Council director Angela Wilson, Chief Executive Joyce White and Chief Officer Victoria Rogers.
SPECIAL REPORT by Bill Heaney
Updated at 1pm on November 17, 2021
Leading council official Angela Wilson has been dismissed from her post at West Dunbartonshire Council.
Employment tribunal judge Lucy Wiseman decided the council had acted fairly when they showed her the door.
Had the decision gone against it, the council would have had to pay out almost £500,000 in a severance settlement.
It was revealed last night however that Mrs Wilson is to appeal against the tribunal judge’s decision which means the council may yet have to meet the cost of removing her from her job.
Commutation, severance and redundancy payments are widely known in local authorities as “golden parachutes”.
And this would have been one of the highest payments of its kind ever, according to the council’s chief officer for people and technology, Victoria Rogers.
Angela Wilson presented her claim to the tribunal in April this year asserting she had been unfairly dismissed when the council terminated her contract of employment and offered her alternative employment which she accepted.
Mrs Wilson believed the reason for her proposed departure was redundancy and not reorganisation, which the council is claiming.
However, the council entered a response to her unfairness claim in which they admitted Mrs Wilson “had been dismissed for some other substantial reason, but denied the dismissal had been unfair”.
Judge Wiseman heard evidence from Ms Joyce White, Chief Executive; Ms Victoria Rogers, Chief Officer (People and Technology) and from Mrs Wilson.
Ms White has been the Chief Executive of the council since 2011.
She was appointed to lead a change programme and to deliver and improve services following a critical Best Value Review in 2008 and a subsequent public inquiry.
Mrs Wilson started work with the council on March 1, 2011, as executive director of Corporate Services.
Ms White decided the management structure was top heavy -there were up to 10 layers or tiers of functions – and to focus on multi-functional working.
“All of this was to try to achieve the delivery of services more effectively in circumstances where there is less money available but more demand,” the judge said.
The first phase of restructuring took place in 2016 when Mrs Wilson was appointed to the post of Strategic Director, which was widely perceived as deputy to the Chief Executive.
The second phase of the restructuring took place in 2019 when Mrs Wilson retained the title of Strategic Director, Transformation and Public Service Reform, but took on additional responsibility for Procurement.
Mrs Wilson is said to have been “disappointed” with this restructuring, which she considered was a redundancy situation, and with having to take on Procurement, which was a hot potato at the council.
Procurement, which involves placing council contracts, had been at the centre of corruption allegations made against senior council officials.
It was claimed that some of them had acted against the rules by accompanying at least one contractor on golfing trips followed by expensive dinners for which the contractor had picked up the bills.
But there were no written rules for procurement at West Dunbartonshire Council for a period of at least four years.
Her new post “created capacity for the claimant to lead changes in procurement” and is widely perceived as a poisoned chalice.
According to Judge Wiseman, the appointment of Mrs Wilson would have left the door open for Joyce White’s vision for the future which was “to move to a more agile structure”.
The opportunity for the shake-up arose when another top official, Richard Cairns, was successful in obtaining a secondment elsewhere. And when his early retirement appeared to be imminent.
Ms White informed Mrs Wilson of the proposed restructuring in a one-to-one meeting in the July, 2020, and followed this up in a letter dated 28 July.
Ms White explained to Mrs Wilson that two opportunities had emerged which allowed her to proceed to phase three of the restructure plans.
Ms White confirmed she wished Mrs Wilson to take on the role of Chief Officer with responsibility for Supply, Distribution and Property. The letter confirmed the claimant would be offered two years’ pay protection in the post.
Angela Wilson said she had questions about this and Joyce White responded that the changes were necessary because the council was facing significant financial challenges, and the proposals would deliver cost savings and an “agile” team of chief officers reporting directly to her.
Ms White confirmed her intention to take the proposals to the recruitment committee to ratify the decision to implement the new structure. The trade unions would be made aware of the proposals once the new structure had been approved, she said.
Judge Wiseman said Mrs Wilson was “not happy” with the proposals. She considered her post was being made redundant and that she was being offered an alternative role at a lower grade and salary.
Mrs Wilson also complained about no longer chairing the Change Board. She was advised it was an evolving picture and the focus was on aligning resources to the priorities. Each of the Chief Officers would be given an opportunity to chair the Renew Board.
The new structure would take effect in October, 2020, and the claimant would be placed “at the highest point of spinal column, but, in accordance with the respondent’s SWITCH policy and pay protection, she would remain on a salary of £95,872.”
Mrs Wilson responded by email and set out her belief that two options remained: either retaining her current status, role and terms and conditions, or her job being redundant and getting access to redundancy or early retirement. .
Joyce White responded to that by confirming the re-organisation deleted the Strategic Director and Strategic Lead titles from the organisation, and replaced both with the new term Chief Officer.
She said it was not uncommon for titles to be adjusted periodically.
The Chief Executive added: “I fully appreciate this change presents a potential reduction, following pay protection on a cash conservation basis for two years.
“I am prepared to extend this to pay protection on a cash conservation basis in perpetuity. …
“The role is substantially the same as you retain responsibility for Procurement, and two large/complex service areas with the same form of management required although functional areas are different.”
Ms White concluded the status quo was not a reasonable option for the organisation. She confirmed the claimant had, as an alternative to redundancy, been offered suitable alternative employment with pay protection, and that unreasonable refusal of the offer would render Mrs Wilson ineligible for a redundancy payment and the council would proceed to dismiss the claimant on the grounds of some other substantial reason (being reorganisation).
The term “pay protection” meant that Mrs Wilson’s salary would be preserved in circumstances where she had been earning more in her post of Strategic Director, than the salary for the Chief Officer post.
The effect of pay protection was that Angela Wilson would not benefit from cost of living, or pay, rises. Her salary would, in effect, mark time, until the salary for the Chief Officer post caught up with her salary.
A certificate of material change was also issued. The purpose of this certificate was to protect the pension contributions made for a period of 10 years.
Ms White had been in discussion with the cross-party leaders’ group regarding the planned restructuring, and they approved it.
Mrs Wilson would be given a Chief Officer title and “unreasonable rejection of the change would leave her ineligible for a redundancy payment and that her date of termination would be the 29 December.”
Angela Wilson confirmed she accepted the offer (which she considered to be alternative employment, rather than suitable alternative employment) with effect from the 29 December.
She confirmed she further considered the reason for dismissal to be redundancy and not some other substantial reason, and then set out details of the pay and pension she believed she would lose as a result of accepting the post being offered to her.
The cost of making Mrs Wilson redundant would have been in excess of £500,000, and it would have taken four to five years for the council to recoup this.
Victoria Rogers, Chief Officer People and Technology, informed the trade unions what was happening.
The trade unions were concerned about the lack of consultation. They sought assurance that subsequent restructures would follow the usual process of the trade unions being consulted before decisions are made.
However, Ms Rogers disagreed with the trade unions on this point.
Mrs Wilson who, it has emerged at another hearing, was a close friend of Ms Rogers and shared messages and pictures with her on Twitter, was clearly upset by what had happened
She saw herself as the Chief Executive’s “number 2”; they worked well together and she described that she “had Ms White’s back”, said Judge Wiseman.
She added that Angela Wilson’s unhappiness about the changes to her role started in 2019 when she was asked to take on Procurement, which is widely considered to be a poisoned chalice following allegations of corruption against council officers who have since left or been demoted.
No sanctions were taken against anyone apart from Cllr Jim Bollan who pursued the matter in open forum at council meetings.
In 2020 Mrs Wilson believed her role was made redundant and she was offered the Chief Officer role as suitable alternative employment.
Mrs Wilson did not consider it to be suitable alternative employment, but ultimately she accepted it. The real issue in this case was the reason for the dismissal.
The focus of Mrs Wilson’s case was twofold: firstly that the need of the respondent for Strategic Directors had disappeared and therefore she was redundant; and secondly, that the change was not simply a change in job title and a comparison of the job descriptions for her previous post and the new Chief Officer post demonstrated this.
The judge added: “Ms White was a credible witness who spoke of the pressures on local government finances whilst, at the same time, there being more demand for services.
“I understood from her evidence that often at senior level, when posts are vacated (for whatever reason) they are not filled and in this way, through natural wastage, savings may be made.
“Redundancy and early retirement are last resorts because of the cost to the council. Change is constant. “
Ms Rogers was also a credible witness who spoke to the discussions with trade unions and the council’s HR policies.
The council accepted that it had made an error in some of its correspondence with Mrs Wilson when it referred to redundancy and suitable alternative employment.
The council’s solicitor provided a written skeleton submission which he spoke to. He confirmed the parties were in agreement regarding the issue to be determined by the tribunal, which was “what was the reason for the dismissal”.
He submitted that a review of the relevant case law demonstrated one clear point, and that was that each case was fact specific.
The solicitor invited the tribunal to find the reason for dismissal was some other substantial reason (business reorganisation) and to find the dismissal had been fair.
If, however, the tribunal found the dismissal unfair, he noted the calculation of the basic award had been agreed as £6,456.
The pension figures were disputed, and it was submitted there had been no evidence to allow the Tribunal to rule on it. Further, the pension losses did not flow from the dismissal.
He asked the tribunal to question to what extent Mrs Wilson had suffered a loss of earnings in circumstances where she had taken the Chief Officer post and there would be no loss until she did not receive the cost of living award. She had also failed to factor in life factors.
Mrs Wilson’s friend prepared a written submission which she spoke to at the hearing. She noted the council admitted dismissing Mrs Wilson whose position, put simply, was that there was no longer a requirement for two employees at Strategic Director level.
This was that the same amount of work was to be done by fewer employees.
Her friend submitted that the respondent had treated the claimant as redundant, had offered her suitable alternative employment, which Mrs Wilson refused.
She maintained that the council then used the “some other substantial reason” route as a way to avoid paying out redundancy money.
A move from Director to Chief Officer was not permitted by Mrs Wilson’s contract because of the move to a lower grade and duties.
Mrs Wilson’s friend invited the tribunal to find the reason for dismissal was redundancy and to make an award based on the schedule of loss.
The cost to the council of Mrs Wilson leaving the organisation on efficiency grounds or for redundancy, in terms of the amount they would be required to pay to the pension fund to compensate it for the claimant going early, was over £400,000.
Ms Rogers described this as the highest cost she had ever seen.
Ms White explained there would be additional costs because the council would require to recruit someone to fill the post.
Judge Wiseman said she had regard to the fact that in some of the council’s correspondence there had been reference to the “right to a redundancy payment being withheld”.
Mrs Wilson’s friend argued that it was implicit from this language that the council thought their employee was facing redundancy.
Judge Wiseman said however: “I acknowledge the language might suggest redundancy, but I could not accept the statements could be viewed out of context.
“It was necessary for the council to explain clearly to Mrs Wilson the consequences of her action in rejecting the Chief Officer position.
“I considered, in that context, it was appropriate and necessary for the council to ensure Mrs Wilson clearly understood that she would not be receiving a redundancy payment.
“I decided the council’s decision to dismiss fell within the band of reasonable responses which a reasonable employer might have adopted in the circumstances. I decided the claimant [Mrs Wilson] had been fairly dismissed.”