11 Feb 2015

Giving NHS whistleblowers the freedom to speak up

Today’s report is called “Freedom to speak up” – an independent review into creating an open and honest reporting culture in the NHS. In other words, how to listen to whistleblowers and to act on their concerns.  Because currently this does not always happen.

Over the years I have reported on a number of cases in which whistleblowers have had their careers, reputations and lives blown apart because they have tried to do the right thing.

Last year, off the back of Mid-Staffs and the revelations that staff and patients trying to raise concerns had not been listened to, a delegation of six went to see the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, to tell him their very sorry tales. His response was to commission the review led by Sir Robert Francis, the QC who also chaired the inquiry into Mid-Staffs.

And his findings today bear out many of the concerns raised by that delegation.  Sir Robert writes in his letter to Mr Hunt:  “I would have liked to report to you that there was in fact no problem with the treatment of  ‘whistleblowers’ and their concerns.

“Unfortunately this is far from the case.  I was not asked to come to judgments about individual cases, but the evidence received by the review has confirmed to my complete satisfaction that there is a serious issue within the NHS.

“It requires urgent attention if staff are to play their full part in maintaining a safe and effective service for patients.”

So the review recommends “action at every level of the NHS” to make raising concerns part of every member of staff’s normal working life.

He suggests a freedom to speak up guardian in every trust – a named, independent person to support staff; a national independent officer to support those local guardians.

But he also wants the government to review employment legislation to extend protection to include discrimination on the grounds that they are known to be whistleblowers.

This is important, not least because many whistleblowers may be vindicated but they still never work again or have to move away from their homes and families to find new jobs because they are unofficially blacklisted.

One other aspect, Sir Robert deals with, and which I have noticed time and again,  is the way black and ethnic minority staff are dealt with.  His report says that while their experiences are broadly similar to other staff, they feel more vulnerable when raising concerns.

This is because, he says, the culture can sometimes leave minority groups feeling excluded, and cultural misunderstandings may exacerbate difficulties.

Many of the whistleblowers, whose cases I have reported have been from BME backgrounds.  What they say and feel is that the establishment (the white, male establishment) looks after its own.   The ranks are closed against them and is impassable.

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