Page last updated at 13:37 GMT, Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Bullying charity faces complaints

By Sean Coughlan
BBC News, education and family

Christine Pratt
Christine Pratt's charity helpline now faces intense scrutiny

The anti-bullying charity - the National Bullying Helpline - at the centre of allegations of bullying at 10 Downing Street has had 60 complaints made about it to the Charity Commission.

Trustees of the charity are set to meet on Tuesday.

The complaints followed the charity's current appearance in the media spotlight - but there have also been earlier criticisms.

The charity watchdog says it is now reviewing a complaint from two years ago "in light of the issues raised over the weekend".

There has also been a withdrawal of support by the Nasuwt teachers' union - which once donated to the charity.

It said it "would be most unlikely in future to donate to or advise any member to use a service which had behaved in this way".

The union's general secretary, Chris Keates, said there was "something unsavoury and certainly unjust about releasing information into the public domain which cannot be challenged or verified".

The National Bullying Helpline, set up by a husband and wife in Swindon, has found itself at the centre of intense media scrutiny following the charity's claim that staff in Downing Street had contacted the helpline.

Christine Pratt, co-founder of the charity, has rejected any suggestion of political motivation and has said she feels "slightly intimidated" by some of the negative responses.

'Credibility undermined'

The intervention by Mrs Pratt in the allegations about the prime minister's behaviour towards staff has brought a storm of criticism.

The charity's patron, the workplace bullying expert Prof Cary Cooper, resigned in protest at the breach of confidentiality.

And he said he had raised previous concerns about the risk of a potential conflict of interest between the charity and commercial interests of the Pratts.

In particular, Prof Cooper has been angered at the way personal, confidential calls to a helpline have been revealed and dragged into a national news story.

"Their credibility has been totally undermined," Prof Cooper said.

The charity's involvement in the allegations about Gordon Brown was "wholly inappropriate", he added.

Two other patrons, television presenter Sarah Cawood and MP Ann Widdecombe, have also resigned over the breach of confidentiality.

Another bullying charity, Bullying UK, said that the publicising of these confidential calls had already had a negative impact.

The charity's director, Liz Carnell, said it had received e-mails from people saying they would never contact such helplines again, because of the lack of confidentiality.

Bullying UK said the intervention, using the evidence of a helpline call, had been "damaging for the whole anti-bullying sector".

And the trade association, the Helplines Association, said such a breach of confidentiality brought the "helpline sector into disrepute".

'Thoroughly vetted'

The head of the charity, Mrs Pratt, robustly rejected such claims, saying: "I do not believe we have breached confidentiality."

And she said there had only ever been one formal complaint against the charity and there had been "no irregularity".

She said the relationship between the charity and the commercial consultancy had been "thoroughly vetted" and denied that the charity helpline had been used as a way of "angling for business".

Questions have been asked about the links between the helpline and HR & Diversity Management Limited, a company also established by the Pratts.

And before the current media interest, blogs had been published which were critical of the charity.

The charity's website includes references to the expense of tribunals for employers - and carries information about the training services on offer.

This relationship between the helpline and the consultancy work goes back a number of years.

In 2006, a tribunal investigating allegations of the bullying of a teacher in Devon was prompted by a call to the helpline - with the subsequent consultancy work being carried out by "consultant personnel practitioner Christine Pratt".

'Not Samaritans'

The consultancy company was set up in 2002, followed by the launch of the helpline. This received charitable status in 2007.

The Charity Commission shows that the accounts of the charity are currently 207 days overdue - and the most recent accounts, for the year 2007-2008, saw the charity spending £852 out of a total income of £1,818.

The charity's website carries a "conflict of interest" statement: "We are not a Samaritans lookalike. We help people in distress in a practical, positive, timely, way and in some cases we will put callers in touch with professional service providers; (solicitors, investigators, mediators etc).

"Where a fee changes hands this is declared up front. Everyone who calls the helpline is given 'open and transparent' choice - and advice and guidance to enable them to ascertain and understand both their legal options and/or statutory obligations."

The arrangement between the charity and the consultancy has been approved by the Law Society, says Mrs Pratt - and she has rejected any suggestion of ambiguity in how the two sides operate.

Mrs Pratt has also been personally involved in employment tribunal claims. In 1995, she brought a claim against BAE which was settled out of court and in 2003 she lost claims for discrimination against an employer.

In evidence against her claim, the tribunal heard that Mrs Pratt had "thrust her face" into a manager's and "screamed 'Communicate!' very loudly and directly into his ear".

With an election looming and political personalities under the microscope, there has been a strong political dimension to the current debate about this Swindon couple.

Adding to the mix, the charity's website carries a quote from the Conservative leader, David Cameron, in which he says he wants to "congratulate the National Bullying Helpline for its efforts to give practical support to those being bullied".

"It now looks like more of a political operation that's under way, directed at the prime minister personally," said Lord Mandelson.

Mr Cameron says there needs to be an inquiry into this "unseemly mess" and the Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg, wants the allegations of bullying to be "cleared up by No 10".

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