THIRTY former employees of SPCK Bookshops are taking their case to an employment tribunal, in a legal process that begins in Bury St Edmunds next Thursday.
Their representatives from USDAW, the shopworkers’ union, will meet the tribunal chairman at an administrative hearing that is the first stage in grievance proceedings against the St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust (SSG) and its directors, Mark and Phil Brewer.
In the light of the bankruptcy proceedings (see panel, below), USDAW’s legal office said on Tuesday that one key and complex task at the hearing would be to work out who was the employer at the time of dismissal, and whether appropriate responses had been made to the claims.
The union says: “It is important to clarify and confirm that the bankruptcy proceedings filed in Texas by Mr Brewer in respect of St Stephen the Great LLC (who he says was the employer of our members) have been dismissed by the Texas Bankruptcy Court, on the filing of a motion by the Trustee in Bankruptcy . . . [who] said he could identify no legal entity in the US under the name of St Stephen the Great LLC.
“Usdaw agrees with this. We can only identify a UK registered company by the name of St Stephen the Great Ltd. Therefore we do not believe that, at this stage, we are dealing with a bankrupt/insolvent company.”
The tribunal chairman may consider on Thursday whether to allow test cases to be selected to test particular points or groups of dismissals, rather than list the cases, more then 30, for a hearing — something that might mean delay in finding a slot for a full hearing.
This week, the Bankruptcy Trustee in the United States has brought a motion for sanctions against Mark Brewer and his law firm for filing the bankruptcy case in bad faith.
“The filing of the case in the United States where almost every creditor is located in the United Kingdom brings disrepute to the Bankruptcy Courts of the United States as they are being used as a haven for a party attempting to escape justice where it was formed and where it did business,” it says.
It accuses Mr Brewer of “a fraud on the court”, and failure to disclose various facts, including the existence of bank accounts and the links between various companies in which he has an interest.
“Mr Brewer seeks to use the designation of St Stephen as a charity to somehow suggest that his conduct does not bear scrutiny. In fact just the opposite should be true,” the Bankruptcy Trustee says.
October 2006: SSG, an Orthodox charity based in Texas, takes over the 23 shops from SPCK. Losses for the year ending in April ran to more than £800,000. SSG undertakes to maintain the breadth of stockholding, and to keep staff on the same terms, under Transfer of Undertakings Protection of Employment regulations.
December 2006: SSG bans the shops from selling the Qur’an.
September 2007: Mark Brewer tells the Church Times: “The morale of the SPCK bookshops could not be better.”
A total of 11 managers have left, having grown unhappy with stock censorship, new working practices, and management by email and memo from Texas. One was allegedly dismissed for sharing his concerns with a cleric.
October 2007: Staff at Exeter resign en masse, in protest at new contracts, which were later described by the general secretary of USDAW, as “drastically reduced and probably illegal”. They increase the working week from 37.5 to 40 hours, with no added remuneration, and cancel sick pay for some.
November 2007: The chairman of the SSG trustees, the Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Michael Perham, and the chief executive, Simon Kingston, resign, citing a “conflict of interest” between their duties to it and to SPCK.
SPCK withdraws SSG’s licence to use its name in relation to the bookshops, “in view of their failure to abide by the terms of our agreement”. The Brewers re-title Bookshops “St Stephen the Great”, criticising the “decidedly ‘liberal’ agenda” of SPCK books.
December 2007: Leicester goes independent.
Staff at Newcastle and Truro resign.
January 2008: The Dean and Chapter of Sheffield, where the former SPCK shop was within the Cathedral, tell the Brewers that they are unable to recommend the shop because they do not agree with SSG’s aims or limited stock.
February 2008: Lincoln, Norwich, and Sheffield close. Staff are told by email that they are no longer employed.
Staff at Worcester sacked, all but the manager.
Bristol and Salisbury get shortened hours.
Cambridge and Canterbury close — though the Brewers say these are only temporary closures.
March 2008: Seven staff at Carlisle are sacked for refusing to sign the new contracts.
Bristol and Cardiff close.
April 2008: Westminster Bookshop in Faith House closes.
Bradford, Canterbury, Exeter, and York shops are put up for sale, but later withdrawn. SSG owns the freehold to their premises, but they are subject to restrictive covenants which specify that they have to be used as Christian bookshops.
The Brewers blame trading losses, spiritually and financially hostile environments, a downturn in retailing, and increasing pressure on Christian booksellers.
June 2008: The Brewers file for bankruptcy in the US for its trading arm, St Stephen the Great LLC.
The Brewers set up three new companies, including ENC Management Company, to run the bookshops. Staff are emailed to say that payroll, redundancy, and “other such obligations” will be payable only through the bankruptcy court, and are told that they can apply for jobs with ENC.
Worcester closes; the redundant manager, Steve Jeynes, is found dead. It is believed that he took his own life.
July 2008: The Brewers threaten Dave Walker, the Church Times cartoonist and blogger, with libel in a “cease and desist” letter. Mr Walker, who had dedicated a special website to the SPCK employees’ case, is required to remove all campaign information, or to face the cost of mounting a legal defence.
Houston Bankruptcy Court in the US converts the terms under which the bankruptcy was filed, leaving the business in liquidation.
August 2008: Houston Bankruptcy Court rules that the Brewer brothers’ claim, designed to file for protection from creditors in the US, is “in bad faith”, since the creditors are almost wholly in the UK.
The Dean of Durham, the Very Revd Michael Sadgrove, is petitioned by about 200 well-wishers to “rescue” the shop. He responds that the Chapter are “working tirelessly” to see it returned to its former standards.
Mark Brewer tells The Bookseller that because of “abysmal” Christmas sales, the chain was “plainly insolvent” by late spring; he says he does not have enough money to file for insolvency in the UK.
September 2008: Bankruptcy Trustee in the US brings a motion for sanctions against Mark Brewer and his law firm.
First Employment Tribunal hearing.