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Senior manager takes The Co-Op to court

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The Co-Operative is being taken to court for unfair dismissal by a former senior manager who claims she was fired for whistleblowing.

Kath Harmeston, former procurement director for the Co-operative Group, is seeking more than £5 million in damages from the organisation at an employment tribunal this week.

Ms Harmeston alleges that she was sacked from the troubled mutual after drawing attention to corporate malpractice and governance issues.

The precise details of her allegations are set to be revealed during a two-week hearing in Manchester, where the Co-op is headquartered.

“We intend to fully and robustly defend our decision to dismiss Kath Harmeston at the upcoming tribunal,” said Allan Leighton, Chairman at The Co-Op. “We dismissed her because she acted in a manner which was not in keeping with the importance and seniority of her role, nor the values and principles of The Co-op.”

Top executives from the Co-op, including chief executive Richard Pennycook, are expected to appear before the tribunal, which starts on Thursday.

Harmeston worked at the Co-op between April 2014 and September 2014, before she was dismissed with notice, which expired in September 2015.

The mutual brought her in to help slash costs from its business, which ranges from supermarkets to insurance and funeral homes, after problems with its banking division pushed the firm to a £2.5bn loss in 2013.

The group returned to profit last April after selling off its pharmacies and farming businesses and improving sales in its retail arm, following a rocky two year period during which it ceded control of its troubled bank, whose former chairman admitted taking class A drugs.

Whistleblowers are protected in certain circumstances under the Public Interest Disclosure Act. This enables them to claim unfair dismissal if their employer sacks them after they reveal malpractice.

When Harmeston joined the chain she was expected to help cut costs. In 2013, issues with its banking division led The Co-Op to post a £2.5bn loss. It returned to profit in April by selling off its pharmacy and farming arms as well as improving its retail output.

Before joining The Co-Op, Harmeston spent five years as Head of Procurement at the Royal Mail.