Last year, the Belfast Telegraph reported on a whistleblowing scandal in the Department of Agriculture (DAERA), in Northern Ireland. Tamara Bronckaers, a vet who worked for DAERA, brought a claim for unfair dismissal and was successful in the Employment Tribunal. DAERA appealed this decision, but subsequently settled with Dr Bronckaers for £1.25million along with making an “unreserved apology”.
A couple of week ago we were quoted in a Belfast Telegraph article (there is a paywall) about this ongoing saga – because this is not nearly over. I wanted to take time to explain why we have felt it necessary to become involved and also why we hold the views we do. To do this, I need to unpack a little of what Dr Bronckaers' case was about – and I’ve taken this from the decision of the Employment Tribunal in Bronckaers v Department of Agriculture (case ref 5980/18).
Dr Bronckaers worked in the Department in an official role as a Veterinary Officer. Part of her job was to inspect livestock markets, and her duties included ensuring that welfare was being maintained and that proper records were being kept. Whilst carrying out her work she identified concerns relating to the welfare of livestock - such as animals being left in pens overnight without access to food or water. Dr Bronckaers also had serious concerns about record keeping relating to the movement of cattle, that could have implications on the traceability of animals infected with TB.
So she raised these issues with her superiors in the Department – Dr Julian Henderson and latterly Dr Robert Huey. I want to pause here for a second to explain who Dr Henderson and Dr Huey are. Dr Henderson is a Senior Principal Veterinary Officer in DAERA and his area of responsibility included enforcement of animal welfare laws. Dr Huey is the Chief Veterinary Officer – he is the head vet in DAERA and, for all intents and purposes, he is the most powerful vet in Northern Ireland.
When Dr Bronckaers raised her serious concerns about animal welfare and record keeping, she was, according to the judgment, variously ignored, undermined and excluded. What this meant was that in the face of evidence, and the assessment of Dr Bronckaers (an expert in this field), serious problems were identified in certain livestock markets and yet two senior vets declined to take action to protect animal welfare and animal health. The court found that the actions taken by these vets, following the concerns raised by Dr Bronckaers, were so detrimental to her that it made her job untenable. The following extracts from paragraphs 177 – 180 of the Tribunal decision set this out:
“[O]ur conclusion is that Mr Henderson regarded the claimant as inappropriately challenging of him and a nuisance because she kept raising serious issues that he did not want to engage with and as a result of her raising the issues he subjected her to a course of detrimental treatment… [T]he inference we draw from the analysis of the emails and his evidence is that he deliberately tried to dissuade her from raising these issues or pursuing them and tarnished her name with other senior managers because she persisted in raising issues of concern… [I]t is clear from an analysis of the documents that issues of traceability and animal welfare are intertwined. These issues were at the heart of the claimant’s job which gave her responsibility for livestock markets and biosecurity and these were very serious issues she was raising… Mr Huey was made aware of things that she was raising about Ballymena Market in particular and decided to “clip her wings” about that..”
Ok, so Dr Bronckaers settled, the Department apologised – why are we sticking our beaks in?
Well we think there are a few issues here:
1. It appears that two senior vets, one of whom is the most senior vet in Northern Ireland, are not taking issues about animal welfare and health seriously. The judgement suggests they actively discouraged Dr Bronckaers from raising these issues. Both of these vets still work for DAERA and this issue appears not to have been addressed by DAERA (although Henderson is no longer in the role of deputy chief, although no explanation has been given as to why). Consequently the concerns around the enforcement of animal welfare and health in livestock markets in NI remains live.
2. The finding in the Tribunal decision that these two vets did not act on the issues that Dr Bronckaers raised about animal health and welfare are matters of professional conduct and should be investigated by the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. This becomes particularly urgent when these vets hold such important positions in a government department.
So, before turning to talk about our comment in the Belfast Telegraph, it is helpful
to explain how the RCVS complaints process works. Generally, disciplinary processes are initiated where a complaint is made about a vet. When a complaint is made, it is passed to what is known as the Preliminary Investigation Committee. The PIC is basically a clearinghouse – it’s there to filter out completely unmeritorious complaints. Complaints that raise issues that require further investigation and scrutiny go to the Disciplinary Committee. The DC is in many respects like a Court, parties are usually represented by lawyers, there is oral testimony, there is cross examination of witnesses, and it is usually held in public.
The PIC process – so the first part of the disciplinary process which is the stage we are concerned with - is usually confidential. There is good reason for this – it is not fair that a vet should have their reputation potentially damaged by allegations which may be baseless. It is only once the PIC has determined there are matters that require further scrutiny that the RCVS then makes the process public. In general we have no issue with this.
The present case is different. To be clear, we are not saying the RCVS should make the actual complaint or investigation public. What we are saying is that the RCVS should let the public know whether or not there is a complaint that is being considered, or an investigation underway. We also think the decision as to whether or not to proceed to a disciplinary hearing should be made public. The reason we consider this case to be unique is that much of the information that would form the basis of a complaint, is already in the public domain. A Court has made certain findings about the conduct and credibility of these vets. A statement from the RCVS as to whether or not a complaint has been made will not impact on the reputation of these vets given the information already available to the public. Further, there is a strong public interest reason why the RCVS should be more forthcoming – these are vets working for a government department, in important positions, undertaking work on behalf of the tax payer. We believe the information published in the judgement has undermined public confidence in the veterinary department in DAERA. This information has been in the public domain since at least September 2021.
We have corresponded with the RCVS who has told us that it will be looking into the matter but it is waiting for the conclusion of the investigation that is being undertaken by PWC. The RCVS says that DAERA has assured them it will release this report to them, when it is completed. But when is that? This investigation has already been going on for some time - the first part of the report has been completed and yet still has not been released. How long is DAERA going to drag this out for, whilst the issues that were brought to the fore in the whistleblowing case have not been addressed?
We have taken it upon ourselves to become involved because, in the absence of action and information from the RCVS, we think it is important to draw attention to these issues. The media, particularly the Belfast Telegraph, has done an incredible job bringing public awareness to this case. Dr Bronckaers has been enormously brave taking on this fight. Charities like ours exist to carry that on, to ensure as is our objective, that animal welfare is advanced.