• Heidi Thompson
  • 9 December 2015

Whistleblowing legislation

A prison officer who claims she was sacked for revealing serious concerns about rising levels of violence at the prison where she worked is challenging her dismissal by the Government. Kim Lennon, an officer in Lewes Prison, warned of her concerns that staff shortages within the prison were sparking increased levels of violence, that she feared an attack on officers was imminent, that staff cuts were fuelling the increase in violence, and there were not enough staff to look after prisoners properly.

Lennon was dismissed in November when a disciplinary panel found she had brought discredit on the prison service by disclosing official information, as they didn’t consider her actions as whistleblowing. She will now lodge an appeal against the decision, backed by her union, the Prison Officers’ Association.

Speaking to the Guardian newspaper, Lennon said she has no regrets about speaking out.

“They tried to say I wasn’t a whistleblower; they didn’t see me as a whistleblower. But I had raised this with my management and they didn’t do anything.

“I spoke out because I wasn’t being listened to about serious concerns relating to safety. Everything was dangerous in the prison, not just for us prison officers but for inmates. A lot of what I said applies to a lot of prisons. I decided to use my name and not be anonymous because I felt it would have more impact. I would do it again, and I would say to other prison officers if they had such concerns to speak out, but maybe now I would advise them to remain anonymous.”

Gavin Williamson, MP for South Staffordshire, said the “arrogant, high-handed” attitude to those raising legitimate concerns risked creating another scandal in the public sector on the scale of the Mid Staffordshire affair in the NHS.

Williamson said:

“It’s a totally disgraceful situation and goes against everything that we want to be seeing within the public sector, where whistleblowing needs to be encouraged when the concerns of those working within the system are not being addressed internally.”

Lennon told her local newspaper, the Argus, last year that 20 staff took time off with stress-related sickness as the jail tried to operate safely amid staff cuts and threats of violence.

She claimed that a camera in the visitors’ hall, which had been installed to keep prison officers safe, did not work and there was no money to fix it, or staff to monitor it.

“We’ve not got enough staff to look after prisoners properly. They are becoming extremely frustrated and frontline officers are in danger,” Lennon added.

Upon raising her concerns, she was sent a letter by the then Prison Governor, Nigel Foote, telling her she was to be disciplined for “failing to meet the standards of behaviour expected of staff”, as she was told the service did not see her as a whistleblower.

She was found guilty of bringing discredit upon the Prison Service, and dismissed.

A Prison Service spokesperson said:

“This is a confidential matter. We cannot comment further as we would not wish to prejudice a possible appeal.”

For employers it is essential to have a clear whistleblowing policy and guidance for managers when dealing with these issues.  Where a culture exists that encourages employees to disclose concerns without fear of retaliation then this allows them to be dealt with correctly.  Policies need to be clear on who can raise what and how and then assurance that issues will be managed correctly with full investigations taking place, companies must take such complaints seriously.   

Ultimately certain employees are protected by whistleblowing legislation meaning they cannot be treated unfairly or dismissed if they take action in the public interest.  This case will therefore need to determine if her complaint was a legitimate complaint under the whistleblowing legislation and therefore that the dismissal was unfair.