British Council unfairly dismissed Italy chief after 'hazy' sexual assault claim, tribunal finds

The tribunal judge says he could see 'no rational basis' on which the charity could find there had been a sexual assault

The former head of the British Council in Italy was unfairly dismissed after unfounded claims he sexually assaulted a female British embassy worker, an employment tribunal has concluded.

A London employment tribunal has upheld Paul Sellers’ claim of unfair dismissal after it found “serious flaws” in the charity’s investigation and its handling of his appeal before he was sacked from his senior role after 30 years’ service.

The tribunal concluded that investigators ignored and failed to disclose evidence, dismissed the accounts of six witnesses who said they saw nothing untoward and instead chose to believe the “hazy” account of the woman, despite not being “100 per cent sure what happened”.

Sellers, who denied the claims against him, spent five years as the charity’s most senior representative in Italy between 2014 and 2019.

Tribunal papers show that in December 2018, Sellers and his wife, Isadora Papadrakakis, hosted a party at their Rome flat that was referred to as a “family Christmas brunch” for about 50 people.

Following the party, a female employee of the British embassy, named only as ZZ to protect her anonymity, made an allegation of sexual harassment against Sellers.

The tribunal documents show that she made a complaint about being “kissed on the lips” as she left by Sellers, who also “placed both of his hands on both of ZZ’s breasts and rubbed down in a sexual manner”.

Following the complaint, Ken O’Flaherty, the embassy's deputy head of mission, said the alleged groping was “clearly deliberate” and described Sellers as having been “erratic and uncharacteristically emotional” in recent months.

He added: “ZZ judges that Paul was 'quite drunk'. He had previously been salsa dancing with a female intern.

“Paul regularly drinks at professional/social events. I have not seen him incapacitated, but he does show the effect of alcohol and consumes more of it than many colleagues.”

Sellers denied the allegations and told investigators “people would get a kiss on both cheeks” as they left his flat.

His wife said ZZ was “new and not really integrated into the embassy” and believed “ZZ was not in high spirits”.

Papadrakakis said she was absolutely certain her husband “wouldn't lay a hand on her”, thought ZZ was “disgruntled about embassy work” and said “she may be conservative about the Italian style of greeting”.

Kate Ewart-Biggs, deputy chief executive of the British Council, led the investigation that led to Sellers’ dismissal in May 2019.

But the tribunal found Ewart-Biggs took a “narrow view” of the incident, failed to explore the alleged contact and the circumstances surrounding it, made no attempt to interview possible witnesses and assumed nobody else saw it.

She accepted ZZ’s account even though it had changed throughout the investigation, the tribunal heard, and admitted she “was never going to be 100 per cent sure about what had happened”.

Sellers provided witness statements to back up his version of events at the appeal stage – but his case was thrown out by the then-head of the council, Ciarán Devane.

An onlooker, Monica Marziota, who was next to the pair as they said goodbye, said she saw a “completely normal Italian farewell greeting or 'saluto' that took place “in direct proximity and clear view of a number of other guests, including two of Paul’s children.”

Tribunal judge Graeme Hodgson said it was not clear why evidence was rejected from six witnesses who did not see the alleged incident but claimed it would have been observed.

“In this case, the investigation is characterised by serious oversights and unreasonable assumptions,” he said.

The tribunal judge said the appeal did not recognise the potential danger that a decision could be based in part on the failure of an employee to prove an ulterior motive.

He added: “No reasonable employer would have failed to seek the relevant contemporaneous documentation, or to explore the circumstances of the alleged assault, or to seek relevant evidence from witnesses to the alleged incident.

“The evidence [from witnesses], on its face, is relevant, clear, and compelling. If that evidence had been accepted by the British Council, I can see no rational basis on which it could continue to find there had been a sexual assault, as described by ZZ.”

Sellers also complained about the “external influence” of the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office.

The British Council was, at the time, part of the FCDO, and it is the sponsoring government department of the charity.

The tribunal found “clear evidence” of the FCDO’s involvement at an early stage that included “negative conversations”.

A British Council spokesperson said: “We are committed to investigating all complaints of sexual misconduct thoroughly. We are disappointed by the decision of the employment tribunal. We are unable to comment further on individual cases.”

A remedy hearing is due to take place between the two parties at a date to be announced.

The FCDO did not respond to a request for comment.

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