Tag Archives: crofting

Lacklustre response by Crofting Commission

Lacklustre response from Crofting CommissionThe Crofting Commission eventually got around, on 24 August 2016, to issuing a public written statement regarding the letter from Fergus Ewing MSP, Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for crofting, to Colin Kennedy, Convener of the Crofting Commission. It states:-

A special meeting was held by the Board on the 21 July to consider the Cabinet Secretary’s letter to the Convener. The Board unanimously agreed that the Crofting Commission support the Scottish Government’s position on CAP funding and disbursal of funds by common grazings committees.

The Convener, Colin Kennedy, has written to the Cabinet Secretary confirming the Board’s agreement.  At the Commission’s Board meeting on Wednesday 17 August, draft guidance for grazings committees was considered and the Commission is planning to engage with stakeholders to discuss the guidance.

The Crofting Commission continues to work constructively with the Scottish Government and is committed to securing the future of crofting.

So nothing there we didn’t know already! And nothing to clarify the confusing mixed messages issued on the Commission’s behalf by Commissioner Murdo Maclennan in English and in Gaelic immediately following the board meeting on 17 August.

Or does this clarify the position without explicitly saying so?

With no add-ons like we got from Murdo Maclennan does this mean there is no qualification to the support given to the letter from Fergus Ewing (i.e. the Crofting Commission are not actually saying that they think they did the right thing but are still supporting his letter – instead they are simply unequivocally supporting his letter and therefore admitting that they got it wrong completely?)

However, we shouldn’t have to be drawing inferences from statements issued by the Crofting Commission.

They knew there was confusion caused by Colin Kennedy’s statement to Jackie O’Brien on 16 August and Murdo Maclennan’s statement to the media on 17 August. In both cases the message was in effect  that “we’ve done nothing wrong but we support the letter from Fergus Ewing”. Is this or is this not the position of the Board of the Crofting Commission? Or are they split on this point?

I have asked the Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, Catriona Maclean, to clarify the matter, for the avoidance of any doubt, for readers of this blog. I will let you know her response should I receive one and am not simply ignored again.

Decisions “have been divisive, unacceptable and not in line with crofting law”

Scottish Crofting Federation welcomes intervention by Cabinet SecretaryIn a statement issued today the Scottish Crofting Federation (SCF) has welcomed the intervention of rural affairs secretary Fergus Ewing MSP in his letter to Colin Kennedy, Crofting Commission convener.

SCF chair, Fiona Mandeville, commented:-

We are pleased that the Scottish Government has finally endorsed what we and others have been saying for months, that the actions of the Commission convener, and the decisions he appears to have forced through, have been divisive, unacceptable and not in line with crofting law.

While Mr Ewing’s letter is not yet in the public domain, its contents have been summarised and made public. It is clear that the Scottish Government is as concerned as the SCF and all who care about crofting. BBC’s Jackie O’Brien has seen the letter and reports that the Government’s view is diametrically opposed to Mr Kennedy’s and that it is not sustainable for the Scottish Government and one of its public bodies to take opposing interpretations of the law.

Ms Mandeville continued:-

The secretary for rural affairs has written a direct personal reprimand to the convener, who should now do the honourable thing and stand down right away.

Commissioner Murdo Maclennan’s apparent assertion after the Commission’s recent board meeting is that the board is backing Kennedy.  Does the Crofting Commission convener agree with the board? Does the board unanimously support the convener? It is natural for a board to attempt to portray a consensus, but is this really the case?

Fergus Ewing, in his letter as reported by the BBC, expresses his grave concern that policy decisions may be taken without a clear mandate from the Crofting Commission’s board. This suggests such concerns are also held by Scottish Government.

Colin Kennedy must accept the reality that it is time for him to go.

Crofting Convener must go

Crofting Convener must go - says Lewis and Harris Crofters MeetingThe overwhelming message that came out of the Lewis and Harris Crofters’ Meeting was that the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, must go.

Over 80 people attended the meeting, organised by the Scottish Crofting Federation, in Stornoway Town Hall on 3 August.

I will reproduce some of the reports of the meeting that have appeared in the media.

“Lack of Trust” in the Crofting Commission – BBC Naidheachdan

On Wednesday night, more than 80 people gathered at a meeting in the Stornoway town hall to discuss the impact of unrest/conflict between the Crofting Commission and the Grazing Committees.

They put forward a vote of no confidence in the commission, and agreed that Colin Kennedy should resign from his position as the convener of the Crofting Commission.

The Commission had no official representation at the meeting.

Iain MacIver who is himself a Township Clerk said:-

The turnout tonight shows the interest in crofting, and how worried people are of the situation as it is now that they understand it.

It is easy to see that people are very angry about the way in which some of the villages were dealt.

They want to see how the Commission works, and how the law works, lessons to be learnt so that crofting stands in a better position.

The lack of trust vote shows the feelings that are there, but at the end of the day it is up to the government what they are going to do.

I think that the thing that worried people most, was if the people going forward were to be idle in their roles as Town Clerk , and also the Commission itself with the situation as it is now.

But we hope in the coming months that people will gain confidence and be given the right guidance so that crofting can be strengthened, instead of weakened, and that the Government endeavours to make this happen, and that they won’t ruin it as people suspected they would.  That was the consensus this evening.

Crofters make it clear: The Commission can stay but the Convener has to go – Scottish Crofting Federation

A meeting attended by eighty crofters in Stornoway concluded that a Crofting Commission is good for crofting, but it is currently not fit for purpose so the convener, Colin Kennedy, must go.

A crofting meeting organised by the Scottish Crofting Federation held in Stornoway last week, attended by eighty crofters from townships all over Lewis and Harris, gave a clear message to the Scottish Government: the convener of the Crofting Commission must step down; the Upper Coll grazings committee must be re-instated; the current Crofting Commission must be sorted out by Scottish Government but, nonetheless, a Commission is essential to crofting.

Vice-chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation (SCF), Russell Smith, said:-

It was a loud and clear message coming out of a very lively but thoughtful discussion. This is not knee-jerk reaction; the attack on common grazings committees by the Crofting Commission has been on-going now for several months so crofters have had plenty of time to think about this. It is not surprising that there is a call for the convener of the Commission to stand down and for deposed committees to be re-instated. It is perhaps more notable that, despite what is widely regarded as very poor behaviour, the Crofting Commission is still wanted, albeit following a thorough review and improvement of procedures. I think that this is a very sensible approach.

The meeting heard presentations from representatives of the removed Lewis grazings committees, SCF, Inksters Solicitors and Scottish Government, not only on the topic of the Crofting Commission but also on CAP, support to crofting and advocacy for crofting. The meeting, that sometimes became quite heated, was well-chaired by SCF member Donald MacSween.

Mr Smith continued:-

We can understand the Scottish Government’s reluctance to interfere with a majority-elected body, but the meeting was united in its view that the Scottish Government does have to intervene in this circumstance. The procedures of the Commission clearly need to be investigated and modified to stop this sort of thing happening again. The Crofting Commission may well be an ‘arms-length government body’, but the Scottish Government still has a responsibility to make sure that the Commission operates in a fair and reasonable manner – and does possess the powers to intervene, for example by removing a Commissioner, if it sees fit.

Following discussions a vote was called on the motion:-

this meeting has no confidence in the existing Crofting Commission and supports the SCF call for the resignation of the convener Colin Kennedy.

The motion was passed by an overwhelming majority.

Anger in Stornoway aimed at commission – West Highland Free Press

The sense of anger at the recent actions of the Crofting Commission was laid bare at a public meeting in Stornoway last week attended by over 80 people, which delivered an overwhelming vote of no confidence in the organisation and called for the resignation of its convener Colin Kennedy….

As the meeting was drawing to a close a vote of no confidence in the existing commission was passed as well as a call for the resignation of its convener. An overwhelming majority supported the moves with only five of those present against – three of whom are the crofters in Upper Coll who raised the original complaint against the committee, including a father and son.

The Crofting Commission’s Response – Island News and Advertiser

The Crofting Commission is committed to working positively with grazings committees and crofters. At present, the Commission is undertaking an examination of the circumstances of the recent cases, so that any lessons learnt can inform future procedures and decision-making.

A majority of the Crofting Commissioners are elected by crofters, with no involvement on the part of Commission staff in the process, so any consideration of their position is a matter for the individual Commissioner.

It should not be forgotten that consideration of the position of Crofting Commissioners is also a matter for Scottish Ministers and I will look at that further in my next post.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: © BBC Alba

21 crofters to share over £705,000 from Croft House Grant Scheme

Fergus Ewing MSP announces £705,000 of Croft House GrantsCrofters will benefit from better housing through funding under the Croft House Grant Scheme.

Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity, Fergus Ewing, confirmed 21 crofters will share over £705,000 from the scheme. The funding allows crofters to build or improve homes, helping to retain and attract people to rural communities in the crofting counties of Scotland.

Since the start of 2007, over £15 million of grant payments have been awarded. From 1 April 2016, changes made to the grant support mechanism include a significant increase in individual grants, with some crofters now eligible for £38,000 of funding.

Mr Ewing confirmed the funds on a visit to a recently constructed croft house near Kiltarlity in the Highlands. He said:

Good quality housing is essential for crofters. We need to draw people to Scotland’s most remote and rural communities and the Croft House Grant can do that. Upgrading or building new properties can help crofters fulfil their duty to live on or close to their croft and can help them undertake additional agricultural activity.

This funding will make a real difference to 21 crofters and their families across the Highlands, Western Isles, Northern Isles and Argyll. Since 2007 over 800 homes have been improved or built under the scheme. It is great to see how this support can make a difference and I look forward to hearing many more success stories from the latest awards.

Mark Wiper crofts at Ardendrain near Kiltarlity in Inverness-shire. He received £11,500 through the scheme in 2012, enabling him to build a three bedroom family home on his croft. He said:

The funding from the Croft House Grants Scheme went toward building Tigh Na Cleit. I’ve been there for two years now and being able to live on the croft I’m working on is great. Beforehand, I was living at home with my parents and having my own home has given me much needed independence.

The grant has provided me the opportunity to build a property that is completely fit for purpose, and allows me to still live close to my family. Crofting can be very challenging and any support to help maintain the way of life is welcome.

The 21 grants referred to are being made to crofters in the following locations:-

  • Caithness
  • Inverness-shire
  • Isle of Lewis
  • Isle of Skye
  • Isle of Islay
  • North Uist
  • Ross-shire
  • Shetland
  • Sutherland

For details of the scheme see: The Scottish Government – Rural Payments – Croft House Grant

Time for Kennedy to go

The Scottish Crofting Federation has called for the resignation of the convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, following the exposure of the Commission having taken action on grazing committees against legal advice.

It is clearly time for Kennedy to go”, said the Chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation, Fiona Mandeville. She continued:-

We’ve asked many times for an explanation but to no avail. Documents obtained through Freedom of Information are unequivocal; the board of the Crofting Commission, headed by Colin Kennedy, chose to ignore policy and legal advice and proceeded to impose, what lawyers are saying are illegal, constables upon grazing shareholders whose committees the Commission had removed from office. So much anguish has been caused by this whole debacle and now, as suspected, we can clearly see that Kennedy led the Commission down this destructive route.

The commissioners have behaved as a board would be expected to in closing ranks and taking joint responsibility. But it would do no good for crofting were all commissioners to resign. Kennedy was closely implicated in the sackings of the committees and, as convener, is accountable. He must do the honourable thing: leave.

Fiona Mandeville concluded:-

It is time to review not only what went wrong and how to put procedures in place to prevent this sort of thing happening again, but to also look at the wider purpose of the Crofting Commission. There have been a few calls for the disbanding of the Commission, a natural reaction to the grief it has caused. But our members are still supportive of having an independent body that oversees crofting. This convener got too inflated over legislation, spouting ‘the express will of Parliament’. But with him gone we can work with the Commission again, picking up on the excellent progress made with the five priorities for crofting. It is time to consider reinstating the responsibility for crofting development with the Commission; it was supposed to have been moved to HIE, though this transition never happened. If the Crofting Commission takes crofting development back with crofting regulation we would see a more rounded, holistic body representing Scottish Government working for crofting.

Back to the Future of Crofting

Back to the Future of Crofting

But Doc, nothing has changed in 10 years!

If you were to travel back in time 10 years ago to the day you would find a headline in The Scotsman that read ‘MSPs heap pressure on Crofters’ Commission with criticism of bill‘.

It was 5 July 2006 and on that day the Scottish Parliament’s Environment and Rural Affairs Committee released its findings on the Crofting Reform Bill after taking evidence at five meetings that year.

Some salient points from The Scotsman’s report from then:-

Critics of the commission during the evidence-gathering sessions included the National Trust for Scotland, which said the commission’s work is regarded as “inconsistent and ineffective”. The Scottish Crofting Foundation also gave an example of the “long-term regulatory failure” in one township where 11 out of 19 croft holders are absentees despite demand from prospective new entrants.

The report adds: “The committee was struck by the range of negative comments and the depth of frustration and long-standing dissatisfaction expressed by witnesses about the commission’s practice.”

It also said it was “astonished” a proper register of crofts has not been produced despite it being a statutory obligation on the commission for over 50 years.

Rob Gibson, the SNP’s land reform spokesman, said the bill offers no vision for the future of crofting and said successive governments had failed to ensure the commission does it job.

The report in The Scotsman also mentioned Brian Wilson, the former Government Minister, saying of the report:-

The whole thing has turned into an indictment of the Crofters’ Commission and its failure to implement its regulatory role. I think they [the commission board] should now consider their positions.

Fast forward 10 years and not much has changed. It is now called the Crofting Commission as opposed to the Crofters Commission. Similar but perhaps more acute criticism is being laid at its door. Indeed, I was speaking to a crofter just today who said that the Crofting Commission of 2016 is much worse than its predecessor, the Crofters Commission, was 10 years ago.

Headlines in the news over the past few weeks have included:-

Crofting Comission branded as ‘dictatorial, vindictive and unjustified’ by Upper Coll crofters

Row between national body and local crofters on Lewis deepens

Crofting Commission ‘flouting the will’ of Parliament

Crofting commissioner resigns in Lewis grazings row

Pressure grows on Crofting Commission as row over committees continues

Demands intensify for inquiry into operations of Crofting Commission

Crofting Commission “cover-up” blasted

Sleat storm surrounds Crofting Commission

Crofting Commission’s Mangersta U-turn welcomed, but calls for government investigation continue

It was in the wake of the near collapse of the Crofting Reform Bill in 2006 that pressure from the Scottish Crofting Federation led to Scottish Ministers commissioning a Committee of Inquiry on Crofting. This was chaired by Professor Mark Shucksmith. The Committee of Inquiry on Crofting undertook many community meetings throughout 2007 and delivered their final report in 2008.

The Shucksmith Report commented on the Governance of Crofting as follows:-

Crucial issues for the governance of crofting are transparency, source of legitimacy, accountability and the balance of central and local interests. Centralised arrangements,
together with a lack of clear functional boundaries between the key institutions, particularly
between the Crofters Commission and the Scottish Government, cloud the lines of public
accountability for the effective governance of crofting. Recurring themes in the evidence
were that the Commission should be more accountable; have greater area representation;
should enforce regulations more effectively; should be better aligned with other relevant partners; and should have closer communication with local people and Grazings Committees.

All issues that appear to remain today. Perhaps that is because in introducing the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 2010 the then Scottish Parliament ignored many of the recommendations actually contained in the Shucksmith Report.

There is currently a major crisis in crofting. The consensus of opinion appears to be that the problems are caused by the Crofting Commission and the decisions taken by them and manner in which they execute those decisions.

A recent online poll conducted by The Scottish Farmer indicated that 96% of readers who took part considered that the Scottish Government should enact an independent inquiry into the workings of the Crofting Commission.

The Scottish Farmer in conducting this poll stated:-

The level of criticism has mounted so quickly that it is now incumbent on the Scottish Government to institute an independent external audit of the commission.

And, if the Crofting Commissioners feel the criticism to be unjust, they too should welcome independent scrutiny of their actions.

One thing is for sure, Scottish ministers cannot continue to sit on their hands on this one. Action must be taken swiftly and decisively!

I sincerely hope that in 10 years from now we don’t look back and say that nothing has really changed and indeed the situation at the Crofting Commission has got worse not better. The Scottish Government has the opportunity to change the future and must now do so.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: Back to the Future © Amblin Entertainment

You might think that, I couldn’t possibly comment

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

There comes a point where actions speak louder than words

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

Rhoda Grant MSP asked the Scottish Government:-

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

Fergus Ewing MSP answered:-

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

Rhoda Grant MSP also asked the Scottish Government:-

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

Fergus Ewing MSP answered:-

The Scottish Government has no current plans to do so.

In addition Rhoda Grant MSP asked the Scottish Government:-

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

Fergus Ewing MSP answered:-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An inquiry is necessary to answer questions such as:-

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

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

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

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

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: House of Cards © BBC

Common Grazings and the Spirit of the Law

Patrick Krause

Patrick Krause

I continue to catch up with news of ‘The Common Clearances‘ since I returned from holiday. With the amount of new news on this topic being generated daily this week that is a difficult task!

On 25 May 2016 Patrick Krause, Chief Executive of the Scottish Crofting Federation, published a piece on the Federation’s website. I now reproduce it here in its entirety with a small comment at the end from myself on the question of the will of Parliament.

 

The Spirit of the Law
The inexplicable case of a public body confusing legal dogma with good sense 

The Crofting Commission website says “The Crofting Commission regulates and promotes the
interests of crofting in Scotland to secure the future of crofting.” Following the summary
dismissal of two (or more) grazings committees; the foisting of grazings constables upon the
dismembered grazings; the demolition of crofters’ characters; the contradiction and confusion,
it is no wonder that crofters and those with crofting interests are standing agog and are asking
“What is going on in the Crofting Commission?” It is not for me to make any judgement on the
legalities of the fracas that has been taking place over the past month – crofting lawyers are
willingly giving opinion – but I will attempt to explain the essence. Common grazings are the
epitome of communal working, yet this is a spectacularly detrimental exercise in public
relations by the Commission that threatens the very core of crofting communities. I wonder
what the motive is.

One committee was summarily dismissed for not presenting fully audited accounts. Previously
the Commission had issued official guidance that ‘audited’ did not mean fully audited in the
legal (and expensive) sense, but could be taken to mean an independent examination – the
Commission were taking a “light-touch approach”. At the demand by the Commission for five
years annual accounts, the committee presented an independent examination of its accounts,
as is usual for small businesses and social enterprises and is perfectly acceptable to HMRC,
Companies House and the Charities Regulator. They were summarily dismissed for failing the
demand. This subsequent heavy-handed bombshell has naturally caused fear throughout
regulated grazings that they also are in breach for not having fully audited accounts.

A second committee was also summarily dismissed (both grazings then had a constable foisted
upon them by the Commission, which a leading crofting lawyer claims is not legal in these
circumstances), in this case for not distributing income from resumption. Though the only
shareholder asking for his tiny share of the resumption money was an absentee, legally he had
the right to it, we are told by the Commission.

It is hard to understand why this committee was unexpectedly sacked when it had attempted
to pay the absentee, under guidance of the Commission (and the other was also instantly
sacked even though it had seemed to have complied with all the demands of the Commission).
But let’s leave the detail and look at the principle.

The law says that money due as part value of resumption may be paid by the landlord to the
clerk of the committee for distribution by the clerk among the crofters concerned. The law is
not prescriptive in saying when or how the distribution is to take place. The Commission has
added in its regulations the word “immediate”.

For years grazings committees have managed finance in a workable, business-like fashion.
Income generated from anything, such as resumption of land, schemes for development or
through managing agri-environment schemes, is put in the bank. As in any business,
expenditure on carrying out maintenance or improvements is deducted before any profit is
disbursed to shareholders. If a grazings committee was expected to take all income and pay it
out as dividends to shareholders before deducting expenditure, only to then have to recover
from all shareholders their share of the expenditure, it would be a complete nonsense.

Hobbling grazings by making them produce fully audited accounts, when other similar
businesses or voluntary groups don’t, and making them run an unworkable cash-flow, that no
business would, could not have been the intention of the law, but this is what it seems the
Crofting Commission is trying to enforce, presumably at considerable public cost.

The Commission argue that it is only carrying out its interpretation of the law; but why now
and so destructively? If the Crofting Act is wrong (as much of it has proven to be) it could be
put in ‘The Crofting Law Sump’ for future rectification and the Commission could quietly
resolve the issues, rather than turning this into a public, highly-charged stand-off. If it is
enforced, grazings committees cannot comply so will resign (or be dismissed) and the grazings
will leave regulation – unless the Commission then imposes constables on all grazings.

The Commission clearly knows a lot more about regulation than I, and knows what the
consequences of this will be, but are keeping quiet about its objective. How does this fit with
the Crofting Commission Policy Plan in which it says “The Commission regards the shared
management and productive use of the common grazing to be essential for the sustainability
of crofting. To that end it will … work with crofting communities to promote the establishment
of effective grazing committees and will actively support established committees”?

The Convener of the Crofting Commission is implicated in the fracas perhaps more than a
convener ought to be, having had complaints raised against him for behaviour at one of the
grazings meetings and having turned up unannounced at the other. He came to ‘observe’
apparently. The chair would not allow him to participate as he had a conflict of interest, and it
was surely odd that he was allowed to stay at all, this being the case, and it being against the
wishes of crofters present.

The convener has been widely quoted as saying the Commission is to deliver “the express will
of Parliament”. He would do well to go back and look at the passage of the Bill that became the
2010 Act to see what the will of Parliament was. The will of Parliament is not necessarily the
letter of the law, or in this case, the Crofting Commission interpretation of it, if it is bringing
about the demise of regulated common grazings.

Patrick Krause (Chief Executive of the Scottish Crofting Federation)

Comment on the Will of Parliament

Patrick is correct to highlight the fact that the Commission are certainly not delivering “the express will of Parliament”. This is something I will return to in detail in a later blog post with a clear analysis of what the will of Parliament actually is on this issue. This should also, actually, help to spell out the letter of the law on the matter. It should be noted that to date the Crofting Commission has not given any explanation with reference to the law as to why they are taking the stance or actions that they are and have been taking.

Brian Inkster

Update – 20 June 2016: Crofting Commission flouts the will of Parliament

Fergus Ewing is new Cabinet Secretary for Crofting

Fergus Ewing - New Crofting MinisterScottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, today announced her new Scottish Cabinet and ministerial team.

Crofting now falls within the portfolio of the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity. Fergus Ewing has been appointed to that cabinet position.

Jim Hunter, in response to my last blog posttweeted:-

Among the 63 SNP MSPs is a poor soul about to be appointed Minister for Crofting – ‘poisoned chalice’ doesn’t cut it.

John MacPherson responded:-

A Minister for Crofting will need (at least!) a degree in theology and good pair of knee-pads!

Fergus Ewing will certainly have his work cut out in dealing with the issues surrounding ‘The Common Clearances‘.

To what extent Fergus Ewing may be assisted by Humza Yousaf remains to be seen. Humza Yousaf has been appointed Minister for Transport and the Islands acting as junior minister to the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity. The current controversy arises from actions taken by the Crofting Commission against Common Grazings Committees on the Isle of Lewis.

John Finnie MSP submitted a Parliamentary Question on the issue for answer by the Scottish Government. It reads:-

To ask the Scottish Government what its position is on the suspended Mangersta grazing committee on the Isle of Lewis and whether it has a role to play in the mediation of this matter.

The answer to that question and many others posed in recent weeks is now awaited with much interest and anticipation.

Brian Inkster