London Midland admits it got it wrong over its passenger assistance service

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Rather a lot of stairs to go up or down if you are disabled or have a buggy at Berkhamsted station if the lift is out of order.

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London Midland has admitted that a ” breakdown in communication ”   meant it didn’t know that one of its stations was unstaffed, had a faulty lift and that its  emergency passenger help service didn’t work last Sunday.

The admission came in an email from the company in response to a complaint I lodged after being dumped at Berkhamsted with my disabled wife Margaret at the end of a weekend break from Liverpool.

I highlighted this in a blog earlier this week purely because I thought the situation was potentially dangerous and that train companies should be more careful in ensuring that their passengers can travel safely.

An email from Sarah Brassingham, a customer relations adviser, admits :  ” Unfortunately there was a breakdown in communication that meant that the team at Milton Keynes Central were unaware of the issues at Berkhamsted that evening, which were obviously compounded by the issues with the help point on your arrival.

Steps are being taken to address this with the stations and Passenger Information teams, and our Facilities team are resolving the issues with both the lift and the Passenger Information points as quickly as possible.

I can assure you that we take any assistance failures extremely seriously and apologise again for the inconvenience and distress caused.”

We have been offered a rail refund for the Milton Keynes to Berkhamsted journey but it does raise wider questions. One solution would be to ensure that whoever helps a disabled person  to get on the train informs the guard about the person’s destination – so if there is no one there the guard can help. at the other end But that still doesn’t get over the problem of faulty lifts or emergency help systems not working.

London Midland say their policy is ” Pre-booked assistance is provided by the station team at staffed stations and by the Conductor on board the train when the station you are getting on or off the train at is unstaffed.”

That raises another question. London Midland still has guards. If Southern get their way they won’t be any and presumably if they have any unstaffed stations disabled people won’t be able to get off the trains or be unable to travel.

That is one reason to back the RMT union case to keep guards on trains and fight the company and Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, who want to get rid of them.

 

 

The train driver who averted a major disaster on a London commuter line in nine seconds

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The two collided trains in the Watford Tunnel.Pic credit: British Transport Police

An accident  report out today on the landslip at Watford that derailed an early morning  London Midland commuter train last September reveals the importance of having properly  trained staff  on our railways.

It reveals that without prompt action by the driver there would have been large number of casualties and possibly fatalities when another commuter train running in the opposite direction collided with the derailed train.

It also shows having a guard on the train meant that passengers on the service who had not been injured got immediate reassurance and help after the driver was trapped in the cab following the accident.

The report praises both the driver and the guard for the way they handled the accident – caused by heavy rain leading to a landslip on the line just inside the entrance to a tunnel at Watford.

Simon French, Chief Inspector of Rail Accidents said:

 ” The collision of a passenger train with a derailed train in Watford tunnel on the morning of 16 September last year serves as a reminder of why everyone in the railway industry continues to work so hard to manage risk – the collision of two trains in a tunnel is a scenario we all hoped never to witness.

The derailment of the 06:19 service from Milton Keynes could so easily have led to a catastrophic sequence of events were it not for two notable factors. The first was the sheer professionalism of the driver who, within moments of becoming derailed, had the presence of mind to apply the brake and then transmit an emergency message using the train’s ‘GSM-R’ radio. His actions alerted the driver of a train approaching in the opposite direction who immediately applied the brake. As a consequence, the northbound train had reduced speed from 79 to 34 mph before striking the derailed train a glancing blow. This reduction in speed may well have made a big difference to the eventual outcome.

The second mitigating factor was the slotting of one rail of the track in the gap between a gearbox and a traction motor on three of the axles, so preventing the derailed train deviating any further into the path of the approaching train. This unintended consequence of the train’s design probably made the difference between a glancing blow and something closer to a head-on collision.

The report reveals that the driver had just nine seconds to alert the oncoming train after his train had been derailed – but as a result it certainly saved lives.

The circumstances of the crash are also a grim warning in the age of climate change given that very heavy rain caused the landslip at exactly the same spot  as another landslip in 1940.

The rail accident investigators found details of the earlier landslip in Network Rail’s archives but unfortunately the  management of Network Rail had not alerted people  who had  been working on removing vegetation and trees in the cutting on the need to  revamp an old drainage system.

The report also reveals that had there been a serious accident access by the emergency services to the scene would have been difficult and there did not appear to be any plan for organising a major rescue should an accident happen in the Watford tunnels.

All this suggests to me is that ministers and privatised railway companies – such as Southern railways – who want to save money by continually cutting staff should be wary of doing so. It could cost lives and passengers need help and reassurance should the unexpected happen on their daily commute.

 

 

Revealed: The man who sacked a woman on maternity leave is now head campaigner for women’s equality in Scotland

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John Wilkes, now chief executive of the Scottish Equality and Human Rights Commission Pic credit:Third Force News

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Meet John  Wilkes. He is now chief executive of the Equality and Human Rights Commission in Scotland. The ECHR’s top campaign at the moment is fighting against  the discrimination  of women who take maternity leave from their jobs.

As the ECHR’s own research says on its latest campaigns website says:

  • Around one in nine mothers (11%) reported that they were either dismissed; made compulsorily redundant, where others in their workplace were not; or treated so poorly they felt they had to leave their job; if scaled up to the general population this could mean as many as 54,000 mothers a year.”

Great words. But they didn’t seem to reach John Wilkes before he took up his highly paid post at the ECHR in Glasgow.

Then he held the job of chief executive of the Scottish Refugee Council, a respected body. Now after the findings of a tribunal hearing in Glasgow ot appears to do more for refugees than its own employees.

And one of those was Petra Kasparek,who was employed as a refugee integration adviser, who became pregnant and took maternity leave. When she decided to come back to work she faced a gruelling interview which included responding to some questions she would have been unable to answer properly, and then declared redundant.

The man who stood in for her Stephen McGuire was also sacked.

But a ruling on 6 July by a Glasgow employment tribunal has ruled that both were unfairly dismissed and that Ms Kasparek suffered indirect sexual discrimination under the Equality Act.  Both are to get compensation amounting to thousands of pounds and the tribunal ordered Mr McGuire to be reinstated. The case was championed by their union, Unite, which even proposed ways to solve the dispute without sacking either of them.

But the most severe criticism comes in the tribunal’s view of John Wilkes whose knowledge of the law and procedures as a chief executive seems remarkably lacking for such an experienced official whose Linked In profile portrays him as a top notch executive.

The tribunal said that Mr Wilkes had “a surprisingly poor understanding of the SRC’s ( Scottish Refugee Council’s) policies and procedures.”He  had “a poor grasp of how some of the SRC’s actions were at variance with its formal policies.”

He  and the head of finance there also had”  a striking lack of insight and appreciation of the criticisms levelled at their decisions.”

One of the points raised at the hearing from Mr Wilkes was that Ms Kasparek had not tried hard enough after leaving to get a similarly better paid job so she wasn’t entitled to compensation. In my view the man shows surprisingly little empathy or understanding of women who are looking after a baby.

The damaging point is  he is now in charge of Scotland’s Equality and Human Rights Commission policies including a campaign to help women being unfairly treated at work. One wonders how sympathetic he will be.

I put this to the Scottish EHRC and got a stock reply saying:

“John has brought to the Commission a wealth of experience, knowledge and dedication to our role in creating a fairer society and is making a valuable contribution to our work.”

I did ask whether Mr Wilkes had been sent on a retraining programme since his knowledge of  indirect discrimination under the Equality Act and other laws seemed to be rather minimal. But they told me they had nothing more to say.

Given the recent history of the EHRC in sacking disabled and black staff  I might have been asking the wrong questions. He will probably fit in well with the ethos there.

He is also not the only recent appointment to the EHRC from organisations that had discriminated against women on maternity leave.

 

 

Equal Pay,Unequal Misery: Unison and the Durham Teacher Assistants’ Dispute

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Durham teaching assistants at their protest meeting over the deal this week.

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The issue of equal pay for equal work is one of most enduring work scandals of our time. Women workers in particular lose out to men but it requires a lot of hard bargaining and money to tackle it.

The most dramatic current case is the long running Durham teacher assistants dispute involving over 2700 teaching assistants in Durham, mainly low paid women.

To implement equal pay Labour controlled Durham Council proposed cuts in  wages of up to £5000 for already low paid teacher assistants earning between £14,000 and £20,000 a year to bring it into line with other low paid workers they employed. The teaching assistants are the backbone of Durham’s schools, helping kids to read and understand basic numbers and when teachers fall sick deputising for them by taking classes.

The council and Unison, the union that is supposed to stand up for low paid workers, evidently were about to agree a deal that would worsen their pay and conditions when they faced a huge grassroots revolt from the teacher assistants themselves.

Feisty women workers called meeting, rallies, marched at the Durham gala and lobbied the sympathetic Labour leadership at last year’s Labour conference securing a meeting with John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor. They were even partly responsible for Labour’s poor performance in this May’s local elections which saw Liberal Democrats, Independents and Tories take seats from Labour.

Their strong action led Unison to change its mind and back them and give them some limited say in negotiating a better deal.

Last week in the middle of the Unison annual conference in Brighton the union claimed it had  negotiated a breakthrough.

UNISON Northern regional secretary Clare Williams said: “Several months of tough talking later, a revised and improved offer has been proposed that will benefit the majority of teaching assistants.

“Strikes and relentless campaigning by dedicated teaching assistants, along with the support of the community, have been crucial in moving the council from its original position.

“Dismissing, rehiring and cutting the pay of so many education professionals would have risked many quitting their jobs. That would have had a huge impact in the classroom.

“Both sides have worked hard to reach agreement over the past few months. The union is absolutely committed to continuing to work with the council to secure the best possible outcome for everyone.”

However within days the promised deal which is based on a complicated regrading started to unravel once the 2700 teacher assistants got individual letters with new terms of employment.

This week a big meeting was called in Durham and the grassroots again began to revolt.

Megan Charlton, one of the leaders of the group, wrote in a blog that she will not be accepting the deal – even though she will get a pay rise in two years time.

She said: “472 Teaching Assistants – 22% of the workforce – will still be losing money. Many are losing £1200 a year, some are losing less, some are losing more (several on our facebook group are still facing losses of £4,000 and that’s AFTER they agree to the extra hours).

“We now have a situation where the vast majority of Teaching Assistants are required to teach at least one session a week. Surely teaching should be an ‘enhanced’ requirement, an ‘enhanced’ skill, not one you would expect from the majority of Teaching Assistants who came into the profession to do exactly that: to assist teaching, not to teach.”

She said if it had been just a ” few anomalies ” she might have accepted the deal but clearly it wasn’t. It will now go out to a ballot.

Durham County Council responded to my inquiry:

The council’s corporate director of resources, John Hewitt, said: “Throughout this process the issue for the council has been the risk of equal pay claims caused by the current teaching assistants terms and conditions.

“To mitigate the equal pay risk, and to ensure that assistant’s job descriptions and grades are appropriate for the work they do, we have  worked really hard with trade unions, teaching assistants and head teachers on a fundamental review of TAs responsibilities and roles.”

“The outcome of that work is that, if accepted, the vast majority of teaching assistants will see an improvement in their financial position after the compensation period.”

To its credit Durham County Council has withdrawn its threat to sack and rehire all the teaching assistants on inferior terms. The problem the teacher assistants have is with their union which they believe rushed into the deal to announce it at its annual conference without checking the full terms.

I wanted to put this to Clare Williams, the regional secretary, and a supporter of ” Team Dave” during the last election but she declined to come back to me.

But it seems to me that  Unison has been too ready to accept this deal and has sold out some of its low paid members without pressing for  further improvements. For them it is  a real loss of cash from a low salary . An equal pay deal has resulted in unequal misery for a fifth of the workforce. And it has been negotiated by a well paid official earning at least three times the money of the lowest paid teaching assistant.

 

Unison’s Special Chocolate Biscuits Scandal: An insight into murky behaviour at the top of Britain’s biggest public sector union

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Dave Prentis, general secretary, Unison Pic Credit: Twitter

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A chocolate biscuit; Pic Credit: Wikipedia

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Britain’s biggest public sector union last month escaped the embarrassment of having to rerun an election for its well known general secretary, Dave Prentis despite a judge deciding that one leading official ” flagrantly ” broke union rules to get him re-elected.

The union had faced a barrage of complaints from  three rival  candidates to Prentis – Heather Wakefield, John Burgess, and Roger Bannister  – and a long standing party member, Jon Rogers at a hearing at the end of last year before an assistant certification officer and part time judge, Mary Stacy.

She rejected demands for a rerun of the election, criticism that the Electoral Reform Services who had a £1 m fee to supervise the election  were not independent, and also threw out a complaint against Liz Snape, Dave Prentis’s long term partner,  that she had broken rules by campaigning for him in union time,

But the judge upheld a complaint against Linda Perks, now a national secretary and previously London’s regional secretary, for flagrant breaches of union rules – after reading a transcript and listening to a secret tape of a meeting held at the TUC’s Congress House, where, it is said, 50 officials were urged to break campaigning rules to ensure the re-election of Dave Prentis. The code name for the campaign was ” Special Chocolate Biscuits”.

The judge ruled out taking enforcement proceedings to force another election only because she was satisfied that Dave Prentis did not know that Linda Perks had taken such actions and because she thought he would still have won despite electoral irregularities in the campaign.

The election took place in a febrile atmosphere just after Ed Miliband’s resignation as Labour party leader and when Jeremy Corbyn was mounting his successful bid for party leader.

Mr Prentis who had won overwhelming support in previous election  but was facing a much tougher challenge with a leading union official, Heather Wakefield, standing against him alongside two other candidates.

The judge, said some of the criticism of Heather Wakefield by Prentis supporters amounted to “demonization” and she also criticised the failure of the union to apologise to Jon Rogers for threatening him with a libel action when he complained of electoral malpractice.

But she reserved her most damning criticism for Linda Perks and the way the union later handled disciplinary proceedings against her  and its failure to investigate other people who were involved.

After listening to the tape the judge ruled :“ Ms Perks tone is not just confident and swaggering in so openly breaking the rules but chilling in its brazenness and demonstration of unchecked power”.

She blatantly had known she was breaking union rules by getting officials to organise support for Dave Prentis during work time which was against union rules. The judge notes that it almost looked that for 3 or 4 days officials would do little else but campaign for Mr Prentis.

Linda Perks was suspended by the president of the union. But the judge says:

“The subsequent leisurely disciplinary proceedings of Ms Perks and outcome do not inspire confidence or serve as a deterrent for future overzealous officers. Some might think the move to National Secretary in Head Office on unspecified strategic projects retaining all pay and benefits represents reward rather than punishment, though she has endured the imposition of a final written warning.”

The judge is asking the union to review its procedures and set up a police for whistleblowers – which the union does not have – despite relying on whistleblowers from other public bodies to provide it with information.

” Work is also required to restore trust amongst its Greater London members following the activities of the regional secretary and the RMT ( Regional Management Team ) which have done so much damage to the Union’s reputation both internally and externally.”

The union’s response is this :

“UNISON welcomes the assistant certification officer’s decision to uphold the result of the 2015 general secretary election and reject the call from the complainants that there should be a re-run. The union’s development and organisation committee will be now be considering the ACO’s comments.”

It strikes me that though the union escaped an election rerun for such an important post – that it does need to put its house in order. Unions play an important part in a democracy in exposing appalling conditions and treatment of workers in  this country and abroad. They must be seen to be squeaky clean in the way they run their  affairs or their own reputations will be damaged. They can’t fight causes  against rogue employers  if the break their own rules or try to fix election results.

I have also written about this in Tribune magazine.

 

 

 

Fined £3.5m for professional misconduct: Grant Thornton approved dishonest accounts for London and Lincolnshire’s privatised fire engines

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Grant Thornton: A big fine for professional misconduct Pic credit: Wikipedia

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In 2011 this blog was involved with the Fire Brigades Union in investigating the handing over of London’s and Lincolnshire’s  fire engines to a private company called Assetco.

The company nearly went bust  in 2011 owing £140m. Shareholders and banks hoping to make money from privatising the emergency services lost millions and small shareholders were ruined.

The  City Hall Tories under Brian Coleman, then  the elected chair of London’s fire authority now nowhere in public life, saw the  flagship policy as a future blueprint for privatisation. Instead it was a disaster compounded by an Old Etonian baronet buying London’s fire engines for £2  from Assetco only to go bust himself leading to another company taking over.

Now six years later the grim and unsavoury truth has come out. A report from proceedings taken by the Financial Reporting Council against the auditors of the Assetco, big accountancy firm, Grant Thornton, and the accountant who audited the company Robert Napper,  has led to a £3.7m fine for  both of them for professional misconduct. Neither Grant Thornton nor Mr Napper made any financial gain out of the scandal.

The facts are staggering. Over two years Grant Thornton   were found to have committed no fewer than TWELVE  cases of professional misconduct which meant the accounts presented to the public were mainly fictitious. Robert Napper was found to have  ELEVEN cases of professional misconduct.

As the report says: “This misconduct adversely  affected or potentially adversely affected a significant number of people in the United kingdom.”

It points out shares were trading at £6 during this period and fell to £1 in 2011 when the real situation was known. The report adds: ” The share price in 2009 (£6) reflected financial statements that contained an inflated balance sheet and included some significant revenue that was fictitious.”

An accompanying report reveals the scale of the dishonesty and cover ups. They range from fictitious payments amounting to millions of pounds from City Hall to buying up a firm for a relative  with shareholders money and creating a rental firm that let property out to directors. So extensive was the deception that I intend to use further blogs to describe in detail what happened.

As the report says: ” GT and Mr Napper were deliberately misled by AssetCo’s  management but the exercise of proper scepticism would have led to dishonesty being uncovered.”

Grant Thornton  was fined £3,500,000, reduced to £2,275,000 after  they co-operated with council and given a severe reprimand;

Mr Napper was fined  £200,000, reduced to £130,000 after  he co-operated  with the inquiry

Grant Thornton also had to pay £200,000 as a contribution to the Executive Counsel’s costs.

Mr Napper, an accountant with 23 years experience, was seen to have acted so badly that they have also recommended he be barred for three years from membership of his professional organisation ( the ICAEW –Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales) for breaching  their code of ethics.

Mr Napper, from South Oxfordshire has since retired.  The Executive Counsel of the FRC said: ” The misconduct of Mr Napper , in its totality, is so damaging to the wider public and market confidence in the standards of members and in the accountancy profession and the quality of corporate reporting in the United Kingdom that removal of the member’s professional status is the appropriate outcome in order to protect the public or otherwise safeguard public interest”.

Further inquiries by me show Mr Napper in his Linked In page was publicly  endorsed by seven people including  Perry Burton, head of London audit, for Grant Thornton. and Natasha Pettiford-White, an executive assistant at Grant Thornton. Mr Burton’s recommendation would carry considerable weight as he is an auditor of 20 years experience.

Gareth Rees QC, Executive Counsel to the FRC, said:
“The Respondents have admitted widespread and significant failings in their audit work, and GT specifically has accepted there were serious failings in the execution of certain aspects of the firm’s quality control procedures. This misconduct is rightly reflected in the seriousness of the sanctions, such as the exclusion of Mr Napper from membership of the ICAEW ( the accountants professional organisation) and the fines on both Respondents.”

Matt Wrack, general secretary of the FBU, said :

“It is mystifying that central government did not spot this scandal, when the Fire Brigades Union and firefighters themselves were warning about it for years.  Leading politicians and fire service managers were responsible for allowing a gang of spivs to take over essential equipment and vehicles, the property of the people of London and Lincolnshire.  Both of the authorities for these regions need to investigate fully to ensure this never ever happens again. ”

Grant Thornton were approached and did not reply. I have written about this in Tribune magazine.

In my view this shows that one of our big accountancy firms was derelict in its duty in protecting the public from people who obviously wanted to fleece shareholders and took no care in auditing the books of people in charge of vital emergency  vehicles in London  and Lincolnshire. It also shows the real dangers of privatisation and we cannot  trust big accountancy firms to act in the public as opposed to their private commercial interests. You will see the scale of the scandal in future blogs.

 

 

 

 

 

Equality Commission facing waves of strikes from disgruntled staff

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Striking Commission staff on Scotland. Pic credit : Commons Space

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The long running bitter dispute between the management and the staff of the Equality and Human Rights Commission has spilled over into a wave of strikes which will run until the day after polling day.

Rolling strikes began in Glasgow this week and will continue in London, Cardiff and Manchester following the sacking of many disabled and black and ethnic minority staff – some by email. One of the worst cases involved  57 year old Markus Caruana, a disabled 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 was fortunate enough to escape unscathed but later had a  serious disability.  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.

So ferocious has the sacking policy been  that there are now vacancies at the ECHR even though it has suffered enormous cuts since 2010. But the management have banned any of the sacked staff  from applying for a job.

According to the PCS Union The Commission’s expenditure report for April shows it has spent £90,876 on agency staff in April and £17,900 on recruitment costs. The spending on agency staff is a significant increase on previous months – £44,000 in January, £61,000 in February and £65,000 in March.

A Commission spokesperson, said: “We have greatly reduced our spend on contractors in recent years. Contractors are, however, used when we need certain technical skills and experience that are not available in the Commission. The recent increase has been due to one off costs and no long term rise in spending.”

Of the eight union members issued notices of compulsory redundancy, six are black or minority ethnic, five are disabled and seven are older workers. Four are union reps and one was a lead negotiator opposing the cuts. We are now pursuing legal action against the EHRC for victimisation of trade union representatives.

The management issued a defiant statement  on the existing strike action.

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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

Rebecca Hilsenrath, EHRC Chief Executive said: “The changes we are making will allow us to respond to the new challenges we face. I am proud of how well our staff have embraced this new way of working and our ambitious programme of work.

“We have made every attempt to end this dispute with the union and have offered them concessions at every stage of talks. We are now focused on delivering our business plan.  We are unclear as to their rationale for continuing action.”

PCS general secretary Mark Serwotka said: “Our members only take strike action as a last resort but management’s reluctance to adequately address their concerns have given them no choice.

“There are vacancies at the Commission and there is no reason why our members can’t have those jobs.

“The fact that the government has cut the Commission to a quarter of its original size demonstrates the Tories’ lack of commitment to equality and human rights issues.

“Further budget and staff cuts would leave the commission toothless at a time when more needs to be done to tackle hate crime and discrimination.”

What is extraordinary about this whole situation is that  the issues that the ECHR is supposed to represent – employment rights, equal pay, the rights of the disabled and  unfair discrimination against black and ethnic minority and gay workers – are all being undermined by their own attitudes to their staff.

If there are to be tribunal hearings – it will mean the reputation of the organisation will be damaged- and all these causes will suffer. This does not look like going away.