Bullying baronet who sacked two women for having babies still hasn’t paid them £180,000 compensation – two years after he was ordered to by a tribunal
During the precious early weeks following the birth of her baby, Melissa Biggs strapped her tiny daughter into her infant car seat and drove off to the 13th-century manor house of her aristocratic employer, Sir Benjamin Slade.
It was a couple of days before Christmas 2017 and, by rights, the admin assistant should have been enjoying maternity leave at home with Maisie, who had been born two months prematurely.
But given that she hadn’t been paid for two months and Sir Benjamin wasn’t returning her calls, Melissa was at breaking point and felt she had little choice but to confront Slade in person.
‘I placed the car seat on his desk in front of him so that he could see Maisie and asked him when I would be paid,’ recalls Melissa, 31.
It was two years ago that Melissa and fellow employee Roxanne Stewart, 31, won their sexual discrimination and unfair dismissal case against one of Britain’s most flamboyant aristocrats. Not that either has seen a penny of their £179,500 compensation
‘He just looked right through her, as if she didn’t exist, and said: ‘I’ve got more important bills to pay.’ I knew then that I had a fight on my hands.’
And what a fight it has been. It was two years ago that Melissa and fellow employee Roxanne Stewart, 31, won their sexual discrimination and unfair dismissal case against one of Britain’s most flamboyant aristocrats.
Not that either has seen a penny of their £179,500 compensation. Last week, the two women learned that 75-year-old Slade’s latest attempt to get out of paying them damages has dramatically failed, with a judge branding him ‘malicious and cynical’.
In an exclusive interview with the Mail, the two women have spoken for the first time of their despicable treatment by notorious self-publicist Slade and the devastating impact his behaviour has had on them.
The 2019 tribunal heard that Slade, filled with a ‘vindictive desire’ to get rid of the women after learning they were both pregnant, had failed to pay them, carrying out ‘one of the most egregious acts of discrimination possible.’
He referred to their maternity pay as ‘f***ing entitlements’ and also claimed the two women had ‘got pregnant together on purpose just to spite him’.
‘He treated us as if we were nobodies,’ says Roxanne who, three months after Melissa’s baby Maisie was born, gave birth to her own daughter, Berrie, in December 2017.
Last week, it emerged that he had been quizzed by police after a huge cannabis farm was found at Woodlands Castle, one of the properties on his 1,300-acre estate in Ruishton, Somerset. Slade was not charged with any offences relating to the discovery, but a 39-year-old Vietnamese man found at the property during the raid has been found guilty of producing cannabis
She had worked for Slade for ten years and amid the stress of Slade’s attempts to get rid of her, went into labour two months prematurely and was sacked while her daughter was still in intensive care.
‘I felt ashamed and humiliated by what he did to me,’ says Roxanne, who lives near Bridgwater, Somerset, with her partner Jack, a dairy farmer, and their two children. ‘His behaviour towards us felt disgusting and inhumane. We believe we were treated as worthless just for being pregnant.’
Melissa adds: ‘His mistake was thinking we were just little people who would do as he said and simply go away. He thought he had power over us because he had a title.’
These are troubled times in other ways for the baronet, who boasts an ancestry stretching back to Alfred the Great. Happy to court controversy when he is seeking publicity — in 2006, he advertised for a ‘castle-trained’ wife to provide him with ‘an heir and a spare’ — Slade finds himself in the glare of a more unwelcome spotlight.
Last week, it emerged that he had been quizzed by police after a huge cannabis farm was found at Woodlands Castle, one of the properties on his 1,300-acre estate in Ruishton, Somerset. Slade was not charged with any offences relating to the discovery, but a 39-year-old Vietnamese man found at the property during the raid has been found guilty of producing cannabis.
Woodlands Castle, ironically, was where Melissa and Roxanne had worked for Slade, helping to run a wedding and conference venue hire business. All this came to an abrupt end with the pandemic.
When police raided Woodlands Castle in June this year, a police drugs expert said it was one of the biggest drug farms he’d ever come across. During the raid, police found 3,500 cannabis plants with a potential street value of £1.4 million, stuffed into 23 rooms on three floors.
The 2019 tribunal heard that Slade, filled with a ‘vindictive desire’ to get rid of the women after learning they were both pregnant, had failed to pay them, carrying out ‘one of the most egregious acts of discrimination possible’
Meanwhile, it’s been a busy year for the baronet. In the summer, it emerged he was engaged to Sahara Sunday Spain, 29, the daughter of former Black Panther gang member, Johnny Spain. Now Slade is believed to be single again, living in a farmhouse on his estate.
Roxanne started working at Woodlands, the 200-year-old pink-tinted country house, set in 12 acres of parkland, straight from school in July 2008. She worked first as a catering and bar assistant before being made a receptionist.
After she gave birth to her first child, Crystal, in 2013, she placed her in full-time nursery and returned to work just six weeks later. The following year she was promoted to deputy manager on a salary of £25,000 plus commission, responsible for generating new business.
‘I had no problems with him at that point,’ she says, although she recalls that he would patronisingly pat her on the head and call her a ‘good girl’ when he wanted to praise her. ‘I didn’t like it but I just ignored it,’ she said.
‘He was a bit crazy and eccentric but I was working hard to bring him business and he was pleased with my work. I enjoyed what I did.’
It was Roxanne who interviewed Melissa for the £18,500-a-year post of administration assistant in May 2015. Slade also interviewed her.
‘My first impression was of a harmless eccentric,’ says Melissa, who lives in Taunton with her husband James, 30, Maisie, four, and one-year-old Reuben. ‘That’s the side he likes to convey to the public. But later, I saw a very different side to him, a vindictive side and not harmless at all.’
Problems began for the women in 2017. Melissa, who had suffered a miscarriage in early 2016, was due to give birth in November, and Roxanne in January 2018, but Melissa suffered a liver condition called obstetric cholestasis and gave birth eight weeks early in September.
She received statutory maternity pay in September and October. This entitles new mothers to 90 per cent of their salary for the first six weeks and then a maximum of £151.97 a week for the next 33 weeks. It’s paid by employers who then claim it back from HMRC.
Roxanne had also lost a pregnancy at 20 weeks that March. Slade must have been aware because, while off work, she received flowers with a card signed by ‘Sir Ben and all the team’ although she suspects they were organised by a female staff member.
In October, a month after Melissa had given birth prematurely, Roxanne told Slade she was pregnant.
‘He showed absolutely no reaction. He didn’t congratulate me,’ says Roxanne. Instead, he asked her if she would consider becoming self-employed and moving to a zero-hours contract as part of his ‘restructuring’ of his company.
‘He knew full well that if I’d done that he wouldn’t have to cover my maternity pay. I said ‘no’ and that I’d think about it after I returned from maternity leave.’
In November 2017, Roxanne wasn’t paid her salary and Melissa, whose daughter was still in and out of hospital, didn’t receive her maternity pay. She called Slade and was fobbed off with talk about company restructuring.
The same thing happened the following month. Her husband James was training to be an accountant and so they were dependent on her salary to pay their mortgage and bills.
After her crunch meeting with Slade just before Christmas, she says she contacted arbitration service ACAS and eventually resigned, citing maternity discrimination and breach of contract.
‘It was a terrible time,’ says Melissa. ‘It ruined our first Christmas with Maisie. We were struggling to make ends meet and using overdrafts and credit cards. It was so stressful.’ When Roxanne asked why she hadn’t been paid, she was falsely accused of ‘irregularities to catering requirements’ and suspended — supposedly on full pay. ‘I was in shock,’ she says. ‘I’d worked there nearly ten years only to be treated like that.’
She believes it is no coincidence that in the midst of all this stress, she went into premature labour just hours before a meeting. She was visiting Melissa and her new baby when she began bleeding heavily.
‘I went to the bathroom,’ she says. ‘I called out to Mel to get an ambulance. I thought I was going to lose another baby.’
She was still so terrified about losing her job that while her daughter was in intensive care she made time to contact Slade’s office to say she wouldn’t be able to make the meeting. She breaks down in tears when she recalls how she was then fired by handwritten letter, delivered on the day she brought her baby home from hospital.
‘The worst thing of all,’ she says, ‘was that it made it hard for me to bond with Berrie. Having a new baby was causing me all these problems and so I resented her for turning my life upside down. I couldn’t think or feel straight.’
But if Slade, who was successfully sued by another female employee in 2011, reckoned on the two women going away quietly, he was wrong. His despicable behaviour first emerged at a Bristol employment tribunal in 2019. When the two women first complained, it emerged he had threatened to report them to the police for theft. He also maliciously blamed their premature births on their smoking and drinking before pregnancy.
‘I lost trust in employers,’ says Melissa, who works two night a week as a waitress. ‘I put my heart and soul into working for him only to have it thrown back in my face.’
Roxanne also suffered when she began looking for a new job, breaking down in interviews when she was asked why she had left her last position. She works full-time as a customer services administrator.
When the women won their case in 2019, the tribunal awarded Roxanne £108,744 and Melissa, £70,760. Slade unsuccessfully appealed against a £26,500 ‘uplift’ fee included in that amount because of the severity of the case.
Until he finally coughs up the money he owes them, the women feel they do not have closure. Nor will they get back the early days with their now four-year-old daughters which were marred by crippling anxiety.
Roxanne says: ‘His behaviour has been so vengeful. He’s had to pay out more in legal costs than he would ever have had to pay out in maternity pay, which he would have been able to claim back from the Government. He’s not fit to carry a title.’
Over the past decade, Slade has attempted to make ends meet at his estate by hiring out both Woodlands and his 17-bedroom manor house five miles away, Maunsel House. But last year, he advertised for someone to share the manor house: ‘Good Right-wing, hunting, shooting types with a love of fine wine and £20,000 a month to pay their way.’
He also offered his premises as a national Covid test centre. This year, he put Maunsel House up for sale for £30 million.
When contacted via his lawyer, Slade said he had no comment — but that he was considering appealing the judgment.
‘Whatever your dreams are, at Woodlands Castle we can make them true,’ he once boasted on his website. As Melissa and Roxanne continue their wait for the thousands he owes them, how empty those words seem now.
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