Friday, 14 November 2008

Haringey – Ministerial Dissembly begins here

Protected Interest Disclosure claims are one of the only areas in British Law where a tribunal is allowed to award punitive damages beyond the financial loss suffered by the Plaintiff. There is a good reason for this.

In a PIDA claim, an employee maintains that they have been dismissed under false pretenses, not because of the reason given by the employer, but because they made – to a proper person including government - a disclosure of malpractice, fraud, illegality or similar which their employer has attempted to cover up by terminating their employment and sometimes (as in this case) attempting to gag them by means of injunctions, confidentiality agreements and the like. The typical employers defence to a PIDA claim is an allegation of misconduct, as we have here. This much is well known to all those at the top of every organization in the UK.

Every good boss knows how to fight a claim like this, but most also recognize that a PIDA claim is also a vital warning sign to everybody at the top of an organization – not because of the claim itself, or the dismissal, or the cost of settlement but because of the potential truth contained in the allegations of wrongdoing which form the substance of the claim.

Some PIDA claims relate to white collar crime, or to minor issues which may not truly affect the public interest except to the extent that unlawful acts should not go unpunished. Some are attempts to obtain a better settlement. But a small number of claims, particularly from those who might be expected to know what they are talking about (and one would expect that a senior social worker to fall into this category) relate to serious issues of malpractice which could become matters of life and death for the most vulnerable in our society – as happened in this case.

Four Government Ministers were among those to whom the Employee made or repeated her disclosures, and this morning they have told us their procedure:-

“Officials from this department replied on 21 March 2007. In that letter they made the point that ministers could not comment on the specific details of the employment tribunal case.”

If that was the reply, they dodged responsibility, and missed the point completely. The department was not being asked to comment, or to help the whistleblower in her claim against her former employer – that is the job of the tribunal. The department was being alerted to wrongdoing in an organisation for which they were responsible and which might well lead to the death of a child.

Since when has it been the proper policy of a department, alerted to children at risk, to ask the informer to write to someone else? This would be annoying in an Indian Call centre, but with allegations from a social worker of children at risk it is unforgivable.

The true story here is that Government pushed the complaint away and failed, in the simplest terms, to follow up on information which they held in their own hands. If they had followed up they would have learned that Haringey Council was so keen to cover up its actions that it not only paid off the whistleblower in a financial settlement, but sought and gained an injunction to silence her – and surely even the most incompetent Minister would have understood the dreadful implications of that?

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