HC Deb 21 July 2004 vol 424 cc119-26WH 3.30 pm
Mr. Fabian Hamilton (Leeds, North-East) (Lab)

I am grateful for the opportunity to have this Adjournment debate on the case of a whistleblower, which I have found very disturbing and with which I have been dealing for almost four years. It might help the understanding of the case if I give some background information.

When Jim Hemingway first came to my advice surgery in autumn 2000 I had little idea that a case that seemed relatively straightforward would result in the bullying and victimisation of an employee of Leeds Metropolitan university simply because he chose to be public-spirited and to save the taxpayer a vast amount of money that would otherwise have been spent on items for which it was never intended.

Mr. Hemingway is an associate lecturer and unit manager of the film and moving image part of Leeds Metropolitan university—formerly the northern film school—which is one of the two great universities in Leeds. He worked there for almost 15 years, but in autumn 2000, he became concerned that European social fund moneys paid to the northern film school were not being used as they should have been. He was especially concerned that a firm of consultants had claimed 10 per cent. of the moneys for which it had successfully applied as its consultancy fee, something that was expressly excluded under the terms of the application.

On 29 August 2000, the Government office for Yorkshire and the Humber wrote to Leeds Metropolitan university, after it had received a letter from Jim Hemingway, saying that it had been brought to its attention that the consultants' costs may have been claimed as part of the ESF applications and that the consultants were not eligible to do so. It asked the university to clarify the position. The consultancy referred to, based in Warwick, was called J & AB Associates, and on 28 April 1998 it invoiced northern film school for £16,152.96, which was 10 per cent. of the ESF moneys successfully claimed during that budgetary year.

In his memorandum of 21 March 1997, the then head of the film school said: We need to remind ourselves that we cannot claim consultants' fees from ESF, so in any spreadsheet it would need to be seen as a contribution towards production costs", not as a consultancy fee. I stress that Jim Hemingway was not at the NFS in 1997. In subsequent meetings at the northern film school in Jim Hemingway's presence, topics such as how to hide the consultancy fees were discussed. That first alerted him and provoked his action to expose the mis-spending. In early autumn, Leeds Metropolitan university replied to the Government office that invalid consultancy costs had not been claimed from the European social fund money.

On 16 February 2001, I met the regional director of the Government office in Leeds to discuss Jim Hemingway's concerns that he was not satisfied with the accuracy of LMU's response to the question of consultancy. Three months later, the response was found to be incorrect. The regional director sent auditors into the northern film school after an initial meeting with Jim Hemingway to discuss his concerns. The auditors found that the funding for the whole of two northern film school projects should be repaid—a total of £162,419—and that decision was accepted by Leeds metropolitan university.

In August 2001, Government office officials met officials from the Department for Work and Pensions's European social fund division and the special investigations unit to discuss possible further action to take against Leeds Metropolitan university. On 5 September, the Government Office wrote to Leeds Metropolitan university saying that it would need to look at other ESF-funded projects at northern film school. The reply, dated 24 September, said that LMU would, of course, co-operate with any further investigation and on 30 November officials from the Department for Work and Pensions ESFD and the Government office met the vice-chancellor and deputy vice-chancellor of LMU to discuss the measures required to restore Government office confidence in its audit and control procedures for ESF-funded projects. The aim was to ensure that the problems found in three ongoing and one completed northern film school projects were not replicated in other LMU ESF-funded projects and that LMU's internal audit procedures, which had clearly not picked up those problems, could be checked by the Government office to ensure that they were adequate. I should add that Leeds Metropolitan university has other ESF-funded projected totalling some £7 million per annum.

By the end of April 2002, it was clear that the amount that needed to be repaid as a result of Government office scrutiny, totalled £389,706 and that Government office officials were working closely with Leeds Metropolitan university's internal audit to achieve the aim of restoring confidence in the monitoring procedures. In early July that year, the Government office told LMU that the way in which it calculated overheads for ESF claims was unacceptable and that those costs would have to be recalculated. That resulted in a further repayment of £129,398. Leeds Metropolitan university had to repay more than half a million pounds—£519,104 to be precise.

So the public have good reason to thank Jim Hemingway, a man who risked his job to blow the whistle on practices at the northern film school that had implications for the whole of Leeds Metropolitan university and to stop the improper claiming of taxpayers' money and the reclaiming by the Government office of that money. Jim was, therefore, concerned when he started being victimised at work by line managers and other senior staff at the northern film school. On 24 July 2002, he contacted the Government office to say that, despite his name not being leaked to LMU, somebody at the northern film school had clearly found out, or guessed from the Government office line of approach, that it was he who had informed the Government office of concerns over ESF funding at NFS. Jim asked the Government office to help him by contacting the then vice-chancellor to request him to stop the victimisation. I agreed that a meeting should be held on 13 November 2002, initially between the vice-chancellor, myself and a Government office official, followed by a meeting with Jim Hemingway and a third employee of the university, should the vice-chancellor agree to that extra meeting. The aim was to try to persuade the vice-chancellor to resolve the problems now facing Jim Hemingway as a result of his brave judgment to go outside the university to raise his justified concerns over ESF funding.

Why, then, did Jim Hemingway not use internal procedures at LMU to raise his concerns before contacting me as his MP? The answer is simple. Jim wanted to raise the issues that concerned him through LMU and never had any real wish to bring the matter outside the university. However, when he searched the LMU website before approaching me, he could find no mention of any policy about whistleblowers or public interest disclosures within the university.

Shortly after the meeting in November, Jim told the human resources employee relations manager of LMU that he could not find any internal policy on whistleblowing and asked whether such a policy existed. The employee relations manager told Jim that there was no such policy, but that he had raised Jim's particular case with the assistant dean for policy and resources at the faculty of health and the environment. A few days later, it transpired that such a policy did exist. Part of that policy explicitly precluded others from being informed of the name of the potential whistleblower. Yet, the employee relations manager had already told the assistant dean about Jim Hemingway, although he later denied ever having done so.

The prospect of the employee relations manager being made responsible for the conduct of the grievance procedure that Jim had instigated after being victimised and bullied by senior staff made it clear to him that he would not receive what he felt would be an honest hearing. Those involved in the bullying and victimisation were to be the very people involved in stages one and two of the grievance procedure. He had little confidence, therefore, that it would fair and equitable.

Since 2002, Jim Hemingway has consistently been bullied and victimised by members of staff, usually those in managerial positions above him, so that his working life has been made intolerable. That is why he wanted to tell the then vice-chancellor of the university exactly what was going on, and how his course leader and the assistant dean of the faculty had treated him after somehow finding out that he had been the whistleblower. The vice-chancellor's advice to Jim at the 2002 November meeting, at which I was present, was to continue with his grievance against his course leader despite Jim's intention to withdraw it.

Already concerned that he would not receive a fair hearing, Jim was alarmed to discover that the assistant dean did not even make notes of the preliminary stage of the grievance with the course leader, especially since the course leader totally contradicted herself in her written statement. The assistant dean allegedly forgot what had been said, although Jim's notes of that meeting, which were put immediately on file at his trade union, Unison, could easily have reminded him.

The main source of Jim's complaint about the procedure was that the assistant dean also forgot to tell the course leader not to speak about the grievance to other members of staff who were witnesses in the case, which she proceeded to do; that happened, despite its being one of Mr. Hemingway's main requests to the assistant dean before he would proceed. Jim and his witnesses felt intimidated, especially when the course leader asked people to change their statements. In spite of the fact that Jim's trade union, Unison, was involved during the grievance, the result of the flawed grievance procedure was that the case against the course leader was unproven.

I have good reason to believe that the course leader used her position to manipulate staff and students for her own political ends and at the expense of the courses that she was meant to manage. I have many examples of statements, as well as e-mails and memorandums, from students and staff who supported Jim's case. The Minister may have that file after this debate.

The story of Jim Hemingway's whistleblowing is not uncommon. There is the celebrated case of Paul Van Buitenen, who is now a Dutch MEP. He worked for the audit department of the European Commission and exposed corrupt practices that brought down the Commission EUROSTAT in 2001. That famous case had a much higher profile and involved a great deal more money, but the principle remains the same. If someone employed by a large organisation risks their career to expose the misuse of funds and is then penalised for doing so, that cannot be just or right.

Jim Hemingway's case revealed not only the weaknesses of the internal auditing system at Leeds Metropolitan university, but the lack of any coherent and consistent policy within LMU to protect people like Jim. I call on the Minister to instigate, in response to my debate, a nationally approved policy for all higher education institutions in England, which deals with public interest disclosures or whistleblowing, so that in future people like Jim can be assured that they can report genuine abuses without risking vilification and bullying—and, in some cases, the loss of their jobs and careers. Public bodies should be pleased that people like Jim exist—people who, out of a sense of public duty, report their concerns irrespective of the cost to themselves. I hope that the Minister will assure me today that he will investigate the possibility of developing such a policy, which will be standardised throughout the country's universities.

I also want an assurance that the Minister will request that Leeds Metropolitan university rewrites its grievance procedure to ensure genuine impartiality. That could mean outside arbitration being used in the resolution of disputes between employees. That arbitration could be in the form of an individual from another university or from a faculty in the same university who was completely unrelated to the faculty subject to complaint. What is important is that such a grievance procedure is seen to be fair, just and equitable by all sides in any dispute. That was plainly not the case with Jim Hemingway.

I have been careful this afternoon not to mention the names of individuals involved in this case apart from the person central to it, Jim Hemingway. There is, however, one individual who deserves to be mentioned by name. Dave Wright was the Government office official who carried out the audit so carefully, found the moneys that had to be repaid and ensured that all parties were kept informed at all times. He should be commended for his excellent work in following up Jim's concerns and in helping the university to ensure that such a problem can never happen again.

Why do I need to raise this case again after two years, when the whole ESF question has been dealt with and the moneys improperly claimed have been repaid? I need to do so because my constituent has continued to pay the price for his honesty by continuing to be the victim of bullying by his superiors. The university denies that Jim Hemingway has been victimised, but the evidence contradicts that. Will the Minister read the file that I intend to give him after the debate? Will he or his officials be prepared to meet Jim Hemingway?

My aim today has not been to vilify or castigate one of Leeds's great universities. All eight Leeds MPs are proud of Leeds Metropolitan university and its older sister the university of Leeds. We wish them continued success. I pay tribute to LMU's previous vice-chancellor, Leslie Wagner, and to the university's new vice-chancellor, Simon Lee, who I know will proudly carry the university forward.

The film school now has new management. I hope that there is still a place in the school for people of integrity, like Jim Hemingway. I hope that, having improved their internal audit procedures so that the ESF issue can never arise again, the vice-chancellor and the whole university will improve their internal grievance procedures along the lines that I propose. I hope that the Government will look at a common system for dealing with whistleblowers in English higher education institutions. Only in that way can we ensure that our great universities, so important to the future of this nation, go from strength to strength.

3.47 pm
The Minister for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education (Alan Johnson)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-East (Mr. Hamilton) on securing this debate and on drawing my attention to this case. It typifies the work that he has done on behalf of his constituents. His personal involvement is a great credit to him.

I emphasise that I have not been involved in the details of the case. I became aware of it only in the context of this debate. My officials have since talked to Leeds Metropolitan university and to the Government office for Yorkshire and the Humber to find out more information for the purposes of the debate. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept that I am unable to respond about some of the specific details that he raised.

It is worth putting this case in context. Staff complaints in the post-1992 university sector, which includes LMU, are dealt with through the universities' own procedures. The Government have no role to play in this area, as we have no involvement in appointing staff in higher education or agreeing their conditions of service. Responsibility for ensuring that concerns are addressed directly and with appropriate discretion rests solely with the institution concerned. Universities are, of course, subject to employment legislation in relation to their employees. As employers they are also subject to the requirements of the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, which was implemented to protect whistleblowers, such as Jim Hemingway, whom my hon. Friend rightly commends for his actions.

The Government are not involved in the internal employment issues of autonomous independent universities such as LMU. I am, however, able to make some comments on this case on the basis of information that I have received. First, LMU has a policy that reflects the provision of the Public Interest Disclosure Act. It put that in place in 2000 and revised it subsequently. I am told that it is available on the university's website. I heard what my hon. Friend said about the problems that Jim Hemingway had in finding that information. I understand from the university that Mr. Hemingway did not submit his complaint to the officer designated to deal with public interest disclosures. My hon. Friend explained why that was the case, but the result is that his case has not been dealt with through the university's usual procedures or in line with the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998, which was introduced to protect individuals like Mr. Hemingway. My hon. Friend said that that was because Mr. Hemingway was not aware of the policy when he made his complaint. I accept that point, and concede that that is a cause for concern that we need to address.

From the information that I have received, I understand that the concerns raised by Mr. Hemingway have been taken very seriously. Both the relevant Government office and my hon. Friend commended Dave Wright for his work, and the university has thoroughly investigated Mr. Hemingway's initial concerns about the inappropriate use of European social funds. The issue is relevant, and it was entirely proper for it to be raised. What happened was wrong. The problem has been resolved, as my hon. Friend said, to the satisfaction of the Government office and the university.

Mr. Hemingway's concerns were validated as a consequence of the investigation, which led to a significant recovery of public funds. That is a positive result. I understand that the investigation also led to another positive outcome, in that it prompted the university to revise its funding procedures to bring them into line with the policies and criteria required. I also understand that since Mr. Hemingway's meetings with the vice-chancellor of LMU and the dean of Mr. Hemingway's faculty, the university investigated Mr. Hemingway's other concern that he was being victimised at work because of his actions.

I have been informed that the university has taken remedial action in the past two weeks to assist Mr. Hemingway. I cannot go into further details about the specific nature of that action because it involves another individual who also has rights and is employed by the university, but I believe that my hon. Friend has already been informed about that development. I hope that the university's actions will enable Mr. Hemingway to pursue his chosen career with confidence and that they will lead to a satisfactory outcome of this difficult case.

Let me reassure my hon. Friend that the Government are committed to ensuring that people who declare any malpractice at work are protected from persecution. That was the whole point of the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998. I was Minister for Employment Relations, Industry and the Regions when we introduced that Act, which sent a clear signal to all that the Government were taking the issue seriously. We continue to take it seriously. The Act promotes the public interest by protecting whistleblowers from dismissal and victimisation in specific circumstances.

The Act owes a great deal to the charity Public Concern at Work and its tireless advocacy of the whistleblower's cause. I am aware that the higher education sector is committed to ensuring that staff feel able to raise matters that could be of public concern. Universities, like other public bodies, have a duty under the Act to conduct their affairs responsibly and transparently and to take into account the requirements of their different funding bodies. They also have a responsibility to take account of the Nolan Committee's recommendations on standards in public life.

As the Nolan Committee showed, there is a clear link between whistleblowing and accountability—an issue that many organisations understand. Staff are often aware of things being wrong where they work, and we must enable people to speak out about misconduct in organisations without their being punished. There can be no accountability in the workplace if staff remain silent through fear of repercussions, and enabling staff to speak out within their own organisations is a benefit to those organisations. The Committee of University Chairmen has taken on board the Nolan Committee's recommendation, and has produced a guide for members of governing bodies on establishing whistleblowing procedures in higher education institutions. Unions also have a critical role to play by supporting and advising their members.

It is clear from my hon. Friend's remarks that he believes that the higher education sector is not doing enough in this area. Indeed, his first of five points to me was that we should have a nationally agreed policy. I have already said what the Government's role is in relation to staffing issues in higher education. On the specific requests to instigate a national policy on public disclosure for higher education institutions and to ask Leeds Metropolitan university to revise its policy, I have no remit. On grievance procedures, on which I took legislation through in a previous life, my hon. Friend knows that from October every workplace in the country will be entitled to have a grievance procedure, including a three or four-step procedure. That is as far as the Government can go to ensure that such issues, which are proper to internal discussion, fall into line with accepted practice.

I have no remit to fulfil those requests; they are not matters for the Government. As I have said, it is inappropriate for me to dictate to universities the detailed matters of their internal employment relations policies and practices, provided that they are in line with employment law. However, I can commit to contacting the relevant representative higher education bodies about the wider issue that my hon. Friend has raised. Universities UK and the Association of University Teachers are examining staff complaints in higher education in order to develop new internal machinery to deal with complaints from staff that are currently not covered, or that are inadequately covered, by employment law, courts or tribunals. Although that might not cover whistleblowing cases, it should address wider staff complaints. I will bring this matter to the attention of those bodies, although I cannot prejudge the outcome of the process, as it will be subject to discussion between the two bodies in the sector, the employer and the unions. However, those developments will have an impact on universities' existing policies.

I am confident, from my hon. Friend's account, that the university is fully aware of the issues raised by this case. Like other higher education institutions, it will have to take account of future developments in the way it handles staff complaints. If staff cannot find reference to the internal procedure on, for example, public disclosure, it is in the university's interests to rectify that. I was pleased to hear my hon. Friend pay tribute to the two splendid universities in Leeds, and I am sure that they will take full notice of the issues that arise from the case.

My hon. Friend asked me to commend Dave Wright, which I have done in passing, but am happy to do again. He is a splendid official and has performed particularly well in this case. My hon. Friend asked me to take the file and read it, which I will. He asked if I would meet Jim Hemingway. I would be happy for my officials to meet him, if that is what my hon. Friend wants, but it would be wrong for me as a Minister to become involved. I must emphasise that that meeting could not lead to any direct intervention in the case by the Government or my Department.

I shall reiterate the main features of the case that my hon. Friend mentioned. Jim Hemingway is still in employment and has not been dismissed. There is a difference between the university and the employee about whether he has been victimised. I hope that the actions during the past two weeks of the new vice-chancellor—although there is no criticism of the splendid Leslie Wagner, the previous vice-chancellor—have addressed some of the concerns. The crucial point about individuals such as Jim Hemingway, who did the right thing from a sense of public spiritedness, who was absolutely correct and who as a result saved the taxpayer large dollops of cash that were being misdirected, is that they should be applauded at every stage. We are determined to ensure that legislation is there to protect people in his position.

Leeds Metropolitan university is a good university that is concerned about its employment relations record. Everything that I have seen since becoming involved has suggested that it is determined to learn any lessons that it can from the case. There may be some disagreement, but Leeds Metropolitan university wants good employment relations in the same way as my hon. Friend and I want them.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on raising the debate, and I hope that I have reassured him on some of those points.