Council bullying probe in disarray as unions dramatically pull out

Trade union demonstrators on the steps of Hackney Town Hall. Photograph: UNISON/Unite/GMB.

Hackney’s trade unions have formally withdrawn from an independent investigation into allegations of bullying, harassment and racism within the council’s call centre.

Representatives of Hackney UNISON, Unite and the GMB accuse the Town Hall of “consistently undermining” the investigation in a 26 February letter to Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville (Lab & Co-op) and the council’s chief executive Tim Shields.

Shields today expressed his “extreme disappointment” with the move, and underlined that the investigation would continue, whilst the borough’s elected mayor ruled out any political intervention as “inappropriate and unfair on all staff”.

Management at the council’s call centre has been under investigation following the publication of an 18-page document in November containing startling allegations of a culture of discriminatory abuse within the department.

The letter alleges managers have attempted to “caution staff about how they contributed to the investigation”, and reveals unions’ alarm in February at the Town Hall carrying out internal recruitment to a senior management role from the same department, despite the probe being in its early stages.

Hackney UNISON, Unite and the GMB said: “We have been forced into a position where our members and the staff in the call centre have absolutely no confidence in the council’s ability to seriously and impartially investigate the allegations of bullying, harassment and discrimination in the call centre.

“The council appear unable to hold staff accountable when there are complaints or come to any meaningful conclusions despite the background to the investigation and the seriousness of the allegations.

“Worst of all, staff are continuing to suffer intimidation and indignity on a daily basis.

“The trade unions have no faith in the exercise the council carried out in response to the trade union concerns, nor does it appear that the council are taking the investigation into the alleged interference with witnesses seriously.

“Regrettably, to staff working in the call centre and to the trade unions, the council’s failure to launch a proper investigation has done nothing but serve to confirm the growing unrest amongst staff and lack of confidence in the council’s ability to investigate themselves impartially.

“It is deeply saddening and disturbing that faced with an opportunity to address the damaging allegations brought before it, the council has instead consistently undermined the process and are perceived by the trade unions, its members and staff as having prejudged the outcome of the investigation before it has been concluded.”

The unions also criticised the council’s use of agency contract workers, which they claim “supports a culture where staff are disposable and bullying behaviour festers”.

Natasha Johnson.

Central to the union’s campaign is the case of the October dismissal of Natasha Johnson, Unite’s branch equalities officer, following her complaints of discrimination and harassment in the Town Hall.

Johnson had raised complaints at her employment tribunal over a manager implying she was smoking marijuana at work, and being told: “If you haven’t got childcare, you shouldn’t be working here.”

The unions’ list of claims include alleged slurs such as:

  • a black female member of staff being referred to as “a Taliban” and “a slave”
  • a manager stating they would start embracing their roots because they were white and white people used to enslave black people
  • a member of staff’s history of domestic abuse being disclosed in public with the words: “Your partner is always pulling your hair out and you’re a walking car crash.”

The unions were made aware of allegations of witness tampering by Hackney Service Centre management at the end of January.

It is understood that this sparked a separate council-led investigation in which the unions were not invited to take part.

According to the letter, this separate investigation was closed and no further action was taken, after staff were apparently quizzed on the allegations during working hours on the call centre floor.

The Town Hall is now said to be reviewing that decision.

Members of all three organisations are now being consulted on next steps, with a potential ballot for strike action remaining on the table.

The unions have also stated that they have been “inundated” with staff complaints from across the council since news of the allegations broke, and are now being contacted by members who are considering or have already withdrawn their testimony to the investigation “as a result of the council’s failure to instil confidence in the staff.”

UNISON, Unite and the GMB also reveal in their letter experiencing “resistance” by the Town Hall to their initial calls for the investigation to be independent, with a council preference for the allegations to be examined internally.

The letter goes on to state: “Our calls to consider suspending certain individuals fell on deaf ears, which only emboldened managers to further mistreat staff.

“From the outset it has been made abundantly clear to the trade unions that the experiences of both former and current staff mean that some of those staff affected are fearful of management.

“They have approached all trade unions advising that they perceive themselves vulnerable as a direct result of the management culture operating within the call centre.”

Notice of an independent review of working culture and practices in the housing contact centre and complaints team was given to council employees on 14 December, inviting all to share their views on the issues raised in a confidential and informal manner.

According to the council, the terms of reference and leadership of the investigation were jointly agreed between the union and Town Hall, with the review currently headed up by the former director of HR and strategy and organisational development at Lambeth Council.

However, the unions claim the investigator’s appointment was presented to them “unilaterally” by the Town Hall.

The letter also reveals their concerns over “basic errors at best, fundamental flaws at worst” with the administration of the review itself.

These include “unacceptable delays” in setting up lines of contact and investigators being apparently unaware of related disciplinary investigations and cases for months.

The unions will be present at the full council meeting on 27 February at 7pm,  where Dr Heather Mendick, secretary of Hackney South & Shoreditch Labour, will be formally questioning the council on what action is being taken to address union concerns.

The Town Hall have stated that six days were allocated for staff interviews with the investigator, with an additional two days of interview slots recently added at the request of the unions.

Hackney Council has also committed to publishing the results of the investigation when it is complete.

Chief Executive Tim Shields said of the unions’ decision to withdraw: “This is extremely disappointing, given that the unions have met with me and, separately, the Mayor and cabinet throughout this process.

“Our door has always been open and the unions have been fully involved in the investigation from the beginning, agreeing both the independent investigator and the terms of reference.

“The issues in the letter were directly raised with me within the last week. They are already being addressed, and I am planning on meeting with the unions within the next few days to further update them.

“The independent investigation will continue and we hope that the unions will engage with its findings on behalf of their members.”

Hackney Mayor Philip Glanville (Lab & Co-op) said: “Since becoming Mayor I have sought to actively engage with staff and our trade unions. This has been on top of extensive Council engagement through formal structures.

“Staff grievances and complaints regarding bullying and harassment rightly need to be dealt with by management according to the processes the council has in place.

“It would be inappropriate and unfair on all staff for politicians to intervene in these processes, particularly at employment tribunal stage or when there is an agreed independent investigation in place.

“However, throughout this investigation both myself and Cllr Carole Williams (Lab, Hoxton West), cabinet member for employment, skills and human resources, have been actively involved in ensuring due process and the independence of the investigation, whilst listening and acting on any new information provided and offering full reassurance that the outcomes of the investigation would be published and acted upon.”

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