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Arts Council England is pursuing Mercury Prize winning musician Speech Debelle for around £100,000 in legal costs.

Speech Debelle, real name Corynne Elliot, performing at a music concert
Speech Debelle won the Mercury Prize in 2009 and went on to work for Arts Council England

Piotr Drabik/Creative Commons

Arts Council England (ACE) is taking legal action to recover money it spent defending a claim of racial discrimination made by award-winning musician Speech Debelle, it has emerged.

During a five-day employment tribunal hearing last October the artist, whose real name is Corynne Elliot, claimed that a number of separate incidents of microaggressions, harassment and bullying led to work-related stress and anxiety and her eventual resignation from her job as a Relationship Manager in August 2021.

But Employment Judge Garry Smart concluded ACE had been "genuinely supportive" during her time working at the organisation, labelling her case "unreasonable" and finding no grounds for her claims.


It has now emerged that ACE has made an application for Elliot to cover the cost of the case, with a hearing scheduled to take place on Wednesday 13 March.

While it is unusual for employers to be awarded costs against an employee, a tribunal may make a costs order against a party if they are found to have been “vexatious, abusive, disruptive or otherwise unreasonable” in bringing the claim or in the conduct of the claim.

'Fighting for injustice'

In a statement to Arts Professional, Elliot said that during her employment the organisation "refused to listen to [her] or the other members of staff saying the organisation is harbouring racism and micro-aggressions within the work place".

She added she had also flagged concerns about "unconscious bias" in how ACE funds organisations led by Black people and people of colour. 

"They pretended to listen and to pay lip service to issues brought up, like a black square on social media during [Black Lives Matter]," she said.

"But when someone has had enough and speaks up about racism, they try to crush them. Now they want to make sure they send a message that the might of the organisation will be against you if you dare to stand up to them. 

"I want to show them that we can and will speak up and no matter how hard they try, we won't stop fighting for injustice."

Elliot had claimed discrimination or victimisation on the grounds of race or ethnic origin based on several incidents including being interrupted by a more senior colleague during a meeting, the content of emails sent to her about her return to work following sickness absence and alleged racist comments made by colleagues.

Dismissing the claims, Judge Smart said concerns about Elliot's performance were raised prior to her claims being made.

"We are not persuaded by any of the facts that discrimination or persecution has taken place. All the claimants allegations fail and are dismissed," he said.

The hearing took place in the weeks following publication of an independent review into inclusion at ACE.

The review, commissioned by ACE in 2022 to assess its progress in the area, found the public body had achieved "commendable progress" concerning equality, diversity and inclusion.

But it concluded that action is required on a number of issues including instances of racism, with almost all staff colleagues of Black, Asian and ethnically diverse backgrounds "sharing negative experiences at ACE in relation to their race".

'Custodians of public money'

An Arts Council England spokesperson said: “The unanimous judgment of the tribunal was that the claims against Arts Council England were dismissed and the tribunal found that Arts Council staff acted professionally and appropriately.

"Whilst we cannot comment further as proceedings are ongoing, we can confirm that we take our responsibility as custodians of taxpayers’ money seriously, and are therefore seeking to recover legal costs.”

A crowdfunding campaign to cover Elliot's legal costs for the forthcoming hearing has been launched.