Robert Huey was constantly brought into discussions — despite devastating findings
Northern Ireland’s chief vet was regularly involved in Civil Service discussions about how to handle the case of a whistleblower who he helped hound out of her job, the Belfast Telegraph can reveal.
Robert Huey was central to a scandal which cost taxpayers more than £1.25m in compensation to Tamara Bronckaers and has shredded the reputation of the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (DAERA), yet he remains in post without having been disciplined.
Now new material obtained by this newspaper shows that Dr Huey was not kept away from discussions about a case in which he was deeply implicated.
Documents released under the Freedom of Information Act show that Dr Huey was repeatedly involved in discussions about the situation as it became increasingly exposed to public view.
DAERA withheld much of the documentation sought by this newspaper, claiming that it was legally privileged.
Given Stormont’s culture of oral government, the material is likely to only represent a fraction of DAERA’s entire consideration of the case, much of which will have been verbal and unrecorded.
This newspaper first asked DAERA questions about the case on January 31. Those questions included a request for details of any disciplinary action against Dr Huey or the other key person involved in forcing Dr Bronckaers out, Julian Henderson (who Dr Huey has since promoted to deputy chief vet). Those questions were immediately forwarded to Dr Huey and Dr Henderson.
The department had lost an employment tribunal case taken by Dr Bronckaers last September and at that point it was not known that it had appealed that devastating verdict, using public money to do so.
A senior DAERA official replied that day to say that an appeal had been lodged, but the press office did not reveal this at the time. Dr Huey then replied to ask: “Who is leading has led [sic] on this?”
Senior official David Torrens replied to say: “[redacted] have chatted to [redacted] and we both recall Robert had asked Brian to lead on the department’s response to this — I separately learned later that an appeal had been initiated (again, I expect from Brian D’s side, >VSAHG’s) and I will have a think/root around and see who on his side it is most likely to be…”
When DAERA was asked if that email meant Dr Huey was the “Robert” referred to and, if so, why he was taking any decisions relating to a case in which he was so heavily implicated, the department did not answer the question.
Instead, it said: “Dr Huey and Dr Henderson are not currently involved in decision making on how the department is handling this issue.”
On March 10, the Belfast Telegraph revealed that DAERA was using public money to overturn the tribunal verdict in which a judge said she did not believe Dr Huey or Dr Henderson’s testimony.
The following day, Mr Torrens referred to this newspaper and a request for information from the Assembly’s agriculture committee. In an email to Dr Huey and others, he said it was unlikely they would be able to give the department’s view on the case at that point because it was before a court but that their HR department “would be the best party to provide the committee with at least the high-level response re the ‘grounds for appeal’”.
However, DAERA’s most senior official, Anthony Harbinson, decided that the committee should not be sent any comment until the case ended.
Five days later, Dr Huey emailed Mr Harbinson in reference to the Belfast Telegraph coverage. Dr Huey asked: “Would a case conference be useful?”
An email sent on March 21 from someone in Civil Service HR referred to a “consultation” — perhaps with lawyers — in two days’ time and said someone from the Departmental Solicitor’s Office would be “point of contact for Robert and Michael on Wednesday”. That email was sent to Dr Huey, indicating that he was the Robert referred to.
On April 4, deputy chief vet Michael Hatch sent Mr Harbinson an email containing “draft lines to take” on the situation. The email was marked ‘URGENT/IMPORTANT Official Sensitive: Senior Counsel Opinion’ and was again copied to Dr Huey. However, DAERA has not released the document’s contents.
The following day, Mr Hatch sent Dr Huey and Mr Harbinson an email asking if “we have updated minister on decision to negotiate a settlement. You may wish to consider if or how to update minister”.
He then said that there was a need for someone with “spending authority” to attend a meeting of both sides’ lawyers to negotiate Dr Bronckaers’ compensation.
DAERA’s finance director, Roger Downey, had to seek the Department of Finance’s approval for the settlement to Dr Bronckaers, given its vast scale. On April 12, Mr Downey copied his request for approval of the settlement to Dr Huey.
On April 19, Mr Harbinson suggested that they should belatedly be more forthcoming with the Nolan Show than it had been with this newspaper. In an email, he said: “I think in the circumstances we should amend the line to be specific about who did authorise the settlement of this case and that should be me… The longer this goes on the more the finger will be pointed at the minister, HOCS [Head of the Civil Service] and others so let’s just answer the question directly…” That email was copied to Dr Huey.
When asked why it was thought appropriate for Dr Huey to have any role whatsoever in the matter and whether either Dr Huey or Dr Henderson had any role in the decisions relating to initially defending the tribunal claim and then to appeal the verdict, DAERA would only say: “These matters will form part of the external independent review [which has not yet started] and we cannot comment further.”