I continue to catch up with news of ‘The Common Clearances‘ since I returned from holiday. With the amount of new news on this topic being generated daily this week that is a difficult task!
On 25 May 2016 Patrick Krause, Chief Executive of the Scottish Crofting Federation, published a piece on the Federation’s website. I now reproduce it here in its entirety with a small comment at the end from myself on the question of the will of Parliament.
The Spirit of the Law
The inexplicable case of a public body confusing legal dogma with good sense
The Crofting Commission website says “The Crofting Commission regulates and promotes the
interests of crofting in Scotland to secure the future of crofting.” Following the summary
dismissal of two (or more) grazings committees; the foisting of grazings constables upon the
dismembered grazings; the demolition of crofters’ characters; the contradiction and confusion,
it is no wonder that crofters and those with crofting interests are standing agog and are asking
“What is going on in the Crofting Commission?” It is not for me to make any judgement on the
legalities of the fracas that has been taking place over the past month – crofting lawyers are
willingly giving opinion – but I will attempt to explain the essence. Common grazings are the
epitome of communal working, yet this is a spectacularly detrimental exercise in public
relations by the Commission that threatens the very core of crofting communities. I wonder
what the motive is.
One committee was summarily dismissed for not presenting fully audited accounts. Previously
the Commission had issued official guidance that ‘audited’ did not mean fully audited in the
legal (and expensive) sense, but could be taken to mean an independent examination – the
Commission were taking a “light-touch approach”. At the demand by the Commission for five
years annual accounts, the committee presented an independent examination of its accounts,
as is usual for small businesses and social enterprises and is perfectly acceptable to HMRC,
Companies House and the Charities Regulator. They were summarily dismissed for failing the
demand. This subsequent heavy-handed bombshell has naturally caused fear throughout
regulated grazings that they also are in breach for not having fully audited accounts.
A second committee was also summarily dismissed (both grazings then had a constable foisted
upon them by the Commission, which a leading crofting lawyer claims is not legal in these
circumstances), in this case for not distributing income from resumption. Though the only
shareholder asking for his tiny share of the resumption money was an absentee, legally he had
the right to it, we are told by the Commission.
It is hard to understand why this committee was unexpectedly sacked when it had attempted
to pay the absentee, under guidance of the Commission (and the other was also instantly
sacked even though it had seemed to have complied with all the demands of the Commission).
But let’s leave the detail and look at the principle.
The law says that money due as part value of resumption may be paid by the landlord to the
clerk of the committee for distribution by the clerk among the crofters concerned. The law is
not prescriptive in saying when or how the distribution is to take place. The Commission has
added in its regulations the word “immediate”.
For years grazings committees have managed finance in a workable, business-like fashion.
Income generated from anything, such as resumption of land, schemes for development or
through managing agri-environment schemes, is put in the bank. As in any business,
expenditure on carrying out maintenance or improvements is deducted before any profit is
disbursed to shareholders. If a grazings committee was expected to take all income and pay it
out as dividends to shareholders before deducting expenditure, only to then have to recover
from all shareholders their share of the expenditure, it would be a complete nonsense.
Hobbling grazings by making them produce fully audited accounts, when other similar
businesses or voluntary groups don’t, and making them run an unworkable cash-flow, that no
business would, could not have been the intention of the law, but this is what it seems the
Crofting Commission is trying to enforce, presumably at considerable public cost.
The Commission argue that it is only carrying out its interpretation of the law; but why now
and so destructively? If the Crofting Act is wrong (as much of it has proven to be) it could be
put in ‘The Crofting Law Sump’ for future rectification and the Commission could quietly
resolve the issues, rather than turning this into a public, highly-charged stand-off. If it is
enforced, grazings committees cannot comply so will resign (or be dismissed) and the grazings
will leave regulation – unless the Commission then imposes constables on all grazings.
The Commission clearly knows a lot more about regulation than I, and knows what the
consequences of this will be, but are keeping quiet about its objective. How does this fit with
the Crofting Commission Policy Plan in which it says “The Commission regards the shared
management and productive use of the common grazing to be essential for the sustainability
of crofting. To that end it will … work with crofting communities to promote the establishment
of effective grazing committees and will actively support established committees”?
The Convener of the Crofting Commission is implicated in the fracas perhaps more than a
convener ought to be, having had complaints raised against him for behaviour at one of the
grazings meetings and having turned up unannounced at the other. He came to ‘observe’
apparently. The chair would not allow him to participate as he had a conflict of interest, and it
was surely odd that he was allowed to stay at all, this being the case, and it being against the
wishes of crofters present.
The convener has been widely quoted as saying the Commission is to deliver “the express will
of Parliament”. He would do well to go back and look at the passage of the Bill that became the
2010 Act to see what the will of Parliament was. The will of Parliament is not necessarily the
letter of the law, or in this case, the Crofting Commission interpretation of it, if it is bringing
about the demise of regulated common grazings.
Patrick Krause (Chief Executive of the Scottish Crofting Federation)
Comment on the Will of Parliament
Patrick is correct to highlight the fact that the Commission are certainly not delivering “the express will of Parliament”. This is something I will return to in detail in a later blog post with a clear analysis of what the will of Parliament actually is on this issue. This should also, actually, help to spell out the letter of the law on the matter. It should be noted that to date the Crofting Commission has not given any explanation with reference to the law as to why they are taking the stance or actions that they are and have been taking.
Update – 20 June 2016: Crofting Commission flouts the will of Parliament