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Rainy day protest at troubled college

A battle has broken out between unions and a college where more than 600 staff have been told to reapply for their jobs.

The dispute deepened last week when staff held a meeting to discuss the lay-offs in a rainy pub courtyard.

Now lecturers at West Herts College, based in Watford, Hertfordshire, have organised a petition against cuts which are expected to lead to the loss of some 125 jobs.

The battle turned bitter when the principal Tony Pitcher, who was drafted in earlier this year to rescue the college after it failed an inspection, refused to allow a joint union meeting on the premises.

Instead staff went to a nearby pub, where about 60 members of three unions - the lecturers'union Natfhe, the public services union, Unison and the Association of College Managers - discussed proposed redundancies.

Natfhe regional official Elizabeth Martins said: "The weather was appalling - it was raining and cold. The principal refused to allow us to meet on the premises. All we were attempting to do was to organise a meeting to seek the views of members as part of the consultation process."

Unions say that forcing all staff to reapply for their jobs is tantamount to dismissing them.

They are also furious at proposals to force employees to work on new contracts with inferior terms and conditions and a reduction in annual leave.

Ms Martins said: "(Tony Pitcher) has been telling us that the staff support his proposals but that is not the feedback we have been getting. We oppose all staff being dismissed and being forced to reapply for their own jobs, especially in areas of staff shortages, and in areas where no cuts are to be made.

"We have asked him for details of the redundancy packages offered to the previous principal and deputy so we can compare them to what is being offered to the rest of the staff, but he has told us it is none of our business.

"We believe the previous principal received a pay-off in excess of pound;300,000 but he is refusing to reveal the details."

In a report by the Office for Standards in Education published last month, the college was graded "inadequate". Managers say it has a budget deficit of pound;3.5 million.

Mr Pitcher said he had refused permission for the meeting as Natfhe had not acted "in good faith" in its dealings with him. He added: "The lack of co-operation and intransigence of Natfhe is counterproductive. The first duty of a representative union is to look after the interests of its members and in my opinion they are not doing that."

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