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

y

dave-prentis-pic-credit-twitter

Dave Prentis, general secretary, Unison Pic Credit: Twitter

1200px-McVitie's_chocolate_digestive_biscuit

A chocolate biscuit; Pic Credit: Wikipedia

CROSS POSTED ON BYLINE.COM

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

GrantThornton

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

CROSS POSTED ON BYLINE.COM

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

striking Commisison staff in Scotland

Striking Commission staff on Scotland. Pic credit : Commons Space

CROSS POSTED ON BYLINE.COM

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.

rebeccahilsenrath

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.

 

 

Rerun Dave Prentis election urge candidates at Unison malpractice hearing

dave-prentis-pic-credit-twitter

Dave Prentis, general secretary, Unison Pic Credit: Twitter

CROSS POSTED ON BYLINE.COM

Candidates who fought Dave Prentis for general secretary  of Britain’s second largest union  urged the certification officer yesterday to order a rerun of the election because of malpractices  by his campaign team exposed at a four day hearing.

The call which is also backed by a long standing member Jon Rogers was fiercely opposed by Unison’s lawyers  as a ” disproportionate ” response and even interfering with fundamental human rights by insisting the election should be run again.

The clash over remedies came at the final day of the hearing when all sides were asked to make submissions to the presiding certification officer, judge Mary Stacey, who chaired the hearing.

The case had been bought by his three rival candidates, Heather Wakefield, John Burgess and Roger Bannister. and long standing member Jon Rogers.

One of the central points of the case is that senior Unison officer, Linda Perks, exceeded her role in convening a meeting in union time to plan a campaign to support Dave Prentis which is against union rules. The information came to light after a tape of the meeting was leaked.

Her action, which led to disciplinary proceedings, is not defended by the union. The dispute is whether her action was part of a much wider breach of union rules – which forbid officials from using union time and resources by ” Team Dave ” – amounting widespread malpractice. The union refuses to accept this – the  other candidates  says this is central to their arguments.

There is also the question of whether Dave Prentis knew this was happening – the complainants suggest he did – the union insist he didn’t. Judge Mary Stacey promised she would make a finding of fact on this issue if she can.

Yunus Bakhsh, the lawyer representing Jon Burgess, in his submission , said : ” The tape and the Team Dave emails lifted the lid on what we submit was a quite shocking level of deceit. subterfuge and rule breaching by a group of paid officials who occupied the highest positions in Unison…. These officials had a  total disregard for the rules of the union they felt they could act with impunity in using union resources, funds and property to campaign for Dave Prentis.”

Ms Ijeoma Omambala , barrister for Heather Wakefield, was also highly critical of the role of the Electoral Reform Services, who received a fee of nearly £1 m for supervising the election, in not acting to take up complaints themselves. Instead they left it to Unison to investigate the complaints – when many of the officials who did so were members of  the Team Dave campaign team. She described the ERS’s action as amounting to ” a dereliction of duty.”.

In her submission she says:” Ms Wakefield has sought to challenge unfairness and cronyism when she has encountered it. her efforts and those of her colleague complainants have revealed systematic manipulation of Unison rules, resources and funds on a startling scale.

“The Respondent (Unison) would have the assistant certification officer characterise this dispute as ” a little local difficulty,” regrettably the damage has spread far wider. It encompasses activists, branch officials, regional officials, the union’s senior management team and its President.”

Anthony White, barrister for Unison, while accepting that some enforcement order could be made by the judge, fiercely challenged  whether there was any evidence that there was any widespread malpractice at Unison. In an exchange between the softly spoken judge, he refused  to accept any suggestion that the election should be rerun. He cited that it would cost £1m for Unison members and saying that  it had not materially affected the result which showed overwhelming support for Dave Prentis. He also defended  ERS saying they had provided “a helpful witness” with enormous experience of elections.

He  attacked the other complainants for what he called using ” absolute privilege ”  to make allegations of corruption in Unison. ( This means they cannot be sued for what they said at the hearing).

He also insisted that evidence submitted by Mike Jackson  on previous malpractice at Unison general secretary elections  involving Dave Prentis- which I believe may have only been published in full on this blog – had gone unchallenged because it was ” irrelevant ” to the hearing.

This is challenged in the submission from Heather Wakefield who regarded Mr Jackson’s evidence as an example of past malpractice.

The judge is unlikely to deliver a verdict for a month but when it comes it will be one of the ground breaking rulings that will decide how elections for union general secretaries will be conducted in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

the election

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

rebeccahilsenrath

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

donald-trump

Donald Trump : You’re fired. Credit Giphy

CROSS POSTED ON BYLINE.COM

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.

Standards at the tax office: A damning indictment from professional people who should know

hmrc

HMRC offices. pic credit: gov.uk

CROSS POSTED ON BYLINE.COM

This blog has covered serious complaints about the way Her Majesty’s Customs and  Excise is being managed – the latest being the revelations from the National Audit Office on plans to make 38,000 staff commute for hours to 13 new regional offices and close 170 existing ones.

Some of the strongest complaints have come from the staff and the main union, the Public and Commercial Services Union, which has been highly critical of government cuts. People might say, well, unions would complain, as they have duty to save jobs and how much notice should we take of this.

So it is extremely interesting  that the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, which represents some 147,000 professional people, has produced such a damning survey on what they think about HMRC’s services.

Far from having confidence in the government’s latest tax strategies or services they provide to business and the public, their findings in this year’s services are damning.

To summarise  from their report:

8 in 10 agents think that HMRC service standards have not improved over the past year.

 Half of agents say that services over the past 12 months have not changed.

Nearly a third (32%) think that they have deteriorated.

Nearly a fifth (18%) think that they have improved

The results are fairly consistent over the different taxes.

Agents appear to have similar frustrations with HMRC’s service quality as last year, specifically around ‘getting it right first time’ and getting information they require.

 Just a fifth of agents (20%) trust HMRC to ‘get it right first time’, while over a half do not (55%). Employer payroll is perceived particularly negatively, with two thirds (67%) not seeing HMRC staff in this area getting it right first time.

Similarly, less than a third (29%) of agents find it easy to get information they need from HMRC, while many (41%) do not.

And they are scathing about the government’s plans to digitalise the tax services – part of the plan to close 170 offices – and have 13 regional centres.

Agents’ views on moving to digital

 Only 3 in 10 (29%) of agents are positive about HMRC moving more of its services online.

Over half (53%) of agents are negative about moving services online.

Furthermore, only 15% of agents think that HMRC is supporting the role of tax agents in this move, while over half (54%) do not.

Frankly if I was in charge of HMRC ( and I am glad I am not) I would be rather worried by this survey. Since it came out it appears they have offered some talks about some of the problems,

But they are mainly very complacent. As the report itself notes :

This result is all the more surprising given that HMRC’s own performance statistics to September 2016 show a steadily improving performance in the previous 12 months.

The difference, it suggests  may be explained by a number of factors, including:

“That although HMRC’s telephone service for the public is much improved, for agents the telephone response time is not the real problem. The service standard on the agent dedicated line is already good and usually agents using the line have not had a problem getting through to HMRC.

Agents by their nature deal with clients who have more complicated affairs, and for them the expectations of service quality are different to those of the wider taxpayer population. So, as in previous years, agents again highlighted the problems in ‘getting it right first time’, coupled with the ability to get through to speak to the right person quickly to resolve complex queries. We know that HMRC is working to improve performance in these areas, for example through the ‘once and done’ initiative, and the survey results suggest that HMRC should seek to build on this initiative.

There is also a perception effect: it can take years to change a perception even though standards may have improved in the interim. We believe that HMRC’s own research in earlier years would also appear to point to this effect.”

However all in all this is a pretty resounding vote of no confidence in the tax service from a body  whose members deal with them everyday.

 

Exclusive: Southern Railway contract to be investigated by National Audit Office

southern-railway-train-pic-credit-bbc

A Southern Railway train: often overcrowded even if it runs. Pic Credit:BBC

CROSS POSTED ON BYLINE.COM

The badly managed and strike prone Southern Railway contract is to be investigated by Parliament’s financial watchdog, the National Audit Office.

After months if not a years of misery for commuters caused by failing services and strike action over safety  the NAO has quietly decided to investigate the Department of Transport’s  handling of the contract alongside another investigation into the modernisation of Thameslink services. Both are major commuter services  into the capital and both are owner by Govia, the country’s biggest privatised train operator.

The decision by the NAO has been quietly slipped out on its website as an update to the Thameslink investigation without an official announcement. Such a move is bound to cause some consternation for transport secretary, Chris Grayling, and his officials.

Publication of the report due this summer will trigger an investigation by MPs on the Commons Public Accounts Committee where officials will be called to account depending on the NAO’s findings.

Southern is one a series of franchises owned by Govia, a consortium set up by the British  Go Ahead bus company and the French state owned railways, SNCF, whose international arm trades as Keolis.

The NAO investigation comes after the disclosure that Peter Wilkinson , a senior civil servant who is paid £265,000 a year, as director of rail passenger services at the Department for Transport, has been exposed by an investigation in The Guardian for an apparent conflict of interest.

He awarded Govia both contracts but it was revealed that he was, at the time, a
director and the main shareholder of First Class Partnerships, a consultancy which had Govia as a longstanding client.  He has declined to comment about the internal inquiry which is said to have decided that this was a conflict of interest.

Since then Govia’s Southern Railway has been involved in a long dispute with unions over plans to abolish guards on trains. The company has been backed by Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, and unions fear safety is at risk and the plan will be extended to other franchises they run like London Midland.

Southern also decline to provide a comprehensive service to disabled passengers.

The NAO statement on its site announcing the extension said :

“The Department for Transport is sponsoring a £7 billion programme to increase passenger capacity on the Thameslink route through central London. The programme involves the improvement of tracks, signalling and stations, a new fleet of trains and new franchise arrangements for running the passenger service on the Thameslink route.

“Since 2015, train services on the Thameslink Southern Great Northern (TSGN) franchise have been subject to significant disruption, particularly on the Southern services. Alongside our work on the Thameslink Programme, we also plan to report on the Department’s management of the TSGN franchise.”

Rail unions are welcoming the investigation with ASLEF, the train drivers union, keen that such an inquiry will bring transparency to how the contract was monitored by the ministry and also how it was awarded.

Meanwhile  government spin operators have indicated that perhaps the line might be taken back into public ownership if it continues to fail. While this story is officially denied ministers do not like being wrong footed by a detailed National Audit Office investigation and often plan some diversionary tactics when a report is about to be published.

It is question of watch this space. I have also written about this in Tribune.