'Whistleblower' is backed by MPs

June 5, 1998

The National Audit Office has been called on to withdraw a "misleading" report into the fraud scandal at Portsmouth University which saw the departure of two whistleblowers.

John Pickering, former Portsmouth deputy vice-chancellor, who was made redundant in 1994 after blowing the whistle on vice-chancellor Neill Merrit's expenses fiddling, claims that the NAO's 1997 report into Portsmouth is inaccurate and misleading.

With backing from two Portsmouth MPs, he has called for the withdrawal of the report, which he said has stood in the way of his four-year campaign for redress. The NAO report concluded that there was "no evidence" that Professor Pickering was "penalised or persecuted in any way" as a result of blowing the whistle. The NAO also found that Bonnie Tall, the vice-chancellor's secretary, who won a claim for constructive dismissal at a 1994 tribunal, was also not victimised for whistleblowing.

The assertion was made despite contrary findings by Ms Tall's industrial tribunal, and an unpublished report into Portsmouth by Jeremy Lever QC.

Ms Tall's tribunal, which awarded her Pounds 10,000 for constructive dismissal, ruled that after she had "voiced concerns about the vice-chancellor's claims for expenses...there was a fundamental breakdown of the trust and confidence between employer and employee. We are satisfied that this breakdown caused her to resign. The applicant had been unfairly dismissed."

Similarly, the Lever Inquiry concluded that "there was a causal link between the investigation into the vice-chancellor's expenses and Professor Pickering's departure from the university".

Professor Pickering's complaints were rebuffed by the NAO's comptroller and auditor general, Sir John Bourn. He wrote to Professor Pickering: "I regret that you feel that you have been unfairly and unsympathetically treated by the NAO. It is of course for you to decide if you wish to take any further action on this matter. I think it unlikely that we can help you further."

Both local MPs, Michael Mates and Mike Hancock, have written to Sir John to question his findings on Portsmouth. In a letter to Mr Mates, Sir John did concede the link between the investigation into the vice-chancellor's expenses and Professor Pickering's departure.

"The report is critical of the way the governing body handled a number of issues, including professor Pickering's departure from the university," said Sir John. "The report contains some criticisms of the treatment of whistleblowers. In relation to Professor Pickering, the report does record that the investigation (into the vice-chancellor's expenses) was not an insignificant factor in the chain of events leading up to Professor Pickering's departure."

Professor Pickering has now written an eight-page critique of the NAO's report, and still awaits a promised response from Sir John.

A spokeswoman for the NAO confirmed that it has received correspondence from both MPs and Professor Pickering, but said that nothing would be said about it in the public domain unless there was a publication for Parliament.

Portsmouth University's chair of Governors, Caroline Williams, and vice-chancellor John Craven, last week rejected a call from Mike Hancock MP to open an internal inquiry, a chancellors' court, into the whistleblowing affair. "As far as the university is concerned, the NAO has sufficiently dealt with the matter and there is nothing further for the university to do," she said.

Professor Craven said:"The university regards the NAO report as an authoritative, independent and definitive conclusion of the unhappy events which led to the resignation of Mr Merritt."

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