In a hard hitting editorial in the latest edition (16 September 2016) of the West Highland Free Press it was made clear by the editor that he considers that the Crofting Commission needs ministerial advice and direction and that Colin Kennedy’s continuing tenure as Convener must be in doubt.
I will reproduce the editorial in question here followed by some of my own thoughts on the matter
The Crofting Commission needs ministerial advice and direction
The self-created crisis within the Crofting Commission has gone past the point where it can be healed internally. Public and decisive ministerial intervention is now required.
On the most mundane but incendiary points which lit the blaze, the Crofting Commission can be pronounced quite wrong.
Grazings committees should have the right to determine in which manner their income is spent, under the law and to the benefit of the community.
Grazings committees such as those at Upper Coll and Mangersta should not be obliged instantly to distribute funds as dividends and then reclaim the money in order to finance improvements.
Without those commonplace – and previously widely accepted – permissions, west-coast crofting in particular would suffer.
Grazings committees, which are the voluntary foundation of the system, would become almost impossible to establish. It should be pointed out here that crofting commissioners are paid £8,600 a year for four-and-a-half days’ work a month, and the commissioner’s convener is paid £20,300 for an eight-day month. Grazings committee member are paid nothing.
Crofting would become even less of a communal activity and even more of a private, individual enterprise. It beggars belief that a large reason for the recent dictatorial action by the Crofting Commission was the fact that Upper Coll grazings committee made assets available to infrastructure projects which benefited not only crofters but also the wider community.
In the three years of its existence the present Crofting Commission has managed to lose three of its seven members, and its chief executive Catriona Maclean has now packed her bags and moved on to happier pastures.
By any standards, this is a failing institution. The response of the new crofting minister, Fergus Ewing, has been inadequate.
Last month Mr Ewing wrote a private letter to the commission’s controversial chair, Colin Kennedy. In that letter the crofting minister told Mr Kennedy that he and the Scottish Government “wholly disagreed” with the Crofting Commission’s actions and attitudes towards grazings committees.
Most importantly, Fergus Ewing wrote that as crofting minister he considers that the law “does not require the immediate disbursement or pay out of funds by a grazings committee”.
In other words, Colin Kennedy’s interpretation of crofting law had been wrong from the start. As a result all of his subsequent actions had been, at best, invalid.
This private letter was then leaked to the veteran BBC Highland correspondent Jackie O’Brien. It seems probable that Mr Ewing authorised the leak in order to shore up his credentials with crofters.
That also was unacceptable. As crofting minister Mr Ewing has a duty to be open and transparent in the exercise of his responsibility. He is not just another interested observer.
He also has a duty to the crofting community to ensure that its governing body adheres to best practice and does not trample crofters into the ground. Colin Kennedy’s Crofting Commission is currently preparing “draft guidance” for grazings committees. We hope that Fergus Ewing is fully involved in that exercise. We wait to see whether that guidance will follow the Kennedy or the Ewing version of legislation. There can be no compromise. It is difficult to see how Mr Kennedy can emerge from the process with his £20,000 part-time post intact.
This unpleasant chain of events should not shake our belief in democracy. We continue to believe that the entire Crofting Commission should be elected by crofters rather than composed of professional quangoteers and other government appointees.
Many hundred of crofters in large parts of the Highlands and Islands cast their votes ill-advisedly three years ago, and a lot of them will now realise that.
Thanks to the democratic system, they will have the chance to put things right at the elections next spring. We hope that they, and the many crofters who previously chose not to vote, will take that chance. In the long as well as the short term, the future of crofting is at stake.
View from the Crofting Law Blog
I must wholeheartedly agree with this editorial in so far as the need for “public and decisive ministerial intervention”. Indeed I suggested that in my first blog post on this sorry saga back on 25 April 2016. There have been calls since by the Crofting Federation and by crofters for the same thing. To see the West Highland Free Press support the same calls is heartening indeed and must add to the pressure on Fergus Ewing MSP, Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for crofting, to do something about it.
The jury is still out as far as I am concerned about the idea of the entire Crofting Commission being elected by crofters “rather than composed of professional quangoteers and other government appointees”. The problems at the Crofting Commission seem to lie at the door of elected commissioners or perhaps an elected commissioner. Two of the government appointees (who by all accounts were very able and capable commissioners) have resigned in recent times and have yet to be replaced.
The calibre of elected commissioners may be very much down to those willing to put themselves up for election rather than the will of the crofting electorate.
With the Crofting Commission in its current mess there is a good chance that there won’t be many level headed crofters volunteering for the task of clearing that mess up come the 2017 elections. Possibly another solution is required. Answers on the back of a postcard please to Fergus Ewing MSP.