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. She said by leaving it to Unison to investigate the complaints – when many of the officials who did so were members of the Team Dave campaign team amounted 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.