Seeking fairness

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A Lewis crofter says a weight has been lifted off him after an entire common grazings committee was disbanded.

Ivor Matheson admits he has been at loggerheads for more than a year with the common grazings committee in his home village of Upper Coll, Lewis. He details a long number of issues with the committee which led to him taking his grievances to the Crofting Commission.

The Crofters Commission found in his favour against the local Upper Coll Grazings Committee and ordered them to fulfil a number of actions, including the presentation of five years’ worth of audited accounts.

Now the entire common grazing committee has been disbanded after the Crofting Commission ruled the returned accounts insufficient as the ‘information included was not sufficiently detailed to analyse’.

The Commission moved to remove the grazings clerk and the committee from office with immediate effect.

Mr Matheson reckons this is a vindication of his own stance.

“This has been ongoing since January 2015 and it’s taken me years to get to this point but I feel justified now,” he said.

“It has been very difficult and it has been a constant battle and like most people all I want is a quiet life, but if they had just held their hands up and admit they made a mistake, it didn’t have to come to this.”

Following his initial complaint to the Crofters Commission they replied that they were ‘satisfied that there are a number of areas where the Upper Coll Grazings Committee are not properly carrying out their duties.’

The Crofters Commission subsequently ordered the committee to implement a number of items on an action plan by March 10th.

A failure to do so would mean both the committee and the grazings clerk, would be removed from office.

Mr Matheson detailed his story: “It all started when they started putting levies on stockholders only, at that time I had 25 head of cattle.

“Then once that was paid they tried to force us to get rid of 20 cattle giving us until the end of October to remove them from common grazings.

He continued: “One instance, in really bad weather I put my cattle on the common grazings to feed them when there was a knock at the door and I was ordered to move them, which is unheard of.

“There are 42 shareholders and if each of us had our full quota there would have been more than 200 cattle on the grazings and yet they were against me having 20.

“Another issue was when I bought a bull which I did so only after being advised they would back me 100 per cent, but they then changed their minds and told me to keep him on my own croft.

“Surely that’s not sensible on a croft around children and dogs when there are masses of open space on the common grazings?

“But we did this and the bull was passed round crofts in the village for months, resulting in him going lame. The committee refused to carry out any of the functions where they had any discretion.

“In the end I returned him to the machair because I had to get the vet down as I could see the bull had issues with his feet and I was advised his feet were swollen from being on wet ground all the time.

“It was then a welfare issue and I returned him to the machair.”

A commission spokesperson said: “As this is a live and ongoing case we cannot comment further than to explain that, action in this case resulted from an approach to the Crofting Commission by shareholders in the Upper Coll Grazings, asking the commission to investigate issues relating to the functioning of the grazings committee, in terms of Section 47(8) of the Crofting Acts.

“The commission will investigate when requests of this nature are brought to us by shareholders.

“In this case, there are a number of options for shareholders to consider and the 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 themselves.

“The commission will shortly be writing to shareholders to explain this.”

Calum Maclean, grazings clerk since 1997, was widely quoted this week expressing his disappointment and confusion at the ruling which he feels has singled them out.

“We have done everything the commission asked us to do. We don’t understand what more the commission wanted,” 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.”

The ruling by the commission has been described by crofting law expert, Brian Inkster as ‘a worrying trend concerning alleged abuse of power within the Crofting Commission’.

Mr Inkster has pointed out that it is not the first time that he has heard actions taken by the Crofting Commission referred to as being “dictatorial, vindictive and unjustified”.

He highlighted that the removal was due to the failure of the Grazings Committee to produce audited accounts. Instead their accountants had produced unaudited financial statements. Rather than request further information on the back of receiving these accounts the Crofting Commission simply summarily removed the Grazings Committee from office.

And whilst guidance had been sought by the accountants from the Crofting Commission as to what they wanted with regard to audited accounts they were apparently advised that this was a matter between them and the grazings committee.

Mr Inkster added: “Surely, if financial statements prepared by accountants were produced that did not meet whatever requirements the Crofting Commission actually had with regard to an ‘audit’ they should have sought further information/detail as necessary rather than summarily removing the grazings committee from office?”

He continued: “I would strongly suggest that the Crofting Commission should, in all the circumstances, review this extraordinary decision. If they fail to do so the Scottish Government should maybe question the behaviour involved and perhaps even consider removing the commissioners responsible as “unsuitable to continue” as members.

Pictured is crofter Ivor Matheson with some of his herd.