Tag Archives: Crofting Commissioner

No let up on the Common Clearances crisis whilst on holiday!

No let up in the Common Clearances whilst in Morocco

Could I really escape the presence of the Crofting Commission in Morocco?

I have been in Morocco on holiday for the past couple of weeks. The run up to getting away and being away has meant a lull in reporting by me on The Common Clearances.

The last time I was in Morocco coincided exactly with the Scottish Government’s one week consultation period on the Crofting (Amendment) (Scotland) Bill. A bill that arose from the Decrofting Debacle unnecessarily and unjustifiably created by the Crofting Commission. Notice a theme?

I spent that week writing detailed submissions and drafting a better (in my view) bill for the Scottish Government and submitting it to them from Marrakech. A civil servant was to later tell me that my intervention was unhelpful. No doubt the same view is taken in the corridors of Saughton House and Great Glen House over my comments on The Common Clearances.

But it has been said that we provide a clear and understandable source of information at the Crofting Law Blog, something that you cannot get from the Crofting Commission (see ‘A Happy Crofter‘).

I decided, this holiday in Morocco, to actually have a holiday. Now I am back a quick look at the internet tells me there has been no let up in the Common Clearances crisis. As far as I can glean, so far, since I last blogged:-

  • The Crofting Commission held a meeting in Lewis with shareholders of the Mangersta Common Grazings which was chaired by Commissioner William Swann but “marred by a menacing presence” in that the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, turned up unexpectedly to observe proceedings despite having declared a conflict of interest.
  • Members of the ousted Upper Coll Grazings Committee applied for an interim interdict against the appointment of the Grazings Constable at Inverness Sheriff Court and that was refused.
  • John Finnie MSP has asked questions about the situation in the Scottish Parliament which have been answered in a fairly neutral manner by Cabinet Minister Fergus Ewing MSP.
  • Further parliamentary questions have been asked by John Finnie MSP and Rhoda Grant MSP about the issue with answers anticipated to be given by Fergus Ewing MSP on 23 June 2016.
  • Patrick Krause, Chief Executive of the Scottish Crofting federation, has written about ‘The Spirit of the Law – The inexplicable case of a public body confusing legal dogma with good sense’.
  • It was reported on Radio nan Gàidheal that another grazings committee has been put out of office by the Crofting Commission, this time on the Scottish mainland.
  • It was also reported by Radio nan Gàidheal that a grazings committee in South Uist has put themselves out of office to avoid any difficulties that may be encountered with being regulated by the Crofting Commission.
  • Commissioner William Swann has resigned from the Crofting Commission.
  • Propaganda about ‘the role of grazings committees in representing shareholders’ has been published by the Crofting Commission.
  • The former and ousted Convener of the Crofting Commission, Susan Walker, has written in the West Highland Free Press about the situation.
  • The Upper Coll Grazing Constable (illegally appointed in my view) has issued a letter to the press.

I will try to catch up on all of these developments on this blog in some detail, and share my thoughts on each, over the coming weeks. Do let me know if I have missed anything.

I also have to tell you on this blog about Inksters’ new and enhanced crofting law team (you may have read about that elsewhere before now).

So keep an eye on the Crofting Law Blog over the next few weeks for, as the ‘Happy Crofter‘ put it, an “invaluable source of information that [is] virtually impossible to find anywhere else”.

Brian Inkster

Update – 13 June 2016: The Crofting Law A-Team

Update – 14 June 2016: ‘A Menacing Presence’

Update – 15 June 2016: Common Grazings and the Spirit of the Law

Update – 16 June 2016: Crofting Commissioner Resigns over situation the Scottish Government and Crofting Commission need to sort out

Shetland and Orkney should be separate constituencies in the 2017 crofting election

Tavish Scott thinks Orkney and Shetland should remain separate constituencies in the 2017 crofting elections

Tavish Scott: “The consultation needs to offer something different: separate constituencies for Orkney and Shetland in the 2017 crofting election”

Following my recent blog post on the 2017 Crofting Elections Consultation being flawed there have been calls for Shetland and Orkney to remain separate constituencies in the 2017 crofting election.

The Shetland Times reported online yesterday that Liberal Democrat candidate for Shetland in the Scottish election, Tavish Scott, was of the view that Shetland and Orkney should be considered as separate constituencies in the 2017 crofting election.

Mr Scott said:-

Shetland’s crofting communities face different challenges to those in Orkney, but yet again the Scottish government is proposing to ride roughshod over the needs of local people.

The SNP simply does not understand these differences. Already we have ministers who have imposed a one-size-fits-all approach, failing to take into account the unique nature of crofting in the isles.

Already crofters are spending more time meeting the demands of regulation and waiting for payments that have been delayed by months.

The consultation needs to offer something different: separate constituencies for Orkney and Shetland in the 2017 crofting election.

Diversity between our crofting communities should be encouraged and supported but the SNP does not appear willing to even entertain that idea.

This view was backed up by NFU Shetland Chairman, Jim Nicolson, who said:-

Regarding constituencies, my position is that Shetland remains a constituency on its own.

It’s very, very difficult for whoever is the commissioner. It’s time consuming, expensive, and there are a large number of crofters to represent in Shetland as it is.

Hopefully the consultation exercise will take account of such views resulting, if necessary, in the addition of a further elected crofting commissioner to allow the Western Isles to be split into two constituencies (if there does indeed exist the desire to do so) but not at the expense of unnecessarily and unreasonably combining Orkney with Shetland.

Brian Inkster

Photo Credit: Rob McDougall

Crofting Convenergate?

Crofting Convenergate

Infamy, infamy they’ve all got it in for me!

We recently blogged on the change of Convener within the Crofting Commission. There was reference in that post to what has been called a “witch-hunt” and “a bad smell”. Three letters written by Dr Iain MacKinnon to the West Highland Free Press give more detail on what one might refer to as ‘Crofting Convenergate’. We publish them here in their entirety and as they were written (the West Highland Free Press edited the second of the three letters a little prior to publication).

Letter 1:  3 May 2015

The anonymous Crofting Commissioner quoted in last week’s Free Press claimed discontent with Susan Walker’s convenership of the Commission has “been going on for some time”.

If that is so, then why did the five alleged complainants not wait for the scheduled Commission board meeting on 13th May to raise their no-confidence motion: what sudden calamity made their ‘emergency meeting’ such an imperative? The anonymous commissioner was silent on this, as they were on any details about Susan Walker’s failings.

The Free Press then claimed they had been told: “The commissioners did not want to go on the record at this stage”.

This remarkable statement suggests the complainants have agreed collectively to leak the story anonymously while anticipating going ‘on the record’ in the future.

This would be an astonishing course of action. The conspirators must be aware there are proper procedures available to them for resolving such disputes. Instead they must have decided collectively to throw the organisation that they represent – and crofting regulation generally – into public disrepute.

This matters because section 2.1. of the Commission’s Code of Conduct states commissioners “have a duty to act in the interests of the public body of which they are a member and in accordance with the core functions and duties of that body”.

The code then states: “You have a duty to promote and support these principles by leadership and example, and to maintain and strengthen the public’s trust and confidence in the integrity of the public body and its members in conducting public business.”

The code also demands that commissioners must respect their fellows, “treating them with courtesy at all times”. The anonymous briefings clearly breach this part of the code.

If they have been jointly briefing against Susan Walker the five complainants appear to be in breach of the Commission’s Code of Conduct and liable to investigation by the Standards Commission for Scotland which polices ‘The Ethical Standards in Public Life Act’.

Additionally, “promoting the interests of crofting” is a requirement for commissioners under Part 1 of the Crofting Act and, if they are shown to have acted against this, then under Schedule 1 they can be found unsuitable to continue and dismissed.

If, as is alleged, five anonymous commissioners want to declare ‘no-confidence’ in Susan Walker, they are free to do so. However, if they have also unnecessarily called an ‘emergency meeting’ and then systematically leaked that news to the media for maximum publicity, then they have undoubtedly weakened “the public’s trust and confidence in the integrity” of the Crofting Commission and they have brought their own positions within it into disrepute.

If this is the case, the Crofting Minister must consider whether such people are fit for public office. If it turns out that, in fact, the anonymous briefings have been instigated by one or two individuals, without the consent of other complainants, then those complainants who have been used in this way need to think carefully about the ugly, cowardly whispering campaign of which they are now part.

Letter 2: 18 May 2015

I would like to add to the tributes offered to former Crofting Commission convener, Susan Walker. My primary reason for writing is as it was two weeks ago – not as a friend and one-time colleague of the former convener, but as someone concerned about the future well-being of crofting tenure.

The whispering campaign against Susan Walker began in the media at the end of last month. Since then, her work on behalf of crofting throughout the Highlands and Islands has been praised by the Scottish Crofting Federation and the chairs of the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs Committee and Cross-Party Group on Crofting.

It is worth reflecting on the breadth of that support. It includes the crofting representative body, the senior parliamentarians on crofting issues and also the Scottish Government itself. All appear to believe that “the new enlightened way in which the Crofting Commission functions” has been in part the result of Susan Walker’s leadership, and had given grounds for optimism for a tenure system that had previously been described, almost universally, as “failing”.

Her critics, on the other hand, appear to comprise her disaffected former colleagues and one or two newspapers. One of these newspapers is the Free Press – with one columnist dismissing her as a ‘trusty’ in the pocket of Government.

While the Free Press’ editorial two weeks ago gave an admirably clear argument for a fully elected Crofting Commission, it also acknowledged that the newspaper publicised the conspiracy against Susan Walker without knowing what she is said to have done wrong.

So what has Susan Walker been doing right these last three years? The contrast between Taynuilt and North Ballachulish indicates the Commission’s wider change in attitude under her leadership. In 2005, when ten houses were proposed on croft land in Taynuilt, the old ‘failed’ Crofters Commission folded to the developer’s demands with barely a whimper. By contrast, under Susan Walker’s leadership the new Commission has taken its opposition to the current plan for ten houses on a croft in North Ballachulish all the way to the Land Court.

This principled opposition was not the result of new legislative requirements but of a new determination within the Commission itself. The wide-ranging praise Susan Walker has received in recent weeks suggests this step-change has been noted throughout the organisation’s work.

The commissioners responsible for the covert briefings against her have breached standards required for public life and brought the Commission into disrepute. They have lost the trust of government and have surely failed the trust of those who elected them to turn around the mess they inherited. It would be a real service to crofting if the Free Press were to disclose their identity.

The media coverage no doubt greatly reduced the opportunity for a mediated process within the commission to resolve the conflict and allow Susan Walker to continue the good work she had started. The unstinting dedication for the good of crofting that she brought to her role will leave the commission with her.

Letter 3: 23 June 2015

The Minister for Crofting, Aileen McLeod, this week told the Crofting Commission she is “very pleased to support their proposal on the selection of a new convener”.

However, files I obtained from the Commission last week through Freedom of Information legislation reveal that the conduct of Commissioners has been privately criticised by the Minister, with an unnamed official expressing Dr McLeod’s disappointment “at events being played out through the media” following the conspiracy against former Commission convener Susan Walker at the end of April.

A full two months after the conspiracy against Walker began, no credible information has yet been forthcoming from any Commissioner or from Government about the nature of the problems Walker is supposed to have created. The Commission is even refusing to name those Commissioners who organised the proposal of no-confidence against her – removing all but one signature from the copy they sent me of the letter in which some Commissioners put that proposal forward.

Dr McLeod’s disappointment does not stand alone. Crofters, crofting administrators, the Scottish Crofting Federation and a senior Member of the Scottish Parliament have all criticised the behaviour of the Commissioners involved in the move against Walker.

One crofter, summing up his views on social media, concluded that the Commission is in “chaos” and “disarray”, and presently not fit for purpose.

According to the FoI files, even the chief executive of the Crofting Commission, Catriona Maclean, has privately criticised the way Commissioners have handled this affair and she has gone further, with one internal note suggesting the Commission may have underplayed the level of division within their board during discussions with Government. Writing shortly after the convener’s resignation she said that, while the Commission “wanted to reassure the Minister [for Crofting] that they were keen to move forward in a united and positive way”, her own view is that there are “still differences of opinion on the merits of what happened”. In a later commentary she specified disagreement between board members which will require “a focus on healing”.

Such is the sorry state of the crofting regulator. It seems everybody knows it, yet no-one in Government or the Commission is willing to admit it, and, so far as their public statements go, it appears there will be no attempt to investigate what has really gone wrong at the Commission – and to investigate why at least one Commissioner seems to be allowed to break the organisation’s code of conduct with impunity.

Indeed, this despicable soul may even be elected convener and become the new face of crofting regulation – the files show that this was a well-orchestrated manoeuvre, and those in charge had a clear outcome in mind. The files also suggest that, in fact, the campaign against Walker had two main instigators – with at least one of them male.

Allowing the Commission to elect their own convener in such circumstances is not simply a humiliation for the Scottish Government, and for the Crofting Commission as an organisation; it undermines the credibility of crofting regulation as a whole.

Dr Iain MacKinnon

 

Dr Iain MacKinnon is researching the politics of crofting at Coventry University, although the letters on ‘convenergate’ are not part of his academic work.

Main image credit: Carry on Cleo

Crofting Commissioners do the Hokey Pokey

Crofting Commissioners do the Hokey Pokey

Shake it all about

The Crofting Commission have announced the election of Colin Kennedy as their new Convener.

The secret ballot, overseen by the Crofting Commission’s Chief Executive, came following the delegation of the selection of the new Convener to Commissioners by Scotland’s Crofting Minister Dr Aileen McLeod.

Ian George Macdonald was voted in as Vice Convener, a position previously held by Colin Kennedy.

These elections follow on from a period of conflict within the Commission which resulted in the resignation of former Convener, Susan Walker, who was appointed to that position by the Scottish Government.

Back in April it was reported by The Herald that at least 5 commissioners had requisitioned a special meeting of the Crofting Commission in order to move a motion of no confidence in Susan Walker. The report claimed that there had been growing concern amongst her fellow commissioners over her style of leadership with it being alleged that she had assumed the role of an executive chair, rather than that of primus inter pares – first among equals. It was also suggested that she had been closer to officials in Edinburgh and Inverness, than to her commissioner colleagues.

What some have called a “witch-hunt” resulted in Susan Walker resigning both as Convener of the Crofting Commission and as a commissioner.

Following her departure Crofting Minister Dr Aileen McLeod said:-

“I would like to thank Susan for all of her hard work and for making such a positive contribution to crofting during her time as commissioner and convener. I have been impressed by her vision and passion for crofting and Scotland’s crofting communities, as well as her expertise and her many achievements since taking office.”

Colin Kennedy will now take up the post of Convener until 31 March 2017, covering the remaining tenure for the current Board.

Mr Kennedy said:-

“I would like to thank the Commissioners for voting me in to the role of Convener.  I am looking forward to working with the Board and staff in delivering the express will of Parliament contained in crofting legislation and effectively regulating crofting.”

It will be good to see the Crofting Commission actually “delivering the express will of Parliament contained in crofting legislation”. In recent years they have been putting their own interpretation on crofting legislation which many have argued was not how Parliament intended it. Indeed the Scottish Land Court recently ruled the Commission’s interpretation in one particular case to be wrong and clarified for the Commission what Parliament actually intended.

It is to be hoped that the Crofting Commission under Mr Kennedy’s stewardship will actually follow the express will of Parliament and no longer seek to interpret the Crofting Acts in weird and wonderful ways.

Mr Kennedy is, of course, no stranger to crofting legislation having been involved in a number of high profile personal battles in the Scottish Land Court over the years regarding crofting issues on the Isle of Coll.

Mr Kennedy originally stood for election to the board of the Crofting Commission after becoming disillusioned with its management. He said, at the time, that the eight crofters on the Isle of Coll had been treated ‘appallingly’ by the Commission, accusing the organisation of applying the legislation differently in one part of the country to another. If elected, he said he would strive to ensure Scotland’s Crofting Acts would be applied evenly across the board.

The Scottish Crofting Federation (SCF) has cautiously welcomed the election of the new Crofting Commission Convener, warning of a long way to go to restore confidence in the Commission.

SCF Vice-Chair Russell Smith said:-

“Following a long period of silence since the early departure of Susan Walker from the leadership of the Crofting Commission, we are pleased to see that something is being done to get the commission back on to a road to recovery. Electing a replacement convener will at least allow the commissioners to get on with their job.

“Crofters welcomed the fact that the new Commission had a majority of elected commissioners when it took over the regulation of crofting in 2012. So, it is even more disappointing that the fracas that led to Ms Walker’s resignation was allowed to happen.

“The fact that there have been no reasons given for the alleged vote of no confidence or that there has been no visible attempt to deal with the commissioner who breached the Code of Conduct by going to the press, leaves a bad smell. There are, understandably, questions still about how the commission operates. It is for the new convener to rectify this.

“However, we were gratified that the minister for crofting, Dr Aileen McLeod, allowed commissioners to elect their own convener this time, and we hope that this practice continues.

“There are some very experienced and competent people still on the commission and we hope that they are able to pick up the pieces. It is the intention of the SCF to continue to work closely with the commission for the furtherance of crofting.”

So it’s in, out and shake it all about at the Crofting Commission. But will they turn it around?

New Landlord Crofting Commissioner

David Campbell

David Campbell

Minister for the Environment and Climate Change Paul Wheelhouse has announced the appointment of David Campbell as Commissioner to represent the interests of landlords of crofts on the Board of the Crofting Commission.

Mr Wheelhouse said:

“I am delighted that David has accepted the opportunity to act as a member of the Crofting Commission. Aside from his clear passion for crofting, David’s knowledge and understanding of the interests of landlords of crofts, and his broad knowledge and understanding of crofting tenure and relevant issues, will be invaluable in delivering the Scottish Government’s crofting policies and ensuring the Commission is an effective regulator. Additionally, his understanding of the requirements of effective corporate governance will build on the existing experience within the Commission and help ensure that the organisation continues to be effectively run.

I am sure David will rise to the challenge of being a Crofting Commissioner and wish him every success in his new role.”

Susan Walker, Convener of the Crofting Commission, said:

“We look forward to welcoming David Campbell to the board of the Crofting Commission. His ideas to encourage more proactive engagement of private and also community landlords in regulation of crofting will assist the work of the Crofting Commission. I believe his commitment and knowledge of the crofting system and his understanding of the potential benefits of encouraging landlords to work in partnership with crofters in exploring the development potential of crofting assets will have a positive impact for this unique form of land tenure.”

David Campbell originates from the Highlands of Scotland and has a strong family background in crofting, agriculture and rural estate life. He has acquired a breadth of experience in a number of roles within the land and property management sector in Scotland, particularly in the Highlands and Islands where he currently operates as a Consultant. He has first-hand experience of local governance having previously served on a community council including a term as Chair. He is an active member of the local community believing that communities that interact with each other will flourish.