Sellafield Ltd

Former Sellafield consultant claims the nuclear complex tampered with evidence

Whistleblower Alison McDermott claims former employer Sellafield tampered with metadata in letters used in evidence during an employment tribunal

A former consultant at Sellafield has claimed that metadata in letters used against her in a tribunal hearing by the nuclear facility has been interfered with.

A tribunal has heard that three letters produced by managers at the vast nuclear complex and submitted as evidence in the employment dispute were “fabricated” and “tampered with”.

Alison McDermott lost a whistleblowing claim against the Cumbrian nuclear facility and is now fighting a demand to pay £40,000 costs.

The former Sellafield consultant said the metadata for one of the three letters was “wiped” by legal representatives for Sellafield.

She formally withdrew the allegations in her first employment tribunal claim against the nuclear complex.

The 2021 tribunal judgment determined that the letters were not “fabrications”.

“These letters are not fabrications, as had previously been asserted by the Claimant,” it found.

However, the ex-contractor raised her claims about the letters’ production and of alleged tampering during last week’s tribunal when defending herself from allegations she had acted “unreasonably” in the legal action with Sellafield and a regulatory body.

Sellafield maintains that McDermott’s allegations are “untrue”.

McDermott, a human resources (HR) consultant, signed a two-day-a-week contract with Sellafield worth £1,500 per day and was tasked in 2018 with looking at an employee’s sexual harassment allegations.

But within days of submitting a report that found the HR team was viewed as “broken and dysfunctional” by some staff, her contract was ended.

She has contested cost awards as a litigant-in-person during a one-day hearing in Leeds.

Summarising her arguments, tribunal judge Stuart Robertson said McDermott had suggested that the three letters used against her by Sellafield during the employment case over the termination of her contract were “fabricated and not genuine”.

Deshpal Panesar KC, who represented Sellafield at the tribunal, accused McDermott of “making baseless claims of the most damaging sort – representing an existential threat to the careers of multiple public servants”. 

Panesar said McDermott had accused Sellafield and its regulatory body, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA), of “illicit conduct, fabrication of evidence and false representations” when making her case.

McDermott sought to challenge cost awards made against her, amounting to £40,000, in a previous tribunal decision.

The employment tribunal claim she brought against Sellafield in 2021 was unsuccessful. But an appeal judge found aspects of her case “troubling” and she was subsequently recognised as a whistleblower under UK employment law.

Robertson, a new tribunal judge, is now considering whether McDermott’s claims and conduct have been “unreasonable”.

McDermott claims she suffered a number of detriments when her contract was terminated. She has since spoken out publicly against Sellafield, branding its workplace culture as “toxic”.

Sellafield and the NDA have contested the claims robustly, initially arguing McDermott’s work was ended for “financial reasons” and later as a result of her “poor” performance.

Suspicious of the letters

The three letters have been a central point of contention in McDermott’s court battle.

The Information Commissioner’s Office ruled in early 2021 that Sellafield had acted unlawfully, having broken data laws and committed security breaches for, among other things, failing to supply McDermott with the letters after she had made a data subject access request.

Sellafield subsequently used the critical letters against McDermott in the employment tribunal case she brought over the termination of her contract.

McDermott told Thursday’s tribunal that the letters had caused her “significant detriment”.

She said Sellafield “recognised I was a nationally respected expert in my field of work” and had rehired her “in glowing terms” after her first 12 months working at the nuclear facility. After she submitted a report that was critical of Sellafield’s HR function, she says her contract was quickly terminated and Sellafield began to build a case against her, using the letters.

She said she suspected HR managers had “colluded” in the production of the letters to build an after-the-fact case against her in view of the developing litigation.

“Senior HR managers had written letters at home on personal computers, printed them off, put them in their briefcase and took them into work,” she said. “So, of course I was suspicious about the letters.”

She told the tribunal she was first made aware of the letters, which appeared to support Sellafield’s court claims that it had “serious concerns about her performance”, when they were disclosed for her first tribunal case in 2021.

McDermott said she had become suspicious of Sellafield’s official reason for terminating her contract – that she was being let go due to “financial reasons” – when she became aware that HR contracts were being issued at around the same time “to the value of £17 million”. She said these new contracts also covered her area of expertise: equality, diversity and inclusion.

She argued the letters seriously impacted her ability to find further gainful employment after she stopped working at Sellafield.

Legal representatives for Sellafield told a previous tribunal hearing that the “financial reasons” explanation had been provided so as to “be kind” to McDermott.

‘Wiped’ metadata

McDermott says the metadata for two of the three letters was “wiped” by DLA Piper, the firm of solicitors then representing Sellafield, and that the letters were not mentioned in the facility’s initial tribunal disclosures.

“I found it astonishing that [neither] the authors nor the dates were mentioned,” she said of two of the three letters.

The only letter in which the metadata had been retained and disclosed to the court, McDermott said, suggested that HR managers had collaborated improperly in the production of critical letters which she believes damaged her reputation.

“The metadata” showed that “the document had been open for three hours” during its production, she said.

McDermott argued this was relevant because Heather Roberts, an HR manager at Sellafield, had asked the authors of the letters “to produce and send them on personal emails”.

She said that phone records she had requested for Roberts “showed there was a [concurrent] conversation” taking place during the three-hour window when the document was open, which McDermott said raised suspicions of “collusion” in the production of the letters.

McDermott told the court that Sellafield had sought to cast further aspersions on her character when she questioned the apparent discrepancies in the letters.

“The narrative that’s being portrayed about me is that I’m vexatious and unreasonable,” she said. “But my suspicions came about as a result of a chronology of unusual and mysterious events.”

Panesar told the tribunal that McDermott’s allegations of “tampering with the metadata” of the three letters was “a baseless claim”. He said that allegedly removed or tampered metadata had been “restored” and provided to the previous tribunal.

He accused McDermott of “unreasonable conduct”. He said Sellafield and the NDA had answered McDermott’s employment tribunal claims on their own merits, including on their merits as whistleblowing claims, and that both organisations had “been vindicated” a number of times.

No independent digital forensics expert was hired by the various parties or by the tribunal to assess the respective claims concerning the letters.

Robertson will make a decision on costs at a later date. 

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