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Harlow Council ordered to pay woman over handling of alleged racist comment

Business / Tue 25th Jan 2022 pm31 03:52pm

HARLOW Council has apologised and paid £150 to a local businesswoman over how it handled allegations of racism towards her by an officer reports the Local Democracy Reporting Service.

According to the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman, the woman, who had been refused the Additional Restrictions Grant, claims she broke down after a phone call from a Harlow Council officer, which “deteriorated” after she was told her business was not viable because it was an ethnic food business.

The council says it accepts the findings and has apologised to the woman, referred to in an Ombudsman report as Miss X, but also said its own investigation at the time did not find grounds to support her claims.

The officer denies making any racist comments and says she did not reference the ethnicity of the food, according to the report.

The Ombudsman did not find the council at fault for refusing the grant, but it did find the council had not referred to the part of Miss X’s complaint relating to the alleged comments at all in its first two responses.

A further response from the council did refer to the alleged comments but dismissed this part of the complaint, saying it was satisfied ethnicity had not been a factor in its decision making without giving any evidence or an explanation.

A spokesperson for Harlow Council said in a statement: “We take every complaint extremely seriously and investigate every one.

“We have apologised to Miss X for not addressing the complaint fully in our communications with her.

“The allegations were investigated by the council at the time and those investigations did not find any grounds to support the claims that had been made.

“However, we accept that our responses should have been clearer and ensured that we covered all elements of the complaint.

“The council has accepted the Local Government Ombudsman’s decisions and has acted to ensure that the recommendations have all been implemented which included a direct apology to Miss X and staff having been reminded of the importance of responding to all aspects of a complaint.

“As a result of these actions the ombudsman has closed the case and the council will ensure that it continues to improve the way it responds to and deals with complaints from its customers.”

According to the report, the Ombudsman also recommended the council pay Miss X £150 for her time and trouble perusing the complaint.

The alleged phone call took place on January 27 2021, the same day Miss X complained to the council, the report continues.

A member of Miss X’s staff was interviewed by the Ombudsman, who said he heard the telephone conversation, which had been put on loudspeaker.

He confirmed a comment was made about the cultural nature of the business and felt it had racist overtones, according to the report.

A section of the report read: “As there is no recording of this telephone call I cannot know for certain exactly what was said and the context in which any comments were made.

“However, I am satisfied Miss X was offended by the conversation and her actions in making a complaint the same day support this.”

Miss X’s business has been operating since July 2020, and she had previously signed an agreement with a pub to work out of a room in the premises.

The Additional Restrictions Grant was introduced after the government announced national coronavirus measures on October 31 2020, and aimed to support businesses severely impacted by the restrictions.

She applied for the grant in late 2020, but was refused.

According to the report, the council was not satisfied she was operating a business separately to the pub and was therefore unable to approve her application.

The report also details miscommunication between the parties, such as evidence of rent payments from Miss X being missed because it went to the council’s junk email folder, and incorrect paperwork, such as a handwritten licence agreement from Miss X with illegible witness signatures and no witness names or addresses.

After the council told her it was satisfied the concerns had been addressed in March 2021, she complained to the Ombudsman, the report continues.

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5 Comments for Harlow Council ordered to pay woman over handling of alleged racist comment:

David Forman
2022-01-25 16:04:09

All this on a Labour council's watch! Perhaps, in the future it may be prudent for Harlow Council to record all telephone conversations for 'training and quality purposes' as I'm sure YourHarlow readers are familiar with when dealing with insurance, finance, utility companies, etc.

Chris
2022-01-26 09:10:35

As per previous comments I have made relating to council, I seriously think the town would benefit of a complete refresh of its civil staff policies and attitude to its town. The attitude stinks, they deny and ignore requests made against them "complying with the minimum legal requirement" this isn't related to politics at all so doesn't matter what party is in control! Any dispute is always put to "independant auditing" however is carried out by the council, so not really that independant and findings unsurprisingly find in favour of council. Its just a massive ball and chain on every Harlow person as a drain to our daily living and forced contribution we are forced to pay for this incompetence. The council needs reminding of its slogans Working together for Harlow/ historically from the corporation- In Common Endevour.

David Forman
2022-01-26 12:06:14

If one reads the Local Government Ombudsman's (LGO) report, especially paragraphs 25, 26, 37 & 38, you will discover that the Council's complaints policy fails to adhere to ACAS good practice in investigating grievances. The complaints policy does not explicitly say who should investigate a complaint if the Service Manager is the subject of the complaint. However, the council's complaints policy does say prior to detailing the Stage 1 process: "any complaints will be dealt with at the lowest stage possible unless there is good reason to escalate it to the next stage." The good reason obvious in this case is that the manager being complained about should not be investigating themselves, as it will produce a poor outcome and this was highlighted by the LGO at paragraph 37. ACAS guidance says: "Where possible, the employer should get somebody who's not involved in the case to carry out the investigation, for example another manager or someone from HR. This is to keep things as fair as possible." Link to Ombudsman's report: https://www.lgo.org.uk/decisions/benefits-and-tax/covid-19/21-000-231

Chris
2022-01-26 19:08:25

Thanks for the reference David and insight into how fractured and biased the system is. I know the same stands with GPs where a complaint against a GP is sent to the practice manager and they then give it to the GP to remedy their own complaint, the practice manager doesn't follow it up though or check! Even the ombudsmen's job is questionable though as they don't look at the complaint per, only that the right process was made, even if its biased.

Ian
2022-01-28 23:14:37

As the above comments state, our council is a joke! They screw up the simplest things and it seems like they deliberately make it difficult for everyone.

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