Sunlight or shadows – will the Government’s new public register of land ownership be effective in improving transparency?

by Megan MacInnes, Land Adviser with Global Witness

Yesterday the Scottish Government announced that their solution to the problem of not knowing who is behind the opaque corporate structures owning Scotland’s land was to create a public register of those who control land, (media release here and letter to RACCE here) as part of the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill currently passing through parliament. This step should be broadly welcomed and is a significant step forward from the previous proposals in the Bill to improve transparency of Scottish land ownership.

On paper this announcement appears close to the improvements to transparency of land ownership which I blogged about two weeks ago, but is it really as good as it sounds?

No-one disputes that not knowing who is really behind major swathes of land in Scotland is a problem. It prevents local communities living on or affected by land from contacting the true owner if they have a problem (rather than an anonymous shell company), it prevents law enforcement agencies from investigating crimes and it’s ironic that having won the right to roam, Scotland’s citizens don’t have the right to know who truly controls and makes decisions about the land they are walking on.

In a letter accompanying the Government’s announcement, Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Aileen McLeod MSP, describes their intention to “requir[e] the public disclosure of information about persons who make decisions about the use of land in Scotland and have a controlling interest in land”.

However, the devil is certainly in the detail and there are many ways in which this commitment may not provide us with what we really need to know about who truly owns Scotland’s land. The potential for loopholes and exemptions which would render this register meaningless are substantial.

Most importantly (and let’s get the boring technical stuff out of the way first) this register needs to consist of the “person(s) of significant control” of the legal entities owning land in Scotland. This term is the technical definition of what’s more commonly known as “beneficial ownership” and means that what is registered are the names of the individual people who either own or control land in Scotland. This term already applies in Scotland through a UK-wide register of company beneficial ownership which was introduced in 2015. Adopting this technical definition is the only way to ensure the register will include what we need it to.

This register has the potential to finally shine a light on some of Scotland’s most shadowy corporate entities, for example Scottish Limited Partnerships and the shell company structures used to hide land ownership in Scotland in overseas tax havens and secrecy jurisdictions. Therefore, it’s essential that there are no loopholes or exemptions which these kinds of corporate vehicles can exploit.

The register should of course be free and fully publicly accessible.

We also have questions about process. What the Government’s proposal does is push the more difficult discussions into the next Parliament. So it’s important that the Bill describes the register in robust enough language that it cannot be later watered down, as well as introducing a firm duty and deadline by which the regulations providing for this register have to be adopted.

One major question remains however – why the Government has proposed this register to be separate from the Land Register? My earlier guest blog outlined the reasons why expanding the Land Register requirements to include beneficial ownership appears to be the simplest and most administratively straightforward route to achieving this goal.

But still – what a difference a week makes. This announcement has completely changed the terms of the debate about transparency in land ownership in Scotland and this can only be good. What we need now though are tough ideas and quick thinking to close potential loopholes and ensure this commitment once and for all brings Scottish land ownership out of the shadows.

Transparency in the Land Reform Bill: the only effective solution is disclosing the human being, the ‘beneficial owner’, behind companies owning land

by Megan MacInnes, Land Advisor with Global Witness

The Scottish Government has responded to the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee’s Stage One Report on the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill and rejected its recommendation that companies that wish to own land in Scotland should be retired within an EU member state. I will be publishing a wider commentary on this in the next few days. In this Guest Blog, Megan MacInnes, Land Advisor with Global Witness, explores this issue and recommends an alternative solution.

As the new year brings us to the next stage in the debate over the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill, one issue continues to be controversial – whether we shall get to learn who really owns Scotland’s land?

This controversy relates to the fact that large areas of Scotland are owned by companies registered in secrecy jurisdictions known for providing anonymity from the prying eyes of the State and public scrutiny. The Government has made repeated commitments that this Bill will improve transparency of land ownership, but the measures proposed so far have been widely criticised. In their Stage 1 report on the Bill, the members of the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment (RACCE) Committee concluded that “people in Scotland have a right to know who owns, controls and benefits from the land” but that currently the relevant sections of the Bill would “not achieve the policy objectives of improving transparency of land ownership”.

So if the Bill’s current proposals are not enough, what more can be done? Most of the discussions so far have focused on the proposal (originally made by the Land Reform Review Group) to require anyone who wants to buy land in Scotland via a company, to have to have incorporated that company within the EU. But a simpler and more direct solution exists with the potential to be much for effective in letting us really know who owns Scotland’s land – the requirement that when you register a land title with the Land Register under the name of a company, you also have to provide the names of the human beings who own or control that company. Technically, this means the registration of the ‘beneficial owner(s)’ of the company.

The RACCE Committee recommended both requirements be introduced to the Bill. In its response the Government ruled out the EU company registration requirement entirely but with regard to the requirement to register the names of the people owning or controlling those companies, the Government stated that there are “many complex legal and practical issues” being considered and that they will respond in more detail in due course.

The Bill’s current provisions for transparency, under what it calls the “right of access to information on persons in control of land” in fact provide no ‘rights’ at all. Section 35 enables only those who can prove they are directly affected by a landowner to submit a request about who owns or controls that land to a so-far unidentified “request authority”, who would then attempt to obtain that information. Section 36 enables the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland to also make such requests. Applications for such information are first made to the landowner, but if there’s no response then it is expected (but not specified in the Bill) that the request will be passed on to the authorities of the jurisdiction where the company owning the land is registered.

Not only are these ‘rights’ to request such information limited, they will not even work in practice. Neither provision require the landowner to hand such details over, but more importantly, these powers are meaningless in the secrecy jurisdictions where many companies owning land in Scotland are registered. This is because the reputations and economies of these jurisdictions (including Overseas Territories and Crown Dependencies of the UK) depend on providing safe haven and anonymity from prying eyes. These jurisdictions either are only able to share such information with tax authorities (for example, Jersey and the Cayman Islands, where the 71,000 acre Glanavon and Braulen Estate is registered), or are where the relevant authorities don’t maintain company ownership details in official records (for example, Panama, where the 56,000 acre Loch Ericht Estate is registered). Consequently any requests made by either the Keeper or request authority for information on who actually owns either estate will almost certainly be turned down.

The most comprehensive solution to knowing who owns Scotland’s land lies instead in publicly disclosing the names of those who ultimately own or benefit from the company which is buying the land, as the title is being registered. In doing so, the Scottish Government brings these transparency requirements directly within its own purview, rather than relying on the regulations of other countries. It also includes such requirements within existing administrative procedures, rather than burdening the Keeper and request authority with the task of trying to identify who is behind endless structures of shell companies expertly hidden away. If based on the model of the Crofting Register, then we’d not only learn about those behind newly owned parcels of land as they are registered, but this information would also be updated every time the smaller details of the title changed, so-called trigger or update events.

Ironically, despite the RACCE committee’s recognition of the right of people in Scotland to know who owns land in their Stage 1 report on the Bill, much greater consideration so far has been paid to how such transparency provisions would impact on the rights of landowners to privacy and property. Under the European Convention of Human Rights article eight protects an individual’s right to privacy and article one of protocol one protects the right to property. But, neither is absolute; States are allowed to interfere with both, as long as it is in the public interest and such action is proportionate – by which they mean that what is proposed will achieve the desired objective and is deemed to be reasonably necessary.

The public interest arguments for this disclosure are clear and supported widely across Scotland, including associations representing land owners. A number of existing laws and policies (not least the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 and other sections of the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill) are likely to be compromised unless we have full knowledge of the ownership of land. But more broadly, land use and its management impacts on all of Scotland’s citizens and therefore there’s a legitimate reason for why everyone should have access to such information. For example, our participation in public consultations, such as the current one underway on Scotland’s 2016-2021 Land Use Strategy, are hindered by not knowing who owns land or the land-use decisions they are making.

Would such a change in the registration requirement also be proportionate? Asking those who ultimately own or benefit from land in Scotland to disclose their names to the Land Register is the most straight forward way to access that information. Critically, it is the only measure available which the Scottish Government can itself enforce.

So it appears that we shall not learn if we are ever to find out who owns Scotland’s land until the Government tables its amendments to the Bill on the 13th January. It’s hard to imagine how the continued anonymity behind such large areas of our land and heritage can continue to be justified. But until the human beings behind anonymous shell companies used to own land are required to disclose themselves, we may be left within nothing in this Bill but empty promises.

The Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee (RACCE) of the Scottish Parliament published its Stage One Report on the general principles of the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill on 4th December. The plenary Stage One debate will take place in the Scottish Parliament on Wednesday 16th December.

The Report is thoughtful and considered. I don’t agree with all its conclusions but it provides might food for thought during the Stage 2 deliberations when the Bill is scrutinised in detail and amendments considered.

With the steadily growing interest in land reform, it is important at the outset to make clear that this Bill is not the sum total of land reform and cannot be expected of itself to deliver the kind of radical change that many are seeking. Further reform in land taxation, inheritance law, housing tenure and compulsory purchase are all being progressed separately. In addition, the demand to make the Bill more radical is constrained. Generally speaking, it is difficult to add a lot of new provisions to a bill as it is going through parliament.

Having said that by way of preamble, what of the Committee’s report? In this blog I highlight some of the points that strike me as interesting and explain why, in one part of the Bill, the Committee has come to very mis-informed conclusions.

As more and more people and organisations engage with the fundamentals of land reform (changing the legal, fiscal and governance framework for how land rights are defined, distributed and exercised), a range of refreshing perspectives is emerging. Two of these relate to inequalities and human rights.

NHS Scotland submitted valuable evidence on health inequalities and how land reform can both help to overcome some of these but can also be exacerbated if existing patterns or inequality are not confronted. Similar observations were made by Professor Annette Hastings during the passage of the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act. The Committee makes important recommendations (90-93) on this topic which will help to ensure that equalities become a core part of land reform in the decades ahead.

Human rights is also an area that has received significantly more attention in relation to land rights in recent years. Community Land Scotland provided valuable focus on this in its Bunchrew Declaration from 2014 which highlighted the range of human rights issues associated with land reform. These go far beyond the traditional and rather narrow concerns of the protection of property rights in Article 1 of Protocol 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) which is embedded in the Scotland Act 1998. This paper by Megan McInnes and Kirsteen Shields elaborates this point.

It is often overlooked that the observance and implementation of all international human rights instruments (indeed all international treaty obligations) that relate to devolved matters are within the competence of the Scottish Parliament (1).

Recommendations 121 and 122 helpfully address this important point.

Parts 1 and 2 of the Bill deal with the Land Rights and Responsibilities Statement and the Scottish Land Commission. Here, RACCE make some sensible recommendations that will clarify and improve the proposals in the Bill.

Part 3 deals with transparency of information about who owns land and, in particular the proposal originally contained in the December 2014 consultation that any owner of land in Scotland that was a legal vehicle such as a company or a trust should be registered in a member state of the EU. This proposal would end the ownership of land registered in tax havens such as Grand Cayman and Panama.

The Scottish Government has been very resistant (see here) to proceeding with this reform but the Committee recommends that it be looked at again and that it be applied retrospectively (thus existing non-EU entities would have to comply within a defined period of time). This is very welcome and should open up this important issue to further scrutiny.

Parts 4 and 5 on engagement with communities and the right to buy land for sustainable development. Again, the Committee’s recommendations are measured and helpful in improving the  detail of how these provisions will will work in practice.

Part 6 is one of the simplest and straightforward reforms in the Bill – the removal of the 1994 exemption from non-domestic rates (NDR) granted to shootings and deer forests. Here, the Committee has expressed strong criticism of the proposal to end this exemption and made a number of recommendations. In broad terms, it is not convinced of the case for removing the exemption because of the potential impacts this might have. In coming to this conclusion, however, the Committee appears to have been seriously misinformed by the special pleading of those who stand to be affected by the proposal and to have relied solely on assertions made in evidence from landowners, shooting interests and gamekeepers, all of whom predicted impacts on rural jobs, economic and communities if the exemption was removed.

A key error in the Committee’s conclusions is to view NDR as a tax on businesses. A number of opponents of the proposal were keen to persuade the Committee of this. Scottish Land and Estates, for example, in its written evidence to RACCE claimed that,

“The proposal completely fails to recognise that sporting rights per se are not in fact a business”

“We believe that there would be a negative impact on rural jobs, tourism and land management”

“For all subjects where the sporting rights are not exercised as a business, this produces the entirely illogical and potentially unlawful situation whereby business rates are being levied on subjects which are not in fact businesses.”

Non-domestic rates are not a tax on businesses. They are a property tax – a tax on the occupation of land and property and based upon the rental value of of land and property. Many businesses of course occupy land and property but NDR is not a tax on their business (newspaper shop or factory). It is the capture of part of the rental value of the land and property they occupy. NDR is paid by many occupiers that are not businesses such as cricket clubs and secondary schools. Even the Scottish Parliament pays NDR.

Paragraph 310 of the report states that –

The Committee seeks a thorough, robust and evidence-based analysis of the potential impacts of ending the sporting rates exemption (including what impact imposing the exemption had in 1995).

There is little need for such an assessment for the simple reason that the impact of any reform of property taxation is well understood. By definition it has no impact on environmental matters (it is not an environmental tax) and no impact on social matters (it is not a welfare or employment tax). Of course, no-one likes have to pay tax especially if it is a tax that someone had gained an exemption from. But the special pleading made by landed interests is little more than a veiled threat that if the exemption is ended, those responsible for paying it will choose to do things that might have negative effects (reduce environmental management inputs or reduce employment). The tax itself has no such impacts and the potential impacts are straightforward to determine.

The impact is succinctly described in the Mirrlees Report as follows (this is in relation to land value taxation but the impact is exactly the same for any tax on the occupation of land or property).

“The economic case for taxing land itself is very strong and there is a long history of arguments in favour of it. Taxing land ownership is equivalent to taxing an economic rent—to do so does not discourage any desirable activity. Land is not a produced input; its supply is fixed and cannot be affected by the introduction of a tax. With the same amount of land available, people would not be willing to pay any more for it than before, so (the present value of) a land value tax (LVT) would be reflected one-for-one in a lower price of land: the classic example of tax capitalisation. Owners of land on the day such a tax is announced would suffer a windfall loss as the value of their asset was reduced. But this windfall loss is the only effect of the tax: the incentive to buy, develop, or use land would not change. Economic activity that was previously worthwhile remains worthwhile.” (2)

When rates on shootings and deer forests were abolished in 1995, the impact then was straightforward. It resulted in a windfall gain for landowners either because their land rose in value as a consequence of the removal of the recurrent liability or they could extract more rent since the occupier (who paid the tax) was relieved of the liability and thus able to afford a higher rent whilst being no worse overall (the new rent equalled the previous rent plus rates).

Given that the Committee is not routinely involved in fiscal policy, it perhaps not surprising that it has swallowed the assertions of those whose evidence was based on a flawed understanding of property taxes.

Over the past 20 years, the owners of shootings and deer forests have been granted an exemption from tax that has had to be paid for by increasing the burden on other non-domestic ratepayers. Over the course of two decades they have profited from this tax break. It is entirely reasonable when public finances are tight that such exemptions (which exist for no good reason) should be removed.

The re-establishment of a local tax liability on land devoted to shooting and deer forests ends the indefensible abolition of this element of non-domestic rating by the Conservative Government in 1994. To most people, it might seem odd that, whilst the hair salon, village shop, pub and garage are subject to rating, deer forests and shootings pay nothing. To take one example, the Killilan deer forest near Kyle of Lochalsh is owned by Smech Properties Ltd., a company registered in Guernsey which, in turn, is owned by Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the King of Dubai and Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates.

Killeen was included on the valuation roll in 1994 at a rateable value of £3500. By comparison, the local caravan site had a rateable value of £3100. Today, the caravan site has a rateable value of £26,250 and pays £12,127 per year in rates whilst one of the worldʼs richest men, whose land is held in a tax haven has (unlike the local caravan site) paid no local rates for twenty years on the land he uses for shooting.

Why should caravan sites, pubs and local shops subsidise those who occupy shootings and deer forests? Non-domestic rates contribute to the revenue of local authorities used to pay for schools, roads, refuse collection, care homes, environmental and leisure provision and social care.

Back in the early 1990s, the abolition of the rates on shootings and deer-forests attracted considerable criticism at the time from opposition parties and by the then Chairs of Scotland’s Rating Valuation Tribunals who, in a memorandum to the Secretary of State for Scotland, wrote,

Sporting estates like to describe themselves, when it suits them as being part of a sporting industry. In fact they are part of an inefficient trade which pays inadequate attention to marketing their product, largely because profit is not the prime objective. 

These sporting estates change hands for capital sums which far exceed their letting value and which are of no benefit to the area, and are often bought because there are tax advantages to the purchaser, not necessarily in the UK.”

Dismissing the argument that sporting estates provide employment and should therefore be freed of the rates burden, the chairmen’s report points out that,

“..local staff are poorly paid, their wages bearing no relation to the capital invested in the purchase price, and it is not unusual to find a man responsible for an investment in millions being paid a basic agricultural wage. Many of the estates use short-term labour during the sporting season, leaving the taxpayer to pay their staff from the dole for the rest of the year. Estates can in many cases be deliberately run at a loss, thereby reducing their owner’s tax liability to central funds elsewhere in the UK.

Finally, the Committee is recommending analysing the impact of the exemption in 1995. Again, this is straightforward – the removal of the liability was capitalised into land values and resulted in windfall gains for existing owners. This was well understood at the time by landowners themselves.

In a letter written to members of the Scottish Landowners Federation in April 1995, the President, informed them that abolition make a “great success” for the Federation “culminating many years of negotiation”. “Many members will be relieved of substantial expense”, he observed and then went on to appeal to members to donate some of the windfall gains to the Federation to contribute to a contingency reserve that would be used, among other things to fight new environmental constraints “being imposed on certain classes of land” which, as a result “must lose some of its capital value”.

Members who were being “spared Sporting Rates” were invited to donate one third of their first year’s savings to the Federation. By June 1995, over £54,000 had been donated. It is not known if further appeals were launched.

Therefore, as far as the impact of the exemption is concerned, the windfall gains ended up in landowners pockets and some of it was used to fund lobbying activity.

Conclusions

The challenge for the Stage 1 debate is to address the observations made by RACCE and to clarify what further progress can be made to address them within this Bill. In addition, it is an opportunity to explore what outstanding issues (and there are many) might be addressed in the manifestos of the political parties for the 2016 Holyrood elections when Parliament will have a five year term to push ahead with further reform.

NOTES

(1) Schedule 5 Part I 7(2)(a) of the Scotland Act 1998

(2) See Chapter 16 of Mirrlees Report.