Ombudsman insists on apology to Wirral

17th March 2000 at 00:00
Funding council on collision course after watchdog's judgment. reports Ngaio Crequer

THE Further Education Funding Council and its ombudsman are on collision course after an accusation of breach of natural justice.

The ombudsman has insisted the council give the former board of Wirral College, in Merseyside, an unqualified written apology for the way their rights were ignored during an inspection.

The council objected to the finding of maladministration and asked John Bevan, the ombudsman to think again. But he insists on his ruling and his report will go to a full council meeting on March 22.

Mr Bevan has however rejected complaints that David Melville, chief executive of the council, contrived the conditions in which the Wirral could be subjected to a hostile take-over; that he did so by exercising covert influence and control over the college and its circumstances; that he denigrated the college and displayed contempt for the work of the former board; and that he obstructed the college's recovery efforts directly and in an underhand way.

Although Mr Melville had been involved in "forming alliances with selected local political interests," the working relationship between the college and the FEFC had broken down. No maladministation was found.

The ruling against the council concerns an inspection of the college last April. The college was in serious financial difficulties, it could not agree its strategic plan with the council, and there was local hostile political activity.

The council recommended that the Secretary of State dismiss the board. In fact the non-staff goernors, under pressure, resigned before this could happen, and a new board was appointed. The inspection report compared the former board unfavourably with the new governors.

According to Mr Bevan's report: "The quite exceptional circumstances at Wirral placed a very high level of duty on the inspectorate to observe due process, of which they had had ample opportunity to be fully aware. In publishing findings clearly and explicitly critical of the former members of the board without any attempts to inform them of those findings, and to give them an opportunity to comment ...the inspectorate fell well short of the duty lying on it."

As well as apologising, the council should confirm that the former governors "unfailingly met the standards of commitment and integrity required in respect of governance of colleges."

But the council says it acted within accepted procedures. If it had acted outside those prccedures it would be vulnerable to legal action, it wrote to Mr Bevan.

"The ability of the inspectorate to continue to execute its statutory duty...would be very severely undermined if it were to be obliged to inform former post holders of its judgements in advance of publication.."

It would be unreasonable to have to "search out" previous post-holders. "Such an impediment to the FEFC in fulfilling its statutory duty may have far-reaching legal consequences for all bodies involved in the regulation of publicly funded services."

The council argues that accepting Mr Bevan's judgement "would have dangerous implications for the integrity and operation of the inspectorate".

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