A WHISTLE-BLOWER who claims he was victimised after he raised safety concerns about suits designed to protect against chemical warfare agents – including mustard gas, VX and Sarin – has forced his bosses to admit to misleading customers about a Ministry of Defence (MoD) endorsement.
Whitley Bay resident Paul Graham should have been protected by The Public Interest Disclosure Act when he blew the whistle on the Panther CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear) suit, produced by his then employer, Remploy.
Instead, the 45-year-old says he was bullied until he was forced to resign a year ago, after he made a series of protected disclosures about the Panther missing a “fundamental piece” – an activated carbon zip guard – potentially exposing wearers to life-threatening substances.
A tribunal at North Shields County Court last week, heard how the MoD’s DSTL (Defence Science and Technology Laboratory) Porton Down had tested the suits.
But the MoD has since confirmed that it at no time approved the suits, despite this claim being made in Remploy’s sales literature.
Mr Graham told the tribunal he had first discovered the alleged failings of the suit in August 2009 – a month after he joined the Remploy textiles business as an account manager – when he attended a training session.
His role was to manage the UK MoD account, for which the company manufactured a suit to MoD specifications – known as the Mark IVa.
He was also familiar with the safety standards required by the armed forces having been a serving member himself.
Mr Graham raised his concerns with then general manager John Armstrong, and was allegedly told to “just leave it and stop being a clever arse.”
In early 2010, he raised the issue again, this time with new general manager Paul Agar, who compiled an analysis on the cost of recalling hundreds of Panther suits in circulation.
However, Mr Agar did not have the authority to action the £105,000 recall and after taking the issue to sales and marketing director Richard Bennell, Mr Graham was told he had upset the Remploy Enterprise Business board.
“It seemed obvious to me,” he said.
“We had a product, designed to keep people alive in a hazardous environment, and it was missing a critical piece.
“I thought I was doing the right thing to bring this to their attention.
“When Paul [Agar] told me I had upset, what he referred to as ‘the elders’, that did cause me stress and concern.
“The fault with the suit was so basic and so fundamental that you didn’t need to be an expert to know what was wrong.
“That’s why an immediate fix was obvious.
“It was a basic need to have the fly guard fitted to the suit.”
Mr Graham continued to raise the issue, latterly to the new general manager Chris Jackson, who took over in July 2010.
He says Mr Jackson labelled him a ‘loose cannon’ and began a campaign of ‘sustained bullying’.
He was put on a plan to improve his performance, a method he claimed Mr Jackson had bragged about using to remove someone from the business, something Mr Jackson denies.
He also said Mr Jackson had discussed the possibility of a severance package for him, however, Mr Jackson says Mr Graham had raised this.
In November 2011, things came to a head when Mr Graham, a former soldier and international rugby player, finally lodged an official grievance.
He said he had found it hard to accept he was a victim of bullying, however, when he was told by his American counterpart, Sarah Hassinger, that the Panther suits were being used in the United States for decommissioning chemical weapons, he felt forced to act.
“I knew lives were in danger, it just crossed the line,” he said.
“People were already using them to dispose of old chemical weapon munitions.
“If there was a leak, they would be subject to concentration levels that you wouldn’t get in a lab, not even in a battlefield scenario. They would be at Ground Zero.”
Mr Jackson said that tests did indeed show leaks, but said that these were acceptable, although not up to MoD standards.
“A very small leak is not dangerous and you have to put these leaks into context,” he said.
The tribunal heard how the suits were subsequently modified as the ‘Panther 10’ to have a zip guard included, but there was no recall of the originals.
“I don’t have the sort of knowledge that you have in this area and I’m not up to your standard even now,” Mr Jackson added.
“But what I do know, is that the level of concentration is not enough to give even reddening of the skin.”
Mr Jackson admitted that sales literature stated that the Panther had been “tested and approved by two leading test houses,” alongside test data from DSTL and test house TNO.
In an e-mail sent to Mr Jackson, Mr Bennell stated: “I simply cannot believe that we would put this into our sales literature if it were not true.”
Mr Jackson told the tribunal: “To my knowledge we never used misleading test data. After you put in your grievance there was an investigation, where it came to light that a cut and paste took place on a document.
“I’m glad that we found that. It was an error on the literature which I now know about. I would have gladly sorted that out.”
He said the claim, that the suits were being used for decommissioning chemical weapons, were ‘Chinese whispers’, and that they were kept in the back of ambulances, for use if necessary.
Mr Jackson said he visited the American company in question early this year, offering to exchange its 460 Panther suits, adding: “I believe that one protects to a greater level, but they are both safe.”
Mr Bennell said that as tests had shown the Panther suit was safe, he believed the problem had gone away, and after being pulled from the market in March 2010, they were back on sale that June.
He also claimed he had not realised that it had been an ongoing issue until the grievance, and when an e-mail he had been sent about it was shown to him, he said: “I probably didn’t read it, I get up to a hundred e-mails a day.”
In an interview for a promotion, Mr Graham says he told Mr Bennell that the biggest threat to the business was if someone was injured or killed as a result of the Panther suit.
Mr Bennell said: “You may very well have raised the issue, but I don’t recall something like that being raised.”
Mr Graham also claims Mr Jackson warned him not to criticise the suit in front of its creator, John Martin, as it may discourage him from working for Remploy again.
The tribunal has been adjourned until next year.
Remploy declined to comment while the tribunal is ongoing.
Panther suit was ‘never endorsed’ or ‘approved’ by Ministry of Defence
GOVERNMENT ministers have responded to questions raised by Tynemouth MP Alan Campbell regarding their knowledge of the Panther issue.
The Minister of Defence Equipment, Support and Technology has confirmed the Panther suit was never endorsed or approved by the UK Ministry of Defence.
Responding to Mr Campbell’s question, Philip Dunne, MP, said: “The Panther CBRN protective suit produced by Remploy is neither in service with nor approved for use by UK armed forces.
“DSTL (Defence Science and Technology Laboratory) has undertaken some test and evaluation work on the Panther suit on a commercial basis for Remploy.
“However, while the result of such work is sometimes published by companies as part of their advertising literature, this does not constitute DSTL or any government endorsement of the product nor does it imply that the equipment has been approved for use by UK armed forces.”
Mr Campbell also asked the Parliamentary Under-secretary for Work and Pensions on which dates Remploy learned of a product defect affecting the Panther CBRN suit and when customers were alerted.
Esther McVey, MP, said: “Remploy received notification of a concern surrounding an alleged defect in their Panther CBRN suit on January 22, 2010.
“This prompted an investigation, the outcome of which was the suggestion, in February 2010, that the suit be sent for testing before any alert regarding an alleged defect was issued.
“Various modifications were made to the suit, which became the Panther 10, and the suit was sent for re-testing. The test results were deemed satisfactory.
“Concerns were again raised on November 3, 2011, and following further internal discussion the company issued a precautionary product alert letter to relevant customers, notifying them of the concerns raised.
“The product alert letters were issued at the end of December 2011. Remploy has to date received no claims or complaints from its customers surrounding the protection levels of the Panther suits.”
Mr Campbell said: “Mr Graham did raise some really quite serious questions.
“I agreed with him to put down some questions to the department as I was interested to see whether any government department had a responsibility.”
He added: “The suggestion was never that the Panther was used by the armed forces, they were supplied probably to civilian rather than military services over in the United States.
“It appears that there was a clear suggestion that Remploy gave the impression that the suits had been approved by the Ministry of Defence.”