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Payout for ex-council managers after judge finds 'improper influence' led to dismissal

PUBLISHED: 12:00 10 September 2019 | UPDATED: 13:28 10 September 2019

The Bridge Road depot where RMS is based. Dozens of employees were investigated in 2017-18 and several senior staff resigned. Picture: Polly Hancock

The Bridge Road depot where RMS is based. Dozens of employees were investigated in 2017-18 and several senior staff resigned. Picture: Polly Hancock

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Three employees at Newham Council's repairs service were wrongfully dismissed in a bungle that has cost the taxpayer tens of thousands of pounds.

Overtime claims for Overtime claims for "backlog of work" were sanctioned by the then-operations manager, the judge found.

Richard Musson, Amrik Thathy and Westley Mitchell were suspended in December 2017 and later sacked amid a probe into overtime claims in RMS.

At a hearing at East London Tribunal Centre earlier this year, judge Fiona McLaren ruled the action was both unfair and in breach of contract.

The full judgement has not been published as Newham Council settled with all three, who were seeking to recover between £37,000 and £58,000 each, before costs could be awarded. But a copy of it has now been seen by the Recorder.

In a damning verdict, Judge McLaren surmised: "They [the claimants] were not aware of the policies they were held to have breached and these did not form part of their contracts.

The court heard workload had increased dramatically from 2013. Picture: Polly HancockThe court heard workload had increased dramatically from 2013. Picture: Polly Hancock

"They did not consider what they were doing to be wrong and I find there was no reason why they should."

The three managers had worked for the council since leaving school - from 1985, 1989 and 1997.

Their workload snowballed after RMS came back under council control in 2013, with turnover growing from £15million to £40m.

These three employees and others had been claiming five hours' overtime on a Saturday to make up for extra duties taken on - on the instruction of then-operations director Tony Abbs. This, the judge found, was "long-established practice".

Newham Council has agreed to pay its three ex-employees tens of thousands of pounds after the judge's findings. Picture: Ken MearsNewham Council has agreed to pay its three ex-employees tens of thousands of pounds after the judge's findings. Picture: Ken Mears

Despite this, they were the only ones subject to any action in 2017.

Chris Boylett, now the council's head of council tax and benefits, originally intended to give all three a written warning and drafted letters to that effect in June 2018.

But after a meeting on July 25 with his line manager and head of division Simon Letchford, and senior HR adviser Mark Porter, he abruptly changed his position.

The meeting took place hours before an audit board meeting in which Mr Letchford told councillors the three would be sacked.

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Mr Boylett re-drafted his letters on July 26 and sent them to HR asking if "the wording is strong enough to justify the decision". They were sent back to him, reworded again, for the first time alleging knowledge of wrongdoing.

Judge McLaren found that despite claims to the contrary, Mr Boylett had been pressured into changing his decision and there was an "inappropriate level of interference" from HR.

The three claimants appealed and Judge McLaren also found that process was also "flawed", as not all the evidence was reviewed at their abortive hearings.

Among those that gave evidence on the claimants' behalf was Macks Robertson, the fraud investigator looking into RMS at the time.

In his witness statement, he said his line manager Jeremy Wellburn had told him: "Mr Boylett had been advised to reconsider… as the outcome is not in keeping with the wishes of the council".

In response, Mr Wellburn made serious allegations about Mr Robertson's competence in court, which have led the ex-employee to lodge a complaint with Newham.

Mr Robertson told the Recorder: "These officers are still working there and what they did was wrong, end of story. I had no doubt this was going to be the outcome. The facts and the evidence have always been there."

The only overtime wrongly claimed in the whole period, which the managers acknowledged was a mistake, was £389.34 and £173.04.

But the two-year saga that has since unfolded is likely to have cost tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of pounds.

Further, in 2017 other RMS employees were investigated for falsifying overtime claims - and, Judge McLaren found, had lied about it on being interviewed.

But despite "evidence of deceit" acknowledged by Newham Council in court, they kept their jobs and one was even promoted.

No action was taken against four others claiming for up to 20 to 30 hours' overtime a week on the basis of insufficient evidence.

A Newham Council spokesman said: "The council accepts the decision made by the tribunal. We will ensure that we learn the lessons arising from these findings.

"The new corporate structure that we are implementing within Newham Council will include tighter controls, including those on spending, to improve the way the authority operates for its residents.

"A new management team has been put in place within RMS and they have been proactive in improving controls and implementing a series of measures to ensure it is a service the council and residents can be proud of."

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