Tag Archives: Holyrood

Crofting Commission dodge answering questions

Dodging Bullets at the Crofting Commission

The Crofting Commission can stop your questions by simply not answering them!

The Cross-Party Group on Crofting has been waiting patiently on answers to 18 questions that they posed to the Crofting Commission. These were originally sent to the Crofting Commission in July 2016 then modified and sent in October 2016.

  1. Where in law it is stated that the Crofting Commission cannot revisit its own decisions?
  2. Why did the Crofting Commission chose to remove three grazings committees instead of work with them to improve things, if things needed improvement?
  3. Why were grazings shareholders not given the chance to elect a new committee when the Crofting Commission removed their committee, instead of moving straight to the appointment of a grazings constable?
  4. Does a removed committee have a right of appeal to the Crofting Commission?
  5. Where in law it is stated that the Crofting Commission has the power to appoint a Grazings Constable when they remove members of a grazing committee from office?
  6. Where in law it is stated that the Crofting Commission can extend the appointment of a Grazings Constable?
  7. Why is the Crofting Commission ignoring its own guidelines on the investigation of financial irregularities?
  8. Does the Crofting Commission maintain that all funds in a grazings bank account have to be disbursed immediately (including SRDP grants, as Mr MacLennan stated is the bulk of funds in the CPGoC)?
  9. If there are 3 levels of accounting as outlined by Mr MacLennan (examination by external qualified person such as local retired bank manager, prepared by qualified accountant on information supplied, full forensic audit), what are the thresholds at which each is required? Do they apply to balance or income? Who decides what is appropriate (given this was the reason Mr MacLennan gave for the Upper Coll grazings committee being removed by the Crofting Commission?)
  10. Why did the convener of the Crofting Commission involve himself in every one of these three cases and committee removals? Is this the job of a convener?
  11. Did the convener of the Crofting Commission declare his interest in the cases when the commissioners made their decision to move to removal?
  12. Does the Crofting Commission consider value for public money when pursuing cases?
  13. Mr MacLennan emphasised that the Crofting Commission were obliged to act as a shareholder had made a complaint. This does not square with the Commission’s dealings relating to other regulatory matters. We are aware of complaints made by shareholders with regard to absenteeism and neglect of crofts that go many years without commission action so it would be good to know why you are so diligent in pursuing grazings committees with such rigour. Has there been a policy change to target this type of regulatory issue (as there was previously with absentees)?
  14. Following the letter written to the Convener by Fergus Ewing concerning disbursement of common grazings funds to shareholders and SRDP funding there were mixed messages issued to the press by Commissioners. It appeared that the contents of the letter was supported but the Commission (or perhaps certain Commissioners) still thought they had done nothing wrong. Those two statements do not sit well next to one another. Can the Commission clarify their actual stance on the letter in clear terms for the benefit of this Group.
  15. Can the Commission explain why they have been questioning SRDP funding for and VAT Registration by Common Grazings?
  16. The Commission appear to be supporting their ‘constable’ Colin Souter and his behaviour at Upper Coll. Do they actually support a ‘constable’ who is having meetings with 4 shareholders and making decisions affecting 42 shareholders when 26 out of those 42 have signed a petition calling for his removal?
  17. Will the Commission advise the Group what remit was given to Constable Souter and why he appeared to be acting in an investigatory role rather than as an actual clerk.
  18. The latest revelation appears to be matters being decided by Commissioners via ‘brown envelopes’ rather than at board meetings. Can the Commission enlighten us further on this?

There were, in addition, two questions specifically posed to the Crofting Commission via the Cross-Party Group on Crofting by Iain MacKinnon on 1 November 2016:-

I would like to draw your attention to a letter by Colin Kennedy published this month in the Scottish Farmer. In the letter he draws the Scottish Crofting Federation’s attention to ‘the commission mole’ at the time of the ‘Susan Walker debacle’. Presumably he is referring here to the anonymous commissioner quoted by the West Highland Free Press when information was leaked to the paper and other media outlets about a letter signed by five commissioners – including Mr Kennedy – calling a meeting to discuss a potential vote of no confidence in Ms Walker. Mr Kennedy told the Scottish Farmer this month:

‘I can assure the SCF that prior to my becoming convener, the mole was identified and the information was provided to the appropriate persons to take the matter forward.’

At the Cross Party Group on Crofting’s meeting on 15th September last year, Jean Urquhart asked Mr Kennedy about the leak to the press.

He was unable to give her an answer and did not identify any ‘mole’ on that occasion. However, the then chief executive of the organisation was able to respond and this is noted in the minutes as follows:

‘What is being done about the fact that there was a leak to the press from a commissioner, which is a breach of the code of conduct?

While a newspaper claimed their was leak by a Commissioner, as Accountable Officer the CEO has carried out an internal investigation which found no evidence that any Commissioner had breached the code of conduct by leaking information on the matter to the press.’

I would like to hear from the Commission’s representative at the meeting how they reconcile these two statements and to ask again, in light of Mr Kennedy’s claim: what is being done about the leak to the press; and who was the ‘mole’ as described by Mr Kennedy in his letter to The Scottish Farmer.

Six months after the first questions were put to the Crofting Commission their Interim Chief Executive, Bill Barron, addressed them at the Cross-Party Group meeting at Holyrood on 25 January 2017 by stating that he didn’t intend to answer them but would like, instead, “to focus on the future“. He wanted to “draw a line under the rows of last year“. He acknowledged that “things had been done wrong” but there was “no merit in unpicking all of that“.

Mr Barron may have missed the fact that some of the rows of last year continue into this one.

He stated:-

Some of the specific issues raised in your questions have already been clarified by the Commission.  For example, we have confirmed that we agree with the Scottish Government’s position that there is nothing in the CAP rules that prevents the Scottish Government approving an SRDP application made by a grazings committee, and that we agree with the Scottish Government’s position regarding immediate disbursement of funds.

These, however, are two points that the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, still appears to be taking issue with and possibly still taking a contrary position on compared to his fellow commissioners and the official line of the Crofting Commission. This is all contrary to the doctrine of collective corporate responsibility. Indeed it is interesting to note that following the departure from the Crofting Commission of their former Convener, Susan Walker, Colin Kennedy, then Vice Convener, stated [PDF: Board Minutes – 13 May 2015]:-

I am sure that I speak on behalf of everyone when I say that today we are all equal with collective responsibility. In fact we are all Conveners, working together for the betterment of the Crofting Commission.

However, his publicly opposing views to that of the board clearly conflict with that statement.

The Guide for Board Members of Public Bodies in Scotland [PDF] states:-

While Board members must be ready to offer constructive challenge, they must also share collective responsibility for decisions taken by the Board as a whole. If they fundamentally disagree with the decision taken by the Board, they have the option of recording their disagreement in the minutes. However, ultimately, they must either accept and support the collective decision of the Board – or resign.

Colin Kennedy was not in attendance at the Cross-Party Group meeting on Wednesday night. He has only attended one meeting out of the five that have taken place since the start of the current Parliamentary term.

At the meeting in Holyrood on Wednesday night the Chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation, Russell Smith, asked Bill Barron if Colin Kennedy was still Convener and was still chairing Board meetings. Bill Barron answered both questions in the affirmative. Russell Smith then asked if the Board was working as it should to which Bill Barron replied “it is not easy but it is getting its work done“. How well, under the circumstances, it is getting its work done is, however, very debatable.

On the points raised by Ian MacKinnon the response from Bill Barron was:-

The same [i.e. not answering the questions] holds for Iain MacKinnon’s questions about a leak to the press, which was investigated by the previous CEO in 2015. Colin Kennedy’s more recent public comments about this appear to have been made in a personal capacity, but I can confirm that the Commission has no plans to re-examine this matter. Instead, my priority is to look forward to the upcoming elections and to prepare to give the best possible support to the new Board.

So it is all about looking forward and not looking back. However, you sometimes have to look back to learn from your mistakes before you can move forward and avoid making the same mistakes again.

Perhaps the Scottish Government’s review into the governance of the Crofting Commission will reflect more on the mistakes of the past and what needs to be done to prevent a recurrence of them. The Cross-Party Group on Crofting was advised on Wednesday by Gordon Jackson, Head of Rural Business Development and Land Tenure at the Scottish Government, that this review will be published “shortly“.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: The Matrix Reloaded © Village Roadshow Pictures, Silver Pictures and NPV Entertainment

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 Cross-Party Elephant?

The elephant in the crofting cross-party room

Was there an elephant in the room at the crofting cross-party group meeting?

The cross-party group on crofting met last Wednesday at Holyrood.

It was very ably chaired by Tavish Scott MSP. He is one of the three co-conveners of the group, having been elected along with Kate Forbes MSP at the last meeting to replace Michael Russell MSP after Mr Russell became Brexit Minister. Rhoda Grant MSP is the third co-convener of the group.

Fergus Ewing MSP, cabinet secretary with responsibility for crofting, was a special guest at the meeting.

Mr Ewing made it clear at the outset that he couldn’t comment in any respect on the current controversy regarding the convener of the Crofting Commission given the allegations made by him against Mr Ewing which are the subject of an independent investigation.

Mr Ewing outlined all that the Scottish Government is currently doing to assist crofting and its future.

In particular he discussed future crofting law reform. The Scottish Government wants to modernise crofting law and make it transparent, understandable and workable in practice. Mr Ewing made it clear that they very much wanted to listen with no precise timetable in mind.

Mr Ewing stressed the importance of taking time to get it right. I couldn’t endorse that view more and trust that we won’t see the chaos of a huge number of last minute amendments that was encountered in creating the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Bill in 2010. That was possibly partly responsible for many of the issues (not common grazings ones that were not affected by the 2010 legislation) that has led to the current Scottish Government having to tackle crofting law reform so soon again.

After Mr Ewing left the meeting we continued with the topic of crofting law reform. Derek Flyn outlined the background to the crofting law sump report which he described as a “collection of what is wrong with crofting law”.

Michael O’Neil, the newly appointed Head of the Scottish Government Legislation Team, then outlined proposals to take crofting law reform forward.

Mr O’Neil indicated his intention to involve as wide a range of stakeholders as possible. He will get out and about and meet anyone he needs to speak with.

He will refer to the information contained in the crofting law sump and in the Shucksmith Report.

Some questions Mr O’Neil had in mind included:-

  • Why do we need crofting legislation?
  • What changes need to be made to it?
  • How do we go about delivering the changes identified?
  • Are there other options to new legislation?

A small team has been assembled by the Scottish Government to take crofting law reform forward.

It will be interesting to see this process move forward and we will keep you posted on the Crofting Law Blog as it does.

Bill Barron, the new Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, was attending his first cross party group meeting. On the agenda was an “update on grazing committee removals and other current Crofting Commission business”. He appeared to dodge being able to provide that update on the basis that it was his fifth day in the job.

However, sitting next to him was the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy. Mr Kennedy did not offer an update on grazing committee removals and other current Crofting Commission business. Indeed, other than to introduce himself as all attendees did at the outset, Mr Kennedy sat silent throughout the entire meeting. He didn’t speak and no one asked him to speak.

This was, of course, the first crofting cross-party group meeting that Mr Kennedy has attended in this session of Parliament, having avoided the last two. He has thus not expressed the views of the Crofting Commission to the cross-party group since this session of Parliament commenced.

Mr Kennedy has, however, been very vocal in expressing his own personal views (which don’t necessarily coincide with those of the board of the Crofting Commission) in the media over the past few weeks including, in particular, in four successive editions of the Scottish Farmer.

His presence at last week’s cross party group meeting was referred to by some as the elephant in the room. But can the situation simply be ignored?

Brian Inkster

Has the Convener lost his memory?

Has the Crofting Commission Convener, Colin Kennedy, lost his memory?The Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, gave an interview to Gordon Brewer on Sunday Politics Scotland by phone from the Isle of Coll. This followed on from my own interview with Gordon Brewer at the BBC studios at Pacific Quay in Glasgow.

What struck me from Mr Kennedy’s responses to Gordon Brewer’s questions was that he appeared to have lost his memory. I will look at some of those responses and explain why:-

Mr Kennedy’s assertion that the Commission have acted wholly within the law at all times and have not received legal advice to the contrary

Gordon Brewer asked:-

Are you going to stay in the post?

Colin Kennedy responded:-

I have no intention of resigning.

Gordon Brewer:-

Why not?

Colin Kennedy:-

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

View from the Crofting Law Blog on Mr Kennedy’s assertion that the Commission have acted wholly within the law at all times and have not received legal advice to the contrary

Has Mr Kennedy forgotten that he had deleted from the Crofting Commission’s website his own guidelines on “immediate” payment of funds when it was shown that the law did not insist upon that.

Has Mr Kennedy forgotten already that Fergus Ewing MSP, Cabinet Secretary responsible for crofting, wrote him a letter which stated that Mr Ewing saw “little merit” in and “wholly disagrees” with his interpretation of the law?

Indeed Mr Ewing referred to the Scottish Government’s position as being “diametrically opposed” to Mr Kennedy’s position. He went onto say that it was “not sustainable for the Scottish Government and one of its public bodies to take opposing interpretations of the law”.

The Board of the Commission (including Mr Kennedy) subsequently accepted and supported the Government’s position in this regard.

Has Mr Kennedy also forgotten the meeting that he and other commissioners had with Mr Ewing at Holyrood?

At that meeting Mr Ewing told Mr Kennedy that the action taken by the Crofting Commission to remove grazings committees from office was wrong, that the decisions should be rescinded and an apology given to the grazings committees in question.

Following Mr Kennedy walking out of the Board Meeting at Brora the remaining commissioners accepted Mr Ewing’s position and the apology was issued.

First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, referred to it as being “disappointing” that Mr Kennedy was not a party to that apology.

Mr Kennedy being unaware that the commissioners have no confidence in him

Gordon Brewer said:-

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

Colin Kennedy responded:-

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

Gordon Brewer:-

You are not aware of that?

Colin Kennedy:-

Correct.

The Crofting Law Blog’s view on Mr Kennedy being unaware that the commissioners have no confidence in him

Mr Kennedy has been known to go into hiding but he must be on a different planet if he is suggesting that he does not know what was discussed at the Special Meeting in Brora.

It was headline news following that meeting.

Perhaps commissioners didn’t use the exact words “no confidence” at their meeting but calling on Mr Kennedy to resign is a vote of no confidence if ever there was one.

Mr Kennedy’s understanding of the Commission’s Standing Orders

Gordon Brewer asked:-

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

Colin Kennedy replied:-

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

The Crofting Law Blog’s view on Mr Kennedy’s understanding of the Commission’s Standing Orders

Is Mr Kennedy not familiar with the Commission’s Standing Orders? Surely the Convener should be?

The relevant provisions for present purposes are:-

6.4 The Chief Executive will call a Special Meeting of the Commission when required to do so by the Convener of the Commission. A Special Meeting will also be called by the Chief Executive if in receipt of a written request stating the business of the meeting from another member of the Commission and seconded by a majority of the Commission. The meeting will be held within 21 days of the receipt of the requisition by the Chief Executive.

6.5 Where the Convener requires a Special Meeting, and considers that there is particular urgency, the Chief Executive may call the meeting without giving the
7 days’ notice normally required at 6.1 above, provided every effort is made to contact members to give as much notice as possible prior to the meeting.

These provisions were followed and a Special Meeting duly convened.

The Crofting Commission have stated:-

When the Convener left the board meeting on 28 September in Brora the remaining commissioners requested a Special Meeting. This was held in line with the Crofting Commission’s Standing Orders.

Crofting Commissioners should be commended for doing so and allowing important business that Fergus Ewing MSP had requested them to deal with to so be dealt with.

The Convener was content to abandon the scheduled meeting and not deal at all with the business of the day.

Mr Kennedy’s views on the inexplicable

Gordon Brewer:-

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

Colin Kennedy:-

Correct.

The Crofting Law Blog’s take on Mr Kennedy’s views on the inexplicable

What can you say!

Mr Kennedy’s assertion that decisions have been based on legal advice and papers presented to the Board

Gordon Brewer pointed out:-

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

Colin Kennedy retorted:-

Absolutely incorrect.

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

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

The Crofting Law Blog’s view on Mr Kennedy’s assertion that decisions have been based on legal advice and papers presented to the Board

I am unsure what the board minute of 15 September 2015 is. I have located one from 16 September 2015 but that does not appear to be of any relevance to the matter at hand.

However, has Mr Kennedy forgotten that the Chief Executive provided clear advice to the Board that they could not appoint a grazings constable where a grazings committee was removed from office?

Despite that advice the Board went onto appoint three grazings constables in three such circumstances which appears to be a contravention of the legal advice received on at least three occasions.

General comment from the Crofting Law Blog on Mr Kennedy’s memory

It would appear that when analysed Mr Kennedy’s responses in each instance are somewhat flawed. The accurate position in each instance can actually be found in the archives on this blog.

Perhaps Mr Kennedy should refresh his memory by reading through the blog before he gives his next press interview.

However, the flaws in his responses highlight a serious divide between him and the Scottish Government and one that you would think the Scottish Ministers cannot tolerate for much longer.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: Sunday Politics Scotland © BBC Scotland

Either he Jumps or he will be Pushed

Sally Magnusson - BBC Reporting Scotland - Crofting Commission Report

Sally Magnusson – BBC Reporting Scotland

Reporting Scotland took up the Broragate story yesterday following the questions asked by Tavish Scott MSP at First Minister’s Question Time on Thursday.

Sally Magnusson introduced the news item:-

Pressure is mounting on the head of the Crofting Commission to resign after the First Minister warned that the Government would intervene if it didn’t put its own house in order.

This follows a turbulent few months during which the Commission was forced to apologise to crofters in the Western Isles and then passed a vote of no confidence in its own convener.

Craig Anderson - BBC Reporting Scotland - Crofting Commission Report

Craig Anderson – BBC Reporting Scotland

Craig Anderson explains:-

Its feared by many as an idylic lifestyle, part time farming on small parcels of land with tiny rents.

There are almost 20,000 crofts in Scotland protected and regulated by government agency the Crofting Commission.

But the body is imploding. It suspended two local grazings committees in Lewis earlier this year on the grounds of financial mismanagment but was forced into a u-turn when that was ruled heavy handed if not illegal.

Brian Inkster - Crofting Law Specialist - BBC Reporting Scotland

Brian Inkster commented:-

It all begins with the common grazings committees having been put out office. There were two put out of office in Lewis and one in Lochaber. It is really how the Crofting Commission has gone about that and the uproar that has caused.

Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, storms out of the board meeting in Brora

Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, storms out of the board meeting in Brora

Craig Anderson continued:-

The Scottish Government then called on the commission and its convener Colin Kennedy to apologise to the crofters involved.

Last week he stormed out of commissioners meeting. They issued an apology and then passed a vote of no confidence in Mr Kennedy.

So who’s running the show the First Minister was asked at Holyrood yesterday.

Nicola Sturgeon MSP - First Minister - Crofting Commission crisis

Nicola Sturgeon MSP answered:-

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

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

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

Colin Kennedy and other crofting at Brora before he ended the meeting and walked out

Colin Kennedy and other crofting commissioners at Brora before he ended the meeting and walked out

Craig Anderson pointed out:-

I contacted Mr Kennedy at his home on the Island of Coll by phone earlier today and he told me he had no plans to resign but would make no further comment.

But the implication of the intervention by Nicola Sturgeon is clear: either he jumps or he will be pushed.

Tavish Scott MSP speaks to BBC Reporting Scotland about the crisis at the Crofting Commission

Tavish Scott MSP said:-

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

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

Crofting Community - affect on Crofting Coimmission crisis

Craig Anderson asked:-

But does any of this really matter to the people who actually live and work in our crofting communities?

Brian Inkster, Crofting Lawyer

Brian Inkster – Crofting Lawyer

Brian Inkster responded:-

People being removed from office unfairly and unjustifiably has a huge affect on small communities. Allegations made about people that have not been proven to be correct. It has split/divided communities, caused lots of problems.

Craig Anderson rounded the news item off:-

There is a saying that a croft is a piece of land surrounded by legislation. It’s an old joke, but never was a truer word spoken in jest.

Image Credits: Reporting Scotland © BBC

Crofting Convener in Hiding

Crofting Convener in Hiding

Hide and seek was a favourite pastime at Great Glen House

The Cross Party Group on Crofting met on Wednesday night at Holyrood.

This followed the private meeting between Fergus Ewing MSP, Cabinet Secretary responsible for crofting, and all of the Crofting Commissioners. At that private meeting Mr Ewing told Commissioners that he expected them to rescind their decisions and issue an apology to the three grazings committees removed from office since December 2015.

One would have expected the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, to have represented the Crofting Commission at the Cross Party Group meeting. However, he was nowhere to be seen at that meeting. Where was he? He was in Edinburgh (presumably in the very same building) earlier that very same day for the meeting with Mr Ewing. One assumes he would not have been able to get back to the Isle of Coll after that meeting to tend to his croft and would have been staying overnight in Edinburgh in any event?

As Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, has the particular responsibility of representing the views of the Board to the general public. This will include those attending the Cross Party Group on Crofting.

Colin Kennedy did not attend the last Cross Party Group meeting in June on the day when the Crofting Commission took a massive U-turn on their stance at Mangersta Common Grazings.

Colin Kennedy did not attend the last Scottish Government Crofting Stakeholder Forum meeting when the Chief Executive, Catriona Maclean, announced her resignation.

Colin Kennedy did not attend this week’s Cross Party Group meeting when one would have thought he should have been there to advise that meeting of the outcome of the earlier meeting that day between Commissioners and Mr Ewing.

Instead Commissioner Murdo Maclennan attended this week’s Cross Party Group meeting, disclosed nothing about the earlier meeting with Mr Ewing and refused to answer questions verbally saying he would only do so in writing. However, after the meeting he appears to have released information to the BBC that again one would have thought could and perhaps should have been revealed first to the Cross Party Group.

Why is the Convener in hiding?

Why is the Convener not attending meetings on the Commission’s behalf and representing the views of the Board?

Is the Convener “unsuitable to continue” in that role given this clear dereliction of duty on top of and in addition to the abuse of power he has been accused of?

Presumably the Convener will have to come out of hiding for the Board meeting of the Crofting Commission at Brora on 28 September. Presumably after that meeting it will have to be he who gives the public apology to the crofters affected by the decisions to remove grazings committees from office. Thereafter he can perhaps go into hiding again especially if he takes the advice of the Chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation, Fiona Mandeville, who said:-

As the person who seems to be behind the on-going attacks on crofting committees, it would be appropriate for the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy to give the apology in his resignation statement.

Brian Inkster

Yes Crofting Minister

Yes Crofting Minister

James Hacker: You said yourself how important these select committees are. I cannot be seen to mislead them.
Sir Humphrey Appleby: You will not be SEEN to mislead them.

How the Crofting Commission played out their sudden and surprise U-turn on the question of ‘The Common Clearances‘ would not have been out of place in an episode of Yes Minister. Sir Humphrey Appleby would have delighted in the obfuscation and manipulation displayed by the Crofting Commission in Holyrood on Wednesday night. However, like Sir Humphrey, the Crofting Commission is not immune to making miscalculations or outright blunders.

It was the first meeting, since the latest Scottish Government was formed, of the Cross Party Group on Crofting within the Scottish Parliament.

It was the first time, since allegations of abuse of power within the Crofting Commission over ‘The Common Clearances‘ were made, that the Crofting Commission would meet eye to eye with politicians and other crofting stakeholders in a public forum.

In the preceding week or two damning revelations had been made of historical revisionism and flouting the will of Parliament on the part of the Crofting Commission. This was on top of votes of no confidence against them, the Convener of the Crofting Commission attending meetings despite a clear conflict of interest,  a Crofting Commissioner resigning and calls for the Scottish Government to investigate the whole matter.

It looked like the Commission would be in for a very rough time at the Cross Party Group meeting.

They knew that and had to do something quick and decisive to limit the damage being caused to them and that could be wrought on them at that meeting.

Nothing like a massive U-turn, with an attempt to dress it up in other ways, to achieve that.

So Crofting Commissioner, Murdo Maclennan (the Convener, Colin Kennedy, was conspicuous by his absence), announced to the Cross Party Group that he “thought we have a conclusion” on Mangersta and there was “no grazing constable in place at the moment“.

On being pressed for clarification on certain elements of this the Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, Catriona Maclean, elaborated that:-

there is no constable at present, the case is over and the people of Mangersta will be advised.

So case closed and no further discussion on that then. Please move along ladies and gentlemen.

When the removal of the Upper Coll common grazings committee from office was mentioned that, of course, could not be discussed as it was subject to on going proceedings in the Scottish Land Court.

The third committee that the Crofting Commission have evicted from office was not mentioned at all, other than briefly by me when Commissioner Murdo Maclennan insisted that I declare my interests. I think that perhaps backfired on him as the Commission would rather pretend that episode never happened as there has, to date, been no publicity surrounding it.

So one case conveniently closed, one sub judice and one we can simply forget about. Thus nothing really to talk about.

The extra gloss on this being that new guidelines were being produced by the Commission and all would be well when these were issued and followed. My criticism of this approach is already well known. You have to get the law right first before you write guidelines about how to follow that law. The Commission’s viewpoint is that their interpretation of the law will follow “in due course”. Perhaps this is because their latest massive U-turn means they actually now accept the law to be as I have been setting it out to be on this blog for some time!

The U-turn is great news for the shareholders in the Mangersta Common Grazings and the former members of their grazings committee. It is a vindication of the position correctly maintained by them throughout.

It leaves the Crofting Commission with egg on their face however they try to dress it up. The Emperor’s New Clothes remains a theme, in so far as the Commission is concerned, post the Cross Party Group meeting.

In my next blog post I will reveal how the Crofting Commission not only ignore the law but lawyers who write to them concerning it. In a subsequent blog post I will explore the significance of the latest U-turn by the Crofting Commission and the possible repercussions thereof.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: Yes Minister © BBC

Update – 2 July 2016: Ignore the law and the lawyers

Crofting Law and the new Scottish Government

Crofting Law and the New Scottish Government

How does the election results affect the future of crofting law?

Today’s Scottish Parliamentary election results saw the SNP form a minority administration with 63 seats. The Scottish Conservatives came second and form the opposition with 31 seats. Scottish Labour were in third place with 24 seats followed by the Scottish Green Party on six and Scottish Liberal Democrats on five.

What does this mean for the future of crofting law?

The SNP Manifesto states:-

Modernising Crofting

Crofting plays a unique role in Scotland’s Highlands and Islands heritage, bringing distinct social, economic and environmental benefits to communities. We will continue to provide public support for the continuation of crofting and to secure thriving crofting communities.

We will also introduce a new entrant’s scheme for crofting, explore the creation of new woodland crofts and publish a National Development Plan for Crofting.

Croft housing grants have been increased and we will continue to target support at those most in need. We will also re-introduce the Croft House Loan Scheme.

Crofters have long been concerned at overly complicated and outdated legislation so we will modernise crofting law and make it more transparent, understandable and workable in practice. We will also ensure new community landowners are not left out of pocket due to registering as the new landlord of crofts within their community owned estate.

So there is a clear commitment to “modernise crofting law and make it more transparent, understandable and workable in practice”. This must mean a new Crofting Bill being introduced during the next parliamentary term.

At the Crofting Law Group Conference in March there was clear cross-party agreement on the need for crofting law reform. So I can’t see any opposition to the introduction of a new Crofting Bill.

The last Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform (with responsibility for crofting) was Dr Aileen McLeod MSP. She failed to win the Galloway and West Dumfries constituency seat and missed out on getting a South Scotland Regional seat in the list vote. So inevitably there will be a new Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform.

Perhaps with a new Crofting Bill in the offing and the dreadful problems within the Crofting Commission that the new Minister has to tackle it is time for Nicola Sturgeon to appoint a dedicated Crofting Minister? Preferably one with a seat in the crofting counties.

Who will be the political voices we will now hear speaking up for crofting law reform and investigation of the alleged abuse of power within the Crofting Commission?

Gone from Holyrood are the strong voices on crofting that came from Jamie Mcgrigor (Conservative), Rob Gibson (SNP), Jean Urquhart (Independent) and Dave Thompson (SNP). We will also miss Alex Fergusson (Conservative) who thought that crofting law is a complete mystery but amused us with his analogy of ‘The Crofting Law Hydra‘.

Returned to Holyrood are Tavish Scott (Liberal Democrat) and Rhoda Grant (Labour). Both of whom participated in Crofting Question Time at the Crofting Law Group Conference in March expressing strong views on the “mess” that is crofting law. I can’t see them holding back on the latest “mess” of ‘The Common Clearances‘.

New to Holyrood are Donald Cameron (Conservative) and Andy Wightman (Green Party). Again they both participated in Crofting Question Time at the Crofting Law Group Conference. Donald Cameron said there that it was “time for crofting law to be for the crofters and not the lawyers”. I think that ‘The Common Clearances’ is a clear testament to that sentiment.

Helping the SNP with the Crofting Bill, and routing out the alleged abuse of power at the Crofting Commission, must surely be all SNP MSPs within the crofting counties. Alasdair Allan (Western Isles) has already spoken out about ‘The Common Clearances’ with two ‘sacked’ grazings committees, that we know of, being within his constituency. Other SNP MSPs in the crofting counties include long time politician Michael Russell (Argyll and Bute) and newbie Kate Forbes (Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch), who I had the pleasure of discussing The Crofting Law Sump with at The Future of Crofting Conference in December. Maree Todd took the SNPs only Regional Seat in the Highlands & Islands so I would think she will take an active interest in crofting law which will affect many of her constituents.

The first opportunity for the new MSPs to flex their muscles on crofting matters might be the Cross-Party Group on Crofting at Holyrood. Expect a large attendance.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: © BBC