Tag Archives: SRDP funding

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

Lacklustre response by Crofting Commission

Lacklustre response from Crofting CommissionThe Crofting Commission eventually got around, on 24 August 2016, to issuing a public written statement regarding the letter from Fergus Ewing MSP, Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for crofting, to Colin Kennedy, Convener of the Crofting Commission. It states:-

A special meeting was held by the Board on the 21 July to consider the Cabinet Secretary’s letter to the Convener. The Board unanimously agreed that the Crofting Commission support the Scottish Government’s position on CAP funding and disbursal of funds by common grazings committees.

The Convener, Colin Kennedy, has written to the Cabinet Secretary confirming the Board’s agreement.  At the Commission’s Board meeting on Wednesday 17 August, draft guidance for grazings committees was considered and the Commission is planning to engage with stakeholders to discuss the guidance.

The Crofting Commission continues to work constructively with the Scottish Government and is committed to securing the future of crofting.

So nothing there we didn’t know already! And nothing to clarify the confusing mixed messages issued on the Commission’s behalf by Commissioner Murdo Maclennan in English and in Gaelic immediately following the board meeting on 17 August.

Or does this clarify the position without explicitly saying so?

With no add-ons like we got from Murdo Maclennan does this mean there is no qualification to the support given to the letter from Fergus Ewing (i.e. the Crofting Commission are not actually saying that they think they did the right thing but are still supporting his letter – instead they are simply unequivocally supporting his letter and therefore admitting that they got it wrong completely?)

However, we shouldn’t have to be drawing inferences from statements issued by the Crofting Commission.

They knew there was confusion caused by Colin Kennedy’s statement to Jackie O’Brien on 16 August and Murdo Maclennan’s statement to the media on 17 August. In both cases the message was in effect  that “we’ve done nothing wrong but we support the letter from Fergus Ewing”. Is this or is this not the position of the Board of the Crofting Commission? Or are they split on this point?

I have asked the Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, Catriona Maclean, to clarify the matter, for the avoidance of any doubt, for readers of this blog. I will let you know her response should I receive one and am not simply ignored again.

Who calls the shots at the Crofting Commission?

Who calls the shots at the Crofting Commission - I've been expecting you Mr Ewing

“I’ve been expecting you Mr Ewing”

The letter from Fergus Ewing MSP, Cabinet Secretary responsible for crofting, to Colin Kennedy, Convener of the Crofting Commission, made it clear that the Scottish Government did not share the legal interpretation taken by the Crofting Commission on (a) the distribution of funds by Grazings Committees and (b) entitlement to SRDP funding by Grazings Committees.

The letter, interestingly, suggested that the wrong views on these matters were personal ones held by Colin Kennedy and did not necessarily represent the views of the Board of the Crofting Commission. Fergus Ewing, in the letter, stated:-

At our meeting you noted that the views you expressed on these issues were in fact your own and not those of the Crofting Commission Board. This was confirmed by the Crofting Commission’s Chief Executive. As it currently stands, the Scottish Government sees little merit in your views on these issues and wholly disagrees with them. Based on a thorough consideration that we have given this matter, it is clear that our own view on these important issues is diametrically opposed to your own. I am very concerned about this and also about the risk that policy decisions at the Crofting Commission may be taken without a clear mandate from the Crofting Commission’s Board.

If this is the case then although the Crofting Commission Board may not have shared Colin Kennedy’s views on the distribution of funds by Grazings Committees decisions were still made that forced or sought to force Grazings Committees to empty their bank accounts, put them out of office and replaced them with illegally appointed grazings constables. How did this happen?

BBC Reporter Jackie O’Brien said on 17 August 2016 that:-

I did speak to him [Colin Kennedy] 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.

If he admitted to Fergus Ewing that the views were his own and this was backed up by Catriona Maclean, Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, then clearly decisions were not actually based on papers supplied by the Commission’s executive.

Also if these views were his own and not shared by the Board how was it that “not a single matter on this has ever had to go to a vote or at board level” and “that all decisions are taken by means of reasoned debate and consensus“?

Or has there never been a vote at board level because the decisions have already been taken by the Convener?!

Colin Kennedy has either been misleading Fergus Ewing MSP or Jackie O’Brien because the statements made by each of them do not correspond.

The inference, however, from the Fergus Ewing letter is that Colin Kennedy has been calling the shots at the Crofting Commission and that policy decisions may have been taken without a clear mandate from the Crofting Commission’s Board. If this is the case it is concerning indeed.

It is also rather ironic that the last Convener, Susan Walker, was ousted from office in a coup by certain Board members because there had been growing concern amongst her fellow commissioners over her style of leadership with it being alleged that she had assumed the role of an executive chair, rather than that of primus inter pares – first among equals. Whether or not Susan Walker was actually behaving in this way, and I have seen no evidence to suggest that she was, it would appear that her replacement, Colin Kennedy, is!

Crofting Commission meet at Great Glen House to discuss Common Grazings Committees on the Isle of Lewis

“Our target, commissioners, is the Isle of Lewis”

At the time it was reported that even the Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, Catriona Maclean, had privately criticised the way Commissioners handled the affair and she went further, with one internal note suggesting the Commission may have underplayed the level of division within their board during discussions with Government. Writing shortly after the convener’s resignation she said that, while the Commission “wanted to reassure the Minister [for Crofting] that they were keen to move forward in a united and positive way”, her own view was that there were “still differences of opinion on the merits of what happened”. In a later commentary she specified disagreement between board members which will require “a focus on healing”.

It would appear that this disagreement between board members still subsists with no sign of any healing. If anything the wound has perhaps deepened.

If the cause of this is a commissioner who dictates his views on the others and those views are “diametrically opposed” to those held by the Scottish Government then there appears to be a conflict that requires to be resolved. It may not be one that can easily be resolved without the intervention sought by many.

Brian Inkster

Images Credit: Thunderball © Eon Productions Limited / Danjaq, LLC – 007.com

Crofting Convener seeks to stop SRDP funding for Common Grazings

I don't believe it - Crofting Commission up to their neck in it

“I don’t believe it!”

Whilst the media concentrated last week on Fergus Ewing’s letter to Colin Kennedy stating that the Scottish Government disagreed with the way the Common Grazings debacle had been handled there was another significant element to his letter. This was that:-

there is nothing in the CAP rules that prevents the Scottish Government approving applications for SRDP funding in respect of a common grazings by a Grazings Committee.

This would suggest that the Convener of the Crofting Commission was seeking to prevent common grazings committees receiving SRDP funding! Why on earth would a crofter elected to represent the interests of crofters on the Crofting Commission seek to do that?

Furthermore what does SRDP funding have to do with the crofting regulator? Absolutely nothing!

It is worrying indeed that the Crofting Commission and/or their Convener might be spending any time or resources at all on seeking to deprive grazings committees of funding in the first place never mind them seeking to divest those committees of monies as soon as received.

It was made clear in the letter that this view on SRDP funding was Colin Kennedy’s own view and not one shared by the Board of the Crofting Commission. I will explore that fact further in my next blog post.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: ©BBC – Victor Meldrew in One Foot in the Grave