Castle trustees face mutiny after alleged unfair dismissal of CEO and 'poor handling' of racist incident

A group of staff has called for the mass resignation of the trustees of the Nottingham Castle Trust

Nottingham Castle

This story has been amended; see final paragraph.

Trustees at the Nottingham Castle Trust are under pressure to resign following the alleged unfair dismissal of the chief executive and complaints about the handling of a racist incident. 

A group of staff of colour at the organisation wrote to the board and to the Charity Commission at the beginning of the month, expressing concern about the handling of a racist incident on the castle grounds and calling for the resignation of Ted Cantle, the charity’s chair. 

The group has now declared its support for a petition calling for the resignation of the entire board, which on Thursday afternoon had attracted more than 600 signatures. 

The Charity Commission has opened a compliance case into the charity, the regulator told Third Sector

The charity oversees the management and operation of Nottingham Castle, which is owned by Nottingham City Council, and has recently completed a £30m renovation of the visitor experience following a three-year closure.

The former chief executive of the charity, Sara Blair-Manning, who led the reopening of the castle, has taken out a claim for unfair dismissal.

Blair-Manning claims she was sacked after she raised a formal grievance about governance at the charity, including what she described in a statement as the “inappropriate behaviours of some trustees directed at me and others, especially women”.

Her grievance also called for an independent investigation into an allegation of sexual misconduct against one of the trustees. 

Third Sector understands that since Blair-Manning’s dismissal, all female members of the senior leadership team who were in post at the time have left their positions. A male external consultant has remained in post.

Blair-Manning was dismissed from the charity with immediate effect on 13 August. Four days later, a black curator who had been employed by the museum on one of its exhibits visited the castle with her family, who were allegedly racially abused and physically attacked by a member of the public.

In its open letter to the trustees, the group Staff of Colour said the "subsequent poor handling of the incident", the treatment of the curator and the lack of any formal anti-racist statement had “led to an environment of fear, distrust and extremely low morale among staff of all backgrounds, but particularly those of colour”.  

The letter pointed out that because there was no chief executive at the time of the incident, the response to it was the responsibility of trustees, and argued it would have been handled differently had Blair-Manning still been in post.

The staff members behind the letter said they wanted to remain anonymous “out of real concern of losing our jobs for speaking out”.

While the letter acknowledged the incident and response had been investigated, it argued there was a conflict of interest because the investigator appointed had multiple links to individual board members.

A spokesperson for the group told Third Sector: “It’s at the point now where the only real satisfactory outcome would be the resignation of the entire board.”

Blair-Manning told Third Sector she was still primarily concerned with encouraging trustees to carry out an independent investigation into the issues she had raised, and agreed with Staff of Colour that the board should resign.

In a statement, the Nottingham Castle Trust board said it “continues to be upset and concerned about the recent allegations” and that trustees had “been subject to a regrettable trial by social and other media”. 

It said the racist incident “did not involve any castle staff and was not witnessed by them” but had been “reported to the police by the castle team that day and this police investigation has now closed”.

The board said an independent investigator had been appointed to look into the response. 

“The trustees want to make it absolutely clear that they abhor any form of discrimination, hate crime and abuse – and racism and will not be tolerated on our premises,” the statement said.

“We recognise that this reported hate crime caused considerable upset for staff. The castle is not a place where staff or visitors should feel unsafe.”

It said trustees had offered to meet staff and were “disappointed” that the offer had not been accepted.

It said the charity would shortly be advertising for additional trustees to join the board, and that it "had greed to appoint an external senior counsel to investigate" Blair-Manning's claims.

The statement also said that Blair-Manning’s complaints were part of “an application dismissed by the employment tribunals” following an interim hearing. 

Blair-Manning had submitted an application for “interim relief” with the tribunal, which would have allowed her to remain in post, or at least continue receiving pay, until the unfair dismissal had been dealt with. 

Although the interim relief application was denied, the case is set to continue, with court documents for the hearing showing the judge found the full tribunal “is likely to find that this process was unfair” and that “there was a desire by the majority of the trustees to dismiss the claimant without first investigating her complaints”. 

This piece has been amended to acknowledge that while all the female members of the senior leadership team who were in post at the time of Blair-Manning's dismissal, a male external consultant is still in post.

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