LECTURERS in Merseyside have become the first members of Natfhe, the lecturers' union, to take a case for unfair dismissal to an Acas-run arbitration scheme rather than an industrial tribunal.
Education staff at Ashworth Hospital, one of three secure institutions in England for the mentally ill, have been victims of successive management upheavals, according to Colin Gledhill, regional organiser of Natfhe.
Ashworth is run by Mersey Care NHS Trust but the row began when the Ashworth Hospital Authority was in charge. Lecturers, once employed by the local authority, with nationally determined pay and conditions, became employed by the hospital, which sought to apply its own rules.
In a submission to Professor Roy Lewis, the Acas arbitrator, Mr Gledhill told of the difficulties faced by members amid changing senior personnel and reported threats of the hospital's closure. He said: "Natfhe, alone among the locally recognised unions, was unable to secure any cost of living pay rise for its members in 2000-01 and 2001-02. Nor was there any explanation."
Another dispute was over Ashworth's reduction of lecturers' holiday entitlement from 70 to 20 days, but with a long-service allowance. In October 2001, Ashworth proposed to dismiss all 12 lecturers and re-engage them, but with no clear terms of employment.
Mr Gledhill said: "The union believes management was driven by a dogmatic insistence on imposing Whitley terms and conditions, the model created for health service workers, despite the fact that education service groups have no place within the Whitley scheme."
Natfhe appealed in November 2001 but this was rejected by employers, who said the lecturers knew contract changes were envisaged and that consultation could continue up to the date of dismissal. At arbitration, lecturers claimed for reinstatement of contractual terms and conditions and compensation for financial losses.
Mr Gledhill said: "The process was introduced in late 2001 as a less costly alternative to tribunal hearings but has been little used, presumably because it's rare for both parties to forgo their day in court.
"After the dismissal and re-engagement episode, a new health service trust took over at Ashworth. The incoming management is showing commitment to restore decent industrial relations."
Professor Lewis's decision is expected this month.