Back in December 2007 the Scottish Parliament passed a motion to set up a constitutional commission to consider greater powers for itself within the framework of devolution. The idea, put forward by Wendy Alexander as leader of the Scottish Labour Party, was backed by all the other parties in the Scottish Parliament except the SNP (a minority Government, if you remember). On 17 February 2008 the Prime Minister Gordon Brown backed the idea, although the commission has now become a review of devolution in which Whitehall (and presumably Westminster) will be involved. Mr Brown said:
There is an issue about the financial responsibility of an executive or an administration that has £30bn to spend but doesn’t have any responsibility for raising [that]. In any other devolved administration in the world, there is usually a financial responsibility that requires not only the spending of money by the administration but also its responsibility to take seriously how it raises money. Now the question is, just as local government has to raise some of its money through council tax, just as many other areas in the world where there are devolved administrations have to raise money through assigned taxation, is there a case for doing so?
The Prime Minister’s emphasis on finance was noted by SNP Cabinet Secretary Nicola Sturgeon: If what Gordon Brown is talking about is less than full financial independence for the Scottish Parliament, then what we might have is a Trojan Horse for cutting the budget of the Scottish Parliament. Scots Law News has the distinct impression, by the way, that the present system of devolution and its finance was set up by a UK Labour Government in which Mr Brown was Chancellor, and that no-one in Labour raised these kind of issues he is now talking about while his was the biggest party in the Scottish Parliament.
The Times for 16 February 2008 reported proceedings in the sheriff court at Lochmaddy the previous week, in which South Uist crofters failed in their attempt to assert rights to graze on the Askernish machair and accordingly to stop the imminent re-opening of a golf course on the ground designed and laid out in the nineteenth century by Old Tom Morris (for whom see Wikipedia here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Morris,_Sr.), but little played since the 1930s. The basis of the crofters’ claim is an agreement made in 1922 between the then-owners of the grounds and the crofters, under which the right of grazing was granted subject to a right to play golf over the ground too. The crofters argue this does not entail excluding them from the golfing ground altogether. Sheriff Andrew Barry held that the crofters’ application should be addressed to the Scottish Land Court, not the sheriff court; the crofters say that they are prepared to go to the European Court of Human Rights. There are also allegations that the on-going work at the golf course is being sabotaged by locals working under the cover of darkness, including stuffing up some of the holes with what the Times describes as dirt, possibly a bit of a euphemism given that grazing animals lie at the heart of this dispute.
The first case under the cohabitants’ succession rights provisions of the Family Law (Scotland) Act 2006 (see No 430) has begun in Stirling Sheriff Court. Tatiana Chebotareva (22), a student from Russia, claims that she cohabited with the late James King from 2002 until his death in 2006. They lived together successively in London, Stirling and South Queensferry. Mr King died intestate, and his £250,000 estate passed to his sister, Dorje Khandro, who, just to add a further exotic touch, is a Buddhist nun living in a monastery in the Himalayas. She says she would like the money to go to good causes after meeting her own medical expenses. Evidence in the case was completed on 7 February 2008, and a legal debate will take place before Sheriff Thomas Ward on 6 March.