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Ashford Employment Tribunal
finds Bexley council guilty of unfair dismissal

Thames Innovation CentreBexley council’s Thames Innovation centre (TIC) may be considered to be ‘council housing for businesses’, it provides accommodation and support services for businesses which might otherwise never get off the ground. If that sounds like something a Conservative council shouldn’t be doing in straightened times they would probably agree with you, council leader Teresa O’Neill has excused its tendency to be a money-pit by blaming Labour for planning it and leaving it to the Tories to run. It has made a loss in every year except perhaps the last one when the council managed to pump in more money than it could spend.

It is said to be a business separate from Bexley council, it has its own board of directors and company secretary. From the latest Companies House report it can be seen that several of the directors are Bexley councillors, among them council leader Teresa O’Neill and current deputy leader Colin Campbell. Another who doubles as company chairman is Derek Harris, a 67 year old businessman from Tamworth in Staffordshire. Councillor Bailey is also a director of TIC and the company secretary is 37 year old Luke Vincett. Over the period in question there were four members of staff in addition to Mr. Vincett, Richard Edwards (TIC manager), Ms. Rima Dhillon (Marketing and Events Manager), an Administrative Assistant and Miss Caroline Queen. (Receptionist). Mr. Harris drew fees of £42,400 for the most recent accounting year available to me (ending April 2010) for what was said to be one or two meetings a month. Miss Queen was paid £270 a week before deductions. For part of 2010 TIC took on a government funded young lady who would otherwise be unemployed. Her presence has no impact on the issues discussed here and is mentioned only in the cause of strict accuracy.

In the early part of 2010, Miss Queen was employed as an agency supplied temp in Bexley council’s Human Resources (HR) Department but on 19th April 2010 the receptionist at TIC walked out without notice. Bexley council’s witnesses confirmed there were reports of “bum squeezing” later in the year that did not result in complaints so given that evidence one may speculate on why the former receptionist left in a hurry. Miss Queen was drafted in the same day (19th April) as being the best qualified member of staff (albeit temporary) that Bexley council could find. Miss Queen. proved to be good enough to be offered a permanent position on 25th May and it took effect on 1st June. She says the company chairman told her she was the best receptionist TIC had ever had.

Richard Edwards. TIC ManagerOnly three days later on 3rd June 2010 the police came into TIC in force, arrested and handcuffed the manager Richard Edwards and seized his computer and the company’s servers. The charge was one of downloading and storing images of child pornography. Nearly a year later he stood trial and was imprisoned for that offence, one of the charges being for images at the highest (worst) level. This obviously threw the TIC into turmoil and confusion. Miss Queen. had a new job and no manager and for a while no computer. One of her jobs (inputting all staff time sheets to a computer database) fell behind schedule that month. However Richard Edwards soon returned to work with the support of Bexley council‘s HR director who refused to suspend him.

There are 49 companies operating within TIC and all but one of them use the front desk receptionist and telephonist facilities which were Miss Queen’s responsibility. There is an incoming call to be answered and connected every minute or so. If she needed to use the toilet she had to call on the Administrative Assistant to cover the absence, there was very little spare time. Another of Miss Queen’s responsibilities was delivering the mail to tenant businesses. One of the criticisms of Miss Queen made at the Tribunal hearing was that she had a tendency to be chatty with the tenants as she went around with the post which was said to be “unprofessional”. Under cross examination all of Bexley council’s witnesses admitted that Ms. Dhillon, who would sometimes perform the same postal duties, was more than chatty; she had formed a close relationship with one of the tenants, a married man many years her senior and co-owner of the tenant company. The Tribunal heard that the relationship was close enough for him to state he was willing to end his marriage and that the issues were brought into the open at a TIC staff meeting in July 2010. Ms. Dhillon’s behaviour was fully accepted by TIC management but at the Tribunal Miss Queen’s alleged chattiness was said to be a serious lapse.

Bexley council’s defence was conducted by their solicitor Guy Atkins who produced three witnesses, director and chairman Derek Harris, Bexley council leader Colin Campbell and company secretary Luke Vincett. It appears to be the Ashford Tribunal’s practice to allow all the witnesses to remain in the court at all times which enables them to hear the evidence from all the other witnesses. This is not what you see in TV crime dramas and the reason for keeping witnesses apart in criminal trials soon became apparent to me. After one witness made a mistake by carelessly revealing something he might have preferred to suppress, the next witness went out of his way to correct the earlier witness’s mistake. Councillor Campbell who was the final witness for Bexley council was adept at taking advantage of what seemed to me to be a weakness in the procedures. If he had not heard the earlier witness let his side down, he would likely not have digressed in order to cover the evidential holes.

The Coffee ShopAfter TIC manager Richard Edwards was arrested he was allowed to come back to work but without access to any computer. As anyone who works in a managerial capacity in a modern office will know, without a computer there is nothing to do, but Mr. Edwards remained in post, on full pay and filled his time by visiting the coffee shop and going outside for smoking breaks with Ms. Dhillon, for there was some sort of relationship going on there too. The only sanction against Richard Edwards apart from withdrawal of his computer facilities was that on one day when a school party was due in to TIC for a special event, he was asked to stay at home.

Miss Queen was unhappy about his daily presence and said so. One of her fears was that there was a foetal scanning facility within TIC and pregnant mothers were coming in with toddlers and older children on a regular basis. They were at risk, as were members of the public who popped in to use the coffee shop. Under oath, councillor Campbell said there was no publicly accessible restaurant facility in TIC implying that Miss Queen was not being truthful. The restaurant company’s website says “our service is available to anyone and we would welcome you to come along and try us out”. (Note: By January 2012 the website had changed and no longer carries that statement but the implication is the same) The photograph shows their advertising sign on the road outside TIC. The Tribunal judge, for unfathomable reasons, refused to allow evidence that councillor Campbell had misinformed the Court and which showed Campbell’s suggestion that Miss Queen was making a fuss over nothing was wrong.

Miss Queen believes that much of what was said by Bexley council’s people was untrue but without being a witness to events myself I can only say that the most obvious untruth was councillor Campbell’s statement that there was no public restaurant in TIC. As a director he should have known better but claiming that children would never be found in the coffee shop suited the council’s case that there was no need to suspend Mr. Edwards.

As if having a since convicted paedophile on the premises full time was not bad enough, Rima Dhillon’s liaison with the tenant was providing more problems, for he parted company with his business partner amid claims that he had siphoned off a minimum of £70,000 from the company. With her lover away, Ms. Dhillon started to take post addressed to him which worried Miss Queen given that she had been told by the remaining partner that financial irregularities were continuing. He was very unhappy to hear that post addressed to his company but bearing his ex-partner’s name was not reaching him. Miss Queen. was seriously worried by what appeared to her to be thefts and after a few days of thought reported the matter to her line manager, Richard Edwards, on 17th August 2010. At this point the Court proceedings became difficult because Mr. Edwards is in a prison cell and not present at the Ashford Tribunal. Mr. Vincett said that he heard about Miss Queen’s concerns but he had sanctioned Ms. Dhillon collecting and personally delivering mail addressed to a TIC tenant. As Bexley council was at pains to point out that Mr. Vincett was not a manager one must wonder why he was able to do this. When challenged in Court he accepted that redirection of post was a chargeable TIC service and his agreement to the unorthodox post redirection was a serious error on his part. The company whose post it was was not informed of his decision nor was Miss Queen who carried on complaining about the arrangement to Mr. Edwards and no doubt adding to his inevitably high stress levels caused by the paedophilia charge hanging over him. The failure to tell anyone made Mr. Vincett’s stated decision on post direction look all the more strange.

Yet another problem for Miss Queen was that the TIC HR manager and company secretary Luke Vincett needed to satisfy himself that Miss Queen was not an illegal immigrant and was entitled to have a job in the UK. He wanted her to produce her passport. Unfortunately she had lost it between handing it in to Bexley council when employed there as a temp and being taken on to the permanent staff in June 2010. One of the curious things about Bexley council’s case was that when it suited them TIC was part of Bexley council and when it didn’t they were a separate business. So we have Bexley council’s legal team defending TIC and Bexley council’s HR department ruling that Richard Edwards could not be suspended on full pay after being arrested and subsequently charged but should instead stay on the premises, but when Miss Queen suggested that Bexley’s HR department had a true copy of her passport from only a couple of months before, then suddenly TIC was a separate company and the council’s copy of the passport was no use. Correspondence with the Passport Office proved the loss but the £77.50 cost of a replacement may be of no consequence to someone earning £42k for a day a month but not for someone on £270 a week (gross) with rent to pay. So an immediate replacement passport was not possible.

Another oddity about Bexley’s case was the way that Luke Vincett was sometimes a manager and sometimes he wasn’t. He would refer to himself as the HR manager and he worked intimately with Richard Edwards and supported him when moves were afoot to oust Miss Queen. But when it suited him he was just one of Miss Queen’s colleagues. With Richard Edwards safely tucked away behind bars it was difficult to uncover the truth on this and several other vital matters. No one on Bexley’s side could make up their mind as to whether Miss Queen had been allowed an appeal against dismissal either. The papers referred to an appeal but in Court they tried to make out they didn’t hold one, they merely reviewed their decision. When the word “appeal” slipped out instead of “review” you could see Bexley’s solicitor wince. You can understand why Bexley council was pulling this trick, they insisted the decision to sack Miss Queen was not taken by a Richard Edwards so fed up with the criticism of his non-suspension and the post issues that he wanted rid of Miss Queen at any cost. Bexley council’s case was that Miss Queen was sacked by TIC’s remuneration committee for numerous failings. This led to the Court criticizing Bexley council for having only members of that committee, Harris and Campbell, hearing the appeal. Bexley’s witnesses had no answer to that.

On 17th August 2010, the same day as Miss Queen told her line manager about the post possibly being stolen she was told that her three months probationary period was to be extended by one month to the 30th September for the sole purpose of providing time to obtain a replacement passport. Miss Queen anticipated having enough money for a replacement passport by September and had already booked leave to make a personal visit to the Passport Office so all was well. Obviously if Miss Queen. had proved herself useless as a receptionist any sensible employer would not extend the trial period for no other reason than to allow her to buy a passport and subsequently sack her for failings made before 17th August. Then on 8th September 2010, Bexley’s director of HR instructed Luke Vincett to obtain identity papers from Miss Queen that very day or she had no job. Note how the man who had a copy of Miss Queen’s passport tucked away in his files was saying that it was of no use to TIC because it and Bexley council are separate entities, yet he is over-ruling TIC’s HR decision because they are one and the same.

Because Bexley council had effectively withdrawn Miss Queen’s trial extension she had one day to get some documentation or lose her job. Less than a day because she wasn’t told of the problem until she had been at work for two and a half hours. It is fortunate that Miss Queen was born in the borough because otherwise her task would have been in her words “Mission Impossible”. She was able to persuade the local Registrar to give her a same day appointment and came away with a copy of her birth certificate having made inroads into her rent money to pay for it. A friend ran her around by car and delivered Miss Queen back to TIC by about 3:30. Handing in the certificate she was rewarded with the immortal words “Welcome to TIC” and believed her job to be secure. A few days later she took the annual leave which had been pre-booked. She returned on 23rd September to be handed a letter of dismissal signed by Mr. Richard Edwards the paedophile whose continued presence she felt was entirely wrong.

The reasons for dismissal were listed as being the failure to supply identity documents in good time, despite her being given until the 30th September to do so and supplying the documentation on the 8th. That the timesheets of the previous June, the month the police took the computers away, were not completed on time. That property leads had been filed in Miss Queen’s draws (sic). Another alleged failing was not filling up a small rack with promotional material from the tenants. It was admitted by the council’s witnesses that this was not an official TIC service and Miss Queen said she had never filled it up either before or after being put on the permanent pay roll because she was not given any such material, never been told it was her responsibility and believed, not unreasonably, that it was the marketing manager’s job. Among the many other things admitted by Bexley’ witnesses in Court under oath were…

• Councillor Campbell did not know who Miss Queen was until the issue of her dismissal came up.
• That none of the 49 tenants had ever registered a complaint about any aspect of the receptionist’s work including the allegedly poorly filled promotional material rack, through both official channels and at social functions.
• That Ms. Dhillon had not been subject to any criticism for her liaisons with the tenant or Mr. Edwards.
• That councillor Campbell believed that Miss Queen had been unfairly dismissed but decided to back instead Richard Edwards the paedophile who wanted her sacked.
• That Miss Queen was never given any training on the job.
• That Miss Queen was not given a job description until April 2011, seven months after her dismissal.

I particularly enjoyed the morning session on the second day (on which the News Shopper reporter was unfortunately absent) when Bexley’s solicitor Guy Atkins spent two hours grilling Miss Queen about every aspect of the case that he thought might discredit her and a young woman with no legal training was able to rebuff every criticism with good reasons for it being unfounded. The reason for her ease was that she merely had to come out with the truth and the council’s case against her was undone. To be fair to Mr. Atkins, I understand that he had on three occasions recommended to councillor Campbell that the case be dropped but he would not agree, so with Miss Queen so convincingly trouncing all the council’s arguments and the Court ultimately ruling that the council had treated her very unfairly, you will be wondering why she was not awarded any compensation. It revolves around a point of law.

No employee with less than 12 months service has any employment rights at all. Such staff can be sacked on any pretext whatever, unfair, total balderdash, personal spite, anything. The only exception is if the sacking is linked to the employer’s dishonesty or other crime. In this case the alleged theft of post by the lover of a man who it was believed had committed fraud against his company. Miss Queen. therefore had to prove that she had been sacked because she reported that theft to Richard Edwards and because of her oft stated belief he should not be there at all, he was caused to decide that reasons had to be found to enable her dismissal. Bexley council maintained that Mr. Edwards had nothing to do with her sacking despite the dismissal letter being signed by him. According to the council she was sacked by a committee including TIC chairman Derek Harris and councillor Campbell, the same men who went on to dismiss her appeal. In law that didn’t matter, Bexley could sack her on any trumped up charge and probably did. With Richard Edwards stuck in jail it was near impossible to link him directly to the dismissal when Bexley council insisted he had little to do with it.

Bexley council sacked Miss Queen because of an alleged failure to complete a couple of jobs which fell outside the normal receptionist role. Jobs for which on their own admission they had given no training nor any guidance on alleged shortcomings. She was shown the door with no reference and remains unemployed as a result. Ms. Dhillon who Bexley council accepted was in a three way relationship which included Edwards, the TIC manager, was allowed to carry on without any criticism whereas Miss Queen was said to be unprofessional by merely chatting to tenants. Ms. Dhillon left TIC employment voluntarily with a reference in January 2011.

Richard Edwards never was suspended by Bexley council from his position as manager of TIC but continued to work there without a computer and little to do until a few days after he was charged with paedophilia at the end of January this year. He was allowed to resign with a reference and according to reports walked into a similar job before the law finally caught up with him. Miss Queen has nothing, no reference, no job and no compensation because with Edwards beyond cross examination the onus of proof that he sacked her and not a committee who admitted to knowing nothing of her proved impossible to the Court’s satisfaction. In the evidence bundle before the Court was a letter from Richard Edwards to Miss Queen dated 23 September 2010 and signed by Richard Edwards as manager of TIC informing her that she was sacked and that she was not to return to the building during her month’s notice, but we were asked to believe he took no part in the decision to sack Miss Queen.

Miss Queen is grateful to the Court for stating so positively that she was unfairly sacked by Bexley council. Given the wealth of evidence against them they must rank as one of the country’s worst public service employers.

A summary time-line and principal events list is as below…

• Early 2010 - Miss Queen. employed as a temp by Bexley council’s Human Resources Department.
• 19 April 2010 - TIC receptionist left without notice and Miss Queen drafted in as emergency replacement.
• 24 May 2010 - Miss Queen impressed her managers and was offered a permanent job.
• 1 June 2010 - Miss Queen became the new TIC receptionist on three months trial.
• 3 June 2010 - Police arrest the TIC manager for paedophilia and take him away in handcuffs in full view of tenants and public. His computer and TIC’s servers are seized.
• Mid June 2010 - Manager returns to work supported by Bexley council.
• End of June 2010 - Lack of computers and training causes one of receptionist’s tasks to fall behind schedule.
• July 2010 - Tenant in relationship with TIC’s Marketing Manager leaves under a financial cloud - possible fraud.
• August - Marketing Manager suspected of intercepting her lover’s post.
• 17 August 2010 - Receptionist reports apparent theft of post.
• 17 August 2010 - Receptionist’s trial period extended to 30 September but only because there is a problem with proving her ID under the Asylum and Immigration Act.
• 8 September 2010 - Trial extension offer withdrawn. ID to be provided that very day or receptionist to be dismissed.
• 8 September 2010 - Receptionist provides necessary ID as is “welcomed to TIC”
• 15 September 2010 - Receptionist commences one week of pre-booked leave.
• 23 September 2010 - Receptionist returns from leave and her manager signs a letter of dismissal, without any prior warning of failure or any on the job training. No job reference given.
• 11 November 2010 - Same people Bexley councils says sacked receptionist sit on an appeal panel and dismiss it.
• January 2011 - Marketing manager known to have been in a love triangle with one TIC client resigns and is given a reference.
• Early February 2011 - Manager is charged with paedophilia and allowed to resign with a job reference.
• April 2011 - Receptionist provided with her job description for the first time.
• June 2011 - Manager jailed on ten charges of paedophilia, for one to six months on each charge to run concurrently.
• 29 June 2011 - Tribunal finds Bexley council to have dismissed receptionist unfairly but cannot award compensation due to a legal impediment.

1 July 2011

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