25th April 2018
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Shetland Life: Editorial

Trust (and the trust)

The future of Shetland Charitable Trust (SCT) is important. What the trust does – what it chooses to invest in and to spend its money on – will have a significant role in shaping life in these islands over the coming years.

It is important, therefore, that people trust the trust. It is important that SCT is seen to be accountable. It is also important – to the charities regulator, as well as to many in Shetland – that the trust becomes more independent from the council.

Trustees (councillors) have been trying to resist such a move for quite some time. Independence, it’s been claimed, is both unnecessary and undesirable. But finally, after some expensive legal advice declared this claim to be untrue, they can resist no longer.

Next week SCT will discuss proposals for change – to reduce the number of councillor-trustees and bring on board a majority of “independents”.

So far, so good.

But according to two of these current members – Jonathan Wills and Gary Robinson – at least one of the reform plans to be considered is “fundamentally anti-democratic” and “contemptuous and insulting”. Which doesn’t sound so good after all.

The proposal in question is that a core of seven councillor-trustees should between them appoint a further eight non-councillor-trustees. This would reduce the total number to a more manageable level and create the desired “independent” majority. The only problem being . . . well, actually there’s quite a few problems.

Wills and Robinson are entirely right to call this proposal “anti-democratic”. They are not quite right, however, when they say that it “would hand control of the trust’s oil funds – and the potentially huge new windfarm revenues – to an unrepresentative group of ‘trusties’”. Though a (very slight) majority of trustees would indeed be non-councillors under the proposal, appointing individuals in this way is in fact the surest way for the council to maintain some kind of control over the trust while still (just about) living within the rules of the charities regulator OSCR.

After all, while democratically elected trustees would be, and should feel, ultimately accountable to the public – their electorate – appointees will be accountable to those who have appointed them, i.e. councillors. Which is surely the point in the plan.

Likewise, Wills and Robinson are not quite on the mark when they blame this misguided proposal on “snobbery”. I have no doubt that the originators of this idea realise that there are many capable individuals within the community, with a wide range of skills, who could do the job just fine. They just don’t want to take the chance.

Again, this is not about snobbery, it is about control.

The council’s leadership are terrified of losing their grip on SCT. So long have they viewed it as just another part of the empire that now, with OSCR slowly prising their fingers off the cash, desperation has led them to lose sight of what is best – for the trust and for the community.

Central to all of this, of course, is the issue of Viking Energy, which is owned, in part, by the charitable trust. Up until now this has been little more than an inconvenient, and sometimes very complicated, technicality. The council see this as their project, and potentially part of the solution to their financial problems. The direct election of trustees could complicate this situation immensely. It could even lead to Viking Energy being abandoned altogether. Such an outcome is unthinkable as far as the council is concerned. That is the root of this current proposal.

Selection by appointment may be the usual way of populating charities and other such bodies (including the three smaller Shetland trusts), but SCT is different. It is not usual. Its role in Shetland life is hugely significant, and may yet become more so. It is crucial, therefore, not just that the trust does its job properly, but that it is seen to do so. It is crucial not just that it abides by OSCR’s rules on independence from the council, but that trustees understand why those rules exist and why, too, so many in Shetland have been arguing for them to be enforced.

Councillors Wills and Robinson are correct; this proposal is “contemptuous and insulting”. If put in place, the plan would make the charitable trust less accountable, less democratic and less trustworthy than it is today. It should not be allowed to happen.

Malachy Tallack