Employment tribunal hears Northumberland whistle-blowing allegations

Northumberland County Council
Northumberland County Council

Serious allegations have been levelled at Northumberland County Council’s former and current chief executives by a disgruntled former employee.

Sarah Kirk was in a managerial position in the authority’s HR service, but was selected for redundancy in the autumn of 2016 during a restructuring of the department.

She is claiming unfair dismissal, automatically unfair dismissal (whistle-blowing), detriment, disability discrimination, harassment and victimisation.

The council is also being accused of unfair dismissal and age discrimination by Chris Stephenson, who lost his job in the same process, at an employment tribunal hearing which started last Monday (October 1).

The local authority has refuted and is contesting all of the claims.

The key element of Mrs Kirk’s claims is that she was ‘engineered’ out of her job by the executive director of HR, Kelly Angus, after making two whistle-blowing complaints against the council’s senior management.

The first public interest disclosure (PID) she 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 then deputy but current chief executive Daljit Lally.

In her witness statement, Mrs Kirk said it was her belief ‘that Daljit Lally was using (the PA) as a lever to remove Barry Rowland from his post and that Steve Mason was also behind the attempt’.

The second PID she 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.

“This was a chief executive of one organisation undermining the chief executive of another organisation,” she said.

“The only reason Steve Mason would be interested in a swimming instructor at Ponteland Leisure Centre is because of his wife.”

The tribunal heard on Friday from Mrs Weedy, who, at the time of her leaving Active Northumberland in 2016, was facing disciplinary action over time-keeping issues and for not being present at an emergency incident despite saying she was in work.

She felt she was being targeted as the time-keeping issues had, in part, already been investigated and did not result in suspension, while her absence from the emergency incident was put down to making an important call outside at the time.

Mrs Weedy was asked why she agreed to a settlement to leave employment before the outcome of the second investigation.

She said: “When you work for someone who doesn’t really want you there, they have already had two attempts to get rid of you, this was a third. It was a really unhappy time.

“At the end of the day, Steve Mason was head of the council and his wife was one of my swim teachers and I potentially took her job and she didn’t like that.”

However, the county council says it investigated all of these allegations and found there was no evidence to support the claims, although Mrs Kirk questions how well these investigations were carried out.

It is also the council’s case that Mrs Kirk may have mentioned these issues, but never explained that she was making PIDs under the council’s policies and procedures for whistle-blowing.

Under cross-examination, Mrs Kirk was asked: “You’re trying to stir up trouble for the council, trouble for Mr Mason and Kelly Angus, and you are lying about the contents of your conversations with Kelly Angus, aren’t you?” No, she replied.

Attention was drawn repeatedly to differences both in her own accounts and to the evidence of Ms Angus, much of which is supported by contemporaneous notes.

And on several occasions, Mrs Kirk was asked if she was lying, which she denied.

She said: “It’s my belief that because of the PIDs I made, I was black-spotted and this was the first occasion to get rid of me.

“I don’t know who loaded the gun with the bullets, but I know Kelly fired it. If I didn’t make those PIDs, I would still be in a job now.”

It was put to Mrs Kirk that she was ‘extremely bitter’ about losing her job? “That’s not the word I would use,” she responded. “Extremely disappointed that someone who did the right thing would ultimately lose their job.”

She was asked: “That bitterness has caused you to look back at things that happened and now brand them as whistle-blowing?” She replied: “No, I was bullied as soon as I made those disclosures.”

Is it paranoia about Kelly Angus’ involvement in this? “I don’t think it’s paranoia, no,” she said.

During her evidence, Mrs Kirk mentioned a former colleague and it was pointed out that the tribunal would not be hearing evidence from her.

She said: “No, because she’s still in employment and, like everyone else, she’s terrified to put her head above the parapet.”

As with Mr Stephenson, Mrs Kirk complained that the interview format, questions and marking during the 2016 redundancy process were unfair, but the evidence of the three on the interview panel was that some of her answers were poor and that she swore on several occasions, which was ‘inappropriate and ill-judged’.

As previously reported, Mr Stephenson, who had worked at the authority since 1983, had been HR manager (pay, reward and projects) since 2013, but was also selected for redundancy in 2016.

He claims that the interview process was not fair and that his attempts to find alternative roles were thwarted, alleging that Ms Angus was behind this.

Asked if his account was an attempt to paint Ms Angus in a way which obviously isn’t true, he replied: “That’s not the case. An honest broker dealing with someone who has been selected for redundancy is usually desperate to find a way to avoid redundancy.

“An honest broker doesn’t want 34 years of experience and tens of thousands in training costs walking out the door.”

The local authority also refutes his claims and, under cross-examination, Mr Stephenson admitted he did not raise complaints about the restructuring and the process at the time.

The hearing is expected to last all this week as well, with the council due to start presenting its case today (October 8).

Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service