Speech: Land Reform Act – stop Scottish land being owned in offshore tax havens

The Scottish Parliament has voted in favour of the Land Reform Bill at Stage 1, allowing it to progress to the detailed committee stage. Jean spoke in the debate to call for a ban on Scottish land being owned outside the EU, especially in secretive jurisdictions like Caribbean tax havens. You can read more about that issue in a new report from RISE.

On this page you can read Jean’s speech, and watch the video of the debate – Jean’s contribution starts at 1:52:50. You can read the full transcript of the debate in the Scottish Parliament’s Official Report.

Jean Urquhart (Highlands and Islands) (Ind):

I would like to recommend a book that everybody should read in order to better understand the passion with which we should deal with land reform — Our Scots Noble Families, by Tom Johnston, who, famously, was possibly the best Secretary of State for Scotland we ever had. It explains how land was acquired by some of the landowners who are still there today.

There is no doubt that the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2003 was welcome and that it has only fed the desire for more and better legislation on land reform. I will not go over all the issues that have been covered by others, such as how the Highland estates that Rhoda Grant referred to came about, but I would like to challenge John Lamont’s point that it is the people who own the land who know best how to work it. In defence of landowners, he said that the state does not know best. I suggest that nothing that we are talking about here is about the state knowing best; it is about the fact that the people who live on the land and the communities that are there know best.

The evidence is there for all of us to see. Less than two weeks ago, the Pairc estate community achieved ownership of its 28,000 acres, and I have no doubt that it will follow Eigg, Assynt and Stòras Uibhist in getting more and more people to live on the land and creating more and more jobs. Such an arrangement benefits the people who live there and their community far more than does ownership by an absentee landowner, which was the situation with the Pairc estate until two weeks ago. I think that we should celebrate the fact that the community has achieved ownership of the Pairc estate after 13 years—that is how long it has taken it to get ownership of the land. If the bill means that no other community has to go through that, bring it on.

Jamie McGrigor (Highlands and Islands) (Con):

I think that Jean Urquhart might agree that we have had two acts on crofting that have not delivered very much for the crofters. Will she try to ensure that the Government makes certain that the bill will deliver for tenant farmers?

Jean Urquhart:

I thank Jamie McGrigor for raising that issue. We had the ludicrous situation in which somebody who owned 28,000 acres in Lewis was not required to meet any of the regulations that someone who owns 20 acres in Shetland or anywhere else has to meet. We must think about exactly what we are asking for. Of course we have argued for the crofting legislation to be changed, and of course the whole system needs to be reviewed, but that is not what we are arguing for in the bill.

I want to talk about tax havens and the link between corruption, offshore corporate property and land ownership. It is clearly established in a recent Transparency International report that:

“Land owned in offshore jurisdictions such as the British Virgin Islands, Jersey and Guernsey is particularly common in London, and 75% of properties under investigation for corruption are using offshore ownership to hide their identities.”

The problem is not confined to south-east England; another recent investigation found that as much as 750,000 acres in Scotland, most of it on Highland estates, is owned in offshore tax havens. That is a disgrace, and it potentially makes it impossible to find the real owners, which could be a series of shell companies and trusts. If they are registered in offshore secrecy jurisdictions, the legal means to reveal ownership is not available. Consequently, the land reform review group recommended strongly that the problem be tackled, saying that:

“the Scottish Government should make it incompetent for any legal entity not registered in a member state of the European Union to register title to land in the Land Register of Scotland, to improve traceability and accountability in the public interest.”

That is what many would like to happen.

Of course, Andy Wightman has long campaigned on and highlighted these issues, and, like the Government, he is clearly having some success in raising land reform as an issue. There is interest out there; indeed, more than 200 people emailed me about this debate, and I know that the same has happened to other members. The mass of people who responded to the consultation shows that individuals are recognising the injustice in this situation.

As late as the mid-1980s, we were paying a feudal tax to our feudal landlord on a very small bit of land in Ullapool — I think that I am right in saying that England stopped being a feudal country something like 400 years before. This legislation is therefore long overdue, because change is desperately needed. People must be able to access the land. The Stoddart family have been mentioned already, and I know of a school in north-west Sutherland that sits in the middle of a loch, which I thought was quite romantic until I discovered that it is there because the then landowner refused to give the people land for the school. When he was pressed by the council and told that a compulsory purchase order could be made, he offered the loch, which the people had to take.

There are many wrongs to be righted, and this bill is to be welcomed as the first step on that long road.