United Kingdom

Lord Winston sacked 'whistleblower' boss of own medical charity

The former boss of a medical charity claims that her employer, Lord Winston, sacked her after she raised concerns over alleged wrongdoing, a tribunal has heard.

Dyan Sterling, former chief executive officer of the Genesis Research Trust, is suing IVF pioneer Lord Winston after he announced plans at a board meeting to make her redundant.

The decision came just six hours after she had warned that the charity was in danger of breaking the law.

Sterling claims that charity trustees based at Imperial College London were reluctant to declare conflicts of interest after being handed £2.3million in donations.

Dyan Sterling, former chief executive officer of the Genesis Research Trust, is suing IVF pioneer Lord Winston (pictured) after he announced plans at a board meeting to make her redundant

The former CEO, who earned £50,000 more than the next highest-earning employee, claims she was being 'punished' for whistleblowing. 

However, Professor Lord Winston denies the allegation and says the redundancy was part of a cost cutting plan to secure the future of the charity.

The central London Employment tribunal was told that the charity was looking at a £500,000 shortfall in funding and needed to make cuts.

In a witness statement Lord Winston said at a meeting with the Trustees he noted the charity had been losing money for some time.

Ms Sterling had failed to resolve the situation over the last two years, the Covid-19 pandemic was exacerbating the situation and the gift was unlikely to materially reduce the ongoing deficit.

A London tribunal heard that in spring this year, Lord Winston's charity successfully bid for funds from the Angela Pattman Scholarship Fund.

The fund supplies scholarships for undergraduate medical students at Imperial College London.

However, the Genesis Research Trust, which funds research into reproductive health such as miscarriage, stillbirth and premature birth, only funded postgraduate research and had no history of working with undergraduates. 

The trust was founded in 1978 and Lord Winston has been chairman since 1988.

Fearing that Imperial College London might sue for the funds because they were better entitled to it, the trustees considered sending the money directly to the college. 

On July 13, responding to the potential move, Sterling sent Lord Winston a letter saying that the trustees would potentially breach charity law if they went ahead with their plan and that there were serious compliance issues.

She insisted on an independent review and that the Charity Commission be involved, but six hours later Lord Winston submitted a proposal for a board meeting to make Sterling redundant.

Sterling requested the meeting be postponed but it went ahead without her and no minutes were taken for the meeting.

Lord Winston refused an internal investigation after Sterling complained and he said her allegations were 'without foundation or merit'.

When Sterling raised a second grievance she received no response.

One of the Trustees, Mrs Linda Loftus, conducted a redundancy consultation meeting on 30 July 2020, the preliminary hearing was told. 

She was then dismissed by email last month without a final redundancy consultation meeting which left staff with no boss to approve management issues such as payments or holidays.

The central London Employment tribunal (pictured) was told that the charity was looking at a £500,000 shortfall in funding and needed to make cuts

The trust provided her with no notice period, and she was not asked to undertake a handover, there was no leaving-do and none of the trustees said goodbye to her.

Ms Sterling said none of the circumstances surrounding her departure were consistent with a normal redundancy process. 

Office manager Stephen Button sent her e-mails in which he stated: 'I'm sorry to say that Robert Winston asked for the closure of your account last week.

'I'm also even sorrier to say that he has made it quite plain I'm not able to discuss anything with you in the current situation. I'm not able to answer any questions unless directed by the Trustees.'

Ms Sterling said it was clearly at odds with the contention she was simply being made redundant as the Charity was being restructured.

The charity says it was facing a financial crisis which had been ongoing for years. The redundancy exercise was genuine and Ms Sterling was by far the most expensive employee.

It was in their interests to dismiss her quickly before she had two years' qualifying service and could bring a claim for unfair dismissal. 

Explaining the redundancy, Lord Winston said: 'This means the Trust would heavily reduce its staff, administration and expenses by cutting down on external activities and events, where possible, and having less involved fundraising and publicity drives.'   

To date Ms Sterling is the only employee to have been dismissed by the charity.

Ms Sterling is claiming unfair dismissal, automatic unfair dismissal as a result of making a protected disclosure and of protected disclosure detriment against both the charity and Lord Winston. 

In a preliminary hearing, the tribunal concluded that it was likely Ms Sterling had been 'singled out' but evidence also suggests there was a 'genuine redundancy situation' prior to her dismissal.

A judgement from the tribunal's hearing read: 'Professor Lord Winston contends that Ms Sterling was dismissed for the potentially fair reason of redundancy.

'Ms Sterling claims that the redundancy was a sham, and that she was not dismissed by reason of redundancy but because of her alleged disclosure.'

A London tribunal is due to make a final ruling at an upcoming four-day hearing.

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