As I have mentioned before, the vicissitudes of life (and the perennial reorganisations which are one of the forms those vicissitudes take for those of us with the mixed fortune to be local government workers) find me working these days in Human Resources.
I don’t blog about my job, but in that job I have to be aware of developments in employment law, and therefore of the gathering body of case law that warns employers against over-hasty suspension of employees.
The Court of Appeal has held that; “Whilst views generally might reasonably differ as to whether suspension is a "neutral act", the view of the courts is that it is not” and has emphasised “the need to avoid a "knee jerk" reaction, with suspension as the default position.”
This case law refers (of course) to the employment relationship. Employment law cannot simply be “read across” into (for example) the law as it impacts upon disciplinary procedures of trade unions, or political parties.
On the one hand, someone’s job is central to their life and ability to earn a living, and so the law relating to their employment ought (you would hope) to be careful to protect their rights. Perhaps therefore you would expect a more cautious approach to suspension from employment than in some other walks of life.
On the other hand, if you are suspended from employment, you continue to be paid. Whilst it is possible that an unjustified suspension could amount to a breach of contract, it is also true that the contract of employment can continue through a suspension and – if all goes well from the employee’s point of view – out the other side.
Whilst a suspended employee is denied the opportunity to work, they nevertheless continue to be paid. The basic reciprocity of the employment relationship (I am available for work. You pay me) is not terminated simply by the act of suspension.
However, when an elected representative in a trade union or a political party is suspended, there is an immediate impact in that they cease – in effect – to hold the position to which they have been elected (or selected). The union (or party) still takes their subscriptions but it has removed them completely from the role from which they have been suspended.
Because our membership of a trade union or political party is not circumscribed with the same range of legal protections which our movement has fought for over centuries for our rights as workers, there is -potentially – inordinate scope for suspension of union or Party office holders to be used inappropriately – to seek to resolve political differences by administrative means.
And sometimes this happens.
I am more familiar than I might wish with UNISON’s disciplinary processes. These limit the power of the National Executive to suspend someone from office to a maximum of 60 days (excepting cases of alleged financial irregularities).
This is a reasonable time limit. It enables the organisation to take a little time to consider a case in which discipinary action may be required, without permanently removing an elected official from a position to which they have been elected by the membership.
Unfortunately, Labour Party rules permit suspensions to drag on (and on) – which amounts to the imposition of a disciplinary sanction in advance of any hearing or of the opportunity for the individual to advance a defence.
I do not mean to make direct comment on a suspension announced today by the Labour Party – but, having recently seen a comrade return to Party membership following a suspension which lasted for more than two years – I think that the need for some time limit on the power of the Labour Party NEC to suspend members (as proposed by Brighton Pavilion CLP at 2017 Conference) is urgently required.
Of course, if I were going to say something about today’s suspension, it wouldn’t be something I would want to say on this blog. I try to avoid swearing here.