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Fondling, fraud and feminisim - just another day in Camden

WIll a council's answer to Nicola Horlick bring her boss to book? By Ann Treneman
ONLY a few years ago, Amanda Kelly and Steve Bundred were the best of friends. He was the new chief executive of Camden Council in north London and she was his hand-picked deputy. He was paid pounds 100,000 a year. She received pounds 83,000 and was one of the top women in local government.

It was all very New Labour, New Women, New Broom. But then something very old Labour occurred: they had a falling out and a pretty dramatic one at that. Now they are the worst of enemies. How do we know? Because, in that great Old Labour tradition, they are tearing each other to bits in public.

The setting is equally old-fashioned: an industrial tribunal in north London. There, for the past week, Amanda Kelly has been spilling the beans on fondling, fraud and huge pay-offs at Camden council.

The attack is ferocious and, because of Amanda Kelly's seniority, extremely damaging, especially at a council that prides itself on its equal opportunity policies. She accuses the council and Mr Bundred of sexual discrimination and victimisation. She says he treated her like a "naughty schoolgirl" and that the town hall has an "aggressive male culture".

She claims her job was put on the line over trivial matters while men who had committed serious sins were let off lightly. The heart of her case revolves around two letters from Mr Bundred last summer that threatened her job: "The tone resembles nothing so much as an irate headmaster wagging his finger at a naughty schoolgirl who has dared to disagree with him".

She is speaking from Room 11 of the Bloomsbury court building and the audience is a pretty rich one. First there is Ms Kelly who, when not at the tribunal, is still at work in her office that lies directly above Mr Bundred's. I figure she makes about pounds 320 per day.

She looks a local government version of the City superwoman Nicola Horlick. She is one of the very few senior women to have brought a sex discrimination suit, a trend that is growing according to the Equal Opportunities Commission.

She did so because she couldn't face herself in the mirror if she had just "slunk away". She is a 41-year-old mother of two who graduated from Oxford in philosophy and modern languages, trained as a solicitor and was hired as borough solicitor in 1993. She is ambitious and not afraid to say so.

In the second row at the tribunal sits Mr Bundred. He makes about pounds 385 a day. He is flanked by various employees and department heads who come and go. Some of them will testify for him when the time comes. \

He is a 46-year-old with one of those faces that is hard to remember and is best known as a left-winger from the days when he was on Ken Livingstone's GLC. He was appointed chief executive of Camden in 1996. During the tribunal, he passes the occasional Post-It note to his barrister.

This is Elizabeth Slade QC. She is well respected and would make considerably more than pounds 385 a day. Her questions are precise and, occasionally, deadly. To her right sits Ms Kelly's solicitor, Gillian Howard. In addition to being an expert on employment law, she provides the tribunal's fashion moments. One day last week she was wearing huge pinwheel black glitter earrings and a Moschino T-shirt whose front boasted "This T-shirt has no Sense of Humour".

The tribunal, which begin earlier this week, is scheduled to last two more, and Camden has admitted it will cost pounds 300,000 to half a million pounds. If Amanda Kelly wins, that figure could double. Whatever the judgment, the council will lose big when it comes to their reputation. The picture that emerged last week was of an organisation that was at war, obsessed with petty rivalries, secrecy and pub gossip. At one point, when asked if she had criticised a certain person, Amanda Kelly's voice rose: "At Camden everybody is criticising everyone else 24 hours a day!" Easy to see why the council applied for, and won, a gagging order. The High Court overturned it earlier this month.

Bernice Brookner, for one, is grateful. She lives in a hostel for the homeless in borough.

"It does my heart good to see them suffer!" she says. Bernice plans to come to the tribunal every day. Over the week Bernice heard a lot about how things happen in Camden. There was, for instance, the senior officer who had sexually assaulted Ms Kelly after drinking too much at an "awayday" strategy meeting in July 1994.

This involved "putting his arms around me and stroking my upper body, breasts and right leg". A senior colleague, who was sitting across from her at the time, took no action and swore everyone to secrecy the next day. Ms Kelly later told him she considered the assault to be gross misconduct but he disagreed. "I am ashamed to admit that I did not have the stomach for the likely struggle," she said. The official was later made redundant and given a lump sum of pounds 200,000.

Then there was Mr X, the "lazy" director who left work at Friday lunchtime and returned late Monday morning. He is said to have received only a written warning.

There was also the senior manager who was unaware that a massive fraud said to have involved computers and which cost the council more than pounds 400,000 had taken place in his department. He received six months' severance pay. "He was given a nice easy way out of the council," said Ms Kelly, "despite the fact a massive fraud had been perpetrated. Yet I was threatened with dismissal over matters I have yet to understand."

Ms Kelly believes Mr Bundred treated her more as a dogsbody than a deputy. By last summer their relationship had deteriorated with Mr Bundred sent her two letters setting out his grievances. They are full of the kind of thing that has made local government infamous.

At one point he suggests she may need to be "re-energised" by seconding her to "another public body". Sub- headings within one letter include "Undermining of Me", "Belittling the Achievements of Others" and "Persistent Pursuit of Self-Interest Above Other Considerations".

Expect much more of the same over the next few weeks, although the cast of characters will be expanded on. Among them is Dennis Skinner, the son of the "Beast of Bolsover" MP. He is an assistant chief executive and Ms Kelly has previously claimed he was allowed to be "extremely rude" to her by Mr Bundred.

We will also hear more from council leader Richard Arthur who was drafted in late last year to try and resolve the battle. He offered "marriage guidance" in the form of a trip to Acas. Ms Kelly thought not.

Instead, she issued a list of 12 demands. They included that Mr Bundred apologise, that her branch be taken out of the chief executive's department, that she be treated like male officers and that she receive pounds 5,000 compensation and costs. The council's lawyers declined, especially over a "finding of fault" against Mr Bundred. She was offered the post of director of leisure and community services, which would have meant a drop in salary.

It was an offer that she could - and did - refuse. And that's how some of the most highly paid people in Britain found themselves in Room 11 last week with the gloves off.

And there are more embarrassing battles to come with two further sexual discrimination cases against Camden due this year. I wonder what Blair's Babes will have to say about that.