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Dismissal dispute settled

In a heartfelt mea culpa, the chairman of the board at Glasgow's Central College of Commerce says the leadership there accepts "at face value and with good grace" the criticisms of an independent inquiry into the handling of a long-running dispute involving the dismissal of a member of staff.

The college would "work assiduously" to address its shortcomings, Eric Tottman-Trayner said.

The inquiry was set up by the Scottish Funding Council and the college's board of management, following a stinging rebuke by an employment tribunal over the dismissal of Jim O'Donovan, a lecturer at the college. He was also a prominent national union figure as president of the Further Education Lecturers' Association.

The tribunal described the college treatment of Mr O'Donovan as falling "seriously and far below" the standard of a reasonable employer. The college was forced to reinstate Mr O'Donovan, but the tribunal also stipulated he must undergo some retraining.

The funding council acknowledged that the tribunal's findings represented a "significant authoritative criticism", which required it to uncover whether this reflected weaknesses in the way the college was run.

The council set up an independent panel of three people, chaired by George Moore QC. Its report, while sparing no colleges blushes, did not spare Mr O'Donovan either. It stated: "It is clear, from the evidence presented to us, that both the college management and Mr O'Donovan have on occasion failed to appreciate the roles appropriate to the position in which they found themselves.

"The status of members of staff, equal with that of managers when they are acting as local trades union officials, has not always been accepted by managers, and Mr O'Donovan himself appears to have confused his role as a trades union representative with his role as staff representative on the college board."

The inquiry found both sides were at fault. Mr O'Donovan was not blameless in failing to attend any board meetings, it concluded. The board blocked his attendance until he signed a document of confidentiality, which he refused, regarding it as a "gagging order".

But the fundamental failings were of the college's own making, the inquiry found: "If the college had had meaningful information and consultation arrangements, we conclude that the employee relations difficulties that arose might have been avoided."

The panel was told that Peter Duncan, the principal, had "unilaterally suspended such arrangements as did exist".

The inquiry's report recommended that the principal should not be responsible for "investigating the facts, initiating disciplinary charges, deciding on whether the charges are proved and recommending the sanction".

Disciplinary hearings should be conducted at a different level of management, the report states, and the principal should act as a court of appeal.

But a further recommendation that college boards of management should not be involved in disciplinary matters has been rejected by the funding council. The inquiry team said boards of limited companies would not normally take on such a role, which should be the responsibility of college managers.

But, in a circular to colleges on the report, the funding council suggested that "boards should be seen as public trustees upholding and ensuring the highest possible standards of management and conduct in their organisations. They are well-placed to be the final level of appeal, independent of management, in such procedures".

Mr Tottman-Trayner signalled his board's determination to draw a line under the case. "We have made a commitment to take action, at whatever level is appropriate, to ensure that the necessary changes are properly developed and effectively applied," he said.

In its circular, the funding council says lessons are to be learned from this saga. It urges colleges to benchmark procedures against principles of good practice which are set out in the panel's report.

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