The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) is investigating whether Network Rail’s HR and equality policies are fit for purpose following allegations that public money has been used to pay off staff.
The equalities watchdog has entered into correspondence with the rail operator over claims it has signed 155 separate confidentiality agreements over three years – the biggest of which cost £950,000 – following accusations made by rail union TSSA and Labour MP Jim Devine.
Their accusations centre around the behaviour of Network Rail’s HR director Peter Bennett, who, Devine said, presides over a “culture of fear and bullying”.
Bennett is alleged to have sacked two female workers while they underwent fertility treatment, asked another to remove her blouse so he could see her holiday bikini lines, kissed a female colleague on the back of her neck, and forced another employee to leave after calling her “a f**king black bitch”.
An internal inquiry into Bennett’s actions was held in November 2007, which found he had committed the offences but had not acted maliciously.
TSSA chief Gerry Doherty, which previously called for Bennett to be suspended pending an independent inquiry, said: “I am pleased that the commission is now looking into this very serious matter. On the face of it, we seem to have a case whereby millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money is apparently being used to hide clear breaches in employment law.”
A Network Rail spokesman confirmed to the Guardian that the company had received a letter from the EHRC “seeking assurances of our equality and HR policies”.
The spokesman added: “We wrote back to them offering to share information with them on a confidential basis and to reassert that Devine’s allegations, sponsored by the TSSA union, are without merit and were fully investigated independently some three years ago.”
Meanwhile, it has emerged that Doherty has been dropped from Network Rail’s 100-strong public members’ board, which hold management to account. He will be replaced by Bob Rixham, Unite’s national officer for rail.
The EHRC confirmed to Personnel Today it was in “correspondence” with Network Rail but was unable comment further.