This Wednesday the Rural Affairs, Climate Change and Environment Committee (RACCE) holds it first meeting to consider amendments to the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill at Stage 2. Once the Committee has completed Stage, its amended Bill will go forward to Stage 3 to be debated and further amended by a sitting of the whole Parliament.

This blog is a brief update on where we are with the one provision that has been the subject of much debate and where the RACCE themselves want the bill strengthened – namely the Part 3 provisions on transparency over who controls corporate entities that own land.

BRIEF HISTORY

Proposals to make it incompetent for non-EU companies to own land and to make declarations of beneficial ownership of companies mandatory in the Land Register were tabled during the passage of the Land Registration (Scotland) Act 2012 but were rejected by the Scottish Government.

– The Land Reform Review Group recommended that such a measure be adopted to improve transparency in the ownership of land.

– The Land Reform Bill consultation in December 2014 sought views on the proposal and it was widely endorsed by consultees.

– The Land Reform Bill was published in June 2015 but did not contain provision for such a bar. Instead, it contained a mechanism whereby questions could be asked about the beneficial ownership of companies in tax havens and elsewhere but there is no obligation on such jurisdictions to co-operate.

– The RACCE Committee took evidence on the Bill and, in its Stage One report, recommended that the original proposal be introduced to the Bill.

– Scottish Ministers responded to the Stage One report by, once again, rejecting the non-EU proposal on the grounds (they argue) that it is outwith the competence of the Scottish Parliament.

– Scottish Ministers then last week announced that they would be tabling an amendment at Stage 3 [link to letter] that would create a public register of person who exert control of companies that one land. The amendment would merely be a regulation making power with the details of how such a register would operate being left to the next Parliament to draft and enact.

AMENDMENTS

We now have three distinct proposals for the way ahead with regard to transparency – two amendments to be considered this Wednesday (see full text here) and one amendment to be tabled at Stage 3.

Graeme Dey (SNP) Amendments 29, 30 and 36

The first is a series of amendments in the name of Graeme Dey MSP (numbers. 29, 30 and 36) to the Bill that would require the beneficial owner or “controlling interest” in any corporate entity (not just non-EU ones) to declare their identity in a new section of the Land Register (Amendments 29 and 36 merely remove existing Sections 35 and 36. Amendment 30 is the substantive amendment). This is not a bar to non-EU entities but is a disclosure provision to be incorporated in the Land Register. Verification of the identity of the beneficial owner will still be tricky but appropriate penalties can act as a deterrent. This amendment has ben developed following considerable effort by Megan McInnes of Global Witness and Peter Peacock of Community land Scotland.

Patrick Harvie MSP (Scottish Green Party) Amendments 105 and 106

Patrick Harvie has tabled an amendment (Nos. 105 & 106) that reinstate the bar to non-EU corporate entities and fulfils the original recommendations of the Land Reform Review Group,  the December 2014 consultation paper and the  RACCE Stage one Report. Whilst some EU disclosure requirements are not fully transparent, bringing corporate entities “onshore” exposes them to the ongoing work across the EU to improve transparency through a variety of processes such as the requirements of the Fourth Anti-Money Laundering Directive that requires member states to establish registers of beneficial ownership of companies.

The Scottish Government Amendment

The Scottish Ministers will table an amendment at Stage 3 to replace Sections 35 and 36 and introduce a new regulation making power for Ministers to establish a “Register of Controlling Interests in Land”. The details of this register, what it would contain, how it would operate and how compliance would be enforced would then be the subject of secondary legislation to be introduced in the next Parliament. It is thus hard to know what is involved with this proposal and there will be no time for any debate as it will be introduced at Stage 3. Critically, it is not clear whether Ministers are proposing yet another Register or whether they are open to the idea within Graeme Dey’s amendments to make such disclosure part of the Land Register and thus visible on the title to ownership of the land.

I hope that RACCE will support both Graeme Dey and Patrick Harvie’s amendments. They provide a “double lock” arrangement whereby tax havens are outlawed as jurisdictions within which land and property in Scotland can be owned AND those entities registered within the EU are obliged to publish details of the controlling interests on the face of Land Register titles.

If you wish to support these amendments, contact any member(s) of RACCE and tell them you support amendments 29, 30, 30, 105 and 106. Contact details are here.

The Inverness Courier today reported that the Qatari royal family has bought the 544 acre Eileen Aigas & Ruttle Wood estate in Inverness-shire. it was sold to a company called GoldenRod Ltd. registered in Jersey in September 2015 for £7 million.

Goldenrod Ltd. is owned by OH Securities Ltd. and R&H Investments Ltd. both registered in Jersey. Those companies are both owned by R&H Trust Co. (Jersey) Ltd. which itself is owned by OH Securities Ltd. and R&H Investments Ltd. plus a third – Woodbourne Nominees Ltd. which is also owned by the company (R&H Trust Co. (Jersey) Ltd.) which owns it.

This opaque ownership structure means that it is impossible to verify who the beneficial owner of the company is although the same opaque structure was used to acquire the Cluny Estate in Inverness-shire last year – see previous blog on topic.

Whether such secrecy is a satisfactory state of affairs is in sharp focus right now as the Land Reform (Scotland) Bill is scrutinised at Stage 2 in the Scottish Parliament and amendments will be tabled to either make such ownership structures illegal or to require that the beneficial ownership is revealed. Whether those amendments succeed or not will be down to MSPs to decide. See here and here for background.

In January, I blogged about the opaque ownership of Kildrummy Estate in Aberdeenshire. A gamekeeper, George Mutch, had been convicted of wildlife crime. Under Section 24 of the Wildlife and Natural Environment (Scotland) Act 2011, an employer or agent of George Mutch can be charged with vicarious liability.

I asked a simple question – against whom would such a charge be brought? The estate is owned by Kildrummy (Jersey) Ltd. and, having outlined the complex ownership structure of Kildrummy (Jersey) Ltd. (see below and January blog for a full explanation), I speculated that the Crown Office might have a job on its hands to determine who (if anyone) could be prosecuted.

This week, thanks to the diligent and dogged investigative work undertaken by Raptor Persecution Scotland (RPS), we are now closer to answering that question. In  September 2015, the Crown Office told RPS that,

“Despite further investigations including investigations which focused on establishing vicarious liability, no-one else has been reported to COPFS in relation to the events which took place in Kildrummy Estate in 2012 and accordingly, no further prosecution, including any prosecution for a vicarious liability offence, has taken place

RPS followed this up by asking Police Scotland why they had been unable to report anyone to the Crown Office who might be considered to be vicariously liable for the crime carried out by George Mutch. Police Scotland’s response was published by RPS yesterday. The key part of Police Scotland’s reply is as follows

“Significant international investigations were undertaken……..it was established that due to insufficient evidence the additional charge of Vicarious Liability could not be libelled“.

This suggests that it was impossible, within the resources available to investigators, to identify with sufficient certainty who is actually behind Kildrummy (Jersey) Ltd. The Police may well know who could be libelled for the offence but had insufficient evidence to connect that person with Kildrummy (Jersey) Ltd. for the simple reason that is is virtually impossible to ascertain the answer to that question. If the Police, with the full range of investigatory powers available to them (including powers to force the Jersey authorities to divulge what information they hold), cannot find that answer, it is hard to see how anyone else might be able to.

Beyond the implications for wildlife crime legislation (and the Police note that “The experience of this case has, however, identified opportunities for refining future Vicarious Liability investigations….”), this raises questions about Scottish Government policy in relation to the offshore ownership provisions in the Land Reform Bill.

In a blog – Scottish Land and Secrecy Jurisdictions -from last month, I refuted the Scottish Government’s arguments as to why they could and would not implement the recommendation by the Land Reform Review Group and the proposal in their own consultation paper to restrict the registration of land by legal persons (companies etc) to those registered within the EU. The provisions currently set out in Sections 35 and 36 of the Bill merely allow authorised persons to ask the Keeper of the Registers of Scotland to, in turn, ask further questions about the true ownership of companies in secrecy jurisdictions. It is a meaningless provision since authorities in Jersey, British Virgin Islands and Grand Cayman are under no obligation to provide any answers. If even the Police cannot find such answers, what hope has the Keeper?

Included in the Scottish Government’s reasoning was a bullet point 3 that

There is no clear evidence base to establish that the fact that land is owned by a company or legal entity that is registered or incorporated outside the EU has caused detriment to an individual or community.”

The Kildrummy case is prima facie evidence of precisely the circumstances in which opaque ownership in a secrecy jurisdiction has caused detriment – specifically to the ability of the Police to gather the necessary evidence to pursue a prosecution under an important statute passed by the Scottish Parliament.

Had Kildrummy Estate been owned by a company registered in the EU, the Directors of that company would be easily identified and could have been charged with vicarious liability.

The Rural Affairs, Environment and Climate Change Committee is currently preparing its Stage One report into the Land Reform Bill due to be published in early December. It might like to reflect on the Kildrummy case