Conduct of fire chief who suspended whistleblower ‘reprehensible’

Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service
Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service

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.

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.

PAC deputy chairman John Dallat MLA said three things must now 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.”