The Scottish Tenant Farmers Association issued the following media release today.

WITHOUT ACTION, FARM EVICTIONS WILL BECOME SCOTLAND’S SHAME

The Scottish Tenant Farmers Association has welcomed the focus given to land and tenancy reform at last week’s SNP conference and the clear signal from SNP grassroots support for strengthening the land reform proposals in the current bill.  The delegate’s call followed a powerful documentary on Channel 4 TV which highlighted what are seen as some of the worst areas of bad land and estate management in Scotland.

The conference also heard pleas to halt the impending eviction of tenant farmer Andrew Stoddart whose tenancy on Colstoun Mains in East Lothian is due to come to an end in a few short weeks.  Andrew Stoddart, who also spoke at a fringe event, is the first of the Salvesen Riddell tenants to be forced to quit their farms following the Remedial Order passed by the Scottish Parliament last year.

Commenting on the grassroots “rebellion” at the SNP conference, STFA Chairman Christopher Nicholson said: “STFA has been concerned that the government may have been wilting in the face of intense pressure from landed interests, intent on weakening what can only be seen as an already diluted bill.  We hope that this message from the conference will strengthen the government’s resolve to deliver more radical and much needed reforms to create fairer conditions for tenant farmers, stimulating investment on agriculture, greater access to land and encouraging opportunities for new entrants.”

STFA has also become appalled at the recent treatment of tenant farmers affected by the Salvesen Riddell Remedial Order, including Andrew Stoddart who faces imminent eviction without having had the opportunity to take part in the government’s mediation process or be considered for any recompense which should be due from the government following the implementation of the Remedial Order.

STFA Director, Angus McCall who has been involved in the Salvesen Riddell debacle for the last few years said: “This whole episode has become Scotland’s shame which has seen the victims of a legal error hung out to dry by uncaring government lawyers and an inflexible government process.

“This tragic episode stemmed from legislation passed in 2003 which was proved to be defective.  The UK Supreme Court then instructed the Scottish parliament to remedy the situation and, as a consequence, 8 families will lose their farms and livelihoods.  However, rather than seeking to fulfil commitments made by government to parliament and the industry,  government lawyers are abdicating all responsibility and liability and refusing point blank to consider any compensation package for the affected tenants.  These tenants are now faced with a lengthy and expensive court battle to exert their rights.

“STFA has already written, and is writing again to the First Minister, Cabinet Secretary, Richard Lochhead, the RACCE committee and MSPs to get the matter resolved and allow these tenants and their families to move their lives on, but all to no avail.  Ministers, MSPs and some officials have expressed a willingness to help, but seem to be held to ransom by lawyers.

“We all appreciate that this is a complex situation, but the rulers of this country must accept a moral responsibility for the damage done though the actions of a previous government to these families and move without further delay to find a way towards an equitable settlement rather than forcing them into a long drawn out, expensive and life sapping legal battle.  This has been devastating for all concerned and, after 18 months of prevarication, the tenants’ lives are still on hold and they are no further on in knowing their future.

“This affair has been a well-kept secret, but it must be time for the Scottish people to wake up and realise what is going on and allow common decency and a sense of fair play to prevail and put an end to this sorry affair before any lives are tragically lost as has happened in the past?”

On Thursday evening last week, Channel 4 news broadcast the above 11 minute film on land reform in Scotland. It’s worth a watch. It highlights, among other things, how grassroots members of the SNP are campaigning for a more vigorous approach to land reform.

The film was broadcast on the first day of the SNP conference where I was a speaker at a fringe meeting hosted by the League Against Cruel Sports as one of the co-authors of a report on the intensification of grouse moor management. I was also scheduled to speak at an unofficial fringe meeting on land reform on Friday evening.

I noticed that there was a debate at the conference on a motion which congratulated the Scottish Government on its land reform and community empowerment bills. (1) I had heard that amendments had been submitted to the conference organising committee but that they had not been accepted for debate. I knew that some delegates were frustrated. So, when the security guard was gazing out the window, I sneaked past and into the main hall to listen to the debate. It lasted 42 minutes and if you click on the video above it will play from the beginning at 1:15:25.

I knew something was up when a young man called Nicky Lowden MacCrimmon took to the stage (at 1:25:45) to propose that the motion be remitted back for further consideration. Coming after workable contributions from two Ministers, Aileen McLeod and Marco Biagi, Nicky made it very clear that the grassroots membership were not satisfied with the ambitions of the party leadership. Here’s a flavour of his contribution.

“This motion talks about a road to radical land reform and I don’t think as a party we can say we’re being as radical as we can be, as we should be and as we have the powers to be right now.

I cannot support the motion wholly as I and many other grassroots members of the SNP believe that our vision for land reform is not radical enough and that we’ve not had an opportunity to debate that as a party and think where are we going to go with land reform.”

[Claps from audience]

“Does radical land reform leave 750,000, three-quarters of a million acres of Scotland, in the hands of unaccountable, nameless corporations based in tax havens across the globe? No, it doesn’t and we have the power to change that now.”

[More claps and whoops]

Does radical land reform leave tenant farmers with no right to buy, no security of tenure – farmers who have invested in that land, worked that land for generations, who have kids in the local school, who contribute to local economies being told your tenancy’s up, find somewhere else to live, work, raise a family. No it doesn’t and we have the power to change that now.

[Claps]

At the end of the debate, the delegates voted to remit the motion back by 570 votes to 440.

Nicky had watched the Channel 4 broadcast and later told broadcaster, Lesley Riddoch,

Seeing Andrew Stoddart on TV and the stories from Islay just made me think someone has to say something. It was one of those, ‘if not me then who, and if not now, then 
when?’ ” moments. I take it very personally when the SNP is characterised as feart or bottling it on radical land reform. I know this isn’t how people feel in my branch or on social media. What I stood up and said was what other members have been saying to me.”

Jen Stout (here) and Calum McLeod (here) both blog about the aftermath of this debate whilst Lesley Riddoch discusses it and the unofficial fringe we held in Aberdeen with tenant farmer Andrew Stoddart in her podcast here.

I will publish a blog on the offshore tax havens issue tomorrow. See here.

NOTE

(1) See motion here.

Image: Land Reform Minister, Aileen McLeod at launch of Land Reform Bill with Carluke Development Trust. Photo by Scottish Government.

UPDATE 13 August 2015 My Written Evidence to the Rural Affairs Committee

The Land Reform (Scotland) Bill was published by the Scottish Parliament on 22 June 2014. The Rural Affairs, Environment and Climate Change Committee has issued a call for evidence on the general principles of the Bill at its Stage 1 scrutiny in Parliament. The call for evidence closes at 1700hrs on Friday 14 August 2015.

I have prepared a Briefing on the Bill designed to provide a non-exhaustive analysis and to help those wishing to submit evidence.

The Bill forms part of a much wider programme of land reform. Other ongoing work by government includes reform to succession law, council tax, private rented housing, land registration and compulsory purchase law. The Bill should thus be seen as part of a wider programme and not the sum total of land reform measures. It should also be stressed that, as the first two parts of the Bill make clear, land reform is a process that will necessarily not be concluded by the end of this Parliament. Indeed it will probably take a generation before Scotland’s land governance is set on anything like a modern footing.

The Bill itself contains welcome measures and these are analysed in the briefing. The most worrying aspect of the Bill as it stands is the abandonment of proposals made in the December 2014 Consultation to bar companies in offshore tax havens from holding title to land and property in Scotland. This would have been a progressive move and one in which Scotland could have been taking the lead in a UK context. Instead, the Bill proposes a meaningless right to request information.

Last month, Private Eye revealed that over 750,000 acres of land in Scotland – an area larger than Ayrshire – was held in tax havens. It applauded Nicola Sturgeon for taking a lead in tackling the problem. Their enthusiasm was premature.

Prime Minister David Cameron has announced plans to publish details of offshore corporate ownership in the English and Welsh Land Registry and pressure from NGOs like Transparency International to clamp down on the use of offshore shell companies is proving effective in westminster. The Scottish Government, however, now finds itself being outflanked by the Tories in efforts to crack down on secrecy and tax evasion. The Scottish Parliament has an important role in scrutinising exactly why this has happened.

Other parts of the Bill are broadly welcome though important matters remain to be debated further as the Bill proceeds through Parliament.