Electoral Reform Services is considered the gold standard in achieving fair and free elections.
Yesterday that image slipped when deputy chief executive Simon Hearn was cross questioned about his role in supervising the 2015 election of general secretary Dave Prentis as general secretary of Britain’s biggest public services union, Unison. The paid ERS almost £1m of members money to safeguard fair play.
Simon supervised the first free elections after the fall of Khmer Rouge in Cambodia – see his profile on the ERS website here. Yesterday at a hearing in London he was challenged by both John Burgess’s legal representative,Yunus Bakhsh and Heather Wakefield’s barrister,Ms Ijeoma Omambala , for not supervising Unison’s election to perhaps the same standards.
Both put to him a catalogue of allegations adding up to the point that he seemed to take Unison’s word than properly investigate whether the complaints were valid himself. He vigorously denied this saying he had independently investigated them and not been swayed by top officials from the union.
All the candidates standing against Dave Prentis- Heather Wakefield, John Burgess and Roger Bannister and the complainant Jon Rogers have lodged complaints about the way officials are alleged to have misused resources to promote Dave Prentis to retain his job.
But yesterday at the hearing – as well as top union officials being cross examined – the ERS came in for a lot of criticism.
Among the points raised were:
Why did he not check the Unison rulebook after Liane Venner , both on ” Team Dave ” campaign for Dave Prentis and the official organising the election, had given him the wrong information about who could take decisions re the election?
Why had he only investigated nine branches to check whether there had been breaches of the rules when the union had 953? He said he had investigated more but no longer had the information.
Why hadn’t he followed up the breaches in the Greater London area – where he admitted the union tape had revealed there was a breach of the rules at a meeting to discuss how to promote Dave Prentis to see of there was ” systematic malpractice” elswhere ? He said he hadn’t had enough complaints to do this.
He was also quizzed about the Private Eye article about passing all the complaints to the union without investigating him which the magazine said amounted to ” Team Dave investigating Team Dave.”. He insisted he was just passing the information over to officials, who, in his view, behaved properly, to verify the complaints.
Probably the most damning point was following the inquiry by Unison official Roger McKenzie into the breach of union rules at the Greater London meeting which led to the suspension – now lifted – of one official, Linda Perks, when he had been told that more officials were involved.
He suspended his inquiry while the disciplinary inquiry took place but did not appear to have followed up after the result.
The union’s barrister, Mr Antony White QC, did not challenge any of these assertions. He concentrated on getting Mr Hearn to state from his final report on the elections conclusions to point out that whatever had happened it made no difference to the result – which saw Dave Prentis win comfortably.
An interesting observation – I will refrain from commenting until the case is concluded..