How Sellafield and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority misuse taxpayer’s money to hound a whistleblower

Alison Mc Dermott, whistleblower

One of the biggest tactics to frighten whistleblowers by big companies and health trusts is to threaten whistleblowers exposing malpractice, corruption and discrimination and say they have to pay hundreds of thousands of pounds in costs unless they settle or drop their claims for detriment at employment tribunals.

The tactic regularly used by firms and health trusts in employment tribunal cases is based on a lie. The maximum an employment tribunal can order costs is £20,000 per respondent. Only if it goes to the High Court can a firm or health trust demand such eye-watering sums.

However Sellafield, the NDA and the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy ministry have decided that it is worth pursuing whistleblower Alison McDermott, a consultant formerly employed by Sellafield for the maximum £40,000 shared between the NDA and Sellafield. They know she has no income and they have even tried to close down her crowdfunding site to raise money to defend herself against their costs claim.

Her whistleblower site is here and you can donate to bring the sum up to £10,000 within the next 14 days otherwise she loses the lot.

Damning report revealed relentless bullying at Sellafield

Alison was called in by Sellafield’s human resources department to investigate their working practices and produced a damning report revealing employees were subjected to appalling racist, sexist and homophobic abuse and relentless bullying. Only 11 per cent felt they could raise issues with the company without reprisals and four percent thought they got honest answers. Faced with such a damning account Sellafield sacked her rather than change its ways.

This led to an employment tribunal case which not only found in favour of Sellafield and the NDA but saw her publicly denigrated by Sellafield’s barrister, Deshpal Panesar KC, who accused her of ‘acting out of revenge’  of being ‘intent on ruining careers’ of being ‘self-absorbed’ and ‘a woman clearly in pursuit of a windfall.’ 

The NDA tried to buy her off with a £160,000 pay out in return for her silence on what she had found at Sellafield. She refused to accept – arguing among other points that such a culture permeating a nuclear facility was dangerous given serious issues of health and safety. She tried to raise this with BEIS but they refused to meet with her having signed off the £160,000 settlement.

Now a judge has ruled that she is entitled to appeal on six different grounds – and she has secured Andrew Allen, KC, a lawyer who represented Dr Chris Day, in his recent whistleblowing tribunal case against Lewisham and Greenwich NHS Trust, to represent her.

But she has also to face a costs hearing. So how is this being pursued by the NDA and Sellafield.

Sellafield

I put in two freedom of information requests to Sellafield and the NDA on how much they had spent and the revelations were very interesting. Sellafield has already spent £5640.16 on external advice plus using its own staff to pursue Alison. The NDA spent £7524.58 on external legal advice and an unknown sum on staff time to pursue her. So before we even get to court over £13,000 has been spent using taxpayers money. Furthermore the NDA according to an internal memo spent money on lawyers trying to close down her whistleblowing appeal with no success. The total cost spent by both organisations fighting Alison has exceeded £500,000 of taxpayers money.

The replies also revealed that the boards of both organisations including the Chief executive officer of the NDA , David Peattie ,were ” apprised” of the decision meaning that it reached board level. BEIS was also informed and approved the costs case but declined to comment about it because of current legal proceedings. What on earth are the boards of these organisations spending their time on this when they have much serious work to do on issues like nuclear safety and disposing of old nuclear power stations.

Now when this gets to a tribunal there will be a two day hearing and according to internal NDA documents it was paying over £5500 a day for top notch barristers. It is reasonable to assume so was Sellafield. This means the hearing will cost another £22,000 as they will be represented separately.

So altogether we are taking about £35,000 as a minimum ( excluding staff time) to recover a maximum of £40,000. That is – if they win. And even if they win most judges rarely award the full sum if it is a litigant in person. It is more likely to be £5000. If they lose this is taxpayers’ money being thrown down the drain.

If this was a commercial company I very much doubt it would past muster as a ” business case”. It is only because the boards of these organisations have unlimited access to taxpayers money that they can pursue this.

And to my mind this is only being pursued to hound a whistleblower who has produced some very damning information about life in Sellafield. This has called Sellafield’s reputation into question and they don’t like it, hence this vindictive approach.

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Backtracking and pussy footing: How a top judge reneged on plans to start nationwide recordings at tribunals

Employment Tribunal Open Justice Campaign

Judge Brian Doyle, former president of employment tribunals for England and Wales Pic credit: Salford University

New information has emerged showing how HM Court and Tribunal Service has backtracked and pussy footed over ending the scandalous failure to provide proper recordings and transcripts at employment tribunal hearings.

This failure led to a letter signed by over 320 people -including 80 NHS consultants and leading professors- demanding an explanation from Sir Keith Lindblom, senior president of the tribunals, on why this has not been done. There is widespread dissatisfaction among whistleblowers both in the NHS and industrial hearings about this.

Now minutes from a national tribunal user group have revealed that a plan to introduce the recording of tribunals across the country was dumped – despite resources being available – two years ago.

Judge Brian Doyle, the former president of Employment Tribunals for England and Wales, promised on February 27, 2019 to introduce the recording of tribunals, at a meeting of the group. The group is attended by senior judges, representatives of the TUC, ACAS the Law Society, the Business Energy and Industrial Strategy department and the Citizens Advice Bureaux

Roll out of recording facilities planned to be completed by March 2020

The minutes record: “The President addressed the need for audio-recording of ET hearings. Resources had been found to enable this to be achieved and both the Employment Tribunal and the First-tier Tribunal would benefit from the acquisition of recording equipment in hearing rooms. It was planned to be a gradual rollout from April 2019 to March 2020.”

He went on: “Testing of equipment would be required. A nationally agreed protocol would cover the practice of recording hearings and the provision of transcripts. If a party were to ask for a transcript, as in the courts it would be on the payment of a fee.”

“The President said that audio-recording would be welcome for a number of reasons: reducing the need for the judges to take verbatim notes; providing parties with a transcript of the hearing; improving the conduct of hearings generally; providing some discouragement for litigants or witnesses to misconduct themselves in hearings; and giving leadership judges the means to check complaints about how a judge allegedly behaved in a hearing (and thereby perhaps discouraging unmeritorious complaints).

By November 2019 the minutes recorded: “The President updated the members on the intention to provide audio-recording equipment in all Employment Tribunal hearing rooms. A budget for the equipment had been secured, but making this proposal operational was taking a little longer than intended because it was important to get the right recording equipment and to have in place a protocol for its use. “

Yet by March 2020 when the pandemic struck nothing appears to have been done -apart from a few trials. One of them at social security and child support hearings in Exeter had already been a success before February 2019.

Judge Barry Clarke, current president of employment tribunals for England and Wales

Now two years later under a new president Judge Barry Clarke there appears to be little progress – no protocol has been published let alone sent out for consultation. If there had been transcripts could have been provided in a number of highly controversial whistleblowers cases – notably the case between Alison McDermott and Sellafield and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority; Usha Prasad and Epsom and St Helier University Health Trust and further cases involving the junior doctor Chris Day and the Health Education England.

Instead there appears to be a hostile attitude by some judges to any transparency in the tribunal system.

I would cite Judge Hughes as a good example. She ruled in a Birmingham employment tribunal case ( Mr R Kumar V MES Environmental Ltd.) The case involved racial discrimination and victimisation. He lost the case and applied for a transcript.

She ruled this was ILLEGAL. He was told by a court administrator:.

“Employment Judge Hughes has asked me to inform you that the reason you cannot apply for a transcript is because you are not legally entitled to make such an application. You are referred to the Employment Tribunals (Rules of Procedure Regulations) 2013. “

The judge doubled down the was “no legal mechanism by which an application for a transcript of Employment Tribunal proceedings can be made”. The judge stated that there was no prospect of her decision being varied or revoked “because there is no legal right to a transcript of Employment Tribunal proceedings”.

Judge Auerbach Pic Credit: Law Gazette

Two months ago this ruling went before Judge Simon Auerbach at an appeal tribunal. He revoked this saying that since in this case HMCTS had made a recording of the hearing Mr Kumar was entitled to apply for it and it was not illegal to do so.

Now judges are many things but they are not stupid. It seems extraordinary that Judge Hughes was not aware that discussions were going ahead at the time to introduce recordings and she must known in that case the hearing had been recorded. She obviously did not want him to have it.

Similarly anti recording attitudes seem to be propagated by Judge Tony Hyams-Parish in Dr Usha Prasad’s case ( see previous blogs) and by the Judge Lancaster in Alison McDermott’s case agaInst Sellafield. He refused Alison’s request for a recording even though he had the equipment to do so. Both just say there is no recording so you cannot have it. Hyams-Parish also believes that journalists should not have access to the bundles in cases either.

Alex Chalk MP, the solicitor general

But there is worse to come. Anybody listening to a tribunal hearing is banned from recording it. One person who did is now being prosecuted by the solicitor general., Alex Chalk, the Conservative MP for Cheltenham.

Katarzyna Paczkowska has had her case referred to the High Court after she used a recording to challenge a tribunal judgement. Her case is complicated and runs to 1800 pages so I won’t go into it now – except to say how ferociously this rule is being used without the tribunals agreeing to record the hearings. Manchester employment tribunal and her respondent, R-com. Consulting, raised the issue.

For my mind the present situation is one of drift, back tracking and pussy footing by the top judges.

A Ministry of Justice Spokesperson said:

“Though there is no legal requirement to record employment tribunals, handheld recording devices have been made available through this pilot which started in September 2019.”

My understanding is that HMCTS has an aspiration of a nationwide recording of all tribunals but no timetable yet on how this going to be achieved. But there does not appear to be any drive and determination to get this done, even though resources had been put aside. It is simply not good enough.

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Guest blog: The appalling treatment of NHS whistleblowers parallels the Post Office sub-post masters scandal

Dr David.E.Ward,

 David E Ward, a distinguished retired cardiologist, formerly at St George’s Hospital, South London, responds to the judgement by Tony Hyams-Parish on the case of Dr Usha Prasad

The treatment of NHS whistleblowers is a national scandal of the same iniquitous order of magnitude as the miscarriages of justice meted out to the sub-postmasters. This latter saga began 20 years ago after the installation of faulty software called Horizon from Fujitsu. Incredibly it was not picked up for years because the victims were not believed or they were accused of lying. The evidence was not properly collated or scrutinised. Or was it, but no-one said anything. “No other post office has had this problem” they were told. Perhaps the current Judge led inquiry will find out. Many were incarcerated. Some sold their homes to pay thousands of pounds of fictitious till deficits. Sadly, some committed suicide.

The sequence of events for NHS whistleblowers is different but the outcomes are strikingly similar. The NHS whistleblowers’ stories are largely unknown to the wider public apart from the occasional one featured in a national newspaper.

The WB raises a concern, which by the way is their duty under law, (Duty of Candourhttps://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukdsi/2014/9780111117613)

but instead of welcoming the exposure of the defect of a system (e.g. number of beds in a limited space), faulty equipment (e.g. a diagnostic machine) or a process (e.g. errors in admission procedures – wrong patient or wrong procedure) any of which may lead to patient harm or even death), the Trust fails to act but instead embarks upon a path of vicious and disproportionate reprisals against the WB.

The consequence of this chain of events is often catastrophic for the individual. The whistleblowing doctor may be subjected to repeated internal hearings, quasi-disciplinary proceedings, Maintaining High Professional Standards hearings etc. The latter may be chaired by lay persons with a legal qualification but posing as a barrister. Most doctors subject themselves (they raise an appeal) to an Employment Tribunal in the hope that justice will prevail. Sadly it does not. These proceedings are not formally recorded for later open scrutiny. The judge’s notes (such as they may exist) are private and not made available. It is also a criminal offence to make an electronic recording. The litigant can take notes but how do they manage to do that whilst giving evidence or listening intently to the evolution of their own fate? A preposterous suggestion.

Expensive lawyers who support the health trust

There is another major factor in these processes. They could not proceed without the complicity of the teams of expensive solicitors and barristers who support the Respondent. All this is paid for by the taxpayer. The claimant will of course have their own legal support if they can afford it but which is obviously limited by costs. This gross “inequality of arms” is a major factor in the final “justice” handed out. I don’t think many of us would call that fair and just. Doctors are threatened with enormous costs which in most cases could only be met by selling the family home. Why? Oh yes, it’s to force them to withdraw their claims and believe it or not it usually works!

Judge Tony Hyams-Parish

At Employment Tribunals it appears that the sum total of evidence is not scrutinised. Some evidence appears to be selectively omitted at the discretion of the ET Judge. In the Dr Prasad case (see David Hencke’s last blog) the admission by the lead of cardiology (Dr Richard Bogle) that a death which should have been reported to the coroner was not reported but “covered-up” is not even mentioned in the final judgment! One could ask for the transcript to check that this observation is correct. (Oh, no I can’t because there is no transcript but I did attend the virtual ET hearing and can vouch that I heard it stated!) That worked out quite well then didn’t it? To an outside observer who has some vicarious experience of these Tribunals it is nothing short of gobsmackingly incredible in a western democracy (I don’t have the full panoply of words to describe it!).

Former post office workers celebrate outside the Royal Courts of Justice, London, after having their convictions overturned by the Court of Appeal. Thirty-nine former subpostmasters who were convicted of theft, fraud and false accounting because of the Post Office’s defective Horizon accounting system have had their names cleared by the Court of Appeal. Issue date: Friday April 23, 2021. PA Photo. Photo credit : Yui Mok/PA Wire

The Post Office workers (Horizon scandal) did not commit any crimes neither did the NHS Whistleblowers. They have not broken any laws. Yet how is it that they have failed to present a case of sufficient strength to convince an ET Judge? Their punishment for exposing potentially harmful processes, which could save lives, is to be condemned, lose their careers, their livelihoods, their homes and in some cases their families or even their own lives. Put simply they are crushed by massive inequality of arms – expensive lawyers funded by the taxpayer. Swathes of evidence is ignored.

Is there some sort of collusion between the judiciary and the respondent or their legal representatives? Some MHPS hearings are seemingly very dodgy (some doctors/victims have observed this and can demonstrate it with evidence) up to and including the invention of spurious legal terms such as “fitness for purpose” which is unknown in British Employment law (see David Hencke’s blog on the Maintaining High Professional Standards Appeal).

Then there is always the possibility of undeclared conflicts of interest in the appointment of an ET officials. Just saying…..

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