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Minister’s driver awarded €30k after ‘sham redundancy’

A tribunal has awarded €30,000 to Minister for Agriculture Charlie McConalogue’s former ministerial driver who was subject to “egregious treatment” when he was let go on Christmas Day to make way for a garda to replace him on security grounds.

The driver, Trevor Shaw, had been put on notice of redundancy after the government moved in 2022 to make driving most ministerial cars a garda job on security grounds – reversing a decision taken to civilianise the position as an austerity measure a decade earlier, the tribunal heard.

Giving evidence on a complaint under the Unfair Dismissals Act 1977 against the Minister for Agriculture, Mr Shaw said he was left with “no other option” except to take a severance package because the only option given to him was to transfer to the Department of Social Protection and work as a clerical officer.

His solicitor, Ellen Walsh of Sean Ormonde Solicitors, said the Department of Agriculture’s handling of the matter was a “fiasco” which failed to honour her client’s employment rights, branding it a “sham redundancy”.

The complaint had been denied by the State, with barrister Declan Harmon BL telling the tribunal it was the result of security advice.

“What else was the Department to do in the circumstances?,” Mr Harmon said.

“The role no longer existed, because it was going to be fulfilled by garda personnel, there’s no dispute on that, there was no role for the complainant to fulfil, so it was necessary to terminate the employment.”

Only ministers sitting at Cabinet got garda drivers under the new security arrangements, the Workplace Relations Commission heard.

That meant civilian drivers stayed on the Department of Agriculture rota to serve Minister of State Martin Heydon, who does not sit at Cabinet.

‘Absolutely horrible time’

Giving evidence, Mr Shaw said: “When the two financial ministers lost their civilian drivers, in January [2022], all the rest of the drivers, every Tuesday when Cabinet was on, the talk would be going round about what was happening.

“We tried to get answers but couldn’t. Drivers tried to get answers from their individual ministers.

“Some guards had moved in. We’d been told: ‘Lads, the writing’s on the wall, you’ll all be gone by summer’. It was an absolutely horrible time for us, we didn’t know whether we were coming or going.”

He said he only got official notice himself in November 2022.

Mr Shaw said there were no firm details given to him on the proposed transfer to the Department of Social Protection, and any prospect of office work was “absolutely” unsuitable for him, explaining: “I don’t have computer skills…The thoughts of going into an office and being asked to do something on a computer terrified me.”

In his decision, adjudicator Breiffni O’Neill said that if an employer was going to cite redundancy as the reason for a termination, it had to show that there was a situation of redundancy and also that it had acted fairly.

Department ‘acted wholly unreasonably’

The Department of Agriculture “acted wholly unreasonably” by dismissing Mr Shaw in a “peremptory” manner without any sort of consultation process on alternatives to redundancy, Mr O’Neill wrote.

The only alternative presented by the department, the temporary clerical officer role, was suggested without any discussion of Mr Shaw’s skillset, Mr O’Neill noted.

He noted further that there had been no avenue of appeal offered to Mr Shaw.

“It is symptomatic of the egregious treatment of the complainant throughout this process that the date of the termination of his employment was Christmas Day, namely 25 December 2022,” Mr O’Neill added.

He ruled the dismissal unfair.

Setting compensation, Mr O’Neill noted that Mr Shaw had offered “little evidence of mitigation” of his loss of earnings but rejected the State’s argument that he could only award a “minimal” sum on this basis.

He said the extent of Mr Shaw’s efforts to find new work had to be weighed against the conduct of the respondent. This, he said, had been “egregious”.

Mr O’Neill awarded €30,000 for the unfair dismissal, stating that this sum was to be paid in on top of the worker’s statutory redundancy entitlements and the undisclosed ex-gratia payment already made.

During the course of the hearing, Mr O’Neill had put it to the sole State witness, Ray Corbett, an assistant principal officer in the Department of Agriculture’s HR section, that it would be normal to offer voluntary redundancies in such circumstances.

“There was no provision for a voluntary redundancy package in the government decision,” Mr Corbett said.

“That suggests to me, Mr Corbett, that there was absolutely no regard for their rights under employment law,” the adjudicator said.

“I don’t accept that; they had fixed-term employment contracts coterminous with the government ministers,” the witness said.

Asked by the adjudicator whether there had been an appeal offered to the decision to terminate the contract, Mr Corbett said there had been none.

“That flies in the face of natural justice,” Mr O’Neill said.

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