The Cross-Party Group on Crofting has been waiting patiently on answers to 18 questions that they posed to the Crofting Commission. These were originally sent to the Crofting Commission in July 2016 then modified and sent in October 2016.
- Where in law it is stated that the Crofting Commission cannot revisit its own decisions?
- Why did the Crofting Commission chose to remove three grazings committees instead of work with them to improve things, if things needed improvement?
- Why were grazings shareholders not given the chance to elect a new committee when the Crofting Commission removed their committee, instead of moving straight to the appointment of a grazings constable?
- Does a removed committee have a right of appeal to the Crofting Commission?
- Where in law it is stated that the Crofting Commission has the power to appoint a Grazings Constable when they remove members of a grazing committee from office?
- Where in law it is stated that the Crofting Commission can extend the appointment of a Grazings Constable?
- Why is the Crofting Commission ignoring its own guidelines on the investigation of financial irregularities?
- Does the Crofting Commission maintain that all funds in a grazings bank account have to be disbursed immediately (including SRDP grants, as Mr MacLennan stated is the bulk of funds in the CPGoC)?
- If there are 3 levels of accounting as outlined by Mr MacLennan (examination by external qualified person such as local retired bank manager, prepared by qualified accountant on information supplied, full forensic audit), what are the thresholds at which each is required? Do they apply to balance or income? Who decides what is appropriate (given this was the reason Mr MacLennan gave for the Upper Coll grazings committee being removed by the Crofting Commission?)
- Why did the convener of the Crofting Commission involve himself in every one of these three cases and committee removals? Is this the job of a convener?
- Did the convener of the Crofting Commission declare his interest in the cases when the commissioners made their decision to move to removal?
- Does the Crofting Commission consider value for public money when pursuing cases?
- Mr MacLennan emphasised that the Crofting Commission were obliged to act as a shareholder had made a complaint. This does not square with the Commission’s dealings relating to other regulatory matters. We are aware of complaints made by shareholders with regard to absenteeism and neglect of crofts that go many years without commission action so it would be good to know why you are so diligent in pursuing grazings committees with such rigour. Has there been a policy change to target this type of regulatory issue (as there was previously with absentees)?
- Following the letter written to the Convener by Fergus Ewing concerning disbursement of common grazings funds to shareholders and SRDP funding there were mixed messages issued to the press by Commissioners. It appeared that the contents of the letter was supported but the Commission (or perhaps certain Commissioners) still thought they had done nothing wrong. Those two statements do not sit well next to one another. Can the Commission clarify their actual stance on the letter in clear terms for the benefit of this Group.
- Can the Commission explain why they have been questioning SRDP funding for and VAT Registration by Common Grazings?
- The Commission appear to be supporting their ‘constable’ Colin Souter and his behaviour at Upper Coll. Do they actually support a ‘constable’ who is having meetings with 4 shareholders and making decisions affecting 42 shareholders when 26 out of those 42 have signed a petition calling for his removal?
- Will the Commission advise the Group what remit was given to Constable Souter and why he appeared to be acting in an investigatory role rather than as an actual clerk.
- The latest revelation appears to be matters being decided by Commissioners via ‘brown envelopes’ rather than at board meetings. Can the Commission enlighten us further on this?
There were, in addition, two questions specifically posed to the Crofting Commission via the Cross-Party Group on Crofting by Iain MacKinnon on 1 November 2016:-
I would like to draw your attention to a letter by Colin Kennedy published this month in the Scottish Farmer. In the letter he draws the Scottish Crofting Federation’s attention to ‘the commission mole’ at the time of the ‘Susan Walker debacle’. Presumably he is referring here to the anonymous commissioner quoted by the West Highland Free Press when information was leaked to the paper and other media outlets about a letter signed by five commissioners – including Mr Kennedy – calling a meeting to discuss a potential vote of no confidence in Ms Walker. Mr Kennedy told the Scottish Farmer this month:
‘I can assure the SCF that prior to my becoming convener, the mole was identified and the information was provided to the appropriate persons to take the matter forward.’
At the Cross Party Group on Crofting’s meeting on 15th September last year, Jean Urquhart asked Mr Kennedy about the leak to the press.
He was unable to give her an answer and did not identify any ‘mole’ on that occasion. However, the then chief executive of the organisation was able to respond and this is noted in the minutes as follows:
‘What is being done about the fact that there was a leak to the press from a commissioner, which is a breach of the code of conduct?
While a newspaper claimed their was leak by a Commissioner, as Accountable Officer the CEO has carried out an internal investigation which found no evidence that any Commissioner had breached the code of conduct by leaking information on the matter to the press.’
I would like to hear from the Commission’s representative at the meeting how they reconcile these two statements and to ask again, in light of Mr Kennedy’s claim: what is being done about the leak to the press; and who was the ‘mole’ as described by Mr Kennedy in his letter to The Scottish Farmer.
Six months after the first questions were put to the Crofting Commission their Interim Chief Executive, Bill Barron, addressed them at the Cross-Party Group meeting at Holyrood on 25 January 2017 by stating that he didn’t intend to answer them but would like, instead, “to focus on the future“. He wanted to “draw a line under the rows of last year“. He acknowledged that “things had been done wrong” but there was “no merit in unpicking all of that“.
Mr Barron may have missed the fact that some of the rows of last year continue into this one.
Some of the specific issues raised in your questions have already been clarified by the Commission. For example, we have confirmed that we agree with the Scottish Government’s position that there is nothing in the CAP rules that prevents the Scottish Government approving an SRDP application made by a grazings committee, and that we agree with the Scottish Government’s position regarding immediate disbursement of funds.
These, however, are two points that the Convener of the Crofting Commission, Colin Kennedy, still appears to be taking issue with and possibly still taking a contrary position on compared to his fellow commissioners and the official line of the Crofting Commission. This is all contrary to the doctrine of collective corporate responsibility. Indeed it is interesting to note that following the departure from the Crofting Commission of their former Convener, Susan Walker, Colin Kennedy, then Vice Convener, stated [PDF: Board Minutes – 13 May 2015]:-
I am sure that I speak on behalf of everyone when I say that today we are all equal with collective responsibility. In fact we are all Conveners, working together for the betterment of the Crofting Commission.
However, his publicly opposing views to that of the board clearly conflict with that statement.
The Guide for Board Members of Public Bodies in Scotland [PDF] states:-
While Board members must be ready to offer constructive challenge, they must also share collective responsibility for decisions taken by the Board as a whole. If they fundamentally disagree with the decision taken by the Board, they have the option of recording their disagreement in the minutes. However, ultimately, they must either accept and support the collective decision of the Board – or resign.
Colin Kennedy was not in attendance at the Cross-Party Group meeting on Wednesday night. He has only attended one meeting out of the five that have taken place since the start of the current Parliamentary term.
At the meeting in Holyrood on Wednesday night the Chair of the Scottish Crofting Federation, Russell Smith, asked Bill Barron if Colin Kennedy was still Convener and was still chairing Board meetings. Bill Barron answered both questions in the affirmative. Russell Smith then asked if the Board was working as it should to which Bill Barron replied “it is not easy but it is getting its work done“. How well, under the circumstances, it is getting its work done is, however, very debatable.
On the points raised by Ian MacKinnon the response from Bill Barron was:-
The same [i.e. not answering the questions] holds for Iain MacKinnon’s questions about a leak to the press, which was investigated by the previous CEO in 2015. Colin Kennedy’s more recent public comments about this appear to have been made in a personal capacity, but I can confirm that the Commission has no plans to re-examine this matter. Instead, my priority is to look forward to the upcoming elections and to prepare to give the best possible support to the new Board.
So it is all about looking forward and not looking back. However, you sometimes have to look back to learn from your mistakes before you can move forward and avoid making the same mistakes again.
Perhaps the Scottish Government’s review into the governance of the Crofting Commission will reflect more on the mistakes of the past and what needs to be done to prevent a recurrence of them. The Cross-Party Group on Crofting was advised on Wednesday by Gordon Jackson, Head of Rural Business Development and Land Tenure at the Scottish Government, that this review will be published “shortly“.
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