Health secretary promises legislation to protect whistleblowers before election

Jeremy Hunt will create NHS ‘whistleblowing guardians’ to protect staff who speak up about poor care.

The health secretary made the announcement yesterday as he accepted the findings of the inquiry led by Sir Robert Francis QC, Freedom to Speak Up. He hopes to implement the changes before the election.

Hunt said: “I have accepted all of Sir Robert’s recommendations in principle and will consult on a package of measures to implement them. I am hopeful that we can legislate in this Parliament to protect whistleblowers who are applying for NHS jobs from discrimination by prospective employers.”

Sir Robert’s review found a significant proportion of health workers are afraid to speak out about poor patient care and safety failures in the NHS either because they are afraid of the potential consequences, or because they feel nothing would be done.

It outlines the experiences of whistleblowers who have faced bullying and intimidation due to speaking out against poor care. The poor treatment they have received has caused some whistleblower’s health to deteriorate and forced others into thoughts of suicide.

One person quoted anonymously in the review said: “I have often been so depressed by this experience that I have often considered suicide. I live in fear that the hospital will carry out its threat to sue me and take my home from me.”

Hunt said: “The whole House [of Commons] will be profoundly shocked at the nature and extent of what has been revealed today. The only way we will build an NHS with the highest standards is if doctors and nurses who have given their life to patient care always feel listened to if they speak out about patient care.

“The message that must go out today is that we are calling time on bullying, intimidation and victimisation, which has no place in our NHS.”

Labour have indicated that they would support a change in the law. The shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham, said the measures were overdue and called for them to be extended to social care, which Hunt said would be done.

Francis made a number of recommendations which the government will now look at implementing. They include:

  • A ‘Freedom to Speak Up Guardian’ to be appointed in every NHS trust to support staff.
  • A national independent officer to help guardians when cases are going wrong.
  • A new support scheme to help NHS staff who have found themselves out of a job as a result of raising concerns.
  • Processes established at all trusts to make sure concerns are heard and investigated properly.

More than 20,000 staff shared their experiences with the review, with bullying the concern most frequently raised by those who contributed.

The report found that some groups were particularly vulnerable when they raise concerns, including locums and agency staff, students and trainees, black and minority ethnic (BME) groups and staff working in primary care.

Students with previously good records were failed or criticised after speaking up, and Francis wrote that there was “a perception that BME staff are more likely to be referred to professional regulators if they raise concerns, more likely to receive harsher sanctions and more likely to experience disproportionate detriment in response to speaking up”.

Francis suggests that legislation should be considered to protect people who are seeking employment within the NHS from discrimination on the grounds that they are known to be a whistleblower.

Francis said: “The evidence received by the review has confirmed that there is a serious issue within the NHS. This issue is not just about whistleblowing - it is fundamentally a patient safety issue.

“Everyone in the NHS needs to support staff so they have the courage to do the right thing when they have concerns about patient safety. We need to get away from a culture of blame, and the fear that it generates, to one which celebrates openness and commitment to safety and improvement.”

(Image source: Neil Hall/PA Wire)

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