‘Scapegoat’ unfairly blamed for council’s £2.5m contracts blunder wins tribunal
Camden lost money after streets deal fiasco - and then wrongly sacked long-serving employee
29 October, 2018 — By Tom Foot
‘Vindicated’: long-serving employee Jim Thornhill
AN investigation into a council contracts bungle which cost the public £2.5million was “seriously flawed” and led to the wrongful dismissal of one of the Town Hall’s longest-serving employees, an employment tribunal judge has ruled.
After a verdict which has heaped further embarrassment on Camden Council’s botched handling of a public realms deal, Jim Thornhill said he felt “vindicated” but the gruelling process “had destroyed his life”.
Camden had sacked the 56-year-old and accused him of recklessly withholding information and being over-friendly with one of the bidders in the tendering process for a contract that included street lighting.
But he brought a claim of unfair dismissal, which was upheld by tribunal judge Karen Welch on Thursday. She said: “No reasonable employer would have come to the conclusion that the claimant had acted dishonestly and/or committed gross misconduct”.
The trouble behind the scenes was kept secret until the New Journal revealed how Camden had been forced to pay compensation to a losing bidder which had argued that the contract process had been unfair. Mr Thornhill had always maintained he was made a scapegoat.
He said: “How many other people have they done like this? How many others haven’t been able to fight, how many others have been bought off? They have character assassinated me.”
The tribunal’s judgment said the council probe, ordered by chief executive Mike Cooke, could not “be truly called an investigation” and was “meaningless” in parts. Crucial information – including the fact that Mr Thornhill had pleaded to be excused from the tender process because of his son’s “catastrophic” motorbike accident – was not included in an audit report.
Mr Thornhill, who grew up in Kentish Town and now lives in Mornington Crescent, was at the time of the investigation struggling to come to terms with his son having his leg amputated.
He said: “He was in an out of theatre every four days. It was all a blur. He was in hospital for a month. He got an embolism – it nearly killed him. You were thinking he would never come home. It’s been a nightmare.”
Mr Thornhill had at this time asked to be removed from the tender process completely but was asked to stay on as, following staff cutbacks, “he was the only person who knew anything about street lighting”, the judgment said. It was during this time that Mr Thornhill was asked to alter quantities in the contract to better suit the council’s budget.
Changes made favoured one contractor, Volker Highways, leading to a competing bidder, FM Conway, launching a legal challenge. The council sought advice from a barrister and agreed to settle out of court – at a cost in excess of £2.4million. During the council investigation Mr Thornhill was found to have received an email from a colleague with Volker’s pricing structure. He had also offered to help one of the company’s staff buy some rugby tickets.
Yesterday, Mr Thornhill said: “I can assure you Volker Highways have never even bought me a cup of tea.”
Despite being confirmed by occupational health to be too sick to attend disciplinary hearings, he was dismissed in his absence. Mr Thornhill has been represented by the GMB union throughout the process but has paid his own legal costs, of around £50,000. GMB union rep Dennis McNulty said: “What happened here was that they wanted someone gone and they set about trying to prove it. What you see in this case is the way people in this council gang up on each other. They all become broken cogs ticking along together.”
The New Journal this week asked the council if Mr Cooke wanted to comment on the case, and whether the council would be reviewing its legal advice and investigation procedure.
Its response was a statement that said: “We are disappointed with the outcome and are considering carefully the judgment, including whether or not to appeal. While we, of course, respect the decision of the tribunal, we need to note that this situation arose because certain actions by a small number of our officers were considered to be highly inappropriate, breaching EU procurement rules, which led to us having to pay significant compensation to a bidding company. “We believed and still believe that disciplinary action in those circumstances was appropriate.”
Compensation will be determined at a hearing next month.