Prison service whistleblower felt he had nowhere else to go

The Public Accounts Committee will today hear from another public servant who feels victimised after making a complaint, writes Michael Clifford.

Prison service whistleblower felt he had nowhere else to go

The Public Accounts Committee will today hear from another public servant who feels victimised after making a complaint, writes Michael Clifford.

The Public Accounts Committee is to hear from another whistleblower in the justice system today.

Earlier this week, RTÉ aired the Maurice McCabe story in which a pivotal moment occurred in January 2014 when he appeared before the PAC.

Now, at the far end of the McCabe saga, the committee is hearing from another public servant about problems in another arm of the justice system, the prisons.

This whistleblower was identified publicly in the Dáil by John McGuinness last month during a debate on the Charleton tribunal.

His name is Noel McGree. He has been working in the prison service for 25 years.

There are some similarities between McCabe’s case and that of Noel McGree.

Both men reported malpractice in the course of their jobs.

Both approached the PAC after believing that all other avenues to address their respective concerns had been exhausted.

McCabe was heard in private session, the format that will also apply to today’s hearing. Both believe that they were penalised as a result of their actions.

One difference is that today’s whistleblower made his complaint under the Protected Disclosures Act, which is designed to provide protections for whistleblowers, and came into being in 2014. Another is that McCabe told the members about a waste of public money in road policing, while today’s witness will concentrate on how he was targeted within the service because he made the protected disclosure.

In March 2016, McGree made a Protected Disclosure about bullying, intimidation and the failure to interview him following a serious assault by a prisoner. All of this, he maintained, had its origins in a complaint he made in November 2014 about the promotion of untrained staff and misuse of public funds.

The assault case was particularly serious. An officer was assaulted in the Midlands Prison in 2015. He received a wound after being slashed with a blade and required 15 stitches.

McGree had been in charge of the area where the assault occurred. He had intervened in the assault, but was not interviewed by the gardaí.

McGree claimed that the failure to interview him was symptomatic of the “isolation” to which he was subjected as a result of the complaints he made.

The Department of Justice refused to accept that he had made the disclosure which would entitle him to protections.

McGree appealed and retired judge William Early was appointed to adjudicate.

Early found that he had made a protected disclosure and that he “was treated unfairly and isolated for making the disclosures and that his opportunities for career advancement were deliberately curtailed by the IPS (Irish Prison Service)”.

In relation to the assault, Judge Early noted: “It is quite extraordinary that a primary witness to a serious assault was not interviewed.”

The whistleblower also said that he had been deliberately denied promotion as a result of his complaint.

Soon after Judge Early’s report was published, he brought a case to the Work Relations Commission over what he alleged was inflicted on him as a result of making the protected disclosure. The most serious allegation involved a failure to keep him informed about a security threat.

The threat was identified by the prison officer in February 2015 when he and his wife believed they were under surveillance.

The gardaí were informed and the standard procedure for prison officers who find themselves in this situation was conducted.

The prison officer upgraded security in his family home.

The gardaí contacted prison management in early April 2015 to confirm that no threat existed. Yet the prison officer was not informed that there was now considered to be no threat to his or his family’s security.

The WRC ruled that the “failure of management to inform the complainant, despite his very clear cogent descriptions of the affects of the matter on his family constituted unfair treatment” under the protected disclosures act.

As a result McGree was awarded €30,000 in what is believed to be the first award its kind under the act. The prison service is appealing the ruling.

McGree had alleged other incidents of penalisation.

He claimed he was docked pay to which he was entitled. The WRC found that this was in error.

But McGree also says that he was docked pay outside the time limits to which the WRC case was confined. For instance, he says he is down €11,000 over a six month period this year, which was outside the scope of the WRC case.

There is no doubt that the prison officer has endured a turbulent time since he made his original complaint in 2014. At the kernel of the issue is whether he was targeted in connection with his complaint.

Today’s hearing is against a background in which the PAC has come under scrutiny in the wake of an interview in the Sunday Business Post by the former head of the HSE, Tony O’Brien.

The former health chief was critical of some of the members, accusing them of grandstanding and chasing headlines.

On the other hand, this week’s documentary on Maurice McCabe illustrated how the committee had acted properly in that instance to engage the sergeant on his complaints of malpractice.

On the face of it, the Oireachtas Justice Committee might have been a more appropriate port of call for a matter in the prison service.

But at the heart of the issue is the operation of the Protected Disclosure Act, which was brought in through the Department of Public Enterprise and Reform. The PAC is examining it on the premise that it involves the operation of the act in the public sector.

Irrespective of how the committee receives McGree, they are unlikely to deliver a definitive opinion on the matter as the WRC ruling is under appeal.

The members may well take his evidence into account and recommend some changes to how disclosures are dealt with in the public sector. It is not yet clear whether a transcript of his evidence in private hearing will be made available.

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