07/01/2016 16:28 GMT | Updated 07/01/2017 05:12 GMT

Executive Claims She Was Sacked By Co-Op After Blowing Whistle On Malpractice

A senior executive has launched a £5 million damages battle against the Co-op Group, claiming she was unfairly sacked after blowing the whistle on corporate malpractice at the troubled organisation.

At an employment tribunal hearing in Manchester, Kathleen Harmeston, the former group procurement director, claimed she was subjected to "a deliberate campaign to comprehensively disparage my reputation" after she made public interest disclosures.

But the tribunal also heard that Ms Harmeston had left her previous job as head of procurement at the Royal Mail while a consultancy firm she had used - Silver Lining Partners (SLP) - had been under under investigation amid allegations by a Royal Mail whistle blower that it had been "fleecing" the postal giant.

And questioned by Andrew Burns QC, representing the Co-op, the claimant agreed she had not told her new employers about the matter and that she had later employed SLP to work at the Co-op. The Co-op alleges this was done even though she did not have the authority to do so.

Ms Harmeston was head-hunted by the Co-op Group to improve procurement practice within the crisis-hit business and achieve substantial savings, the hearing was told.

In her witness statement, she said that having taken up the role on April 1, 2014, she believed she had "at all times acted with the utmost integrity" and had "always acted in the best interests of the respondent (the Co-op Group)".

Her statement added: "The respondent's attitude towards me changed in a negative way following the making of those protected disclosures and the respondent initiated a disciplinary process against me, claiming that the trigger for the commencement of that disciplinary process was the receipt by the respondent of an anonymous whistle-blowing complaint which I contend contained a number of false statements."

She claimed that her suspension from work on June 16, 2014, was "disproportionate in terms of the nature of the issues presented to me and antithetical with regard to how such allegations and potential issues should be addressed". 

She added that her dismissal "could lead one to believe that I had committed some very serious act or acts" and described it as humiliating.

The statement said: "It is difficult for me to escape the conclusion that the respondent embarked upon a deliberate campaign to comprehensively disparage my reputation with staff, suppliers and within the Executive Search community, seeking to neutralise the impact of my disclosures and to utterly destroy my hard-won reputation and career."

Ms Harmeston said it was a "total coincidence" she left Royal Mail while the activities of SLP were being investigated by auditors and outside security firm, Kroll.

She said there was "no case to answer" against SLP, which she claimed had saved Royal Mail money, and she described the firm as "competent change agents". 

However, Royal Mail's own investigation concluded SLP did not have the competence to do the work they were asked to and the contract was terminated, the hearing was told.