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Report of Discussion

Tuesday, 26 January 1999. A Discussion was held in the Council Room of the Abstract of Accounts for the year ended 31 July 1998 (Special No. 9).

Under the provisions of Regulation 6 for Discussions (Statutes and Ordinances, p. 115) the Editor has omitted three passages from the remarks made by Dr Evans at the Discussion; these omissions are indicated by square brackets. The text as printed includes three further amendments which, under the same provisions, have been agreed by the Editor with Dr Evans.


Mr Deputy Vice-Chancellor, it is the duty of the Council in financial matters to 'make judgements and estimates that are reasonable and prudent' and to 'safeguard the assets of the University'. Since our role is almost entirely to react in a few brief minutes to the proposals put before us by the relevant committees those verbs seem unduly proactive.

I want to signal a few anxieties. Our expenditure on legal fees this year topped £¼ million. The figure is conjoined for some reason with that for bank charges, so I cannot be certain that all that went to our solicitors and the leading counsel who have been hired to confront the litigant-in-person hardy enough to attempt a challenge. But I think we should ask two questions.

The first is why it has not been a priority to seek settlement in the cases I and others have brought, when, to my knowledge, the litigants were and are only too willing to talk through that possibility and have not been making unreasonable demands.

The second is why it is taken for granted that an employee in dispute with the University must either be his own lawyer or find mounting legal fees out of his own pocket, when our senior officers can draw upon our common purse in their own defence - whether or not they prove to be in the right, and with no personal risk to their salaries, which are considerably larger than those of most of the rest of us in the first place.

I do not think the Vice-Chancellor will be getting a bill for all those letters to me our solicitors have written for him on internal matters; or my Faculty's administration for the correspondence which resulted in their giving my appraisal record to the University solicitor without asking my consent; or our new Pro-Vice-Chancellor, Professor Quentin Skinner, for the exchanges which resulted in his entire extended correspondence with me over his failure to declare an interest before chairing the Faculty Promotions Committee, or to give me oral feedback this year, being placed in the University's bundle for the victimization case. Nor will the Vice-Chancellor himself be paying for the solicitor's advice which led him to refuse to investigate my complaints under Statute U, the grievance procedure, about the conduct of this personal nominee of his for the Pro-Vice-Chancellorship. I am sure that he himself would have preferred to be helpful and to avoid any hint of cronyism. It will be as well while I remain on the Council and Professor Skinner has a place at the Vice-Chancellor's right hand there, and presumably has easy access to him in the Old Schools every day, that everyone should be clear that there is much unfinished business here.

I point this out sadly, for I think it shows that we are not all equal before the law in this University and that those who work their way into senior positions do get protected and supported and will close ranks when they are challenged. It is just as it is in other universities, in cases I handle for the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards. It should not be.

On 22 January, a month after withdrawing my victimization case so as to save the University the waste of £50,000 in fighting a case which could always have been dealt with internally with a little common sense, I received a bill for nearly £14,000. This was for the costs of the two-hour hearing in the High Court when I tried to get the University to come clean about the way the appeal procedure had been conducted. It refused to disclose the instructions which I finally obtained through disclosure in the victimization case and which I have now revealed.

[46 words omitted] I have even been punished for attempting to mend fences in a civilized way with Professor Skinner after my grievance case of 1994-96, because it is now suggested that I can have no further standing to complain. The introduction says 'Dr Evans made friends with Professor Skinner'.

It will be of interest to the Regent House that it is paying a rate of £140 an hour to a partner and £50 to an assistant solicitor. That is rather better than the supervision rate for those who teach our undergraduates, I think. It also appears to be necessary that our solicitors should travel about in pairs, as policemen on the beat used to do in dangerous areas. Thus we pay nearly £200 for each hour. We pay them when they are just breathing. For their travelling for four and a half hours, I am to pay £630 on one occasion and £780 on another. It is unclear to me why on this latter occasion the partner travelled for four and a half hours and the assistant for three when they were both going from Cambridge to London and back. The main function of the assistant at the High Court hearings appears to have been to rush out on one occasion after a member of the Council for Academic Freedom and Academic Standards, who had come to listen, and ask him to identify himself. Telephoning is expensive, too. For one 20-minute call the charge is £46. We are also paying routinely for a solicitor to deliver correspondence by hand instead of putting a stamp on it.

I have asked Taylor Vinters for a list of the work I am paying for. They failed on the grounds that it is 'unnecessarily onerous' for them to tell me. Apparently they cannot easily put their hands on the details of the letters they wrote and so on.

Then we come to the University's Counsel, Mr Charles Béar. He refused to produce a skeleton argument in advance, although the High Court requires him to submit one. The judge ordered him to do so, adjourning the hearing from 19 May to 20 May. Mr Béar's arguments at the costs hearing on 1 October included a personal attack on my integrity, which the judge found so distasteful that he stopped him in his tracks. For Mr Béar's services to you all I am to pay £5,500, it appears.

The University did not seek costs on 20 May, although it knew the outcome of the leave hearing. It waited until the judgement was handed down in Bristol at the end of July. Ten minutes before the Faculty closed for the day, and purely by chance, I got a message to contact Taylor Vinters. I was informed by our solicitors that costs were to be sought at Bristol first thing the next morning. Only by sending a fax to ask the judge not to award costs against me without giving me an opportunity to make representations and leaving for Bristol at 5 a.m., was I able to win the concession of the hearing which was held in October. I am to pay Counsel for appearing in Bristol to argue that the University should get its pound of flesh, although the University could perfectly well have asked for costs on 20 May.

For the obtaining of a transcript I am to pay nearly £60, although I could have sent a photocopy to Taylor Vinters at no cost to them, for they knew, or could easily have ascertained, that I had it.

The editor of the Education Law Reports tells me that he intends to report this case, for (in every sense) it has been to the cost of future applicants for leave for judicial review. The idea of the leave stage is that an applicant may find out cheaply ex parte if there is an arguable case, and, if there is, most respondents will sensibly try to find a way forward to avoid the expense of a full hearing. The court approves if you send a Letter before Action. I did. I also frankly told the University what I was seeking to test, in the hope that they would have the sense to give me the procedural instructions to the Appeal Committee which I was asking for.

But that meant that they were able to appear in court, so as to challenge me. It was argued that, by seeking an injunction to suspend operations while it was discovered whether what the Appeal Committee had done was lawful, I was threatening such disruption to the promotions process that the University instantly became a party in the full sense. And so the hearing ceased to be an ex parte hearing and became an inter partes hearing, with all the consequences for costs which follow from that. That defeats the purpose of having a leave stage for the sake of economy and Mr Justice Turner's judgement will move forward a perhaps regrettable general trend in that direction.

I shall not of course tell the University if I make an application for leave for judicial review in the future, for then the matter will remain ex parte, and I shall not face a fresh attempt to claw back some of the wasted £¼ million from an employee on a salary of £29,000. That means the University has lost the advantage of my consistent willingness to be open with it about what I am doing in fighting this campaign.

[61 words omitted] So Taylor Vinters must be held responsible in part for that. It is mysterious to me how, if it has taken since 1 October to construct this bill, the University can be paying monthly bills to Taylor Vinters and be in a position to know what its legal fees expenditure has been, on a basis where they have been properly scrutinized by someone who understands such matters.

I have suggested before that we ought to move to an in-house legal service. [44 words omitted] To my certain knowledge, there are other solicitors in Cambridge who would be glad to serve the University, and who would have been more inclined to advise it to do the sensible thing and talk to me a great deal sooner. The University's conduct of these proceedings is making it a laughing-stock.

We have not seen the end of the controversy about the conduct of legal proceedings in this University and I have made representations to the National Audit Office about what was revealed through last year's invocations of Statute K, 5 and the Discussion of the Senate on 17 November.

To turn to other matters, I should like us to be told more about 'the continuing achievement of surpluses on the income and expenditure account' which 'has enabled the University to build up a number of reserves for specific purposes'. One of these is said to be 'to support the Council and the General Board in their efforts to improve and restructure pay and improve efficiency'. Cambridge is richer than Oxford. So why does a Lecturer in Oxford get £37,000? The answer lies, of course, partly in the different relationship between College and University posts. But that does not alter the fact that there is a big gap; and when that is conjoined with the fact that those in Oxford who deserve Chairs can call themselves Professor while a great many who deserve Chairs here cannot, I think we ought to be asking more probing questions about what is being done with these surpluses. I cannot put much faith in all those reassurances about the benevolent intentions of the General Board, the will to reward this University's distinguished academic staff and recognize their remarkable achievements. Were you not struck by the sheer quality of mind evinced by the speeches made last week in this forum by those concerned about what was happening to the Computer Laboratory? (On that of course I take no sides, for I have not had the same reason to be concerned about the famosissima quaestio of the bicycle racks, working as I do in the more central environs of West Road's celebrated red brick and glass testament to adventurous design. What bothers us more is that the ugly pretentiousness of our surroundings tends to foster in the members of my Faculty a mood not conducive to knowing and liking one another. The Computer Laboratory speakers in their present huddled accommodation seemed to meet and talk to one another in quite a friendly way. But then again, the lift does not go to the top of our building and perhaps that is it.)

The affair of the Computer Laboratory brings me to my third concern. How can it happen that undertakings are being entered into on our behalf by the Vice-Chancellor (or by whom?) without the Council knowing about it, and containing secret clauses? 'Commercial in confidence' is a protection which should be used extremely sparingly, for it is in the interests of the industrial partner more than it is in ours. I have had papers put before me on the Council thus marked, when what we were discussing was a policy question which should have been going before the Regent House at an early stage.

And we have got to get it absolutely clear what the Vice-Chancellor is allowed to sign up to on our behalf without our knowing about it (without our even being allowed to see exactly what is in the agreement subsequently); and what force any existing agreements have if he has signed them without the University's consent. The Vice-Chancellor has authority to accept benefactions on behalf of the University. Under pressure, partly from me, we are setting up a mechanism to enable us to look more closely at benefactions which look likely to be controversial. But that is only about the taking of the money. Quite other questions hang over the control of the ways in which it is to be used, and how far it may be earmarked, and partly held back, or made conditional, by the benefactor. We need, urgently, to construct a pathway of checks and balances down which money offered to us has to flow, especially when it is commercial or industrial money offered us by giants who can stamp on us financially at a whim, or by wolves who are liable to come and huff and puff and blow our house down.

As a member of the Council I have not seen the agreement with Microsoft and we certainly never discussed the implications of the funder buying space in a building it was funding.

I wonder, finally, if we might have a breakdown of 'other' where it occurs; and an explanation why we spent £245,000 on advertising posts and £107,000 on Public Relations. Our Press Officer has arranged to go and have lunch with one news editor this week, presumably in an attempt to bring pressure to bear to change the tone of the coverage we have been getting over the last year or two. A charm offensive may do the trick. But while the stories keep coming, I am sure they will continue to be reported with a due concern for the seriousness of what they reveal about our problems here. I learn through the media grapevine that our Press Office wrings its hands because I and others make it impossible for them to present only the good news by making speeches in Discussions as we do. There are challenging questions here about what is in the interests of the University, but that would take me away from the Abstract of Accounts.

I hope it will be agreed that it is in the interests of the University that we look at the points I have raised.

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Cambridge University Reporter, 17 February 1999
Copyright © 1999 The Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the University of Cambridge.