Northampton prison officer wins compensation after suffering anxiety attacks when working on sex offenders unit

HM Prison Woodhill, Milton Keynes.
HM Prison Woodhill, Milton Keynes.

A Northampton prison officer has settled a case for unfair dismissal and disability discrimination against the Secretary of State for Justice after she was made ill when forced to work on a sex offenders unit.

Rachel McKail, 48, was made to work on a sex offenders unit at HM Woodhill Prison in Milton Keynes, despite an agreement that she should not be asked to do so, due to pre-existing health concerns.

Miss McKail, who had worked as a prison officer since 2002, was permanently restricted from working at the unit following a recommendation from Occupational Health in 2013 and reiterated in 2016.

The Deputy Governor of the prison requested that the POA member work in the unit multiple times from October to December of 2016 owing to a shortage of staff. It was made clear that formal disciplinary action would be taken should she refuse.

Rachel McKail said: “Since I started working in the prison service it has become much tougher. You are treated as if you were a number like it’s just a business.

"It means more people are treating it as a stop gap, rather than as a career choice. This means that we can’t do our job as well, which has effects on the whole prison environment."

The prison officer suffered anxiety attacks, bouts of physical illness and an exacerbation of symptoms of depression which were caused by the requests.

After an extended period of sick leave, Miss McKail declared she wanted to return to work in April 2017, either in her previous role as a prison officer that would not require her to work in the sex offenders unit or as an Operational Support Grade.

Miss McKail was told there were no other jobs on offer, even though there were similar jobs being advertised on the civil service website at the time. She was subsequently dismissed on the grounds of ‘medical inefficiency’.

She contacted her union, the POA, who instructed Thompsons Solicitors to represent her in a tribunal claiming unfair dismissal and disability discrimination (including discrimination arising in consequence of disability, failure to make reasonable adjustments and victimisation). As a result, Thompsons recovered significant compensation for Miss McKail.

Steve Gillan general secretary of the POA said: “The POA take no joy out of any success, our members should not be treated in this manner.

"The Secretary of State and the Senior Management of Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service should, if they hadn’t worked it out by now, realise that they have an absolute duty to treat all staff with respect and dignity.

"All too often the POA are called upon to defend our members in the courts using members’ money, whilst the Secretary of State uses and abuses funds from the tax payer. This cannot be right.”

Employment rights specialist Michael Michaeloudis of Thompsons said: “It was clear that the Secretary of State for Justice discriminated against our client.

"We are seeing an increasing number of tribunal cases brought by prison officers struggling to handle the extreme pressures of under-staffed institutions, which are a direct result of Tory privatization and public sector austerity.

“The duty to make reasonable adjustments is a wide duty, one which employers’ should not try and evade, especially when there is clear medical evidence for an adjustment, which had been in place for a number of years.

"I am pleased we were able to get Miss McKail the result which she deserved. I’m only sorry that she had to suffer as she has.”