Mr. John Linsie

– in the House of Commons at 11:35 pm on 18th June 1991.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Greg Knight.]

Photo of Mr John Butcher Mr John Butcher , Coventry South West 11:36 pm, 18th June 1991

I thank my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science for his attendance and, through him, I thank those officials who will be helping him at this late hour.

I should like to bring together three strands, the full development of each of which would take much time. The first strand is the way in which Solihull borough council abused its disciplinary powers to obtain the dismissal of one of its educational psychologists, my constituent Mr. Linsie, who had worked for the authority for about 20 years. The second strand deals with my endeavours to obtain an examination of Solihull council's action and the injustice done to my constituent.

The third strand deals with the way in which such an abuse of power is even now seriously eroding the efficient and effective working of the Education Act 1981. The working of that Act turns upon the professional competence and independence of various advisers—educational, medical and psychological. Mr. Linsie's experiences clearly demonstrate that an adviser's independence can be seriously limited by a local authority through the exercise of its hiring and firing powers. Not to beat about the bush, an authority can use its powers as an employer to intimidate its advisers to produce reports which accord with those actions taken as an administrator in the management of its special education system.

Mr. Linsie's difficulties with Solihull point up a much wider issue which, if left unaddressed, has all the potential to become a national scandal. Viewed in this way the issue, as it centres on Mr. Linsie, is the canary in the miner's cage. I shall view the issue in personal terms as it directly affects Mr. Linsie. His difficulties with Solihull metropolitan borough council centre on a memorandum of 6 July 1989 issued to Mr. Linsie by the council's then principal educational psychologist, Mr. Andrew Large, who is no longer an officer of the council—he is now a member of the Minister's inspectorate.

Mr. Large's memo contained three instructions which required Mr. Linsie to change his hours of work, remove from his reports an advisory paragraph to parents, arid rewrite seven of his reports. Those seven reports, and only those seven, contained the paragraph in which Mr. Linsie stated that, in accordance with Solihull's guidelines, his report would not contain a placement recommendation. Mr. Linsie asserts that those instructions were issued with the quite explicit intention of obtaining from him an action indiscipline which, in its turn, would then justify taking disciplinary action against him and so obtaining his summary dismissal.

Solihull's action against my constituent proceeds through four stages: first, the issuing of three instructions; secondly, the refusal by Mr. Linsie to implement those instructions; thirdly, the interpretation by Solihull LEA of his refusal as an act of indiscipline; fourthly, labelling that act of indiscipline as a form of gross misconduct—chilling words—and proceeding against Mr. Linsie via the council's own disciplinary code.

Of that memo's three instructions I propose, because of time limitations, to concentrate upon the third instruction —Mr. Large's instruction to Mr. Linsie to rewrite seven of the psychological reports that he had prepared for children referred to him under section 5 of the Education Act 1981.

In returning these seven reports, Mr. Large implied that they were incompetently written. What is at issue here is not Mr. Linsie's own competence as a psychologist, which Mr. Linsie would be happy to defend before his peers. That is an issue which Solihull struggled to avoid confronting directly. Instead, what is immediately at issue is Mr. Large's tactics and procedures as a manager of psychologists. For while he claimed to view these seven reports as incompetently written, the only action that he took was to instruct Mr. Linsie to rewrite them. Mr. Large's action here is so much in conflict with the action that any reasonable manager, in such circumstances, might rationally be expected to take that his action requires to be fleshed out with a little detail.

Mr. Linsie, as an employee of 20 years with the authority, had written during that period hundreds of reports—all of which had been accepted as competently written by a psychologist who knew his job. In that period, he once received a formal complaint about his reports—and that from a parent. But even that parent, in due time, accepted the appropriateness of Mr. Linsie's advice. Indeed, that incident, which occurred in 1985, serves to indicate the director of education's attitude towards Mr. Linsie at that time because in April 1985 the then director of education wrote to the complaining parent a letter which concluded: In the best interest of the pupil I require professional advice from my psychologists—advice which expresses his or her opinions and is given without fear or favour. I have every confidence that Mr. Linsie will provide me with such advice. As recently as April 1985, therefore, Mr. Linsie received from his director of education that clear endorsement of his professional competence. Yet just four years later he had apparently become so incompetent as a psychologist that it was necessary, in Mr. Large's judgment, to return to him not just one or two of his reports, but no fewer than seven.

It is reasonable to expect, moreover, that Mr. Linsie's immediate manager, in judging his reports, would have met Mr. Linsie to discuss his report writing. But at no time were any meetings held between Mr. Linsie and his superior, or other senior officers, specifically to discuss difficulties concerning his reports. I stress the point—no meetings of a relevant kind were ever held with Mr. Linsie about his report writing.

The manager's action is made the more bizarre by his failure to make explicit the way in which Mr. Linsie's reports were judged to be defective. For example, a memo to Mr. Linsie of 6 July fails to identify, from Mr. Linsie's seven reports, one defect, fault, error, or mistake. Instead, the memo sets for Mr. Linsie's attainment a clutch of goals. Clearly, a manager has a right to set goals, but what is immediately suspect is the ploy of implying that Mr. Linsie's seven reports do not satisfy his manager's goals without making plain their deficiencies by reference to any particulars whatsoever.

It appears, therefore, that Mr. Large holds Mr. Linsie to be seriously professionally incompetent in his report writing. Yet all that he does is to issue Mr. Linsie with an instruction to rewrite those reports. I suggest in this regard that a number of Solihull's senior officers were engaged in entrapping Mr. Linsie in a catch-22 situation.

Had my constituent implemented his manager's instructions and rewritten his reports, by that very action he would have acknowledged that his original reports were defective and thus incompetently written. Solihull's subsequent behaviour has confirmed Mr. Linsie's own concern regarding the use that Solihull may have made of that admission. Even more clearly, had my constituent refused to rewrite his seven reports, by that action he would have refused an instruction and thus could be disciplined according to Solihull's disciplinary code. In the event, Mr. Linsie chose the second alternative, if I may put it that way—he refused the instruction and was disciplined.

Thus, basic to Solihull's dismissal of my constituent is not Mr. Linsie's action, but his superior's action in issuing the memo of 6 July—an action which I suggest to the House was so managerially unconventional as to justify a questioning of its whole motivation and the conclusion that beneath its apparent managerial purpose there may have resided an intention to secure Mr. Linsie's dismissal. My constituent's superior's action here is so bizarre in relation to general mangement practice that it ought to have been obvious to Solihull's local education authority that the instructions of 6 July were issued for purposes other than might have been apparent on the surface. But such was not obvious. Instead, Mr. Large's actions, managerially bizarre though they were, received full endorsement from other Solihull senior officers.

There is not time to detail all the various levels of the authority and the individuals concerned who did not grip the situation and address the real issues beneath the verbiage with which they were confronted. Suffice it to say that those officers and officers sitting in appeal on the case and a committee of councillors in my view did not come up to scratch.

If my hon. Friend judges that such a catalogue of suspicions, doubts and bizarre management practices lacks immediate credibility because of its wide-ranging implications for the behaviour of an LEA collectively and at all levels, I remind my hon. Friend that Solihull's defence of its actions against my constituent completely collapsed when required to stand before an independent industrial tribunal. It collapsed because of the tribunal chairman's intervention. If the tribunal chairman, before he had listened to argument and heard evidence in any detail, could see that Solihull's case was fundamentally flawed, one wonders why Solihull's own legal department was willing to mount the action at all at further expense to the taxpayer with a bundle of documents two inches thick and the time of four or five senior officers.

Thus the situation following the industrial tribunal hearing can be viewed as analogous to that of a criminal prosecution which has dramatically broken down, in which the accused then pursues redress against the police for malicious prosecution—except that in Mr. Linsie's case there is apparently no analogous action that he could take against Solihull metropolitan borough council for the abuse of process of its disciplinary code. It seems that a local authority can wholly misuse its disciplinary code and is answerable to no one save an industrial tribunal. In this regard, it is relevant to note that a tribunal's remit does not include taking action against an employer. Nor does a tribunal possess the power absolutely to protect an employee's job. Thus Solihull could embark on its action against Mr. Linsie in the full knowledge that it could leave my constituent without a job at the age of 60.

I suggest to my hon. Friend the Minister, with respect, that the fact that Mr. Linsie withdrew his industrial tribunal action is irrelevant to the matter that I raise. At that point, with my support, my constituent requested the Department of Education and Science to mount an inquiry, but to no effect. I also requested my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General to intervene, also to no avail. Education organisations requested Solihull itself to mount an internal inquiry, as did my constituent, but again to no avail.

All that would be serious enough if it only concerned Mr. Linsie personally, but it does not. It refers potentially to the whole profession of education psychologists and to all those employees of a local authority who provide advice under the 1981 Act. For what Solihull's action against Mr. Linsie reveals is an LEA's endeavour to limit the professional independence and competence of an adviser in the preparation of reports under the 1981 Act.

Of this general state of affairs, Mr. Peter Newell of the children's legal centre recently wrote in a article, under the heading "Don't Gag the Professionals", that conflicts are intensifying between the duty of teachers, educational psychologists, doctors and other professional workers to set out the special provision they consider a child needs under the 1981 Act and their contractual duty to obey their local education authority which may be neither willing nor able to make the provision they recommend. If local education authorities are able to pressure their education psychologists without let or hindrance, that will wholly vitiate the statementing procedure that was set up by the House in the Education Act 1981. That procedure is complex, time consuming and expensive. Its whole value turns upon the professional competence and independence of the advisers who are producing its basic reports, educational, medical and psychological. It assumes that parents, in making their own submissions, will have ready access to all the relevant information.

It is now emerging that LEAs are seeking to make a farce of the procedure by turning it into a paper exercise that does no more than legitimise what an authority might do on purely administrative grounds. The House clearly did not intend to create a set of circumstances in which LEAs are able effectively to say to parents, "This is what your child needs because that is all that we are willing to provide." If the statementing procedure is to have any relevance to a child's unique learning difficulties, it is crucial to defend the professional independence and competence of those producing the statementing reports. It is in that process that the education psychologist makes a crucial contribution to the determination of the learning difficulties that are experienced by all children. Indeed, his relation to the education statementing system is closely analogous to the forensic scientist's relation to the judicial system. I need hardly remind the House how the questionable independence and competence of a handful of forensic scientists has created massive and grievous difficulties for the judicial system's working in general.

It is the self-same issues of professional independence and competence which, in relation to the education system, are instanced to a heightened degree by Solihull MBC's action against Mr. Linsie. If the House ignores the matter, it will send the clearest message to all advisers that it is not concerned with professional independence and competence. Is that the message that it wishes to send? I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to reconsider his earlier decision and to institute a local inquiry into Solihull's action against my constituent, John Linsie.

It would seem that my hon. Friend possesses some powers to act. In a letter to me, he noted that Solihull subsequently withdrew the charge of gross misconduct against Mr. Linsie". That seems to suggest that that absolved the DES from taking action. However, by the time that Solihull withdrew its charge, the deed had been done. My constituent had lost his job and had no prospect of reinstatement.

In addition, an official of the DES wrote to Mr. Linsie turning down his request but noting that for action to be taken an authority's conduct must be conduct which no sensible authority acting with due appreciation of its statutory responsibility would have decided to adopt. That is a DES letter of 31 October 1990.

Authorities have a clear duty to the House to act as its agents in the day-to-day administration of the 1981 legislation; and an authority cannot be held to be acting with due appreciation of its statutory responsibilities in this regard if it uses its hiring-and-firing powers to intimidate those who prepare the reports basic to the working of the Act's statementing procedure.

I refer to the issue of Mr. Linsie's own competence as an educational psychologist. In that he refused to re-write his reports, Solihull rejected them from its statementing procedure for the seven children involved. Thus it was necessary to produce a further seven reports by other psychologists. As a consequence there now exists, for the same seven children, two sets of reports—one set prepared by Mr. Linsie and rejected by Solihull, and the other prepared by other psychologists and accepted by Solihull. Thus, a comparison of the two sets of reports provides a ready measure of Solihull's own quality control procedure. Six of the seven parents involved granted Mr. Linsie access to the reports prepared for their children by psychologists other than Mr. Linsie. For those six children, Mr. Linsie submitted both sets of reports to another educational psychologist of considerable experience and qualifications, but personally unknown to my constituent—Dr. David Galloway of Lancaster university.

I quote from Dr. Galloway's reference to four of the reports that the authority found acceptable—those prepared by psychologists other than Mr. Linsie. He stated that they contain no information that could not equally well have been provided by a reasonably well-informed and experienced teacher. To that assessment, Dr. Galloway added a comment about the reports' relevance to the working of the Education Act 1981. He said: It is reasonable to assume that Parliament intended rather more from the educational psychologist's contribution to this process than repetition of second-hand information and production of information that could quite well have been produced by a teacher. Thus, the issue to which Dr. Galloway draws attention with regard to four of the reports which Solihull found acceptable is not their quality, but the more fundamental issue of whether they are psychological reports at all. Dr. Galloway absolves all Mr. Linsie's reports from that fundamental criticism. That raises the uncomfortable suspicion that what worried Solihull was not Mr. Linsie's competence as psychologist, but the fact that he was endeavouring to work as a psychologist at all.

I must refer to comments about the charge of "gross misconduct". In preferring such a charge, the authority paid no heed to the way in which that charge would be interpreted by people in general. On the inappropriateness of the charge, Mr. John Wright, administrator for the Independent Panel for Special Education Advice, stated: To charge Mr. Linsie with gross misconduct was scandalously inappropriate. It is difficult to interpret the selection of this charge, as opposed to indiscipline or inefficiency which are the two alternatives available in the discipinary code, other than as an attempt to intimidate other Solihull staff who may in future feel impelled to speak for the rights of children with special educational needs. I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science, my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth), for listening to a case that must, by necessity, be explained in some detail. I hope that my hon. Friend agrees that it raises serious questions about the rights of employees to have their arguments heard properly and at appropriate levels within an education authority and within a city and borough council's remit. I believe that in this case something has gone horribly wrong. I know my hon. Friend to be a reasonable man and I shall leave it to his discretion whether to call in the papers for another look, whether to institute his own inquiries in his own way or whether to bring in an outside observer to consider the implications of the case for the Education Act 1981, for the damage done to my constituent and for the way in which an authority can prefer a charge of gross misconduct, which was in itself a gross misuse of its powers to hire and fire, and not subsequently re-examine the case with the reason and openness that it should have elicited in the first instance.

Photo of Mr Alan Howarth Mr Alan Howarth Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Education and Science) 11:58 pm, 18th June 1991

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, South-West (Mr. Butcher) on securing this Adjournment debate. This is the first debate in which my hon. Friend has participated since his return to the House following his recent illness. We are all glad that he is again playing his part in our debates. He always raises important issues in a searching fashion, and he always champions his constituents doughtily, as he has done this evening. He has spoken on behalf of Mr. Linsie energetically and with feeling, and he raised important and difficult issues which are associated with the case.

My hon. Friend has chosen to speak at length. Within the constraints of this Adjournment debate, it is not possible for me to respond in detail to a range of matters which he has articulated.

It would be appropriate for me to begin by explaining the nature of the Department's involvement in this matter to date and how the Secretary of State arrived at his decisions in relation to the complaints that were put to him by Mr. Linsie under the Education Act 1944.

On 15 July 1990, the then Secretary of State received from Mr. Linsie a letter registering a formal complaint under sections 68 and 99 of the Education Act 1944 against the metropolitan borough of Solihull. The substance of Mr. Linsie's complaint under section 68 of the Act was that the borough had acted unreasonably in dismissing him in December 1989 on grounds which were cited, as my hon. Friend has said, as "gross misconduct."

The Secretary of State's power to intervene under section 68 is restricted to those cases in which the local education authority has acted "unreasonably" with respect to the exercise of any power conferred or the performance of any duty imposed by or under the Education Acts. From the information submitted by Mr. Linsie, there was no basis on which the Secretary of State could have intervened under section 68 of the 1944 Act as his complaint—that the LEA acted unreasonably against him for failing to comply with its instructions as employer—did not relate to the exercise of a power or the performance of a duty by the LEA under the Acts. Mr. Linsie was, therefore, notified of this position in relation to the section 68 complaint in a letter dated 15 August 1990.

The substance of Mr. Linsie's complaint under section 99 of the Act was that Solihull metropolitan borough council had failed to discharge its legal duties under section 5(3)(b) of the Education Act 1981. Mr. Linsie said that the borough had failed fully to inform parents about an aspect of its procedures used in making an assessment of its children under section 5 of that Act. In specific terms, Mr. Linsie's concern was that the borough had failed to advise parents of the existence of a set of guidelines issued to members of Solihull's school psychological service in 1984 and titled "Guidelines for Writing Psychological Reports."

My Department responded to the section 99 complaint in a letter dated 31 October 1990. This pointed out that the ultimate responsibility for formulating an assessment of a child's special educational needs rested with the local education authority, which had the task of co-ordinating the advice, evidence, representations and information received about the child. It was further observed that the local education authority had a legitimate right to require its officers and advisers to provide such information and advice as the LEA needed to perform its duties under the Education Acts and to provide guidelines to ensure that the necessary information was provided and that there was consistency between the advice and evidence proffered. The Secretary of State took the view that there was nothing in the 1981 Act or subsequent regulations which could have been construed as giving parents a statutory right to be informed about the existence and use of guidelines that were intended purely as an internal working instruction for educational psychologists or other professionals employed by the local education authority. It was, moreover, difficult to see how such a requirement would be practicable.

If the guidelines themselves had been inconsistent with the primary or the secondary legislation, as interpreted by the Secretary of State at the time of his decision, and if the content of the guidelines had formed part of the basis of Mr. Linsie's complaint, there would have been grounds for the Secretary of State to have intervened. However, as Mr. Linsie had made clear, the content of the guidelines was not the basis of his complaint under section 99 of the Education Act 1944. In the circumstances, there appeared to be no grounds which have would have justified the intervention of the Secretary of State in relation to Mr. Linsie's complaint under section 99 of the Act.

It is my firm belief that local authority educational psychologists and their professional colleagues in other disciplines play a vital part in our realisation of the aims embodied by the Education Act 1981. Through the detailed reports which they provide, they help to ensure that the most appropriate provision possible is given to children who have special educational needs. They also help to ensure that, wherever possible, such provision is made in an integrated setting where children with special needs can learn alongside their peers. I must stress that my right hon. Friend's decisions referred to are not in any way a judgment about the contribution which Mr. Linsie has made to this process or about whether the termination of his employment with the borough of Solihull was justified. Those matters are for others to determine, not the Secretary of State for Education and Science. The Secretary of State's decisions on the complaints before him were quite simply based upon legal considerations in respect of the particular terms of Mr. Linsie's complaints.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at five minutes past Twelve o'clock.