Saga of Central sacking is over

11th February 2005 at 00:00
The board at Central College of Commerce in Glasgow has finally relented and agreed to take back its sacked union leader - but only on condition that he publicly apologises to the management.

In return, Jim O'Donovan, national president of the Further Education Lecturers' Association, will be re-engaged by the college and receive Pounds 60,000 in lost wages plus pound;13,000 in pension rights, following his dismissal over allegations of bullying and harassment.

The board of management agreed after being twice ordered to do so by an employment tribunal which found that Mr O'Donovan had been dismissed because of his union activities and that the college had made "mountains out of molehills (if there were ever any molehills in the first place)".

But the tribunal, on its resumed consideration of the case last month, said the conditions of Mr O'Donovan's re-engagement were that he must:

* Issue a statement saying he does not believe the college or any member of the board of management, past or present, has been guilty of misuse of public funds in connection with a college project, "nor does he believe that he has ever said anything capable of being construed as such a suggestion".

* Express regret if anything said or done by him has been misunderstood as such a suggestion.

* Agree that he does not regard publication of material holding up an individual to "gratuitous public ridicule" as legitimate union activity.

A spokesman for the college said in a statement: "The college board of management unanimously agreed to accept the formula as laid out in the judgment of the second stage of an employment tribunal.

"Under the formula, the board agreed the re-engagement of Jim O'Donovan and he in turn has agreed the conditions from the judgment imposed on him. The college is now discussing with Jim how to progress matters in light of both the tribunal's conditions on him and the board decision."

Mr O'Donovan said it was "a great result for me, my family, further education, trade unionism in general and even human rights".

He added: "I am pleased to confirm I have never alleged fraud in connection with the (college) project. I also have never regarded unofficial publications as legitimate trade union activity, and am happy with the board of management's decision."

But the outcome of one of the most prolonged disputes in the turbulent history of college industrial relations is unlikely to be seen as a victory for either side. Mr O'Donovan has accepted his return to Central College on the basis of strict and apologetic conditions.

The college has had to accept the re-engagement of a lecturer in whom Peter Duncan, the principal, told the tribunal he had lost all confidence and trust. Mr Duncan said he believed Mr O'Donovan would adopt "a wrecking policy fomenting conflict and discontent" - a view the tribunal dismissed as without "substantial or significant foundation".

Union activists have regarded the O'Donovan case as the final "catalyst" which led to the formation of the Campaign for Further Education.

Jim Higney, a founder member, said this week that the outcome of the case and the money spent on it reinforced the campaign's contention that "public funds that should be used for the provision of further education are being misused by unaccountable boards of management". Legal bills for colleges fighting disputes with staff had hit "astronomical" levels in the past 10 years.

Mr Higney said that, at the reconvened tribunal, the QC for Central College argued that, since Mr O'Donovan is a supporter of the Campaign for FE, this was reason enough for him not to be re-employed. "This raises a very serious issue for democratic rights and trade union and political activists in general," Mr Higney said.

"How can a public body, financed out of the public purse in a democratic society, argue before a tribunal that a citizen's views should bar that citizen from employment?"

Criticism of the way Central College handled the case has also led to an inquiry set up jointly by the board and the Scottish Further Education Funding Council (FE Focus, January 14).

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