Tag Archives: Crofting Commissioners

Crofting chaos escalates

Despite 101 blog posts highlighting the crisis within the Crofting Commission, a review being commissioned by the Scottish Government into their governance and countless calls from all quarters for the current Convener, Colin Kennedy, to step down the chaos within the Crofting Commission just seems to get worse by the day.

Before Christmas it truly escalated with the Convener calling a secret meeting of commissioners in an attempt to purportedly overturn the decisions taken at Brora, including the call for him to resign. He failed. Things did not go well for him either, a few days later, at the scheduled meeting of the board on 14 December. That board meeting was covered by BBC Alba and we reproduce here their full report:-

Iain Maclean (presenter) highlighted the matter at the outset of the evening news headlines:-

This evening, more chaos and controversy surrounding the Crofting Commission as two officials refuse to attend a board meeting, they say that they cannot work with the current board.  Three co conveners, have asked the Scottish Parliament for an intervention in relation to Colin Kennedy.

BBC Alba - Commission Chaos - 141216 - Tavish Scott MSPTavish Scott MSP was interviewed stating that:-

The Crofting Commission has failed now to work for crofters, it’s now a mess, it’s now working in an extraordinary manner, involving people leaving the room and not working with the current Chairman.

Then when it came to the full report the presenter, Iain Maclean, stated:-

We start tonight with more absolute crofter chaos, after two officials have refused to attend meetings.  They maintain that they cannot possibly work with the current board.  This follows from the events that unfolded at the last meeting in Brora.  Let us look at today’s meeting in Inverness with Donald Lamont.

BBC Alba - Commission Chaos - 141216 - Colin Kennedy, Convener

Colin Kennedy, Convener of the Crofting Commission, was reportedly looking “very uncomfortable” at the board meeting in Inverness on 14 December 2016

Donald Lamont, reporting from Inverness, told us:-

Everything seemed very wrong at today’s meeting in Inverness, first of all it was obvious that not everyone was present.  Two officials refused to attend and were not present. This suggests that things are coming to a head for Colin Kennedy, who looked very uncomfortable today.

BBC Alba - Commission Chaos - 141216 - Bill Barron, Interim Chief ExecutiveBill Barron. Interim Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, was then interviewed. He said:-

It’s very regrettable to me that two of my staff didn’t feel comfortable coming to the meeting. That’s because, one commissioner has made various allegations, criticisms, about what they have done in recent months.  They find that unacceptable and I’m supporting their position on that.

Donald Lamont continued:-

One can understand with this news, some of the commissioners are very angry, David Campbell being one of them.

BBC Alba - Commission Chaos - 141216 - Board Meeting - David Campbell, Commissioner, speaksFootage was then shown of the meeting itself with David Campbell saying to the board:-

This is extremely disturbing, extremely disturbing, the most disturbing thing I’ve come across in my time on this board… that two members of staff, by the sounds of what you said there, feel unable to be present here and by your description are unable to work with this board directly in a public forum… that gives me grave, grave concerns.

Donald Lamont went on to say:-

Few of the commissioners still support Kennedy, but things are far from right amongst the board.  With the Commission’s own situation, it is obvious that the crofters themselves are no longer the priority.

Then back to Bill Barron who elaborated:-

On Friday we accepted that it was one continuous meeting in two valid parts. What happened today was that we approved the vast majority of the  minutes of that meeting. There are two issues still to be ironed out on that.  We also noted that there are some doubts about the way the piece of business that led to the motion against the convener, the way that was called, but the commission decided to take no particular further action on that.

Iain Maclean (presenter) then came back on air to say:-

We now go to Holyrood to our political correspondent Niall O’Gallagher.

BBC Alba - Commission Chaos - 141216 - Niall O'GallagherNiall O’Gallagher, reporting from Holyrood, advised:-

They have now moved their business from the Highlands to Edinburgh in relation to the Kennedy situation.  We had three political figures from Labour, SNP and the Lib Dems come together to say that, the minister concerned, Fergus Ewing, needs to remove Colin Kennedy from the Commission to move forward. Talking to us is Lib Dem, Tavish Scott.

Tavish Scott MSP said:-

The Crofters Commission cannot carry on with the chairman it’s currently got, and the dysfunctional nature of the organisation where the senior staff meant to work together for the crofters are instead fighting like ferrets in a sack.  This has got to change.  The minister would have my full support if he now steps in, makes the changes that need to happen, including getting rid of the current chairman, and getting the organisation back to doing what it’s meant to do and that is serving the crofters.

Niall O’Gallagher then continued:-

Other than questions and concerns about the people involved in the Commission at the moment, there is also questions about the work that they actually do.  The opinion many have of the Commission is not a good one, they are not seen to be working to help the crofters who should be their prime concern.  Talking to us from the SNP is Kate Forbes.

BBC Alba - Commission Chaos - 141216 - Kate Forbes MSPKate Forbes MSP said:-

We need to do something.  Next year will be a very important year, they will have elections.  We need to change the situation now!

Presenter, Iain Maclean, returned:-

Thank you Kate, now back to Niall at Holyrood.  What is happening at parliament this evening?

Niall O’Gallagher then rounded matters off from Holyrood:-

We didn’t get a chance to speak to Fergus Ewing tonight.  The parliament’s view is that they don’t want anyone with bad intentions within the Commission.  We managed to have a few words with Alasdair Allan. Talking on behalf of the government he said that there would be an opportunity to pick new commissioners but that it was not for Holyrood to make any quick impulse decisions.

BBC Alba - Commission Chaos - 141216 - Cross Party MeetingIt was also reported online on BBC Naidheachdan that Professor Donald Meek from Tiree, who attended the meeting at Holyrood, had said that all the uncertainty was doing great harm. He is quoted as saying:-

What I realised this evening, was that I was very familiar with the old Commission.

Whatever was happening with the old Commission, there was never any uncertainty about the Commission’s own situation.

The Commission was somewhat subtle, stable, and although you were now and again not in agreement with the Commission, the Commission was still a guiding stone for crofting affairs.

That is not true now at all, ever since the uncertainty arose  in relation to those leading, those who shouldn’t even be there, so on and so forth.

View from the Crofting Law Blog

It is clear (if it was not already) that all is not well at Great Glen House. Now senior employees of the Crofting Commission are refusing to attend board meetings purportedly due to issues involving the Convener.

Despite attempts by the Convener to reverse or nullify the decisions taken by the board at Brora he has failed to do so.

Indeed Bill Barron, Interim Chief Executive to the Crofting Commission, clarified to the Cross Party Group on Crofting at Holyrood, that six commissioners had asked the Convener to stand down at the Brora meeting and have not recanted on that. The Convener has chosen not to.

Thus the call from all six commissioners, who met after the Convener walked out of the board meeting at Brora, for the Convener to resign still stands.

We now also have it reiterated by MSPs from the SNP, Scottish Labour and Scottish Liberal Democrats that they believe that the Convener should go.

Yet the Convener remains defiantly in place, apparently pending hell freezing over.

Investigations concerning a complaint made by the Convener against Fergus Ewing MSP, Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for crofting, appear to still be ongoing. The Scottish Ministers have, it would seem, been paralysed from taking any action concerning the position of convener pending the outcome of those investigations, despite the fact that it remains within their power to do so.

Perhaps the New Year will see this mess unravel and be properly sorted in the way I suggested it should have been back in April 2016. Eight months is hardy a period that would allow Scottish Ministers to be accused of making “quick impulse decisions” as Alasdair Allan MSP suggested might be the case to BBC Alba!

Meantime crofters suffer from a Crofting Commission that cannot, it would appear, be properly regulated itself let alone effectively regulate crofting.

Brian Inkster

Image Credits: © BBC Alba

Gaelic credit: Thanks to Vicki Folan of Inksters for translating the BBC Alba coverage from Gaelic to English

The Crofting Commission has become a three-ring circus

The Crofting Commission has become a three-ring circus

Every good circus needs a performing elephant!

The title of this post is the title of the Editorial in the West Highland Free Press (WHFP) published on 16 December 2016.

We reproduce that Editorial here as an important addition to the 101 blog posts already published on the fiasco arising from ‘The Common Clearances‘:-

For the last three months the Crofting Commission has not been dysfunctional. it has been non-existent.

As the Crofting Commission is the regulatory body of almost 20,000 crofts occupied by over 30,000 people – including around half of the combined populations of the Western Isles, Skye and the west Highlands – that is plainly unacceptable.

This dire state of affairs originated in the persecution of grazings committees in Lewis and Lochaber by the commission’s convener, Colin Kennedy.

Following a widespread outcry, Mr Kennedy’s edicts were overthrown and he was ordered by the crofting minister, Fergus Ewing, to retreat and apologise.

In September the rest of the commissioners issued their own apology and passed a vote of no confidence in Colin Kennedy, who had stalked out of the meeting.

In the real world, that would have been that. Mr Kennedy would have vacated the convener’s chair. The Crofting Commission would have dusted itself down and continued to do its duties as best as possible.

In the unreal world of the Crofting Commission chaos ensued.

Colin Kennedy has refused to accept the censure of both the Scottish Government and his colleagues on the Crofting Commission. Even more remarkably, the other commissioners and the crofting minister seem prepared to accept this.

As we go to press on Wednesday the Crofting Commission is meeting in Inverness. Following recent form, we have no idea what will transpire. It could be anything from another walk-out to a song and dance act in the grounds of Great Glen House.

It is possible that the commission will settle for a quiet life and accept the status quo – Colin Kennedy included – until its elections next March.

That would mean three months of a non-existent Crofting Commission followed by three months of a dispirited and barely functional Crofting Commission.

Why has the crofting minister allowed this to occur?

View from the Crofting Law Blog

The WHFP have a greater grasp of the situation and have been more vocal than most news papers in calling for a resolution thereof by the Scottish Government over the past few months.

They are as perplexed as I, and many others are, at the dithering on the part of the Scottish Government over it.

Unfortunately a song and dance act in the grounds of Great Glen House did not take place at the board meeting underway as the WHFP went to press that Wednesday. Perhaps that is being saved until the Scottish Government does take the action that it really needs to take 😉

Another walk-out was nearer the mark as will be revealed in our next blog post.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: Coll-ossus cartoon © A concerned crofter

three-ring circus - definition

Secret meeting declares Brora meeting valid

Crofting Commission 'secret' Special Meeting

Crofting Commissioners meet to debate legality of their previous meeting

In my last post I considered the background to the ‘secret’ special meeting of the Crofting Commission that was to be held in Inverness this morning. It had been requested by the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, purportedly to seek to overturn the decisions taken after he walked out of the Brora meeting.

Mr Kennedy has maintained in statements to the media that the Brora meeting was ultra vires (illegal). It is assumed that he was to argue this at the special meeting called by him this morning even although I pointed out yesterday that it would be a clear conflict of interest for him to participate in any decision making process in this regard.

It was reported by the BBC that at the start of the meeting commissioner David Campbell (West Highlands) made a motion for the meeting to be held in public for the purposes of natural justice, accountability and transparency to the ordinary crofter.

However, none of the other commissioners in the room (who are all crofters) were willing to second this motion. Thus the meeting proceeded in secret and out of honourable principle Mr Campbell departed the meeting at the same time as the press and public were excluded.

David Campbell departs the meeting as it was being held in private rather than public

David Campbell departs the meeting as it was being held in private rather than public

Commissioner Murdo Maclennan (Western Isles) did not attend the meeting. It was reported by the BBC that this was due to a threat of legal action against the Commission/Commissioners by the Convener.

Thus the secret ‘cabal’ consisted of:-

  • Colin Kennedy (Convener) – South West Highlands
  • Ian George Macdonald (Vice-convener) – West Highlands
  • Kathleen Sinclair – Shetland
  • Arnold Pirie – Caithness and Orkney
  • Marina Dennis – East Highlands

However, at the end of the day (after a 6 hour meeting) the Convener didn’t appear to get his way.

Bill Barron confirms that the Brora Meeting was valid

Bill Barron confirms that the Brora Meeting was valid

The official statement issued by Interim Chief Executive Bill Barron to the BBC after the meeting stated:-

At the request of the Convener, the interim CEO called a special meeting of the Crofting Commission on Friday 9 December 2016.

The Commissioners present reaffirmed the importance of working together effectively in the final months of their terms.

The Board also discussed the status of the meeting held in Brora in September and how to move forward.

The Board decided that there was one meeting in Brora which took place in two valid parts, the meeting previously referred to as a special meeting being a continuation of the scheduled Board meeting.

Any consequences from this will be considered at their Board meeting on Wednesday 14 December 2016.

So six hours to decide that the two meetings in Brora (one with the Convener present and one without him after he walked out) were in fact one meeting held in two parts. It is assumed that legal advice had been sought on this (the Commission’s lawyer was evident in the film of the meeting shown on BBC Alba tonight) and that such advice conflicted with the Convener’s own interpretation which may well have been ingenious but flawed.

So there we have it: The Convener’s publicly stated position on the Brora meeting has been wrong from the outset. But will he now accept that?

The official statement says that any consequences from this will be considered at the Board meeting on Wednesday. Surely there are no consequences as such if the meeting was a legally held one. Is it not just a case of approving the minutes and moving on? Or are the consequences linked to the Convener’s stance on the meeting being ultra vires? After all in terms of the Standing Orders [PDF]:-

Once a decision has been reached, all members have a corporate responsibility to recognise and accept the decision as that of the Crofting Commission. Corporate responsibility entails that members must adhere to and accept such a decision until it is otherwise altered.

We will no doubt find out on Wednesday!

Brian Inkster

Image Credits: © BBC Alba

A Crofting Cabal?

Is there a cabal within the Crofting Commission?

Is there a cabal within the Crofting Commission?

It was revealed by the BBC yesterday morning that Colin Kennedy, Convener of the Crofting Commission, has requested a special meeting of the Crofting Commission to take place this coming Friday, 9 December 2016 (i.e. tomorrow).

The meeting is apparently to be held in private and concerns consideration of the decisions taken by the Commission at Brora after the Convener walked out of the scheduled Board meeting and a special meeting had to be called to enable Commission business to be transacted.

It is not clear but has been suggested that Colin Kennedy may be seeking to cancel or reverse the decisions taken by the Crofting Commission at Brora. He has previously stated his personal view that this meeting was ultra vires (illegal) .

I was asked by BBC Alba to comment on this development and did so in an interview that was broadcast on An Lá yesterday evening. This blog post will cover and expand upon the points I made to BBC Alba.

Ability to call a Special Meeting

In terms of the Standing Orders that govern the conduct of Crofting Commission meetings [PDF] the Convener has the right to call a special meeting.

Public Notice

Again in terms of the Standing Orders public notice of a meeting of the Commission will normally be given by posting a Notice on the Crofting Commission website at least 4 days before the meeting.

However, public notice is not required where a special meeting is convened to deal with a matter of a particular sensitive nature.

When the BBC revealed yesterday that this meeting was to be held on Friday no public notice had been given and there was less than 4 days to go before the meeting was to take place.

Did this mean that a matter of a particular sensitive nature was to be dealt with on Friday?

If so it must have been decided by the Board that the matter was of a particular sensitive nature as the Convener alone cannot decide that in terms of the Standing Orders.

However, at some point yesterday (after the BBC revealed what the Convener was up to) a public notice appeared on the Commission’s website intimating that a special meeting was taking place at 10am on Friday 9 December 2016 at the Glenmoriston Hotel, Inverness.

Presumably that meant that the matter to be discussed on Friday was not actually of a particular sensitive nature or that Board approval to it so being had either not been sought or had not been given. Having said that item number 3 of the Agenda [PDF] is the “exclusion of press and public”. So the meeting may still be held in private if the commissioners decide that is appropriate on Friday. Interestingly that Agenda does not tell us what the business to be discussed is other than simply stating “Business that requires special urgency“.

Should the meeting be held in private?

In terms of the Standing Orders:-

Members of the press and public are entitled to attend meetings of the Commission. However, the Commission may determine that matters of a confidential or sensitive nature should be considered without the press or the public in attendance.

If the special meeting is indeed being convened to discuss the legality of the Brora meeting then as that meeting was held in public surely this one should be too?

It is already a matter that is in the public domain and one that Colin Kennedy has been outspoken about publicly in the media. It is surely therefore in the public interest that any debate covering it should be held in public and not in secret.

There appears, on the face of it, to be nothing confidential being discussed and the only sensitivities involved are those that may affect the Convener himself. Therefore there appears no good reason for the Commission to exclude the press or the public from tomorrow’s meeting.

Declaration of Interest

The Standing Orders state:-

A member of the Commission, or any officer working on behalf of the Commission, who has a direct or indirect interest in a matter being considered at a meeting of the Commission or a committee of the Commission, must disclose the nature of the interest to the meeting.

Any attempt to reverse the decision of the Brora special meeting is a matter that the Convener clearly has a direct interest in. Thus he would have to declare that interest and not take part in the meeting. Indeed, on that basis, it is questionable whether a special meeting could be called by the Convener where he is conflicted in the subject matter at hand.

Any failure by the Convener to declare an interest tomorrow will surely be questionable in the extreme.

Can the decisions made at the Brora meeting be reversed?

During the Common Grazings crisis the line peddled continually by the Commission, and supported by the Convener, was that decisions taken by the Commission cannot be altered once made and the only recourse that anyone has to do so is through the courts. Thus if this is the case should he not, if he considers he has a legitimate right to do so, personally be pursuing matters through the courts rather than via secretly convened meetings?

It has not, however, stopped the Commission from rewriting its history before now.

I trust that the interim Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, Bill Barron, will have chapter and verse on this area from the Commission’s legal advisers to present to commissioners before the meeting commences tomorrow.

Does the Convener have support from fellow commissioners?

It has been mooted for some time that there was a divided board with some members under the spell of the Convener and others less enchanted by him. The weight possibly swung in the Convener’s favour following the resignations of Susan Walker and William Swann. However, in his absence at the special meeting in Brora there was a unified front from all the commissioners that his behaviour warranted a call for him to resign.

Perhaps the former cabal (as some have called it) has been reformed and is prepared to do the Convener’s bidding on Friday regardless of the legalities, morals and ethics that may be involved.

The identity of the members of that cabal may also become clearer depending on how things pan out tomorrow.

The public purse

It has also been questioned whether it is in the public interest for a special meeting to be called just three working days before a scheduled board meeting. Surely any matter arising could be dealt with as an additional agenda item next Wednesday? Think of the cost of commissioners travelling to Inverness from as far afield as Shetland, Orkney, Lewis, Skye and Coll twice in one week for two meetings that could have easily been dealt with as one. Presumably officials based in Edinburgh will be doing the same.

Special meetings but not Board meetings

It should also be noted that when several commissioners could not apparently attend the last scheduled Board meeting it was postponed and a new date was “being arranged” and was to “be notified as soon as possible“. No such new date was ever arranged. But it seems that whilst the Commission could not arrange a new date for a major Board meeting they have no problem doing so for a questionable special meeting. Odd that.

Minutes of the Brora meeting

As a result of the last Board meeting not taking place the minutes of the Brora meeting have yet to be approved. That is scheduled to happen at the next Board meeting next Wednesday. Can a special meeting take place tomorrow to consider a meeting the minutes of which have yet to be approved? Surely any such meeting, if even competent, should happen only after and not before approval of the minutes?

Irony

It is also somewhat ironic that the legality of a special meeting is being called into question by a special meeting being convened that, unlike the Brora one, is highly questionable in itself.

The hole gets bigger

The governance of the Crofting Commission is currently under review by the Scottish Government. Antics such as these can only add fuel to the fire.

Brian Inkster

Image credit:There is no cabal on Wikipedia‘ by Rama, Wikimedia Commons, Cc-by-sa-2.0-fr

Why are the Crofting Commissioners not meeting?

Why are the Crofting Commissioners not meeting

No commissioners to be seen at Great Glen House this past week

Following the controversial Crofting Commission board meeting in Brora their next one was set down to take place at Great Glen House in Inverness on 9 November 2016. However a few days before the date of that meeting a notice appeared on the Crofting Commission’s website stating that:-

The Board meeting due to take place on 9 November has been postponed, as several Commissioners are not available on that date. A new date is being arranged and will be notified as soon as possible.

This is quite extraordinary. These meetings are scheduled months, perhaps a whole year, in advance. Commissioners know when they are happening and should be available for them. There will always be occasions when a commissioner can’t make the meeting for good reason but the meetings continue regardless with those who can attend.

Meetings of the Crofting Commission  must consist of at least five members. Where there are three or more elected members, the quorum must include no fewer than three such members.

There are currently seven commissioners in post out of the nine possible, with two positions waiting to be filled following the resignations of Susan Walker and William Swann.

So were at least three of the commissioners not able to attend the meeting on 9 November and if so why not?

Commissioners may attend meetings by videoconference or by teleconference if not able to attend in person. Is it really the case that at least three commissioners could not attend in person and could not attend by videoconference or by teleconference?

There does not appear to be anything in the Standing Orders relating to the Conduct of Meetings for the Crofting Commission allowing the postponement or rescheduling of a meeting in advance of it taking place once a date has been fixed.

There are provisions on the day of the meeting if a quorum is not present for the Convener to allow ten minutes before adjourning the meeting and fixing a time, then or afterwards, for it to take place.

As often seems to be the case these days the Crofting Commission appear to be ignoring the rules and making it up as they go along.

It has been suggested by some that the divisions within the board, and the position that has prevailed since the Brora meeting, mean they simply cannot meet and cannot make decisions at board level. At least not whilst the current Convener remains in post.

Bill Barron, on being appointed interim Chief Executive, said:-

I am looking forward to working with everyone at the Crofting Commission and our partners, to ensure that the Commission remains focused on giving a good service to crofters, promoting and protecting the interests of crofting, and providing effective regulation.

Not a good start to his watch for him to allow the first board meeting to be cancelled. There is clearly actually a severe lack of focus on giving a good service to crofters, promoting and protecting the interests of crofting, and providing effective regulation.

Meantime the Scottish Government has formally announced its review into the governance of the Crofting Commission. The latest goings on at Great Glen House, this past week alone, demonstrate how necessary such a review actually is.

Brian Inkster

Law Awards of Scotland recognise Crofting Endeavours

Law Awards of Scotland - Finalist - Solicitor of the Year - Brian InksterBrian Inkster has been shortlisted for Solicitor of the Year at the Law Awards of Scotland.

This nomination recognises his endeavours in crofting law over the past year and in particular his quest to see justice done over the alleged abuse of power within the Crofting Commission over the sacking of three common grazings committees.

Brian Inkster has been very vocal in the press, radio and on TV over the issue. He has written 97 blog posts on this topic alone over the past six months.

The Crofting Commission recently accepted their decisions as being wrong and issued an apology to the crofters affected. However, conflict continues within the Crofting Commission with a clear divide between their convener and the other commissioners.

Brian Inkster said:-

I am honoured to be one of only three solicitors in Scotland shortlisted for this award.

Hopefully it will help to highlight further the plight of the ordinary crofter at the hands of a regulator that is out of control.

There is still much more that the Scottish Government needs to do to restore confidence in the Crofting Commission and I will be making my views known on that in the coming months.

Inksters Solicitors who have offices in Glasgow, Inverness, Forfar, Portree, Wick and a visiting base in Lerwick have also been shortlisted for Litigation Firm of the Year and their trainee solicitor, Alistair Sloan, for Trainee of the Year at this year’s Law Awards of Scotland.

The winners will be announced on 24 November at a gala dinner at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, Glasgow.

The end game?

Have we reached the end game in the crofting commission crisis?

Is it time for the First Minister to declare checkmate?

Many crofters and other interested parties have been wondering for some time why the crisis within the Crofting Commission has been allowed to trundle on for so long. Why they ask is Colin Kennedy still in post as Convener of the Crofting Commission despite many alleged breaches by him of the code of conduct and calls for his resignation from fellow commissioners, representative bodies, the press and crofters.

He has stated that “hell will freeze over” before he resigns. It was suggested that if he didn’t jump he would be pushed. A good few weeks later and no jumping and no pushing to be seen.

The latest move in this bizarre game is that Colin Kennedy has made a formal complaint against Fergus Ewing MSP, the Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for crofting. It has been reported by the BBC that Mr Kennedy “accuses the Rural Economy Secretary Fergus Ewing of being in breach of the ministerial code“.

This is rather ironic given the numerous accusations over a number of months from various parties against Mr Kennedy for his purported breaches of the code of conduct for members of devolved public bodies.

This brought about some thoughts on the issue on Twitter tonight:-

A reference to Colin Kennedy retaining an active interest in and being part of the decision making process in the Mangersta and Upper Coll cases despite complaints being made against him.

A reference to Colin Kennedy’s reasons for his behaviour in response to the complaint made against him by former committee members at Upper Coll Common Grazings.

Thus Mr Kennedy’s latest move may not have been as smart as he thinks. He may want to drag the agony out for everyone and cause more pain and anguish along the way. He may wish to pull others down with him. The reality is that such behaviour is not helping the greater good of crofting and the day to day regulation thereof by the Crofting Commission.

The Oban Times reported, in December 2006, that in a sheriff and jury trial at Oban Sheriff Court concerning a shotgun allegation against Mr Kennedy’s agricultural tenant, John Brackenbury, on the Isle of Coll:-

various police reports, about matters on Coll, were read to the court and one said Mr Kennedy was “not averse to confrontation” and added that “by his own admission his actions can antagonise the situation”.

The Oban Times also reported that the defence agent, Mr Nelson:-

put forward evidence in his lengthy cross-examination of Mr Kennedy, which had brought the farmer’s character into question.

He produced a tabloid press report, from the mid-90s, which said fellow islanders at that time called for Mr Kennedy – who was once banned from the island’s only hotel bar – to be banned from having a shotgun, claiming that he “has awful fits of temper”.

Strathclyde Police have received repeated complaints from Mr Kennedy and Mr Brackenbury, over the years, and Mr Nelson produced extracts from police subject sheets, recorded by unnamed police officers, relating to Mr Kennedy.

One stated: “He is of the personality type which seeks to utilise a verbal steam-roller through any contrary argument or viewpoint.”

The report continued: “That he has been an efficient farmer and businessman is beyond question but that very success has engendered a singular arrogance and a persona which ill-fits a small island community where toleration and cooperation are pre-requisite.”

Another police report called Mr Kennedy “an extremely stubborn individual who made it quite clear that he is intent on taking his revenge upon a number of individuals who he believes have previously wronged him”.

And yet another police subject sheet, dated October 4, 2005, said: “Taking aside the 20 years of civil disputes with Mr Brackenbury, Mr Kennedy has recently embarked on a civil complaint with almost every occupant in Arinagour and his lawyers have sent letters claiming £20,000 from each of them, as compensation for their gardens and houses being built on his grazing land. This has caused considerable anguish upon Coll, especially with the elderly.

10 years later and this behaviour appears to have moved from the Isle of Coll to the corridors of Great Glen House and Holyrood.

It is not behaviour befitting anyone in public office and we have surely now reached the end game. If Mr Kennedy thinks he has cornered Fergus Ewing it is time for the First Minister to swiftly move forward and declare checkmate. After all the Queen on the chess board, with an army of support behind her, is much more powerful than a lone ‘King’.

Brian Inkster

Crofting Law whilst in Milan

Crofting Law whilst in Milan

The dome in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Milan, Italy

It is over a week since my last blog post. Not because it has been quiet in the world of crofting law but because I’ve been away in Milan. I didn’t quite escape crofting law whilst there as I had a meeting where a translator turned my crofting law advice into Italian. I hope nothing was lost in translation. Not sure what the Italian is for souming!

Last time I was away from the UK I commented that there was ‘no let up on the common grazings crisis whilst on holiday‘. Much the same this time around. Especially due to the fact that the ‘twa Colins’ (as they have become known in the comments section of this blog) are, somewhat incredulously, still in post.

Colin Souter, the Grazings ‘Constable‘ of Upper Coll, still seems to hold that ‘position’ despite the Crofting Commission announcing over three weeks ago that he would be stepping down “as soon as possible“. Why has he not stepped down or been stepped down?

Colin Souter has been uncharacteristically quiet during that period. Whereas Colin Kennedy, Convener of the Crofting Commission, has been uncharacteristically vocal. My last blog post looked at his  crofting ‘crusade‘ as revealed in The Scottish Farmer. A week later and The Scottish Farmer have published a letter from Colin Kennedy which starts with an attack on the Scottish Crofting Federation, rambles on a bit and is cryptic in places but seems to be blaming the  former Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, Catriona Maclean, for everything that everyone else has been blaming him for. I will look at that, and the further breaches of the code of conduct by Mr Kennedy arising therefrom, in a future blog post.

Kennedy is the renegade commissioner who is breaking almost all, if not every, ethical standard expected of public office holders. The Editor of the West Highland Free Press wondered a couple of weeks ago how Kennedy had still not received his P45. Patrick Krause, Chief Executive of the Scottish Crofting Federation, writing in the Press & Journal around the same time expected this “Ozymandias with delusions of grandeur” to have been toppled by now.

The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, referred to Kennedy’s behaviour as “disappointing” and hinted at the powers the Scottish Ministers had to remove him. Since then he has gone on a personal tirade against those very ministers, his commissioner colleagues and commission staff. How has he been allowed to go on like this? Who is in control? What message does this send out to crofters and the general electorate? Where and how will it all end?

I referred earlier to “former” Chief Executive, Catriona Maclean, because her replacement on an interim basis, Bill Barron, started work at Great Glen House on Monday. I will also look at that in more detail in a future blog post.

However, how can this new interim Chief Executive be expected to effectively operate an organisation where the Convener has gone renegade? Where that convener does not have the support of the other commissioners, the Scottish Ministers, any of the crofting representative bodies or the vast majority of crofters? Could the role be any more of a poisoned chalice?

What else happened over the past week? Well:-

  • The closing date came and went for applications for the two appointed Crofting Commissioner posts.
  • Top search terms leading people to this blog were “Colin Kennedy Crofting Commission” and “the Marquis & Marchioness of Stafford”. I have previously drawn comparisons.
  • Comments on the blog took on a Star Trek theme making a change from Star Wars analogies. The Dark Side have become the Klingons it would appear 😉
  • Revelations of baboon-a-grams being advertised on the Isle of Coll emerged. We are searching the News of the World archives for more on this story which just might eclipse the Convener’s Throne for amusement value.
  • It would appear that back issues of the News of the World, Press & Journal and Oban Times also hold other interesting stories about the Isle of Coll. We will see what our research turns up.
  • Crofting road shows will be taking place to inform crofters about the Crofting Commission  elections and other crofting issues.
  • The Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee has launched a call for written evidence to help inform its short, focussed review of priorities for crofting law reform.
  • Crofting Election Regulations have been put before the Scottish Parliament but these make no changes, as previously mooted, to the six constituency boundaries.

A week is clearly a long time in crofting law!

More detail on some of these stories  will appear in future blog posts. Do subscribe to this blog by inserting your e-mail address in the box in the top right of this page and press ‘Subscribe’. You will then receive the latest blog posts directly into your mail box as soon as they are published. You don’t want to miss that baboon-a-gram story 😉

Brian Inkster

An elective despotism is not the Crofting Commission we fought for

An elective depotisim is not the Crofting Commission we fought forThomas Jefferson said:

An elective despotism is not the government we fought for.

This week the Scottish Crofting Federation called the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, a deluded despot. Perhaps they are now thinking that an elective despotism is not the Crofting Commission they fought for.

An elected Crofting Commission (6 out of the 9 commissioners – with the other 3 being appointed) was introduced by the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2010. The Scottish Crofting Federation supported this move. Before that all commissioners of the Crofters Commission were appointed.

At the time the then environment minister, Stewart Stevenson, said:-

The Scottish government wants to give crofters a voice to determine their own future and these first ever Crofting Commission elections is a solid step down that road.

The Scottish government believes crofts that are occupied and worked can be the biggest contribution to the sustainable economic growth and development of our crofting communities. Having an effective regulator is a vital part of achieving that aim.

The first Convener of the new Crofting Commission was Susan Walker who was appointed by the Scottish Government. At the time some thought that process should have been delegated to the commissioners themselves.

Patrick Krause, Chief Executive of the Scottish Crofting Federation, said:-

Clearly the minister doesn’t have enough confidence in the commission to allow them to choose their own convener.

Elsewhere we have heard of the spread of democracy through the Arab Spring.

Is it not time to allow democracy to apply in crofting and to have a Crofting Spring where the commission can be allowed to make its own decisions?

Tavish Scott, Shetland Liberal Democrat MSP, said:-

This is a terrible decision and is consistent with the command and control being exercised by the SNP government on a whole range of issues.

They won’t make an appointment unless they are sure the person passes the Saltire underpants test.

Why do they not trust the people who have been elected by the crofters to make the decision?

Mary Scanlon, Highlands and Islands Conservative MSP, said:-

Given that this was the first time that commissioners were chosen with a mandate from their own communities, it seems high-handed of the minister to appoint the convener himself.

If the nine commissioners were allowed to choose from among their own number the convener would have the confidence and respect of the others. That might not be the case if the appointment is made by the minister.

Rhoda Grant, Highlands and Islands Labour MSP, said:-

To choose the convener in this way, weights the process towards the three commissioners already chosen through the public appointments system.

The minister should allow the commission to choose its own convener.

Alasdair Allan, Western Isles SNP MSP, said:-

There must be a tie between the commission and the minister because it is a public body.

The minister has a choice among all the members.

If the six members chosen by the crofters are unhappy with what the government or the commission is doing they will not be slow to say that.

There is a majority of crofters’ representatives so it is not true to say that this is an attempt to control the commission.

Some commissioners were not too slow to show that they were unhappy and organised a coup against the incumbent convener. They then insisted that they should elect the new one. The minister responsible for crofting at the time, Aileen McLeod, allowed them to do so and Colin Kennedy was duly elected.

The result has been clear for all to see. It could not have been foreseen by the representative bodies and MSPs who called for this democratic process at the outset. In light of what has happened a future crofting minister might think twice about allowing commissioners to choose a convener themselves.

Fergus Ewing MSP, cabinet secretary responsible for crofting, has instituted a governance review of the Crofting Commission. Whatever the outcome of that review it should at least attempt to avoid despotism ever appearing again within the Crofting Commission.

Brian Inkster

Sunday Politics Scotland: Chaos on the Croft

Sunday Politics Scotland - Crofting Commission Crisis - Gordon BrewerSunday Politics Scotland on BBC One Scotland this week looked at the crisis in the Crofting Commission.

Presenter Gordon Brewer introducing the topic said:-

Now Chaos on the Croft.

The body responsible for protecting and regulating Scotland’s crofting is embroiled in some dramatic internal politics of its own.

As Len Cooksley reports pressure is increasing on the head of the Crofting Commission to resign after the Scottish Government became involved.

Sunday Politics Scotland - Crofting Commission Crisis - Crofter and tractor

Len Cooksley:-

Scotland has nearly 20,000 crofts overseen by the Crofting Commission.

After suspending two local grazing committees on Lewis on the grounds of financial missmanagement it was forced into a u-turn.

There were claims the commission were both heavy handed and may have acted illegally.

Now the Scottish Government’s got involved. It called on the commission and its convener, Colin Kennedy, to apologise.

Last week Mr Kennedy walked out of a commissioners meeting. Those that remained issued that apology and then passed a vote of no confidence in Mr Kennedy.

The First Minister gave her take on events in parliament earlier this week.

Sunday Politics Scotland - Crofting Commission Crisis - Nicola Sturgeon MSP - First Minister

Nicola Sturgeon MSP:-

I note that crofting commissioners have unanimously called on the convener to resign.

The Scottish Government have requested further information from the convener in relation to last week’s events.

While the Government would not ordinarily intervene in the internal operations of an independent statutory body the legislation does give Scottish Ministers power to act if required.

Len Cooksley:-

MSPs are watching developments with interest.

Sunday Politics Scotland - Crofting Commission Crisis - Tavish Scott MSP

Tavish Scott MSP:-

There is no doubt that there has been a fall out amongst commissioners and that has been caused by the behaviour of the convener of the Crofting Commission.

What this organisation needs now is a new convener, a reconstituted board and the ability to get back what it is meant to do and that is work for crofters right across Scotland.

Len Cooksley:-

We understand Mr Kennedy has no plans to resign but would make no further comment.

The implication is clear: either he jumps or he’ll be pushed.

Gordon Brewer:-

Well earlier I spoke to Brian Inkster who is a lawyer and blogger specialising in crofting matters.

Sunday Politics Scotland - Crofting Commission Crisis - Brian Inkster - Inksters Solicitors

Gordon Brewer asked:-

Well the crofting commissioners have no confidence in their leader. He won’t resign and the Scottish Government is threatening to get involved. What on earth is going on?

Brian Inkster answered:-

Well it all goes back to December time last year when they decided to put out of office a grazings committee in Lewis. The first one was Mangersta and then subsequently into 2016 they put out two other grazings committees: one in Upper Coll and the other in Lochaber.

Gordon Brewer:-

Right but what I don’t understand is that Mr Kenedy the man who is the commissioner is accused of issuing edicts on things like payments over common grazings and peoples backs are up about this. But how can he do that surely the commissioners have to decide to do this.

Brian Inkster:-

Well the commissioners should be deciding to do it. It looks as though he has been instrumental in pushing these issues forward.

There were three sort of main issues I suppose.

The first one was payment by grazings committees to shareholders in common grazings of monies that had come into grazings funds. His argument was that these monies had to be paid out immediately. So there would be immediate payment to the shareholders and if monies were required back to maintain the common grazings they would issue a levy onto the shareholders.

Nowhere in the law did it say that these immediate payments had to be made and indeed it just didn’t make any kind of logical or common sense approach to deal with it in that way.

Subsequently there were two other issues.

One was that he was seeking to stop common grazings committees receiving SRDP funding – which is really grants from the governmnet to assist in the maintenace and improvement of the common grazings.

And latterly there was an issue around VAT registration where it was being said that common grazings could not be VAT registered whereas historically they always have been.

Gordon Brewer:-

Right, now, what happened? At some point the commissioners had a vote of no confidence.

Brian Inkster:-

That was just over a week ago in Brora. That was on the back of Colin Kennedy walking out of a meeting. He closed the meeting and walked out on the basis that the commissioner for the Western Isles said he was no longer declaring an interest in the Western Isles cases which he had previously done and was now wanting to vote on any issues concerning the Western Isles.

Sunday Politics Scotland - Crofting Commission Crisis - Brian Inkster and Gordon Brewer

Gordon Brewer:-

On the face of it you would think that if the commissioners have no confidence in him he has to go but he doesn’t does he because he was elected?

Brian Inkster:-

He was elected and there is nothing in the law that says if the commissioners have a vote of no confidence he must go. One would imagine that if all the commissioners are against you, if the Scottish Crofting Federation, NFU Scotland, MSPs across all cross parties and the press are all saying it’s time to go you would think what is the point of clinging on here.

Gordon Brewer:-

The Scottish Government has threatened to become involved. What can they do?

Brian Inkster:-

In terms of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993, Scottish Ministers have the power if they consider that a commissioner is unable or unfit to exercise the functions of a member or unsuitable to continue as a member they can then remove a member from office.

Gordon Brewer:-

Now, Brian Inkster, just to give us a little sense of what the background to this is because it is quite complicated. But is the issue underlying all this the use of land and the fact, for example, wind farms wants to come in or housing wants to come in and it is about whether the common ground is allocated to the community the funds from it or to individuals.

Brian Inkster:-

It is linked to the funds that come into a common grazings. On a common grazings, especially as you mentioned wind farming, so in recent times the potential for larger sums of money to come into a common grazings exists. And it is linked to the distribution of those monies and there was an insistance on the part of the convener that those monies had to be paid out as soon as it was received. That there was no ability to hold onto the money to use it to spend on improvements within the common grazings. The Scottish Government said that was not the correct view in law.

Gordon Brewer:-

Alright, we will have to leave it there. Brian Inkster thank you very much indeed for joining us.

Brian Inkster:-

Thank you.

Gordon Brewer:-

Well earlier I spoke to Colin Kennedy. He is the Crofting Commission boss who is in the middle of all of this controversy. I spoke to him on the telephone from Coll.

Sunday Politics Scotland - Crofting Commission Crisis - Colin Kennedy - Convener Crofting Commission

Gordon Brewer asked:-

Are you going to stay in the post?

Colin Kennedy responded:-

I have no intention of resigning.

Gordon Brewer:-

Why not?

Colin Kennedy:-

As matters stand, I believe the commission have acted wholly within the law at all times and until such times as we have legal advice to the contrary, I will maintain my position.

Gordon Brewer:-

But the Scottish Government has said it has the power to get involved. If they do get involved and say you have to go you will have to go won’t you?

Colin Kennedy:-

That will be the case, yes.

Gordon Brewer:-

So just to be clear on that. If the Scottish Government says look given that your commissioners have voted no confidence in you we don’t think you can stay in post you will have to resign.

Colin Kennedy:-

That may be the case.

Gordon Brewer:-

Why are you so determined? You walked out of the meeting didn’t you, the other week? Why have you fallen out with all of the commissioners?

Colin Kennedy:-

No I didn’t walk out of a meeting.

I formally declared the meeting closed in light of an advancement by a commissioner supported by the deputy accountable officer that they had obtained information from the standards commission which I requested sight of prior to determination which failed to materialise.

Accordingly given the nature of the business at hand I had no alternative other than to formally close the September meeting of the Crofting Commission prior to my departure.

Gordon Brewer:-

Okay, but the commissioners have said they no longer have any confidence in you. Which is not brilliant from your point of view is it?

Colin Kennedy:-

I am unaware of the commissioners having said they have no confidence in me.

Gordon Brewer:-

You are not aware of that?

Colin Kennedy:-

Correct.

Gordon Brewer:-

So as far as you are concerned what? The Crofting Commission is carrying on its work as per normal?

Colin Kennedy:-

Well I would suggest at this moment in time that the Crofting Commission conducted a meeting on 28th September which is in non compliance or in accordance with the standing orders of the Crofting Commission and therefore it would appear in my view to be ultra vires.

Gordon Brewer:-

So right. If they still have confidence in you why would they do that?

Colin Kennedy:-

I couldn’t comment on what they do at informally constituted meetings.

Gordon Brewer:-

So right. You think that they still have confidence in you but that they have held an ultra vires meeting without you for reasons that are inexplicable?

Colin Kennedy:-

Correct.

Gordon Brewer:-

The substance of this is about you, they allege, that you made various determinations about things like payments in the form of edicts – that they weren’t really consulted.

Colin Kennedy:-

Absolutely incorrect.

At no time under my leadership have any decisions been taken without full endorsement of the board and based on legal advice.

And if I could comment prior to those decisions as per the board minute of 15 September 2015, prior to taking any of those decisions a formal request was made to the Chief Executive to obtain legal advice to support the papers presented to the board on which the board took the decisions.

Gordon Brewer:-

Alright Colin Kennedy we have to leave it. Thank you very much for joining us.

Colin Kennedy:-

Thank you.

N.B. For a limited period (29 days) you can watch this episode of Sunday Politics Scotland on iPlayer (at about 54 minutes in)

Image Credits: Sunday Politics Scotland © BBC Scotland