The Crofting Commission’s Chief Executive Catriona Maclean has penned an open letter to answer criticism over Common Grazings issues.
Earlier this week the former Mangersta Grazings Committee issued a statement revealing that they had written to the Commission to say they would “have no part” in distributing public money for purposes other than that for which it was obtained.
Members of the Committee – which was disbanded by the Commission – stated in the letter: “We strongly believe that it would be an improper use of public funds if money was distributed in this way and returned or not returned at the discretion of individual shareholders, including absentees”.
The letter continued: “We simply do not believe that such a cavalier approach to the use of public funds can be within the law and we will have no part in it.”
The statement went on to describe how action had been taken following a decision by the Commission to re-appoint the Grazings Constable whom they installed in place of the Grazings Committee for a further six months.
Similar action has been taken in Upper Coll, also over the issue of how funds received for agricultural and environmental schemes should be dealt with.
The statement added that the Crofting Commission had issued guidelines which advised that all funds received by a Grazings Committee, for whatever purpose, should immediately be distributed to individual shareholders and declared to HMRC as taxable income.
The Grazings Committee should then ask for the money back for specific purposes.
This advice has been described by critics of the Commission as “the death of crofting on any communal basis”.
Maintaining that the Commission had no legal powers to disband the Grazings Committee or install the Grazings Constable, the letter noted that the Commission has refused to respond to that legal argument claiming that it can only be determined by the Scottish Land Court.
It went on to welcome the limited apology offered by the Commission for having given the Mangersta Grazings Committee “conflicting advice”, but notes that this does “not begin to come close” to the pubic apology they are insisting on for the Commission’s conduct.
In answer Catriona Maclean’s Open Letter states: “There has been much said recently about the Crofting Commission and its actions, in particular in relation to common grazings.
“As the regulator for crofting we cannot comment on specific cases but it is clear that there have been a number of issues raised which many people have expressed concern over and the full circumstances of why action was necessary is not yet in the public domain.
“I think it is important to say that the Commission is not on a campaign to review the functioning of every grazings committee.
“Be assured, we do understand that most of the nearly 500 grazings committees across the crofting counties are working well, and will continue to do so, helping to safeguard this important community asset.
“This situation has identified the passion and value that crofters, and those who represent them, put on common grazing land.
“The Commission shares that passion and value and it is good to see its management and potential being discussed openly.
“It is also important to emphasise that the Commission has never said “every grazings committee must carry out a full audit of their accounts” or that “without question all grazings committee must distribute every penny of money to all shareholders and that no money can be retained”.
“This view has been advanced by others, not the Commission.
“We are the regulator of crofting and we must represent the interest of all 15,388 crofters, the majority of whom share in common grazings and when they express concerns we have a duty to investigate.
“In most cases these matters are resolved by mutual agreement.
“Putting a committee out of office is not a step taken lightly by the Commission and only occurs rarely and after protracted discussion and investigation.”
She added: “I would like to reassure committees and shareholders that we are preparing more best-practice guidance for them and, once we have discussed this guidance with our crofting partners, we will make it available to all grazings committees, shareholders and crofters.
“In addition we will be running an information session on common grazings at our local crofting meetings to be held across the crofting counties later in the year.
“For those who feel passionate about the Commission and how it operates - then why not take the chance to be part of it by standing for election when these take place early next year?
“This would provide you with the opportunity to be at the heart of shaping the future Crofting Commission to ensure that it, and the crofting system, is the way you want it to be.”