Did she jump or was she pushed? Our employment law correspondent, PERRY FREEMASON, delves into the murky world of human resources at Fisher’s Folly to sift through another expensive mess at the council
Morale among staff inside Fisher’s Folly is currently subterranean, so it is of little surprise that, following the news that their erstwhile boss is holding out for a big six-figure “golden handshake” while many of them fear losing their jobs, that they quickly dubbed the chief executive as “Jo Negreedy”.
According to sources inside and outside of the council (who have been correct in every respect throughout the saga of Croydon’s cash crisis), Jo Negrini’s been asked to leave her £220,000 per year job as CEO and is haggling over terms; according to her, the lady is not for resigning (unless the price is right).
If what passed for the council’s leadership (Tony Newman or one of his henchpersons) did make an “offer” to Negrini to leave her job, then they’d signalled that they were ending the employment relationship without her agreement. She’s right when she says she’s not tendering her resignation – because she’s being sacked.
If they’d been smart about it, they would have already raised legitimate concerns about her performance, and said they wanted to give her the quick and easy way out rather than follow a process that could have led to her undignified dismissal.
The conversation would have gone something like this: sign on the dotted, go quietly, we’ll pay you an appropriate amount and we’ll not say nasty things about this to anyone, nor will you, and we’ll agree on what to say to the staff and public on why you’re going.
If they hadn’t been clever about it and just sprung the “offer” on her with nothing to back it up if she refused, they would have laid themselves open to her rejecting their unwanted advances, followed by expensive litigation and bad publicity caused by their ham-fisted attempt to reach a settlement agreement and their inability or unwillingness to manage her performance properly.
There is another possibility, which is that she was about to hit them with legal action for constructive unfair dismissal or unlawful discrimination, and they wanted to shut her up to save their embarrassment.
The fact that we all know that Negrini is going suggests this matter has not been handled well. It’ll all end in tears for someone and at greater financial cost than necessary to Croydon’s Council Tax-payers.
You would think that with all their experience of moving senior people on in this way that Croydon Council would have got this latest one right.
After all, the council does have dedicated human resources and legal departments, and has shown itself very ready to spend millions on hiring in outside help when required.
So someone at the council really ought to have known that under the Employment Rights Act 1996, an employee is dismissed by reason of redundancy if the dismissal is wholly or mainly attributable to the fact that:
- the employer ceases to carry on the business in which the employee was employed (for example, Allders’ total collapse);
- the employer ceases to carry on that business in the place where the employee was employed; (for example John Lewis on the Purley Way or Debenhams in Centrale);
- the needs of the business for employees to carry out work of a particular kind cease or diminish; (such as the cutbacks to council youth workers and youth clubs across the borough);
- the needs of the business for employees to carry out work of a particular kind in the place where the employee was employed cease or diminish (such as cutbacks or closure of a library).
This is the definition that is relevant for the purposes of determining whether or not a dismissal is fair and whether or not the employee is entitled to a redundancy payment.
And while other local authorities have tried to dispense with the role of CEO, here in Croydon the chief executive’s job is not being made redundant – there will be almost certainly be another one after Negrini, unless the finance review panel comes up with something truly left-field, such as teaming up with another borough to have one CEO for the pair of them. But then, what other borough would want to align itself with the omnishambles that Croydon has become?
So, Negrini’s employment is ending for another reason. Legally there are five reasons an employer can do this:
- redundancy – see above;
- conduct (for instance, someone who steals from their employer or who is violent at work);
- capability (meaning someone who can’t do their job for reasons beyond their control);
- contravention of a statutory duty or restriction (for example, a foreign worker whose legal right to work in the UK expires and they can’t get a visa renewal, making it illegal to continue to employ them);
- “some other substantial reason”, which could be anything from a temporary contract ending to a personality clash between employees which makes it impossible for them to work together.
If we accept the above, then if it’s not redundancy, it must be one of the four other legal reasons. If so, which one – and why the haggling? If not, what’s going on?
It also prompts the questions: why this and why now?
The precarious financial position that our once solvent borough is now in might prove to be the last straw. While no councillors of either hue are willing to speak publicly about this right now, with Labour, it is probably a matter of trying to scapegoat Negrini. If they fail to do that, when it comes to apportioning blame, there will be no alternative but to lay it all at the collective doorstep of council leader Newman and his closest supporters.
For the rudderless Croydon Conservatives (the Pollards are moving to the West Country), it’s an easy waiting game to play. Just get out the popcorn and wait for the house of cards to collapse.
But it’s easy to be smug if you try to ignore or cover-up the Tories’ own role in Croydon’s past.
Croydon Council’s ability to appoint leaders to run London’s most populous borough without mucking things up has been less than successful since David Wechsler retired in 2007.
Jon Rouse, Wechsler’s successor, was appointed by the Conservatives. He was presented as the model of the modern council chief exec, dynamic and full of new ideas, a world away from the staid old town clerk. Rouse’s time in charge was summed up as “an alchemist who turned property into debts”. It is a garden path down which others have led us since.
Rouse went with local elections approaching, so the dodgy Tory leader, Mike Fisher, opted to instal the deputy CEO, the decidedly dodgy Nathan Elvery, to the top job as an “interim”.
It was an appointment that Labour, when they took over in May 2014, quickly confirmed in the interests of “continuity”. This key job was never advertised, no rival candidates ever interviewed.
In his previous role in charge of the borough’s finances, it was Elvery who committed to the convoluted CCURV property scheme with developers John Laing which saw Taberner House, the council offices, demolished and a shiny new headquarters, Fisher’s Folly, built for £150million – about three times the cost of an equivalent office block.
To this day, no one has ever explained why Croydon needed to spend £100million over-the-odds on such a building, which per square metre of office space was more costly than The Shard. That £150million bill is one of the items sitting, festering, among the £1.5billion debt that the council has built up.
In the spirit of Newman-endorsed “continuity”, Elvery continued Rouse’s penchant for playing Monopoly with other people’s money and losing it, while all the time making staff redundant in “reorganisations” which, he maintained, made the council more “efficient”.
What it really meant was that the borough’s residents continued to pay evermore Council Tax in return for ever-diminishing services. Tory government “austerity” policies, withdrawing funding from all local authorities, was used as the justification for such moves.
When Elvery scarpered for West Sussex (temporarily, as it turns out – it only took them three years to rumble him and a £260,000 severance package to get rid of him) some bright spark had the idea to hand the job to Negrini, charmed by the prospect of her bringing to the town centre what had eluded her predecessors – a massive new shopping centre.
We all know the rest.
One thing is for sure.
Thanks to incompetence at the Town Hall, the impact of covid-19 and Britain entering its worst recession since records began, the days of Croydon Council’s disastrous dabbling in property speculation should be coming to an end.
Negrini’s successor must be chosen carefully, and focus on what local people really need, not property developers’ greed.
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