ALMO race discrimination case puts council in the dock

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By Rhiannon Bury of Inside Housing, 17 June 2011: An arm’s-length management organisation employee has told an employment tribunal that he faced repeated racial discrimination from colleagues over a seven-year period, between 2003 and 2010, in a landmark legal case.

Michael Woodhouse, a planning officer at West North West Homes, is pursuing a case against Leeds Council, claiming he was racially abused by colleagues and that the council did nothing to help him.

The case is significant because a series of preliminary rulings in the run-up to the tribunal made it clear that councils count as the employer of ALMO staff for legal purposes. In earlier hearings, Leeds Council had claimed the ALMO should be regarded as his employer.

Mr Woodhouse, 41, who is black, started working for the council in 1992 and moved to West North West Homes in 2003. In a separate development since proceedings began,

Mr Woodhouse was sacked from his job in December 2010 and is now also bringing a case of unfair dismissal against Leeds Council.

Under cross-examination by lawyers in Leeds last week, Mr Woodhouse claimed he was treated differently by senior members of staff because of his colour. He alleged that a senior manager left a meeting when Mr Woodhouse turned up unexpectedly, and that he was singled out for criticism because of his colour.

‘I compare myself to the rest of the team and the only difference I can see is my colour,’ Mr Woodhouse told the tribunal. ‘[The ALMO] has been denying that there’s a problem.’ He alleged that members of staff said that the only reason he got his job was because he was black.

‘[A senior member of staff] stood up, pointed his finger at me from across the desk and said “you’ve got an attitude problem”,’ he said. Mr Woodhouse said the context in which this was said and the phrase itself had negative racial connotations.

ALMO employee Carol Brook, a repairs and support co-ordinator, also faced cross-examination last Friday. She broke down as she was questioned by Mr Woodhouse’s lawyer about her treatment of Mr Woodhouse during a telephone call.

Ms Brooks accused Mr Woodhouse of being aggressive and angry during a call to her about a repair to an ALMO home in 2008. She later filed a complaint against him, but denied knowing his race, or that his race had affected her decision to pursue a complaint. ‘Had I known his race I wouldn’t have treated him any differently,’ she said. ‘He sounded very angry and he wouldn’t let me speak [on the phone]. He was browbeating.’

The outcome of the case is expected by the end of the month.

Sue Kelly, employment partner at law firm Winckworth Sherwood, said the fact that the case had reached tribunal stage was quite unusual, and that defending the case would have cost the ALMO ‘tens of thousands’ of pounds.

David Sorensen, Partner at Morrish Solicitors, is the solicitor for Mr Michael Woodhouse, a member of Unite the Union.

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