Branch Secretary :

Unite calls on St Mungo's CEO to withdraw false statements

St Mungo’s: intransigent leadership failing to learn lessons of deportation scandal


The intransigent leadership of the homelessness agency St Mungo’s are still failing to learn the full lessons of their involvement in illegal deportations of rough sleepers some years ago.


Unite is calling on St Mungo’s CEO Steve Douglas to withdraw his false suggestion that Unite has claimed that the organisation is officially supporting the government position on deportation of rough sleepers. In fact, Unite has warned that gross misconduct charges against a Unite rep who called out bullying by senior managers shows that the organisation has still not understood the dangers that flow from a failure to listen to their staff and  governance remains deeply flawed with dangerous implications for service users.  


Unite’s regional officer wrote to Mr. Douglas in June calling on him to stop peddling ‘untruths’ about Unite and the dispute. This appeal would appear to have fallen on deaf ears making serious negotiation difficult. Repeated attempts to discuss concerns with board members have so far been met with a flat refusal to engage.


Unite repeatedly warned


Here is text from a leaflet distributed during the strike which we presume Mr Douglas has in mind, “A well-known example of failure of leadership in St Mungo’s was the organisation's work with the Home Office in deporting rough sleepers which, as Unite repeatedly warned, was found to be unlawful. The leadership conducted an internal review which fails to mention warnings from the union, finds no St Mungo’s managers responsible, and simply claims that they were not aware of the actions of the organisation that they lead. Taking this position at face value: why were they not aware? There were certainly staff deeply troubled at the unethical behaviour of St Mungo’s. Given the justified fear retribution if they spoke out, they chose to raise their concerns through Unite.” 


In the current dispute a staff member has been threatened with losing his job in contravention of the union recognition agreement and ACAS guidance and is charged with raising a grievance about bullying by senior managers.


Members determined


Unite has noted that, then as now, St Mungo’s denied that it shared confidential client information with the Home Office, although these earlier denials were subsequently found to be hollow. We have also reported an investigation by Liberty suggesting that some agencies that had publicly opposed the government’s current policy on deportation had, in fact cooperated. St Mungo’s was not among the agencies named by Liberty. We can add that many of our members are absolutely determined not to allow St Mungo’s to go down this disgraceful path again.


Mr Douglas makes the false claim about Unite in correspondence with councillors who have inquired about the current dispute in St Mungo’s. Unite has pointed out that St Mungo’s actions can only contribute to a dangerous climate in which workers feel unable to call out unethical or dangerous practices. The suspension has now lasted for approaching nine months and there has been a twelve-week solidarity strike by twelve of his colleagues. Disappointingly Mr Douglas’s response is a further example of St Mungo’s failing to address the very serious concerns raised by members in St Mungo’s.


Unethical and damaging


Unite warned management, both across the negotiating table and in public statements that their actions were unethical and would be damaging to St Mungo’s reputation. Just as they now refuse to accept bullying is a collective issue, management said that they would not engage with Unite on the question because it was not a ‘terms and conditions’ matter.


Our negotiators were also told that management found themselves ‘between’ people like ‘you’ and Daily Mail readers, an ambiguous statement at best. Management also warned us of the danger of losing contracts with councils such as Westminster. At the time we observed that management had lost its ethical compass.


False claims


The St Mungo’s internal review of the deportation scandal makes no reference to Unite's repeated warnings and does not consider the question of why staff did not feel able to speak out as concerned individuals. Unite is on record as making all these points and it is hugely regrettable that Steve Douglas continues to make false claims while refusing to look at our concerns on the lessons of the deportation scandal and repeating similar errors today in relation to bullying.


Once again, St Mungo’s refuses to hear what Unite is telling them and the board absent themselves. The repeated refusal of the board to discuss very serious allegations about their senior management team suggests there has not been a learning curve since their mishandling of the deportation scandal.


Grudging admissions


Corporate Watch, who were responsible for the initial exposure of St Mungo’s role in the scandal made this assessment the internal review, 


“Buried in the review are a number of grudging admissions: that the charity shared information without consent; that rough sleepers were detained and deported as a result; and that St. Mungo’s misled campaigners about information sharing with the Home Office. 

The review reveals that until 2016 working with ICE teams ‘was considered to be good practice in the sector [if] other efforts to engage the individual to find routes off the streets had failed and/or there was a risk of significant harm’. Charity managers saw collaboration with the Home Office as part of an ‘assertive outreach’ approach. 

The spurious logic behind this strategy was that being threatened with deportation would ‘encourage’ homeless people to leave the streets. 

The St. Mungo’s review shows how, in July 2016, charity managers decided to switch from direct to ‘arms-length’ information sharing: ‘information [to] be provided to the Home Office by local authorities (not St Mungo’s & thus self-safeguarding). The local authority [to] provide the lead in information-sharing.’ 

The review admits that the change in policy was not communicated to frontline staff, and that at least one outreach team continued to share information directly with the Home Office until 2017.” 


The two issues are examples of an intransigent management style and a troubling failure of governance. Reports into abuse and bad practice in care and support organisations have repeatedly drawn a link with authoritarian senior managers and retaliatory disciplinaries.


Undermined by senior management team


Some years ago, an email containing correspondence with a consultant about undermining and eroding support for the union was forwarded to Unite by a St Mungo’s executive. When the new CEO, Steve Douglas arrived he promised a ‘reset’ of industrial relations. Sadly, no real change has been evident. It would appear


Our members are proud of the services they deliver which are often models for the sector. However, they have been repeatedly undermined by a senior management team which is not fit for purpose and a board that appears not to understand its essential responsibilities. There is a clear need for a thoroughgoing review of governance in the organisation.


Paul Kershaw


29th November 2021


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