Tag Archives: Upper Coll Common Grazings

Crofters, Lawyers, VAT and a Grazings ‘Constable’

Crofters, Lawyers, VAT and a Grazings 'Constable'

Best to instruct a lawyer for legal advice and a chance of justice

I had thought my post on Crofters and Lawyers set the record straight as far as the question of crofters being entitled to engage the services of lawyers was concerned.

I also thought my post on Crofting VATgate and subsequent comments on that topic from Donald Rennie was sufficient to clarify that matter also.

But alas not for ‘Constable’ Souter. He felt it necessary to air his views once more (and ignore the points already made by me to him via this blog) in front of a large number of lawyers by submitting a letter for publication this week in Scottish Legal News. I reproduce here his letter and my response thereto:-

Grazings Constable Colin Souter responds to criticism – 12 September 2016

Colin Souter has written a response to a September 5 article by solicitor Brian Inkster. The views expressed below are not those of shareholders at Upper Coll Common Grazings or of Scottish Legal News.

As the Grazings Constable for Upper Coll, I took over under difficult circumstances, after the former Committee had been put out of office by the statutory regulator (Crofting Commission) for reasons too long to explore in this short piece. Mr Inkster had been engaged by the former Committee for legal advice, whilst they were in dispute with the Commission but apparently without the matter having been put to a wider shareholders meeting to receive the required majority/full vote. I sought to correspond with him in that capacity, having determined that the Crofting Act 1993 does not permit the use of shareholders funds by the Committee for that purpose. Activity may only be funded where it is for the “maintenance or improvement of the Common Grazing”.

I sought Mr Inkster’s co-operation in re-paying the £600 he received as payment. Mr Inkster has refused to acknowledge or respond to my correspondence but is happy to report and comment upon it, and many other related issues, to readers of his on-line blog.

Mr Inkster has presented a series of speculations, opinions and inferences in his VAT article, without demonstrating any desire to obtain a definitive outcome for those involved. I might be forgiven, I hope, for wondering why, if an expert on the subject, Mr Inkster does not already know definitively whether Committees are eligible to register for VAT and if raised as a legal point, surely it is in the interests of all parties to understand if they have somehow incurred a liability with potential for penalties? The fact of the matter, which undermines Mr Inkster’s conspiracy theory is quite simply that the former Committee included VAT in their annual Statement of Accounts presented to the Crofting Commission but set it out in a way that raised more questions than answers and whilst I am now speculating, I think it reasonable to conclude that the Commission, in responding to a review of those accounts, was left with little alternative other than to seek opinion from Senior Counsel to help address the matter. Senior Counsel, much respected in crofting circles, opined that there was no power for Grazings Committees to trade or to register for VAT under the Crofting Act 1993.

With ownership of the issue at Upper Coll and the need to resolve the matter, I brought it to HMRC and await their definitive response on the matter. If they determine the eligibility criteria have been met for registration, I will be delighted and can sign-off on one more point. If the contrary is true, then I have advocated for a “no-penalty resolution” to apply to all Grazings Committees who may be in a similar situation. The suggestion by those who align with Mr Inkster that being registered must mean they are entitled to be registered, clearly ignores the possibility that registration was made in error by those unaware of the legal status of Grazings Committees under the Crofting Act. Not a difficult scenario to envisage, I’d suggest.

I can only hope Scottish Legal News readers will appreciate my need to ensure shareholders interests at Upper Coll are properly protected and that the future framework in place for the management of the Grazings, when my short term in office expires, will be a legally compliant one. Liabilities will have been exposed for discussion and debate, and as far as possible, remedied. Given the circumstances, however, I cannot promise the remedies will satisfy everyone………least of all Mr Inkster.

Colin Souter
Grazings Constable
Upper Coll

Crofters, Lawyers and VAT – 13 September 2016

Brian Inkster addresses yesterday’s response from Colin Souter to criticism the latter had received.

Colin Souter responded yesterday via Scottish Legal News to my concerns regarding the Crofting Commission investigating the legality of VAT registration of Grazings Committees.

My views attacked the Crofting Commission on this issue and called on an investigation by Fergus Ewing MSP, as cabinet secretary responsible for crofting, into what I considered could be dubbed ‘VATgate’.

It seems rather odd that a grazings ‘constable’ purportedly appointed by the Crofting Commission to manage the affairs of one particular common grazings on the Isle of Lewis should be acting as spokesman for the Crofting Commission on the issue. That is surely the responsibility of the Convener of the Crofting Commission.

That Mr Souter saw fit, at the same time, to draw to the attention of many solicitors that he considers them not entitled to be paid for legal services provided to shareholders in a common grazings is bold indeed.

Firstly, it must be remembered that I do not consider Mr Souter to have been legally appointed. Indeed it has been shown that the Crofting Commission acted contrary to its own legal advice in making the appointment. However, having made an illegal appointment the Crofting Commission are of the view that they cannot revisit that ‘final decision’.

On the basis that I do not recognise Mr Souter as having any legal standing whatsoever I am not about to respond to his demands to repay to him fees legitimately paid to my firm by a properly constituted grazings committee following the provision of legal advice to them.

Mr Souter has threatened to raise a small claims action against my firm and I am more than happy to see him in court. He is well aware that in such circumstances the Crofting Commission will be brought in as a party and there will be a counterclaim for the time, inconvenience and costs caused to me unnecessarily by Mr Souter.

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. The Magna Carta would be a good starting point for Mr Souter to look at!

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 not 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 the Crofting Commission acknowledge and accept that shareholders can and should seek their own independent legal advice.

Where on earth does Mr Souter get the idea from that they can’t?

I will now return to the original and more important question involved, namely VAT registration of Grazings Committees.

Mr Souter refers to me as “an expert on the subject”. I have, for the avoidance of any doubt, never been and certainly would not profess to be an expert on tax law or any matter concerning, in particular, VAT.

My concern is as an expert in crofting law advising crofters daily on that particular subject. My concern is that the Crofting Commission whose function is to regulate and promote the interests of crofting may instead be actively seeking to deprive crofters of VAT receipts.

VAT registration of Common Grazings was something that the Scottish Government insisted upon as part of entry into Woodland Grant Schemes. Did Mr Souter know that? Did the Crofting Commission advise their QC of that when seeking an opinion on the matter? Is the Scottish Government happy that Mr Souter and the Crofting Commission are challenging their policy on Crofters, Forestry and VAT?

Mr Souter says that he “can only hope Scottish Legal News readers will appreciate” his “need to ensure shareholders interests at Upper Coll are properly protected”. Is seeking to deprive them of VAT receipts protecting their interests?   As Donald Rennie, Honorary President of the European Council for Rural Law, stated on the Crofting Law Blog:-

Let us for the moment assume that Mr Souter was properly appointed a grazings constable. In that office he would be a trustee for behoof of the Upper Coll crofters as beneficiaries. As a trustee his duty would be to protect the assets and income for the beneficiaries. In the event that his blundering and unnecessary interference results in the abilty to reclaim VAT being lost he will be liable to reimburse the crofters for the losses. The measure of damages would be the total expected VAT reclaim lost from the date of his interference until VATable receipts came in.

This is in addition to any other damages claims to which his improper and negligent acts and omissions expose him.

I have written to Fergus Ewing MSP expressing my concerns about this illegal ‘constable’ being allowed to wreak havoc by the Crofting Commission. I have copied my letter to Mr Souter out of courtesy. Mr Ewing has already had to rein in Convener Colin Kennedy. Now it is time for him to rein in another Colin.

Brian Inkster

Crofting is about People

Crofting is about PeopleThis is a guest post contributed by a concerned Upper Coll Villager:-

I keep on asking how they could have sacked a committee, three of whose members had only been on it for 9 months. They had not been on any of the previous committees. How could they have had time to be responsible for anything?

I have been puzzled at the lack of public support from other villages, apart from the night in Stornoway Town Hall, but I have had it said to me several times that they have all done the kind of things for the good of the community, and for which we had previously been praised, and now they fear themselves being targeted. They have done precisely the same kind of things we are now being chastised for. VAT, small donations, foregoing share of feus in favour of our hospice. Ridiculous.

Crofting is not about a few sheep or a few cattle, it is about people and keeping people in our crofting areas. No one can make any kind of a living off crofting in our area. Nevertheless it is an important mechanism for maintaining “community” and all that means. Over half the townships don’t have a committee as a result of loss of “community”. The Commission instead of encouraging the ones which do exist are hounding them.

I have been told of one committee that has been disbanded until they see what the outcome of our situation is. They don’t want to be made personally responsible or be targeted the way our committee has been. They are all waiting to see what happens to us. This is no longer about Upper Coll but about the whole essence of what constitutes a “live” crofting community.

It is very difficult at times to remember the precise details of events of years ago. As the ”constable” has our minute book we don’t have our memory jogger.

The Gearraidh Ghuirm road construction, our esteemed constable seems to have placed such emphasis on, was to help the new householders get good access to their houses, as the village, whilst encouraging and accepting applications in an area of moorland, which was so useless it hadn’t even been fenced, made it quite clear to the purchasers, while they were getting the fues cheaply, the responsibility for the road was theirs and theirs only.

In a spirit of helpfulness, as was the case with the football and recreational facilities, we had enabled to happen, and for which again we are now many years later criticised, the village facilitated it by making application to the Council for money from it’s Unadopted Roads budget. The cash was provided by the Council and the feu holders. The village’s contribution was mainly “in kind”, material from the gravel pit we have developed ourselves over the years. Our ‘constable’ seems determined to find fault and tries to say by looking at our cashbook accounts of EIGHT years ago that we caused shareholders financial loss. Rubbish and now we have a street of houses, on what was useless ground, and up to 20 children … and we are now being hammered for being resourceful in enabling that to happen.

Now that our great ‘constable’ has highlighted what was a beneficial local practice which we all benefitted from, is there going to be pressure on the landlord to put a stop to it? I hope not, but him poking his nose in could very well have that effect.

I have seen the immense strain this has so unfairly placed on the former committee. Their families, who are not used to being under this kind of legal and media focus are completely perplexed by it all. I feel personally insulted on behalf of myself and the others of us whose forefathers created this village, that these people have demeaned all we have done for so many years, which led us to being widely recognised as a forward looking and well run grazings village.

Ivor Matheson and his ally Kenneth Macleod, who has not one facility for his cattle on his wife’s croft and is dependent on common grazings, have much to answer for. Those in authority who didn’t throw out their nonsensical complaints but used them to enable them to peddle some weird agenda have much more to answer for.

A Concerned Upper Coll Villager

Image Credit:-

Registers of Scotland ‘click your croft’ photography competition 2014.

Heather Gray of Shetland won with her photo ‘Hentin Totties’, which shows a family of all ages working the land.

The competition, run in association with the Scottish Crofting Federation and the Crofting Commission, set out to explore what this traditional way of life means to crofters in 2014.

Miss Gray said: “I suppose my main inspiration for the photo is family. Seeing the extended family from grannies to toddlers coming together and helping out with the yearly crop – it just makes you smile.”

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

New Grazings Committee formed at Upper Coll

New Grazings Committee elected at Upper CollAt a meeting in Upper Coll on the Isle of Lewis tonight, 10 September 2016, 17 shareholders (another 5 shareholders gave their apologies) met to form a new Grazings Committee. Four
shareholders were duly elected: Kenneth Macdonald, David Maclean, John Stewart and Scott Macrury.

Shareholders also agreed that another member could be co-opted at a later date.

A Petition signed by 26 shareholders was presented at the meeting stating:-

I support the election of a new Grazings Committee to run the affairs of Upper Coll Township. I also request the removal of the illegally imposed Grazings Constable with immediate effect.

The Factor of the Stornoway Trust was also in attendance and spoke to shareholders about certain public statements made by the ‘constable’. He felt that some of these needed correction. He duly did this.

The Crofting Commission were to be informed of these democratic decisions.

View from the Crofting Law Blog

It is to be hoped that the Crofting Commission accept these democratic decisions and ensure, in light thereof, that the Grazings ‘Constable’ (illegally appointed in my opinion and in the opinion of others including, rather ironically, the Crofting Commission itself) steps aside, hands over all documentation pertaining to the common grazings and returns control of the bank account to the new committee.

If they do not then the Scottish Government should step in once more and ensure that they do.

Brian Inkster

A chair fit for a Crofting Convener

a chair fit for a crofting convener

Is this comfy enough for you sir?

We have just, in the last post, been reminded about the conflict of interest on the part of the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, over goings on at Upper Coll.

This was where Colin Kennedy appeared to be instrumental in taking a decision to remove the former grazings committee from office. This was at a point where a formal complaint was still being dealt with by the Crofting Commission concerning his handling, as chairman, of a meeting of shareholders held at the Back Football and Recreation Club, Upper Coll, Isle of Lewis on 10 November 2015.

One of the more bizarre episodes (although there have been and continue to be many) in the whole Common Grazings debacle is how the Crofting Commission initially responded to that complaint.

One of the complaints arising from the meeting in question (and there were several) was that the meeting was chaired by Colin Kennedy in “an arrogant and dismissive manner“. This is how the Crofting Commission responded in writing to that particular element of the complaint:-

All members of the Commission who attended the meeting commented on the quality of the venue. They all complained about the seating arrangements which did not let them get their legs under the table which would have allowed them to sit up straight which may have led attendees to think the panel were being too casual. They also said the lighting was poor and general presentation of the room did not contribute to creating a positive atmosphere. The Commission agree that this is not helpful and have put in place a mechanism to check venues prior to meetings to ensure that they meet requirements. This includes discussing requirements in advance with providers and going to the venue prior to the meeting to check it is laid out as well as possible.

What! A complaint about the manner in which a meeting has been conducted by the Convener is turned around to being down to the meeting room in a crofting township not having adequate seats or lights!

I have, over the years, had plenty of meetings with crofters in village halls or similar venues throughout the crofting counties. They may not always be up to the luxurious surroundings enjoyed by Commissioners at Great Glen House but the facilities are always more than adequate for the purpose required.

The Land Court often have lengthy hearings in such halls and I have never heard a complaint from them about the facilities at hand.

As a crofting regulator you should accept the need to travel to the crofting counties and graciously accept the facilities offered to you. To suggest that those facilities are the root cause of the “posture, conduct and demeanour” of the Convener is surely a joke.

Are the Commission really now checking venues prior to meetings to ensure that they meet requirements? If they had a meeting in the far north reaches of Unst in Shetland, for example, would a scout from Great Glen House be flown up in advance to check that the seats were fit for the Convener? This would be at an additional cost of several hundred pounds to the public purse. If the facilities did not meet the high standards clearly required would a suitable chair then be flown in?

You couldn’t make it up.

Brian Inkster

Conflict of Interest at Upper Coll

conflict-of-interest-at-upper-collOur last post on this blog raised once more the issue of conflict of interest on the part of the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, over the Upper Coll affair. This, for completeness, is a good point to remind readers of the detail of that conflict of interest. We therefore now reproduce, with the author’s kind permission, a letter by Dr Iain MacKinnon that first appeared in the West Highland Free Press in July 2016:-

On 9th December 2015 the Crofting Commission removed from office the entire common grazings committee at Upper Coll on Lewis. The minutes of that meeting disclose that its decisions were reached by consensus and that the Commission’s convener, Colin Kennedy, chaired the meeting throughout.

When that decision was made the Commission were in the process of investigating complaints from crofters at Upper Coll about the way in which Mr Kennedy had chaired a meeting in Upper Coll in November to discuss the grazings issue.

In light of this, Mr Kennedy’s decision to participate in the 9th December discussions raises ethical questions. The Scottish Government’s model code of conduct for standards in public life states that when confronted with a potential conflict of interest, members of public bodies must conduct ‘the objective test’ before proceeding. This test is severe. The member must consider ‘not only whether you will be influenced but whether anybody else would think that you might be influenced by the interest’.

Would a member of the public, with knowledge of the relevant facts, ‘reasonably regard the interest as so significant that it is likely to prejudice your discussion or decision making in your role as a member of a public body’? If there is even the possibility that a member of the public would regard the member as conflicted, then that member must withdraw.

In this instance the plain facts of the matter are that Mr Kennedy was the subject of outstanding complaints about his conduct made by members of a regulated grazings committee at the moment when the regulator, led by Mr Kennedy, took a questionable decision to remove that committee from office.

Indeed, as Mr Kennedy had chaired the November meeting between crofters and Commission in Upper Coll, we can only presume that it was on Mr Kennedy’s recommendation that the decision to sack the Upper Coll committee was made.

Mr Kennedy’s central role in the Upper Coll case casts further doubt on his judgement and fitness for public life – was it reasonable for him to have led on such a sensitive and controversial issue when he knew there were complaints outstanding against him?

We now learn that the retired policeman who was imposed by the Commission as grazings constable at Upper Coll regards himself as an independent force there and has taken it upon himself to initiate investigations that crofting lawyers believe are unlawful; in addition, it has been claimed that Mr Kennedy himself has acknowledged engaging in similar, apparently extralegal, behaviour to the current constable at Upper Coll when Mr Kennedy was acting as grazings constable around a decade ago.

The convener’s conduct in relation to Upper Coll is yet another straw on the back of the Commission donkey, already groaning under the weight of a series of related controversies about its competence and fitness for purpose. If the load of straw keeps getting heavier then at some point the accumulated weight will break the Commission’s back; the regulator will have lost the confidence of the electorate of crofters that it is there to regulate – indeed, Alastair Culbertson and Duncan MacDonald’s recent contributions to the debate demonstrate that confidence in the Commission has already evaporated even for crofters beyond Lewis.

To restore confidence in crofting regulation the Scottish Government’s recently announced review of Commission procedures must fully examine not only the organisation’s future working, but also the recent series of serious complaints which have cost it public trust.

If the practical reasoning and ethical standards of Commission members are found to be wanting, it is in the public interest for the Government to take action and to be seen to be taking action against those members upon whom responsibility is found to rest – including, if necessary, their removal from office. (Such actions should not preclude disbanding the Commission at a later date in favour of another form of regulation.)

Further, it is in the interests of the openness and transparency to which the Commission says it is “strongly committed” that the result of this investigation be fully and freely available to the crofting electorate.

Dr Iain MacKinnon

 

Dr Iain MacKinnon is researching the politics of crofting at Coventry University, although this letter is not part of his academic work.

The Crofting Bat Phone

The Crofting Bat Phone

Commissioner Gordon and Batman didn’t have a look in to the lines of communication available between the Crofting Commissioner(s) and their Grazings Constable!

There have been quite a few comments of late about the difficulties of getting a statement from the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy. He is elusive to say the least and seldom represents the views of the Board to the general public despite this being one of his “particular responsibilities” .

Other Commissioners have been thin on the ground of late as well with no Commissioner replacing the Convener when he failed to attend the Scottish Government Crofting Stakeholder Forum in Inverness on Tuesday. This left the Chief Executive, Catriona Maclean, representing the views of the Commission in front of BBC Alba after the meeting.

Getting clear and unambiguous information out of Commissioners when you can pin them down is also often a challenge.

One person who seems to have direct access without difficulty to Commissioners (which might include, or indeed mean, the Convener) is the Grazings ‘Constable’ of Upper Coll, Colin Souter. He certainly appears to be in possession of information that only Commissioners would have and that well in advance of such information being made available to anyone else outside of Great Glen House.

One example of that became clear at the meeting of the Scottish Government Crofting Stakeholder Forum in Inverness on Tuesday.

I had been aware from the published Agenda that the Board of the Commission had considered a paper at their meeting on 17th August on ‘Grazings Committees – A Practical Approach to the Management of Common Grazings’. There was no mention of that at the Stakeholder Forum so I enquired about it.

I was advised that the Crofting Commission was setting up a Stakeholders’ Working Group to advise on the revision of common grazings regulations and guidance. This paper from 17th August would be considered by that group at a meeting on 20th September. Only after that meeting would the paper in question (possibly after refinement? – but that was not made clear) be circulated to the wider Stakeholder Forum.

So at the moment members of the Stakeholder Forum had no knowledge of or access to what the paper in question said. A stark contrast to the access to that paper apparently afforded to Grazings ‘Constable’ Colin Souter.

In the letter issued by Colin Souter to Shareholders of the Upper Coll Common Grazings on 29th August he states:-

The Board of Commissioners at a recent meeting, considered a submission along the lines I set out at the July meeting, whereby Committees can operate within a defined financial framework which allows retention of funds (from any legitimate source) in the bank, up to a maximum agreed by shareholders, taking account of any commitments under Schemes and projects ongoing and an Emergency Reserve (set at perhaps 3-4 times the 3-year average annual maintenance costs) and exceeding that amount automatically triggers payment to shareholders, three or four times a year. In doing so, the administrative burden is minimised for the Committee and they are seen to be operating within an agreed and better regulated financial framework. Whilst the Commission has a clear role, as regulator, in ensuring feu monies are distributed to shareholders, I understand it does not otherwise seek any direct involvement in other areas of finance affecting shareholders. The proposal tabled is seen as an initiative worthy of testing, for the benefit of Upper Coll and the wider crofting community but it is a choice for shareholders to make.

So even before the Commission has had the first meeting of its new Stakeholders’ Working Group, to advise on the revision of common grazings regulations and guidance, Colin Souter is seeking to impose the guidance so far produced (that no one other than Commissioners, Commission Officials and Colin Souter have seen) upon one particular Common Grazings, namely Upper Coll.

The same is true about his access to an Opinion from Queen’s Counsel which it is presumed was instructed by the Crofting Commission. In his said letter to shareholders at Upper Coll he said:-

Following receipt of legal opinion from Queen’s Counsel, the position of Grazings Committees being able to register for VAT as trading entities in order to reclaim VAT has come under scrutiny. The dialogue with HMRC regarding VAT status remains ongoing and once concluded, I will be able to advise on the outcome.

When I asked about this opinion at the Crofting Stakeholder Forum there was “no comment” from the Chief Executive of the Crofting Commission on behalf of the Board.

It is highly unusual for the Crofting Commission to publish legal advice received by them in any event.

On the topic of legal advice: Colin Souter seems very ready to challenge what he considers to be illegal activities at Upper Coll. It would be very unusual for a clerk in a common grazings (that is effectively what Colin Souter is had he been legally appointed) to appear so sure about crofting law without having sought legal advice. Not that I would give much weight to any advice that Colin Souter is getting given, in my view, a clear misunderstanding on his part as to what the law actually is.

We know that he thinks that legal advice cannot be paid for from grazings funds. So where is he getting his crofting law advice from? Is it likewise coming from Commission officials and/or from Commissioners and/or from a Commissioner? An organisation with a Board that has been shown to ignore the law and lawyers.

Why and how did one grazings clerk (i.e. Colin Souter) get privileged access to all of this information before any other grazings clerk in the land and before the members of the Crofting Stakeholder Forum? In the case of the opinion from Queen’s Counsel this may never be divulged to any other grazings clerks or to any members of the Crofting Stakeholder Forum.

The only explanation can be direct and special contact between him and a Commissioner and/or Commissioners and/or officials within the Crofting Commission.

So much for the assertion that he is acting at arms length and independent from the Commission.

It also again highlights the fact that he is under the control of and acting at the behest of the Crofting Commission. A reader of this blog having referred to him as a “maor” (or ground officer).

Serious questions must be asked by the Scottish Government about this arrangement and, in the circumstances, the validity of any pronouncements by the Crofting Commission and/or their ‘Constable’ over the situation at Upper Coll.

The Crofting Commission will no doubt say that the Scottish Government cannot investigate the situation when it is subject to on going court proceedings. Those court proceedings may touch upon the legality of the appointment of the Grazings ‘Constable’ in the first place.

But even if we take it that the appointment was legal (although that is denied) then the Scottish Government should be looking at the propriety of the relationship that exists between such a legally appointed grazings constable and the Crofting Commission.

Is it correct and proper that he has been given an investigative remit? Is it correct and proper that he is being supplied with the information that he has been? If it is not then who gave that remit and/or supplied that information?

If that was a Commissioner are they therefore, in all the circumstances, “unable or unfit to exercise the functions of a member” or “unsuitable to continue as a member”? As such should the Scottish Ministers remove them from office under and in terms of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993?

Even worse if it were to transpire that it was the Convener who was embroiled in all of this. After all he has, for some time, been the subject of complaints about his handling of the affair at Upper Coll and so should not be involving himself in matters concerning Upper Coll until the relevant complaints process has been completed. To do so would be a clear conflict of interest. But there again that has not stopped him before.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: The Bat Phone from Batman (TV Series) © Greenway Productions / 20th Century Fox Television

Inspector Constable

 

Inspector Constable

I think I have found a typographical error in the accounts!

The letter from Colin Souter, the purported Grazings ‘Constable’ at Upper Coll, to the shareholders of the Upper Coll Common Grazings demonstrated once more the mistaken belief that he is under that his role is an investigative one.

He states in the letter:-

It has been necessary to research records to establish the facts and finances from historical records in order to ensure shareholders’ interests are properly protected.

Had he been legally appointed he may have required to do that to get up to speed with what went on in the township to then carry out his appointment to:-

administer the Upper Coll Grazings Regulations for a period of six months… with the like powers and duties of a Grazings Committee.

That role does not involve investigating the past eight or more year history of up to four or more grazings committees  with a view to castigating them for minor misdemeanours and accusing them of illegalities with no evidence in fact or law to justify such action.

He may be a retired Chief Inspector of Police but the title of Grazings ‘Constable’ does not give him the same powers and responsibilities he once had when a boy in blue. The Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, possibly mistakenly believes that it does.

Colin Souter was specifically advised by the Crofting Commission that his:-

principle responsibility as Constable will be to discharge any outstanding actions required to ensure the duties imposed under the Crofting Acts and the grazings regulations are fulfilled.

This was to “be a short term measure” until “any outstanding actions are discharged“.

It would appear that he has not actually sought to discharge those outstanding actions but instead has gone on a fishing expedition to try and justify for his masters his illegal appointment. Did someone in the Crofting Commission give him this illegal remit? If so who and why?

Mr Souter is certainly firmly of the view that this is his role: boldly stating on his LinkedIn profile that his current appointment, via Colin Souter Consulting, is that he is:-

Engaged to support Scottish Government NDPB Crofting Commission, in investigative and reporting activity.

Hmm… He is not appointed to support the Crofting Commission: He is appointed to support the shareholders in the Upper Coll Common Grazings. He is not appointed “in investigative and reporting activity”: He is appointed to “administer the Upper Coll Grazings Regulations”.

So even if he was legally appointed he is acting illegally!

In my next post I will look at the very cosy relationship between Mr Souter and the Crofting Commission and/or their Convener which makes this sorry story all the worse.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: Inspector Clouseau in The Pink Panther Films © United Artists

Crofting VATgate

Hector the Inspector - HMRC Taxman - Crofting VATgate

Who is the VAT Inspector?

In his letter to shareholders at Upper Coll the grazings ‘constable’, Colin Souter (who was illegally appointed in my view, and in the view of others including, ironically, the Crofting Commission themselves) stated:-

Following receipt of legal opinion from Queen’s Counsel, the position of Grazings Committees being able to register for VAT as trading entities in order to reclaim VAT has come under scrutiny. The dialogue with HMRC regarding VAT status remains ongoing and once concluded, I will be able to advise on the outcome.

Why and how on earth was Colin Souter in receipt of legal opinion from Queen’s Counsel on the question of whether common grazings committees could be VAT registered?

A suggestion on this blog that Colin Souter may have instructed the Opinion was met with this response from Mr Souter:-

I should also point out that I have never sought legal advice from Queen’s Counsel in any context, since being appointed as Grazings Constable.

I then asked:-

Perhaps you can enlighten us as to how you came to be in “receipt of legal opinion from Queen’s Counsel” as stated in your letter to the Upper Coll shareholders?

Mr Souter has yet to answer my question.

So who instructed this legal opinion, who paid for it and why?

How did Colin Souter come to be in possession of it and why?

In his dialogue with HMRC is Colin Souter trying to stop VAT registration at Upper Coll Common Grazings and if so why?

It can only be assumed that the attempt to stop VAT registration of common grazings probably lies at the door of the Crofting Commission. Would this not be how a grazings ‘constable’ appointed by them would be in possession of such information?

We are already aware that the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, was of the view that common grazings should not receive SRDP funding. This very alarming notion (an issue that did not concern the crofting regulator and/or its convener in any way) was firmly quashed by Fergus Ewing MSP.

It is therefore not a giant leap to think that the Crofting Commission and/or their Convener might be behind this attempt to stop common grazings being VAT registered.

If that should prove to be the case it is scandalous.

Questions regarding whether crofters should be VAT registered or not have absolutely nothing to do with the Crofting Commission. It is a matter between crofters and HMRC.

Public money should not have been spent on the opinion of Queen’s Counsel on such matters. If that has happened Audit Scotland should be investigating the issue. Another one for them to add to the growing list for their next visit to Great Glen House.

But more significantly why is the Crofting Commission and/or their Convener intent on depriving crofters of income? First it was SRDP funding. Now it appears to be VAT.

Under and in terms of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 the Crofting Commission has as one of its functions:-

promoting the interests of crofting

On their website the Crofting Commission state that it:-

regulates and promotes the interests of crofting in Scotland to secure the future of crofting.

This statement links through to a general leaflet on crofting that states:-

The Crofting Commission is working to secure the future of crofting by creating and promoting a well regulated crofting system that positively contributes to the sustainability of rural communities.

By seeking to deprive crofters of SRDP funding and now, possibly, VAT the Crofting Commission cannot be said to be promoting the interests of crofting, securing the future of crofting or positively contributing to the sustainability of rural communities. Quite the contrary.

If Commissioners are acting in such a way, completely contrary to the functions that the Crofting Commission was established to carry out, then those commissioners responsible have no place in that organisation. They should be ashamed of themselves.

They are clearly “unable or unfit to exercise the functions of a member” or “unsuitable to continue as a member”. As such the Scottish Ministers may remove them from office under and in terms of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993. There have been repeated calls over recent months for such action to be taken but if ‘Crofting VATgate’ does fall at the door of the Convener and/or any other Commissioners then this surely is the final straw that broke the camel’s back.

Fergus Ewing MSP, as Cabinet Secretary for the Rural Economy and Connectivity with responsibility for Crofting, should immediately launch an investigation to get to the root of ‘Crofting VATgate’, publicise his findings for the benefit of crofters and take appropriate and decisive action against those responsible.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: Hector the Tax Inspector © HMRC

What the Grazings ‘Constable’ didn’t do

What the Grazings Constable didn't do

Was the wrong list entered into the constable’s little black book?

With all the fuss over the apparent failings of successive grazings committees over the years at Upper Coll attention has been drawn away from what Colin Souter should actually have been doing himself assuming that his role as grazings constable was a legal as opposed to an illegal one.

As disclosed in my last post the letter of ‘appointment’ from the Crofting Commission addressed to Mr Souter 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.

This letter also stated that:-

Your principal responsibility as Constable will be to discharge any outstanding actions required to ensure the duties imposed under the Crofting Acts and the grazings regulations are fulfilled.

This in effect was referencing the fact that following their removal from office the former committee highlighted to the Crofting Commission a list of matters that needed attending to.

Whilst the Crofting Commission erred in law (surprisingly knowingly) in appointing a grazings constable to attend to these matters it may be that their intentions in so doing were in good faith and to ensure that the list of matters highlighted to them were in fact attended to. Anyway, that appears to be the remit given to Colin Souter.

However, his report issued to shareholders on 29th August does not mention any such activities. In light of this shareholders at Upper Coll have, not surprisingly, stated:-

This constable has interfered in things he should not have and left undone the things he should have.

They have asked:-

But what has he not done?

And they have provided a list of what that might be:-

  1. Has he processed the IACS for the village?
  2. Has he submitted an application for the Agri-Environment Scheme that could have taken in some funding to the village?
  3. Has he worked out a Summer and Winter Grazings Timetable?
  4. Has he progressed the Croft Registration for 30 shareholders that had been well advanced before the committee were dismissed?
  5. Has he progressed the feu requests from couples desiring to build and live in Upper Coll?
  6. Why has he not been actively pursuing the Crofting Commission for the reimbursement by them of the money paid out by Upper Coll in feu dispositions. An instruction by the Crofting Commission to Upper Coll Grazings Committee that has since been proved illegal!
  7. What efforts has he made to heal the tensions and differences experienced within the village? Surely that should have been one of his first tasks!

If these matters have not been actioned then it would appear that Mr Souter has failed in the remit given to him by the Crofting Commission.

If that is the case then clearly the time has come for him to step aside and let those that know what need to be done do the necessary on behalf of and for the benefit of the shareholders.

If he has in fact dealt with these matters then he should be reporting that fact to the shareholders and resigning as constable as the Crofting Commission indicated should happen in their letter of ‘appointment’.

As indicated in my last blog post such a ‘resignation’ 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.

As suggested in my last blog post 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.

Let’s hope that common sense prevails. Although, unfortunately, common sense does not often feature in this Common Grazings debacle.

Brian Inkster