This is a long and sorry saga, and it’s not yet over.
As many blog readers will know, the notorious Leadhills Estate, a grouse-shooting estate in South Lanarkshire that has been at the centre of police wildlife crime investigations at least 70 times since the early 2000s, is currently serving an unprecedented TWO General Licence restrictions imposed by NatureScot after ‘clear evidence’ of wildlife crime was provided to the statutory regulator by Police Scotland (see here and here), including the illegal killing of short-eared owls, buzzards, hen harriers and the discovery of two stashes of banned poisons.
Incredibly, Leadhills Estate with its double General Licence restriction is STILL a member of the lobby group Scottish Land & Estates, which claims to have a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to raptor persecution. Convincing, eh?
[Grouse moor on the Leadhills Estate. Photo by Ruth Tingay]
The first three-year General Licence restriction was imposed on Leadhills Estate in November 2019 (here). The estate appealed this decision, with an hilarious letter of objection (here), but its appeal failed.
The second General Licence restriction was imposed on Leadhills Estate in September 2021 (here) after Police Scotland reported even more wildlife crime while the estate was still serving its first restriction.
Once again, Leadhills Estate appealed the decision with a written objection letter.
It is this letter of objection that I have been trying to get from NatureScot since September 2021. Five months on, it is still being withheld, for what I have argued are spurious reasons.
Here’s a short summary of what’s happened so far:
On 30th September 2021 I submitted an FoI to NatureScot to request copies of Leadhills Estate’s appeal.
On 3 November 2021 NatureScot responded as follows:
‘We have withheld a letter from an agent acting on behalf of Leadhills Estate, pending an appeal against NatureScot’s decision to restrict General Licence. This information is of a sensitive nature and disclosure into the public domain could prejudice the applicant’s right to a fair hearing’.
I didn’t see how public disclosure could possibly prejudice a hearing given that it’s all done in-house at NatureScot but fine, I could wait.
In December 2021 it was announced that Leadhills Estate had lost its appeal against the second General Licence restriction (here) so I wrote back to NatureScot on 3rd December as follows:
‘You told me in the letter dated 3 November 2021 that you were withholding a letter from an agent who was acting on behalf of Leadhills Estate, and the reason you gave for withholding it was that releasing it may prejudice the applicant’s right to a fair appeal. As the appeal process has now concluded and therefore the applicant’s right to a fair hearing cannot be affected, please can you send me the agent’s letter that was previously withheld‘.
On 5th January 2022 NatureScot responded as follows:
‘We have completed our information searches, and we have identified eight documents comprising 126 pages relevant to your request. We shared a redacted version of these documents with the solicitors acting on behalf of Leadhills Estate, who have provided additional legal arguments as to why certain information should be withheld. We will need additional time to assess these arguments and, potentially, take further legal advice.
Regulation 7 of the EIRs allows public authorities to extend the time for compliance with requests for up to an additional 20 working days. This means we must respond to your information request by 3 February 2022 at the latest‘.
Hmm. Why might Leadhills Estate not want the details of its appeal to be made public? And what legal arguments might it use to block the transparency of the decision-making process of a statutory agency?
On 7th February 2022, NatureScot sent this explanation:
That’s all very interesting. Obviously, I’ve appealed this decision and asked for a review. I don’t believe there are further proceedings to ‘prejudice’ as Leadhills Estate has now exhausted the appeals process for the General Licence restriction. I also don’t believe that correspondence between an agent and a public authority qualifies as ‘legal privilege’ and especially when it’s in the public interest to understand how the statutory agency has reached its decision with transparency and fairness.
Let’s see. Another 20 working days to wait, which will take us to six months since I made the original request.