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.”