Equality Commission facing waves of strikes from disgruntled staff

striking Commisison staff in Scotland

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.

 

 

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

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

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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.