Justice secretary David Gauke treated employment tribunal with ‘contempt’

Mark Leech: Comment

Richard Ford, Home Affairs Correspondent of The Times writes:

The justice secretary has been criticised by a judge for treating an employment tribunal with contempt in a case where a prison officer won his claim for sexual discrimination.

David Gauke’s department was unreasonable during the hearings in an attempt to obstruct the claim by Ben Plaistow, the employment judge ruled. The bisexual prison officer, who was taunted by colleagues as “gay” and “vermin”, was victimised and unfairly dismissed from his job at Woodhill prison in Milton Keynes three years ago.

Judge Michael Ord said that documents had been forged, others hidden from Mr Plaistow and the ministry was guilty of “vexatious, disruptive and unreasonable conduct” during the case. He added that the behaviour of the ministry had been an effort to “place themselves above the rules” and to mislead Mr Plaistow and the tribunal.

“The conduct of the respondent [secretary of state for justice] has been reprehensible. Documents have been corrupted and even forged. Documents have been hidden from the claimant. Even the most basic processes have not been followed,” the judge said in a reserved judgment on costs in the case. He also accused witnesses in the case of being “obstructive and evasive”.

The highly critical ruling comes after Mr Plaistow, 41, won his case for unfair dismissal from the prison service at an employment tribunal this year. Mr Plaistow was found to have been the victim of direct discrimination, harassment and unfair dismissal while working at Woodhill prison.

The tribunal heard that he was forced to carry a pink bag to work before he was sacked in 2016 after being accused of gross misconduct.

The employment tribunal sitting in Cambridge found in February that he had actually been dismissed because of his complaints about the abuse he suffered after he told his boss, Vicki Laithwaite, that he was bisexual.

He now suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of his treatment and according to the tribunal the prospect of him being able to return to any work are “extremely remote”.

Judge Ord said in his ruling that the Ministry of Justice had treated orders, in relation to disclosure in particular, with contempt and had conducted themselves in a way that was in part an attempt to mislead Mr Plaistow as well as the tribunal.

Witnesses were ill-prepared, obstructive and gave evidence that was unreliable, he added.

“These failings go beyond error. They have been wholly unreasonable and have been disruptive to the proceedings. They have not arisen by accident but by design as the wholesale denial of the existence of documents which subsequently appeared, the post-dated creation of documents designed to “plug the gaps” and the alteration of documents does not — and we find in this case did not — happen by inadvertence,” the ruling said.

Mr Plaistow has already been awarded £74,000 for injury to feelings and damages while his loss of earnings will be based on his future earnings and pension up until the age of 68. The Ministry of Justice and lawyers for Mr Plaistow are expected to agree the extent of the costs involved in the case by the end of next month.

A Ministry of Justice spokesman said: “We have noted the judge’s decision and are considering next steps, and a separate internal review is ongoing.”

Comment

Mark Leech,  Editor of The Prisons Handbook writes:

“The one crystal clear sign that homophobic or racist bullying, intimidation and abuse have become institutional in any organisation, is when those with the responsibility for rooting it out, look the other way when confronted with it.”

Bi-sexual Prison Officer, Ben Plaistow, had been a dedicated public servant with over ten years unblemished service when fellow prison officers discovered his sexuality and embarked on a homophobic crusade to destroy him.

Subject to a litany of hate crimes, he was assaulted, humiliated and, when he complained, his torment was ignored and he was fired on trumped up charges of using excessive force against a prisoner – an event that never happened as CCTV footage of the incident was later to prove.

But it didn’t end there.

Caught out, the Ministry of Justice first tried to silence him with threats of defamation and when he issued proceedings before an Employment Tribunal they then tried every last sick trick in the book to cover up their list of failures with forged documents, fabricated evidence and, quite frankly, downright lies.

From Prison Officers, through Custodial Managers, Governing Governors and all the way up to and including the current Director of the High Security Estate,  the evidence of each in turn was surgically dissected by the Employment Tribunal whose damning judgment branded them am all liars – with the sole exception of one, Governor Olivia Kerr, who is the only one to come out of this with her credibility intact.

What makes this worse is that following the judgment in February 2019, Stonewall, the national gay and lesbian charity, announced that the Ministry of Justice was 12th in its ‘Top 100 Employers List 2019‘ – a completely bizarre and incomprehensible award that has opened up Stonewall to scrutiny and questioned exactly how organisations find their way on to a list that is increasingly seen as utterly pointless and a sham.

When I asked the Stonewall Press Office to explain how the MOJ could have been anywhere near its Top 100 Employers their response was ‘no comment’. I have persisted in this inquiry, writing to Jan Gooding the Chair of Stonewall Trustees, demanding an explanation – so far without success.

Some of the prison service senior managers involved in this case have since been bestowed with Royal Honours, two have received OBE’s while one of those whose evidence was described in the official judgement as “simply untrue” and “manifestly untrue” was awarded a CBE this month in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List.

An internal inquiry is underway, but what is needed is an external investigation into the culture of homophobia that exists in the Prison Service. The Ministry of Justice deny it is homophobic, pointing to ‘Pride in Prison and Probation‘ (PiPP), the 100% MOJ-funded LGBT Prison and Probation Staff Association as evidence of its commitment to diversity.

The simple unavoidable truth however is that, when it comes to calling out homophobia in the Prison Service, PiPP is nothing more than a discredited cover story, a convenient alibi that fools no-one.

The proof of that, if any were needed, lays in the fact that in the four months since the judgment was published in the Ben Plaistow case PiPP has not made one single public comment about the case – not even acknowledging that the case even exists. Fearful perhaps of having its MOJ funding cut, it’s principles have been compromised, its morals corrupted and its reputation today lays in tatters.

The case of Ben Plaistow is a game-changer, it has opened to the bone the culture of homophobia that is alive and well inside HM Prison and Probation Service and revealed the criminal extent that organisation is prepared to go to, to cover up the fact that it is institutionally homophobic.

For the new Chief Executive of HM Prison and Probation Service, Jo Farrar, this is her first and arguably her most important test, one that will define her and the Service she now leads for decades to come.

Jo Farrar has no prior operational prison experience, which I have to come view as a blessing rather than the hindrance I once believed it to – for she carries with her no career-long loyalties, she is free of the baggage carried by so many who climb through the ranks and make it to the top – if anyone can do this, she can.

The one crystal-clear sign that homophobic or racist bullying, intimidation and abuse have become institutional in any organisation, is when those with the responsibility for rooting it out, look the other way when confronted with it.

So, make no mistake, people are watching.

If Jo Farrar gets this wrong, if she fails to take this opportunity to cut out the cultural cancer of homophobia in the Service she now leads, if she fails to kick out of the Prison Service all those who were found to have lied, fabricated, and forged their way through an Employment Tribunal, then she too will have failed in the most primary duty of any Chief Executive – that of protecting the most vulnerable people in the organisations they lead.

That cannot be allowed to happen.

Read the Employment Tribunal Judgment