Editor’s comment: Unions’ lack of faith is bad news indeed

Hackney Service Centre.

Hackney Service Centre. - Credit: Archant

The row over allegations of racist and sexist bullying at Hackney Council’s Hillman Street call centre isn’t going away.

An independent investigation tasked with examining the multiple allegations made against senior council workers should have been a lifeline for the town hall: a chance to show it was taking the claims seriously and was willing to put right what had taken place, or an outside voice to exonerate it.

Instead, worse than either outcome, it has managed to cast doubt on the public trust in that process after more than four months of work have been ploughed into it – a gaffe that risks tarring the council’s hard-won corporate reputation with the alleged behaviour of a sizeable but so far limited number of its managers.

This scandal has already seen a worker sacked after whistleblowing, and a council lawyer tell her at a tribunal that it was “not reasonable” to feel harassed by allegedly racist comments made by a white manager – that they were “a poor joke”, “benign and anodyne”, and that she couldn’t have been that offended by them as it took her a year to bring them up.

In any other arena I don’t doubt the council would be joining the voices expressing alarm at the allegations and solidarity with anyone who had suffered bullying. The borough’s public face is as a champion of minority groups’ rights, a fair employer and a progressive force. While the truth or otherwise of the numerous allegations is yet to be decided, it is an obvious lesson from recent history – think #MeToo – that we should listen to, not belittle, those who speak out against toxic workplace cultures. If the council is treating the claims seriously, its reported behaviour vis a vis the independent investigation does not appear to reflect that: not booking enough time for staff to speak to the investigator; promoting managers who are still being investigated. Worst of all is the claim that workers are still being harassed at work while this is going on.

The unions are one of the biggest supporters of, and voices within, the borough’s ruling Labour Party, so there must be all kinds of cognitive dissonance occurring at the council’s top table. For everyone’s sake, I hope some credibility can be injected back into this process, and quickly.