Sacked Council Officer Blamed Grenfell Trauma for Absences

Rachael Wright-Turner goes to employment tribunal after losing six figure salary

Grenfell Tower
Grenfell Tower. Picture: Reach/Darren Pepe

A council officer who suffered flashbacks after helping in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower fire said she had been concerned about her new job at Hammersmith and Fulham council.

Rachael Wright-Turner told an employment tribunal she was not paranoid when she feared for her job after taking time off sick because “what I was worried about actually transpired”.

“I wouldn’t describe it as paranoia when that was happening,” she said.

She told the tribunal she was feeling “insecure” in May 2018, when she was suffering from anxiety and off work sick.

She was dismissed from her £127,000-a-year job as director of public services at Hammersmith and Fulham council after taking time off sick, suffering from anxiety.

Ms Wright-Turner had served as the director of commissioning of children’s services for Kensington and Chelsea, Westminster and Hammersmith and Fulham councils for three years as part of its tri-borough arrangements.

She was working 100 hours a week in the aftermath of the fatal fire at Grenfell Tower in 2017 and accrued £30,000 in overtime.

She joined Hammersmith and Fulham Council in November 2017 as the director of public services reform. Her appointment was deferred whilst she worked at Grenfell and she did not want to leave her role helping at Grenfell, the tribunal heard.

The £127,000-a-year role offered the same salary as her previous salary at Kensington and Chelsea but was on the senior management team.

She told the tribunal “I did not see it as a step up,” and agreed she was told by the council’s chief executive Kim Smith it would be a high pressure role, with high expectations.

“I assured her I could deliver and I did deliver,” Ms Wright-Turner told the employment tribunal.

Texts read out to the tribunal revealed that Ms Wright-Turner was “reluctant” to join Hammersmith and Fulham Council and was looking for interim posts instead. She contacted Westminster City Council’s chief executive Stuart Love, telling him she wanted to move away from London entirely.

However she joined Hammersmith and Fulham and told the tribunal, “I did give them a chance”.

The hearing held online because of Covid restrictions, was told how Ms Wright-Turner had flashbacks after dealing with the aftermath of Grenfell.

She had also been diagnosed with ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), which she disclosed on an occupational health form.

At that time she also said she had PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) but did not believe it impaired her job, the tribunal heard. She had private counselling to help her deal with it.

She told the tribunal she did not tell the council’s chief executive about her PTSD but she did not experience it at first.

In a letter written in May 2018, her GP described her suffering “acute anxiety and panic attacks” and she had been off work for the past month.

During the hearing she rejected claims she was “overpaying” people she recruited to join her team at Hammersmith and Fulham Council.

She was cross examined about a series of texts to and from her were read out at an employment tribunal.

Dijen Basu, QC, for the council, asked her why one candidate’s salary was increased by £2,000 although they had already accepted the lower offer.

Ms Wright-Turner said she reviewed the candidate’s “spinal points” to make sure they “were consistent with different people’s levels of experience so I increased the offer”.

She added, “The reason I increased it was she would not have stayed long if she had got there and found others were paid more than her.”

Ms Wright-Turner said there were more vacancies than applicants and she was trying to get the best candidates.

At one point the tribunal heard the costs of staffing the team were £0.5m over budget and she was warned to reconsider the costs.

In another message to a contact she hoped to recruit, she wrote, “Don’t worry about interview . I can blag it with my wonderful HR team.”

Ms Wright-Turner told the tribunal, “This was an example of me canvassing someone, she did not want to proceed. Even that wasn’t enough to tempt her to LBHF, which was LBHF’s loss I have to say.”

The tribunal also heard a message to a junior team member about the cabinet member for adult health and social care, councillor Ben Coleman, who she worked with.

She wrote, “He’s a little boy, he just needs to be adored and not challenged by bad mummies taking his toys away.”

She was asked if this was an appropriate way to talk about a councillor and told the tribunal “Maybe not, I was helping a colleague in her way of approaching his behaviour.”

She added, “Probably not appropriate but it made sense to me at the time.”

She explained she had known the councillor for several years and “I don’t think either of us enjoyed each other’s company”.

The tribunal also heard that the council’s chief executive, Kim Smith, hugged her at a meeting on her first day at work after she was tearful after she had talked about how Grenfell affected her. Ms Smith had also shared a traumatic experience of her own.

Ms Wright-Turner claimed Ms Smith also told her at that meeting “she did not regard me as a team player”.

That same day she did not attend a meeting with Councillor Coleman and Ms Smith and told the tribunal she was not informed of it in advance.

When she was told about it she stayed in another meeting instead. She rejected the suggestion that she “stood up” in the other meeting and said Ms Smith could have told her about it when they spoke earlier

The 14 day hearing continues.

Julia Gregory - Local Democracy Reporter

April 16, 2021