The Tories who tried to pressurise judges to keep secret their character references for a sexual offender ex MP

Lord Freud :” failed to act on his personal honour”. Pic credit: gov.uk

This week a peer and former Tory government minister Lord Freud was ordered to apologise to the House of Lords for breaching the code of conduct by “failing to act on his personal honour.”

The peer was among the signatories to two letters sent to two senior judges, Lady Justice Thirlwall and Dame Victoria Sharp and to Lady Justice Whipple, seeking to persuade her not to publish his name giving a good character reference to the ex MP who is now a convicted sex offender.

Charlie Elphicke Ex MP Now in jail

The MP was Charlie Elphicke, Tory and later Independent MP for Dover until 2019. He was convicted of three counts of sexual assault on two women in July last year and sentenced in September to two years in prison. He is currently appealing the case.

In November last year three newspapers, The Guardian, the Times and the Daily Mail, sought permission from Lady Justice Whipple to publish the character references from prominent people who were supporting him.

Dame Victoria Sharp pic cap : Judiciary.uk web site

This led four other Tory MPs and the peer to write to two senior judges to persuade them to intervene in the case. The Lords Commissioner for Standards,Lucy Scott-Moncrieff , ruled this week in Lord Freud’s case was “was intended to persuade Lady Justice Thirlwall and Dame Victoria Sharp to intervene.”

She added: “Similarly, the letter to Mrs Justice Whipple was written in terms intended to influence her thinking.”

Former Cabinet minister Theresa Villiers

MPs say intervention ” a point of principle”

The MPs action became public when Col Stewart asked for a ruling from Jacob Rees Mogg, leader of the House, – but he kept away from committing himself to intervene. The MPs claimed their action was on a point of principle to stop all character references being released but were shot down by the Lord Chief Justice’s office saying it was “improper” to seek to influence the decision of a judge who would ultimately rule on the basis of evidence and argument in court.

Now the Lords Commissioner for Standards has described the letters as ” emotive” and ruled: “I believe doing so in private correspondence to senior judges in terms designed to influence the trial judge must also be considered outside the standards of conduct expected of individual members.”

Existence of inquiry into MPs a secret

This leaves the question of the conduct of the MPs. They come under the Commons Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, Kathryn Stone. Under the rules of the House of Commons since 2018 it has been decided that no information on whether a complaint has been laid against an MP will be published until a final report is made. So officially it remains a secret whether there is any investigation. However the Guardian has reported that Helen Jones, the Labour MP for Warrington, North until the last election when the Tories won the seat, has put in a complaint.

It would be egregious if Lord Freud , who appears from the Lords report to have been encouraged by the MPs to write and complain, took the entire blame for this. It also, in my view, would encourage MPs to try and influence the judiciary without facing any penalty. And it smacks of the new chumocracy – one rule to protect the powerful and influential and another for Joe Bloggs.

The MPs of course say they are acting for the public who will be frightened to give character witnesses for convicted criminals if they are to be published.

Mrs Justice Whipple’s deft ruling

But this was shot down by Mrs Justice Whipple in a very deftly worded judgement. She distinguished between the ordinary Joe and public figures in releasing the names and references. Only those who had a public role in society were revealed – keeping to the right to know principle of public interest. As a result we also now know that Jonathan Aitken, a prominent former MP once jailed for perjury and now a vicar provided one . As did prominent local Roman Catholic priest, Father Jeff Cridland; Neil Wiggins, a community non executive director of the Port of Dover; and David Foley, chief executive of the Thanet and East Kent Chamber of Commerce. But we don’t know about 21 private individuals who are not prominent in public life.

Let’s see if anything comes from the sphinx like Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards on this one.

Pass the sick bag not the pop corn: US verdict on DWP’s privatised sick note service

Last week I revealed how Lord Freud, the welfare reform minister, had awarded a new contract to Health Management Ltd, subsidiary of US multinational company, Maximusto take over from doctors  to decide when you should return to work if you claim more than four weeks sick pay.

The programme is to be rolled out from November to next May aims to save up to £165 million a year by getting people back to work faster as part of Lord Freud’s welfare reforms. Effectively it will mean you will get a telephone consultation  from a call centre and be emailed when you should return to work. If don’t co-operate you will lose your benefit.

The company’s press release reveals the 63 month contract will be rolled out first in Wales, the Midlands and the North before it hits the more affluent South.

Richard A  Montoni, the multi billionaire chief executive explained:“The Health and Work Service program is a natural opportunity to demonstrate Health Management’s expertise as the UK’s largest occupational health care provider and an important step in our long-term goal of expanding in this important market.

“While we expect an initial start-up loss due to the nature of the contract, the overall program economics are strong and once ramped, the contract is in-line with our targeted range of portfolio performance.”

Now through using a website called Glassdoor I have discovered what employees and ex-employees in the US think of Maximus. If you feared it was going to be a cheapskate alternative to your GP – aimed at using low paid, untrained, overworked people in call centres while maximising its profits for overpaid bosses you are right..The customer or claimant seems the least of their concerns.

These are a selection of their comments:

“When starting the business I asked for instructions on how to complete basic daily administrative tasks essential for audit. I was told by my colleagues and my manager not to bother as “we never do it”. Six months later, after figuring out, off my own back how to do it, Head Office comes down like a tonne of bricks on the office stating they have not been done and have failed audit. On top of this I worked with racist, homophobic and disgruntled colleagues who were obnoxious, lazy and didn’t give a damn. My line manager refused to verify my work as he was too lazy

“Management has absolutely no people skills. Little to no room for advancement unless you are related to a director. Unqualified employees are in management positions.”

“Almost everything in my team was micro-managed. One of the Directors was a control-freak and insecure about “loosing his relevance”. So “just to stay relevant” he created “red-tape” processes by making every small change go thru him with his approval, causing delays to routine work cycles.

“Managers and supervisors only care about bonus for themselves.Representatives can easily be disqualified for bonus. There is also too much favoritism among employees. Promotions happen on the basis if they like you or not and not so much on your qualifications. Some managers like to micro manage their staff by setting excessive production goals. Supervisors are under-qualified and possess little to no people skills.

“At MAXIMUS there is little to no room for advancement or growth. …This company makes unreasonable demands for staff to complete work and unreasonable deadlines. This company does not support personal time off due to family/personal issues.” (so they won’t sympathise with you if you are sick)

“No work/life balance. Projects are incredibly understaffed, combined with perpetually tight deadlines, resulting in an average work week of 60-80 hours. Long nights and lots of weekends.

“Upper management often promotes with in their own inner circle and rarely promotes anyone from operations. Most management has little to no hands on experience and are typically hired because they come cheap or are hired by someone they know.”

Of course not everybody is critical. There are some pro company pieces but they are mainly because evidently the firm offer free medical insurance ( not an issue here yet!), the commute to work was easy and some of the colleagues were good mates.

As one said: “Fairly normal work hours, decent training, clean environment, clean restrooms, free coffee, good feelings from helping people when all goes smoothly, being able to trade shifts with other workers, getting paid every week as a temp, working independently.”

and as a plus “On Fridays we have someone come to our desks with free bags of popcorn.”

No doubt that makes everything fine I think if half of this is true it more a case of pass the sick bag than the pop corn!

 

Coming Soon: The privatised sick note service that will email you back to work

In two months time the traditional doctor’s note excusing you from work will start to cease being valid if you are still sick after four weeks.

Just before Parliament went into the summer recess welfare reform minister, Lord Freud, announced that a US multinational company,Maximus, which also operates in Canada and Saudi Arabia will take over running the new Health and Work Service for England and Wales.

My report in this week’s Tribune  reveals that up to one million people will be affected by the change which appears to be aimed to save the government money.

Maximus runs call centres, occupational health programmes, child support and job seekers programmes abroad and in the United Kingdom.

The programme is to be rolled out from November to next May aims to save up to £165 million a year by getting people back to work faster as part of Lord Freud’s welfare reforms.

The Scottish government  has declined to contract out the work to the private firm and will keep the assessment programme as part of the public service.

More worryingly it appears that the private company which will make the decision will not see anyone – and create a Return to Work programme  via  a call centre telephone interview and a decision by email.

The package is supposed to be agreed between the sick person and the private company and sent to both the individual and their employer. Failure to co-operate with the service will mean the individual will lose their sick pay.

Lord Freud is quoted in a DWP press release emphasising how the scheme will improve economic productivity and get people back to work faster.

He says:”Providing support where it’s needed most will help to reduce the length of time employees take off sick which, in turn, will cut sick pay costs, improve economic output and reduce the chances of people falling out of work and having to claim benefits. “

After the cruel and nasty system that forced disabled people  to find work or lose benefits run by the French company, ATOS, I have a suspicion that this new system could push the sick back to work before they are ready.

While ATOS did this by personal interviews and tests, Maximus look like putting the sick back to work without examining them to see they are fit and well. No doubt the government will see it as another way to tackle the workshy. But even employers’ advisers are sceptical about this. This new development needs watching.