At Mid Staffordshire Hospital there was a culture of fear. Some NHS staff knew that there were problems but were too afraid to speak up. Had they, lives would have been saved. This is a real and alive concern and not unique to Mid Staffordshire.
When I was a candidate I ran many stories exposing hygiene concerns, financial waste and staff victimisation in local NHS Trusts. As a consequence some management would conduct witch hunts among staff members to try to find the sources.
The truth was that there were so many sources that it was a hopeless task for them. Everyone from board members to secretaries, doctors, nurses, volunteers and porters were giving me examples of issues which were clearly in the public interest. This did not stop some management doing their best to destroy the careers of staff who they believed had whistleblowed.
That is why it is welcome that the Andrew Lansley is so committed to making whistleblowing easier. But if we are to stamp out victimisation of legitimate whistleblowers we need to go even further than the Government are proposing. The currently consultation offers whistleblower protection to too few people, over too few issues which are right to be exposed, and to too few organisations which should legitimately receive information, and with a new, unnecessary quango.
Firstly, the Government are offering to protect only NHS staff. However, in my experience some NHS Trust management will use their powers and influence to victimise almost anyone who questions them. Take the example of hospital volunteers and hospital charities. These are often very dependent upon the hospital management’s goodwill to operate effectively. But very often they are in a position to know about what is happening in a hospital and care about it so much (after all they are working for free) that they feel this needs to be highlighted.
In the case of my local hospital, I saw the chief executive of a very worthy small charity which complained to the Council Health Committee (allowed under these proposals) have her office and private files searched over the weekend and have her charity threatened with total eviction from the hospital. She was left in tears and very shaken by the bullying she experienced. The role of NHS volunteers is in particular need of protection because they are specifically excluded from the Public Interest Disclosure Act 1998 but even Nye Bevan recognised that they are vital to the running of the NHS.
The NHS should also include an explicit reference to protect those people who whistleblow from outside the NHS. In our area the local newspaper journalist ran a series of articles exposing financial mismanagement and patient safety issues. The NHS Trust’s response was not to address the legitimate issues but instead to contact his editor and ask for the journalist to be removed from the newspaper!
Secondly, there should be an expansion of the issues which can be raised through the whistleblowing process. Extraordinarily, waste of public money is not included as a legitimate area for whistleblowing. There was an IT project in my local hospital which was projected to cost around £50,000 but which actually cost nearer £500,000. There is a clear public interest in such an overspend being exposed and a brave staff member did so, having failed to get this issue taken seriously through internal processes.
However, in this case the management launched a hunt for the person who exposed this grotesque waste of public money as if this was something wrong to have done! Just because the NHS is excluded from the spending cuts should not mean that it should be allowed to continue with such a profligate culture of wasteful spending.
Thirdly, there are too few organisations to which one can legitimately whistleblow. The patient involvement organisation, LINK, is also excluded from those to whom issues can be raised. The LINKs are based in the community and so will often be known to staff members and they also have inspection rights to local trusts. They would be ideally placed to examine concerns, particularly around patient experience which are of legitimate public interest.
Most concerningly, the press are excluded from the list of appropriate organisations to whom information about public safety can be passed. In my experience many of the other government bodies and quangos only get interested in health issues when they have a public profile. In fact the official NHS training course on risk management includes the risk of reputational damage through media exposure as a reason for action. So it seems absurd to exclude this option for staff.
This would also give another saving. The proposal in the current consultation is to create a new quango to oversee the whistleblowing process. We don’t need yet another quango in the NHS. If the media were allowed to be a legitimate whistleblowing outlet then we could better rely on the fourth estate to do its job and keep NHS money in the frontline where it should be.
The Government have the right intentions and have made some good first steps but there is much further that they need to go so that we can introduce what David Cameron called the disinfectant of sunlight to the NHS.