Officials 'regret' not interviewing NIFRS whistleblower
Senior health department officials did not interview a whistleblower who reported financial irregularities at the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service (NIFRS) as they did not want to cause her more "upset and distress", a Stormont committee was told on 13 March 2013.
Linda Ford won £20,000 compensation after she took a case against the NIFRS.
Three investigations were carried out into the organisation following allegations about fraud, unapproved bonuses and failures to deal with staff grievances.
Department of Health official Colin Evans said a decision was taken very early not to interview Ms Ford, who was suspended from work at the time, "unless absolutely necessary".
"We didn't want to cause Linda any further distress or pressure," he said.
Health Committee chairwoman Sue Ramsey questioned whether the decision not to interview a "key person" could be viewed as unequal treatment. She said 21 people were interviewed 60 times but Ms Ford was not.
"It doesn't seem to me to be the right way to go about this - that somebody makes an accusation and is not interviewed as part of that process - but when it comes down to the point where there's a draft report on the table, you then talk to the person about the out-workings of the allegations," she said.
She asked Mr Evans if he now regretted not interviewing Ms Ford.
He said: "Knowing now that it would have caused her more stress not to interview her then yes".
Ms Ramsey explained that there were four other key players involved who were also not interviewed; former chief fire officer Colin Lammey, his deputy, Louis Jones, and former chairman of the NIFRS board, William Gillespie.
Mr Evans said they had looked through minutes and emails submitted.
"We had to make a judgement call and we felt there was enough evidence that we did not have to interview these people," he said.
Health department permanent secretary Dr Andrew McCormick said every claim that Ms Ford had made had been acted on.
Ms Ramsey said management had been requested not to talk to Ms Ford "even though she had been given a full apology" and asked officials for an urgent update on when this restriction would be removed.
Health department official Julie Thompson explained that although the majority of Ms Ford's allegations were substantiated there were still grievances that needed to be looked at.
Senior Northern Ireland health officials also appeared before the Health Committee to answer on meeting performance targets, long waiting lists and monitoring cancelled appointments.
Mr McCormick explained the commissioning plan was the health department's "assessment and prioritisation of the needs of the population".
"The performance targets are the means for delivering the right thing to the right people at the right time," he said.