Garden ‘delight’ at settlement in dismissal case

Philip Spencer carrying the Olympic Flame on the Torch Relay leg between Alnwick and Amble.
Philip Spencer carrying the Olympic Flame on the Torch Relay leg between Alnwick and Amble.

A settlement was reached yesterday in a dispute between The Alnwick Garden and its former director of development.

Philip Spencer, 59, who lives in Surrey, was claiming unfair dismissal and said he was chosen for redundancy because he had been a whistleblower, raising concerns about the handling of finances at the charity. That was denied.

But in a statement released yesterday afternoon, the Alnwick Garden Trust said: ‘We are delighted to have reached a settlement agreement with the claimant.

‘The Trust will always vigorously defend what it considers as spurious claims.

‘Along with many other businesses, during what is a tough economic time, the Trust has experienced financial issues and difficult decisions had to be made.

‘As a result, the business is reclaiming a financially-stable position and is moving forward with confidence.

‘The Alnwick Garden Trust has always worked within the rules governing charities, and we look forward to another successful year delivering our charitable projects, unique events programme and, ultimately, great-value days out for visitors.’

On Monday, the tribunal heard that The Alnwick Garden faced a precarious financial situation when it emerged from last winter in an international recession.

Its trading profit was less than £30,000 and after running costs of the garden, it made a net loss of £400,000.

Managing director David Ronn needed to cut the wage bill and looked at posts including that of Mr Spencer, who was on a package worth £85,000.

He had been employed to bring in funds of £25million, but in 18 months he had raised nothing, the hearing was told.

Mr Spencer said his achievements included bringing to the Garden Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food, which uses the celebrity chef’s recipes to educate people of all ages in an entertaining way about healthy eating.

In a statement read out as the hearing began, it was said though he had ‘made a disclosure that monies of The Alnwick Garden Trust were applied in a way that was in breach of a legal obligation, he is not suggesting that this has been done by anybody for personal gain’.

Mr Ronn said this legal concern was not mentioned until Mr Spencer’s job was on the line.

Even then, a four-page letter to him about the proposed work changes had made no mention of whistleblowing.

The Charity Commission had reviewed the structure of the organisations running the Garden in 2008 and found it appropriate.

In the end, the MD saved £500,000 by making four people redundant, leaving four vacancies unfilled and cutting seasonal staff.

The following day’s hearing heard that the Garden introduced an online ticketing system despite being told it flouted HMRC guidelines.

Robert Gibson, representing Mr Spencer, said his client had told a meeting discussing the new system – which required the ticket purchaser to opt out of Gift Aid – this did not ‘flaunt the rules’ but ‘flouted them’.

Mr Ronn admitted it was reported at a meeting that the method of collecting Gift Aid on the Garden’s website was ‘flaunting the rules but everyone was doing it’. Mr Spencer corrected this to ‘flouting the rules’.

But Mr Ronn said Mr Spencer, who was the Garden’s sole Gift Aid signatory and responsible for ensuring the proper procedures for claiming the money were followed, did not seem over-worried or anxious about it and said nothing more at the meeting.

When asked what he thought was meant by flouting, Mr Ronn said he believed it meant that the Garden ‘was sailing close to the wind’ but not breaching any rules, stressing they had followed the guidelines as set out at that time.