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

Trade unions UNISON, Unite and the GMB have formally condemned an independent investigation into bullying and discrimination within the council’s call centre as a “failure”.

The Town Hall’s chief executive Tim Shields said in May that he would act on the recommendations of the report carried out by HR consultant Stephen Sherman, which uncovered concerns over the centre’s management practice.

Unions ceased cooperating with the report in February, citing a loss of faith in how it was being carried out, and have now released a joint response to it with a number of recommendations of their own.

The trade unions said: “We believe [the Sherman] report by design is extremely limited in its scope and due to its failure to investigate issues reported has fundamentally not given a proper representation of the issues in this area.

“It is clear from the allegations that we have seen, and that we understand Stephen Sherman saw, that there were very serious cases of bullying, harassment and racism but quite understandably the staff simply did not have faith or confidence in  the process or system or council to put their complaints on record.

“This is a damning indictment on the London Borough of Hackney and everyone in the senior management team from the Mayor and Chief Executive would be shamed by this.”

Central to the unions’ decision to pull out of the Sherman report was the promotion of two council managers involved in claims of discriminatory behaviour while the investigation was taking place.

Nine separate examples of bullying and discrimination, including racism, had been looked at by the investigation, but according to Sherman were not progressed further due to a mixture of insufficient evidence, insufficient grounds, and in one case the party concerned not giving consent to be quoted.

The unions said that the “biggest conclusion” they draw from the report is that “staff were too scared to go on the record”, citing a “lack of confidence” in the process.

The Town Hall denies this analysis, saying it lacks evidence, and points out that the report had been commissioned in conjunction with the unions, who agreed its terms of reference and the appointment of Sherman himself, adding that “every reasonable step” was taken to make sure staff could give evidence in confidence.

A total of 29 staff were interviewed by Sherman, with 24 written statements received – 21 of which were anonymous.

The unions’ own report in response dismisses reasons not to investigate further, such as length of time since the alleged behaviour occurred or the fact that workers are no longer at the council.

The unions are now putting forward a number of policy proposals to the Town Hall, including:

  • An immediate and significant reduction in agency staff across the council
  • To give a fixed term contract to any agency staff member who has worked for the council for more than six months
  • The establishment of an “Equalities Unit or Independent Referral Unit” for staff who face discrimination

The Sherman report recommends that existing agency workers have a fair and equal chance to apply for permanent positions, with clear and constructive feedback given if they are not appointed, and a review of people management skills for team leaders.

Town Hall chief exec Tim Shields has said that it is now “taking steps” to reduce agency staff and improve local recruitment, with mandatory training on equalities and inclusive leadership for managers now “ongoing”.

Central to the unions’ campaign has been the case of Natasha Johnson, Unite’s branch equalities officer, who was dismissed in October 2018 following her complaints of discrimination and harassment.

Johnson, who has now withdrawn her claims at employment tribunal, had alleged that her manager implied that she was smoking marijuana at work, and that she was told: “If you haven’t got childcare, you shouldn’t be working here.”

The Town Hall said it made no payment to Johnson to settle the claim.

The union report brings up a new case of discrimination and failure to deal with a complaint from a BAME disabled painter and decorator, and former council employee.

According to the report, the worker, who has learning difficulties with dyslexia and dyspraxia, had been recontracted to a private company in 2015, losing his work buddy on whom he relied in the process, leaving him “struggl[ing] to do his work, which left him vulnerable to ridicule and harassment”.

The man’s physical and mental health is said to have deteriorated to such an extent that he became unwell, and subsequently it was discovered that the Town Hall had not explained his needs to the private company, which would not have accepted his transfer if it had.

The council is said to have “refused to consider” a transfer back, dismissing his written complaint with an email informing the former Town Hall apprentice: “You are no longer our employee.”

The worker, who is not named in the report, said: “I feel really let down, disappointed and very angry. I worked really hard during my apprenticeship and was so proud of myself, for the first time in my life that I qualified with merit.

“It was a dream come true, I could do a job that was a service to my community that had provided a safe sanctuary for my family and myself.

“It made me feel that to them I was worthless; they simply just wanted to dump their responsibilities towards me. I was being punished for simply ensuring that I have the adjustments I am entitled to, so that I can give the best service I could do.”

When asked about the man’s case by the Citizen, the Town Hall said only that the dates quoted in it were during the period when the now-defunct arms length organisation Hackney Homes managed housing services.

Chief Executive Tim Shields said: “[The joint union] report is addressed to the Scrutiny Panel, following the unions’ presentation to them in April, and council officers have not received a copy.

“We continue to strongly refute the unions’ claims. We do not tolerate bullying, harassment and discrimination of any kind and the council has clear policies in place to ensure allegations are fully investigated and acted upon.

“We take any allegations of this nature extremely seriously, which is why we commissioned an independent report to examine the unions’ allegations.

“The report did not find any substantive evidence to support the unions’ specific allegations, but it did uncover concerns to do with some management practices within that service.

“We are taking these findings seriously. There are plenty of opportunities for the unions to influence all of this work and ensure their members’ voices are heard, should they wish to engage.

“We recently met with the trade unions to share our thoughts on future engagement of our employees and we were pleased to be able to agree an approach with them.”

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