Housing association whistleblower accused of reporting company to former Labour minister Sadiq Khan begins unfair dismissal claim


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The Independent Online

A whistleblower, who claims she was wrongly accused of reporting her company to shadow justice minister Sadiq Khan, began her case for unfair dismissal today.

Noreen Heslop, 45, insists she was unfairly sacked after 18 years of service because she complained to her union about alleged financial irregularities and discrimination against women and ethnic minorities at Wandle Housing Association.

Shortly after Unite took her concerns to the MP for Tooting, and he requested a meeting with the chief executive, she was suspended and put under investigation.

The south London housing association denies all allegations, saying the former receptionist was dismissed for gross misconduct which had nothing to do with her work with the union.

Today a preliminary hearing before London South Employment Tribunal heard how Ms Heslop believed the company was overpaying certain contractors with whom its chief executive Sara Thakkar had personal contacts, denying tenants value for money. Having taken her fears to her manager and been told not to interfere, she started scanning invoices, which she emailed to a private account.

As a shop steward for Unite, Ms Heslop also began gathering evidence, convinced that repeated restructures of the housing association had unfairly targeted ethnic minority and female workers as well as union members.

The union took her concerns to Mr Khan who, having also received separate complaints from tenants, requested a meeting with Ms Thakkar in July 2012. Within days Ms Heslop was suspended and told she was under investigation.

She believed it was because the company thought she had complained to the shadow justice minister, she said in a statement: “In fact, I had never communicated with Sadiq Khan and I therefore (asked) my own MP, Chuka Umunna, to request Sadiq Khan to confirm that I had had no contact with him.”

After a housing association investigation discovered the documents she had sent to her private account, she was sacked in March this year for 11 charges of gross misconduct, predominantly misusing the company's IT system to take sensitive and confidential information as well as criticising the association in front of potential recruits.

Madeline Power, representing Ms Heslop, said: “The claimant's position is that she was in the process of gathering evidence when she was disciplined and investigated because of a breach of email policy. The breach was that she emailed these documents to herself because of her concerns.”

However, Melvyn Harris, representing the housing association, said that allegations of misconduct against Ms Heslop were “thoroughly and carefully” investigated and had nothing to do with “protective disclosure” or whistle blowing.

“There is no connection between being suspended, being investigated, being brought to disciplinary hearing and finally being dismissed. There is no link whatsoever to union activity. It is simply conjuring something out of the air,” he said.

Today Ms Heslop's interim relief application to remain on salary until the case goes to a full hearing later this year was refused on the grounds that she could not prove that she had a “pretty good chance” of winning her case as there was a difference between supplying information as a whistle blower and simply making allegations. The full hearing was set for December.

A spokesman for the housing association said: “Wandle denies that it dismissed Miss Heslop for any reason connected to trade union membership or activities. An employment judge sitting at London South refused an application for interim relief from Ms Heslop on the 5th April 2013. A tribunal date has been set for December 2013, therefore it would be inappropriate to comment any further at this time.”