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Pier-owner shamed by Tribunal decisions

When Hastings Pier was sold off in June 2018, the Hastings Pier Charity staff were transferred to the new owner too — for a while. Sheikh Abid Gulzar was a controversial employer. By late 2018 the Chief Engineer and his assistant had quit, and many others. At an Employment Tribunal in Ashford this week, the engineers Peter Wheeler and Daisy Hill stated their case. Sheikh Abid Gulzar did not even show up (nor anyone on his behalf). Bernard McGinley was among those in the room to hear the judge’s decisions.

The engineers had worked on the restoration of Hastings Pier following the fire of 2010, Peter Wheeler as Project Engineer since 2013 , Daisy Hill as Pier Maintenance Engineer since 2016. When the Pier changed owner, employees’ rights were protected under the TUPE (Transfer of Undertakings, Protection of Employment) regulations.

The appellants (the engineers) asserted there was constructive dismissal by Mr Gulzar of Lions Hastings Pier Ltd (‘Lions’), including by:

  • his refusal to pay for obligatory safety inspections, or for new materials to maintain the structural integrity of the Pier
  • his claim that Mr Wheeler, with 35 years of marine and civil experience, was unqualified to work on the Pier
  • behaving often towards Daisy Hill in what she considered a professionally and personally inappropriate way.

After long consideration of the submissions and other evidence, the judge agreed, and upheld the allegations of unfair dismissal and sexual harrassment. (An instance of this is that Mr Gulzar wanted Miss Hill, a professional engineer, to dress up as Marilyn Monroe in white gusty dress à la ‘Seven Year Itch’ — for which he offered her £5.)

Sexist comments and conduct were detailed, including harassment by secret photography by Pier senior management. The evidence bundle explained the public humiliation she was subjected to by the downplaying, belittling and questioning of her and her colleague’s competency to do their jobs. 

The qualifications of Peter Wheeler were disputed despite his engineering degrees and much relevant experience, and on leaving the Pier he became a departmental head in engineering.  (Ironically it is the Pier’s present head of maintenance, Eastbourne-based, who lacks engineering, scaffolding, or harness-inspection qualifications, and has a compromised health & safety record.) The Lions decision to subject Peter Wheeler to disciplinary proceedings without even an investigatory interview was among the issues left unexplained. 

Submissions discussed obstruction by senior Lions management of necessary repairs for the Pier (and to protect the public). Professional recommendations on equipment or action were not accepted, or were found fault with, or specification or cost disputed. Important storage space was made no longer available to the engineers.  The maintenance and servicing of the fire alarm system was neglected, and the Custodian Monitoring system, though it was a guarantee that had been given to the Fire Authority, for a Pier that had burnt down spectacularly in 2010.  

Following quibbles from Gulzar management – for example about a spurious conflict of interest – the Lions submissions ignored the substantive issues and weakly denied some assertions, but no-one turned up to argue them. Apparently Lions took no legal advice whatever.

The engineers were represented by Michael Foster, the solicitor and former Hastings MP. 

Previous

Mr Gulzar has form in the matter of court appearances. In September 2015 he represented himself  on behalf of his unincorporated Lions Cub Nursery, appealing against VAT assessments of about £80,000, and losing. Judge Richard Thomas stated:

Mr Gulzar did not impress us. This was not because of his general demeanour before the Tribunal which might best be described as exhibiting braggadocio  . . .

What particularly did not impress us was Mr Gulzarʼs performance under cross-examination. To straightforward questions from Mr Haley clearly admitting of only one answer, Mr Gulzar would do anything, mostly embarking on speeches telling us for the umpteenth time of his business background and achievements, rather than give a straight answer.    

In 2017 two of his businesses went into liquidation, owing hundreds of thousands, including to Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC).  Following this financial collapse, Lions Hotels Ltd were left with Pay As You Earn (PAYE) and National Insurance (NIC) debts of over £260,000.  It and two other Gulzar companies were formally required to pay a security bond for possible PAYE and NIC debts/defaults.  It was noted that:

Sheikh Abid Gulzar, trading as Albany Lions Hotel, owed nearly £48,000 PAYE and NIC as well as having a VAT liability of nearly £17,000.

Sheikh Gulzar, t/a Boship Lions Hotel, owed nearly £80,000 to the government.  [In effect this was employees’ money that had been stolen from them.]

Mr Gulzar’s appeal had a dog-ate-my-homework quality: he was going to appoint another director. but had not. He felt he was being personally victimised, etc. The First-Tier Tribunal Tax Chamber dismissed the appeal ‘because of the director’s personal history’, finding that HMRC’s actions were reasonable in all the circumstances (see Boship Lions Hotels & others v HMRC [2018] TC6613.)  

In May 2018 there was a hearing in Brighton of the First-Tier Tribunal, at which Mr Gulzar did not appear. Later it emerged that Mr Gulzar ‘explained’:

a)  he had six broken ribs
b)  he thought a member of his office was attending, and
c)  he thought the hearing was the following week.

 The judge was unimpressed and found against him.  

In December 2018 Lions Hastings Pier Limited (LHPL), was ordered to compensate the Pier’s former catering and events manager Debbie Grant by £3,132.  The judge there noted that after 42 days LHPL had still given no response. (Three other former Pier employees, including Dan Crease, were also found in favour of by the Tribunal.)   

Two months later Mr Gulzar was convicted of further financial abuses, having failed to pay any of his debts, and heavily fined. HOT had a detailed story, and another local newspaper also reported it very well.

In March 2019 there were further legal disputes about unpaid gas bills. Again the judge was unsympathetic, upheld the debts and added a cost order.  

Why Smith & Williamson (S&W), the administrators, thought (in June 2018) that Hastings Pier should be offered to someone with this record remains unexplained by them.  

Back in 2012, Natural England prosecuted Mr Gulzar for his damage to the Pevensey Levels Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). For these offences he was fined £45,000, and ordered to pay costs of £90,000 and a victim surcharge of £15.  Additionally a restoration order was served. There was an appeal but it was dropped in 2015.

Previously his activities in Eastbourne and Wealden were notable for enforcement notices against some of his planning breaches. In 2011 Mr Gulzar’s Pevensey (Wartling Rd) planning escapades were featured in Channel 4’s Planning Outlaws.   Then his plans for 4-star rating (unrealised) for the Mansion Lions Hotel (Eastbourne) made it to the Channel 5 series, The Hotel Inspector

The Gulzar repainting of the Pier railings remains an embarrassment

Changes of fortune

The rebuilding of the Pier engaged the goodwill and money of many people in the Borough and beyond, as shareholders, in the days of Sponsor a Plank. The Friends of Hastings Pier also gave support. Those many donations and a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) indicated that Eugenius Birch’s battered old construction (opened in 1872, in time for the first Bank Holiday) was on its way back.

In June 2017 the Hastings Pier Charity Engineering Team won the Galvanising Association Galvanising Award (GAGA) for that year, against all the UK.

That autumn, the Pier was awarded the architectural Oscar, the RIBA Stirling Prize for the best building in the country for that year. (Hastings Borough Council continue to try to keep it a secret, whereas they could still offer a well designed plaque, and get the unlawful barbed wire off the Pier’s northeast corner — long notified to them, with no enforcement in response.) 

For the annual RIBA Wood Awards that November, Hastings Pier was third in the whole country, a reflection of its jetwashed special vibe.

For reasons not explainable here, the Hastings Pier Charity foundered and went into receivership. S&W decided to dispose of the Pier hastily to Mr Gulzar. There were other offers of interest to consider, such as the well-credentialled one from Roger Wade of Boxpark, a highly successful venture. Though the bid was submitted in time, and the Boxpark regeneration projects show competence and more, S&W would not give him the six weeks to make proper diligence checks.

Roger Wade went on to say

They just wanted to sell it off to the quickest bidder without any consideration for the future use, without any consideration for seeing whether their plans were sustainable, which I think is disgraceful.

At the time of the transfer, S&W commented:

It is anticipated that significant cash for working capital and investment purposes, amounting to over a million pounds, would be required to make the pier sustainable.

How this figure was arrived at was never explained, despite requests. The last set of Lions Pier Ltd accounts (year ended March 2021) show that creditors (amounts falling due within one year) are over £1 million. Assets? Not so much.   

One late-2018 engineering wrangle on expense and sustainability and legal obligation was over the Pier’s navigational beacon, installed with the wrong specification against recommendation, not meeting Trinity House requirements on marine and land safety. Disagreement on the specification of the proposed electricity system (including its voltage) led on to dubious ‘disciplinary proceedings’.  

Back at the 2022 Tribunal

Mr Foster for the appellants suggested that the instances of harassment were in the middle range of offensiveness and merited compensation appropriately. Employment Judge Corrigan disagreed, and decided that the transgressions were in the upper part of the scale.  She made an award of £30,000 for the sexual harassment alone, Daisy Hill’s ordeal of steady disrespect and humiliation. With an award for constructive dismissal, denigration and loss of earnings in a job she was good at, adjusted for interest, her total award was around £42,000.  For Peter Wheeler’s constructive dismissal and endurance of professional insult, the award was some £26,000.  The question of costs is still under consideration.

The decisions upheld the good reputations of the appellants.

For the respondent, the result was also clear. To his formal record as a persistent planning breacher, promiser of undelivered projects, serial and diverse tax-dodger, and stealer of his employees’ money, Sheikh Abid Gulzar has now the sleazy distinction of significant misogynist credentials as a pest and harasser. Will he pay up?

 

 

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Posted 16:48 Thursday, May 12, 2022 In: Home Ground

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