Portsmouth: points from QC's report

November 10, 1995

I wish it to be known that the decision by the University of Portsmouth not to permit general publication of the full report by Jeremy Lever QC on certain matters affecting the university was not taken on the basis of any request or threat from me; on the contrary, I expected and wished the report to be published in full and to the world at large. That decision is most unfortunate and inevitably gives rise to difficulties for those who wish to know what has been going on there and for those who wish the truth to be established.

We now have the worst of all worlds, with limited information and no opportunity to comment fully. It is in this context that Stuart Waring, until recently chairman of the board of governors, published through the university his own version of Mr Lever's summary of conclusions. This provoked the university's joint trades union council to publish its own lengthy alternative version of the same conclusions. Now we have a letter from Dr Bateman (THES, October ) stating categorically "that Professor Pickering chose to leave under the terms of a compromise agreement, when he could have stayed". This conclusion is inconsistent with the tenor of Mr Lever's findings. In addition, it is not consistent with the advice I received from my union and other advisors nor does it accord with the university's press release of September 1, 1994, which said that I was leaving because my post of deputy vice chancellor had become redundant.

In order to give a fair picture to your readers, Dr Bateman might have recorded the following points from Mr Lever's summary of conclusions: Chronology October 15 1993. Meeting to discuss apparent irregularities (in vice chancellor's expenses claims) between deputy vice chancellor, head of finance and partner in Ernst & Young, the university's internal auditors.

November 22 1993. Chairman and deputy chairman of governors and chairman of audit committee tell vice chancellor their decision to accept his explanation (no dishonest intent) and to close matter on basis of formal written reprimand and remedial recommendations.

April 21 1994. Chairman of the (university's) audit committee informs the principal auditor of HEFCE of outcome.

May 3 1994. In response to request by chairman of governors for report on possible consequences if deputy vice chancellor left university, vice chancellor sends chairman a written report recommending that deputy vice chancellor is no longer needed as part of directorate, that post be abolished and replaced by finance director.

May 9 1994. Audit committee, at private meeting attended by chairman of governors and representatives of university's internal and external auditors, decide to approve the recommendations set out in Ernst & Young report, confirm that letter from chairman of governors to vice chancellor dated November 24 1993 constituted final written warning and to regard matter of vice chancellor's expenses effectively closed.

May 10 1994. Dinner between vice chancellor and three pro vice chancellors. Vice chancellor raises question of dispensing with deputy vice chancellor.

May 11 1994. Three pro vice chancellors request meeting with chairman of governors.

May 16 1994. Chairman and deputy of governors meet three pro vice chancellors to discuss future of deputy vice chancellor. They endorse vice chancellor's view that it is now in interest of university that he should leave, preferably by agreement.

Findings "My (ie Mr Lever's) terms of reference precluded me from considering (whether proper procedures were followed in relation to the investigation into the vice chancellor's expenses) events prior to November 23 1993 . . . My terms of reference had that effect which was apparently unintended by the university, because the investigation prior to that date was not carried out by the audit committee acting in its capacity as such. Rather it was conducted by the chairman and the deputy chairman of the governors who were not members of the audit committee and the chairman of the audit committee, though Mr Brims obtained the concurrence of the two other members of the audit committee.

"From November 23 1993, although the audit committee's investigation into the vice chancellor's expenses was considered by the members of that committee acting in good faith to be a full and proper investigationI there were a number of aspects which rendered the investigation incomplete and unsatisfactory.

"The report from internal auditors Ernst & Young contained material which made it inappropriate for the audit committee, with the concurrence of the chairman and deputy chairman of the governors, to have closed the matter at that point as it did without making further investigation.

"By failing to follow fully the procedures that the same audit committee had laid down for this type of investigation, two of the officers of the university most concerned with operating audit controls in practice, Professor Pickering and Mr Hunt (head of finance), were denied the opportunity of examining the report produced by Ernst & Young. A potentially important safeguard was foregone.

"The audit committee should have reported the completed investigation to the board of governors.

"HEFCE should have been acquainted with the facts of the matter under investigation at the earliest stage possible.

"Processes that were followed in relation to the departure of Professor Pickering were not appropriate I because they raised, and ultimately involved reliance on, redundancy of the post of deputy vice chancellor and restructuring of the directorate without the board of governors' prior approval of the relevant issues of principle.

"I cannot be expected to form a view as to whether the university (or Professor Pickering) was on balance advantaged or disadvantaged by the compromise agreement and by Professor Pickering's departure from the university.

" The outcome of the processes was inappropriate I in so far as it resulted in the presentation to the governors as a fait accompli of the de facto abolition of the post of deputy vice chancellor and restructuring of the directorate without the relevant issues of principle having been debated and decided by the board.

"There was a causal link between the audit committee investigation into the vice chancellor's expenses and Professor Pickering's departure. Although it was not a primary, simple or major cause, the investigation was not an insignificant factor in the chain of events leading up to Professor Pickering's departure. However, it must be remembered that Professor Pickering chose to leave under the terms of a compromise agreement, when he could have stayed. I have been concerned by the way in which highly significant matters were dealt with on an ad hoc basis, without full involvement of the board of governors by way of prior authorisation or subsequent report."

There is much that I would wish to say by way of critique of Mr Lever's methodology and some of his interpretation of evidence. By virtue of the actions of the university, that is denied to me. However, I trust I have given sufficient reason, drawn from Mr Lever's summary of conclusions, to allow your readers to recognise that your reporter was correct in referring to my "enforced departure" (THES October 13).

J. F. Pickering Rowlands Castle, Hampshire

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