Tag Archives: Great Glen House

Review highlights “notable and worrying failures” in governance within the Crofting Commission

Rural Economy Secretary, Fergus Ewing, has asked the Crofting Commission to take urgent action to improve performance in crucial areas following the publication of the Governance Review [PDF] undertaken on the instruction of the Scottish Government by business advisors and accountancy firm Scott-Moncrieff.

The Scottish Government ordered the Governance Review of the Crofting Commission following the crisis of confidence in the organisation due to the inappropriate actions taken on common grazings committees and the subsequent breakdown of relationships within the Commission.

A full action plan including prioritising work to deliver the necessary improvements in the way regulatory cases and Board proceedings are managed will be delivered in response to the findings of the Governance Review.

The Crofting Commission Governance Review highlighted a range of areas that need urgent action including:-

  • Governance standards, procedures and other arrangements, at both executive and non-executive levels, to underpin effective decision-making, particularly in relation to the Bohuntin, Upper Coll and Mangersta Common Grazings cases [Note: The review did not look at the regulatory decisions themselves]
  • Arrangements for handling conflicts of interest
  • Ensuring that capacity building and development needs of Board members are met and that the necessary training is provided.

Rural Economy Secretary, Fergus Ewing, said:-

This review highlights notable and worrying failures in the governance of the crofting commission which must be improved immediately. That is why I have asked the new Chief Executive to urgently prepare an action plan to take this forward.

Crofting is an integral part of Scottish rural life and it is essential that it has an effective regulator. This review, and the action plan which will follow, must help to deliver the necessary changes and ensure the commission is able to lead the crofting industry forward.

Crofting Commission Chief Executive, Bill Barron, said:-

A number of important points have been made in the governance review and we are committed to ensuring robust processes are in place to achieve a high standard of governance within the organisation.  I will be putting in place a full action plan to ensure these points are addressed, as requested by the Rural Economy Secretary.

We have already made some of the improvements recommended in the review and we are developing a comprehensive induction programme for the new Board of Commissioners following the elections in March 2017.

Continuous improvement within the Commission, and building on the recommendations from the review, will help us to create a focussed and effective organisation working to secure the future of crofting.

The Scottish Crofting Federation has welcomed the pledge by the Scottish Government to put in place an action plan to address the failures highlighted by the Governance Review. Their Chair, Russell Smith, said:-

The Governance Review of the Crofting Commission, instigated by Scottish Government at our request, has exposed many weaknesses in basic operating procedures and in how the organisation copes with extraordinary individual behaviours. The review has made it clear that a robust Commissioner appraisal process is required, to help identify and deliver ongoing training and skills development. We are particularly keen to see a rationalisation of the roles of Commissioners, establishing when they should be delegating to the executive staff or referring to other bodies that have the required expertise. Commissioners should have a strategic and advisory capacity only. It is clear that they got too involved with executive procedures that they did not have the competence or remit for.

The review team recognises the huge damage done to the reputation of the Commission by the in-fighting and particularly that the vote of no confidence in the convener did not achieve a tangible result, that is, his removal. Frustratingly, the review does not suggest how this will be resolved, though the government’s recent exoneration will open up options.

It is alarming that the review team found there to be fundamental inconsistencies and gaps in records of events that led to the breakdown of the organisation. This appears to have handicapped the review to an extent, and is telling in itself.

The list of areas for improvement is long and the minister for crofting, Mr Fergus Ewing, has instructed that an action plan to address them be put in place as a matter of urgency. This will, we hope, sort out some of the fundamental issues that allowed the near collapse of this significant organisation. We are strongly of the opinion that the purpose and role of Commissioners needs to be appraised and a clear boundary to be set between their overseeing strategy and the staff’s executive function. This seems critical to the health of the Crofting Commission.

No comment appears to have been made by the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, on the “notable and worrying failures” found whilst he was at the helm.

Mr Kennedy has, however, as part of his campaign for re-election to the South West Highlands seat on the Crofting Commission, stated to The Oban Times that his “experience prompted” him “to make representations to the Scottish Government, which included insisting an external review was required to establish what was, or was not, going on“. One would, therefore, think that the review was instigated at the insistence of Mr Kennedy!

It was, of course, as a result of the alleged abuse of power within the Crofting Commission whilst Mr Kennedy was in charge that I and the Scottish Crofting Federation, amongst others, called on Fergus Ewing to instigate a review into goings on at Great Glen House.

As far back as April 2016, I stated:-

In 1883 a Royal Commission (The Napier Commission) was set up by Gladstone’s Liberal Government. Its purpose was ‘to inquire into the conditions of the crofters and cottars in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland’ and everything concerning them. This came on the back of The Highland Clearances and ‘The Battle of the Braes’ where the Braes crofters stood up against the 50 policemen brought in from Glasgow following the loss of their hill pasture on Ben Lee and a rent strike in protest. The Report by the Napier Commission resulted in the first Crofters Act in 1886 providing security of tenure for crofters.

130 years after security of tenure was given to crofters a new form of clearance is happening in the Highlands and Islands: The clearance of common grazings committees by the Crofting Commission. They are wielding power in an unjustified and brutal manner reminiscent of landlords from the nineteenth century. We are about to see I believe ‘The Battle of Great Glen House’ (this time perhaps fought with paper and ink rather than stones) and the Scottish Government must now institute an inquiry into the actings of the Crofting Commission and everything concerning them.

In May 2016 the then Chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation, Fiona Mandeville, referring to a meeting held in Ullapool to discuss the common grazings crisis said:-

The meeting was unequivocal in its opinion of the Crofting Commission’s conduct. As well as a vote of no confidence in the Commission, the meeting thought that it would be appropriate for the convener of the Commission to stand aside whilst an investigation is carried out into the summary dismissals of grazings committees and the internal procedures of the Commission that has led to this debacle. The Scottish Crofting Federation fully supports this.

Then in June 2016 the Scottish Crofting Federation reiterated its call on Scottish Ministers to intervene in the crofting common grazings debacle and to instigate an external examination of the Crofting Commission, following revelations of a cover-up. Fiona Mandeville then said:-

We reiterate our petition that the Scottish Ministers intervene and ensure that an impartial examination of the Commission’s recent conduct is carried out by a competent external body.

This is extremely disappointing. It seems that the only way to deal with this is through an external audit of the Commission’s behaviour over the common grazings. And we do mean a full audit.

Also in June 2016 Brian Wilson writing in The Scotsman said:-

The immediate question is whether the Scottish Government is prepared to back their quango’s interpretation of the law and its heavy-handed approach to enforcement.

In the short term, a rapid inquiry into why the Crofting Commission has got itself into this mess and how it can be helped out of it may seem a relatively attractive option.

In September 2016 the West Highland Free Press called for decisive Ministerial intervention in the crofting crisis. Their editor stated:-

As crofting minister Mr Ewing has a duty to be open and transparent in the exercise of his responsibility.  He is not just another interested observer.

He also has a duty to the crofting community to ensure that its governing body adheres to best practice and does not trample crofters into the ground.

The West Highland Free Press have also, of course, repeatedly called on Fergus Ewing to remove Colin Kennedy as Convener of the Crofting Commission. They were of the view that “more than anybody else, Mr Kennedy spearheaded the assault on the grazings committees“.

So, no, it was not Colin Kennedy who asked for the Governance Review. But it was his actions that were certainly behind the call by the many who did want to see such a review and are not surprised at all by its findings. I will consider those findings in some detail in future posts on this blog.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: Commission on the Rocks – Cartoon © A concerned crofter

Last vacant Crofting Commissioner seat filled at last

The newest Crofting Commissioners, Malcolm Mathieson and James Scott, at their first Board meeting on 8 February 2017

The newest Crofting Commissioners, Malcolm Mathieson and James Scott, ready for their first Board meeting on 8 February 2017

The Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity, Fergus Ewing MSP, has announced the appointment of James Scott as a Commissioner of the Crofting Commission Board from 1 February 2017.


James Scott runs a business, focussing on training and assessing skills in rural businesses.  James has a strong agricultural and field sports background and has previously worked in deer and conservation in both the public and private sectors.  James has a particular interest in ensuring the future of crofting through making it attractive and accessible to new and young entrants and in growing the skills of these groups to allow them to be successful crofters.

Length of Terms and Remuneration

Mr Scott’s appointment is for three years and runs from 1 February 2017 until 31 January 2020.  The appointment is part time and attracts remuneration of £161.29 per day for a time commitment of around 4.5 days per month.

The appointment is regulated by the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland.

Welcome from Crofting Commission

Bill Barron, Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, said:

I would like to welcome James to the Commission and we look forward to working with him.  James’s expertise in conservation and interest in making crofting attractive and accessible to new and young entrants will be extremely valuable to the Board.

With a full Board of Commissioners we can work to ensure everything is in place for a smooth handover to the elected Commissioners in April 2017.

No statement has been released, as yet, by the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, regarding the appointment.

First Board Meeting

James Scott joined the other newly appointed commissioner Malcolm Mathieson for their first board meeting at Great Glen House on 8 February. What an eye opener that must have been for them with it being revealed at the meeting that threats of legal action made by the Convener, Colin Kennedy, hang over the commission and commissioners. More on that in my next post.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: © BBC Alba

Only one commissioner re-stands for election

crofting commissioners leave the sinking ship?

Is there something telling about so many of the crofting commissioners not standing for re-election?

It had been expected that Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council) would announce the candidates for the Crofting Commission Elections 2017 on Friday 27 January.

However, apparently, due to the large number of nominations received just before the deadline of Thursday, names of the candidates could not be released until Monday 30 January. And on Monday we discovered that those candidates are:-

East Highlands (East Sutherland, Easter Ross, East Inverness and Moray) 

  • Rod Mackenzie, Teanroit, Beauly.
  • Archie MacNab, Orsay, Old Inn Croft, Blairninich, Ross-shire.
  • John Ferme McMorran, Keepers House, Balnacoil, Brora, Sutherland.

South West Highlands (Lochaber, Argyll & Bute, Arran and Cumbrae, Small Isles)

  • Ronnie Campbell, 5 Bohuntin, Roy Bridge, Lochaber.
  • Colin Niall Kennedy, Croft No2, Arinagour, Isle of Coll
  • Catherine Mackinnon, Cul a’Bhile, Bohuntin, Roy Bridge.
  • Billy Neilson, 27 Cruachan Cottages, Taynuilt, Argyll.
  • Uilleam Smith, 2 Caledonian Road, Inverness.

West Highlands (West Sutherland, Wester Ross, Skye & Lochalsh)

  • Jonathan James Hedges, Caravan, Rossal, Rogart.
  • Stephen William Love, 13 Sand Passage, Laide, Wester Ross.
  • Mairi Mackenzie, Torran, Loggie, Lochbroom, Ullapool.
  • Peter O’Donnghaile (Donnelly), 5 Camustianabhaig, Portree.

Western Isles

  • Alasdair MacEachen, 15 Aird, Balivanich, Benbecula.
  • Iain Maciver, 23 Laxay, Isle of Lewis.

Only one nomination was received for Caithness & Orkney and also Shetland. Thus each candidate for those two constituencies is automatically elected and no election will take place.

Caithness and Orkney

  • Cyril  Annal, Stensigar, South Ronaldsay, Orkney.


  • Andy Holt, North House, Papa Stour, Shetland.

So only one of the existing elected crofting commissioners is standing for election again. That is the controversial convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy. All other existing elected commissioners have clearly had enough of the many problems that have beset their tenure in office. Much of which Colin Kennedy has received the blame for.

Thus the following commissioners will all vacate office following the elections:-

  • Marina Dennis – East Highlands
  • Ian George Macdonald – West Highlands
  • Murdo Maclennan – Western Isles
  • Arnold Pirie – Caithness and Orkney
  • Kathleen Sinclair – Shetland

There will be continuity in respect of one of the appointed commissioners, David Campbell, having already been appointed by the Scottish Government to serve a second term as a commissioner.

It is also interesting to note that Colin Kennedy’s seat (South West Highlands) is the most hotly contested one with five candidates fighting it out for a spot in Great Glen House.

The Scottish Crofting Federation welcomed the high number of nominations for the Crofting Commission elections citing it as a very positive sign for crofting. Their Chair, Russell Smith, said:-

The number of people willing to stand as candidates for the forthcoming Crofting Commission elections is very heartening. It shows that crofters care about the survival of crofting and the Crofting Commission. There is a resilience within the crofting community and the will to move on.

It is very positive that so many have stood to be counted in the Highland constituencies, especially in the South West. The Western Isles have 2 candidates but it was disappointing that Scottish Government did not take the opportunity to create further constituencies in such a large area. Orkney has relatively few crofts now so it is perhaps no surprise to have only one nomination but it is disappointing that Shetland only put forward one candidate when it is has so many well-worked crofts.

But we have enough candidates to run an election and to form a new Commission with crofter representation. That is what this is all about. We now need a good turnout to vote on 16th March, and await the Scottish Government to make the remaining appointment.

Brian Inkster

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

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

A chair fit for a Crofting Convener

a chair fit for a crofting convener

Is this comfy enough for you sir?

We have just, in the last post, been reminded about the conflict of interest on the part of the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, over goings on at Upper Coll.

This was where Colin Kennedy appeared to be instrumental in taking a decision to remove the former grazings committee from office. This was at a point where a formal complaint was still being dealt with by the Crofting Commission concerning his handling, as chairman, of a meeting of shareholders held at the Back Football and Recreation Club, Upper Coll, Isle of Lewis on 10 November 2015.

One of the more bizarre episodes (although there have been and continue to be many) in the whole Common Grazings debacle is how the Crofting Commission initially responded to that complaint.

One of the complaints arising from the meeting in question (and there were several) was that the meeting was chaired by Colin Kennedy in “an arrogant and dismissive manner“. This is how the Crofting Commission responded in writing to that particular element of the complaint:-

All members of the Commission who attended the meeting commented on the quality of the venue. They all complained about the seating arrangements which did not let them get their legs under the table which would have allowed them to sit up straight which may have led attendees to think the panel were being too casual. They also said the lighting was poor and general presentation of the room did not contribute to creating a positive atmosphere. The Commission agree that this is not helpful and have put in place a mechanism to check venues prior to meetings to ensure that they meet requirements. This includes discussing requirements in advance with providers and going to the venue prior to the meeting to check it is laid out as well as possible.

What! A complaint about the manner in which a meeting has been conducted by the Convener is turned around to being down to the meeting room in a crofting township not having adequate seats or lights!

I have, over the years, had plenty of meetings with crofters in village halls or similar venues throughout the crofting counties. They may not always be up to the luxurious surroundings enjoyed by Commissioners at Great Glen House but the facilities are always more than adequate for the purpose required.

The Land Court often have lengthy hearings in such halls and I have never heard a complaint from them about the facilities at hand.

As a crofting regulator you should accept the need to travel to the crofting counties and graciously accept the facilities offered to you. To suggest that those facilities are the root cause of the “posture, conduct and demeanour” of the Convener is surely a joke.

Are the Commission really now checking venues prior to meetings to ensure that they meet requirements? If they had a meeting in the far north reaches of Unst in Shetland, for example, would a scout from Great Glen House be flown up in advance to check that the seats were fit for the Convener? This would be at an additional cost of several hundred pounds to the public purse. If the facilities did not meet the high standards clearly required would a suitable chair then be flown in?

You couldn’t make it up.

Brian Inkster

The Crofting Bat Phone

The Crofting Bat Phone

Commissioner Gordon and Batman didn’t have a look in to the lines of communication available between the Crofting Commissioner(s) and their Grazings Constable!

There have been quite a few comments of late about the difficulties of getting a statement from the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy. He is elusive to say the least and seldom represents the views of the Board to the general public despite this being one of his “particular responsibilities” .

Other Commissioners have been thin on the ground of late as well with no Commissioner replacing the Convener when he failed to attend the Scottish Government Crofting Stakeholder Forum in Inverness on Tuesday. This left the Chief Executive, Catriona Maclean, representing the views of the Commission in front of BBC Alba after the meeting.

Getting clear and unambiguous information out of Commissioners when you can pin them down is also often a challenge.

One person who seems to have direct access without difficulty to Commissioners (which might include, or indeed mean, the Convener) is the Grazings ‘Constable’ of Upper Coll, Colin Souter. He certainly appears to be in possession of information that only Commissioners would have and that well in advance of such information being made available to anyone else outside of Great Glen House.

One example of that became clear at the meeting of the Scottish Government Crofting Stakeholder Forum in Inverness on Tuesday.

I had been aware from the published Agenda that the Board of the Commission had considered a paper at their meeting on 17th August on ‘Grazings Committees – A Practical Approach to the Management of Common Grazings’. There was no mention of that at the Stakeholder Forum so I enquired about it.

I was advised that the Crofting Commission was setting up a Stakeholders’ Working Group to advise on the revision of common grazings regulations and guidance. This paper from 17th August would be considered by that group at a meeting on 20th September. Only after that meeting would the paper in question (possibly after refinement? – but that was not made clear) be circulated to the wider Stakeholder Forum.

So at the moment members of the Stakeholder Forum had no knowledge of or access to what the paper in question said. A stark contrast to the access to that paper apparently afforded to Grazings ‘Constable’ Colin Souter.

In the letter issued by Colin Souter to Shareholders of the Upper Coll Common Grazings on 29th August he states:-

The Board of Commissioners at a recent meeting, considered a submission along the lines I set out at the July meeting, whereby Committees can operate within a defined financial framework which allows retention of funds (from any legitimate source) in the bank, up to a maximum agreed by shareholders, taking account of any commitments under Schemes and projects ongoing and an Emergency Reserve (set at perhaps 3-4 times the 3-year average annual maintenance costs) and exceeding that amount automatically triggers payment to shareholders, three or four times a year. In doing so, the administrative burden is minimised for the Committee and they are seen to be operating within an agreed and better regulated financial framework. Whilst the Commission has a clear role, as regulator, in ensuring feu monies are distributed to shareholders, I understand it does not otherwise seek any direct involvement in other areas of finance affecting shareholders. The proposal tabled is seen as an initiative worthy of testing, for the benefit of Upper Coll and the wider crofting community but it is a choice for shareholders to make.

So even before the Commission has had the first meeting of its new Stakeholders’ Working Group, to advise on the revision of common grazings regulations and guidance, Colin Souter is seeking to impose the guidance so far produced (that no one other than Commissioners, Commission Officials and Colin Souter have seen) upon one particular Common Grazings, namely Upper Coll.

The same is true about his access to an Opinion from Queen’s Counsel which it is presumed was instructed by the Crofting Commission. In his said letter to shareholders at Upper Coll he said:-

Following receipt of legal opinion from Queen’s Counsel, the position of Grazings Committees being able to register for VAT as trading entities in order to reclaim VAT has come under scrutiny. The dialogue with HMRC regarding VAT status remains ongoing and once concluded, I will be able to advise on the outcome.

When I asked about this opinion at the Crofting Stakeholder Forum there was “no comment” from the Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission on behalf of the Board.

It is highly unusual for the Crofting Commission to publish legal advice received by them in any event.

On the topic of legal advice: Colin Souter seems very ready to challenge what he considers to be illegal activities at Upper Coll. It would be very unusual for a clerk in a common grazings (that is effectively what Colin Souter is had he been legally appointed) to appear so sure about crofting law without having sought legal advice. Not that I would give much weight to any advice that Colin Souter is getting given, in my view, a clear misunderstanding on his part as to what the law actually is.

We know that he thinks that legal advice cannot be paid for from grazings funds. So where is he getting his crofting law advice from? Is it likewise coming from Commission officials and/or from Commissioners and/or from a Commissioner? An organisation with a Board that has been shown to ignore the law and lawyers.

Why and how did one grazings clerk (i.e. Colin Souter) get privileged access to all of this information before any other grazings clerk in the land and before the members of the Crofting Stakeholder Forum? In the case of the opinion from Queen’s Counsel this may never be divulged to any other grazings clerks or to any members of the Crofting Stakeholder Forum.

The only explanation can be direct and special contact between him and a Commissioner and/or Commissioners and/or officials within the Crofting Commission.

So much for the assertion that he is acting at arms length and independent from the Commission.

It also again highlights the fact that he is under the control of and acting at the behest of the Crofting Commission. A reader of this blog having referred to him as a “maor” (or ground officer).

Serious questions must be asked by the Scottish Government about this arrangement and, in the circumstances, the validity of any pronouncements by the Crofting Commission and/or their ‘Constable’ over the situation at Upper Coll.

The Crofting Commission will no doubt say that the Scottish Government cannot investigate the situation when it is subject to on going court proceedings. Those court proceedings may touch upon the legality of the appointment of the Grazings ‘Constable’ in the first place.

But even if we take it that the appointment was legal (although that is denied) then the Scottish Government should be looking at the propriety of the relationship that exists between such a legally appointed grazings constable and the Crofting Commission.

Is it correct and proper that he has been given an investigative remit? Is it correct and proper that he is being supplied with the information that he has been? If it is not then who gave that remit and/or supplied that information?

If that was a Commissioner are they therefore, in all the circumstances, “unable or unfit to exercise the functions of a member” or “unsuitable to continue as a member”? As such should the Scottish Ministers remove them from office under and in terms of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993?

Even worse if it were to transpire that it was the Convener who was embroiled in all of this. After all he has, for some time, been the subject of complaints about his handling of the affair at Upper Coll and so should not be involving himself in matters concerning Upper Coll until the relevant complaints process has been completed. To do so would be a clear conflict of interest. But there again that has not stopped him before.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: The Bat Phone from Batman (TV Series) © Greenway Productions / 20th Century Fox Television

Crofting VATgate

Hector the Inspector - HMRC Taxman - Crofting VATgate

Who is the VAT Inspector?

In his letter to shareholders at Upper Coll the grazings ‘constable’, Colin Souter (who was illegally appointed in my view, and in the view of others including, ironically, the Crofting Commission themselves) stated:-

Following receipt of legal opinion from Queen’s Counsel, the position of Grazings Committees being able to register for VAT as trading entities in order to reclaim VAT has come under scrutiny. The dialogue with HMRC regarding VAT status remains ongoing and once concluded, I will be able to advise on the outcome.

Why and how on earth was Colin Souter in receipt of legal opinion from Queen’s Counsel on the question of whether common grazings committees could be VAT registered?

A suggestion on this blog that Colin Souter may have instructed the Opinion was met with this response from Mr Souter:-

I should also point out that I have never sought legal advice from Queen’s Counsel in any context, since being appointed as Grazings Constable.

I then asked:-

Perhaps you can enlighten us as to how you came to be in “receipt of legal opinion from Queen’s Counsel” as stated in your letter to the Upper Coll shareholders?

Mr Souter has yet to answer my question.

So who instructed this legal opinion, who paid for it and why?

How did Colin Souter come to be in possession of it and why?

In his dialogue with HMRC is Colin Souter trying to stop VAT registration at Upper Coll Common Grazings and if so why?

It can only be assumed that the attempt to stop VAT registration of common grazings probably lies at the door of the Crofting Commission. Would this not be how a grazings ‘constable’ appointed by them would be in possession of such information?

We are already aware that the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, was of the view that common grazings should not receive SRDP funding. This very alarming notion (an issue that did not concern the crofting regulator and/or its convener in any way) was firmly quashed by Fergus Ewing MSP.

It is therefore not a giant leap to think that the Crofting Commission and/or their Convener might be behind this attempt to stop common grazings being VAT registered.

If that should prove to be the case it is scandalous.

Questions regarding whether crofters should be VAT registered or not have absolutely nothing to do with the Crofting Commission. It is a matter between crofters and HMRC.

Public money should not have been spent on the opinion of Queen’s Counsel on such matters. If that has happened Audit Scotland should be investigating the issue. Another one for them to add to the growing list for their next visit to Great Glen House.

But more significantly why is the Crofting Commission and/or their Convener intent on depriving crofters of income? First it was SRDP funding. Now it appears to be VAT.

Under and in terms of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 the Crofting Commission has as one of its functions:-

promoting the interests of crofting

On their website the Crofting Commission state that it:-

regulates and promotes the interests of crofting in Scotland to secure the future of crofting.

This statement links through to a general leaflet on crofting that states:-

The Crofting Commission is working to secure the future of crofting by creating and promoting a well regulated crofting system that positively contributes to the sustainability of rural communities.

By seeking to deprive crofters of SRDP funding and now, possibly, VAT the Crofting Commission cannot be said to be promoting the interests of crofting, securing the future of crofting or positively contributing to the sustainability of rural communities. Quite the contrary.

If Commissioners are acting in such a way, completely contrary to the functions that the Crofting Commission was established to carry out, then those commissioners responsible have no place in that organisation. They should be ashamed of themselves.

They are clearly “unable or unfit to exercise the functions of a member” or “unsuitable to continue as a member”. As such the Scottish Ministers may remove them from office under and in terms of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993. There have been repeated calls over recent months for such action to be taken but if ‘Crofting VATgate’ does fall at the door of the Convener and/or any other Commissioners then this surely is the final straw that broke the camel’s back.

Fergus Ewing MSP, as Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity with responsibility for Crofting, should immediately launch an investigation to get to the root of ‘Crofting VATgate’, publicise his findings for the benefit of crofters and take appropriate and decisive action against those responsible.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: Hector the Tax Inspector © HMRC