Royal Shrewsbury Hospital misled tribunal judges

Hospital officials tried to "deliberately mislead" an employment tribunal about the sacking of a whistle-blower who highlighted asbestos dangers at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital, judges have ruled.

Leslie Small
Leslie Small

One witness called on behalf of the hospital was said to be "totally incredible and unreliable" as the hospital's defence collapsed.

Leslie Small, 58, of Holyhead Road, Wellington, had raised concerns about damaged asbestos panels in residential quarters used by staff at the RSH before being dismissed in July 2012.

He took Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust to an employment tribunal, with justices ruling in his favour in December. He had been appointed as a project manager to help deal with building and construction work for the NHS.

The trust, which had opposed his legal claim, denied that Mr Small had lost his job because of the disclosure about asbestos.

But the panel ruled in Mr Small's favour and raised concerns about the reliability of witnesses put forward by the trust.

Legal papers from the case today show that of four witnesses for the trust, three were found to be "unreliable". One, a recruitment agent not directly employed by the trust, was found to be "totally incredible and unreliable" as a witness, a hospital employee was called "incredible and unreliable" and a trust manager "unreliable".

The tribunal panel ruled that Mr Small had warned managers of his concerns about loose asbestos in "good faith" – only to be dismissed as a result of raising his concerns.

It said: "We have concluded the claimant was dismissed on the ground he made a public interest disclosure."

Victoria Maher, Workforce Director at The Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust, said: "We take the findings of this tribunal seriously but we cannot comment any further until the matter is concluded."

Mr Small today said he faced the prospect of losing his home to legal costs if an employment tribunal ruling had gone against him, saying he faced a £30,000 bill.

His health has suffered as he fought an 18-month solo campaign against his unfair dismissal, while he has also applied for 600 jobs with almost no success in a desperate attempt to find employment in the construction industry.

Mr Small is to be awarded compensation after winning the tribunal, with the fee yet to be decided.

But he said that his fight was never about money but about exposing the potentially fatal dangers of damaged asbestos to staff and builders he uncovered while working on residential premises at the RSH.

Mr Small, a self-employed project manager who has spent his working life in the construction industry, said he would even be happy to accept another job with the trust. He added that he now hopes an internal investigation by the trust will uncover why health and safety failings happened.

He said problems started when he uncovered what he suspected was loose asbestos at the RSH building he was working on.

He said he had initially raised it with a line manager who said he would deal with the issue. When nothing happened for three weeks, he brought up the problem again – only to be fired minutes later.

"There was asbestos present and that is a no-no. You don't now allow people to work anywhere there is asbestos," he said.

"As a manager who knows about health and safety, I raised the issue and I was sacked. He said he had to speak out because of the often-fatal diseases connected with asbestos exposure.

Judges in the case released a scathing report in which they criticised the defence given by the hospital trust.

They said: "We can sometimes prefer evidence from one witness over another without actually deciding that somebody had deliberately misled us or told lies. Sometimes we receive conflicting evidence which is actually the same. There was a stark contrast on certain facts between the witnesses. We have concluded that efforts have been made to deliberately mislead us."

Mr Small today said he had wept with relief at the verdict and has spoken of the emotional toll fighting the tribunal has taken on him. He said he has applied to 600 jobs in last 18 months, only managing to secure six weeks of work as a result of the proceedings hanging over him.

"I'm now having difficulty finding any sort of employment at all. I have to mention what has happened to me," he said.

The strain almost led him to quit his fight last year. "In February I was particularly down. I said to the trust, I'll withdraw if you give me a reference. All they said was if you withdraw, we won't pursue you for costs." He decided to pursue the case.

In a statement last week, Julia Clarke, director of corporate governance at the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust, said: "The safety of patients, staff and visitors at our hospital sites is of paramount importance to the trust, which is why these concerns have been taken very seriously. We would encourage any staff member who has a genuine safety concern to raise this at the earliest opportunity."

The trust, which has signed up to the Nursing Times' Speak Out Safely campaign, said it "actively encourages" any employee, agency, temporary staff member or volunteer, to speak up if they feel something is wrong. But it said it would be "inappropriate" to comment any further.

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