Tag Archives: Mangersta Common Grazings Committee

Who pays the Grazings Constables?

Who pays the Grazings ConstablesWhen the Crofting Commission removed from office members of the Mangersta Common Grazings Committee they undertook to pay the costs of the (illegally appointed, in my opinion and in the opinion of others, including the Crofting Commission itself) Grazings Constable.

When the Crofting Commission removed from office members of the Upper Coll Common Grazings Committee they stated that the shareholders must pay the costs of the (illegally appointed, in my opinion and in the opinion of others, including the Crofting Commission itself) Grazings Constable.

Colin Kennedy, the current Convener of the Crofting Commission, originally stood for election to the board of the Crofting Commission after becoming disillusioned with its management. He said, at the time, that the eight crofters on the Isle of Coll had been treated ‘appallingly’ by the Commission, accusing the organisation of applying the legislation differently in one part of the country to another. If elected, he said he would strive to ensure Scotland’s Crofting Acts would be applied evenly across the board.

The opposite appears to be his actual practice.

However, as Donald Rennie has pointed out, no one should be paying illegally appointed grazings constables.

Brian Inkster

Grazings Constables were added to the Sump by the Crofting Commission

Do I really need to climb in there with the rest of the mess?

In my last post I looked at how the Crofting Commission’s own policies and procedures made it clear that grazings constables could not be appointed in law when a grazings committee were removed from office.

It should also be noted that in or around April 2016 the Crofting Commission added to ‘The Sump‘ that they would like:-

Clarification in section 47 of the 1993 Act that if the Commission removes a grazings committee from office, the Commission can appoint a constable in its place and a right to suspend (as well as remove) grazings committees for a period of time to be determined by the Commission.

Thus they were looking, as part of ‘The Sump’, for legislative change by the Scottish Government to enable them to do these things.

Despite knowing that they didn’t have the power to do so they had, by this stage, already appointed one illegal grazings constable (Mangersta Common Grazings) and were to go on to appoint two more (at Upper Coll and on the Scottish mainland).

Brian Inkster

Carry on Grazings Constable

Carry on Grazings Constable

You can carry on constable

I have blogged about the (illegal, in my opinion and the opinion of others) appointment of Grazings Constables by the Crofting Commission to replace the grazings committees that they have evicted from office.

In the case of Mangersta Common Grazings the original purported appointment of the Grazings Constable ran for six months from and after 6 December 2015. Thus it expired on 6 June 2016. However, just before the expiry thereof the Crofting Commission sought to extend the ‘appointment’ for a further six months from and after 6 June 2016.

When challenged about the legality of the original appointment, from 6 December 2015, the Crofting Commission responded:-

The Commission’s understanding is that this was a final decision and the Commission has no authority to revisit its own decisions in these circumstances.

Thus they appeared to be of the view that if they make any decision (including an illegal one) they cannot change that decision.

They also stated:-

once the appointment of the constable comes to an end, it will be for the shareholders to appoint a committee in the usual manner

However, they went onto compound that illegal decision by actually revisiting it (something they said they could not do) and purporting to extend the appointment of the Grazing Constable for a further period of six months allowing him to carry on in ‘office’!

Even if they did have the power to appoint a Grazing Constable in these circumstances (which is denied) then they certainly do not have the power to extend the appointment.

Section 47(7) of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 which provides for the term of office of Grazings Constables, appointed in circumstances where it is legitimate for the Commission to do so, states that:-

the term of office of a grazing constable… shall be such as may be specified in the instrument by which he is appointed.

Thus it is a one time appointment and cannot be extended.

Yet again the Crofting Commission simply ignore the law and flout the will of Parliament.

The Crofting Commission were called upon by me on 13 June 2016 to set out a detailed legal explanation with statutory and/or case law references if they disagreed with my interpretation of the law. The letter from my law firm, Inksters, to the Commission stated:-

In your said letter you state that “once the appointment of the constable comes to an end, it will be for the shareholders to appoint a committee in the usual manner”. However, that illegal appointment having come to an end we understand that the Commission have purported to extend it for another six months. Please provide us with a copy of the Order purporting to do so. Please confirm where you believe the power to do so in law exists. We can see no such power in law and therefore the extension like the original appointment is illegal and thus null and void. The shareholders are therefore at liberty to appoint a committee in the usual manner. If you disagree with our interpretation of the situation please set out a detailed legal explanation with statutory and/or case law references to back up your stance for our consideration. Your failure to do so may be founded upon.

To date my request has been ignored by them.

However, the recent massive U-turn by the Crofting Commission on Mangersta and the stepping down from ‘office’ of the ‘Grazings Constable’ is as good an admission as any that they did indeed get the law wrong.

That ‘Grazings Constable’ should never have been there in the first place and should not have been allowed to carry on, in any circumstances, beyond the initial ‘appointment’.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: Carry on Constable © Anglo-Amalgamated Productions / StudioCanal

You might think that, I couldn’t possibly comment

You might think that, I couldnt possibly comment - Common Grazings Crisis - Crofting Commission - Scottish Government

There comes a point where actions speak louder than words

To date the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity with responsibility for Crofting, Fergus Ewing MSP, has not said much on the question of  ‘The Common Clearances‘.

Rhoda Grant MSP asked the Scottish Government:-

whether it is satisfied with how the Crofting Commission has acted in all matters relating to the dismissal of the Mangersta grazing committee.

Fergus Ewing MSP answered:-

The Crofting Commission is a non-departmental public body that takes regulatory decisions within the bounds of its duties and powers. Such decisions are taken independently and at arm’s length from Scottish Government.

Rhoda Grant MSP also asked the Scottish Government:-

whether it will establish an inquiry into the workings of the Crofting Commission.

Fergus Ewing MSP answered:-

The Scottish Government has no current plans to do so.

In addition Rhoda Grant MSP asked the Scottish Government:-

whether it has confidence in the convener of the Crofting Commission.

Fergus Ewing MSP answered:-

The Scottish Government is confident that the Crofting Commission board is able to deliver the functions of the commission.

That may have been the Scottish Government’s position on 27 June 2016. The massive U-turn taken by the Crofting Commission on 29 June 2016 should change that stance.

That U-turn and the manner in which it was executed demonstrates that the Crofting Commission got it wrong. They handled the whole Mangersta affair very badly indeed from start to finish. In light of this there can be no confidence that the board or their Convener is able to deliver the functions of the Commission.

The watershed moment was reached on 29 June. The Scottish Government can no longer sit on the fence. There has been as good an admission as any that the Crofting Commission failed the shareholders of Mangersta. In so doing they failed in their regulatory duties and should be made to account for those failings.

A day before the U-turn representatives of the Scottish Crofting Federation met with Fergus Ewing MSP. Commenting on that meeting the Chair of the Federation, Fiona Mandeville, said:-

We also had constructive discussion on the Crofting Commission crisis. We are very supportive of a majority elected Commission and fear that the common grazings debacle can jeopardise this. We therefore asked Mr Ewing to consider a procedural review of the Commission. At his request, we will send him a note outlining details of our recommendations forthwith.

In the wake of the U-turn, Fergus Ewing MSP should take heed of that request for a procedural review and actually now instigate it.

The Scottish Government can no longer hide behind suggestions that the Crofting Commission are at “arm’s length” from the Scottish Government.

The fact is that the Crofting Commission and their Commissioners are answerable to the Scottish Government.

Under and in terms of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993:-

  • The Crofting Commission shall discharge their functions in accordance with such directions of a general or specific character as may from time to time be given to them in writing by the Scottish Ministers. [Section 1(3)]
  • The Scottish Ministers may (a) confer functions on; (b) remove functions from; (c) otherwise modify functions of, the Crofting Commission, where they consider it appropriate to do so to ensure that the Crofting Commission carry out their functions efficiently and effectively. [Section 2A(1) and (2)]
  • In so doing Scottish Ministers may modify any enactment (including the 1993 Act). [Section 2A(3)(b)]
  • The Scottish Ministers may remove a member of the Crofting Commission from office if satisfied that the member is unable or unfit to exercise the functions of a member or is unsuitable to continue as a member. [Paragraph 9(1)(e) of Schedule 1]
  • The Crofting Commission must provide the Scottish Ministers with such information in respect of the exercise, or proposed exercise, of the Crofting Commission’s functions as the Scottish Ministers may, from time to time, require. [Paragraph 20 of Schedule 1]

So, far from being a body that the Scottish Government should consider to be at arms length from it, the Crofting Commission is one that is directly accountable to and ultimately under the control of the Scottish Ministers.

That being the case the Scottish Government should not, like the Crofting Commission, ignore the law involved. They should apply the law, as set out above, as necessary to make the Crofting Commission accountable for their actions over the Mangersta debacle.

Following the U-turn by the Crofting Commission, former members of Mangersta Common Grazing Committee stated:-

We continue to believe that there should be an inquiry into the functioning of the Crofting Commission.

An inquiry is necessary to answer questions such as:-

  • Why did the Crofting Commission reopen a case investigated, resolved and closed by the Crofters Commission?
  • On whose insistence and on what evidence was the case reopened?
  • Was there undeclared conflicts of interest by Crofting Commissioners involved in the matter?
  • What legal advice was sought by the Crofting Commission on the matter? From whom, when, on whose insistence and on what basis? Was such legal advice followed?
  • Why were inconsistencies applied by the Crofting Commission to the handling of this case compared to others being dealt with contemporaneously?
  • Why was the removal from office of the Grazings Committee at the time deemed justifiable and necessary?
  • Why did the Crofting Commission ignore and not respond to the legal position put forward on behalf of members of the dismissed Grazings Committee?
  • Why did the Crofting Commission refuse to revisit their decision (saying that they could not in law do so) but ultimately did just that?
  • Why did the Crofting Commission ignore their own guidelines on the investigation of questions of financial impropriety which they had stated were a matter for the civil or criminal courts?
  • Why did the Crofting Commission purport to appoint a Grazings Constable when there is no basis in law to do so and then sought to extend that appointment, again when there is no basis in law to do so?
  • Why was the particular Grazings Constable in question appointed, on what basis and was a conflict of interest declared by any Commissioners relative to that appointment?
  • Was the Grazings Constable really independent and impartial or was he provided with instructions for the discharge of his appointment by the Crofting Commission?
  • Why did the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, attend a meeting of the shareholders of the Mangersta Common Grazings and refuse to leave when a conflict of interest had been declared by him?
  • Why and on what basis in law, when shareholders questioned the legality of the Commissioners proposals at that meeting, were they told that if all shareholders did not accept them, the Commission would not allow shareholders to reform a committee?
  • Did the Crofting Commission’s handling of the matter result in the resignation of William Swann as a Commissioner?
  • Why did the Crofting Commission issue guidelines on the management of grazings funds, then delete those guidelines and claim that they had never said what they had said in them?
  • Why did the Crofting Commission insist that funds had to be paid out by Grazings Clerks to shareholders “immediately” when Roseanna Cunningham MSP, on behalf of the Scottish Government, clarified on 21 June 2016 that “the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 does not require the immediate disbursement of funds by a grazings committee”?
  • Why did the Crofting Commission insist on common grazings funds being managed in a way that defied logic and was not set out anywhere in law?
  • Why did the Crofting Commission not take cognisance of the statement by Minister of State for Scotland, Lord Kirkhill, in the House of Lords on 6 April 1976 regarding the Crofting Reform (Scotland) Bill that “there would seem to be nothing [in the bill] to prevent a voluntary arrangement being made whereby any crofter’s share would be diverted to the grazings committee”?

These are questions that the Scottish Ministers can no longer ignore following the recent U-turn by the Crofting Commission. The Scottish Ministers must comment properly on them and, if necessary, take appropriate action under and in terms of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993.

The only way that they will be able to properly pass such comment and take such action is following a focused and detailed investigation into how and why the Crofting Commission handled the Mangersta situation in the manner that they did.

That case is no longer ongoing and is not subject to court proceedings. The Crofting Commission therefore cannot hide from, prevent or delay an investigation specifically focussed thereon. Fergus Ewing MSP must now instigate just such an investigation for the future stability, survival and sustainability of crofting in Scotland.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: House of Cards © BBC

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

The Commission is for turning

The Commission is for turning

No longer men or ladies of iron at the Crofting Commission

In a somewhat unexpected U-turn on the issue of ‘The Common Clearances‘ the Crofting Commission today admitted that it:-

regrets the conflicting advice the Mangersta Grazings Committee has been given over a considerable period of time in response to the investigations which took place due to a complaint made by a shareholder.

The Crofting Commission also confirmed that it has written to shareholders of Mangersta Common Grazings to advise that the grazings constable (appointed illegally in my opinion) has concluded his investigations and has stepped down enabling shareholders to appoint a new committee of their choice.

They also in particular stated:-

Following an evaluation of this case the Commission is drafting revised guidance and has reviewed its processes.

Catriona Maclean, Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, said:-

The Commission acknowledges that Mangersta is an active crofting community and this matter has caused prolonged uncertainty and anxiety under which a line can now be drawn.  We look forward to working constructively with the new committee, once appointed, and other stakeholders in the future.

The dispute – which has massive implications for all crofting communities – centred on the Commission’s insistence that all revenue coming into Grazings Committees, mainly from government grants, should be distributed as personal revenue to individual shareholders.

In response to the Commission’s statement, the former members of Mangersta Common Grazing Committee stated:-

We are pleased and relieved that common sense has finally intervened and that this whole affair has been brought to a conclusion, with recognition by the Commission that we acted with integrity and in good faith at all times.

Latterly, we made our stand on behalf of the whole crofting community since the legal interpretation promoted by the Crofting Commission would, if implemented, spell the death of crofting on a communal basis.

We have never accepted that the funds obtained by the village for agricultural and environmental schemes should be distributed as personal income and we have no intention of doing so.

We continue to believe that there should be an inquiry into the functioning of the Crofting Commission.  Even more important, it is essential that crofting law is clarified on this and other matters where ambiguity may exist.

With crofting at a low ebb in many places, it is regrettable that so much time and resources have been devoted to this unnecessary dispute.  However, we welcome a line being drawn under it and will work constructively with the Commission and anyone else where it is in the crofting interest to do so.

In my next blog post I will look at the manner in which the Commission announced this U-turn and the possible reason for it. I will then, in a further blog post, explore the significance of this U-turn and the possible repercussions thereof.

Brian Inkster

Image credit: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (aka ‘The Iron Lady’) addressing the Conservative Party Conference at Brighton on 7 October 1980 with her famous speech in which she said “You turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning”. (Pa/ PA Photos / TopFoto)

Update – 2 July 2016: Yes Crofting Minister

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

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

Crofting Commissioner Resigns over situation the Scottish Government and Crofting Commission need to sort out

William Swann - Crofting Commissioner Resigns from Crofting Commission

William Swann

More catch up news on ‘The Common Clearances‘ since I returned from holiday. This time the news from last week that William Swann had resigned, the previous week, as a Commissioner at the Crofting Commission.

This was covered in the media last week and this week as follows:-

Crofting Commission Press Release – 9th June 2016

The Crofting Commission today confirmed that William Swann decided to resign from the position of Commissioner on Thursday 2, June.

William Swann, from the Isle of Skye, was appointed as Commissioner by Scottish Ministers in January 2012 and has provided significant contribution to the Commission during his time and was particularly helpful as the chair of the Audit and Finance Committee.

Crofting Commission Chief Executive, Catriona Maclean, commented:

William has provided invaluable knowledge, expertise and guidance to the Commission.  The Commission would like to thank William for all of his hard work and we wish him luck with his future ventures.

The Commission remain quorate and I would like to assure all crofters that it is business as usual with a continued focus on securing the future of crofting.

The Skye Times – 10 June 2016

In recent months there has been growing discontent at grass roots level over the decisions by the Commission to remove from office two grazing committees at Upper Coll and Mangersta in Lewis after investigating their financial arrangements.

However, today Mr Swann said he had nothing to add to the resignation announcement made by the Chief Executive.

However, he did say:

The situation is one very much between the Scottish Government and Crofting Commission and something they need to sort out. I hope that things do calm down.

BBC News coverage – 13 June 2016

William Swann quit as a member of the Crofting Commission last week.

BBC Alba has since learned that he had told crofters he would resign if he felt the commission was not dealing with their case in a fair manner.

The commission has been in dispute with the crofters in Mangersta and Upper Coll about how they manage their common grazings committees.

The commission dismissed both committees, whose members are crofters, earlier this year and appointed officials to run the grazings, which are shared areas of land for raising livestock…

Catriona MacLean, of the Crofting Commission… said she could not comment on Mr Swann’s resignation, but said the commission was working effectively and within the law.

The Herald – 14 June 2016

William Swann, who was one of three commission members appointed by the Scottish Government, stood down last week without explanation.

Mr Swann, from Skye was chair of the Audit and Finance Committee. There were reports that he had told crofters on Lewis he would resign if he felt the commission was not dealing with their case in a fair manner.

But spokeswoman said last night:-

The Crofting Commission can confirm that there is no connection between what was reportedly said by William Swann at a meeting with Mangersta shareholders and his decision to resign. William’s reasons for resignation are a private matter for him and we must respect that.

View from the Crofting Law Blog

The most important thing to glean from these various reports is what Mr Swann said himself, namely:-

The situation is one very much between the Scottish Government and Crofting Commission and something they need to sort out. I hope that things do calm down.

It would therefore appear that he resigned due to an issue at the Crofting Commission that he feels needs sorting out between them and the Scottish Government. There have been calls for some time for the Scottish Government to step in and investigate what is going on at the Crofting Commission. Perhaps William Swann’s resignation will be a catalyst to them now actually doing just that.

It should be noted that William Swann chaired the meeting involving shareholders of the Mangersta Common Grazings at which there was reportedly ‘a menacing presence‘.

Brian Inkster

‘A Menacing Presence’

'A Menacing Prescence'

It was not the first time that the Crofting Commission had been referred to as ‘The Dark Side’

As indicated previously I am still catching up with news of ‘The Common Clearances‘ since I returned from holiday.

One news item in the saga from last month involved a meeting called by the Crofting Commission with shareholders of the Mangersta Common Grazings (their committee having been removed from office by the Crofting Commission).

There were three press releases relating to the meeting (one with a slightly different slant on it) and that as follows:-

Statement by the Crofting Commission

The Crofting Commission met with shareholders of Mangersta common grazings today, Tuesday 17 May.  The meeting was productive and the Commission would like to thank shareholders for their positive contribution.

The Crofting Commission conducted a closed meeting to give shareholders information on the current state of their common grazings finances as determined by the Commission appointed Grazings Constable.  The meeting has also provided opportunity to seek an agreement on the best way forward to ensure that the committee’s significant level of funds is distributed to shareholders appropriately.   The Commission are committed to achieving a resolution in Mangersta and would like to encourage shareholders to continue to work with us, and hope that this leads to the appointment of a new grazings committee in the near future.

The Commission wants to encourage the good shared management of common grazings across the crofting counties and the most effective way to do this is through properly constituted grazings committees. Clear grazings regulations are the most effective way to safe guard the future common grazing land for the benefit of all crofters.

Statement by the Former Committee members and clerk to Mangersta Common Grazings

The Former Committee members and clerk to Mangersta Common Grazings have expressed “profound concern about the implications for the whole crofting system of the actions now being pursued by the Crofting Commission”.

The statement from the group – who were removed from office on the orders of the Commission – followed a meeting convened by the Commission to explain its position.

Following the meeting, attendees said:

This is no longer about Mangersta or any other specific village which the Commission has intervened in.  It is about the very existence of the crofting system on any kind of viable, community basis.

The position of the Commission is that all money coming into a village for agricultural and environmental schemes must be distributed to individual shareholders, no matter where they live or what their contribution to the crofting life of the village is.

They say that these payments should be declared for the purposes of taxation – the phrase used was that they needed to be ‘taxed and cleaned up’. Individual shareholders should then be asked to make payments back into the Grazings Committee for the purposes originally intended.

In terms of crofting, this is completely mad and unsustainable.  What Grazings Committee is going to apply for any scheme under these conditions?

When shareholders at the meeting questioned the legality of the Commissioners proposals they were told that if all shareholders did not accept them, the Commission would not allow Mangersta Grazings shareholders to reform a committee.

The statement repeated the call for an inquiry into the operations of the Crofting Commission and also asked for an urgent debate in the Scottish Parliament to seek clarification on the issues involved.

At the outset of the meeting, the chairman, William Swann, over-ruled objections to the unannounced presence of the Crofting Commission convener, Colin Kennedy, who did not participate in the discussion. Mr Swann said that Mr Kennedy has a ‘conflict of interest’ but would not ask him to leave the meeting.

Mr. Swann also refused to respond to questions about the legality of the Commission’s actions in removing the grazings clerk and committee members from office replacing them with a Grazings Constable. He said that only the Scottish Land Court could rule on that matter.  The legal advice received by the Mangersta shareholders is that there was no basis in law for the Commission’s actions.

Crofting law expert, Brian Inkster of Inksters Solicitors, who wrote to the Crofting Commission pointing out that, in his view, the appointment of a Grazings Constable in these circumstances was illegal, said:-

The Crofting Commission has not responded with any legal argument as to why they consider their actions to be legal. They have simply stated that they consider their decision to be a final one and they have no authority to revisit their own decisions in these circumstances. So they appear to consider that they can do as they please with no real regard to the law and if decisions are illegal they cannot reverse them!

This is also self evident from the appearance at the meeting unannounced, but with an acknowledged conflict of interest, of convener Colin Kennedy. It is stated in Paragraph 13(2) of Schedule 1 to the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 that ‘the convener must, if present, chair meetings of the Commission and any of their committees’. He didn’t chair this meeting, remained silent and allowed Mr. Swann to chair. Yet again the Crofting Commission simply rips up the rule book.

No public body should be allowed to behave like this and now that we have a new Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for crofting, namely Fergus Ewing, he will hopefully put a stop to it.

If Mr. Swann considers that only the Scottish Land Court can rule on the matter then the Crofting Commission should be making an application to the Land Court under Section 53 of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 for confirmation as to the legality or otherwise of their actions. Until such time as they do so, and in the absence of any legal argument to the contrary, my advice to any Grazings Committee who has been dismissed and replaced by a Grazings Constable is to treat any actions by that Constable as being null and void and carrying no legal authority.

The former committee members and clerk reiterated at the meeting that they could see no way forward until the Crofting Commission publicly admit their error and issue an apology for their actions.  The statement said:

The Crofting Commission is a statutory body which must act within the law.

This affair has opened up issues which are fundamental to the whole crofting system and there is no confidence in the Crofting Commission, left to its own devices, to act in the best interests of crofting or in accordance with their statutory remit. Urgent intervention is now required.

Statement by the Scottish Crofting Federation

The Scottish Crofting Federation (SCF) has expressed astonishment that the convener of the Crofting Commission attended the Mangersta grazings ‘closed’ meeting unannounced.

Fiona Mandeville, chair of the SCF, said

This could be seen as blatant intimidation. It is an old trick to bring someone along to a sensitive meeting who sits in the background as a menacing presence. Perhaps this was not the intention, but it was very poor diplomacy.

Following the widely reported skirmishes between two Lewis grazings and the Crofting Commission, notice recently went out to shareholders of Mangersta grazings, from the Crofting Commission, inviting them to attend a meeting to try to move towards resolution in the conflict. The letter made clear that Commissioners William Swan, Marina Dennis and David Campbell would be present. There was no mention that Commissioner Colin Kennedy, who has been at the heart of the two conflicts and was the subject of complaints about his aggressive meeting style, would be there.

Ms Mandeville continued:-

Apparently shareholders attending asked that he be removed from the meeting but the chair, William Swan, said that, although Mr Kennedy had a conflict of interest, he would be allowed to stay.

We are simply astonished. At every turn the Commission seems bent on thwarting this process and opening itself to further criticism. We were encouraged to hear of the meeting and felt the Commission was trying for reconciliation, but this latest misjudgement will add to the grave concern felt by everyone who cares about crofting’s well-being.

Conclusion

Given how the Crofting Commission handled the meeting it is hard to see how they could put such a positive spin on it. The Convener, with an acknowledged conflict of interest, should quite simply not have been there. That in itself could have made all the difference and been the start of the Crofting Commission rebuilding their shattered credibility. The opposite has been the case as subsequent events have testified.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace © Lucasfilm Ltd