Former head of medical charity sues founder Lord Winston for unfair dismissal

The ex-chief executive of the Genesis Research Trust claims Winston sacked her after she blew the whistle on alleged wrongdoing; he rejects the allegation

Lord Winston (Photograph: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)
Lord Winston (Photograph: Jeff Spicer/Getty Images)

The former boss of a medical charity is suing the organisation and its founding chair, the IVF pioneer Lord Winston, after claiming he sacked her after she blew the whistle on alleged wrongdoing.

The judgment from a preliminary employment tribunal hearing, held earlier this month, shows Dyan Sterling is claiming unfair dismissal from her role at the Genesis Research Trust after she made protected disclosures. 

The judgment shows the tribunal, held in central London, heard that Winston announced plans to make Sterling redundant just six hours after she had warned that the charity was in danger of breaking the law. 

Sterling said in July that trustees of the charity, based at Imperial College London, were reluctant to declare conflicts of interest after being awarded a £2.3m donation from the Angela Pattman Scholarship Fund.

But as GRT had not been involved in funding undergraduate programmes before, trustees feared that staff at Imperial College London, which did provide undergraduate teaching, would sue for the money because they believed they were better entitled to it.

The tribunal heard trustees considered transferring the funding to the college to avoid this issue.

Sterling sent a letter to Winston in July confirming that the trust’s lawyers had already accepted that it was legally acceptable for them to keep the money, but that he and other trustees would need to recuse themself from discussing the matter because of their work for the college.

She said: “The trust and its trustees were acting in breach of charity law and that there were serious compliance issues with the law and rules governing charities and their trustees, including conflicts of interest.”

The trustees decided on a legal review by a new lawyer.

Winston said the decision to make Sterling redundant was part of an earlier plan to cut costs to deal with serious financial difficulties at the charity, caused partly by the coronavirus crisis, the tribunal heard. 

The charity produced a number of meetings and emails between March and June to the tribunal where trustees discussed “measures to reduce our deficit”, with one document entitled, “Putting off the Evil Day”.

Sterling argued that she was unfairly dismissed and “punished” for whistleblowing.

Winston was told by Sterling that there was “no other option” but to refer the matter to the Charity Commission, the tribunal heard. 

Six hours later she received a written proposal from Winston requesting a trustee board meeting to discuss her redundancy.

Sterling asked for the meeting to be postponed, but discovered that it had gone ahead without her 25 minutes later, and no minutes had been taken.

She raised a grievance but it was dismissed by Winston, who said her allegations were “without foundation or merit” and refused to order an internal investigation. 

The tribunal heard that a second grievance was raised by Sterling but received no response.

Sterling was dismissed by email last month without a final redundancy consultation meeting; she was not asked to undertake any handover to ensure continuity of key projects and events, and staff were instructed not to contact her without the express wishes of the trustees, the tribunal was told. 

The tribunal concluded that it was likely Ms Sterling had been “singled out”, but evidence also suggested there was a “genuine redundancy situation” prior to her dismissal.

The tribunal judgment said: “Professor Lord Winston contends that Ms Sterling was dismissed for the potentially fair reason of redundancy.”

“Ms Sterling claims that the redundancy was a sham, and that she was not dismissed by reason of redundancy but because of her alleged disclosure.”

The London tribunal is due to make a final ruling at an upcoming four-day hearing.

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