Tuesday, 19 October 2010

A Very English Settlement

Technology is the key. This'll bring the average cost of chauffeur's down quite
drastically and adds real value to the overall student experience

Just to confirm that the University of Salford were not always as reticent as they appear to be today with regard to answering the odd Freedom of Information request. Below are a few interesting statistics sent to an associate under an FOI submission on the 10th of November 2009. The figures were provided by the irrepressible Mr Matthew Stephenson, Head of Information Governance.

Follow the money

Annual amounts each year the University has paid to settle disputes with staff in the last four years

Period Oct 2005-Sep 2006 = £223,200
Period Oct 2006-Sep 2007 = £ 87,143
Period Oct 2007-Sep 2008 = £227,921
Period Oct 2008-Sep 2009 = £  87,360

The amount paid in each case to reach a settlement

October 2005-September 2006

Case 1 £  15,000
Case 2 £104,100
Case 3 £104,100
Total    £223,200

October 2006-September 2007

Case 4 £ 15,084
Case 5 £   3,054
Case 6 £ 36,000
Case 7 £ 33,005
Total    £ 87,143

October 2007-September 2008

Case 8   £ 28,761
Case 9   £ 39,160
Case 10 £ 68,500
Case 11 £ 91,500
Total      £227,921

October 2008-September 2009

Case 12 £ 18,360
Case 13 £ 25,000
Case 14 £ 24,000
Case 15 £ 20,000
Total      £ 87,360

Sub Total £625,624

Mr Stephenson also suggests that 'it is feasible to say an average of £1000 legal costs are incurred per case in settling the agreement and drawing up the legal paperwork.' Although this might seem a trifle on the low side, if it emanates from the realms of management at UoS then it must be as incontrovertibly true as the idea is patently false that the Earth revolves around that fiery ball in the sky. So for fifteen cases as set out above, we might therefore expect legal costs to be somewhere in the region of £15,000. That brings our grand total up to a very grand £640,624

In addition... or subtraction?

Artists's impression of  a decent settlement:
the future of 'affordable' student accommodation

This author notes from recent published data on AcademicFOI.com that UoS among many other HE institutions, have replied to several questions regarding Employment Tribunals, settlements and the associated costs.

When asked 'over the last three years how many current or former University staff have submitted claims to the employment tribunals service?' UoS answered six staff. According to UoS, five were settled and five had a non-disclosure clause inserted in terms of the settlement. The total sum paid out in these settlements was according to the UoS £142,295 and the total costs of legal expenses in relation to the above disputes was fixed by UoS at £167,334. This would provide a total of £309,629 which is a princely sum.

An assumption or two

Looking at the two sets of figures, there are a multiplicity of ways in which they might be interpreted. One might simply add the two sets of figures together and reach a total just shy of one million pounds -£950,253. This scenario is suggestive... suggestive of a heck of a lot of disputes.

Comparing and contrasting the two sets of figures presents problems. If we add the figures for the same years from the Stephenson figures, it gives a total of £402,424. It clearly exceeds the University's own stated figure of £142,295. Even if we add in the University's admitted legal costs of £167,334 this only raises a total £309,629.

What's wrong with this picture?

However this second scenario presents a problem. Yes, you guessed correctly. It's the Stephenson figures, particularly his reference to associated legal costs. In reply to the initial FOI in November 2009, Mr Stephenson, god bless his beleaguered soul, was less than specific on what type of 'settlements' he included in his figures. His reference to 'feasible' and 'legal' and 'average' costs of £1,000 per case suggests that the legal costs he speaks of are vastly different in quantitative terms from those referred to by AcademicFOI - £167,334 - which far surpasses his £1,000 average for the twelve cases 2006-2009 which would amount to a rather derisory £12,000.

The author in a pensive mood

It is wise to hazard caution at this juncture and not to simply shit oneself with glee as this may be nothing more than an extremely expensive oversight that could easily be corrected by the University sums people overseen by Director of Finance Mr Attwell before he retires from this extremely buoyant fiscally sound metaphorical ocean dweller. Nor can Mr Stephenson be castigated for the fragmentary qualities of the detail in supplying the above figures. He has no doubt had to try and weave the most delicate of statistical sows ears from a packet of of extra bristly top-shelf pork scratchings well past their agreed sell-by date.

This apparent inconsistency could be cleared up quite easily if not for the fact that UoS are less than obliging when it comes to answering FOI requests from certain staff, former employees, and former students among others. It is a policy destined to fuel further confusion, suspicion, unnecessary conjecture and poor adding up.

Time to break ranks or wind?

Maybe the second-in-command Registrar Dr Graves who has taken a keen interest in Freedom of Information requests,* could elucidate? Might the esteemed Registrar break ranks and publish in entirety, the full costs of all cases that have gone to or stopped short of an Employment Tribunal. he might include all sums expended on settlements including legal fees and other associated costs (such as the legal costs in preparation of grievances and mediation). In addition might he also for the sake of full transparency (and ultimately full accountability) publish the full costs of all settlements that have not gone to a full-blown Employment Tribunal including all associated legal costs and costs for grievances. For the sake of not wishing to be portrayed as too picky, we might agree to settle on the period between 2005 - 2010.

Like Mr Kipling, this author would be exceedingly interested to learn the full costs of his own trek through the wrist-slapping esoteria known as the Disciplinary Procedure and associated Grievance Procedures up to date. They could if the fancy took them, provide details of the costs of procuring legal services in defending the University's case so far prior to the imminent Employment Tribunal. If they were feeling in particularly generous spirit, they might provide the costs of any expensive letters sent to those who are said to reside thorn-like in the side of UoS, particularly the cost of those letters provided by a now defunct partnership of Manchester lawyers.

There is no 'web of collusion' honest guv'nor...

Why are there so many costly disputes at UoS?

Putting to one side questions related to pantomime for one second, there are very serious questions that have to be asked of a public authority that devotes large sums to settling disputes. Clearly any employer the size of UoS is bound to have internal employment disputes. That so many appear to be resolved through the use of a form of what might be described as 'fiscal easing' might also suggest that the mechanisms for mediation are far from utile. The UoS Equality and Diversity Report undertaken by Professor Gus John and released in August 2005 highlighted many issues which it would seem have yet to be taken seriously. This author knows of one new claim to the Employment Tribunal against the UoS on the grounds of race and discrimination.Some of the issues raised in the Gus John Report are worth repeating here:

'Over representative number of internal and Employment Tribunal complaints on grounds of 'race' relative to number of BME staff. Perception amongst black and white staff alike that University more interested in "covering its back"/"safeguarding its image" than in dealing with the underlying causes of those complaints' (Pg39)

'The approach of management to complaints lodged in the Employment Tribunal is generally one of two things: Buying off - "come let's settle" or Facing Down - "we'll clobber you". It learns nothing as a result of either, especially if it succeeds in clobbering you. It is then just not interested in the reasons why the matter reached the ET in the first place.' (BME sample) (Pg 24)

'The way the University deals with the outcome of complaints, especially complaints to the Employment Tribunal, makes it very clear that no sanctions are imposed for non-compliance with anti-discrimination legislation. The attitude seems to be: 'protect our managers at all costs, irrespective of what they are found to have done, even by an employment tribunal'. I know of no situation, for example, where the University has launched its own internal investigation after a tribunal hearing, win or lose, to see what lessons could be learnt about how it got itself into that situation and what management practice or attitudes might have been responsible.' (BME sample) (pp24-25)

The intrinsic value of the University of Salford

In contrast of the Registrar's claims that the writer of this piece is involved in a 'wider campaign against the University',** the author feels a genuine sadness and concern about this ongoing state of affairs. Having worked below decks stoking the allegorical furnaces, - in teaching and providing International Students with a service above that considered payable by salary - and having received in return substantial support from those students in opposition to the disciplinary policies of the University, principled, committed staff are seen by students as a real boon and pivotal to the future of Salford. Moreover, it is clear that UoS continues to provide students, many from poorer backgrounds, with opportunities to flourish intellectually, to develop skills and be taught by committed and conscientious staff. Yet for Salford to flourish, it is these staff who in turn must feel valued by managers and those above if they are to play their own pivotal role in collectively lifting Salford up to effectively compete with the well-resourced and prestigious Russell Group universities.

Thus in answer to the Vice Chancellor's question of last week, the value added by the University is the staff. A good teacher or lecturer will not only teach but will impact on the student in multifarious positive ways that a new building can never do. Their positive influence and the knowledge they transfer, will remain with the student long after they leave the University. These lasting impressions are the best type of recruiter for the University.

Yet the GEM report conducted three years after the Equality and Diversity Report, largely reconfirmed the findings of Gus John. Since then UoS has a new Vice Chancellor in Martin Hall. Yet the most recent external report conducted by Frances Greene for the TCM Group demonstrates that things are far from ship-shape aboard HMS Salford. This most recent report will be explored in more depth over the coming weeks.

The human costs

The costs in terms of the impact it has on those individuals who have reached the stage of a settlement or those internally prosecuted under the disciplinary procedures are far more difficult assess. These costs cannot be framed in a simple FOI request or replies such as those above. The fear that the threat of disciplinary action and suspension instils among wide layers of staff is tangible. It also has wider costs in that it does little to slow down the decomposition of trust among layers of staff, to say nothing of the creeping demoralisation it imbues among this valuable committed collective human resource. Should a university of all places, that institutionally promotes enlightenment ideals and values,  be a place where rule by fear is ever deemed acceptable?

Sadly, at this juncture, the signs are not encouraging. Is it the case as is inferred in the Gus John report, that the spending of vast sums on settlements and legal costs is seen as a means whereby the University senior management team divest themselves of those seen as serial complainers or troublemakers? Is this viewed by the University as an effective way of investing in the future? A more astute strategy must surely be to invest these not insignificant sums in ensuring that valuable staff, many with considerable skills in administration, as well as those with teaching and researching talents, and of course the concomitant vast repositories of experience and knowledge vested within these people, were retained for the benefit of learners, educators and for the prestige of the University itself.

It might also in the medium and longer term, save the University a few quid.

*Email from Dr Graves to K Watkinson, Cc'd to Matthew Stephenson, dated 8 Nov 2009, timed 08:31am, subject: FoI Request (Ref:091103-431). After an FoI and Data Protection Request from this author, Dr Graves asks Matthew Stephenson to keep his 'office informed of any (his emphasis) FOI requests that the University receives'.

** Letter from Dr Graves to GPD dated 18 March 2010 in response to a letter of a complaint against Professor C Pine for bullying behaviour in a meeting.

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Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The Price of Justice?

Dear Mr Stephenson....

This little snippet has been forwarded today by a former colleague.

It would appear that Mr Stephenson from Information Governance Services has decided rather belatedly that Mr James Brown's Freedom of Information request deemed 'vexatious' under section 14(1) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 on the 2nd February 2010, is no longer so.

The climb up...

Originally posted on 1st December 2009, his request on the Whatdotheyknow website was quite simple and straight forward:

Dear Sir or Madam,

In accordance with the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act, I am submitting a request for a complete and accurate summary of legal and filing fee costs incurred by and/or paid for by the University of Salford in connection with the University's pursuit of disciplinary proceedings against members of staff.

In fulfilling this request, I would ask that the University provide the names of all providers of legal services and the precise amounts paid to them in relation to the above.

I am requesting this information for 2007, 2008 and 2009.

Please provide this information separately for each year and for each disciplinary case.

I would respectfully point out that the Solicitors Act 1974 s64(2)requires solicitors to furnish detailed itemised bills for conduct of contentious matters upon request of the client.

Yours faithfully,

James Brown

The climbdown...

I print Mr Stephenson's reply to the original request in its entirety:

Dear Mr Brown,

I am now able to respond to your request for a summary of legal costs relating to disciplinary proceedings. The information requested is as follows:

All 2009 PinsentMasons Eversheds
Case 1 975.37
Case 2 20530.40
Case 3 40331.23

There were no costs from the years 2007 and 2008

If you are dissatisfied with the handling of your request, you have the right to ask for an internal review. Internal review requests should be submitted to [1][University of Salford request email] or to me at the address below. Further information is available from the Information Commissioner's Office,Wycliffe House, Water Lane, Wilmslow, Cheshire, SK9 5AF, [2]www.ico.gov.uk

Yours sincerely

Matthew Stephenson

Why the delays?

This author has as he writes, eleven outstanding Freedom of Information requests, all deemed 'vexatious' by Mr Stephenson and subsequently refused. One further FOI request has been awaiting an internal review since 10 December 2009. That's a whopping ten months! Documents obtained under a separate Data Protection Request last year show that the esteemed University Registrar Dr Adrian Graves is keeping a close eye on FOI requests submitted to the UoS.

...and gripping hands!
Recent movements suggest that the Information Commissioner is currently dealing with this author's requests and those of one other former Alumni of UoS. Further information has been provided to the ICO over the past two weeks to back the request for this information to be released by the University into the public domain.

It is entirely possible of course that the Information Commissioner will not force the University to release any of this information. On the other hand he might and conclude that Mr Stephenson and Dr Graves the Registrar are simply very slow readers.

A lot of expensive letters to their name

However, the content of the newly made-publicly accessible anyone-can-read-to-their-hearts-content information might suggest that icy grip of inflation is tightening its stranglehold on the finances of UoS. It is clear that legal costs for disciplinary matters are climbing heavenwards, particularly with regard to the cost of services provided by Pinsent-Masons and Eversheds to the University. From £975 to £20,000 and £40,000 a shot, clearly these institutes of fiscal restraint would appear to be giving a hell of a lot of advice. One does of course wonder precisely what they are writing their letters on... reclaimed medieval parchment lovingly restored by earnest partial palaeographers, delivered on horseback by a semi-retired Persian Satrap in a string of Sedan chairs-in-waiting?

Could this be rationalised and restructured
into a one-person job to save money?
I'm also reliably informed that the University have in the past utilised the services of Ian Austen's Halliwells (now sadly defunct), and more latterly Beachcroft LLP located at Spinningfields in Manchester. Having received several long threatening 'Halliwells letters' under instruction from the University, one can imagine that they were produced at some cost to the student fee and taxpayer.

Why a University with its own very prestigious Law School with a nice shiny new building to boot, would wish to retain the services of four different legal advisers is anyone's guess. Might it not seem a little excessive given the current economic climate and the withdrawing of large sums of funding across the HE sector by HEFCE?

Value for money

Well here we have it. Isn't it obvious? The strategy of investing huge sums in pursuing staff through the Disciplinary Procedure and their often resultant Employment Tribunals is entirely sympathetic to the above? Only a complete fool would seek to raise the issue of how many student bursaries or fee waivers this £60,000 could facilitate? Or for that matter, the annual salary of an extra academic at a cost of around... er... £60,000?  Neither of these frivolous gestures would bring any quantifiable value to students.

Never mind. It's highly likely in the next round of job losses looming on the horizon under the aegis of the recent University-wide restructuring, that in this reverse-world, a few jobs could possibly be sacrificed in order to ensure that in times of unprecedented economic hardship, the public purse continues to serve a useful purpose in maintaining the lavish lifestyles of the private legal sector.