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WOLFFE HALL: Parliament House – seat of justice – lost to Edinburgh as investigation reveals Scottish Government ‘gifted’ land titles to Faculty of Advocates after £58m refurbishment

20 Feb

Scotland’s top courts ‘gifted’ to advocates in secret deal with Scottish Ministers. PARLIAMENT HOUSE – the seat of power for Scotland’s judiciary and the nation’s highest, most expensive, elusive and pro-big business courts – has been lost to the Common Good and the citizens of Edinburgh who paid for it’s construction – after it was revealed earlier this week Scottish Ministers had gifted the land titles of the court buildings to the Faculty of Advocates .

And, yesterday, in an attempt to head off calls for an immediate return of Scotland’s highest courts to public ownership, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said there was no easy solution to recovering the land titles for the citizens of Edinburgh – who originally paid for the construction of Parliament House.

Details surrounding the loss of Parliament House to Edinburgh – come from an investigation undertaken by well known land reform campaigner Andy Wightman – who discovered that in 2006 the Scottish Government asked Edinburgh City Council to confirm the ownership of Parliament House – which includes Parliament Hall and Laigh Hall. The moves by the Scottish Government to clarify ownership of the court buildings occurred prior to the taxpayer funded £58 million refurbishment project (originally budgeted at over £120m) of the sprawling court buildings.

However, after inquiries by government lawyers on the exact ownership of Scotland’s most highest courts, Edinburgh City Council concluded they were unaware of who owned Parliament House. This led to ownership transferring to Scottish Ministers who then allowed the Faculty of Advocates to register the title deeds to the interior of the building in its name.

From investigations carried out by Andy Wightman, it transpired the Faculty of Advocates had in-fact, lobbied the Scottish Government to hand over ownership.

Writing on his blog, Mr Wightman said: “The Faculty of Advocates has for centuries regarded Parliament House as theirs. They had almost exclusive use of it and so, by means as yet unclear, within a month of Scottish Ministers taking ownership, the Faculty persuaded Scottish Ministers to convey to its ownership for no consideration the room known as the Laigh Hall within Parliament House.”

The title deeds to Parliament House now state the interior of the building is owned by the Faculty of Advocates while the exterior comes under the government’s ownership as part of the Scottish Courts Service.

The full in-depth investigation by Andy Wightman is available here: Edinburgh Council loses Parliament House

During First Minister’s Questions at Holyrood yesterday, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was asked a question by Alison Johnstone  MSP (Lothians, Green Party) about the Parliament Hall land grab by the Faculty of Advocates.

In her reply, featured below along with video footage of FMQs, Nicola Sturgeon claimed she found no fault on the part of the Scottish Government – who handed over the titles to the Faculty of Advocates – effectively little more than a lawyer’s lobby group. The First Minister went on to warn “ there is no easy solution to the issue of restoring title to the City of Edinburgh Council” without giving a real explanation of why the titles were transferred in the first place.

The First Minister also gave no explanation on why £58 million pounds of taxpayers money was thrown at the Court of Session buildings which were then effectively handed over to the Faculty of Advocates free of charge.

Parliament House handed over to Faculty of Advocates FMQ’s Nicola Sturgeon 19 February 2015

Alison Johnstone (Lothian) (Green): It transpired this week that the 17th century old Parliament hall in Edinburgh was transferred from the collective ownership of my constituents to Scottish ministers without knowledge or recompense to the common good fund.

The City of Edinburgh Council failed in its role as steward of the fund, but is now seeking to resolve the situation. Can the First Minister assure my constituents that any requests from the council to restore ownership of that common good asset to the council will be considered seriously and favourably?

The First Minister – Nicola Sturgeon: I will briefly state the background to this issue, of which I am sure that Alison Johnstone is aware.

The Scottish Government’s position is that title to Parliament hall was taken by Scottish ministers in good faith, and that that was done with the full knowledge and consent of the council. The Scottish Courts Service and the Faculty of Advocates, therefore, have now got good title to that property.

Of course, I am more than happy to ask the relevant minister, Marco Biagi, to; meet and discuss the matter with the City of Edinburgh Council, but as far as I can see there is no fault here on the part of the Scottish Government.

Further, of course, title has since been passed on, so it may very well be that there is no easy solution to the issue of restoring title to the City of Edinburgh Council. I think that any questions on how the situation has arisen probably have to be directed to the council.

During the summer of 2013,  Scotland’s top judge Lord Gill – who is head of the Scottish Court Service Board, and the Scottish Court Service Chief Executive Eric McQueen appeared before MSPs at the Scottish Parliament’s Justice Committee to give evidence on court closures and the millions spent on Parliament House – yet neither the judge nor the Courts chief mentioned their astonishing secret to the MSPs present – that the title to Scotland’s highest court buildings had been swiped by the Faculty of Advocates in a deal on the sly with Scottish Ministers.

During questions from Justice Committee MSPs, SCS Chief Executive Eric McQueen said: “We are just coming to the end of the Parliament house contract; in total, the budget for it was £65 million and I think that we expect the final spend to be in the low £60 millions. The project has been delivered on budget, on time and on quality. How it has been delivered is a tribute to the Scottish Court Service.

McQueen continued: “I will give a potted history of the Parliament house situation. About 10 years ago, a scheme was in place that was going to run to way over £120 million. That was brought to a stop to allow us to reassess things and to consider the best strategy. At the same time, we looked at a business case for moving away from Parliament house altogether and having a development on a greenfield or brownfield site on the outskirts of Edinburgh. The major problem with Parliament house is that it is a grade A listed building and is a site of special historical interest. It should be a landmark building for the whole of Scotland.”

In an intervention, the Convener of the Justice Committee – Christine Grahame MSP said: “I am glad that you did not move to a greenfield site. It would have been a bit like going to B&Q. I do not mean to malign B&Q, but I like the old Parliament house building.”

Eric McQueen replied : “Had the decision been taken to move out of Parliament house, that asset would have been left with the Scottish Government. The infrastructure and the services were shot, and there was no fire certificate in place for the building. It would have cost as much to move out as to redevelop the building. From the point of view of the benefit to the nation and to the Scottish Government’s purse, the investment of the £65 million in Parliament house over that five or six year period was quite a sensible business case decision.”

Sitting by Eric McQueen was none other than Lord President Brian Gill himself, who did not at any stage of the meeting volunteer information to the Justice Committee in relation to the titles arrangements of Parliament House, despite the multi million pound taxpayer funded refurbishment.

Today, a spokesperson for the Scottish Court Service said: “The title to Parliament House, which includes the Laigh Hall situated underneath Parliament Hall, was registered by Scottish Ministers in 2006. The ownership of the interior of Laigh Hall was transferred to the Faculty of Advocates by the Scottish Ministers. Court buildings under the ownership of the Scottish Ministers were transferred to the Scottish Court Service (SCS) in 2010 under the Transfer of Property and in accordance with the Judiciary and Courts (Scotland) Act 2008.

Parliament House is a public building and is home to our Supreme Courts. The SCS recently completed an extensive £58 million redevelopment of the courthouse ahead of schedule and within budget. Following the refurbishment, an exhibition, ‘The Hidden Gem’, became an Edinburgh Fringe event attracting thousands of visitors. Parliament House also hosts annual open days enabling the public to better understand our legal system, while Parliament Hall is  open to visitors during working hours.”

Asked how much was returned to public coffers via “The Hidden Gem” exhibition, a spokesperson for the SCS replied: “The Fringe event was open to the public without an admission charge and marked the completion of the substantial modernisation programme by the Scottish Court Service which conserves Parliament House for future generations and provides the modern and digital facilities required by the Scottish justice system. Our position is that Court buildings under the ownership of the Scottish Ministers were transferred to the Scottish Court Service (SCS) in 2010 under the Transfer of Property and in accordance with the Judiciary and Courts (Scotland) Act 2008.”

The Scottish Government refused to answer calls for a statement and questions on whether any attempt would be made to recover the £58m of taxpayers money spent on Parliament House . Neither the Dean of the Faculty of Advocates – James Wolffe QC or the Faculty itself have issued any statement on the matter so far.

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