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RIBA v Owusu: Row re-erupts as disputes go legal

Elsie owusu credit nana humphrey barclay crop

Former RIBA presidential candidate Elsie Owusu is taking the institute to an employment tribunal over her dismissal last year as chair of its Architects for Change diversity group

Owusu has also launched a crowdfunding campaign to support her legal bid in the wake of her removal in October as chair of the group, which supports the institute on equal opportunities.

At the time, RIBA president Ben Derbyshire said it was ‘no longer possible’ for Owusu to lead the group after she accused an unnamed RIBA staff member of bullying, racial and sexual harassment and discrimination.

According to the RIBA, Owusu had refused to withdraw or apologise for her allegations despite an independent review that ‘fully exonerated’ the staff member and ‘found no evidence in support of any of the allegations’.

But Owusu has hit back claiming she was subject to ‘race and sex discrimination and victimisation’, having previously made allegations about ‘institutional’ racism at the RIBA. 

In a statement accompanying the crowdfund appeal for legal fees, Owusu said: ‘My aim is to raise awareness of the need for British architecture to change in terms of diversity, discrimination, and to give everyone – no matter their sexuality, gender, race, background, or accent – the chance to succeed on their merits.

‘Fighting this tribunal is one bold step against discrimination and towards fairness in British architecture.’

An initial hearing is set for in mid-June with a full employment tribunal expected in October this year. 

Meanwhile, the RIBA is understood to have begun separate, formal disciplinary procedures against Owusu.

The AJ has learned that the institute is investigating a potential breach of the RIBA Code of Professional Conduct. If the complaint is upheld, it could lead to Owusu’s RIBA membership being suspended.

If removed as a member, she would also have to step down from RIBA Council. 

It is unknown who made the official complaint, however it is believed the action revolves around statements made to the press by Owusu during her unsuccessful election campaign last summer.

In July 2018, the RIBA sent a ‘cease and desist’ letter to presidential candidate Elsie Owusu in an attempt to prevent her making ’damaging public statements’ about the institute

The letter to Owusu –  who was one of three contenders vying to become president alongside Phil Allsopp and Alan Jones – came after she publicly criticised the salary of RIBA chief executive Alan Vallance at a hustings in Leeds.

It also emerged around the same time that the institute had recently reported Owusu to the Charity Commission over potentially reputation-damaging statements made by Owusu to The Times on 17 April, in which she claimed the RIBA was ‘institutionally racist’.

According to the institute’s letter of 29 June 2018, Owusu’s claim that Vallance was being paid six times the average architect’s salary amounted to ‘a flagrant breach of confidentiality, [was] unsubstantiated and [was] damaging to RIBA’.

The letter, written by RIBA honorary secretary Kerr Robertson, cited other instances where it felt Owusu’s ‘serious and repeated’ criticism has affected the RIBA’s ‘reputation and standing’.

Alluding to the investigation in her employment tribunal crowdfunding bid, Owusu said: ‘[It is alleged] I have broken its code of professional conduct by speaking out. This could result in my expulsion and severely affect my professional life and personal reputation.’

Asked about the complaint, the institute responded: ‘RIBA does not comment on individual conduct cases, which are confidential at least until they have been concluded.’ 


Readers' comments (2)

  • John Kellett

    Am Imissung something? The RIBA does not decide who enters the profession, students CHOOSE to. The ARB decides those considered capable and the RIBA seeks membership applications from those. If diversity is less at those stages there is not much the RIBA can do about it, there any many famous (within architecture) members of any number of sexual orientations, gender, race and colours. The problem lies elsewhere. If Elsie wants to change things she is arguing in the wrong quarters.
    The profession has one of the highest proportions of left handed people of any profession yet nobody shouts about that or even thinks of us as the minority we are :-)

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  • Yes, you are missing something. It is the RIBA’s job to attract diverse talent (https://www.architecture.com/about/strategy-and-purpose) and underpin this with a strategy based on research and reporting (https://www.architecture.com/knowledge-and-resources/resources-landing-page/riba-edi-strategy-april-2019, for example).

    Please do not conflate being left-handed with experiencing racism or associated barriers such as higher rates of poverty amongst minority groups. I’m sure a lot of left-handed BAME architects will be able to tell you which has impacted their lives more negatively.

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