Kennedy walks out of Brora meeting and remaining Commissioners apologise and call for his resignation

Crofting Convener, Colin Kennedy, walks out of Board meeting at Brora Golf Club and remaining Commissioners seek his resignation

Brora Golf Club – Location of the latest episode of the Crofting Soap Opera

Dramatic happenings in the world of crofting this morning in Brora.

The Crofting Commission were holding their board meeting in Brora Golf Club. It started at 9.30am this morning. On the agenda, amongst other things, was their meeting with Fergus Ewing MSP last week when they were in effect given a direction to apologise for dismissing three grazings committees from office. It was fully expected that this apology would be forthcoming after the meeting and would have to be made by the Convener, Colin Kennedy.

The BBC initially reported that:-

The Crofting Commission’s convener has walked out of a meeting at which the body was under pressure to make a public apology in a long-running row.

Colin Kennedy had earlier in the meeting refused to allow a commissioner to withdraw his declaration of interest in the dispute about common grazings.

When officials told him he had to accept the request, Mr Kennedy closed the meeting and walked out.

It would appear that the remaining commissioners then convened a Special Meeting which was posted on the Crofting Commission’s website as starting at 10.15am. They resumed the business of the day without their Convener who has been known to go into hiding before today.

An updated report from the BBC on the resumed meeting states that:-

Commissioners passed a motion calling on Colin Kennedy to stand down after he walked out of a meeting in Brora, Sutherland, earlier on Wednesday.

They have also issued a public apology for how the commission handled its dispute with the crofters.

It is understood that this apology was issued, in the Convener’s absence, by Vice Convener, I. G. MacDonald. Clearly that was the responsibility of the Convener but one that he evaded.

This apology has now been issued in writing by the Crofting Commission. It reads:-

The Crofting Commission wishes to apologise for the way it has handled recent grazings committee cases.

Three unprecedented cases have been considered by the Commission under Section 47(8) of the Crofting Act and resulted in committees being put out of office.  The decisions taken by the Commission have created a poor result for everyone involved.  The actions taken in these cases did not enable communities to work together for the benefit of crofting and in fact have had an adverse impact on the crofting community.  The Commission acknowledges that the recent decisions have caused prolonged uncertainty and anxiety not only for the three communities involved but for all crofters, and for this we are sorry.

The Commission continually seeks ways to ensure it is delivering in the best interests of crofters and will ensure that any lessons learned from the cases can inform future procedures and decision-making.  We will also continue to engage with Scottish Government to look at greater flexibility in crofting legislation.

The Crofting Commission will continue to work alongside stakeholders to develop good practice guidance for grazings committees.  We would like to reassure crofters that as the regulator of crofting, our main focus continues to be securing the future of crofting through effective regulation and we look forward to working constructively with crofters, grazings committees and crofting stakeholders.

Scottish Crofting Federation chair, Fiona Mandeville, said:-

Surely now the convener will do what he should have done weeks ago – stand down and let the people who genuinely care about crofting get on with their work. So much time and energy has been wasted during this inexcusable debacle. We have had enough of Kennedy and want to see the back of him. By his action in walking out from the board meeting today and refusing to meet the Minister’s request for an apology, we take it that he has finally abdicated.

We welcome the Commission board taking this decisive action at last and look forward to working with them to rebuild trust in the Commission and to developing strategies for crofting, taking up again all the positive initiatives which had been set aside while Kennedy was in control.

We also naturally welcome the apology issued by the board after the convener’s departure.

It is little wonder after these latest developments that his fellow commissioners have now decided enough is enough. The board had appeared split in their loyalties towards him but they have clearly realised that it is time for them to unite under the stewardship of a new convener and seek to heal the damage done as a result of ‘The Common Clearances‘.

There have been repeated calls over a number of months from crofters and from the Scottish Crofting Federation for Colin Kennedy to resign. Those calls have been ignored by him. Now his fellow commissioners are calling on him to do the same thing.

Will, however, Colin Kennedy accept the motion and stand down? Does he have any option? If he doesn’t will Fergus Ewing have to intervene?

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: Brora Golf Club

 

Scottish Farmer confused over Common Grazings Crisis

Scottish Farmer confused over Common Grazings CrisisThe Scottish Farmer seems to be confused by the Common Grazings Crisis.

They think that:-

The furore within crofting circles shows no sign of abating, as the impasse between the governing body, the Crofting Commission, and the industry representative body, the Scottish Crofting Federation, meanders on.

It is not an impasse between the Crofting Commission and the Scottish Crofting Federation. It is an impasse between the Crofting Commission and crofters. In particular the crofters directly affected by the decisions of the Crofting Commission to remove from office the members of three grazings committees.

One minute the ‘findings’ of Grazings ‘Constable’ Colin Souter is front page news. The next minute they are calling him Ian Souter.

The debate regarding the removal of this Ian Souter could they suggest “continue forever” as he has “support within the crofting community“. That will be 4 out of 42 shareholders!

One minute they are running a poll that shows that 96% of readers who took part considered that the Scottish Government should enact an independent inquiry into the workings of the Crofting Commission. The next minute they are running a poll on “should crofting put its house in order without government intervention?

They think “the time has come for a line to be drawn and for a new Upper Coll committee to steer the way forward“. Probably not many disagreements there other than perhaps from Colin/Ian Souter and Colin Kennedy.

They think that “this decision would be much better taken without government intervention“. I’m sure it would have been but time has shown that there is a clear inability on the part of the Crofting Commission to accept its wrongs. If anything in recent weeks they have been going out of their way to make matters worse with the inexplicable quest via Colin Souter to find something, anything, to justify their actions in the first place.

This all on the back of the first government intervention when Fergus Ewing MSP made it clear than the government’s views were “diametrically opposed” to those held by Commission Convener, Colin Kennedy.

Despite this first intervention and rebuke the Crofting Commission, with Colin Kennedy still at the helm, steered into even stormier waters clearly not heeding what Mr Ewing had told them.

The result was undoubtedly going to be the need for Mr Ewing to intervene again. He did so before the latest poll from The Scottish Farmer properly got off the ground.

Again Mr Ewing has told the Crofting Commission they got it wrong. This time he has asked them to “swiftly resolve” the crisis in crofting of their making. He has also told them to apologise to the crofters they have hurt so badly and the expectation is that this apology must come from Colin Kennedy.

Mr Ewing has also instructed government officials to carry out a review of the governance of the Crofting Commission.

Yes, it would have been better for there to have been no need for government intervention. But week upon week of the Crofting Commission making the situation worse not better has left little option but for this intervention to take place. It has been very necessary and extremely justified.

I reckon that if Fergus Ewing is forced to intervene a third time (chances are that he will have to) it will be the last time he does so as by that stage heads will have to roll.

Crofting Commissioners should reflect on that when deciding their next move at their board meeting in Brora on Wednesday.

Brian Inkster

Hat Tip: With thanks to Donald Macsween for drawing this to my attention.

Crofting Commission must “swiftly resolve” Common Grazings Crisis

Fergus Ewing MSP wants Crofting Commission to "swiftly resolve" Common Grazings crisis

Fergus Ewing MSP

The Press & Journal has published a statement by Fergus Ewing MSP, Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity, following his meeting last week with Crofting Commissioners. He said:-

During the meeting, I stressed the Scottish Government’s commitment to working with the commission to ensure it delivers an effective service for crofting, especially ahead of the crofting elections next year.

I also emphasised the need to swiftly resolve the current situation regarding common grazings committees, and made clear my view on what the commission’s board needs to do to restore equilibrium. The forthcoming elections for new commissioners add impetus to the need to draw a line under the current episode. I look forward to hearing how the commissioners intend to proceed.

The Commissioners are meeting in Brora on Wednesday, 28 September, to decide how to proceed.

Crofting Convener in Hiding

Crofting Convener in Hiding

Hide and seek was a favourite pastime at Great Glen House

The Cross Party Group on Crofting met on Wednesday night at Holyrood.

This followed the private meeting between Fergus Ewing MSP, Cabinet Secretary responsible for crofting, and all of the Crofting Commissioners. At that private meeting Mr Ewing told Commissioners that he expected them to rescind their decisions and issue an apology to the three grazings committees removed from office since December 2015.

One would have expected the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, to have represented the Crofting Commission at the Cross Party Group meeting. However, he was nowhere to be seen at that meeting. Where was he? He was in Edinburgh (presumably in the very same building) earlier that very same day for the meeting with Mr Ewing. One assumes he would not have been able to get back to the Isle of Coll after that meeting to tend to his croft and would have been staying overnight in Edinburgh in any event?

As Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, has the particular responsibility of representing the views of the Board to the general public. This will include those attending the Cross Party Group on Crofting.

Colin Kennedy did not attend the last Cross Party Group meeting in June on the day when the Crofting Commission took a massive U-turn on their stance at Mangersta Common Grazings.

Colin Kennedy did not attend the last Scottish Government Crofting Stakeholder Forum meeting when the Chief Executive, Catriona Maclean, announced her resignation.

Colin Kennedy did not attend this week’s Cross Party Group meeting when one would have thought he should have been there to advise that meeting of the outcome of the earlier meeting that day between Commissioners and Mr Ewing.

Instead Commissioner Murdo Maclennan attended this week’s Cross Party Group meeting, disclosed nothing about the earlier meeting with Mr Ewing and refused to answer questions verbally saying he would only do so in writing. However, after the meeting he appears to have released information to the BBC that again one would have thought could and perhaps should have been revealed first to the Cross Party Group.

Why is the Convener in hiding?

Why is the Convener not attending meetings on the Commission’s behalf and representing the views of the Board?

Is the Convener “unsuitable to continue” in that role given this clear dereliction of duty on top of and in addition to the abuse of power he has been accused of?

Presumably the Convener will have to come out of hiding for the Board meeting of the Crofting Commission at Brora on 28 September. Presumably after that meeting it will have to be he who gives the public apology to the crofters affected by the decisions to remove grazings committees from office. Thereafter he can perhaps go into hiding again especially if he takes the advice of the Chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation, Fiona Mandeville, who said:-

As the person who seems to be behind the on-going attacks on crofting committees, it would be appropriate for the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy to give the apology in his resignation statement.

Brian Inkster

Croft Wars: A New Hope

Croft Wars - A New Hope

The dark side ultimately fell at the hands of the rebel crofters where the force was strong

The battle by the rebel crofters against the dark forces of the Crofting Commission took a turn in the direction of justice and rightfulness yesterday.

Fergus Ewing MSP, Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for Crofting, met with all of the Crofting Commissioners in Edinburgh to discuss the dismissal by them of three common grazings committees (two in Lewis and one on the Scottish mainland).

It has been reported that Mr Ewing told Commissioners that he expected them to rescind their decisions to dismiss and issue an apology to the three grazings committees in question.

This implies that it will bring to an end the imposition by the Crofting Commission of the grazings ‘constable’, Colin Souter, on the Upper Coll Common Grazings.

It was also reported that Mr Ewing has instructed government officials to carry out a review of the governance of the Crofting Commission.

Kate Forbes, MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, said: –

The Crofting Commission, like any public body, must enjoy the trust of those it is working to serve and, sadly, the disputes over the past few months have been a cause of concern for those who want to support the crofting community.

As such, I support Fergus Ewing’s commitment to moving on, apologising where necessary and putting in place the necessary safeguards so that crofters are not sidelined in the cause of small ‘p’ politics and damaged relationships.

The Scottish Crofting Federation has welcomed the news. Their Chair, Fiona Mandeville, said:-

It has taken a long battle to get to this point, but it is extremely good that it is reported that Mr Ewing has made clear his support to crofters by directing the Commissioners to issue a full, unequivocal, public apology for their mistreatment of common grazings committees. This whole episode has been badly damaging to individuals, to crofting communities and to crofting itself, so we hope an apology may be the first step in a healing process.

As the person who seems to be behind the on-going attacks on crofting committees, it would be appropriate for the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy to give the apology in his resignation statement.

The Scottish Crofting Federation has been asking for a review of the Crofting Commission, to look critically at its procedures and governance. The news that Mr Ewing has instructed government officials to carry out a review is very promising. This situation must be prevented from happening again by modifying the way the Commission works. It makes no sense at all that the Convener was involved in local meetings, and was making personal statements regarding grazing committee business. Acting as some sort of maverick lawman is not appropriate. The board of the Commission should be, as any board, for strategic direction and governance.

And as for Kennedy’s imposed, and lawyers say illegal, henchman, Constable Souter, he must be removed from Upper Coll immediately. He has no place in crofting, is aggravating bad feeling and is standing in the way of democratic process.

Croft Wars - A New Hope

Luke Croftwalker and Han Silo receive their medals for bravery in standing up for the rights of crofters and defeating the dark side of the Crofting Commission

The Crofting Commissioners meet next week (on 28 September) in Brora for a board meeting. It is assumed that it will be decided at that meeting to follow the directions given by Mr Ewing and rescind their previous decisions and issue an apology to the crofters in question. That apology will presumably have to be given by Convener Colin Kennedy who has the particular responsibility of representing the views of the Board to the general public.

Brian Inkster

Images Credit: Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope ©  Lucasfilm Ltd

Brown Envelopes at the Crofting Commission?

Brown envelopes at the Crofting Commission?Information has been provided to the Crofting Law Blog on the use of ‘brown envelopes’ within the Crofting Commission.

We have seen correspondence written by Colin Kennedy, the current Convener of the Crofting Commission, in which he refers to a matter that should have appeared on an official list at a board meeting not appearing on that list but instead being passed to Commissioners in an envelope (the actual colour of that envelope not being made clear so it may not have been a brown one) that they were asked not to open until they got home.

The murky world of the Crofting Commission appears to get murkier by the day.

Grazings ‘Constable’ must stand aside or be removed

Upper Coll Grazings Constable, Colin Souter, must stand aside or be removedThe Scottish Crofting Federation has written to the cabinet secretary for crofting, Fergus Ewing MSP, expressing deep concern that crofters’ democratic rights are being flouted by a constable appointed, perhaps illegally, by the Crofting Commission.

Chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation, Fiona Mandeville, said:-

The majority of shareholders of the Upper Coll grazings have voted, yet this constable, whose legality of appointment is refuted by lawyers, is completely ignoring them. The shareholders have demanded that the constable, Colin Souter, who was appointed by the Crofting Commission, stands down so that they can reinstate a democratically elected grazings committee. Why is he still there?

Democracy is the very foundation of grazings committees. A lack of democratic procedure by the removed Upper Coll committee is something that the constable has been trying, unsuccessfully, to find evidence of. The shareholders have the legal right to elect their own committee and Souter is standing in their way. He must stand aside or be removed.

Judging by the press releases Souter issues, he clearly has misunderstood the role of a grazings clerk, or that of an appointed constable fulfilling the duties of clerk – were his appointment legal. He seems to be either completely out of control, or under the control of the Crofting Commission, an organisation that has lost all credibility. In addition Souter and his masters are attempting to undermine the viability of crofters’ collaborative enterprises by questioning their entitlement to SRDP and registration for VAT. Are they trying to bring to an end 130 years of crofting? The only recourse is for the Scottish Government to take control of the situation and to remove him.

This incredible situation is extremely harmful, not only to the crofting community of Upper Coll, but to crofting itself. We can understand that the Scottish Government is reluctant to interfere with a democratically elected Commission, but this constable is not democratically elected, claims to be independent of the Crofting Commission who appointed him, and is flouting democracy. There is nothing to stop the Scottish Government from doing the right thing, and it must do it now.

Decisive Ministerial intervention in crofting crisis is now required

West Highland Free Press - 16 September 2016In a hard hitting editorial in the latest edition (16 September 2016) of the West Highland Free Press it was made clear by the editor that he considers that the Crofting Commission needs ministerial advice and direction and that Colin Kennedy’s continuing tenure as Convener must be in doubt.

I will reproduce the editorial in question here followed by some of my own thoughts on the matter

The Crofting Commission needs ministerial advice and direction

The self-created crisis within the Crofting Commission has gone past the point where it can be healed internally.  Public and decisive ministerial intervention is now required.

On the most mundane but incendiary points which lit the blaze, the Crofting Commission can be pronounced quite wrong.

Grazings committees should have the right to determine in which manner their income is spent, under the law and to the benefit of the community.

Grazings committees such as those at Upper Coll and Mangersta should not be obliged instantly to distribute funds as dividends and then reclaim the money in order to finance improvements.

Without those commonplace – and previously widely accepted – permissions, west-coast crofting in particular would suffer.

Grazings committees, which are the voluntary foundation of the system, would become almost impossible to establish.  It should be pointed out here that crofting commissioners are paid £8,600 a year for four-and-a-half days’ work a month, and the commissioner’s convener is paid £20,300 for an eight-day month.  Grazings committee member are paid nothing.

Crofting would become even less of a communal activity and even more of a private, individual enterprise.  It beggars belief that a large reason for the recent dictatorial action by the Crofting Commission was the fact that Upper Coll grazings committee made assets available to infrastructure projects which benefited not only crofters but also the wider community.

In the three years of its existence the present Crofting Commission has managed to lose three of its seven members, and its chief executive Catriona Maclean has now packed her bags and moved on to happier pastures.

By any standards, this is a failing institution.  The response of the new crofting minister, Fergus Ewing, has been inadequate.

Last month Mr Ewing wrote a private letter to the commission’s controversial chair, Colin Kennedy.  In that letter the crofting minister told Mr Kennedy that he and the Scottish Government “wholly disagreed” with the Crofting Commission’s actions and attitudes towards grazings committees.

Most importantly, Fergus Ewing wrote that as crofting minister he considers that the law “does not require the immediate disbursement or pay out of funds by a grazings committee”.

In other words, Colin Kennedy’s interpretation of crofting law had been wrong from the start.  As a result all of his subsequent actions had been, at best, invalid.

This private letter was then leaked to the veteran BBC Highland correspondent Jackie O’Brien.  It seems probable that Mr Ewing authorised the leak in order to shore up his credentials with crofters.

That also was unacceptable.  As crofting minister Mr Ewing has a duty to be open and transparent in the exercise of his responsibility.  He is not just another interested observer.

He also has a duty to the crofting community to ensure that its governing body adheres to best practice and does not trample crofters into the ground.  Colin Kennedy’s Crofting Commission is currently preparing “draft guidance” for grazings committees.  We hope that Fergus Ewing is fully involved in that exercise.  We wait to see whether that guidance will follow the Kennedy or the Ewing version of legislation.  There can be no compromise.  It is difficult to see how Mr Kennedy can emerge from the process with his £20,000 part-time post intact.

This unpleasant chain of events should not shake our belief in democracy.  We continue to believe that the entire Crofting Commission should be elected by crofters rather than composed of professional quangoteers and other government appointees.

Many hundred of crofters in large parts of the Highlands and Islands cast their votes ill-advisedly three years ago, and a lot of them will now realise that.

Thanks to the democratic system, they will have the chance to put things right at the elections next spring.  We hope that they, and the many crofters who previously chose not to vote, will take that chance.  In the long as well as the short term, the future of crofting is at stake.

View from the Crofting Law Blog

I must wholeheartedly agree with this editorial in so far as the need for “public and decisive ministerial intervention”. Indeed I suggested that in my first blog post on this sorry saga back on 25 April 2016. There have been calls since by the Crofting Federation and by crofters for the same thing. To see the West Highland Free Press support the same calls is heartening indeed and must add to the pressure on Fergus Ewing MSP, Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for crofting, to do something about it.

The jury is still out as far as I am concerned about the idea of the entire Crofting Commission being elected by crofters “rather than composed of professional quangoteers and other government appointees”. The problems at the Crofting Commission seem to lie at the door of elected commissioners or perhaps an elected commissioner. Two of the government appointees (who by all accounts were very able and capable commissioners) have resigned in recent times and have yet to be replaced.

The calibre of elected commissioners may be very much down to those willing to put themselves up for election rather than the will of the crofting electorate.

With the Crofting Commission in its current mess there is a good chance that there won’t be many level headed crofters volunteering for the task of clearing that mess up come the 2017 elections. Possibly another solution is required. Answers on the back of a postcard please to Fergus Ewing MSP.

Brian Inkster

The T-1000 Grazings ‘Constable’

T-1000 Grazings 'Constable'

No… No.

Like the T-1000 in the Terminator series Colin Souter keeps coming back for more.

I previously blogged about the exchange of views between myself and Mr Souter published at Scottish Legal News. Whilst the original topic had been Crofting VATgate, Mr Souter had turned this into an attack against me providing legal advice to Upper Coll Common Grazings (before the former committee were removed from office by the Crofting Commission).

I responded to those attacks although I had already done so elsewhere with my previous comments simply being ignored by Mr Souter as though they were never written.

Once more that is the approach adopted by Mr Souter in his latest (and last) letter published by Scottish Legal News yesterday. “Last letter” in that Scottish Legal News have not surprisingly now closed debate between me and Mr Souter through their pages.

Whist Scottish Legal News have understandably brought the debate to an end through their own pages I will continue it here as there is a need to correct the misleading statements, once more, made by Mr Souter. I will, as I have done before, quote sections of Mr Souter’s letter (in italics) with my analysis following each section:-

I note Mr Inkster has shared another article published on Scottish Legal News. I have no intention of inflicting this debate upon your readers as a series of articles but will merely address what I believe to be THE crucial point, missed from all of his recent writings.

The Common Grazings is about ALL the shareholders and NOT the Committee. When a Committee takes it upon itself to make decisions, other than those relating to the maintenance of the Common Grazings, without reference to shareholders, it loses its mandate…..and its credibility. I have never disputed the rights of any individual to seek professional legal advice, nor would I do so. The point which I hope will not escape readers attention is that the Committee, in accessing and spending money which belongs to ALL shareholders, has exceeded their authority, if it does not first seek shareholder approval for that spend. And that is the case, as shown in the Minute Book.

The former committee have always maintained that their meetings were open to all shareholders and decisions were not taken in isolation. They were recently reported as stating:-

“The constable seems unable to understand that in the spirit of openness and transparency over the years in Upper Coll, all meetings were advertised and open to all shareholders, that all decisions were taken by the majority of those attending and that all these decisions were minuted.”

I imagine that the former committee would normally have had meetings with much more than 4 shareholders in attendance (that being the number of shareholders out of a total of 42 that Mr Souter proceeded to conduct business with on Tuesday night).

Mr Souter has taken many decisions on his own account without any recourse to shareholders: obtaining the Opinion of a QC on VAT matters via the Crofting Commission; writing to HMRC querying the right of common grazings (anywhere it would seem and not just Upper Coll) to be VAT registered; writing to numerous parties including myself concerning various spurious matters with insinuations and threats; meeting with Western Isles Council over matters decided by shareholders 8 years or more ago; seeking to involve the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service in undisclosed matters.

In all the accusations about shareholders not being consulted over matters has Mr Souter ever thought to actually ask shareholders whether or not they approved decisions previously made?

If any didn’t (I doubt if there would be many decisions, if any, that would fall into that category) then that would be a matter for any such aggrieved individual shareholder to pursue (if excluded illegally from a decision making process that should have legally included them).

This is not something that Mr Souter can pursue in any way on their behalf. He is deluded in the extreme if he thinks he has such power even were his appointment a legal one.

As a continuing course of conduct, failing to consult and seek approval from the wider body of shareholders serves only to undermine the relationship between the Committee and the shareholders. The resulting friction and rift that has opened up over time, can be traced back to an evident lack of willingness on the part of the Committee to consult, seek and record shareholders views to support Committee activity. My conclusion follows a simple analysis of the records of the Grazings, including the Minutes of meetings of both the Committee and of ordinary shareholders. Doubtless, Mr Inkster will challenge the validity of my conclusions. I can only say, on a factual point, that I am better positioned to comment by virtue of possessing the historical Minute Book, which is the place where you would reasonably expect such detail to be entered. Even disregarding the official Minute Book (and why would you?), there is the evidence offered by shareholders themselves at more recent shareholder meetings, confirming my own conclusion.

Again Mr Souter’s conclusions “follows a simple analysis of records” and not what the shareholders say the position actually was. His reference to “the evidence offered by shareholders themselves at more recent shareholder meetings, confirming” his “own conclusion” can immediately be dismissed on the basis that this is what 4 out of 42 shareholders may have told him. I understand that those 4 shareholders did not often attend shareholders meetings although it was of course open to them to do so.

The irony is that Mr Souter keeps saying that all shareholders should be consulted yet he is holding meetings with just 4 shareholders and making decisions that affect all shareholders (sometimes without any meetings at all) when he knows that at least 26 out of 42 shareholders (i.e. a clear majority) do not support him or his actions.

All parties involved have a duty to act responsibly and engage positively to help move towards a point of resolution. The most recent meeting of shareholders on 13 September saw fit to vote and unanimously support my activity in office to date, and a series of continuing actions outlined by me, to the meeting, as just one of a number of votes that took place. Many present stated this was the first opportunity they had had in recent years to vote on matters and hoped it was a sign of things to come. Shareholders also voted on a new set of Grazings Regulations, consulted upon over the last three months and once endorsed by the Crofting Commission will, I believe, go some way to improving the framework under which the grazings operates.

Again Mr Souter omits the all important numbers and actual facts as though they do not exist. The unanimous support he refers to amounts to possibly only 4 out of 42 shareholders. Mr Souter was presented with a petition by 26 out of 42 shareholders which reads:-

“I support the election of a new Grazings Committee to run the affairs of Upper Coll Township. I also request the removal of the illegally imposed Grazings Constable with immediate effect.”

The “many present” is possibly a maximum of 4. Their “first opportunity” may possibly be because it is the first time they have chosen to attend a shareholders meeting.

Mr Souter was critical of me before for not divulging numbers of attendees at a meting called by shareholders when I didn’t actually know the numbers. In that case he claimed “9 out of 42 shareholders was never a majority“. He knows the numbers in this instance and so perhaps it is he who is now painting “a rather disingenuous picture“? Especially when 4 out of 42 is certainly nowhere near a majority. But 26 out of 42 is.

Mr Souter was also of the view that those who didn’t attend meetings called by the shareholders were “voting with their feet“. On 13 September there were 11 shareholders who actually walked out on his meeting. That is voting with your feet if ever you saw it. If you follow Mr Souter’s view on shareholders meetings and actual support then 38 out of 42 shareholders voted with their feet on 13 September against Mr Souter. He must therefore accept, by his own reasoning, that he has no mandate at Upper Coll.

It is a matter for regret that Mr Inkster has failed to correspond with me, to answer my query and to confirm the existence (and provide a copy) of his letter of engagement, for review by Upper Coll shareholders. His claim that I am “illegally appointed” has been rejected by the Crofting Commission in their letter to shareholders of 8 September. It is simply his opinion on the matter but I nevertheless defend his right to hold that opinion.

Mr Souter yet again completely ignores the fact that I have in fact responded to his letters by way of a seven page letter copied to him but directed to his ultimate employer, the Scottish Government. After all Mr Souter does declare on his LinkedIn page that he is “engaged to support Scottish Government NDPB Crofting Commission, in investigative and reporting activity“.

If I take issue with his behaviour in correspondence issued by him to me, as I do, then I am well within my rights to take that behaviour up with his employers, as I have done. That is certainly not a failure to correspond.

I clearly cannot provide someone who has not instructed me with information provided to someone who did! The Law Society of Scotland would have something to say about any solicitor being persuaded to unethically do so.

My opinion that Mr Souter has been illegally appointed is shared by others and indeed rather ironically reflects the policy adopted by the Crofting Commission but mysteriously departed from by them, contrary to legal advice presumably received by them, on at least three occasions.

Any challenge on the question of the legality of the appointment of grazings ‘constables’ to the Crofting Commission has been met by a simple assertion that as it was a “final decision” of the Commission it is one that cannot be revisited by them. Even although they are unable to show where in law it is stated that they cannot revisit decisions and this is something they have been seen to do on other occasions!

Thus, in effect, the Commission are saying that they may well have made an illegal decision but they have no power to reverse or change such an illegal decision!

Should he wish to press the matter further, then he is clearly aware of the legal process to follow.

Indeed I am, which is more than the Crofting Commission appear to be aware of.

The continual misrepresentation of the situation in the press by disaffected former Committee members and the media profile enjoyed along with their followers, is a matter of ongoing disappointment. For my own part, I will continue to invite all shareholders to participate at official meetings and contribute positively to the future of their Common Grazings.

From the other side of the fence the misrepresentation is clearly on the part of Mr Souter and the Crofting Commission. A reading of this latest letter from Mr Souter alone taken together with my responses thereto is evidence enough of that.

Given the nature of the ongoing dispute, this article does not reflect the views of all Upper Coll shareholders.

Indeed. It may possibly reflect the views of 4 out of 42 of them.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: T-1000 in Terminator: Judgment Day © Carolco Pictures; Pacific Western Productions; Lightstorm Entertainment; Le Studio Canal+ S.A.

 

Constable Propaganda

Constable Propaganda or Crofting Commission Propaganda (Upper Coll Common Grazings)

The real “dictatorial regime” was clear for all to see despite or perhaps because of their propaganda

Colin Souter’s persistent insistence that he can continue to act as ‘committee’ to the Upper Coll Grazings is perplexing indeed in the face of clear opposition to his involvement from the majority of shareholders.

Following the meeting of shareholders called by Mr Souter in Upper Coll last night he issued a press release (he is the only ‘clerk’ in the country known to advise the press of shareholders business in this way). This press release is very much in the tone of propaganda issued on behalf of the Crofting Commission who remain silent on the issue and appear to allow Mr Souter to speak for them.

The Crofting Commission have been under fire for many months now over an alleged abuse of power in removing three grazings committees from office in circumstances thought my most onlookers to be completely unjustified and unreasonable.

I would offer my comments on this latest ‘propaganda’ by quoting sections of it (in italics) with my analysis following each section:-

A third official meeting of shareholders was chaired at Upper Coll last night by the Grazings Constable, Mr Colin Souter.

It is very debatable whether a meeting of shareholders convened by a reputedly illegal grazings constable can ever be an official one. On the illegality of his appointment see:-

Crofting Commission’s appointment of Grazings Constable is illegal

Grazings Constables Risk the Clink

Crofting Commission knew they were acting illegally in appointing Grazings Constables

Grazings Constables were added to the Sump by the Crofting Commission

During his opening remarks, Mr Souter was interrupted by the former Committee chairman, apparently wishing to raise a point of order. Mr Souter responded that he would take the point at the conclusion of his statement to the meeting.

If a point of order was raised at the outset of the meeting should it not have been taken immediately? Mr Souter clearly does not want to let shareholders have their say and is suppressing their right to be heard at a shareholders meeting. That is not the role of a ‘clerk’ even if legally appointed.

In response to that delay, a number of former Committee members and their supporters, many of whom have no shares in the grazings, got up and left the room, in what was declared by those shareholders remaining, to be an obvious pre-planned move. The meeting continued with the remaining shareholders present and worked constructively through a busy agenda.

Mr Souter omits how many left the meeting and how many remained. I understand that 11 people (shareholders or proxies for shareholders) walked out leaving only 4 shareholders (2 full shareholders and 2 half shareholders remaining).

Shareholders vote with their feet at Upper Coll by leaving the meeting arranged by Colin Souter

Shareholders vote with their feet at Upper Coll by leaving the meeting arranged by Colin Souter

Another 4 people remained whose status were not declared but who were not shareholders. No proxies were presented by them at the beginning of the meeting.

The 11 who left the meeting had the clear support of 26 out of 42 shareholders who had signed a petition that stated:-

“I support the election of a new Grazings Committee to run the affairs of Upper Coll Township. I also request the removal of the illegally imposed Grazings Constable with immediate effect.”

Thus Mr Souter decided to proceed with a meeting in the clear knowledge that a very small number of shareholders (perhaps only 4 out of 42) supported him and the meeting in question.”

The meeting continued with the remaining shareholders present and worked constructively through a busy agenda. Shareholders were provided with additional new information and after discussion and debate, voted on a number of issues, many declaring it was the first such opportunity to vote on shareholder matters in the grazings for a number of years and hoped it was an indication of the way forward.

Why were possibly only the 4 out of 42 shareholders present at the meeting “provided with additional new information”? Surely any additional new information should have been provided to shareholders in advance of the meeting. How can decisions be taken on such matters in the absence of actual consultation thereon?

Mr Souter sent a letter to all shareholders on 12 September. Why was this additional new information not included with that letter? No vote should have been taken on such issues in such circumstances. Although any vote was, in any event, very much a minority one given that the majority had expressed their vote on the entire meeting at the outset.

Mr Souter set out his current activities and explained his goals on a number of current matters, some of which are seen as contentious in some quarters and have been the subject of targeted public criticism by supporters of the former Committee, including the Solicitor, Brian Inkster, who had been engaged by the former Committee to support them in their dispute with the Commission, which eventually led to their subsequent dismissal. Mr Souter has since written to Mr Inkster seeking his co-operation to repay the fee he charged, as it had been approved only by the former Committee and not by the wider body of shareholders, who had never been consulted on the matter.

Mr Souter omits to mention that a seven page letter has been issued by me on this subject to Fergus Ewing MSP, Cabinet Minister responsible for crofting, and copied to him. This highlights the serious errors in Mr Souter’s understanding of the position of legal fees, his meddling in VAT affairs, his role as grazings ‘constable’ and his close and unhealthy association with the Crofting Commission and/or their Convener all as set out in:-

Crofters and Lawyers

Crofting VATgate

Inspector Constable

The Crofting Bat Phone

I have expressed my concerns to Mr Ewing about this illegal ‘constable’ being allowed to wreak havoc by the Crofting Commission. Mr Ewing has already had to rein in Convener Colin Kennedy. Now it is time for him to rein in another Colin.

Mr Souter also detailed his correspondence with other parties and the approach being followed. The meeting voted unanimously to support his current activity and the work on which he is currently engaged to ensure the Grazings are fully legally compliant in all matters. Shareholders expressed their wish that if necessary he continue beyond the current term which expires in November but it was explained that under the Crofting Act, there is no provision to extend the tenure of a Constable, once appointed by the Commission.

Possibly only 4 out of 42 shareholders does not give Mr Souter a mandate for “his current activity and the work on which he is currently engaged” or indicate any desire by the shareholders for him to “continue in ‘office’ beyond his current term”.

One thing that Mr Souter has got right in law (maybe the first thing so far) is that under the Crofters (Scotland)  Act 1993 there is no provision to extend the tenure of a Constable, if legally  appointed by the Commission, once the period of tenure comes to an end.

During the meeting, shareholders voted to approve the revised draft of Grazing Regulations, which has been the subject of a wide consultation process over the last three months, subject to some final amendments offered from the floor.

It is very concerning indeed that Mr Souter may think he can force through revised Grazings Regulations  (which are believed to possibly seek to retrospectively validate actions taken unjustifiably by the Crofting Commission) on the basis of a meeting with only a minority of shareholders who have appeared to support the Crofting Commission throughout. Some of those shareholders are alleged to have been personally in breach of the existing regulations and Mr Souter has done nothing whatsoever to deal with those allegations. Again this demonstrates that he is not acting in any way impartially.

On the question of impartiality it is very revealing to note that Mr Souter arrived at the meeting with Donna Smith of the Crofting Commission. Donna Smith is part of the Senior Management Team at the Crofting Commission and is expected to become acting/interim Chief Executive when Catriona Maclean’s notice period comes to an end.

Colin Souter arrives for the meeting of Shareholders at Upper Coll with Donna Smith of the Crofting Commission

Colin Souter arrives for the meeting of Shareholders at Upper Coll with Donna Smith of the Crofting Commission

Much has been made by Mr Souter of his independence from the Crofting Commission although the real position has been clear for all to see. It is now publicly apparent, if it was not before, that Mr Souter and the Crofting Commission are indeed working hand in hand.

This is disturbing indeed and would explain why Mr Souter has not taken up on behalf of shareholders their legitimate concerns and claims over the handling of the whole sorry affair by the Crofting Commission.

Once more it adds to the evidence of the alleged abuse of power at the heart of the Crofting Commission.

After the marathon 4-hour meeting, Mr Souter said, “it was obviously a disappointment that a number of those present made a decision to leave the meeting before it had properly got underway but  I respect their right to do so. Those remaining were sufficient in number to continue with business and to their credit, actively contributed to a very positive discussion in a number of areas. I was able at this stage, to explain to shareholders precisely what I am doing and why I am doing it and was reassured to receive the unanimous support of the meeting.

In respecting the right of those to leave the meeting Mr Souter should also respect their views and the views of the 26 shareholders who signed a petition against him. In respecting those views then clearly nothing discussed at the meeting last night was carried as a vote of the majority of shareholders originally attending: given that 11 effectively voted for the meeting to end.

Mr Souter advised he was aware of the recent unofficial meeting held by disaffected former committee members, and it’s outcome, but dismissed it stating, “I would be delighted if all shareholders engaged in the current process, constructively. We are continuing to make good progress to resolve a series of issues raised and a new set of Regulations was a key element in moving forward. There are some outside influences at work here and I do not believe they are contributing positively for the future benefit of the grazings.

The meeting Mr Souter refers to was certainly not “unofficial” but necessary under and in terms of the existing Grazings Regulations. Indeed Mr Souter, if he had any legal standing, should have been ensuring that what he refers to as an “unofficial” meeting happened. It is a great credit to the former committee that they knew the Grazings Regulations better than Mr Souter and what needed to be done legally in terms thereof.

The Grazings regulations state that:-

“Not later than one month before the term of office of the Committee ends they shall give notice to the shareholders of a meeting for the appointment of a new Committee. This meeting must take place before the term of office of the existing Committee ends. At least 10 days’ notice of the meeting must be given; this shall be done by advertisement in each of two successive weeks in one or more newspapers circulating in the Committee district, or by notice posted up for two successive weeks in a public place or places approved by the Commission. The new Committee appointed at this meeting shall take up office immediately upon the retiral of the existing Committee. The Clerk of the Committee shall inform the Commission of the names and addresses of the members and Clerk of the new Committee.”

If we assume, as Mr Souter does, that his appointment as Grazings ‘Constable’, was legal then that appointment, in terms of the Order issued by the Crofting Commission, comes to an end on 10 November 2016.

That being the case then the shareholders must give notice of a meeting to elect a new committee not later than 10 October 2016. Being organised and sensible shareholders they have not left it to the last minute but organised it a good month or so ahead (which they are entitled to do under the Grazings Regulations).

They have carried out all the steps they need to in order to legally form a new Committee. That Committee will take up office immediately on 10 November 2016 or earlier if Mr Souter resigns his position as Grazings ‘Constable’. Something that many consider he should do so in light of the petition from the majority of shareholders calling for that.

When asked about a recent petition allegedly signed by a majority of shareholders seeking his dismissal as an ‘illegally appointed Constable”, Mr Souter responded that the Commission had repeatedly endorsed his appointment, as recently as the day before the unofficial election meeting and offered his view that the conduct of former Committee supporters had perhaps more in common with a dictatorial regime.

It is not a question of endorsement by the Commission. It is a question of democracy in action within a common grazings. If there is any “dictatorial regime” involved surely it is the Commission and Mr Souter who fall into that camp. They are dictating what they consider the position to be to a clear majority of shareholders who think otherwise.

He added, “How many people do you know who would be happy being door-stepped and told to sign a petition, whilst their neighbour is standing over them? It strains credibility! I would be happy to see all of those folks at our next shareholder meeting. There are serious issues being addressed and it’s about time some former Committee members accept their continuing agitation is not serving themselves or the grazings well. They have a duty to fellow shareholders to accept their own shortcomings and that they have learned from them and are willing to move on. Continually misrepresenting the position in public is not helpful and does nothing to heal the rift they have opened up here in Upper Coll, between shareholders.

On the contrary it is unfortunately Mr Souter who continually misrepresents the position. E.g.:-

The Wrong Grazings Committee!

Mr Souter also advised that during the meeting he informed shareholders he has requested the Crofting Commission now facilitate a meeting with the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service to discuss some of the findings from his review of the former Committee records and accounts. He declined to comment further on specifics, stating “it will be for other authorities now to determine whether there is a need for further action”. The date for the next shareholder meeting has not been set.

From the outset the Crofting Commission and then Mr Souter hinted at irregularities within the three Committees that were dismissed with no evidence whatsoever to back this up. Mr Souter appears to have been put into Upper Coll by the Crofting Commission to find something, anything, to justify his illegal appointment in the first place.

Nothing he has produced to date has evidenced this. Declining to comment on specifics now questions once more what he and the Commission are actually up to. This is not his role as ‘Clerk’. If any shareholders feel there has been any impropriety that has affected them it is for them, not Mr Souter, to take whatever action they may deem appropriate. Mr Souter is now, as the Commission did so before him, casting aspersions unjustifiably and without any basis on former committee members.

This is quite appalling. If anything shareholders should be reporting Mr Souter to the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service for his potentially illegal and fraudulent activities including in particular the manner in which he has taken control of the shareholders finances.

One can only hope that Fergus Ewing MSP does now step in to resolve this tragic mess.

Brian Inkster

Image Credits:-

Main image: INGSOC 1984 Propaganda Poster (detail)

Other images: An La – 13 September 2016 © BBC Alba