Tag Archives: shareholders in the common grazings

Croft Wars: The Constable Strikes Back

Croft Wars - The Constable Strikes Back

Some see the ‘constable’ of Upper Coll more like a bounty hunter

Following a statement issued on behalf of the majority of shareholders of the Upper Coll Common Grazings the headline that appeared on Hebrides News was ‘Upper Coll grazings constable slams ousted committee‘. The accompanying article reads as follows:-

The grazings’ officer installed to temporarily run the common grazings at Upper Coll, Lewis, has hit out at claims made by the former grazings committee who were sacked by the Crofting Commission.

Colin Souter, a retired police chief inspector living in Nairn, was drafted in to manage the village’s communal moorland – land collectively used for by all crofters for grazing livestock – while the commission investigated the deposed committee.

Colin Souter pointed out the appointment of a constable is made by the Crofting Commission.

Once appointed, a constable has the same powers, responsibilities and independence in decision-making, as a grazings committee does, bound only by legislation, he said.

Mr Souter stressed: “This has been explained at length to former committee members at Upper Coll, who remain aggrieved at the commission’s decision to remove them from office.

“That decision to remove is presently the subject of a review by the Scottish Land Court and it will be for that court to determine whether the initial complaints made to the commission about the conduct of the committee and the subsequent disclosures, provided sufficient justification for their removal or if the commission acted inappropriately.”

The grazings’ officer went on: “The appointment of a constable in the interim, was a separate matter and was made to safeguard the interests of the shareholders, to address matters of business brought to the commission in correspondence by the former clerk.”

Based on “discussion with aggrieved shareholders and correspondence,” he queries how much support the former committee has from shareholders.

He added: “As all previous signatories had been officially removed from office, and could no longer sign documents legally, as constable I took control of the finances and records, with the co-operation of the bank and of the former clerk and chairman of the committee, who personally handed over to me, the committee records and accounts.”

The former committee demanded the “return of their bank book” but there is no such thing, suggested the grazings’ constable.

Mr Souter said: “In the absence of any formal handover or briefing from the former committee, there was also an obligation placed upon me – in order to support shareholders competently – to establish the facts surrounding the status and liabilities of the grazings and to confirm the proper conduct of the former committee in its decision-making, to verify business had been conducted to the proper legal standard or to remedy, where required.

“It became clear from a review of the records provided to me by the former clerk and chairman, that the former committee was deficient in its record keeping but more importantly, in its procedures, in particular on matters where majority shareholder support was legally required in order to take action, eg. SRDP applications, where such applications are a scheme, under the 1993 Act.”

He stated: “Quite clearly, action was being taken in relation to matters of finance and spending, where majority support, despite being a legal requirement, was neither evident nor documented.

“Even so, it came as some surprise when some former committee members admitted at a recent shareholders meeting they were entirely unaware of the existence of the Upper Coll grazing regulations, passed by their own forebears in the 1980’s.

“One wonders what yardstick was employed to assist the imposition of their own views, however well-meaning or misguided, on fellow shareholders?

“Perhaps this point will help to explain the dissatisfaction and grievances raised to the Crofting Commission and myself by Upper Coll shareholders about the conduct of the former committee in managing the grazings?”

The interim constable added: “None of the foregoing issues have anything specifically to do with the Crofting Commission.

“The commission does not control the grazings or the bank account or finances at Upper Coll. The shareholders do.”

“As constable, I met with shareholders twice in recent months where I have been extremely open and transparent about my role and in my sharing of information, an approach commended from the floor, at the first meeting.

“The detail I provided to shareholders is evident from the very lengthy minutes produced from the meetings, distributed to all shareholders.

“In the past, I have also sought to protect former committee members from potential public embarrassment by holding part of the meetings in closed session, where disclosures were made.”

He said shareholders are “well aware” from his reports that all scheme applications due were completed by agents acting on behalf of the grazings and “processed accordingly and no financial loss has been suffered.

Regarding villagers plans to elect a new grazings committee, he said: “I raised this issue in recent correspondence with shareholders, when I indicated my term in office is due to expire in the next couple of months.

“It seems some of the former committee are already set to take control of an agenda which I had set out, intending to hold fresh elections and return a new committee in control of shareholder business at Upper Coll.

“The important point however, for all involved, is that the new committee, whomever is elected and whatever its composition, will have a clearer understanding of the legal framework in which they must operate and their own duties and obligations to their fellow shareholders.

“I cannot help but think it would be a progressive step, in this day and age, to see a few female members on the new committee but that has to be a matter for the Upper Coll shareholders.”

Mr Souter said he has written to shareholders in the last few weeks, during the holiday period, providing a brief statement on recent activity.

He will present a fuller report at a planned meeting in September, when he will share more “extensive detail” with the shareholders at Upper Coll and answer questions “they may have on that range of important issues.”

The grazing’s constable highlighted: “It will be for shareholders to determine which aspects of concern, if any, should be highlighted – perhaps for wider benefit across the crofting community – and find their way into the public domain.”

He said: “As with many others, I do not dismiss the concerns of those former committee members who continue to agitate, for being removed from office.

“It is clearly an important and emotive issue for crofting and one that continues to cause great concern across the crofting community.

However, that also places a “heavy responsibility upon the former committee and others contributing on their behalf” to ensure there is a balanced debate based on the facts of the situation, said Mr Souter.

View from the Crofting Law Blog

Colin Souter thinks he has “independence in decision-making“. A grazings constable, if legally appointed, does not. They have to listen to the shareholders who they represents and act accordingly.

Colin Souter states that his ‘appointment’ was made to “address matters of business“. The shareholders appear to be of the view that rather than conducting the business in question Colin Souter has been on the hunt, through historical records stretching back well beyond the five year ‘audit’ period sought by the Commission, for wrongdoing on the part of former committees. Not the role at all of a grazings constable even if legally appointed. The fact that he was under the wrong impression that this was his role is confirmed when he states that he had to “confirm the proper conduct of the former committee in its decision-making, to verify business had been conducted to the proper legal standard or to remedy, where required“.

It is interesting, but perhaps not surprising, that Colin Souter does not address the legality of his appointment. The Grazings Committee were ‘replaced’ by a ‘Grazings Constable’ that I, and others (including bizarrely the Crofting Commission themselves) consider to be illegal. One would have thought that he would be very concerned by this indeed and somewhat relieved that the shareholders plan to replace such an illegal appointment with a legal one.

Colin Souter questions whether the former committee members have the support they maintain from the shareholders. Well, apparently, a meeting was called and there were only four shareholders who abstained (those included the shareholders who brought the initial complaint about the former committee to the Crofting Commission). They were asked if they objected and they said they would prefer to abstain. So looks like majority support to me with no objections.

Colin Souter states that “as constable” he “took control of the finances and records, with the co-operation of the bank and of the former clerk and chairman of the committee, who personally handed over” to him “the committee records and accounts“. But they did not sign mandates allowing him to be signatory of the cheque book. Serious questions must be asked as to how he obtained the status of what is believed to be the sole signatory.

Colin Souter states that “there is no such thing” as a “bank book” to return to the Upper Coll shareholders. Well in this day and age there may not be an old fashioned bank book but there is likely to be bank statements, a cheque book and (more importantly) control thereof. I think we all know what was meant by the statement made by the shareholders about their “bank book” and denying the existence of any such item does Colin Souter no credit.

However, Colin Souter states that “the commission does not control the grazings or the bank account or finances at Upper Coll. The shareholders do.” If that is the case please do actually hand control of their finances back to them as they quite rightly demand.

Regarding villagers plans to elect a new grazings committee, Colin Souter said: “I raised this issue in recent correspondence with shareholders, when I indicated my term in office is due to expire in the next couple of months. It seems some of the former committee are already set to take control of an agenda which I had set out, intending to hold fresh elections and return a new committee in control of shareholder business at Upper Coll.”

Colin Souter previously stated, on 23 June 2016, that the election of a new committee was “still in the distance“. At the time I asked “Why is the election of a new Grazings Committee in the distance? What is preventing that happening sooner rather than later?” The shareholders are clearly and understandably of the same view and may the force be with them in gaining control of their own destiny once more.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: Boba Fett who appeared in Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back; and Episode VI – Return of the Jedi ©  Lucasfilm Ltd

Croft Wars: Return of the Committee

Croft Wars - Return of the Committee

“Remember, a crofter’s strength flows from the croft. But beware. Anger, fear, aggression. The dark side are they. Once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny.”

On the back of revelations that the Scottish Government do not accept the way the common grazings debacle has been handled by the Crofting Commission the shareholders of Upper Coll are fighting back into power.

The Upper Coll Grazings Committee were put out of office by the Crofting Commission for not producing 5 years of “audited” accounts but instead producing 5 years of financial statements prepared by an independent accountant.

The Grazings Committee were ‘replaced’ by a Grazings Constable that I, and others (including bizarrely the Crofting Commission themselves) consider to be illegal.

Now the shareholders at Upper Coll have said enough is enough and the majority of those present at a meeting on 25 August 2016 (there being no objections) have issued a statement that calls on the resignation or dismissal of Convener, Colin Kennedy, and Commissioner, Murdo Maclennan. They state that they consider the Grazings Constable to have been appointed illegally and that they will be holding a meeting to nominate and elect a grazings committee. They want their bank account back (the grazings constable having wrestled control of it away from them).

Their statement reads:-

Return control of Upper Coll Grazings to shareholders vis a vis our democratically elected Grazing Committee.

Return our bank book.

The evidence is overwhelming that the Crofting Commission have acted out-with their powers, their guidelines and legal advice in dismissing the Upper Coll Grazings Committee and imposing a constable, who, while purporting to act for shareholders, seems to see his role as acting for the Crofting Commission in finding fault with democratically taken decisions over many years.

We have evidence that he has been investigating our decisions over many years by contacting, without our knowledge or permission, public and private organisations, in order to try and retrospectively find reasons for the Crofting Commission’s actions, which were out-with their own guidelines and have been the subject to criticism from the highest levels of the Scottish Government and legal profession.

We demand to know what gave the Commission the power to take over our bank account. We demand to know the mechanism which allows any organisation the power to take over and delete democratically appointed signatories to a bank account without the signatories knowledge or permission.

We reject the constable’s view that he has the support of the majority of shareholders. He has mistaken reluctant co-operation for approval.  We agree with all the legal views, apart from the Commission’s, that he has been illegally appointed, and that the Commission made no attempt to elect a committee before they appointed him.

We support the guidelines adopted by the Crofting Commission on 27 April 2015 where they state “it does not appear that the Commission can directly appoint a constable as part of a disciplinary process where a committee is not carrying out its duties.” As a result, we call on the Commission to acknowledge their wrong-doing in imposing a Constable on the Upper Coll Township contrary to their own guidelines and apologise for this to the Upper Coll Shareholders and withdraw the current illegally appointed Constable.

We demand to know what rights an illegally appointed constable has to use village documents, obtained using the threat of legal action, for purposes other than which they were intended, by supplying information to an outside body which states it takes nothing to do with grazings committee’s finances.

We support the views of the Minister for Crofting, and demand that the Commission compensate Upper Coll Grazings for making us disburse monies, when even the Government states it was out-with their power to do so. We also demand that the Commission and/or Constable compensate the village for loss of money through grant schemes such as Agri-environment etc which were not applied for as a result of the dismissal of the Committee.

We support the overwhelming vote taken at the recent meeting in Stornoway of the Scottish Crofting Federation in calling for the resignation of Convener Colin Kennedy. In his refusal to resign we ask the Government to dismiss Mr Kennedy from a position he has used to further his own ends and which he has used to embarrass the Government.

We also call for the resignation or dismissal of our local commissioner Murdo Maclennan as he has done nothing to assist the Upper Coll Grazings when asked to do so on a number of occasions. His contribution in the whole matter has been questionable to say the least.

We support the return to the democracy we had before the dismissal of the Upper Coll Grazings Committee who had complied with all the demands made on them by the Crofting Commission.

We propose a meeting of shareholders on Saturday 10th September at 7pm to nominate and elect a grazings committee. We do this in accordance with the Crofting Commission’s own guidelines as laid out in Annex A for Policy in Development Paper No 6.

We call on the Commission to apologise for the stress caused and the public querying of “financial irregularities” even after they had properly independent accounts presented to them, which showed there was no such “irregularity”.

There is overwhelming evidence that the Commission’s conduct has been improper, outwith their own guidelines and in our case vindictive, draconian, and illegal.

We call on the Minister to help us get our bank account back, support us having an elected grazings committee back in place immediately, define what the role of the Commission is and how it should keep to its own public and legal guidelines to the same detail as it requires of voluntary grazings committees.

It was reported on Hebrides News that a Crofting Commission spokesperson said:-

Following an investigation under the Crofting Act the grazings committee in Upper Coll were removed from office on 14 April 2016.

Subsequently, the Crofting Commission received a request from the former grazings clerk, stating that there were a number of issues that, in the view of shareholders, required immediate attention and asking the commission what they intended to do to resolve the issues highlighted.

The commission discussed this matter at a meeting on 9 May 2016 and considered all of the options available to them.

Given the request for immediate action and in order to protect the interests of all shareholders the commission decided to appoint a constable in terms of section 47(3) of the Act.

The grazings constable is now nearing the end of his appointment following which the shareholders can appoint a committee of their choosing.

The Commission told Hebrides News that it could not give further details as the matter was the subject of court action. Certain committee members who were removed from office at Upper Coll appealed the decision of the Crofting Commission to the Scottish Land Court. There is currently debate before the Land Court as to whether or not the court has jurisdiction to hear such an appeal and a decision on that preliminary technical matter is awaited.

View from the Crofting Law Blog

It seems to me to be very strange indeed that on the back of a massive U-Turn regarding the appointment of a grazings constable at Mangersta, revelations that the Crofting Commission knew themselves that the appointment of a grazings constable, in these circumstances, was illegal and a rebuke from Fergus Ewing MSP over their handling of the affair that the Commission persists with the notion that a ‘constable’ exists at Upper Coll.

All indications are that they so persist in the hope that the constable will unearth some wrongdoing that will possibly justify his appointment in the first place! However, you can never justify a step that by all accounts (including their own) was illegal in the first place.

As recently as 17 August Commissioner Murdo Maclennan stated that:-

We have got a Constable who is working with crofters in the village… and… and… I am finding out he is working well with them.

Clearly a statement that is very much at odds with what the crofters in the village are actually saying.

The Crofting Commission need to put this mess that they have created to bed. Their failure to do so does not sit well with their apparent support of the position of the Scottish Government i.e. that the Commission got it wrong over the question of disbursement of funds – the very issue that resulted in the dismissal of the Upper Coll Grazings Committee and the illegal appointment of a grazings constable.

Does, however, the statement by the Crofting Commission spokesperson that:-

The grazings constable is now nearing the end of his appointment following which the shareholders can appoint a committee of their choosing

mean that the Crofting Commission perhaps do see the matter being put to bed shortly by simply the current term of an illegal appointment coming to its natural albeit illegal end?

In the absence of any early resolution of the matter by the Crofting Commission, and a Land Court action in hand that could rumble on for some time yet, it does not seem unreasonable for the shareholders at Upper Coll to be making the statement they have and taking the action intended to appoint a committee to manage their affairs sooner rather than later.

However, the ‘grazings constable’ of Upper Coll, Colin Souter, appears to be fighting back. I will look at his stance on the matter in my next blog post.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi ©  Lucasfilm Ltd

Keystone Crofting Cops

Croftstone Cops (aka Grazings Constables)

Yes Commissioners… we’ll do whatever you say.

This post will give an insight into the workings of the Crofting Commission when, contrary to their own policies and procedures, they proceeded to appoint grazings constables illegally. It will also highlight how incompetent such appointments are.

All three cases involving the appointment of illegal grazings constables centred around monies that certain shareholders believed should have been paid to them and the Commission’s insistence that such monies should indeed have been paid out.

Minutes of a meeting of the Crofting Commission regarding the proposed removal from office of a grazings committee and clerk and appointment, in their place, of a grazings constable state:-

After discussion, the Commission agreed that the [name of Grazings Committee] would be written to and given 28 days to pay the money due to the shareholder. If after the 28 days have passed, they have failed to pay the money, the Committee and Clerk will be removed and a Constable appointed with the sole function of paying the monies due.

The appointing of the Constable will be decided by the Convener, Vice-Convener and Chief Executive.

Discussion took place about how the Constable would be able to sign cheques on behalf of the Grazing Committee and the Commission agreed that the Order issued to the Grazing Committee advising them that they have been removed from office should be worded clearly enough to maximise the ability of the Constable to access funds. However, the Commission cannot guarantee that the bank will accept the Order.

The Crofting Commission has no power to order payment of monies by grazings committees to shareholders. Indeed their own guidance on such matters states:-

The Commission will not get involved in any matter relating to alleged financial impropriety. This is potentially a civil and/or criminal matter and should be dealt with by the relevant authorities.

Thus they breached their own policies and procedures and acted without any power to do so in ordering the grazings committee to make payments. That is the case whether or not such payments were legitimately due and payable to the shareholder in question. That would have been a matter for that shareholder to pursue, as they considered appropriate, through the civil or criminal justice system.

It is interesting (and perhaps somewhat alarming) that the Crofting Commission decided that this particular grazings constable would be appointed “with the sole function of paying the monies due“.

Whilst the Crofting Commission have no power under and in terms of the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 to appoint a grazings constable to do a specific task ordered by them it is alarming that they would think, under any circumstances, that this would be a sensible approach to take.

A grazings committee and grazings clerk will potentially have many tasks to fulfill. By putting a committee out of office and not making appropriate and legal arrangements to allow those tasks to be continued the Crofting Commission is clearly evading its responsibilities as a regulator and acting in a highly irresponsible fashion.

The Convener of the Crofting Commission was at the ready to put in place a grazings constable who would pay out the monies if the first constable appointed to do so “has any difficulty and backs out“.

The appointment of a grazings constable where a grazings commitee has been removed from office is, however, in itself illegal. In such circumstances the Crofting Commission has no power to appoint a grazings constable and instead under section 47(8) of the 1993 Act:-

may appoint or provide for the appointment of other persons (whether crofters or not) in their or his place

The only ability for the Crofting Commission to appoint a grazings constable falls under section 47(3) of the 1993 Act. This is where the crofters who share in a common grazing fail at any time to appoint a grazing committee.

An illegally appointed grazings constable whose actions would be null and void should, of course, be let no where near a cheque book! The Crofting Commission however, knowing that they couldn’t guarantee that a bank would accept the position, decided that they would frame an Order as best they could to persuade a bank to do so!

Hopefully, no bank has been daft enough to allow an illegally appointed grazings constable such access. If they have done so the shareholders should have recourse against the bank as well as, of course, against the Crofting Commission. Also as Donald Rennie has stated:-

if a purported constable takes as much a penny piece from the crofters sharing in the common grazing, with intent permanently to deprive them of that money, he is at serious risk.

This farcical state of affairs would, unfortunately, not be out of place in a Mack Sennett comedy. No wonder that there have been calls for the Scottish Government to investigate and for the Convener to consider his position.

Brian Inkster

Image Credit: By Mack Sennett Studios – Publicity still from 1914 film “In the Clutches of the Gang”, via Wikimedia Commons

Time for Kennedy to go

The Scottish Crofting Federation has called for the resignation of the convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, following the exposure of the Commission having taken action on grazing committees against legal advice.

It is clearly time for Kennedy to go”, said the Chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation, Fiona Mandeville. She continued:-

We’ve asked many times for an explanation but to no avail. Documents obtained through Freedom of Information are unequivocal; the board of the Crofting Commission, headed by Colin Kennedy, chose to ignore policy and legal advice and proceeded to impose, what lawyers are saying are illegal, constables upon grazing shareholders whose committees the Commission had removed from office. So much anguish has been caused by this whole debacle and now, as suspected, we can clearly see that Kennedy led the Commission down this destructive route.

The commissioners have behaved as a board would be expected to in closing ranks and taking joint responsibility. But it would do no good for crofting were all commissioners to resign. Kennedy was closely implicated in the sackings of the committees and, as convener, is accountable. He must do the honourable thing: leave.

Fiona Mandeville concluded:-

It is time to review not only what went wrong and how to put procedures in place to prevent this sort of thing happening again, but to also look at the wider purpose of the Crofting Commission. There have been a few calls for the disbanding of the Commission, a natural reaction to the grief it has caused. But our members are still supportive of having an independent body that oversees crofting. This convener got too inflated over legislation, spouting ‘the express will of Parliament’. But with him gone we can work with the Commission again, picking up on the excellent progress made with the five priorities for crofting. It is time to consider reinstating the responsibility for crofting development with the Commission; it was supposed to have been moved to HIE, though this transition never happened. If the Crofting Commission takes crofting development back with crofting regulation we would see a more rounded, holistic body representing Scottish Government working for crofting.

Reports from a ‘Grazing Constable’

 

Reports from a Grazings Constable

The ‘Grazings Constable’ was under the false impression that he was a Police Constable come Court Reporter!

One of the more surprising episodes of ‘The Common Clearances‘ has been the issuing of press releases by the ‘Grazing Constable’ (illegally appointed, in my opinion and the opinion of others) of the Upper Coll Common Grazings.

To my knowledge that ‘Grazings Constable’, Colin Souter, has issued three such press releases to date. I now reproduce those here, with my comments on each added.

‘Grazing Constable’ Report #1 – 12 June 2016

I write briefly in connection with the Common Grazings at Upper Coll, having been appointed as Constable in recent weeks, by the Crofting Commission.

I should firstly stress such appointees are independent of the Commission. One of the main functions is to assume the role and responsibilities of the former Committee, representing the interests of the Crofters, whilst moving as swiftly as possible back to a situation of normality, with crofters being collectively in control of managing their own interests.

I am confident readers will appreciate the resolution to current difficulties will not be achieved overnight. I note there has been much interest, speculation and comment made on behalf of individuals who, I acknowledge, feel genuinely aggrieved with decisions the Commission has made.

On the other hand, it is only right and proper that the Commission, as a public body, should not comment on the specifics of any individual case.

Preliminary legal proceedings are currently underway at the Scottish Land Court, where it remains to be decided if the Appeal against Commission decisions will progress to the next stage. An Interim Interdict application at Inverness Sheriff Court to prevent the appointment of a Constable and further action by the Commission, was heard and refused.

It is likely that the process of the Land Court Appeal, if progressed, will take some considerable time to conclude. I will not be formally commenting in the media on the specifics of matters at Upper Coll, nor in relation to any single individual.

I do however wish to publicly acknowledge and thank those individuals at Upper Coll and elsewhere who have already contacted me since my appointment, to firstly share a collective view that there are matters at Upper Coll which need to be addressed and secondly to voice their support for a co-operative resolution over the coming weeks and months. All impartial observers must surely agree it is in the best interests of all parties to co-operate, to ensure the interests of all the crofters at Upper Coll are and continue to be properly protected.

Comment on ‘Grazing Constable’ Report #1by the Crofting Law Blog

Why, I wonder, did Colin Souter feel it necessary to issue such a statement? Was it because the Crofting Commission were staying silent on the matter? Did they sanction/encourage this statement?

How independent can Colin Souter really be? Did the Crofting Commission not provide him with a list of their ‘concerns’ for his investigation?

He has apparently stated to the shareholders at Upper Coll that his role is an investigative one. Nothing in the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993 gives him such power other than, perhaps, the duty to report to the Crofting Commission on the condition of the Common Grazings and crofts with a share in the Common Grazings.

If investigations were required concerning any alleged financial impropriety on the part of the former grazings committee that would have been a role for the actual boys in blue and not for a retired police Chief Inspector who appears to think he, once more, has powers he once did. He does not.

If legally appointed, which is disputed, Colin Souter simply has to take on the role of committee and clerk. He is responsible to the shareholders. His role is purely administrative.

‘Grazing Constable’ Report #2 – 23 June 2016

On the evening of 22 June the Constable of the Upper Coll Common Grazings chaired a meeting of shareholders at Tong Village Hall. The meeting, which was well attended, discussed a number of issues and during the closed part of the meeting, the Constable, Mr Colin Souter shared a level of detail around issues and concerns which was clearly unknown to many of those present, prior to the meeting.

Mr Souter, a retired police Chief Inspector explained to the meeting that his appointment followed a communication to the Commission by the former Clerk to the Grazing, highlighting that 12 points of business needed to be addressed as soon as possible.

Mr Souter also explained that the Crofting Commission, as a public body, is unable to comment in the media on issues relating to specific individuals and their conduct but that being independent of the Commission, it was appropriate for him to share more information with the shareholders affected. At the meeting, he received further joint intimation in writing from Upper Coll shareholders, of their dissatisfaction with the conduct of the former Committee and will determine in due course whether that should be considered separately from other matters currently under investigation.

The meeting acknowledged the current position as laid out and discussed a constructive way forward, with a revised set of draft local Grazing Regulations being circulated by the Constable to all shareholders at Upper Coll to replace the current Regulations which date back to 1987. Mr Souter is also inviting contributions and comment more widely, from the Scottish Crofting Federation and National Farmers Union Scotland, as representative bodies, in an effort to secure a wide consensus of agreement. He intimated to the meeting that he was, very reluctantly, being forced to consider Court action as a last resort, in order to recover the Committee records from the former Grazings Clerk. A large number of those shareholders present expressed the view that withholding the records was not helping, declaring that it was acting against the interests of the shareholders and instead invited former Committee members to bear the cost of the Court action, should it go ahead.

The meeting closed on a positive note with an expression of thanks to Mr Souter, from the floor, for an open, informative and well-run meeting.

Mr Souter later said, “I appreciate there is a wide body of interest in events here at Upper Coll. I would like to publicly express my own thanks and appreciation to Upper Coll shareholders able to attend the meeting tonight, for their positive contributions and their willingness to begin moving forward to the point where a new Grazing Committee can be elected. Whilst that outcome is still in the distance, it has moved significantly closer, with a clearer path now defined, and shareholders having a better understanding of the concerns and the issues which brought us to where we are now.”

Note to Editor – the Upper Coll Grazings Committee was removed from office by the Crofting Commission on 15 April after failing to adequately address concerns raised by the Crofting Commission about the manner in which aspects of its business were being conducted, including the content and presentation of financial information reported to shareholders. On 16 May, some former committee members made an unsuccessful attempt to interdict the Crofting Commission from further action at Upper Coll. This was followed by submission of papers to the Scottish Land Court, seeking to Appeal against the Commission’s decision to remove them from office. The Land Court is currently awaiting submissions on jurisdiction from both sides, to help determine whether it can hear the Appeal. If the jurisdiction argument is won, the case will become sub judice until eventually concluded.

Comment on ‘Grazing Constable’ Report #2 by the Crofting Law Blog

I wonder if Mr Souter thinks that all grazings clerks should be issuing press releases about shareholders meetings held throughout the crofting counties? Local newspapers could have sections devoted to ‘Common Grazings Reports’ instead of, or in addition to, their usual ‘Court Reports’!

Where did the “issues and concerns” that Mr Souter had to share come from? I trust not from the Crofting Commission that he is apparently independent of?

Interesting that the Crofting Commission cannot comment on matters arising to the media but Mr Souter can. Has he therefore become their spokesman and if so how does that enable him to retain the supposed independence that he claims to have?

Mr Souter refers to “matters currently under investigation”. As commented on by me in connection with his first Report, his role is not an investigative one but merely an administrative one and then only if his appointment was legal which I, and others, maintain it is not.

Why was Mr Souter circulating new Grazings Regulations and who had drafted them and on what basis?

It would seem unusual for a Grazings Clerk to seek views from the Scottish Crofting Federation or the National Farmers Union Scotland on Grazings Regulations specific to a particular grazings.

Court action by a potentially illegally appointed ‘Grazings Constable’ to recover documentation he might have no right to hold would have made for interesting debate in the Sheriff Court! A suggestion that those against whom such an action was to be raised should fund the raising of the action is absurd to say the least.

Why is the election of a new Grazings Committee in the distance? What is preventing that happening sooner rather than later?

Is it perhaps in Mr Souter’s personal interest to delay the election of a new Grazings Committee. The longer he remains in ‘office‘ the longer he receives an income from the arrangement – albeit potentially an illegal arrangement that he should not actually be receiving a penny for.

Mr Souter states that “the Upper Coll Grazings Committee was removed from office by the Crofting Commission on 15 April after failing to adequately address concerns raised by the Crofting Commission about the manner in which aspects of its business were being conducted, including the content and presentation of financial information reported to shareholders.”

However, the only reason actually given by the Crofting Commission for the ultimate removal from office of the grazings committee was the failure to produce to them five years ‘audited’ accounts. The grazings committee produced financial statements produced by accountants. The irrationality, inconsistency and departure from legal advice obtained by the Crofting Commission on this point is one I will return to in future posts on this blog.

‘Grazing Constable’ Report #3 – 12 July 2016

Upper Coll shareholders met again on 11 July at a meeting chaired by the Grazings Constable, Colin Souter, who was appointed by the Crofting Commission in May. At this second meeting, shareholders covered a busy Agenda on a range of topics, including the resolution of a long-standing issue on the access of a bull owned by two shareholders, on the common grazings. Shareholders accepted the pragmatic resolution suggested by the Constable, which preserves shareholders rights to graze livestock but at the same time, acknowledges the responsibilities that go with these rights.

Shareholders also voted in favour of a revised set of Grazing Regulations which would encompass key elements of the previous regulations which dated back to 1987. Mr Souter hoped the final draft of the document which had already been subject to wide-ranging consultation would be ready to send to the Crofting Commission for approval, in the next few weeks. During a candid and honest discussion, some of those present, including former Committee members advised they had been entirely unaware of the existence of the 1987 Regulations.

After the meeting, Mr Souter said, “The key to progress here is an acceptance from shareholders that good Regulations make it easier for shareholders and for Committees to interact and minimise the potential for friction or conflict. We are nearly there, in terms of a finished product and whilst there are still a number of other issues for me to resolve with shareholders, we are steadily moving in the right direction. I am grateful for the support shown by shareholders this evening, in voting to move ahead.”

A number of other issues, including finances and areas of activity permissible for a Grazings Committee or Constable on behalf of shareholders, under the 1993 Crofting Act were explored in a closed session. No date was set for the next meeting, with Mr Souter indicating he would distribute a final updated draft set of Regulations amongst all shareholders. And once approved by the Commission, every shareholder would receive a personal copy of the revised Regulations.

ends

Note – Mr Souter is a retired police Chief Inspector, appointed to the role of Constable at Upper Coll after the previous Committee were removed from office by the Crofting Commission. Following their removal, it was reported to the Commission that shareholder business remained outstanding and unresolved. Whilst he is appointed by the Commission, Mr Souter has successfully gained acceptance that he is independent of the Commission in all his decision-making.

Comment on ‘Grazing Constable’ Report #3 by the Crofting Law Blog

I asked shareholders of the Upper Coll Common Grazings for their views on this latest Report from Colin Souter. Here is a selection of comments received from them:-

  • The new regs would certainly have to come before shareholders again before being submitted. There will be nothing to stop us bringing in further changes at a full meeting of shareholders at a later date if that is needed.
  • The Grazings Regulations are at the “discussion” stage and still have much work to be done on them. There was no revised Regulations issued with no mention of changes some of us suggested. They are far from being at a stage for presenting to the Commission.
  • The constable has thus far refused to protect the interests of shareholders by bringing any scrutiny to bear on the  Commission’s own dubious actions of the recent past. This goes to prove that he is not wholly independent of the Commission and shows that he who pays the piper calls the tune.
  • The majority of shareholders are still of the view that the position of Constable has been illegally imposed on the Upper Coll Grazings. These shareholders do not have any personal prejudice against Mr Souter but it is his position they question.
  • Shareholders were of the view that the Constable should be working “for” the shareholders and should therefore be working to see that some of the injustices done to the previous Committee are redressed. As he seems to be investigating the work of the previous committee then this “investigative” role should also be targeted at the Crofting Commission’s actions.
  • The minute of meeting of the 11th should also clearly show that we considered that the Commission had erred greatly in dismissing a democratically elected voluntary committee when they had legal obligations instead to advice and support it in the first instance. We suggested that this is going to be costly to the Commission.
  • The meaning of “audit” given by the Constable is not one shared by the vast majority of shareholders.
  • It is felt by the majority of shareholders that the term “financial irregularities” used by the Commission in relation to the Upper Coll Grazings Committee should be withdrawn and an apology issued to the committee by the Commission.
  • Mr Kennedy’s continued presence as Convenor of the Crofting Commission is in the opinion of the majority of shareholders untenable.

So clearly a different slant on things from the propaganda issued by the ‘Grazings Constable’. This demonstrates the nonsense of the whole situation.

Why is Colin Souter seeking to introduce new regulations? What is wrong with the existing ones other than perhaps the use of the word “audit”, which has caused much of the problems encountered by the former committee in their dealings with the Crofting Commission?

The former grazings committee were actually in the process of amending their regulations prior to being removed from office by the Crofting Commission. Why did the Crofting Commission not allow them to amend the regulations as they wished to do so?

Are the Crofting Commission influencing the new regulations proposed by Colin Souter? Do these new regulations follow the latest template promoted by the Crofting Commission which do not actually reflect the law as set out in the Crofters (Scotland) Act 1993?

Mr Souter refers to his “decision making”. What ability does he actually have to take decisions that are contrary to the wishes of the shareholders?

Mr Souter states:-

No date was set for the next meeting, with Mr Souter indicating he would distribute a final updated draft set of Regulations amongst all shareholders. And once approved by the Commission, every shareholder would receive a personal copy of the revised Regulations.

This suggests that Mr Souter is going to finalise the draft Grazings Regulations without necessarily calling a meeting to approve them. He appears to simply be planning to get the approval of the Crofting Commission. If this is indeed the case it is outrageous.

However, it should always be borne in mind that Mr Souter’s appointment was, in my view and the view of others, illegal and any action taken by him is simply null and void.

Brian Inkster