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Letters / Confused?

Tavish Scott’s belated reply to the question of whether he supports restoring democracy to the Shetland Charitable Trust is very interesting (Tavish: SCT must aintain democratic link; SN, 12/10/16).

It’s now clear that he doesn’t want elected majority control. This may be why he evaded the question during the Scottish parliamentary election earlier this year.

Leaving aside the curiosity that Tavish’s position is incompatible with over a century of Liberal commitment to democratic principles, there are some snags with his newly-revealed stand, which is contrary to the expressed wish of Shetland’s other elected local representatives on Shetland Islands Council and the Community Councils, most of whom wish to see an elected majority on the trust.

Tavish approves of the offer of four councillor trusteeships out of 15, compared with seven out of 15 at present. The SIC unanimously rejected it on 29 June.

The reasons were clear: the four councillors would be in a permanent minority; this sop to democracy wouldn’t resolve the conflicts of interest which arise from time to time; it wouldn’t prevent the trust’s accounts being “grouped” with the council’s (as if the trust were a subsidiary of the council, which it isn’t); and it would leave about half of Shetland’s “oil money” in the hands of unelected people who’d select their own successors.

Well-meaning and public-spirited as The Select are, this is what’s known as a “democratic deficit”.

Tavish presumably supports the SIC’s Sullom Voe Harbour Reserve Fund remaining under the control of our elected councillors; so how, exactly, is the trust’s half of our oily cash so different?

Why’s a democratic deficit OK if the money’s going to charitable purposes, as distinct from keeping the harbour fund solvent and helping to balance the council’s general budget, which is what the SIC Reserve Fund does?

There is, to be sure, a token nod to democracy in Tavish’s position: he admits that “council trustees are one way to ensure democratic accountability” but then accepts there should be only four of them; he does not explain how this Futile Foursome could provide any “democratic accountability” if they were in a minority of 27 per cent; it would seem obvious, arithmetically and politically, that there would need to be at least eight of them (53 per cent) to do that.

If the new council decides not to accept Tavish’s considered advice when it meets for the first time, in late June next year, and rejects the offer of four trusteeships, he says he’s willing to consider direct election of some trustees – but apparently not a majority. This would leave us in the same undemocratic pickle as at present.

In any case, our MSP sees “some downsides” to direct election and believes “separate elections for the trust” would “create confusion among the local electorate”.

There would indeed be problems with direct election, the main one being that the electoral roll for council and parliamentary elections wouldn’t be available.

That could be solved by inviting all local residents over the age of 16 to fill in a form declaring that they wished to be on the charitable trust’s electoral roll. This could be updated annually. I’ve already explained, in some detail, how the other, minor, problems could be dealt with.

As for the electorate being confused, I doubt it. They manage perfectly well to distinguish between voting Tavish to the Scottish Parliament, his friend Alastair Carmichael to Westminster, and some other people, whose names we sometimes forget, to Strasbourg (for the time being, at least).

The electors appear to know the difference between Tavish and his half-dozen party list colleagues who also serve as MSPs for the Highlands and Islands.

In recent years these so easily-confused voters have even managed to understand and take part in referenda on half-baked LibDem proposals for proportional representation, on Scottish independence, and on assisted economic suicide (also known as Brexit). Perhaps they’re not quite as confused as Tavish seems to be.

One wonders what the late Jo Grimond MP would have made of this. It was Jo who, in 1974, did so much to ensure the passage of the Zetland County Council Act, after it had been blocked by Tories on a select committee.

The Act enabled the council to hold funds in trust for charitable and other purposes. It led, 40 years ago, to the creation of a trust that now spends over £9m a year in our community, almost all of it for public purposes.

It puts some icing on the basic cake of services that the council still manages to provide despite the budget-slashing Tories and their erstwhile accomplices, the Lib Dems.

What would Jo have thought of the idea that a group of unelected, self-perpetuating trustees should be in control of the Shetland people’s £220m fund? Not a lot, I suspect.

Jonathan Wills
Vice Chair
Shetland Charitable Trust