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