Sacked staff see cash at last

19 August 2009

by Pat Ashworth

Remaindered: a car reputedly belonging to Philip Brewer has been barricaded in a car park in Durham. It is unclear who is responsible

Remaindered: a car reputedly belonging to Philip Brewer has been barricaded in a car park in Durham. It is unclear who is responsible

STAFF sacked from the former SPCK bookshops are receiving their first compensation payments. They will each receive 65 per cent of the agreed amount by the end of the month, and the remainder within six months.

In 2006, SPCK sold its 23 book­shops to the US businessmen Mark and Philip Brewer, in the name of their Eastern Orthodox charity, St Stephen the Great Charitable Trust (SSG). New contracts introduced in 2008 increased staff working hours to 40 without additional pay, turned all employees into casual staff with no guaranteed hours, and took away rights to company sick pay and pensions (News, 13 June, 13 July 2008).

Thirty-two staff were later dismissed without notice, some of them by email. USDAW, the shop­workers’ union, which lodged claims on behalf of the staff in an employ­ment tribunal, accused the Brewers of “accumulating wealth while riding roughshod over hard-working employees”.

From August 2008 to April 2009, Mark Brewer instructed two differ­ent firms of solicitors to fight the 32 cases, and claimed to be defending some in person. Court deadlines were missed, and, as the preliminary hearing scheduled for 11-13 May approached, he asked to give evid­ence from the US and was refused. The hearing was postponed, and settlement negotiations began.

Heather Leather, who worked at a shop where the staff had more than 100 years’ service among them, praised USDAW for having “guided us through all the legal hurdles the Brewers tried to put in our way”.

The union’s general secretary, John Hannett, said on Wednesday: “We are delighted that these long-serving and dedicated members have finally won the compensation they deserve. We believe they have been treated appallingly, with no regard for British law or the loyalty of the staff.”

The Brewers registered a new company, ENC Management, to run the bookshops. Philip Brewer has recently filed for Chapter 13 Personal Reorganisation, a way of paying smaller amounts to creditors each month.

The fortunes of the shops, many of them historic buildings in prime retail positions, have gone steadily downhill. Almost all are now closed, or their status is unclear. “Access Restricted” notices by the Charity Commission, which stepped in in April, are currently posted on shop doors in Newcastle and Winchester. Durham Cathedral has served notice on the Brewers’ Durham Shop Management Company to vacate the cathedral bookshop by next April.

In Chichester, once a flagship SPCK store, campaigners have called on the diocese to rescue the shop, which they describe as “now a shadow of its former self”, and “in a desperate state of repair”. The diocese’s legal de­partment is looking into the matter.

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