An inquiry into an inquiry: Will it uncover what went wrong when Ben Emmerson quit the Child Sexual Abuse inquiry?

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Ben Emmerson: He resigned as leading counsel from the inquiry last September Pic Credit: UN

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The rather bland announcement from Alexis Jay, chair of the independent inquiry into child sexual abuse that she had appointed an employment judge Mark Sutton to investigate dignity at work  and safeguarding inside the inquiry poses more questions than answers.

It followed ferocious  criticism from the Commons Home Affairs Committee after the rather lurid – and now said to be untrue – tale that its leading counsel. Ben Emmerson, had sexually assaulted a woman on the inquiry’s premises.

The report concluded: “It is not for us to pass any comment on the allegations made in the media about the former Counsel to the Inquiry, which he has categorically denied. We are not in a position, and it is certainly not our responsibility, to assess either the facts of the case or the details of the processes that the Inquiry pursued.

However, on the basis of the evidence we have seen, we do not believe that IICSA has taken seriously enough its responsibility to pursue allegations of bullying or disclosures of sexual assault within the Inquiry.”

It goes on:

“Nor do we believe it has done enough to demonstrate publicly that it has a robust approach to such matters. IICSA’s public response has been inadequate, and the words attributed to an unidentified “IICSA source” in the press in response to the alleged assault are completely inappropriate, appearing to dismiss the serious nature of the matter and the credibility of the alleged victim.

“One of the Inquiry’s key purposes is to assess other organisations’ procedures for dealing with disclosures of sexual assault or abuses of power, and institutional reluctance to confront difficult issues that might jeopardise their reputation. We therefore believe that it is extremely important that the Inquiry can show that it treats these issues with appropriate rigour when they affect IICSA itself.”

 The reason for these strong words followed evidence from Hugh Davies QC, who resigned as Deputy Counsel to IICSA in December 2015, He made it clear he was unhappy with the procedures for handling such instances.  He said:“the institution cannot abdicate responsibility to the person making the disclosure, who may be vulnerable or otherwise emotionally unable to pursue a formal process”.

Also significantly the report says : “We also received a confidential submission relating to this alleged incident. Although it is not appropriate for us to publish this evidence, it has helped us to understand the incident and the way in which IICSA dealt with it. We are very grateful to the individual concerned for providing us with this information.”

How IICSA handles this will be crucial and it must not be seen to bury it. Its instructions to Mark Sutton say:

“You are requested to examine the events surrounding the Counsel to the Inquiry’s resignation from the Inquiry and to advise on the appropriateness, in the given circumstances, of the Inquiry’s actions at that time.
If you find evidence that there are structural challenges in HR / employment matters that arise due to the legal status of public inquiries and their employment model of seconded staff, self employed individuals and contractors, the Inquiry would welcome your Review making broader recommendations or observations.”

 He will not rerun or second guess the actual incident nor will he publish his advice to the inquiry. And the inquiry will see his report  before any statement is published.

I have also learnt separately that Graham Wilmer, a member of the original panel before it became a public inquiry, wants Mark Sutton, to look at the involvement  of Mr Emmerson in a  campaign conducted by members of the Victims and Survivors Consultative Panel to undermine him and the Lantern Project, which helped survivors in  the Wirral, North Wales and the North West. He has passed documentary evidence to the inquiry. Given that Mr Wilmer was a member of the first independent panel one would expect ” dignity at work ” to apply to their dealings with him.

My concern – given there have been other allegations of  bullying dating back to when Dame Lowell Goddard was in charge – is the inquiry may not do enough to allay fears and suspicions among staff working there.

If that happens people will not be satisfied. You can’t have an inquiry examining the most sensitive allegations of historical child sexual abuse which have been hidden for decades through the abuse of power  if it can’t handle sensitive allegations about its own staff.

We don’t want yet another cover up in this already troubled inquiry.

Exclusive: How the equality watchdog sacked a disabled army veteran and IRA bomb survivor by email

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Rebecca Hilsenrath: chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and leading the programme of staff cuts Pic credit: Douglas-Scott co.uK

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Donald Trump : You’re fired. Credit Giphy

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Late last year this blog featured the case of  57 year old Markus Caruana,  who works in corporate communications at the Birmingham office of the Equality and Human Rights Commission.To recap

He is a former flute player in the Corps of Drums with the Grenadier Guards.

Markus Caruana was unfortunate enough to have been both at the Guildford pub bombings in 1974 and the Chelsea Barracks bombing in 1981 which seriously injured regimental bandsmen from the Irish Guards.

He escaped unscathed in both instances but saw three of his friends killed in an IRA attack in Crossmaglen in Northern Ireland.

He left the army in 1985 to become a landscape gardener and then took advantage of a Unison sponsored education scheme to learn to read and write.

He had been a school refuser after being bullied and could hardly read or write or read music but was able to play his  flute because he had a natural memory for tunes.

In 2002 he secured a job with the Disability Rights Commission which later became part of the EHRC.

Sadly he lost his 75 per cent of his hearing and got  an incurable muscle wasting disease called Marie-Tooth disease (CMT) which affects the nervous system that supports muscles, often weakening the legs and feet.

The EHRC had enabled him to have a support worker so he could do his job there – but she is also facing redundancy now he has failed to retain his job.

Yesterday he  and five other disabled people was sacked by email by the EHRC and given 24 hours notice to clear his desk. He was one of ten people made compulsorily redundant by emails from executives from the Commission.

The decision led to a furious reaction from one of the main union representing staff,the PCS.

EHRC says the staff will receive pay in lieu of notice (PILON), but workers did not agree to this because it closes off the opportunity to seek redeployment at the commission or elsewhere in the civil service.

In a letter back to EHRC, the union states: “By imposing PILON you are cutting off this option and effectively consigning BME, disabled, women and trade union members to unemployment. There should only be PILON in cases where the individual concerned has agreed to it.”

Commenting on the cases, PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “It’s absolutely reprehensible that dedicated staff have been sacked and told to clear their desks with a day’s notice.

“That this has happened at the government body charged with upholding human rights and fair treatment in our society is an absolute scandal and we will continue to fight it.”

My own take on it is this. It is quite clear that the head of the EHRC, Rebecca Hilsenrath, is a particularly vindictive person to take action like this – by making it difficult for these people to get other jobs in the civil service.

Her action reminds me a bit of the attitude taken by Donald Trump towards disabled people. I am sure she would make an excellent addition to his staff in Washington though I don’t know whether she would share his locker room talk or not.

I have also written an article for Tribune about the sackings and the future strikes.

Coming soon: Chaos for your tax bill

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Tax return: pic Ccedit: BBC

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Do you  find it difficult enough to fill in your tax form to meet the  revenue’s deadline of Jan 31?

Perhaps you don’t sympathise  with tax  officials anyway but you would want an efficient, accessible service – both on line and if necessary, in person.

A damning report from Whitehall’s watchdog body, the National Audit Office, reveals you are going to be very lucky to get either in future.

For the government latest economies are going to mean ” a slash and burn ” strategy for the way the Inland Revenue collects your money – with a prime aim of saving money rather than providing a service.

At the moment they are 170 local tax offices – whose buildings are already outsourced to a tax haven based company which grabbed them in 2001 without government ministers even realising who the “tax avoiding ” owners were..

There are all going to close and be replaced with 13 super regional offices. Some 38,000 officials are going to have move job location and  HMRC ( Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) admits that 5000 of them -probably the most experienced – will quit their jobs rather than put up with the hassle.

Vast swathes of the UK are going to be without any local tax offices. In Scotland there will be just two – Edinburgh and Glasgow – because the cost cutters believe Dundee and Aberdeen are too small fry cities to need tax offices. Staff will be expected to commute daily by rail or  car from those two cities to Edinburgh.

The whole of London and the South East will have one tax office in Croydon – with the South Coast staff expected to commute daily by that wonderful reliable (ha,ha) and strike prone Southern railway – boosting its profits and making sure trains are even more crowded.

East Anglia will have no tax offices at all – with staff from Norwich expected to commute to Canary Wharf everyday and then possibly change trains for Croydon.

The West Country will also be denuded with one new regional tax office left in Bristol – so anyone now working in Cornwall’s tax office in Redruth would face, according to the NAO, a 174 mile commute every day.

Wales, the Midlands and the North West are not so badly affected – as new regional offices will be nearer old ones.

The government predicts that it will make savings of £212m by 2025-26  with all this upheaval  but this  is a staggering £287m LOWER than predicted two years ago when it thought it would save £499m. So much for effective Whitehall predictions.

Nor is the NAO impressed with its present planning. The report says.

“HMRC has signed the contract for its first regional centre in Croydon, but faces a demanding timetable to occupy the site as it plans in 2017. HMRC’s move to regional centres will require good coordination across HMRC to ensure that everyone involved in the moves understands what is expected of them. It must therefore clarify what changes in working practices are necessary to support digital services and its future compliance model, and coordinate its design of regional centres to achieve these outcomes.”

HMRC has also signed 25 year non negotiable leases (with no break points). on buildings for both the Croydon and Bristol offices.

I am sure taxpayers will be delighted to know that if the scheme goes belly up HMRC has put itself in a situation where it can be blackmailed by property developers to pay the full whack whether it uses the building or not.

You can read the full report here  and  I have written a piece for Tribune.

Mind you I may have missed a trick. With Philip Hammond, the Chancellor announcing Britain could become a tax haven if the EU does not agree to our Brexit terms, we may not need any tax offices by then as nobody will pay any tax. So it could be a clever piece of advance planning. Pity we won’t have any public services either as tax havens don’t provide them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Exclusive: Disabled army veteran and IRA bomb survivor targeted for the sack by human rights watchdog

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David Isaac, chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, and agreeing to sack disabled and black people who work for his organisation.

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Rebeacca Hilsenrath: chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission and leading the programme of staff cuts Pic credit: Douglas-Scott co.uk

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This is a story of the human cost of the Government’s cruel policy of saving money at any cost that is being pursued by a watchdog that is supposed to champion human rights in Britain.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission – despite strong staff and union opposition- is pursuing a policy of slashing staff. Its own equality impact assessment reveals that the cuts are to fall on the very people it is supposed to defend. Some 75 per cent of black people and the majority of disabled  people are said to have “failed” an initial assessment to keep their jobs. Most of the winners are young, able bodied and white.

But it is not just about statistics, it is about people.

One of the people who seems certain for the chop is  57 year old Markus Caruana,  who works in corporate communications at their Birmingham office.

He is a former flute player in the Corps of Drums with the Grenadier Guards.

Markus Caruana was unfortunate enough to have been both at the Guildford pub bombings in 1974 and the Chelsea Barracks bombing in 1981 which seriously injured regimental bandsmen from the Irish Guards.

He escaped unscathed in both instances but saw three of his friends killed in an IRA attack in Crossmaglen in Northern Ireland.

He left the army in 1985 to become a landscape gardener and then took advantage of a Unison sponsored education scheme to learn to read and write.

He had been a school refuser after being bullied and could hardly read or write or read music but was able to play his  flute because he had a natural memory for tunes.

In 2002 he secured a job with the Disability Rights Commission which later became part of the EHRC.

Sadly he lost his 75 per cent of his hearing and got  an incurable muscle wasting disease called Marie-Tooth disease (CMT) which affects the nervous system that supports muscles, often weakening the legs and feet.

The EHRC had enabled him to have a support worker so he could do his job there – but she is also facing redundancy now he has failed to retain his job.

Lois Austin, a full time official for the PCS union, which is fighting the cuts, said: “The Equality and Human Rights Commission are targeting some of the most highly competent disabled and black people for this new round of cuts.

” He is just one of a number of disabled and black people, some with young families, who are losing their jobs.

” If this was a private company the EHRC should be prosecuting them for discrimination. Instead they are setting an example for other firms who want to dump the disabled to save costs and the bother of employing them.

The EHRC  take is this. A spokesperson said:

“Whilst we cannot discuss individual cases, we deeply regret having to reduce our headcount as a result of budget losses, but like every public sector organisation we have had cuts imposed on us. We have strongly resisted these cuts, but believe the changes we are making will ensure we can still deliver our ambitious programme.”

In my view the EHRC’s stance is a hostage to fortune. They tell and could even prosecute firms who discriminate  against disabled people. If I were an unscrupulous employer I could now tell them to get stuffed – saying they are only following what the EHRC do rather than

say – which is to dump expensive and bothersome people who need support workers – to save money and increase my profits.

Britain’s  human rights body should hang its head in shame for what it is doing to its own disabled staff.

 

The crisis at the heart of Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission

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David Isaac: Chairing a fractured organisation with staff and management now at loggerheads.

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Rebeacca Hilsenrath: chief executive of the Equality and Human rights Commission Pic credit: Douglas-Scott co.uK

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Human rights – whether it is gay rights, racial discrimination, gender equality, equal pay or disability discrimination – is at the heart of many of the big issues facing modern Britain today.

It is therefore a tragedy that the organisation responsible for monitoring such issues is now a fractured body with management at loggerheads with staff and the main focus of a destructive policy of government cuts by people who appear to believe there is no such thing as society and these rights are not necessarily worth defending.

Today this body came within a hair’s breadth of facing strike action by a frustrated and alienated staff  and the action was only averted by talks at Acas. Contrary to the popular image civil servants do not take strike action lightly – it is only a measure of last resort. So when two unions, the Public and Commercial Services Union and Unite, decided to take such action, things have reached crisis point.

Its crisis is not surprising when a body like this has suffered cut after cut until it is a shadow of its former self and people – including the United Nations – are questioning whether it can have any meaningful role in defending people’s rights.

The  gaping divide can be seen between the  perceptions of management and staff over what is happening there at the moment – I did an article on the forthcoming strike for Tribune last Friday.(unfortunately not on line at the moment) and one on the great divide between management and worker’s salaries for Sunday Mirror earlier which is the subject of a dispute by the Commission ( also not on line at the moment).

The present cuts whereby nineteen of the first 26 posts due to be axed are held by staff in the three lowest paid grades, means the government body responsible for protecting vulnerable workers is itself disproportionately targeting older, ethnic minority and disabled staff. Another 50 are expected to follow.

The union and staff reaction to this is shown by a quote from Mark Serwotka, the genetal secretary of PCS, “The commission is spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on consultants while getting rid of low paid staff who provide daily support to victims of discrimination.

“It is sickening that as division and hate are being fostered in our communities in the wake of the Brexit vote, this Tory government is cutting the staff whose job it is to combat this.”

The management view is the opposite.

A Commission spokesperson said:“It is disappointing that the union have decided to take this action. We have made every effort to work constructively with them on our proposals as we implement our new way of working. We have listened to them throughout the process and acted on a number of their suggestions.

“Like every public sector organisation we have had cuts to our budget.  We need to make savings and we need to change how we work to deliver our strategic plan.  We are confident that any action will not affect the important work we do in protecting and improving people’s rights.”

“We have a very diverse workforce when compared to the wider public and private sectors.  The operating model was consulted on exhaustively with all staff, transparently and with a focus on the most effective structure for the Commission rather than the individuals in the posts affected. In addition to this, there will be a stronger focus on new training and mentoring schemes to support more minority ethnic and disabled staff into leadership positions.”

Given human rights is a central issue in Britain I have decided to forensically examine what is exactly going on at the EHRC. Can the top management justify its large salaries at the taxpayers’ expense? Is running the EHRC just a career option for an elite group of officials and a millionaire lawyer ?  What issues are the EHRC  really taking up and are they effective in doing so? Who are the people they want to sack from their organisation? Is the EHRC  really value for money?:Do they practice what they preach to private industry and the public services?

Fortunately  I have seen a large volume of material from a wide variety of sources – far too much to put in one blog or article – that  allows me to look at such issues. Over the next few weeks I intend to examine this and put it to the EHRC and other scrutiny bodies, like Parliament’s Women and Equalities Committee, which is preparing to examine whether the EHRC is doing a proper job.

 

Robert Halfon v Jeremy Corbyn: The battle for the working class vote

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Jeremy Corbyn’s success in attracting tens of thousands of new Labour supporters was given a rare  accolade this week at the Conservative Party Conference.

Robert Halfon, Tory MP for Harlow and the skills minister, told a Conservative  Party fringe meeting  organised by Respublica how the Labour leader had attracted these people because they saw him representing  their ” moral and ethical ” values and being fair minded rather than representing ” the privileged few”.

No doubt this would lead to a furious denial  from the Labour right wingers like Ben Bradshaw and Tristram Hunt – who see the whole exercise as a  1980s rerun of ” Reds under the Beds”  and  some predictable squealing from the Tory right who probably believe it should be a criminal offence to join a trade union.

But it was an intelligent assessment if you are a Tory at a time when capitalism is associated with unbelievable greed, inequality, globalisation and you are about to start an experiment  with Brexit that could lead to  uncertainty and an economic downturn.

For if there is another economic crisis the public- and particularly the young  -could easily turn against capitalism if it continues to crush and impoverish the working class at the expense of global multi billionaires. And Jeremy Corbyn will be ready and waiting.

Halfon’s pitch – which was reflected  in Theresa May’s speech – was basically to say unions were a good thing and should be given more power and influence in the board room. The arguments for collective bargaining  were made at this meeting – and the argument that where unions and management collaborated in other countries there was more prosperity and growth for more people.

Halfon is a member of the Prospect union and the union’s moderate general secretary Mike Clancy  was speaking at the same meeting and telling a few home truths to Tories.

Ha, ha , you might say from the party that has just passed the most vicious anti trade union laws in Western  Europe, penalised the poor and disabled ( Halfon is disabled too) and vilified people as scroungers. And it has also seen post Brexit a ferocious attack on immigration and immigrants that has led to the death of a Polish worker in Halfon’s constituency.

But what we are seeing under May and Halfon is a new battle of ideas to woo ordinary workers and families. The Tory Party is once again transforming itself – away from the uber Metro Notting Hill Set of Cameron, Gove and Osborne – to   Essex and Berkshire – combining an appeal to working class  Essex man and  middle class Berkshire woman. It always does this to maintain what it wants – to stay as the party of government.

But there is a very big elephant in the room called Brexit and in my view the conference was in total denial about it. We are going to curb immigration, tell the European Union what we want, build world wide markets for goods and services, and nobody will challenge us. Our newly trained doctors will be barred from emigrating until they have served time in the NHS, while foreign doctors will disappear from hospitals.. Our young people will spend their summers picking strawberries and hops in the UK rather than travelling  – like they used to a century ago – to bar EU workers from doing the same jobs.

And any opposition from people with different.viewpoints will be silenced. No doubt we will send a gunboat to any foreign power that dares challenge us like Palmerston in the nineteenth century.

Really? As the Daily Mail didn’t say this week, the Tories will be living in la la land if they believe this.

 

 

 

 

Austerity Britain: How Unison has helped create Durham’s new poor

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Durham teacher assistants lobbying shadow chancellor John McDonnell at the Labour conference in Liverpool

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While the national  press depicted Labour’s policies as “la la land”  and Jeremy Corbyn as ” unelectable” down at the grass roots  a group of feisty women campaigners were lobbying union leaders and John McDonnell at the conference over the very issues that have led to the rise of Corbyn and the demise of the metropolitan elite.

The Durham teacher assistants or assistant teachers as they prefer to call themselves are just one group who have been hard done by austerity and public service cuts that followed the banking crisis and is still going on today.

Their case has been more eloquently outlined by my former colleague on the Guardian  Adita  Chakrabortty  in this long article where he describes them as the Lions of Durham. Basically they are among 2700 TA’s paid from just £14,000 to  £20,000 a year and now facing a pay cut of 23 per cent or the sack.This follows years of no or minimal pay rises that have already cut their standard of living. Even those who decide to work longer hours still face a 10 per cent cut.

The most they have been offered is some  “compensation” a deferment of the  wage cuts for two years but by the time Britain goes to the polls in 2020 they will all be far  worse off than now.

All this  is happening under a Labour controlled council and they are represented by a Labour affiliated union, Unison, which supported Corbyn for the leadership.

Durham county council – which to be fair has faced substantial cuts under the Tories – seem to have mishandled the whole affair by not implementing properly an agreement four years ago and were faced with legal advice saying they had to bring  the system into line with other authorities and impose cuts..

But probably the worst offender is Unison itself who, according to the campaigners, has done little to represent them by negotiating hard on their behalf like say the FBU does for its firefighters or the RMT for its guards.

Until the Labour conference Unison seem to expect the workers themselves to lobby local councillors and local Labour MPs to try and persuade them to change their mind. Not altogether surprisingly the councillors – faced with advice from officials that they would  be breaking the law to do so – have shied away.

And most of the MPs with one notable exception- Grahame Morris Mp for Easington  – have said they cannot negotiate themselves with Durham County Council on their behalf as it is up to their union.

This has left a load of activist voters very, very angry. It has been made worse by the patronising  and off hand treatment from some officials in Durham County Council’s human resources department who haven’t even bothered to spell out the lower rates of pay.

And while Dave Prentis, the union’s leader, makes great rousing speeches ( he did so at fringes in the conference) on the plight of the lower paid public sector workers, his officials lower down the chain have been distinctly unhelpful, patronising and some times downright rude to their own members. No wonder one of the teaching assistants described Dave Prentis as  “all mouth and no trousers”. But then he is not facing a 23 per cent pay cut from Unison.

All this is leading to damaging repercussions. Some of the assistants are planning to vote Liberal Democrat in May’s elections while supporting Corbyn at the next general election. They want revenge on the councillors and unfortunately if the Lib Dems ( who are having a local council resurgence)  win seats it will be seen as a verdict against Jeremy when it is against a local Labour council.

Following the conference the Unison TA’s have voted overwhelmingly for strike action and want union support – their GMB colleagues voted narrowly against.

It seems to me time Unison pulled its finger out and went into hard negotiations with the local council. The deal they are being offered is worse than people in many other authorities have got – where wages have been safeguarded through regrading – and it shouldn’t be beyond the wit of regional organisers like Clare Williams to organise such talks now there a vote for strike action.

My view on Unison is also shared by local Labour  MPs like Kevan Jones, who has taken stick from the teacher assistants for not intervening. As a former trade union negotiator himself, he is not impressed by Unison’s local tactics and their failure until now  to negotiate on their behalf.

If Unison do let these workers down they will not only betray their members but bear some responsibility for creating more unnecessary poverty for low paid workers and fuel resentment and anger that is already felt by people left out in the cold by the Tories.