Tag Archives: Isle of Lewis

Who are we supposed to believe?

Whose riddles are the right riddles?

Whose riddles are the right riddles?

A guest post by the Crabbit Crofter.

Over the last five months “the public” has become more and more confused by the Crofting Commission’s changing statements, retractions, and now silence on the subject of ‘The Common Clearances‘. So whose fault is it the message is so confused?

The Crofting Commission seems to have the right intention. It has a button you can click on its website called Openness. It boldly claims “We aim to provide high quality services and information to all members of the public.” So how is it getting on with its aim?

First. Who should be making sure we were given clear messages about such an important topic? And lo and behold Crofting Commission has a handy Framework Document [PDF]. It became operational just about when everything started to go wrong with the common grazings furore so a shame everyone seems to have forgotten what it says. It covers the period April 2016 to March 2018. The introduction says:-

This framework document has been drawn up by the Scottish Government (SG) in consultation with the Crofting Commission. It sets out the broad framework within which the Crofting Commission will operate and defines key roles and responsibilities which underpin the relationship between the Crofting Commission and the SG.

How handy. It tells us lots of useful stuff. It sets out who is responsible for communicating with the public. Guess who it is? The Convener of the Crofting Commission. The Framework Document states one of the Convener’s “particular responsibilities” is:-

Representing the views of the Board to the general public

So how has Convener Kennedy been getting on with this “particular responsibility”? Since the 2016-2018 Framework Document came into force, there have been:-

  • various interviews on Radio nan Gaidheal and An La, BBC Alba (TV) with Commissioner MacLennan, including one where he was challenged by the interviewer Donald Lamont on why he hasn’t done more to help Lewis grazing committees. Mr MacLennan explained he couldn’t talk about Mangersta or Upper Coll because he had conflicts of interest. In the Upper Coll case because he had some sort of link with the solicitor representing Upper Coll in the Land Court case.

It could be argued Mr MacLennan as a Gaelic speaker was used for these interviews rather than Convener Kennedy. But, guess what?  There have also been:-

  • An interview in English with Commissioner Swan after the meeting in Mangersta on 17th May on Aithris an Fheasgair, Radio nan Gaidheal.
  • An interview in English with Chief Executive Catriona MacLean on Radio nan Gaidheal, and An La, BBC Alba, after the meeting attended also by Convener Kennedy (and Commissioner MacLennan) in Stornoway with the CNES Joint Consultative Committee, on 13th June.
  • Statements at the Scottish Parliament Cross Party Group on Crofting in June by Commissioner MacLennan and Chief Executive Catriona MacLean (in English). Convener Kennedy was notably absent when the big topic of the Commission’s self-inflicted common grazings crisis was on the agenda and obviously politicians and the general public would be demanding a clear statement from the Commission. Strangely Commissioner MacLennan seemed to have forgotten about his reluctance to talk about the issue because of a conflict of interest in the two Lewis cases.
  • Interviews with Commissioner MacLennan following the board meeting on 17th August, carried on Aithris an Fheasgair and An La in Gaelic and in a BBC Highland report in English. These interviews were almost unintelligible. They left the “general public” in a worse state of confusion than if there had been no interviews at all by anyone.

There have also been numbers of statements –

  • The famous Convener Kennedy statement on how to manage common grazings finances, now removed from the Commission’s website but available on the Crofting Law Blog.
  • statement from Vice Convener MacDonald on 8th June contradicting the previous statement from the Convener but with no explanation if it was his own views or those of the whole board who had agreed to disagree with their Convener on the issue.
  • The famous Open Letter from Chief Executive Catriona MacLean still available on the Commission website. It contradicts the Convener’s previous statement, but claims no such statement was ever made. So which of the Convener’s or the Chief Executive’s statements was the views of the board? We have to assume the Convener’s since it is his “particular responsibility” to convey the views of the board to the general public.
  • report from Jackie O’Brien on Good Morning Scotland (Radio Scotland) who hadn’t managed to get an interview but had got a statement from Convener Kennedy prior to the board meeting on 17th August. The Convener’s statement was extraordinary because it disagreed with his Minister. And it stated the Convener’s position on the matter before he allowed the board to have a democratic discussion. But then the Convener didn’t make any attempt to convey the views of the board to the general public after the board meeting. Why not? Instead we got something almost completely unintelligible from Commissioner MacLennan no-one has been able to decipher yet. So what were the views of the board? Since it is his “particular responsibility” to convey the views of the board to the general public we must assume it was the Convener’s statement before the board meeting.

All of this leaves the general public totally confused. Which of these contradictory interviews and statements from five different people (Vice Convener, two Commissioners, Chief Executive, Convener) over the past 5 months is the opinion of the board?  The Framework Document tells us we should only listen to the Convener because he has “particular responsibility” to convey the views of the board to the general public. But he has consistently refused to give interviews. And his two public statements baldly state grazing committees have to pay out all money immediately to shareholders and can keep none.  So there you have it. It looks like he is in conflict with his Minister. And with his board. And his Chief Executive. Not to mention crofters.  No wonder we are all so confused and angry.

Crabbit Crofter

Guest Blogger Bio: A crabbit crofter who wishes the weather was better & Scotland produced more of its own food. He believes in a just & honest world, full of integrity & decency.

Image Credit: The Riddler – Batman Forever © Tim Burton Productions and PolyGram Pictures

Croft Wars: The Constable Strikes Back

Croft Wars - The Constable Strikes Back

Some see the ‘constable’ of Upper Coll more like a bounty hunter

Following a statement issued on behalf of the majority of shareholders of the Upper Coll Common Grazings the headline that appeared on Hebrides News was ‘Upper Coll grazings constable slams ousted committee‘. The accompanying article reads as follows:-

The grazings’ officer installed to temporarily run the common grazings at Upper Coll, Lewis, has hit out at claims made by the former grazings committee who were sacked by the Crofting Commission.

Colin Souter, a retired police chief inspector living in Nairn, was drafted in to manage the village’s communal moorland – land collectively used for by all crofters for grazing livestock – while the commission investigated the deposed committee.

Colin Souter pointed out the appointment of a constable is made by the Crofting Commission.

Once appointed, a constable has the same powers, responsibilities and independence in decision-making, as a grazings committee does, bound only by legislation, he said.

Mr Souter stressed: “This has been explained at length to former committee members at Upper Coll, who remain aggrieved at the commission’s decision to remove them from office.

“That decision to remove is presently the subject of a review by the Scottish Land Court and it will be for that court to determine whether the initial complaints made to the commission about the conduct of the committee and the subsequent disclosures, provided sufficient justification for their removal or if the commission acted inappropriately.”

The grazings’ officer went on: “The appointment of a constable in the interim, was a separate matter and was made to safeguard the interests of the shareholders, to address matters of business brought to the commission in correspondence by the former clerk.”

Based on “discussion with aggrieved shareholders and correspondence,” he queries how much support the former committee has from shareholders.

He added: “As all previous signatories had been officially removed from office, and could no longer sign documents legally, as constable I took control of the finances and records, with the co-operation of the bank and of the former clerk and chairman of the committee, who personally handed over to me, the committee records and accounts.”

The former committee demanded the “return of their bank book” but there is no such thing, suggested the grazings’ constable.

Mr Souter said: “In the absence of any formal handover or briefing from the former committee, there was also an obligation placed upon me – in order to support shareholders competently – to establish the facts surrounding the status and liabilities of the grazings and to confirm the proper conduct of the former committee in its decision-making, to verify business had been conducted to the proper legal standard or to remedy, where required.

“It became clear from a review of the records provided to me by the former clerk and chairman, that the former committee was deficient in its record keeping but more importantly, in its procedures, in particular on matters where majority shareholder support was legally required in order to take action, eg. SRDP applications, where such applications are a scheme, under the 1993 Act.”

He stated: “Quite clearly, action was being taken in relation to matters of finance and spending, where majority support, despite being a legal requirement, was neither evident nor documented.

“Even so, it came as some surprise when some former committee members admitted at a recent shareholders meeting they were entirely unaware of the existence of the Upper Coll grazing regulations, passed by their own forebears in the 1980’s.

“One wonders what yardstick was employed to assist the imposition of their own views, however well-meaning or misguided, on fellow shareholders?

“Perhaps this point will help to explain the dissatisfaction and grievances raised to the Crofting Commission and myself by Upper Coll shareholders about the conduct of the former committee in managing the grazings?”

The interim constable added: “None of the foregoing issues have anything specifically to do with the Crofting Commission.

“The commission does not control the grazings or the bank account or finances at Upper Coll. The shareholders do.”

“As constable, I met with shareholders twice in recent months where I have been extremely open and transparent about my role and in my sharing of information, an approach commended from the floor, at the first meeting.

“The detail I provided to shareholders is evident from the very lengthy minutes produced from the meetings, distributed to all shareholders.

“In the past, I have also sought to protect former committee members from potential public embarrassment by holding part of the meetings in closed session, where disclosures were made.”

He said shareholders are “well aware” from his reports that all scheme applications due were completed by agents acting on behalf of the grazings and “processed accordingly and no financial loss has been suffered.

Regarding villagers plans to elect a new grazings committee, he said: “I raised this issue in recent correspondence with shareholders, when I indicated my term in office is due to expire in the next couple of months.

“It seems some of the former committee are already set to take control of an agenda which I had set out, intending to hold fresh elections and return a new committee in control of shareholder business at Upper Coll.

“The important point however, for all involved, is that the new committee, whomever is elected and whatever its composition, will have a clearer understanding of the legal framework in which they must operate and their own duties and obligations to their fellow shareholders.

“I cannot help but think it would be a progressive step, in this day and age, to see a few female members on the new committee but that has to be a matter for the Upper Coll shareholders.”

Mr Souter said he has written to shareholders in the last few weeks, during the holiday period, providing a brief statement on recent activity.

He will present a fuller report at a planned meeting in September, when he will share more “extensive detail” with the shareholders at Upper Coll and answer questions “they may have on that range of important issues.”

The grazing’s constable highlighted: “It will be for shareholders to determine which aspects of concern, if any, should be highlighted – perhaps for wider benefit across the crofting community – and find their way into the public domain.”

He said: “As with many others, I do not dismiss the concerns of those former committee members who continue to agitate, for being removed from office.

“It is clearly an important and emotive issue for crofting and one that continues to cause great concern across the crofting community.

However, that also places a “heavy responsibility upon the former committee and others contributing on their behalf” to ensure there is a balanced debate based on the facts of the situation, said Mr Souter.

View from the Crofting Law Blog

Colin Souter thinks he has “independence in decision-making“. A grazings constable, if legally appointed, does not. They have to listen to the shareholders who they represents and act accordingly.

Colin Souter states that his ‘appointment’ was made to “address matters of business“. The shareholders appear to be of the view that rather than conducting the business in question Colin Souter has been on the hunt, through historical records stretching back well beyond the five year ‘audit’ period sought by the Commission, for wrongdoing on the part of former committees. Not the role at all of a grazings constable even if legally appointed. The fact that he was under the wrong impression that this was his role is confirmed when he states that he had to “confirm the proper conduct of the former committee in its decision-making, to verify business had been conducted to the proper legal standard or to remedy, where required“.

It is interesting, but perhaps not surprising, that Colin Souter does not address the legality of his appointment. The Grazings Committee were ‘replaced’ by a ‘Grazings Constable’ that I, and others (including bizarrely the Crofting Commission themselves) consider to be illegal. One would have thought that he would be very concerned by this indeed and somewhat relieved that the shareholders plan to replace such an illegal appointment with a legal one.

Colin Souter questions whether the former committee members have the support they maintain from the shareholders. Well, apparently, a meeting was called and there were only four shareholders who abstained (those included the shareholders who brought the initial complaint about the former committee to the Crofting Commission). They were asked if they objected and they said they would prefer to abstain. So looks like majority support to me with no objections.

Colin Souter states that “as constable” he “took control of the finances and records, with the co-operation of the bank and of the former clerk and chairman of the committee, who personally handed over” to him “the committee records and accounts“. But they did not sign mandates allowing him to be signatory of the cheque book. Serious questions must be asked as to how he obtained the status of what is believed to be the sole signatory.

Colin Souter states that “there is no such thing” as a “bank book” to return to the Upper Coll shareholders. Well in this day and age there may not be an old fashioned bank book but there is likely to be bank statements, a cheque book and (more importantly) control thereof. I think we all know what was meant by the statement made by the shareholders about their “bank book” and denying the existence of any such item does Colin Souter no credit.

However, Colin Souter states that “the commission does not control the grazings or the bank account or finances at Upper Coll. The shareholders do.” If that is the case please do actually hand control of their finances back to them as they quite rightly demand.

Regarding villagers plans to elect a new grazings committee, Colin Souter said: “I raised this issue in recent correspondence with shareholders, when I indicated my term in office is due to expire in the next couple of months. It seems some of the former committee are already set to take control of an agenda which I had set out, intending to hold fresh elections and return a new committee in control of shareholder business at Upper Coll.”

Colin Souter previously stated, on 23 June 2016, that the election of a new committee was “still in the distance“. At the time I asked “Why is the election of a new Grazings Committee in the distance? What is preventing that happening sooner rather than later?” The shareholders are clearly and understandably of the same view and may the force be with them in gaining control of their own destiny once more.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: Boba Fett who appeared in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back; and Episode VI – Return of the Jedi ©  Lucasfilm Ltd

Statement by Crofting Commission gets no better in Gaelic

Crofting Commission Statement no better in GaelicIt was previously raised on this blog that the statement made by Crofting Commissioner Murdo Maclennan after the board meeting on 17 August was fairly unintelligible.

This was a statement made by him, on behalf of the Crofting Commission, following discussion by them of the letter from Fergus Ewing MSP, the Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for crofting, on the Commission’s handling of the common grazings debacle.

That statement was made by Murdo Maclennan in English. He made another statement on the same day to the media in Gaelic. That Gaelic statement was broadcast on BBC Radio nan Gaidheal’s Aithris an Fheasgair on 17 August 2016.

The Crabbit Crofter has made as accurate a transcription and translation into English from Gaelic as he could of this statement, and that as follows:-

…that was in the letter and…um…and…eh…the Convener made…eh…he brought the letter to the board…about it…as I said…as…as…every public board is anyway…there will be different opinions…and we came…we talked about it and we came to the conclusion…everyone in the…everyone in the Commission was behind…as I’m saying…and accepted it.

Unfortunately in these two villages that…they didn’t come to an agreement…there wasn’t an agreement…between the people who raised the topic and…and…eh…the township committees themselves but…but that’s past now…and…and we are working eh with…as in Upper Coll…we have got a Constable who is working with crofters in the village…and…and…I am finding out he is working well with them…eh… unfortunately …I said that it was…it came to this…but we think we did the right things for the township.

Well, no better or any more understandable than the statement made in English!

Interesting that in this statement Murdo Maclennan speaks specifically about an apparent lack of agreement in two villages (there were actually three involved: two on the Isle of Lewis and one on the Scottish mainland) but “that’s past now”.

It may be in the past in the Commission’s eyes but it is what Fergus Ewing’s letter was all about and crofters still want answers as to why the Commission took the action that they did and assurances that they will never do so, in such circumstances, again.

The Commission’s current policy on this matter, in light of the letter from Fergus Ewing MSP, must be made clear and this statement goes nowhere near doing so.

Murdo Maclennan says “we have got a Constable”. Is this, yet again, the Commission thinking the constable is their man on the ground rather than an independent party distinct from the Commission who simply takes the role of clerk/committee?

In any event the grazings constable in question is illegal! If the Crofting Commission are now accepting that they got it wrong, in light of Fergus Ewing’s letter, does it not follow that they are accepting that they got it wrong in relation to the appointment of constables?

The Crofting Commission, via Murdo Maclennan seems to think that the illegally appointed constable in Upper Coll is “working well” with the crofters in the village. Certainly not the message being given out loud and clear by many of  the crofters in the village who have stated that to date they have “only been co-operating with the constable under duress”.

Also Murdo Maclennan said, on behalf of the Crofting Commission, that they think they “did the right things for the township”. That is not what the majority of crofters or the Scottish Government seem to think. Also is that statement actually reflected in the massive U-turn the Commission took over Mangersta?

All and all it still seems to be a shambles. The Crofting Commission appear to say, perhaps reluctantly, on one hand that they agree that they got it wrong (i.e. in support of the Scottish Government position) but on the other hand they still think that they did the right thing. Those two viewpoints cannot sit easily side by side.

However, the statements made on behalf of the Crofting Commission by Murdo Maclennan, both in English and in Gaelic, are far from clear in any event and are open to misinterpretation.

The Crofting Commission must, in all the circumstances, publish a written statement in clear English and Gaelic (each one being a direct translation of the other) that sets out their actual position on the matter. This should, in any event, have been done as a matter of course immediately following their board meeting last Wednesday.

Brian Inkster

Update: 3 September 2016

In the West Highland Free Press yesterday a letter was published from Murdo Maclennan under the heading “Partick twang” to blame. It reads:-

I refer to the comments of Ms Mandeville of the SCF as reported on the WHFP website on 19th August and her reference to my “apparent assertion after a recent board meeting”.

As she does not disclose her source of information I assume that she is referring to my post-board interview with BBC Alba. My Gaelic is nuanced through a Partick twang and she has clearly misinterpreted my public statement. I did state during the interview that the Commission conducted a debate followed by a motion, which I moved, being carried unanimously and without dissent. In any public body vigorous debate is surely to be encouraged and not disparaged.

Sorry, Mr Maclennan but that goes nowhere near resolving the confusion you have already created – It may in fact have caused more!

Do the Commission take the view that they have done nothing wrong despite the letter from Fergus Ewing? A simple “Yes” or “No” in English, Gaelic or Partick twang will suffice.

Cabinet Secretary “wholly disagrees” with Crofting Commission Convener

Fergus Ewing v Colin Kennedy

A clash has begun between Fergus Ewing MSP and Colin Kennedy

Breaking news on BBC Radio Scotland this morning:-

The BBC has seen a letter written by the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity, Fergus Ewing MSP, that says he “wholly disagrees” with the Crofting Commission’s stance on Common Grazings Committees and the distribution of funds received by them.

BBC Scotland reporter Gary Robertson said:-

The Scottish Government is going head to head with the Convener of the public body responsible for crofting.

In a hard hitting letter seen by BBC Scotland the rural affairs secretary, Fergus Ewing, has told the Convener of the Crofting Commission that he wholly disagrees with his handling of a bitter dispute over shared land in the Western Isles.

BBC Scotland reporter Jackie O’Brien has seen the correspondence and Gary Robertson asked her what the background was.

Jackie O’Brien said:-

Well this has been a protracted and slightly complicated dispute involving the way that the ground crofters share is managed through what they call common grazings committees which are made up of crofters.

Now earlier this year two committees on Lewis, one in Mangersta and the other in Upper Coll, were removed from office by the Crofting Commission.

This happened after questions were asked over financial records and some transactions including the fact that the Upper Coll committee had not distributed or as they call it disbursed income from croft house sites to individual crofters but had put all of the money into a crofting township fund instead.

Now the Commisssion in the meantime appointed what they called constables to manage the land whilst committee accounts were investigated.

One of the committees has been reinstated but there is still annoyance and outrage over the way that this whole affair has been handled. Some say it is belligerent and unlawful and there have been calls for the resignation of the Crofting Commission Convener, Colin Kennedy.

Gary Robertson asked:-

So what exactly does Fergus Ewing say in this letter?

Jackie O’Brien responded:-

Well the rural affairs secretary has been trying to calm the waters and has been quite diplomatic on this to date. But there is no sign of it in this letter which I have seen that he has sent to Colin Kennedy.

He confirms that contrary to Mr Kennedy’s views the Crofters (Scotland) Act does not require the immediate disbursement or pay out of funds by a grazings committee. He says that as it currently stand the Scottish Government sees little merit in the Crofting Chairman’s views which he says he wholly disagrees with.

The letter goes on to say that the Government’s view is diametrically opposed to Mr Kennedy’s and that it is not sustainable for the Scottish Government and one of its public bodies to take opposing interpretations of the law.

Gary Robertson then asked:-

Any response from Colin Kennedy himself?

Jackie O’Brien confirmed:-

I did speak to him last night. He is adamant that he has done nothing wrong. He claims that all of the decisions which have been made have been made during/since he has been Convener have been based on papers supplied by the Commission’s executive.

He has also insisted that not a single matter on this has ever had to go to a vote or at board level and he says that all decisions are taken by means of reasoned debate and consensus.

Gary Robertson then asked Jackie O’Brien:-

What is your sense of the implications of this clash?

Jackie O’Brien responded:-

Well the contents of this letter shows the Government is clearly pointing the finger at Mr Kennedy who is an elected Convener. This is backed up by the fact that Fergus Ewing has said in his letter that he is also very concerned about the risk that policy decisions may be taken without a clear mandate from the Crofting Commission’s board. This implies that not everyone on the board supports the way things have been handled.

Now the Commission’s board does happen to be meeting today, and in his letter Fergus Ewing has asked for its position on the matter to be made clear after this meeting. But he warns that if the Commission continues to subscribe to an entirely different view he will then have to consider what action to take. It is not clear what that action could be but that could put further pressure on him to resign.

View from the Crofting Law Blog

The Scottish Government clearly takes the same view regarding the law on the common grazings debacle taken from the outset on the Crofting Law Blog. It is good that they have done so and made their position clear in such strong terms.

The law on the matter has in my view been fairly clear. It is also, it transpires, clear to the Scottish Government.

Why has it been so unclear to the Crofting Commission?

Despite repeated requests from me to the Crofting Commission asking them to justify their position with reference to statute and case law they have failed to do so. They have simply ignored me. If they had papers from their executive that backed up their position in law surely they would have referenced those to me.

The Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, Catriona Maclean, suggested in a meeting of the Scottish Government Crofting Stakeholder Forum that the law on the matter would follow “in due course” after the Commission had drawn up new guidelines for grazings committees to follow. Putting the cart before the horse was never a good idea!

The Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, has said to BBC Scotland that the Commission were following advice given in papers produced by their executive. Oh no they weren’t! The Crofting Commission specifically ignored the advice given by the executive and appointed grazings constables in circumstances where they knew that to do so was illegal. How many other times has this happened?

Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that a paper [PDF] was considered by the Crofting Commission at a February 2016 Policy in Development meeting. In that paper it was, somewhat alarmingly, stated:-

There is a degree of irony in that the Commission may be requiring grazing committees to adhere to regulations while not being clear about the procedure it is itself employing in directing this.

Thus did the Commission actually have papers from the executive to consider when making some of their decisions or were they simply making it up as they went along?

We also, of course, know that the Commission has chopped and changed its position on the matter, tried to hide the fact they have done so and ultimately made a massive U-Turn. Does that demonstrate having done nothing wrong?

In light of the stance now taken by the Scottish Government against the Convener surely his tenure in office must be in question more so than it ever was. Especially if he continues with the adamant view that he has done nothing wrong when all of the evidence that has so far come to light would perhaps suggest otherwise.

The Crofting Commission are having a board meeting today. On the agenda [PDF] is ‘Grazings committees – a practical approach to the management of common grazings’ with a paper on that topic for discussion. A practical approach would no doubt be a welcome approach from most crofters. But let’s hope the Commission have now got a clear understanding and grasp of what the law actually is when applying a practical approach.

A little bit of humbleness, signs of regret and an apology would not go amiss at today’s meeting in light of the letter from Fergus Ewing.

A statement from the Crofting Commission on the outcome of today’s meeting is awaited with bated breath.

Brian Inkster

A “big step” or a just step?

Lucy Carmichael from the Scottish Government Crofting Policy Team at the Lewis and Harris Crofters meeting in Stornoway on 3 August 2016My last post considered the overwhelming view of Harris and Lewis crofters that the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, must go given his role in the alleged abuse of power within the Crofting Commission dubbed ‘The Common Clearances‘.

But despite many calls over several weeks for him to consider his position there is no sign of him stepping down anytime soon. In the absence of him doing the right thing is it time for the Scottish Ministers to force his hand?

This issue was raised at the meeting in Stornoway on 3rd August. This is how the West Highland Free Press reported the view thereon by Scottish Government crofting policy officer Lucy Carmichael and my response thereto:-

Ms Carmichael explained that the way crofting legislation is framed the only recourse available to crofters is to mount a challenge in the land court.

However, that was fiercely disputed by Mr Inkster who said that as the commission is a statutory body under the control of the Scottish Government it was perfectly legitimate for ministers to intervene if they felt it appropriate.

But Ms Carmichael felt that would be a “big step” – a statement which drew a sharp intake of breath from the audience, particularly those in Upper Coll who felt their removal from office was equally a big step and, indeed, unconstitutional.

Mr Inkster said that the commission had knowingly gone against their own legal advice, changed the guidance to common grazings committees and misinterpreted crofting legislation. “It is hard to see under such circumstances that anyone can have any confidence in any new guidance given out by the commission,” he said.

I would point out, if I recall correctly, that Lucy Carmichael also made reference to the Scottish Public Services Ombudsman and the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland as other possible routes of recourse that crofters could take in addition to or instead of action via the Scottish Land Court.

Brian Inkster at the Lewis and Harris Crofters Meeting in Stornoway on 3 August 2016

In my very first blog post on the alleged abuse of power within the Crofting Commission I said, in connection with the removal from office of the Upper Coll Grazings Committee,:-

I would strongly suggest therefore that the Crofting Commission should, in all the circumstances, review this extraordinary decision. If they fail to do so the Scottish Government should maybe question the behaviour involved and perhaps even consider removing the commissioners responsible as “unsuitable to continue” as members. A power that the Scottish Ministers have at their disposal under the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993. That may be seen by many as a more reasonable and justified use of power than that employed by the Crofting Commission.

46 blog posts on the common grazings debacle later and I am firmly of the view that it would indeed be a more reasonable and justified use of power than that employed by the Crofting Commission.

The evidence is now clear. The Crofting Commission have been exposed to knowingly acting illegally, clearly acting illogically, operating like a kangaroo court, creating conflicts of interest, brazenly deleting its own history and attempting to deny that history. They have been party to intimidation and bullyingobfuscation and manipulation, controlling grazings constablesflouting the will of Parliament and ignoring the law/lawyers. But ultimately they have made a massive U-turn which is nothing more than a clear admission that they got it wrong. They have cost the public purse a huge amount of money.

It is, in light of all of this, not a “big step” to remove a commissioner. It is an obvious step and a just one.

Brian Inkster

Images Credit © BBC Alba

Crofting Convener must go

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Commission had no official representation at the meeting.

Iain MacIver who is himself a Township Clerk said:-

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mr Smith continued:-

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

Following discussions a vote was called on the motion:-

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

The motion was passed by an overwhelming majority.

Anger in Stornoway aimed at commission – West Highland Free Press

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

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

The Crofting Commission’s Response – Island News and Advertiser

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

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

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

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: © BBC Alba

The cost of the Common Clearances

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brian Inkster

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lewis and Harris Crofters’ Meeting

SCF Crofters Meeting Lewis and Harris - 3 August 2016The Scottish Crofting Federation (SCF) has organised a meeting in Lewis this Wednesday, 3 August 2016.

It is at the Stornoway Town Hall at 7.00pm and will involve presentations and discussions on Common Grazings, the role of the Crofting Commission and current policy issues affecting crofting.

You don’t have to be a SCF member to attend and all are welcome.

The panellists are:-

  • Russell Smith – SCF Vice-Chair
  • Brendan O’Hanrahan – SCF director
  • Lucy Carmichael – Scottish Government Crofting Policy
  • Brian Inkster – Crofting Lawyer, Inksters Solicitors
  • Patrick Krause – SCF Chief Executive

The meeting will be chaired by Donald Macsween – Lewis crofter, SCF member and activist.

A lively discussion is expected given the recent controversy surrounding alleged abuse of power within the Crofting Commission arising from what this blog has dubbed ‘The Common Clearances‘. Recent revelations have shown that the Crofting Commission knowingly acted contrary to their own policies, procedures and legal advice. All this and more will be up for debate on Wednesday night in Stornoway.

Crofting Commission flouts the will of Parliament

Hansard and Crofting Law

Clearly no copies of Hansard in Great Glen House!

The Chief Executive of the Scottish Crofting Federation, Patrick Krause, previously highlighted the fact that the Crofting Commission were not delivering “the express will of Parliament”. I indicated that this was something I would return to in detail in a later blog post with a clear analysis of what the will of Parliament actually is on this issue. This I indicated would, actually, help to spell out the letter of the law on the matter.

It must be remembered that to date, despite being called upon to do so, the Crofting Commission has not given any explanation with reference to the law as to why they are taking the stance or actions that they are and have been taking on the issue of ‘The Common Clearances‘.

So here goes. We are concerned, for current purposes, with crofting law enacted by the Houses of Parliament in London prior to the creation of the Scottish Parliament. The will of the Houses of Parliament in London can be found in Hansard, the official report of all Parliamentary debates. Hansard can, in certain circumstances, be used by courts to aid the interpretation of statutory provisions and does, of course, give a flavour of the intention and will of Parliament.

When debating the provisions of the bill that became the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Act 1976, Parliament looked at the question of resumption monies being payable to shareholders in Common Grazings.

An Amendment was tabled by Lord Campbell of Croy to the effect that, as an alternative to apportioning resumption monies amongst the shareholders in a common grazing according to their rights therein, “a lump sum should be made available to the grazings committee who decide on improvements for the benefit of all”. This alternative was suggested by the Stornoway Trust as it was a practice “generally acceptable in their area of Lewis”.

Lord Kirkhill, on behalf of the Government of the day, indicated that there was no good reason to legislate in this way as “there would seem to be  nothing to prevent a voluntary arrangement being made whereby any crofter’s share would be diverted to the grazings committee”.

On this assurance Lord Campbell of Croy withdrew his amendment as being unnecessary.

In a subsequent debate Lord Kirkhill re-emphasised the position stating that:-

This leaves the apportionment to be carried out on the initiative of the landlord with the agreement of the individual crofters. It will not prevent a landlord, such as the Stornoway Trust, agreeing with shareholders in a common grazing that the money should be paid to the common grazing fund.

Indeed Lord Kirkhill goes to pains to spell this sentiment out several times in that debate.

Lord Campbell of Croy said in response:-

We are glad to hear what the noble Lord said at the end of his speech, which was that the system practised by the Stornoway Trust can be continued.

The House of Commons agreed with the House of Lords.

Little did Lord Kirkhill or Lord Campbell of Croy know of what the Crofting Commission had in mind 40 years later. That was to completely ignore the will of Parliament and impose their own will on the crofters of Lewis removing any and all who might argue with them from office.

The Crofting Commission has insisted that the Grazings Committees of Upper Coll and Mangersta, both on the Isle of Lewis, must pay resumption monies to shareholders even where those shareholders want the monies in question retained within the common grazing fund for township improvements.

There is absolutely no basis in law for this and it is clear that the Crofting Commission are flouting the will of Parliament.

If I were an MSP I would not take kindly to that.

Brian Inkster