Laughter undermines harassment case: Steve Boggan reports on the hearing that painted a shabby picture of life at one Child Support Agency office

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The Independent Online
PERHAPS the funniest moment - because this hearing was calibrated in degrees of laughter - was when the underpants were produced as evidence. Or perhaps it was when Stephen Davies admitted dropping his trousers at a party. Or was it when it was said he had the nicest bum in the office?

At a time when the Child Support Agency was coming under increasing public scrutiny, here was the sight of civil servants out of control; the same civil servants who were chasing errant fathers for money, hounding second families out of financial sight and, in more than 10 cases, driving men to suicide.

The case centred on the belief of Stephen Davies, 39, a project operations manager at the CSA's West Midlands headquarters near Dudley, that Lynn Badger, 35, an executive officer, wanted to sleep with him. As in most school playgrounds, the word 'fancy' was often used.

Mr Davies, a married father of two, was dismissed in March for 'management harassment', for allegedly intimidating two female employees. But he had been suspended earlier, last June, when Mrs Badger claimed he had sexually harassed her the previous December. She said he had asked her to 'satisfy his needs with a quick one' at a CSA Christmas party.

He was cleared of sexual misconduct and hit back with claims that she had sexually harassed him from October 1992 to May 1993.

He took his case to an industrial tribunal in Birmingham claiming vicarious sexual discrimination by the CSA because she was its agent and it had failed to instil sexual political correctness in its employees.

Mr Davies, a 6ft 5ins former rugby player, said Mrs Badger, a diminutive woman with a ponytail, had twice asked him to visit her hotel room while they were away on a seemingly endless round of business trips and courses. He claimed she telephoned him at home, pestering him to visit her when her husband was away.

She commented on the size of his feet - suggesting it indicated he had a large penis. She nuzzled his neck every day to smell his aftershave.

She said he had the nicest bum in the office. And she bought him skimpy underpants for his birthday, vowing that one day she would see them on him. She denied all these things and the tribunal believed her.

When the offending briefs were sheepishly produced by Mr Davies - still in their gaudy pink, yellow and green wrapping paper - the tabloids had a field day. 'Briefs encounter' was the favourite headline.

But the tide began to turn as a succession of CSA employees, who could be named only as Miss B, Mrs C, Miss D and Miss E, began to paint a very different picture of Mr Davies.

Expecting the assault on his client's character, Peter Henrick, Mr Davies's representative, had asked: 'Have you had affairs?' In full view of his wife, Diane, Mr Davies replied in the affirmative. It was the one time when no one laughed.

Miss B, Jacqueline Gough, described Mr Davies as a fiery, difficult boss. Mrs Badger's husband, Richard, told the hearing that Mr Davies wanted Miss Gough off his team because she refused to respond to his advances.

Mrs C, June O'Connor, told how Mr Davies twice cornered her, asking her for kisses at drunken CSA parties.

Mr and Mrs Badger said that during a journey in their car he bet that he would sleep with Mrs O'Connor and expressed his desire to touch her breasts. He said that was untrue.

Miss D, Cath Harvey, a CSA official who transferred from Newcastle to Dudley, was alleged to have had an affair with Mr Davies, an allegation he denied and on which she did not elaborate.

But Miss E, Maxine Barnard, a secretary, delivered the killer blows. She described how, at a party to celebrate the launch of the CSA, Mr Davies had dropped his trousers when someone asked if rumours were true that he had the biggest 'prick' in the CSA. She described how he later went home with her for a Chinese meal - something he did not dispute.

Their versions differed, however, when it came to what happened next. He said they kissed; she said he touched her breasts.

As the evidence unfolded, Diane Davies commented outside the hearing that the behaviour was nothing more than typical office shenanigans, particularly when drink was involved. Dropping trousers, getting drunk and fooling around a little were not unusual in the civil service, she said.

The sheer scale of the allegations and their pettiness may have betrayed the nature - and quality - of some of the people running the CSA, but it was clear that someone was lying.

The question for the tribunal was a technical one: was the CSA vicariously liable for Mrs Badger's actions, even assuming the claims were true? For everyone else, the question was much simpler: in the hotbed of the Child Support Agency, the arbiter of responsible family behaviour, who was sexually harassing whom?

Living, page 18

(Photographs omitted)