The actions of a group of senior Unison union officials known as “Team Dave” were on trial between 19 and 21 December. An Assistant Certification Officer (ACO) heard evidence of alleged widespread malpractice in their campaign to get Dave Prentis re-elected Unison general secretary.
When Prentis won his fourth term on 17 December 2015 an unprecedented number of complaints were made to the election returning officer. His challengers – Roger Bannister, John Burgess and Heather Wakefield – all made complaints.
The ACO heard how assistant general secretary Cliff Williams directed the Team Dave network of dozens of senior Unison employees.
The defence was that Team Dave campaigned in their personal time.
Yet the team was founded at a meeting during the union's 2015 annual conference in a hotel booked and paid for using Unison resources.
Williams encouraged the team to “maximise every opportunity to capture support for Dave”, to “identify official meetings” to “piggyback” onto and “integrate” with their campaign.
Greater London regional secretary Linda Perks was recorded on 21 October 2015 instructing paid staff to campaign for Prentis. James Godfrey, a local Unison organiser at the time, told the hearing that the 21 October meeting was “compulsory”.
“There were no elected lay officials at the meeting,” he said.
Perks relayed thanks from Prentis for the work staff did getting him nominations but warned them not to get “caught out saying ‘vote for Dave’”. Union rules state that staff should not “carry out any activities intended or likely to affect the election or candidature of any person”.
But Godfrey said, “It was a fully united management team. The three senior regional officials were all there.”
Using union resources to support candidates is prohibited yet Team Dave leaflets were stored in the region's office. Godfrey said that the code to request them—“special chocolate biscuits”—was “indicative of the subterfuge and disdain towards the proper conduct of the election”.
He said he was “disturbed” that over half of the meeting focused on Prentis's re-election.
Another assistant general secretary, Roger McKenzie, told the hearing he was appointed “to investigate the actions of Linda Perks” and that he was in Team Dave. According to Lianne Venner—who reports to Dave Prentis—former president Wendy Nichols appointed McKenzie.
Nichols and Venner were part of Team Dave, as was Bronwyn McKenna, another assistant general secretary. McKenna said McKenzie's remit was decided in consultation with her.
It was treated as an internal disciplinary matter. This was crucial. Returning officer Electoral Reform Services (ERS) felt it “inappropriate” to investigate while a disciplinary matter was ongoing, according ERS deputy chief executive Simon Hearn.
Hearn said ERS was “confident” the 21 October revelation “was a breach” and was satisfied by Unison's investigation of “staff members”. But that was not McKenzie's remit.
Yunus Bakhsh, the legal representative for Burgess and others, argued that “Team Dave panicked” when the recording went public.
He asked, “An investigation into Team Dave by a member of Team Dave is hardly going to be impartial, is it? That tape revealed an orchestrated campaign against election procedures to get Dave Prentis re-elected, did it not?”
Bakhsh probed McKenzie on why the investigation had not been widened to include the Greater London regional management team, or the general secretary.
McKenzie said his “remit” was to focus on Perks and his report was “very damning” of Perks. Nonetheless, after a period of suspension Unison gave Perks another job at the same grade as her old job.
The ACO asked Williams if Perks “asking her staff to lie” about where Prentis campaign leaflets came from would normally see an employee “summarily dismissed”.
Williams agreed that it would. But he declined to give a view on whether the presence of the regional management team at the meeting, in work time, was appropriate.
Bakhsh added that the recording “pointed to Prentis having knowledge of the actions and Perks having his blessing” and suggested this at least warranted him being interviewed.
McKenzie said it was “unreasonable” to suggest that Prentis should have been investigated.
The complainants repeatedly pointed to a series of events that cast doubt over how any investigation could be impartial.
During McKenzie's investigation, Unison's presidential team emailed the NEC, regional officials, service group executive chairs, senior and national managers, and the London region managers.
It said “an independent forensic report” of the 21 October recording stated “the probability of tampering is exceptionally high”.
Despite being in charge McKenzie “didn't know this forensic analysis was asked for”.
NEC member Jon Rogers was interviewed by McKenzie about his complaint over the Perks meeting, the role of regional managers and the general secretary. He received a libel threat that same day.
McKenzie was asked when he knew Rogers was “threatened by libel action by one of the people he was complaining about”. He said he “knew nothing” about this when he spoke to Rogers and saw it just as “an issue between Jon Rogers and Dave Prentis”.
Bakhsh pointed out that the McKenzie’s report did not mention that Rogers’ apology that appeared in it “was a product of the libel action threatened”.
The report also stated that ex-organiser Godfrey was interviewed. After questioning, McKenzie admitted this was not true.
The hearing also looked at why returning officer guidance was changed mid-campaign.
On 15 October last year Cliff Williams wrote to Team Dave, “Remind nominating branches that they can publish the fact of their nomination together with the reasons why.”
The official Vote Dave Prentis website provided the update. But Rogers requested guidance from the returning officer about the interpretation of election procedures.
The advice was that Team Dave was wrong.
Williams thought this was “unfair” and phoned Venner—the senior staff member overseeing the election—on 16 October, a Saturday.
Ijeoma Omambala, Wakefield's legal representative, said Williams’ actions “suggest a sense of entitlement” to an outsider. She added, “A decision you don't like, you phone a senior member of staff and expect something to be done about it.”
A key element to the hearing was the role of the election's independent scrutineer and returning officer, both fulfilled by ERS. Unison’s rule book requires there to be a returning officer “independent of the union”.
Hearn said ERS was told the guidance given to Rogers was “incorrect” and its “understanding changed after representations from the union”. These “suggestions” about what ERS should say were made by Venner.
The ACO also heard that Team Dave was not the only campaign group for Prentis.
Williams agreed that Liz Snape, another assistant general secretary and Prentis's partner, could be described as the “architect” of the official Vote Dave campaign, as he was Team Dave architect.
Another email group existed, closely associated with Snape. It advised that a specially targeted email for regions could be sought and to contact Unison’s director of communications for help with this.
As Omambala summarised, “We have evidence of material produced and stored in Unison premises, of directives to staff that could only be carried out in work time.
“And the existence of a database that could be tailored to regions that the director of communications is involved with along with Liz Snape.”
Closing arguments are set for 22 February.