Education Employment (Accompaniment To Hearings)

– in the House of Commons at 12:40 pm on 17th March 2021.

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Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

Photo of Brendan Clarke-Smith Brendan Clarke-Smith Conservative, Bassetlaw 12:45 pm, 17th March 2021

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide that teachers and other education staff may choose to be accompanied to disciplinary or grievance hearings by a person other than a trade union representative or colleague;
and for connected purposes.

For anyone in any profession, a disciplinary or grievance hearing is daunting, but for teachers these hearings can be acutely so. False allegations of misconduct are all too common within the teaching profession, but their ramifications can be uniquely damaging, often shattering careers and tarnishing respectable reputations.

As a Member of Parliament, I have spoken to many teachers who have found themselves subject to false allegations. One teacher, who must remain anonymous, was suspended from teaching for 12 months when their school, under pressure from some parents, was deemed to have inadequately followed safeguarding procedures. That teacher was not just suspended for more than 12 months, unable to teach, but dismissed from their role at the school and referred to the Teaching Regulation Agency for serious misconduct. However, with significant support—accompaniment at hearings and representation at tribunals—the teacher was found not to have committed any such misconduct and their dismissal was, thankfully, successfully challenged. Without such support, this excellent teacher may never have taught again.

I regret to say that such cases are not uncommon. For teachers, third party accompaniment at a disciplinary or grievance hearing is crucial. Third parties can help to codify situations, provide objective guidance and offer reassurance in what can often be fractious, distressing and highly charged situations. To that extent, all employees and workers should have equal employment status under the law, regardless of their trade union membership status, but as it stands, section 10 of the Employment Relations Act 1999 does not offer fair accompaniment to the 77% of workers who are not members of a trade union.

At present, section 10 dictates that workers are legally entitled to accompaniment to disciplinary or grievance hearings only by a trade union representative or colleague. That means that a trade union member can be accompanied by almost anyone, from a local union rep to a QC, as long as they are employed by a school or the trade union. But what about those teachers who are not members of a trade union either by choice or by accident? It seems unlikely that a colleague would be trained and experienced to the same extent as a union representative, but that is the only option for the 77% of workers who are not members of a trade union. Although employers can agree to alternative accompaniment, it is at their exclusive discretion, so, right out of the blocks, many workers are left to their own devices, with the chances of a positive outcome stacked against them. Put simply, they are legally disadvantaged by the constraints of the Employment Relations Act, which deprives them of a right to fair accompaniment by a reasonably qualified companion.

It does not have to be like this. Accompaniment is a positive action: it is positive for workers; positive for trade unions; and positive for employers. It is widely accepted that trained and experienced companions are beneficial to both parties at disciplinary or grievance hearings. To that extent, the Bill seeks a simple change to the law to allow accompaniment for teachers at disciplinary or grievance hearings by someone other than a work colleague or union representative. It is likely that the companion might be somebody appropriately trained and experienced and, in some cases, legally qualified. I would endorse a system of accreditation to protect the integrity of the process. What I cannot endorse is the current situation whereby teachers’ statutory rights are dependent on their membership of a trade union.

This Bill is about levelling up the teaching profession. It is about strengthening the role of teachers. It is about the promotion of equal rights in the workplace, and it is about closing a gap in the law. It is a pro-worker move that costs nothing and hurts no one. It is not even a proposal without precedent. In 2008, the fifth report of the House of Commons Children, Schools and Families Committee called on the Government to enshrine in law teachers’

“right to have legal representation or to be accompanied by a trade union representative, whichever they prefer, in all disciplinary hearings.”

Despite that, over a decade has passed, and the gap remains wide open.

This Bill is also about creating greater parity between employers and employees. As it stands, employers are free to have whoever they choose present to support, including legally qualified individuals, yet teachers’ accompaniment rights are much more limited, damaging their prospects and creating an asymmetrical relationship from the outset.

Fundamentally, these proposals are about choice. No one should feel pressurised into joining a trade union for the legal protections alone, but sadly, that seems to be the case, with polls showing that teachers join trade unions largely for legal support in the face of allegations. In fact, a survey of 6,900 teachers just last year showed that one in four teachers would leave their union if they could benefit from alternative legal support in employment disputes. Take Amy Forrester, a secondary school English teacher and director of pastoral care. Amy is not a union member but told me that, even as a Labour voter, none of the unions represents her current views as a teacher. Amy subscribes to one of the alternatives, Edapt, but like me, she strongly believes that her accompaniment rights should be dictated by personal choice rather than by the status of her union membership.

I want to make one point clear: this Bill is not an attack on trade unions. It does not seek to diminish their power or influence. It does not seek to undermine the valuable work they do, the accompaniment they provide or the legal representation that they can offer. Rather, it seeks to enhance and protect workers’ rights for teachers. It seeks to modernise existing legislation, and it seeks to recognise that all teachers deserve full legal protection against damaging and often false allegations.

For me, the core principle of this Bill is fairness. As a former teacher and headteacher, I want members of my former profession to feel confident in their position. I want them to feel secure, and I want them to feel protected. Teachers have given so much throughout this pandemic. They have adapted quickly to new ways of working, and they have provided a safe haven for many children during this immensely difficult time. In proposing this Bill, I hope to make it clear that all—not some—teachers deserve robust protection in disciplinary or grievance hearings. As we know, allegations of misconduct can be more damaging for teachers than virtually any other profession, so it makes no sense that the law discriminates in this way.

It is time for change, and it is time to align the rights of those who are not trade union members with the rights of those who are. As I said earlier, this Bill costs nothing and hurts no one. It simply closes a gap in the law—a gap that for too long has prohibited fairness and choice. I hope that the Government will support this Bill, to bring an end to the inequitable and selective nature of existing legislation. I commend this measure to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Brendan Clarke-Smith, Andrew Lewer, Andrew Percy, Caroline Ansell, Damian Hinds, Jim Shannon, Jonathan Gullis, Robert Halfon, Scott Benton, Selaine Saxby, Tim Loughton and Virginia Crosbie present the Bill.

Brendan Clarke-Smith accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 276).