A senior accountant in charge of a council’s financial response to the Grenfell Tower disaster and his younger female colleague have won a sex harassment case after a colleague alleged to workmates that they were ‘ducking off’ to sleep together.
Oxford-educated Francis Austin had personally recruited Monika Newton to join his finance team supporting Kensington and Chelsea Council’s response to the 2017 fire, which claimed the lives of 72 people.
But an employment tribunal heard Ms Newton’s arrival antagonised his deputy Lesley Shields, who became suspicious they were skiving off work to spend time together.
She openly suggested to colleagues that the pair were sleeping together and when they went out for an appointment told one they must have gone to a hotel before adding: ‘She’s sucking his c**k about now’.
Mr Austin, who was being paid the equivalent of around £150,000-a-year, and Ms Newton, who was hired on an equivalent of more than £100,000-a-year, complained about Ms Shields’ comments.
He also alleged that Ms Shields was conspiring with colleagues to slow down the work of the project – a claim that was dismissed by the council following an investigation.
The council later ended Mr Austin and Ms Newton’s rolling contracts. They have since won an employment tribunal and are now in line for compensation.
Oxford-educated Francis Austin had personally recruited Monika Newton (pictured) to join his finance team supporting Kensington and Chelsea Council’s response to the 2017 fire, which claimed the lives of 72 people
Mr Austin, who was being paid the equivalent of around £150,000-a-year, and Ms Newton, who was hired on an equivalent of more than £100,000-a-year complained about comments suggesting he was having an affair with Ms Newton
The tribunal in central London was told that Mr Austin joined the local authority on a rolling contract as deputy Chief Finance Officer in March 2017.
As part of his deal he was paid £650 a day, the equivalent of an annual salary of more than £150,000.
In June of that year, the fire at the Grenfell Tower block claimed the lives of 72 people and Mr Austin was made head of finance for the team helping the council’s response to the tragedy.
Ms Shields – group accountant at the council – was his deputy, the tribunal heard.
By the autumn of 2019, the hearing was told, tensions were growing between the pair about the slow pace with which the team’s work was being completed.
At the same time Mr Austin met with Ms Newton – an experienced project manager who he had worked with before – to discuss her joining the team to help with a ‘housing legacy’ project related to the disaster.
The tribunal was told that without authorisation, he proceeded to hire Ms Newton on a £450 a day short term contract, equivalent to more than £100,000 a year.
On Ms Newton’s first day in November, the tribunal heard Ms Shields told her new colleague she was unhappy at the way she had been appointed and was not convinced her role was required.
Ms Shields – who was feeling under increasing work pressure – told the tribunal there was a change in Mr Austin’s behaviour after Ms Newton’s appointment.
The tribunal was told that without authorisation, Mr Austin proceeded to hire Ms Newton on a £450 a day short term contract, equivalent to more than £100,000 a year
‘He came in to work late and went home early, and often took Ms Newton for lunch,’ she said.
‘There were grumbles in the team about how little work Mr Austin was doing.
‘Mr Austin was going to all of Ms Newton’s meetings when there was no need for him to do so.’
The hearing was told that soon after her arrival, Ms Shields referred to Ms Newton to colleagues as a ‘c***’ and a ‘bitch’.
Ms Shields told the hearing that on 29th November Mr Austin and Ms Shields arrived at work late, then went to lunch together.
‘She said they gathered their bags and coats at 1:45 pm and Ms Shields asked where they were going,’ the tribunal heard. ‘They said they were going to the Tower.
‘Ms Shields asked why and they said they were going to (a meeting) and Ms Newton wanted to see the Tower.
Ms Shields looked at (the) diary which did not show such a meeting. Ms Shields said she was frustrated as she thought they were ducking out of work.
‘There was no need for them to go to the Tower. They could have done the round trip in an hour but they did not return. ‘
‘The whole team was under pressure but they seemed to be wasting time and money.
‘She herself was working evenings and weekends and under pressure to meet budgeting deadlines and had personal issues.
‘She said people were commenting and gossiping about Ms Newton and Mr Austin’s movements.
‘Ms Shields accepted she said something along the lines of: ‘she’s (Ms Newton) sucking his (Mr Austin’s) cock about now’ to (a colleague).
‘She said she regretted it immediately and apologised.’
Finance Manager Ronica Barard told the hearing Ms Shields initially approached the bank of desks where she and others were sitting and said Mr Austin had nothing in his diary so she was not sure where they had got to.
‘She said they must have got a hotel room,’ Ms Barard told the tribunal.
‘About half an hour later Ms Shields approached the desks again and said: ‘She must be sucking his cock right now.’
Over the following months, tensions between the trio escalated.
In January 2020, in a row with Ms Newton the tribunal was told Ms Shields warned her: ‘Don’t walk away from me young lady.’
And Mr Austin started to believe his deputy was conspiring with colleagues to deliberately slow down their work-rate to extend their own contracts, the hearing was told.
On hearing that Ms Shields had told colleagues she suspected an affair, Ms Newton complained to Mr Austin: ‘This is sexual harassment in a workplace and to that effect extremely distressing, derogatory and offensive.’
The council launched an investigation which led to Ms Shields being warned about her behaviour.
But it dismissed Mr Austin’s allegations that she was working slowly on purpose.
In June of that year, the fire at the Grenfell Tower block claimed the lives of 72 people and Mr Austin was made head of finance for the team helping the council’s response to the tragedy
Concluding that the housing legacy project was unnecessary, the local authority decided not to extend Ms Newton’s contract after the end of March 2020.
And the following month Mr Austin was told his employment was being terminated as well.
The pair took the council to a tribunal claiming sex discrimination, victimisation and that they had been badly treated for whistle blowing.
The panel – chaired by Employment Judge Natasha Joffe – dismissed the other claims but agreed that Ms Shields’ remarks to colleagues had been sexual harassment.
‘(Her) purpose appears to have been to vent her frustrations about Mr Austin and Ms Newton to her colleagues,’ it said.
Alleging they were having ‘sexual relations rather than working’ would have ‘violated their dignity’ and created a ‘humiliating environment’ for them, it said.
‘The extreme vitriol involved in describing a colleague as a ‘c***’, arose, we concluded, from the particular level of resentment created by the combination of factors we have identified, including the perception…that Mr Austin and Ms Newton might be having an affair.’
The panel said that unless the pair and the council can come to an agreement themselves, a further hearing would be held next year to determine compensation.