Whistleblowers: Equality claim disputed

March 30, 2001

Equality claim disputed

Many staff in a sector notorious for its record on disability employment issues will be keen to congratulate the College of Ripon and York St John. It was awarded a prestigious "disability symbol" from the Employment Service (ES), given to employers that have demonstrated a commitment to disability equality.

But one academic at Ripon and York, Claire Hobbs, who is one of a small minority of disabled academics in higher education, has been less quick to praise her bosses. Dr Hobbs, who has multiple disabilities including muscle weaknesses and a hearing impairment, is engaged in an employment dispute with the college, in which she claims she has been discriminated against under the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act.

When faced with Dr Hobbs's allegations, Ripon and York apparently ignored its earlier acknowledgement of her disability and argued that she was not disabled. But the Leeds employment tribunal gave the argument short shrift in a hearing last March. It emerged that the college had not only previously accepted Dr Hobbs's disability under the terms of the act, it had also been claiming financial and material support for Dr Hobbs under the Department for Education and Employment's access to work scheme.

The tribunal ruled that Dr Hobbs is disabled and that her case should proceed. But the college lodged an appeal, which prevented a hearing due last summer.

Lecturers' union Natfhe has called on the college to stop using the disability symbol, and has asked the ES withdraw it. But the ES has confirmed that an employer trying to retrospectively deny an employee's disability, will not necessarily hamper its achievement of the useful marketing tool of a disability-friendly badge.

Madeleine Wood, policy adviser at the ES, confirmed the service was aware of the outstanding case when it awarded the symbol to Ripon and York. She said an employer could not be barred from the scheme just because of "a gripe by one member of staff". She said there could be no review of the award until Dr Hobbs's case was complete.

A spokeswoman for the college said: "The college can confirm that the Employment Service was aware of this case, and subsequent tribunal claim, during discussions and prior to achievement of Disability Symbol User... The College believes that it continues to fully meet the requirements of the Employment Service."

Scholar faces exclusion from RAE

Sheffield Hallam University professor Cedric Pugh is set to face the indignity of becoming perhaps the only active international scholar in the United Kingdom whose work will not be submitted for the 2001 research assessment exercise. He also happens to be one of the few disabled academics to hold a British chair. An employment tribunal, in which Professor Pugh is claiming disability discrimination, will seek to establish whether these two facts are linked.

Earlier this year, Professor Pugh, a researcher on urban studies, was told by his school's director, Elizabeth Rick, that his work would be excluded from the two key assessment units relevant to his field:

"The reason for the decision is that your work... is not related to the key research themes developed from the body of work in the unit of assessment," she said.

Lecturers' union Natfhe believes that Professor Pugh's exclusion amounts to victimisation, linked with a dispute over alleged disability discrimination. His complaint has been added to a file submitted to the Sheffield employment tribunal, which last week rejected an attempt by Hallam to have the case quashed. This week, a university spokeswoman raised hopes that his work may be submitted: "No decision has been taken as to the work to be submitted for the RAE by the university... It is simply not the case that a decision has been taken to exclude Professor Pugh."

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