The ‘scattergun approach’ of the claimants in an employment tribunal, which saw Northumberland County Council ‘ambushed’ on several occasions, has been criticised by the authority’s advocate this week.
A two-week tribunal hearing last month 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 is alleging unfair dismissal and age discrimination. The county council has refuted and is contesting all of the allegations.
The pair claimed that Kelly Angus, the council’s executive director of HR, ‘engineered’ the pair out of their jobs.
But on Monday (November 12), when the two sides set out their closing arguments, Claire Millns, representing the council, said: “Both were prepared to throw as many accusations as they could at the council and specifically Mrs Angus without any consideration about their legal basis.
“They should not be able to get away with it. The council has spent significant money defending claims which have got nowhere near tribunal.”
She also noted that many of Mrs Kirk’s claims which did form part of her pleaded case also seemed to have dropped away over the course of the hearing.
She accused Mr Stephenson of ‘mudslinging’ and that he was ‘looking at it with hindsight trying to attack this process when he had no issue with it at the time’.
In relation to Mrs Kirk, she said: “This case has come about as a result of bitterness at losing her job and a paranoid belief that things she has said have led to a witch-hunt against her.”
At the heart of Mrs Kirk’s claims is 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 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.
Hari Menon, representing Mrs Kirk, pointed out that the disclosures did not originate from his client so ‘nobody can accuse her of making things up’.
“The main thrust is that these were unlawful attempts,” he said. “An attempt is all that’s necessary. The other concern is the use of public money and the influence of Mr Mason and his wife.”
He suggested that the council’s case was ‘why would we sack you, everything was above aboard. We are not a corrupt council, therefore we have got no reason to stitch you up’.
But if this was the case, he continued, why had crucial documents and emails disappeared when the council’s monitoring officer came to investigate the whistle-blowing claims?
“I’m not trying to say that Daljit Lally or Steve Mason stole into the offices at night or hacked into databases, but it shows that corruption is pervasive,” he said.
But Ms Millns described the allegations of corruption as ‘an ambush in my opinion’.
She said that Mrs Kirk’s witness statement was very mild on these issues, but then she presented ‘explosive stuff’ in her evidence at the tribunal.
“How can such serious allegations be credible when she’s not prepared to put pen to paper,” she added.
“The claimant can’t hide behind lack of knowledge. Sometimes it’s difficult for the layperson to understand, but Sarah Kirk was lead for the whistle-blowing policy.
“Nowhere does she produce a note or a commitment to writing on either of the disclosures.”
Mr Menon had earlier questioned the credibility of Ms Angus as a witness, describing her as ‘instinctively evasive and heroically dishonest’.
“It’s evident that the claimant (Mrs Kirk) is a disorganised historian, but she’s an honest witness, as opposed to Ms Angus who I say is an organised witness, but not an honest one.”
But Ms Millns said that Ms Angus had been ‘caught up in Sarah Kirk’s conspiracy theory’.
“Kelly Angus had a difficult time in cross-examination in facing extremely serious and entirely new allegations and she dealt with this with dignity at all times. That’s the mark of the woman who holds the senior position she does.
“If you are going to make such serious allegations, it goes without saying that the person should be put on sufficient notice of that.”
Ben O'Connell, Local Democracy Reporting Service