Looking for fair play in disciplinary hearings

Patricia's story /

PATRICIA Campbell worked as a nurse in the Belfast Trust for over 10 years, with a career that spanned a quarter of a century. However, ever since a minor accidental misdemeanour resulted in her dismissal, she has been engaged in an uphill battle to hold her employers to account.

Her story reveals inconsistencies in the trust’s approach towards staff accused of a disciplinary offence with substantial differences between its treatment of her and its handling of similar and sometime more grave matters.

Patricia’s offence was to leave a small number of documents at the venue of meeting. But she believes she has been victimised for her trade union activity.

Other independent bodies who could have been expected to back the trust in finding her guilty of misconduct instead concluded that she had no case to answer. However the trust pursued its case against Patricia over a period of almost two years and finally sacked her last April.

She has wanted to tell her side of the story since she was first accused, but felt silenced because of her involvement in internal processes. However recent developments have meant she has hit a brick wall in the internal appeal processes and her industrial tribunal hearings have been delayed until later this year.

In telling her story, Patricia reveals that the people who disciplined and ultimately sacked her are the same personalities who were aware of one of the biggest health scandals to hit Northern Ireland in recent times – before it went public: the Lissue and Forster Green Hospitals abuse scandal, revealed by The Irish News last year.

She says the trust has also treated her differently from other members of staff in the Belfast Trust who were the subject of a complaint after sending an e-mail with xenophobic undertones – neither taking direct disciplinary action nor reporting the staff concerned to the regulatory body, the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC).

Patricia also believes the trust has shown scant regard for mounting costs of its actions against her on the public purse as well as its own contractual obligations, protocols and internal procedures for dealing with employment disputes.

It has also threatened her with a legal bill of more than £16,000 if she continues to pursue her case.

FROM THE BEGINNING…

Patricia Campbell has been an active left-wing trade union member for most of her career; she believes that this was undoubtedly a contributing factor to her early problems with senior management.

In 2007 senior trust managers were forced to issue Patricia with an apology because they had attempted to “unfairly” discipline her. At the time the Independent Review Team recommended that the trust should “inform Ms Campbell that the decision to invoke the disciplinary procedure was taken in error and to apologize to her for the distressed caused to her.”

She said: “I’d had this previous experience with the trust so I knew in many ways they were unhappy with my active trade union profile, but thankfully sense prevailed in this case and they were forced to issue me with an apology."

In October 2009 Patricia received a tip-off from a senior figure at the trust, that she was going to be sacked. Nineteen months after that advice, this became a reality and she was dismissed as a consequence of an alleged breach of the Data Protection Act.

The source of this allegation can be traced back to a meeting Ms Campbell attended in August 2009 of the Patient & Client Council (PCC).

She says: “I first learned through the work grapevine – which tends to be on the mark more often than not – that senior management in my employer were ‘rubbing their hands with glee’ that they had at last ‘got something on me now’ and that they intended disciplining and dismissing me.

“It was alleged that documents were found on a Belfast street two days after I visited the PCC were connected to me. The trust initiated an investigation three months after the papers were found.”

Patricia had learnt that she had apparently left a small number of “confidential data” behind while in the PCC’s premises. Initially she was told by her source that she had been accused of leaving the data in the PCC’s reception, but the official of the trust and the PCC would later change to a situation where a senior officer had claimed instead that they had found the data on the street outside, two days later after the meeting. This officer would pass the documents to the Information Commissioner’s office.

At this point Patricia decided to mount a formal grievance against her employers but there was no acknowledgement by the trust for over a month.

The initial investigation into her would begin on 9th October 2009, at this stage without her knowledge and she would only become aware of it on the 18th November 2009.

The lengthy internal investigation concluded in March 2010, but Patricia didn’t discover the outcome until June which she says caused her considerable stress and anxiety. In April of this year, her employment with the Belfast Trust was terminated.

Patricia feels that she was subject to intentional victimization and harassment, as well as having no access to proper procedures in line with natural justice and fairness. She was left to fight the decision of her employer on two fronts: through an industrial tribunal and through the internal appeal hearings within the Belfast Trust.

In a previous story we examined how the tribunal system had become weighted against the aggrieved employee. With her industrial tribunal hearing not due to be heard again until late April, Patricia has become increasingly frustrated with this process.

“One thing I have learnt is that the Law Lords [now the Supreme Court] have neutered the whole industrial tribunal process; the people’s court for raising these issues has been taken away from us.

“I believe this case has many implications for how employment matters should not be handled and I hope that changes can be brought in off the back of it.”

INTERNAL APPEAL

Within two days of her dismissal (12th April 2011), Patricia submitted a letter of appeal and was contractually allowed a six-stage rehearing.

However, in October of this year, the Trust sent a letter – she says out of the blue – outlining that the next hearing day on the 25th October would be the last day for hearing her appeal, even though this was only stage one of her rehearing.

The Trust has yet to provide an explanation for cutting the process short. Patricia says she has only been allowed to submit a written submission for her case and has not been afforded the opportunity of calling witnesses.

We contacted the Belfast Trust directly and they claimed that as a result of ongoing legal processes they would not be in a position to discuss the case.

THE UNLIKELY SUPPORTERS

However the process of the first phase of the appeal had yielded some useful information: written evidence from The Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) and the Information Commissioners Office (ICO).

In particular, Patricia discovered that in March 2010 the ICO had no axe to grind with Patricia – but did have questions for the trust and its processes.

Its ruling stated: “If the trust had adequate security measures in place it is unlikely that there has been a breach if a data security incident is caused by an employee not following correct procedure. If such incidents kept occurring the data controller would probably need to review the measures in place and make any necessary alterations in order to be compliant with the seventh principle.

“In this particular case it is unclear whether Ms Campbell was following Trust procedure by having the documents with her when she attended the meeting.”

Furthermore the NMC had no issue with Patricia as stated in correspondence on 6 September 2011 where it found: “no case to answer".

“The panel noted that this was a single incident and that the events had taken place over two years ago. The panel has therefore concluded that there is no real prospect that the Conduct and Competence Committee could find the registrant’s fitness to practice to be currently impaired by these allegations.”

However, when challenged about the NMC’s ruling and its implications for the disciplinary action against Patricia, the Trust replied that it was “irrelevant” in her case.

Patricia says: “I think its very apparent that the management structure decide which cases they want to bury and which cases they want to refer. That’s not in the interest of patients and it’s certainly not in the interest of the public.”

Which cases to bury and which to refer? /

NURSE X

In October 2011 The Irish News revealed how six nurses were linked to allegations of sexual, physical and mental abuse at Forster Green and Lissue hospitals during the 1980s and 1990s. As many as 19 nurses are now being reviewed.

Health authorities had failed to refer any of the nurses to the NMC at the time of the allegations or following a damning independent probe in January 2009. There were no prosecutions.

The NMC, as the regulatory body, sets standards for nurses to meet in their work. It has the power to strike nurses off its register.

As part of Patricia’s original disciplinary and appeal hearings, two of the senior nurses representing her employer would subsequently become entwined in the scandal that followed.

One was on the rehearing panel that took the decision to cut short Patricia’s appeal after her sacking. However, the Irish News investigation revealed that the same woman was one of the senior nurses who had been aware of the allegations surrounding a staff member known as Nurse X, who is linked to a string of child abuse claims.

No referral was ever made to the NMC and Nurse X continued to work in the Belfast Trust until 2009.

Another nurse involved in Patricia’s case was on the first disciplinary panel which took the decision to dismiss Patricia. However, the same Irish News investigation revealed that she had specificially raised concerns about Nurse X but still stopped short of referring Nurse X to the NMC.

THE EMAIL

As a comparator in her tribunal case, Patricia is using a piece of public interest evidence brought to her attention from an anonymous source within the trust. It deals with an offensive email circulated amongst trust staff.

The email, disseminated by a Trust employee and using Trust equipment during working hours, contained sarcastic comments about immigrants.

The contents had been the subject of a complaint by a medical consultant within the trust in July 2011, but evidence suggests that the same senior staff members who dealt with Patricia’s case took no action. No members of staff have been disciplined and no complaints have been made to the NMC.

Patricia says: “This is yet another example of the trust being opportunistic with what cases they pursue and what cases they decide to let go.

“This complaint was passed to Belfast Trust HR: the same office that has controlled the grievance and disciplinary processes against me for over two years. Yet in this clear case of gross misconduct there was no investigation, no dismissal and no referral to NMC.”

We asked the Belfast Trust to provide us with all documents, emails and memos in relation to this complaint, but it refused to do so, citing the Data Protection Act. It would only confirm that it was aware of the matter and was “taking steps to address the issue”.

LEGAL COSTS

"A job I love has been taken away from me" /

In a response to a Freedom of Information request we submitted, the Trust said that it had paid the sum of £862.50 (including VAT) on Counsel’s fees in respect of Patricia’s case.

However, Patricia has received correspondence from the Trust, threatening her with the following legal costs if she continues her Industrial Tribunal case and has costs awarded against her:

Preparation by the Respondents’ [Trust’s] solicitors for the hearing to include witness statements and preparing the bundle for hearing 60 Hours at £75 per hour

Counsel £750 per day for 10 days at Hearing

Attendance of Solicitor thereat 10 days at £450 per day

TOTAL £16,500 plus VAT

When we asked the Trust to explain the inconsistencies in both amounts it refused and said:

“The correspondence you refer to was sent to Ms Campbell by the Trust’s solicitors in the course of and for the purposes of the ongoing Tribunal proceedings between Ms Campbell and the Trust. Accordingly, the information sought in your request falls within the absolute exemption set out in section 32 (1) (b) of the Freedom of Information Act since the clarification sought relates to information contained in ‘a document served by a public authority for the purposes of proceedings in a particular cause or matter’.”

For Patricia this has been another in a series of inconsistencies when it comes to her case.

“There is no doubt this has been extremely stressful and at times hard to go on fighting, but I believe it’s important to go public with this because this is the sort of story that never gets heard," she said.

Currently Patricia is in the process of establishing a Northern Ireland arm of the whistle-blowers’ lobby group ‘Patients First’. It was originally set up by Dr Kim Holt, the doctor who blew the whistle on unsafe practices at the hospital where ‘Baby P’ was seen two days before he died. Patricia believes it is important that groups like this exist so that nurses have the confidence to report any inconsistencies in care.

“When facing up to any huge health establishments, whether that be in Northern Ireland or England, it’s never going to be easy, but groups like Patients First are a step in the right direction in showing nurses that it’s their duty to do so. "

“At the moment I can only speak for myself when I say I am determined to go the whole way. It’s about exposing a very corrupt and incompetent system, my life has been consumed with this fight, it has been very tough, because a job that I loved, was taken away from me, but I have the courage of my convictions and that’s what keeps me going.”