Aslef a laughing stock after brawl, QC says

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The Independent Online

One of Britain's most powerful unions has been made to look a laughing stock, says a barrister whose investigation of the union has uncovered a deeply dysfunctional organisation.

One of Britain's most powerful unions has been made to look a laughing stock, says a barrister whose investigation of the union has uncovered a deeply dysfunctional organisation.

Matthias Kelly, QC, believes that over the past few months - notably because of the now-infamous barbecue brawl at its headquarters - the Associated Society of Locomotive Engineers and Firemen (Aslef) has "looked foolish if not ridiculous".

A bizarre soap opera has afflicted the organisation since the Blairite Shaun Brady took over as general secretary last year, with claims of smears, witch-hunts and misuse of union funds. But the saga has a few more potentially explosive instalments to come.

On 20 July, there will be a disciplinary hearing against Mr Brady over his part in the fight with Martin Samways, the left-wing president who has since stepped down over his involvement in the fracas.

Far worse for Labour (the train driver's union is an influential affiliate) will be Aslef's annual conference in October, at the same time as the party's assembly. It promises to be a damaging occasion for the movement, and Mr Blairite supporters and those of the erstwhile general secretary Mick Rix are expected to go toe-to-toe over the rum goings-on.

On Monday, supporters of Mr Brady, who has been suspended from the union because of his involvement in the brawl, meet to plan their next steps.

A 200-page report into the union's affairs by Mr Kelly, a former chairman of the Bar, paints a fascinating if disturbing picture of the organisation under the stewardship of Mr Brady. Mr Kelly says he wanted to "get" members of the union's staff thought to be disloyal to him. He engaged in a power struggle to the detriment of the union, the report says. He believed his predecessor had manufactured an industrial dispute involving the union's employees to undermine his new administration.

In an atmosphere of "bullying and harassment", the new general secretary threatened to dismiss anyone who went on strike and to withdraw recognition from their union, the GMB. He has since apologised for the threat, but also claimed that he did not write it.

Mr Brady is accused of acting like a "bull in a china shop". The QC attributes his approach to his "lack of management skills, his readiness to act before being in possession of all the facts and his tendency to unnecessary aggression".

Contrary to allegations, a £39,000 severance payment granted to the former general secretary was "properly authorised, legal and justified". But it "pales into insignificance" compared with a payment made to Lew Adams, another former leader of the union, which was also legitimate. The total cost to the union of Mr Adams' pension entitlement alone was £600,000. Mr Adams, a supporter of Mr Brady, is on the board of the Strategic Rail Authority.

Mr Kelly says the suspended general secretary was at an executive meeting which authorised the payment to Mr Rix, despite claiming he was not. The document said the general secretary even voted for it.

Mr Kelly found the union's finances were "disorganised rather than shambolic" as alleged in a report commissioned by Mr Brady and compiled by Paul Blagborough, a former Labour Party finance officer.

Mr Brady's supporters had made "wild" allegations about a "scorched-earth policy" by Mr Rix before his successor arrived. Vital files were wrongly said to have been deleted from the computer system amid "paranoia and hysteria".

The barrister denounced Mr Brady as "childish" for refusing to attend an executive meeting unless instructed to do so on the grounds that Mr Kelly was present. "I found it surprising Mr Brady thought this a profitable way for anyone to spend time."

He said the general secretary had been unwilling "to discuss in a rational manner the problems confronting the union". Mr Kelly said the Aslef leader had adopted an obstructive approach. Mr Brady said Mr Kelly's report was ridiculous, "total rubbish". He said the president had told him the QC was a "good friend" of his and Mr Rix. "I know he's not going to do me any favours," he said.

He denied bullying. "I made sure I was not being aggressive. People wanted to paint that picture of me because that was the picture they wanted. I was very, very careful not to be aggressive. I'm being painted in a very bad light for political purposes. I have to sweat this out. I understand the game."

He denied voting for Mr Rix's severance payment. "I swear on the holy Bible and on my children's lives that I did not vote for the payment," he said.

He stood by the Blagborough report which found a £900,000 hole in the accounts for 2003. Mr Kelly said forensic accountants on his team estimated the deficit at £129,000.