Irvine admits weakness

January 14, 2000

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, has offered his "profound apologies" for a series of blunders in his handling of a student's complaint against Bath University. He admitted his department lacks the resources to operate as an arbitrator of disputes under the ancient university "visitor" system.

The revelations, in a report by a senior civil servant at the Lord Chancellor's Department, obtained by The THES, will cast further doubt on the validity of the quasi-judicial visitorial system and fuel calls to scrap the system in favour of a higher education ombudsman.

The Lord Chancellor acts on behalf of the Queen as "visitor" to 17 universities, where he is expected to be the final arbitrator in staff or student disputes against the institutions. But in the report by the head of the civil law development division at the LCD, Ray Sams, it is admitted:

The LCD has a problem with "resources being outstripped by demand"

The LCD had not a single officer responsible for dealing with visitorial disputes "for almost all of the 1997 calendar year"

"The need to deal with the priorities of the incoming government led to an embargo being placed on visitorial work from May to August 1997 by senior management"

Only one member of the LCD staff, for more than a year, "was able to deal with any but the most basic administration of visitors' cases" and that she was subject to "other ministerial priorities"

It is a "failing of the administrative system" that the department has no formal written framework for setting out how visitorial cases should be dealt with and what sort of timescale complainants can expect to have their cases dealt with".

The damning report was prompted by complaints to the LCD by Neil McDougall, a former postgraduate student of Bath University. Mr McDougall, who has been involved in an eight-year dispute with Bath University over his allegations of poor supervision, inadequate exam procedures and maladministration, believes the LCD's mishandling of two 1996 petitions materially damaged his so far unsuccessful attempts to gain redress.

The LCD's inquiry into its handling of Mr McDougall's visitorial petitions accepts:

It took 19 months for the LCD to consider the matters raised in Mr McDougall's two 1996 petitions to the visitor

The LCD's file on Mr McDougall's complaint was "misplaced for a period"

Six requests to the LCD by Mr McDougall for guidance were ignored

Mr McDougall's repeated requests that his two petitions be dealt with in a specific order, not together, were ignored.

In a letter to Mr McDougall last month, Mr Sams said: "These delays were the result of intense pressure on the limited resources available to deal with visitorial matters. Nevertheless, the department acknowledges that those delays led to uncertainty and anxiety for yourself and I repeat the department's sincere apologies to you for those delays. It is also right that I should acknowledge the department's failure, despite your repeated requests during 1997, to provide you with guidance on procedures and timetables ... those presenting visitorial petitions should be given a clear indication of the procedures to be followed and the timescales for each stage ... I hope that you will be able to accept the department's profound apologies for the anxiety and inconvenience that you were caused as a result of these administrative failings."

Mr Sams confirmed that moves were afoot to correct administrative shortcomings and to provide more resources. However, he confirmed the Lord Chancellor "has concluded that the administrative weaknesses ... do not justify further visitorial intervention and therefore he regards the visitorial matter as closed."

While Mr McDougall is considering legal action for a judicial review, ministers have recently confirmed that while accepting that the visitor system is outdated, they have no plans to abolish it.

Want to blow the whistle?

Contact Phil Baty on 020 7782 3298 or email

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