Tribunal clash on contracts

10th July 1998 at 01:00
Union allegations that South Lanarkshire wants to railroad teachers and "bring them to heel" were dismissed as extravagant by the authority at an industrial tribunal in Glasgow last Friday.

The council, which has decided to transfer the right to discipline and dismiss teachers from the education committee to the directorate, described the long-running dispute as intractable and is challenging the tribunal's jurisdiction.

The hearing was considering legal submissions by South Lanarkshire and the Educational Institute of Scotland in what is widely regarded as a test case in relation to the status of teacher terms and conditions inherited from the former regional councils.

The union has also challenged Edinburgh and Argyll and Bute over what it alleges have been unilateral breaches in contracts, overturning previous local agreements with the unions. The EIS is basing its case on the contract of Raymond Catt, principal chemistry teacher at Lanark Grammar, whose career spans 26 years.

The tribunal heard that the authority had continued to operate the grievance and disciplinary procedures bequeathed by Strathclyde until January 1997, when an interim agreement was reached with the teacher unions. This lasted until August 1997 and, after failure to reach a final agreement, the council issued its new policy in January 1998.

Malcolm McKay, for the EIS, said there was no sound business or organisational reason for the move. It was really a measure "to bring teachers to heel".

There was a clear route from the "white book", which set out the terms of employment of teachers who worked for the former Strathclyde, to the contracts of teaching staff in South Lanarkshire, Mr McKay submitted. The Strathclyde agreement had stipulated that a teacher could be dismissed only by a majority vote of the education committee.

South Lanarkshire wants power of dismissal to rest with education officials in line with its personnel policy for other council staff, although there would be a right of appeal to a subcommittee of councillors.

The tribunal is being asked to address a fundamental argument as to whether the mechanisms for dealing with teacher grievance and disciplinary matters are merely about "policies and procedures", as South Lanarkshire claims, or enshrine conditions of service and are therefore contractual, as the EIS asserts.

Ian Truscott, QC, for South Lanarkshire, said the provisions of the Strathclyde white book were not contractual and had not kept pace with changes in legislation. The deciding factor was the white book's use of the word "shall" which did not constitute a contractual obligation but was only an appropriate use of the future tense.

Mr McKay disputed this and deplored what he described as the council's attempts to "railroad teachers". He urged the tribunal to order both sides back to the negotiating table.

Mr Truscott denied there was an intention "to do teachers down" and described this as "an extravagant view of what took place".

South Lanarkshire is also questioning the powers of the tribunal. It was "inconsistent in terms of employment legislation that an industrial tribunal should have jurisdiction in an industrial relations matter of the most intractable sort," Mr Truscott suggested.

Manus McGuire, the tribunal chair, interjected: "But the tribunal could say that dismissal by officials was a breach of contract."

Mr Truscott also challenged the "test case" nature of the proceedings, arguing that South Lanarkshire's changes would not be applied to Mr Catt, so the tribunal's ruling would have no immediate personal effect on him. There was therefore a significant difference with other cases which came before tribunals involving pay which was "a definite issue".

Mr McGuire replied: "But so is security of employment."

The tribunal is expected to announce its verdict at the end of this month.

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