Daily Archives: September 9, 2016

Conflict of Interest at Upper Coll

conflict-of-interest-at-upper-collOur last post on this blog raised once more the issue of conflict of interest on the part of the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, over the Upper Coll affair. This, for completeness, is a good point to remind readers of the detail of that conflict of interest. We therefore now reproduce, with the author’s kind permission, a letter by Dr Iain MacKinnon that first appeared in the West Highland Free Press in July 2016:-

On 9th December 2015 the Crofting Commission removed from office the entire common grazings committee at Upper Coll on Lewis. The minutes of that meeting disclose that its decisions were reached by consensus and that the Commission’s convener, Colin Kennedy, chaired the meeting throughout.

When that decision was made the Commission were in the process of investigating complaints from crofters at Upper Coll about the way in which Mr Kennedy had chaired a meeting in Upper Coll in November to discuss the grazings issue.

In light of this, Mr Kennedy’s decision to participate in the 9th December discussions raises ethical questions. The Scottish Government’s model code of conduct for standards in public life states that when confronted with a potential conflict of interest, members of public bodies must conduct ‘the objective test’ before proceeding. This test is severe. The member must consider ‘not only whether you will be influenced but whether anybody else would think that you might be influenced by the interest’.

Would a member of the public, with knowledge of the relevant facts, ‘reasonably regard the interest as so significant that it is likely to prejudice your discussion or decision making in your role as a member of a public body’? If there is even the possibility that a member of the public would regard the member as conflicted, then that member must withdraw.

In this instance the plain facts of the matter are that Mr Kennedy was the subject of outstanding complaints about his conduct made by members of a regulated grazings committee at the moment when the regulator, led by Mr Kennedy, took a questionable decision to remove that committee from office.

Indeed, as Mr Kennedy had chaired the November meeting between crofters and Commission in Upper Coll, we can only presume that it was on Mr Kennedy’s recommendation that the decision to sack the Upper Coll committee was made.

Mr Kennedy’s central role in the Upper Coll case casts further doubt on his judgement and fitness for public life – was it reasonable for him to have led on such a sensitive and controversial issue when he knew there were complaints outstanding against him?

We now learn that the retired policeman who was imposed by the Commission as grazings constable at Upper Coll regards himself as an independent force there and has taken it upon himself to initiate investigations that crofting lawyers believe are unlawful; in addition, it has been claimed that Mr Kennedy himself has acknowledged engaging in similar, apparently extralegal, behaviour to the current constable at Upper Coll when Mr Kennedy was acting as grazings constable around a decade ago.

The convener’s conduct in relation to Upper Coll is yet another straw on the back of the Commission donkey, already groaning under the weight of a series of related controversies about its competence and fitness for purpose. If the load of straw keeps getting heavier then at some point the accumulated weight will break the Commission’s back; the regulator will have lost the confidence of the electorate of crofters that it is there to regulate – indeed, Alastair Culbertson and Duncan MacDonald’s recent contributions to the debate demonstrate that confidence in the Commission has already evaporated even for crofters beyond Lewis.

To restore confidence in crofting regulation the Scottish Government’s recently announced review of Commission procedures must fully examine not only the organisation’s future working, but also the recent series of serious complaints which have cost it public trust.

If the practical reasoning and ethical standards of Commission members are found to be wanting, it is in the public interest for the Government to take action and to be seen to be taking action against those members upon whom responsibility is found to rest – including, if necessary, their removal from office. (Such actions should not preclude disbanding the Commission at a later date in favour of another form of regulation.)

Further, it is in the interests of the openness and transparency to which the Commission says it is “strongly committed” that the result of this investigation be fully and freely available to the crofting electorate.

Dr Iain MacKinnon

 

Dr Iain MacKinnon is researching the politics of crofting at Coventry University, although this letter is not part of his academic work.

The Crofting Bat Phone

The Crofting Bat Phone

Commissioner Gordon and Batman didn’t have a look in to the lines of communication available between the Crofting Commissioner(s) and their Grazings Constable!

There have been quite a few comments of late about the difficulties of getting a statement from the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy. He is elusive to say the least and seldom represents the views of the Board to the general public despite this being one of his “particular responsibilities” .

Other Commissioners have been thin on the ground of late as well with no Commissioner replacing the Convener when he failed to attend the Scottish Government Crofting Stakeholder Forum in Inverness on Tuesday. This left the Chief Executive, Catriona Maclean, representing the views of the Commission in front of BBC Alba after the meeting.

Getting clear and unambiguous information out of Commissioners when you can pin them down is also often a challenge.

One person who seems to have direct access without difficulty to Commissioners (which might include, or indeed mean, the Convener) is the Grazings ‘Constable’ of Upper Coll, Colin Souter. He certainly appears to be in possession of information that only Commissioners would have and that well in advance of such information being made available to anyone else outside of Great Glen House.

One example of that became clear at the meeting of the Scottish Government Crofting Stakeholder Forum in Inverness on Tuesday.

I had been aware from the published Agenda that the Board of the Commission had considered a paper at their meeting on 17th August on ‘Grazings Committees – A Practical Approach to the Management of Common Grazings’. There was no mention of that at the Stakeholder Forum so I enquired about it.

I was advised that the Crofting Commission was setting up a Stakeholders’ Working Group to advise on the revision of common grazings regulations and guidance. This paper from 17th August would be considered by that group at a meeting on 20th September. Only after that meeting would the paper in question (possibly after refinement? – but that was not made clear) be circulated to the wider Stakeholder Forum.

So at the moment members of the Stakeholder Forum had no knowledge of or access to what the paper in question said. A stark contrast to the access to that paper apparently afforded to Grazings ‘Constable’ Colin Souter.

In the letter issued by Colin Souter to Shareholders of the Upper Coll Common Grazings on 29th August he states:-

The Board of Commissioners at a recent meeting, considered a submission along the lines I set out at the July meeting, whereby Committees can operate within a defined financial framework which allows retention of funds (from any legitimate source) in the bank, up to a maximum agreed by shareholders, taking account of any commitments under Schemes and projects ongoing and an Emergency Reserve (set at perhaps 3-4 times the 3-year average annual maintenance costs) and exceeding that amount automatically triggers payment to shareholders, three or four times a year. In doing so, the administrative burden is minimised for the Committee and they are seen to be operating within an agreed and better regulated financial framework. Whilst the Commission has a clear role, as regulator, in ensuring feu monies are distributed to shareholders, I understand it does not otherwise seek any direct involvement in other areas of finance affecting shareholders. The proposal tabled is seen as an initiative worthy of testing, for the benefit of Upper Coll and the wider crofting community but it is a choice for shareholders to make.

So even before the Commission has had the first meeting of its new Stakeholders’ Working Group, to advise on the revision of common grazings regulations and guidance, Colin Souter is seeking to impose the guidance so far produced (that no one other than Commissioners, Commission Officials and Colin Souter have seen) upon one particular Common Grazings, namely Upper Coll.

The same is true about his access to an Opinion from Queen’s Counsel which it is presumed was instructed by the Crofting Commission. In his said letter to shareholders at Upper Coll he said:-

Following receipt of legal opinion from Queen’s Counsel, the position of Grazings Committees being able to register for VAT as trading entities in order to reclaim VAT has come under scrutiny. The dialogue with HMRC regarding VAT status remains ongoing and once concluded, I will be able to advise on the outcome.

When I asked about this opinion at the Crofting Stakeholder Forum there was “no comment” from the Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission on behalf of the Board.

It is highly unusual for the Crofting Commission to publish legal advice received by them in any event.

On the topic of legal advice: Colin Souter seems very ready to challenge what he considers to be illegal activities at Upper Coll. It would be very unusual for a clerk in a common grazings (that is effectively what Colin Souter is had he been legally appointed) to appear so sure about crofting law without having sought legal advice. Not that I would give much weight to any advice that Colin Souter is getting given, in my view, a clear misunderstanding on his part as to what the law actually is.

We know that he thinks that legal advice cannot be paid for from grazings funds. So where is he getting his crofting law advice from? Is it likewise coming from Commission officials and/or from Commissioners and/or from a Commissioner? An organisation with a Board that has been shown to ignore the law and lawyers.

Why and how did one grazings clerk (i.e. Colin Souter) get privileged access to all of this information before any other grazings clerk in the land and before the members of the Crofting Stakeholder Forum? In the case of the opinion from Queen’s Counsel this may never be divulged to any other grazings clerks or to any members of the Crofting Stakeholder Forum.

The only explanation can be direct and special contact between him and a Commissioner and/or Commissioners and/or officials within the Crofting Commission.

So much for the assertion that he is acting at arms length and independent from the Commission.

It also again highlights the fact that he is under the control of and acting at the behest of the Crofting Commission. A reader of this blog having referred to him as a “maor” (or ground officer).

Serious questions must be asked by the Scottish Government about this arrangement and, in the circumstances, the validity of any pronouncements by the Crofting Commission and/or their ‘Constable’ over the situation at Upper Coll.

The Crofting Commission will no doubt say that the Scottish Government cannot investigate the situation when it is subject to on going court proceedings. Those court proceedings may touch upon the legality of the appointment of the Grazings ‘Constable’ in the first place.

But even if we take it that the appointment was legal (although that is denied) then the Scottish Government should be looking at the propriety of the relationship that exists between such a legally appointed grazings constable and the Crofting Commission.

Is it correct and proper that he has been given an investigative remit? Is it correct and proper that he is being supplied with the information that he has been? If it is not then who gave that remit and/or supplied that information?

If that was a Commissioner are they therefore, in all the circumstances, “unable or unfit to exercise the functions of a member” or “unsuitable to continue as a member”? As such should the Scottish Ministers remove them from office under and in terms of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993?

Even worse if it were to transpire that it was the Convener who was embroiled in all of this. After all he has, for some time, been the subject of complaints about his handling of the affair at Upper Coll and so should not be involving himself in matters concerning Upper Coll until the relevant complaints process has been completed. To do so would be a clear conflict of interest. But there again that has not stopped him before.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: The Bat Phone from Batman (TV Series) © Greenway Productions / 20th Century Fox Television