A two-week tribunal hearing last October heard the cases of Sarah Kirk and Chris Stephenson, who 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 had claimed unfair dismissal, automatically unfair dismissal (whistle-blowing), detriment, disability discrimination, harassment and victimisation, while Mr Stephenson alleged unfair dismissal and age discrimination. The county council refuted and contested all of the allegations.
And the unanimous judgement, which was published recently, found that all of the complaints were ‘not well-founded and are dismissed’.
The pair had claimed that Kelly Angus, the council’s executive director of HR, ‘engineered’ the pair out of their jobs.
However, the tribunal ‘found that Ms Angus’ evidence was better supported by contemporaneous documents than any of the different versions given by the claimants and that where there was a material difference between their evidence, that of Ms Angus was to be preferred’.
At the heart of Mrs Kirk’s claims was the belief that she lost her job after making whistle-blowing complaints against the council’s senior management.
The first public interest disclosure (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 and current chief executives, Steve Mason and Daljit Lally.
The second PID Mrs Kirk says she made related to the departure of Zella 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.
But the tribunal ‘found that much of what was said by the second claimant (Mrs Kirk) was exaggerated or a distorted version of what actually happened and that the second claimant was to a large extent being less than candid with the tribunal in her evidence’.
The judgement does say that Mrs Kirk ‘probably did make protected disclosures’ about the Barry Rowland and Zella Weedy affairs, however, the tribunal found that the making of these ‘had no material influence on any part of the decision-making process by Kelly Angus’ which led to Mrs Kirk’s redundancy.
In relation to Mr Stephenson, the judgement said: ‘While understanding the first claimant’s disappointment at failure to secure one of the new posts, the tribunal found that the first claimant’s approach to these proceedings was tainted by his bitterness and ire in failing to secure one of the available posts.
‘Those tainted his evidence to the employment tribunal, which found that the first claimant’s allegations about the fairness or otherwise of the entire procedure were without foundation.’
Following the result, a council spokeswoman said: “Northumberland County Council welcomes the employment tribunal’s decision to dismiss all of the claims brought by Mr Stephenson and Mrs Kirk.
“The judgment shows that all claims were entirely without merit and supports the council’s decision to robustly defend them.
“The council continues to maintain and uphold the highest standards and prides itself on being a transparent and fair employer.”
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service