Review highlights “notable and worrying failures” in governance within the Crofting Commission

Rural Economy Secretary, Fergus Ewing, has asked the Crofting Commission to take urgent action to improve performance in crucial areas following the publication of the Governance Review [PDF] undertaken on the instruction of the Scottish Government by business advisors and accountancy firm Scott-Moncrieff.

The Scottish Government ordered the Governance Review of the Crofting Commission following the crisis of confidence in the organisation due to the inappropriate actions taken on common grazings committees and the subsequent breakdown of relationships within the Commission.

A full action plan including prioritising work to deliver the necessary improvements in the way regulatory cases and Board proceedings are managed will be delivered in response to the findings of the Governance Review.

The Crofting Commission Governance Review highlighted a range of areas that need urgent action including:-

  • Governance standards, procedures and other arrangements, at both executive and non-executive levels, to underpin effective decision-making, particularly in relation to the Bohuntin, Upper Coll and Mangersta Common Grazings cases [Note: The review did not look at the regulatory decisions themselves]
  • Arrangements for handling conflicts of interest
  • Ensuring that capacity building and development needs of Board members are met and that the necessary training is provided.

Rural Economy Secretary, Fergus Ewing, said:-

This review highlights notable and worrying failures in the governance of the crofting commission which must be improved immediately. That is why I have asked the new Chief Executive to urgently prepare an action plan to take this forward.

Crofting is an integral part of Scottish rural life and it is essential that it has an effective regulator. This review, and the action plan which will follow, must help to deliver the necessary changes and ensure the commission is able to lead the crofting industry forward.

Crofting Commission Chief Executive, Bill Barron, said:-

A number of important points have been made in the governance review and we are committed to ensuring robust processes are in place to achieve a high standard of governance within the organisation.  I will be putting in place a full action plan to ensure these points are addressed, as requested by the Rural Economy Secretary.

We have already made some of the improvements recommended in the review and we are developing a comprehensive induction programme for the new Board of Commissioners following the elections in March 2017.

Continuous improvement within the Commission, and building on the recommendations from the review, will help us to create a focussed and effective organisation working to secure the future of crofting.

The Scottish Crofting Federation has welcomed the pledge by the Scottish Government to put in place an action plan to address the failures highlighted by the Governance Review. Their Chair, Russell Smith, said:-

The Governance Review of the Crofting Commission, instigated by Scottish Government at our request, has exposed many weaknesses in basic operating procedures and in how the organisation copes with extraordinary individual behaviours. The review has made it clear that a robust Commissioner appraisal process is required, to help identify and deliver ongoing training and skills development. We are particularly keen to see a rationalisation of the roles of Commissioners, establishing when they should be delegating to the executive staff or referring to other bodies that have the required expertise. Commissioners should have a strategic and advisory capacity only. It is clear that they got too involved with executive procedures that they did not have the competence or remit for.

The review team recognises the huge damage done to the reputation of the Commission by the in-fighting and particularly that the vote of no confidence in the convener did not achieve a tangible result, that is, his removal. Frustratingly, the review does not suggest how this will be resolved, though the government’s recent exoneration will open up options.

It is alarming that the review team found there to be fundamental inconsistencies and gaps in records of events that led to the breakdown of the organisation. This appears to have handicapped the review to an extent, and is telling in itself.

The list of areas for improvement is long and the minister for crofting, Mr Fergus Ewing, has instructed that an action plan to address them be put in place as a matter of urgency. This will, we hope, sort out some of the fundamental issues that allowed the near collapse of this significant organisation. We are strongly of the opinion that the purpose and role of Commissioners needs to be appraised and a clear boundary to be set between their overseeing strategy and the staff’s executive function. This seems critical to the health of the Crofting Commission.

No comment appears to have been made by the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, on the “notable and worrying failures” found whilst he was at the helm.

Mr Kennedy has, however, as part of his campaign for re-election to the South West Highlands seat on the Crofting Commission, stated to The Oban Times that his “experience prompted” him “to make representations to the Scottish Government, which included insisting an external review was required to establish what was, or was not, going on“. One would, therefore, think that the review was instigated at the insistence of Mr Kennedy!

It was, of course, as a result of the alleged abuse of power within the Crofting Commission whilst Mr Kennedy was in charge that I and the Scottish Crofting Federation, amongst others, called on Fergus Ewing to instigate a review into goings on at Great Glen House.

As far back as April 2016, I stated:-

In 1883 a Royal Commission (The Napier Commission) was set up by Gladstone’s Liberal Government. Its purpose was ‘to inquire into the conditions of the crofters and cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland’ and everything concerning them. This came on the back of The Highland Clearances and ‘The Battle of the Braes’ where the Braes crofters stood up against the 50 policemen brought in from Glasgow following the loss of their hill pasture on Ben Lee and a rent strike in protest. The Report by the Napier Commission resulted in the first Crofters Act in 1886 providing security of tenure for crofters.

130 years after security of tenure was given to crofters a new form of clearance is happening in the Highlands and Islands: The clearance of common grazings committees by the Crofting Commission. They are wielding power in an unjustified and brutal manner reminiscent of landlords from the nineteenth century. We are about to see I believe ‘The Battle of Great Glen House’ (this time perhaps fought with paper and ink rather than stones) and the Scottish Government must now institute an inquiry into the actings of the Crofting Commission and everything concerning them.

In May 2016 the then Chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation, Fiona Mandeville, referring to a meeting held in Ullapool to discuss the common grazings crisis said:-

The meeting was unequivocal in its opinion of the Crofting Commission’s conduct. As well as a vote of no confidence in the Commission, the meeting thought that it would be appropriate for the convener of the Commission to stand aside whilst an investigation is carried out into the summary dismissals of grazings committees and the internal procedures of the Commission that has led to this debacle. The Scottish Crofting Federation fully supports this.

Then in June 2016 the Scottish Crofting Federation reiterated its call on Scottish Ministers to intervene in the crofting common grazings debacle and to instigate an external examination of the Crofting Commission, following revelations of a cover-up. Fiona Mandeville then said:-

We reiterate our petition that the Scottish Ministers intervene and ensure that an impartial examination of the Commission’s recent conduct is carried out by a competent external body.

This is extremely disappointing. It seems that the only way to deal with this is through an external audit of the Commission’s behaviour over the common grazings. And we do mean a full audit.

Also in June 2016 Brian Wilson writing in The Scotsman said:-

The immediate question is whether the Scottish Government is prepared to back their quango’s interpretation of the law and its heavy-handed approach to enforcement.

In the short term, a rapid inquiry into why the Crofting Commission has got itself into this mess and how it can be helped out of it may seem a relatively attractive option.

In September 2016 the West Highland Free Press called for decisive Ministerial intervention in the crofting crisis. Their editor stated:-

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.

The West Highland Free Press have also, of course, repeatedly called on Fergus Ewing to remove Colin Kennedy as Convener of the Crofting Commission. They were of the view that “more than anybody else, Mr Kennedy spearheaded the assault on the grazings committees“.

So, no, it was not Colin Kennedy who asked for the Governance Review. But it was his actions that were certainly behind the call by the many who did want to see such a review and are not surprised at all by its findings. I will consider those findings in some detail in future posts on this blog.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: Commission on the Rocks – Cartoon © A concerned crofter

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