Tag Archives: Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission

First Minister answers questions on “intolerable” Convener

The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon MSP, answers questions on the turmoil at the Crofting Commission

The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon MSP, answers questions from Tavish Scott MSP on the turmoil at the Crofting Commission

At First Minister’s Question Time in the Scottish Parliament today Tavish Scott MSP questioned the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon MSP, over what could possibly be dubbed Broragate.

Tavish Scott asked:-

Is the First Minister aware of the turmoil in the Crofting Commission caused by the intolerable behaviour of the current convener?

Does she know that other commissioners have asked for his resignation and that the previous Chief Executive, Catriona Maclean, left because of the convener’s behaviour and the pressure that is being placed on commission staff?

In those circumstances will she and her rural secretary now take action to make the commission work for crofters across the crofting counties without the disruptive presence of the convener?

Tavish Scott MSP asks the First Minister questions on the turmoile at the Crofting Commission

Tavish Scott MSP asking the First Minister questions on the turmoil at the Crofting Commission

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon answered:-

Well Tavish Scott raises a very important issue.

The Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy has already welcomed the apology from the board of the Crofting Commission but it is disappointing that the convener was not a party to that apology.

It is important that we get to the stage of being able to draw a line under recent events.

The resources spent on dealing with these issues by the  commission would in my view be far better used in being an effective regulator in contributing to a sustainable future for crofting.

I note that crofting commissioners have unanimously called on the convener to resign.

The Scottish Government have requested further information from the convener in relation to last week’s events.

While the Government would not ordinarily intervene in the internal operations of an independent statutory body the legislation does give Scottish Ministers power to act if required, and I can assure Tavish Scott that the Cabinet Secretary continues to monitor the situation very closely and would be very happy to discuss it further with Tavish Scott.

You can watch this exchange between Tavish Scott and the First Minister on YouTube at about 24:42 in:-

Crofting Convener in Hiding

Crofting Convener in Hiding

Hide and seek was a favourite pastime at Great Glen House

The Cross Party Group on Crofting met on Wednesday night at Holyrood.

This followed the private meeting between Fergus Ewing MSP, Cabinet Secretary responsible for crofting, and all of the Crofting Commissioners. At that private meeting Mr Ewing told Commissioners that he expected them to rescind their decisions and issue an apology to the three grazings committees removed from office since December 2015.

One would have expected the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, to have represented the Crofting Commission at the Cross Party Group meeting. However, he was nowhere to be seen at that meeting. Where was he? He was in Edinburgh (presumably in the very same building) earlier that very same day for the meeting with Mr Ewing. One assumes he would not have been able to get back to the Isle of Coll after that meeting to tend to his croft and would have been staying overnight in Edinburgh in any event?

As Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, has the particular responsibility of representing the views of the Board to the general public. This will include those attending the Cross Party Group on Crofting.

Colin Kennedy did not attend the last Cross Party Group meeting in June on the day when the Crofting Commission took a massive U-turn on their stance at Mangersta Common Grazings.

Colin Kennedy did not attend the last Scottish Government Crofting Stakeholder Forum meeting when the Chief Executive, Catriona Maclean, announced her resignation.

Colin Kennedy did not attend this week’s Cross Party Group meeting when one would have thought he should have been there to advise that meeting of the outcome of the earlier meeting that day between Commissioners and Mr Ewing.

Instead Commissioner Murdo Maclennan attended this week’s Cross Party Group meeting, disclosed nothing about the earlier meeting with Mr Ewing and refused to answer questions verbally saying he would only do so in writing. However, after the meeting he appears to have released information to the BBC that again one would have thought could and perhaps should have been revealed first to the Cross Party Group.

Why is the Convener in hiding?

Why is the Convener not attending meetings on the Commission’s behalf and representing the views of the Board?

Is the Convener “unsuitable to continue” in that role given this clear dereliction of duty on top of and in addition to the abuse of power he has been accused of?

Presumably the Convener will have to come out of hiding for the Board meeting of the Crofting Commission at Brora on 28 September. Presumably after that meeting it will have to be he who gives the public apology to the crofters affected by the decisions to remove grazings committees from office. Thereafter he can perhaps go into hiding again especially if he takes the advice of the Chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation, Fiona Mandeville, who said:-

As the person who seems to be behind the on-going attacks on crofting committees, it would be appropriate for the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy to give the apology in his resignation statement.

Brian Inkster

Decisive Ministerial intervention in crofting crisis is now required

West Highland Free Press - 16 September 2016In a hard hitting editorial in the latest edition (16 September 2016) of the West Highland Free Press it was made clear by the editor that he considers that the Crofting Commission needs ministerial advice and direction and that Colin Kennedy’s continuing tenure as Convener must be in doubt.

I will reproduce the editorial in question here followed by some of my own thoughts on the matter

The Crofting Commission needs ministerial advice and direction

The self-created crisis within the Crofting Commission has gone past the point where it can be healed internally.  Public and decisive ministerial intervention is now required.

On the most mundane but incendiary points which lit the blaze, the Crofting Commission can be pronounced quite wrong.

Grazings committees should have the right to determine in which manner their income is spent, under the law and to the benefit of the community.

Grazings committees such as those at Upper Coll and Mangersta should not be obliged instantly to distribute funds as dividends and then reclaim the money in order to finance improvements.

Without those commonplace – and previously widely accepted – permissions, west-coast crofting in particular would suffer.

Grazings committees, which are the voluntary foundation of the system, would become almost impossible to establish.  It should be pointed out here that crofting commissioners are paid £8,600 a year for four-and-a-half days’ work a month, and the commissioner’s convener is paid £20,300 for an eight-day month.  Grazings committee member are paid nothing.

Crofting would become even less of a communal activity and even more of a private, individual enterprise.  It beggars belief that a large reason for the recent dictatorial action by the Crofting Commission was the fact that Upper Coll grazings committee made assets available to infrastructure projects which benefited not only crofters but also the wider community.

In the three years of its existence the present Crofting Commission has managed to lose three of its seven members, and its chief executive Catriona Maclean has now packed her bags and moved on to happier pastures.

By any standards, this is a failing institution.  The response of the new crofting minister, Fergus Ewing, has been inadequate.

Last month Mr Ewing wrote a private letter to the commission’s controversial chair, Colin Kennedy.  In that letter the crofting minister told Mr Kennedy that he and the Scottish Government “wholly disagreed” with the Crofting Commission’s actions and attitudes towards grazings committees.

Most importantly, Fergus Ewing wrote that as crofting minister he considers that the law “does not require the immediate disbursement or pay out of funds by a grazings committee”.

In other words, Colin Kennedy’s interpretation of crofting law had been wrong from the start.  As a result all of his subsequent actions had been, at best, invalid.

This private letter was then leaked to the veteran BBC Highland correspondent Jackie O’Brien.  It seems probable that Mr Ewing authorised the leak in order to shore up his credentials with crofters.

That also was unacceptable.  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.  Colin Kennedy’s Crofting Commission is currently preparing “draft guidance” for grazings committees.  We hope that Fergus Ewing is fully involved in that exercise.  We wait to see whether that guidance will follow the Kennedy or the Ewing version of legislation.  There can be no compromise.  It is difficult to see how Mr Kennedy can emerge from the process with his £20,000 part-time post intact.

This unpleasant chain of events should not shake our belief in democracy.  We continue to believe that the entire Crofting Commission should be elected by crofters rather than composed of professional quangoteers and other government appointees.

Many hundred of crofters in large parts of the Highlands and Islands cast their votes ill-advisedly three years ago, and a lot of them will now realise that.

Thanks to the democratic system, they will have the chance to put things right at the elections next spring.  We hope that they, and the many crofters who previously chose not to vote, will take that chance.  In the long as well as the short term, the future of crofting is at stake.

View from the Crofting Law Blog

I must wholeheartedly agree with this editorial in so far as the need for “public and decisive ministerial intervention”. Indeed I suggested that in my first blog post on this sorry saga back on 25 April 2016. There have been calls since by the Crofting Federation and by crofters for the same thing. To see the West Highland Free Press support the same calls is heartening indeed and must add to the pressure on Fergus Ewing MSP, Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for crofting, to do something about it.

The jury is still out as far as I am concerned about the idea of the entire Crofting Commission being elected by crofters “rather than composed of professional quangoteers and other government appointees”. The problems at the Crofting Commission seem to lie at the door of elected commissioners or perhaps an elected commissioner. Two of the government appointees (who by all accounts were very able and capable commissioners) have resigned in recent times and have yet to be replaced.

The calibre of elected commissioners may be very much down to those willing to put themselves up for election rather than the will of the crofting electorate.

With the Crofting Commission in its current mess there is a good chance that there won’t be many level headed crofters volunteering for the task of clearing that mess up come the 2017 elections. Possibly another solution is required. Answers on the back of a postcard please to Fergus Ewing MSP.

Brian Inkster

Constable Propaganda

Constable Propaganda or Crofting Commission Propaganda (Upper Coll Common Grazings)

The real “dictatorial regime” was clear for all to see despite or perhaps because of their propaganda

Colin Souter’s persistent insistence that he can continue to act as ‘committee’ to the Upper Coll Grazings is perplexing indeed in the face of clear opposition to his involvement from the majority of shareholders.

Following the meeting of shareholders called by Mr Souter in Upper Coll last night he issued a press release (he is the only ‘clerk’ in the country known to advise the press of shareholders business in this way). This press release is very much in the tone of propaganda issued on behalf of the Crofting Commission who remain silent on the issue and appear to allow Mr Souter to speak for them.

The Crofting Commission have been under fire for many months now over an alleged abuse of power in removing three grazings committees from office in circumstances thought my most onlookers to be completely unjustified and unreasonable.

I would offer my comments on this latest ‘propaganda’ by quoting sections of it (in italics) with my analysis following each section:-

A third official meeting of shareholders was chaired at Upper Coll last night by the Grazings Constable, Mr Colin Souter.

It is very debatable whether a meeting of shareholders convened by a reputedly illegal grazings constable can ever be an official one. On the illegality of his appointment see:-

Crofting Commission’s appointment of Grazings Constable is illegal

Grazings Constables Risk the Clink

Crofting Commission knew they were acting illegally in appointing Grazings Constables

Grazings Constables were added to the Sump by the Crofting Commission

During his opening remarks, Mr Souter was interrupted by the former Committee chairman, apparently wishing to raise a point of order. Mr Souter responded that he would take the point at the conclusion of his statement to the meeting.

If a point of order was raised at the outset of the meeting should it not have been taken immediately? Mr Souter clearly does not want to let shareholders have their say and is suppressing their right to be heard at a shareholders meeting. That is not the role of a ‘clerk’ even if legally appointed.

In response to that delay, a number of former Committee members and their supporters, many of whom have no shares in the grazings, got up and left the room, in what was declared by those shareholders remaining, to be an obvious pre-planned move. The meeting continued with the remaining shareholders present and worked constructively through a busy agenda.

Mr Souter omits how many left the meeting and how many remained. I understand that 11 people (shareholders or proxies for shareholders) walked out leaving only 4 shareholders (2 full shareholders and 2 half shareholders remaining).

Shareholders vote with their feet at Upper Coll by leaving the meeting arranged by Colin Souter

Shareholders vote with their feet at Upper Coll by leaving the meeting arranged by Colin Souter

Another 4 people remained whose status were not declared but who were not shareholders. No proxies were presented by them at the beginning of the meeting.

The 11 who left the meeting had the clear support of 26 out of 42 shareholders who had signed a petition that stated:-

“I support the election of a new Grazings Committee to run the affairs of Upper Coll Township. I also request the removal of the illegally imposed Grazings Constable with immediate effect.”

Thus Mr Souter decided to proceed with a meeting in the clear knowledge that a very small number of shareholders (perhaps only 4 out of 42) supported him and the meeting in question.”

The meeting continued with the remaining shareholders present and worked constructively through a busy agenda. Shareholders were provided with additional new information and after discussion and debate, voted on a number of issues, many declaring it was the first such opportunity to vote on shareholder matters in the grazings for a number of years and hoped it was an indication of the way forward.

Why were possibly only the 4 out of 42 shareholders present at the meeting “provided with additional new information”? Surely any additional new information should have been provided to shareholders in advance of the meeting. How can decisions be taken on such matters in the absence of actual consultation thereon?

Mr Souter sent a letter to all shareholders on 12 September. Why was this additional new information not included with that letter? No vote should have been taken on such issues in such circumstances. Although any vote was, in any event, very much a minority one given that the majority had expressed their vote on the entire meeting at the outset.

Mr Souter set out his current activities and explained his goals on a number of current matters, some of which are seen as contentious in some quarters and have been the subject of targeted public criticism by supporters of the former Committee, including the Solicitor, Brian Inkster, who had been engaged by the former Committee to support them in their dispute with the Commission, which eventually led to their subsequent dismissal. Mr Souter has since written to Mr Inkster seeking his co-operation to repay the fee he charged, as it had been approved only by the former Committee and not by the wider body of shareholders, who had never been consulted on the matter.

Mr Souter omits to mention that a seven page letter has been issued by me on this subject to Fergus Ewing MSP, Cabinet Minister responsible for crofting, and copied to him. This highlights the serious errors in Mr Souter’s understanding of the position of legal fees, his meddling in VAT affairs, his role as grazings ‘constable’ and his close and unhealthy association with the Crofting Commission and/or their Convener all as set out in:-

Crofters and Lawyers

Crofting VATgate

Inspector Constable

The Crofting Bat Phone

I have expressed my concerns to Mr Ewing about this illegal ‘constable’ being allowed to wreak havoc by the Crofting Commission. Mr Ewing has already had to rein in Convener Colin Kennedy. Now it is time for him to rein in another Colin.

Mr Souter also detailed his correspondence with other parties and the approach being followed. The meeting voted unanimously to support his current activity and the work on which he is currently engaged to ensure the Grazings are fully legally compliant in all matters. Shareholders expressed their wish that if necessary he continue beyond the current term which expires in November but it was explained that under the Crofting Act, there is no provision to extend the tenure of a Constable, once appointed by the Commission.

Possibly only 4 out of 42 shareholders does not give Mr Souter a mandate for “his current activity and the work on which he is currently engaged” or indicate any desire by the shareholders for him to “continue in ‘office’ beyond his current term”.

One thing that Mr Souter has got right in law (maybe the first thing so far) is that under the Crofters (Scotland)  Act 1993 there is no provision to extend the tenure of a Constable, if legally  appointed by the Commission, once the period of tenure comes to an end.

During the meeting, shareholders voted to approve the revised draft of Grazing Regulations, which has been the subject of a wide consultation process over the last three months, subject to some final amendments offered from the floor.

It is very concerning indeed that Mr Souter may think he can force through revised Grazings Regulations  (which are believed to possibly seek to retrospectively validate actions taken unjustifiably by the Crofting Commission) on the basis of a meeting with only a minority of shareholders who have appeared to support the Crofting Commission throughout. Some of those shareholders are alleged to have been personally in breach of the existing regulations and Mr Souter has done nothing whatsoever to deal with those allegations. Again this demonstrates that he is not acting in any way impartially.

On the question of impartiality it is very revealing to note that Mr Souter arrived at the meeting with Donna Smith of the Crofting Commission. Donna Smith is part of the Senior Management Team at the Crofting Commission and is expected to become acting/interim Chief Executive when Catriona Maclean’s notice period comes to an end.

Colin Souter arrives for the meeting of Shareholders at Upper Coll with Donna Smith of the Crofting Commission

Colin Souter arrives for the meeting of Shareholders at Upper Coll with Donna Smith of the Crofting Commission

Much has been made by Mr Souter of his independence from the Crofting Commission although the real position has been clear for all to see. It is now publicly apparent, if it was not before, that Mr Souter and the Crofting Commission are indeed working hand in hand.

This is disturbing indeed and would explain why Mr Souter has not taken up on behalf of shareholders their legitimate concerns and claims over the handling of the whole sorry affair by the Crofting Commission.

Once more it adds to the evidence of the alleged abuse of power at the heart of the Crofting Commission.

After the marathon 4-hour meeting, Mr Souter said, “it was obviously a disappointment that a number of those present made a decision to leave the meeting before it had properly got underway but  I respect their right to do so. Those remaining were sufficient in number to continue with business and to their credit, actively contributed to a very positive discussion in a number of areas. I was able at this stage, to explain to shareholders precisely what I am doing and why I am doing it and was reassured to receive the unanimous support of the meeting.

In respecting the right of those to leave the meeting Mr Souter should also respect their views and the views of the 26 shareholders who signed a petition against him. In respecting those views then clearly nothing discussed at the meeting last night was carried as a vote of the majority of shareholders originally attending: given that 11 effectively voted for the meeting to end.

Mr Souter advised he was aware of the recent unofficial meeting held by disaffected former committee members, and it’s outcome, but dismissed it stating, “I would be delighted if all shareholders engaged in the current process, constructively. We are continuing to make good progress to resolve a series of issues raised and a new set of Regulations was a key element in moving forward. There are some outside influences at work here and I do not believe they are contributing positively for the future benefit of the grazings.

The meeting Mr Souter refers to was certainly not “unofficial” but necessary under and in terms of the existing Grazings Regulations. Indeed Mr Souter, if he had any legal standing, should have been ensuring that what he refers to as an “unofficial” meeting happened. It is a great credit to the former committee that they knew the Grazings Regulations better than Mr Souter and what needed to be done legally in terms thereof.

The Grazings regulations state that:-

“Not later than one month before the term of office of the Committee ends they shall give notice to the shareholders of a meeting for the appointment of a new Committee. This meeting must take place before the term of office of the existing Committee ends. At least 10 days’ notice of the meeting must be given; this shall be done by advertisement in each of two successive weeks in one or more newspapers circulating in the Committee district, or by notice posted up for two successive weeks in a public place or places approved by the Commission. The new Committee appointed at this meeting shall take up office immediately upon the retiral of the existing Committee. The Clerk of the Committee shall inform the Commission of the names and addresses of the members and Clerk of the new Committee.”

If we assume, as Mr Souter does, that his appointment as Grazings ‘Constable’, was legal then that appointment, in terms of the Order issued by the Crofting Commission, comes to an end on 10 November 2016.

That being the case then the shareholders must give notice of a meeting to elect a new committee not later than 10 October 2016. Being organised and sensible shareholders they have not left it to the last minute but organised it a good month or so ahead (which they are entitled to do under the Grazings Regulations).

They have carried out all the steps they need to in order to legally form a new Committee. That Committee will take up office immediately on 10 November 2016 or earlier if Mr Souter resigns his position as Grazings ‘Constable’. Something that many consider he should do so in light of the petition from the majority of shareholders calling for that.

When asked about a recent petition allegedly signed by a majority of shareholders seeking his dismissal as an ‘illegally appointed Constable”, Mr Souter responded that the Commission had repeatedly endorsed his appointment, as recently as the day before the unofficial election meeting and offered his view that the conduct of former Committee supporters had perhaps more in common with a dictatorial regime.

It is not a question of endorsement by the Commission. It is a question of democracy in action within a common grazings. If there is any “dictatorial regime” involved surely it is the Commission and Mr Souter who fall into that camp. They are dictating what they consider the position to be to a clear majority of shareholders who think otherwise.

He added, “How many people do you know who would be happy being door-stepped and told to sign a petition, whilst their neighbour is standing over them? It strains credibility! I would be happy to see all of those folks at our next shareholder meeting. There are serious issues being addressed and it’s about time some former Committee members accept their continuing agitation is not serving themselves or the grazings well. They have a duty to fellow shareholders to accept their own shortcomings and that they have learned from them and are willing to move on. Continually misrepresenting the position in public is not helpful and does nothing to heal the rift they have opened up here in Upper Coll, between shareholders.

On the contrary it is unfortunately Mr Souter who continually misrepresents the position. E.g.:-

The Wrong Grazings Committee!

Mr Souter also advised that during the meeting he informed shareholders he has requested the Crofting Commission now facilitate a meeting with the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service to discuss some of the findings from his review of the former Committee records and accounts. He declined to comment further on specifics, stating “it will be for other authorities now to determine whether there is a need for further action”. The date for the next shareholder meeting has not been set.

From the outset the Crofting Commission and then Mr Souter hinted at irregularities within the three Committees that were dismissed with no evidence whatsoever to back this up. Mr Souter appears to have been put into Upper Coll by the Crofting Commission to find something, anything, to justify his illegal appointment in the first place.

Nothing he has produced to date has evidenced this. Declining to comment on specifics now questions once more what he and the Commission are actually up to. This is not his role as ‘Clerk’. If any shareholders feel there has been any impropriety that has affected them it is for them, not Mr Souter, to take whatever action they may deem appropriate. Mr Souter is now, as the Commission did so before him, casting aspersions unjustifiably and without any basis on former committee members.

This is quite appalling. If anything shareholders should be reporting Mr Souter to the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service for his potentially illegal and fraudulent activities including in particular the manner in which he has taken control of the shareholders finances.

One can only hope that Fergus Ewing MSP does now step in to resolve this tragic mess.

Brian Inkster

Image Credits:-

Main image: INGSOC 1984 Propaganda Poster (detail)

Other images: An La – 13 September 2016 © BBC Alba

The Scottish Farmer adds balance to the tales of the Upper Coll ‘Constable’

the-scottish-farmer-logoLast week I commented on how the letter from Colin Souter, the Grazings ‘Constable’ at Upper Coll, to shareholders was no ‘gamechanger’.

This week The Scottish Farmer has redressed the balance by publishing the views of the majority of shareholders at Upper Coll which counter the allegations made by Colin Souter against them.

They also published a letter from me on the topic which they asked me to edit down in size prior to publication. I will reproduce here the longer version that I originally supplied them with:-

Sir – I was somewhat bemused by the headline in last week’s Scottish Farmer. The letter from Colin Souter, the grazings ‘constable’ appointed by the Crofting Commission, to shareholders at Upper Coll Common Grazings is certainly no ‘gamechanger’.

Had your reporter sought to verify this sensationalist piece of propaganda via the former committee members at Upper Coll or myself he would have received a very different take on it.

Firstly, it should be made clear that many consider Mr Souter’s appointment as a grazings constable to be illegal. Donald Rennie explained clearly and in detail why in a letter published by you some weeks ago. It subsequently transpired that a report produced to the board of the Crofting Commission by their Chief Executive, Catriona Maclean, made it clear that grazings constables could not be legally appointed where a grazings committee is removed from office by the Commission. It would therefore appear that the board of the Crofting Commission acted contrary to legal advice given to them and appointed a ‘constable’ who has no standing in law.

Also, even if Colin Souter had been appointed legally as a grazings constable that role is not (despite the name) in law an investigative one but one that simply takes on the duties of day to day management of the common grazings on behalf of and in the interests of the shareholders.

Colin Souter, a retired police chief inspector, seems to be under the misapprehension that he has been brought out of retirement to utilise his police skills. He even states on his LinkedIn profile that he is “engaged to support Scottish Government NDPB Crofting Commission, in investigative and reporting activity”. He has no remit of the kind and if he has actually been given such a remit then serious questions should be asked regarding the conduct of the Crofting Commission over and above the fact that, in the first place, they knowingly appointed him when they knew that legally they couldn’t.

It appears that the Crofting Commission are on a fishing expedition. They removed from office the former committee at Upper Coll purely on the basis that they had produced 5 years of financial statements prepared by an accountant rather than 5 years of “audited” accounts as unfairly and unjustifiably demanded by the Commission. This was met by overwhelming incredulity on the part of onlookers. Now the Commission are seeking to justify their actions on other grounds. They have sent in a former police inspector to find something, anything, to make everything alright again for them.

Colin Souter appears to have carried out the bidding of his masters. He has trawled through records of the Upper Coll Common Grazings going back to 2008 if not before looking for misdemeanours. This is well out with the 5 year ‘audit’ period the Crofting Commission initially concerned itself with.

Colin Souter has compiled a list but that list is of no significance. Some of it is petty in the extreme such as highlighting one typographical error on the part of the accountants instructed by the former committee in the financial statements that the Commission had not even been willing to look at. He has claimed that monies were contributed to upgrading a road in 2008 when this is denied by shareholders and even if it were true so what? He decries the spending of £520 on feu design work to allow crofting families in the township to remain in the township by allocating to them house sites on land that was not much use for grazing purposes. Any costs associated with that would be more than recouped when house sites were sold and compensation on resumption received. He does not understand that.

What Colin Souter also does not appear to understand is that a new grazings committee is elected every three years. Most of his accusations relate to the activities of the committee of 2008/09. There have been a further three committees elected since then. Even if what the grazings committee of 2008/09 did was wrong (and there is no evidence to suggest that it was) it does not justify the Crofting Commission removing from office a committee only elected in 2015.

Colin Souter claims there is nothing in the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 that permits shareholders funds to be used to pay solicitors. What nonsense. A right for crofters to instruct lawyers does not need to be contained in tablets of stone within the Crofting Acts. It is a fundamental human right. Try the Magna Carta for starters.

It is also of course rather ironic that a grazing ‘constable’ whose legality has been questioned from the outset is stating left, right and centre what he considers the law to be and how he considers former committees to have breached it. Presumably in circumstances where he has not actually sought legal advice on such pronouncements because he doesn’t consider expenditure on legal advice by a grazings committee to be legal!

The situation with the grazings ‘constable’ at Upper Coll has become farcical. I will be expressing my concerns to Fergus Ewing MSP, as cabinet secretary responsible for crofting, about this illegal ‘constable’ being allowed to wreak havoc by the Crofting Commission. Mr Ewing has already had to rein in Convener Colin Kennedy. Now it is time for him to rein in another Colin.

Brian Inkster

The Crofting Bat Phone

The Crofting Bat Phone

Commissioner Gordon and Batman didn’t have a look in to the lines of communication available between the Crofting Commissioner(s) and their Grazings Constable!

There have been quite a few comments of late about the difficulties of getting a statement from the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy. He is elusive to say the least and seldom represents the views of the Board to the general public despite this being one of his “particular responsibilities” .

Other Commissioners have been thin on the ground of late as well with no Commissioner replacing the Convener when he failed to attend the Scottish Government Crofting Stakeholder Forum in Inverness on Tuesday. This left the Chief Executive, Catriona Maclean, representing the views of the Commission in front of BBC Alba after the meeting.

Getting clear and unambiguous information out of Commissioners when you can pin them down is also often a challenge.

One person who seems to have direct access without difficulty to Commissioners (which might include, or indeed mean, the Convener) is the Grazings ‘Constable’ of Upper Coll, Colin Souter. He certainly appears to be in possession of information that only Commissioners would have and that well in advance of such information being made available to anyone else outside of Great Glen House.

One example of that became clear at the meeting of the Scottish Government Crofting Stakeholder Forum in Inverness on Tuesday.

I had been aware from the published Agenda that the Board of the Commission had considered a paper at their meeting on 17th August on ‘Grazings Committees – A Practical Approach to the Management of Common Grazings’. There was no mention of that at the Stakeholder Forum so I enquired about it.

I was advised that the Crofting Commission was setting up a Stakeholders’ Working Group to advise on the revision of common grazings regulations and guidance. This paper from 17th August would be considered by that group at a meeting on 20th September. Only after that meeting would the paper in question (possibly after refinement? – but that was not made clear) be circulated to the wider Stakeholder Forum.

So at the moment members of the Stakeholder Forum had no knowledge of or access to what the paper in question said. A stark contrast to the access to that paper apparently afforded to Grazings ‘Constable’ Colin Souter.

In the letter issued by Colin Souter to Shareholders of the Upper Coll Common Grazings on 29th August he states:-

The Board of Commissioners at a recent meeting, considered a submission along the lines I set out at the July meeting, whereby Committees can operate within a defined financial framework which allows retention of funds (from any legitimate source) in the bank, up to a maximum agreed by shareholders, taking account of any commitments under Schemes and projects ongoing and an Emergency Reserve (set at perhaps 3-4 times the 3-year average annual maintenance costs) and exceeding that amount automatically triggers payment to shareholders, three or four times a year. In doing so, the administrative burden is minimised for the Committee and they are seen to be operating within an agreed and better regulated financial framework. Whilst the Commission has a clear role, as regulator, in ensuring feu monies are distributed to shareholders, I understand it does not otherwise seek any direct involvement in other areas of finance affecting shareholders. The proposal tabled is seen as an initiative worthy of testing, for the benefit of Upper Coll and the wider crofting community but it is a choice for shareholders to make.

So even before the Commission has had the first meeting of its new Stakeholders’ Working Group, to advise on the revision of common grazings regulations and guidance, Colin Souter is seeking to impose the guidance so far produced (that no one other than Commissioners, Commission Officials and Colin Souter have seen) upon one particular Common Grazings, namely Upper Coll.

The same is true about his access to an Opinion from Queen’s Counsel which it is presumed was instructed by the Crofting Commission. In his said letter to shareholders at Upper Coll he said:-

Following receipt of legal opinion from Queen’s Counsel, the position of Grazings Committees being able to register for VAT as trading entities in order to reclaim VAT has come under scrutiny. The dialogue with HMRC regarding VAT status remains ongoing and once concluded, I will be able to advise on the outcome.

When I asked about this opinion at the Crofting Stakeholder Forum there was “no comment” from the Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission on behalf of the Board.

It is highly unusual for the Crofting Commission to publish legal advice received by them in any event.

On the topic of legal advice: Colin Souter seems very ready to challenge what he considers to be illegal activities at Upper Coll. It would be very unusual for a clerk in a common grazings (that is effectively what Colin Souter is had he been legally appointed) to appear so sure about crofting law without having sought legal advice. Not that I would give much weight to any advice that Colin Souter is getting given, in my view, a clear misunderstanding on his part as to what the law actually is.

We know that he thinks that legal advice cannot be paid for from grazings funds. So where is he getting his crofting law advice from? Is it likewise coming from Commission officials and/or from Commissioners and/or from a Commissioner? An organisation with a Board that has been shown to ignore the law and lawyers.

Why and how did one grazings clerk (i.e. Colin Souter) get privileged access to all of this information before any other grazings clerk in the land and before the members of the Crofting Stakeholder Forum? In the case of the opinion from Queen’s Counsel this may never be divulged to any other grazings clerks or to any members of the Crofting Stakeholder Forum.

The only explanation can be direct and special contact between him and a Commissioner and/or Commissioners and/or officials within the Crofting Commission.

So much for the assertion that he is acting at arms length and independent from the Commission.

It also again highlights the fact that he is under the control of and acting at the behest of the Crofting Commission. A reader of this blog having referred to him as a “maor” (or ground officer).

Serious questions must be asked by the Scottish Government about this arrangement and, in the circumstances, the validity of any pronouncements by the Crofting Commission and/or their ‘Constable’ over the situation at Upper Coll.

The Crofting Commission will no doubt say that the Scottish Government cannot investigate the situation when it is subject to on going court proceedings. Those court proceedings may touch upon the legality of the appointment of the Grazings ‘Constable’ in the first place.

But even if we take it that the appointment was legal (although that is denied) then the Scottish Government should be looking at the propriety of the relationship that exists between such a legally appointed grazings constable and the Crofting Commission.

Is it correct and proper that he has been given an investigative remit? Is it correct and proper that he is being supplied with the information that he has been? If it is not then who gave that remit and/or supplied that information?

If that was a Commissioner are they therefore, in all the circumstances, “unable or unfit to exercise the functions of a member” or “unsuitable to continue as a member”? As such should the Scottish Ministers remove them from office under and in terms of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993?

Even worse if it were to transpire that it was the Convener who was embroiled in all of this. After all he has, for some time, been the subject of complaints about his handling of the affair at Upper Coll and so should not be involving himself in matters concerning Upper Coll until the relevant complaints process has been completed. To do so would be a clear conflict of interest. But there again that has not stopped him before.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: The Bat Phone from Batman (TV Series) © Greenway Productions / 20th Century Fox Television

Catriona moves on from herding the Commissioner(s)

Herding cat(s) at the Crofting Commission

Or was there just one cat at the board room table?

It was announced by Catriona Maclean, at a meeting of the Scottish Government Crofting Stakeholder Forum in Inverness this morning, that she was stepping down as Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission from early October.

She has taken a promotion within the Scottish Government as Deputy Director of the Food, Drink and Rural Communities Division.

Catriona said:-

I will be leaving the Crofting Commission to take up a promotion as Deputy Director of Food, Drink and Rural Communities Division from late October. I am delighted to have been asked to lead on such a key area of work for the Scottish Government.

The Food and Drink sector covers a wide range of industries and creates both jobs and wealth for Scotland. It also has an impact on health and sustainability and I look forward to working with stakeholders to ensure the sector maximises its impact.

That said, it is not without a great deal of sadness that I leave the Crofting Commission and my staff who are all dedicated to providing an excellent service to crofters. Scottish Government is taking steps to fill the vacancy my departure creates and I am confident that the transition will be as smooth as possible and that continuity of service provision will be maintained.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank staff, Commissioners and stakeholders for the support they have given me in the last 3½ years and wish them well for the future.

It is a shame to see Catriona leaving the Crofting Commission at a critical time when there is still so much to be resolved in connection with the Common Grazings debacle.

It appears clear from documents obtained via Freedom of Information requests that Crofting Commissioners acted contrary to her advice in appointing grazing constables in circumstances where she had advised them it was illegal to do so.

It must have been difficult for her to be in the situation of providing proper and valid executive advice to a board who ignored it. Perhaps no surprise then that she is moving onto bigger and better things when the opportunity arose.

I wish her well in her new role which I imagine comes with the joy of no board to herd!

The Scottish Government now need to act swiftly by putting in an interim Chief Executive at the earliest possible opportunity. That Interim Chief Executive must try and resolve the internal conflict that clearly exists within the board and the issues surrounding Common Grazings that appear to have been created by the Convener. The question of seeking to prevent shareholders receiving SRDP and, possibly also, VAT funding being particularly serious.

There have been many calls for the Convener to step down and crofters will possibly be wishing that today’s news revolved around such a resignation rather than seeing the Chief Executive leaving the organisation.

Brian Inkster

Who are we supposed to believe?

Whose riddles are the right riddles?

Whose riddles are the right riddles?

A guest post by the Crabbit Crofter.

Over the last five months “the public” has become more and more confused by the Crofting Commission’s changing statements, retractions, and now silence on the subject of ‘The Common Clearances‘. So whose fault is it the message is so confused?

The Crofting Commission seems to have the right intention. It has a button you can click on its website called Openness. It boldly claims “We aim to provide high quality services and information to all members of the public.” So how is it getting on with its aim?

First. Who should be making sure we were given clear messages about such an important topic? And lo and behold Crofting Commission has a handy Framework Document [PDF]. It became operational just about when everything started to go wrong with the common grazings furore so a shame everyone seems to have forgotten what it says. It covers the period April 2016 to March 2018. The introduction says:-

This framework document has been drawn up by the Scottish Government (SG) in consultation with the Crofting Commission. It sets out the broad framework within which the Crofting Commission will operate and defines key roles and responsibilities which underpin the relationship between the Crofting Commission and the SG.

How handy. It tells us lots of useful stuff. It sets out who is responsible for communicating with the public. Guess who it is? The Convener of the Crofting Commission. The Framework Document states one of the Convener’s “particular responsibilities” is:-

Representing the views of the Board to the general public

So how has Convener Kennedy been getting on with this “particular responsibility”? Since the 2016-2018 Framework Document came into force, there have been:-

  • various interviews on Radio nan Gaidheal and An La, BBC Alba (TV) with Commissioner MacLennan, including one where he was challenged by the interviewer Donald Lamont on why he hasn’t done more to help Lewis grazing committees. Mr MacLennan explained he couldn’t talk about Mangersta or Upper Coll because he had conflicts of interest. In the Upper Coll case because he had some sort of link with the solicitor representing Upper Coll in the Land Court case.

It could be argued Mr MacLennan as a Gaelic speaker was used for these interviews rather than Convener Kennedy. But, guess what?  There have also been:-

  • An interview in English with Commissioner Swan after the meeting in Mangersta on 17th May on Aithris an Fheasgair, Radio nan Gaidheal.
  • An interview in English with Chief Executive Catriona MacLean on Radio nan Gaidheal, and An La, BBC Alba, after the meeting attended also by Convener Kennedy (and Commissioner MacLennan) in Stornoway with the CNES Joint Consultative Committee, on 13th June.
  • Statements at the Scottish Parliament Cross Party Group on Crofting in June by Commissioner MacLennan and Chief Executive Catriona MacLean (in English). Convener Kennedy was notably absent when the big topic of the Commission’s self-inflicted common grazings crisis was on the agenda and obviously politicians and the general public would be demanding a clear statement from the Commission. Strangely Commissioner MacLennan seemed to have forgotten about his reluctance to talk about the issue because of a conflict of interest in the two Lewis cases.
  • Interviews with Commissioner MacLennan following the board meeting on 17th August, carried on Aithris an Fheasgair and An La in Gaelic and in a BBC Highland report in English. These interviews were almost unintelligible. They left the “general public” in a worse state of confusion than if there had been no interviews at all by anyone.

There have also been numbers of statements –

  • The famous Convener Kennedy statement on how to manage common grazings finances, now removed from the Commission’s website but available on the Crofting Law Blog.
  • statement from Vice Convener MacDonald on 8th June contradicting the previous statement from the Convener but with no explanation if it was his own views or those of the whole board who had agreed to disagree with their Convener on the issue.
  • The famous Open Letter from Chief Executive Catriona MacLean still available on the Commission website. It contradicts the Convener’s previous statement, but claims no such statement was ever made. So which of the Convener’s or the Chief Executive’s statements was the views of the board? We have to assume the Convener’s since it is his “particular responsibility” to convey the views of the board to the general public.
  • report from Jackie O’Brien on Good Morning Scotland (Radio Scotland) who hadn’t managed to get an interview but had got a statement from Convener Kennedy prior to the board meeting on 17th August. The Convener’s statement was extraordinary because it disagreed with his Minister. And it stated the Convener’s position on the matter before he allowed the board to have a democratic discussion. But then the Convener didn’t make any attempt to convey the views of the board to the general public after the board meeting. Why not? Instead we got something almost completely unintelligible from Commissioner MacLennan no-one has been able to decipher yet. So what were the views of the board? Since it is his “particular responsibility” to convey the views of the board to the general public we must assume it was the Convener’s statement before the board meeting.

All of this leaves the general public totally confused. Which of these contradictory interviews and statements from five different people (Vice Convener, two Commissioners, Chief Executive, Convener) over the past 5 months is the opinion of the board?  The Framework Document tells us we should only listen to the Convener because he has “particular responsibility” to convey the views of the board to the general public. But he has consistently refused to give interviews. And his two public statements baldly state grazing committees have to pay out all money immediately to shareholders and can keep none.  So there you have it. It looks like he is in conflict with his Minister. And with his board. And his Chief Executive. Not to mention crofters.  No wonder we are all so confused and angry.

Crabbit Crofter

Guest Blogger Bio: A crabbit crofter who wishes the weather was better & Scotland produced more of its own food. He believes in a just & honest world, full of integrity & decency.

Image Credit: The Riddler – Batman Forever © Tim Burton Productions and PolyGram Pictures

Lacklustre response by Crofting Commission

Lacklustre response from Crofting CommissionThe Crofting Commission eventually got around, on 24 August 2016, to issuing a public written statement regarding the letter from Fergus Ewing MSP, Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for crofting, to Colin Kennedy, Convener of the Crofting Commission. It states:-

A special meeting was held by the Board on the 21 July to consider the Cabinet Secretary’s letter to the Convener. The Board unanimously agreed that the Crofting Commission support the Scottish Government’s position on CAP funding and disbursal of funds by common grazings committees.

The Convener, Colin Kennedy, has written to the Cabinet Secretary confirming the Board’s agreement.  At the Commission’s Board meeting on Wednesday 17 August, draft guidance for grazings committees was considered and the Commission is planning to engage with stakeholders to discuss the guidance.

The Crofting Commission continues to work constructively with the Scottish Government and is committed to securing the future of crofting.

So nothing there we didn’t know already! And nothing to clarify the confusing mixed messages issued on the Commission’s behalf by Commissioner Murdo Maclennan in English and in Gaelic immediately following the board meeting on 17 August.

Or does this clarify the position without explicitly saying so?

With no add-ons like we got from Murdo Maclennan does this mean there is no qualification to the support given to the letter from Fergus Ewing (i.e. the Crofting Commission are not actually saying that they think they did the right thing but are still supporting his letter – instead they are simply unequivocally supporting his letter and therefore admitting that they got it wrong completely?)

However, we shouldn’t have to be drawing inferences from statements issued by the Crofting Commission.

They knew there was confusion caused by Colin Kennedy’s statement to Jackie O’Brien on 16 August and Murdo Maclennan’s statement to the media on 17 August. In both cases the message was in effect  that “we’ve done nothing wrong but we support the letter from Fergus Ewing”. Is this or is this not the position of the Board of the Crofting Commission? Or are they split on this point?

I have asked the Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, Catriona Maclean, to clarify the matter, for the avoidance of any doubt, for readers of this blog. I will let you know her response should I receive one and am not simply ignored again.

Who calls the shots at the Crofting Commission?

Who calls the shots at the Crofting Commission - I've been expecting you Mr Ewing

“I’ve been expecting you Mr Ewing”

The letter from Fergus Ewing MSP, Cabinet Secretary responsible for crofting, to Colin Kennedy, Convener of the Crofting Commission, made it clear that the Scottish Government did not share the legal interpretation taken by the Crofting Commission on (a) the distribution of funds by Grazings Committees and (b) entitlement to SRDP funding by Grazings Committees.

The letter, interestingly, suggested that the wrong views on these matters were personal ones held by Colin Kennedy and did not necessarily represent the views of the Board of the Crofting Commission. Fergus Ewing, in the letter, stated:-

At our meeting you noted that the views you expressed on these issues were in fact your own and not those of the Crofting Commission Board. This was confirmed by the Crofting Commission’s Chief Executive. As it currently stands, the Scottish Government sees little merit in your views on these issues and wholly disagrees with them. Based on a thorough consideration that we have given this matter, it is clear that our own view on these important issues is diametrically opposed to your own. I am very concerned about this and also about the risk that policy decisions at the Crofting Commission may be taken without a clear mandate from the Crofting Commission’s Board.

If this is the case then although the Crofting Commission Board may not have shared Colin Kennedy’s views on the distribution of funds by Grazings Committees decisions were still made that forced or sought to force Grazings Committees to empty their bank accounts, put them out of office and replaced them with illegally appointed grazings constables. How did this happen?

BBC Reporter Jackie O’Brien said on 17 August 2016 that:-

I did speak to him [Colin Kennedy] last night. He is adamant that he has done nothing wrong. He claims that all of the decisions which have been made have been made during/since he has been Convener have been based on papers supplied by the Commission’s executive.

He has also insisted that not a single matter on this has ever had to go to a vote or at board level and he says that all decisions are taken by means of reasoned debate and consensus.

If he admitted to Fergus Ewing that the views were his own and this was backed up by Catriona Maclean, Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, then clearly decisions were not actually based on papers supplied by the Commission’s executive.

Also if these views were his own and not shared by the Board how was it that “not a single matter on this has ever had to go to a vote or at board level” and “that all decisions are taken by means of reasoned debate and consensus“?

Or has there never been a vote at board level because the decisions have already been taken by the Convener?!

Colin Kennedy has either been misleading Fergus Ewing MSP or Jackie O’Brien because the statements made by each of them do not correspond.

The inference, however, from the Fergus Ewing letter is that Colin Kennedy has been calling the shots at the Crofting Commission and that policy decisions may have been taken without a clear mandate from the Crofting Commission’s Board. If this is the case it is concerning indeed.

It is also rather ironic that the last Convener, Susan Walker, was ousted from office in a coup by certain Board members because there had been growing concern amongst her fellow commissioners over her style of leadership with it being alleged that she had assumed the role of an executive chair, rather than that of primus inter pares – first among equals. Whether or not Susan Walker was actually behaving in this way, and I have seen no evidence to suggest that she was, it would appear that her replacement, Colin Kennedy, is!

Crofting Commission meet at Great Glen House to discuss Common Grazings Committees on the Isle of Lewis

“Our target, commissioners, is the Isle of Lewis”

At the time it was reported that even the Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, Catriona Maclean, had privately criticised the way Commissioners handled the affair and she went further, with one internal note suggesting the Commission may have underplayed the level of division within their board during discussions with Government. Writing shortly after the convener’s resignation she said that, while the Commission “wanted to reassure the Minister [for Crofting] that they were keen to move forward in a united and positive way”, her own view was that there were “still differences of opinion on the merits of what happened”. In a later commentary she specified disagreement between board members which will require “a focus on healing”.

It would appear that this disagreement between board members still subsists with no sign of any healing. If anything the wound has perhaps deepened.

If the cause of this is a commissioner who dictates his views on the others and those views are “diametrically opposed” to those held by the Scottish Government then there appears to be a conflict that requires to be resolved. It may not be one that can easily be resolved without the intervention sought by many.

Brian Inkster

Images Credit: Thunderball © Eon Productions Limited / Danjaq, LLC – 007.com