War of words over Letchworth council tribunal

A BITTER war of words is still raging after an employment tribunal decided in favour of former staff of a town council.

Sandra Lewis, Nicola Franzen-Ashwood, Pat Nevins, Champaa Ranasingha, Amanda Mikiel and Mufeeldha Dawson took Letchworth Garden City Council to court after changes to their contracts under the previous administration were not upheld by the current Help Eliminate Letchworth Parish (HELP) council, who want to dissolve the authority.

The six former employees told The Comet they wanted to make it clear that the case “was about a temporary promise to give us 12 months notice - not notice pay,” after HELP were elected in June 2009.

Both sides have maintained, following the judgement decision on October 14, that they did not wish to take the matter to court, blaming the other party.

In a joint statement, the former employees said: “HELP sought to keep us in post by promising (twice) that if we stayed to work for them until they decided to make us redundant they would give us a loyalty bonus of three months. Eventually, after we had worked for them for five months, they gave us three months notice but withheld the bonus until we signed a compromise agreement.

“By law, when an employer imposes a compromise agreement, an independent solicitor has to be brought in to give staff advice. The solicitor said the agreement contained unreasonable demands. The tribunal records she ‘strongly advised’ us not to sign it. HELP did not amend it, refused arbitration and refused the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS).

“We said all along it was a simple employment dispute that should have been settled out of court 18 months ago. HELP should take responsibility for their own actions. Politics should not have been brought into it.”

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In a separate statement, Cllr Frank Lovett, chairman of the council, said: “The references that have been made to requesting the services of ACAS are wholly misleading. Yes, there was a time in mid 2009 when a request was made to go to ACAS. The chairman of the policy and resources committee consulted with ACAS, who suggested that we try first to work things out ourselves. Soon thereafter the staff and we agreed to sit round the table and see if we could negotiate a settlement ourselves, first. And we did.

“The only outstanding issue was the balance of nine months notice pay. There was a further meeting on 10 November, 2009, at which time we and the staff reached a settlement. The agreement we reached was very generous to the staff, but we felt it was the right thing to do to treat them fairly.

“So, why did it break down and go to a tribunal? As is customary in such matters, we asked the staff to sign a compromise agreement. Their representative, Mrs Lewis, told Councillor Bruce Carr on more than one occasion that they were about to sign it and we would get it back ‘any day’. And then, on their penultimate day of employment (12 January 2010), they told us that they would not sign the agreement and that they still wanted us to pay them another nine months money.

“They didn’t say ‘we have a problem with this bit of the agreement, can we discuss it’. They didn’t say ‘we need to go to ACAS to sort out this compromise agreement’. In our view, they just reneged on our agreement. So, to say this all happened because we refused to go to ACAS is inaccurate.”