Colin Souter’s persistent insistence that he can continue to act as ‘committee’ to the Upper Coll Grazings is perplexing indeed in the face of clear opposition to his involvement from the majority of shareholders.
Following the meeting of shareholders called by Mr Souter in Upper Coll last night he issued a press release (he is the only ‘clerk’ in the country known to advise the press of shareholders business in this way). This press release is very much in the tone of propaganda issued on behalf of the Crofting Commission who remain silent on the issue and appear to allow Mr Souter to speak for them.
The Crofting Commission have been under fire for many months now over an alleged abuse of power in removing three grazings committees from office in circumstances thought my most onlookers to be completely unjustified and unreasonable.
I would offer my comments on this latest ‘propaganda’ by quoting sections of it (in italics) with my analysis following each section:-
A third official meeting of shareholders was chaired at Upper Coll last night by the Grazings Constable, Mr Colin Souter.
It is very debatable whether a meeting of shareholders convened by a reputedly illegal grazings constable can ever be an official one. On the illegality of his appointment see:-
During his opening remarks, Mr Souter was interrupted by the former Committee chairman, apparently wishing to raise a point of order. Mr Souter responded that he would take the point at the conclusion of his statement to the meeting.
If a point of order was raised at the outset of the meeting should it not have been taken immediately? Mr Souter clearly does not want to let shareholders have their say and is suppressing their right to be heard at a shareholders meeting. That is not the role of a ‘clerk’ even if legally appointed.
In response to that delay, a number of former Committee members and their supporters, many of whom have no shares in the grazings, got up and left the room, in what was declared by those shareholders remaining, to be an obvious pre-planned move. The meeting continued with the remaining shareholders present and worked constructively through a busy agenda.
Mr Souter omits how many left the meeting and how many remained. I understand that 11 people (shareholders or proxies for shareholders) walked out leaving only 4 shareholders (2 full shareholders and 2 half shareholders remaining).
Another 4 people remained whose status were not declared but who were not shareholders. No proxies were presented by them at the beginning of the meeting.
The 11 who left the meeting had the clear support of 26 out of 42 shareholders who had signed a petition that stated:-
“I support the election of a new Grazings Committee to run the affairs of Upper Coll Township. I also request the removal of the illegally imposed Grazings Constable with immediate effect.”
Thus Mr Souter decided to proceed with a meeting in the clear knowledge that a very small number of shareholders (perhaps only 4 out of 42) supported him and the meeting in question.”
The meeting continued with the remaining shareholders present and worked constructively through a busy agenda. Shareholders were provided with additional new information and after discussion and debate, voted on a number of issues, many declaring it was the first such opportunity to vote on shareholder matters in the grazings for a number of years and hoped it was an indication of the way forward.
Why were possibly only the 4 out of 42 shareholders present at the meeting “provided with additional new information”? Surely any additional new information should have been provided to shareholders in advance of the meeting. How can decisions be taken on such matters in the absence of actual consultation thereon?
Mr Souter sent a letter to all shareholders on 12 September. Why was this additional new information not included with that letter? No vote should have been taken on such issues in such circumstances. Although any vote was, in any event, very much a minority one given that the majority had expressed their vote on the entire meeting at the outset.
Mr Souter set out his current activities and explained his goals on a number of current matters, some of which are seen as contentious in some quarters and have been the subject of targeted public criticism by supporters of the former Committee, including the Solicitor, Brian Inkster, who had been engaged by the former Committee to support them in their dispute with the Commission, which eventually led to their subsequent dismissal. Mr Souter has since written to Mr Inkster seeking his co-operation to repay the fee he charged, as it had been approved only by the former Committee and not by the wider body of shareholders, who had never been consulted on the matter.
Mr Souter omits to mention that a seven page letter has been issued by me on this subject to Fergus Ewing MSP, Cabinet Minister responsible for crofting, and copied to him. This highlights the serious errors in Mr Souter’s understanding of the position of legal fees, his meddling in VAT affairs, his role as grazings ‘constable’ and his close and unhealthy association with the Crofting Commission and/or their Convener all as set out in:-
I have expressed my concerns to Mr Ewing about this illegal ‘constable’ being allowed to wreak havoc by the Crofting Commission. Mr Ewing has already had to rein in Convener Colin Kennedy. Now it is time for him to rein in another Colin.
Mr Souter also detailed his correspondence with other parties and the approach being followed. The meeting voted unanimously to support his current activity and the work on which he is currently engaged to ensure the Grazings are fully legally compliant in all matters. Shareholders expressed their wish that if necessary he continue beyond the current term which expires in November but it was explained that under the Crofting Act, there is no provision to extend the tenure of a Constable, once appointed by the Commission.
Possibly only 4 out of 42 shareholders does not give Mr Souter a mandate for “his current activity and the work on which he is currently engaged” or indicate any desire by the shareholders for him to “continue in ‘office’ beyond his current term”.
One thing that Mr Souter has got right in law (maybe the first thing so far) is that under the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 there is no provision to extend the tenure of a Constable, if legally appointed by the Commission, once the period of tenure comes to an end.
During the meeting, shareholders voted to approve the revised draft of Grazing Regulations, which has been the subject of a wide consultation process over the last three months, subject to some final amendments offered from the floor.
It is very concerning indeed that Mr Souter may think he can force through revised Grazings Regulations (which are believed to possibly seek to retrospectively validate actions taken unjustifiably by the Crofting Commission) on the basis of a meeting with only a minority of shareholders who have appeared to support the Crofting Commission throughout. Some of those shareholders are alleged to have been personally in breach of the existing regulations and Mr Souter has done nothing whatsoever to deal with those allegations. Again this demonstrates that he is not acting in any way impartially.
On the question of impartiality it is very revealing to note that Mr Souter arrived at the meeting with Donna Smith of the Crofting Commission. Donna Smith is part of the Senior Management Team at the Crofting Commission and is expected to become acting/interim Chief Executive when Catriona Maclean’s notice period comes to an end.
Much has been made by Mr Souter of his independence from the Crofting Commission although the real position has been clear for all to see. It is now publicly apparent, if it was not before, that Mr Souter and the Crofting Commission are indeed working hand in hand.
This is disturbing indeed and would explain why Mr Souter has not taken up on behalf of shareholders their legitimate concerns and claims over the handling of the whole sorry affair by the Crofting Commission.
After the marathon 4-hour meeting, Mr Souter said, “it was obviously a disappointment that a number of those present made a decision to leave the meeting before it had properly got underway but I respect their right to do so. Those remaining were sufficient in number to continue with business and to their credit, actively contributed to a very positive discussion in a number of areas. I was able at this stage, to explain to shareholders precisely what I am doing and why I am doing it and was reassured to receive the unanimous support of the meeting.
In respecting the right of those to leave the meeting Mr Souter should also respect their views and the views of the 26 shareholders who signed a petition against him. In respecting those views then clearly nothing discussed at the meeting last night was carried as a vote of the majority of shareholders originally attending: given that 11 effectively voted for the meeting to end.
Mr Souter advised he was aware of the recent unofficial meeting held by disaffected former committee members, and it’s outcome, but dismissed it stating, “I would be delighted if all shareholders engaged in the current process, constructively. We are continuing to make good progress to resolve a series of issues raised and a new set of Regulations was a key element in moving forward. There are some outside influences at work here and I do not believe they are contributing positively for the future benefit of the grazings.
The meeting Mr Souter refers to was certainly not “unofficial” but necessary under and in terms of the existing Grazings Regulations. Indeed Mr Souter, if he had any legal standing, should have been ensuring that what he refers to as an “unofficial” meeting happened. It is a great credit to the former committee that they knew the Grazings Regulations better than Mr Souter and what needed to be done legally in terms thereof.
The Grazings regulations state that:-
“Not later than one month before the term of office of the Committee ends they shall give notice to the shareholders of a meeting for the appointment of a new Committee. This meeting must take place before the term of office of the existing Committee ends. At least 10 days’ notice of the meeting must be given; this shall be done by advertisement in each of two successive weeks in one or more newspapers circulating in the Committee district, or by notice posted up for two successive weeks in a public place or places approved by the Commission. The new Committee appointed at this meeting shall take up office immediately upon the retiral of the existing Committee. The Clerk of the Committee shall inform the Commission of the names and addresses of the members and Clerk of the new Committee.”
If we assume, as Mr Souter does, that his appointment as Grazings ‘Constable’, was legal then that appointment, in terms of the Order issued by the Crofting Commission, comes to an end on 10 November 2016.
That being the case then the shareholders must give notice of a meeting to elect a new committee not later than 10 October 2016. Being organised and sensible shareholders they have not left it to the last minute but organised it a good month or so ahead (which they are entitled to do under the Grazings Regulations).
They have carried out all the steps they need to in order to legally form a new Committee. That Committee will take up office immediately on 10 November 2016 or earlier if Mr Souter resigns his position as Grazings ‘Constable’. Something that many consider he should do so in light of the petition from the majority of shareholders calling for that.
When asked about a recent petition allegedly signed by a majority of shareholders seeking his dismissal as an ‘illegally appointed Constable”, Mr Souter responded that the Commission had repeatedly endorsed his appointment, as recently as the day before the unofficial election meeting and offered his view that the conduct of former Committee supporters had perhaps more in common with a dictatorial regime.
It is not a question of endorsement by the Commission. It is a question of democracy in action within a common grazings. If there is any “dictatorial regime” involved surely it is the Commission and Mr Souter who fall into that camp. They are dictating what they consider the position to be to a clear majority of shareholders who think otherwise.
He added, “How many people do you know who would be happy being door-stepped and told to sign a petition, whilst their neighbour is standing over them? It strains credibility! I would be happy to see all of those folks at our next shareholder meeting. There are serious issues being addressed and it’s about time some former Committee members accept their continuing agitation is not serving themselves or the grazings well. They have a duty to fellow shareholders to accept their own shortcomings and that they have learned from them and are willing to move on. Continually misrepresenting the position in public is not helpful and does nothing to heal the rift they have opened up here in Upper Coll, between shareholders.
On the contrary it is unfortunately Mr Souter who continually misrepresents the position. E.g.:-
Mr Souter also advised that during the meeting he informed shareholders he has requested the Crofting Commission now facilitate a meeting with the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service to discuss some of the findings from his review of the former Committee records and accounts. He declined to comment further on specifics, stating “it will be for other authorities now to determine whether there is a need for further action”. The date for the next shareholder meeting has not been set.
From the outset the Crofting Commission and then Mr Souter hinted at irregularities within the three Committees that were dismissed with no evidence whatsoever to back this up. Mr Souter appears to have been put into Upper Coll by the Crofting Commission to find something, anything, to justify his illegal appointment in the first place.
Nothing he has produced to date has evidenced this. Declining to comment on specifics now questions once more what he and the Commission are actually up to. This is not his role as ‘Clerk’. If any shareholders feel there has been any impropriety that has affected them it is for them, not Mr Souter, to take whatever action they may deem appropriate. Mr Souter is now, as the Commission did so before him, casting aspersions unjustifiably and without any basis on former committee members.
This is quite appalling. If anything shareholders should be reporting Mr Souter to the Crown Office & Procurator Fiscal Service for his potentially illegal and fraudulent activities including in particular the manner in which he has taken control of the shareholders finances.
One can only hope that Fergus Ewing MSP does now step in to resolve this tragic mess.
Main image: INGSOC 1984 Propaganda Poster (detail)
Other images: An La – 13 September 2016 © BBC Alba