Ian Lavery MP ((c) BBC)
And that Storify does not get off to the most auspicious of starts. Titled “Defending good unions doesn't mean protecting bad ones”, it makes a judgment before the reader has got to the first line of text. We are going to hear about a “bad union”.
“All the real reporting below was done by James Lyons of the Sunday Times … All I'm doing is setting it out in one place”, we are told. Two things here. One, it is best to be wary of the Murdoch press - one should not have to make that caveat, but we are where we are with the press, and a paper that, back in the days of Roy Thomson, could be considered reliable, certainly cannot be nowadays.
And two, I’m glad to see that Hopi Sen is just “setting it out in one place”. This post is just setting out in one place why the evidence presented appears less than convincing.
We read “the Northumberland Area NUM is not a large union. In 1996, it had just 290 members. By 2002, the number was down to 240, where it stayed, not changing by a single member, until 2013. In 2013, however, 230 of these stalwart members left at the same time, and just ten members remain”. Elsewhere, reference is made to a “tiny” union.
But the Storify answers this one itself: there was only one mine still open in the area from 1995. The number of local NUM members would reflect this, and the retention of some workers after that pit closed in 2005. Union members are in relevant work.
Then comes “Nevertheless, the NUM (Northumberland Area) did quite a lot for some of its members … For example, Ian Lavery MP bought his house with a loan from a fund set up by his union … His loan came from the NUM (Northumberland Area) Provident and Benevolent fund, to be precise. Remember that name, if you can. It'll be useful later”.
The issue of the loan is now the subject of a potential legal action, so I will not comment further. But what I will say is that the Northumberland area NUM also did rather a lot for those who had been members in the past, and this appears to have used up a great deal of Lavery’s (and other officials’) time. Remember that, if you can. It’ll be useful later.
But back to the attack: “As James Lyons reported the previous week, the 10 member union also paid out £85,426 in 'past General Secretary redundancy costs' in 2013 … Mr Lavery says he does not recognise that payment … If he didn't recognise the figures, perhaps he could ask his old Union about it? After all, they share an office”.
Saying he “does not recognise” something does not incriminate Lavery. Could we perhaps have some evidence ponied up to show that something wrong has happened? Because, without it, we are operating on no more than nudges and winks.
And that goes for the drip-drip of “Ooh look at this for 2010 … look at this for 2011” and so on. Then comes the first howler, and it’s a good one.
“It's quite an unusual redundancy package really, as the National NUM records say Mr Lavery resigned” announces Sen triumphantly. But the documentation provided shows no such thing: that’s a resignation from the NUM National Executive Committee, not from his job. The two are not the same. Did Lyons make the same mistake?
The shaky reasoning continues with “Usually, when you make someone redundant, you don't replace them with someone doing the same job, because well, then they were not actually redundant, were they? Ian Lavery got made redundant from the NUM Northumberland Area in 2010, the day after he became the MP for Wansbeck … So how come those annual returns have the union employing a ‘General Secretary’ after Ian Lavery was made redundant from that job?”
Actually, Lavery was the NUM national President (see above), so whoever Hopi Sen is hinting at did not do “the same job” (and was paid significantly less). Back to the Storify.
“Ian Lavery was made redundant from his job as General Secretary of NUM Northumberland on the day he became MP for Wansbeck, and replaced, on the very same day, by the man who had just been the MP for Wansbeck”. Very good. Now tell everyone what heinous crime has been committed.
We don’t get to find that out, but we do have trowelled on how Denis Murphy must have done something dodgy as he accepted hospitality from the same union branch (I’ll leave Hopi Sen’s frequent asides out, as they are of little relevance). We then have a suggestion presented that the Union’s members should all have had a holiday provided, instead of any of the officials visiting conferences.
Meanwhile, we are back at the NUM (Northumberland Area) Provident and Benevolent Fund, which in 2007 had a loan written off by the NUM itself. As Lavery signed the annual return, he is therefore bang to rights for something. Sen announces “What year was that loan written off again? 2007? Just a bit more than eight years ago? Hmm … Didn’t somebody say something about a loan ending eight years ago? Ah, yes, here it is”.
So, once more, can someone tell us what Lavery has done wrong?
Well, not yet, it seems. Now we get to the damning evidence. “Ian Lavery is an MP, and has never declared any payments from his union for any purpose, whether personal or political, or any loan that may or may not be outstanding on his house”.
Fine. He’s corresponding with the relevant authorities right now. I’d add to that that Lavery’s employment with the NUM ended before he took up his Parliamentary duties, so he may not have thought to declare payments made in respect of that employment. He was, after all, no longer doing that work. Hopi Sen has more charges, though.
He tells “some of the payments might be seen as disguised remuneration, which is a way of avoiding Tax. Mr Lavery is very against tax avoiders, and I'm sure he'll want to make it crystal clear that he isn't one”. Got any evidence of wrongdoing? Thought not.
Then we get to the most contentious, and most damaging, claim.
“All of these payments and loan write offs were made by a tiny union made rather wealthy from the compensation paid to coal miners who suffered from chronic illness. This was money paid by taxpayers to help extremely damaged mineworkers and ease their suffering in retirement” [my emphases].
That is what James Lyons and Hopi Sen are driving at: the suggestion that Lavery has enriched himself on the back of others’ chronic sickness. Small wonder the MP has taken grave exception to this line of reporting.
Lavery’s reaction has not dissuaded Hopi Sen: “In total, NUM Northumberland got over 1.6 million pounds from the compensation money of sick miners … Now, it's important to stress these were voluntary donations. At some point when applying for compensation for their illness, these miners decided to tell their lawyers, a firm called Browell, Smith & Co, to give a proportion of any award to their Union. I'm sure that was totally clear to all concerned and everyone knew exactly what they were signing up to … It’s just I wonder if they knew it would be spent this way”.
Spent which way, exactly?
It is conceded that the donations were voluntary - the NUM helped prepare, progress and successfully conclude many compensation claims, and so in return those compensated gave a little back to the union that had backed them. Remember, those ex-miners were no longer members - so banging on about “a tiny union” is seriously misleading.
There is also the matter of creating Big And Scary Numbers by rolling up several years of remuneration: “After the money began to arrive, Ian Lavery was paid £596,433 in salary, £152,583 in pension payments and £49,481 in Car allowance”. He averaged around £50k a year over the period from 1992 to 2010, with much of the work in his latter years devoted to seeing compensation claims brought to a successful conclusion.
Nationally, the compensation scheme for conditions such as pneumoconiosis and vibration white finger had paid out £4.1 billion by 2010. Yes, £4.1 billion. And a lot of that is down to the persistence of NUM officials like Ian Lavery.
So when Hopi Sen muses “I'm not sure this is how a Trade Union that gets £1.6million from sick miners is supposed to behave. Couldn't they, or the Benevolent fund, have spent the money on something else? Something for mineworkers?” he misses the point. The £1.6 million helped that NUM branch carry on its support work.
Back at the Storify, we read “I'm not sure the union membership, whether the never-changing 240 members of the compensation era, or the 10 left now, got much of a say in how the union spent their money”. Their money? The subscriptions of the 240 members or the £1.6 million from former miners? Now it’s getting confused. But do go on.
“I tried to see when there were elections for the NUM Northumberland Area. I couldn't find a mention of one in the last 20 years … The members of the Executive are the same names each year, except when Mr Lavery becomes an MP and Mr Murphy is appointed (not elected) to take over from Mr Lavery”.
Two things here. One, had there been electoral malpractice, it would probably have come to light well before now - and sometimes officials are returned unopposed when there are elections. And two, if the claim that Murphy was “appointed (not elected)” is based on that NUM National Executive Committee document, the same comment applies as with Lavery’s alleged “resignation”. That looks like another howler.
But Hopi Sen has a clinching argument, which, he tells, is “political”: “I'm not sure Ian Lavery is the best person for that particular fight [to modify or repeal some Trade Union law] … Or any fight to defend the rights of union members against those who would rip them off to feather their own nest”.
That assumes Lavery has done something wrong. It’s one of two things - either we have a circular argument, where guilt is assumed at the outset (and the use of the “bad union” epithet suggests that is a distinct possibility), or there is the drip-drip presentation of available evidence matched with a series of logic leaps, which has a similar conclusion.
There is a clear suggestion in Hopi Sen’s Storify, and I have to assume in Lyons’ reportage, that Ian Lavery is one of “those who would rip [union members] off to feather their own nest”. However, the evidence relies on assuming the basest of motives, contains a significant number of howlers, and is presented as a fait accompli. Something bad can be made to appear to have happened, so it really did happen - perhaps.
Yet at no point do we have presented an answer to the question in the title of this post - What Has Ian Lavery Done Wrong?
And until we have that answered clearly and unambiguously, free of nudge-nudgery or any other form of journalistic enhancement, we have no reason to conclude that wrongdoing took place. Lavery may have done something wrong, but equally, he may not.
That may be inconvenient to the Murdoch press - and those prepared to take its journalism on trust. If so, that’s just too bad. The end.