Devon Live BY ANITA MERRITT
(Image: Jonathan Penny)
A whistleblower who spoke out about a bullying culture by senior ambulance trust managers is claiming he was wrongly dismissed over allegations of gross misconduct, causing him to contemplate taking his own life.
Jonathan Penny, who worked at South Western Ambulance Foundation Trust (SWASFT) for 17 years, told an employment tribunal in Exeter how his mental health was also affected by his colleague and best friend ending their life while his disciplinary proceedings were ongoing.
The court heard how Mr Penny was an air ambulance paramedic and then for the hazardous area response team (HART) as a team leader, training manager and national interagency liaison officer.
Mr Penny told in a statement how his service with the trust had been ‘exemplary’ until a National Ambulance Resilience Unit (NARU) report in June 2017 into the Hazardous Area Response Team (HART) identified concerns about management and leadership, and highlighted a culture of bullying and sexual harassment among numerous management team employees.
An independent investigation was commissioned by the trust looking into the practices of the HART team which led to disciplinary processes for three employees, including Mr Penny.
A formal investigation into alleged bullying, sexual harassment, violence and aggression by Mr Penny was recommended. Due to seriousness of the allegations, a disciplinary investigation was deemed necessary by the trust.
Mr Penny alleged in his statement: “A senior officer of the trust, who wishes to remain anonymous for fear of repercussions, was present at the disclosure of the (NARU) report which was witnessed by the board of executives via video link.
“He said that chief executive Ken Wenman was ‘fuming’ and shortly after held a meeting stating that, ‘I want them gone. Get rid of them’, with reference to who he believed was responsible for disclosing this dysfunctional management.”
Two months later, Mr Penny says he was informed he was to be removed from his post and demoted with immediate effect. He was sent to work at Exeter ambulance station and says he was not given any reason for the decision.
When no explanation had still been given nine days later, he said he formally requested one.
“I would have expected to receive notification of allegations against me within seven days as per trust disciplinary policy,” he said. “My mental health began to seriously decline and I also informed the trust I would be reporting sick due to unmanageable levels of work related stress.”
Mr Penny says his stress was further compounded when he was told the following month his former role as a training manager was being covered by an employee who had just moved in with his wife.
Mr Penny told how he wrote to the trust perceiving it to be a conflict of interest, and says he was told it was ‘unfortunate’.
In September 2017, Mr Penny says he told the trust he was now suffering from severe mental health illness and had nearly taken his own life.
He said: “The trust still attempted to put additional pressure on me to attend a disciplinary hearing despite the severity of my condition, which became dangerously unstable when I learnt that my best friend, an operations manager in the trust, had committed suicide by hanging himself a week before my hearing was due.
“Despite this, the trust still insisted I attend a three-day hearing after the funeral of my best man. The trust also removed the wellbeing officer who had been assigned to support me through my illness.”
Mr Penny claims it wasn’t until October 2017 – two months after he was removed from post – that he was informed of the allegations being made against him which were three accounts of gross misconduct following the trust’s cultural review.
The first was he had displayed a pattern of inappropriate behaviour towards colleagues. The second was he had been complicit in the deployment of safe working at height practices within HART Exeter that fell outside of national specifications and did not have necessary governance in place, resulting in HART operatives being put at risk.
he final allegation was in his role as course director, he led HART operatives into unsafe water during a training course in Llangollen. All three were denied by Mr Penny.
He said: “I expressed my concerns that I had been removed from post prior to the report being compiled, and that I did not think the report was fair or unbiased as all staff had been made aware that three senior managers had been removed from post due to allegations of bullying and sexual harassment prior to the report being compiled.”
He added: “The allegations were the findings of the cultural review and the fact I had used the interoperability panel as a platform to report what I believed was bullying and harassment.”
At the disciplinary hearing, where it was decided to terminate his employment, Mr Penny claims the trust refused to allow him to bring any witnesses, which the trust disputes.
During the appeal process he was told the disciplinary officer had not received his initial evidence package due to a ‘clerical error’.
Mr Penny said: “The investigation on which the hearing relied was neither reasonable or fair as the investigating officer made no attempt to undertake an impartial investigation, and failed to take into account all relevant witnesses and evidence freely available to him.”
Regarding some of the allegations made against him, Mr Penny claims he was never named as the responsible officer for safe working at height practices, and no complaints or safety issues were raised at any point.
He said: “Staff and patient safety were paramount in every action I took and every training event I organised, every live deployment I was involved in and without ever receiving a single complaint about my conduct.
“I believed SWASFT failed to comply to their own policies and failed to follow the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service (ACAS) employment guidance as this was an intentional, single-minded and unreasonable act to ‘get rid of me’.
“As a result of SWASFT’s actions I have suffered with mental health issues, financial issues, depression, anxiety, exacerbation of PTSD symptoms, and for many months I was unable to work due to issues directly relating to the way I treated, humiliated and bullied by SWASFT.
“I believe the only reason I have been singled out and treated unfairly and differently to others that were investigated is partly direct discrimination because of my mental health issues and as a direct result of my whistle-blowing of the bullying culture by senior managers in SWASFT.”
He added: “Bringing this case before the court has been hardest thing I have ever done as it has taken an enormous amount of effort to do so. However, I have felt compelled to do so as I just cannot move on with my life or come to terms with the horrendous and unfair way in which the trust I gave so much to, for so many years, has treated me.
“I also feel a duty of responsibility to speak out for excellent staff of SWASFT who still suffer in silence, and I feel I owe it to my friend and others before him who have been overwhelmed and taken their own lies as a consequence of the proven and documented toxic culture.”
Among statements in support of Mr Penny, HART operations officer Ben McGachy said: “I have experienced similar persecution in HART after I raised concerns about the culture and experiences of bullying and harassment that my staff and I suffered in the unit.”
Evidence was heard from the trust who refute Mr Penny’s allegations and believe their investigation of him was fair, impartial and reasonable.
Amy Beet, executive director of people and culture told how following the independent report into HART, she concluded it was necessary to investigate the issues raised, and Mr Penny was temporarily deployed pending investigation.
Ms Beet said: “Having reviewed the investigation report I concluded there was sufficient evidence to warrant a disciplinary evidence.”
She told in a statement how it was rescheduled twice to suit Mr Penny, the latter being on compassionate grounds, and he was invited to bring witnesses and provide statements, but the large number he was proposing – 29 to give evidence and a further 19 to attend for questioning – was ‘not practicable’. The hearing was held in Mr Penny’s absence, having been told he would not attend.
It was conceded at an appeal hearing Mr Penny’s mitigation documents were not passed on to the hearing in January 2018 and was due to an ‘administration error’ within the HR department, but they were considered by the appeal panel in April 2018.
Ms Beet said: “I deny that the decision to allow Mr Penny to call witnesses to attend the hearing or postpone the hearing was unfair. There were cogent reasons including practicability, the large number of witnesses and lack of clarity as to relevance.
“To allow all of the witnesses to attend the hearing was not proportionate, feasible or necessary. Although this decision was communicated to Mr Penny shortly before the hearing, I do not believe this prevented him from putting forward his case or having a fair hearing.
“I deny that including the sexual harassment allegations in the investigation was unfair.”
Paul Birkett-Wendes, who chaired Jon’s disciplinary hearing at the time he was head of operations in the north division, said: “My disciplinary outcome concluded that Jon had placed trust paramedics at significant risk, both in respect of their working at height and in respect of open water training.
“As such I consider there has been a complete breakdown in trust and confidence between the parties. In addition to the above health and safety concerns, there is evidence Jon has demonstrated a pattern of inappropriate behaviour towards his colleagues.”
Jennifer Winslade, executive director of quality and clinical care, who chaired the appeal hearing, said to ensure his appeal process was ‘absolutely fair’, Mr Penny was offered a further opportunity to gather witness statements but says she received no statements for her review and consideration.
She said: “After hearing all of the evidence, I concluded that Jon’s conduct was so serious it warranted a finding of gross misconduct by the disciplinary hearing.
“After a review of the findings of the disciplinary panel I found their conclusions to be fair and reasonable.”
The hearing continues.