BARLBOROUGH: Council embroiled in £65,000 tribunal

NDET 8-10-13 RKH 7  Pat Whitehouse who won compensation after being bullied at work.
NDET 8-10-13 RKH 7 Pat Whitehouse who won compensation after being bullied at work.
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A parish council has been embroiled in a £65,000 employment tribunal - after a clerk claimed she was victimised and forced to resign.

Patricia Whitehouse, 60, has been awarded £35,330.72 in compensation following a judge declaring she had been constructively dismissed from her role at Barlborough Parish Council.

Mrs Whitehouse, of Glebe View, Barlborough, took on the role in 2008 after the resignation of former clerk Roz Bullimore.

The Derbyshire Times reported that Mrs Bullimore was handed a “substantial” out-of-court settlement after she also claimed she had been unfairly treated by the council.

Mrs Whitehouse told the tribunal that almost as soon as she began working for the authority she faced abuse and felt some councillors “ganged up on her.”

She added: “At the end of the day I was only being treated in this awful way because I was doing my job properly.”

Barlborough Parish Council denied Mrs Whitehouse’s claims and a spokesman said they did not accept there was a “history of clerks being victimised.”

Mrs Whitehouse, who previously worked as a finance administrator and a manager at Barlborough Resource Centre, said at the hearing that council meetings were often “orchestrated” with councillors’ friends and family attending to abuse her.

She added: “It was like a relentless targeted campaign against me by certain councillors supported by their friends and relatives.

“They would knock on my office door, gang up on me and put me under considerable pressure.”

Mrs Whitehead told the tribunal that she finally resigned in 2011 after her mental and physical health began to deteriorate due to stress.

Following a nine-day hearing a judge ruled Mrs Whitehouse had been constructively dismissed.

A council spokesman said: “The council accepted that decision. Significantly the tribunal in its written judgement made no findings in respect of a number of allegations that Mrs Whitehouse had made against individual councillors.”

He added: “The judge also said ‘In the vernacular, to the extent to which the claimant was subjected to abuse and shouted at, she gave as good as she got’.”

The council also spent £30.057.32 in legal fees but claim the cost to Barlborough residents could have been considerably higher, if the authority had not defended the allegations.

A council spokesman said: “The tribunal awarded a sum of £35,330.72 by way of compensation, just under £1,000 represents the basic award reflecting her length of service, the balance was the compensatory award that the tribunal considered to be her loss of earnings.

“That is a significant sum, but it is considerably less than that which was sought by Mrs Whitehouse,”

The council’s full response:

“Following her resignation from her post as Parish Clerk on the 7th 2011, Mrs Patricia Whitehouse brought claims against the Parish Council alleging constructive dismissal, disability discrimination and detriments arising out of public interest disclosure.

The Council contested those claims. The schedules of loss claimed by the Claimant Mrs Whitehouse claimed losses originally in excess of £120,000 and sought compensation for the statutory maximum sum of £68,000.

On legal advice and in the public interest the Parish Council believed it had little alternative other than to defend these claims.

The Parish Council remained committed throughout the process to attempting to negotiate a settlement based upon reasonable grounds. Unfortunately it was not possible to achieve a settlement. The negotiations and offers were made on a

without prejudice basis and the Parish Council will respect that. However the sums sought by the Claimant Mrs Whitehouse were never at a level which the Parish Council on legal advice considered acceptable in terms of what an Employment

Tribunal might order in the worse possible case in a Tribunal.

Eventually after nine days of hearing in the Employment Tribunal in Sheffield the Employment Tribunal found that there was a case for constructive dismissal on one of the claims made by Mrs Whitehouse but no case in respect of either the disability discrimination or the whistleblowing claim. The Council accepted that decision.

Significantly the Tribunal in its written judgement made no findings in respect of a number of allegations that Mrs Whitehouse had made against individual councillors.

After a further hearing of one day in the Employment Tribunal with regard to the amount of compensation, the Tribunal awarded a sum of £35,330.72 by way of compensation, just under £1,000 represents the basic award reflecting her length of service, the balance was the compensatory award that the tribunal considered to be her loss of earnings. That is a significant sum, but it is considerably less than that which was sought by the Claimant, Mrs Whitehouse. The Parish Council believes that if it had settled this matter without the Tribunal hearing, if it had not defended the allegations made and the remedy sought fully then the cost to the Council and the residents of Barlborough would have been considerably higher.

The Employment Tribunal found that there was a case for constructive dismissal because of the composition of the grievance and appeals panels. The Council, after seeking advice, decided to deal with Mrs Whitehouse’s grievance as an internal matter rather than go outside of the local authority. The Tribunal Judge acknowledged that the Council is ‘a small organisation faced with practical problems that the three named people were Councillors and the alternative Councillors were unwilling to participate in the process.’ An independent person was appointed to investigate the grievance and most of the claims, which were of a general nature, were upheld.

The appeal panel was formed after the 2011 elections and was made up of three newly elected parish councillors, including Cllr Western.

None of the three councillors were named in the grievance.

The prior complaint was on an unrelated matter.

The Tribunal considered minutes and transcripts of several meetings at which Mrs Whitehouse claimed she was subjected to verbal abuse, but the Tribunal found no evidence to support her claims. The Tribunal did find however that ‘the Claimant accepted that, on her appointment, she was heavily reliant on advice from outside bodies. Regrettably, on each occasion that the Claimant took advice from outside bodies, she declined to follow it.’

The meeting held to discuss the planning application for the Country Park car park was attended by many members of the public, most of whom were not regular attendees of Council meetings and were not family members or friends of Councillors as Mrs Whitehouse suggests.

Neither had the Council acted illegally.

There was a minor error on the planning application, which could have easily been amended, but Mrs Whitehouse had withdrawn the application without the authority of the Council.

The Tribunal Judge after hearing the evidence and listening to Mrs Whitehouse stated ‘she accepted that some of her interventions were provocative and although she is not always willing to accept this when it was put to her, her

interventions and her behaviour generally throughout this meeting were capable of being viewed as unprofessional.’

The Judge also said ‘In the vernacular, to the extent to which the Claimant was subjected to abuse and shouted at, she gave as good as she got.’

It is not true that a PCSO had to remove people from a meeting. There was one occasion when a PCSO was asked to remove one person, but having been present from the start of the meeting and witnessed the full proceedings, he declined to do so.

The Council does not accept that there is a history of clerks being victimised. Mrs Whitehouse and Mrs Bullimore gave evidence to the Tribunal which acknowledged they are good friends and that Mrs Bullimore recommended the clerk’s post to Mrs Whitehouse as being a good opportunity for her. This hardly fits with her claims that the Council behaves in a bullying manner.

The Council has had a new clerk in post for the past two years and there are no difficulties.”