London Met: silencing staff representatives or punishing ex-extremist?
London Metropolitan University has hit the headlines by suspending three staff at its Working Lives Research Institute.
Research administrator Jawad Botmeh had served a prison sentence after being controversially convicted of conspiracy in 1996 after a bombing, while Professor Steve Jefferys and administrator Max Watson were involved in hiring him. Yet many see this as victimisation of staff and union representatives, and unfair to someone who has already been punished for a crime which many believe he did not commit.
Car bombs exploded outside the Israeli Embassy and Balfour House in London 1994, but who actually carried this out remains uncertain. Botmeh and another young Palestinian living in the UK were arrested and convicted in what was widely regarded as a miscarriage of justice. As Amnesty International pointed out, “There was no direct evidence connecting either of them to the attacks and both had alibis.” Key evidence was withheld from the defence and “crucial questions remain unanswered”.
“The plain fact is that someone else, with no connection to either prisoner, bombed the Israeli embassy,” stated veteran investigative journalist Paul Foot. At any rate, Botmeh served 13 years in prison, paying his debt to society whether or not it was owed. He completed an Open University degree in sociology and MA in Peace and Reconciliation, which stood him in good stead when he applied to the London Met.
He was open about being an ex-prisoner, but Jefferys felt that it would be unjust to rule him out from being considered for a casual job on this basis. There was apparently no policy on how to handle applications from people with criminal convictions.
All went smoothly for five years. Botmeh won the confidence of his colleagues. Apparently in 2010 he applied and was selected for an eighteen-month post, this time by human resources staff. Again his criminal record was disclosed, but this appeared to pose no problem.
Then in 2013 he was elected to the Board of Governors as one of two staff representatives. A fortnight later, he was suspended.
So was Jefferys, and Watson too, despite his minimal involvement in the appointment. However he was Chair of the London Met Unison branch, which claimed that he had recently been singled out by the Vice-Chancellor in an all-staff email because of the union’s opposition to the involvement of the firm Capita in the university’s Business Process Review.
The union branch points out that “Steve, Jawad and Max have broken no university rules” and argues that the suspensions are “an attack on the principles of staff rights and representation, on social justice and on academic freedom.”
I should declare an interest. The University and its predecessors have long been part of my local landscape. Every school day for years, I walked past one of its buildings. People in my neighbourhood, and a family member, work or have worked there.
Despite some failings London, Met and the institutions from which it was formed, have sometimes been a source of unusual and socially valuable research (for instance on sexual violence) and teaching. While allegedly conspiring with bombers is indeed a serious offence, it is not clear what purpose the university authorities’ action serves at this time. It is to be hoped that they will rethink their decision.
(c) Savitri Hensman is a widely published Christian commentator on religion, social justice, politics and church affairs. She is an Ekklesia associate.
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