Tag Archives: Freedom of Information

Colin Kennedy and the Holy Grail

i-am-your-kingThe Scottish Farmer today gives space for Colin Kennedy, Convener of the Crofting Commission, to tell them about his “crofting crusade!”. This follows hot on the heals of a huge press offensive on his part over the past week with appearances/articles in Sunday Politics Scotland, The Oban Times and BBC Radio Highlands & Islands.

The story is the same: He is right and everyone else is wrong.

He has again stressed that his sole motivation is:-

to uphold crofting law, and defend the statutory rights of ordinary crofters

It has been shown that this is very much his own interpretation of crofting law and not one supported by the Scottish Government or by his fellow commissioners.

He has, however, again rounded on the Scottish Government and the cabinet secretary responsible for crofting, Fergus Ewing MSP, with The Scottish Farmer reporting Mr Kennedy as:-

bluntly accusing him [Mr Ewing] of perpetrating a cover-up of ScotGov’s historic role in a quagmire of maladministration.

He labours on about his views on the illegalities of common grazings obtaining SRDP funding which, as has been pointed out many times before, is not any business of the crofting regulator but a matter for the Scottish Government, the EU and crofters.

Mr Kennedy claims that:-

The commission has taken legal advice from Sir Crispin Agnew QC and it is my understanding that a grazing committee does not merit claiming subsidies, as only individual shareholders with grazing rights are eligible, provided that they comply with the provisions of the legislation for such activity.

Does Mr Kennedy have the approval of the Board of the Crofting Commission to discuss in public this legal advice obtained by the Commission? If not he is breaking that code of conduct again that he was keen to discuss on BBC Radio Highlands & Islands. This is, of course, true in relation to much that he has said over the past week.

Obtaining such a legal opinion was probably outwith the remit of the Crofting Commission in any event. It is understood that Mr Kennedy was instrumental in having it obtained. It is further understood that whilst the Board may have considered this legal opinion when produced they did not use it as a base for any decisions made.

The Scottish Government stated that it “wholly disagrees” with the views on SRDP funding held by Mr Kennedy. This would appear to include the legal opinion that he still clings to.

Those views, like his ones on VAT registration, were potentially all about depriving crofters of funding and had nothing to do with upholding crofting law and defending the statutory rights of ordinary crofters.

well-i-didnt-vote-for-you

Mr Kennedy again showed the huge divide between himself and the Crofting Commission Board and the fact that he was not in fact supporting decisions taken by the Board such as accepting the Government’s position on SRDP and disbursement of funds.

Mr Kennedy proceeded, in his interview with The Scottish Farmer, to attack the former Upper Coll Grazings Committee stating that they:-

have a lot to answer on behalf of shareholders.

Again this is completely at odds with the position taken by the Scottish Government and the Board of the Crofting Commission who have issued an apology to the grazings committee in question.

Mr Kennedy’s position in such circumstances is completely untenable.

mandate-from-the-masses

On the subject of Colin Souter, the grazings ‘constable’ at Upper Coll, Mr Kennedy denies any involvement in his appointment or that he is “his man“. He points the finger on Chief Executive, Catriona Maclean, for the appointment “without reference to the agreed board process“.

However, Freedom of Information requests reveal evidence that Mr Kennedy’s version of events may be one painted through rose tinted glasses. His memory again may not be serving him well.

A document produced by the Crofting Commission states:-

Following the Board meeting on 9th May the Convener, Vice Convener, and CEO met by phone to agree who should be appoint4ed [sic] to the post of Grazings constable in the Upper Coll Common Grazings.

So Mr Kennedy was very involved in the selection process.

The selection committee considered four potential candidates for the job and concluded that:-

Mr Souter has experience in working with crofters and grazings committe4ss [sic] through his time in the Police. An ex-chief inspector and force negotiator who comes from south Usit [sic] Mr Souter has both the skills and experience to deal with this matter and therefore he was selected to be appointed constable.

So Mr Kennedy was in fact party to and appointed Mr Souter to the post in question.

There is also evidence of direct communication between Mr Souter and Mr Kennedy. For example an e-mail from the former to the latter on 24 May 2016 which reads:-

Hi Colin

In looking to progress a meeting with the shareholders at Upper Coll, in the near future, I wanted to ensure the venue was appropriate and given you’ve been out there, I wondered if you had an idea on the best venue option and perhaps a secondary one, if circumstances require?

Kind Regards

Colin

Colin Souter

No evidence was produced from the Freedom of Information request as to whether or not recommendations were given by Mr Kennedy to Mr Souter on the comfort of the chairs at possible venues in Upper Coll. But this exchange does prove that there was indeed direct communication between the two as previously suggested on this blog.

Furthermore Mr Kennedy was taking a direct interest in matters by requesting to see minutes of meetings held by Mr Souter at Upper Coll, all as disclosed from information obtained through Freedom of Information.

Mr Kennedy in discussion with The Scottish Farmer refers to the whole grazings committee issue being “a can of worms” but stressed that to his knowledge it was only a problem specifically on Lewis. He is reported as having “quipped“:-

as previously stated in the board room things are often done differently in Lewis.

What about in Lochaber? Has Mr Kennedy also forgotten about the grazings committee he and his fellow commissioners put out of office there? Has he forgotten about how instrumental he was in ensuring the appointment of a grazings ‘constable’ there who would do his bidding?

It has, however, been commented on before that Lewis appeared to be a particular target for the convener. It is unclear why. But perhaps that will eventually come out in the wash.

Mr Kennedy is quoted by The Scottish Farmer as saying:-

But now I’ve put my head on the block in trying to get to grips with the truth. I know people are queuing up to get me out but I am not letting this rest. I’m not going to jump, so I will probably be pushed. If that happens my solicitor is standing by.

That solicitor will have a difficult hill to climb. The evidence seems to me to be firmly stacked against Mr Kennedy and has been since my first blog post on ‘The Common Clearances‘. Subsequent events and revelations from Freedom of Information requests has just fortified that position.

im-invincible

Mr Kennedy’s version of events, as given to the press this past week, appears to show a selective memory with many gaps to fill. I and others who post comments attempt to fill those as best we can on this blog.

Mr Kennedy, like Mr Souter, appears to be searching for a justification for his discredited actions. I doubt that he will ever find it.

Brian Inkster

Image Credits: Monty Python and the Holy Grail © Python (Monty) Pictures

Catriona moves on from herding the Commissioner(s)

Herding cat(s) at the Crofting Commission

Or was there just one cat at the board room table?

It was announced by Catriona Maclean, at a meeting of the Scottish Government Crofting Stakeholder Forum in Inverness this morning, that she was stepping down as Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission from early October.

She has taken a promotion within the Scottish Government as Deputy Director of the Food, Drink and Rural Communities Division.

Catriona said:-

I will be leaving the Crofting Commission to take up a promotion as Deputy Director of Food, Drink and Rural Communities Division from late October. I am delighted to have been asked to lead on such a key area of work for the Scottish Government.

The Food and Drink sector covers a wide range of industries and creates both jobs and wealth for Scotland. It also has an impact on health and sustainability and I look forward to working with stakeholders to ensure the sector maximises its impact.

That said, it is not without a great deal of sadness that I leave the Crofting Commission and my staff who are all dedicated to providing an excellent service to crofters. Scottish Government is taking steps to fill the vacancy my departure creates and I am confident that the transition will be as smooth as possible and that continuity of service provision will be maintained.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank staff, Commissioners and stakeholders for the support they have given me in the last 3½ years and wish them well for the future.

It is a shame to see Catriona leaving the Crofting Commission at a critical time when there is still so much to be resolved in connection with the Common Grazings debacle.

It appears clear from documents obtained via Freedom of Information requests that Crofting Commissioners acted contrary to her advice in appointing grazing constables in circumstances where she had advised them it was illegal to do so.

It must have been difficult for her to be in the situation of providing proper and valid executive advice to a board who ignored it. Perhaps no surprise then that she is moving onto bigger and better things when the opportunity arose.

I wish her well in her new role which I imagine comes with the joy of no board to herd!

The Scottish Government now need to act swiftly by putting in an interim Chief Executive at the earliest possible opportunity. That Interim Chief Executive must try and resolve the internal conflict that clearly exists within the board and the issues surrounding Common Grazings that appear to have been created by the Convener. The question of seeking to prevent shareholders receiving SRDP and, possibly also, VAT funding being particularly serious.

There have been many calls for the Convener to step down and crofters will possibly be wishing that today’s news revolved around such a resignation rather than seeing the Chief Executive leaving the organisation.

Brian Inkster

The cost of the Common Clearances

The Cost of the Common ClearancesIn my last post I revealed how much the grazings constables (appointed illegally in my opinion and in the opinion of others, including knowingly by the Crofting Commission itself) were being paid.

But what has been the overall cost of the alleged abuse of power within the Crofting Commission that has been dubbed ‘The Common Clearances‘?

A Freedom of Information request has disclosed that as at 1 July 2016:-

  • Colin Kennedy, Marina Dennis, William Swann and David Campbell (all Commissioners) together with a member of staff travelled to Stornoway to attend a meeting of the Mangersta shareholders on 16-17 May 2016 at an overall costs including flights, accommodation and subsistence of £2,005.
  • Donna Smith (Crofting Commission member of staff) and Colin Souter (‘Grazings Constable’) went to visit Upper Coll shareholders on 23 June 2016 at a cost of £852.40.
  • The cost of the ‘grazings constables’ as disclosed in my last post was £5,886.85.
  • Thus adding these figures together gives a total cost of £8,744.25.

But that figure is very much the tip of the iceberg.

There was an earlier visit to Lewis by the Crofting Commission to meet shareholders at Upper Coll before the decision was taken to remove the grazings committee from office.

There is the huge number of hours spent by Scottish Government officials, Crofting Commission officials and Crofting Commissioners on the debacle.

There is the legal expenses incurred by the Crofting Commission which reputedly includes the engagement of external counsel.

One of the grazings constables purports to still be in ‘office’ carrying out wholly unnecessary and dubious activities that he will no doubt still be paid for.

All costs that could and should have been avoided and better spent on the legitimate and proper regulation of crofting.

But perhaps more significant is the human cost. Something that cannot be quantified in pounds, shillings and pence. The devastating affect that the Crofting Commission has wrought on crofting communities with accusations of financial impropriety that have ultimately been withdrawn or still remain hanging.

One final observation: Why did the Crofting Commission meet the costs of their Convener, Colin Kennedy, attending the meeting in Mangersta in May 2016? He was not officially supposed to be there, he had a conflict of interest that was acknowledged but he insisted on attending albeit in silence. Was he doing so in a personal capacity rather than an official one? Whatever the position should the Crofting Commission have been meeting his travel and accommodation costs? A question (amongst many others) for Audit Scotland to answer perhaps.

Brian Inkster

How much are Grazings Constables paid?

How much are Grazings Constables paid

Hey… why are you getting £30 per hour and I’m not?!

In my last blog post I looked at who pays the Grazings Constables. This post will disclose how much they get paid.

In comments on the Island News & Advertiser when they published a letter from Colin Souter, the grazing constable for Upper Coll (illegally appointed in my opinion and the opinion of others, including the Crofting Commission itself) it was suggested that the going rate was £30 per hour.

Colin Souter disputed this figure. As that was, apparently, the figure obtained via a Freedom of Information (FOI) request in connection with the remuneration of the Mangersta Grazings Constable then perhaps different grazings constables have been paid different rates. If so then this would reveal yet more inconsistencies on the part of the Crofting Commission!

Another FOI request has disclosed that as at 1 July 2016 Donald Harrison (Mangersta Grazings Constable) had been paid or was due to be paid £4,659 and Colin Souter (Upper Coll Grazing Constable) had been paid or was due to be paid £1,227.85.

The Mangersta Grazings Constable had been carrying out activities (albeit illegally) much longer than the Upper Coll one at that point. Today the Mangersta Grazings Constable is no longer in ‘office’ but the Upper Coll one still purports to be and is no doubt still accepting payment for his activities despite the risks of so doing outlined by Donald Rennie.

Brian Inkster

Grazings Puppets

Grazings Puppets

Strings are attached when appointed a Grazings Constable by the Crofting Commission

Grazings Constables appointed by the Crofting Commission have asserted their independence from the Crofting Commission. It must be remembered though that these grazings constables have been illegally appointed, and in the full knowledge that this was the case, by the Crofting Commission. However, legal or illegal how independent were the appointments and how independent were the grazings constables?

A freedom of information disclosure has shown that they were perhaps not very independent at all. Certainly, it would appear, not in the eyes of the Chief Grazings Constable and Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy. He stated, prior to one of the grazings constables being appointed, in an e-mail to the Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, Catriona Maclean:-

I have had a man on from [name of grazings in question] delighted with the moves and if the Constable has any difficulty and backs out, he will willingly take the Constable position on and pay the monies.

Thus the Crofting Commission, or at least their Convener, was intent on putting henchmen in place to do their bidding. Something, once more, that the Crofting Commission had no power in law to do.

The first post on this blog about ‘The Common Clearances‘ made reference to alleged abuse of power within the Crofting Commission. 36 blog posts on the same subject matter later and the evidence is fairly clear that there was some substance to those allegations.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: Police Officers © Puppetville

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.

Crofting Convenergate?

Crofting Convenergate

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

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

Letter 1:  3 May 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letter 2: 18 May 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Letter 3: 23 June 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dr Iain MacKinnon

 

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

Main image credit: Carry on Cleo