Tag Archives: Common Clearances

Decisions “have been divisive, unacceptable and not in line with crofting law”

Scottish Crofting Federation welcomes intervention by Cabinet SecretaryIn a statement issued today the Scottish Crofting Federation (SCF) has welcomed the intervention of rural affairs secretary Fergus Ewing MSP in his letter to Colin Kennedy, Crofting Commission convener.

SCF chair, Fiona Mandeville, commented:-

We are pleased that the Scottish Government has finally endorsed what we and others have been saying for months, that the actions of the Commission convener, and the decisions he appears to have forced through, have been divisive, unacceptable and not in line with crofting law.

While Mr Ewing’s letter is not yet in the public domain, its contents have been summarised and made public. It is clear that the Scottish Government is as concerned as the SCF and all who care about crofting. BBC’s Jackie O’Brien has seen the letter and reports that the Government’s view is diametrically opposed to Mr Kennedy’s and that it is not sustainable for the Scottish Government and one of its public bodies to take opposing interpretations of the law.

Ms Mandeville continued:-

The secretary for rural affairs has written a direct personal reprimand to the convener, who should now do the honourable thing and stand down right away.

Commissioner Murdo Maclennan’s apparent assertion after the Commission’s recent board meeting is that the board is backing Kennedy.  Does the Crofting Commission convener agree with the board? Does the board unanimously support the convener? It is natural for a board to attempt to portray a consensus, but is this really the case?

Fergus Ewing, in his letter as reported by the BBC, expresses his grave concern that policy decisions may be taken without a clear mandate from the Crofting Commission’s board. This suggests such concerns are also held by Scottish Government.

Colin Kennedy must accept the reality that it is time for him to go.

Fudged response from Crofting Commission

Fudged response from Crofting CommissionFollowing the revelation this morning that the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity, Fergus Ewing, has stated in a letter that he wholly disagrees with the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, over the handling of the common grazings debacle, I said that I awaited the Commission’s response with bated breath.

When it came this afternoon it was a fudged response which unfortunately but perhaps unsurprisingly did nothing to restore the faith of crofters in their regulator.

BBC Radio Scotland Newsdrive this afternoon aired a statement by Murdo Maclennan, Crofting Commissioner, who said on behalf of members (the Convener, Colin Kennedy, again conspicuous by his absence in front of the media):-

Once the letter was received the Convener convened a meeting of the Commission.

We had a full debate about it. As within every public body there are different views but at the end of the day we came to a unanimous decision on it and that has been conveyed to the minister.

So the position of the Scottish Government is one which we fully support and in a sense have never adversely had taken any adverse effect or decision regarding the Crofting Commission in relation to it.

I was then interviewed by BBC Radio Scotland Newsdrive and said:-

I can’t see how the Crofting Commission can take that view. I mean it has been made absolutely clear to them, from what I can understand, that they got it wrong and for them to think that in some sort of way that they didn’t is beyond me.

There needs to be clarity from the Crofting Commission. In light of the letter from Fergus Ewing I would have thought it would be a case of them holding their hands up in the air and saying “sorry we got it wrong, we apologise and we are going to do things to make this right and not happen again”.

But that is not what they have done or doesn’t seem to be what they have done so far.

Further comment by the Crofting Law Blog

Murdo Maclennan on one hand says that the Commission fully supports the position of the Scottish Government (i.e. that the Commission got it wrong) but on the other hand suggests that the Commission never did anything adverse to that position (i.e. didn’t do anything wrong?)!

Again this is done in a way that would not have been out of place in an episode of Yes Minister. Sir Humphrey Appleby would have delighted in the obfuscation and manipulation displayed with the almost unintelligible statement that:-

in a sense [the Commission] have never adversely had taken any adverse effect or decision regarding the Crofting Commission in relation to it.

That is I believe fairly accurately transcribed having listened to the recording on BBC iPlayer several times. Make of it what you will but my reading is a denial of wrongdoing. We may, of course, receive a Trump like retraction tomorrow that there was any meaning of the sort intended.

However, it is high time that the Crofting Commission gave crofters clarity over this matter. Crofting law may be complex but the utterings of the Crofting Commission are more complex and harder to decipher still.

The Scottish Government have told the Crofting Commission in no uncertain terms that they got it wrong. If they actually support that view then they should come out straight and admit that they got it wrong and apologise to the grazing committee members that they have wrongly tarnished and accused of wrongdoing. Unless and until they do so in clear and unambiguous terms no one can have any faith in anything that they do or say.

Brian Inkster

A “big step” or a just step?

Lucy Carmichael from the Scottish Government Crofting Policy Team at the Lewis and Harris Crofters meeting in Stornoway on 3 August 2016My last post considered the overwhelming view of Harris and Lewis crofters that the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, must go given his role in the alleged abuse of power within the Crofting Commission dubbed ‘The Common Clearances‘.

But despite many calls over several weeks for him to consider his position there is no sign of him stepping down anytime soon. In the absence of him doing the right thing is it time for the Scottish Ministers to force his hand?

This issue was raised at the meeting in Stornoway on 3rd August. This is how the West Highland Free Press reported the view thereon by Scottish Government crofting policy officer Lucy Carmichael and my response thereto:-

Ms Carmichael explained that the way crofting legislation is framed the only recourse available to crofters is to mount a challenge in the land court.

However, that was fiercely disputed by Mr Inkster who said that as the commission is a statutory body under the control of the Scottish Government it was perfectly legitimate for ministers to intervene if they felt it appropriate.

But Ms Carmichael felt that would be a “big step” – a statement which drew a sharp intake of breath from the audience, particularly those in Upper Coll who felt their removal from office was equally a big step and, indeed, unconstitutional.

Mr Inkster said that the commission had knowingly gone against their own legal advice, changed the guidance to common grazings committees and misinterpreted crofting legislation. “It is hard to see under such circumstances that anyone can have any confidence in any new guidance given out by the commission,” he said.

I would point out, if I recall correctly, that Lucy Carmichael also made reference to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman and the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland as other possible routes of recourse that crofters could take in addition to or instead of action via the Scottish Land Court.

Brian Inkster at the Lewis and Harris Crofters Meeting in Stornoway on 3 August 2016

In my very first blog post on the alleged abuse of power within the Crofting Commission I said, in connection with the removal from office of the Upper Coll Grazings Committee,:-

I would strongly suggest therefore that the Crofting Commission should, in all the circumstances, review this extraordinary decision. If they fail to do so the Scottish Government should maybe question the behaviour involved and perhaps even consider removing the commissioners responsible as “unsuitable to continue” as members. A power that the Scottish Ministers have at their disposal under the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993. That may be seen by many as a more reasonable and justified use of power than that employed by the Crofting Commission.

46 blog posts on the common grazings debacle later and I am firmly of the view that it would indeed be a more reasonable and justified use of power than that employed by the Crofting Commission.

The evidence is now clear. The Crofting Commission have been exposed to knowingly acting illegally, clearly acting illogically, operating like a kangaroo court, creating conflicts of interest, brazenly deleting its own history and attempting to deny that history. They have been party to intimidation and bullyingobfuscation and manipulation, controlling grazings constablesflouting the will of Parliament and ignoring the law/lawyers. But ultimately they have made a massive U-turn which is nothing more than a clear admission that they got it wrong. They have cost the public purse a huge amount of money.

It is, in light of all of this, not a “big step” to remove a commissioner. It is an obvious step and a just one.

Brian Inkster

Images Credit © BBC Alba

The cost of the Common Clearances

The Cost of the Common ClearancesIn my last post I revealed how much the grazings constables (appointed illegally in my opinion and in the opinion of others, including knowingly by the Crofting Commission itself) were being paid.

But what has been the overall cost of the alleged abuse of power within the Crofting Commission that has been dubbed ‘The Common Clearances‘?

A Freedom of Information request has disclosed that as at 1 July 2016:-

  • Colin Kennedy, Marina Dennis, William Swann and David Campbell (all Commissioners) together with a member of staff travelled to Stornoway to attend a meeting of the Mangersta shareholders on 16-17 May 2016 at an overall costs including flights, accommodation and subsistence of £2,005.
  • Donna Smith (Crofting Commission member of staff) and Colin Souter (‘Grazings Constable’) went to visit Upper Coll shareholders on 23 June 2016 at a cost of £852.40.
  • The cost of the ‘grazings constables’ as disclosed in my last post was £5,886.85.
  • Thus adding these figures together gives a total cost of £8,744.25.

But that figure is very much the tip of the iceberg.

There was an earlier visit to Lewis by the Crofting Commission to meet shareholders at Upper Coll before the decision was taken to remove the grazings committee from office.

There is the huge number of hours spent by Scottish Government officials, Crofting Commission officials and Crofting Commissioners on the debacle.

There is the legal expenses incurred by the Crofting Commission which reputedly includes the engagement of external counsel.

One of the grazings constables purports to still be in ‘office’ carrying out wholly unnecessary and dubious activities that he will no doubt still be paid for.

All costs that could and should have been avoided and better spent on the legitimate and proper regulation of crofting.

But perhaps more significant is the human cost. Something that cannot be quantified in pounds, shillings and pence. The devastating affect that the Crofting Commission has wrought on crofting communities with accusations of financial impropriety that have ultimately been withdrawn or still remain hanging.

One final observation: Why did the Crofting Commission meet the costs of their Convener, Colin Kennedy, attending the meeting in Mangersta in May 2016? He was not officially supposed to be there, he had a conflict of interest that was acknowledged but he insisted on attending albeit in silence. Was he doing so in a personal capacity rather than an official one? Whatever the position should the Crofting Commission have been meeting his travel and accommodation costs? A question (amongst many others) for Audit Scotland to answer perhaps.

Brian Inkster

Book Review: Set Adrift Upon the World – The Sutherland Clearances

Set Adrift Upon the World - The Sutherland ClearancesIn ‘Set Adrift Upon the World’ James Hunter masterly weaves together a fascinating account of the Sutherland Clearances. One that takes you from the Strath of Kildonan and other parts of Sutherland to battles in New Orleans via South Africa and onto the foundation of what is now the Canadian city of Winnipeg.

Along the way you are introduced to characters from the early 1800s that have a familiarity about them as their names remain in use today throughout the Highlands & Islands of Scotland. Heart wrenching accounts are given of the barbarity of evictions that left people homeless and often resulted in the death of the young or infirm shortly on the back thereof. Journeys by foot across frozen Canada conjure up images like those from the Oscar winning film ‘The Revenant’. On a lighter note the intricacies of malt whisky making are explained and we learn what Alison Watt’s favourite painting is in the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland.

The clearances were at the behest of the Marquis and Marchioness of Stafford (later to become the Duke and Duchess of Sutherland) to make way for large scale sheep farming. Those removed from the land would have the option of much smaller crofts on the fringes of the Sutherland Estate that would be unsustainable on their own without other income streams. Much indeed as crofting has become today. Many of those evicted instead moved to Caithness or further afield to Canada for the prospect of larger holdings on which to make a living.

The henchmen in the tale are James Loch, Commissioner to the Marquis of Stafford, and Patrick Sellar, Factor of the Sutherland Estate. The chapter on the trial of Patrick Sellar in the High Court on culpable homicide charges is an infuriating read for anyone concerned with the rule of law. Indeed that is a theme throughout the book where wealth and status invariably lead to injustice for others.

The book often feels more like a fictional novel rather than a factual historical account. That is the beauty of James Hunter’s approach to history and one he himself refers to as storytelling. This makes it a real page turner with you eager to know what happens next even though you know what the ending must be.

It was impossible for me to read this book without unfortunately seeing parallels to ‘The Common Clearances’ of today. That is the removal from office of Common Grazings Committees by the Crofting Commission. A body whose remit is supposedly to regulate not decimate crofting. This is currently happening with unusual regularity, in haste and on what appears to be completely unreasonable and unnecessary grounds. The Crofting Commission are today’s Marquis and Marchioness of Inverness and their henchmen are easily identifiable. Kangaroo courts, ignorance of the law, conflicts of interest, self-interest, corruption, nepotism, historical revisionism, intimidation and bullying have all been referred to as tactics used by the Crofting Commission as part of ‘The Common Clearances’. About the only difference with the Sutherland Clearances so far is the absence of fire. To think these comparisons are being made 200 years after the Sutherland Clearances is hard to fathom. Equally hard to believe is the fact that the Scottish Government of today has so far not intervened in what the Scottish Crofting Federation has referred to as a “calamity”.

As James Hunter points out, Beriah Botfield, a Tory MP, commented in 1830, that no “pursuit of prospective advantage” made it legitimate “to transgress the laws of humanity”.

Brian Inkster

N.B. This book review was written for and first appeared in Scottish Legal News and Irish Legal News.

Buy ‘Set Adrift Upon the World – The Sutherland Clearances’ at Amazon

Lewis and Harris Crofters’ Meeting

SCF Crofters Meeting Lewis and Harris - 3 August 2016The Scottish Crofting Federation (SCF) has organised a meeting in Lewis this Wednesday, 3 August 2016.

It is at the Stornoway Town Hall at 7.00pm and will involve presentations and discussions on Common Grazings, the role of the Crofting Commission and current policy issues affecting crofting.

You don’t have to be a SCF member to attend and all are welcome.

The panellists are:-

  • Russell Smith – SCF Vice-Chair
  • Brendan O’Hanrahan – SCF director
  • Lucy Carmichael – Scottish Government Crofting Policy
  • Brian Inkster – Crofting Lawyer, Inksters Solicitors
  • Patrick Krause – SCF Chief Executive

The meeting will be chaired by Donald Macsween – Lewis crofter, SCF member and activist.

A lively discussion is expected given the recent controversy surrounding alleged abuse of power within the Crofting Commission arising from what this blog has dubbed ‘The Common Clearances‘. Recent revelations have shown that the Crofting Commission knowingly acted contrary to their own policies, procedures and legal advice. All this and more will be up for debate on Wednesday night in Stornoway.

Grazings Puppets

Grazings Puppets

Strings are attached when appointed a Grazings Constable by the Crofting Commission

Grazings Constables appointed by the Crofting Commission have asserted their independence from the Crofting Commission. It must be remembered though that these grazings constables have been illegally appointed, and in the full knowledge that this was the case, by the Crofting Commission. However, legal or illegal how independent were the appointments and how independent were the grazings constables?

A freedom of information disclosure has shown that they were perhaps not very independent at all. Certainly, it would appear, not in the eyes of the Chief Grazings Constable and Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy. He stated, prior to one of the grazings constables being appointed, in an e-mail to the Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, Catriona Maclean:-

I have had a man on from [name of grazings in question] delighted with the moves and if the Constable has any difficulty and backs out, he will willingly take the Constable position on and pay the monies.

Thus the Crofting Commission, or at least their Convener, was intent on putting henchmen in place to do their bidding. Something, once more, that the Crofting Commission had no power in law to do.

The first post on this blog about ‘The Common Clearances‘ made reference to alleged abuse of power within the Crofting Commission. 36 blog posts on the same subject matter later and the evidence is fairly clear that there was some substance to those allegations.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: Police Officers © Puppetville

100 Crofting Law blog posts

100 Crofting Law blog postsMy last post, ‘The Chief Grazings Constable‘, was the 100th post on the Crofting Law Blog.

Quite a milestone.

I started the blog on 18th March 2013 because I was finding so much to write about the decrofting debacle. I said then:-

Crofting law appears to be in turmoil in a way that has possibly not been seen since it was introduced in 1886. The time is surely ripe for a crofting law blog to air the issues arising in an open, clear and transparent way.

Three years later and that turmoil has, somewhat unbelievably, got worse with the current common grazings debacle (aka ‘The Common Clearances‘).

There have been 32 blog posts on the common grazings debacle alone and that in the space of less than 3 months since the first one was published on the alleged abuse of power within the Crofting Commission. Coincidentally there is the same number of blog posts on here about the decrofting debacle. Although I had also written seven articles about that issue on inksters.com before starting the Crofting Law Blog. I reckon there will be more (probably a good bit more) than seven further blog posts to write about the common grazings debacle.

So we have the Crofting Commission and Scottish Government to thank (although we probably shouldn’t really be thanking them!) for creating the hot topics that have kept this blog so active.

The other 36 blog posts have covered a good mixture of crofting law matters including the Crofting Register, Scottish Land Court Technology, Crofting Law Sump, Sporting Rights on RaasayCroft House GrantsCrofting Convenergate, flaws in the Crofting Election Consultation, new appointments at the Crofting Commission, Scottish Government, Scottish Land Court and the Crofting Law A-Team.

Our blogs posts have, on the whole, been well received. They have, we would like to think, kept the Crofting Commission on their toes and perhaps even assisted some changes of heart on their part. We keep on blogging to explain the law, highlight injustices, to press for those changes and also as a result of nice comments of support like this one:-

I can’t thank you enough for the help and advice you have given over the last few months and I think the Crofting Law Blog has been an invaluable source of information that was virtually impossible to find anywhere else.

We have found obtaining relevant information from the Crofting Commission about the many complex aspects of crofting law extremely difficult so finding the Crofting Law Blog was a huge help to us.

You all deserve an award.

It seems a shame that such a clear and understandable source of information could not have been provided by the Crofting Commission itself.

A big thanks to all readers of and contributors to the Crofting Law blog over our first 100 blog posts. We will keep on blogging open, clear and transparent information about crofting law. If there is anything in particular you would like us to blog about or if you would like to contribute a post to the blog yourself then do let us know.

Brian Inkster

Reports from a ‘Grazing Constable’

 

Reports from a Grazings Constable

The ‘Grazings Constable’ was under the false impression that he was a Police Constable come Court Reporter!

One of the more surprising episodes of ‘The Common Clearances‘ has been the issuing of press releases by the ‘Grazing Constable’ (illegally appointed, in my opinion and the opinion of others) of the Upper Coll Common Grazings.

To my knowledge that ‘Grazings Constable’, Colin Souter, has issued three such press releases to date. I now reproduce those here, with my comments on each added.

‘Grazing Constable’ Report #1 – 12 June 2016

I write briefly in connection with the Common Grazings at Upper Coll, having been appointed as Constable in recent weeks, by the Crofting Commission.

I should firstly stress such appointees are independent of the Commission. One of the main functions is to assume the role and responsibilities of the former Committee, representing the interests of the Crofters, whilst moving as swiftly as possible back to a situation of normality, with crofters being collectively in control of managing their own interests.

I am confident readers will appreciate the resolution to current difficulties will not be achieved overnight. I note there has been much interest, speculation and comment made on behalf of individuals who, I acknowledge, feel genuinely aggrieved with decisions the Commission has made.

On the other hand, it is only right and proper that the Commission, as a public body, should not comment on the specifics of any individual case.

Preliminary legal proceedings are currently underway at the Scottish Land Court, where it remains to be decided if the Appeal against Commission decisions will progress to the next stage. An Interim Interdict application at Inverness Sheriff Court to prevent the appointment of a Constable and further action by the Commission, was heard and refused.

It is likely that the process of the Land Court Appeal, if progressed, will take some considerable time to conclude. I will not be formally commenting in the media on the specifics of matters at Upper Coll, nor in relation to any single individual.

I do however wish to publicly acknowledge and thank those individuals at Upper Coll and elsewhere who have already contacted me since my appointment, to firstly share a collective view that there are matters at Upper Coll which need to be addressed and secondly to voice their support for a co-operative resolution over the coming weeks and months. All impartial observers must surely agree it is in the best interests of all parties to co-operate, to ensure the interests of all the crofters at Upper Coll are and continue to be properly protected.

Comment on ‘Grazing Constable’ Report #1by the Crofting Law Blog

Why, I wonder, did Colin Souter feel it necessary to issue such a statement? Was it because the Crofting Commission were staying silent on the matter? Did they sanction/encourage this statement?

How independent can Colin Souter really be? Did the Crofting Commission not provide him with a list of their ‘concerns’ for his investigation?

He has apparently stated to the shareholders at Upper Coll that his role is an investigative one. Nothing in the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 gives him such power other than, perhaps, the duty to report to the Crofting Commission on the condition of the Common Grazings and crofts with a share in the Common Grazings.

If investigations were required concerning any alleged financial impropriety on the part of the former grazings committee that would have been a role for the actual boys in blue and not for a retired police Chief Inspector who appears to think he, once more, has powers he once did. He does not.

If legally appointed, which is disputed, Colin Souter simply has to take on the role of committee and clerk. He is responsible to the shareholders. His role is purely administrative.

‘Grazing Constable’ Report #2 – 23 June 2016

On the evening of 22 June the Constable of the Upper Coll Common Grazings chaired a meeting of shareholders at Tong Village Hall. The meeting, which was well attended, discussed a number of issues and during the closed part of the meeting, the Constable, Mr Colin Souter shared a level of detail around issues and concerns which was clearly unknown to many of those present, prior to the meeting.

Mr Souter, a retired police Chief Inspector explained to the meeting that his appointment followed a communication to the Commission by the former Clerk to the Grazing, highlighting that 12 points of business needed to be addressed as soon as possible.

Mr Souter also explained that the Crofting Commission, as a public body, is unable to comment in the media on issues relating to specific individuals and their conduct but that being independent of the Commission, it was appropriate for him to share more information with the shareholders affected. At the meeting, he received further joint intimation in writing from Upper Coll shareholders, of their dissatisfaction with the conduct of the former Committee and will determine in due course whether that should be considered separately from other matters currently under investigation.

The meeting acknowledged the current position as laid out and discussed a constructive way forward, with a revised set of draft local Grazing Regulations being circulated by the Constable to all shareholders at Upper Coll to replace the current Regulations which date back to 1987. Mr Souter is also inviting contributions and comment more widely, from the Scottish Crofting Federation and National Farmers Union Scotland, as representative bodies, in an effort to secure a wide consensus of agreement. He intimated to the meeting that he was, very reluctantly, being forced to consider Court action as a last resort, in order to recover the Committee records from the former Grazings Clerk. A large number of those shareholders present expressed the view that withholding the records was not helping, declaring that it was acting against the interests of the shareholders and instead invited former Committee members to bear the cost of the Court action, should it go ahead.

The meeting closed on a positive note with an expression of thanks to Mr Souter, from the floor, for an open, informative and well-run meeting.

Mr Souter later said, “I appreciate there is a wide body of interest in events here at Upper Coll. I would like to publicly express my own thanks and appreciation to Upper Coll shareholders able to attend the meeting tonight, for their positive contributions and their willingness to begin moving forward to the point where a new Grazing Committee can be elected. Whilst that outcome is still in the distance, it has moved significantly closer, with a clearer path now defined, and shareholders having a better understanding of the concerns and the issues which brought us to where we are now.”

Note to Editor – the Upper Coll Grazings Committee was removed from office by the Crofting Commission on 15 April after failing to adequately address concerns raised by the Crofting Commission about the manner in which aspects of its business were being conducted, including the content and presentation of financial information reported to shareholders. On 16 May, some former committee members made an unsuccessful attempt to interdict the Crofting Commission from further action at Upper Coll. This was followed by submission of papers to the Scottish Land Court, seeking to Appeal against the Commission’s decision to remove them from office. The Land Court is currently awaiting submissions on jurisdiction from both sides, to help determine whether it can hear the Appeal. If the jurisdiction argument is won, the case will become sub judice until eventually concluded.

Comment on ‘Grazing Constable’ Report #2 by the Crofting Law Blog

I wonder if Mr Souter thinks that all grazings clerks should be issuing press releases about shareholders meetings held throughout the crofting counties? Local newspapers could have sections devoted to ‘Common Grazings Reports’ instead of, or in addition to, their usual ‘Court Reports’!

Where did the “issues and concerns” that Mr Souter had to share come from? I trust not from the Crofting Commission that he is apparently independent of?

Interesting that the Crofting Commission cannot comment on matters arising to the media but Mr Souter can. Has he therefore become their spokesman and if so how does that enable him to retain the supposed independence that he claims to have?

Mr Souter refers to “matters currently under investigation”. As commented on by me in connection with his first Report, his role is not an investigative one but merely an administrative one and then only if his appointment was legal which I, and others, maintain it is not.

Why was Mr Souter circulating new Grazings Regulations and who had drafted them and on what basis?

It would seem unusual for a Grazings Clerk to seek views from the Scottish Crofting Federation or the National Farmers Union Scotland on Grazings Regulations specific to a particular grazings.

Court action by a potentially illegally appointed ‘Grazings Constable’ to recover documentation he might have no right to hold would have made for interesting debate in the Sheriff Court! A suggestion that those against whom such an action was to be raised should fund the raising of the action is absurd to say the least.

Why is the election of a new Grazings Committee in the distance? What is preventing that happening sooner rather than later?

Is it perhaps in Mr Souter’s personal interest to delay the election of a new Grazings Committee. The longer he remains in ‘office‘ the longer he receives an income from the arrangement – albeit potentially an illegal arrangement that he should not actually be receiving a penny for.

Mr Souter states that “the Upper Coll Grazings Committee was removed from office by the Crofting Commission on 15 April after failing to adequately address concerns raised by the Crofting Commission about the manner in which aspects of its business were being conducted, including the content and presentation of financial information reported to shareholders.”

However, the only reason actually given by the Crofting Commission for the ultimate removal from office of the grazings committee was the failure to produce to them five years ‘audited’ accounts. The grazings committee produced financial statements produced by accountants. The irrationality, inconsistency and departure from legal advice obtained by the Crofting Commission on this point is one I will return to in future posts on this blog.

‘Grazing Constable’ Report #3 – 12 July 2016

Upper Coll shareholders met again on 11 July at a meeting chaired by the Grazings Constable, Colin Souter, who was appointed by the Crofting Commission in May. At this second meeting, shareholders covered a busy Agenda on a range of topics, including the resolution of a long-standing issue on the access of a bull owned by two shareholders, on the common grazings. Shareholders accepted the pragmatic resolution suggested by the Constable, which preserves shareholders rights to graze livestock but at the same time, acknowledges the responsibilities that go with these rights.

Shareholders also voted in favour of a revised set of Grazing Regulations which would encompass key elements of the previous regulations which dated back to 1987. Mr Souter hoped the final draft of the document which had already been subject to wide-ranging consultation would be ready to send to the Crofting Commission for approval, in the next few weeks. During a candid and honest discussion, some of those present, including former Committee members advised they had been entirely unaware of the existence of the 1987 Regulations.

After the meeting, Mr Souter said, “The key to progress here is an acceptance from shareholders that good Regulations make it easier for shareholders and for Committees to interact and minimise the potential for friction or conflict. We are nearly there, in terms of a finished product and whilst there are still a number of other issues for me to resolve with shareholders, we are steadily moving in the right direction. I am grateful for the support shown by shareholders this evening, in voting to move ahead.”

A number of other issues, including finances and areas of activity permissible for a Grazings Committee or Constable on behalf of shareholders, under the 1993 Crofting Act were explored in a closed session. No date was set for the next meeting, with Mr Souter indicating he would distribute a final updated draft set of Regulations amongst all shareholders. And once approved by the Commission, every shareholder would receive a personal copy of the revised Regulations.

ends

Note – Mr Souter is a retired police Chief Inspector, appointed to the role of Constable at Upper Coll after the previous Committee were removed from office by the Crofting Commission. Following their removal, it was reported to the Commission that shareholder business remained outstanding and unresolved. Whilst he is appointed by the Commission, Mr Souter has successfully gained acceptance that he is independent of the Commission in all his decision-making.

Comment on ‘Grazing Constable’ Report #3 by the Crofting Law Blog

I asked shareholders of the Upper Coll Common Grazings for their views on this latest Report from Colin Souter. Here is a selection of comments received from them:-

  • The new regs would certainly have to come before shareholders again before being submitted. There will be nothing to stop us bringing in further changes at a full meeting of shareholders at a later date if that is needed.
  • The Grazings Regulations are at the “discussion” stage and still have much work to be done on them. There was no revised Regulations issued with no mention of changes some of us suggested. They are far from being at a stage for presenting to the Commission.
  • The constable has thus far refused to protect the interests of shareholders by bringing any scrutiny to bear on the  Commission’s own dubious actions of the recent past. This goes to prove that he is not wholly independent of the Commission and shows that he who pays the piper calls the tune.
  • The majority of shareholders are still of the view that the position of Constable has been illegally imposed on the Upper Coll Grazings. These shareholders do not have any personal prejudice against Mr Souter but it is his position they question.
  • Shareholders were of the view that the Constable should be working “for” the shareholders and should therefore be working to see that some of the injustices done to the previous Committee are redressed. As he seems to be investigating the work of the previous committee then this “investigative” role should also be targeted at the Crofting Commission’s actions.
  • The minute of meeting of the 11th should also clearly show that we considered that the Commission had erred greatly in dismissing a democratically elected voluntary committee when they had legal obligations instead to advice and support it in the first instance. We suggested that this is going to be costly to the Commission.
  • The meaning of “audit” given by the Constable is not one shared by the vast majority of shareholders.
  • It is felt by the majority of shareholders that the term “financial irregularities” used by the Commission in relation to the Upper Coll Grazings Committee should be withdrawn and an apology issued to the committee by the Commission.
  • Mr Kennedy’s continued presence as Convenor of the Crofting Commission is in the opinion of the majority of shareholders untenable.

So clearly a different slant on things from the propaganda issued by the ‘Grazings Constable’. This demonstrates the nonsense of the whole situation.

Why is Colin Souter seeking to introduce new regulations? What is wrong with the existing ones other than perhaps the use of the word “audit”, which has caused much of the problems encountered by the former committee in their dealings with the Crofting Commission?

The former grazings committee were actually in the process of amending their regulations prior to being removed from office by the Crofting Commission. Why did the Crofting Commission not allow them to amend the regulations as they wished to do so?

Are the Crofting Commission influencing the new regulations proposed by Colin Souter? Do these new regulations follow the latest template promoted by the Crofting Commission which do not actually reflect the law as set out in the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993?

Mr Souter refers to his “decision making”. What ability does he actually have to take decisions that are contrary to the wishes of the shareholders?

Mr Souter states:-

No date was set for the next meeting, with Mr Souter indicating he would distribute a final updated draft set of Regulations amongst all shareholders. And once approved by the Commission, every shareholder would receive a personal copy of the revised Regulations.

This suggests that Mr Souter is going to finalise the draft Grazings Regulations without necessarily calling a meeting to approve them. He appears to simply be planning to get the approval of the Crofting Commission. If this is indeed the case it is outrageous.

However, it should always be borne in mind that Mr Souter’s appointment was, in my view and the view of others, illegal and any action taken by him is simply null and void.

Brian Inkster

Grazings Constables Risk the Clink

Frank Serpico would never have accepted a job offer from the Crofting Commission

Frank Serpico would never have accepted a job offer from the Crofting Commission!

The Crofting Commission have, as part of the alleged abuse of power on their part over ‘The Common Clearances‘, been appointing Grazings Constables to replace the grazings committees that they have evicted from office.

I have blogged on the illegality of appointing Grazings Constables in such circumstances. This viewpoint has been backed up by Donald Rennie, an eminent expert in agricultural law and Honorary President of the European Council for Rural Law.

In a letter, that was published in both The Scottish Farmer and the West Highland Free Press last week, Donald Rennie highlights the potential difficulties for both the ‘Grazings Constables’ and the Crofting Commission of these illegal appointments.

With the kind permission of Donald Rennie, I now reproduce his letter here, in its entirety:-

I cannot allow the “Open Letter” from the Chief Executive of the Crofters Commission to pass unchallenged, especially as the Commission have exposed the unfortunates imposed as “Grazings Constables” to the risk of personal liability for tampering with the crofters’ money.

Ms MacLean says that there has been speculation about the interpretation of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 and that “The commission is confident that it is applying the law correctly but this can only be clarified by the Scottish Land Court.” Both of these statements are self evidently false.

It is clear from an honest reading of section 47 of the Act that the Commission has no power to appoint a grazings constable in the present situation.

Their only power to appoint a grazings constable is to be found in section 47(3). That subsection applies where the crofters have not used the democratic provisions of the Act to appoint a grazings committee. In that case the Commission may step in and appoint either a grazings committee or a constable. That is not the situation here.

Under section 47(8), if the Commission are satisfied that the members of a grazings committee are not carrying out properly the duties imposed on them by the Act, the Commission may remove from office any or all such members and may appoint or provide for the appointment of other persons in their or his place. In other words, if the Commission remove one or more members of a committee they may appoint substitute members of the committee. They have no power conferred by this subsection to appoint a grazings constable.

The Commission was created by Act of Parliament. If the Act of Parliament does not give them the authority to do something then they cannot legally do it. subsection 8 is the only part of the legislation which permits the Commission to interfere in the democratic process of the operation of grazings committees. There is nothing in this subsection which permits the appointment of a grazings constable and therefore the actions of the Crofting Commission in purporting to appoint grazings constables are clearly illegal.

There is no point in applying to the Scottish Land Court for a ruling. It is a waste of time and money to seek a judgement to confirm the self evident.

Each purported grazings constable is in bad faith in the holding of his purported appointment. Ignorance of the law is no excuse. In addition it has been explained to the so called constables that their appointments are nullities. They cannot therefore claim ignorance of the illegality of their positions.

Section 47(7) is the only provision dealing with the constable’s right to remuneration. It provides that “The term of office of a grazings constable appointed by the Commission under subsection (3) above shall be such as may be specified in the instrument by which he is appointed, and he shall receive such annual remuneration as the Commission may determine; and such remuneration shall be defrayed by an assessment levied in such manner as the Commission may deem reasonable on the crofters who share in the common grazing.” Nothing is said in this subsection about appointment in terms of subsection 8 which reinforces the view that the appointment is illegal.

If a constable is validly appointed, this is the only provision allowing for his remuneration and it states clearly that the remuneration shall be paid by the crofters. The Commission has no power to use its own funds to remunerate the constable and if they purport to do so then it is a matter for Audit Scotland to investigate.

But these purported constables have not been appointed validly under subsection 3. Therefore there is no basis on which they are entitled to remuneration. From this it follows that if a purported constable takes as much a penny piece from the crofters sharing in the common grazing, with intent permanently to deprive them of that money, he is at serious risk.

Comment from the Crofting Law Blog:-

I wholeheartedly agree with everything Donald Rennie says in his letter. The law on the matter is simple and straightforward as set out clearly by him.

I have asked the Crofting Commission to explain where in law they have the power to appoint Grazings Constables in such circumstances. The only response to date has been:-

The Commission’s understanding is that this was a final decision and the Commission has no authority to revisit its own decisions in these circumstances.

This could imply (in the absence of any argument to the contrary) an acceptance on the part of the Commission that they couldn’t in law appoint a Grazings Constable but, having done so, they had no ability to revisit and reverse that decision. However, as Donald Rennie points out, there is no need for the Commission or anyone else to do so “to confirm the self evident”.

In my next blog post I will reveal the fact that, having stated that it has “no authority to revisit its own decisions in these circumstances“, the Crofting Commission went on to do just that and compounded their first illegal decision with yet another one (or maybe two)!

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: Serpico © Artists Entertainments Complex, Inc. Produzion De Laurentiis International Manufacturing Company S.P.A.