Accusations of a ‘corrupt cabal’ of bosses at Northumberland County Council have been strongly rejected at an ongoing employment tribunal.
Sarah Kirk and Chris Stephenson were in managerial positions in the authority’s HR service, but were selected for redundancy in the autumn of 2016 during a restructuring of the department.
Mrs Kirk is claiming unfair dismissal, automatically unfair dismissal (whistle-blowing), detriment, disability discrimination, harassment and victimisation, while Mr Stephenson is alleging unfair dismissal and age discrimination, at a hearing which started last Monday (October 1).
The local authority has refuted and is contesting all of the claims.
This week, Kelly Angus, the council’s executive director of HR, who it is claimed ‘engineered’ the pair out of their jobs, has been giving evidence.
Ms Angus initially carried out a review of the HR service between July and September 2015, before joining the local authority on a secondment from her main role at Northumbria Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust. She is now the council’s deputy chief executive alongside her HR role.
Accused of being part of a ‘corrupt cabal’ of top council executives, under cross-examination, she said: “That’s not true and that’s quite a statement to make.”
The key element of Mrs Kirk’s claims is that she lost her job after making two whistle-blowing complaints, or public interest disclosures (PIDs), against the council’s senior management.
But in her evidence, Ms Angus undermined allegations that there weren’t cases to answer for two former employees at the centre of these complaints and that they were ‘forced out’ as has been claimed. In both cases, this weakened suggestions that there were ulterior motives at play.
The first PID Mrs Kirk claims she made related to alleged possible bullying of his PA by former director Barry Rowland, which was used to force him out of the council by former chief executive Steve Mason and former director – but current chief executive – Daljit Lally, who has a joint role with Northumbria Healthcare.
But Ms Angus, prior to her work with the council, was asked to be the investigating officer into the claims against Mr Rowland following the grievance by his PA. This disciplinary investigation had begun and only stopped because Mr Rowland received a settlement and left the council.
The second PID Mrs Kirk says she made related to the departure of Zelah Weedy, a swim instructor who worked with Mr Mason’s wife, Helen. Mrs Kirk claims that despite Mrs Weedy being an Active Northumberland employee, Mr Mason attempted to get her suspended or made redundant.
Again, claims that there was no case to answer for Mrs Weedy, who was facing disciplinary action at the time of her departure from the council, were put to bed by Ms Angus, who explained that the investigating officer had concluded that there was a case to answer and recommended a disciplinary hearing take place.
During Ms Angus’ evidence, there was also discussion of the fact that while Active Northumberland and the council are separate and have their own chief executives, Mr Mason was an observer on the Active board.
Asked why this was, Ms Angus said she didn’t know the exact reason for his invitation, but that Active was in financial difficulties and being supported by the council – which owns the buildings in which Active provides leisure services – and therefore the council had a ‘significant financial interest’.
Hari Menon, representing Mrs Kirk, highlighted an incident just after Ms Angus started at the council, in which an employee was promoted into what the claimants describe as a ‘non-job’, which led to Mrs Kirk moving to Active Northumberland where ‘she was set up to fail’, she claims.
Mr Menon suggested that this and other changes in the HR department were all part of a ‘rigged system’ and an attempt to ‘fix the process’. But Ms Angus replied: “I didn’t want to fix it, I didn’t know these people.”
Earlier, Mr Menon suggested that Ms Angus must have known jobs were to be lost from when she carried out the initial review in 2015, saying that a restructuring process combined with the need to save money always results in jobs losses.
Ms Angus responded to say that the review had simply led to the conclusion that the HR function of the council was ‘fragmented’ and that restructuring does ‘not always’ result in redundancies.
Under cross-examination from Mr Stephenson, who is representing himself, it was put to Ms Angus that the ‘process was rigged to remove Sarah and I from the organisation?’ No, it was not, she replied.
“You and Mr Crosland (an HR consultant) were hired guns to achieve that aim?” Mr Stephenson said, with Ms Angus responding: “That’s not correct, I was nobody’s hired gun.”
The age-discrimination element of Mr Stephenson’s claim related to vacancies when he was facing redundancy that may have been suitable as alternative employment which were then downgraded. He alleges the language used in the adverts was specifically to attract young people.
He put to Ms Angus that candidates who were ‘newly-qualified’ and looking for the ‘first step in their career’ were more likely than not to be young. “Not always,” she responded, denying that the motivation was to put off older people from applying.
In her witness statement, she made it clear that these were band six junior roles, far below the experience of people like Mr Stephenson who were at band 10 managerial level.
On Monday, the tribunal, which is expected to run beyond the end of this week, also heard from John Stenhouse, who took voluntary redundancy from the HR team in 2015.
He claimed that Mr Rowland’s PA was told at a meeting with Ms Lally that if she raised a grievance, Mr Rowland would be made to or would somehow leave the council, or words to that effect.
Given that his account differs to others, it was put to him that he was lying. He said: “I’m under oath, I’m not lying and I can’t think why I would make up the story in the first place.”
Also giving evidence was Angela Dyer, who took voluntary redundancy in 2016, and who said in her witness statement that ‘the office was shocked’ when Mrs Kirk was made redundant.
‘It was the source of gossip and the view was that the claimant had been selected for redundancy for reasons other than her performance or competency,’ she added.
However, under cross-examination, she admitted she did not raise concerns at the time and had also not reported her worries about Mrs Kirk’s mental health to Ms Angus.
The tribunal is still to hear from several council witnesses who were involved in the interviews for the redundancy process or the subsequent appeals and investigations.
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service