Service and Proceeding in the Absence of the Registrant
1. The Panel was provided with a service bundle which showed that notice of this hearing was sent to the Registrant by email and post to his registered address dated 24 August 2022. The Panel was satisfied that service had been in accordance with the rules on service which require that notice be sent to the Registrant’s address.
2. Mr Bridges applied for the hearing to proceed in the Registrant’s absence. He referred to the contents of an email received by HCPC from the Registrant dated 26 July 2022 in which he wrote,
How many times do I have to tell you that I want NOTHING to do with your Kangaroo Court, and that, if I get one or email about this, I will take legal advice about harassment.
I am happily retired, and no longer wish to be registered on the HCPC role [sic] and am only too delighted the tunnel to pay this quango huge amounts of money for little return.
The fact that the HTPC keeps on contacting me, despite me making my views know [sic] earlier shows just how the organisation wastes the money of those still forced to be registered.
DO NOT CONTACT ME AGAIN
3. The Panel was satisfied that the Registrant had voluntarily absented himself, had disengaged and did not want to be contacted by the HCPC. The Panel considered that no advantage would be gained by adjourning the hearing as that would not secure his attendance or representation. In all the circumstances, the Panel considered that it was just and would cause no unfairness to proceed with the hearing in the Registrant’s absence.
4. The Registrant is a retired Biomedical Scientist who was last employed by NHS Blood and Transplant as a Reference Service Manager until October 2016.
5. On 18 March 2021, EV, Senior Biomedical Scientist at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, submitted a complaint to the HCPC, raising concerns about the Registrant’s Twitter activity.
6. EV provided the HCPC with several examples of the Registrant’s Twitter posts between 26 February 2021 and 12 October 2021 in which the Registrant made comments relating to different controversial and sensitive topics such as immigration, trans-phobia and nationalism, and which the complainant EV stated were offensive and evidence of hostility towards certain groups of society. On his twitter page, the Registrant had expressly referenced his profession as a Biomedical Scientist and healthcare worker.
7. HCPC did not call any oral evidence but relied on the written evidence of EV and EW, a legal assistant who is employed by the solicitors instructed by the HCPC.
8. EV first came across the Registrant’s Twitter page in March 2021. Her evidence was that there is an active “healthcare sciences community” on social media and in March 2021, one of the Registrant’s tweets appeared on EV’s Twitter timeline. Out of curiosity, EV took a look at the Registrant’s Twitter page and came across, what she describes as, “a deeply unpleasant tirade of racist, misogynistic, trans-phobic and nationalistic tweets”.
9. EV knew that the Registrant was a Biomedical Scientist, as he had stated this within his Twitter bio at the time. In addition, the Registrant had mentioned being a Biomedical Scientist on one of his Twitter posts where he had joined discussions relating to blood transfusions.
10. EW’s evidence was that on 5 January 2022, Kingsley Napley Solicitors were instructed to investigate the Registrant’s fitness to practice. On 1 February 2022, EW conducted a review of the Registrant’s Twitter page. Within the Registrant’s Twitter bio, he had described himself as an, “Ex-Blood Group Serologist”. EW produced the main exhibit which comprised screenshots of the Registrant’s twitter posts.
11. The HCPC Guidance on social media sets out some “top tips” for using social media in a way which meets the HCPC standards of Ethics and Conduct and the HCPC standards for Biomedical Scientists which includes:
- Think before you post;
- Think about who can see what you share;
- Maintain appropriate professional boundaries;
- Do not post information which could identify a service user unless you have their permission;
- Do not post inappropriate or offensive material;
Decision on Facts
12. The Panel first considered which if any of Particulars 1(a) to (t) had been proved. It bore in mind that the burden of proof was on the HCPC to the civil standard, i.e. whether it was more likely than not that the Particular was proved. The Panel considered each of Particulars 1(a) – (t) separately, bearing in mind the stem of Particular 1 which is that the Registrant had engaged in inappropriate and/or unprofessional conduct.
13. Taking into account the content of the Registrant’s Twitter page and the tweets, the Panel was satisfied that the Registrant had either tweeted or retweeted the individual tweets set out in Particular 1 of the allegations. The Registrant is identified by both name and his picture.
14. In respect of Particular 1 (a) [Exhibit 10], the Panel considered that although this comment was ill-advised, it was not inappropriate and/or unprofessional in the circumstances. Accordingly, Particular 1 (a) is found not proved. The Panel however found Particular 1 (b) proved as being designed to inflame a controversial and heated situation.
15. However, the Panel found Particular 1 (c) not proved, as the comment, whilst ill-advised was a statement of fact and on balance did not amount to being inappropriate or unprofessional.
16. In respect of Particular 1 (d), [Exhibit 4], the Panel found the content of what the Registrant had tweeted alongside a picture of his former colleagues both inappropriate and unprofessional. Particular 1 (d) is found proved. In effect the Registrant, through this tweet, sought to demonstrate that he is not racist but is then divisive in terms of describing the team along racial lines and is then sarcastic and disrespectful to some of his colleagues, describing his “non-POC” colleagues as being “Portuguese and Australian, Strange that”.
17. In respect of Particular 1 (e), the Panel found that the Registrant was dismissive and offensive towards black people and found this Particular proved. In respect of Particular 1 (f), the Registrant’s tweet that, “Multiculturalism destroys culture”, was, the Panel found, inflammatory, divisive and prejudiced, particularly taking into account the setting in which the Registrant worked.
18. In respect of Particulars 1 (g) and 1 (h), the Panel found those tweets to be seriously offensive and were proved. With regards to Particulars 1 (i), (j) and (k), the Panel found those to be unprofessional and inappropriate, being deliberately designed to cause division and prejudice.
19. The Panel considered each of Particulars 1 (l) to (t) to be unprofessional and inappropriate. The Panel considered that these tweets demonstrated sarcasm, hostility and an offensive and derogatory attitude towards several groups with protected characteristics. They were highly unprofessional.
Decision on Grounds
20. In deciding whether the Statutory Ground of misconduct was made out, the Panel had regard to the HCPC Standards of Conduct, Performance and Ethics (July 2016) at 2.7, “You must use all forms of communication appropriately and responsibly, including social media and networking websites” and at 9.1, “You must make sure that your conduct justifies the public’s trust and confidence in you and your profession”.
21. The Panel also had regard to the advice given in The HCPC Guidance on social media. Further, whilst a decision of the Bar Adjudication Service, and therefore not binding, the Panel was guided by what was said in the case of Jon Holbrook v Bar Tribunal Service, Case no. 2021/4441, which dealt with similar facts to the present although in the context of a Barrister rather than a Biomedical Scientist.
22. The Panel was very conscious of the Registrant’s rights to Freedom of Speech and Expression which should be accorded the utmost respect. However, the Panel also noted what was said in the Holbrook case, “Mr Holbrook accepted however, that the right to political speech is not entirely unfettered and would lose its highly protected status where the manner of expression of the political view involves gratuitous personal abuse, derogatory racist or sexist language… Grossly offensive and disparaging Facebook posts which were targeted misogynistic…”
23. The Panel in the Holbrook case also accepted that breaches of professional standards may occur without the commission of any crime… “However, given the importance ascribed to freedom of expression… It follows that, for the expression of a political believed to be such that it diminishes the trust of the public in the particular barrister or in the profession as a whole it will require something more than the mere causing of offence. At the very least, the relevant speech would have to be seriously offensive or seriously discreditable… Even in such cases there would have to be a close consideration of the facts to establish that the speech had gone beyond the wide latitude allowed for the expression of the political opinion”.
24. It was this Panel’s view that individually and taken as a whole, the facts found proved went beyond the wide latitude allowed for the expression of political opinion or personal beliefs. The Panel found that the Registrant’s tweets had the potential to cause more than mere offence and were seriously offensive and discreditable. The tweets taken as a whole comprised a stream of deplorable invective over a period of several months which fell far below the standards expected of a Biomedical Scientist. The Registrant’s tweets included prejudice against immigrants (1 (m)), inciting racial hatred (1 (f)(o), (p), (k) inflaming gender discrimination (1(r) (s) and prejudice about feminist issues (1 (c), (l).
25. The Panel was satisfied that other Biomedical Scientists and others would find the Registrant’s tweets deplorable. The Panel concluded that the Registrant’s conduct fell far below standards 2.7 and 9.1 and that misconduct was established.
Decision on Impairment
26. The Panel next considered whether, as a result of its finding that misconduct had been established, the Registrant’s fitness to practice is currently impaired. The Panel had regard to the submissions made by Mr Bridges and accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor. The Panel also had regard to the HCPTS’s practice note on finding that fitness to practise is impaired.
27. The Panel considered both the personal and public components of impairment. In respect of the personal component, the Panel has not been presented with any evidence of insight or remediation on the Registrant’s part. The Panel was not satisfied that the Registrant has any appreciation as to the hurt and damage his tweets may have caused, particularly to his colleagues given the multicultural/multiracial environment in which a Biomedical Scientist would normally work.
28. In the absence of any evidence that the Registrant’s conduct would not be repeated, the Panel found that his fitness to practise is currently impaired under the personal component of impairment.
29. The Panel was further satisfied that the Registrant’s fitness to practise is currently impaired under the public component of impairment. The Panel considered that members of the public would be rightly concerned at the Registrant’s conduct and that a finding of impairment was required to maintain confidence in the profession and its regulator.
Decision on Sanction
30. In light of its finding that the Registrant’s fitness to practice is currently impaired on both the personal and the public components of impairment, the Panel considered what, if any, sanction would be appropriate and proportionate.
31. The Panel heard submissions on sanction from Mr Bridges. The Panel received and accepted the advice of the Legal Assessor and had regard to the Sanctions Policy (March 2019) which states at Paragraphs 20 and 21:
“20. In making proportionate decisions on sanction, panels need to strike a balance between the competing interests of the registrant and the HCPC’s overriding objective to protect the public. Therefore, decisions should deal with the concerns raised, but be fair, just and reasonable.
21. Sanctions are not intended to be punitive. Panels should only take the minimum action necessary to ensure the public is protected. This means considering the least restrictive sanction available to them first, and only moving on to a more restrictive sanction if it is necessary to protect the public”
32. The Panel considered the aggravating factors that the Registrant had, over a period of 8 months, tweeted content which was seriously offensive and discriminatory, targeting most of the groups with protected characteristics under the Equality Act. Further, no evidence was presented to the Panel as to any remorse, reflection or remediation and there remains a high risk of repetition. No mitigating factors were identified or put forward by the Registrant due to his non-engagement.
33. Having carefully considered the Indicative Sanctions Policy, the Panel concluded that given its findings of misconduct and current impairment on both the personal and public components of impairment, that it would not be sufficient to protect the public or in the public interest, for the Panel to take no further action or issue a caution. This was not a case involving an isolated incident or of a minor nature. Nor would taking no further action or a caution mark the seriousness of the matter.
34. The Panel next considered whether Conditions of Practice which were workable and practicable could be formulated. However, in view of the Registrant’s non-engagement, the nature of the misconduct which is attitudinal rather than clinical and the seriousness of the misconduct, the Panel concluded that Conditions of Practice would not be appropriate or proportionate.
35. The Panel next considered a Suspension Order, noting that suspension may be appropriate where a Registrant has insight, is unlikely to repeat the misconduct and where a Striking off Order would be disproportionate. However, in the absence of any evidence of insight, remorse and remediation or that the misconduct is unlikely to be repeated, the Panel concluded that suspension was not appropriate or proportionate. Further, given the Registrant’s nonengagement with this process and his statement that he does not wish to be contacted by the HCPC, the Panel considered that a period of suspension would serve no useful purpose and would not aid the Registrant’s remediation.
36. For all the above reasons, the Panel concluded that the appropriate and proportionate sanction was a Striking off Order. The Panel bore in mind that a Striking off Order is a sanction of last resort and should only be imposed in cases of serious misconduct where the circumstances are such that it would be incompatible for the Registrant to remain on the register.
37. The Panel was satisfied that the Registrant’s misconduct fell into the serious category of cases identified in the Guidance, given his repeated and prolonged discriminatory attitudes towards persons with protected characteristics. The Panel was also satisfied that the Registrant’s misconduct had the potential to seriously undermine public confidence in the profession and in the HCPC, were it not to take serious action against him.