Karen Reissmann, community nurse and UNISON activist, was sacked by Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust in 2007. She was sacked for speaking out about cuts and the effect of privatisation.
She faced FOUR charges.
- Karen had been interviewed for an article opposing the transfer of NHS care to the voluntary sector. She was accused of criticising a partner organisation for paying nurses less and offering less favourable pensions hence finding it harder to recruit more experienced staff. For this she was found guilty of seriously affecting the reputation of the Trust she worked for.
- She was accused of telling people she had been suspended and what for.
- She was accused of telling people she was innocent.
- She was accused of allowing the press to print misleading statements about her case.
Each charge was deemed a gross misconduct charge and she was found guilty and sacked for each. At the point Karen was sacked Manchester’s mental health services were in crisis. They were officially rated 173rd out of 175 mental health Trusts in England. Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust was officially in “turnaround“, similar to “special measures“ in schools. They were overspending and had a recurrent debt of over £5 million. There was also a bed crisis. Occupancy rate was 120%+, which means they regularly had 24 or 25 patients in 20 beds. They operated on red status for beds for over 3 years. They had employed a consultant who was on the sex offenders register who re-offended.
It had been proposed to cut community mental health teams massively. For example in Karen’s team from 16 to 4 nurses. This change was due to be implemented in August 2007 two months after Karen was suspended.
The article Karen was sacked over had been published 6 months before she was suspended. It raised concerns that had been raised by Karen and her union for several years ever since a social enterprise had taken over a mental health service locally. That service did not complain to Karen’s Trust when it was published but were invited to. This was just before a major reorganisation which has been vociferously opposed by Karen as a union rep. Karen did not even name the organisation in the article but it was argued that it was unacceptable for an NHS employee to comment that the policy to outsource to the charitable sector may affect the quality of the service provided.
In 2008 after Karen had been sacked there was another serious incident involving a patient from the team she criticised. He had killed a stranger when unwell. Jackie Daniels, chief executive of MMHSCT said the results of the initial inquiry had caused her ‘serious concern’ about the safety of the outreach service HARP. Elaine Dixon, chief executive of HARP, admitted ‘serious failures’ and said they awaited the findings of the independent report.
Karen’s colleagues in the Community Mental health Teams were so outraged to hear of her sacking they went on all out strike for 44 days to demand her reinstatement and the right of all to speak out without fear.
Karen had been a community psychiatric nurse in the Trust for 25 years. She was well respected by patients and staff alike. None of the offences related to her clinical work. On the day she was suspended from work she had received a letter informing her that she had been successfully promoted to the post of senior nurse practitioner.
The original interview and the interviews with the press she gave after her suspension were all done in her role as a trade union rep. Karen had been a union activist for a long time. She was and is a passionate defender of the NHS and its staff and its patients. She was the branch chair and a member of UNISON’s national executive.
Karen was an active trade union rep. She had helped to organise protests and even 2 days on strike in early 2007 against cuts. These protests had received lots of local publicity and were popular. People felt sacking Karen was an attempt to intimidate other stewards from opposing and speaking out against cuts in service. The chief executive had already said in an internal memo that she wanted an end to the bad news stories. Colleagues felt that the way to stop bad news stories was to stop having bad news. Not just to stop them being told.
The Trust used many unorthodox and expensive procedures when sacking Karen. They employed 2 external private consultants to investigate Karen and a private HR director for the hearing. They employed a private PR company during the suspension and sacking period.
On the first 2 sets of strikes in support of Karen rather than discuss emergency cover with the union, they closed 3 wards. They sent 30 patients on leave. They sent 17 to a private secure hospital in Bury where patients were searched on the way in. They sent 21 patients to a private hospital in Darlington over 100 miles away for 17 days, with no idea when they would return. It is estimated this cost £300 – £1000 per patient per day. They then hired 20 beds in a private hospital for the next 6months
Despite the support Karen was sacked in November 2007. In December 2007 she lost her appeal. After Karen was sacked she worked for a nurse agency. At first she was offered work in other NHS hospitals nearby through the agency. After a few weeks the agency told her that these NHS Trusts no longer wanted her to work as an agency nurse. She did work in a prison as a nurse and in a private hospital which was providing care to NHS patients on contract.
She took her case to an Employment Tribunal. This took another 13 months. In the end after 2 days of hearing her case, the Trust made another offer to Karen and an agreement was reached.
Karen had applied for many NHS jobs in this period and although she had interviews she was never quite the best person for the job even though she had 27 years experience. After the Tribunal she continued to apply and eventually in May 2009 almost 2 years after being suspended and 18 months after being sacked, she obtained a nursing post back in the NHS. Karen has just been re-elected to UNISON’s national executive.
Messages of Support Karen Received at the Time
Dr Alex Theodossiados, Consultant psychiatrist “I am shocked to hear Karen Reissmann is suspended. I know for a fact and personal experience that she has worked beyond the call of duty and has dedicated herself to the welfare of her patients and colleagues.”
Alan Hartman, Manchester Users Network. “Karen has always been a champion of her clients. She has always fought tirelessly to make sure they got the benefits, services and help they were entitled to”
Paul Abbott, creator/writer of Shameless “Karen Reissmann who fights and speaks out for the Mental Health service deserves our full support. I cannot believe that the NHS no longer allows debate and criticism of its policies. Mental health is the poor relation of the NHS, but as more and more people experience mental health difficulties, it should not be. If it was not for people like Karen prepared to fight for quality services, it would be a third-world service. Mental health services and staff need more respect than ever now. Karen should be reinstated immediately.”
A statement of support from the UNISON Health Group Executive on the suspension of UNISON member Karen Reissmann
Karen Reissmann, a leading trade union activist at Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust has been sacked by her employer. Karen is the UNISON Chairperson of the Manchester Community and Mental Health Branch and an elected member of the unions National Health Group Executive. The Health Group Executive is deeply concerned that Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust has taken this harsh measure against a respected nurse and trade union official UNISON will vigorously defend our members right to speak out without fear of persecution and we will ensure that Karen will be supported throughout this process and that her interests will be positively defended.