Arts Council England seeks £40k from Mercury Prize winner Speech Debelle after tribunal loss

Aprilia Rine

Arts Council England seeks £40k from Mercury Prize winner Speech Debelle after tribunal loss

The Arts Council England (ACE) is seeking legal costs mounting to £40,000 from Mercury Prize winner Speech Debelle, following the musician losing an employment tribunal after bringing forward claims of racial discrimination.

The singer rose to prominence in 2009 after she unexpectedly won the Mercury Prize award that year for her album ‘Speech Therapy’ – beating off competition from the likes of Florence + The Machines, The Horrors and Kasabian.

Following the win, Debelle – real name Corynne Elliot – went on to work with ACE as a relationship manager for three years. She left the job in September 2021, and brought a tribunal forward against the organisation last year, citing discrimination.

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According to the claims brought forward (via The Guardian), the musician accused the company of microaggressions, bullying and harassment during her time there, and stated that the work-related stress was what led to her departure. ACE denied all accusations, and last October judges ruled in favour of Arts Council England.

Now, following the judge’s ruling that Elliot had not faced direct or indirect race discrimination or race-related harassment, ACE have decided to take legal action to recover the money it spent during the case, a figure it estimates is £40,000.

Both the rapper and her legal team could potentially be made to pay £20,000 each, although Debelle has accused the company of trying to punish her for taking legal action against them.

Speech Debelle performs supporting Mr Hudson at Manchester Academy on November 12, 2009 in Manchester, England. (Photo by Shirlaine Forrest/WireImage/Getty Images)

“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,” she claimed, also highlighting how the organisation has never attempted to seek out legal costs before. She has also set up a crowdfunding campaign to cover her side of the costs, which, at time of writing has raised just under £1,000 of the £5,000 target.

Responding to the comments by Debelle, a spokesperson for ACE said: “The unanimous judgement 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.

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“Whilst we will not 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. Our approach is based on the comments of the judge on the claimant’s case, which was dismissed on every point.”

The vocalist also took to X, stating how she “spearheaded the Black Influencers Workshop”, but thinks she may have made ACE “look bad” by her success.

After the 2009 win, Debelle went on to share the second LP ‘Freedom of Speech’, but was later dropped by her label Big Dada. From there, she had a brief stint on Celebrity MasterChef and opened a food truck in East London.

As highlighted by The Guardian, she also helped curate the Strength and Vulnerability Bunker branch of the Koestler Trust prisoners’ arts programme and, while at ACE, set up the Black Influencers Masterclass and Programme – which looked to support Black and minority ethnic artists seeking access arts funding.

Aside from the conflict with Debelle, ACE was forced in January to amend the “reputational risk” guidance that suggested “overtly political or activist” work could break funding agreements.

The case ACE has raised against Debelle will be heard next Wednesday (March 13).

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