Monthly Archives: August 2016

A “big step” or a just step?

Lucy Carmichael from the Scottish Government Crofting Policy Team at the Lewis and Harris Crofters meeting in Stornoway on 3 August 2016My last post considered the overwhelming view of Harris and Lewis crofters that the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, must go given his role in the alleged abuse of power within the Crofting Commission dubbed ‘The Common Clearances‘.

But despite many calls over several weeks for him to consider his position there is no sign of him stepping down anytime soon. In the absence of him doing the right thing is it time for the Scottish Ministers to force his hand?

This issue was raised at the meeting in Stornoway on 3rd August. This is how the West Highland Free Press reported the view thereon by Scottish Government crofting policy officer Lucy Carmichael and my response thereto:-

Ms Carmichael explained that the way crofting legislation is framed the only recourse available to crofters is to mount a challenge in the land court.

However, that was fiercely disputed by Mr Inkster who said that as the commission is a statutory body under the control of the Scottish Government it was perfectly legitimate for ministers to intervene if they felt it appropriate.

But Ms Carmichael felt that would be a “big step” – a statement which drew a sharp intake of breath from the audience, particularly those in Upper Coll who felt their removal from office was equally a big step and, indeed, unconstitutional.

Mr Inkster said that the commission had knowingly gone against their own legal advice, changed the guidance to common grazings committees and misinterpreted crofting legislation. “It is hard to see under such circumstances that anyone can have any confidence in any new guidance given out by the commission,” he said.

I would point out, if I recall correctly, that Lucy Carmichael also made reference to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman and the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland as other possible routes of recourse that crofters could take in addition to or instead of action via the Scottish Land Court.

Brian Inkster at the Lewis and Harris Crofters Meeting in Stornoway on 3 August 2016

In my very first blog post on the alleged abuse of power within the Crofting Commission I said, in connection with the removal from office of the Upper Coll Grazings Committee,:-

I would strongly suggest therefore that the Crofting Commission should, in all the circumstances, review this extraordinary decision. If they fail to do so the Scottish Government should maybe question the behaviour involved and perhaps even consider removing the commissioners responsible as “unsuitable to continue” as members. A power that the Scottish Ministers have at their disposal under the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993. That may be seen by many as a more reasonable and justified use of power than that employed by the Crofting Commission.

46 blog posts on the common grazings debacle later and I am firmly of the view that it would indeed be a more reasonable and justified use of power than that employed by the Crofting Commission.

The evidence is now clear. The Crofting Commission have been exposed to knowingly acting illegally, clearly acting illogically, operating like a kangaroo court, creating conflicts of interest, brazenly deleting its own history and attempting to deny that history. They have been party to intimidation and bullyingobfuscation and manipulation, controlling grazings constablesflouting the will of Parliament and ignoring the law/lawyers. But ultimately they have made a massive U-turn which is nothing more than a clear admission that they got it wrong. They have cost the public purse a huge amount of money.

It is, in light of all of this, not a “big step” to remove a commissioner. It is an obvious step and a just one.

Brian Inkster

Images Credit © BBC Alba

Crofting Convener must go

Crofting Convener must go - says Lewis and Harris Crofters MeetingThe overwhelming message that came out of the Lewis and Harris Crofters’ Meeting was that the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, must go.

Over 80 people attended the meeting, organised by the Scottish Crofting Federation, in Stornoway Town Hall on 3 August.

I will reproduce some of the reports of the meeting that have appeared in the media.

“Lack of Trust” in the Crofting Commission – BBC Naidheachdan

On Wednesday night, more than 80 people gathered at a meeting in the Stornoway town hall to discuss the impact of unrest/conflict between the Crofting Commission and the Grazing Committees.

They put forward a vote of no confidence in the commission, and agreed that Colin Kennedy should resign from his position as the convener of the Crofting Commission.

The Commission had no official representation at the meeting.

Iain MacIver who is himself a Township Clerk said:-

The turnout tonight shows the interest in crofting, and how worried people are of the situation as it is now that they understand it.

It is easy to see that people are very angry about the way in which some of the villages were dealt.

They want to see how the Commission works, and how the law works, lessons to be learnt so that crofting stands in a better position.

The lack of trust vote shows the feelings that are there, but at the end of the day it is up to the government what they are going to do.

I think that the thing that worried people most, was if the people going forward were to be idle in their roles as Town Clerk , and also the Commission itself with the situation as it is now.

But we hope in the coming months that people will gain confidence and be given the right guidance so that crofting can be strengthened, instead of weakened, and that the Government endeavours to make this happen, and that they won’t ruin it as people suspected they would.  That was the consensus this evening.

Crofters make it clear: The Commission can stay but the Convener has to go – Scottish Crofting Federation

A meeting attended by eighty crofters in Stornoway concluded that a Crofting Commission is good for crofting, but it is currently not fit for purpose so the convener, Colin Kennedy, must go.

A crofting meeting organised by the Scottish Crofting Federation held in Stornoway last week, attended by eighty crofters from townships all over Lewis and Harris, gave a clear message to the Scottish Government: the convener of the Crofting Commission must step down; the Upper Coll grazings committee must be re-instated; the current Crofting Commission must be sorted out by Scottish Government but, nonetheless, a Commission is essential to crofting.

Vice-chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation (SCF), Russell Smith, said:-

It was a loud and clear message coming out of a very lively but thoughtful discussion. This is not knee-jerk reaction; the attack on common grazings committees by the Crofting Commission has been on-going now for several months so crofters have had plenty of time to think about this. It is not surprising that there is a call for the convener of the Commission to stand down and for deposed committees to be re-instated. It is perhaps more notable that, despite what is widely regarded as very poor behaviour, the Crofting Commission is still wanted, albeit following a thorough review and improvement of procedures. I think that this is a very sensible approach.

The meeting heard presentations from representatives of the removed Lewis grazings committees, SCF, Inksters Solicitors and Scottish Government, not only on the topic of the Crofting Commission but also on CAP, support to crofting and advocacy for crofting. The meeting, that sometimes became quite heated, was well-chaired by SCF member Donald MacSween.

Mr Smith continued:-

We can understand the Scottish Government’s reluctance to interfere with a majority-elected body, but the meeting was united in its view that the Scottish Government does have to intervene in this circumstance. The procedures of the Commission clearly need to be investigated and modified to stop this sort of thing happening again. The Crofting Commission may well be an ‘arms-length government body’, but the Scottish Government still has a responsibility to make sure that the Commission operates in a fair and reasonable manner – and does possess the powers to intervene, for example by removing a Commissioner, if it sees fit.

Following discussions a vote was called on the motion:-

this meeting has no confidence in the existing Crofting Commission and supports the SCF call for the resignation of the convener Colin Kennedy.

The motion was passed by an overwhelming majority.

Anger in Stornoway aimed at commission – West Highland Free Press

The sense of anger at the recent actions of the Crofting Commission was laid bare at a public meeting in Stornoway last week attended by over 80 people, which delivered an overwhelming vote of no confidence in the organisation and called for the resignation of its convener Colin Kennedy….

As the meeting was drawing to a close a vote of no confidence in the existing commission was passed as well as a call for the resignation of its convener. An overwhelming majority supported the moves with only five of those present against – three of whom are the crofters in Upper Coll who raised the original complaint against the committee, including a father and son.

The Crofting Commission’s Response – Island News and Advertiser

The Crofting Commission is committed to working positively with grazings committees and crofters. At present, the Commission is undertaking an examination of the circumstances of the recent cases, so that any lessons learnt can inform future procedures and decision-making.

A majority of the Crofting Commissioners are elected by crofters, with no involvement on the part of Commission staff in the process, so any consideration of their position is a matter for the individual Commissioner.

It should not be forgotten that consideration of the position of Crofting Commissioners is also a matter for Scottish Ministers and I will look at that further in my next post.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: © BBC Alba

The cost of the Common Clearances

The Cost of the Common ClearancesIn my last post I revealed how much the grazings constables (appointed illegally in my opinion and in the opinion of others, including knowingly by the Crofting Commission itself) were being paid.

But what has been the overall cost of the alleged abuse of power within the Crofting Commission that has been dubbed ‘The Common Clearances‘?

A Freedom of Information request has disclosed that as at 1 July 2016:-

  • Colin Kennedy, Marina Dennis, William Swann and David Campbell (all Commissioners) together with a member of staff travelled to Stornoway to attend a meeting of the Mangersta shareholders on 16-17 May 2016 at an overall costs including flights, accommodation and subsistence of £2,005.
  • Donna Smith (Crofting Commission member of staff) and Colin Souter (‘Grazings Constable’) went to visit Upper Coll shareholders on 23 June 2016 at a cost of £852.40.
  • The cost of the ‘grazings constables’ as disclosed in my last post was £5,886.85.
  • Thus adding these figures together gives a total cost of £8,744.25.

But that figure is very much the tip of the iceberg.

There was an earlier visit to Lewis by the Crofting Commission to meet shareholders at Upper Coll before the decision was taken to remove the grazings committee from office.

There is the huge number of hours spent by Scottish Government officials, Crofting Commission officials and Crofting Commissioners on the debacle.

There is the legal expenses incurred by the Crofting Commission which reputedly includes the engagement of external counsel.

One of the grazings constables purports to still be in ‘office’ carrying out wholly unnecessary and dubious activities that he will no doubt still be paid for.

All costs that could and should have been avoided and better spent on the legitimate and proper regulation of crofting.

But perhaps more significant is the human cost. Something that cannot be quantified in pounds, shillings and pence. The devastating affect that the Crofting Commission has wrought on crofting communities with accusations of financial impropriety that have ultimately been withdrawn or still remain hanging.

One final observation: Why did the Crofting Commission meet the costs of their Convener, Colin Kennedy, attending the meeting in Mangersta in May 2016? He was not officially supposed to be there, he had a conflict of interest that was acknowledged but he insisted on attending albeit in silence. Was he doing so in a personal capacity rather than an official one? Whatever the position should the Crofting Commission have been meeting his travel and accommodation costs? A question (amongst many others) for Audit Scotland to answer perhaps.

Brian Inkster

How much are Grazings Constables paid?

How much are Grazings Constables paid

Hey… why are you getting £30 per hour and I’m not?!

In my last blog post I looked at who pays the Grazings Constables. This post will disclose how much they get paid.

In comments on the Island News & Advertiser when they published a letter from Colin Souter, the grazing constable for Upper Coll (illegally appointed in my opinion and the opinion of others, including the Crofting Commission itself) it was suggested that the going rate was £30 per hour.

Colin Souter disputed this figure. As that was, apparently, the figure obtained via a Freedom of Information (FOI) request in connection with the remuneration of the Mangersta Grazings Constable then perhaps different grazings constables have been paid different rates. If so then this would reveal yet more inconsistencies on the part of the Crofting Commission!

Another FOI request has disclosed that as at 1 July 2016 Donald Harrison (Mangersta Grazings Constable) had been paid or was due to be paid £4,659 and Colin Souter (Upper Coll Grazing Constable) had been paid or was due to be paid £1,227.85.

The Mangersta Grazings Constable had been carrying out activities (albeit illegally) much longer than the Upper Coll one at that point. Today the Mangersta Grazings Constable is no longer in ‘office’ but the Upper Coll one still purports to be and is no doubt still accepting payment for his activities despite the risks of so doing outlined by Donald Rennie.

Brian Inkster

Who pays the Grazings Constables?

Who pays the Grazings ConstablesWhen the Crofting Commission removed from office members of the Mangersta Common Grazings Committee they undertook to pay the costs of the (illegally appointed, in my opinion and in the opinion of others, including the Crofting Commission itself) Grazings Constable.

When the Crofting Commission removed from office members of the Upper Coll Common Grazings Committee they stated that the shareholders must pay the costs of the (illegally appointed, in my opinion and in the opinion of others, including the Crofting Commission itself) Grazings Constable.

Colin Kennedy, the current Convener of the Crofting Commission, originally stood for election to the board of the Crofting Commission after becoming disillusioned with its management. He said, at the time, that the eight crofters on the Isle of Coll had been treated ‘appallingly’ by the Commission, accusing the organisation of applying the legislation differently in one part of the country to another. If elected, he said he would strive to ensure Scotland’s Crofting Acts would be applied evenly across the board.

The opposite appears to be his actual practice.

However, as Donald Rennie has pointed out, no one should be paying illegally appointed grazings constables.

Brian Inkster

21 crofters to share over £705,000 from Croft House Grant Scheme

Fergus Ewing MSP announces £705,000 of Croft House GrantsCrofters will benefit from better housing through funding under the Croft House Grant Scheme.

Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity, Fergus Ewing, confirmed 21 crofters will share over £705,000 from the scheme. The funding allows crofters to build or improve homes, helping to retain and attract people to rural communities in the crofting counties of Scotland.

Since the start of 2007, over £15 million of grant payments have been awarded. From 1 April 2016, changes made to the grant support mechanism include a significant increase in individual grants, with some crofters now eligible for £38,000 of funding.

Mr Ewing confirmed the funds on a visit to a recently constructed croft house near Kiltarlity in the Highlands. He said:

Good quality housing is essential for crofters. We need to draw people to Scotland’s most remote and rural communities and the Croft House Grant can do that. Upgrading or building new properties can help crofters fulfil their duty to live on or close to their croft and can help them undertake additional agricultural activity.

This funding will make a real difference to 21 crofters and their families across the Highlands, Western Isles, Northern Isles and Argyll. Since 2007 over 800 homes have been improved or built under the scheme. It is great to see how this support can make a difference and I look forward to hearing many more success stories from the latest awards.

Mark Wiper crofts at Ardendrain near Kiltarlity in Inverness-shire. He received £11,500 through the scheme in 2012, enabling him to build a three bedroom family home on his croft. He said:

The funding from the Croft House Grants Scheme went toward building Tigh Na Cleit. I’ve been there for two years now and being able to live on the croft I’m working on is great. Beforehand, I was living at home with my parents and having my own home has given me much needed independence.

The grant has provided me the opportunity to build a property that is completely fit for purpose, and allows me to still live close to my family. Crofting can be very challenging and any support to help maintain the way of life is welcome.

The 21 grants referred to are being made to crofters in the following locations:-

  • Caithness
  • Inverness-shire
  • Isle of Lewis
  • Isle of Skye
  • Isle of Islay
  • North Uist
  • Ross-shire
  • Shetland
  • Sutherland

For details of the scheme see: The Scottish Government – Rural Payments – Croft House Grant

Book Review: Set Adrift Upon the World – The Sutherland Clearances

Set Adrift Upon the World - The Sutherland ClearancesIn ‘Set Adrift Upon the World’ James Hunter masterly weaves together a fascinating account of the Sutherland Clearances. One that takes you from the Strath of Kildonan and other parts of Sutherland to battles in New Orleans via South Africa and onto the foundation of what is now the Canadian city of Winnipeg.

Along the way you are introduced to characters from the early 1800s that have a familiarity about them as their names remain in use today throughout the Highlands & Islands of Scotland. Heart wrenching accounts are given of the barbarity of evictions that left people homeless and often resulted in the death of the young or infirm shortly on the back thereof. Journeys by foot across frozen Canada conjure up images like those from the Oscar winning film ‘The Revenant’. On a lighter note the intricacies of malt whisky making are explained and we learn what Alison Watt’s favourite painting is in the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland.

The clearances were at the behest of the Marquis and Marchioness of Stafford (later to become the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland) to make way for large scale sheep farming. Those removed from the land would have the option of much smaller crofts on the fringes of the Sutherland Estate that would be unsustainable on their own without other income streams. Much indeed as crofting has become today. Many of those evicted instead moved to Caithness or further afield to Canada for the prospect of larger holdings on which to make a living.

The henchmen in the tale are James Loch, Commissioner to the Marquis of Stafford, and Patrick Sellar, Factor of the Sutherland Estate. The chapter on the trial of Patrick Sellar in the High Court on culpable homicide charges is an infuriating read for anyone concerned with the rule of law. Indeed that is a theme throughout the book where wealth and status invariably lead to injustice for others.

The book often feels more like a fictional novel rather than a factual historical account. That is the beauty of James Hunter’s approach to history and one he himself refers to as storytelling. This makes it a real page turner with you eager to know what happens next even though you know what the ending must be.

It was impossible for me to read this book without unfortunately seeing parallels to ‘The Common Clearances’ of today. That is the removal from office of Common Grazings Committees by the Crofting Commission. A body whose remit is supposedly to regulate not decimate crofting. This is currently happening with unusual regularity, in haste and on what appears to be completely unreasonable and unnecessary grounds. The Crofting Commission are today’s Marquis and Marchioness of Inverness and their henchmen are easily identifiable. Kangaroo courts, ignorance of the law, conflicts of interest, self-interest, corruption, nepotism, historical revisionism, intimidation and bullying have all been referred to as tactics used by the Crofting Commission as part of ‘The Common Clearances’. About the only difference with the Sutherland Clearances so far is the absence of fire. To think these comparisons are being made 200 years after the Sutherland Clearances is hard to fathom. Equally hard to believe is the fact that the Scottish Government of today has so far not intervened in what the Scottish Crofting Federation has referred to as a “calamity”.

As James Hunter points out, Beriah Botfield, a Tory MP, commented in 1830, that no “pursuit of prospective advantage” made it legitimate “to transgress the laws of humanity”.

Brian Inkster

N.B. This book review was written for and first appeared in Scottish Legal News and Irish Legal News.

Buy ‘Set Adrift Upon the World – The Sutherland Clearances’ at Amazon

Lewis and Harris Crofters’ Meeting

SCF Crofters Meeting Lewis and Harris - 3 August 2016The Scottish Crofting Federation (SCF) has organised a meeting in Lewis this Wednesday, 3 August 2016.

It is at the Stornoway Town Hall at 7.00pm and will involve presentations and discussions on Common Grazings, the role of the Crofting Commission and current policy issues affecting crofting.

You don’t have to be a SCF member to attend and all are welcome.

The panellists are:-

  • Russell Smith – SCF Vice-Chair
  • Brendan O’Hanrahan – SCF director
  • Lucy Carmichael – Scottish Government Crofting Policy
  • Brian Inkster – Crofting Lawyer, Inksters Solicitors
  • Patrick Krause – SCF Chief Executive

The meeting will be chaired by Donald Macsween – Lewis crofter, SCF member and activist.

A lively discussion is expected given the recent controversy surrounding alleged abuse of power within the Crofting Commission arising from what this blog has dubbed ‘The Common Clearances‘. Recent revelations have shown that the Crofting Commission knowingly acted contrary to their own policies, procedures and legal advice. All this and more will be up for debate on Wednesday night in Stornoway.