Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jeremy Wright.)
I am pleased to have the opportunity to bring to the attention of the House a matter of great importance: the dismissal of 14 staff at the Liverpool passport office because of a major error made by their employer, the Identity and Passport Service, an executive agency of the Home Office.
I thank the Minister for meeting Liverpool MPs and arranging for us to discuss the situation with him and key staff. I also thank him for forwarding us a copy of the internal review into the issue, although it came complete with many redactions. The key facts are not disputed. On 21 March 2011, 14 permanent staff at Liverpool passport office were called to a hastily convened meeting to be told that what they thought was their permanent employment had abruptly ended. Four were dismissed immediately and 10 were switched to temporary employment, which has now finished for most of them.
The reason given was that the IPS had made a major error in awarding those staff permanent employment status from September 2008 when they were recruited under a friends and family scheme. The rules under which they were recruited meant they should only have been given temporary employment status for a maximum of two years. The employees were unaware of that fact and they had been given permanent status by their employer. The sudden dismissals without warning shocked and angered the staff, some of whom had left their previous employment to take up what they thought was a new career. Others had taken out loans or mortgages on the basis of their permanent employment. Indeed, the whole office remains upset.
I want to raise serious, still unresolved, issues about the conduct of the IPS in this sorry saga and the current status of the dismissed staff. There is considerable confusion about what happened. I have in my possession a very interesting letter dated 4 January 2011, written by Paul Luffman, head of employee relations at IPS, and addressed to Barry Forrester at the office of the Civil Service Commission. According to the letter, the IPS’s error was discovered in its recruitment audit at the end of March 2009. The Minister’s reply to my parliamentary question on 31 March 2011 contradicts that, stating that the error was discovered in March 2010.
Why did it take one or perhaps even two years to inform the staff that there was a question mark against their employment? According to a reply I received from the Minister for the Cabinet Office on 27 April 2011, the IPS told the Civil Service Commission on 27 April 2010 that it was dealing with the situation, replacing the permanent contracts with temporary ones. In reality, they were doing no such thing. Who signed off that incorrect information? Who gave the wrong information to Ministers? When did the Minister discover that the information was wrong?
It also appears that the recruitment audit file was not returned to the Liverpool office as it should have been; it was sent to the Peterborough office and destroyed. Paul Luffman’s letter asks the civil service commissioners if there were any alternatives to terminating the 14 permanent employment contracts, and that indeed is the key question. I understand that the letter was never dispatched. Why?
It is alleged that the letter was never dispatched because of concerns that it would embarrass David Normington, then permanent secretary at the Home Office and now first civil service commissioner and commissioner for public appointments. Is that correct? It is worth noting that David Normington would be in a difficult position to adjudicate the current situation.
Instead of the 14 Liverpool staff being informed of their problem at a time when more alternative jobs were available, they became unemployed two years later, when job opportunities were decreasing and educational and training courses were being curtailed.
My constituent, Denise Wheatcroft, who is 58 years old and the oldest of the group of 14 people, took the post with the Identity and Passport Service because she thought that it would guarantee her employment until her retirement. She now finds herself without a job aged 58. Does my hon. Friend agree that, if Denise had been informed of the situation when it was discovered, and in advance of the current situation, given the cuts that are impacting on Liverpool in particular, she would have been in a much better situation than she is today?
I thank my hon. Friend for her comments and certainly agree. Indeed, she provides an example of the human cost of what has happened in Liverpool.
It has been said that the decision to dismiss the 14 employees was taken on the basis of “legal advice”, and it has even been claimed that to maintain their employment would have been “illegal”. I challenge that. I have seen no evidence that any formal legal advice was sought or obtained, and Paul Luffman’s letter seeking such advice was never sent.
Telephone conversations and personal discussions, which I am told took place, do not constitute formal legal advice; nor is there any record of the questions to which any verbal advice responded. The suggestion of “illegality” in allowing those employees to continue with the permanent status that they were awarded is grossly misleading and an attempt to divert attention from what has happened and from the culpability of those who are responsible.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate about a running grievance that affects a number of our constituents. Does she agree that, regardless of the recruitment method and whatever flaws it had, there is no real evidence that it would be illegal to rectify the situation, so the Department and, by extension, Ministers have a real opportunity to redress a terrible example of bad faith on the part of the Department?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his contribution and certainly agree. During the course of my contribution, I will suggest what I think needs to be done to redress the situation.
It is possible that, given the circumstances in which the permanent employment status was awarded, continuing with it was contrary to an interpretation of current departmental rules, but that is a very different proposition from any notion that it was illegal. We are, indeed, discussing a unique situation, and it required an imaginative and flexible approach. In any case, advisers advise, Ministers and their staff are responsible for decisions and the advice itself is influenced by the question posed. Where is the instruction from the Civil Service Commission to dismiss the 14 staff? Does such written instruction exist? If so, will the Minister publish both question and answer?
Correspondence from the then Liverpool regional manager in June 2010 refers to advice that the Civil Service Commission could make an exception to permit these employees to be made permanent staff. Annexe E of the internal review quotes the human resources business partner as stating:
“The Civil Service Commissioners recruitment principles do allow for some exceptions—I believe there could be a small opportunity to attempt these”.
I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this important issue to the House. I should like to support the points she is making and add that given that this is a unique and extreme situation with many missing parts, perhaps the Minister could look at it again with fresh eyes.
I thank the hon. Lady for her comments and agree with everything she says.
I want to return to the question of whether there was another way of dealing with the matter. I have quoted the views expressed by the Liverpool office regional manager in June 2010, and I would now like to refer to Paul Luffman’s letter—the letter that was never sent from the Department to the Civil Service Commission. In referring to what has happened and what should be done about it, it says:
“I would like to discuss this directly and in detail with the Civil Service Commissioners to see whether IPS is able to use one of the exceptions to fair and open recruitment, before resorting to withdrawal of the contracts. I understand that the civil service commissioners recruitment principles do allow for some exceptions to fair and open recruitment, and I believe there could be an opportunity to attempt to use these (albeit retrospectively) to rectify the situation.”
I echo the sentiments of the hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey) regarding the importance of this issue. Given the additional information that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) has provided to the House, and the cross-party unity that seems to have broken out, does she agree that it is not good enough for the Minister simply to bury his head in the sand, and that the first thing that should happen is for him to reinstate the Liverpool 14?
I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution; I certainly agree with him. Indeed, I will make the same request before I conclude my remarks.
We see from the written information that we have to hand that there was the possibility of an alternative way of dealing with the IPS’s grave error with regard to these employees, yet it appears that it was not properly pursued, and that for some bizarre and unknown reason the letter written by the Department to the civil service commissioners asking that the matter be looked at was not posted. That has to be one of the great mysteries in all this sorry episode.
I join colleagues on both sides of the House in congratulating my hon. Friend on securing this debate and on her tenacity in uncovering the information that she is sharing with the House. My constituent, Christina O’Brien, who is one of those affected, will be encouraged by what she has discovered. Will my hon. Friend press the Minister to reconsider this matter so that we can see these 14 hard-working staff re-employed at the passport office?
I thank my hon. Friend for his comments, and I will certainly do as he requests. Fourteen people are unemployed as a direct consequence of a major error made by the IPS—an error that it failed to address constructively. They are the victims of an unacceptable catalogue of events.
The internal review document that I have seen contains many redactions at critical points. That is why it is not a proper and satisfactory explanation of what went wrong and why. Perhaps it is time for an external inquiry if matters cannot be put right. To add insult to injury, I understand that a business case has been submitted for the imminent recruitment of staff at the Liverpool passport office on the same or similar grades as those of the dismissed employees. It seems that the jobs are still required, although the 14 people who were doing them satisfactorily were dismissed. In those circumstances, I must press the Minister. Can the dismissed workers have priority consideration for those posts, which I understand are about to be part of a recruitment drive?
A June 2010 memo from the Liverpool regional manager states:
“Surely we have a duty of care to those who are in this position through no fault of their own.”
No duty of care was shown by IPS. The key questions on what has happened and why the matter has not been rectified remain unanswered. In those circumstances, and given all the information I have presented today, and the contributions of my colleagues on both sides of the House, I call for the reinstatement of the 14 dismissed workers as a matter of natural justice.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman) naturally takes an extremely keen interest in the future of the passport office and its staff, and I recognise the sentiments that she and hon. Members on both sides of the House have expressed.
The hon. Lady may be aware, although she did not mention it in her speech, that an employment tribunal hearing date for six of the people involved has been fixed in Liverpool for 30 September. I hope that she and the House will appreciate that, in view of that pending action, I am unable to comment on matters of legal interpretation, as they will be for the tribunal to determine. She and I, and others, have had discussions about the legal interpretations, and she gave powerful views on them, but as I said, I cannot comment from the Dispatch Box on matters that are for the impending tribunal to determine.
The hon. Lady made a number of points and revealed a number of things. She said that she had got hold of an e-mail from, I believe, 2009. She will understand that I have had no access to that, not least because it was sent under a previous Administration. If she wishes to provide that to me, I will investigate and get fully involved in seeing what it tells us.
The hon. Lady made a powerful point about the question that could be asked to the commissioners. She will remember that at our recent meeting, she made the perfectly reasonable point that she wished to ask questions of the commissioners. I asked her to send me her question on the interpretation of the advice, and said that I would be happy to put it to the First Civil Service Commissioner. I have not received that question, but my offer still stands. If she or any of the hon. Members who were at that meeting wish to send me the question that they would like to ask the Civil Service Commission, I would be more than happy to ask it.
I have written to the Minister recently on the legality of the situation. Those matters should be addressed to the commissioners. However, he previously remarked that he would not have had access to information given under the previous Administration. I would be most surprised if the civil service does not make all information available to Ministers, including information that existed under previous Administrations. This not a party matter, and surely the civil service deals with all information regardless of who is in government.
Of course this is not a party matter, but Governments do not have access to the papers of previous Governments—that is a long-standing rule. Let us not go into the constitutional niceties, though. It is a fact that I have not seen this e-mail that the hon. Lady mentioned. If she wishes to send it to me or hand it to me at the end of the debate, I will happily take it away and look at it. She will be aware that the IPS has offered its sincere regrets to the individuals involved, and I can only add my apologies for the distress that resulted from this operational error, which, as she said, took place under a previous Administration. The IPS has clearly apologised.
I accept that this problem was not of the Minister’s making, but it is a problem for him to act on. It is not good enough to hide behind the legalities and legal niceties. It is a unique set of circumstances, and I do not believe that reinstating these 14 people from the passport office would set an undue precedent. Even before the tribunal sits, he should use his powers to right this wrong.
The Minister will know that, while a tribunal is pending, it is open to any employer to review the situation, decide that it is not worth proceeding to a tribunal and try to rectify the situation by their own actions. If he wanted to be bold, he could overrule what his officials are telling him and say, “Look, there is a moral case here.” It has been put effectively by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman), and in the light of what she said, I think that we should resolve this situation before the tribunal.
I am conscious of the strong feelings involved, and as I said, I would be delighted to look at the new information that she has revealed to the House this afternoon.
The hon. Lady made a number of other legal points. As she will be aware, the civil service rules do not permit exceptions to enable permanent appointment under this type of system, although they can enable the extension of fixed-term contracts up to a maximum period of two years. She mentioned the letter from Paul Luffman, which was indeed a draft letter that was never sent. It was not sent to the commissioners because the Home Office human resources team were dealing directly with the commissioners, not the IPS.
I want to put on record what happened. The core of the problem sits with an error made by the Liverpool passport office in September 2008 in preparation for the peak demand period starting in March 2009. At that time, the Liverpool office ran a recruitment exercise using friends and families as a candidate-attraction method. The IPS issues more than 5 million passports each year and demand is subject to seasonal peaks. It manages the seasonal variations through the use of flexible employee deployment and through a variety of employee contracts. These contracts include full-time, part-time and part-year appointments and will occasionally include the appointment of staff on fixed-term or casual contracts.
For a number of years, the IPS has, in areas of the country where there are challenges for the permanent recruitment and retention of lower graded staff, used a localised process for the recruitment of fixed-term appointment or casual staff. In this case, short-term opportunities were advertised through the existing network of IPS staff. The recruitment process is closed, which means that the job opportunities are not advertised publicly and therefore other potential candidates are not given access to information about the opportunities available. However, those candidates given the information are selected fairly and are required to demonstrate appropriate levels of competence and behaviours through an application and interview. They are also subject to normal referencing procedures.
Posts advertised under the friends and family scheme should be clearly described as either casual or fixed-term appointments. By definition, friends and family schemes are not fair and open campaigns and, under the civil service Order in Council, cannot result in a permanent appointment to the civil service. Posts advertised and appointed in this way can result only in fixed-term or casual appointments for a maximum of two years. IPS works to defined policies for deploying and recruiting staff. Since 2005, the management and administration of IPS recruitment has been overseen by the IPS central resourcing team in human resources at its headquarters in London. The error made by Liverpool passport office in 2008 and 2009 was that it employed those 14 staff on a permanent basis. The recruitment had not been authorised by IPS’s head of resourcing and the Liverpool office had not described the scheme as falling under the friends and family provisions. This resulted in a list of candidates being subsequently employed on permanent civil service contracts by mistake.
In March 2010, the IPS central resourcing team carried out a routine audit of IPS external recruitment. The audit identified concern about the friends and family recruitment scheme that was adopted at the Liverpool office in 2008 to employ staff in 2009. The concern primarily arose from the fact that staff had been permanently recruited without any open competition or advertisement of the vacancies. IPS considered that the civil service Order in Council had been contravened on the grounds that permanent contracts had been agreed through a process that was not subject to open competition. In view of the contravention, IPS looked to withdraw the permanent contracts and place the individuals involved on fixed-term contracts.
The following month, April 2010, IPS notified the civil service commissioners that a total of 14 permanent contracts were being withdrawn and replaced by fixed-term appointments of under two years. However, that action was not taken immediately. Instead, IPS explored whether alternative approaches existed that could alleviate the potential impact on the staff employed. That process was protracted but IPS was unable to find new evidence to support any other approach. It was not until February 2011 that the final decision was taken to cease the permanent contracts. Having reached that decision, IPS briefed the local senior management team and national trade union representatives from the Public and Commercial Services Union. The PCS local branch was briefed on 16 March 2011 to allow employee representatives time to prepare and consider an appropriate response. On 21 March 2011, the decision to dismiss the affected staff was carried out. The 14 staff affected, still in employment, had their permanent employment contracts terminated immediately and four of those staff, who had already completed two years’ service, by exception were offered a five-week paid notice period. The remaining 10 staff were offered and accepted fixed-term contracts of up to two years, including time already served. Of those 10 fixed-term contracts, three were scheduled to end on 14 June 2011, two on 31 August 2011 and five on 30 September 2011.
The Minister has just described the sequence of events. Does he agree that one of the most disturbing features of this saga is that the problem was identified almost a year before the directly affected employees were informed? Would it not, with the benefit of hindsight, have been a great deal fairer for the employees concerned to have been advised that there might be an issue as soon as it came to light? Frankly, the situation in terms of finding other jobs, especially in the public sector, was a lot rosier in April 2010 than it is now.
As I have just said, the reason for the delay was precisely because the IPS management were searching desperately for ways to avoid where we have come to. It was done with the best of intentions, but I appreciate the power of the hon. Gentleman’s argument.
So far, four staff have elected to leave before their scheduled end date and four are still in post. Six of the staff who have left have found jobs elsewhere. Discussions with individual staff about potential compensation payments commenced in the week starting 20 June 2011. That is one of the matters that was discussed when I met hon. Members a few weeks ago. Those discussions remain under way and it is hoped that agreement about a suitable level of compensation can be reached. Those discussions will continue ahead of the tribunal hearing of 30 September.
At my meeting on 8 June with the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside and others, the question was raised of whether the people affected would be guaranteed an interview if any new recruitment was planned at the Liverpool office. IPS is unable, for legal reasons, to offer a guaranteed interview. However, it is open for the people involved to apply for posts under any future recruitment campaigns, and their experience of the work and the skills and competencies would be taken into account as relevant factors in considering any application.
A detailed review of what has happened and the lessons to be learned was immediately commissioned and reported in April 2011. The review has been shared with the staff, the unions, the hon. Lady and other interested Members. It is of course a matter for the individual staff concerned to take the matter further. As I said, six of them have submitted employment tribunal papers. It may well be that others choose to follow that approach. That is for them to decide, but it is important for me to acknowledge here that the people involved did a good job for IPS. We should make it clear that they were not asked to leave because they were inefficient or were unable to their job. We should also make it clear that IPS is engaging with all the people involved to determine whether we can reach an equitable settlement that will bring the matter to an earlier conclusion and reduce any further impact on those involved.
As I said at the outset, this matter arose due to an unfortunate error in 2008 at the Liverpool passport office. The review, which reported earlier this year, identified that a number of practical improvements have been implemented. A key change is that the recruitment of any staff is subject to central processing, which means that although local interviews and managing of the process take place, it will be a matter for the IPS central resourcing team formally to agree and approve any new appointments and the recruitment methodology to support them. Staff cannot be put on the payroll without that process having been completed. That is a key processing change and, as part of the next generation of human resources expertise in IPS, it will allow access to the right level of expertise, ensure that the right governance arrangements are in place and ensure that decisions are legally compliant. That has now been in place for over a year.
IPS has admitted that it failed to complete the right processes in 2008 and 2009, and it has taken steps to recover the situation. I appreciate that 14 people consider, rightly, that they have been disadvantaged in the whole process, but I can only emphasise again that the cancellation of their contracts is not a reflection of their ability or their contribution. Human resource services across government have to meet exacting standards and while IPS’s actions in this case have clearly had a serious detrimental impact on the individuals involved, I believe that it was an isolated error and that IPS has taken the right steps to avoid the situation being repeated.
IPS is looking to agree an equitable settlement with the people involved, and I would welcome information and support from the hon. Lady and the other hon. Members who are, perfectly rightly, concerned about their constituents and who have engaged on the issue to ensure that we can bring the matter to as speedy a conclusion as possible, not least and most importantly for the benefit of their constituents.
Question put and agreed to.