EMBATTLED Crofting Commission convener Colin Kennedy this week broke his silence over the row that has left him isolated and facing resignation calls from his fellow commissioners and the Scottish Crofting Federation.
Speaking to The Scottish Farmer, Mr Kennedy stressed that his sole motivation in the current stramash over the administration of common grazings on the isle of Lewis was to uphold crofting law, and defend the statutory rights of ordinary crofters who, he claimed, were losing out to grazings committees that were being run as money-making businesses with little or no accountability.
But further, he rounded on the Scottish Government, and rural economy minister Fergus Ewing in particular, bluntly accusing him of perpetrating a cover-up of ScotGov’s historic role in a quagmire of maladministration that, he claimed, had left the crofting counties exposed to a punitive clawback of EU funds.
“The commission has taken legal advice from Sir Crispin Agnew QC and it is my understanding that a grazing committee does not merit claiming subsidies, as only individual share holders with grazing rights are eligible, provided they comply with the provisions of the legislation for such activity,” said Mr Kennedy. “How can we have a situation where farmers and crofters face swift penalties if they mis-declare the area they are claiming on, but these committees with no occupancy of the land, which exist primarily to maintain shared common land in a fit state to graze, can claim thousands of pounds of SRDP and other schemes for uses other than grazing?
“This has been happening for years, and now the Crofting Commission has realised that dealing with matters the Act does not provide for is where most of the Commission problems arise from and in trying to get to the bottom of the problem it appears to be in big trouble, with potentially millions of historic subsidy and support payments that the EU would be quite entitled to take back. There is out and out panic behind the scenes, but rather than trying to fix it, I believe the government is trying to put a lid on it.
“I would like Mr Ewing to come out and say who is entitled to claim EU money – the crofter or the grazing committee? I believe it is not the latter and legal advice supports this view. It cannot be both.
“The members of the Upper Coll grazing committee have a lot to answer on behalf of share holders,” said Mr Kennedy. “It has been given thousands of pounds, and as convener of the Crofting Commission with complaints on the table from crofters whose statutory rights are being restricted, I require to know where the money has been spent in order that the complainants can be responded to appropriately. So far I have been unable to find answers.”
Mr Kennedy also clarified that the grazings ‘constable’ appointed to replace the Upper Coll committee, Colin Souter, had not, as was widely reported, been ‘his man’ – in fact, he said he had never met Mr Souter.
“The Commission had already pre-selected a panel of three constables for such purposes, and Mr Souter was not one of them,” he said – before claiming that the controversial constable had been appointed, without reference to the agreed board process, by CC chief executive Catriona Mclean, who had taken similar decisions in other cases without following agreed procedure, who shortly afterwards had left her post for another ScotGov job.
As such, Mr Kennedy suggested that the investigation at Upper Coll had been compromised from the outset, and although it had turned up clear instances where the committee had exceeded its remit, the key issues of eligibility to claim EU monies and VAT registration – both of which underpinned the morphing of statutory grazings committees into money-making businesses – had yet to gain prominence.
“The whole grazings committee issue is a can of worms,” he declared, although he stressed that, to his knowledge, it was only a problem specifically on Lewis. “as previously stated in the board room things are often done differently on Lewis,” he quipped.
“But now I’ve put my head on the block in trying to get to grips with the truth. I know people are queuing up to get me out but I am not letting this rest. I’m not going to jump, so I will probably be pushed. If that happens my solicitor is standing by.”
Commenting, a Scottish Government spokesman said: “Serious allegations about Scottish Ministers were attributed to Mr Kennedy in the press following the Crofting Commission’s meeting in Brora on September 28. The Scottish Government has requested further information from the convener in relation to these allegations and will give this further consideration, as appropriate. While this matter is ongoing, the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity will continue to monitor the situation at the Crofting Commission closely.”