'No evidence' to support whistle-blowing allegations, tribunal hears

Northumberland County Council
Northumberland County Council

The investigator of whistle-blowing claims about council bosses at the heart of an employment tribunal is adamant there was no evidence of wrongdoing.

Liam Henry, Northumberland County Council’s monitoring officer, carried out an investigation into alleged public interest disclosures (PIDs) which implicated former and current chief executive, Steve Mason and Daljit Lally respectively.

A two-week tribunal hearing has 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 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.

The county council has refuted and is contesting all of the allegations.

At the heart of Mrs Kirk’s claims is the belief that she lost her job after making two PIDs against the council’s senior management.

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 Mr Mason and Ms Lally.

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.

These were later investigated by Mr Henry, who gave evidence on Friday (October 12), and found nothing to support the allegations.

Asked if his investigation was ‘light touch’ as he didn’t want to do something that would reflect badly on the chief executive, he said: “I refute that, it’s an objective view of the allegations.”

Hari Menon, representing Mrs Kirk, then asked if doing something honestly was the same as doing something to make it look as though you did it honestly. “No, it’s not,” replied Mr Henry. “But I did it honestly.”

Asked about the council’s whistle-blowing policy, it was conceded that anyone making a disclosure would not strictly have to declare that it was being reported as whistle-blowing.

Mr Menon drew attention to two instances in Mr Henry’s investigations where senior managers had not reported disclosures to him as monitoring officer in line with the policy.

He was asked, did this breach not leap out at you? “No, maybe it should have done,” Mr Henry replied, adding that perhaps his report should have included some further recommendations.

Pushed on this issue, he said: “My primary focus was to investigate the allegations.

“I could have made further recommendations, but it does not suggest that I conducted my investigation as a light touch.”

Mr Henry also described himself as ‘at a loss’ to see how not addressing this potential breach of policy is material to the allegations at the heart of the PIDs.

As previously reported, the tribunal had earlier heard from John Stenhouse, who 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.

However, in Mr Henry’s report, Mr Stenhouse added that Ms Lally had said ‘if we find him guilty’ or ‘if there are grounds’ to qualify this claim.

Mr Stenhouse totally denied this and Mr Menon suggested that ‘in his rush to exonerate Ms Lally and the council’, Mr Henry had ‘misstated Mr Stenhouse’s evidence’.

“I absolutely and categorically say that he did say those things,” Mr Henry said.

Mr Menon also asked him about two documents which were not able to be found during his investigation.

Mr Henry said that he was concerned, but not suspicious and had been told that extensive searches had been carried out to try to locate them.

All of the evidence has now been heard, but the final submissions on behalf of the two claimants and the council will take place next month before a decision is issued.

Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service

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