Tag Archives: Common Grazings

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

Croft Wars: The Constable Strikes Back

Croft Wars - The Constable Strikes Back

Some see the ‘constable’ of Upper Coll more like a bounty hunter

Following a statement issued on behalf of the majority of shareholders of the Upper Coll Common Grazings the headline that appeared on Hebrides News was ‘Upper Coll grazings constable slams ousted committee‘. The accompanying article reads as follows:-

The grazings’ officer installed to temporarily run the common grazings at Upper Coll, Lewis, has hit out at claims made by the former grazings committee who were sacked by the Crofting Commission.

Colin Souter, a retired police chief inspector living in Nairn, was drafted in to manage the village’s communal moorland – land collectively used for by all crofters for grazing livestock – while the commission investigated the deposed committee.

Colin Souter pointed out the appointment of a constable is made by the Crofting Commission.

Once appointed, a constable has the same powers, responsibilities and independence in decision-making, as a grazings committee does, bound only by legislation, he said.

Mr Souter stressed: “This has been explained at length to former committee members at Upper Coll, who remain aggrieved at the commission’s decision to remove them from office.

“That decision to remove is presently the subject of a review by the Scottish Land Court and it will be for that court to determine whether the initial complaints made to the commission about the conduct of the committee and the subsequent disclosures, provided sufficient justification for their removal or if the commission acted inappropriately.”

The grazings’ officer went on: “The appointment of a constable in the interim, was a separate matter and was made to safeguard the interests of the shareholders, to address matters of business brought to the commission in correspondence by the former clerk.”

Based on “discussion with aggrieved shareholders and correspondence,” he queries how much support the former committee has from shareholders.

He added: “As all previous signatories had been officially removed from office, and could no longer sign documents legally, as constable I took control of the finances and records, with the co-operation of the bank and of the former clerk and chairman of the committee, who personally handed over to me, the committee records and accounts.”

The former committee demanded the “return of their bank book” but there is no such thing, suggested the grazings’ constable.

Mr Souter said: “In the absence of any formal handover or briefing from the former committee, there was also an obligation placed upon me – in order to support shareholders competently – to establish the facts surrounding the status and liabilities of the grazings and to confirm the proper conduct of the former committee in its decision-making, to verify business had been conducted to the proper legal standard or to remedy, where required.

“It became clear from a review of the records provided to me by the former clerk and chairman, that the former committee was deficient in its record keeping but more importantly, in its procedures, in particular on matters where majority shareholder support was legally required in order to take action, eg. SRDP applications, where such applications are a scheme, under the 1993 Act.”

He stated: “Quite clearly, action was being taken in relation to matters of finance and spending, where majority support, despite being a legal requirement, was neither evident nor documented.

“Even so, it came as some surprise when some former committee members admitted at a recent shareholders meeting they were entirely unaware of the existence of the Upper Coll grazing regulations, passed by their own forebears in the 1980’s.

“One wonders what yardstick was employed to assist the imposition of their own views, however well-meaning or misguided, on fellow shareholders?

“Perhaps this point will help to explain the dissatisfaction and grievances raised to the Crofting Commission and myself by Upper Coll shareholders about the conduct of the former committee in managing the grazings?”

The interim constable added: “None of the foregoing issues have anything specifically to do with the Crofting Commission.

“The commission does not control the grazings or the bank account or finances at Upper Coll. The shareholders do.”

“As constable, I met with shareholders twice in recent months where I have been extremely open and transparent about my role and in my sharing of information, an approach commended from the floor, at the first meeting.

“The detail I provided to shareholders is evident from the very lengthy minutes produced from the meetings, distributed to all shareholders.

“In the past, I have also sought to protect former committee members from potential public embarrassment by holding part of the meetings in closed session, where disclosures were made.”

He said shareholders are “well aware” from his reports that all scheme applications due were completed by agents acting on behalf of the grazings and “processed accordingly and no financial loss has been suffered.

Regarding villagers plans to elect a new grazings committee, he said: “I raised this issue in recent correspondence with shareholders, when I indicated my term in office is due to expire in the next couple of months.

“It seems some of the former committee are already set to take control of an agenda which I had set out, intending to hold fresh elections and return a new committee in control of shareholder business at Upper Coll.

“The important point however, for all involved, is that the new committee, whomever is elected and whatever its composition, will have a clearer understanding of the legal framework in which they must operate and their own duties and obligations to their fellow shareholders.

“I cannot help but think it would be a progressive step, in this day and age, to see a few female members on the new committee but that has to be a matter for the Upper Coll shareholders.”

Mr Souter said he has written to shareholders in the last few weeks, during the holiday period, providing a brief statement on recent activity.

He will present a fuller report at a planned meeting in September, when he will share more “extensive detail” with the shareholders at Upper Coll and answer questions “they may have on that range of important issues.”

The grazing’s constable highlighted: “It will be for shareholders to determine which aspects of concern, if any, should be highlighted – perhaps for wider benefit across the crofting community – and find their way into the public domain.”

He said: “As with many others, I do not dismiss the concerns of those former committee members who continue to agitate, for being removed from office.

“It is clearly an important and emotive issue for crofting and one that continues to cause great concern across the crofting community.

However, that also places a “heavy responsibility upon the former committee and others contributing on their behalf” to ensure there is a balanced debate based on the facts of the situation, said Mr Souter.

View from the Crofting Law Blog

Colin Souter thinks he has “independence in decision-making“. A grazings constable, if legally appointed, does not. They have to listen to the shareholders who they represents and act accordingly.

Colin Souter states that his ‘appointment’ was made to “address matters of business“. The shareholders appear to be of the view that rather than conducting the business in question Colin Souter has been on the hunt, through historical records stretching back well beyond the five year ‘audit’ period sought by the Commission, for wrongdoing on the part of former committees. Not the role at all of a grazings constable even if legally appointed. The fact that he was under the wrong impression that this was his role is confirmed when he states that he had to “confirm the proper conduct of the former committee in its decision-making, to verify business had been conducted to the proper legal standard or to remedy, where required“.

It is interesting, but perhaps not surprising, that Colin Souter does not address the legality of his appointment. The Grazings Committee were ‘replaced’ by a ‘Grazings Constable’ that I, and others (including bizarrely the Crofting Commission themselves) consider to be illegal. One would have thought that he would be very concerned by this indeed and somewhat relieved that the shareholders plan to replace such an illegal appointment with a legal one.

Colin Souter questions whether the former committee members have the support they maintain from the shareholders. Well, apparently, a meeting was called and there were only four shareholders who abstained (those included the shareholders who brought the initial complaint about the former committee to the Crofting Commission). They were asked if they objected and they said they would prefer to abstain. So looks like majority support to me with no objections.

Colin Souter states that “as constable” he “took control of the finances and records, with the co-operation of the bank and of the former clerk and chairman of the committee, who personally handed over” to him “the committee records and accounts“. But they did not sign mandates allowing him to be signatory of the cheque book. Serious questions must be asked as to how he obtained the status of what is believed to be the sole signatory.

Colin Souter states that “there is no such thing” as a “bank book” to return to the Upper Coll shareholders. Well in this day and age there may not be an old fashioned bank book but there is likely to be bank statements, a cheque book and (more importantly) control thereof. I think we all know what was meant by the statement made by the shareholders about their “bank book” and denying the existence of any such item does Colin Souter no credit.

However, Colin Souter states that “the commission does not control the grazings or the bank account or finances at Upper Coll. The shareholders do.” If that is the case please do actually hand control of their finances back to them as they quite rightly demand.

Regarding villagers plans to elect a new grazings committee, Colin Souter said: “I raised this issue in recent correspondence with shareholders, when I indicated my term in office is due to expire in the next couple of months. It seems some of the former committee are already set to take control of an agenda which I had set out, intending to hold fresh elections and return a new committee in control of shareholder business at Upper Coll.”

Colin Souter previously stated, on 23 June 2016, that the election of a new committee was “still in the distance“. At the time I asked “Why is the election of a new Grazings Committee in the distance? What is preventing that happening sooner rather than later?” The shareholders are clearly and understandably of the same view and may the force be with them in gaining control of their own destiny once more.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: Boba Fett who appeared in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back; and Episode VI – Return of the Jedi ©  Lucasfilm Ltd

Lacklustre response by Crofting Commission

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

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

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

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

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

Or does this clarify the position without explicitly saying so?

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

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

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

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

Crofting Convener seeks to stop SRDP funding for Common Grazings

I don't believe it - Crofting Commission up to their neck in it

“I don’t believe it!”

Whilst the media concentrated last week on Fergus Ewing’s letter to Colin Kennedy stating that the Scottish Government disagreed with the way the Common Grazings debacle had been handled there was another significant element to his letter. This was that:-

there is nothing in the CAP rules that prevents the Scottish Government approving applications for SRDP funding in respect of a common grazings by a Grazings Committee.

This would suggest that the Convener of the Crofting Commission was seeking to prevent common grazings committees receiving SRDP funding! Why on earth would a crofter elected to represent the interests of crofters on the Crofting Commission seek to do that?

Furthermore what does SRDP funding have to do with the crofting regulator? Absolutely nothing!

It is worrying indeed that the Crofting Commission and/or their Convener might be spending any time or resources at all on seeking to deprive grazings committees of funding in the first place never mind them seeking to divest those committees of monies as soon as received.

It was made clear in the letter that this view on SRDP funding was Colin Kennedy’s own view and not one shared by the Board of the Crofting Commission. I will explore that fact further in my next blog post.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: ©BBC – Victor Meldrew in One Foot in the Grave

Statement by Crofting Commission gets no better in Gaelic

Crofting Commission Statement no better in GaelicIt was previously raised on this blog that the statement made by Crofting Commissioner Murdo Maclennan after the board meeting on 17 August was fairly unintelligible.

This was a statement made by him, on behalf of the Crofting Commission, following discussion by them of the letter from Fergus Ewing MSP, the Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for crofting, on the Commission’s handling of the common grazings debacle.

That statement was made by Murdo Maclennan in English. He made another statement on the same day to the media in Gaelic. That Gaelic statement was broadcast on BBC Radio nan Gaidheal’s Aithris an Fheasgair on 17 August 2016.

The Crabbit Crofter has made as accurate a transcription and translation into English from Gaelic as he could of this statement, and that as follows:-

…that was in the letter and…um…and…eh…the Convener made…eh…he brought the letter to the board…about it…as I said…as…as…every public board is anyway…there will be different opinions…and we came…we talked about it and we came to the conclusion…everyone in the…everyone in the Commission was behind…as I’m saying…and accepted it.

Unfortunately in these two villages that…they didn’t come to an agreement…there wasn’t an agreement…between the people who raised the topic and…and…eh…the township committees themselves but…but that’s past now…and…and we are working eh with…as in Upper Coll…we have got a Constable who is working with crofters in the village…and…and…I am finding out he is working well with them…eh… unfortunately …I said that it was…it came to this…but we think we did the right things for the township.

Well, no better or any more understandable than the statement made in English!

Interesting that in this statement Murdo Maclennan speaks specifically about an apparent lack of agreement in two villages (there were actually three involved: two on the Isle of Lewis and one on the Scottish mainland) but “that’s past now”.

It may be in the past in the Commission’s eyes but it is what Fergus Ewing’s letter was all about and crofters still want answers as to why the Commission took the action that they did and assurances that they will never do so, in such circumstances, again.

The Commission’s current policy on this matter, in light of the letter from Fergus Ewing MSP, must be made clear and this statement goes nowhere near doing so.

Murdo Maclennan says “we have got a Constable”. Is this, yet again, the Commission thinking the constable is their man on the ground rather than an independent party distinct from the Commission who simply takes the role of clerk/committee?

In any event the grazings constable in question is illegal! If the Crofting Commission are now accepting that they got it wrong, in light of Fergus Ewing’s letter, does it not follow that they are accepting that they got it wrong in relation to the appointment of constables?

The Crofting Commission, via Murdo Maclennan seems to think that the illegally appointed constable in Upper Coll is “working well” with the crofters in the village. Certainly not the message being given out loud and clear by many of  the crofters in the village who have stated that to date they have “only been co-operating with the constable under duress”.

Also Murdo Maclennan said, on behalf of the Crofting Commission, that they think they “did the right things for the township”. That is not what the majority of crofters or the Scottish Government seem to think. Also is that statement actually reflected in the massive U-turn the Commission took over Mangersta?

All and all it still seems to be a shambles. The Crofting Commission appear to say, perhaps reluctantly, on one hand that they agree that they got it wrong (i.e. in support of the Scottish Government position) but on the other hand they still think that they did the right thing. Those two viewpoints cannot sit easily side by side.

However, the statements made on behalf of the Crofting Commission by Murdo Maclennan, both in English and in Gaelic, are far from clear in any event and are open to misinterpretation.

The Crofting Commission must, in all the circumstances, publish a written statement in clear English and Gaelic (each one being a direct translation of the other) that sets out their actual position on the matter. This should, in any event, have been done as a matter of course immediately following their board meeting last Wednesday.

Brian Inkster

Update: 3 September 2016

In the West Highland Free Press yesterday a letter was published from Murdo Maclennan under the heading “Partick twang” to blame. It reads:-

I refer to the comments of Ms Mandeville of the SCF as reported on the WHFP website on 19th August and her reference to my “apparent assertion after a recent board meeting”.

As she does not disclose her source of information I assume that she is referring to my post-board interview with BBC Alba. My Gaelic is nuanced through a Partick twang and she has clearly misinterpreted my public statement. I did state during the interview that the Commission conducted a debate followed by a motion, which I moved, being carried unanimously and without dissent. In any public body vigorous debate is surely to be encouraged and not disparaged.

Sorry, Mr Maclennan but that goes nowhere near resolving the confusion you have already created – It may in fact have caused more!

Do the Commission take the view that they have done nothing wrong despite the letter from Fergus Ewing? A simple “Yes” or “No” in English, Gaelic or Partick twang will suffice.

Cabinet Secretary “wholly disagrees” with Crofting Commission Convener

Fergus Ewing v Colin Kennedy

A clash has begun between Fergus Ewing MSP and Colin Kennedy

Breaking news on BBC Radio Scotland this morning:-

The BBC has seen a letter written by the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity, Fergus Ewing MSP, that says he “wholly disagrees” with the Crofting Commission’s stance on Common Grazings Committees and the distribution of funds received by them.

BBC Scotland reporter Gary Robertson said:-

The Scottish Government is going head to head with the Convener of the public body responsible for crofting.

In a hard hitting letter seen by BBC Scotland the rural affairs secretary, Fergus Ewing, has told the Convener of the Crofting Commission that he wholly disagrees with his handling of a bitter dispute over shared land in the Western Isles.

BBC Scotland reporter Jackie O’Brien has seen the correspondence and Gary Robertson asked her what the background was.

Jackie O’Brien said:-

Well this has been a protracted and slightly complicated dispute involving the way that the ground crofters share is managed through what they call common grazings committees which are made up of crofters.

Now earlier this year two committees on Lewis, one in Mangersta and the other in Upper Coll, were removed from office by the Crofting Commission.

This happened after questions were asked over financial records and some transactions including the fact that the Upper Coll committee had not distributed or as they call it disbursed income from croft house sites to individual crofters but had put all of the money into a crofting township fund instead.

Now the Commisssion in the meantime appointed what they called constables to manage the land whilst committee accounts were investigated.

One of the committees has been reinstated but there is still annoyance and outrage over the way that this whole affair has been handled. Some say it is belligerent and unlawful and there have been calls for the resignation of the Crofting Commission Convener, Colin Kennedy.

Gary Robertson asked:-

So what exactly does Fergus Ewing say in this letter?

Jackie O’Brien responded:-

Well the rural affairs secretary has been trying to calm the waters and has been quite diplomatic on this to date. But there is no sign of it in this letter which I have seen that he has sent to Colin Kennedy.

He confirms that contrary to Mr Kennedy’s views the Crofters (Scotland) Act does not require the immediate disbursement or pay out of funds by a grazings committee. He says that as it currently stand the Scottish Government sees little merit in the Crofting Chairman’s views which he says he wholly disagrees with.

The letter goes on to say 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.

Gary Robertson then asked:-

Any response from Colin Kennedy himself?

Jackie O’Brien confirmed:-

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

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

Gary Robertson then asked Jackie O’Brien:-

What is your sense of the implications of this clash?

Jackie O’Brien responded:-

Well the contents of this letter shows the Government is clearly pointing the finger at Mr Kennedy who is an elected Convener. This is backed up by the fact that Fergus Ewing has said in his letter that he is also very concerned about the risk that policy decisions may be taken without a clear mandate from the Crofting Commission’s board. This implies that not everyone on the board supports the way things have been handled.

Now the Commission’s board does happen to be meeting today, and in his letter Fergus Ewing has asked for its position on the matter to be made clear after this meeting. But he warns that if the Commission continues to subscribe to an entirely different view he will then have to consider what action to take. It is not clear what that action could be but that could put further pressure on him to resign.

View from the Crofting Law Blog

The Scottish Government clearly takes the same view regarding the law on the common grazings debacle taken from the outset on the Crofting Law Blog. It is good that they have done so and made their position clear in such strong terms.

The law on the matter has in my view been fairly clear. It is also, it transpires, clear to the Scottish Government.

Why has it been so unclear to the Crofting Commission?

Despite repeated requests from me to the Crofting Commission asking them to justify their position with reference to statute and case law they have failed to do so. They have simply ignored me. If they had papers from their executive that backed up their position in law surely they would have referenced those to me.

The Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, Catriona Maclean, suggested in a meeting of the Scottish Government Crofting Stakeholder Forum that the law on the matter would follow “in due course” after the Commission had drawn up new guidelines for grazings committees to follow. Putting the cart before the horse was never a good idea!

The Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, has said to BBC Scotland that the Commission were following advice given in papers produced by their executive. Oh no they weren’t! The Crofting Commission specifically ignored the advice given by the executive and appointed grazings constables in circumstances where they knew that to do so was illegal. How many other times has this happened?

Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that a paper [PDF] was considered by the Crofting Commission at a February 2016 Policy in Development meeting. In that paper it was, somewhat alarmingly, stated:-

There is a degree of irony in that the Commission may be requiring grazing committees to adhere to regulations while not being clear about the procedure it is itself employing in directing this.

Thus did the Commission actually have papers from the executive to consider when making some of their decisions or were they simply making it up as they went along?

We also, of course, know that the Commission has chopped and changed its position on the matter, tried to hide the fact they have done so and ultimately made a massive U-Turn. Does that demonstrate having done nothing wrong?

In light of the stance now taken by the Scottish Government against the Convener surely his tenure in office must be in question more so than it ever was. Especially if he continues with the adamant view that he has done nothing wrong when all of the evidence that has so far come to light would perhaps suggest otherwise.

The Crofting Commission are having a board meeting today. On the agenda [PDF] is ‘Grazings committees – a practical approach to the management of common grazings’ with a paper on that topic for discussion. A practical approach would no doubt be a welcome approach from most crofters. But let’s hope the Commission have now got a clear understanding and grasp of what the law actually is when applying a practical approach.

A little bit of humbleness, signs of regret and an apology would not go amiss at today’s meeting in light of the letter from Fergus Ewing.

A statement from the Crofting Commission on the outcome of today’s meeting is awaited with bated breath.

Brian Inkster

Crofting Convener must go

Crofting Convener must go - says Lewis and Harris Crofters MeetingThe overwhelming message that came out of the Lewis and Harris Crofters’ Meeting was that the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, must go.

Over 80 people attended the meeting, organised by the Scottish Crofting Federation, in Stornoway Town Hall on 3 August.

I will reproduce some of the reports of the meeting that have appeared in the media.

“Lack of Trust” in the Crofting Commission – BBC Naidheachdan

On Wednesday night, more than 80 people gathered at a meeting in the Stornoway town hall to discuss the impact of unrest/conflict between the Crofting Commission and the Grazing Committees.

They put forward a vote of no confidence in the commission, and agreed that Colin Kennedy should resign from his position as the convener of the Crofting Commission.

The Commission had no official representation at the meeting.

Iain MacIver who is himself a Township Clerk said:-

The turnout tonight shows the interest in crofting, and how worried people are of the situation as it is now that they understand it.

It is easy to see that people are very angry about the way in which some of the villages were dealt.

They want to see how the Commission works, and how the law works, lessons to be learnt so that crofting stands in a better position.

The lack of trust vote shows the feelings that are there, but at the end of the day it is up to the government what they are going to do.

I think that the thing that worried people most, was if the people going forward were to be idle in their roles as Town Clerk , and also the Commission itself with the situation as it is now.

But we hope in the coming months that people will gain confidence and be given the right guidance so that crofting can be strengthened, instead of weakened, and that the Government endeavours to make this happen, and that they won’t ruin it as people suspected they would.  That was the consensus this evening.

Crofters make it clear: The Commission can stay but the Convener has to go – Scottish Crofting Federation

A meeting attended by eighty crofters in Stornoway concluded that a Crofting Commission is good for crofting, but it is currently not fit for purpose so the convener, Colin Kennedy, must go.

A crofting meeting organised by the Scottish Crofting Federation held in Stornoway last week, attended by eighty crofters from townships all over Lewis and Harris, gave a clear message to the Scottish Government: the convener of the Crofting Commission must step down; the Upper Coll grazings committee must be re-instated; the current Crofting Commission must be sorted out by Scottish Government but, nonetheless, a Commission is essential to crofting.

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

It was a loud and clear message coming out of a very lively but thoughtful discussion. This is not knee-jerk reaction; the attack on common grazings committees by the Crofting Commission has been on-going now for several months so crofters have had plenty of time to think about this. It is not surprising that there is a call for the convener of the Commission to stand down and for deposed committees to be re-instated. It is perhaps more notable that, despite what is widely regarded as very poor behaviour, the Crofting Commission is still wanted, albeit following a thorough review and improvement of procedures. I think that this is a very sensible approach.

The meeting heard presentations from representatives of the removed Lewis grazings committees, SCF, Inksters Solicitors and Scottish Government, not only on the topic of the Crofting Commission but also on CAP, support to crofting and advocacy for crofting. The meeting, that sometimes became quite heated, was well-chaired by SCF member Donald MacSween.

Mr Smith continued:-

We can understand the Scottish Government’s reluctance to interfere with a majority-elected body, but the meeting was united in its view that the Scottish Government does have to intervene in this circumstance. The procedures of the Commission clearly need to be investigated and modified to stop this sort of thing happening again. The Crofting Commission may well be an ‘arms-length government body’, but the Scottish Government still has a responsibility to make sure that the Commission operates in a fair and reasonable manner – and does possess the powers to intervene, for example by removing a Commissioner, if it sees fit.

Following discussions a vote was called on the motion:-

this meeting has no confidence in the existing Crofting Commission and supports the SCF call for the resignation of the convener Colin Kennedy.

The motion was passed by an overwhelming majority.

Anger in Stornoway aimed at commission – West Highland Free Press

The sense of anger at the recent actions of the Crofting Commission was laid bare at a public meeting in Stornoway last week attended by over 80 people, which delivered an overwhelming vote of no confidence in the organisation and called for the resignation of its convener Colin Kennedy….

As the meeting was drawing to a close a vote of no confidence in the existing commission was passed as well as a call for the resignation of its convener. An overwhelming majority supported the moves with only five of those present against – three of whom are the crofters in Upper Coll who raised the original complaint against the committee, including a father and son.

The Crofting Commission’s Response – Island News and Advertiser

The Crofting Commission is committed to working positively with grazings committees and crofters. At present, the Commission is undertaking an examination of the circumstances of the recent cases, so that any lessons learnt can inform future procedures and decision-making.

A majority of the Crofting Commissioners are elected by crofters, with no involvement on the part of Commission staff in the process, so any consideration of their position is a matter for the individual Commissioner.

It should not be forgotten that consideration of the position of Crofting Commissioners is also a matter for Scottish Ministers and I will look at that further in my next post.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: © BBC Alba

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.