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Kennedy walks out of Brora meeting and remaining Commissioners apologise and call for his resignation

Crofting Convener, Colin Kennedy, walks out of Board meeting at Brora Golf Club and remaining Commissioners seek his resignation

Brora Golf Club – Location of the latest episode of the Crofting Soap Opera

Dramatic happenings in the world of crofting this morning in Brora.

The Crofting Commission were holding their board meeting in Brora Golf Club. It started at 9.30am this morning. On the agenda, amongst other things, was their meeting with Fergus Ewing MSP last week when they were in effect given a direction to apologise for dismissing three grazings committees from office. It was fully expected that this apology would be forthcoming after the meeting and would have to be made by the Convener, Colin Kennedy.

The BBC initially reported that:-

The Crofting Commission’s convener has walked out of a meeting at which the body was under pressure to make a public apology in a long-running row.

Colin Kennedy had earlier in the meeting refused to allow a commissioner to withdraw his declaration of interest in the dispute about common grazings.

When officials told him he had to accept the request, Mr Kennedy closed the meeting and walked out.

It would appear that the remaining commissioners then convened a Special Meeting which was posted on the Crofting Commission’s website as starting at 10.15am. They resumed the business of the day without their Convener who has been known to go into hiding before today.

An updated report from the BBC on the resumed meeting states that:-

Commissioners passed a motion calling on Colin Kennedy to stand down after he walked out of a meeting in Brora, Sutherland, earlier on Wednesday.

They have also issued a public apology for how the commission handled its dispute with the crofters.

It is understood that this apology was issued, in the Convener’s absence, by Vice Convener, I. G. MacDonald. Clearly that was the responsibility of the Convener but one that he evaded.

This apology has now been issued in writing by the Crofting Commission. It reads:-

The Crofting Commission wishes to apologise for the way it has handled recent grazings committee cases.

Three unprecedented cases have been considered by the Commission under Section 47(8) of the Crofting Act and resulted in committees being put out of office.  The decisions taken by the Commission have created a poor result for everyone involved.  The actions taken in these cases did not enable communities to work together for the benefit of crofting and in fact have had an adverse impact on the crofting community.  The Commission acknowledges that the recent decisions have caused prolonged uncertainty and anxiety not only for the three communities involved but for all crofters, and for this we are sorry.

The Commission continually seeks ways to ensure it is delivering in the best interests of crofters and will ensure that any lessons learned from the cases can inform future procedures and decision-making.  We will also continue to engage with Scottish Government to look at greater flexibility in crofting legislation.

The Crofting Commission will continue to work alongside stakeholders to develop good practice guidance for grazings committees.  We would like to reassure crofters that as the regulator of crofting, our main focus continues to be securing the future of crofting through effective regulation and we look forward to working constructively with crofters, grazings committees and crofting stakeholders.

Scottish Crofting Federation chair, Fiona Mandeville, said:-

Surely now the convener will do what he should have done weeks ago – stand down and let the people who genuinely care about crofting get on with their work. So much time and energy has been wasted during this inexcusable debacle. We have had enough of Kennedy and want to see the back of him. By his action in walking out from the board meeting today and refusing to meet the Minister’s request for an apology, we take it that he has finally abdicated.

We welcome the Commission board taking this decisive action at last and look forward to working with them to rebuild trust in the Commission and to developing strategies for crofting, taking up again all the positive initiatives which had been set aside while Kennedy was in control.

We also naturally welcome the apology issued by the board after the convener’s departure.

It is little wonder after these latest developments that his fellow commissioners have now decided enough is enough. The board had appeared split in their loyalties towards him but they have clearly realised that it is time for them to unite under the stewardship of a new convener and seek to heal the damage done as a result of ‘The Common Clearances‘.

There have been repeated calls over a number of months from crofters and from the Scottish Crofting Federation for Colin Kennedy to resign. Those calls have been ignored by him. Now his fellow commissioners are calling on him to do the same thing.

Will, however, Colin Kennedy accept the motion and stand down? Does he have any option? If he doesn’t will Fergus Ewing have to intervene?

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: Brora Golf Club

 

Decisions “have been divisive, unacceptable and not in line with crofting law”

Scottish Crofting Federation welcomes intervention by Cabinet SecretaryIn a statement issued today the Scottish Crofting Federation (SCF) has welcomed the intervention of rural affairs secretary Fergus Ewing MSP in his letter to Colin Kennedy, Crofting Commission convener.

SCF chair, Fiona Mandeville, commented:-

We are pleased that the Scottish Government has finally endorsed what we and others have been saying for months, that the actions of the Commission convener, and the decisions he appears to have forced through, have been divisive, unacceptable and not in line with crofting law.

While Mr Ewing’s letter is not yet in the public domain, its contents have been summarised and made public. It is clear that the Scottish Government is as concerned as the SCF and all who care about crofting. BBC’s Jackie O’Brien has seen the letter and reports 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.

Ms Mandeville continued:-

The secretary for rural affairs has written a direct personal reprimand to the convener, who should now do the honourable thing and stand down right away.

Commissioner Murdo Maclennan’s apparent assertion after the Commission’s recent board meeting is that the board is backing Kennedy.  Does the Crofting Commission convener agree with the board? Does the board unanimously support the convener? It is natural for a board to attempt to portray a consensus, but is this really the case?

Fergus Ewing, in his letter as reported by the BBC, expresses his grave concern that policy decisions may be taken without a clear mandate from the Crofting Commission’s board. This suggests such concerns are also held by Scottish Government.

Colin Kennedy must accept the reality that it is time for him to go.

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

Dismissed before you can resign

As seen on Twitter today:-

Perhaps Torcuil meant the Crofting Commission 😉