Police whistle-blower was viewed as 'an irritant'

A WHISTLE-BLOWER who voiced fears that flaws in anti-terror plans were exposing the public to risk was viewed as 'an irritant' by her superiors at scandal-hit South Yorkshire Police, an employment tribunal found.

Robin Hood Airport in Doncaster

Inspector Rachel Usher was in charge of policing at Robin Hood Airport in Doncaster, which has special divert status during major events like the 2012 Olympics, where hijacked planes can be diverted to.

She raised ‘honest concerns’ that the plans for dealing with such emergencies were not fit for purpose and the lives of officers and members of the public were being endangered by outdated equipment.

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But a tribunal held behind closed doors in Sheffield in December heard that her boss, Chief Superintendent Rachel Barber - recently promoted to Assistant Chief Constable - ignored the warnings and did nothing, even when Inspector Usher claimed the force was breaking national security law.

The officer went on to make five protected disclosures - allegations she felt were in the public interest - but found herself ‘airbrushed’ out of her senior role in a humiliating group email.

After 18 years’ service she took the force to an Employment Tribunal, accusing them of ‘detrimental treatment’ as a result of her whistleblowing.

The panel said she had “continually been telling her superiors that SYP were in breach of their legal obligations and were likely to be endangering safety”.

They concluded she had her duties unfairly slashed and staff were told to report to other officers as she was “airbrushed” out of her role as airport commander.

Mrs Usher, 40, is now waiting to see how much compensation she will receive from the force, which is still reeling from the Hillsborough inquest verdicts and a series of changes in leadership.

The case began when Insp Usher reviewed procedures for dealing with emergencies in place at Robin Hood Airport.

She highlighted that outdated armoured vehicles were one of the things which needed addressing and said the force was in breach of requirements set out for emergency planning in the Civil Contingencies Act 2004.

She wrote: “Using them could induce a false sense of security and potentially present a risk to life,” putting them “in clear breach of health and safety guidelines”.

She also requested extra funding for a seven-man team to police the international airport around the clock in a report she said “barely scratched the surface of the complexities and issues”.

Feeling that nothing had been done, she then made her five protected disclosures - backed by her superior Chief Inspector Mark James - in a series of emails and meetings between November 2013 and February 2014.

But the tribunal said that ACC Barber and Insp Usher’s line manager, Chief Inspector Caroline Rollitt, 46, regarded her as an “irritant”.

Tensions reached breaking point when Usher then sent an email to the South Yorkshire Police and Crime Commissioner - who holds police to account - without telling them.

She complained that “it was clear that there were no significant sums of money available” to make the changes she thought necessary.

ACC Barber reacted angrily and later told the tribunal she was concerned as Usher was “clearly stepping outside of the management structure which exists within the force”.

In February 2014 Usher fell ill with kidney problems. Barber and Rollitt tried to persuade her to have time off but she refused, saying she already had annual leave booked and would continue working as normal until then.

But she arrived at work on February 11 to find a group email sent to other officers in which she was at the bottom of a list of recipients copied in.

It assumed she would be off long-term, and explained how her duties had been reassigned.

She had her workload slashed and staff in her team were told to report to other people, “cutting her off from the chain of command”, the tribunal ruled.

Mrs Usher told the tribunal she was “completely shell shocked” by the email and considered it a “public deconstruction of her position so that her role no longer existed”.

The tribunal report said: “She believed that her staff and her responsibilities and status had been stripped from her. She broke down in tears at work.”

The panel, headed by employment judge Robert Little, concluded: “The detriments suffered by the claimant were materially because the claimant had made the protected disclosures.

“She had continually been telling her superiors that SYP were in breach of their legal obligations and were likely to be endangering safety.

“Against the backdrop of the political and funding issues which were in play, the claimant was viewed as an irritant.”

Inspector Usher said it was “shocking” that she was removed from her role because she raised honest concerns.

She has left policing and her solicitor would not say whether she intends to return, but she now works as an interior designer in Bawtry, South Yorkshire.

She said: “This case has caused me a great deal of turmoil.

“I am relieved to finally be able to put this ordeal behind me and move on – I really hope lessons will be learned from the outcome of my case.

“Had it not been for the continued support of my family and friends it would have been hard to get through this difficult time.”

Her lawyer Clare Armstrong said: “Mrs Usher was a dedicated and committed officer who was treated appallingly because she raised concerns that the police force were not meeting their legal obligations at the airport she was posted at.

“She was a dedicated officer, who devoted her life to the force and she was incredibly saddened by the way she was treated.

“It was with great courage that she blew the whistle to prevent any harm coming to her fellow colleagues or members of the public.”

South Yorkshire Police said: “An employment tribunal hearing took place in December 2015 which was held in private due to matters relating to national security.

“The legal proceedings are still ongoing therefore it would not be appropriate to comment further at this time.

“South Yorkshire Police remains in communication with Inspector Usher’s solicitors whilst the proceedings are ongoing.

“Inspector Usher is currently on a career break from South Yorkshire Police.”