South Ribble Borough Council's dismissal of former chief executive 'was not unfair', tribunal finds

The former chief executive of South Ribble Borough Council has had her unfair dismissal and whistleblowing claims against the authority and its most senior politicians rejected by an employment tribunal.

By Paul Faulkner
Saturday, 19th February 2022, 1:33 am
Updated Sunday, 20th February 2022, 12:43 pm

Heather McManus resigned from her role in May 2020, but was sacked around six weeks later for what the council said was “serious misconduct”. At that point, she was serving out her notice period while still on what was described at the time as “special leave”.

According to papers to be presented to a South Ribble Borough Council meeting next week, an employment judge has now ruled that Mrs. McManus’ dismissal was “fair and lawful” and that her sacking was not principally the result of actions she took under legislation designed to protect whistleblowers.

Had her claims succeeded, she could have been granted compensation totalling £4.9m.

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Former South Ribble Borough Council chief executive Heather McManus brought claims of unfair and wrongful dismissal against the authority and a whistleblowing claim against council leader Paul Foster (pictured) and his deputy, Mick Titherington

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Mrs. McManus’ case was considered during a week-long tribunal hearing back in October (read our full coverage here and here) and the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) understands that the parties were told of the outcome on Tuesday afternoon when Judge Neil Buzzard delivered the decision of the three-person panel which he chaired.

The tribunal did uphold a claim of wrongful dismissal made by Mrs. McManus, on the basis that she was entitled to the notice and pay specified in her contract instead of being instantly dismissed by the authority.

The LDRS has sought a copy of the full ruling from the Courts and Tribunals Service, but has been told that it could be up to four weeks before it is published.

Council leader Paul Foster says that he, his deputy, Mick Titherington, and the authority have all been “wholly vindicated” by the tribunal decision.

Cllrs Foster and Titherington were both the subject of the whistleblowing claim, along with the council itself, while the authority also faced the unfair dismissal and wrongful dismissal claims.

Cllr Foster suspended Mrs. McManus within weeks of his Labour group taking control of the authority at the local elections in May 2019, for reasons which were not made public at the time.

The tribunal heard that the move had come in the wake of allegations of “bullying and undermining of staff [and] poor treatment of staff” made by two senior directors against Mrs. McManus and her two deputies at the time.

However, she told the hearing that she was the victim of a longstanding “vendetta” that Cllr Foster was pursuing against her. She also claimed that her suspension was directly related to a so-called “protected disclosure” that she had made under whistleblowing legislation. That was in relation to concerns she had raised about a statement made by Cllr Foster to a member of the public regarding controversial plans to build more than 1,000 homes on the Pickering's Farm site in Penwortham.

Cllrs Foster and Titherington respectively admitted at the tribunal to being “frustrated” and “angry” as a result of Mrs. McManus’ intervention, which led to the council publicly clarifying its planning role just 48 hours before voters went to the polls - but they both denied that it had subsequently influenced the decision to suspend her.

The council papers summarising the tribunal’s findings state that “it was found that the protected disclosure was not the principal reason for the dismissal and/or the alleged detriments” suffered by Mrs. McManus. As a result, the whistleblowing claim against the authority and Cllrs Foster and Titherington was dismissed.

In relation to the unfair dismissal claim, the council says that the tribunal found that the allegations against Mrs. McManus were the subject of “a lengthy and comprehensive investigation undertaken by an independent investigator” and that there were “no flaws in the investigation process”.

Speaking following the tribunal decision, Cllr Foster said he was “exceptionally relieved now that this matter is behind us”.

“Doing the right thing is not always the easiest thing to do, but we had to do the right thing. The allegations made against Mrs. McManus were wide-ranging and serious.

“These weren't my allegations - they didn’t come from me or the Labour group - these were allegations from a number of senior members of staff. The judge found that it was perfectly legal for me to suspend her.

“There are far too many occasions that there has been inappropriate behaviour within the public sector and local government, where there is just some deal signed - a non-disclosure [agreement] - and people are paid off and move on.

“But enough’s enough - inappropriate behaviour must be challenged. Council staff deserve that, but most importantly our local residents deserve that.

“It has been a challenging three years, but we have been wholly vindicated,” said Cllr Foster, who added that he had “no case to answer” regarding the “outrageous” allegations made against him during the tribunal process.

It emerged in an external audit report last year that an independent investigator appointed to look into the allegations against Mrs. McManus “dismisse[d] many of the claims against the [former] chief executive, but [did] conclude that disciplinary action was necessary in a number of areas”.

The independent investigator recommended that she should be issued with more than half a dozen written and final written warnings, but the council's cross-party investigations and disciplinary committee (IDC) suggested that she should be instantly dismissed because of their conclusion that she was guilty of “serious misconduct” – a step subsequently endorsed by a majority at a full council meeting.

The LDRS understands that a third body involved in the complex procedure for dismissing a chief executive – known as the “independent panel” – did not support the conclusions of the IDC that Ms. McManus had committed serious misconduct. The panel did still back her dismissal – but not without notice or pay.

In a statement to the LDRS after the tribunal decision, Heather McManus said that she had done "really good things" during her time in charge at South Ribble.

She also said that the independent investigator in her case had concluded that there had been a "breach of trust and confidence between myself and Cllr Foster which led to me resigning in May 2020, which was before any disciplinary hearing".

"Unfortunately, the facts of the matter are [that] the judge concluded that my claim for unfair dismissal due to the whistleblowing failed, as he specifically referenced in his delivery that it was clear Paul Foster was out to remove me from the outset - and, as such, the protective disclosure was not the principal reason," Mrs. McManus added.

The council's summary of the tribunal decision states that the parties involved will now have to agree "the value of the compensatory award which will be calculated by reference to the claimant’s salary for [a 41-day] period and pension contribution"

During the tribunal hearing, Judge Buzzard ruled that it would not be open to the tribunal to find that Mrs. McManus had been constructively dismissed, because an actual dismissal had occurred.

Mrs. McManus' two deputies at the authority - Tim Povall and Gregg Stott - were also put on special leave at the same time as their boss, but left the council of their own accord around six weeks later and were offered its thanks for their work.