We recently blogged on the change of Convener within the Crofting Commission. There was reference in that post to what has been called a “witch-hunt” and “a bad smell”. Three letters written by Dr Iain MacKinnon to the West Highland Free Press give more detail on what one might refer to as ‘Crofting Convenergate’. We publish them here in their entirety and as they were written (the West Highland Free Press edited the second of the three letters a little prior to publication).
Letter 1: 3 May 2015
The anonymous Crofting Commissioner quoted in last week’s Free Press claimed discontent with Susan Walker’s convenership of the Commission has “been going on for some time”.
If that is so, then why did the five alleged complainants not wait for the scheduled Commission board meeting on 13th May to raise their no-confidence motion: what sudden calamity made their ‘emergency meeting’ such an imperative? The anonymous commissioner was silent on this, as they were on any details about Susan Walker’s failings.
The Free Press then claimed they had been told: “The commissioners did not want to go on the record at this stage”.
This remarkable statement suggests the complainants have agreed collectively to leak the story anonymously while anticipating going ‘on the record’ in the future.
This would be an astonishing course of action. The conspirators must be aware there are proper procedures available to them for resolving such disputes. Instead they must have decided collectively to throw the organisation that they represent – and crofting regulation generally – into public disrepute.
This matters because section 2.1. of the Commission’s Code of Conduct states commissioners “have a duty to act in the interests of the public body of which they are a member and in accordance with the core functions and duties of that body”.
The code then states: “You have a duty to promote and support these principles by leadership and example, and to maintain and strengthen the public’s trust and confidence in the integrity of the public body and its members in conducting public business.”
The code also demands that commissioners must respect their fellows, “treating them with courtesy at all times”. The anonymous briefings clearly breach this part of the code.
If they have been jointly briefing against Susan Walker the five complainants appear to be in breach of the Commission’s Code of Conduct and liable to investigation by the Standards Commission for Scotland which polices ‘The Ethical Standards in Public Life Act’.
Additionally, “promoting the interests of crofting” is a requirement for commissioners under Part 1 of the Crofting Act and, if they are shown to have acted against this, then under Schedule 1 they can be found unsuitable to continue and dismissed.
If, as is alleged, five anonymous commissioners want to declare ‘no-confidence’ in Susan Walker, they are free to do so. However, if they have also unnecessarily called an ‘emergency meeting’ and then systematically leaked that news to the media for maximum publicity, then they have undoubtedly weakened “the public’s trust and confidence in the integrity” of the Crofting Commission and they have brought their own positions within it into disrepute.
If this is the case, the Crofting Minister must consider whether such people are fit for public office. If it turns out that, in fact, the anonymous briefings have been instigated by one or two individuals, without the consent of other complainants, then those complainants who have been used in this way need to think carefully about the ugly, cowardly whispering campaign of which they are now part.
Letter 2: 18 May 2015
I would like to add to the tributes offered to former Crofting Commission convener, Susan Walker. My primary reason for writing is as it was two weeks ago – not as a friend and one-time colleague of the former convener, but as someone concerned about the future well-being of crofting tenure.
The whispering campaign against Susan Walker began in the media at the end of last month. Since then, her work on behalf of crofting throughout the Highlands and Islands has been praised by the Scottish Crofting Federation and the chairs of the Scottish Parliament’s Rural Affairs Committee and Cross-Party Group on Crofting.
It is worth reflecting on the breadth of that support. It includes the crofting representative body, the senior parliamentarians on crofting issues and also the Scottish Government itself. All appear to believe that “the new enlightened way in which the Crofting Commission functions” has been in part the result of Susan Walker’s leadership, and had given grounds for optimism for a tenure system that had previously been described, almost universally, as “failing”.
Her critics, on the other hand, appear to comprise her disaffected former colleagues and one or two newspapers. One of these newspapers is the Free Press – with one columnist dismissing her as a ‘trusty’ in the pocket of Government.
While the Free Press’ editorial two weeks ago gave an admirably clear argument for a fully elected Crofting Commission, it also acknowledged that the newspaper publicised the conspiracy against Susan Walker without knowing what she is said to have done wrong.
So what has Susan Walker been doing right these last three years? The contrast between Taynuilt and North Ballachulish indicates the Commission’s wider change in attitude under her leadership. In 2005, when ten houses were proposed on croft land in Taynuilt, the old ‘failed’ Crofters Commission folded to the developer’s demands with barely a whimper. By contrast, under Susan Walker’s leadership the new Commission has taken its opposition to the current plan for ten houses on a croft in North Ballachulish all the way to the Land Court.
This principled opposition was not the result of new legislative requirements but of a new determination within the Commission itself. The wide-ranging praise Susan Walker has received in recent weeks suggests this step-change has been noted throughout the organisation’s work.
The commissioners responsible for the covert briefings against her have breached standards required for public life and brought the Commission into disrepute. They have lost the trust of government and have surely failed the trust of those who elected them to turn around the mess they inherited. It would be a real service to crofting if the Free Press were to disclose their identity.
The media coverage no doubt greatly reduced the opportunity for a mediated process within the commission to resolve the conflict and allow Susan Walker to continue the good work she had started. The unstinting dedication for the good of crofting that she brought to her role will leave the commission with her.
Letter 3: 23 June 2015
The Minister for Crofting, Aileen McLeod, this week told the Crofting Commission she is “very pleased to support their proposal on the selection of a new convener”.
However, files I obtained from the Commission last week through Freedom of Information legislation reveal that the conduct of Commissioners has been privately criticised by the Minister, with an unnamed official expressing Dr McLeod’s disappointment “at events being played out through the media” following the conspiracy against former Commission convener Susan Walker at the end of April.
A full two months after the conspiracy against Walker began, no credible information has yet been forthcoming from any Commissioner or from Government about the nature of the problems Walker is supposed to have created. The Commission is even refusing to name those Commissioners who organised the proposal of no-confidence against her – removing all but one signature from the copy they sent me of the letter in which some Commissioners put that proposal forward.
Dr McLeod’s disappointment does not stand alone. Crofters, crofting administrators, the Scottish Crofting Federation and a senior Member of the Scottish Parliament have all criticised the behaviour of the Commissioners involved in the move against Walker.
One crofter, summing up his views on social media, concluded that the Commission is in “chaos” and “disarray”, and presently not fit for purpose.
According to the FoI files, even the chief executive of the Crofting Commission, Catriona Maclean, has privately criticised the way Commissioners have handled this affair and she has gone further, with one internal note suggesting the Commission may have underplayed the level of division within their board during discussions with Government. Writing shortly after the convener’s resignation she said that, while the Commission “wanted to reassure the Minister [for Crofting] that they were keen to move forward in a united and positive way”, her own view is that there are “still differences of opinion on the merits of what happened”. In a later commentary she specified disagreement between board members which will require “a focus on healing”.
Such is the sorry state of the crofting regulator. It seems everybody knows it, yet no-one in Government or the Commission is willing to admit it, and, so far as their public statements go, it appears there will be no attempt to investigate what has really gone wrong at the Commission – and to investigate why at least one Commissioner seems to be allowed to break the organisation’s code of conduct with impunity.
Indeed, this despicable soul may even be elected convener and become the new face of crofting regulation – the files show that this was a well-orchestrated manoeuvre, and those in charge had a clear outcome in mind. The files also suggest that, in fact, the campaign against Walker had two main instigators – with at least one of them male.
Allowing the Commission to elect their own convener in such circumstances is not simply a humiliation for the Scottish Government, and for the Crofting Commission as an organisation; it undermines the credibility of crofting regulation as a whole.
Dr Iain MacKinnon is researching the politics of crofting at Coventry University, although the letters on ‘convenergate’ are not part of his academic work.
Main image credit: Carry on Cleo