Whistleblower suspension criticised
A former chief fire officer who suspended a whistleblower after she alleged financial wrongdoing in the organisation has been accused of reprehensible behaviour.
Peter Craig faced fierce criticism from the all-party Public Accounts Committee (PAC) at Stormont, which said Linda Ford's treatment was appalling.
The committee said: "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."
Miss Ford won £20,000 compensation after she took a case against the fire service. She was suspended by the then chief fire officer on suspicion of breaching data security when she reported financial irregularities.
The Committee report 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."
The fire service chairman, Joe McKee, is to retire at the end of this year, a year earlier than planned.
The fire service's chairman was also involved in the "appalling" treatment of the whistleblower, the Committee report said.
He knew Mr Craig had cited Ms Ford's whistleblowing letter to the Department of Health in the letter suspending her and should have been alert to the possibility of victimisation, MLAs added.
"Instead he wrongly decided that this was a purely operational matter in which he would not intervene," the PAC added.
It took almost two years to deal with Miss Ford's suspension.
"The Committee finds it completely unacceptable that NIFRS allowed the investigation into the alleged data protection breach to continue for as long as it did.
"The Committee considers that it is deplorable that a member of staff should have a potentially serious disciplinary matter hanging over their head for such a lengthy period: this would place anyone under intolerable pressure."
Ms Ford submitted two grievances against Mr Craig in July and August 2011. These were not heard by an independent person as would be expected. Instead Mr Craig personally responded to the first and was involved in responding to the second.
"The Committee considers that in responding in this way Mr Craig was setting aside due process to an extent that was totally improper."
The chairman admitted he had discussed Ms Ford's grievance with Mr Craig and that Mr Craig had told him that he intended to discuss the matter with her.
"The c hair should have known this was improper and should have ensured this contact did not take place."
The chairman also decided to stall hearing Ms Ford's grievances until the investigation into the alleged data security breach was concluded, contravening fire service disciplinary policies.
SDLP MLA and PAC deputy chairman John Dallat said: "In order to address the dysfunctional culture in NIFRS, three things must happen: there must be effective leadership to drive up standards; good management to ensure that the right procedures are in place and are applied; and appropriate disciplinary action when failures occur."
Health minister Edwin Poots said: "It is clear that the culture and working practices within the NIFRS headquarters did not encourage openness, transparency and trust. That culture must change to one that is modern, responsive and accountable."
He recently launched Fraud Awareness Month and emphasised again that all arms length bodies, including the NIFRS, are required to have a whistleblowing policy in place.
"My message to staff, issued on 22 March 2012, sets out clearly my commitment to the 'highest possible standards of conduct, openness, honesty and accountability' and aims to encourage a culture within which staff feel they can speak up and that their concerns will be responded to positively," he added.
"We need to ensure that lessons are learned from the handling of the whistleblowers in this case."