A breakdown of trust at the Commission

The Crofting Commission is portrayed as a deeply dysfunctional organisation, riddled with in-fighting and distrust, in a scathing new report from Audit Scotland, the independent monitor of public bodies.

Thursday, 21st October 2021, 7:17 am
DISTORTED VIEW: Audit Scotland found there was a complete breakdown at the top of the Crofting Commission, who act as regulator of crofting land. (Pic: SCF)
DISTORTED VIEW: Audit Scotland found there was a complete breakdown at the top of the Crofting Commission, who act as regulator of crofting land. (Pic: SCF)

It is now clear that the resignation of the former convener, Rod Mackenzie, was precipitated by knowledge of the report’s findings. However, it is equally clear that Mr Mackenzie retains the support of his former colleagues on the Commission.

In response to the report, his successor, Malcolm Mathieson, said “substantial progress” has been made since its completion; in particular, the clarification of roles and remits within the Commission.

However, he added: “The board are clear in their support of the previous convener and, while disappointed, respect his decision to resign as convener and commissioner from the East Highlands in July.”

It emerges from the report that, last November, Mr Mackenzie “sent a letter to the former Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Tourism on behalf of the Board communicating that it had no confidence in the abilities of the Chief Executive to discharge his duties.

“Specific concerns raised included a lack of leadership; indecisiveness; procrastination; a lack of communication; and poor personnel management. The Board did not inform the Chief Executive or senior management team about the letter”.

Scottish Government civil servants “ then privately and confidentially informed the Chief Executive of its existence in general terms but did not tell the Board that it had done so. The Cabinet Secretary met members of the Board and the Chief Executive in July and September 2021 respectively to discuss the concerns raised, although a formal response to the letter has yet to be received”.

The chief executive, Bill Barron, was drafted in by Scottish Government ministers in 2016 after a previous crisis in the Commission led to the removal of the then chairman, Colin Kennedy, who had caused mayhem in a number of crofting communities with his heavy-handed interventions. Mr Kennedy subsequently failed to be re-elected to the Commission and the then chief executive, Catriona MacLean, was moved to another civil service role.

Mr Barron was appointed by Fergus Ewing at first on an interim basis and this was made permanent in January 2017. He had previously worked for the previous eight years on housing policy for the Scottish Government and, according to the press release at the time, his background was as a statistician.

While the personnel has changed, however, the internal conflict has continued – with crofting regulation widely regarded as being in freefall and the Commission, according to the report, having missed almost all of the targets set for it.

The report states: “At the core of these issues is a failure to respect established boundaries between the respective roles of the Chief Executive, Convener and Board. This transgression, when combined with a breakdown of trust between the various parties, means that the leadership and governance of the Commission is currently falling below the standards expected of a public body in Scotland.”

The report cites “excessive involvement of the Board and former Convener in operational decision-making … boards are expected to provide strategic direction to public bodies while management is responsible for the operational delivery of aims and objectives. The auditor reported examples where some members of the Board excessively involved themselves in matters that would typically be the responsibility of the senior management team.”

In spite of its criticisms of Mr Mackenzie, the Audit Scotland report notes that “the Convener retained the confidence of his Board colleagues, and crofting stakeholders recognise his positive contribution”.

Some observers of the Commission believe many of the problems lay with Mr Barron’s close relationship with fellow Scottish Government colleagues in the “sponsor division”, their interest in directing policy and the conflicts this created with the Board.

Audit Scotland states: “Given the breakdown in trust between the Board and senior management it is understandable that the Scottish Government sponsor division has had a more active role in supporting the Commission’s management than might otherwise be expected”.

It also notes: “While guidance says that sponsor teams do not normally attend Board meetings …in the Crofting Commission’s case, the sponsor division attends most Board meetings at the invitation of the Commission” as an observer.

Tacitly acknowledging the scale of Edinburgh involvement, the report suggests: “The appointment of a new Commission Convener provides an opportunity for the Scottish Government to look again at how it exercises its sponsorship function, including the balance of its relationship with the Convener and Senior Management Team”

The report goes on to criticise the nine person senior management team as “disproportionate for the size of the Commission” and recommends“the Commission should engage in an independent review of its workforce needs and to reconsider the structure of the senior management team”.

During 2020/21, the Commission employed 51 whole-time equivalent staff, the vast majority in its Inverness headquarters. More than three quarters of its £3.1 million budget went on staff costs.

The report notes: “The auditor was unable to conclude that the Commission is in a financially sustainable position over the medium-to-longer term. This was due to weaknesses in its overall business planning, in addition to the need to improve its budget setting processes”.

Among the list of “performance measures not achieved” was one to reduce the number of vacant crofts by five per cent”. This was “not measured due to resource pressures”. Another was to “initiate correspondence where a breach of Residency and Land Use duties is suspected” in 100 new cases. Instead the focus was on “progressing existing cases …due to resource constraints”.