Page last updated at 20:38 GMT, Monday, 22 February 2010

Ann Widdecombe resigns from charity over 'bullying' row

Christine Pratt defends her decision to speak out

Tory MP Ann Widdecombe has resigned as patron of an anti-bullying charity after its chief executive claimed No 10 staff had used its helpline.

The MP said publicising the phone calls to the National Bullying Helpline had been a breach of confidentiality.

Prof Cary Cooper and TV presenter Sarah Cawood have also stepped down.

Chief executive Christine Pratt had said she did not name anyone or reveal details but her comments fuelled a row over alleged bullying by Gordon Brown.

Mrs Pratt spoke out on Sunday after Business Secretary Peter Mandelson robustly defended the allegations about the prime minister, which appeared in the Observer newspaper.

It claimed Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell became so concerned about the situation in Downing Street he had a private word with the prime minister. Mr Brown has denied the allegation in an interview with the Economist.

'Bullying institution'

The resignation of the Conservative MP is the latest to hit the charity, amid reports that Tory councillor Mary O'Connor has also stood down.

Some will find irony in the fact that a woman who sought a substantial sum from a company she claimed had breached confidentiality should now find herself accused of the same transgression
Mark Easton

Miss Widdecombe said she was concerned that Mrs Pratt had betrayed confidences by disclosing it had received calls from No 10 staff.

She also delivered a rebuke to the government as she announced her departure, saying its reaction "gives a great deal of credibility to those who say it is a bullying institution".

"They have ganged up in the crudest possible way and wielded every last drop of their poisonous power in responding to these allegations," she said.

Prof Cooper, a workplace stress expert, told the BBC he was "really upset" and that it was "wholly inappropriate" to publicly name any employer in case it left the caller open to identification.

"[As] a helpline or counselling service you never, ever reveal anything to do with when a client calls you in any way," he said.

In a statement issued by her agent, Ms Cawood said: "In light of the recent events where confidential phone calls were made public, I feel it is no longer a campaign with which I would like my name to be associated."

Political motivations?

Lord Mandelson said a "political operation" was being directed at the prime minister and suggested Conservative press officers had been "guiding journalists towards Mrs Pratt, assuming that she had some fuel to throw on this fire."

Extracts from a new book by Andrew Rawnsley claim Downing Street staff were so intimidated by abusive outbursts from Gordon Brown that Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O'Donnell had a private word with him about his behaviour
No 10 says it looked into the allegations and they are not true
Lord Mandelson dismisses the claims, saying the book shows a man "who gets angry but chiefly with himself, who doesn't bully people"
After Lord Mandelson's comments are broadcast, Christine Pratt of the National Bullying Helpline says several people in the prime minister's office had contacted the anti-bullying charity
Ms Pratt later stresses she was not accusing Mr Brown personally
Prof Cary Cooper, an expert on workplace stress, resigns as a patron of the charity, saying Mrs Pratt had breached confidentiality
TV presenter Sarah Cawood and Tory MP Ann Widdecombe also step down
Two days after the claims surfaced Sir Gus denies he rebuked Mr Brown for bullying

Mrs Pratt, who first called the BBC unprompted on Sunday, has denied her actions were politically motivated and the Conservatives say Labour are simply trying to "smear the messenger".

The Charity Commission says it received a number of complaints over the weekend concerning the National Bullying Helpline and that it would be contacting the organisation for further information.

It also confirmed it looked into concerns about the National Bullying Helpline two years ago.

Mrs Pratt has been criticised by another charity, Bullying UK, which said it was "horrified" she had "all but identified" one caller in media interviews.

"It's hard to imagine a more serious breach of confidentiality," it said on its website.

Mrs Pratt has defended her decision to speak publicly about the calls. She has made it clear none of the callers accused Mr Brown of bullying and said he may not even have known about the claims.

"We are not naming names and we are not disclosing confidential data," she insisted.

But she added: "I am concerned at the denials that have come out of No 10 and I would have hoped that No 10 would have addressed matters internally and appropriately and called in mediators."

Prof Cary Cooper

After Mrs Pratt's intervention, the charity's accounts and dealings have been placed under the spotlight.

Mrs Pratt defended the operation of her helpline in the face of an accusation that she had used it as a means of "angling for business" for a human resources consultancy run by her husband.

This claim surfaced in an e-mail sent from a helpline user in 2008 to Labour MP Anne Snelgrove, who admitted to BBC Radio 4's Today programme that she did not know whether it was true.

Mrs Pratt acknowledged the charity did offer to refer callers to the consultancy, but insisted the arrangement was "done under an agreement that has been approved by the Law Society".

"It has been thoroughly vetted," she added.

Ms Snelgrove, Mr Brown's parliamentary private secretary, had helped Mrs Pratt launch the helpline but said she severed links with her because she refused to attend a private meeting about the complaint - something Mrs Pratt denies.

Mrs Pratt also fended off accusations of political bias after she confirmed she had received support from some Conservatives.

"Yes. I have been in touch with them, they have been in contact with us but we are not a political charity, I'm not politically motivated," she said.

The Charity Commission's website reveals the National Bullying Helpline is 206 days overdue in submitting its accounts and has registered just £852 pounds in expenditure since it was established in 2007.

Mrs Pratt became involved in bullying consultancy and support after she took BAE Systems to an industrial tribunal in 1995 claiming she had been bullied while working there as a senior secretary.

The matter was settled out-of-court with the company agreeing to pay compensation.

However, in 2003 the affair flared up once again when Mrs Pratt accused BAE of breaching the confidentiality of the settlement and demanded a further £450,000 in damages.

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