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.
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.
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.
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