Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 16 April 2014

Woman who blew whistle on failings in Northern Ireland fire service furious her bosses won't be held to account

Linda Ford's claims were dismissed
Linda Ford's claims were dismissed

A whistleblower who was treated "appallingly" after coming forward with allegations of financial wrongdoing in the fire service is angry that senior officers have not been held accountable for their actions.

Linda Ford was suspended by then chief fire officer Peter Craig after she raised concerns.

Yesterday, a scathing report by the Assembly's Public Accounts Committee concluded that Ms Ford's suspension was directly related to her whistleblowing and was wrong.

The report accused Mr Craig of behaving reprehensibly, adding that fire service chairman Joe McKee was also involved in the "appalling treatment".

Ms Ford has said she is "absolutely delighted" with the report, adding that it had "totally vindicated" her.

However, she is angry that no-one will be held to account for what happened.

A member of the committee that produced the report said it would be unacceptable if those involved escaped action.

PAC vice-chair John Dallat said he believed action could still be taken, even though Mr Craig has since left the fire service and Mr McKee will retire later this year.

"I believe the option is open to consider further what action might be taken against those featured in the report," he said.

"It is certainly an area which the public has an interest in because it's glaringly obvious that taking retirement, resigning or moving somewhere else is an easy option for those who brought discredit and shame on the organisation they worked for."

In July 2011, Ms Ford made a series of allegations about wrongdoing within NIFRS on a range of financial issues.

The following month she was suspended by Mr Craig following an allegation that she had breached data security – a claim rejected by the PAC.

She returned to work in July 2012, but did not take up her former position until June this year.

Ms Ford later received an apology from the Department of Health and compensation of £20,000 from the fire service following an industrial tribunal.

The PAC report strongly criticised Ms Ford's treatment.

It said: "The committee is in no doubt that the decision by Mr Craig to suspend Ms Ford was directly related to her whistleblowing and it was clearly wrong.

"As a result of his actions, Mr Craig has caused both reputational damage and financial loss to the service, as well as injury to an individual who had properly raised her concerns.

"It seems to the committee that Mr Craig was, at best, indifferent as to whether the suspension was justified or in accordance with proper procedures, since he acted against legal advice to consult HR (human resources).

"The committee finds that Mr Craig's attempts to justify his decision to suspend Ms Ford are entirely unconvincing and reprehensible.

"The NIFRS chair [Joe McKee] was also involved in the appalling treatment of the whistleblower."

Ms Ford submitted two grievances against Mr Craig in July and August 2011. These should have been heard by an independent person.

However, the report stated that Mr Craig set aside due process by personally responding to the first and being involved in responding to the second, which was "totally improper".

Ms Ford did not want to be interviewed yesterday.

But Nipsa official Antoinette McMillen, who has been dealing with Ms Ford's case, said she wanted to get on with her life.

"She is absolutely delighted with the outcome of the report," Ms McMillen said.

"She has been through hell and back and is delighted to have been vindicated by the PAC.

"However, she is disappointed that no-one will be held to account either in NIFRS or the Department of Health for this."

Ms McMillen said an urgent review of whistleblowing procedures was needed.

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