Tag Archives: Crofting Commissioner

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

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: Return of the Committee

Croft Wars - Return of the Committee

“Remember, a crofter’s strength flows from the croft. But beware. Anger, fear, aggression. The dark side are they. Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.”

On the back of revelations that the Scottish Government do not accept the way the common grazings debacle has been handled by the Crofting Commission the shareholders of Upper Coll are fighting back into power.

The Upper Coll Grazings Committee were put out of office by the Crofting Commission for not producing 5 years of “audited” accounts but instead producing 5 years of financial statements prepared by an independent accountant.

The Grazings Committee were ‘replaced’ by a Grazings Constable that I, and others (including bizarrely the Crofting Commission themselves) consider to be illegal.

Now the shareholders at Upper Coll have said enough is enough and the majority of those present at a meeting on 25 August 2016 (there being no objections) have issued a statement that calls on the resignation or dismissal of Convener, Colin Kennedy, and Commissioner, Murdo Maclennan. They state that they consider the Grazings Constable to have been appointed illegally and that they will be holding a meeting to nominate and elect a grazings committee. They want their bank account back (the grazings constable having wrestled control of it away from them).

Their statement reads:-

Return control of Upper Coll Grazings to shareholders vis a vis our democratically elected Grazing Committee.

Return our bank book.

The evidence is overwhelming that the Crofting Commission have acted out-with their powers, their guidelines and legal advice in dismissing the Upper Coll Grazings Committee and imposing a constable, who, while purporting to act for shareholders, seems to see his role as acting for the Crofting Commission in finding fault with democratically taken decisions over many years.

We have evidence that he has been investigating our decisions over many years by contacting, without our knowledge or permission, public and private organisations, in order to try and retrospectively find reasons for the Crofting Commission’s actions, which were out-with their own guidelines and have been the subject to criticism from the highest levels of the Scottish Government and legal profession.

We demand to know what gave the Commission the power to take over our bank account. We demand to know the mechanism which allows any organisation the power to take over and delete democratically appointed signatories to a bank account without the signatories knowledge or permission.

We reject the constable’s view that he has the support of the majority of shareholders. He has mistaken reluctant co-operation for approval.  We agree with all the legal views, apart from the Commission’s, that he has been illegally appointed, and that the Commission made no attempt to elect a committee before they appointed him.

We support the guidelines adopted by the Crofting Commission on 27 April 2015 where they state “it does not appear that the Commission can directly appoint a constable as part of a disciplinary process where a committee is not carrying out its duties.” As a result, we call on the Commission to acknowledge their wrong-doing in imposing a Constable on the Upper Coll Township contrary to their own guidelines and apologise for this to the Upper Coll Shareholders and withdraw the current illegally appointed Constable.

We demand to know what rights an illegally appointed constable has to use village documents, obtained using the threat of legal action, for purposes other than which they were intended, by supplying information to an outside body which states it takes nothing to do with grazings committee’s finances.

We support the views of the Minister for Crofting, and demand that the Commission compensate Upper Coll Grazings for making us disburse monies, when even the Government states it was out-with their power to do so. We also demand that the Commission and/or Constable compensate the village for loss of money through grant schemes such as Agri-environment etc which were not applied for as a result of the dismissal of the Committee.

We support the overwhelming vote taken at the recent meeting in Stornoway of the Scottish Crofting Federation in calling for the resignation of Convener Colin Kennedy. In his refusal to resign we ask the Government to dismiss Mr Kennedy from a position he has used to further his own ends and which he has used to embarrass the Government.

We also call for the resignation or dismissal of our local commissioner Murdo Maclennan as he has done nothing to assist the Upper Coll Grazings when asked to do so on a number of occasions. His contribution in the whole matter has been questionable to say the least.

We support the return to the democracy we had before the dismissal of the Upper Coll Grazings Committee who had complied with all the demands made on them by the Crofting Commission.

We propose a meeting of shareholders on Saturday 10th September at 7pm to nominate and elect a grazings committee. We do this in accordance with the Crofting Commission’s own guidelines as laid out in Annex A for Policy in Development Paper No 6.

We call on the Commission to apologise for the stress caused and the public querying of “financial irregularities” even after they had properly independent accounts presented to them, which showed there was no such “irregularity”.

There is overwhelming evidence that the Commission’s conduct has been improper, outwith their own guidelines and in our case vindictive, draconian, and illegal.

We call on the Minister to help us get our bank account back, support us having an elected grazings committee back in place immediately, define what the role of the Commission is and how it should keep to its own public and legal guidelines to the same detail as it requires of voluntary grazings committees.

It was reported on Hebrides News that a Crofting Commission spokesperson said:-

Following an investigation under the Crofting Act the grazings committee in Upper Coll were removed from office on 14 April 2016.

Subsequently, the Crofting Commission received a request from the former grazings clerk, stating that there were a number of issues that, in the view of shareholders, required immediate attention and asking the commission what they intended to do to resolve the issues highlighted.

The commission discussed this matter at a meeting on 9 May 2016 and considered all of the options available to them.

Given the request for immediate action and in order to protect the interests of all shareholders the commission decided to appoint a constable in terms of section 47(3) of the Act.

The grazings constable is now nearing the end of his appointment following which the shareholders can appoint a committee of their choosing.

The Commission told Hebrides News that it could not give further details as the matter was the subject of court action. Certain committee members who were removed from office at Upper Coll appealed the decision of the Crofting Commission to the Scottish Land Court. There is currently debate before the Land Court as to whether or not the court has jurisdiction to hear such an appeal and a decision on that preliminary technical matter is awaited.

View from the Crofting Law Blog

It seems to me to be very strange indeed that on the back of a massive U-Turn regarding the appointment of a grazings constable at Mangersta, revelations that the Crofting Commission knew themselves that the appointment of a grazings constable, in these circumstances, was illegal and a rebuke from Fergus Ewing MSP over their handling of the affair that the Commission persists with the notion that a ‘constable’ exists at Upper Coll.

All indications are that they so persist in the hope that the constable will unearth some wrongdoing that will possibly justify his appointment in the first place! However, you can never justify a step that by all accounts (including their own) was illegal in the first place.

As recently as 17 August Commissioner Murdo Maclennan stated that:-

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.

Clearly a statement that is very much at odds with what the crofters in the village are actually saying.

The Crofting Commission need to put this mess that they have created to bed. Their failure to do so does not sit well with their apparent support of the position of the Scottish Government i.e. that the Commission got it wrong over the question of disbursement of funds – the very issue that resulted in the dismissal of the Upper Coll Grazings Committee and the illegal appointment of a grazings constable.

Does, however, the statement by the Crofting Commission spokesperson that:-

The grazings constable is now nearing the end of his appointment following which the shareholders can appoint a committee of their choosing

mean that the Crofting Commission perhaps do see the matter being put to bed shortly by simply the current term of an illegal appointment coming to its natural albeit illegal end?

In the absence of any early resolution of the matter by the Crofting Commission, and a Land Court action in hand that could rumble on for some time yet, it does not seem unreasonable for the shareholders at Upper Coll to be making the statement they have and taking the action intended to appoint a committee to manage their affairs sooner rather than later.

However, the ‘grazings constable’ of Upper Coll, Colin Souter, appears to be fighting back. I will look at his stance on the matter in my next blog post.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: Star Wars: 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.

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.

Fudged response from Crofting Commission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further comment by the Crofting Law Blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brian Inkster

You might think that, I couldn’t possibly comment

You might think that, I couldnt possibly comment - Common Grazings Crisis - Crofting Commission - Scottish Government

There comes a point where actions speak louder than words

To date the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity with responsibility for Crofting, Fergus Ewing MSP, has not said much on the question of  ‘The Common Clearances‘.

Rhoda Grant MSP asked the Scottish Government:-

whether it is satisfied with how the Crofting Commission has acted in all matters relating to the dismissal of the Mangersta grazing committee.

Fergus Ewing MSP answered:-

The Crofting Commission is a non-departmental public body that takes regulatory decisions within the bounds of its duties and powers. Such decisions are taken independently and at arm’s length from Scottish Government.

Rhoda Grant MSP also asked the Scottish Government:-

whether it will establish an inquiry into the workings of the Crofting Commission.

Fergus Ewing MSP answered:-

The Scottish Government has no current plans to do so.

In addition Rhoda Grant MSP asked the Scottish Government:-

whether it has confidence in the convener of the Crofting Commission.

Fergus Ewing MSP answered:-

The Scottish Government is confident that the Crofting Commission board is able to deliver the functions of the commission.

That may have been the Scottish Government’s position on 27 June 2016. The massive U-turn taken by the Crofting Commission on 29 June 2016 should change that stance.

That U-turn and the manner in which it was executed demonstrates that the Crofting Commission got it wrong. They handled the whole Mangersta affair very badly indeed from start to finish. In light of this there can be no confidence that the board or their Convener is able to deliver the functions of the Commission.

The watershed moment was reached on 29 June. The Scottish Government can no longer sit on the fence. There has been as good an admission as any that the Crofting Commission failed the shareholders of Mangersta. In so doing they failed in their regulatory duties and should be made to account for those failings.

A day before the U-turn representatives of the Scottish Crofting Federation met with Fergus Ewing MSP. Commenting on that meeting the Chair of the Federation, Fiona Mandeville, said:-

We also had constructive discussion on the Crofting Commission crisis. We are very supportive of a majority elected Commission and fear that the common grazings debacle can jeopardise this. We therefore asked Mr Ewing to consider a procedural review of the Commission. At his request, we will send him a note outlining details of our recommendations forthwith.

In the wake of the U-turn, Fergus Ewing MSP should take heed of that request for a procedural review and actually now instigate it.

The Scottish Government can no longer hide behind suggestions that the Crofting Commission are at “arm’s length” from the Scottish Government.

The fact is that the Crofting Commission and their Commissioners are answerable to the Scottish Government.

Under and in terms of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993:-

  • The Crofting Commission shall discharge their functions in accordance with such directions of a general or specific character as may from time to time be given to them in writing by the Scottish Ministers. [Section 1(3)]
  • The Scottish Ministers may (a) confer functions on; (b) remove functions from; (c) otherwise modify functions of, the Crofting Commission, where they consider it appropriate to do so to ensure that the Crofting Commission carry out their functions efficiently and effectively. [Section 2A(1) and (2)]
  • In so doing Scottish Ministers may modify any enactment (including the 1993 Act). [Section 2A(3)(b)]
  • The Scottish Ministers may remove a member of the Crofting Commission from office if satisfied that the member is unable or unfit to exercise the functions of a member or is unsuitable to continue as a member. [Paragraph 9(1)(e) of Schedule 1]
  • The Crofting Commission must provide the Scottish Ministers with such information in respect of the exercise, or proposed exercise, of the Crofting Commission’s functions as the Scottish Ministers may, from time to time, require. [Paragraph 20 of Schedule 1]

So, far from being a body that the Scottish Government should consider to be at arms length from it, the Crofting Commission is one that is directly accountable to and ultimately under the control of the Scottish Ministers.

That being the case the Scottish Government should not, like the Crofting Commission, ignore the law involved. They should apply the law, as set out above, as necessary to make the Crofting Commission accountable for their actions over the Mangersta debacle.

Following the U-turn by the Crofting Commission, former members of Mangersta Common Grazing Committee stated:-

We continue to believe that there should be an inquiry into the functioning of the Crofting Commission.

An inquiry is necessary to answer questions such as:-

  • Why did the Crofting Commission reopen a case investigated, resolved and closed by the Crofters Commission?
  • On whose insistence and on what evidence was the case reopened?
  • Was there undeclared conflicts of interest by Crofting Commissioners involved in the matter?
  • What legal advice was sought by the Crofting Commission on the matter? From whom, when, on whose insistence and on what basis? Was such legal advice followed?
  • Why were inconsistencies applied by the Crofting Commission to the handling of this case compared to others being dealt with contemporaneously?
  • Why was the removal from office of the Grazings Committee at the time deemed justifiable and necessary?
  • Why did the Crofting Commission ignore and not respond to the legal position put forward on behalf of members of the dismissed Grazings Committee?
  • Why did the Crofting Commission refuse to revisit their decision (saying that they could not in law do so) but ultimately did just that?
  • Why did the Crofting Commission ignore their own guidelines on the investigation of questions of financial impropriety which they had stated were a matter for the civil or criminal courts?
  • Why did the Crofting Commission purport to appoint a Grazings Constable when there is no basis in law to do so and then sought to extend that appointment, again when there is no basis in law to do so?
  • Why was the particular Grazings Constable in question appointed, on what basis and was a conflict of interest declared by any Commissioners relative to that appointment?
  • Was the Grazings Constable really independent and impartial or was he provided with instructions for the discharge of his appointment by the Crofting Commission?
  • Why did the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, attend a meeting of the shareholders of the Mangersta Common Grazings and refuse to leave when a conflict of interest had been declared by him?
  • Why and on what basis in law, when shareholders questioned the legality of the Commissioners proposals at that meeting, were they told that if all shareholders did not accept them, the Commission would not allow shareholders to reform a committee?
  • Did the Crofting Commission’s handling of the matter result in the resignation of William Swann as a Commissioner?
  • Why did the Crofting Commission issue guidelines on the management of grazings funds, then delete those guidelines and claim that they had never said what they had said in them?
  • Why did the Crofting Commission insist that funds had to be paid out by Grazings Clerks to shareholders “immediately” when Roseanna Cunningham MSP, on behalf of the Scottish Government, clarified on 21 June 2016 that “the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 does not require the immediate disbursement of funds by a grazings committee”?
  • Why did the Crofting Commission insist on common grazings funds being managed in a way that defied logic and was not set out anywhere in law?
  • Why did the Crofting Commission not take cognisance of the statement by Minister of State for Scotland, Lord Kirkhill, in the House of Lords on 6 April 1976 regarding the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Bill that “there would seem to be nothing [in the bill] to prevent a voluntary arrangement being made whereby any crofter’s share would be diverted to the grazings committee”?

These are questions that the Scottish Ministers can no longer ignore following the recent U-turn by the Crofting Commission. The Scottish Ministers must comment properly on them and, if necessary, take appropriate action under and in terms of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993.

The only way that they will be able to properly pass such comment and take such action is following a focused and detailed investigation into how and why the Crofting Commission handled the Mangersta situation in the manner that they did.

That case is no longer ongoing and is not subject to court proceedings. The Crofting Commission therefore cannot hide from, prevent or delay an investigation specifically focussed thereon. Fergus Ewing MSP must now instigate just such an investigation for the future stability, survival and sustainability of crofting in Scotland.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: House of Cards © BBC

Ignore the law and the lawyers

Ignore the Law and the Lawyers

Hear no crofting law, See no crofting law and Speak no crofting law

I have been blogging for some time about the Crofting Commission ignoring the law.

They have done so in relation to, amongst other things:-

They have, however, this past week made a massive U-turn which could just mean they now actually accept that they did in fact completely ignore the law.

It also, unfortunately, transpired at the meeting of the Cross Party Group on Crofting on Wednesday that they are now simply ignoring lawyers who take a different viewpoint from them and/or represent crofters challenging their stance.

When Commissioner Murdo Maclennan announced that he “thought we have a conclusion” on Mangersta and there was “no grazing constable in place at the moment“, I asked how this could be when I thought that the Commission had purported to extend the appointment of the Grazing Constable (illegally appointed in my opinion and in the opinion of others) for a further six months from and after 6 June 2016.

Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, Catriona Maclean, interjected that:-

there is no constable at present, the case is over and the people of Mangersta will be advised.

I questioned why they had not advised the solicitor acting of this (i.e. me) and she responded:-

We have been in correspondence with the people of Mangersta and that is who we will respond to.

I pointed out that they had been in correspondence with a solicitor representing former members of the (unlawfully in my opinion) removed grazings committee and they should be responding to that solicitor.

There then appeared to be a reluctant acceptance that I might hear from them!

Astounding.

The Crofting Commission appear to think they can simply bury their ignorance of the law by taking a U-turn and not responding to questions raised by a solicitor concerning that ignorance of the law. The fact that they have acted contrary to the law remains and they do require to answer outstanding points in correspondence that sits unanswered on the desk of their Chief Executive.

They still need to answer, amongst other things:-

  • Where in law it is stated that the Crofting Commission cannot revisit its own decisions.
  • 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.
  • Where in law it is stated that the Crofting Commission can extend the appointment of a Grazings Constable.
  • Why the Crofting Commission is ignoring its own guidelines on the investigation of financial irregularities.

Perhaps they do now accept, given that U-turn, that nowhere in law is any of this stated and therefore they are unable to answer my questions. They should, if that is the case, at least have the dignity to say so.

I will let you know if and when the Crofting Commission deign to respond to me.

Brian Inkster

Yes Crofting Minister

Yes Crofting Minister

James Hacker: You said yourself how important these select committees are. I cannot be seen to mislead them.
Sir Humphrey Appleby: You will not be SEEN to mislead them.

How the Crofting Commission played out their sudden and surprise U-turn on the question of ‘The Common Clearances‘ would not have been out of place in an episode of Yes Minister. Sir Humphrey Appleby would have delighted in the obfuscation and manipulation displayed by the Crofting Commission in Holyrood on Wednesday night. However, like Sir Humphrey, the Crofting Commission is not immune to making miscalculations or outright blunders.

It was the first meeting, since the latest Scottish Government was formed, of the Cross Party Group on Crofting within the Scottish Parliament.

It was the first time, since allegations of abuse of power within the Crofting Commission over ‘The Common Clearances‘ were made, that the Crofting Commission would meet eye to eye with politicians and other crofting stakeholders in a public forum.

In the preceding week or two damning revelations had been made of historical revisionism and flouting the will of Parliament on the part of the Crofting Commission. This was on top of votes of no confidence against them, the Convener of the Crofting Commission attending meetings despite a clear conflict of interest,  a Crofting Commissioner resigning and calls for the Scottish Government to investigate the whole matter.

It looked like the Commission would be in for a very rough time at the Cross Party Group meeting.

They knew that and had to do something quick and decisive to limit the damage being caused to them and that could be wrought on them at that meeting.

Nothing like a massive U-turn, with an attempt to dress it up in other ways, to achieve that.

So Crofting Commissioner, Murdo Maclennan (the Convener, Colin Kennedy, was conspicuous by his absence), announced to the Cross Party Group that he “thought we have a conclusion” on Mangersta and there was “no grazing constable in place at the moment“.

On being pressed for clarification on certain elements of this the Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, Catriona Maclean, elaborated that:-

there is no constable at present, the case is over and the people of Mangersta will be advised.

So case closed and no further discussion on that then. Please move along ladies and gentlemen.

When the removal of the Upper Coll common grazings committee from office was mentioned that, of course, could not be discussed as it was subject to on going proceedings in the Scottish Land Court.

The third committee that the Crofting Commission have evicted from office was not mentioned at all, other than briefly by me when Commissioner Murdo Maclennan insisted that I declare my interests. I think that perhaps backfired on him as the Commission would rather pretend that episode never happened as there has, to date, been no publicity surrounding it.

So one case conveniently closed, one sub judice and one we can simply forget about. Thus nothing really to talk about.

The extra gloss on this being that new guidelines were being produced by the Commission and all would be well when these were issued and followed. My criticism of this approach is already well known. You have to get the law right first before you write guidelines about how to follow that law. The Commission’s viewpoint is that their interpretation of the law will follow “in due course”. Perhaps this is because their latest massive U-turn means they actually now accept the law to be as I have been setting it out to be on this blog for some time!

The U-turn is great news for the shareholders in the Mangersta Common Grazings and the former members of their grazings committee. It is a vindication of the position correctly maintained by them throughout.

It leaves the Crofting Commission with egg on their face however they try to dress it up. The Emperor’s New Clothes remains a theme, in so far as the Commission is concerned, post the Cross Party Group meeting.

In my next blog post I will reveal how the Crofting Commission not only ignore the law but lawyers who write to them concerning it. In a subsequent blog post I will explore the significance of the latest U-turn by the Crofting Commission and the possible repercussions thereof.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: Yes Minister © BBC

Update – 2 July 2016: Ignore the law and the lawyers

Crofting Commissioner Resigns over situation the Scottish Government and Crofting Commission need to sort out

William Swann - Crofting Commissioner Resigns from Crofting Commission

William Swann

More catch up news on ‘The Common Clearances‘ since I returned from holiday. This time the news from last week that William Swann had resigned, the previous week, as a Commissioner at the Crofting Commission.

This was covered in the media last week and this week as follows:-

Crofting Commission Press Release – 9th June 2016

The Crofting Commission today confirmed that William Swann decided to resign from the position of Commissioner on Thursday 2, June.

William Swann, from the Isle of Skye, was appointed as Commissioner by Scottish Ministers in January 2012 and has provided significant contribution to the Commission during his time and was particularly helpful as the chair of the Audit and Finance Committee.

Crofting Commission Chief Executive, Catriona Maclean, commented:

William has provided invaluable knowledge, expertise and guidance to the Commission.  The Commission would like to thank William for all of his hard work and we wish him luck with his future ventures.

The Commission remain quorate and I would like to assure all crofters that it is business as usual with a continued focus on securing the future of crofting.

The Skye Times – 10 June 2016

In recent months there has been growing discontent at grass roots level over the decisions by the Commission to remove from office two grazing committees at Upper Coll and Mangersta in Lewis after investigating their financial arrangements.

However, today Mr Swann said he had nothing to add to the resignation announcement made by the Chief Executive.

However, he did say:

The situation is one very much between the Scottish Government and Crofting Commission and something they need to sort out. I hope that things do calm down.

BBC News coverage – 13 June 2016

William Swann quit as a member of the Crofting Commission last week.

BBC Alba has since learned that he had told crofters he would resign if he felt the commission was not dealing with their case in a fair manner.

The commission has been in dispute with the crofters in Mangersta and Upper Coll about how they manage their common grazings committees.

The commission dismissed both committees, whose members are crofters, earlier this year and appointed officials to run the grazings, which are shared areas of land for raising livestock…

Catriona MacLean, of the Crofting Commission… said she could not comment on Mr Swann’s resignation, but said the commission was working effectively and within the law.

The Herald – 14 June 2016

William Swann, who was one of three commission members appointed by the Scottish Government, stood down last week without explanation.

Mr Swann, from Skye was chair of the Audit and Finance Committee. There were reports that he had told crofters on Lewis he would resign if he felt the commission was not dealing with their case in a fair manner.

But spokeswoman said last night:-

The Crofting Commission can confirm that there is no connection between what was reportedly said by William Swann at a meeting with Mangersta shareholders and his decision to resign. William’s reasons for resignation are a private matter for him and we must respect that.

View from the Crofting Law Blog

The most important thing to glean from these various reports is what Mr Swann said himself, namely:-

The situation is one very much between the Scottish Government and Crofting Commission and something they need to sort out. I hope that things do calm down.

It would therefore appear that he resigned due to an issue at the Crofting Commission that he feels needs sorting out between them and the Scottish Government. There have been calls for some time for the Scottish Government to step in and investigate what is going on at the Crofting Commission. Perhaps William Swann’s resignation will be a catalyst to them now actually doing just that.

It should be noted that William Swann chaired the meeting involving shareholders of the Mangersta Common Grazings at which there was reportedly ‘a menacing presence‘.

Brian Inkster