INVESTIGATION: Calls for special treatment by the Kirk were not acceptable

Glasgow Cathedral, the General Assembly building in Edinburgh, Past Moderator Rt Rev Dr Iain Greenshields and current Moderator the Very Rev  Sally Foster Fulton.


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The churches lobbied both Nicola Sturgeon, then-first minister, and Màiri McAllan, then-land reform minister, in attempts to avoid having to comply with the new land register due to the “administrative burden”.

The government estimated that the Church of Scotland, which had 6,000 properties, would be the largest Scottish landowner to be affected by the register of persons holding a controlled interest in land (RCI).
However the government rejected the calls for an exemption and said it would “undermine” the register’s effectiveness. It highlighted that organisations had nearly six years to prepare.
Transparency and secular campaigners accused the Kirk of attempting to “erode the very basis” of new transparency legislation. They argued transparency is effective only when “applied without exemption”.
McAllan had directly asked the churches whether their internal structures “were up to the standards of modern expectations of transparency”, according to meeting minutes we obtained under freedom of information, alongside other documents.

The Kirk said it had objected to new rules that would mean churches had to provide details of three individuals to register. The government rejected its alternative proposals – to appoint individuals who would respond to queries about Kirk property – without giving a reason, it claimed.  Picture of John Knox statue by Bill Heaney

The RCI aims to improve land ownership transparency by making information about those who have a controlling interest in land publicly available.
The government said it had no plans for “further exemptions or legislative change”, and encouraged landowners to register on the system early. Failing to register by 1 April 2024 – a date brought forward by a year to give landowners more preparation time – will be a criminal offence.

Church lobbying efforts

On Holyrood lobbying register logs, the churches said they would suggest legislative amendments to avoid a “disproportionate bureaucratic impact”, but did not disclose they would seek exemption.
But a briefing document given to Sturgeon ahead of a June 2022 meeting with the Kirk’s moderator, Iain Greenshields – obtained by The Ferret under freedom of information legislation – said churches were “seeking an exemption to the RCI for religious bodies and charities”. The government, the document added, had “been clear from the outset that an exemption would undermine the efficacy of the register”.
In August, a government briefing for McAllan said that during an equalities impact assessment of how the RCI could affect religious groups and others, the Kirk did not submit evidence.
The Kirk told The Ferret it was “absolutely untrue” arguing it had “extensive correspondence and at least two meetings with civil servants”.
Before McAllan was due to meet with Kirk representatives, a member of the government said in an email they were “actually quite worried about sending the minister into a meeting with them…given how little scope for a resolution there seems to be”.
Minutes from the meeting said the Kirk and other churches claimed they already regularly answered queries about their property holdings, despite no legal obligation to do so.
Other faith groups advised that, despite concerns, they supported the transparency measures and did not seek an exemption, the minutes claimed. Only Christian groups had lobbied on RCI, which the government said could be owed to their bigger property portfolios or different landholding structures.
McAllan told a Scottish Parliament committee in February that she had “intense engagement… principally with religious stakeholders”, but believed there were concerns “right across the charitable and third sector”.
But calls for “special treatment” by the church were not acceptable, she added.
A spokesperson for the National Secular Society, which believes religious groups should not be involved in state affairs, said: “Religious bodies should be subject to the same levels of transparency and accountability as any other landowners.
“The Kirk in particular is one of the country’s most significant land and property owners, giving it significant influence and control over decisions concerning management and use of land. To exempt churches from the new land register would therefore erode the very basis of the legislation.”
Tom Brake, the director of transparency group Unlock Democracy, said: “Churches can’t be exempt from the rules that apply to everyone else. Transparency is only effective when it is applied without exemption.
“With nearly six years to prepare for this change, and for some churches at least with cash in the bank from asset sales, it is hard to understand the basis on which any opt-out was going to be granted.”
The Church of Scotland – which was expected to raise £18 MILLION from property sales last year alone – told the government the legislation could cost it £100,000 to comply with.
It told The Ferret that maintaining church property “does not come cheap”, with sales revenue belonging to local congregations, allowing them to maintain properties and perform charitable work.
Mary Macleod, the Kirk’s solicitor, said it was “not simply the administrative burden which is problematic, but the absence of proportionality in the whole exercise.”
Individual churches, which already publicly provide contact information for individuals, would be “treated as though its ownership was somehow opaque,” she said.
The Kirk proposed that the government instead require churches to provide the names of individuals who would be legally obliged to respond to questions about the Kirk’s property. This would achieve the same ends but be less onerous, argued Macleod.
The government said the RCI was “part of our ongoing commitment to improve transparency in land ownership throughout Scotland”.
“There are no plans for further exemptions or legislative change, and we encourage everyone who is eligible to engage with the process as early as possible to give themselves sufficient time to register,” a spokesperson added.

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