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Last Updated: Wednesday, 3 September, 2003, 16:07 GMT 17:07 UK
Refuge boss 'racially abusive'
The head of a women's refuge charity has been accused of racism by a former colleague.

Patricia Cowell, chairman of Northumberland Women's Aid, described a black passer-by as a "sambo" and "golliwog", the former worker alleged at an employment tribunal on Wednesday.

Christine Kirkwood, 46, is claiming constructive dismissal against the Ashington-based organisation.

She told the tribunal she and another colleague were stunned by the racially abusive language as they attended a conference with Ms Cowell in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, in June 2002.

In a statement to the tribunal in Newcastle, Ms Kirkwood said: "We passed a black man when to my shock and horror Mrs Cowell then made an outrageous racist comment - 'He is a real sambo'.

I could not put up with such bullying and harassment any longer
Christine Kirkwood,

"I could not believe what she had said and having seen our reaction, Mrs Cowell made matters worse by trying to justify herself by referring to the man's 'thick lips and frizzy hair' saying he was 'like a golliwog'.

"After this conference, my working and personal relationship with Mrs Cowell deteriorated markedly," she said.

The incident was cited in her case against the charity, which provides a refuge for battered women.

She alleges she was bullied and harassed in her job there.

She has also alleged financial mismanagement and claimed that she was "locked out" of accounts and computer files to which she should have had access.

Ms Kirkwood said she "worked tirelessly" for the charity for two years and never had a day's absence through sickness.

'Horrible issue'

But by January this year she said she believed there had been a campaign to force her out and decided to quit.

In her statement she said: "I could not put up with such bullying and harassment any longer and felt certain that such actions were deliberately calculated to force me to leave.

"I had come to the point where the thought of going to the office not knowing what malicious act was awaiting me next was unbearable."

Colin Hawgood, for the charity and trustees, including Mrs Cowell, suggested the incident in Harrogate had never taken place.

Ms Kirkwood replied: "This is a really horrible issue to have to discuss, but I wouldn't dream of making such a suggestion unless it was true.

"Distasteful though it is to have to discuss this it was absolutely true."

Asked why she had not taken her concerns to the board of trustees, she said she believed she would not receive a fair hearing.

The tribunal was adjourned until Thursday.





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