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Bullying helpline under scrutiny

Mark Easton | 17:45 UK time, Monday, 22 February 2010

"It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation", Benjamin Franklin once wrote, "and only one bad one to lose it".

If the reputation of the prime minister is threatened by accusations of bullying, the reputation of the self-styled National Bullying Helpline (NBH) charity is also in jeopardy today.

Perhaps there should be a warning posted a few months before every general election: do not enter the fray unless you are strong enough and clean enough to withstand the scrutiny and attacks that are bound to follow.

Yesterday the NBH was a small but vocal organisation which enjoyed some respect in the anti-bullying field. Its website includes an impressive list of organisations it has worked with, including government departments.

Christine PrattBut then its founder, Christine Pratt, suggested that staff in Gordon Brown's office had contacted her helpline. How quickly the weather can change.

Today, NBH finds itself under scrutiny by the Charity Commission following more than 60 complaints, has seen one patron quit, another criticise the organisation and has had to deal with accusations of commercial, financial and political impropriety.

Of course, there will be those who see the attacks on the NBH as a classic spoiling operation by supporters of Gordon Brown. But Mrs Pratt's intervention in the row over the PM's temper appears to have backfired spectacularly.

Callers to the helpline are told "your call is confidential to us and you will be treated with dignity and respect at all times". However, since Ms Pratt's claims that her organisation received a number of calls from individual staff members inside No 10, the promise is said to ring a little hollow.

Professor Cary Cooper, an academic and work-place stress expert, resigned as a patron this morning saying that "it was wholly inappropriate" for Mrs Pratt to reveal that staff in Downing Street had contacted the service. "It breached confidentiality grossly" he said.

Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe, another NBH patron criticised the revelations. "It's like a priest in the confessional", she said. "You don't do it."

Another charity, Bullying UK, has called on Mrs Pratt to resign arguing that "it's hard to imagine a more serious breach of confidentiality" adding that "it's extremely concerning that we've had e-mails and tweets from people who think this charity is responsible".

But the criticism of Mrs Pratt and the NBH has spread beyond the ethics of confidentiality as the affair has seen political researchers and journalists powering up their search engines.

They will have discovered how the National Bullying Helpline was originally set up by a commercial company run by Mrs Pratt and her husband David. In 2002 HR & Diversity Management Ltd, (HRDM) began offering employers help in dealing with allegations of bullying. In 2007, NBH was granted charitable status.

However, the two organisations remain very close. Founded by the same people, they share the same address (a PO box in Swindon) and Mrs Pratt accepts that the charity does refer callers to her consultancy. This has led to accusations that the charity crosses the line into acting commercially although she insists the situation has been "approved by the Law Society".

This afternoon the Charity Commission confirmed that two years ago it looked into concerns about the National Bullying Helpline.

"We are reviewing this previous case, which was closed in 2008, in light of the issues raised over the weekend and the complaints received today."

The name "National Bullying Helpline" has a semi-statutory sound to it. However, what little we know about the organisation from its accounts suggest a relatively modest organisation.

A quick look at the NBH accounts on the Charity Commission's website reveals that it is 206 days overdue in submitting its accounts and has registered just £852 pounds in expenditure since it was established in 2007.

Mrs Pratt has said that the help-line employs 12 volunteers who receive 40 to 50 inquiries a day which suggests spending must now significantly exceed the £2.33 a day reported in its only financial records.

Mrs Pratt became involved in the world of bullying consultancy and support after she took BAE Systems to an industrial tribunal in 1995 claiming she had been bullied while working there as a senior secretary. The matter was settled out-of-court with the company agreeing to pay compensation.

However, in 2003 the affair flared up once again when Mrs Pratt accused BAE of breaching the confidentiality of the settlement and demanding a further £450,000 in damages.

Some will find irony in the fact that a woman who sought a substantial sum from a company she claimed had breached confidentiality should now find herself accused of the same transgression.

Inevitably there are also accusations of political bias flying around Mrs Pratt and her organisation. Government sources point out that the charity is two-doors down from the Swindon Conservative Association, although this seems pretty thin as evidence of partiality.

The front page of the NBH website includes testimonials from Tory leader David Cameron and Ann Widdecombe.

Another of the patrons is a Conservative councillor Mary O'Connor and Mrs Pratt has said that she was contacted by Tory party officials about the allegations made against Gordon Brown, but insisted the conversations were "irrelevant" to her decision to speak out.

All of this is rather circumstantial stuff and ignores the fact that one of the people who helped her set up the helpline in the first place was Labour MP and Gordon Brown advisor Anne Snelgrove.

Ms Snelgrove severed links with the NBH in 2008 citing concerns over the way helpline calls were referred to Mrs Pratt's consultancy. However, her previous link does not suggest the charity is true blue.

The future of the National Bullying Helpline must be in the balance tonight. However much good work it has done to help people suffering in the work-place, its founder seems to have made a monumental miscalculation in allowing the organisation to become an easy target for those who wish to discredit her.

More troublingly, even those who have no axe to grind with Mrs Pratt and whom she may have regarded as allies, are also making critical noises.

PS: At the time of publication, Sarah Cawood, the TV presenter, has also stood down from the charity.

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