‘A Menacing Presence’

'A Menacing Prescence'

It was not the first time that the Crofting Commission had been referred to as ‘The Dark Side’

As indicated previously I am still catching up with news of ‘The Common Clearances‘ since I returned from holiday.

One news item in the saga from last month involved a meeting called by the Crofting Commission with shareholders of the Mangersta Common Grazings (their committee having been removed from office by the Crofting Commission).

There were three press releases relating to the meeting (one with a slightly different slant on it) and that as follows:-

Statement by the Crofting Commission

The Crofting Commission met with shareholders of Mangersta common grazings today, Tuesday 17 May.  The meeting was productive and the Commission would like to thank shareholders for their positive contribution.

The Crofting Commission conducted a closed meeting to give shareholders information on the current state of their common grazings finances as determined by the Commission appointed Grazings Constable.  The meeting has also provided opportunity to seek an agreement on the best way forward to ensure that the committee’s significant level of funds is distributed to shareholders appropriately.   The Commission are committed to achieving a resolution in Mangersta and would like to encourage shareholders to continue to work with us, and hope that this leads to the appointment of a new grazings committee in the near future.

The Commission wants to encourage the good shared management of common grazings across the crofting counties and the most effective way to do this is through properly constituted grazings committees. Clear grazings regulations are the most effective way to safe guard the future common grazing land for the benefit of all crofters.

Statement by the Former Committee members and clerk to Mangersta Common Grazings

The Former Committee members and clerk to Mangersta Common Grazings have expressed “profound concern about the implications for the whole crofting system of the actions now being pursued by the Crofting Commission”.

The statement from the group – who were removed from office on the orders of the Commission – followed a meeting convened by the Commission to explain its position.

Following the meeting, attendees said:

This is no longer about Mangersta or any other specific village which the Commission has intervened in.  It is about the very existence of the crofting system on any kind of viable, community basis.

The position of the Commission is that all money coming into a village for agricultural and environmental schemes must be distributed to individual shareholders, no matter where they live or what their contribution to the crofting life of the village is.

They say that these payments should be declared for the purposes of taxation – the phrase used was that they needed to be ‘taxed and cleaned up’. Individual shareholders should then be asked to make payments back into the Grazings Committee for the purposes originally intended.

In terms of crofting, this is completely mad and unsustainable.  What Grazings Committee is going to apply for any scheme under these conditions?

When shareholders at the meeting questioned the legality of the Commissioners proposals they were told that if all shareholders did not accept them, the Commission would not allow Mangersta Grazings shareholders to reform a committee.

The statement repeated the call for an inquiry into the operations of the Crofting Commission and also asked for an urgent debate in the Scottish Parliament to seek clarification on the issues involved.

At the outset of the meeting, the chairman, William Swann, over-ruled objections to the unannounced presence of the Crofting Commission convener, Colin Kennedy, who did not participate in the discussion. Mr Swann said that Mr Kennedy has a ‘conflict of interest’ but would not ask him to leave the meeting.

Mr. Swann also refused to respond to questions about the legality of the Commission’s actions in removing the grazings clerk and committee members from office replacing them with a Grazings Constable. He said that only the Scottish Land Court could rule on that matter.  The legal advice received by the Mangersta shareholders is that there was no basis in law for the Commission’s actions.

Crofting law expert, Brian Inkster of Inksters Solicitors, who wrote to the Crofting Commission pointing out that, in his view, the appointment of a Grazings Constable in these circumstances was illegal, said:-

The Crofting Commission has not responded with any legal argument as to why they consider their actions to be legal. They have simply stated that they consider their decision to be a final one and they have no authority to revisit their own decisions in these circumstances. So they appear to consider that they can do as they please with no real regard to the law and if decisions are illegal they cannot reverse them!

This is also self evident from the appearance at the meeting unannounced, but with an acknowledged conflict of interest, of convener Colin Kennedy. It is stated in Paragraph 13(2) of Schedule 1 to the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 that ‘the convener must, if present, chair meetings of the Commission and any of their committees’. He didn’t chair this meeting, remained silent and allowed Mr. Swann to chair. Yet again the Crofting Commission simply rips up the rule book.

No public body should be allowed to behave like this and now that we have a new Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for crofting, namely Fergus Ewing, he will hopefully put a stop to it.

If Mr. Swann considers that only the Scottish Land Court can rule on the matter then the Crofting Commission should be making an application to the Land Court under Section 53 of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 for confirmation as to the legality or otherwise of their actions. Until such time as they do so, and in the absence of any legal argument to the contrary, my advice to any Grazings Committee who has been dismissed and replaced by a Grazings Constable is to treat any actions by that Constable as being null and void and carrying no legal authority.

The former committee members and clerk reiterated at the meeting that they could see no way forward until the Crofting Commission publicly admit their error and issue an apology for their actions.  The statement said:

The Crofting Commission is a statutory body which must act within the law.

This affair has opened up issues which are fundamental to the whole crofting system and there is no confidence in the Crofting Commission, left to its own devices, to act in the best interests of crofting or in accordance with their statutory remit. Urgent intervention is now required.

Statement by the Scottish Crofting Federation

The Scottish Crofting Federation (SCF) has expressed astonishment that the convener of the Crofting Commission attended the Mangersta grazings ‘closed’ meeting unannounced.

Fiona Mandeville, chair of the SCF, said

This could be seen as blatant intimidation. It is an old trick to bring someone along to a sensitive meeting who sits in the background as a menacing presence. Perhaps this was not the intention, but it was very poor diplomacy.

Following the widely reported skirmishes between two Lewis grazings and the Crofting Commission, notice recently went out to shareholders of Mangersta grazings, from the Crofting Commission, inviting them to attend a meeting to try to move towards resolution in the conflict. The letter made clear that Commissioners William Swan, Marina Dennis and David Campbell would be present. There was no mention that Commissioner Colin Kennedy, who has been at the heart of the two conflicts and was the subject of complaints about his aggressive meeting style, would be there.

Ms Mandeville continued:-

Apparently shareholders attending asked that he be removed from the meeting but the chair, William Swan, said that, although Mr Kennedy had a conflict of interest, he would be allowed to stay.

We are simply astonished. At every turn the Commission seems bent on thwarting this process and opening itself to further criticism. We were encouraged to hear of the meeting and felt the Commission was trying for reconciliation, but this latest misjudgement will add to the grave concern felt by everyone who cares about crofting’s well-being.

Conclusion

Given how the Crofting Commission handled the meeting it is hard to see how they could put such a positive spin on it. The Convener, with an acknowledged conflict of interest, should quite simply not have been there. That in itself could have made all the difference and been the start of the Crofting Commission rebuilding their shattered credibility. The opposite has been the case as subsequent events have testified.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace © Lucasfilm Ltd

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