Letchworth council’s �80,000 tribunal payout

A COUNCIL will have to pay out an extra �80,000 to former staff after an employment tribunal found there was a breach of contract.

The tribunal ruled on Friday that changes made by Letchworth Garden City Council to the contracts of six members of staff under the previous administration were not “irrationally generous”, as was claimed by the current council, who wish to dissolve the authority.

It was upheld by the tribunal that the changes made to the contracts, which meant that in the event of redundancy staff would be entitled to severance pay of up to 20 weeks’ pay and either 12 months’ notice or pay in lieu – about �200,000 in total – rightly “offered some comfort and protection to staff during a period of uncertainty”.

The new terms, put in place in March 2009, were not honoured when the current council, in which 22 of the 24 elected councillors represent Help Eliminate Letchworth Parish council (HELP), made Nicola Franzen-Ashwood, Pat Nevins, Champaa Ranasingha, Mufeeldha Dawson, Amanda Mikiel and Sandra Lewis redundant in November 2009 after taking office in June.

In their redundancy package each woman was given severance pay as outlined but the council refused to pay the full 12 months’ notice, offering them three months instead.

After hearing evidence at Bedford Employment Tribunal in August, the tribunal accepted that staff had endured “unpleasant behaviour” following the launch of the HELP campaign in 2008, citing examples of the official council website being “attacked” with “pornographic links”, receiving emails referring to them as “parasitic scum” and a member of the public who came into the office and “angrily waved a stick at the staff”.

The tribunal said in its judgement that because of these conditions and the uncertainty surrounding the future of the council, that the former administration “placed rational, clear, carefully calculated limits upon its own generosity” to enable staff to continue to carry out the business for which the council had been elected.

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The ruling means the HELP-led council will have to pay each claimant the outstanding nine months’ pay in lieu of notice, amounting to �80,000.

A statement released by the former staff members said: “Staff went to the tribunal as a last resort. The judgement records we were prepared to compromise but HELP demanded a secret agreement containing what the tribunal describes as a ‘clear implication’ to impose unreasonable demands.

“HELP refused repeated requests to go to arbitration. HELP also rejected offers from the employment service to go to the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS). In the face of HELP’s unreasonable behaviour, we had no choice but to take our case to court.”

Commenting on the decision, Frank Lovett, chairman of the council, said: “Because of the unusual nature of these contracts and the very considerable sums of money involved we felt it was our responsibility, on behalf of Letchworth council ratepayers, to seek legal advice. We consulted specialist employment lawyers who advised that what the old council had agreed to give them was so very much greater than the norm that it was likely that the old council’s action had been unlawful.

“In these circumstances, we worked hard with the staff to reach new terms that would strike a fair balance between the interests of the staff and the interests of the ratepayers of Letchworth who had provide the council’s funds. In the end, however, the matter came before the tribunal for a decision.

“It is unfortunate, because we had hoped that any surplus money would eventually have been redistributed back to Letchworth ratepayers. We felt this would have been particularly welcome during this difficult economic time. Now the money will go to the past employees instead.

He added: “Ultimately it is for the ratepayers of Letchworth to form their own view as to whether the way in which the staff contracts were changed was rational or whether it was unreasonably generous. They will draw their own conclusions about the actions of previous councillors who awarded staff these employment terms only a matter of weeks before being voted out of office and whether they would want to go back to such a regime again in the future.

“We remain convinced that it was our duty to try to safeguard the council’s funds for the ratepayers of Letchworth and that it was the correct thing to do.”

He said the council remained committed to the permanent closure of the town council at soon as possible.

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