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20 January 2003
Fair play on land reform swept away in a torrent of prejudice
Scotland on Sunday
19 January 2003
YOU expect to be ticked off from time to time
if you venture your views in public. I am not complaining - those
who dish it out to others should expect to get it back by the bucketload.
So when the other day I criticised the way that the Scottish Parliament
was handling the Land Reform Bill which reaches its crucial Stage
Three this week, I was not surprised to be severely reprimanded.
Pauline McNeill, MSP, convener of the Justice
2 Committee which has been handling the pre-legislative process,
accused me, in a letter to this newspaper, of taking quotes out
of context and making it look as if her committee had been less
than thorough. Another member was more succinct. He described my
comments with a brief four-letter word which would not, I think,
be approved by the Presiding Officer if uttered on the floor of
I have, therefore, gone back to the scene of the
crime to see whether I should revise my views. Alas, what I have
learned has convinced me that, if anything, I understated the case.
For the record, I did not accuse the committee of being less than
thorough. What I did say was that it had been biased and unfair
in the way it heard evidence, that it had approached its task with
minds made up in advance, and that it had treated witnesses who
disagreed with the aims of the bill with a discourtesy that verged
on the hostile.
I pointed out that, while strong opinions are
to be expected in the course of parliamentary debate, the point
of the committee process is to distil evidence objectively, and
to listen to outside experts with respect. Because the Scottish
parliament has no second chamber, the committees must act as an
even-handed forum to ensure that legislation is fair and foolproof.
This, patently, has not happened. Numerous witnesses
have reported that the committee was unwilling to accept evidence
that conflicted with the bills main thrust, and that when
it came to representatives of the landowners, who are, of course,
the principal target of the legislation, they were treated with
ill-disguised contempt. By contrast, those in favour of reform were
accorded a respect that bordered on the deferential. When I questioned
one member about this, he suggested that was because the committee
knew the reformers well, while the landowners were an unknown quantity.
I should have thought that was a very good reason for reversing
the process - being tough on the reformers and listening hard to
what the landowners had to say.
There is, however, worse to come. It now seems that some organisations
opposed to the bill were simply not allowed to give evidence at
all. Next Wednesday, about 50 Highland river workers are travelling
down to Edinburgh from the North of Scotland to stage a protest
against the committees decision not to hear their point of
view. The committee decided not to take evidence from the Crofting
Counties Fishing Rights Group, which represents some 500 gillies,
river bailiffs and other river workers in the Highlands. They claim
that their jobs are at risk if the bills proposals to allow
local communities to buy up Highland salmon rivers are accepted.
Correspondence, which I have seen, shows that the group disputes
some of the key evidence given to the Committee, and strongly contests
At the same time, the Highlands and Islands Rivers
Association, which represents 500 river owners, has also been refused
access to the committee. The association represents the collective
expertise of those who have been managing salmon rivers in Scotland
for decades, even centuries. It believes that the legislation will
endanger the future prospects of these rivers and the fragile economy
they support. And yet its members were not even allowed to testify.
What this means is that both owners and employees have been deprived
of their right to be heard. Yet they are the people most directly
affected by this radical legislation.
I find this incomprehensible. Letters from both
organisations show that they pleaded with Ms McNeill to be heard,
and that they raised specific objections to some of the evidence
that had been submitted. They were told that they could not be included
because of pressure of time. Since HIRA had given evidence of its
own to the rural development committee, and since that evidence
had been passed to Justice 2, enough had been done. But that was
not what the rural committee said. It noted that HIRA had raised
serious issues about the likely impact of the bill on rural businesses,
and reported that "further examination of these issues is essential."
Despite this, no additional evidence was taken.
There is, so far as I can see, no reasonable explanation
for this failure, save for a fundamental bias on the part of some
committee members. Alasdair Morrison, MSP, one of its members, is
reported as describing HIRA as "bogus." He also made it
clear that he was unimpressed by the arguments put forward by the
river workers. That may be his opinion, but it is not the point.
His job on Justice 2 is not to parade his prejudices. It is to listen
to the evidence so that parliament, which has been given 176 amendments
to one of the most radical pieces of legislation that it has yet
encountered, is properly informed and properly advised.
This, patently, has not happened. Justice 2 has
failed to live up to its name.
Further Reading Recommended by Land-Care
Uncalled for unwarranted ideological legislation. Dundee Courier,
Letters, 7 January 2003. (View
Justice 2's legal expertise in doubt. Letter from Robbie Douglas
Miller, Vice-chairman, Highlands and Islands Rivers Association.
Scotland on Sunday, Letters, 22 December 2002. (View
No Corners Cut on Land Reform Bill. Letter from Pauline McNeill,
MSP and Convenor of the Justice 2 Committee. Scotland on Sunday,
Letters, 15 December 2002. (View
Watson, Jeremy. Scotland's first 'land grab' victim. Scotland on
Sunday, 8th December 2002. (Click
here to view).
Linklater, Magnus. Land Reform Falls Foul of Scotlands own
Kangaroo Committee. Scotland on Sunday, 1 December 2002. (Includes
editorial comment from Land-Care). (Click
here to view).
Mylius, A. (2001). Access: the Reality for Farmers, Landowners,
Foresters and all Rural Residents. LandCare Scotland, 1: 3-18. (View
Raeside, T. (2001). Veterinary Hazards to Open Access to Enclosed
Agrciultural Land. LandCare Scotland, 1: 33-34. (View