Fears of volunteer walk out at Northampton advice agency over 'bullying' investigation

Chief executive of Northampton's citizen's advice bureau was set to return to work this week after serving a suspension - though staff had concerns about the measures in place for his return.
Chief executive of Northampton's citizen's advice bureau was set to return to work this week after serving a suspension - though staff had concerns about the measures in place for his return.

Northampton’s Citizen’s Advice Bureau staff and volunteers say they are on the verge of a walk-out amid bullying claims that saw the branch’s chief executive and deputy suspended.

The Chronicle & Echo can reveal branch CEO Martin Lord and his deputy Lisander Keizer-Whiby were given six-week suspensions in March over bullying concerns made by both paid and unpaid workers at the organisation.

The nature of the concerns is not known officially, but both bosses’ planned return to the office in Mercers Row yesterday (April 19) was delayed.

The Chron has learned staff and volunteers were unhappy with the recommendations of an independent investigation into the bullying claims and were worried about the two bosses returning to work.

Some 25 staff and volunteers even signed a vote of no confidence against the local bureau’s board of trustees over the way their complaints were handled.

An email to the trust by its volunteer representative Claire Booth this week, also posed a series of questions about the return of Mr Lord and his deputy.

She asked: “What reassurances can you give us that you will have sufficient measures in place to ensure that bullying and harassment does not take place in the future?

“Who is going to provide the day-to-day supervision that we feel would be needed?

Another read: “We understand that Martin and Lisander have been asked to apologise to staff who have put in complaints/grievances.

“What if these are not accepted or those staff refuse a face to face meeting because they do not feel they can attend because of the stress if will involve?

It went on to say that all of the volunteers there were “currently considering their future with the bureau.”

The largely grant-funded bureau helps hundreds of Northampton residents with advice over debts, benefits, housing and more each year.

A signed statement by Mr Lord and chair of the board Pam Law circulated this week stated that Mr Lord had overseen a period of rapid growth at the local bureau.

But it conceded the independent investigation into bullying claims should have been "handled differently".

"Following the independent report Martin is acutely aware that his manner with staff and volunteers in some circumstances has fallen short of the quality of interaction he strives for,” it read.

However, trustees of the Central and East Northamptonshire Citizen’s Advice Bureau (CENCAB) have backed their decision to allow Mr Lord and Ms Keizer-Whiby to return.

It read: “It’s important to stress to people who use our services that Citizens Advice Central and East Northamptonshire is open as usual.”

“In response to grievances raised by some of the staff and volunteers, we took action and an independent investigator was asked to look into the situation.

“They set out recommendations that were welcomed and will now be followed by the board of trustees.

“We have listened to the concerns brought to our attention and will support the team here at CENCAB to conclude this matter and allow them to continue to provide expert advice to our clients.”