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THRESHOLD: Homeless charity at centre of row over managers
TWO outreach workers at a Swindon homeless charity have put themselves in the firing line to raise concerns about the way it is run.
James Derieg and Tony Niester, who are risking their jobs by speaking out, say Threshold Housing Link has consistently failed to take action over their misgivings.
The pair, who are familiar faces to many homeless people on the streets of Swindon, raised concerns over conflicts of interests, financial arrangements and disciplinary procedures.
Mr Derieg, a former human rights worker in Bosnia, has already been suspended by the charity on suspicion of leaking a previous story to the Adver.
That article concerned HR consultant Christine Pratt, who was hired in February to conduct a disciplinary probe, which cost the charity £1,800.
Threshold, which has a turnover of £1million through Swindon Council, donations and other sources, celebrates its 40th birthday this year.
But the whistleblowers, who have been with the charity for four-and-a-half-years, have found themselves at odds with chief executive officer Cher Sawyer-Smith, MBE, and her husband, operations director Phil Smith.
However, Threshold’s chairman of trustees, Trevor Davies, issued a robust denial of the claims yesterday, saying they were part of a campaign to “vilify” Mrs Sawyer-Smith.
He said: “There are people who do not like this individual and they will do anything and say anything to blacken her name. This is pure vindictiveness and a witch-hunt.” The charity, based in the town centre, was the setting for a divisive split between the trustees and the senior management between 2009 and 2010.
It ended with Mrs Sawyer-Smith and her husband fighting off an attempt to abolish their posts. The outreach workers remained throughout the tussle but have now approached the Adver to issue a list of claims which include: Mrs Sawyer-Smith was employed as business development director before leaving with a pay-off, thought to be around £30,000, in March 2010.
She formed her own company, Charities Inc, and was providing consultancy work three months later before returning as chief executive officer.
HR consultant Christine Pratt has been paid with the charity’s cash as an external consultant on whistleblowing and disciplinary procedures.
Though she is supposed to be neutral, she is a business acquaintance of Mrs Sawyer-Smith and went to her MBE party in February 2010.
The married executives have drawn up plans which would include the charity paying the mortgage on Mrs Sawyer-Smith’s house.
Mr Smith is registered to vote at a flat owned by a social housing organisation.
The couple are proposing to lease her property back to Threshold.
Though they would not profit from the deal, Threshold would pay mortgage, gas servicing contracts, building insurance and tax on the house.
Mrs Sawyer-Smith allegedly accepted two cash donations from a resident at Jubilee House, a home for elderly homeless people, which Mr Derieg and Mr Niester say is against the charity’s rules. This is denied by Mr Davies.
Mrs Sawyer-Smith’s company was awarded a contract for training staff which the workers say they did not need and was available for free through the council. This was also denied by Mr Davies, who said it had been proved beyond doubt that the local authority could not provide the course.
The outreach workers have been backed by a former trustee who confirmed their version of events. Their discontent stems from the failed attempt by the old trustees to oust the executives and restructure the charity.
Mr Derieg, 49, said: “The charity didn't need two senior executives for one thing and the old trustees felt they had been coasting along for too long. We do not do this lightly but we have tried every other means and, after hitting a brick wall at every attempt, we feel it is time to challenge the senior management. “Threshold has some fantastic staff, including the outstanding Culvery Court resettlement team, but they are being let down by the people at the top.
“Many of the outreach workers before us left their jobs after just months in what we have found to be highly-pressurised roles.
“We stayed because we have found strength as a unit but we have exhausted every effort to try and stop things we do not feel are morally defensible.”
The workers have lodged formal complaints through the charity’s whistleblowing procedure but say their grievances were ignored and claim they were paired up with other staff to do jobs they had previously undertaken alone, had their hours changed and were given monthly supervision meetings.
Mr Derieg is one of the charity’s most experienced hands.
He first started work with Threshold in 1997 as a part-time hostel worker, staying in the role for two years before returning in 2008.
His CV also includes work protecting refugees’ human rights with Medicines Sans Frontieres and the Balkans Peace Team, a role which took him to Bosnia.
The former aid worker, who was labelled “truculent and insubordinate” by Mr Smith in a letter replying to his concerns, is accused of leaking details of an investigation by Mrs Pratt which appeared in the Adver on May 14. The former bullying helpline chief's company, HR & Diversity Management, is understood to have been hired again to investigate.
The workers accept they could face even greater censure after speaking to the Adver.
“They’ve adamantly refused to speak to us directly,” Mr Derieg said.
“I have raised this through the whistleblowing procedure and through Phil Smith directly, but to no avail. We are not the only members who feel this way but we are strong enough to face the consequences of speaking publicly in a final effort to try and change an otherwise outstanding charity”
Mr Niester, 39, added: “The reason they haven’t broken myself and James is that we are united as a team. We do think differently but the issues we agree on are the same.
“A married couple is running a charity and we believe there are clear conflicts of interest in the decisions they have made.
“This is not about the staff as they’re the ones who have chipped in and kept this charity going. But we believe what is taking place at Threshold needs to be challenged.”