Tag Archives: Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity

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

Ewing Exonerated

Fergus Ewing v Colin Kennedy

One Nil to Fergus Ewing. Ding ding, next round!

BBC Naidheachdan have reported that Fergus Ewing, Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity with responsibility for crofting, has been cleared of any wrongdoing in the complaint brought against him by the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy.

This is how they reported it:-

The Secretary for Rural Economy was not breaking any rules in the way he dealt with the Crofting Commission.

This was the outcome of a review by the Secretary of Justice, after the Convener of the Commission, Colin Kennedy, raised several complaints against Fergus Ewing.

Mr Kennedy raised his complaints after a controversial Commission meeting in Brora, Sutherland in September. He questioned decisions made by Mr Ewing in connection with the Commission.

Mr Kennedy was angry that the Commission had to excuse crofters in relation to how they handled the grazing committees disputes.

Since then there has been controversy surrounding Mr Kennedy and there has been pressure on Mr Ewing to ask Kennedy to stand down.

It has not been possible for Ewing to deal with the Commission whilst this review has been underway.

Now the government has confirmed that the review conducted by the Department of Justice is over, and that Ewing did nothing wrong.

The question now is what will Ewing do with all his freedom to make decisions regarding the Commission.

View from the Crofting Law Blog

As highlighted previously on this blog section 1(3) of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 states:-

The Commission shall discharge their functions in accordance with such directions of a general or specific character as may from time to time be given to them in writing by the Scottish Ministers.

Directions were given to Mr Kennedy by a Scottish Minister. It would appear that Mr Kennedy refused to accept those directions and instead lodged a complaint against the Scottish Minister in question.

The Scottish Minister has been completely exonerated in what would appear to have been a vexatious complaint. Will Mr Kennedy therefore now accept those directions which will involve him personally issuing a public apology to the three grazings committees removed from office by the Crofting Commission in Mangersta, Upper Coll and Bohuntin? Or is it a case that ‘hell will freeze over‘ before he does that?

Will Mr Kennedy now accept the Scottish Government’s position on disbursement of common grazings funds and receipt of SRDP funding which has been accepted by his fellow commissioners but which he has been very vocal in disagreeing with?

Mr Kennedy is, in any event, not well known for representing the views of the board of the Crofting Commission to the general public despite it being one of his “particular responsibilities“, as convener, to do so. He is also, as highlighted in my last post, completely at odds with the board and appears to be refusing to follow the doctrine of collective responsibility.

Fergus Ewing did say some time ago that it is not sustainable for the Scottish Government and one of its public bodies to take opposing interpretations of the law. Is it sustainable for the Scottish Government and the Convener of one of its public bodies to take opposing interpretations of the law and to be in continuing conflict over those interpretations?

The governance review of the Crofting Commission was published last week and referred to “notable failures in governance within the Crofting Commission“. The review made reference to “strong personalities, differences of opinion and apparent incongruent individual objectives and priorities” having “impaired effective and efficient governance“. I will look at this governance review in some detail in forthcoming posts on this blog.

Brian Inkster

Gaelic credit: Thanks to Vicki Folan of Inksters for translating the BBC Naidheachdan report from Gaelic to English

Last vacant Crofting Commissioner seat filled at last

The newest Crofting Commissioners, Malcolm Mathieson and James Scott, at their first Board meeting on 8 February 2017

The newest Crofting Commissioners, Malcolm Mathieson and James Scott, ready for their first Board meeting on 8 February 2017

The Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity, Fergus Ewing MSP, has announced the appointment of James Scott as a Commissioner of the Crofting Commission Board from 1 February 2017.

Appointment

James Scott runs a business, focussing on training and assessing skills in rural businesses.  James has a strong agricultural and field sports background and has previously worked in deer and conservation in both the public and private sectors.  James has a particular interest in ensuring the future of crofting through making it attractive and accessible to new and young entrants and in growing the skills of these groups to allow them to be successful crofters.

Length of Terms and Remuneration

Mr Scott’s appointment is for three years and runs from 1 February 2017 until 31 January 2020.  The appointment is part time and attracts remuneration of £161.29 per day for a time commitment of around 4.5 days per month.

The appointment is regulated by the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland.

Welcome from Crofting Commission

Bill Barron, Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, said:

I would like to welcome James to the Commission and we look forward to working with him.  James’s expertise in conservation and interest in making crofting attractive and accessible to new and young entrants will be extremely valuable to the Board.

With a full Board of Commissioners we can work to ensure everything is in place for a smooth handover to the elected Commissioners in April 2017.

No statement has been released, as yet, by the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, regarding the appointment.

First Board Meeting

James Scott joined the other newly appointed commissioner Malcolm Mathieson for their first board meeting at Great Glen House on 8 February. What an eye opener that must have been for them with it being revealed at the meeting that threats of legal action made by the Convener, Colin Kennedy, hang over the commission and commissioners. More on that in my next post.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: © BBC Alba

New SCF Chair

Russell Smith - Chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation

Russell Smith – Chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation

With recent news of crofting commissioner appointments and a new CEO at the Crofting Commission it should also be noted that just before Christmas a new chair was appointed to the Scottish Crofting Federation (SCF).

At their board and council meeting on 16 December 2016, the SCF said thanks to the out-going chair, Fiona Mandeville, who stepped down on completion of her two year tenure. Fiona handed the role to Russell Smith, a crofter from Bonar Bridge in Sutherland.

Mr Smith commented:-

The Federation has achieved a great deal in the past two years, not least the pledges made by the SNP in their manifesto and confirmed recently by the Cabinet Secretary for crofting, Fergus Ewing MSP. The pledges mirror the ‘Five Actions for Crofting’ published by the SCF just before the election.

We have brought crofting very much back on to the Scottish Government agenda with the promise from them to modernise crofting law and make it more transparent, understandable and workable in practice. This will be no mean feat but the law needs to be made to work for crofters not for lawyers. We have won a substantial improvement in the Croft House Grant Scheme and await the government’s action to re-introduce the Croft House Loan Scheme.

Scottish Government will also explore mechanisms to make more publicly owned land available to new entrants, a long running campaign of the SCF, and have promised to introduce a new entrant’s scheme for crofting and to explore the creation of new woodland crofts. At last the National Development Plan for Crofting we asked for is closer to becoming a reality.

So, yes, we have achieved a lot, but there is still much to do. With the prospect of leaving the European Union, one of the few certainties is that support to agriculture and particularly to crofting will have to be fought for. Being the only organisation solely dedicated to representing crofters means that SCF will have to fight hard to avoid being marginalised by big farmers in other parts of the country. Crofters need to stand together under one banner so that our voices can be heard.

New Crofting Commission CEO not Commissioner!

Fake Crofting NewsThe Scottish Farmer are not always on the ball when it comes to crofting news. This week they excelled themselves with the headline ‘New Crofting Commissioner announced’.

Well we had all been waiting patiently for the remaining vacant seat for an appointed commissioner to be filled. Only one of the two vacant posts was recently filled following the appointment of Malcolm Mathieson with a promise that the remaining appointment would “be made in due course“. Did The Scottish Farmer have an exclusive for us on this? Unfortunately not. They just had their CEOs mixed up with their commissioners.

Crofting CEO not CommissionerThe real news that the Scottish Farmer was trying to report was that Bill Barron has been appointed as Chief Executive at the Crofting Commission.

The Chief Executive and designated Accountable Officer is responsible for the strategic leadership and overall operation and management of the Crofting Commission, including financial controls. Bill Barron has assumed the role on a permanent basis after being appointed as interim CEO in October 2016 following the departure of Catriona Maclean.

Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity Fergus Ewing said:-

I am pleased that Bill has accepted the position and will join the Commission as permanent Chief Executive.

We have achieved a number of important milestones since we established the Crofting Commission in 2012, and there is now an opportunity to build on successful developments in crofting, refocusing attention on being an effective regulator and delivering an excellent service to crofters.

I am sure that Bill will bring leadership skills and dedication to the role and I wish him every success.

Crofting Commission Chief Executive Bill Barron said:-

I am delighted to have been appointed Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission. In my three months as Interim Chief Executive I have met regularly with Commissioners, staff, crofters and many other stakeholders to hear their views.

The work I have started will continue, giving the Commission a renewed focus on securing the future of crofting and preparing for the new Board following the crofting elections in March 2017.

Background

Bill Barron – biography

Bill Barron was appointed interim CEO of the Crofting Commission in October 2016.

Before that he worked on housing policy and delivery for the Scottish Government for 8 years, covering a range of issues including homelessness, housing’s contribution to health and social care, housing-related social security, and the supply of affordable housing.

A former statistician, Bill has also worked for the UK and Scottish Governments in the fields of education, social security, health and justice.

Crofting Commission

The Commission’s board can have up to nine commissioners. A maximum of six are elected by crofters, with the remainder appointed by Scottish Ministers. The Commission is the only public body in Scotland with a majority of board members elected by the people they serve.

Brian Inkster

Crofting Commission appointments and unfinished business?

Crofting Commission appointments and unfinished businessThe Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity, Fergus Ewing MSP, has announced the appointment of Malcolm Mathieson as a Commissioner of the Crofting Commission Board from 1 January 2017.  He also announced the reappointment of David Campbell as a Commissioner of the Crofting Commission Board from 1 April 2017.

The official Scottish Government press release reads:-

Appointments

Malcolm Mathieson is by profession an accountant who has held senior Finance and Managing Director positions within various global organisations.  He is senior partner in Moy Farm, an 1800 acre hill farm in Lochaber and a Director of Lochaber Lodges which he set up in 2009 as part of the farming diversification of Moy Farm.  Mr Mathieson has a specific interest in the financial viability of farming in less favoured areas.

Reappointment

David Campbell’s reappointment introduces a degree of continuity between the current Crofting Commission Board and the new Board which will be in place following the Crofting Commission elections in March 2017.  He has a wide experience of crofting matters with a solid grasp of crofting’s cultural, social and economic benefits, and how these are underpinned by effective regulation.  Mr Campbell has a strong connection to crofting traditions with an equally able understanding of how crofting system of land tenure plays a significant role in population retention.

Length of Terms and Remuneration

Mr Mathieson’s appointment is for three years and runs from 1 January 2017 until 31 December 2019.

Mr Campbell’s appointment is for three years and will run from 1 April 2017 until 31 March 2020.  His appointment fulfils the requirement for there to be a Crofting Commissioner to represent the interest of landlords of crofts.

Both appointments are part time and attract remuneration of £161.29 per day for a time commitment of around 4.5 days per month.

The appointment and reappointment are regulated by the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland.

Bill Barron, Interim Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, said:-

We look forward to working with Malcolm, his experience and knowledge of finance and governance will be of great value to the Commission over the coming years.

Commissioner Campbell has provided an important contribution to the Board with his experience of crofting matters and understanding of the interests of landlords of crofts.  His reappointment will provide crucial continuity to the Board ahead of the crofting elections in March 2017.

The Scottish Government press release also revealed that:-

One further Commissioner appointment will be made in due course.

It appears odd that this appointment was not also announced at the same time as the appointment of Malcolm Mathieson given that the two vacancies were advertised at the same time and presumably the selection process carried out at the same time. Given all the problems that exist within the Crofting Commission it is an appointment that the Scottish Government can ill afford to delay any further.

It was interesting to see the Scottish Government press release state that:-

The Convener is appointed from among Commission members.

Whilst the current convener was so appointed it is of course within the power of Scottish Ministers to make the appointment rather than delegate that function to commissioners. It will be interesting to see the approach taken on this by Fergus Ewing MSP following the next Crofting Commission elections.

The current convener, Colin Kennedy, was back in the limelight this week speaking to The Scottish Farmer. He told them:-

I am standing again for election as I believe the job I started in 2012 is not completed.

I have been given overwhelming support from crofters across the crofting counties over the past four months, who recognise the commission requires people who are not afraid to take the decisions which the law provides for, rather than the decisions which certain individuals desire.

It is my paramount desire to ensure fair and equal treatment of all crofters regardless of where they reside. I am aware the board have been informed by a commissioner on several occasions ‘you don’t understand, crofting is different in our area’, which may be the case – and should it be that the Scottish Government have made special arrangements for that area, then it is only fair that crofters in all counties are afforded equality.

The board provides leadership, direction, support and guidance to make sure the commission does its job properly in line with the law. This is what I have tried to do and intend to continue to do should I be re-elected.

Also of extreme importance to every crofter is an explanation as to why the executive requested certain papers be destroyed, and why those vast documents were not on the commission system when a freedom of information request was received.

Who produced those papers which were then provided to both the commission committee and the full board with a list of options on how to dispose of such cases remains a mystery requiring answers. And why was the minute of the board dated September 15, 2015, in relation to those papers not implemented, together with numerous other minutes which were not implemented.

I am not sure where this “overwhelming support” is coming from. It has not been evidenced as far as I can see. On the contrary we have had crofters and crofter representatives seeking his resignation or dismissal.

With regard to “fair and equal treatment” Mr Kennedy has perhaps forgotten that the Commission’s removal from office of the Upper Coll Common Grazings Committee because they did not produce five years of audited accounts contradicted the position previously taken by the Commission. Their former convener, Susan Walker, had stated to another grazings committee that based on legal advice received by the Commission “reference to audit in the Grazings Regulations is not a specific statutory requirement”.

This is one of many examples of the Crofting Commission contradicting itself and not taking a uniform approach to the application of the law.

Also many would dispute that there has been “fair treatment” to crofters in Lewis and Lochaber over the past year.

There is little doubt in many observers eyes that the Commission has certainly not done “its job properly in line with the law” in recent times. If that is what Mr Kennedy has really tried to do it is something he appears, unfortunately, to have failed in.

It is not surprising to hear about the destruction of documents within the Crofting Commission. Mr Kennedy’s own guidelines on disbursement of funds by grazings committees was of course deleted from the Crofting Commission website as though it had never existed. Perhaps the missing documents Mr Kennedy refers to are the ones that were found by commissioners in the secret brown envelopes? However, the cryptic nature of the references by Mr Kennedy to these papers leaves more questions than answers. Perhaps he should arrange a special meeting of the board to be held in public to air fully any such matters that are “of extreme importance to every crofter“?

Brian Inkster

Crofting chaos escalates

Despite 101 blog posts highlighting the crisis within the Crofting Commission, a review being commissioned by the Scottish Government into their governance and countless calls from all quarters for the current Convener, Colin Kennedy, to step down the chaos within the Crofting Commission just seems to get worse by the day.

Before Christmas it truly escalated with the Convener calling a secret meeting of commissioners in an attempt to purportedly overturn the decisions taken at Brora, including the call for him to resign. He failed. Things did not go well for him either, a few days later, at the scheduled meeting of the board on 14 December. That board meeting was covered by BBC Alba and we reproduce here their full report:-

Iain Maclean (presenter) highlighted the matter at the outset of the evening news headlines:-

This evening, more chaos and controversy surrounding the Crofting Commission as two officials refuse to attend a board meeting, they say that they cannot work with the current board.  Three co conveners, have asked the Scottish Parliament for an intervention in relation to Colin Kennedy.

BBC Alba - Commission Chaos - 141216 - Tavish Scott MSPTavish Scott MSP was interviewed stating that:-

The Crofting Commission has failed now to work for crofters, it’s now a mess, it’s now working in an extraordinary manner, involving people leaving the room and not working with the current Chairman.

Then when it came to the full report the presenter, Iain Maclean, stated:-

We start tonight with more absolute crofter chaos, after two officials have refused to attend meetings.  They maintain that they cannot possibly work with the current board.  This follows from the events that unfolded at the last meeting in Brora.  Let us look at today’s meeting in Inverness with Donald Lamont.

BBC Alba - Commission Chaos - 141216 - Colin Kennedy, Convener

Colin Kennedy, Convener of the Crofting Commission, was reportedly looking “very uncomfortable” at the board meeting in Inverness on 14 December 2016

Donald Lamont, reporting from Inverness, told us:-

Everything seemed very wrong at today’s meeting in Inverness, first of all it was obvious that not everyone was present.  Two officials refused to attend and were not present. This suggests that things are coming to a head for Colin Kennedy, who looked very uncomfortable today.

BBC Alba - Commission Chaos - 141216 - Bill Barron, Interim Chief ExecutiveBill Barron. Interim Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, was then interviewed. He said:-

It’s very regrettable to me that two of my staff didn’t feel comfortable coming to the meeting. That’s because, one commissioner has made various allegations, criticisms, about what they have done in recent months.  They find that unacceptable and I’m supporting their position on that.

Donald Lamont continued:-

One can understand with this news, some of the commissioners are very angry, David Campbell being one of them.

BBC Alba - Commission Chaos - 141216 - Board Meeting - David Campbell, Commissioner, speaksFootage was then shown of the meeting itself with David Campbell saying to the board:-

This is extremely disturbing, extremely disturbing, the most disturbing thing I’ve come across in my time on this board… that two members of staff, by the sounds of what you said there, feel unable to be present here and by your description are unable to work with this board directly in a public forum… that gives me grave, grave concerns.

Donald Lamont went on to say:-

Few of the commissioners still support Kennedy, but things are far from right amongst the board.  With the Commission’s own situation, it is obvious that the crofters themselves are no longer the priority.

Then back to Bill Barron who elaborated:-

On Friday we accepted that it was one continuous meeting in two valid parts. What happened today was that we approved the vast majority of the  minutes of that meeting. There are two issues still to be ironed out on that.  We also noted that there are some doubts about the way the piece of business that led to the motion against the convener, the way that was called, but the commission decided to take no particular further action on that.

Iain Maclean (presenter) then came back on air to say:-

We now go to Holyrood to our political correspondent Niall O’Gallagher.

BBC Alba - Commission Chaos - 141216 - Niall O'GallagherNiall O’Gallagher, reporting from Holyrood, advised:-

They have now moved their business from the Highlands to Edinburgh in relation to the Kennedy situation.  We had three political figures from Labour, SNP and the Lib Dems come together to say that, the minister concerned, Fergus Ewing, needs to remove Colin Kennedy from the Commission to move forward. Talking to us is Lib Dem, Tavish Scott.

Tavish Scott MSP said:-

The Crofters Commission cannot carry on with the chairman it’s currently got, and the dysfunctional nature of the organisation where the senior staff meant to work together for the crofters are instead fighting like ferrets in a sack.  This has got to change.  The minister would have my full support if he now steps in, makes the changes that need to happen, including getting rid of the current chairman, and getting the organisation back to doing what it’s meant to do and that is serving the crofters.

Niall O’Gallagher then continued:-

Other than questions and concerns about the people involved in the Commission at the moment, there is also questions about the work that they actually do.  The opinion many have of the Commission is not a good one, they are not seen to be working to help the crofters who should be their prime concern.  Talking to us from the SNP is Kate Forbes.

BBC Alba - Commission Chaos - 141216 - Kate Forbes MSPKate Forbes MSP said:-

We need to do something.  Next year will be a very important year, they will have elections.  We need to change the situation now!

Presenter, Iain Maclean, returned:-

Thank you Kate, now back to Niall at Holyrood.  What is happening at parliament this evening?

Niall O’Gallagher then rounded matters off from Holyrood:-

We didn’t get a chance to speak to Fergus Ewing tonight.  The parliament’s view is that they don’t want anyone with bad intentions within the Commission.  We managed to have a few words with Alasdair Allan. Talking on behalf of the government he said that there would be an opportunity to pick new commissioners but that it was not for Holyrood to make any quick impulse decisions.

BBC Alba - Commission Chaos - 141216 - Cross Party MeetingIt was also reported online on BBC Naidheachdan that Professor Donald Meek from Tiree, who attended the meeting at Holyrood, had said that all the uncertainty was doing great harm. He is quoted as saying:-

What I realised this evening, was that I was very familiar with the old Commission.

Whatever was happening with the old Commission, there was never any uncertainty about the Commission’s own situation.

The Commission was somewhat subtle, stable, and although you were now and again not in agreement with the Commission, the Commission was still a guiding stone for crofting affairs.

That is not true now at all, ever since the uncertainty arose  in relation to those leading, those who shouldn’t even be there, so on and so forth.

View from the Crofting Law Blog

It is clear (if it was not already) that all is not well at Great Glen House. Now senior employees of the Crofting Commission are refusing to attend board meetings purportedly due to issues involving the Convener.

Despite attempts by the Convener to reverse or nullify the decisions taken by the board at Brora he has failed to do so.

Indeed Bill Barron, Interim Chief Executive to the Crofting Commission, clarified to the Cross Party Group on Crofting at Holyrood, that six commissioners had asked the Convener to stand down at the Brora meeting and have not recanted on that. The Convener has chosen not to.

Thus the call from all six commissioners, who met after the Convener walked out of the board meeting at Brora, for the Convener to resign still stands.

We now also have it reiterated by MSPs from the SNP, Scottish Labour and Scottish Liberal Democrats that they believe that the Convener should go.

Yet the Convener remains defiantly in place, apparently pending hell freezing over.

Investigations concerning a complaint made by the Convener against Fergus Ewing MSP, Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for crofting, appear to still be ongoing. The Scottish Ministers have, it would seem, been paralysed from taking any action concerning the position of convener pending the outcome of those investigations, despite the fact that it remains within their power to do so.

Perhaps the New Year will see this mess unravel and be properly sorted in the way I suggested it should have been back in April 2016. Eight months is hardy a period that would allow Scottish Ministers to be accused of making “quick impulse decisions” as Alasdair Allan MSP suggested might be the case to BBC Alba!

Meantime crofters suffer from a Crofting Commission that cannot, it would appear, be properly regulated itself let alone effectively regulate crofting.

Brian Inkster

Image Credits: © BBC Alba

Gaelic credit: Thanks to Vicki Folan of Inksters for translating the BBC Alba coverage from Gaelic to English

The Cross-Party Elephant?

The elephant in the crofting cross-party room

Was there an elephant in the room at the crofting cross-party group meeting?

The cross-party group on crofting met last Wednesday at Holyrood.

It was very ably chaired by Tavish Scott MSP. He is one of the three co-conveners of the group, having been elected along with Kate Forbes MSP at the last meeting to replace Michael Russell MSP after Mr Russell became Brexit Minister. Rhoda Grant MSP is the third co-convener of the group.

Fergus Ewing MSP, cabinet secretary with responsibility for crofting, was a special guest at the meeting.

Mr Ewing made it clear at the outset that he couldn’t comment in any respect on the current controversy regarding the convener of the Crofting Commission given the allegations made by him against Mr Ewing which are the subject of an independent investigation.

Mr Ewing outlined all that the Scottish Government is currently doing to assist crofting and its future.

In particular he discussed future crofting law reform. The Scottish Government wants to modernise crofting law and make it transparent, understandable and workable in practice. Mr Ewing made it clear that they very much wanted to listen with no precise timetable in mind.

Mr Ewing stressed the importance of taking time to get it right. I couldn’t endorse that view more and trust that we won’t see the chaos of a huge number of last minute amendments that was encountered in creating the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Bill in 2010. That was possibly partly responsible for many of the issues (not common grazings ones that were not affected by the 2010 legislation) that has led to the current Scottish Government having to tackle crofting law reform so soon again.

After Mr Ewing left the meeting we continued with the topic of crofting law reform. Derek Flyn outlined the background to the crofting law sump report which he described as a “collection of what is wrong with crofting law”.

Michael O’Neil, the newly appointed Head of the Scottish Government Legislation Team, then outlined proposals to take crofting law reform forward.

Mr O’Neil indicated his intention to involve as wide a range of stakeholders as possible. He will get out and about and meet anyone he needs to speak with.

He will refer to the information contained in the crofting law sump and in the Shucksmith Report.

Some questions Mr O’Neil had in mind included:-

  • Why do we need crofting legislation?
  • What changes need to be made to it?
  • How do we go about delivering the changes identified?
  • Are there other options to new legislation?

A small team has been assembled by the Scottish Government to take crofting law reform forward.

It will be interesting to see this process move forward and we will keep you posted on the Crofting Law Blog as it does.

Bill Barron, the new Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, was attending his first cross party group meeting. On the agenda was an “update on grazing committee removals and other current Crofting Commission business”. He appeared to dodge being able to provide that update on the basis that it was his fifth day in the job.

However, sitting next to him was the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy. Mr Kennedy did not offer an update on grazing committee removals and other current Crofting Commission business. Indeed, other than to introduce himself as all attendees did at the outset, Mr Kennedy sat silent throughout the entire meeting. He didn’t speak and no one asked him to speak.

This was, of course, the first crofting cross-party group meeting that Mr Kennedy has attended in this session of Parliament, having avoided the last two. He has thus not expressed the views of the Crofting Commission to the cross-party group since this session of Parliament commenced.

Mr Kennedy has, however, been very vocal in expressing his own personal views (which don’t necessarily coincide with those of the board of the Crofting Commission) in the media over the past few weeks including, in particular, in four successive editions of the Scottish Farmer.

His presence at last week’s cross party group meeting was referred to by some as the elephant in the room. But can the situation simply be ignored?

Brian Inkster

The end game?

Have we reached the end game in the crofting commission crisis?

Is it time for the First Minister to declare checkmate?

Many crofters and other interested parties have been wondering for some time why the crisis within the Crofting Commission has been allowed to trundle on for so long. Why they ask is Colin Kennedy still in post as Convener of the Crofting Commission despite many alleged breaches by him of the code of conduct and calls for his resignation from fellow commissioners, representative bodies, the press and crofters.

He has stated that “hell will freeze over” before he resigns. It was suggested that if he didn’t jump he would be pushed. A good few weeks later and no jumping and no pushing to be seen.

The latest move in this bizarre game is that Colin Kennedy has made a formal complaint against Fergus Ewing MSP, the Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for crofting. It has been reported by the BBC that Mr Kennedy “accuses the Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing of being in breach of the ministerial code“.

This is rather ironic given the numerous accusations over a number of months from various parties against Mr Kennedy for his purported breaches of the code of conduct for members of devolved public bodies.

This brought about some thoughts on the issue on Twitter tonight:-

A reference to Colin Kennedy retaining an active interest in and being part of the decision making process in the Mangersta and Upper Coll cases despite complaints being made against him.

A reference to Colin Kennedy’s reasons for his behaviour in response to the complaint made against him by former committee members at Upper Coll Common Grazings.

Thus Mr Kennedy’s latest move may not have been as smart as he thinks. He may want to drag the agony out for everyone and cause more pain and anguish along the way. He may wish to pull others down with him. The reality is that such behaviour is not helping the greater good of crofting and the day to day regulation thereof by the Crofting Commission.

The Oban Times reported, in December 2006, that in a sheriff and jury trial at Oban Sheriff Court concerning a shotgun allegation against Mr Kennedy’s agricultural tenant, John Brackenbury, on the Isle of Coll:-

various police reports, about matters on Coll, were read to the court and one said Mr Kennedy was “not averse to confrontation” and added that “by his own admission his actions can antagonise the situation”.

The Oban Times also reported that the defence agent, Mr Nelson:-

put forward evidence in his lengthy cross-examination of Mr Kennedy, which had brought the farmer’s character into question.

He produced a tabloid press report, from the mid-90s, which said fellow islanders at that time called for Mr Kennedy – who was once banned from the island’s only hotel bar – to be banned from having a shotgun, claiming that he “has awful fits of temper”.

Strathclyde Police have received repeated complaints from Mr Kennedy and Mr Brackenbury, over the years, and Mr Nelson produced extracts from police subject sheets, recorded by unnamed police officers, relating to Mr Kennedy.

One stated: “He is of the personality type which seeks to utilise a verbal steam-roller through any contrary argument or viewpoint.”

The report continued: “That he has been an efficient farmer and businessman is beyond question but that very success has engendered a singular arrogance and a persona which ill-fits a small island community where toleration and cooperation are pre-requisite.”

Another police report called Mr Kennedy “an extremely stubborn individual who made it quite clear that he is intent on taking his revenge upon a number of individuals who he believes have previously wronged him”.

And yet another police subject sheet, dated October 4, 2005, said: “Taking aside the 20 years of civil disputes with Mr Brackenbury, Mr Kennedy has recently embarked on a civil complaint with almost every occupant in Arinagour and his lawyers have sent letters claiming £20,000 from each of them, as compensation for their gardens and houses being built on his grazing land. This has caused considerable anguish upon Coll, especially with the elderly.

10 years later and this behaviour appears to have moved from the Isle of Coll to the corridors of Great Glen House and Holyrood.

It is not behaviour befitting anyone in public office and we have surely now reached the end game. If Mr Kennedy thinks he has cornered Fergus Ewing it is time for the First Minister to swiftly move forward and declare checkmate. After all the Queen on the chess board, with an army of support behind her, is much more powerful than a lone ‘King’.

Brian Inkster

Colin Kennedy and the Holy Grail

i-am-your-kingThe Scottish Farmer today gives space for Colin Kennedy, Convener of the Crofting Commission, to tell them about his “crofting crusade!”. This follows hot on the heals of a huge press offensive on his part over the past week with appearances/articles in Sunday Politics Scotland, The Oban Times and BBC Radio Highlands & Islands.

The story is the same: He is right and everyone else is wrong.

He has again stressed that his sole motivation is:-

to uphold crofting law, and defend the statutory rights of ordinary crofters

It has been shown that this is very much his own interpretation of crofting law and not one supported by the Scottish Government or by his fellow commissioners.

He has, however, again rounded on the Scottish Government and the cabinet secretary responsible for crofting, Fergus Ewing MSP, with The Scottish Farmer reporting Mr Kennedy as:-

bluntly accusing him [Mr Ewing] of perpetrating a cover-up of ScotGov’s historic role in a quagmire of maladministration.

He labours on about his views on the illegalities of common grazings obtaining SRDP funding which, as has been pointed out many times before, is not any business of the crofting regulator but a matter for the Scottish Government, the EU and crofters.

Mr Kennedy claims that:-

The commission has taken legal advice from Sir Crispin Agnew QC and it is my understanding that a grazing committee does not merit claiming subsidies, as only individual shareholders with grazing rights are eligible, provided that they comply with the provisions of the legislation for such activity.

Does Mr Kennedy have the approval of the Board of the Crofting Commission to discuss in public this legal advice obtained by the Commission? If not he is breaking that code of conduct again that he was keen to discuss on BBC Radio Highlands & Islands. This is, of course, true in relation to much that he has said over the past week.

Obtaining such a legal opinion was probably outwith the remit of the Crofting Commission in any event. It is understood that Mr Kennedy was instrumental in having it obtained. It is further understood that whilst the Board may have considered this legal opinion when produced they did not use it as a base for any decisions made.

The Scottish Government stated that it “wholly disagrees” with the views on SRDP funding held by Mr Kennedy. This would appear to include the legal opinion that he still clings to.

Those views, like his ones on VAT registration, were potentially all about depriving crofters of funding and had nothing to do with upholding crofting law and defending the statutory rights of ordinary crofters.

well-i-didnt-vote-for-you

Mr Kennedy again showed the huge divide between himself and the Crofting Commission Board and the fact that he was not in fact supporting decisions taken by the Board such as accepting the Government’s position on SRDP and disbursement of funds.

Mr Kennedy proceeded, in his interview with The Scottish Farmer, to attack the former Upper Coll Grazings Committee stating that they:-

have a lot to answer on behalf of shareholders.

Again this is completely at odds with the position taken by the Scottish Government and the Board of the Crofting Commission who have issued an apology to the grazings committee in question.

Mr Kennedy’s position in such circumstances is completely untenable.

mandate-from-the-masses

On the subject of Colin Souter, the grazings ‘constable’ at Upper Coll, Mr Kennedy denies any involvement in his appointment or that he is “his man“. He points the finger on Chief Executive, Catriona Maclean, for the appointment “without reference to the agreed board process“.

However, Freedom of Information requests reveal evidence that Mr Kennedy’s version of events may be one painted through rose tinted glasses. His memory again may not be serving him well.

A document produced by the Crofting Commission states:-

Following the Board meeting on 9th May the Convener, Vice Convener, and CEO met by phone to agree who should be appoint4ed [sic] to the post of Grazings constable in the Upper Coll Common Grazings.

So Mr Kennedy was very involved in the selection process.

The selection committee considered four potential candidates for the job and concluded that:-

Mr Souter has experience in working with crofters and grazings committe4ss [sic] through his time in the Police. An ex-chief inspector and force negotiator who comes from south Usit [sic] Mr Souter has both the skills and experience to deal with this matter and therefore he was selected to be appointed constable.

So Mr Kennedy was in fact party to and appointed Mr Souter to the post in question.

There is also evidence of direct communication between Mr Souter and Mr Kennedy. For example an e-mail from the former to the latter on 24 May 2016 which reads:-

Hi Colin

In looking to progress a meeting with the shareholders at Upper Coll, in the near future, I wanted to ensure the venue was appropriate and given you’ve been out there, I wondered if you had an idea on the best venue option and perhaps a secondary one, if circumstances require?

Kind Regards

Colin

Colin Souter

No evidence was produced from the Freedom of Information request as to whether or not recommendations were given by Mr Kennedy to Mr Souter on the comfort of the chairs at possible venues in Upper Coll. But this exchange does prove that there was indeed direct communication between the two as previously suggested on this blog.

Furthermore Mr Kennedy was taking a direct interest in matters by requesting to see minutes of meetings held by Mr Souter at Upper Coll, all as disclosed from information obtained through Freedom of Information.

Mr Kennedy in discussion with The Scottish Farmer refers to the whole grazings committee issue being “a can of worms” but stressed that to his knowledge it was only a problem specifically on Lewis. He is reported as having “quipped“:-

as previously stated in the board room things are often done differently in Lewis.

What about in Lochaber? Has Mr Kennedy also forgotten about the grazings committee he and his fellow commissioners put out of office there? Has he forgotten about how instrumental he was in ensuring the appointment of a grazings ‘constable’ there who would do his bidding?

It has, however, been commented on before that Lewis appeared to be a particular target for the convener. It is unclear why. But perhaps that will eventually come out in the wash.

Mr Kennedy is quoted by The Scottish Farmer as saying:-

But now I’ve put my head on the block in trying to get to grips with the truth. I know people are queuing up to get me out but I am not letting this rest. I’m not going to jump, so I will probably be pushed. If that happens my solicitor is standing by.

That solicitor will have a difficult hill to climb. The evidence seems to me to be firmly stacked against Mr Kennedy and has been since my first blog post on ‘The Common Clearances‘. Subsequent events and revelations from Freedom of Information requests has just fortified that position.

im-invincible

Mr Kennedy’s version of events, as given to the press this past week, appears to show a selective memory with many gaps to fill. I and others who post comments attempt to fill those as best we can on this blog.

Mr Kennedy, like Mr Souter, appears to be searching for a justification for his discredited actions. I doubt that he will ever find it.

Brian Inkster

Image Credits: Monty Python and the Holy Grail © Python (Monty) Pictures