May 4, 2016
‘Dictatorial, vindictive and unjustified’
In our Vision paper we suggest that subsidiarity and self-determination should be guiding principles in the decision making of public bodies and in shaping the relationship between the state and communities. In other words decisions which directly affect a community should be taken as close to that community as possible and communities should be free, as far as is possible, to determine for themselves how they organise. Applying these principles would mean an end to the kind of top down, centrally driven diktats that are currently being foisted upon the crofters on Coll by the Crofters Commission.
Villagers in a Lewis crofting township have accused the Crofting Commission of being ‘dictatorial, vindictive and unjustified’ after the Commission sacked their grazings committee when the committee had the backing of the majority of the shareholders.
The villagers of Upper Coll claim they have fulfilled all the conditions imposed on them by the Crofting Commission, following a disagreement with two shareholders.
Calum Maclean,Grazings Clerk since 1997, said that they had done everything the Commission had asked them to do and asked external professional accountants to carry out the required work for the Grazings Committee and then submit it to the Commission.
He said: ” The Commission had accepted that all the recommendations apart from one had been carried out. The Upper Coll Grazings committee had engaged a well known and reputable company of Stornoway chartered accountants to provide the Commission with the external financial information they required. The basis on which these were to be prepared was agreed between the accountants and officers of the Commission, but then rejected as being insufficient by the very Commission that had told the accountants what was required.”
Mr Maclean said he had no idea why the Commission had asked for accounts for the past five years, but that they had provided all the details, as had been submitted and unanimously agreed at shareholders meetings every year. The accountants confirmed that these were a correct representation of the village’s income and expenditure, Mr Maclean said.
He said: ”The Commission has not asked a single grazings committee in the whole of the Crofting Townships to provide such information in the last five years. Why they have picked on us is an unanswered puzzle. We understand them asking us to provide an independent assessment of our books, but we don’t understand why they won’t accept the independent figures presented.”
He added: “The Grazings Committee had bent over backwards to meet all the Commission’s requirements and were totally shocked that not only would they not accept the accountants figures but that they had sacked the committee with immediate effect.
” We have done everything the Commission asked us to do. We don’t understand what more the Commission wanted. The attitude shown by convener Colin Kennedy when he met with shareholders last year has left us worried that there is some hidden agenda, which we don’t understand.”
Upper Coll Grazings chair Kenneth Macdonald said: “Our village was formed in the face of threats in the 1920s. We are proud of the way the village has been managed all these years and are not impressed by the bully boy tactics that have been shown by the Crofting Commission.
”We feel our local commissioner Murdo Maclennan could have played a part in ensuring a reasoned sensible settling of whatever the Commission found wanting, but regretfully that didn’t happen.”
The committee has asked the Crofting Commission, through its chief executive Catriona Maclean to review its decision.
Mr Maclean said: “”The Commission has to be asked what they seek to achieve with their 19th century landlord attitude. The Grazings Committee was summarily put out of office in one day without recourse to appeal and with no explanation as to the “crime” we had committed! Which Crofting Law are we in breach of?”
A spokeswoman for the Crofting Commission said: “On Upper Coll, there are a number of options for the shareholders in the common grazings to consider and the Crofting Commission is intending to hold an early meeting with the shareholders to present these options to them. It would not, therefore, be appropriate to discuss these with a third party before a discussion has taken place with the shareholders. The Commission will shortly be writing to shareholders to explain this.”
She added: “Action in this case resulted from an approach by shareholders to investigate issues relating to the functioning of the common grazings committee, in terms of Section 47(8) of the Crofting Acts. It is important that members of the crofting community understand that the Commission will investigate when requests of this nature are brought to us by shareholders.”
The Scottish Crofting Federation (SCF) said the situation rang ‘loud warning bells of a return to the old Crofters Commission regime’ and called on Crofting Commissioners to reassure crofters.
SCF chief executive Patrick Krause said: “This is a very alarming incidence for crofting. We are not in possession of all the facts that have led to the Crofting Commission taking the extraordinary step of dissolving a grazings committee, something unprecedented as far as I know.
“So SCF’s concern is directed towards the broader issue of what this says for decision-making within the commission and what this does to the relationship between crofters and the regulator.
“We are all aware of the grievance raised by the Upper Coll grazings committee against the convener of the commission, Colin Kennedy, a few weeks ago, so, on the face of it, this looks like an appalling attempt by the commission to nullify the complaint. So whatever is actually behind their decision, it is a staggeringly clumsy bit of public relations.
“There appears to have been no mediation attempted by the commission and it rings very loud warning bells of a return to the old Crofters Commission regime which was regularly accused of operating on a similar autocratic basis. We very much hoped that we would never see this sort of behaviour again. A direction of such gravity must have been issued by the commissioners themselves so we call on them to reassure crofters that they have acted in the democratic and impartial way expected of a public body”.
Crofting commissioner Murdo Maclennan said he could not comment while the Upper Coll case was still in a legal process.
An ongoing Freedom of Information application was filed with the Crofting Commission in March, seeking answers to the following questions:
1: How many crofting townships have been asked to supply professionally audited accounts to the Crofting Commission in each of the last five years?
2: How many crofting townships have supplied professionally audited accounts in the last five years?
3: How many crofting townships have no committees at present?
4: How many grazings committees have been removed by the Crofting Commission in the last five years?