Tag Archives: The Scottish Farmer

New Crofting Commission CEO not Commissioner!

Fake Crofting NewsThe Scottish Farmer are not always on the ball when it comes to crofting news. This week they excelled themselves with the headline ‘New Crofting Commissioner announced’.

Well we had all been waiting patiently for the remaining vacant seat for an appointed commissioner to be filled. Only one of the two vacant posts was recently filled following the appointment of Malcolm Mathieson with a promise that the remaining appointment would “be made in due course“. Did The Scottish Farmer have an exclusive for us on this? Unfortunately not. They just had their CEOs mixed up with their commissioners.

Crofting CEO not CommissionerThe real news that the Scottish Farmer was trying to report was that Bill Barron has been appointed as Chief Executive at the Crofting Commission.

The Chief Executive and designated Accountable Officer is responsible for the strategic leadership and overall operation and management of the Crofting Commission, including financial controls. Bill Barron has assumed the role on a permanent basis after being appointed as interim CEO in October 2016 following the departure of Catriona Maclean.

Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity Fergus Ewing said:-

I am pleased that Bill has accepted the position and will join the Commission as permanent Chief Executive.

We have achieved a number of important milestones since we established the Crofting Commission in 2012, and there is now an opportunity to build on successful developments in crofting, refocusing attention on being an effective regulator and delivering an excellent service to crofters.

I am sure that Bill will bring leadership skills and dedication to the role and I wish him every success.

Crofting Commission Chief Executive Bill Barron said:-

I am delighted to have been appointed Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission. In my three months as Interim Chief Executive I have met regularly with Commissioners, staff, crofters and many other stakeholders to hear their views.

The work I have started will continue, giving the Commission a renewed focus on securing the future of crofting and preparing for the new Board following the crofting elections in March 2017.

Background

Bill Barron – biography

Bill Barron was appointed interim CEO of the Crofting Commission in October 2016.

Before that he worked on housing policy and delivery for the Scottish Government for 8 years, covering a range of issues including homelessness, housing’s contribution to health and social care, housing-related social security, and the supply of affordable housing.

A former statistician, Bill has also worked for the UK and Scottish Governments in the fields of education, social security, health and justice.

Crofting Commission

The Commission’s board can have up to nine commissioners. A maximum of six are elected by crofters, with the remainder appointed by Scottish Ministers. The Commission is the only public body in Scotland with a majority of board members elected by the people they serve.

Brian Inkster

Crofting Commission dodge answering questions

Dodging Bullets at the Crofting Commission

The Crofting Commission can stop your questions by simply not answering them!

The Cross-Party Group on Crofting has been waiting patiently on answers to 18 questions that they posed to the Crofting Commission. These were originally sent to the Crofting Commission in July 2016 then modified and sent in October 2016.

  1. Where in law it is stated that the Crofting Commission cannot revisit its own decisions?
  2. Why did the Crofting Commission chose to remove three grazings committees instead of work with them to improve things, if things needed improvement?
  3. Why were grazings shareholders not given the chance to elect a new committee when the Crofting Commission removed their committee, instead of moving straight to the appointment of a grazings constable?
  4. Does a removed committee have a right of appeal to the Crofting Commission?
  5. Where in law it is stated that the Crofting Commission has the power to appoint a Grazings Constable when they remove members of a grazing committee from office?
  6. Where in law it is stated that the Crofting Commission can extend the appointment of a Grazings Constable?
  7. Why is the Crofting Commission ignoring its own guidelines on the investigation of financial irregularities?
  8. Does the Crofting Commission maintain that all funds in a grazings bank account have to be disbursed immediately (including SRDP grants, as Mr MacLennan stated is the bulk of funds in the CPGoC)?
  9. If there are 3 levels of accounting as outlined by Mr MacLennan (examination by external qualified person such as local retired bank manager, prepared by qualified accountant on information supplied, full forensic audit), what are the thresholds at which each is required? Do they apply to balance or income? Who decides what is appropriate (given this was the reason Mr MacLennan gave for the Upper Coll grazings committee being removed by the Crofting Commission?)
  10. Why did the convener of the Crofting Commission involve himself in every one of these three cases and committee removals? Is this the job of a convener?
  11. Did the convener of the Crofting Commission declare his interest in the cases when the commissioners made their decision to move to removal?
  12. Does the Crofting Commission consider value for public money when pursuing cases?
  13. Mr MacLennan emphasised that the Crofting Commission were obliged to act as a shareholder had made a complaint. This does not square with the Commission’s dealings relating to other regulatory matters. We are aware of complaints made by shareholders with regard to absenteeism and neglect of crofts that go many years without commission action so it would be good to know why you are so diligent in pursuing grazings committees with such rigour. Has there been a policy change to target this type of regulatory issue (as there was previously with absentees)?
  14. Following the letter written to the Convener by Fergus Ewing concerning disbursement of common grazings funds to shareholders and SRDP funding there were mixed messages issued to the press by Commissioners. It appeared that the contents of the letter was supported but the Commission (or perhaps certain Commissioners) still thought they had done nothing wrong. Those two statements do not sit well next to one another. Can the Commission clarify their actual stance on the letter in clear terms for the benefit of this Group.
  15. Can the Commission explain why they have been questioning SRDP funding for and VAT Registration by Common Grazings?
  16. The Commission appear to be supporting their ‘constable’ Colin Souter and his behaviour at Upper Coll. Do they actually support a ‘constable’ who is having meetings with 4 shareholders and making decisions affecting 42 shareholders when 26 out of those 42 have signed a petition calling for his removal?
  17. Will the Commission advise the Group what remit was given to Constable Souter and why he appeared to be acting in an investigatory role rather than as an actual clerk.
  18. The latest revelation appears to be matters being decided by Commissioners via ‘brown envelopes’ rather than at board meetings. Can the Commission enlighten us further on this?

There were, in addition, two questions specifically posed to the Crofting Commission via the Cross-Party Group on Crofting by Iain MacKinnon on 1 November 2016:-

I would like to draw your attention to a letter by Colin Kennedy published this month in the Scottish Farmer. In the letter he draws the Scottish Crofting Federation’s attention to ‘the commission mole’ at the time of the ‘Susan Walker debacle’. Presumably he is referring here to the anonymous commissioner quoted by the West Highland Free Press when information was leaked to the paper and other media outlets about a letter signed by five commissioners – including Mr Kennedy – calling a meeting to discuss a potential vote of no confidence in Ms Walker. Mr Kennedy told the Scottish Farmer this month:

‘I can assure the SCF that prior to my becoming convener, the mole was identified and the information was provided to the appropriate persons to take the matter forward.’

At the Cross Party Group on Crofting’s meeting on 15th September last year, Jean Urquhart asked Mr Kennedy about the leak to the press.

He was unable to give her an answer and did not identify any ‘mole’ on that occasion. However, the then chief executive of the organisation was able to respond and this is noted in the minutes as follows:

‘What is being done about the fact that there was a leak to the press from a commissioner, which is a breach of the code of conduct?

While a newspaper claimed their was leak by a Commissioner, as Accountable Officer the CEO has carried out an internal investigation which found no evidence that any Commissioner had breached the code of conduct by leaking information on the matter to the press.’

I would like to hear from the Commission’s representative at the meeting how they reconcile these two statements and to ask again, in light of Mr Kennedy’s claim: what is being done about the leak to the press; and who was the ‘mole’ as described by Mr Kennedy in his letter to The Scottish Farmer.

Six months after the first questions were put to the Crofting Commission their Interim Chief Executive, Bill Barron, addressed them at the Cross-Party Group meeting at Holyrood on 25 January 2017 by stating that he didn’t intend to answer them but would like, instead, “to focus on the future“. He wanted to “draw a line under the rows of last year“. He acknowledged that “things had been done wrong” but there was “no merit in unpicking all of that“.

Mr Barron may have missed the fact that some of the rows of last year continue into this one.

He stated:-

Some of the specific issues raised in your questions have already been clarified by the Commission.  For example, we have confirmed that we agree with the Scottish Government’s position that there is nothing in the CAP rules that prevents the Scottish Government approving an SRDP application made by a grazings committee, and that we agree with the Scottish Government’s position regarding immediate disbursement of funds.

These, however, are two points that the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, still appears to be taking issue with and possibly still taking a contrary position on compared to his fellow commissioners and the official line of the Crofting Commission. This is all contrary to the doctrine of collective corporate responsibility. Indeed it is interesting to note that following the departure from the Crofting Commission of their former Convener, Susan Walker, Colin Kennedy, then Vice Convener, stated [PDF: Board Minutes – 13 May 2015]:-

I am sure that I speak on behalf of everyone when I say that today we are all equal with collective responsibility. In fact we are all Conveners, working together for the betterment of the Crofting Commission.

However, his publicly opposing views to that of the board clearly conflict with that statement.

The Guide for Board Members of Public Bodies in Scotland [PDF] states:-

While Board members must be ready to offer constructive challenge, they must also share collective responsibility for decisions taken by the Board as a whole. If they fundamentally disagree with the decision taken by the Board, they have the option of recording their disagreement in the minutes. However, ultimately, they must either accept and support the collective decision of the Board – or resign.

Colin Kennedy was not in attendance at the Cross-Party Group meeting on Wednesday night. He has only attended one meeting out of the five that have taken place since the start of the current Parliamentary term.

At the meeting in Holyrood on Wednesday night the Chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation, Russell Smith, asked Bill Barron if Colin Kennedy was still Convener and was still chairing Board meetings. Bill Barron answered both questions in the affirmative. Russell Smith then asked if the Board was working as it should to which Bill Barron replied “it is not easy but it is getting its work done“. How well, under the circumstances, it is getting its work done is, however, very debatable.

On the points raised by Ian MacKinnon the response from Bill Barron was:-

The same [i.e. not answering the questions] holds for Iain MacKinnon’s questions about a leak to the press, which was investigated by the previous CEO in 2015. Colin Kennedy’s more recent public comments about this appear to have been made in a personal capacity, but I can confirm that the Commission has no plans to re-examine this matter. Instead, my priority is to look forward to the upcoming elections and to prepare to give the best possible support to the new Board.

So it is all about looking forward and not looking back. However, you sometimes have to look back to learn from your mistakes before you can move forward and avoid making the same mistakes again.

Perhaps the Scottish Government’s review into the governance of the Crofting Commission will reflect more on the mistakes of the past and what needs to be done to prevent a recurrence of them. The Cross-Party Group on Crofting was advised on Wednesday by Gordon Jackson, Head of Rural Business Development and Land Tenure at the Scottish Government, that this review will be published “shortly“.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: The Matrix Reloaded © Village Roadshow Pictures, Silver Pictures and NPV Entertainment

Crofting Commission appointments and unfinished business?

Crofting Commission appointments and unfinished businessThe Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity, Fergus Ewing MSP, has announced the appointment of Malcolm Mathieson as a Commissioner of the Crofting Commission Board from 1 January 2017.  He also announced the reappointment of David Campbell as a Commissioner of the Crofting Commission Board from 1 April 2017.

The official Scottish Government press release reads:-

Appointments

Malcolm Mathieson is by profession an accountant who has held senior Finance and Managing Director positions within various global organisations.  He is senior partner in Moy Farm, an 1800 acre hill farm in Lochaber and a Director of Lochaber Lodges which he set up in 2009 as part of the farming diversification of Moy Farm.  Mr Mathieson has a specific interest in the financial viability of farming in less favoured areas.

Reappointment

David Campbell’s reappointment introduces a degree of continuity between the current Crofting Commission Board and the new Board which will be in place following the Crofting Commission elections in March 2017.  He has a wide experience of crofting matters with a solid grasp of crofting’s cultural, social and economic benefits, and how these are underpinned by effective regulation.  Mr Campbell has a strong connection to crofting traditions with an equally able understanding of how crofting system of land tenure plays a significant role in population retention.

Length of Terms and Remuneration

Mr Mathieson’s appointment is for three years and runs from 1 January 2017 until 31 December 2019.

Mr Campbell’s appointment is for three years and will run from 1 April 2017 until 31 March 2020.  His appointment fulfils the requirement for there to be a Crofting Commissioner to represent the interest of landlords of crofts.

Both appointments are part time and attract remuneration of £161.29 per day for a time commitment of around 4.5 days per month.

The appointment and reappointment are regulated by the Commissioner for Ethical Standards in Public Life in Scotland.

Bill Barron, Interim Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, said:-

We look forward to working with Malcolm, his experience and knowledge of finance and governance will be of great value to the Commission over the coming years.

Commissioner Campbell has provided an important contribution to the Board with his experience of crofting matters and understanding of the interests of landlords of crofts.  His reappointment will provide crucial continuity to the Board ahead of the crofting elections in March 2017.

The Scottish Government press release also revealed that:-

One further Commissioner appointment will be made in due course.

It appears odd that this appointment was not also announced at the same time as the appointment of Malcolm Mathieson given that the two vacancies were advertised at the same time and presumably the selection process carried out at the same time. Given all the problems that exist within the Crofting Commission it is an appointment that the Scottish Government can ill afford to delay any further.

It was interesting to see the Scottish Government press release state that:-

The Convener is appointed from among Commission members.

Whilst the current convener was so appointed it is of course within the power of Scottish Ministers to make the appointment rather than delegate that function to commissioners. It will be interesting to see the approach taken on this by Fergus Ewing MSP following the next Crofting Commission elections.

The current convener, Colin Kennedy, was back in the limelight this week speaking to The Scottish Farmer. He told them:-

I am standing again for election as I believe the job I started in 2012 is not completed.

I have been given overwhelming support from crofters across the crofting counties over the past four months, who recognise the commission requires people who are not afraid to take the decisions which the law provides for, rather than the decisions which certain individuals desire.

It is my paramount desire to ensure fair and equal treatment of all crofters regardless of where they reside. I am aware the board have been informed by a commissioner on several occasions ‘you don’t understand, crofting is different in our area’, which may be the case – and should it be that the Scottish Government have made special arrangements for that area, then it is only fair that crofters in all counties are afforded equality.

The board provides leadership, direction, support and guidance to make sure the commission does its job properly in line with the law. This is what I have tried to do and intend to continue to do should I be re-elected.

Also of extreme importance to every crofter is an explanation as to why the executive requested certain papers be destroyed, and why those vast documents were not on the commission system when a freedom of information request was received.

Who produced those papers which were then provided to both the commission committee and the full board with a list of options on how to dispose of such cases remains a mystery requiring answers. And why was the minute of the board dated September 15, 2015, in relation to those papers not implemented, together with numerous other minutes which were not implemented.

I am not sure where this “overwhelming support” is coming from. It has not been evidenced as far as I can see. On the contrary we have had crofters and crofter representatives seeking his resignation or dismissal.

With regard to “fair and equal treatment” Mr Kennedy has perhaps forgotten that the Commission’s removal from office of the Upper Coll Common Grazings Committee because they did not produce five years of audited accounts contradicted the position previously taken by the Commission. Their former convener, Susan Walker, had stated to another grazings committee that based on legal advice received by the Commission “reference to audit in the Grazings Regulations is not a specific statutory requirement”.

This is one of many examples of the Crofting Commission contradicting itself and not taking a uniform approach to the application of the law.

Also many would dispute that there has been “fair treatment” to crofters in Lewis and Lochaber over the past year.

There is little doubt in many observers eyes that the Commission has certainly not done “its job properly in line with the law” in recent times. If that is what Mr Kennedy has really tried to do it is something he appears, unfortunately, to have failed in.

It is not surprising to hear about the destruction of documents within the Crofting Commission. Mr Kennedy’s own guidelines on disbursement of funds by grazings committees was of course deleted from the Crofting Commission website as though it had never existed. Perhaps the missing documents Mr Kennedy refers to are the ones that were found by commissioners in the secret brown envelopes? However, the cryptic nature of the references by Mr Kennedy to these papers leaves more questions than answers. Perhaps he should arrange a special meeting of the board to be held in public to air fully any such matters that are “of extreme importance to every crofter“?

Brian Inkster

Crofting Law whilst in Milan

Crofting Law whilst in Milan

The dome in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, Milan, Italy

It is over a week since my last blog post. Not because it has been quiet in the world of crofting law but because I’ve been away in Milan. I didn’t quite escape crofting law whilst there as I had a meeting where a translator turned my crofting law advice into Italian. I hope nothing was lost in translation. Not sure what the Italian is for souming!

Last time I was away from the UK I commented that there was ‘no let up on the common grazings crisis whilst on holiday‘. Much the same this time around. Especially due to the fact that the ‘twa Colins’ (as they have become known in the comments section of this blog) are, somewhat incredulously, still in post.

Colin Souter, the Grazings ‘Constable‘ of Upper Coll, still seems to hold that ‘position’ despite the Crofting Commission announcing over three weeks ago that he would be stepping down “as soon as possible“. Why has he not stepped down or been stepped down?

Colin Souter has been uncharacteristically quiet during that period. Whereas Colin Kennedy, Convener of the Crofting Commission, has been uncharacteristically vocal. My last blog post looked at his  crofting ‘crusade‘ as revealed in The Scottish Farmer. A week later and The Scottish Farmer have published a letter from Colin Kennedy which starts with an attack on the Scottish Crofting Federation, rambles on a bit and is cryptic in places but seems to be blaming the  former Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission, Catriona Maclean, for everything that everyone else has been blaming him for. I will look at that, and the further breaches of the code of conduct by Mr Kennedy arising therefrom, in a future blog post.

Kennedy is the renegade commissioner who is breaking almost all, if not every, ethical standard expected of public office holders. The Editor of the West Highland Free Press wondered a couple of weeks ago how Kennedy had still not received his P45. Patrick Krause, Chief Executive of the Scottish Crofting Federation, writing in the Press & Journal around the same time expected this “Ozymandias with delusions of grandeur” to have been toppled by now.

The First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, referred to Kennedy’s behaviour as “disappointing” and hinted at the powers the Scottish Ministers had to remove him. Since then he has gone on a personal tirade against those very ministers, his commissioner colleagues and commission staff. How has he been allowed to go on like this? Who is in control? What message does this send out to crofters and the general electorate? Where and how will it all end?

I referred earlier to “former” Chief Executive, Catriona Maclean, because her replacement on an interim basis, Bill Barron, started work at Great Glen House on Monday. I will also look at that in more detail in a future blog post.

However, how can this new interim Chief Executive be expected to effectively operate an organisation where the Convener has gone renegade? Where that convener does not have the support of the other commissioners, the Scottish Ministers, any of the crofting representative bodies or the vast majority of crofters? Could the role be any more of a poisoned chalice?

What else happened over the past week? Well:-

  • The closing date came and went for applications for the two appointed Crofting Commissioner posts.
  • Top search terms leading people to this blog were “Colin Kennedy Crofting Commission” and “the Marquis & Marchioness of Stafford”. I have previously drawn comparisons.
  • Comments on the blog took on a Star Trek theme making a change from Star Wars analogies. The Dark Side have become the Klingons it would appear 😉
  • Revelations of baboon-a-grams being advertised on the Isle of Coll emerged. We are searching the News of the World archives for more on this story which just might eclipse the Convener’s Throne for amusement value.
  • It would appear that back issues of the News of the World, Press & Journal and Oban Times also hold other interesting stories about the Isle of Coll. We will see what our research turns up.
  • Crofting road shows will be taking place to inform crofters about the Crofting Commission  elections and other crofting issues.
  • The Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee has launched a call for written evidence to help inform its short, focussed review of priorities for crofting law reform.
  • Crofting Election Regulations have been put before the Scottish Parliament but these make no changes, as previously mooted, to the six constituency boundaries.

A week is clearly a long time in crofting law!

More detail on some of these stories  will appear in future blog posts. Do subscribe to this blog by inserting your e-mail address in the box in the top right of this page and press ‘Subscribe’. You will then receive the latest blog posts directly into your mail box as soon as they are published. You don’t want to miss that baboon-a-gram story 😉

Brian Inkster

Colin Kennedy and the Holy Grail

i-am-your-kingThe Scottish Farmer today gives space for Colin Kennedy, Convener of the Crofting Commission, to tell them about his “crofting crusade!”. This follows hot on the heals of a huge press offensive on his part over the past week with appearances/articles in Sunday Politics Scotland, The Oban Times and BBC Radio Highlands & Islands.

The story is the same: He is right and everyone else is wrong.

He has again stressed that his sole motivation is:-

to uphold crofting law, and defend the statutory rights of ordinary crofters

It has been shown that this is very much his own interpretation of crofting law and not one supported by the Scottish Government or by his fellow commissioners.

He has, however, again rounded on the Scottish Government and the cabinet secretary responsible for crofting, Fergus Ewing MSP, with The Scottish Farmer reporting Mr Kennedy as:-

bluntly accusing him [Mr Ewing] of perpetrating a cover-up of ScotGov’s historic role in a quagmire of maladministration.

He labours on about his views on the illegalities of common grazings obtaining SRDP funding which, as has been pointed out many times before, is not any business of the crofting regulator but a matter for the Scottish Government, the EU and crofters.

Mr Kennedy claims that:-

The commission has taken legal advice from Sir Crispin Agnew QC and it is my understanding that a grazing committee does not merit claiming subsidies, as only individual shareholders with grazing rights are eligible, provided that they comply with the provisions of the legislation for such activity.

Does Mr Kennedy have the approval of the Board of the Crofting Commission to discuss in public this legal advice obtained by the Commission? If not he is breaking that code of conduct again that he was keen to discuss on BBC Radio Highlands & Islands. This is, of course, true in relation to much that he has said over the past week.

Obtaining such a legal opinion was probably outwith the remit of the Crofting Commission in any event. It is understood that Mr Kennedy was instrumental in having it obtained. It is further understood that whilst the Board may have considered this legal opinion when produced they did not use it as a base for any decisions made.

The Scottish Government stated that it “wholly disagrees” with the views on SRDP funding held by Mr Kennedy. This would appear to include the legal opinion that he still clings to.

Those views, like his ones on VAT registration, were potentially all about depriving crofters of funding and had nothing to do with upholding crofting law and defending the statutory rights of ordinary crofters.

well-i-didnt-vote-for-you

Mr Kennedy again showed the huge divide between himself and the Crofting Commission Board and the fact that he was not in fact supporting decisions taken by the Board such as accepting the Government’s position on SRDP and disbursement of funds.

Mr Kennedy proceeded, in his interview with The Scottish Farmer, to attack the former Upper Coll Grazings Committee stating that they:-

have a lot to answer on behalf of shareholders.

Again this is completely at odds with the position taken by the Scottish Government and the Board of the Crofting Commission who have issued an apology to the grazings committee in question.

Mr Kennedy’s position in such circumstances is completely untenable.

mandate-from-the-masses

On the subject of Colin Souter, the grazings ‘constable’ at Upper Coll, Mr Kennedy denies any involvement in his appointment or that he is “his man“. He points the finger on Chief Executive, Catriona Maclean, for the appointment “without reference to the agreed board process“.

However, Freedom of Information requests reveal evidence that Mr Kennedy’s version of events may be one painted through rose tinted glasses. His memory again may not be serving him well.

A document produced by the Crofting Commission states:-

Following the Board meeting on 9th May the Convener, Vice Convener, and CEO met by phone to agree who should be appoint4ed [sic] to the post of Grazings constable in the Upper Coll Common Grazings.

So Mr Kennedy was very involved in the selection process.

The selection committee considered four potential candidates for the job and concluded that:-

Mr Souter has experience in working with crofters and grazings committe4ss [sic] through his time in the Police. An ex-chief inspector and force negotiator who comes from south Usit [sic] Mr Souter has both the skills and experience to deal with this matter and therefore he was selected to be appointed constable.

So Mr Kennedy was in fact party to and appointed Mr Souter to the post in question.

There is also evidence of direct communication between Mr Souter and Mr Kennedy. For example an e-mail from the former to the latter on 24 May 2016 which reads:-

Hi Colin

In looking to progress a meeting with the shareholders at Upper Coll, in the near future, I wanted to ensure the venue was appropriate and given you’ve been out there, I wondered if you had an idea on the best venue option and perhaps a secondary one, if circumstances require?

Kind Regards

Colin

Colin Souter

No evidence was produced from the Freedom of Information request as to whether or not recommendations were given by Mr Kennedy to Mr Souter on the comfort of the chairs at possible venues in Upper Coll. But this exchange does prove that there was indeed direct communication between the two as previously suggested on this blog.

Furthermore Mr Kennedy was taking a direct interest in matters by requesting to see minutes of meetings held by Mr Souter at Upper Coll, all as disclosed from information obtained through Freedom of Information.

Mr Kennedy in discussion with The Scottish Farmer refers to the whole grazings committee issue being “a can of worms” but stressed that to his knowledge it was only a problem specifically on Lewis. He is reported as having “quipped“:-

as previously stated in the board room things are often done differently in Lewis.

What about in Lochaber? Has Mr Kennedy also forgotten about the grazings committee he and his fellow commissioners put out of office there? Has he forgotten about how instrumental he was in ensuring the appointment of a grazings ‘constable’ there who would do his bidding?

It has, however, been commented on before that Lewis appeared to be a particular target for the convener. It is unclear why. But perhaps that will eventually come out in the wash.

Mr Kennedy is quoted by The Scottish Farmer as saying:-

But now I’ve put my head on the block in trying to get to grips with the truth. I know people are queuing up to get me out but I am not letting this rest. I’m not going to jump, so I will probably be pushed. If that happens my solicitor is standing by.

That solicitor will have a difficult hill to climb. The evidence seems to me to be firmly stacked against Mr Kennedy and has been since my first blog post on ‘The Common Clearances‘. Subsequent events and revelations from Freedom of Information requests has just fortified that position.

im-invincible

Mr Kennedy’s version of events, as given to the press this past week, appears to show a selective memory with many gaps to fill. I and others who post comments attempt to fill those as best we can on this blog.

Mr Kennedy, like Mr Souter, appears to be searching for a justification for his discredited actions. I doubt that he will ever find it.

Brian Inkster

Image Credits: Monty Python and the Holy Grail © Python (Monty) Pictures

Kennedy stays in post and seeks legal advice

Colin Kennedy stays in position as Convener of the Crofting Coimmission and seeks legal adviceYesterday we heard that the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, had told the BBC that he had no plans to resign.

Today we learn that he has also been speaking to The Scottish Farmer. Their front page main story reveals:-

I am currently taking legal advice and it is inappropriate for me to comment at this stage.

All I will say is that, despite all the flak, I am staying in my position as convener, and not resigning.

In the past week Mr Kennedy has provided statements to The Herald, BBC and The Scottish Farmer asserting that he is going nowhere. That appears to be many more statements than he has ever made to the press as convener on behalf of the Crofting Commission in over a year in that position.

With no support from fellow commissioners, the Scottish Crofting Federation, National Farmers Union Scotland, MSPs of all political persuasions, the press and the vast majority of crofters it would appear very clear that he no longer has a mandate to continue in that position.

All the legal advice in the world won’t change that simple fact.

Brian Inkster

Scottish Farmer confused over Common Grazings Crisis

Scottish Farmer confused over Common Grazings CrisisThe Scottish Farmer seems to be confused by the Common Grazings Crisis.

They think that:-

The furore within crofting circles shows no sign of abating, as the impasse between the governing body, the Crofting Commission, and the industry representative body, the Scottish Crofting Federation, meanders on.

It is not an impasse between the Crofting Commission and the Scottish Crofting Federation. It is an impasse between the Crofting Commission and crofters. In particular the crofters directly affected by the decisions of the Crofting Commission to remove from office the members of three grazings committees.

One minute the ‘findings’ of Grazings ‘Constable’ Colin Souter is front page news. The next minute they are calling him Ian Souter.

The debate regarding the removal of this Ian Souter could they suggest “continue forever” as he has “support within the crofting community“. That will be 4 out of 42 shareholders!

One minute they are running a poll that shows that 96% of readers who took part considered that the Scottish Government should enact an independent inquiry into the workings of the Crofting Commission. The next minute they are running a poll on “should crofting put its house in order without government intervention?

They think “the time has come for a line to be drawn and for a new Upper Coll committee to steer the way forward“. Probably not many disagreements there other than perhaps from Colin/Ian Souter and Colin Kennedy.

They think that “this decision would be much better taken without government intervention“. I’m sure it would have been but time has shown that there is a clear inability on the part of the Crofting Commission to accept its wrongs. If anything in recent weeks they have been going out of their way to make matters worse with the inexplicable quest via Colin Souter to find something, anything, to justify their actions in the first place.

This all on the back of the first government intervention when Fergus Ewing MSP made it clear than the government’s views were “diametrically opposed” to those held by Commission Convener, Colin Kennedy.

Despite this first intervention and rebuke the Crofting Commission, with Colin Kennedy still at the helm, steered into even stormier waters clearly not heeding what Mr Ewing had told them.

The result was undoubtedly going to be the need for Mr Ewing to intervene again. He did so before the latest poll from The Scottish Farmer properly got off the ground.

Again Mr Ewing has told the Crofting Commission they got it wrong. This time he has asked them to “swiftly resolve” the crisis in crofting of their making. He has also told them to apologise to the crofters they have hurt so badly and the expectation is that this apology must come from Colin Kennedy.

Mr Ewing has also instructed government officials to carry out a review of the governance of the Crofting Commission.

Yes, it would have been better for there to have been no need for government intervention. But week upon week of the Crofting Commission making the situation worse not better has left little option but for this intervention to take place. It has been very necessary and extremely justified.

I reckon that if Fergus Ewing is forced to intervene a third time (chances are that he will have to) it will be the last time he does so as by that stage heads will have to roll.

Crofting Commissioners should reflect on that when deciding their next move at their board meeting in Brora on Wednesday.

Brian Inkster

Hat Tip: With thanks to Donald Macsween for drawing this to my attention.

The Scottish Farmer adds balance to the tales of the Upper Coll ‘Constable’

the-scottish-farmer-logoLast week I commented on how the letter from Colin Souter, the Grazings ‘Constable’ at Upper Coll, to shareholders was no ‘gamechanger’.

This week The Scottish Farmer has redressed the balance by publishing the views of the majority of shareholders at Upper Coll which counter the allegations made by Colin Souter against them.

They also published a letter from me on the topic which they asked me to edit down in size prior to publication. I will reproduce here the longer version that I originally supplied them with:-

Sir – I was somewhat bemused by the headline in last week’s Scottish Farmer. The letter from Colin Souter, the grazings ‘constable’ appointed by the Crofting Commission, to shareholders at Upper Coll Common Grazings is certainly no ‘gamechanger’.

Had your reporter sought to verify this sensationalist piece of propaganda via the former committee members at Upper Coll or myself he would have received a very different take on it.

Firstly, it should be made clear that many consider Mr Souter’s appointment as a grazings constable to be illegal. Donald Rennie explained clearly and in detail why in a letter published by you some weeks ago. It subsequently transpired that a report produced to the board of the Crofting Commission by their Chief Executive, Catriona Maclean, made it clear that grazings constables could not be legally appointed where a grazings committee is removed from office by the Commission. It would therefore appear that the board of the Crofting Commission acted contrary to legal advice given to them and appointed a ‘constable’ who has no standing in law.

Also, even if Colin Souter had been appointed legally as a grazings constable that role is not (despite the name) in law an investigative one but one that simply takes on the duties of day to day management of the common grazings on behalf of and in the interests of the shareholders.

Colin Souter, a retired police chief inspector, seems to be under the misapprehension that he has been brought out of retirement to utilise his police skills. He even states on his LinkedIn profile that he is “engaged to support Scottish Government NDPB Crofting Commission, in investigative and reporting activity”. He has no remit of the kind and if he has actually been given such a remit then serious questions should be asked regarding the conduct of the Crofting Commission over and above the fact that, in the first place, they knowingly appointed him when they knew that legally they couldn’t.

It appears that the Crofting Commission are on a fishing expedition. They removed from office the former committee at Upper Coll purely on the basis that they had produced 5 years of financial statements prepared by an accountant rather than 5 years of “audited” accounts as unfairly and unjustifiably demanded by the Commission. This was met by overwhelming incredulity on the part of onlookers. Now the Commission are seeking to justify their actions on other grounds. They have sent in a former police inspector to find something, anything, to make everything alright again for them.

Colin Souter appears to have carried out the bidding of his masters. He has trawled through records of the Upper Coll Common Grazings going back to 2008 if not before looking for misdemeanours. This is well out with the 5 year ‘audit’ period the Crofting Commission initially concerned itself with.

Colin Souter has compiled a list but that list is of no significance. Some of it is petty in the extreme such as highlighting one typographical error on the part of the accountants instructed by the former committee in the financial statements that the Commission had not even been willing to look at. He has claimed that monies were contributed to upgrading a road in 2008 when this is denied by shareholders and even if it were true so what? He decries the spending of £520 on feu design work to allow crofting families in the township to remain in the township by allocating to them house sites on land that was not much use for grazing purposes. Any costs associated with that would be more than recouped when house sites were sold and compensation on resumption received. He does not understand that.

What Colin Souter also does not appear to understand is that a new grazings committee is elected every three years. Most of his accusations relate to the activities of the committee of 2008/09. There have been a further three committees elected since then. Even if what the grazings committee of 2008/09 did was wrong (and there is no evidence to suggest that it was) it does not justify the Crofting Commission removing from office a committee only elected in 2015.

Colin Souter claims there is nothing in the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 that permits shareholders funds to be used to pay solicitors. What nonsense. A right for crofters to instruct lawyers does not need to be contained in tablets of stone within the Crofting Acts. It is a fundamental human right. Try the Magna Carta for starters.

It is also of course rather ironic that a grazing ‘constable’ whose legality has been questioned from the outset is stating left, right and centre what he considers the law to be and how he considers former committees to have breached it. Presumably in circumstances where he has not actually sought legal advice on such pronouncements because he doesn’t consider expenditure on legal advice by a grazings committee to be legal!

The situation with the grazings ‘constable’ at Upper Coll has become farcical. I will be expressing my concerns to Fergus Ewing MSP, as cabinet secretary responsible for crofting, about this illegal ‘constable’ being allowed to wreak havoc by the Crofting Commission. Mr Ewing has already had to rein in Convener Colin Kennedy. Now it is time for him to rein in another Colin.

Brian Inkster

The Wrong Grazings Committee!

The Wrong Grazings Committee (Grazings Constable gets confused)

Eh by gum, Gromit, no one told me that they appointed a new grazings committee every three years! Pass the cheese please.

It was reported in The Scottish Farmer this week that:-

New evidence has been revealed that appears to justify the Crofting Commission’s unpopular intervention in the financial affairs of a common grazings committee.

This ‘evidence’ was presented in a letter to shareholders in the Upper Coll Common Grazings by the grazings ‘constable’ Colin Souter. A grazings ‘constable’ illegally appointed in my view, and in the view of others including, ironically, the Crofting Commission themselves.

Many of the allegations made by Mr Souter actually, it transpires, relate to decisions made by shareholders when previous grazings committees were in power. Not the latest one which the Crofting Commission summarily removed from office for producing five years of financial statements prepared by an accountant rather than five years of “audited” accounts as demanded unfairly by the Commission.

Actions by past grazings committees cannot be used as evidence to justify the removal from office of a grazings committee that had no part in those actions.

Indeed it would appear that Mr Souter has been spending his time (and presumably as a result the shareholders money) trawling through the history of Upper Coll Common Grazings attempting to find fault wherever he can. His efforts in this regard go way back before the five year ‘audit’ period sought by the Crofting Commission.

Indeed the two main issues highlighted in the report by The Scottish Farmer date back to 2008/09. There have been three new grazings committees at Upper Coll since then!

Gordon Davidson reports in The Scottish Farmer:-

Top of his list was an application lodged with Comhairle Nan Eilean Siar seeking a grant under their Unadopted Road Upgrade Scheme, seeking £10,000 of matched funding to be spent on upgrading the landlord’s Ghearraidh Ghuirm private road.

In doing so, the former committee undertook to spend £20,000, including the CNES grant, of shareholders’ money on upgrading this section of road and also accepted the subsequent road maintenance obligation, in perpetuity – a decision of clear benefit to prospective few [sic – should have been “feu”] buyers, but with no apparent link to the maintenance or improvement of the common grazing.

“Thus, the spending of shareholders’ money in this way, was outwith the power of the committee at that time, meaning they acted outside of the law and the legal protection normally afforded,” noted Mr Souter.

This is what certain shareholders at Upper Coll have to say about this particular matter in a letter issued to shareholders in response to the one issued by Mr Souter:-

He accuses the then Grazings Committee of match funding the improvements to the Gearraidh Ghuirm Road behind Donald Campbell’s Garage. This is grossly untrue. The village did not put any money into this. The Councillors then in office helped facilitate the financial match funding from sources including contributions from residents. The village used some of this money to repair the road going out to the quarry, which in fact was an aid to the shareholders using the quarry and the peat-road! This was in 2008!!

Gordon Davidson also reports in The Scottish Farmer that Colin Souter:-

also found that the former committee had, in 2008/09 sought to earmark areas of common grazings land to be sold off as housing plots, and paid for the feu design work out of shareholders’ grazing funds, again acting outside of the law.

I asked shareholders at Upper Coll about this and was told that it was to allow crofting families in the township to remain in the township by allocating to them house sites on land that was not much use for grazing purposes. Any costs associated with that would be more than recouped when house sites were sold and compensation on resumption received.

Indeed consent to the sale of one such house site was raised as an agenda item at the meeting in November 2015 attended by the Crofting Commission, including Convener Colin Kennedy. This was approved at that meeting by the shareholders present. Of course the resumption application would be advertised in due course giving all and every shareholder the right to object should they wish to do so.

The house site under debate in November 2015 was, rather ironically, allocated to a relation of Ivor Matheson who brought the original complaint against the grazings committee and was so vocal in this week’s Scottish Farmer in support of the actions of Colin Souter which suggest this enterprising initiative on the part of the 2008/09 grazings committee to have been unlawful!

Ultimately shareholder funds are there to be utilised as shareholders want them to be. If all shareholders are happy to divert funds into a scheme on the common grazings that will result in benefit to members of the shareholders families, strengthen the crofting community and ultimately give a financial return what is wrong with that?

I do not believe that even Ivor Matheson would be looking for repayment of his share of the £520 (i.e. £12.38) spent on the feu design work given the benefit that small payment has had to his family.

It is clear that Mr Souter is making assumptions left, right and centre without appraising himself of the true facts. He is meddling in matters that are of no concern of his. He appears to have a goal, possibly at the behest of the master(s) who appointed him, to find fault with the former committee to justify his existence. He forgets he was illegally appointed and, like the Crofting Commission, has not been able to justify with reference to statute or case law the validity of his appointment. He forgets that grazings committees are appointed every three years and he cannot point the finger of blame at the last committee for the actions of their predecessors.

Ultimately, however, Mr Souter has produced a list of petty ‘faults’ most of which can be dismissed out of hand. He has certainly failed to produce the ‘gamechanger‘ that his master(s) may have wished him to find but that he had no remit to ever look for in the first place.

It should also be borne in mind that the initial action by the Crofting Commission against the former grazings committee at Upper Coll that ultimately resulted in the ‘appointment’ of Mr Souter centred around their misinterpretation of the law. A misinterpretation that the Commission have been reprimanded for by Fergus Ewing MSP and apparently has been accepted as such by them.

It has become a farce (although arguably has been for some time). Mr Souter and his master(s) look more ridiculous by the day over their handling of this whole sorry affair. In the process it is not reflecting well on the Scottish Government who have overarching responsibility for crofting.

In the letter of ‘appointment’ from the Crofting Commission addressed to Mr Souter it is stated:-

The appointment is for 6 months from the date of the Order. However the intention is that this should be a short term measure and once any outstanding actions are discharged, that you arrange a meeting of shareholders at which you will resign and a new committee will be elected by the shareholders to manage the grazings in accordance with the Regulations and the Act.

So the Crofting Commission saw the ‘appointment’ as short term and possibly expected it to have come to an end by now. Mr Souter’s duty was “to discharge any outstanding actions“.  It is unclear whether he has in fact even applied himself to such a task and I will look at that in a further blog post. He appears, on the face of it, to have concentrated on a forensic examination of the history of Upper Coll Common Grazings. Something that he had no remit to do even if he had been legally appointed as a grazings constable.

The majority of shareholders at Upper Coll who attended a meeting convened for that purpose (there being no dissenters) have made it clear that they want nothing more to do with Mr Souter. They want to form a new grazings committee.

Mr Souter should respect the wishes of the shareholders who he supposedly represents. He should now do the honourable thing and ‘resign’ from his role as grazings ‘constable’ without further delay. He does not actually need to arrange a meeting of shareholders to do so, he can simply send them a letter or advise the Crofting Commission of his decision to do so and let them advise the shareholders accordingly.

This is what the similarly illegally appointed grazings constable at Mangersta Common Grazings saw fit to sensibly do.

Although arguably Colin Souter cannot resign from an illegal position that gives him no status or authority in the first place.

But the ‘resignation’ (as was the case in Mangersta) may have symbolic significance. It may at least draw a line under his interference in the workings of a common grazings where the vast majority of the shareholders simply wish to get on by themselves with controlling their own destiny and their own finances. They want to do so for the benefit of a community that Mr Souter and his master(s) appear intent on destroying.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: Wallace & Gromit in The Wrong Trousers © Aardman Animations

Crofters and Lawyers

Crofters and Lawyers - Yes they could instruct Rumpole!

It isn’t just the Crofting Commission who can instruct crofting law advice!

It was reported in The Scottish Farmer this week that, as part of the ‘findings’ of the illegally appointed grazings ‘constable’ to Upper Coll Common Grazings, Colin Souter had said in a letter to shareholders that:-

I have also written to the solicitor, Brian Inkster who was apparently engaged by the former Committee, to provide them with legal advice in their dispute with the Commission. Mr Inkster was paid £600 in fees from shareholders’ funds in April 2016. There is nothing in the 1993 Act which permits shareholders’ funds to be used in this way. In addition, there is no record in the Minutes of the decision to engage Mr Inkster, the brief involved or the paying of his invoice having been put to or approved by individual shareholders. Thus, the spending of shareholders’ money in this way, was outwith the power of the Committee at that time, meaning they acted outside of the law and the legal protection normally afforded. Such arbitrary decision-making is outside of the power of the Committee, where it commits spending and serves only to undermine the trust between Committee and shareholders.

In the first letter received by me from Mr Souter on this topic he boldly states:-

Nowhere in the Act, is it provided that shareholders’ money can legitimately be used to pay for legal services when a Grazings Committee is in dispute with any organisation, body or individual. For such to even be contemplated, I would consider it necessary for at least a unanimous vote by shareholders, to support the move. However, there is no indication in the Minute records of such a meeting, discussion or vote having taken place amongst shareholders. I consider it would be highly questionable, even under such circumstances, faced with the narrow terms of statutory responsibility held by Grazings Committees, that shareholders’ money, held for spending on maintenance or improvement of the common grazing, could legitimately be spent on legal advice from any solicitor.

With acceptance of this point, comes the ethical question of receiving the money, fully understanding the source and yet presenting the cheque for payment, (as an expert in Crofting legislation), with specific knowledge of the restrictions under the Act.

He then went on to ask me, in the circumstances, to send him a cheque for £600!

In the absence of receiving such a cheque from me he wrote again this time seeking the payment once more and also asking me for copies of certain documents that he would be willing to pay me a fee to receive. A bit ironic surely that he can pay solicitors fees all of a sudden when supposedly representing shareholders who he claims cannot!

He also, in this most recent letter, went on to threaten me:-

I offer this additional and final opportunity for you to respond on the matters raised in the initial correspondence and that above, before deciding upon the necessity for further action, which if taken, may well afford the benefit of free publicity but with the detail being made public, may nevertheless impact adversely upon your professional standing.

He concludes with the threat of raising a small-claims action against me presumably in the Sheriff Court.

View from Upper Coll

This is what certain shareholders at Upper Coll have to say about the matter in a letter issued to shareholders in response to the one issued by Mr Souter:-

He questions the legality of grazings committees seeking and paying for legal advice. In our case, Inksters Solicitors, who are well versed in Crofting Law were asked by the Grazing Committee to investigate the legality of the Upper Coll shareholders having to distribute the money received from feu dispositions with such haste by the Crofting Commission. He was given a limit of up to £600 to do so. This was actioned prior to the Grazings Committee being put out of office.

Inksters in their investigations were instrumental in the Crofting Commission performing a U-turn on their directive to Upper Coll (it was found that they were in fact acting outside the law!) and saving countless grazings a considerable amount of money!

It is ironic that Mr Souter finds fault with Upper Coll shareholders employing a legal expert to successfully show the injustices of the Crofting Commission whilst he himself while acting for the Upper Coll shareholders (in his opinion!) seeks the counsel of a QC to enquire as to the legitimacy of the Upper Coll Grazings being VAT registered!!

These shareholders at Upper Coll also make the following general point:-

The constable seems unable to understand that in the spirit of openness and transparency over the years in Upper Coll, all meetings were advertised and open to all shareholders, that all decisions were taken by the majority of those attending and that all these decisions were minuted.

He is also under the mistaken impression that the clerk took actions on his own initiative. That is untrue. The clerk’s actions were always as a result of decisions and actions approved by the majority of shareholders. If the clerk was at fault so were all those present at meetings who asked him to act on their behalf.

The constable seems to place blame on successive committees, when in fact all actions were approved at open shareholder meetings. The clerk, unlike the constable, only took action after being instructed to do so by shareholders.

View from the Crofting Law Blog

Mr Souter clearly has no idea about what his role is and what he should be doing even if he was appointed legally as a grazings constable which he has not been. On one hand (according to him) shareholders cannot seek legal advice, but on the other hand he can take unilateral action on their behalf (and presumably at their cost) with no discussion or agreement from them whatsoever.

He hasn’t a clue about the law and given that he thinks shareholders cannot seek legal advice under and in terms of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 he will presumably not be able to seek such advice himself to assist in his deliberations.

Having said that Mr Souter is apparently in receipt “of legal opinion from Queen’s Counsel” on whether Grazings Committees can register for VAT. It is not clear whether he, the Crofting Commission or some other party instructed this opinion. I will explore this specifically and in detail in future blog posts.

However, he seems able to instruct “agents“. It has been reported that:-

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”.

A lawyer is simply an agent, no different surely from instructing any other agent to do work on your behalf that may be required?

In any event a right for crofters to instruct lawyers does not need to be contained in tablets of stone within the Crofting Acts. It is a fundamental human right. Try the Magna Carta for starters.

Shareholders in common grazings have been instructing lawyers to represent and provide them with advice in numerous matters over many years. Is Mr Souter really suggesting that all those lawyers need to repay fees received for work undertaken and advice given?

Is Mr Souter really saying that shareholders could not have a lawyer representing them in an action brought against them in the Scottish Land Court?

Does Mr Souter really think it is okay for the Crofting Commission to hire top QCs in their questionable battles against shareholders in common grazings but that those shareholders cannot be afforded access to lawyers themselves?

Has Mr Souter read the Guidance Notes issued by the Crofting Commission on the Management and Use of Common Grazings? These Guidance Notes contain an “Important note” that reads:-

The following guidance is intended to assist grazings committees with regard to the use of grazings regulations. The guidance does not constitute legal advice, and should not be construed as such. Should a grazings committee and/or shareholder require legal advice on a matter concerning common grazings, independent legal advice should be sought from a suitably qualified solicitor.

So even Mr Souter’s masters, who are not often commended for a common sense approach to matters, acknowledge and accept that shareholders can and should seek their own independent legal advice.

Should Mr Souter carry out his threat and raise court action against my law firm I will have no difficulty in defending it and calling the Crofting Commission in as a party to it. There will be a counterclaim for the time, inconvenience and costs caused to me unnecessarily by Mr Souter.

I do not recognise Mr Souter as having any legal standing or authority. His appointment was illegal and even the Crofting Commission knew this to be the case when making it.

Accordingly, I will not be replying directly to his letters. Instead I will be writing to the Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity, Fergus Ewing MSP, who has responsibility for crofting. I will, out of courtesy, copy my letter to Mr Souter.

I will be expressing my concerns to Mr Ewing about this illegal ‘constable’ being allowed to wreak havoc by the Crofting Commission. Mr Ewing has already had to rein in Convener Colin Kennedy. Now it is time for him to rein in another Colin.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: Rumpole of the Bailey © ITV