Shadow minister demands National Gallery be "called in" over workers' treatment

Miles Rowland, 12.12.2018
Gallery defends legal costs it has incurred in employment dispute
The National Gallery in London has responded to a scathing letter by Labour's shadow culture minister, in which he stated that “not a penny of taxpayers’ money” should be spent on their legal defence against 27 workers dismissed in October 2017.

The court case to determine whether the group should have been considered “self-employed freelancers” or “employees” is ongoing.

In a letter dated 26 November, the shadow culture minister Kevin Brennan urged the culture secretary, Jeremy Wright, to “take immediate action” and support the 27 former National Gallery educators, or NG27, at their employment tribunal.

Brennan highlighted the “years of service” given to the National Gallery by NG27: “Together, these artists and art lecturers have welcomed and helped thousands of visitors appreciate the wonderful resources of the National Gallery by sharing their expertise.”

After decades on its payroll, the National Gallery terminated the educators’ contracts in October 2017 with “no rights to benefits or consultation”, added Mr Brennan. The shadow minister stated that it was “unconscionable” for the gallery, funded by public money, to behave like a “gig economy” private company.

Brennan’s letter concluded: “The National Gallery is a public body funded by your department, and so I am urgently requesting that you call them in and demand that they lead by example and treat these workers with the respect they deserve.”

The letter followed a meeting last month in Westminster ahead of the tribunal, when the cause of the NG27 was met with cross-party support, including the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, and the Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Grander, who described the treatment of the artists and lecturers as “horrendous”.

The tribunal hearing concluded on 7 December and will reconvene on 18 December for barristers' submissions. There will then be a period for the judge to deliberate and for the judgement itself. As of yet, no date has been set for the judgement.

A National Gallery spokesperson said: “The National Gallery had no wish to get involved in litigation in relation to this matter, not least because many of the claimants are either still providing services to the gallery or accepted new roles as employees of the gallery after the dispute began.

“The gallery would have welcomed the opportunity to resolve any differences through mediation, but the claimants did not accept the gallery's requests to enable these discussions to begin before the tribunal hearing started.

“Since the claimants have brought a multifaceted claim through the tribunal system, and since the large amounts of money claimed by them are sums which the gallery disputes, the gallery has had no alternative but to defend the claims – and of necessity incur legal costs in the course of doing so. The legal costs are unfortunate but they are a lot less than the amounts in dispute.”

Steve Barrett from the campaigning organisation National Gallery Justice, which is crowdfunding money to support the NG27, was unable to comment on the tribunal itself, but said: “We remain united in our determination to seek justice. We continue to care passionately about the National Gallery and its future.”

A news analysis on the implications of the tribunal will appear in the January issue of Museums Journal

Comments