Worker claims he was ‘bullied’ by housing trust over ‘rude’ email

Nigel Lewthwaite who has taken Vale of Aylesbury Housing Trust to an employment tribunal (INS)
Nigel Lewthwaite who has taken Vale of Aylesbury Housing Trust to an employment tribunal (INS)

A union steward has taken the Vale of Aylesbury Housing Trust to a work tribunal after they disciplined him for a ‘threatening’ email complaining about a change from a four-day to a five-day week.

Carpenter Nigel Lewthwaite told an employment judge he had been left ‘heavily stressed’ and unable to sleep after being made subject to the disciplinary proceedings.

The accredited trade union steward for Unison claimed he was the victim of an ‘unreasonable and punitive’ disciplinary process by the housing trust.

The 60 year old, who is the uncle of terror suspect Samantha Lewthwaite, blasted a decision to change working patterns for him and three colleagues from a four-day to a five-day working week as ‘bullying’.

He was later handed a formal warning by bosses at the trust after he sent a ‘rude and disrespectful’ email to the trust’s head of property services, Mark Arhin, making representations about the changes to staff contracts.

The contents of the email was not made public.

Speaking yesterday at the start of a two-day hearing, Mr Lewthwaite said the disciplinary procedure – which began in May last year – had left him feeling ‘heavily stressed, victimised and undervalued by my employer’ and claimed his trade union role had been the reason for the ‘detriments’ he had suffered.

However, bosses at the trust deny they treated him differently because he was in a union and say they ‘expect challenges to be made courteously’.

Mr Lewthwaite told an employment judge: “I have found that this has had a negative effect on my home life.

“I am a carer for my wife, who has multiple sclerosis.

“I have been short-tempered and less tolerant at home and I have found it increasingly difficult to sleep at night with the accusations hanging over me.

“I have found that some of my work colleagues have distanced themselves from me, I believe for fear of being put to a detriment themselves, and they do not talk to me as often as before - even about general things.

“I believe I have become more introverted and I am unable to express myself openly at work for fear of further accusations.

“I have never been subjected to disciplinary proceedings in my entire working life.

“I now doubt my own ability and judgement.”

Mr Lewthwaite said he had been a trade union steward since 2009.

He had been transferred to his role as an operative with the trust from the Aylesbury Vale District Council.

He said his former employer had recognised Unison and his colleagues believed this recognition would transfer – but claimed he was told by his new bosses in May 2009 they did not recognise the union for collective bargaining.

Mr Lewthwaite and three colleagues who had been transferred along with him were told in a letter from Mr Arhin in March last year that their working patterns were being changed.

The group asked Mr Lewthwaite to make representations on their behalf as they believed changes would affect terms and conditions protected under employment transfer regulations.

Mr Lewthwaite told the hearing he emailed Mr Arhin on April 3, adding: “I expressed my belief that the decision-making process was unfair and could amount to bullying of operative staff.”

Mr Arhin offered to meet Mr Lewthwiate on May 11 - with the latter being told on the same day he faced disciplinary action.

At a subsequent meeting he said he was asked ‘at least” 10’ times if he believed the email he had sent to Mr Arhin was ‘rude and disrespectful’.

“I felt I was being pressured to admit that I was in the wrong,” he said.

Mr Lewthwaite, of Lee Road, Aylesbury, told the hearing: “I would never be rude and disrespectful to anybody.”

He added: “I send emails to colleagues nearly every day at work and my employer has never raised an issue previously about my correspondence being rude and disrespectful.”

Several other allegations were added to the disciplinary charges he faced, including breaching confidentiality by asking for time off to accompany a colleague to a separate disciplinary hearing and organising a meeting with colleagues in a pub.

At a hearing last September, Mr Lewthwaite told a panel the allegations were ‘unreasonable’ and said as a union steward ‘my duties and responsibilities included speaking to management in a forthright manner and challenge their decisions on behalf of my fellow union members’.

The allegation in respect of the email was upheld, as was another regarding Mr Lewthwaite ignoring management instructions that the trust did not recognise the union.

He was handed a Stage Two formal warning, with a copy remaining on his personal for nine months.

Mr Lewthwaite – who failed in an appeal against the decision – said: “I believed that my employer conducted the disciplinary process in an unreasonable and punitive manner mainly because of my trade union responsibilities and duties.”

He added: “I believe the main reason for my employer carrying out the disciplinary was to prevent or deter or penalise me for taking part in trade union activities.”

Mr Lewthwaite’s Unison representative, Mick Moriarty, also gave evidence at the hearing.

He said he considered the trust’s approach to disciplinary matters to be ‘unreasonably and unnecessarily obstructive’ and said he was “disappointed and surprised” the employer had taken action against Mr Lewthwaite.

Mr Moriarty told the hearing: “I considered that the respondent’s approach to the disciplinary proceedings was punitive and designed to stop Nigel from carrying out his union activities.

“I believe that Nigel, in his capacity as a union representative, had communicated [with] Mark Arhin in a robust manner in order to emphasise his point.

“I believe that the respondent’s decision to discipline Nigel as a result was unreasonable and unwarranted.

“In 35 years working with trade unions it is very rare that I see union representatives subjected to as obvious a detriment as Nigel has been by the respondent.

“In my experience, employers usually adopt a sensible and pragmatic approach using conciliation.”

Dean Gill, director of property and development at the Vale of Aylesbury Housing Trust since 2010, told the tribunal he had referred Mr Lewthwaite’s email for possible disciplinary investigation because he felt it was ‘bordering on outright rudeness’ and was also ‘quite threatening’.

Mr Gill said that while the trust – a not-for-profit social landlord – chose not to recognise a union for collective bargaining, it had set up an employee consultative committee for discussing issues with staff.

Referring to Mr Lewthwaite’s email to Mr Arhin at the time of the changes to working practices, Mr Gill told the hearing: “On reading it, I considered that the tone and contents of the email was disrespectful and also quite threatening’.

Aspects of the email were ‘accusatory and rude’ he added.

“I also considered that the context was threatening as he stated that he believed Mark’s actions were ‘unfair and bullying’ and stated that he would be checking the trust’s bullying and harassment policy, placing these words in capitals, and stated that he may well be bringing this matter up on his return to work, which I felt were designed to intimidate Mark.”

Mr Gill denied the introduction of disciplinary proceedings was prompted by Mr Lewthwaite’s union involvement.

“I would state that, in my view, the claimant’s tone and attitude in his email of 3 April 2012 were disrespectful, bordering on outright rudeness, and were also quite threatening,” he said.

“I am aware that the claimant is alleging that he feels that the decision to refer this email as a potential disciplinary matter was in some way designed to penalise him for, or deter him from, taking part in trade union activities.

“However, this was certainly not the case.

“Although I did not view the claimant’s email of April 3 as being done as part of any trade union activity, being aware that the trust do not recognise any trade union, it was not the fact that the claimant raised concern but the manner in which he did so that led me to refer it as a potential disciplinary matter.

“I would have taken the same action with any member of staff, regardless of whether they had involvement in trade union activities, if they had sent such disrespectful correspondence.

“I have no issue with any member of staff challenging trust decisions but I do expect the challenge to be made courteously.”

Lisa Riseley, operations business manager for responsive repairs at the trust, was Mr Lewthwaite’s line manager at the time he sent the controversial email.

She was asked by Mr Gill to investigate whether there was a potential misconduct issue and, having seen the email, said she was satisfied the note could be considered rude and disrespectful.

“I know Nigel is pleasant, polite and gentle. This is not how Nigel will normally speak,” she told the tribunal.

Mrs Riseley added: “This is not his normal tone. Knowing Nigel, this is rude.”

Mr Lewthwaite is suing the trust, with whom he is still employed, for a detriment, under trade union membership rules legislation.

The tribunal, being heard by Judge Jessica Hill in Reading, continues today.