By Bill Heaney
A new Scottish Government register of who has a control over land has been criticised by Church leaders for the way it has been organised by Scotland’s SNP government.
The Register of Controlled Interest in Land has been set up in such a way as to create unmanageable administrative burdens for local congregations.
Churches have been engaging with the Scottish Government for many months and have proposed alternative arrangements to ensure that the policy aim of achieving transparency in this area is met whilst also recognising the unique legal structure of congregations and taking into account the reliance on local volunteers and the hugely disproportionate impact of the legislation on the churches.
The Scottish Government have failed to recognise the position of the Churches and have not responded to the Church’s constructive suggestions, according to concerned insiders in the Kirk and other reformed churches.
The register will have impact particularly on the Church of Scotland, Scottish Episcopal Church, United Reformed Church and others due to the way they are structured internally and because of the number of churches, halls, manses and glebes which are covered by the legislation.
The Rev Fiona Smith, the Kirk’s Principal Clerk said: “We’ve nothing against the principle of the register, indeed many Churches have been supportive of land reform and increased transparency for a very long time. It is the way the new register has been designed that will cause significant difficulty for Churches and congregations to comply.
“It is likely to cost tens if not hundreds of thousands of pounds in legal and administrative costs. It will require additional effort and energy from volunteers, which is going to make it harder for us to retain and recruit people.
“It imposes criminal penalties, for a failure to provide information to the register, on people who will not know that they have this duty.
“Overall it is going to have a hugely detrimental impact on our ability to serve Scotland’s communities, and money that could be used for help with sustaining community and congregational life or to support people struggling against poverty will instead have to go on administration and legal advice.
“Our attempts to have the disproportionate impact of this legislation recognised by the Scottish Government have so far fallen on deaf ears.”
Bob Christie, Chair of Trustees of the Synod of Scotland of the United Reformed Church, added: “It is so disappointing that the Scottish Government have failed to acknowledge the impact that the register as it is currently drawn up will have on our Churches.
“We want to work with them to make the Register as useful and complete as possible, and have made a number of realistic and workable suggestions that would not add disproportionate or extensive burden to our volunteers or add a great deal of new work for our staff.
“It is with regret that we note that our proposals have not been accepted, and we are deeply frustrated that we have not been given any explanation or reasons from the Scottish Government, or recognition from them that this new change will substantially impair our work.
““The Scottish Government claim they value and respect the work of faith groups in contributing to cohesive and connected communities, and in providing social care to some of our most vulnerable citizens, but on this issue they are making our lives immeasurably more complicated and costly.
“They are also simultaneously imposing two different transparency regimes on us and we do not see any evidence of joined-up thinking about this.
“Our congregations are becoming subject to new transparency requirements under the Charities Bill which is currently going through the Scottish Parliament, and on this basis should have the same exemption from the requirement to register as is currently enjoyed by Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisations.”
The Scottish Parliament will be asked to extend the deadline for compliance by 12 months to spring 2024. The Churches say however that it is not more time that is needed, but a rethink of how they can best and most easily be included in the register.
The Church of Scotland’s chief officer, Dave Kendall said: “We have not asked for more time, and an extension of the deadline does not in any way address our concerns about the implications of introducing this deeply flawed legislation in its current form.
“Even at this late stage we urge the Scottish Government to reconsider, and for those who will be affected – especially clergy/treasurers/Session Clerks – we encourage them to raise this failure of statecraft to engage and address our concerns with their MSPs as soon as possible.
Jackie Baillie, Dumbarton constituency MSP, left, said: “It is worrying that people involved in churches do not feel like their voices are being heard.
“Any proposals which could incur large financial fees should be properly thought out and consulted on.
“I would urge the church to raise these concerns with the committee responsible for considering the order.
“If there are local churches who are worried about the impact of these proposals, I am happy to write to the committee on their behalf to stress their concerns.”
Top picture: The Rev Fiona Smith, the Kirk’s Principal Clerk said: “We’ve nothing against the principle of the register, but …. “