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THRESHOLD: Conflict of interests is denied over links to firm
A HOMELESS charity has again denied a conflict of interests after it emerged two of its senior figures have links to a consultancy firm which has been paid to provide human resources advice.
Threshold Housing Link has hired HR and Diversity Management, run by Christine Pratt, to help and advise management during investigations of staff accused of misdemeanours.
Phil Smith, operations director, and David Price, a trustee, were previously trustees at the former National Bullying Helpline charity, which was also run by Mrs Pratt. A spokeswoman for the Charity Commission said: “Phil Smith and David Price were co-opted as trustees of the National Bullying Helpline from March 2010.”
Mr Smith had said HR and Diversity Management, which was paid £1,800 for an investigation in February, was used to ensure “neutrality” in investigations.
But two members of staff, James Derieg and Tony Niester, questioned the use of the Swindon-based company as they raised concerns about conflicts of interests, financial arrangements and disciplinary procedures. These are refuted by the managers and trustees of the charity.
Mr Niester said: “Christine Pratt has been called in and, while she is meant to be neutral, she once had a line on her website which said she was working in partnership with Cher Sawyer-Smith. The question is why are these investigations needed and why can’t they be carried out by the management or trustees?”
HR and Diversity Management charged £50 an hour for an investigation in February, which resulted in a worker being dismissed.
Mrs Pratt was also called in to help with a disciplinary process which involved a grievance hearing being held in February 2007. An employee, Laurence Kelly, was found to have breached charity policy by bullying Cher Sawyer-Smith, now chief executive officer. But the old board of trustees, who have since resigned, intervened and overturned the decision.
Mrs Pratt was involved in a media storm in 2010 after claiming that the helpline had taken calls from 10 Downing Street. Though she was found not to have breached confidentiality rules by the Information Commissioner, the Charity Commission concluded last month that she had put personal information at risk.
Mr Smith defended his role on both charities as well as the record of the bullying helpline. He said: “When the National Bullying Helpline got into trouble I was approached over whether I could assist because I sincerely believe in the work I do.
“There was a minister who went on TV and said there was no bullying going on but has since written a book saying there was bullying going on – that shows how honest that was. “I became a trustee for the bullying helpline to try and help them get out of the situation they found themselves in and I think we worked well together. Unfortunately it just wasn’t going to happen and it was agreed the bullying helpline was going to shut down as a charity. “Both David Price and I came in to help sort out the issue and close the charity down as a legal entity. We weren’t involved in the previous dispute.”
Mr Smith said the investigation in February involved two people who Mrs Pratt did not know.
“She produced a very good report and that was taken further by the disciplinary panel,” he said. “That was her role, it was neutral.”
Mr Smith also defended the fees that have been paid to Mrs Pratt’s company.
He said: “HR consultants aren’t cheap. As a favour to the charity she has carried out this very good work at a reduced rate.”
Chairman of trustees Trevor Davies also defended the use of Mrs Pratt’s company.
He said: “The advice that she has given is employment advice.
“She didn’t participate in any decisions. There’s never been any problems about the advice. Phil might have had dealings with her in the past but that doesn’t negate the objectivity of her views because she doesn’t make any decisions – she tells you what the rules are.
“She’s there as much to tell the employees what the rules are as the employer.
“As far as I’m concerned she’s neutral, I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
The helpline was de-registered as a charity in 2011 but has been kept going by Mrs Pratt and her husband David. Mrs Pratt declined to comment.