When the verdict of “unfair dismissal” first came, it took a while for it to sink in for Graham Hennis. The mental health social worker has been fighting a two-and-a-half year legal battle against Oldham council to clear his name.
Hennis was blamed when a man in his care fell to his death from a bridge. Despite the coroner finding no evidence the man intended to end his life, and therefore could not have been prevented from doing so, the council accused Hennis of gross negligence and removed him from his post.
Now he is on a “crusade” to regain his dignity and confidence—he wants the council to acknowledge its errors, both leading up to the man’s death, and in its handling of his own dismissal.
Cut-off from support
“Social workers are very good at advocating for other people, but when it comes to themselves they are the worst,” he points out.
“Oldham council refused to accept it owed any duty of care to me as an employee. I was cut off from any support systems I had in place. I saw early on that procedures were not being followed,” he says. “It was a witch hunt.”
Hennis believes the fact he was a vocal staff member, who raised concerns “constantly” about high caseloads and fragmented reporting systems that didn’t talk to each other, meant the council branded him a troublemaker.
“I think they wanted to get rid of me even before the investigation started,” he says. “I wasn’t invited to the adverse incident meeting after the man’s death to debrief, even though that was policy.
“The initial report after the man’s death put the blame on the service and when I saw it again, with the investigator’s report, the wording had changed to put the emphasis on me.” The council puts this down to a typing error.
The judge in the employment tribunal, where Hennis won £30,000 for wrongful dismissal, agreed the handling of his case by Oldham council had been “seriously flawed, beginning as they did with a mind-set that was pre-disposed to believe the claimant guilty”.
While Hennis has been vindicated, he is still angry the council continues to insist it acted appropriately, and fails to acknowledge its mistakes. Yet, the main criticisms made by the coroner in the inquest were of the council and NHS trust.
“Oldham council has been taken to task by a legal professional but it continues to say it is in the clear,” he says.
Hennis must still face a hearing before a Health and Care Professions Council panel. Until then, he is determined to keep raising awareness of how vulnerable individual workers can be, hoping his case will encourage others to speak up when they see problematic systems at work.
“Anything that goes wrong, the social worker is instantly to blame and I wanted to raise awareness of this,” he says. “There needs to be more protection for staff.”