Nepotism tribunal: NHS trust suppressed report

Dr Paula Vasco-Knight
Image caption Dr Paula Vasco-Knight was appointed a CBE in the New Years Honours for services to the NHS

An NHS trust "dishonestly" suppressed a report into accusations of nepotism, a tribunal has found.

South Devon Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust chief executive Dr Paula Vasco-Knight was accused of appointing her daughter's boyfriend to a senior role.

The tribunal ruled the trust hid the findings of the subsequent inquiry and misled other parties by contending Dr Vasco-Knight was exonerated.

Trust chairman Peter Hildrew has resigned with immediate effect.

He said the tribunal's ruling "damages the reputation of the trust, for which I am truly sorry".

The claimants' solicitor said the ruling was a "clear victory".

Tribunal panel judge Nick Roper said Dr Vasco-Knight's evidence was "inconsistent" while the foundation trust chairman Peter Hildrew's evidence was "simply incredible and plainly wrong".

Image caption Compensation for Penny Gates and Clare Sardari will be decided at a future hearing

The two whistle-blowers - Clare Sardari, 56, a management development lead, and senior manager Penny Gates, 52 - complained that Dr Vasco-Knight had not declared a personal interest when her daughter's boyfriend Nick Schenk was interviewed and got the diversity job at the trust in mid-2012.

The Exeter employment tribunal ruled that the two women both suffered by making the whistle-blowing allegations.

An allegation of unfair dismissal was dismissed. Compensation will be decided at a future hearing.

Miss Sardari believed the appointment involved "nepotism and favouritism" but after raising concerns with trust director Adrienne Murphy, the board member responsible for implementing whistle-blowing policy, she was told the matter should not be taken any further.

'Bullied, threatened and intimidated'

The hearing heard Mrs Murphy told the claimants it would be "catastrophic" if they pursued the issue, and both she, and they, would be sacked immediately and lose their jobs "through dirty means".

The tone of this left the two claimants shocked and upset and they said they felt "bullied, threatened and intimidated" by Mrs Murphy.

Image caption Peter Hildrew's evidence was described by the judge as "simply incredible and plainly wrong"

A joint investigation was launched by South Devon Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust and the Torbay and Southern Devon Healthcare NHS Trust, which employed the women.

The tribunal ruled the South Devon Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust made a "dishonest attempt to suppress the findings".

It heard Mr Hildrew refused to disclose the report and he told Julie Dent, chair of Southern Devon Healthcare NHS Trust, that there was no case to answer against Dr Vasco-Knight and that the other allegation against Mrs Murphy was "six of one and half a dozen of the other" meaning the claimants and Mrs Murphy were equally at fault.

Judge Roper said: "We find that there was a concerted effort by the South Devon Healthcare Trust to manipulate the investigation; accuse the claimants of malice; suppress the report, and to mislead the other parties as to its contents, with the apparent aim of protecting Dr Vasco-Knight and Mrs Murphy against the force of the claimants' allegations.

"This was completely contrary to the protection which they should have been offered under the whistle-blowing guidelines."

Mr Hildrew said: "As the most senior office holder in the organisation I take responsibility for the actions, some of them my own, which have led the tribunal panel to conclude that our trust has caused detriment to two former employees of Torbay and Southern Devon Health and Care NHS Trust."

An official for South Devon Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust said: "We are now considering the judgement with our legal advisers and are calling an extraordinary board meeting to discuss the report in detail and decide what action is necessary."

Mandy Seymour, chief executive of Torbay and Southern Devon Health and Care NHS Trust, said the judgement recognised the trust had acted "appropriately and with integrity in relation to this case".

"Any learning or actions required of our organisation as a result of the outcome will be dealt with appropriately and swiftly," she added.

Dr Vasco-Knight declined to comment.

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