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Unfair dismissal at Campsfield

Having written about asylum detention yesterday, an interesting Employment Appeal Tribunal judgment caught my eye today. Father Seraphim Vänttinen-Newton, a Russian Orthodox priest, has won his appeal for unfair dismissal against GEO Group, the private firm that runs Campsfield House Immigration Detention Centre (or “removal centre”, as the UK Borders Agency website calls it).

Father Vänttinen-Newton was chaplain at the centre; how many of the couple of hundred detainees practice the Russian Orthodox faith, I have no idea. He gave a short interview to BBC Radio Oxford about “faith in the workplace” – a pretty reasonable thing for a chaplain to do, it seems to me, but which led to his being sacked for breaching the rules in the staff handbook, which say

Dealing with the media: No employee of Geo is authorised to make any comments or to give any interviews to the media without prior and express permission of the managing director. Any employee who is approached by any media must refer the person to a senior manager at the earliest opportunity.

Interesting, this: are GEO so paranoid about criticism of the regime at Campsfield that they have to take such a controlling approach? I would have thought it against the public interest for the company to be able to enforce contractual obligations of that kind so as to censor what a chaplain says in public about conditions in any prison or detention centre. It’s obviously in the public interest that someone in that position be able to speak freely.

What’s especially interesting is that no one at GEO actually listened to what the chaplain said in the interview, or sought a transcript from the BBC. They had no idea whether he said anything critical at all. Which is why the EAT has ruled the dismissal unfair.

I must say I can’t understand why the EAT thinks Father Vänttinen-Newton bears 85% of the responsibility for his dismissal (para. 32 of the judgment): GEO’s prior restraint on interviews of any kind (and note, the staff handbook does not expressly limit the restriction to interviews about work) seems to me unreasonable and disproportionate, especially when applied to someone like a chaplain. I wonder whether allowing it to be 85% effective isn’t a breach of Father Vänttinen-Newton’s article 10 freedom of expression (and indeed the public’s right to receive information freely).

Also interesting is that the latest report on Campsfield by the Inspectorate of Prisons from May last year tells us detainees aren’t satisfied with chaplaincy services; I doubt the firm control GEO exerts over its chaplains’ public statements helps give them faith, as it were. Campsfield is next due to be inspected in October: let’s see what the chaplaincy survey says.

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  1. More disturbing is the clear instruction that employees may not give interviews about anything at all. Good Grief! Draconian or what?

  2. I know! On the face of it you could be disciplined for giving an immediate eye-witness account of, say, an explosion or accident you saw.

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