09. March 2021 · 9 comments · Categories: Politics

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I will be a regional list candidate for the Highlands and Islands in the Scottish Parliamentary election in May 2021.

To be elected, I will need around 15,000 votes. I have launched a Crowdfunder to raise £10,000 to pay for the development of a digital campaigning platform, newsletters and media and communications support. PLEASE do consider making a donation. https://www.crowdfunder.co.uk/andy-wightman-for-highlands-and-islands

As an Independent Candidate permanently based in Lochaber (from 26 March 2021), I am offering you the opportunity to vote for experience, integrity, independent thinking, a commitment to strengthening local democracy and a track record of success.

My background is as a land rights campaigner, author, and researcher. Since the early 1990s, I have worked with communities across the Highlands and Islands supporting them to achieve more local control of land and resources. For the past 5 years, I have been an MSP for Lothian Region.

Holyrood needs more independent voices. Over the past 5 years, I have campaigned successfully on a range of issues.

As an MSP (2016-21), I led the successful legal challenge in the European Court of Justice that ruled that Article 50 could be unilaterally revoked.

I launched the Homes First campaign to better regulate short-term lets and successfully led opposition to the latest regulations that adversely affect Bed and Breakfast businesses.

I introduced a Bill to incorporate the European Charter of Local Self-Government to strengthen local democracy. It will be voted on at its final stage in Parliament within the next few weeks.

I have championed tenants’ rights and the need for more affordable housing including the desperate need to make land available at affordable prices reflecting its existing use value.

As a long-standing land campaigner (author of Who Owns Scotland 1996 & The Poor Had No Lawyers 2010), a focus of my election campaign will be a Land for the People Bill to reform Scotland’s antiquated land laws and democratise the ownership and use of land and property.

Standing for election as an Independent is extremely challenging. I have no party machine, no corporate donors, and no party members to support me.

I will be relying on a digital, grassroots campaign to win support and spread the word of my candidacy to others. I will need 15,000 votes to be in with a chance of winning a seat.

IMPORTANT INFORMATION

Donations will be made to Andy Wightman.

For the purposes of complying with electoral law, I need to collect information on donors.

Anyone donating over £50 is deemed to have made a regulated donation and will be subject to permissibility checks.

All such regulated donations will have to be reported to the Electoral Commission in my election return.

This is a brief blog to explain the background to the rented housing amendments I lodged at Stage 2 of the Coronavirus (Scotland) (No.2) Bill on Tuesday 19 May and those I intend to lodge at Stage 3 to be considered on Wednesday 20 May.

The Coronavirus (Scotland) (No.2) Bill is the second piece of emergency legislation to come before the Scottish Parliament. The first was the Coronavirus (Scotland) Act passed in a single day on 1 April.

Both pieces of legislation are designed to respond to the challenges posed by Covid-19 and typically make some administrative changes to how the courts and public bodies work as well as some more substantive policy changes in housing, licensing and justice.

Many people are facing new hardships due to job losses, declines in incomes and wider insecurities. These include renters who, like everyone else, are required to stay at home but whose security in their home its subject to laws on housing tenancies and the attitudes of landlords.

Responding to this, the first Act extended the period of notice required to be given by a landlord to a tenant if they wished to evict them. This was designed to ensure that renters could not be evicted during the pandemic. These reforms, however, did nothing to stop evictions being initiated during the so-called emergency period. I lodged a series of amendments to prohibit any evictions being sought during the crisis (not simply require longer notice periods). These amendments were rejected by Parliament.

Since 1 April it has become clear that longer notice periods will not be sufficient to deal with the hardship likely to be faced by many tenants – hardships that will extend beyond the emergency period when landlords will, if nothing changes, be within their rights to seek to evict tenants once again on the grounds of rent arrears that may have accrued as a result of hardship during the crisis.

So, when the new Coronavirus (Scotland) (No.2) Bill was introduced to Parliament on Monday 11 May I took the opportunity to propose amendments that would seek to deal with the post-covid period. I notified the Housing Minister on Tuesday 12 May of my intentions and invited him to discuss my proposed amendments with a view to potentially supporting them at Stage 2 (or stating why he could not).

I received no response.

Thus I lodged amendments 16-20 which did four main things.

Amendment 16 established a tenant Hardship Fund to respond to tenants in particularly acute distress.

Amendment 17 sought to freeze rents for two years.

Amendment 18 provided that in certain circumstances (to be seat out by Ministers) rent liability for some tenants facing particular hardship could be extinguished.

Amendments 19 and 20 were deigned to ensure that any rent areas accrued during the crisis would continue to be payable to landlords but could not be ground for eviction. This would prevent tenants losing their home but they would continue to be liable to pay any rent arrears accrued.

A number of parties including social housing interests wrote to the Committee with their concerns. I was not copied in to any of these representations and thus was unable to respond to them.

All the amendments were defeated by SNP and Conservative members of the Committee with the Liberal Democrat member supporting three of them and opposing two of them.

The arguments can be seen in the draft Official Report of the Meeting. All the housing amendments were dealt with at the beginning of the meeting.

Debate now moves onto Stage 3, the amendment deadline for which is 0930 on Wednesday 20 April. I am lodging a similar suite of amendments again but further amended to reflect objections made at Stage 2.

Amendment 16 will be taken forward by Pauline McNeill MSP (note that these numbers relate to the Stage 2 amendments, the amendment numbers for Stage 3 will be different)

Amendment 17 will now apply only to the private rented sector and the baseline date will be 1 April so as not to disadvantage landlords who have reduced rents during the crisis.

Amendment 18 now makes clear that writing off rents is only for tenants facing unusual or extreme hardship and it will be for Ministers to define this in regulations. It is NOT and NEVER was framed as a broad writing off of rent.

Amendments 19 and 20 now apply only to the private rented sector and make explicit that arrears can only be disregarded for the purpose of evictions (but remain payable) if the arrears are directly liked to coronavirus.

The redrafted amendments focus the intentions more explicitly, respond to objections and remain a modes but important suite of reforms designed to afford proportionate protections to tenants facing hardship because of factors beyond their control.

Scotland still lags behind many continental European countries in tenants rights and politicians continue to instinctively protect propertied interests rather than the interests of tenants. Since the propertied class have assets, they are relatively well off. For tenants, however, we are talking about their homes, the schools their children attend and the jobs they have. Tenants stand to possibly lose all of this and be kicked out of their homes. Landlords will still have a valuable asset.

It is time to stand up for the human right to a home.

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.