By Grainne Cuffe, local democracy reporter
A Windrush scandal victim sacked after she was wrongly labelled an illegal immigrant who faked documents has been awarded £20,828 by an employment tribunal.
The tribunal found that Lewisham council and Adamsrill Primary School directly discriminated against teaching assistant Willow Sims because of her nationality.
Ms Sims, an American national who was granted Indefinite Leave to Remain (ILR) in the UK when she arrived with her mother nearly 40 years ago, worked at the school from 2015 before she was dismissed in 2018 over admin problems with a “Disclosure and Barring Service” (DBS) check.
Allyson Hollidge, from Lewisham’s HR department at the time, accused Ms Sims of “concocting a very good story” and that she was “obviously” an illegal immigrant who had been “evading authorities”.
She made the unfounded accusations, branded “deeply offensive and threatening” by the tribunal, without investigating whether they were true.
The tribunal, held between January and April, found Ms Sims’ claim for direct discrimination “well founded”, concluding that Ms Sims was “consistent and credible”, while the respondents – Lewisham Council, headteacher Dr Increase Eko and business manager Ms Sharon Donegal-Grant were not.
Ms Sims, born to an African American mother and Scottish father, came to UK with her mother in 1981 or 1982 aged four or five.
After her mother died when she was 12, Newham council placed her in care, where she stayed until she was 18.
Her old American passport had an ILR stamp on it and she was told “that as long as she had the passport her ILR was ‘fine’ and could not be revoked”.
In March 2018 the school asked her to go through a DBS check – Ms Sims handed over her expired American passport, a copy of her tenancy agreement, and her tax code.
She had worked in Bromley and Croydon as a TA for more than 15 years, where she had “many DBS checks”, but the new online system would not let her move past the visa section.
Ms Sims tried again a few days later with the business manager but faced the same problem – Donegal-Grant said she was “unsure how to proceed and would have to take advice from HR”.
Ms Sims felt that it was a simple matter of explaining the situation to the DBS but was suspended at a meeting on April 16, despite bringing her NI and NHS number, old passport, council tax document, old DBS checks dating back to 2003 and mother’s death certificate to the meeting and explaining why she was missing some.
The tribunal found Eko’s evidence “vague” and “contradictory”, concluding that she had not taken any advice from HR before suspending Ms Sims.
It heard that Eko said that even though Ms Sims had an ILR stamp in her passport, “it was expired and the advice from Lewisham HR was that it was no longer valid”.
Eko emailed the council the same day and said “one of my members of staff (a scale 5 TA) does not appear to have right of stay in the country”, but was unable to explain to the tribunal how she reached this conclusion.
Ms Sims was warned in the suspension letter that she could be fired and was then asked to attend a meeting on April 30.
Hollidge, who is no longer employed by the council, attended the meeting and asked to see Ms Sims’ current and previous passports.
She asked why she hadn’t transferred the visa to the current passport – Ms Sims explained she was told she didn’t need it and said she couldn’t afford the transfer fee.
Ms Sims said Hollidge went on to say “that was a very good story but your mum was obviously an illegal immigrant which would make you an illegal immigrant”, and asked how Ms Sims had “avoided detection for all this time considering [she] had no official identification documents”.
Hollidge then claimed her passports were forged.
“The claimant then stated that she had been on the Gov.UK website and her stamp was valid and Ms Hollidge’s reply was that she was lying as they had taken advice from the UK Border Agency,” employment Judge Gill Sage wrote in the judgement.
Hollidge said she would be passing all the information from her “investigation” to the “relevant authorities”, at which point Ms Sims became “extremely distressed and began to cry and then to sob”.
“The claimant had to leave the meeting for a while to gather her composure and to tidy herself up.
“When she returned to the meeting room, she gathered up her papers and was handed the letter of dismissal by Dr Eko,” Judge Sage said.
Judge Sage said in the “absence of any evidence” to explain how Eko came to her conclusion about Ms Sims “we conclude it was less favourable treatment because of the claimant’s nationality”.
“The documents were rejected out of hand by concluding that they had been forged, but no evidence had been placed before the tribunal to support this serious accusation.
“Had the first and second respondent investigated the claimant’s right to live and work in the UK, we expected to see evidence of this investigation in the bundle or in the statements. We saw none,” the judge said.
Ms Sims said Donegal-Grant and Eko did not “open their mouths […] or defend me. They let her rip me apart”.
She said Eko lost her the “job, house, man. I lost everything. She helped to circulate an unfounded assumption that I had no right to be in the country. I did not expect the headteacher to do this”.
Ms Sims, who believed Hollidge’s threats, said she was “forced to stay in [her] house for 13 weeks before [she] could get [her] passport verified by an actual immigration specialist again”.
“Each day I thought the immigration force was going to storm my house and arrest me for being illegal in the country.
“The Equalities Act is supposed to ensure that local authorities take action against discrimination and promote equality and yet as my employment file shows the respondent was actively trying to turn me in to a criminal that has been skulking around the country trying to evade detection,” she said.
It noted that the council claimed to have “enormous sympathy” with Windrush cases but Judge Sage said: “Although sympathy has been expressed there was no evidence that the claimant was treated with sympathy or respect at the time.”
She added that the tribunal “could not imagine this approach being followed when dealing with a comparable case of a British citizen”.
Lewisham’s chief executive Kim Wright said Ms Sims presented a “very upsetting account of feeling both victimised and unsupported”.
“We recognise that the entire experience has had a considerable impact on her wellbeing and we have offered Ms Sims a sincere apology.
“We will also be reviewing what we can learn from this case as we need to be better at dealing with such complex and sensitive issues.
“Ms Sims was a valued member of staff and her employment with the school was reluctantly terminated in April 2018.”
She said for the DBS check, the Home Office guidance required a stamp in a current passport so the school “had no choice but to terminate her employment”.
“We know that the period following her dismissal must have been an extremely worrying time for Ms Sims and her family as the Home Office changed its arrangements which subsequently determined that she does have the right to work in the UK.
“In light of the outcome of the employment tribunal, which found that acts of direct discrimination happened, along with the impact this experience no doubt had on Ms Sims, we have accepted the judgment and have made a payment of compensation in full as awarded by the tribunal.
“Lewisham council prides itself as being an open borough that celebrates its diversity and has a history of standing up against racism.
“It is concerning and disappointing to reflect on this case and realise that these values may not have been conveyed by everyone who works for the organisation.
“The council’s single Equality Framework is now applied in reviewing corporate policy and procedure.
“Yet there is more we could have done and will do, as we continue to take lessons from this case to ensure that our HR and legal processes, and the conduct of all employees, reflect the sensitive issues that sometimes come up through right to work checks,” she said.
Pictured: Lewisham Civic Centre with the school, inset left, and Willow Sims, right (BBC).
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