Two women have won a three-year legal battle against the board of a north London-based New Deal for Communities project which sacked them when they started questioning some of its shady multi-million pound dealings in tax payer's money.
A High Court judge has quashed a decision by the management board of The Bridge, in Seven Sisters, in 2004, that the former chair and vice-chair of its finance committee be permanently removed from office because they 'breached' its code of conduct. He also said that they could stand for re-election to get their old jobs back.
The Bridge is responsible via Haringey Council, in whose borough it is based, to the Government Office for London for injecting £50 million of government and European regeneration funds into impoverished south Tottenham. Local Liberal-Democrat MP Lynne Featherstone, who represents Hornsey and Wood Green, vowed this week to ask embarrassing questions in the House of Commons, as a result of the court victory of the two women.
As non-salaried officers of The Bridge, Joyce Oyeyi-Effiong and Ibiola Campbell raised questions when the board was asked to spend £3.8 million for a lease on a building called The Laurels, because its members were never shown any details of the document. The building is now being rented by Haringey's National Health Service Primary Care Trust.
Oyeyi-Effiong and Campbell also queried the movement of millions of pounds of Bridge New Deal money to Haringey council accounts without proper authorisation, the spending of £259,0000 on a study for the Haringey Chamber of Commerce, of which no final report was ever issued , and many other financial actions .
The Bridge New Deal board claimed it acted after receiving letters of complaint about the alleged "aggressive" and "disruptive" behaviour of Oyeyi-Effiong and Campbell, which chairman Lorne Horsford described as "bringing the programme into disrepute". And on 22nd September it voted to remove them permanently from the board, after deciding not to allow them to call witnesses .
David Warwick, chief executive of Haringey council, the Bridge NDC's "accountable body", was barred by a court from the board's disciplinary meeting, on an application by Oyeyi-Effiong and Campbell, but a Government Office for London (GOL) observer was there. A month later GOL received a petition signed by 600 Tottenham residents asking for The Bridge's accounts to be examined. But the British parliament was subsequently assured, on April 4, 2005, on behalf of GOL's John Prescott, the deputy prime minister, that his office remained "satisfied that the expulsions were handled fairly".
The two women applied to the High Court for a judicial review of the sacking, and were initially turned down. They appealed, and after a court hearing in February, Mr Justice Keith quashed the Bridge New Deal board's sacking. His judgement, says that at no time did the board fairly consider the allegations against the two women.
Nor did the board give any indication of the rules of the disciplinary hearing involving the two women before holding it. And when they withdrew to consider their decision, they did not ask themselves if the pair had actually done the things complained of.
Mr Justice Keith dismissed claims by the board's barrister, who was briefed by Haringey council's legal department, that everything had been in order, and said that it might well be possible for the pair to stand for election as community representatives again.
Cllr Wayne Hoban, Liberal Democrat deputy leader and spokesman on regeneration, has repeatedly challenged Labour-run Haringey council on the questions raised by Oyeyi-Effiong and Campbell. He said this week: "Joyce and Ibi have fought hard for this legal judgement, which says they were wrongly sacked. I 'm sure the Bridge board did it because it wanted to dodge awkward questions about its finances."
"I have been raising the same points with Haringey council, the Bridge's "accountable body", for years, and I have been thwarted at every turn. I have never seen properly audited accounts , and am now told that, as an "unincorporated association", it does not have to produce any."
"It is scandalous that huge sums of government money can be dished out with so little proper control. This judgement demands an independent forensic audit of Bridge NDC accounts."
Haringey MP Lynne Featherstone said this week: "What has happened to Joyce and Ibi is a travesty. These two brave women were doing their job properly - and asking totally appropriate questions. The whole move against them stinks. Now they are vindicated, the tables should be turned and it must be GOL , John Prescott and Haringey Council in the dock."
"I will be putting down parliamentary questions to find out why GOL lacks more effective controls on the expenditure of millions of pounds of tax-payers money, and backing Cllr Hoban's call for an independent forensic audit ."
Oyeyi-Effiong, said: "We are naturally very pleased that the court has declared that our sacking was improper, and has said that we are free to seek re-election."
"We are now taking legal advice about the investigation of our actual complaints. The judge was not asked to examine this issue, but he has given us full permission to raise the matter again. So we intend to pursue the same questions about financial probity that the board (of The Bridge) was so keen to suppress by
sacking us. "
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