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