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2 December 2002
Land Reform Falls Foul of Scotlands own Kangaroo Committee
Scotsman on Sunday, 01/12/02
What has emerged is legislation that is
long on ambition
but desperately short of good sense
FROM the moment the White Paper on devolution
in Scotland emerged five years ago, it was clear that the committees
of the Scottish parliament would be a crucial plank in our democracy.
Without a second chamber, the whole process of scrutinising bills,
revising their content and ensuring that they would work in practice,
descended on the committees. It was here, we were told, that people
from all walks of life would come to be given a proper hearing,
with their evidence heard by cross-party groups who would cross-question
them to ensure a fair and equitable outcome.
That was the idea. The reality has been rather
different. Last week I spent several hours ploughing through the
reports of the 15 meetings held by the Justice 2 Committee which
has been taking evidence on the Land Reform Bill, and which has
now completed its business. This has often been described as the
Executives flagship legislation - the one new
piece of law which makes Scotland fundamentally different from England.
It will give rural communities the right to buy land when it comes
up for sale, and it will give the public the right of access to
As I began to read, I was struck by two things
- first of all the blatant, and often self-confessed bias of its
members against landowners, farmers and their representatives. Second,
the almost wilful refusal to accept evidence which challenged the
thrust of the Bill. Those who lobbied for open access to land, or
who campaigned for wider distribution of property were listened
to with respect and deference, and often called back again to give
further evidence. Those who sought to defend the rights of property-owners
were exposed to truculent and often offensive questioning.
The net result is a bill that has gone far further
in the direction of radical change than was ever envisaged by the
late Donald Dewar when he outlined its purposes - but without the
stringent analysis of the legal implications that should have accompanied
it. Of the seven permanent committee members, six, including its
convenor, Pauline McNeill, were enthusiastic supporters of land
distribution, and most of them made no bones about wanting to see
the bill made tougher and more wide-ranging. They were prepared
to ride roughshod over lawyers, land experts, owners and farmers
- the people most directly affected - while accepting without hesitation
the proposals of ramblers and reformers.
From day one, last January, when Andy Wightman,
who campaigns for the redistribution of land, was heard as the first
witness, the aims of the committee were clearly set out. Widening
ownership is a principle I accept said Ms McNeill. Scott
Barrie, a fellow Labour MSP, agreed. Alasdair Morrison, also Labour,
said: I am unashamedly partisan about the legislation.
Duncan Hamilton, and Stewart Stevenson, both SNP, said they would
like to see more radical proposals. George Lyon for
the Liberal Democrats asked how the legislation could be moved forward
more quickly. Only the Tory, Bill Aitken, demurred - though without
Some of the statements made were little short
of breathtaking. Addressing the complex issue of what constituted
the public interest, Ms McNeill briskly announced that
if parliament wanted to change the nature of land ownership then
that meant that it was in the public interest. Even
Mr Wightman had to step in at that point to urge caution.
The Scottish Landowners Federation and its legal
team were given short shrift. What is your definition of a
bad landowner and how many do you represent? demanded Mr Morrison.
When the Federations spokesman suggested that all organisations
had some bad apples, maybe even MSPs, Ms McNeill said: Wash
your mouth out. The pattern was repeated in subsequent meetings,
with Mr Morrison referring to landowners as selfish,
and their evidence as gross distortion. The Ramblers
Association, which denies the existence of a law on trespass in
Scotland, was called and recalled, to the point where it seemed
to be virtually dictating the shape of the legislation. Jim Hunter,
who speaks unashamedly for land distribution, was accorded almost
saint-like status. You are no longer a lone voice in the wilderness,
said an awestruck Mr Lyon. Those who defend the status quo
are now the lone voices. The rival, and much older, Rights
of Way Society, which asked if it could give evidence that challenged
the Ramblers, was not even accorded the courtesy of a reply.
The Committees legal grasp was shaky at
best. When the Law Society of Scotland produced legal precedent
to show that there was a common law definition of trespass, Mr Stevenson
delivered himself of the following remarkable observation: If
the common law is anything at all, it is the belief of what the
law is that is commonly held among the people of Scotland.
With ignorance at this level, it was not surprising
that much of the questioning of legal experts was less than rigorous.
Yet this was where the committee should have been unremitting in
its analysis. In the end, what has emerged is a piece of legislation
that is long on ambition but desperately short of good sense. I
hope that the Executive will know how to rescue it. But Justice
2 has fallen well short of delivering justice.
Magnus Linklater is to be congratulated for analysing
the reports of the 15 committee meetings (1) held
by the Justice 2 Committee (2) which has been taking
evidence on the Land Reform Bill. He has exposed the inequity and
bias of the proceedings which contradicts the name of the Committee.
It used to be that Scotland had a good name for
administering justice. Sadly the present Scottish Parliament seems
to destroying this in order to promote its own ideological and political
ends, with no second house to exert some control. Shame on them.
1. Bills in Development. Land
Reform (Scotland) Bill. Justice 2 Committee. The Scottish Parliament.
2. Justice 2 Committee Homepage.
The Scottish Parliament. (Visit