New ‘tapegate’ libel war looms

Donna Hall and Jim Ellis
Donna Hall and Jim Ellis

A former Wigan councillor says he is considering suing the town hall for a second time after he accused bosses of repeating the slur that led to his getting a libel payout in the first place.

The Wigan Post reported in January that Jim Ellis and Wigan Council had come to an out-of-court settlement after he accused them of defaming him and breaching the Data Protection Act.

Read more: Out of court pay-off 'not a guilt admission', say Wigan Council

And this week in the High Court, judges were updated on the case by the ex-Hindley independent Mr Ellis’s barrister that before the matter had been due to go to trial he had received “substantial damages” over an email sent in February 2015 by chief executive Donna Hall to between 4,000 and 5,000 people.

In it, Ms Hall accused Mr Ellis of having secretly recorded conversations with staff without their permission and subsequently used them to threaten, bully and intimidate them.

Counsel Lorna Skinner told the court: “These allegations were untrue. The communication of this email was very damaging to the claimant’s reputation within the council.

“It also caused him distress and anxiety, not least because, at the time the email was sent, the allegations in it were being investigated on what the claimant had been led to believe was a confidential basis.”

She added that the council accepted the communication of the email caused or was likely to cause serious harm to Mr Ellis’s reputation.

Ms Skinner said: “However, it denied that the email accused the claimant of making secret recordings but said it did accuse him of having sought to threaten, bully and intimidate a member of staff. It asserted that this was true. It also denied the data protection claim.”

The council did not have legal representation in court this week.

But when the settlement was first made, a statement was issued jointly by council leader Lord Smith and GMB trade union representative David Hope which struck a defiant note. It read:

“At Wigan Council we believe all of our staff have the right to be treated fairly and with respect while at work. As an employer it is our duty to ensure these standards are met and we take this duty very seriously.

“Unfortunately this view isn’t shared by everyone, including the former councillor, Jim Ellis. Audio recording staff for political reasons is completely inappropriate. Staff should be allowed to do their job without fear of being threatened or intimated. This act is a breach of basic human rights.

“When we are made aware of these actions we alert staff. We stand by our decision to alert them on this occasion. Unfortunately we’ve been advised that defending staff in court would be more costly, so in order to save money we have no choice but to settle outside of court to keep costs to taxpayers to a minimum.”

Mr Ellis said today: “Astonishing that, having paid out damages, we then get a new statement which goes through the whole defamation again. I am considering now about taking this back to court.”

The origins of the dispute lie in the then Coun Ellis agreeing to support an ex-member of council staff in an industrial tribunal. He was told that Mr Hope, a friend of the complainant, had documents that might help the case.

But Mr Ellis says that when he rang Mr Hope he “got an earful” which he eventually tried to cut short by “bluffing” that he was recording the conversation.

This is what triggered a probe by an independent investigator hired by the council which itself found no evidence that Mr Ellis had actually taped the exchange.

And he maintains that to this day. He said: “Bizarrely, no-one ever asked me whether I even have a recorder let alone asked me to hand one over. In fact I do have one - it is held together with rubber bands and couldn’t have been quickly pressed into service to record a conversation even if had wanted to and I didn’t.

“I only said I was recording the conversation to shut him up. He admitted to the investigator that some of his language was ‘rather choice’. I have never recorded a conversation - it is not the sort of thing I do, and I deeply resent the fact that the council has continued to say to the contrary, despite the settlement.”

Wigan Council declined to comment on the latest developments.