone won’t turn Scotland’s shocking concentration of land ownership around – only 27 per cent of companies are on the current land register so meaningful penalties are needed to drive compliance. But the mood music has changed.


This week, the chances of a radical land reform bill just got a whole lot better.