Tag Archives: Common Grazings

Crofting Commission dodge answering questions

Dodging Bullets at the Crofting Commission

The Crofting Commission can stop your questions by simply not answering them!

The Cross-Party Group on Crofting has been waiting patiently on answers to 18 questions that they posed to the Crofting Commission. These were originally sent to the Crofting Commission in July 2016 then modified and sent in October 2016.

  1. Where in law it is stated that the Crofting Commission cannot revisit its own decisions?
  2. Why did the Crofting Commission chose to remove three grazings committees instead of work with them to improve things, if things needed improvement?
  3. Why were grazings shareholders not given the chance to elect a new committee when the Crofting Commission removed their committee, instead of moving straight to the appointment of a grazings constable?
  4. Does a removed committee have a right of appeal to the Crofting Commission?
  5. Where in law it is stated that the Crofting Commission has the power to appoint a Grazings Constable when they remove members of a grazing committee from office?
  6. Where in law it is stated that the Crofting Commission can extend the appointment of a Grazings Constable?
  7. Why is the Crofting Commission ignoring its own guidelines on the investigation of financial irregularities?
  8. Does the Crofting Commission maintain that all funds in a grazings bank account have to be disbursed immediately (including SRDP grants, as Mr MacLennan stated is the bulk of funds in the CPGoC)?
  9. If there are 3 levels of accounting as outlined by Mr MacLennan (examination by external qualified person such as local retired bank manager, prepared by qualified accountant on information supplied, full forensic audit), what are the thresholds at which each is required? Do they apply to balance or income? Who decides what is appropriate (given this was the reason Mr MacLennan gave for the Upper Coll grazings committee being removed by the Crofting Commission?)
  10. Why did the convener of the Crofting Commission involve himself in every one of these three cases and committee removals? Is this the job of a convener?
  11. Did the convener of the Crofting Commission declare his interest in the cases when the commissioners made their decision to move to removal?
  12. Does the Crofting Commission consider value for public money when pursuing cases?
  13. Mr MacLennan emphasised that the Crofting Commission were obliged to act as a shareholder had made a complaint. This does not square with the Commission’s dealings relating to other regulatory matters. We are aware of complaints made by shareholders with regard to absenteeism and neglect of crofts that go many years without commission action so it would be good to know why you are so diligent in pursuing grazings committees with such rigour. Has there been a policy change to target this type of regulatory issue (as there was previously with absentees)?
  14. Following the letter written to the Convener by Fergus Ewing concerning disbursement of common grazings funds to shareholders and SRDP funding there were mixed messages issued to the press by Commissioners. It appeared that the contents of the letter was supported but the Commission (or perhaps certain Commissioners) still thought they had done nothing wrong. Those two statements do not sit well next to one another. Can the Commission clarify their actual stance on the letter in clear terms for the benefit of this Group.
  15. Can the Commission explain why they have been questioning SRDP funding for and VAT Registration by Common Grazings?
  16. The Commission appear to be supporting their ‘constable’ Colin Souter and his behaviour at Upper Coll. Do they actually support a ‘constable’ who is having meetings with 4 shareholders and making decisions affecting 42 shareholders when 26 out of those 42 have signed a petition calling for his removal?
  17. Will the Commission advise the Group what remit was given to Constable Souter and why he appeared to be acting in an investigatory role rather than as an actual clerk.
  18. The latest revelation appears to be matters being decided by Commissioners via ‘brown envelopes’ rather than at board meetings. Can the Commission enlighten us further on this?

There were, in addition, two questions specifically posed to the Crofting Commission via the Cross-Party Group on Crofting by Iain MacKinnon on 1 November 2016:-

I would like to draw your attention to a letter by Colin Kennedy published this month in the Scottish Farmer. In the letter he draws the Scottish Crofting Federation’s attention to ‘the commission mole’ at the time of the ‘Susan Walker debacle’. Presumably he is referring here to the anonymous commissioner quoted by the West Highland Free Press when information was leaked to the paper and other media outlets about a letter signed by five commissioners – including Mr Kennedy – calling a meeting to discuss a potential vote of no confidence in Ms Walker. Mr Kennedy told the Scottish Farmer this month:

‘I can assure the SCF that prior to my becoming convener, the mole was identified and the information was provided to the appropriate persons to take the matter forward.’

At the Cross Party Group on Crofting’s meeting on 15th September last year, Jean Urquhart asked Mr Kennedy about the leak to the press.

He was unable to give her an answer and did not identify any ‘mole’ on that occasion. However, the then chief executive of the organisation was able to respond and this is noted in the minutes as follows:

‘What is being done about the fact that there was a leak to the press from a commissioner, which is a breach of the code of conduct?

While a newspaper claimed their was leak by a Commissioner, as Accountable Officer the CEO has carried out an internal investigation which found no evidence that any Commissioner had breached the code of conduct by leaking information on the matter to the press.’

I would like to hear from the Commission’s representative at the meeting how they reconcile these two statements and to ask again, in light of Mr Kennedy’s claim: what is being done about the leak to the press; and who was the ‘mole’ as described by Mr Kennedy in his letter to The Scottish Farmer.

Six months after the first questions were put to the Crofting Commission their Interim Chief Executive, Bill Barron, addressed them at the Cross-Party Group meeting at Holyrood on 25 January 2017 by stating that he didn’t intend to answer them but would like, instead, “to focus on the future“. He wanted to “draw a line under the rows of last year“. He acknowledged that “things had been done wrong” but there was “no merit in unpicking all of that“.

Mr Barron may have missed the fact that some of the rows of last year continue into this one.

He stated:-

Some of the specific issues raised in your questions have already been clarified by the Commission.  For example, we have confirmed that we agree with the Scottish Government’s position that there is nothing in the CAP rules that prevents the Scottish Government approving an SRDP application made by a grazings committee, and that we agree with the Scottish Government’s position regarding immediate disbursement of funds.

These, however, are two points that the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, still appears to be taking issue with and possibly still taking a contrary position on compared to his fellow commissioners and the official line of the Crofting Commission. This is all contrary to the doctrine of collective corporate responsibility. Indeed it is interesting to note that following the departure from the Crofting Commission of their former Convener, Susan Walker, Colin Kennedy, then Vice Convener, stated [PDF: Board Minutes – 13 May 2015]:-

I am sure that I speak on behalf of everyone when I say that today we are all equal with collective responsibility. In fact we are all Conveners, working together for the betterment of the Crofting Commission.

However, his publicly opposing views to that of the board clearly conflict with that statement.

The Guide for Board Members of Public Bodies in Scotland [PDF] states:-

While Board members must be ready to offer constructive challenge, they must also share collective responsibility for decisions taken by the Board as a whole. If they fundamentally disagree with the decision taken by the Board, they have the option of recording their disagreement in the minutes. However, ultimately, they must either accept and support the collective decision of the Board – or resign.

Colin Kennedy was not in attendance at the Cross-Party Group meeting on Wednesday night. He has only attended one meeting out of the five that have taken place since the start of the current Parliamentary term.

At the meeting in Holyrood on Wednesday night the Chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation, Russell Smith, asked Bill Barron if Colin Kennedy was still Convener and was still chairing Board meetings. Bill Barron answered both questions in the affirmative. Russell Smith then asked if the Board was working as it should to which Bill Barron replied “it is not easy but it is getting its work done“. How well, under the circumstances, it is getting its work done is, however, very debatable.

On the points raised by Ian MacKinnon the response from Bill Barron was:-

The same [i.e. not answering the questions] holds for Iain MacKinnon’s questions about a leak to the press, which was investigated by the previous CEO in 2015. Colin Kennedy’s more recent public comments about this appear to have been made in a personal capacity, but I can confirm that the Commission has no plans to re-examine this matter. Instead, my priority is to look forward to the upcoming elections and to prepare to give the best possible support to the new Board.

So it is all about looking forward and not looking back. However, you sometimes have to look back to learn from your mistakes before you can move forward and avoid making the same mistakes again.

Perhaps the Scottish Government’s review into the governance of the Crofting Commission will reflect more on the mistakes of the past and what needs to be done to prevent a recurrence of them. The Cross-Party Group on Crofting was advised on Wednesday by Gordon Jackson, Head of Rural Business Development and Land Tenure at the Scottish Government, that this review will be published “shortly“.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: The Matrix Reloaded © Village Roadshow Pictures, Silver Pictures and NPV Entertainment

The Cross-Party Elephant?

The elephant in the crofting cross-party room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brian Inkster

Colin Kennedy and the Holy Grail

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

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

He has again stressed that his sole motivation is:-

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

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

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

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

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

Mr Kennedy claims that:-

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

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

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

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

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

well-i-didnt-vote-for-you

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

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

have a lot to answer on behalf of shareholders.

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

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

mandate-from-the-masses

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

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

A document produced by the Crofting Commission states:-

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

So Mr Kennedy was very involved in the selection process.

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

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

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

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

Hi Colin

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

Kind Regards

Colin

Colin Souter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

im-invincible

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

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

Brian Inkster

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

Shackles lifted on Murdo Maclennan

Murdo Maclennan - Crofting Commissioner (Western Isles)

Murdo Maclennan – Crofting Commissioner (Western Isles)

The Stornoway Gazette, has revealed that Murdo Maclennan, Crofting Commissioner for the Western Isles, is pleased to now be free to publicly declare his position on the common grazings crisis in the Western Isles after the shackles applied, when he confirmed a declaration of interest, were finally lifted.

In the online article Murdo Maclennan admits that the past few months have been difficult as both Mangersta and Upper Coll have endured very public struggles. He is quoted as saying:-

It has been very difficult for me being unable to give my opinions on the ongoing matters in Mangersta and Upper Coll but now my declaration of interests have been lifted.

It is important to say I was being held back by these declarations, but I can speak now.

The Constable (Mr Colin Souter) installed in Upper Coll should complete his work as quickly as possible and the move to have a new committee in Upper Coll should happen as quickly as possible.

I would hope despite all that has happened that there can be a drawing of a line under it to move forward together, and like all committees, we will need to work with the commission for the benefit of crofting in the future in these areas.

There are lessons learned on the commission side absolutely. In terms of Mangersta I have asked why it has taken six years to resolve? That will be open and transparent to everyone. The way matters were handled and whether a grazings officer could intervene at an earlier stage to bring communities together.

The Stornoway Gazette article points out that last week at the Board meeting at Brora Golf Club Mr Maclennan led a motion, which was seconded and agreed by officials, calling for the resignation of the Crofting Commission’s Convener, Colin Kennedy.

This followed Mr Kennedy walking out of a meeting after he refused to accept Mr Maclennan’s withdrawal of his declaration of interest.

It goes on to quote Mr Maclennan as saying:-

I had sought to represent publicly the Western Isles crofters involved by asking for the papers and being able to take part in the discussions later on in the meeting,

But I was denied that by the convener and after taking advice from the officials present, my position was sustained, that I could have access to the papers which led to him closing the meeting.

The board did continue to meet and we had a full day of business. I did move that the board state, through a motion, in my opinion it was the convener’s position to retire due to the situation. This was seconded and also received the unanimous vote of the board.

It is a question of accountability and responsibility for all that has gone on in the past six months.

View from the Crofting Law Blog

It is good that Mr Maclennan no longer has a conflict of interest and is able at last to take an active role in important issues concerning his own island community.

It is also heartening to see that he was instrumental in leading the motion calling for the convener’s resignation.

Mr Maclennan says that the grazings ‘constable’ Colin Souter should complete his work as quickly as possible and the move to have a new committee in Upper Coll should happen as quickly as possible.

However, what work does Mr Souter have to complete? I don’t think the majority of shareholders at Upper Coll want him to complete anything for them anymore.

In the case of Mangersta the ‘constable’ there was removed very swiftly indeed. Should the same not happen at Upper Coll?

What move needs to be made to have a new committee in Upper Coll? Is that not in effect all done and dusted by the actions taken by the shareholders themselves some weeks ago?

It looks like the Commission is unnecessarily prolonging the agony for the crofters of Upper Coll.

Colin Souter should step down immediately, without any further delay, and let the crofters get on with it themselves.

That happened in Mangersta. There is no good reason why it cannot and should not happen in Upper Coll.

The six crofting commissioners (including Mr Maclennan) who now oppose Mr Kennedy should ensure that this happens without further delay and preferably by close of play tomorrow at the latest. This would demonstrate that the shackles have well and truly been lifted.

Brian Inkster

Crofting Farce

Crofting FarceIt is exactly one week since the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, walked out on a Board meeting at Brora Golf Club. The remaining Commissioners who convened a Special Meeting in his absence called on his resignation.

The Scottish Crofting Federation have expressed bewilderment that Mr Kennedy is still in place despite it being clear that he now stands alone. They have referred to his position as a farce that is getting in the way of important business.

Russell Smith, Vice-chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation said:-

The Crofting Commission board meeting last week was certainly an eye-opener. It quickly became apparent that the Convener had lost the support of his board and it came as no surprise that he left the meeting with his tail between his legs. What is astounding though is that he still has not resigned. What does it take for him to get the message?

At the Board meeting of the Crofting Commission, held in Brora last week, observers were treated to a bizarre display involving the Convener, Colin Kennedy, attempting to force his will on the rest of the board and officials. Failing in this he closed the meeting without any business being conducted and left. The meeting was re-convened with vice-convener Iain George MacDonald in the chair and normal business was resumed. Mr MacDonald issued a full and open apology for the recent debacle involving the Commission’s handling of common grazing committees.

The apology is very welcome and shows the other Commissioners do have integrity. However, the apology should have come from Mr Kennedy, along with his resignation speech, both because he is the spokesman for the Commissioners and because he has been the chief antagonist in the whole affair. Mr Kennedy has been very destructive for crofting and for the Commission, and it is time to put an end to this sorry episode.

There is much to be done in crofting development and in rural issues, especially with the uncertainty over the effect of the European referendum. Mr Kennedy is standing alone now, his position is a farce and he is getting in the way of important business. It is time for the Commission, as a body, to have him removed.

Image Credit: Farce of Nature © Aleks Ortynski

Crofting Commission must “swiftly resolve” Common Grazings Crisis

Fergus Ewing MSP wants Crofting Commission to "swiftly resolve" Common Grazings crisis

Fergus Ewing MSP

The Press & Journal has published a statement by Fergus Ewing MSP, Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity, following his meeting last week with Crofting Commissioners. He said:-

During the meeting, I stressed the Scottish Government’s commitment to working with the commission to ensure it delivers an effective service for crofting, especially ahead of the crofting elections next year.

I also emphasised the need to swiftly resolve the current situation regarding common grazings committees, and made clear my view on what the commission’s board needs to do to restore equilibrium. The forthcoming elections for new commissioners add impetus to the need to draw a line under the current episode. I look forward to hearing how the commissioners intend to proceed.

The Commissioners are meeting in Brora on Wednesday, 28 September, to decide how to proceed.

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

Crofting VATgate

Hector the Inspector - HMRC Taxman - Crofting VATgate

Who is the VAT Inspector?

In his letter to shareholders at Upper Coll the grazings ‘constable’, Colin Souter (who was illegally appointed in my view, and in the view of others including, ironically, the Crofting Commission themselves) stated:-

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.

Why and how on earth was Colin Souter in receipt of legal opinion from Queen’s Counsel on the question of whether common grazings committees could be VAT registered?

A suggestion on this blog that Colin Souter may have instructed the Opinion was met with this response from Mr Souter:-

I should also point out that I have never sought legal advice from Queen’s Counsel in any context, since being appointed as Grazings Constable.

I then asked:-

Perhaps you can enlighten us as to how you came to be in “receipt of legal opinion from Queen’s Counsel” as stated in your letter to the Upper Coll shareholders?

Mr Souter has yet to answer my question.

So who instructed this legal opinion, who paid for it and why?

How did Colin Souter come to be in possession of it and why?

In his dialogue with HMRC is Colin Souter trying to stop VAT registration at Upper Coll Common Grazings and if so why?

It can only be assumed that the attempt to stop VAT registration of common grazings probably lies at the door of the Crofting Commission. Would this not be how a grazings ‘constable’ appointed by them would be in possession of such information?

We are already aware that the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, was of the view that common grazings should not receive SRDP funding. This very alarming notion (an issue that did not concern the crofting regulator and/or its convener in any way) was firmly quashed by Fergus Ewing MSP.

It is therefore not a giant leap to think that the Crofting Commission and/or their Convener might be behind this attempt to stop common grazings being VAT registered.

If that should prove to be the case it is scandalous.

Questions regarding whether crofters should be VAT registered or not have absolutely nothing to do with the Crofting Commission. It is a matter between crofters and HMRC.

Public money should not have been spent on the opinion of Queen’s Counsel on such matters. If that has happened Audit Scotland should be investigating the issue. Another one for them to add to the growing list for their next visit to Great Glen House.

But more significantly why is the Crofting Commission and/or their Convener intent on depriving crofters of income? First it was SRDP funding. Now it appears to be VAT.

Under and in terms of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 the Crofting Commission has as one of its functions:-

promoting the interests of crofting

On their website the Crofting Commission state that it:-

regulates and promotes the interests of crofting in Scotland to secure the future of crofting.

This statement links through to a general leaflet on crofting that states:-

The Crofting Commission is working to secure the future of crofting by creating and promoting a well regulated crofting system that positively contributes to the sustainability of rural communities.

By seeking to deprive crofters of SRDP funding and now, possibly, VAT the Crofting Commission cannot be said to be promoting the interests of crofting, securing the future of crofting or positively contributing to the sustainability of rural communities. Quite the contrary.

If Commissioners are acting in such a way, completely contrary to the functions that the Crofting Commission was established to carry out, then those commissioners responsible have no place in that organisation. They should be ashamed of themselves.

They are clearly “unable or unfit to exercise the functions of a member” or “unsuitable to continue as a member”. As such the Scottish Ministers may remove them from office under and in terms of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993. There have been repeated calls over recent months for such action to be taken but if ‘Crofting VATgate’ does fall at the door of the Convener and/or any other Commissioners then this surely is the final straw that broke the camel’s back.

Fergus Ewing MSP, as Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity with responsibility for Crofting, should immediately launch an investigation to get to the root of ‘Crofting VATgate’, publicise his findings for the benefit of crofters and take appropriate and decisive action against those responsible.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: Hector the Tax Inspector © HMRC

Not a Grazings ‘gamechanger’

Not a grazings gamechanger

The new, badly programmed, Robotic Grazings Cop introduced by the Crofting Commission unfortunately did not prove to be a gamechanger!

This week’s front page headline in The Scottish Farmer is Grazings ‘gamechanger’.

The news item by Gordon Davidson states that:-

New evidence has been revealed that appears to justify the Crofting Commission’s unpopular intervention in the financial affairs of a common grazings committee.

Colin Souter, the constable controversially appointed to replace the grazings committee at Upper Coll, on the Isle of Lewis, this week wrote to all its shareholders itemising examples of that committee’s “arbitrary decision making” on how shareholders money was spent.

Quite the contrary is in fact the case.

A proper analysis of the ‘findings’ of Colin Souter demonstrates his complete lack of understanding of (a) what the role of a legally appointed grazings constable is (he, of course, being illegally appointed); (b) crofting law; and (c) duties and responsibilities that a grazings constable has towards shareholders in the common grazings.

It also, alarmingly, exposes the true relationship between Colin Souter and the Crofting Commission. More significantly it also exposes a new scandal to hit the Crofting Commission, namely (assuming that Colin Souter is not solely behind it) their attempt to deprive common grazings of finance by seeking to prevent them being VAT registered.

This follows hot on the heels of revelations that the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, was seeking to prevent common grazings from receiving SRDP funding!

This attempt by the Crofting Commission and/or their Convener to meddle once more in matters that have nothing to do with their role as a regulator and seek, in so doing, to deprive crofters of finance is the real story here. That is the story that should have made front page news in The Scottish Farmer had Gordon Davidson been tuned into the actual facts involved or had contacted myself or former committee members at Upper Coll for a truer picture. Instead he appeared to rely only on the word of Ivor Matheson (the aggrieved crofter who originally complained to the Crofting Commission) and the misguided ‘findings’ of an illegally appointed grazings ‘constable’.

In subsequent posts on this blog I will consider some of the more salient ‘findings’ by Colin Souter and expose them for what they really are. I will also look at the cosy relationship that Colin Souter appears to enjoy with the Crofting Commission and the real significance of what could easily be referred to as Crofting VATgate.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: Robocop © Orion Pictures

Update – 4 September 2016: Crofters and Lawyers + The Wrong Grazings Committee!

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