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Thursday, 18 September 2014

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Race tribunal verdict slams ex-Cumbria hospitals bosses

Former managers of North Cumbria’s hospitals “closed ranks” to deflect criticism outside their own circle, new documents have revealed.

The full verdict of an employment tribunal judgement condemns bosses, saying they gave the impression the trust was “self-serving, obstinate and reluctant to accept that discrimination may have taken place”.

It follows a race discrimination claim made against the North Cumbria University Hospitals NHS Trust, which runs the Cumberland Infirmary and West Cumberland Hospital, by senior nurse Sarina Saiger, who is of mixed race.

Last week it was announced that the judge and his panel had upheld 16 of her 27 claims set out at a hearing last year. In his verdict, he singled out former chief executive Marie Burnham and nursing director Bruce Skilbeck, along with current human resources director Shirley Chipperfield, for their attitude during the case.

He said they appeared to take great exception to the allegations raised and to Dr Saiger generally, to the extent that their evidence was “tainted” by a clear intention to protect the trust and themselves.

During the hearing, between September and December last year, Dr Saiger claimed that she had been the victim of a calculated campaign of harassment and victimisation. She said that she was constantly overlooked for positions of more responsibility in favour of white members of staff.

The judge stated that the decision to dismiss Dr Saiger due to a total breakdown of trust and confidence between Dr Saiger and the trust was “totally artificial” and was in fact a direct result of the content of her complaints.

Dr Saiger, a single mother, also claimed that her line manager, Mr Skilbeck, told her in an appraisal that she was the “wrong colour and culture for Cumbria”.

On a later occasion, after she made complaints against him, she said he assaulted her by grabbing her arm during an argument, leaving a mark. She also claimed that neither of these incidents was properly investigated and Mr Skilbeck not suspended.

This led her to put forward a list of complaints against bosses and, as a result of this action, was unfairly dismissed. The trust always strongly refuted the allegations, claiming it was Dr Saiger’s attitude that caused problems with both her own managers, colleagues and members of staff.

They also alleged she was a serial claimant trying to win compensation from the NHS and that she had put forward hurtful personal allegations against other managers with the intention of causing upset and distress. However, despite finding her to be “forthright and at times stubborn” in the witness stand, the tribunal felt that her evidence was in the main more consistent and persuasive.

In terms of her manner, the tribunal felt that the conflict between Dr Saiger and other staff was merely a result of her being “ambitious, highly-motivated and driven to succeed personally”.

It criticised Miss Burnham, Miss Chipperfield and former finance director Peter Scott for failing to properly investigate the alleged racial comment made by Mr Skilbeck. The judge said: “No reasonable employer in those circumstances would have failed to instigate an investigation into this serious allegation.”

The tribunal took a similar view when it came to the assault by Mr Skilbeck. Evidence was given by union representatives Christine Wharrier and Linda Weightman, who also worked in the trust, about his intimidating behaviour.

The judge added: “The tribunal obtained a glimpse of Mr Skilbeck’s short temper when he was cross-examined about the respondent’s failure to permit the claimant to act up to the position of director of nursing, when he snapped that, had he done so, the hospital would be in uproar.” The panel therefore agreed it was more than likely that the assault had happened.

After this incident, rather than suspend Mr Skilbeck, it emerged that bosses at the trust instead launched disciplinary action against Dr Saiger after he complained about her behaviour. The judge noted that the trust could give no coherent or meaningful explanation.

Following the incident, Dr Saiger went on sick leave followed by annual leave but was never allowed to return to work. The tribunal agreed that this was not due to return-to-work policies as claimed, but because of the tribunal proceedings launched by Dr Saiger. It agreed that the manner of some of her complaints against colleagues, including allegations of sexual misconduct, did little to advance her case with managers and instead caused enormous distress and anger.

However, it found that although some of the claims were irrelevant, she was justified in putting them forward as part of the tribunal.

Finally, the judge stated that the decision to dismiss Dr Saiger due to a total breakdown of trust and confidence between Dr Saiger and the trust was “totally artificial” and was in fact a direct result of the content of her complaints.

After the publication of the result last week, the trust’s new chief executive Carole Heatly – who took over after the tribunal had started – issued an immediate apology. She also stressed that the trust was now strengthening equality and diversity policies and training so there is never a repeat of this kind of treatment.

It was also pointed out that since the proceedings there has been a complete overhaul of the board, and the majority of managers involved no longer work for the trust.

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