February 06, 2015

Staffordshire University whistleblower accuses sports centre staff of fraud and corruption

A whistleblower who accused university sports centre staff of corruption and fraud has won legal claims against her former employers.

Sports manager Fiona Roberts accused Staffordshire University staff of a string of wrongdoings costing thousands of pounds.
She claimed that:
  •  Staff pocketed money from deleted sports bookings
  •  Staff took equipment to moonlight as fitness coaches
  •  10p coins were going missing from lockers
  •  There were discrepancies with vending machine cash
  •  University equipment was sold on Facebook
Ms Roberts told a previous Birmingham employment tribunal hearing that there was a “culture of staff taking what they could and of being proud of being able to steal money.”

The allegations were made as Ms Roberts accused the university of unfair treatment which caused her to resign, prompting a legal claim for constructive unfair dismissal. She also claimed damages for breach of contract.

Ms Roberts, 47, joined the university in 2000 and was sports manager both for the university’s campus at Stafford and at the Sir Stanley Matthews university sports campus at Stoke-on-Trent. In a witness statement she said: “It came to my notice that sports equipment belonging to the university was missing and I suspected two staff members whom I believed were using the equipment to provide fitness coaching for their own private gain.

“I made the management aware of the situation.”

The tribunal was told in Ms Roberts’ statement that the bookings system was allegedly abused by staff. Bookings were deleted and the money pocketed by staff who were later suspended, she claimed.
But the university opposed her legal claims, and accused her of failing to act when “wrongdoing” issues were brought to her attention.

“She should have known something was amiss when the sports centre income for August and September in 2013 was £28,000 down against the budget,” university bosses said.

Ms Roberts denied that she had not responded.

“There was a knee jerk reaction to suspend me without considering my long service and the fact that I brought wrongdoings to the attention of the management,” she said.

And last week tribunal judge Mr David Dimbylow agreed, ruling that her claims for constructive unfair dismissal and damages were both well-founded and successful.

”I concluded that the claimant had undertaken no action which was culpable or blameworthy,” he said.

“She did not cause, or contribute to, her losing her job and it would not be just or equitable to reduce any award. We go on to state, contrary to the respondent’s assertions, that there was no repudiatory conduct on part of the claimant.”

Mr Dimbylow added that Ms Roberts’ suspension related to a need for a full and formal investigation into the possible misuse of the booking system and serious allegations of potential fraud and breach of professional responsibility.

“As we understand it, two employees who were dismissed were involved in the competing gym business and the misuse of cash,” said Mr Dimyblow.

A tribunal hearing to announce the amount of the award to be granted, did not take place. A tribunal spokesman said later: “It appears a settlement may have been reached in private prior to the hearing.”



I am always glad to see victims achieve some level of redress. From the information presented it would appear that the victim was treated appallingly- we just cannot deduce what was management's motivation in regard to the two parties with their "hand in the till".

A fall of 28k in expected profit is a significant potential theft- certainly enough to necessitate police involvement. It is therefore significant that the university opposed her legal claims, and accused her of failing to act when “wrongdoing” issues were brought to her attention i.e. arguing “She should have known something was amiss when the sports centre income for August and September in 2013 was £28,000 down against the budget,” as her university bosses argued.

In my experience it is not unusual for management to turn the issue back on the victim if they have something to hide e.g. lax oversight, deeper crimes which they want to keep unpublicized etc.

This case raises wider issues as to the vulnerability of academics and academic-related (or support) staff especially in regard to handling of money, making mileage or other expenses claims, if management decide the wish to eliminate the staff member.

All of these transactions depend on some level of good-will and it is easy for staff to make minor mistakes that could have major legal ramifications. Staff who do a great deal of driving for their job are vulnerable if a probing manager decides to make a proof test of days and dates, and costs incurred. I also know of cases where staff were told to falsely claim un-travelled mileage in lieu of other expenses because it looked better on the budget figures, thus dragging staff into institutional fraud in order to get their own expenses reimbursed. I also know of cases where temporary staff were paid part-time teaching hours with fake mileage reimbursement, sometimes to sums in excess of £10k because a budget did not exist to pay them properly as part-time salary.

Staff are very vulnerable to becoming culprits in institutional fraud, and I would go as far as to say that at least 50% of staff on zero-hours contracts (ZHCs) or part-time hours have at some time been paid in this un-orthodox and potentially illegal way, just to suit college budget-holders.

Some of our greatest universities who can certainly afford to do better by their temporary staff, have an institutional culture of "under the table", irregular or plainly under-hand payments to a temporary staff body who actually deliver the majority of the institution's entire teaching. The truth is that the £60 fee a year student may be tutored by someone being paid in illegal mileage payments for budget convenience, tax and labour rights avoidance and because it looks better on the books. I was once offered a year-long contract at a very prestigious college which was renumerated by a series of mileage claims. I argued that this was wrong and deprived me of several employment rights- and luckily won my case, but I know of many others who accepted such illegal payments for years.

This case raises wider issues of institutional fraud and how staff can be bullied into arrangements which are not legal.

Anonymous said...

Kingston University had a practice of not replacing staff on long term sick leave, even though they were compensated for their loss of staffing through the system of sickness benefits. Instead, they overloaded remaining staff and pocketed the money.