Cheltenham Council's bizarre costly case continues

December 07, 2011 12:23 PM

The bizarre case of Christine Laird, former managing director of Cheltenham Borough Council (CBC) continues to drain money from the taxpayer. The media consensus is broadly sympathetic to her claim for damages suffered as a result of a bullying environment at CBC during the years of her employment, and yet, her statements in court betrayed a strange attitude to public sector employment.

Mrs Laird was appointed to the post at CBC in 2002 but left in 2005 after accepting early retirement on the grounds of ill health—severe depression—that involved a council payment of £450,000. The council accused of her acting fraudulently by withholding details of her past depressive illness and said this resulted in a substantial financial loss. In 2009, the council sued her for £1 million—that is, taxpayers’ money.

In her defence, she claimed that the recruitment pack she was sent did not truthfully represent the organisation she would work for. ‘The statement that the council,’ she told the court, ‘embraced the values of being honest, truthful, wanting to work together in partnership with other organisations and providing quality service at the right price was absolute bunkum.’ Well, I would have to agree with her on that, but could that not be said of almost every council? And the level of naivety shown by her seems amazing in someone recruited to such a high council post. But it does not end there.

She went on to tell the court that she believed CBC was ‘at the least negligent and at worst deceived me into accepting a job that, had I been aware of all the facts, I would have immediately turned down, or at best reserved judgment about.’ So, she claims she was deceived into accepting a very highly paid job that she would not have taken had she known how councils really behave. Well, that does rather open the floodgates, doesn’t it? Couldn’t most disgruntled public sector workers say that?

Mrs Laird claims that her bouts of depression were sparked by family bereavements, her personal financial situation and a lack of certainty in employment. Otherwise, she believed herself to be in good health. But there appears to have been no point when she thought that maybe it would have been best for her, the council and the taxpayer if she just quietly resigned her position.

In fact, according to an external auditor's report, the atmosphere of conflict between Laird and the council appears to have arisen out of a change in political administration following a local election a few months after she took the job.

In 2009, the council lost its £1 million case and was ordered by the High Court to pay her £250,000 in damages. In total, however, spiralling legal fees meant that the case actually cost £2.1 million in taxpayers’ money and the council sent letters to local residents apologising for its failed legal action. In 2010, an industrial tribunal declared that her treatment by the council was ‘calculated to cause personal distress’.

Now, Mrs Laird claims that £75,000 of public money is still owed to her and, apparently, Eric Pickles agrees. ‘The secretary of state has said I am entitled to an injury allowance in law,’ she told the BBC this week, ‘a tribunal has ruled I was injured at work because my illness is an industrial injury and yet the medical advice to make me an award has been ignored by the council.’ Bouts of depression—personality clashes with councillors—an industrial injury, eh? It is an interesting definition that is exciting a lot of lawyers.

‘I'd been a chief officer since I was 32, and working in local government at senior level is no picnic, so I was used to the rough and tumble of political life,’ she says. ‘What I wasn't used to was being personally attacked and undermined. It got to the point where I would wake up in the morning and feel physically sick at the thought of having to go to work.’

Bullying in the workplace is never acceptable, but this case is not just about bullying, it is about someone with an apparently fragile mental capacity taking on a demanding job with all the cut-and-thrust of party politics thrown in. Certainly, she now admits that throughout the costly saga ‘I can't think of anything worse than someone with a severe mental illness [having] to be dragged though the courts system.’ And yet she has shown the mental strength to carry on her long battle against the council.

An external auditor's report on the case concluded that that there were ‘flaws in the decision-making process whereby decisions were made with an over-emphasis on legal matters.’ That is, councils should not be too eager to call in lawyers at the taxpayers’ expense. But, it also concluded that ‘It is not unreasonable for a council to go to court to seek recovery of a substantial financial loss. The Council had incurred significant costs as a result of the employment dispute with Mrs Laird and it was appropriate to consider options for recovering losses.’ What is clear is that there was a succession of poor decision making and management at the council during this dispute and that the subsequent legal fees was allowed to spiral out of control with little regard for the cost to the taxpayer.

Certainly, locals commenting on the case have been far from charitable towards Mrs Laird. ‘This woman caused hell at the council,’ says one anonymous Cheltenham resident, ‘why should the ratepayer fork out for her malicious actions?’The bizarre case of Christine Laird, former managing director of Cheltenham Borough Council (CBC) continues to drain money from the taxpayer. The media consensus is broadly sympathetic to her claim for damages suffered as a result of a bullying environment at CBC during the years of her employment, and yet, her statements in court betrayed a strange attitude to public sector employment.

Mrs Laird was appointed to the post at CBC in 2002 but left in 2005 after accepting early retirement on the grounds of ill health—severe depression—that involved a council payment of £450,000. The council accused of her acting fraudulently by withholding details of her past depressive illness and said this resulted in a substantial financial loss. In 2009, the council sued her for £1 million—that is, taxpayers’ money.

In her defence, she claimed that the recruitment pack she was sent did not truthfully represent the organisation she would work for. ‘The statement that the council,’ she told the court, ‘embraced the values of being honest, truthful, wanting to work together in partnership with other organisations and providing quality service at the right price was absolute bunkum.’ Well, I would have to agree with her on that, but could that not be said of almost every council? And the level of naivety shown by her seems amazing in someone recruited to such a high council post. But it does not end there.

She went on to tell the court that she believed CBC was ‘at the least negligent and at worst deceived me into accepting a job that, had I been aware of all the facts, I would have immediately turned down, or at best reserved judgment about.’ So, she claims she was deceived into accepting a very highly paid job that she would not have taken had she known how councils really behave. Well, that does rather open the floodgates, doesn’t it? Couldn’t most disgruntled public sector workers say that?

Mrs Laird claims that her bouts of depression were sparked by family bereavements, her personal financial situation and a lack of certainty in employment. Otherwise, she believed herself to be in good health. But there appears to have been no point when she thought that maybe it would have been best for her, the council and the taxpayer if she just quietly resigned her position.

In fact, according to an external auditor's report, the atmosphere of conflict between Laird and the council appears to have arisen out of a change in political administration following a local election a few months after she took the job.

In 2009, the council lost its £1 million case and was ordered by the High Court to pay her £250,000 in damages. In total, however, spiralling legal fees meant that the case actually cost £2.1 million in taxpayers’ money and the council sent letters to local residents apologising for its failed legal action. In 2010, an industrial tribunal declared that her treatment by the council was ‘calculated to cause personal distress’.

Now, Mrs Laird claims that £75,000 of public money is still owed to her and, apparently, Eric Pickles agrees. ‘The secretary of state has said I am entitled to an injury allowance in law,’ she told the BBC this week, ‘a tribunal has ruled I was injured at work because my illness is an industrial injury and yet the medical advice to make me an award has been ignored by the council.’ Bouts of depression—personality clashes with councillors—an industrial injury, eh? It is an interesting definition that is exciting a lot of lawyers.

‘I'd been a chief officer since I was 32, and working in local government at senior level is no picnic, so I was used to the rough and tumble of political life,’ she says. ‘What I wasn't used to was being personally attacked and undermined. It got to the point where I would wake up in the morning and feel physically sick at the thought of having to go to work.’

Bullying in the workplace is never acceptable, but this case is not just about bullying, it is about someone with an apparently fragile mental capacity taking on a demanding job with all the cut-and-thrust of party politics thrown in. Certainly, she now admits that throughout the costly saga ‘I can't think of anything worse than someone with a severe mental illness [having] to be dragged though the courts system.’ And yet she has shown the mental strength to carry on her long battle against the council.

An external auditor's report on the case concluded that that there were ‘flaws in the decision-making process whereby decisions were made with an over-emphasis on legal matters.’ That is, councils should not be too eager to call in lawyers at the taxpayers’ expense. But, it also concluded that ‘It is not unreasonable for a council to go to court to seek recovery of a substantial financial loss. The Council had incurred significant costs as a result of the employment dispute with Mrs Laird and it was appropriate to consider options for recovering losses.’ What is clear is that there was a succession of poor decision making and management at the council during this dispute and that the subsequent legal fees was allowed to spiral out of control with little regard for the cost to the taxpayer.

Certainly, locals commenting on the case have been far from charitable towards Mrs Laird. ‘This woman caused hell at the council,’ says one anonymous Cheltenham resident, ‘why should the ratepayer fork out for her malicious actions?’

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