In relation to my previous post discussion the Stage 1 report on the Long Leases (Scotland) Bill, it is only right that I should also highlight the Stage 1 report on the Land Registration etc. (Scotland) Bill published on 6 March 2012.
In contrast to the pathetic vacillating Long Leases report, the Land Registration report is clear and decisive in its recommendations. I don’t agree with all of them in the same way that I don’t agree with all of the Long Leases Bill recommendations. But that is neither here nor there. The members of the Economy, Energy and Tourism Committee have at least produced a report that actually says something.
That said, I am inclined to agree with much of what Brian Wilson has to say in his column in the West Highland Free Press last week. I, too found Fergus Ewing’s evidence of 8 February 2012 bizarre on many counts.
For example, in Column 966 in relation to land-grabbing and a non domino titles and the proposal that ownerless land should be auctioned rather than simply grabbed, he makes the following astonishing claim.
“I find the proposal that there should be auctions quite extraordinary. Are we really suggesting that the person with the deepest pockets should be able to claim and secure ownership of land in Scotland? That seems to be a very strange proposal.
Having said that, I accept that it is a perfectly fair question. I cannot say how much time was spent considering all those options before the bill was introduced, but I can say with absolute candour and honesty that, before the bill was introduced, I spent zero minutes and zero seconds studying the issue that has been raised. That is simply because it seemed to me that there were far more important matters of public policy to consider.” (Column 966)
I am not sure how much Fergus Ewing is aware of how land is bought and sold in Scotland but the last time I looked, the ownership of vast tracts of his own constituency of Inverness East, Nairn & Lochaber were being claimed and secured by people (a number of them in offshore tax havens) by those with the deepest pockets.
His observations on access to the Registers of Scotland are also worth noting. I have argued that the public should be able to consult the registers online at no cost (see my written evidence here). This would involve depriving the Registers of Scotland of £2,604,000 income or 5.3% of its total operating income in 2010/11. This would be made up from an increase in charges and fees forming the bulk of the rest of the Registers of Scotland income. Since the Registers is a trading fund and raises all the money it spends with no public funds provided to the organisation, such a move would leave the public finances entirely unaffected.
This did not stop the Minister in oral evidence (col 962 of 8 February evidence) that,
“That is a perfectly fair inquiry to make, but it is also fair to say that in the overall scheme of things in public services in Scotland ”the national health service, teachers, the police and fire services and so on” such inquiries are not a top priority for the taxpayer to pay for, one way or another. A fee is reasonable. We want fees to be as low as possible and consideration is being given to improved IT systems in that regard.”
But the taxpayer would not pay for such enquiries for the reasons I outline above.
The Stage 1 debate took place on 14 March 2012 – Official Report here.