Guest post by Merle Stotten
This is the second of a series of articles about the TSSA. Further articles are scheduled for later in December.
Part Two: You Couldn’t Make It Up – But TSSA Bosses Did!
According to Iain Coucher, former Network Rail (NWR) Chief Executive, the White Report demonstrated that allegations which the TSSA trade union had made against him were “malicious and scurrilous, and completely without foundation.”
Any self-respecting trade unionist is instinctively loathe to attach any credibility to a statement emanating from a NWR Chief Executive, especially when the Chief Executive in question is Iain Coucher.
(Without advance warning, Coucher sacked 600 NWR employees on a single day in November of 2003. His salary was three times that of the Prime Minister. For eight years work at NWR he was paid over £7 millions. When he quit NWR, he walked away with a ‘golden goodbye’ of £1.6 millions.)
But in this case, Coucher did have a point.
The then TSSA general secretary Gerry Doherty certainly thought so. Confronted with the White Report, his surrender was unconditional (although he could hardly have acted otherwise):
“We want to thank Antony White QC for all his careful and detailed work and we fully accept his conclusions. … We unreservedly accept his findings that all allegations of financial impropriety against Mr Coucher were unfounded.”
The report in question, published in May of 2011, was the outcome of an inquiry by Antony White QC into TSSA allegations of “misuse of public funds and serious financial impropriety in NWR”. The main target of those allegations had been Iain Coucher.
The TSSA’s allegations might best be described as what you would expect to find in a joint literary venture by Dave Spart, Timothy o’Leary and Walter Mitty.
(For the benefit of younger readers: Timothy o’Leary gained fame and notoriety in the 1960s for experimenting in the use of what were known at that time as “psychedelic drugs”.)
According to the TSSA, Coucher had a Coutts World Card which allowed him to withdraw £100,000 a day in cash. This was used to empty cash machines near NWR headquarters in order to pay off “troublesome” NWR employees: “Cash machines were emptied up and down the Euston Road to get the much-needed readies.”
Coucher received hidden payments of £180,000 every quarter through offshore accounts, the allegations continued. Offshore accounts and/or shadow companies were also used by NWR to pay off departing NWR employees: “This kept all hush money payments out of NWR annual accounts and public scrutiny.”
The TSSA further claimed that Coucher had received bonuses and pension payments of up to £100,000 a year in cash from NWR to which he was not entitled. He had failed to reveal various “success fees”. And he enjoyed a central-London company flat at NWR’s expense.
At Coucher’s initiative, said the TSSA, NWR had bought a new training school for £20 millions – but the purchase and running costs were mysteriously absent from NWR records.
Also mysteriously absent from NWR payroll records was any mention of an employee who had been paid off to avoid embarrassment to NWR: “Not only was there no (record of a) payoff, she had never existed as far as NWR was concerned.”
White gave short shrift to all such allegations.
Contrary to the TSSA’s claims, Coucher had never held, nor had access to, a Coutts World Card, nor any other credit card, entitling him to withdraw £100,000 a day in cash. The allegation was simply “groundless”.
In response to the claim that Coucher had been paid £180,000 every quarter through offshore accounts (on top of his salary), White noted: “The way in which this allegation has altered over time does nothing to enhance its credibility.”
In an earlier version, the payments had supposedly amounted to £350,000 every six weeks, and they had been paid through a consultancy firm. At no point had the TSSA ever explained how the allegation could have changed so radically.
But this was irrelevant. The TSSA “provided no evidence whatsoever” in support of either version of the allegation. And a search of NWR’s electronic payment data showed no evidence of such payments. It was another “groundless” allegation.
The allegation that NWR had used offshore accounts to pay off employees had also changed over time: In July 2010 the offshore accounts had been based in Barbados; in August 2010 they had been based in Bahamas; by January 2011 they had moved back to Barbados.
(One can understand how easy it was for the TSSA officials behind the allegation to get confused: Both places in question were islands, both began with the letter ‘B’ (in fact, even more confusingly, both began with ‘Ba’), and both were in the Caribbean. So, did it really matter if they were completely different countries?)
Again, White found that there was “no evidence at all” to support the allegation and dismissed it as “groundless”. His verdict on the TSSA allegation that shadow companies were also used to pay off employees was even more damning.
The “shadow companies” named by the TSSA were not shadow companies at all. They were all listed in NWR’s publicly available Annual Report and Accounts. And none had ever been used to pay off a NWR employee. It was another utterly “groundless” allegation.
The TSSA allegation that Coucher had wrongly received pensions payments and bonuses was based on its claim that Coucher had not been an employee of NWR between 2002 and 2007. He had supposedly been a freelancer.
Embellishing the allegation even further, the TSSA claimed: ““This was concealed from NWR staff, the media and Parliament. … In his (Coucher’s) attempts to keep this secret he created a small team of executives who maintained the fiction that he was a PAYE employee.”
And just for good measure, the TSSA also claimed that it was not until its 2010 Annual Report that NWR “finally disclosed” that Coucher had become an employee only in 2007.
“The truth or falsity of these allegations was easy to establish,” wrote White. He obtained a copy of Coucher’s contract of employment, which confirmed that he had been a NWR employee as of 2002.
Coucher had therefore been contractually entitled to pensions payments and bonuses as of that date.
The TSSA claim that Coucher had been a freelancer and that a small team in NWR maintained “the fiction” that Coucher was a PAYE employee was itself a fiction.
Even more embarrassing for the TSSA, the 2010 NWR Annual Report which supposedly “finally disclosed” that Coucher had become a NWR employee only in 2007, actually stated that Coucher had been an employee since … 2002.
All of these allegations were therefore “groundless”.
Coucher quickly disposed of the allegation that Coucher was behind the purchase of a new training school for £20 millions for which the purchase and running costs were not included in NWR records.
There was “no evidence to support the allegation” in the TSSA dossier. A NWR employee who, the TSSA claimed, would corroborate the allegation, “provided no first-hand evidence to support the allegation.” And NWR accounts “properly reflected the acquisition costs and running costs.” The allegation was “groundless”.
Other TSSA allegations about Coucher met the same fate.
Coucher had never disclosed the success fee he had been paid as a consultant for setting up NWR after the collapse of Railtrack?
Leaving aside the fact that there was no obligation on Coucher to disclose the fee, all fees paid to Coucher in connection with the creation of NWR had been disclosed in the publicly available 2003 NWR Annual Report and Accounts.
Coucher had been paid a housing allowance of £20,000 a year by NWR, and from August 2007 onwards he had been provided with “a company flat”?
NWR had never denied that such a housing allowance had been part of Coucher’s remuneration as Deputy Chief Executive (2002-07). But once Coucher became Chief Executive in 2007, he received neither a housing allowance nor a company flat.
NWR had shut down its payroll system for 24 hours in order to delete an employee’s payroll record after she had been paid off?
But the system had not been shut down, not even for 24 seconds, and the employee’s payroll record was still intact on the system.
Coucher received a car allowance of £13,000 a year?
The TSSA managed to get this one correct. But it was a contractual entitlement, and NWR had never denied its existence There was “nothing at all unusual or improper about this arrangement,” wrote White.
It was “unclear” why the TSSA had persisted with the allegation, As White put it: “I asked the TSSA representatives I interviewed what was wrong with Mr Coucher receiving a car allowance to which he was contractually entitled. They had no answer to this question.”
Only one of the TSSA allegations was upheld by White. But this concerned NWR’s £350,000-a-year Human Resources Director, Peter Bennett, not Coucher.
White concluded that NWR had used a compromise agreement to buy off a sex and race discrimination claim by a NWR employee, paying more than an Employment Tribunal would have awarded, in order to cover up Bennett’s unacceptable sexist and racist behaviour.
But this finding was a sideshow compared with White’s consistently damning verdict on the TSSA allegations about Coucher, all of which – bar the reference to his car allowance – were found by White to be “groundless”.
The TSSA had failed to provide any evidence to back up the allegations. And some of them could even be refuted by documentation in the public domain and readily accessible to the TSSA!
But this was only half the scandal uncovered by White.
Most TSSA allegations had been reported in a series of newspaper articles in the course of 2010. The articles had been based on a dossier of evidence circulated around media outlets by the TSSA.
On obtaining the dossier, White found that “only one document in it related to the allegations of illicit payments to Mr Coucher.” This was “an unsigned statement” by a NWR employee (“X”) which had been “prepared by an officer of the TSSA.”
But, as is clear from White’s report, the statement by X contained allegations – not actual evidence.
In fact, when interviewed by White, X admitted that he had “no first-hand knowledge” of some of the allegations contained in his unsigned statement (i.e. they were based on what someone else had said to X).
X agreed that one allegation in the statement sounded “far-fetched”. He also denied being the source of another of the allegations.
White concluded: “A number of the allegations attributed to X in the unsigned statement by X were not supported by X in interview. … In several material respects X’s oral evidence failed to confirm assertions made in the unsigned statement by X contained in the TSSA dossier.”
But the real bombshell about X’s unsigned statement was dropped by White at paragraph 188 of his report:
“It was at this stage in the interview that X made the surprising revelation that X had never seen, let alone approved, the unsigned statement by X contained in the TSSA dossier.”
White returned to the same point towards the end of his report:
“I mentioned in paragraph 188 the fact that the TSSA dossier circulated to the media contained an unsigned statement by X which X had not even approved. In interview, X described a substantial proportion of the unsigned statement attributed to X as ‘TSSA spin’.”
That is to say: An officer (or more likely: officers) of the TSSA had “prepared” a ‘statement’ of groundless allegations against Coucher, which had then been circulated round media outlets and subsequently presented as ‘evidence’ to a QC.
All of this had been done without the statement even being shown to the NWR employee whose statement it supposedly was. And when the NWR employee finally did get sight of it – he disowned it!
The allegations in the statement were not only consistently false (as confirmed by White). They also included libellous accusations of fraud (e.g. falsely claiming pensions payments and bonuses, being paid through offshore accounts, etc.).
Coucher could have sued the TSSA for a very large amount of money. For whatever reason, he chose not to do so.
Even so, the publication of the report inevitably damaged the TSSA: it suffered a humiliating loss of credibility; NWR seized on the report as an opportunity to attack the union; and TSSA members in NWR resigned from the union on reading the report’s contents.
But in the TSSA life went on as normal. No action was taken against the officials involved in “preparing” and circulating the “unsigned statement” by X which X had neither seen nor approved.
Ironically, it was shortly after publication of the White Report that the sequence of events began which eventually resulted in the production of the TSSA document “Procedure for Suspension or Revocation of Reps’ Credentials”.
Examples of “unacceptable behaviour” listed in the document included: “Any deliberate actions likely to cause damage to the name and standing of TSSA in the eyes of members, the wider trade union movement, or employers.”
When the TSSA Executive Council meets next week, it could usefully apply that criterion, however belatedly, to the TSSA officials whose actions (or collusion in the actions of others) resulted in the damning verdict of the White Report.
If jobs are to be cut as part of a ‘restructuring’ of the TSSA, where better to start than with giving consideration to a “revocation” of the employment status of those officials?
And given that the TSSA allegations examined in the White Report were so completely without foundation, what credibility, if any, can be attached to the ‘rationale’ provided by TSSA senior management for where it proposes to target the cuts in jobs?
Source: “Report of an Inquiry into Allegations of Misuse of Public Funds and Serious Financial Impropriety with Network Rail” (aka: The White Report).