A former Charity Commission employee is seeking more than £200,000 in compensation for constructive dismissal after a row about an investigation into a charity by the regulator.
David Orbison, who was the senior case officer in charge of the commission’s investigation into the charity African Aids Action, accused the regulator of a "miscarriage of justice" for not taking stronger measures in the case.
Orbison told the Liverpool employment tribunal yesterday that he had been bullied and victimised by other staff at the commission because he had made formal complaints about the regulator’s handling of the AAA case.
He said his treatment led him to develop a stress and anxiety condition that left him unable to work. He resigned in November 2010.
Orbison told the tribunal that the original commission team running the inquiry into AAA, which he led, found that it was a "sham charity" – but senior managers decided the regulator should not use its legal powers, which include instructing trustees to wind a charity down. Instead, he said, the commission issued advice and guidance to the charity.
Orbison said that he had made a public interest disclosure, a form of whistleblowing that brings legal protections, to the commission, and had also raised concerns with the Civil Service Commission.
His written witness statement says: "In the disclosure, I made it absolutely clear that I believed criminal offences had been committed (personal use of charitable funds, a fraudulent grant application, theft), that I believed the [Charity Commission] was failing to comply with its legal obligations and that by failing to act against the charity or any of its trustees a miscarriage of duty had occurred because in effect they were getting away with criminal or inappropriate activity."
At the hearing, Orbison said that his relations with senior staff at the commission deteriorated after he made the disclosure, which left him feeling "besieged, stressed and extremely upset". His witness statement says he was signed off work because of ill health in April 2010.
Orbison’s witness statement says he believed the regulator had decided not to use its legal powers against the charity because doing so would make it possible for the charity to appeal to the charity tribunal.
The statement says this decision "was wholly driven by the [Charity Commission] seeking to avoid charity tribunal proceedings at all costs. Their focus was disproportionately skewed towards avoiding the ‘risk’ of such proceedings and so they completely failed to properly and prudently consider the risk to the property of the charity."
Jeffrey Prescott, an accountant at the Charity Commission and a witness in the case, told the hearing that in 2009 he had written to Kenneth Dibble, the regulator’s director of legal affairs, to say the commission was "reluctant to use its powers" and had given "inadequate responses to many general complaints". He said Dibble had agreed to consider the issues and raise them with other senior managers.
The regulator’s skeleton argument, supplied to the tribunal before it began, says Orbison’s case that his whistleblowing caused him to be victimised is "less than hopeless".
It says: "There is no evidence whatsoever that [the Charity Commission] did not treat [Orbison’s disclosure], if he has made such a disclosure, with seriousness and victimised him because of it.
"[Orbison] was a difficult employee who was hostile towards senior management for a substantial part of the limited time he was employed by [the commission]. He was treated at all times with courtesy and respect and his complaints were fully investigated."
The document says the Charity Commission "will demonstrate, through cross-examination, that [Orbison] suffered from no detriment as alleged or at all and [his] claim is entirely bogus in this regard".
In response to Orbison’s claim that the commission was wrong not to take stronger action against AAA, the document says: "It is accepted that it was not a decision that [Orbison] agreed with. But it was taken by senior managers having considered a number of factors over a period of many months. [Orbison] was a junior manager, with very limited experience of [the commission’s] regulatory role. His obligation was to implement the decision taken by senior managers."
Staff from the Charity Commission are due to be cross-examined at the hearing today, and the case is due to end on 5 April.